Monday, September 29, 2014

William Spross with his Zither on Spross

William Spross with his Zither - Boogie Woogie Machine/The Greatest Step in Life  (Spross Songs and Records no #)

"Boogie Woogie Machine" (Harvey Kroeger as Soloist)

"The Greatest Step in Life" (William Spross "and singers," vocals)

The zither is not an instrument that immediately comes to mind when the words "Texas Music" are pronounced. In fact, the only zitherist of note that the region produced on record was the gospel singer Washington Phillips, whose career ended during the Depression. And yet, 30 years later, another zither record came out of the same Southeast area of Texas that Phillips had travelled in. It was William Spross and his remarkable "Boogie Woogie Machine."

Somebody by now has probably done a compilation of records whose titles are completely and utterly at odds with the sound in the grooves. You would be forgiven for thinking that a title like "Boogie Woogie Machine" on 45 rpm must denote a late '50s teenage rock and roll ode to cars or jukeboxes. Instead, we are treated to an eerie Germanic folk song that sounds like it could have been recorded in 1807. What in the world does this have to do with Boogie Woogie?

William Spross had a Sunday afternoon radio show over KWHI in Brenham for a number of years. He must have been an older man at the time of this 1957 recording, since he had copyrighted "The Greatest Step in Life," the flip-side, way back on April 25, 1924; and of course, the guitar had largely replaced zithers as the stringed instrument of choice about 60 years earlier. Spross was obviously aware of this, and I think he must have played the zither out of a preservationist instinct. Good for him, and good for local radio stations like KWHI who supported such efforts. The same station now probably plays reruns of "The Rush Limbaugh Show" on Sundays.

Spross had tried to get his music out before then. Billboard's June 17, 1950 issue carried an unusual ad in its back pages, under Acts, Songs, & Parodies: "ATTENTION RECORDING COMPANIES -- If you want real zither music for commercial recordings, write William Spross, Brenham, Texas. I can also give zither music lessons and arrange for full zither band." But nothing came of this.

A Schwarzer table zither c. 1900, like the kind played by William Spross. 

"Boogie Woogie Machine" is actually just an old folk tune, usually known as "Dunderbeck's Sausage Machine," redolent of the days when the town butcher was the butt of crude jokes and tall tales. Spross, who could not have been oblivious to "boogie-woogie" as a musical term, nevertheless replaces "Dunderbeck" with "Boogie," as in "Boogie Man," or scary person. The children fear the Boogie Man because he grinds up cats and rodents in his sausage machine, but poetic justice must prevail in the folk mind, and Boogie eventually gets ground up himself unknowingly by his sleepwalking wife. Germans found this kind of thing uproariously funny, as a glance at Till Eulenspeigel's tales will reveal.

Even by vanity pressing standards, "Boogie Woogie Machine" could not have sold many copies. Yet it didn't go unnoticed. Spross himself once again took out an ad in Billboard in 1960 (again in the "Acts, Songs, and Gags" classified ads, not the sections that advertised records) selling the record for one dollar. The resourceful Mack McCormick then somehow found out about it, and included it along with songs by Lightnin' Hopkins, George Coleman (Bongo Joe), Mance Lipscomb, John Lomax, Jr., and others on A Treasury of Field Recordings, Vol. 2, issued on the 77 label in England (also in 1960).

Below: Billboard, March 14, 1960. "Two beautiful songs and an ancient Zither Record for one dollar."

Then, in late 1961, Spross sent a copy to Houston Chronicle columnist Sigman Byrd. In an article tongue-in-cheekly entitled, "Hottest Disc in Washington County," Byrd writes of interviewing Spross at his house.

"It's been on the Washington County Hit Parade ever since it was first published four years ago," Spross told Byrd. "But I can't get any Houston radio station to play it for love or money. One Austin station played it, and it made their top 10 tunes for several weeks." Spross showed Byrd the old German songbook he was given as a young bauernknecht (farm hand) in New Wehdem, Texas, the source for "Boogie Woogie Machine." Byrd was too polite to ask Spross why he thought something so ancient and Germanic would appeal to people in Pat Boone's America. Perhaps he sensed Spross didn't care. I hope so.

William Spross died in 1972.

Below: Sigman Byrd's Houston Chronicle column about William Spross. c. January, 1962. Click to enlarge.