Searching for Lillian Glinn

By Robert F. Darden

Hillsboro’s finest blues singer remains an enigma today

Driving through Austin, I faithfully listened to the city’s innovative NPR station, KUT-FM. At nights, KUT’s DJs always played eclectic sets of off-beat music. One night in the distant past I heard a voice that — for whatever reason — caused an involuntary shiver. The selection was part of a pre-Depression Texas blues bloc, and the song was Lillian Glinn’s haunting, languid “The Man I Love is Worth Talking About”.

I had never heard of Glinn, but there was something deeply moving about her voice — a rich, stirring contralto. She sang directly to her listeners, confident and world-weary at the same time, without many of the affectations common to popular female blues singers of the late 1920s.

And thus began my long, mostly unsuccessful, search for Lillian Glinn. It was incredibly frustrating to search for rare vinyl and books in those pre-Internet days. What I could find were tantalizing references, usually by other blues artists, who invariably cited her as one of the best of the uncommonly talented array of Texas blues singers of the era.

Otherwise, there were a couple long out-of-print (and expensive) compilation LPs of her music — 22 tracks recorded between 1927-1929. They were recorded for the first Columbia Records label and music scholars cherish her surviving 78 RPM records. Glinn’s few recordings remained out of print for more than 50 years.

Legendary blues historian Paul Oliver spent years tracking her down. And once he did reach Glinn in a small suburban town in California, his letters and telephone calls went unanswered for years. At last, Glinn cautiously agreed to talk, and they met at her modest home. Oliver writes that Glinn was tall and elegant with a warm, melodious voice. She was, as she told him, “no longer in that world” and instead deeply involved in her church. Glinn was reluctant to talk about her few years as a blues singer, though more than half a century had passed.

Glinn’s story, unfortunately, was all too common for African Americans growing up in the Jim Crow-dominated South of the early 1900s. She suffered through a chaotic childhood and never knew her birthday or where she was born, though later scholars now believe it was Hillsboro. She told Oliver that her father had been a preacher who had abandoned her mother when Lillian was still a small child. In desperation, her mother moved to Kaufman, Texas.

“When I was a little girl after daddy left mama,” she recalled, “I’d be standing there on the streets and white folks [would] bring me clothes, bread, and groceries. I’d be standing up there singing, getting money for mama to buy coal oil. I’d be cake-walking. We’d get money and rush off and get mama coal oil … and we’d be happy, me and my little brother, back in those days.”

Glinn said that she owned a single dress. “When I’d come back from school, I’d take off that one dress and wash it,” she said, “put a crocus sack around me and wash my dress and have it dried and go to school next morning in the same dress.”

In her teens, she told Oliver that she took the Interurban to the Deep Ellum district of Dallas, also called “Central Track.”

As was the custom of the day, Glinn married young and soon had a son. She did housework for a white family on Dallas’ toney Maple Avenue and one day, while beating a cake mix, began to sing. The lady of the house was so impressed that she asked if Glinn would sing at her women’s club that afternoon. Glinn replied, “Oh, I’d like that fine.” When the employer asked if she knew any spirituals, Glinn said, “I’ll sing just about anything you care to name nearly. And if I don’t know ‘em, I’ll just make up the words.”

The impromptu performance apparently went well, she recalled. “And after I had gone with her to the club, do you know, all of the work in the house was lighter? Oh, it was as wonderful as the Lord’s work!”

Later, impresario Ella B. Moore, who owned and booked the famed Park Theatre in Dallas’ Central Tracks neighborhood, heard Glinn and offered her a position on the spot.

“I made up my mind to go down to the theatre ‘cause I was only getting eight dollars,” Glinn said. “I never had nothing when I was a child and that’s why I went into the show world. I wanted clothes and I wanted a little money and I wanted to take care of my son — I didn’t want to do the wrong thing by my son.”

In another account of Glinn’s discovery, blues singer Harriet Burleson said she heard Glinn singing in her church and was so taken by her voice that it was Burleson who introduced her to Moore. Glinn’s warmly sincere personality and obvious talent soon led to introductions with the elite of the South Dallas music community, including frequent accompanist, guitarist Willie Tyson.

R.T. Ashford (the man responsible for another Dallas legend, Blind Lemon Jefferson) introduced her to the talent scouts of Columbia Records in 1927. Ashford immediately put Glinn on the road, usually with Tyson, and the duo toured the South where she recorded sides in Dallas, New Orleans and Atlanta. Oliver said that Glinn was “popular and dependable,” perhaps because of her deep roots in the church. She interpreted the blues of others and apparently wrote some of her own songs as well. And her records sold well enough that she was a mainstay on the African American Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA).

But following her final recording session in Dallas in late 1929 and tiring of the constant touring, systemic racism and lifestyle of many musicians and singers, Glinn told Oliver she walked away from the music industry and returned to the church.

And that’s about all we know of Lillian Glinn. Oliver took one of the few known photographs of Glinn outside her home, apparently happy and content in her life, smiling broadly, wearing the cat’s-eye eyeglasses of an earlier generation. He guessed her to be about 70 at the time.

Since then, various musicologists have continued to analyze and celebrate her slim body of recorded work. The first recording session took place in Dallas on December 2, 1927, and resulted in four songs, “All Alone and Blue”, “Come Home, Daddy”, “Doggin’ Me Blues” and “Brown Skin Blues”. Frequent collaborator Willie Tyson is listed as playing guitar on all four tracks.

Texas musicologist Michael Corcoran has discovered that the December session was conducted by Columbia’s Frank B. Walker and included not only Glinn’s recording debut, but those by two other legendary Texas musicians, Blind Willie Johnson and Washington Phillips.

Corcoran noted that Columbia ran audition advertisements in the major Texas African American newspapers asking for musicians to audition. The finalists — including Glinn — were recorded on December 2. It was a big deal.

“They had made a phonograph record,” supervisor Frank B. Walker said years later. “And that was the next best thing to being president of the United States.”

Not long after that, a Columbia advertisement for the 78s in a Black newspaper touted Glinn as “a new singer of the blues, full of pep and personality. She possesses an extraordinary voice, of which every word gets over on the phonograph.”

The studio sessions were often haphazard, and Glinn never knew who would accompany her on any given track.

“Sometimes we’d be practicing on making [the records],” she said, “and sometimes they’d be people sitting there that I didn’t know anything about.”

Most sessions were with portable recording units arranged in hotel rooms hung with heavy draperies to reduce the reflected sound and usually consisted of one or two takes.

Glinn is then known to have recorded in New Orleans on April 24-25, 1928, where she cut six 78s: “The Man I Love is Worth Talking About”, “Best Friend Blues”, “Lost Letter Blues”, “Packing House Blues”, “Shake It Down” and “Where Have All the Black Men Gone?”. Dave Oliphant calls “Shake It Down” “Glinn’s most outstanding recorded performance” and suggests that the skill of the News Orleans “inspired” Glinn to achieve “more swing than perhaps that of any other Texas blues singer.”

Like many blues numbers, the song’s title and lyrics were more suggestive than actually risqué: “Got a dance/A low-down prance/From the tarry cave/It’s red-hot and it’s got/What the folks all crave.”

On April 9-10, 1929, in Atlanta, she recorded “I’m a Front Door Woman with a Back Door Man”, “Atlanta Blues”, “All the Week Blues”, “Cannon Ball Blues”, “Wobble It a Little, Daddy” and “Black Man Blues”.

Glinn returned to Dallas once last time on December 6, 1929, to record her final (known) recordings, “I’m Through (Shedding Tears Over You)”, “I Love That Thing”, “Don’t Leave Me, Daddy”, “Shreveport Blues”, “Moanin’ Blues” and “Cravin’ a Man Blues”. The session was the last of the “expeditions” (as they were called) that Columbia’s A&R (artists and repertoire) field units made to Dallas.

Glinn profited very little from her recordings — the Columbia 78s primarily served to promote her personal appearances. Most artists received between $15 and $20 per title, though a star like Bessie Smith received $150 per song. If there were royalties, blues artists rarely saw them. Oliver estimated that Glinn may have sold 10,000 disks before the Depression all but destroyed the “race records” industry.

Amid the off-color innuendo and laments for faithless men, Glinn’s discography is notable for a couple of songs that hint at the larger social issues of the day, including “Black Man Blues” and “Where Have All the Black Men Gone?” where her voice displays just a hint of frustration over the state of African American life in Texas at the time.

Or, perhaps, what I’m hearing is Glinn’s increasing disillusionment with the entertainment industry. She would never record again after those December dates.

Oliver’s lone interview is as frustrating for what he doesn’t ask Glinn as for what he does. We know so little personal information about this woman who overcame so much to succeed in a tremendously competitive field — and then walked away from it all after just a few years.

Her recorded legacy was finally given a boost in 1993 when the Austrian re-issue label Document released “Lillian Glinn, Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order”, 1927-1929 (DOCD 5184), though the CD is now out of print.

There is a sameness to all blues recordings from this era, a mixture of what is now known as the blues, but with plenty of old-timey vaudeville and pop elements mixed in, all usually sung at a languorous, almost lazy pace that is difficult for modern listeners to appreciate.

But Lillian Glinn, particularly on the more yearning songs such as “The Man I Love is Worth Talking About”, manages — somehow — to convey something more. It’s as if she is channeling the lessons and pains of several tumultuous lifetimes into a single song, one tinged with that most ephemeral element of all in music — Hope.