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SMITH, JOHN T. [FUNNY PAPA]

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SMITH, JOHN T. [FUNNY PAPA] (ca. 1880s–ca. 1940). John T. Smith, blues guitarist and singer known as "Funny Papa" Smith, was born in East Texas sometime between 1885 and 1890. Smith helped develop and popularize the Texas blues guitar style during the late 1920s and 1930s. He is often compared to Blind Lemon Jefferson. Smith's style consisted of detailed melody lines and repetitive bass riffs, as well as what has been called "a surprisingly refined country blues vocal style." Some critics also found his style more sophisticated than that of other guitarists of his generation because of his unique use of alternating thumb picking. Others, however, noted his tendency to play out of tune.

As a young man, Smith worked at the Lincoln Theater in New York City. He also lived in Oklahoma for a while. He married in the 1920s and played at local dances, picnics, and fairs in Texas and Oklahoma, pairing frequently with bluesman Thomas Shaw. Though Smith played in the Dallas area during the 1920s and 1930s, he began his recording career in 1930 for the Vocalion label in Chicago. He recorded nearly twenty songs during 1930 and 1931, including "Howling Wolf Blues" (parts one and two), from which he took the pseudonym "The Howlin' Wolf." Smith's nickname, "Funny Papa," was erroneously printed as "Funny Paper" on his first records. He is said to have frequently worn a stovepipe hat with his name stitched on it.

In the early 1930s he killed a man in an argument, reportedly over either a woman or a gambling disagreement. He spent the next few years in a Texas penitentiary. In 1935 he recorded some songs for the Vocalion label in Fort Worth, but they were never released. In 1939 he toured through Texas with blues singer Texas Alexanderqv. Smith's subsequent whereabouts are not known. He is believed to have died in 1940.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Alan B. Govenar and Jay F. Brakefield, Deep Ellum and Central Track: Where the Black and White Worlds of Dallas Converged (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1998). Sheldon Harris, Blues Who's Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers (New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1979). John T. 'Funny Papa' ("Funny Paper") Smith (1890–1940) discography (http://www.wirz.de/music/smifpfrm.htm), accessed December 20, 2008. Rick Koster, Texas Music (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998). Robert Santelli, Big Book of the Blues: A Biographical Encyclopedia (New York: Penguin Books, 1993).

Carlyn Copeland

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Carlyn Copeland, "SMITH, JOHN T. [FUNNY PAPA]," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fsm96), accessed October 23, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on October 28, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.