Blind Willie Dunn was actually Eddie Lang, who adopted the name because it sounded “bluesier,” or more “urban,” or, uh, “black.” Eddie was white and was making a good name for himself playing with old schoolmate Joe Venuti when this was recorded. Whether the name change was his idea or that of someone behind the scenes at Okeh Records is unclear, but what is clear is that the record-buying public, in the 1920’s, was unfamiliar—and would be uncomfortable— with black and white performers recording together. Indeed, the songs Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson recorded were arguably the very first.
Lang’s genius has been discussed here before, so let’s focus on Lonnie Johnson. Born into a musical family in 1899, Lonnie Johnson was adept at piano, violin, and mandolin, but early on decided to focus on the guitar. In 1919, Lonnie returned from touring England with Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra to find that his family—all but one brother—had been taken by the influenza epidemic of the previous year. Lonnie and his Brother James started over in St. Louis 1920. By 1925, Lonnie was married to blues singer Mary Johnson. Not only that, he also won a musical contest with a doozy of a prize: a recording contract with Okeh records
As these songs will attest, Lonnie was not a typical blues player. He didn’t think so either; Johnson entered the contest to have a chance to record, even though he thought of himself as more of a jazz player at the time. But the blues label stuck. Fortunately for all of us, Johnson apparently treated that categorical box like a playpen and did whatever he liked within it. On “Bullfrog Moan,” the structure and descending scale of the blues is sweetened with an adept use of the 12 string guitar, its low notes ably suggesting the titular amphibian.