Music From The Devil’s Swamp: Notes On The Life Of Silas Hogan

I don’t believe the blues gonna die, the blues was here when nothing else was here and I think it’ll be here when everything else is gone, it’s gonna be right here.

In his later years Louisiana bluesman Silas Hogan had the appearance of a country minister. He kept his snowy white hair cropped close, and favored brilliant white dress shirts with slacks and well-polished shoes. Of course the man wore a necktie.

That look was a far cry from that of the farm kid born on 20 acres in Westover, Louisiana outside Baton Rouge.

The Hogan family migrated over the river to a bump in the road on Highway 61 called Irene when little Silas was only two years old. They would stay there for the next quarter century.

Hogan started playing the guitar a little when he was 7 years old. His daddy was a musician and young Silas would pick his guitar up when he wasn’t around and strum a bit. The youngster worked and saved til he finally scraped up $1.50 for his own instrument.

I was about 15 years old when I started playing the blues. When I was about 17 years old mama and them didn’t want me to go out but they’d let me go sometimes with some older men that could play and we’d go play them house parties way back yonder and I’d grab my own guitar and I had a little old jazz horn I’d put in my mouth…and I just picked it up from way back yonder, that’s all I been playing.

“I played all night for .75 cents.”

So spake Hogan in Rainin’ In My Heart: A Blues Mosaic, a 1985 documentary on the Baton Rouge blues scene. At the time of the filming, noted historian Nicholas Spitzer referred to Hogan as “the grandfather figure in Baton Rouge blues today – not just because of his Buddha-like appearance, and his salt and pepper gray hair…but because his style is the basic old-time-style; he plays these incredible drawn-out one string leads with droning effect on the other strings. He makes up his own songs about his experiences…about hard work and traveling.”

Spitzer goes on to mention that Hogan once wrote a song about rats and roaches that is a “stark, blues-existential comment on life in a house where things aren’t quite right.”

That track, Trouble At Home Blues would eventually become Hogan’s first 45 (Excello 2221)

Hogan’s uncles, Frank and Robert Meddy, were under the radar music legends born in the 19th century. The pair quietly set about teaching the young man the nuances of guitar.

Finally, nearing the age 30, Silas started to realize that he had to get the hell out of Irene if he was going to have any success as a bluesman. In 1939 he packed up his Fender guitar and amplifier to move the ten miles south to Scotlandville.

Hogan found a bungalow next to Harding Air Field and began doing the legwork to get booked into the juke joints of his new neighborhood. The Elks Club saw truckloads of bluesmen come through their doors.

Music From The Devil’s Swamp: Notes On The Life Of Silas Hogan

To keep beans and greens on the table Hogan took a job at the Esso Refinery. He would work there for 34 years. As his bluesman sidework became more abundant, Hogan took to wearing his workplace hardhat up on the stage. It became a signature look.

In 1956 he formed the Rhythm Ramblers, and they drew steady work as a cover band on the local juke circuit. Picture perfect copies of the blues hits of the day was their calling card. They became the house band at the beautifully-named Champ’s Honeydripper Club.

By 1960 Hogan was ready to be recorded. He laid down Born in Texas backed with Let Me Be Your Hatchet for Reynaud Records out of Opelousas but these tracks would not see the light of day for 14 years.

Finally, at the age of 51 Hogan was on the precipice of stardom. Producer J.D Miller inked him to a deal with Excello in 1962, and Hogan and his band went straight to work in Miller’s Crowley, Louisiana studio laying down eight singles over the next five years.

“Close to South Louisiana bayou country, Crowley is the home of J.D. Miller’s studio, responsible as much as any other factor for the sound we now know as the moody, loping blues of the Louisiana swamps.” Blues folklorist Bruce Bastin.

Unfortunately Miller got into a spat with Excello, and Hogan was collateral damage.

Nearing 60, the bluesman fell back on his job at the Esso refinery, and stepped away from the blues scene.

After just a year away, Hogan’s old friend Guitar Kelly approached him to see if he wanted to get back to commanding the stages of local jukes. Mr Silas acceded and a new outfit was birthed. After four years on the local chitlin’ circuit, Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records fame paid a visit to Baton Rouge, and coaxed Hogan back into the studio for his Louisiana Blues (Arhoolie 1054) compilation project.

Striking while the iron was hot, Silas Hogan finally saw a full length LP released in 1971. Trouble At Home was compiled by future legend and blues historian Mike Vernon for his Blue Horizon imprint. Hogan was 60 years old.

But Mr Silas did not get above his raising. Even with a full battery of recorded material out on wax he stuck to the old chitlin’ circuit playing bars like Wishadell’s Dream Club, Anderson’s Bar, In The Hole, and The Green Parrot.

What a time to be alive!

Silas Hogan would see his music appear on plenty compilations over the next two decades but it was 1989 before he scored another full-length dedicated to just he. I’m A Free Hearted Man (FLY 595) came out on the British Flyright label, and it’s a stone-classic.

“Outside of the big four – Lightning Slim, Lazy Lester, Lonesome Sundown and Slim Harpo – Silas Hogan is the most important of the downhome blues artists Jay Miller recorded…” Ray Templeton, blues journalist.

A busy life of refinery work, music recording, and blues performing aside, Silas Hogan found time on the in-betweens to raise a family of 10 children. When he died of heart disease at the age of 82, eight were still living along with his wife Miss Violet.

b. September 15, 1911
d. January 9, 1994

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sources:

Slim Harpo: Blues King Bee of Baton Rouge By Martin Hawkins
https://www.blues-sessions.com/silashogan.php
http://www.louisianafolklife.org/LT/Articles_Essays/brblues1.html
https://www.blues-sessions.com/silashogan.php
South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous By John Broven
Feel Like Going Home: Portraits in Blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll By Peter Guralnick
Gravesites of Southern Musicians: A Guide to Over 300 Jazz, Blues, Country … By Edward Amos

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