J.T. "Funny Paper" Smith (The Howling Wolf)

John T. Smith, b. c. 1890 probably in Texas, d. c. 1940, variously known as the Howling Wolf, "Funny Paper" Smith, "Funny Papa" Smith, and Howling Smith, blues guitarist, singer and songwriter. He released around ten singles in his own name or variants thereof. He also recorded with Bernice Edwards, Black Boy Shine, Magnolia Harris, and Dessa Foster. His best-known song was "Howling Wolf Blues", of which several variants were recorded. Many of his original recordings were unreleased at the time. All are now available on compilation albums. Little is known about Smith, and some reported details of his life may be apocryphal. Smith's music has been compared to that of Blind Lemon Jefferson, and his guitar playing was similar in style to that of other Texas guitarists around in his lifetime. One factor that set him apart from his contemporaries was his lyrical compositions, which were highly original. On more than one occasion, his verses were so full that he had to split the song between both sides of the three-minute limitation imposed by the standard 78-rpm disc.

Smith was probably born in Texas. Details of his early life are not known. His first professional role involved him working at the Lincoln Theater in New York City. He married in the 1920s and spent most of the decade as an itinerant musician, travelling around Texas and Oklahoma, performing at parties, fish fries and juke joints, often in the company of Thomas Shaw, Alger "Texas" Alexander, and Little Hat Jones. He also was seen in the Dallas, Texas, area in the 1920s and 1930s, but he never recorded there. His first recordings were made in Chicago on September 18 and 19, 1930. "Howling Wolf Blues" (parts one and two) was issued by Vocalion (Vocalion 1558) as his first single. Several sources have noted that his guitar was often out of tune, even on some of his recordings, and Shaw commented that Smith was not an accomplished guitarist. Another oddity was that although Smith called himself "Funny Papa", his record label Vocalion managed to mistake this for "Funny Paper" Smith, and that is how he was billed on his earliest releases. He recorded almost twenty songs for Vocalion in 1930 and 1931, including the aforementioned "Howling Wolf Blues", from which he acquired another pseudonym, "The Howling Wolf". Smith reportedly wore a stovepipe hat with "Funny Papa Smith" stitched upon it. Between September 1930 and April 1935, he recorded forty-one songs, but only half that number were released at that time. Around this time he performed on weekends with Thomas Shaw. In 1931, Smith was arrested after being involved in a fight in a gambling establishment and allegedly killing a man in an argument over a woman. He was jailed on a charge of murder and spent a few years in a Texas penitentiary. In 1935, he recorded some songs for the Vocalion label in Fort Worth, Texas, but they were not released. Along the way he recorded with Bernice Edwards, Black Boy Shine, Magnolia Harris, and Dessa Foster. More than one source noted that Magnolia Harris was probably a pseudonym for the contractually obliged Victoria Spivey. In 1939, he toured with Alger "Texas" Alexander. Smith's subsequent whereabouts are unknown. It has been reported that he died in 1940, but the blues historians Bob Eagle and Eric S. LeBlanc reckoned from their research that it was "after 1947". 


"Funny Paper" Smith Biography by Jason Ankeny

J.T. "Funny Paper" Smith was a pioneering force behind the development of the Texas blues guitar style of the pre-war era; in addition to honing a signature sound distinguished by intricate melody lines and simple, repetitive bass riffs, he was also a gifted composer, authoring songs of surprising narrative complexity. A contemporary of such legends as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Dennis "Little Hat" Jones, next to nothing concrete is known of John T. Smith's life. Assumed to have been born in East Texas during the latter half of the 1880s, he was a minstrel who wandered about the panhandle region, performing at fairs, fish fries, dances, and other community events (often in the company of figures including Tom Shaw, Texas Alexander, and Bernice Edwards). Smith settled down long enough to record some 22 songs between 1930 and 1931, among them his trademark number "Howling Wolf Blues, Pts. One and Two"; indeed, he claimed the alternate nickname "Howling Wolf" some two decades before it was appropriated by his more famous successor, Chester Burnett. (The true story behind Smith's more common nickname remains a matter of some debate -- some blues archivists claim he was instead dubbed "Funny Papa," with the "Funny Paper" alias resulting only from record company error.) His career came to an abrupt end during the mid-'30s, when he was arrested for murdering a man over a gambling dispute. Smith was found guilty and imprisoned, and is believed to have died in his cell circa 1940.