Sam Moore: From “Laughing Rag”
to “Spooning and Ballooning”
By Allan Sutton
Related Post: Sam Moore’s “Guitar Accordion Pipe Organ”
Sam Moore’s 1921 Victor recording of “Laughing Rag” is an astonishing record for the period, blending Southern folk, Hawaiian, and ragtime influences in a way unlike anything that had been heard on records up to that time. Music historian Dick Spottswood has praised Moore’s performance on that record for its “aggressive mainland verve…which stands halfway between Hawaiian and the 1920s country guitar rags of Sam McGee, Blind Blake, Roy Harvey, and Sylvester Weaver.”
The Moores had already established a reputation as musical family when Samuel Pasco Moore was born in Monticello, Florida, on June 28, 1887. His father, Samuel Lewis Moore, was a Civil War veteran and holder of a Confederate Cross of Honor. Music, however, was only an avocation for the family, which operated a successful construction business.
Sam Moore with his family and banjo, both circa 1895
(courtesy of Betsy Loar)
Proficient on the violin by age seven, Sam was later sent to Macon, Georgia, to study under Professor W. C. Kaler. After a badly healed broken arm ended his aspirations as a violinist, Moore turned to the banjo and guitar and also began to experiment with everyday objects — most notably, the ordinary hand-saw — as musical instruments.
In 1919, Moore left home to audition for Florenz Ziegfeld in New York. The result was a six-moth run at Ziegfeld’s Roof Garden. For a time, the newly arrived Georgian was the toast of New York society, even serving as guest of honor at a reception hosted by the editors of The Musical Courier that was attended by Enrico Caruso and other luminaries. “Those eminent artists,” a New York paper reported, “were so delighted by Mr. Moore’s playing on a carpenter’s hand-saw, that they hovered so closely around him that he hardly had room to play.”
Moore traveled to Chicago during the summer of 1920. There he met Harry Skinner, an employee of Lyon & Healy, the city’s leading music retailer. In September, Moore made a well-advertised appearance in Lyon & Healy’s auditorium, at which he played his hand-saw.
Moore’s appearance at Lyon & Healy (Chicago, September 1920)
Skinner introduced Moore to his new invention, an eight-string steel guitar named the octo-chorda. (Although several accounts credit Moore with its invention, a 1926 news article confirms that Moore’s eight-string steel guitar was “the recent invention of Harry Skinner of Lyons & Healy in Chicago.”) Together, Moore and Skinner composed a showpiece for the octo-chorda, titled “Laughing Rag.”
Moore was soon traveling on the Keith and Orpheum vaudeville circuits, sometimes with Horace D. Davis. A great-grandson of Robert E. Lee, who also performed under the name of John Powell, Davis was an accomplished guitarist.
During the summer of 1921, Moore recorded “Laughing Rag” as an octo-chorda solo for the Gennett, Okeh, and Victor labels. Gennett 4747 was the first to be recorded, in New York on June 11, 1921, with piano accompaniment by Frank Banta. The recording was erroneously entered in the Gennett files as a hand-saw solo, and was even advertised as such in some newspapers, but the records are correctly labeled.
Okeh 4412 was released in November, coupled with Moore’s “Chain Gang Blues,” using an uncredited accompanist. Moore recorded two more octo-chorda solos for Okeh at about the same time — “Wang Wang Blues” and “Tuck Me to Sleep in My Old ‘Tucky Home” (the latter with Davis, coupled on Okeh 4423).
But Moore’s most successful recording of “Laughing Rag,” musically as well as in terms of sales, was made for the Victor Talking Machine Company in their New York studio on August 24, 1921, originally as part of a trial session. For this version, Moore used Horace Davis to accompany on the harp-guitar, an odd hybrid instrument with six primary strings plus an additional set of strings that resonated sympathetically.
SAM MOORE & HORACE DAVIS: Laughing Rag
New York: August 24, 1921 (Released March 1922)
Victor 18849 (mx. B 25543 – 1)
Recorded as a test and later accepted for commercial release, per the Victor files. Originally scheduled for release on Victor 18846, coupled with Moore & Davis’ “Cry Baby Blues,” which was canceled before release.
Victor inexplicably delayed its release of “Laughing Rag” for seven months, only to discover that they had a hit on their hands. The guitar interplay between Moore and Davis proved to be irresistible. Victor’s version remains a perennial favorite with collectors and has been commercially reissued several times, most recently on RCA’s “Classic Ragtime” CD. But of the fourteen titles Moore and Davis recorded for Victor between August 1921 and September 1922, only three were issued, the other two being straightforward “Hawaiian” numbers.
Unfortunately for modern listeners, “Laughing Rag” was an anomaly. In 1922, Moore and Davis split, and Moore teamed with Carl Freed, a ukulele- and guitar-playing comedian who also played the musical spoons. Together, they developed a novelty vaudeville act entitled “Spooning and Ballooning,” in which Moore played an inflated rubber balloon and other gadgets to Freed’s spoon accompaniment. The Columbus [Georgia] Ledger for April 9, 1924, reported that “Among the most appreciative of Sam Moore’s audiences are the negroes who go north… [they] often talk to the performer from the galleries, which makes the act ‘go big’…”
An early review of “Spooning and Ballooning” (Altoona, Pennsylvania, October 1922)
The long-running “Spooning and Ballooning” plays Allentown, Pennsylvania
Although Moore’s guitar work is what interests most modern collectors, his use of offbeat instruments is what captivated audiences in the 1920s. In April 1924 Moore’s father told the Columbus Courier, “That boy can music out of anything. When he was a small boy, I’ve seen him get music out of a pitchfork.” Moore didn’t leave any known recordings on the pitchfork, but he made a number of hand-saw records, beginning with “Mother Machree” for Gennett, on the reverse side of “Laughing Rag.”
By the time Moore recorded for Columbia in 1922, however, the musical-saw fad was fading in New York. Moore’s April 7, 1922, Columbia session yielded a single release (A3750), which appears to have sold poorly. A few Moore saw-solo releases followed during 1923–1924 on Brunswick and Vocalion, on some of which Horace Davis made a reappearance, but again, sales appear to have been small.
From a 1924 Vocalion supplement
By the mid-1920s, with several firms marketing cheap musical saws and instruction courses, the hand-saw was largely relegated to the status of an amateur’s novelty instrument. Moore carried on, championing the hand-saw as well as a host of other instruments that had fallen from (or, in the case of the rubber balloon, never attained) grace. Interest in “Spooning and Ballooning” faded, and Moore and Freed eventually went their own ways.
By 1927, Moore was once again working with Horace Davis, but no issued recording resulted. Together, they recorded Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” for Brunswick on November 8, which was to have been coupled with a remake of “Laughing Rag” on Brunswick 3713. However, there is no evidence in the Brunswick files that the latter title was recorded, and Brunswick 3713 was canceled before release. Two October 1928 Brunswick duets with ukulele player Edmund Evans were rejected.
A formal 1920s portrait of Sam Moore (left), and a snapshot taken during his stint with KFSO radio’s “Country Store” (courtesy of Betsy Loar)
In the 1930s, Moore left the stage for radio work, writing for and performing on several NBC shows into the 1940s. For a time he teamed with his wife, Carolyn, in a stereotypical “blackface” act called “Sambo & Mandy” for local radio broadcasts and personal appearances.
Moore suffered from asthma, and eventually he settled in San Francisco for health reasons. There he was featured in the cast of KFSO’s “Country Store.” He died in San Francisco on November 13, 1959, at the age of 72.
© 2019 by Allan R. Sutton. Portions of this article previously appeared on the Mainspring Press website as “Rediscovering Sam Moore.”
Thanks to Betsy (Moore) Loar, the grand-daughter of Sam Moore, for sharing her rare photos and other source materials. Discographical data are from the original company files, via the University of California–Santa Barbara’s Discography of American Historical Recordings site and John R. Bolig.