In February of 1928, guitarist Napoleon “Nap” Hayes and mandolinist Matthew Prater, two black musicians from Vicksburg, MSi, recorded four instrumental tunes in Memphis. The tunes — “Somethin’ Doin’,” “Easy Winner,” “Nothin’ Doin’,” and “Prater Blues” — showcase the clean musicianship of both players, with Hayes’ guitar providing a steady rhythmic accompaniment for the skillful mandolin lead.
The performances, while comprising only a small body of recorded work, reveal a unique and carefully stylized repertoire, fusing elements of string band, ragtime, and blues forms: the first two sides directly borrow themes and phrasings from Scott Joplin rags, “Something Doing” and “The Entertainer,” respectively.
Little biographical information is known regarding Hayes and Prater, who recorded as the Johnson Boys and the Blue Boys. The duo also recorded two numbers with popular bluesman Lonnie Johnson on violin, but those sides were not issued (they have only become available in recent years). The four duet recordings of Nap Hayes and Matthew Prater are collected on Document’s String Bands (1926-1929).
Bob Eagle has dug into Prater a little with no concrete results. He found records that could have been for Prater but not at all certain. He found a record for someone named Matt Prater, black, born 1886, who was boarding with one Sam Harris in Beat 2 of Leflore County, MS in 1900. Matt and parents were born in MS.
He also found a record for a Nap Hayes. “The most likely Hayes is Nap Hayes, black, born 1885, residing in Lee County, MS in 1918. He was working for one Ben Whitehead and his nearest relative was Lucinda Taylor, of Tupelo.”
Easy Winner and Somethin’ Doin’, like the recordings of Evans and McClain, used the mandolin guitar duet form widely popular among white musicians, such as the Callahan, Shelton and Monroe Brothers. Hayes was probably exposed to ragtime when working with the pianist Cooney Vaughn, and he ably supported Prater’s fluent mandolin runs.
Both The Easy Winners and Something Doing (to give them their exact names) are by Scott Joplin; and this version of the latter composition was the only one to appear on record between the piano-roll era and the Second World War. The same would be true of Easy Winner, were it not that Hayes and Prater do not play this tune at all, but assemble under its name two strains from Joplin’s The Entertainer and one from J. Bodewalt Lampe’s Creole Belles.
As it happens, this is the only record of The Entertainer from the cited period, too. Creole Belles was recorded by Mississippi John Hurt, soon after his reappearance in the musical world in I963; his guitar treatment may be compared with a 1902 version, by banjoist Vess L. Ossman .
Prater and Hayes play “Somethin’ Doing”: