Friday, July 21, 2017

The "Blues" Now Recognized as Native Works of Art

The "Blues" Gets Recognition as a Work of Art 

A 1926 review of the book Blues: An Anthology, edited by W. C. Handy. with an introduction by Abbe Niles and illustrations by Miguel Covarrubias (A. and C. Boni). Originally published in 1926, this classic collection of great blues songs was arranged for piano and voice. W.C. Handy was an amazing individual who arguably did more than anyone else to make blues popular and accepted as an art form. This book--one of the most neglected collection of blues-it includes historical notes, tunes and arrangements, notes for each song, a bibliography, and a chart of guitar chords. Illustrated by renowned Mexican illustrator Miguel Covarrubias.

By George Currie - Brooklyn Daily Eagle - Aug 22, 1926

[This book review contains some antiquated views and language that may make some folks uncomfortable.  It is republished here with only minor adulterations, which in no way alter the intended meanings of the author.  In essence, it's a reprint for George Currie's review from 1926.]

The blues of America are fondly supposed to be our one important contribution to the world's music. We have passed through the stage of adulation of Paul Whiteman's band and Irving Berlin's syncopations and lost chords and George Gershwin's near opera cacophony and settled down to a ready complacency. The music may be savage wails, like the keening of the Irish and the Macpherson's lament of old Clan Chattan, not to mention Norse music, if your ear and your conscience will permit you to call the wild strains from the sons of the Vikings music. But music it is, of a sort, and must be accepted as such. 

Some enthusiasts, myself among them, believe that only blacks can make a blue song go right. I have heard Paul Whiteman lead the "Rhapsody in Blue" of Gershwin and have been impressed. But 1 a:so heard 250 colored gentlemen from the Chicago Black Belt, from South Carolina, from Dade County, Florida, not to mention the sidewalks of New York, marching under full packs over shell-torn ground, singing at a carefree route march which none of their white officers supported with half the good spirits, that song which this book does not recognize and whose words run in a heartrending wail, thus: 
"All that worreeze me-e-ee
Is some one else
May be thar-r-r-rr
Whu-hile I'm gon-n-nne."
The tender sentiment of loyalty to farm and fireside, unhappily, was not borne out when it came to making allotments for dependents. Some of my soldiers had more than one wife. Some acknowledged none and had allot-ment claims from two, even three, and one, four. But I learned that the essence of soul is a love of home which may range over the land many miles but which is home, nevertheless.

The [soul of black folks] are proud. One can understand their desire to be received as human beings, which led them to tell the French people they were "American Indians." The black man has a great yearning to he understood, and I think it goes almost without saying that outside some Southern communities that is the one thing the white race in America has carefully avoided. It is all very well to talk about race antagonism, but that does not answer the question of what to do with [black folk], who is a dutiful responsibility upon us, inasmuch as our forefathers were responsible for bringing his ancestors here. 

Our solution of the Indian question has been what amounts to extermination. Everybody admits that our handling of that delicate question was cavalier, to put it politely. But there are too many [African Americans] to admit of any such left-hand solution. 

I have always resented the intellectual attitude of New York sophisticates who patronize Harlem resorts with a blase defiance that they may brag that they are broadminded, etc. This does not fool the [black man] at all. He knows it is a pose. and but for the fact that such parties come well heeled with ready cash he would probably speak his mind on the subject. 

And it seems to me that the enthusiasm for black music is based on the same attitude. People set out to like spirituals because it is the thing to do. Yet if there is any better music in this country than "Deep Riser," sung by the Hampton Institute Quartet and not jazzed by Vincent Lopez on the radio, then I don't know that I am talking about. 

THE yearning to be accepted as a human being,  I know, is largely responsible for the malcontents of the [African Americans] today. We have them, of course, Various unsavory real estate incidents occur here in the North and the sporadic outbreak of lynchings down South make mock of the pseudo-affection of our intelligentsia for [black folks].

The [black man] at his best today is something of a social exhibit. Paul Robeson, Florence Mills, Charles Gilpin and Roland Hayes are invited about, but they know. if they are wise, and at least two of them are, that they are among those present to demonstrate to the world the extreme broad views of the host or hostess. The unhappy incident surrounding the production of "All God's Chillun Got Wings" demonstrated conclusively how deep the affection of the intellectuals for [African Americans] really lay. 

This is a book review and I have no solution for the race problem to offer; but the preceding few remarks, based on the experience of being with black troops under fire, an adventure they bore pretty well considering the little training they had, are a hodge-podge of observations that have been stored up in me, begging to be let out, probably to no purpose whatever. 

I learned that the average [African American] wants most to be let alone. He likes his meals, and I do. too. He likes his ease. but who doesn't? He can be more cheerful under adverse circumstances than a white man. He has serious defects which clash with our own serious shortcomings. Out of his love for throaty expression he has evolved a music which he himself does beautifully and which the white man, attempting imitation, murders or weights down with overwhelming trimmings. And when I get a book like Handy's I am frankly disgruntled, not because of Handy's selections, which are excellent, but because of the way the book is played up. 

HERE one reads between the lines. is something you  must read to be in the know. And black music automatically takes its place alongside Freud, Steckel, mah jong and Jack Delaney. 

Like everything else which makes a universal appeal, the "blues" sprang up in lowly quarters and were adopted by the unimaginative upper crust. Art through-out the world's history has Come up from the bottom. The intellectuals adopt and adapt, to their own sweet ends, but they rarely initiate. 

And when I read Abbe Niles' protestation that blues "began as a form of Afro-American folk song—a 'form,' since they were distinguished primarily by their peculiar structure," I want to weep. 

One might as well say that the folk songs of Czechoslovakia are only a "form of folk song." since they are distinguished by their peculiar cadences. Or that the "Volga Boat Song" is a form of music because it is distinguished by a peculiar monotonous lack of interest.

The [black man] developed something all by himself. It is now time for the intellectual to explain how he came to do it, why the thing must be treated as something akin to the discovery of vitamins, rejuvenation or the new theories of evolution. Hating failed to produce the "blues." the beetle-browed superior persons seek to appropriate it by clothing it with long-winded thingamajigs, so that they may exclaim. patronizingly : "Of course, the plantation Old Black Joe's started it. but, after all, nobody paid any attention to it! We improved it." 

Such improvement as Jerome Kern's has been remarkable. It consisted almost entirely of adapting airs to ragtime and to jazz, to make the tired business man from Oshkosh shell out money to ticket speculators for seats in the bald-headed rcw. And to a large extent the same holds good for George Gershwin. 

• • • 

MEMPHIS blues came with a new and subtler essence, two-sided, and so, disturbing. The campaign enthusiasm and exuberance was there, but there was an undertone of dissent. It suggested, let us say, not only that Mr: Crump was a great fellow but that if he shouldn't win things would not be as they should; that things were not right now: perhaps—this in a whisper—that even Mr. Crump couldn't do everything. It was a note net of weak despondency but of the divine discontent itself, and this undertone, whether represented by the blue note or any other device, has crept and enriched, and still enriches. our popular music, transforming it at times from the expression of one of a choice of shallow emotions to something which can be discussed, under, however, right or wrong conceptions of what popular music is. as a material fit for building en a larger scale. And it is of the blues spirit and some of the blue:; devices, he it noted that Gershwin. the only insistent experimenter along this line whose work is unquestionably worth watching, makes from his own angle a very notable use. Rejecting the tantalizing over-and-over effect of the bob-tailed, twelve-bar strains, which of course would break the long line he would achieve. he has. nevertheless, mate a serious study of the question, 'Wherein blue?' Not content with abject imitation, he has thought out the philosophy for himself, making the old tricks somehow his own where he uses them and making his own point of view the flavor of his work."

Now, then. aside from the flood of words unloosed upon us. Niles betrays the secret of these broadminded persons who have decided to patronize black music.

For generations the Romanian and Bulgarian peasant women made exquisite clothing for themselves. embroidered beyond the ken of our more Westerns omen. It was only recently that their art became the subject of adoption and adaptation by the cultured, and then not until Queen Marie of Rumania, discovering that the peasant's garb was no less attractive upon a Queen's body, began bedecking herself in it.

The half-savage ancestry of the neo-Modernist school of painting goes no further back than the hibiscus-wearing Kanaka. It's a far cry from the Solomon Islands to Renoir, but the result is about the same, although our modern enthusiasts will claim that their results are in-finitely better. And so with music. The [black man] makes his contribution. "Good enough," exclaim the intellectuals, "we will make it perfect." And the results are to be heard at every roadside inn and out of the lugubrious throat of every radio loud-speaker. Perfected. hey ? Not while I and others can remember the black soldiers marching and singing their own uncivilized discords. Not while the Hampton Institute Quartet still barber-shop chords those moving spirituals. 

• • • 

THE forty pieces of music. mostly with words. which Handy has collected are worth the price of the book. Here at least one cannot quarrel. Some of the pieces have been improved—and by that one gathers that Niles means they have been toned down or up to please the less naive ear of the white man. But the essence has been preserved and Handy has picked and chosen with a nice discrimination. Every instrument will be pleased to have the pieces tried out upon its keys. It is easily a book the well-dressed piano will wear. 

And since a book of black music is more interesting because of the music and not because of the apologia or dedication or introduction or whatever you want to call it, "Blues" fills the bill handsomely. 

Still, if only our intellectuals could accept a raw art for what it is. without feeling the urge to improve upon it. how grateful some of us would be. The shepherd tootling his pipe in some Arcadian meadow or King David sounding the brass in the twilight felt no urge for improvement. And I am sure the [black man] ho invented their sailing blues neither ask nor yearn for any improvement upon the expression of that which lies so deer) within their souls.

But then we have them improving on Richard Wagner nowadays. And somebody will come along to improve on Michelangelo and Titan and eventually we will be so improved that our art will come like our furniture, no longer crudely hand-made and fit to stand a few hundred years, but perfectly machined, delicate in the hands of the family infants and doomed to an early death upstairs in the guest room and later to the attic. For it is the habit of our intellectuals that so passionate are they in their enthusiasms that the object of their devotion becomes soon burned out. After all, the field in blues is not inexhaustible. 

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

As a Lead Boy for Blind Musicians, the Blues Aesthetic Emerged:

As a Lead Boy for Blind Musicians, 
the Blues Aesthetic Emerged:
Remembering Josh White

Funeral services were held for world-renowned blues singer Josh White at the Epworth Methodist Church in the Bronx where he and his widow Carol were married 34 years ago. White died Friday Sept. 5 while undergoing surgery at Northshore Hospital. He was 61 years old.

Josh White Jr.. son of the illustrious entertainer delivered the eulogy and recited a poem written by one of the deceased's surviving four daughters.

White, who was to have a defective valve in his heart replaced by the surgery, was born in Greenville S.C. He it moved to New York in 1932 where he began a career that revolutionized folk singing, and made it the music of urban cabarets in the 1940s, when he reached the height of his popularity.

His amiable, suave, and sophisticated renditions, coupled with his casual charm created his individual authoritative, sensual style, that made his listening audience consider him a leading popularizer of the blues.

His trademark was a casually worn sportshirt, always invariably opened at the neck, and his performance was always offered while sitting on a stool, with his foot resting on the rung. Another of his trademarks was the presence of a lit cigarette, always tucked neatly behind one ear.

The big husky singer had a —smooth firm, baritone voice, and a broad confiding smile. He phrased his songs with a wide range of emotions, from sheer joy, to anger defiance, accompanying himself on the guitar. Josh White was named Joshua, by his mother who hoped that a name like that would inspire him to become a minister. He used to say that to become a preacher you had to know an awful lot and Josh dropped out of school while in the sixth grade. but when he was only seven, he helped a blind singer home and inadvertently started his singing career. 

The singer later asked his mother if he could accompany him to Florida for the winter. His mother gave him permission to go because he felt that to lead the blind would be "doing God's work." He became the protege of Joe Taggert and for four years the two wandered from town to town Taggert singing and White playing the guitar. The boy, Josh White, began leading other blind minstrels on their tours. One of them was the noted blind Lemon Jefferson. White often said that it was then that he really began to hear and learn songs but they were different songs, songs only Lemon knew, songs he had heard old old people sing when he was a small boy. Pre-Civil War songs and eery rare spirituals. This was the beginning of Josh White's folk singing career.

Lemon Jefferson was famous for moans and shouts but Josh remembered him when he sang lonely songs---songs that one man must sing alone binding his heart to all hearts of all who hear him. Many people felt and have said that White absorbed this gift from Lemon. Although White was only 16 when Lemon died, his close', association with the great minstrel was not forgotten for in 1932 he had an offer to go to New York and record many of Lemon's songs. Once there, he quickly got a contract with a folk song group known as the Southernaires for three performances a week for $84. He then won a recording contract and was billed as the "Singing Christian". He also sang under the name of Pinewood Tom. His many famous songs included "One Meatball" "Out-skirts of Town" "Hard Time Blues" and John Henry." He became nationally famous with his "Chain Gang" album and as a result of it earned the title a "repository of rare 'Southern music." He is survived by a widow, one son, and four daughters.

His remains were buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, Kings County, New York.


by Wayne Walker - Thursday, November 8, 1973

We called him the Ole Fiddler. Back in the 20's it was a big thrill for us kids when the Ole Fiddler would pay us a visit. He rode an old grey mule, Maude, he called her, with a rheumatic gait. She seemed to kinda stagger along with the old man's weight almost too much for her to bear. I can see the Ole Fiddler now astride ol' Maude and huggin' his fiddle case across his chest like an infant in his arms. 

His long, white beard waving in the breeze -- not from Maude's great speed, however, Maude could trot no faster than a man can walk. Before coming to the house the 01' Fiddler would stop and feed, water and put ol' Maude away for the night in a spare stable in the barn. With a stiff, rheumatic gait that was worse than Maude's, he'd come amblin' up the lane, still baby-totin' his fiddle. Us young'uns would dash out to meet him. We'd catch up to him and begin pullin' and tuggin' at his loose clothing for goodies like jelly beans, peppermint sticks and orange gum-drops we knew he had for us. 

Teasingly, he would scold us as we felt about his person for the candy: "Git, you young'uns! I ain't got no candy this time. Git along with you now. Stop it. I say – y’all gonna make me drap my fiddle. Go on -- shoo!" We'd get the candy when inside the house and the Ole fiddler got settled down and stated that he had just come to set a spell -- that meant he'd stay all night. Carefully he would place the battered old fiddle case down beside his chair and start the conversation with little unimportant bits of news that was a stall until someone would re-quest that he play the fiddle.

In the Ole Fiddler's estimation, he was a great fiddlin' man; but alas, he could not even tune it properly, and more alas, than that, he only knew two pieces (his word for a song) -- Turkey In The Straw and - Leather Britches. , Finally us young'uns would yell for him to play the fiddle -- he gave us candy didn't he? Talkin' about fast: The Ole fiddler could quick-draw that -fiddle from the case quicker 'n -,, any wild west hired gunman could draw and smoke a 38! My daddy, Doctor Walker, was quite a fiddler in his youth and when the Ole Fiddler held his fiddle up next to his good ear and plunked those out-of-tune strings, daddy would cringe and wince like a dog being whipped. 

The Ole Fiddler adjusted a string or two professionally, rosin' up the bow, and Mama, being allergic to bad fiddlin', excused herself, "to fix supper," she said and departed forthwith. After one piece, the doctor would depart forthwith. With a twinkle in his eyes, the 01' Fiddler would chin that fiddle and shout with gusto: "How'd ya'll like to hear Ole Joe Clark'?" Before anyone could answer he'd rack out with (I'm sorry to say) absolutely and positively the world's worst rendition of -- guess what? yeah, Turkey In the Straw. "Look out now! Here comes the 'Yaller Rose of Texas'!" 

Shouting the Rebel yell, The Yaller Rose of Texas sounded exactly like -- you guessed it --Leather Britches. After supper, it was a repeat performance same as before supper, only more so. He must have had 40 titles for Turkey In the Straw, and 40 titles for Leather Britches! How I loved to "Watch him go," mainly because of his honest sincerity and the way he stomped his foot, off-beat and also out of time to boot. He wore brogan shoes and when he raised that right foot a foot off the floor, the crash made the floor vibrate and the sound mercifully drounded out most of his fiddlin'. 

No. I ain't makin' fun of the Ole Fiddler. He put on a honest and sincere show. I was amazed at how he mesmerized himself with his own fiddlin'. He seemed to go into some kind of trance with wide open mouth, rollin’ his eyes and a lot of crazy head rollin' and shakin’. I know that somewhere in Great Beyond, the Ole Fiddler is playing up a storm out of tune fiddle and out of time stompin'. But maybe, by now, he has learned him a new piece (song) and that will add 40 more titles to his already expansive repertory.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Letter from MS: Paying Elmo a Visit in Ebenezer

 Letter from MS: Paying Elmo a Visit in Ebenezer
By Rafael Alvarez - 1993

Trying to describe the music of Elmore James, someone said the other day, is like trying to describe a primary color.
A color that screams your name as you walk by
That cries all night long
And bleeds
Not just on you, but through you
All the way through to the other side
The color is blue
Electric blue

And it came down in buckets when the great Elmore James opened his mouth. “When Elmo played the blues you could feel a chill going over you,'' remembers guitarist Jimmy Spruill, who made records with James in the 1950s. “He made you feel like your mother just died: sad and miserable and doubtful.''

From the late 1930s, when he began his rambles through the American South with Robert Johnson and Rice Miller, until his fatal heart attack in 1963, Elmore James used his voice and a slide guitar to paint lusty narratives with the primary colors of sadness, misery, and doubt.

"The sky is crying," he often sang, "look at the tears roll down the street..."

The sky above the Newport Missionary Baptist Church graveyard is graced today with a pale, afternoon moon; a sky that is pleased on this warm and quiet Tuesday in February, carrying gentle winds of an early spring through fields of pine.

Down below, Elmore James lies in his 30th year of silence.

He is here, somewhere in this churchyard of rolling hills and crumbling tombstones off of Highway 17, but I am not sure just where because his grave went unmarked until late last year.

Last December, a handsome stone of ebony granite was erected at the cemetery entrance by Elmore's fans. No one is around on this bright afternoon to tell me if the man who could make an electric guitar sound like a tom cat being skinned alive is actually beneath it.

A black pick-up truck rumbles down the gravel road in front of the church, and the driver waves as he goes by. Nothing stirs but the wind until the pick-up comes back the other way and the driver waves again.

The stone sports a bronze relief of a bespectacled James in suit coat and tie; a small, metal "slide'' tube envelopes his pinky finger as he grips a six-string guitar: Elmore staring out across the quiet Mississippi countryside where he grew up as a farmhand.

Every man is the King of Something, if only his own lonely wanderings, and Elmore is memorialized as ``King of the Slide Guitar.''

Because the three-foot-tall monument is so far removed from the rest of the graves (it's the first one you meet, alongside a wooden sign welcoming people to the church), I wondered if the exact location of Elmore's body has been forgotten and they put his marker out front so pilgrims wouldn't miss it.

The other graves -- ``Queen Davis, Born 1850, Died Nov. 16, 1918'' and ``Omega Owens, Born July 26, 1908, Died August 11, 1970'' -- are out behind the church, a good 50 yards from the bluesman's headstone.

I stare at Elmore for a few minutes, the eerie, Hawaiian twang of his guitar looping through my mind, and walk around behind it to find an inscription chiseled on the back: ``Born in Holmes County, Mississippi, Elmore James electrified the Delta blues with his unique slide guitar style, creating a powerful legacy that will remain forever in American music.''

The legacy, which continues today through rock and roll, began on the sly.

At the gravestone's dedication on December 10, 1992, a cousin of Elmore's named Bessie Brooks told of a young James, known then as ``Joe Willie,'' singing gospel for the grown-ups, ``but when my parents would leave to go visiting he played the blues for us.''

By the age of 12, already working in the fields, he was making sounds on wire uncoiled from a broom head and strung on the shack wall.

Such a blues conviction made for trouble with his parents, who only held to the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and soon he went to live with a more permissive aunt.

The Jackson (Miss.) Advocate quoted another cousin at the dediction, a woman named Annie Redmond who remembered Elmore making a guitar out of an old coffee can and two wires used to hang clothes.

"When my mother saw how determined he was to play the blues, she started throwing house parties to raise money to buy him a guitar,'' Ms. Redmond said.

Coming back to the front of the tombstone, I notice that birds have soiled the stone and I retrieve a bottle of glass cleaner and some paper towels from the car and go over the smooth face of the marker like an old Polish lady in Canton getting the streaks out of her front window.

After putting the cleaning stuff back in the car, I come back with a tape player and set it in the grass next to the stone.

I push a button and Elmore comes alive, the stillness broken, his voice booming deep blue philosophy across the countryside: ``When things go wrong . . . so wrong with you . . . it hurts me too....''

It took me back to a Southside Chicago funeral parlor in May of 1983 when a loudspeaker above an open coffin allowed Muddy Waters to sing at his own funeral.

The music that sails across this Mississippi churchyard comes courtesy of Elmore James by way of Capricorn Records, which last summer released 50 of Elmore's singles from 1959 to 1963 in a two CD set titled: ``King of the Slide Guitar.''

Phil Walden, Capricorn's president, was one of the many who helped raised the cash for Elmore's tombstone.

Elmore's voice shadows me as I walk among the other graves, knowing little about his boneyard brethren except what information will fit on a grave marker: ``Wash Brooks, March 16, 1872 to October 30, 1925 . . . Asleep.''

The thunder of Elmore's voice and the sting of his guitar recall a poet's description of strong coffee: ``Black as night/strong as sin/sweet as love/hot as hell.''

Elmore James died on my fifth birthday -- May 24, 1963 -- nine months before the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan and my life changed forever.

Those bright boys with bangs led me to the dark thrills of the Rolling Stones who opened the door to Johnny Winter who introduced me to Muddy Waters who carried me to Elmore James and a little graveyard down at the end of Newport Road in Lexington, Mississippi.

I don't remember my parents interrupting my birthday party to break the news: ``Ralphie, we're sorry to have to tell you this, but Elmo has passed.''

I wouldn't come to know the voice of Elmore James for another 15 years.

No one who loves music should wait so long.

As I take a last glimpse of Elmore's grave, the bluesman moans from the tape machine: ``I believe . . . I believe . . . I believe my time ain't long. . . .''

The sun is dropping behind the pines and it is time to drive toward it. Rafael Alvarez is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Living History of Nitta Yuma - April 2017

The Living History of Nitta Yuma 

One family with deep roots (and deeper quirks) wants to turn their hometown into a Southern tourist destination 
By Billy Watkins - April 2017

Henry Vick Phelps III walks one of the few roads left in Nitta Yuma, which has a population of around 20. 

More than 6,000 eyes and not a blink or a wink. It is one of the largest doll collections in the state. More than 3,000 fill the sizable building that served as a general store in the 19th century. That is just one of the oddities of Nitta Yuma, a Delta community near the banks of Deer Creek in Sharkey County, 40 miles north of Rolling Fork and 35 miles south of Leland. Its story is like many others throughout Mississippi. Once a boom-ing cotton community with a population approaching 600, Nitta Yuma is now home to about 20 souls who wouldn't consider living elsewhere. 

But itty bitty Nitta Yuma also is unique. It had electricity before Vicksburg or most cities in the United States. 

A Sept. 23, 1896, story in the Memphis Commercial Appeal carried the headline "Nitta Yuma Is Up To Date." The story said Nitta Yuma was "entitled to distinction as the most remarkable town on earth, in point of enterprise and metropolitan progress." It went on to say, "Nitta Yuma's single street is illuminated by electricity" thanks to the "enterprise and liberality of Henry Phelps, the proprietor of one of the stores." It described Phelps as an "accomplished electrician."

Family members whose roots are 200 years deep in this fertile soil want to share Nitta Yuma with the world, and they have plenty to look at — including nine buildings constructed before the Civil War. "A lot of people preserve their home place, the house they grew up in," says 60-year-old Henry Vick Phelps III, who grew up on this property and still lives here, as does his sister, Carolyn May, and his 28-year-old son, Vick. "But we went a little further and kept the other buildings, too." 

Phelps credits his grandparents, Henry and Dorothy Phelps, for having the good sense to let the structures be. "We'd like to have a coffee shop, a place where people can stop and relax and then go through the buildings," Phelps says. "We want to reconstruct the houses back to their original form. We'd like to work with the Delta and serve as an ambassador for the South and for tourism. It's not going to hap-pen overnight, but it's something we can do steady along. "I think our audience would be anyone with a passion for old houses and the South and architecture." 

Bear tracks and buried dolls 

Nitta Yuma means "bear track" or "trail of the bear" in the Choctaw language. 

It was settled in 1768, with an original population of 25. In 1805, Burwell Vick purchased the land with jewels from the Choctaws.

The land eventually became a plantation owned by Vick's son, W.H. Vick, who developed what's called the 100 cotton seed in 1843, a seed that that helped planters maximize pounds of cotton per acre and was eventually sold commercially. 

In 1901, when the nearly 6,000 acres was divided among the four children, Henry Phelps became owner of the family homestead. It's now in the hands of his grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

And while some of the buildings still need to be renovated, others are ready for viewing. Among them: The general store/doll house and its thousands of occupants. The dolls were owned by Dorothy Cole Phelps, mother of Henry III and Carolyn May.

"Her father and uncle owned a funeral home," May explains. "She and her friends used to act like they were having funerals. They would bury dolls and say a prayer over them. "Later on in life, the memory of burying those dolls bothered her.

She started collecting them when she was 35. She died in 2011 when she was 99. What you see here are the dolls she collected over the course of 60 years." They sit side by side on rows of shelves. Others stare out of glass cases that were part of the store. Many look the same. But then there is the Planter's Peanut Man, smiling at you like an old friend. There, too, are Bozo, Popeye, the Jolly Green Giant and Howdy Doody. One glass counter holds only Barbies. This is the Delta, after all, and society status matters. "Whenever people come in here, they'll say, `Oh, I had a doll just like that one,' and point," Phelps says. "It really hits home with women of all ages."

Sprinkled among the dolls are musical instruments: A miniature piano. A snare drum. An accordion. A French horn, trumpet and trom-bone. A rusty harpsichord. I ask Phelps if he is sure the dolls don't talk and play music when darkness comes and humans are out of sight. "You never know," he says and smiles. Other Nitta Yuma buildings ready to visit include: »A furnished antebellum home built around 1855.

It was moved here from the Cameta Plantation, about two miles away. "My daddy gave this to my mother as a wedding present," Phelps says. 

The home where Phelps grew up and still lives. The original family home burned in 1901. Phelps' grandfather re-modeled the family's carriage house, which was built around 1760, and made it their main residence. »A late 18th-century log cabin, which was restored to its original look and moved to Nitta Yuma by Henry II. »A chapel built in 1988 to replace the one lost in a 1901 fire. It includes a plantation bell made of silver dollars hanging from the ceiling. A couple from Belgium is scheduled to have the first wedding there sometime in the fall.

No place like home 

"This place is a lot of work," Vick Phelps says. "Just keeping the grass cut is a project." But he loves it here and appreciates his family's history. He proves it whenever his dad wants to check a family fact. "Alfred the Great (former ruler of England) is my 35th great-grandfather," he says. "Remember Lewis and Clark, the explorers? 

Clark's brother, John, is my fifth great-grandfather. "It's pretty cool going back and learning this stuff, knowing your roots. It definitely helps you realize where you want to be." Contact 

Watch: Video tour of Nitta Yuma. clarionledger.com

Billy Watkins at 601-961-7282 or bwat-kins@jackson.gannett. coin. Follow @BillyWat-kinsil on Twitter.
July 29, 2017 - 5:00 p.m.
The Headstone Dedication and Celebration of Bo Carter
Nitta Yuma Cemetery
Nitta Yuma Plantation - Sharkey County, Mississippi

Join us for the headstone dedication and celebration featuring the original fiddle used by Alonzo Chatmon, the actual National Style N guitar once owned by Bo Carter and all of the amazing musicians who plan to perform at the event in Nitta Yuma, MS on July 29, 2017, such as....

- Ron Bombardi (who like Armenter Chatmon, or Bo Carter, adopted a new name as a musician, "Jersey Slim" Hawkins) is a professor and philosopher with dextrous mental abilities, which he readily transfers through his body so he can walk around town, talk to people, and even write a few simple words every now and again in the academic journals and monographs. The longtime fiddle player for the Stompers, in fact, models his playing style after the Mississippi Sheiks most-accomplished fiddle player, Lonnie Chatmon, the brother of Bo Carter (The two brothers stand to the left of Walter Vinson in the below photo). It is very fitting then that his hero's fiddle will be available for his use in Nitta Yuma.  Lonnie Chatmon's fiddle may be heard once again with the steel-bodied National Style N guitar of Bo Carter.

Bill Steber is the photographer who got the good shots of the most recent group of the blues legends, whose work you may have seen at the local university or in Oxford American magazine, but he doubles as one of the potent musical forces behind the Murfreesboro, TN-based Jake Leg Stompers.
- Blues musician Andy Cohen's amazing career has spanned decades so I have prepared a collection of content for your reading and viewing pleasure HERE or you can visit his website HERE

- Blues traveller and musician Steve Cheseborough's admiration and enthusiasm for the music of Bo Carter is all but limitless. He has informed the owner of the National Style N guitar of Bo Carter!!!! And he is Nitta Yuma bound and down!!! Click HERE to read Cheseborough's epic quest for his own personal Holy Grail of the Blues!

- Moses Crouch is a hill country musician of the most committed order who is often heard cooking up his liniments and draining out special orders of snake oil juice with the Memphissippi Medicine. Despite being the youngest musician to confirm thusfar, his repertoire includes plenty of music with an old soul...

Miles Floyd, the grandson of Armenter Chatmon, will be on hand at the event. So will the original instruments owned and played by the Chatmon family.

Henry Phelps, the landowner of the small hamlet, plans to have a large celebration and reception with food and refreshments following the dedication. He has done many excellent renovations of the historic buildings in Nitta Yuma, and the commemoration of Bo Carter's headstone offers everyone a chance to experience this jewel of the mid-Delta through the lens of a unique celebration.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

How Claud Johnson won the Royalties of Robert Johnson's Estate

How Claud Johnson won 
Royalties of Robert Johnson Estate
By Ellen Barry for the Los Angeles Times - 2004


Inside the pink brick estate he built with a blues fortune, 72- year-old Claud Johnson cannot shake the habits he formed when he was a poor man.

Three years after moving in, he still has more rooms than he has furniture. Creamy wall-to-wall stretches across the second floor, which is mostly empty. To tell the truth, he's not sure if his wife, Miss Ernestine, has ever gone up there.

He keeps his finicky 25-year-old Mack gravel truck parked nearby, where he can keep an eye on it through the living room window. He drove the truck, by his own estimate, one and a quarter million miles. Even as plants poke up around its chassis, it seems the truck — not the blues or the house — is the thing that matters to him.

After Claud won his court battle in 1998 and was recognized as the son of blues music legend Robert Johnson, his lawyer handed him a six-figure cashier's check and begged him to quit hauling gravel. Claud kept hauling gravel for five months.

"After 29 years, it just gets in your blood," said Claud, whose smile reveals glinting gold dental work. "I wake up some mornings, I want to get on that truck."

Late in life, surrounded by the wealth of a stranger, Claud has begun to consider a parent he never knew.

Robert Johnson was a blues guitarist, singer and songwriter. Disgusted with fieldwork, he left his sharecropping family around 1930 and took to the highway, re-cording, in his unearthly voice, 29 songs.

Johnson's music was so good, other men said, that his talent could not be natural: Delta leg-end has it that one day at a back-country crossroad, Johnson waited for the devil to come by. After that, Johnson could play any song he wanted, but he had surrendered his soul.

Johnson was just 27 when he died in August 1938 — poisoned, most people believe, by a jealous husband in a Greenwood, Miss., juke joint. He was so poor and unloved, it is said, that his body was dumped into the ground without a coffin, and to this day, no one is entirely sure where he's buried. But the brooding songs he wrote and recorded have been discovered and rediscovered by the generations that came after him.

People in Greenwood have become accustomed to the Japanese tourists who come looking for Johnson's grave. Just this year, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Eric Clapton released "Me and Mr. Johnson," a CD devoted entirely to Johnson's blues.

In the midst of all this celebrity is Claud Johnson, who did not know until he was almost 40 that his father had recorded mu-sic.

Claud is that rare thing, said blues historian Gayle Dean Wardlow: an ordinary man who was drawn into a legend.

"He's just a little old country boy from Crystal Springs, Miss.," said Wardlow. "It's almost like, I guess, one of those Shakespearean things. He got pulled into it, totally."

Since 1974, Robert Johnson's songbook had been in the hands of a California record producer and blues archivist, Stephen LaVere, who sought out the musician's half-sister, Carrie Thompson, and promised to split the profits evenly.

Over the next decade, that bargain dissolved into a catfight. LaVere was pressuring bands like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones to pay to use the music. Thompson, meanwhile, had turned against LaVere, and attempted to sever the contract.

Then, in 1990, Sony put out a boxed set of Johnson's music, expecting it to appeal to a narrow audience of blues connoisseurs. It won a Grammy and sold more than 500,000 copies.

When word got out that Robert Johnson's estate could be worth millions, putative heirs appeared by the dozen.

Willis Brumfield, the estate's executor, began getting calls at odd hours from people who claimed they were Johnson's long-lost twin brother or daughter, he said.

"They had some idea it was a fortune of money," Brumfield said, "and it was."

Out of this cacophony emerged Claud Johnson.

A few people already knew who he was. In 1970, a Texas cultural historian named Mack McCormick had traveled to Crystal Springs to search for Robert Johnson's relatives, and found himself face to face with a twinkly old woman, who, he recalls, "just burbled over. She said, 'My boy is his baby.' "Blues buffs passed the information among themselves — a son! But Claud continued with his quiet life.

The estate eventually grew to $1.3 million. But Robert Johnson's executors found that they had no clearly established heir. Thompson, the half-sister, had died in 1983, and her half-sister and son were still wrangling with LaVere over the licensing rights. LaVere recalled mentioning Claud to the executors.

Not long after that, Claud received a summons in the heir-ship case. "I didn't know what to do with the letter," Claud said. He decided to hire a lawyer.

When Claud retained the services of Jim Kitchens, a prominent Jackson trial lawyer and former district attorney, they were already friends of 30 years' standing, from the days when Claud dropped off deliveries for Kitchens' family store in Crystal Springs. Kitchens bought barbecue at Claud's pit, and Miss Ernestine treated him, Kitchens said, "like one of her own kids."

In Kitchens' office, an over-head fan revolves lazily and a picture of Elvis Presley is propped against an upright piano.

"He [Claud] walked in one day and said, 'Jim, do you know who Robert Johnson was?'

"I said, 'Sure I do,' " Kitchens recalled.

"He said, 'How do you know that?'

"I said, 'I listen to public radio.'

"He said, 'That was my daddy."

"I said, 'What?'

He said, 'That was my daddy.'

"I said, 'Who else knows this?'

"He said, 'Well, there's my momma.
Among the dirt farms of southern Mississippi, where Claud was raised, there were two kinds of people: those who listened to the blues and those who did not. Claud knew early in life that he was the second kind. Born out of wedlock to 17-year-old Virgie Mae Smith, he was mostly raised by Virgie Mae's father, a preacher and sharecropper, in a house where music was slapped back like the creeping fingertips of the devil.

If the blues came on the radio, a hand flew to the radio and switched it off. Once, Claud's uncle bought him a guitar, but his grandfather told him to put it down immediately. His grandparents told him his father was Robert Johnson, a blues singer. Robert Johnson had given Virgie Mae a small amount of money after learning of Claud's birth — $20 or $30 —but showed little interest in the boy after that. Around his fifth birthday, Claud watched from the doorway of his grandparents' house as they talked to a grown man in a light-colored shirt and black pants.

"They stood on the porch. They made him stand in the yard," he said. "They talked to him a few minutes and then he went away." Pulled out of school every year to work in the fields, Claud dropped out for good in the sixth grade and found satisfaction in work, long hours of it, sometimes at two or three jobs. He sold barbecue from a pit beside his house, worked at gas stations and a car dealership; his wife waited tables at a local diner.

Claud saved enough to buy his own gravel truck — a ma-chine so crotchety that he carried a tangle of cables and four extra batteries in order to start it, Kitchens remembers. Often Claud drove it for 18 hours a day. In this way, he and Ernestine put five children through college.

His grandparents' stern influence had served him as a rudder, steadying him throughout his life, he said. "It learned me something about life, growing up that way," he said.

Then, in his 60s, the heirship case opened a view into a second Mississippi: a place where, in moments of glamour, young people ducked the narrow rules of sharecropping life.

In testimony, Claud's 79-year-old mother and her friends would describe the dark clubs where the field workers gathered, laughing, in the half-light of evening.

They described his father: a man known for slipping out with-out saying goodbye, for traveling under aliases, for sleeping in boxcars and emerging with pants that looked like they had just been steam-ironed.

They described performances where Robert Johnson sat alone with a guitar and held them all still. They described what happened when he met up with 17-year-old Virgie Mae Smith on her way to school. In the end, the crucial testimony came from Virgie Mae's closest friend, Eula Mae Williams, an 80-year-old midwife with pure white hair, who recalled an evening walk she took with her fiance and Virgie Mae and Robert Johnson.

To the shock of the assembled lawyers, who had to pause during questioning because they were laughing so hard, she de-scribed how both couples made love standing up in the pine for-est, watching each other the whole time.

She was questioned by Victor McTeer, an attorney from Greenville who was representing Carrie Thompson's relatives as they contested Claud's claim to the estate.

Q: Well, let me, let me share something with you, because I'm really curious about this. Maybe I have a more limited experience. But you're saying to me that you were watching them make love?
A: M-hm.
Q: While you were making love?
A: M-hm.
Q: You don't think that's at all odd?
A: Say what?
Q: Have you ever done that before or since?
A: Yes.
Q: Watch other people make love?
A: Yes, I have done it before. Yes, I've done it after I married. Yes.
Q: You watched other people make love?
A: Yes, sir. Yes, sir.
Q: Other than…other than Mr. Johnson and Virgie Cain [her married name].
A: Right.
Q: Really?
A: You haven't?
Q: No. Really haven't.
A: I'm sorry for you.

Today, in the working-class neighborhood where he raised his children, Claud lives in a grand house on 47 acres of property, with a long, curving drive-way. His victory stands out in the annals of Mississippi probate law.

For an illegitimate child to prove the paternity of a long-dead man is a daunting legal challenge. It took 10 years, two trips to the Mississippi Supreme Court and two trips to the U.S. Supreme Court to settle the question. Claud's mother died in 1998, months before he received the money. In a way, the most remark-able thing is that anyone in Mississippi is holding Robert John-son's wealth at all.

The first two or three generations of blues musicians saw their music diffuse into American culture, but most of them died without securing rights to their composition. If their relatives received anything later, it was tiny. The strip of Mississippi that gave rise to the blues re-mains one of the poorest places in America. "If it's not unique, it's close to unique," said Thomas Freeland, a Mississippi attorney and blues historian. 

When the San Francisco-based band the Grateful Dead recorded songs by the North Carolina blues musician Elizabeth Cotton, Freeland said, "the story is, [she] bought a dish-washer with the royalties." Inside the pink brick gates to their land, the Johnsons live somewhat awkwardly with the wealth they inherited. On a re-cent afternoon, Miss Ernestine was sitting in the garage, listening to a religious program on the car radio. Claud looked critically at his vast lawn, irritated by the task of mowing it.

Inside, a small decorative Bible sat on a coffee table, resting on a lacy pillow. A large framed poster of Robert Johnson hung on the wall. Claud listens to his father's blues recordings some-times now, although he prefers gospel. He doesn't have much to say about the windfall he received —money, he said, does not mean too much to him.

"I was excited when I found out there was going to be a little bit of money in it," he said. "I was a little excited. And then that went away." What remains is a quiet resentment toward Robert John-son's other relatives, whose lawyers for years argued that he was not the musician's son. Claud has never met any of them, but the challenge, he says, has of-fended him.

"I've always known all my life who I was and whose son I was," he said. "Never got angry over it. Like I said, my grandparents they always told me Robert Johnson was my father." Already, he was a solitary, careful man. Claud, a church deacon, has had such a lifelong fear of poisoning he did not eat at his mother-in-law's house for two years after his wedding.

Even at home, if he gets up from a meal leaving a half-drunk glass of water, he will not touch it on his return. "I'm just curious that way," he said, with a slow smile. "It just sticks in the back of my mind what happened to him." With all these people talking to him about Robert Johnson's music, too, he's had occasion to wonder about a few things.

He remembers the guitar being lifted from his hands that time long ago. He says that he has a nice singing voice. One after another, people from outside Mississippi have come to Claud to tell him the effect Robert Johnson had on their lives: Magical, haunting, almost godlike. He wonders what it would have been like if his father had stuck around.

And he wonders, from time to time, if, in that alternate version of his life, he would have played the blues.