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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Samuel Hopkins' Street Corner, Texas Blues--1959

Samuel Hopkins' Street Corner, Texas Blues--1959
Mack McCormick - Jazz Monthly - October 1959, p. 4-6 [Ctsy PV-RBF]

Blind Lemon Jefferson's Grave: Buried Broom Ritual Appears 1960s 

Help Mark Belton Sutherland's Grave
 & Get the Charley Patton 
10x8 Limited Edition Print -- 10 LEFT

Contemporary Artist's Rendition of Hopkins
Lightnin Hopkins is a street corner blues minstrel who lives in a world crowded by jukeboxes. Since first recording in 1946 he has produced songs for more than a dozen firms ranging from Decca and Mercury to the mysterious and suspect label which simply bore the name "Lightnin". Along his native Dowling Street in Houston's Third Ward, the coin machines abound with these cluttered and uncharacteristic examples of himself.

Sipping a beer in a corner jook joint, Lightnin will grunt disapproval at his own voice coming from the jukebox. As if in retaliation he'll wander outside, guitar in hand, to delight a circle of friends with some freely improvised blues—a mixture of narrative and song underscored by his easy, dramatic guitar.
 
Lightnin is fundamentally incapable of joining in on the trends of the music industry. He remains true to his inheritance: the simple, honest blues of wandering, begging songsters. He stays where he feels the people best understand his music. He earns his way in the world with his voice and his guitar, and he takes his satisfaction in the look of understanding that flickers across a friend's face as he sings about some intimate, common experience.
 
This attitude is the living, breathing, here and now of traditional music. Yet Lightnin is a menace to the concept of a "pure" tradition. He stands amid the great whirlpool of the blues, drawing upon it at random, bending it to suit a mood, taking impish pleasure in creating surprises—constantly shaping, shattering, and remaking the blues in his own image.
 
When on rare occasions he touches members of the cadre such as See See Rider or Trouble In Mind, fresh new verses are invariably present. Singing Long John, the Texas prison song which relates a legendary escape, he transforms it into a first person narrative, lending personal frenzy as he cries " . ... them hell's hounds, boy, coming after me."
 
His Backwater Blues has only the barest hint and glimpse of the song as Lightnin first heard it from Lonnie Johnson (and as it become famous through Bessie Smith's recording). This memory mingles with his recollection of Blind Lemon Jefferson's singing Rising High Water Blues and of Texas Alexander's singing Frost, Texas Tornado Blues. It crosses his own experience with a tornado slashing across the "Piney Woods". Dominated by Lightnin's personality, just as each of the parent songs was dominated by the inclinations of the singer, the final distillation is That Mean Old Twister. Lightnin's rich voice rings out its startling plea: "Lord—turn your twister the other way."
 
The process is of course basic. A tradition such as the blues is perpetuated not by attempts to emulate and preserve, but through growth and the contributions of many egos. Such growth occurs dramatically in the day-to-day work of Sam Hopkins. Exposed to and accepting all influences, he absorbs and contributes with a proud sense of his uniqueness. He often prefaces himself with a statement such as "Now this song I'm going to sing—don't nobody sing it this way but Lightnin Hopkins, himself, alone."
 
Born in 1912 in Leon County, Texas, Lightnin's apprenticeship was alongside Blind Lemon, Lonnie Johnson, and Texas Alexander. He has spent his life wandering the same streets and highways as Leadbelly and Blind Willie Johnson. He regards his predecessors with moderate awe and his contemporaries with scorn. Speaking of the many singers who merely imitate his manners and steal his lines, rushing off to record for minor jukebox labels, Lightnin's eyes flash murderously. Nonetheless, the number of his imitators is an index to his own influence and rank.
 
The unchallenged reigning blues minstrel of Houston's streets, Lightnin sleeps in a tawdry rented room and lives with the easy grace of royalty. On one of his rare excursions outside Texas an engagement in a Los Angeles dance hall in connection with a recording session, his billing read "Internationally famous recording star." Lightnin's scowl at this high-flown phrase was simple disinterest, a real failure to attach any significance to the statement. In his own scale of values, international fame is of small consequence. What is vital and significant is the continuing respect and adulation of those who stroll Dowling Street, crowding around him to offer coins in exchange for songs.
 
Lightnin is intensely upset by the scorn of youthful [blacks] who regard the country blues as somehow degrading to the race. The plaudits of European critics, the discographical mass of his more than 200 records, and the enthusiasm of visiting folklorists do not quite offset the sneer of a single bongo-playing jazzman from the next block. The critics, the records, the folklorists merely represent the abstract and unknown world outside of East Texas. The bongo player represents Lightnin's own tribe and culture, his roots and his audience. He belongs to this home territory and its people—and its blues tradition— with absolute kinship. Alternately the jester and the wizard serving at the royal court, he serves his culture with the sly jest and personal aside, the easy mockery of injustice and full throated cry of tragic awareness.
 
His isolation and his ignorance is self-imposed, and can be startlingly complete. During a recent recording session for Doug Dobell's limited-edition "77" label, Lightnin searched conscientiously for the proper songs "to sing for those people over across that water." He briefly considered one that begins "Buses stopped running, trains won't allow me to ride no more." He rejected it with the question, "But do they have buses and trains over there?" Some insight to the careful choice of ignorance can be gained if one considers that Lightnin has been exposed to British-based films just as much as the average American citizen. He merely disregards the world beyond his culture.
 
Even when recording for domestic consumption he is sometimes anxious to make himself understood. Singing " . . he had a little brown jersey" he felt compelled to inject the explanation "I'm talking 'bout a cow". Yet, in another song he casually commented "Play that, molly trotter" and seemed unconcerned that this vernacular name for a raccoon is pretty much unknown outside the rural South.
 
However the brash sweep of Lightnin's personality communicates itself even where literal meaning is lost. He recently participated, after squelching his own apprehensions, in a Hootenanny presented by the Houston Folklore Group. The occasion was his first experience before a concert audience or before a predominately white audience of any kind. Nonetheless within moments of his loping onstage and carelessly propping his guitar against a raised knee he had completely stolen the night. He stood before an audience accustomed to the carefully preserved ballads and showed them the raw meat of folk music, casually improvising songs about his own sex habits, his kinky hair, and his days on a chain gang, and the audience roared its approval. The impact of his personality brought the realization that they were having the rare experience of being confronted by the essence of a vital people's music.
 
In such circumstances—the street corner or the concert stage—much of his charm lies in his animation and innate plucking for responses. Midway in a song he is liable to twirl the guitar away from his body, swinging it back to finish a phrase or slap out rhythms with his palms caressing the sound board. He's able to improvise a dance, twisting and stomping his feet to lend accent to a particular song. He may pick out anguished, lingering guitar phrases, then raise a solemn finger to point at a listener, his voice filling the air "I been asking Jesus, what wrong have I done . . . "
 
In his finest moments Lightnin becomes a dramatist with an incredible knack for spontaneous rhyme and crisp, scene setting narration. He'll state an experience in the first-person present-tense—picking some intimate memory and bringing it completely forward to the moment—while the guitar suggests shifts of mood and underlines the action. For his last number of the recent concert, Lightnin slumped into a chair, noodling aimlessly until he found a simple boogie pattern to amuse himself. "In the morning I'm getting up and I've got to boogie . . ." His manner suggests coming awake and his talk rambles on about the early morning chores. The boogie slyly fades into When The Saints Go Marching In. "It must be Sunday morning, so I'm getting up and I got to boogie and then I'm got to go down the road to church ... Here I am, singing and shouting...
"I want to be in the that number"
And then they call on old Lightnin' to pray." His head bows and the guitar seems to represent a silent entreaty. "Now, I'm going back home..." The guitar imperceptibly reverts to the boogie. "...and I'm got to boogie some more." After a moment the tempo slows. Lightnin' explains, matter-of-fact, "That's when it's getting soft."
 
Lightnin's songs range over his view of modern life: Policy Game, Sad News From Korea, You Got To Work To Get Your Pay. He's spooky about singing Death Bells and reluctant to sing Tom Moore's Farm because "when I first made that song, them four Moore brothers come looking for me with a big stick." 

His finest impulses seem directed at pure autobiography. Bunion Stew, Mama and Papa Hopkins, and I'm Gonna Trip This Town present a total picture of his family.  Penitentiary Blues is based on the incident that caused him to serve time on a County road gang; Like A Turkey Thru the Corn is his dream of escape; How Sad and How Bad to be a Fool is the song apologizing to the sentencing judge who visited the road gang and was thus moved to release Lightnin; Prison Blues Come Down On Me is a bitter, evocative picture of his returning home wondering "is my family still there."
 
Just as this utterly subjective approach leads to his finest, it also leads to his faults. At times he will retreat into a sullen mood, losing interest in his audience, and content to be a dreary and poor imitation of himself. This is especially true when he works five and six hours dance hall jobs—using an amplified guitar and a drummer and having to fit his songs to fast, rocking tempos. At his worst he will repeat himself endlessly, hacking out the same tune with disinterest, monotonously sticking to a single theme of a woman "trying to quit me."
 
 A similar attitude has defaced many of his recordings. Confronted by overbearing supervisors who visit Houston on hasty field trips, thrust into the sterile environment of a sound studio, restricted to strict jukebox tempos and time limitations, Lightnin has on many of these occasions resorted to the easy and convenient cliches. "It's too bad about them records," Lightnin says: "They get me in that big room and they go watch me through a glass wall and I don't feel like nothing. Oh, course those records are good, cause everything I do is good—but they ain't the best. The best only happens when I'm feeling easy."
 
The amount of whiskey taken during a session is the clue to his inner mood. When uncomfortable, he'll drink himself to the point of sluggish indifference and a tone of self-pity will seem to dominate his voice. The phrases and mannerisms of one song will be duplicated in the next.
 
More than anything else Lightnin's comfort depends on having a familiar and enthusiastic listener opposite the microphone. On such an occasion, relaxed and with a mild whiskey glow, Lightnin enjoys his own free flowing imagination. With only a bare, fleeting notion he will charge into a song, a composition that is created and forgotten within the time of its performance. This Lightnin is the embodiment of the jazz-and-poetry spirit, representing its ancient form in the single creator whose words and music are one act.
 
When given complete freedom he will begin each session with a general statement of his particular mood. On one occasion he nodded for the tape machine to be switched on, picked a few tentative chords, and tossing his head back he noticed the rain pattering down a window, and then simply sang the thoughts uppermost in his mind: "Lord, I'm just sittin' down here thinking, what am I gonna do on this rainy day ?"
 
What he did do on that February afternoon—eleven songs telling about women, prison, worry, joy, and death—is now available on an LP released in the U.S. by Tradition Records. That session, typically, concluded with a joyous boogie in which Lightnin invites three imaginary women to come join the three men present in an after-work celebration: "Come on in ... just us three here...we gonna pulla party."
 
On a more recent session, with his thoughts directed at the British Isles, he impulsively decided on a "Blues for Queen Elizabeth" (inspired by her recent visit to Chicago). In shaping up the song he used the line "I want to go to England so's I can meet the Queen." During the actual recording however, his eye fell on a magazine cover photo of Her Majesty and Lightnin cunningly avoided misunderstanding by singing the line "l want to take my wife to England so's she can meet the Queen. " The song certainly represents a new kind of international diplomacy with its opening line "Yeah, you know this world is in a tangle now, baby, look like this world is going round and round."

The completeness of Lightnin's expression, his ability to focus his personality in song, places him in the centre of the blues tradition. All of the circumstances of his life and choice to remain close to the source are vital contributors to his art's veracity. He is a folksinger who still knows which are his folk. Ultimately, Lightnin's greatest gift is his complete confidence in his own ability to "make it up as I go . . . "

Always apprehensive about strange experiences, Lightnin' has recently grown less wary of travel. Photos and live-concert recordings which he has been shown and heard have given him the realization that interest in the blues extend far beyond the Third Ward. He has discovered that his contemporaries— often men of lesser ability and those far divorced from their sources—have enjoyed the benefits of concert stages in distant lands. He has already found that a stage offers the same freedom as a street corner. He has partially rejected the latter only because of the uncertainty of "having to be like a beggar." Yet the street corner or the concert stage is, he knows, the ideal situation in which to grip and surprise an audience.
 
"Texas is where I'm from and where the blues is from," he says, "and it's where we'll always be—but still and all, if there's people over across that water that like my blues and want me over there, I'll go . . ." His impulse to do so has the pure joy of a child's hug. After reading Belgian critic Yannick Bruynoghe's enthusiastic review of his old records recently reissued on Score, Lightnin slapped his leg decisively and said "I'm just going to have to go over there and sing that man a song."

The Dedication of Bo Carter's Headstone and Celebration in Nitta Yuma

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...


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.




Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Interview w/ Joanne Fish - Her Handy documentary debuts in Shoals

 
Interview w/ Joanne Fish
Her Handy documentary debuts in Shoals
By Monica Collier - The Times Daily - July 2017

Joanne Fish made her way to a section of Alabama called the Shoals several years ago on one of her many fact-finding missions.  "It took roughly 10 years of her life," W.C. Handy Music Festival Chairwoman Tori Bailey asserted, "but Fish completed her documentary on W.C. Handy” this past November.  She titled it,  “Mr. Handy’s Blues." Now she is headed back to the Shoals to give locals the first peek at her polished gem during a music festival named in the native musician's honor. http://wchandymusicfestival.org/festival.htm

“She spent a lot of time, a lot of energy and her own resources on this film — it was a labor of love for her,” Bailey said of Fish. “For her to be able to come back and share that with the festival — we are so fortunate to have her.” 


There will be three free screenings of “Mr. Handy’s Blues” during the W.C. Handy Music Festival with the first being at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame on U.S. 72 in Tuscumbia. The hall of fame will also show the documentary at 1 p.m. Thursday.

The final showing will be at 10 a.m. Friday at the Florence-Lauderdale Tourism Visitor Center at McFarland Park in Florence.
 

“So many people who met Fish, while she was doing interviews for the documentary, are apparently as impressed with her as I am,” Bailey said. “They’re coming to support the screenings. Dr. Carlos Handy — W.C. Handy’s grandson — will be here. I also talked to Dr. (Willie) Ruff — he is coming. He has recently retired from Yale and is back in the area. Dr. Ruff, along with Dr. David Mussleman, are the two who created the (Handy) festival.”
 

Bailey calls the screenings dual events because not only will there be a question-and-answer session with Fish at each one, Carlos Handy will be present signing copies of W.C. Handy’s "Father of the Blues: An Autobiography."
 

Fish recently took time from touring with the documentary to answer a few questions by phone.
 

TimesDaily: You are not from the Shoals, correct?
 

Fish: That’s correct.
 

TimesDaily: You are not a musician, are you?
 

Fish: No.
 

TimesDaily: So, how in the world did you get interested in telling W.C. Handy’s story?
 

Fish: OK, well, I’ll make a long story short. I was in Florence, Alabama, in 2007 for the George Lindsey Film Festival. I had a film in that festival, it won second place in the documentary category. I really got a chance to explore the area then.  I had been there once before working for the Discovery Channel on a show just for a day. I had eaten at Ricatoni’s and I had been to the (University of North Alabama) campus, but I really hadn’t explored all around. Being at the film festival gave me that opportunity. The film I had in the festival was about Wanda Jackson, the queen of rockabilly. I’m interested in music. I used to work for CMT and the Nashville Network.
 

I went to the Handy home. I felt enlightened going through the Handy home. It was like the heavens opened up and gave me this gift of all this information and this wonderful story. The people there talked to me and gave me more information.
 

I went back three or four times during the course of the four or five days I was there.
 

After that, I went to a film festival in Texas. It was the last one for my film. I told my husband, I’m going to miss Wanda and the film. He said to me, what about Handy?
 

TimesDaily: Did you start work right away?
 

Fish: I told my husband, surely someone has done a documentary about him. I was positive there must be a great film out there. So I spent the next year or so trying to find that film that did not exist.
 

The following year, I met up with Dr. Carlos Handy (W.C. Handy’s grandson) at the Handy Music Festival in Florence. I told him what I wanted to do, and he said OK. So here were are.
 

TimesDaily: Yes, here we are roughly 10 years later. Did you realize you were signing up for a decade-long labor of love?
 

Fish: No. (She said laughing.)

TimesDaily: It has been that long, right?

Fish: Yes ma’am, it has been that long. It’s like when I signed up to run a marathon in the year 2000. If I had known what it was going to take to train for that marathon, I never would have done it.

Fish: Her Gaze Can Daze
I won’t say I spent every minute of the past 10 years working on this. But I was constantly thinking about it and writing grants. First, I had to find the experts to make sure I had the right information. The research and grant-writing took a long time. Also, just making connections and meeting people and trying to figure it all out took time. I’d say that was the first five years.

TimesDaily: You had to put in the legwork before you could get to the fun part?
 

Fish: Yeah, exactly. The past five years has been the shooting and putting it together.

Documentaries typically take a long time. It’s just a long process. People aren’t funding them every day.
 

TimesDaily: When I watched the trailer — www.youtube.com/watch?v=nct9tu5usWo — I wondered if you found yourself going down a rabbit hole. The documentary is about more than the music Mr. Handy created. It’s about him being a groundbreaker in many ways, correct?
 

Fish: Yes. Yes.
 

It is a rabbit hole. That’s a really good way to describe it. You can’t understand Handy unless you understand the entire Civil War and what happened after that …
 

Then, you have to understand why Florence was such a unique place. It was the fertile ground that gave Handy a lot of the tools and confidence to go forward.
 

TimesDaily: Was that uncommon for a small southern town in the late 1800s?
 

Fish: As far as I can tell, it was very unique. Also, his decisions after that — in the face of a Great Depression in 1894 and then Jim Crow – are unique.
 

When you go to the Handy home, what comes through is the overlay of all of that. This guy has a very optimistic story. This is about a person who was successful against all odds. He was able to make his journey to the top.
 

TimesDaily: You mentioned the Handy home. Did you work closely with several people in the Shoals?
 

Fish: Oh yes. It all started with Barbara Broach at the Kennedy-Douglass Center. I met her, and she had to be the first one to say yes and that she would help me. She put me in touch with Carlos Handy. She told me he was the member of the Handy family that I needed to talk to. That really started it all.
 

Then, I was given access to the Handy home. They have boxes and boxes of photographs in a closet over there. Mary Nicely was my main partner in crime in Florence. I shouldn’t say crime … (laughing), but we spent so many hours going through those boxes after hours and scanning things. We got to be good friends. I respect her and love her so much.
 

TimesDaily: So you found Florence welcoming and supportive of “Mr. Handy’s Blues” being made?

Fish: Yes! It was so easy. I didn’t have to convince anyone. I am so grateful that Barbara saw me — without knowing me — and said, “OK, you want to do this? Then that’s great.” The only thing she asked was that I made sure people knew Handy was from Florence, Alabama, and not Memphis, Tennessee.

TimesDaily: Not only did you have the blessing of the Handy family, was Carlos Handy part of the project?

Fish: Yes. I couldn’t have done it without Carlos. He gave me the permission. I have permission from the Handy home and I have releases from all the people who interviewed with me, but I had to have the blessing from the family. I think he (Carlos Handy) felt like I did — people should know about W.C. Handy, and we should preserve his legacy. A film is a good way to do that.

I don’t think he (Carlos Handy) thought it was going to take this long, either … (laughing), but he has hung in there. He trusted me. He had patience and faith that we would get this done.

TimesDaily: You interviewed several contemporary artists who have been influenced by W.C. Handy. Did you find that those artists welcomed the film as an outlet to show their appreciation?

Fish: Yeah — and I do appreciate them coming forward. I mean, Taj Mahal and Bobby Rush are huge — not just in blues but in the history and story of music. They are well known around the world.

In fact, Bobby Rush heard about the film and came to us. That meant a lot to me. I wouldn’t have known that W.C. Handy was his idol and how much Handy had influenced him if he hadn’t reached out to me.

TimesDaily: Has “Mr. Handy’s Blues” been well received at the initial screenings?


Fish: Yes, very much so. We had what I called a “St. Louis Celebration of W.C. Handy” a couple of weeks ago. It was a private event, not a festival, for the people of St. Louis who participated and supported the film. I also went there early on to meet people. Wow. Over the years, I’ve gotten so much support. We had the screening in a big movie theater. The mayor proclaimed it “W.C. Handy Day.” It set the tone so beautifully. Handy was only there for a minute, but it was kind of like his crossroads. And, of course, there’s the song “St. Louis Blues.”
 

There were all kinds of people who attended — young, old, black, white, musicians and non-musicians. I was most surprised by the reaction from the younger people. They know about Handy. They had not even made the connection with the St. Louis Blues hockey team to the song. It’s precious, really. Their eyes lit up and they were happy to know the information.

TimesDaily: Have you thought at all about how special it is for you to be screening the documentary during the W.C. Handy Music Festival?

Fish: I have dreamed about this. I have played out that scenario in my head many times. I do want to mention that we were lucky to have Professor Willie Ruff in the film. He has told me that he will be attending one of the screenings. Interviewing him was such a great experience. He really makes the film because he actually shook the hand of W.C. Handy. That was a key interview.


When I first spoke with Tori (Bailey), who heads the festival, the museum was a place I suggested. I left it up to her, of course, but that came to my mind right away. It’s just amazing how it has all worked out. I’m very excited.

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.












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.