Saturday, February 24, 2018

Waiting for the Delta Blues to Come to Paris

African American Music in France in the 1930s
By Andre Prevos

By Mezzo y Dupont
Today in France the popular music of Black Americans from the Delta and elsewhere is widely known and easily encountered either in record stores or on the radio. Yet the music of the Mississippi River Delta was hardly known in France in the 1930s. Very few French jazzmen knew about the country blues, and even fewer French jazz buffs were showing any sustained interest in the blues. Among these French jazz buffs, some considered the blues as a form of jazz--an early form to be sure --but many did not show any interest in a musical form they sometimes ignored, did not clearly understand, or, at times, considered equivalent to jazz.

This essay will focus on African American music in France in the 1930s. The first part delineates the roads taken by African American musicians in the late 1910s and 1920s. Then, the impact of jazz and the role of some of its musicians will be detailed. Finally, the introduction of African American religious music in France during the 1930s--Negro spirituals and gospel--will be treated. As the title of this essay suggests, the Delta blues did not arrive in France until the 1950s and, more fully, during the "blues revival" of the 1960s, but the foundation for that arrival and revival was being laid during the thirties.

The United States entered World War I on 6 April 1917. About thirteen percent of the American soldiers in Europe were African Americans, and a majority of these soldiers either served as musicians or were assigned other non-combat positions.[1] The U.S. Army had brought several military bands to accompany the marching soldiers and entertain the troops. Among the African American musicians serving in the U.S. Army who left a trace of their passage in France were Tym Bryn and James Reese Europe. In 1918, a group named The Seven Black Devils under the direction of Tym Bryn toured France. These musicians were part of the band of the U.S. 350th Artillery Regiment (Schroeder 1985, 27). James Reese Europe, who was born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1881 and had become a renowned bandleader in New York City by the 1910s, was asked by Colonel William Haywood to organize a band for the U.S. Fifteenth Infantry. Europe auditioned musicians from all over the United States, Puerto-Rico, and the Caribbean. This band, nicknamed The Hell Fighters, was the most popular of all U.S. Army bands during World War I. While in France, Europe and the group toured extensively, performing for U.S. servicemen as well as French audiences and French government officials. They even performed for the Congress of Women in Paris in 1918. According to Eileen Southern, the French called James Reese Europe's music "jazz" (1982, 129).

Among other groups mentioned in the French press were the Mitchell Jazz Kings, who performed at the Casino de Marigny along with a popular French singer named Mistinguett in 1919. Jean Cocteau, the French intellectual and artist, praised the African American jazz musicians and the French popular singer in an article in the newspaper Paris . Midi (Danchin 1994, 11). In 1919 the Southern Syncopated Orchestra under the direction of Will Marion Cook toured Europe. In his article on the band's performance, Ernest Ansermet, a Swiss-born music conductor, described the tunes performed and gave the reader an in-depth characterization of the music featured during their concerts (1938). First, they performed several spirituals, including "Go Down Moses." Then several blues followed and left a strong impression upon Ansermet, who remarked: "I am inclined to believe that it is in the blues that the genius of the black race manifests itself in the strongest fashion." Ansermet was deeply impressed by Sidney Bechet, born in 1897 in New Orleans, who played clarinet in Cook's band. Ansermet tied the blues to the African American people, thus emphasizing its ethnic origins and characteristics. In addition, the Swiss-born music director underlined the role of the soloists in these "jazz" bands: the impact left by Bechet was due to the solos taken by the clarinet-player during the concert. It is likely that, for Ansermet, the term "blues" served more as a synonym for "African American music" than as an exact definition of what is known today as "blues."[2] The impact of Bechet, who was playing soprano saxophone by then, on the French jazz scene after World War II made him a truly popular performer in Europe as well as in his own country of origin until his death in Paris on 14 May 1959 (Southern 1982, 31).

Friday, February 23, 2018

Roosevelt Graves

Wednesday, February 14, 2018


By Bill Ellis - The (Memphis, TN) Commercial Appeal - May 16, 1998.

Click HERE to help us honor Charlie Burse and Clean Up Rose Hill Cemetery

We live in a funny time. Just as a global philosophy of multiculturalism and ethnic tolerance has taken root, life and its myriad choices have become more and more ghettoized, music especially so.

A recent conversation with bluesman Jerry Ricks raised the issue. He laughed, noting how blues music was more integrated back when African-Americans were the most segregated. Now it seems, in an attempt to appease every demographic (and from a corporate standpoint, to squeeze every dollar from that demographic), we can no longer appreciate or support things of universal value.

The blues is no different. What qualifies as blues music is so narrowly defined by today's market, the individualism and creativity that fostered this uniquely American form have long ago been forced out.

I say this because modern blues, no matter how exciting and adroit it may be (the late Luther Allison comes to mind), doesn't quite compare with the sheer variety and ingenuity of past decades: when Robert Johnson made the guitar a virtuosic equal to the piano, when Muddy Waters discovered electricity, when B. B. King first took the blues uptown.

And when, way back in the '20s, the Memphis Jug Band found high art in the lowest of musical instruments, a blown whisky jug.

Will Shade
Though there were Louisville predecessors such as the Dixieland Jug Blowers and though Memphis-based Cannon's Jug Stompers were perhaps the genre's pinnacle, the Memphis Jug Band was the prototypical jug ensemble. Its combination of guitar, harmonica, fiddle, kazoo, banjo-mandolin, washboard bass and jug was an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach that produced wonderfully colorful arrangements.

Between 1927 and 1934, the Memphis Jug Band cut nearly 100 sides. They were the first group from Tennessee to record commercially, having been cut by Victor talent scout Ralph Peer, the man who, only months later, would record the Carter Family. The Memphis Jug Band put out some 60 sides on Victor and, after leaving the label in 1930, made more recordings for Champion in 1932 and OKeh/Vocalion in 1934. The versatile group also backed up Memphis Minnie and her first husband, Casey Bill Weldon, on several sessions and recorded under pseudonyms such as the Picaninny Jug Band and the Memphis Sheiks.

The group had many revolving members in its heyday, including Weldon, Furry Lewis, David `Honeyboy' Edwards, Big Walter Horton and Charlie Burse, who, according to some sources, was a gyrating influence on Elvis Presley's stage persona. Through every lineup, the Memphis Jug Band was led by Will Shade (1898-1966), a harmonica and guitar showman with makeshift sensibilities and, whether he knew it or not, a prescient multicultural vision.

Charlie Burse
"After riggin' up a three-piece band I met a feller by the name of Lionhouse but his real name was Elijah; old man of about sixty-five, so me and him got together,'' recounts Shade in Paul Oliver's Conversation with the Blues. ``He was playin' a bottle, wasn't playin' no gallon jug; he was playin' an ole whiskey bottle you pick up anywhere. So we said, `Let's get a gallon jug.' So after we got a gallon jug we commenced to play it an' I dubbed: I played harmonica, guitar and also a can. Some people call it a garbage can but I calls it streamline bass. Streamline bass, but some folks say garbage can. I made pretty good at it. Kep' on playin' up and down Beale Street.''

Like most jug bands, the Memphis Jug Band could play any style the occasion called for. They knew blues, rags, dance tunes, minstrel songs, jazz, country songs, Tin Pan Alley tunes - in short the entire scope of their generation's popular music. There was nothing esoteric about the Memphis Jug band. Their aim was to entertain. They performed for black and white alike at fish fries, dances, clubs, ballgames, and they were the favorite band for hire by E. H. `Boss' Crump at parties and campaign rallies.

Their range was impressive and in hindsight an interracial model for future Memphis music innovations from Sun rockabilly to Stax soul.

There were many other jug groups in Memphis at the time: Cannon's Jug Stompers; Jack Kelly's Jug Busters; the Three J's; Jed Davenport's Beale St. Jug Band (which, according to Lawrence Cohen's Nothing But the Blues, was the Memphis Jug Band in disguise).

But the Memphis Jug Band had a loose, carefree manner and rambling ensemble that was all their own. The music was born of minstrel and medicine show traditions, yet it transcended its environs like all great art does.

Two essential CD compilations are ``Memphis Jug Band'' on Yazoo and ``State of Tennessee Blues'' on Memphis Archives/Inside Sounds. Listen, and the results are anything but ragtag: the beautiful minor IV passing chord in Stealin' Stealin', the unique modal quality of I Can Beat You Plenty (That Hand You Tried to Deal Me), the raucous melodic charm of Cocaine Habit Blues, the major/minor ambiguities of Oh Ambulance Man.

The music still brims with life, humor and historical value. These old folks started it in more ways than one.

Headstone Dedication for Billy Smiley, Sr.

Click Here to RSVP

At 4 o'clock p.m. on March 15, 2018, in the Legends section of Greenlawn Memorial Gardens in Greenville, Mississippi, the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund and Jamal Smiley and his family invite the public to help us dedicate the headstone of jazz and blues musician Billy Smiley Sr.

Our host for the dedication will be author and local television news editor Woodrow Wilkins who covered many events at which Billy Smiley Sr. performed during his eighteen years with the local newspaper.

All the way from Boston, guitarist Lydia Warren will take a break from Burnin' down Beale Street to bless the dedication with some country blues inspired by the Delta


Smiley was the band director  at West Tallahatchie High School in the early 1990s
Smiley played on the regular at Sarah's Kitchen in Clarksdale in the late 1990s

Smiley played keyboards for Jerry Fair's Cultural Blues Band in the mid-2000s, during
which time he was the band director for Coleman Junior High School in Greenville

Billy Smiley Sr., of Smiley & the Young Guns, was the victim of a stabbing that occurred around midnight on February 7 in the 1300 block of Garden Drive in Greenville. He succumbed to his injuries and ascended on February 9, 2017.

Billy Smiley & the Young Guns - "The Blues is Alright"

Billy Smiley & the Young Guns "This is How We Do It"

Robert Charles: Black History Month

After hearing that hundreds of racists had joined in the lynching and mutilation of a black man in Georgia, one man called on his black brothers and sisters to take up arms in self-defense.  "Let no man on God's earth threaten to take the life God provided for you alone, and if someone does, pick up a gun and left them know, we will shoot back."  His name was Robert Charles and he was born in Copiah County, Mississippi. 

A drawing in the newspaper of Robert Charles

On 23 April 1899 Sam Hose, a black farm laborer, was lynched in Palmetto, Georgia, after killing his employer in self-defense. An excursion train was run from Atlanta carrying over a thousand people to watch the spectacle with the guard famously calling, “All aboard for the burning.” Even by the standards of the time (more than 80 black men and women were lynched in the US in 1899), Hose’s lynching was a brutal affair. His ears, fingers, face and genitalia were cut off in front of a jeering crowd of men, women and children. After this mutilation he was burned alive and his charred body cut up for souvenirs. Slices of his heart and liver were offered for sale at 25c a slice.

The killing outraged black America. W E B Du Bois, a successful black academic, was out walking in Atlanta when he was told that Hose’s knuckle bones were on display in a shop down the road. The episode convinced him to leave the safety of the ivory tower and launched him on a career of political activism. Ida B Wells, the great campaigner against lynching, raised the funds to hire a private detective to investigate the killing and went on to write her classic work, Lynch Law in Georgia. And in New Orleans Robert Charles, a black laborer involved in the Back to Africa movement, began urging his friends to arm, both to protect themselves and to prevent further lynching's. 

These were dangerous times. In Louisiana there was a campaign under way to strip black people of the vote. The number of registered black voters fell from 130,444 in 1896 to 5,320 in 1898. In New Orleans the newspapers were warning of a coming race war, with one paper arguing that the “extermination” of the black population would be necessary unless they accepted rule by “an iron hand”, and another advocating either deportation or sterilization. There was a routine, everyday brutalization of black people.

Robert Charles had had enough. On 23 July 1900 Charles and his friend Lennard Pierce were waiting for two women friends when they were approached by three policemen who accused them of loitering. One of the policemen began clubbing Charles, who broke away. The policeman drew his gun and shot and wounded Charles. Charles by now always went armed and he fired back, wounding his attacker, and escaped. Pierce was arrested. Later that day a squad of six policemen went to arrest Charles at the room he rented. Armed with a Winchester rifle, he once again made his escape, killing two of the policemen. He hid out with friends at 1208 Saratoga Street.

The hunt for this “black fiend” was joined by hundreds of armed vigilantes who unleashed a pogrom on the streets of New Orleans. A 75 year old black man, Baptiste Philo, was shot dead, as were two other people unfortunate enough to be caught by the vigilantes. A white sailor who objected to the lynchings had to be rescued by the police to save him from being strung up, but was fined $25 for “incendiary remarks”. According to William Ivy Hair, the historian of this episode, white hatred made an outbreak inevitable at this time and if it had not been Charles then some other pretext would have sparked off an attack on the black community.

By 26 July an informer had told the police where Charles was hiding out. The police laid siege to the house, reinforced by hundreds of armed vigilantes, watched by a crowd estimated at 20,000. Charles shot it out with a thousand hate-filled gunmen. Between 3pm and 5pm he fired some 50 times, killing five of his attackers and seriously wounding another seven. 1208 Saratoga Street was riddled with over 5,000 bullet holes. Unable to finish him off, the building was fired to smoke him out. Charles came out, gun in hand, and was shot dead. He was shot over 30 times and then the crowd rushed forward to stamp and trample his corpse until he was unrecognisable.

Any expression of sympathy with Charles placed the speaker in danger. The day after the final shootout a black man in Houston, Texas, who spoke up for him, was shot dead in the street. And attacks continued throughout the rest of the year. The black population had to be terrorised to ensure that Charles did not set an example. Nevertheless there was widespread admiration and support for him. The man who informed on him was shot dead by one of Charles’s friends later in the year. And his exploits inspired a blues song, the Robert Charles Blues, that became too dangerous to perform and has been lost.

In the Philippines, where US troops were fighting Filipino rebels, the rebels put up placards asking black troops why they were fighting for the people who had killed Sam Hose and Robert Charles. Ida Wells, herself an advocate of armed self-defence, memorialized Charles in her Mob Rule in New Orleans. She wrote, “The white people of this country may charge that he was a desperado, but to people of his own race Robert Charles will always be regarded as the hero of New Orleans.”

For more read William Ivy Hair’s Carnival of Fury: Robert Charles and the New Orleans Race Riot of 1900 (Louisiana State UP, 2008)

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Houston Stackhouse

Houston Stackhouse circa 1960s (Photo: George Mitchell)


It Must've Been The Devil Goin' Up The Country:
The Big Road Blues of David Evans
Join us as we aim the spotlight on the legendary field recordings of David Evans. An intrepid researcher, most of what he captured in the mid 60s and early 70s are fascinating documents of a time and place that otherwise
might’ve been lost to history.
Don’t miss this special episode of Blues Unlimited!

Pictured: Napoleon Strickland playing the fife while Othar Turner dances. Near Senatobia, Mississippi, 1970. Photo by David Evans. 

Feature Story

The Unmarked Grave of Charlie Burse, of the Memphis Jug Band

Charlie (mandolin) & Robert Burse (washboard) and the Schlitz Jug Band The Unmarked Grave of Charlie Burse DeWayne Moore -...