Monday, August 21, 2017

The "Gospel Blues" of "Bishop" Joe Perry Tillis

(b. July 29, 1919 - d. November 3,  2004)

Photograph © Axel Kustner 1990

One of the last generation of performers in the rural African American musical tradition of the "gospel blues," Tillis died  at the age of 85. He first attracted attention as an itinerant musician more than 60 years ago when he performed with B
lind Willie Johnson.

Born in Talladega County, Alabama and raised in Coffee County, near the town of Elba, his family worked as sharecroppers, which meant that he also worked on the farm beginning in his youth. His father, however, found relief from the acerbic nature of farm labor in music and religion. Often hosting Saturday-night fish fries on his farm, complete with blues accompaniment, he found balance in attendance at the local Pentecostal church

Tillis took up music when he was 14; his first instrument was a ukulele. Having saved for months for an acoustic guitar, he took his instrument to the streets, while still working on the family farm. Before long, however, he discovered that playing the music coming out of the regional blues tradition--a pastiche of styles that flourished across the South--paid better. Tillis sang and played slide guitar. "I always did play alone," he later told an interviewer. "I never did like no band. If I went off and things didn't go good, nobody would know it but me." 

Tillis travelled all over the country as a musician, initially hitchhiking or riding freight trains. The reason he never got recognition from the largely white audiences who have embraced blues music since the 1960s is that he refused to record.

"I never did want no records much," he said. "There just wasn't enough in it. See, I could get out there with my guitar, I played the blues and I'd get out there in a club or some building and make myself $2000 a week. I couldn't get that on records."

Out on the road, Tillis often encountered some of the more recognizable artists, such as Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker.

In the late 1940s, Tillis drove trucks for a local firm, but had to retire after the onset of blindness in 1954. He focused on playing blues again and employed a neighbor to drive him around the country until 1967, when a religious conversion returned him to the church.

Instead of giving up music, he turned his talents to making gospel music at Our Saviour Jesus Holiness Pentecostal Church in Samson, Alabama. In 1970 he began playing electric slide-guitar to accompany his hymns and preaching. Never ordained, he adopted the title "Bishop" and until recently gave services on the first and third Sundays of every month.

It was his "gospel blues" style--similar to that of Leon Pinson and Elder Roma Wilson, that drew the attention of folklorists, In the end, Tillis allowed some both European and American musicologists commit his virtually extinct rural form of music to tape.

He was survived by his third wife, daughter, son and several stepchildren.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Blues Scholar Paul Oliver dies at 90

Paul Oliver interviewing the blues artist
Mance Lipscomb in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1970.
Credit - Chris Strachwitz/Arhoolie Foundation
Paul Oliver, a Briton who wrote some of the earliest and most authoritative histories of one of America’s great indigenous musical forms, the blues, died on Tuesday in Shipton-under-Wychwood, Oxfordshire, England. He was 90.

His death was confirmed by Michael Roach, the co-executor of his estate.

Mr. Oliver first heard black American music as a teenager in England during World War II. While he was gathering crops for the war effort at a harvest camp in Suffolk, not far from an American military base, a friend asked him if he wanted to hear something unusual.

“He took me down to a kind of hedge between the two farms, and there was this extraordinary crying and yelling,” Mr. Oliver told the web publication earlyblues.com in 2009. “I couldn’t call it singing, but it was quite spine-chilling. He said, ‘Do you know what this is?’ I said, ‘No, I’ve no idea,’ and he said, ‘You’re listening to blues.’

“He wasn’t quite right, really,” Mr. Oliver added, “because we were actually listening to field hollers, but nevertheless I found it quite extraordinary.”

The extraordinary sounds sent Mr. Oliver on a lifelong quest as a record collector, field researcher and historian, the British counterpart to Samuel Charters, the American historian whose groundbreaking book The Country Blues appeared in 1959, the same year Mr. Oliver’s biography Bessie Smith was published in Britain. Mr. Charters died in 2015

Mr. Oliver, a scrupulous researcher with a fluent writing style, opened the eyes of readers in Britain and the United States to a musical form that had been overlooked and often belittled.

“He possesses broad sympathies and deep insights lacking in most American writing on the blues,” the folklorist Benjamin A. Botkin wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 1960, reviewing Mr. Oliver’s second book, “Blues Fell This Morning,” one of the first efforts to examine closely the music’s language and subject matter.

After taking a trip through the American South in 1964, interviewing and recording blues singers, Mr. Oliver wrote The Story of the Blues. Published in 1969, it was the first comprehensive history of the genre and remains an indispensable work.

“He provides a complete factual panorama from field hollers to Chicago electronics,” the jazz historian Stanley Dance wrote in Saturday Review. Mr. Oliver, he added, “relates people, time and place in a way that has not been done before.”

Despite its importance, Mr. Oliver’s work on the blues was a sideline to his principal occupation, as an architectural historian. He wrote extensively on local forms of architecture around the world, a field he extended to include suburban housing tracts and squatters’ camps, which he regarded as forms of cultural expression worthy of study, like the blues.

While teaching in the architecture department at Oxford Brookes University, he edited two monumental reference works: the three-volume Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World (1997) and, with Marcel Vellinga and Alexander Bridge, “Atlas of Vernacular Architecture of the World” (2007).

Paul Hereford Oliver was born on May 25, 1927, in Nottingham, to W. Norman Oliver, an architect, and the former Dorothy Edmunds. The family moved to north London when he was young, and he attended the Harrow County School for Boys.

He trained as a painter and sculptor at the Harrow School of Art, but switched to graphic design because most art materials aggravated his asthma and various allergies. At the school he met Valerie Coxon, whom he later married. She died in 2002. He leaves no immediate survivors.

Published in 1969, “The Story of the Blues” was the first comprehensive history of the genre and remains an indispensable work.

Paul Oliver interviewing the blues artist
Lightnin’ Hopkins in Houston in 1960.
Credit - Chris Strachwitz/Arhoolie Foundation
After earning a diploma in 1948 from Goldsmith’s College in London, Mr. Oliver returned to the Harrow County School to teach art. There he founded the Harrow Jazz Purist Society; played mandolin in the Crawdads, a skiffle band; and in 1951 wrote his first scholarly article, on gospel songs, for Jazz Monthly.

Dissatisfied with the quality of the cover art on records released by the British Decca label, he wrote to the company to complain and was hired as an illustrator. His first assignment was the cover for “Backwoods Blues,” a collection of songs by Bobby Grant, Buddy Boy Hawkins, King Solomon Hill and Big Bill Johnson, released in 1954.

He later illustrated and wrote the liner notes for dozens of albums. In 1955 he earned an art-history degree from the University of London.

Mr. Oliver was at work on Blues Fell This Morning when an editor at Cassell approached him to write a biography of Bessie Smith for its Kings of Jazz series. Pleased with the result, Cassell then brought out his second book.

Encouraged by librarians at the United States Embassy, Mr. Oliver won a grant from the State Department and received financing from the BBC to travel to the United States and record blues artists. His journey through the South led to an enormously popular exhibition at the embassy that was attended by the singer and guitarist Lightnin’ Hopkins, whom Mr. Oliver had interviewed at his house in Houston.

The exhibition became the starting point for The Story of the Blues, which was accompanied by a double album tracing the music’s development from its African roots to the 1960s.

Mr. Oliver edited nearly a hundred interviews from his trip for Conversation With the Blues (1965), an oral portrait of the music and the American South that included indigenous musical artists of every description.

He wrote in the introduction: “Barrelhouse pianists and juke-joint guitarists, street singers and traveling show entertainers, jazz musicians and jug band players, sharecroppers and millworkers, vagrants and migrants, mechanics and laborers — these were amongst the speakers. Some had secure jobs, some had none; some were on relief and some in retirement; some played for themselves, some played for others, some had once ridden high and others were going down slow, some were famous, some unknown, some were young and others venerable: all had played their part in shaping the pattern of the blues.”

He explored the myriad influences on the development of the blues in Screening the Blues: Aspects of the Blues Tradition (1968) and Savannah Syncopators: African Retentions in the Blues (1970).

His other books on the subject included Songsters and Saints: Vocal Traditions on Race Records (1984), Broadcasting the Blues: Black Blues in the Segregation Era (2006) and Barrelhouse Blues: Location Recordings and the Early Traditions of the Blues (2009). His liner notes were collected in Blues Off the Record: Thirty Years of Blues Commentary (1984).

During this time, Mr. Oliver’s career as an architectural historian also blossomed. In 1960 he joined the Architectural Association as an artist. He became a lecturer on art and art history, and in the early 1970s served as head of the association’s graduate school.

He left in 1973 to lead the art and design department at Dartington College of Arts, in Dartington Hall, Devon, and in 1978 he joined the architecture department at Oxford Polytechnic in Headington, near Oxford. It was renamed Oxford Brookes University in 1992.

Mr. Oliver’s interest in vernacular architecture sprang from the same impulses that fueled his passion for the blues. Local forms, he said in a lecture at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford in 2015, “are an expression of the cultures that built them.” Architects failed, he added, by regarding architecture as an “abstraction separate, in a sense, from the values or the qualities that the peoples of the various cultures require in their buildings.”

His many books on architecture included “Shelter and Society” (1969), “English Cottages and Small Farmhouses: A Study of Vernacular Shelter” (1975), “Dwellings: The House Across the World” (1987) and “Built to Meet Needs: Cultural Issues in Vernacular Architecture” (2006).

At his death Mr. Oliver left a 1,400-page manuscript on the Texas blues that he had begun writing with the researcher Mack McCormick in 1959. The project was abandoned after the two men quarreled. Mr. McCormick died in 2015.

Texas A&M University Press is scheduled to publish it in fall 2018, with essays by Alan Govenar and Kip Lornell, as “The Blues Come to Texas: Paul Oliver and Mack McCormick’s Unfinished Book.”

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Blues Sleuth Earns Spot in Music Hall of Fame

 Blues Sleuth Earns Spot in Music Hall of Fame
By Peggy Gale - Pensacola News Journal - May 17, 2006.

Special to Santa Rosa Extra Gayle Dean Wardlow holds a 1923 78 rpm recording of Edith Wilson singing "Pensacola Blues." This is just one of the 2,000 records he has collected from the 1920s, '30s and '40s.

A lifetime of chasing blues music has landed a Milton man in the Blues Hall of Fame. 

Blues researcher and author of the book, Chasin' That Devil Music, Gayle Dean Wardlow, 65, accepted the honor from the Blues Foundation last week at the Memphis Convention Center. Wardlow, who began seriously collecting old 78-rpm records of hillbilly country music at age 12, said the blues bug bit him in 1961 and he has been chasing down blues records and musicians ever since. His record collection has now grown to about 2,000 recordings and has become one of the best collections of 1920s and '30s blues music in the world. He started collecting old blues records when some New York collectors told him they were looking for Mississippi blues recordings made by pioneer musicians that were fast slipping into historical oblivion. 

"They had some of these old records by some of these blues singers, but no one knew anything about the guys who actually made the records," he said. "All they had were the records. They didn't know whether they were from Louisiana or Mississippi. So I started knocking on doors in black neighborhoods looking for records from the '20s and '30s. I told people I buy old Victrola records and pay 25 to 50 cents. I did this for more than 25 years until the 1980s." 

During that period, Wardlow worked for newspapers in both Meridian and Jackson, Miss. On his days off, he would visit towns in the Mississippi Delta searching for both records and information about blues music and blues musicians Charley Patton, Skip James, Son House, and Robert Johnson, which he chronicles in Chasin' That Devil Music.
"I became a blues detective," Wardlow said. "I was going to find out what happened to these guys. I was tracking down relatives and people who knew them." It was Wardlow's investigation that turned up the true story of blues musician and composer Tommy Johnson, which was depicted in the movie "O Brother. Where Art Thou." [Actually, that distinction goes more to David Evans, who wrote the book Tommy Johnson in 1971.]

He said being a southerner helped him gain the confidence of elderly blacks while trying to glean information from them about blues music and musicians. "They were amazed that a white boy was interested in the music they had listened to when they were young," he said. "I was able to solve most of the mysteries about who the musicians were and where they came from"

Wardlow was sometimes very lonely out there driving 200 or 300 miles looking for someone or a relative to talk to." Mark Ellis, 33, Pensacola's Tringas Music store manager and member of the local band Good Foote, said he has become friends with Wardlow during the past three years. "I am a really big blues fan," he said. "There is no one in the United States who has the knowledge of those musicians and their music that Wardlow has. Without Gayle finding out who wrote the songs and who recorded them, we would be missing out on a large piece of American history."

Mississippi attorney Wendell Cook, 65, said Wardlow is one of the world's foremost authorities on the blues and has been for many years. "It is great that he is being recognized by his peers," he said. "He now has an international reputation as a blues researcher and expert. He is also a lifelong friend, and a good, decent man."

Friday, August 11, 2017

Roosevelt Graves Unmarked Grave

DeWayne Moore, director MZMF
Jonathan Hilbun, project investigator

Lee Moise Roosevelt Graves was a recording artist and guitarist who mixed secular and sacred material during his career. He is credited with making some of the earliest rock and roll recordings in 1936 in Hattiesburg. Born in Jones County near Laurel, Mississippi, he and his brother Uaroy began playing juke joints in the early 1920s, and in 1929 they cut a number of 'rocking and reeling' spirituals for Paramount, all of which feature pianist Will Ezell.

He is buried in Mississippi City Cemetery in Gulfport, Mississippi.  The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund is now soliciting funds to erect a fitting headstone on his unmarked grave. Please donate to the campaign using the PayPal button above and to the right.

The Graves brothers often performed on Front Street in Laurel, and the duo proved so popular that the audience at times blocked the road. Most of the time the brothers posted up in front of Lott’s Furniture Store, one of several similar stores in cities all across south Mississippi. The owner was Reuben Lott, a native of southwest Alabama who attended college at North Manchester, Indiana. He enjoyed the large crowds that gathered to hear the musicians, because larger numbers of people in front of the store often translated into large numbers of people who entered the store and bought furniture. The performances of the Graves brothers in front of Lott’s sometimes attracted the attention of the local police, who might either intervene and break up the crowd, or put some money in the tin cup and listen a while. By the end of the day, however, the brothers had usually filled the cup full of coins and dumped it out many times.

In 1936 Paramount Records talent scout and Jackson furniture store owner H C Speir, who had been responsible for their 1929 recordings, located the Graves Brothers performing in a church in McComb, Mississippi, and arranged for them to do a second recording session in Hattiesburg at the Hattiesburg Hotel. To play piano in the session, Speir chose Cooney Vaughn, an influential live performer in Hattiesburg. They called the new combo the MISSISSIPPI JOOK BAND. The combination of Vaughn's uninhibited piano style with the religious feeling and musical versatility of the Graves Brothers resulted in what was described as the beginnings of a new type of music, rock and roll. With Roosevelt Graves singing vocals and playing guitar, brother Uaroy Graves on tambourine and kazoo, and Vaughn on piano they recorded a number of songs, amongst which were the notable, "Barbecue Bust" and "Dangerous Woman" both featuring fully formed rock and roll guitar riffs and a stomping rock and roll beat. The Mississippi Jook Band continued to perform for while during the late 1930's but then broke up. Piano player Cooney Vaughn performed weekly on radio station WCOC in Meridian prior to World War II.

Artist rendering of the Graves' brothers on Front Street
In 1937, Roosevelt Graves married a woman named Mary, who subsequently relocated her husband to West Memphis, Arkansas, specifically the small community of Hulbert near the Mighty Mississippi River. He stayed in the Memphis area for a couple of years, but he and his wife moved to 730 West Natchez Street in Jackson, MS in 1939. In 1941, however, he lived at 719 West Natchez Avenue with his brother (who is listed as Evan Graves—both are “musician”) but Mary lived way over at 711 South Jefferson Street. Alex van der Tuuk suggests that Graves may have performed with two horn players, a guitarist and a bassist in the early 1940s. 

Elizabeth Woods Graves' Obituary
Sometime in the 1940s, he moved back to Laurel with Mary. She died in the early 1950s, and Uaroy died in the late 1950s. Roosevelt, meanwhile, wound up in Hattiesburg, where he hooked up with a blind woman named Elizabeth Woods. She took him home to Gulfport, where they supposedly got married. In his last years, he joined the Baptist Church and sang in a male quartet. Someone even saw him perform in Chicago around 1962 at Maxwell Street Market. He was in Gulfport, however, on December 15, when he suffered a heart attack. He died fifteen days later, and he was buried on January 6, 1963 in an unmarked grave in Mississippi City Cemetery. Beside him, most likely, lie the remains of Elizabeth Woods, who died in 1970.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Old Walter Phelps Goes Uptown - Asheville Citizen Times, Apr 4, 1978.

"I had me a band," said Walt Phelps, and the gaze from his red-rimmed old eyes drifted off into the distance of time. “Used to play round here till all my boys died off some time back. We'd play uptown, out toward Black Mountain, Waynesville, Burnsville..."

"One fellow played the washboard, and had him two fryin' pans — different sizes — a cowbell, a cymbal. and thimbles on his fingers. We had a washtub bass. I was lead man, and then we had a fellow who got him one of them big old horns from a old Sab. Edison phonograph, then went up to the pawn shop and got him a kazoo. He had that kazoo welded into the end o' that big old horn and called it his saxophone. That sounded better'n a kazooxophone'. He could play that thing. too."

Walt Phelps was a music man. He played music to pay the rent, to feed himself, and purely for the fun of it. He loved music, he said, almost as much as he loved white liquor--the corn squeezings that came out of a hundred copper stills between here and the South Carolina line.

Soon to be 82, his face less wrinkled than most men of that age, and his hair a close-cropped white, Old Walt still makes music — only now he's really gone uptown.

From Street Corners To Concert

In his younger days, he played on street corners or playgrounds, or in the ball park, wherever he thought he could draw a crowd and make a few dollars.

Now he's a concert performer. In his old age, with music still working its way out of him, Walt Phelps does shows on college campuses and at the Asheville Junction and draws rave applause from audiences and good notices in such publications as "The Arts Journal."

"The Arts Journal said he graduated from the fourth grade," said Walt s wife, Ethel.

"I didn't graduate from no fourth grade," said Walt "I just got in the fourth grade. Never did get out."

His education didn't come from school. It came from his music. "Even in school," he said. "I was always playin'. That was in Laurens, South Carolina, where I was raised on a farm. In school, when we went out for recess, they'd put the little girls on one side and the little boys on t'other. I bought me a five-cent harmonica and learned to make enough music with it to make them little girls dance. You should'a seen 'em a-kickin' an' a-stompin."

Walter plays the blues — the deep down, gut-level, bone-chilling blues.

"This is the blues," declared Dan Lewis, laying aside his guitar for a moment. "These people stood around on street corners, or sat on back porches, and really lived the blues." They're totally real. They can put aside all the garbage and get down where it is. This is the raw, crude thing. The energy is incredible."

Lewis makes music with Ethel and Walt Phelps. "You should have seen the people at Warren Wilson College taking to Walt's music," explained Lewis. "He had them on their feet when he did 'Darktown Strutters Ball' and 'Big Crap Game,' and he kept them on their feet the rest of the night."

Medicine Show Days

On Saturday night, Lewis and Walt and Ethel will do a concert in Lipinsky Auditorium at the University of North Carolina--Asheville. "You come and watch Old Walt," Lewis said. "He'll have them in the aisles."

Walt's had 'em in the aisles all his life. He used to stop the ball games at McCormick Field when he'd suddenly appear in the grandstand aisle on the third base side, dressed in a swallow-tailed coat and plug hat, dancing and huffing on an old harmonica. We didn't know him as Walt Phelps; he was just "Old Walt."

Walt's fondness for music and corn whiskey helped him make a living.

"Back in the thirties," explained Walter Phelps, "I worked with Dr Nonzetta's Medicine Show. I wore a split-tailed coat and top hat, and Doc called me 'Stovepipe.' I'd draw a crowd playin', tellin' jokes, dancin', and cuttin' shines, and Doc Nonzetta sold patent medicine and some soap that he'd made hisself."

He'd pour iodine on his shirt sleeve — he always wore white shirts — an' that soap would wash that iodine out of his shirt ever bit. He sold three little bitty cakes of that soap for a quarter, and they went like hotcakes. I'd go out in the crowd and sell his medicine — it was pretty good stuff, too — and soap, and sell my corn liquer on the side."

"I'd holler and say, 'Doc, I done sold out,' and then I'd tell 'em, 'but I got some of my own.' I bought that stuff fer $3 a gallon and sold it $1.50 a pint. Lots'a times, though, I was my own best customer."

Walt worked for the city 19 years, but before that he worked wherever work could be found. "Back before World War II." he said. "they hired me and Peg Leg Charlie Williams to sit on two cotton bales out front of the Imperial Theater and play music to draw crowds for that new mom' picture. 'Gone With The Wind.' I'm tellin' you, we whomped up some mighty big crowds for that picture show

Back To Music

"But the most fun of all was that medicine show. Doc hired Georgia Dooley from over on the East End. and she was supposed to be my wife. Georgia was two feet tall and had awful big feet. Old Doc would say, 'Look at 'ern. folks, that big old feller and his dear sweet little wife, the mother of his six children,' and they'd look at me, six feet tall, and at Georgia and her great big feet. 'We're a-tryin' to make them some money.' Doc would say, "an' them people would open up their pockets."

"When I wasn't playin' with Doc '• Walt said, "we sometimes had trouble payin' the rent, so we'd cook up a big mess o' chittlins, fry some fish, make a big pot o' chili, an' throw a rent party. People would come from all over to eat that stuff and lissen to our music. They'd pay a quarter apiece, an' we'd pay the rent.

When World War II came along, Walt was drafted at age 46 and went to Fort Bragg for his physical.

The doctor looked at him and asked, "What county you from?"

"Buncombe." "I thought so " "Huh?" "Never saw a man from Buncombe yet didn't have some other man's initials on his face " The doctor pointed to a scar on Walt's forehead "Yes, sir." Walt said. "Them's initials, all right. But you should'a seen t'other man, I wrote my whole name on his face.”

The Army rejected him, and Walt looked for more honest labor than the medicine show. He went to work at Fontana where the TVA was building the highest dam.

In the east "I saw seven men killed there," Walt said. "Last one killed got hit with a bucket full of seven yards of concrete. He was standing right beside me. I was wearing one'a them tin hats, an' a rock come down and chipped my nose an' split my chin like a apple Man, I didn't stop till I got to the personnel office."

He went back to his music then, and he's been with it since.

Alger 'Texas' Alexander Gets Marker

Alger 'Texas' Alexander Gets Second Site Designation in Montgomery County
By Matthew Tresaugue - The Odessa American - May 1, 2016

The Longstreet Cemetery is a small one, tucked amid the tall pines of north-west Montgomery County. This place is devoid of sound except for that of birds, wind and the occasional pickup. 

But there is music in the ground, if you know where to look.

Buried in one of the grave-yard's back rows is Alger "Texas" Alexander, whose soulful moans, shouts and hollers after years working in cot-ton fields and on the railroad made him a father of the Texas blues.

Few will recognize the name, for this was a man whose death 62 years ago this month went unreported by the local newspaper. He died penniless despite a rich musical legacy that influenced bluesmen like Lightnin' Hopkins and Lowell Fulson.

In an effort to make up for the neglect of the past, the Montgomery County Historical Commission plans to honor Alexander with a historical marker at the African-American cemetery. It would be only the second site with the designation in the fast-growing county. Last year the commission awarded one to a Conroe barber shop that has operated for nearly a century. 

"He is a little-known but very important figure in the development of the Texas blues," Larry Foerster, chairman of the historical commission, told the Houston Chronicle. "There are many other blues artists, like Hopkins, who get all the attention. But Texas Alexander was really the one these blues artists emulated."

Alexander was born in Leon County in 1900 and raised in Richards. He learned how to sing the blues from other blacks while working in the fields and began to perform at picnics and other events. He could not play the guitar but carried one with him to loan to others. 

With the increasing popularity of the blues in the Roaring '20s, Alexander made his first recording sessions in New York for the Okeh Records label. In all, he recorded more than 60 songs from 1927 to 1934. 

When Alexander sang the blues, he bellowed. He often skipped a beat, and his timing was tough for a band to follow. But it didn't stop some of the era's top musicians from playing with him.

"He was an amazing guy who hollered field-type blues," said music scholar Chris Strachwitz, whose Arhoolie record label is devoted to American roots music. "He had a good, strong voice."

Coy Prather, an Austin-based music writer, said Alexander's career was held back by his inability to play an instrument, "but his songwriting was a step above."

Among Alexander's songs was "The Risin' Sun," which some music historians believe later evolved into the folk-rock ballad "The House of the Rising Sun," a chart-topping hit for the British group the Animals.

Alexander also wrote "Frost Texas Tornado Blues," which told of the tornado that tore through the town in 1930, killing 41 people. He recorded the song with the Mississippi Sheiks in 1934.

"Some lost their babies 
"Was blown for two or three miles around 
"When they come to their right mind 
"They come on back to town
"Rooster was crowing, cows were lowing
"Never heard such a noise before 
 "Does seem like hell was broke out 
 "In this place below. 
 "Fading away ... " 

After the recording, he re-turned to Texas to play neighborhood dives and juke joints. And then, he disappeared.

"Some say he spent five years until 1945 in prison for murdering his wife. But Prather said he couldn't find any record of Alexander being arrested or serving jail time in the Texas counties where he lived."

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The life and times of blues artists Walter and Ethel Phelps

The Life and Times of Walter and Ethel Phelps
Timothy Burkhardt - May 12, 2017

When local businessman Dick Gilbert and folk singer Andy Cohen opened their coffeehouse, Asheville Junction, in 1975, they were looking for talented local musicians to perform for the growing folk music scene. Their search led to Walter Phelps, a then-elderly African-American artist who had been a local celebrity in the 1930s. Phelps and his wife, Ethel, were living in poverty in Asheville’s Valley Street neighborhood. 

“I had gone down to the corner behind the County Building and asked around about ‘that old guy who used to play blues around here’ and was directed to May’s Place, where you went to play the numbers,” says Cohen. “[Walter and Ethel] were there having a beer. We talked for a bit, and I asked them to come to the Junction, which was up the hill from there.”

The Phelps duo, it turns out, was a surprise hit. Ethel sang, while Walter played guitar. “There were about 25 or 30 people the night they first played, and we made some money,” Cohen remembers. “I like to think their existence was a bit of a revelation to the people who frequented the place.” 

He continues, “Old-time fiddle music is a major export from Asheville, [that although] the town is completely surrounded by blues players in every direction, what few of them lived here didn’t have much of a chance against the fiddles and banjos.”

Walter and Ethel’s blend of gospel, Delta blues and 1920s ragtime captured the imagination of the Asheville folk scene. They became regular performers at the Junction.
Local musician Dan Lewis, who was there that first night in 1975, says he felt an instant connection with the Phelpses’ music and charismatic personalities.

“They were the kind of people who you gravitated to and wanted to hang out with,” says Lewis. “There was something about their music that was spontaneous and energetic — I had to play music with these people. I was a long-haired white kid, and they were old enough to be my grandparents, but we quickly became close friends.” The three began performing together, with Lewis on the bottleneck slide guitar while Walter played rhythm guitar and Ethel sang. Lewis booked them gigs at local coffeehouses and bars, including the Town Pump and McDibb’s in Black Mountain. In 1978, they were the featured performers at the John Henry Festival in Princeton, W.Va., and, in 1980, they performed at Bele Chere.

Lewis played and recorded music with Water and Ethel for 10 years, until Walter’s death in 1985. Ethel died the following year.

According to Edward Kamara’s Encyclopedia of the Blues, Phelps was born in 1896 in Laurens, S.C., and was both a contemporary and acquaintance of bluesmen Pink Anderson and the Rev. Gary Davis. In the 1920s, Phelps first came to Asheville in the employ of Dr. Nonzetta and Chief Thundercloud, a pair of snake oil salesmen who ran a traveling medicine show.

Asheville Citizen Times, June 7, 1925.
“This was back in the days before the Food and Drug Administration, so [for] these snake oil medicine shows, people would cook up batches of tonic that had sugar and coloring, molasses, white liquor — God knows what else in there — and sell it as medicine,” says Lewis. Nonzetta and Thundercloud would pull up to Pack Square on the back of a flatbed truck. On a makeshift stage, Phelps would, as he phrased it to Lewis, “play music, cut shines and tell lies.” After the performance, Nonzetta and Thundercloud would sell their tonics, and Phelps would wander through the audience peddling moonshine.

Phelps decided to settle in Asheville, and, despite having to contend with systemic racism of the times, he thrived as a performing artist.

“Those times were very segregated,” says Lewis. “And yet Walter, because he was a musician, was able to cross a lot of interesting barriers and be places where there were normally few black faces at all. For example, the old Sky Club … a high-class speakeasy. Rich people would come there for gambling, entertainment and illegal liquor. Despite the ‘whites only’ policy, Walter and his friends would periodically play music there.”

In 1940, Walter and a friend were hired by the segregated Imperial Theater on Patton Avenue to sit on a hay bale and play music to draw crowds to the movie Gone With the Wind. According to Cohen, Walter also claimed to have been a part of a jug band that performed at McCormick Field, playing on the top of the dugout during the seventh-inning stretch. The band consisted of several guitars and a banjo, and an instrument that Phelps called a Kazooxaphone, which was made by attaching a length of garden hose to a kazoo on one end and a funnel in the other. “In exchange for the musical entertainment, Walter said he and his band were allowed to watch the games for free,” says Cohen.

Asheville Citizen Times, Aug 21, 1977.
As time passed and musical styles changed, interest faded in the blues that Phelps played. In the 1940s, too old to fight in World War II and no longer making money as a musician, he took a job working on the construction of the Fontana Dam in Swain County. He worked there for several months until a minor injury convinced him that the job was too dangerous. He returned to Valley Street, where he and Ethel were married. Ethel was 20 years Walter’s junior and a gospel singer in a local church choir. The couple lived in relative obscurity on Valley Street until meeting Cohen in the ’70s.

Lewis lives in Weaverville and still performs locally. He continues to play the songs that he learned from Walter and Ethel, and has many recordings of their performances together, including a studio album that has yet to be released. He plans to host a crowdfunding campaign through Kickstarter to raise the funds so that he can continue to share the music of Walter and Ethel Phelps in the 21st century.

“In a way, it’s about culture,” says Lewis. “It’s when people finally get the chance to experience, to be exposed to [another] culture they realize that there are wonderful things we have to share with each other. And until you do, you don’t know.”

Walter and Ethel exposed a lot of people to music that they never would have heard otherwise. “It was like a time machine when you were listening to them,” says Lewis. “You were back in their era.”