Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Grave of Johnny Shines - Tuscaloosa, Alabama

(Jackson, MS) Clarion Ledger, Apr 21, 1992.
For more about Johnny Shines please click HERE

© T. DeWayne Moore 2017
© T. DeWayne Moore 2017
© T. DeWayne Moore 2017
© T. DeWayne Moore 2017
© T. DeWayne Moore 2017

© T. DeWayne Moore 2017
© T. DeWayne Moore 2017
© T. DeWayne Moore 2017
© T. DeWayne Moore 2017

Friday, June 23, 2017

"The Robert Johnson I Knew" - By Johnny Shines

The Robert Johnson I Knew
By Johnny Shines - circa 1970s

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Unmarked & Whisky-Soaked Career of Barrelhouse Pianist Willie Love

The Unmarked & Whisky-Soaked Career of 
Barrelhouse Pianist Willie Love

The Greenwood Commonwealth, Feb 27, 1929.
Duncan, Mississippi, a tiny town, just South of Clarksdale on Highway 61, was wiped out by a tornado in 1929.  

It was here that Willie Love was born, the son of Willie Love Sr. and Anna King, on November 4th, 1906. He was raised as a field-hand, but nothing whatsoever can be discovered about his early life or the influences and events that inspired him to become a musician. It is highly probable, however, that he, like so many of his contemporaries, did not leave his plantation home until he was at least 30, for he is not remembered by those active before the Second World War.

1910 US Census - Duncan, MS
Whatever the case, he was a proficient blues pianist, specializing in slow numbers of the Leroy Carr-Roosevelt Sykes variety in 1938, when he bobbed up on the scene, for the first remembered time, as a member of the Tunica-based Silver Kings Band, led by drummer Barber Parker. This was the band in the area at the time, but Willie'd quit by 1940 to work solo as house-pianist for gambling joints in the vicinity of Indianola, before drifting into Greenville, a town that became a permanent base until his death.

It was in Greenville that he befriended Sonny Boy Williamson (Alex 'Rice' Miller) and from 1942 onwards was a regular visitor to Helena, across the Mississippi River, to broadcast with the King Biscuit Boys or gig in the locality. This gained him a measure of recognition and he was quick to form his own combo, The Three Aces, drawing on the Silver Kings Band for personnel. With men like Barber Parker or guitarist G P Jackson he travelled around the Delta during the mid-forties, becoming a very popular attraction at juke-joints and plantation dances.

By 1946 he'd found regular employment in Greenville itself and has been described by Burl Carson, a long-time resident of the town, as, 'The best piano player in this town then. A little more uptown (in sound): a little more classy.' Willie played his classy blues in more respectable clubs like the Casa Blanca or took weekend jobs in the country at Lake Village, Arkansas: Arcola, where he performed at the Harlem Club; Drew, with its Matinee and '49' clubs; Leland and Belzoni. Little Bill, a guitarist from Lake Villages, Charley Booker and bassist Willie Dotson were all regular accompanists.

Willie Love in the 1940s
Station WGVM opened up in Greenville during 1948 and Willie, sponsored by local businessmen, went on the air for 30 minutes every morning. The show was hosted by disco-jockey Eddie Williams and Charley Booker, Elmore James and Rice Miller made appearances when in the area. The programme greatly added to Willie's reputation, but he left Greenville within a year to help Rice form a new band in West Memphis.

He found employment with station KWEM at West Memphis in 1949 and began to broadcast with his Aces, advertising the Broadway Furniture Store. Joe Willie Wilkins, Rice, Oliver Sain (drums), Willie Nix and Forrest City Joe all worked with him at one time or another and he even married Sain's mother, becoming the 17-year-old's step-father. Willie, like most of the others, lived at the 'Williamson' home and would leave from there in the evenings to fill bookings in Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas.

Willie Love’s prodigious thirst had earned him the status of both legendary boozer and physical wreck. Around to 1948, Love had married the mother of a teenaged aspiring drummer by the name of Oliver San, and the three lived together in Greenville for a time. In an interview with Steve LaVere, Sain, who later took up tenor sax and arranging for Little Milton Campbell (among others), recalled gigging with his step-father around West Memphis in the late l940s, along with Son, Boy Williamson and Herman Parker, a young vocalist/harp player who styled himself as "Sonny Boy Junior—and eventually simply Junior Parker. Sain recalled that both love and Williamson embodied the classic traits of oldtime bluesmen, drinking and womanizing to the hilt. Once, when Sain and Parker were having difficulty collecting their sidemen's wages after such a gig, Sain approached Sonny Boy with his concerns: 'I went to Son, Boy to complain about the fact that a lot of times, when you finish a job, (Son, and Willie) had already drunk up the money, days ago, man! The club owner says. 'There's no money, they come and got yours, too!' So I went to Sonny Boy and was explainin' to him and I said. 'Man you know, I'm finding that when y.all drink like that, we don't wind up making anything, Junior and I don’t, because we don't drink.' So he said, 'Well, I guess y’all gonna have to start drinking!”

He had a good thing going, but was quick to leave West Memphis after Rice's sudden departure, asking Willie Nix to look after his radio spot. Willie returned to Greenville and settled down with his wife at 236 North Street. He managed to pick-up where he'd left off and began to play Nelson Street jukes like the Silver Dollar Cafe. By late 1950 he'd met and teamed up with Rice again and was taken off to Jackson to meet Lilian McMurry of the newly-formed Trumpet label. At first he recorded as a sidesman only, but, on April 7th, 1951, went into Jackson with his own combo—Otis Green (sax), Lonnie Holmes (guitar), and Alex Wallace (drums)—to cut his initial sides. One of these, 'Take It Easy Baby', an uptown-jump number, indicated that the Aces were bang-up-to-date with their material.

It was back to the studio in July, but Willie's best recordings were made during a mammoth December session with Bill Holford of ACA handling production. The sensitive guitar work of Joe Willie Wilkins did much to help 'Nelson Street Blues', a personal tribute to Greenville's 'action' strip, become a well-remembered success and, perhaps, Willie's most famous number, but each of the eight titles cut on that occasion is a mini-masterpiece with excellent lyrics.

Willie had always been a heavy drinker, in the best blues traditions, and it was at this stage that his kidneys began to play up, causing him a great deal of pain. He was also having personal problems, probably because he spent so much time away from home and sometime in 1952 his wife left Greenville for St Louis. He quickly followed, even making a trip to Detroit to gig with Baby Boy Warren, an old friend, but was sick and unhappy and by January 1953 was back in Jackson on his own.

By late July 1953, Willie's condition had seriously worsened, and he was drinking all the more to try to kill the pain in his failing kidneys. Lillian soon learned of his crisis. One day outside the Record Mart she came upon her old friend 'Slim,’ (Bobo Thomas). sitting on the curb, crying. He was grieving for his idol Willie, who he said was suffering terribly. The McMurrys quickly dispatched their family physician to check on Love, and he was ordered to report to the Baptist Hospital in Jackson for treatment. 

Lillian recalled, “I’d tried to warn Willie about drinking too much, but he just wouldn't listen. We paid our private doctor to care for him and catheterize him or he'd have burst. At first, we really thought Willie would get well." But years of constant gigging, partying, and juicing had caught up with the forty-six year-old bluesman. Lillian remembered that his final Jackson session at Ammons's had been a disappointment, and felt that his health was the problem. The March session had produced "Worded Blues" and "Lonesome World Blues," both masterful performances from a purely aesthetic standpoint. The overpowering sense of gloom and doom disappointed the producer, for she always had related better to the happier, upbeat elements. In "Lonesome World Blues" he sang
I start to go to Memphis
But I didn't know in my mind
Seems like everybody wanna mistreat me all the time
And I believe, l believe I’ll go back home
Seem like everybody everybody wanna do me wrong
On August 19, Lillian went to see Willie at the hospital. She found him in the last throes of his struggle, but he found the strength to express his gratitude to his benefactress. "Miss Lillian," he said, "you and M. Willard were batter to me than my own people." By 9 p.m. that night, Willie Love's trials were over.

The McMurrys sadly arranged for funeral services to be held at Collins Funeral Home at 418 North Farish. Willie was laid out in an open casket in his sharpest suit, surrounded by flowers and friends. He had been a beloved symbol of good music and good times to the Mississippi blues community, and the funeral was crowded with cronies like Sonny Boy, "Slim," Little Milton, and others who came to pay respects and share a last glimpse of their fallen buddy. No doubt some few of his old lovers came in black dresses, and no doubt his lines, "Give my body to the fishes, my soul to the Lord above," were recalled. DRC paid the expenses for the funeral, minister's fee, and burial, and regretfully closed the books on one of the greatest barrelhouse piano players of the era. The legacy of his Trumpet recordings preserves the memory of the quick little man with the white spats and lively patter, who could dance and play circles around his blues, but was at last consumed by them.

Though Willie Love had friends around at his funeral, he was quickly forgotten after his burial in Jackson's Elmwood Cemetery. In the 1970s, a few researchers managed to glean the few facts that make up this biography. Hopefully someone else may be able to dig up more about his life and eventually turn in a story that really does him a justice. His grave remains unmarked

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A Biography of Charley Patton (Part 2 of 2)

The Biography of Charley Patton (Part 2) 
By David Evans and Dean Blackwood of Revenant Records - 11/3/05

Please consider helping us mark the grave of Belton Sutherland and Join us for the dedication of Bo Carter's headstone on July 29, 2017!

Charley’s popularity among whites, however, was established well before he began his recording career. He was in great demand as an entertainer, and apparently he was reluctant to turn down any request, sometimes booking himself twice in one night. This practice occasionally got him in trouble when crowds wanted to hold him over. There were also problems when whites wanted him on a night when he was already booked to play for blacks. Charley’s niece recalled an incident in which his engagement for a black dance in Blaine was cut short by a rifle toting white man who needed his services at a white dance atop a bridge: 

And Uncle Charley sat on that bridge and played for them white folks until about five o’clock the next morning. All them white folks was all on that bridge dancing. Uncle Charley was sitting there making music for them. They done broke up this other dance, and then they put their dance on the bridge. I’ll never forget that...He used to have some tough times. He couldn’t be but one. They tried to make him be two folks and play so much for this one and so much for that one. 

THE IDEA of a white man in the Delta hijacking Charley Patton from a black dance to play for whites is enough to boggle the mind. It would be as if a white New York cop hijacked James Brown from a show at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre to perform at a policemen’s ball. Like the cop, the man in Blaine undoubtedly knew he could get away with it. What is rather incredible is that he wanted Charley so badly, that all the other whites wanted him, and that Charley entertained them until five o’clock in the morning. One wonders if Charley or any of the whites attached any significance to all this. Were the whites drawing Charley into their world for a night? Or was Charley drawing the whites into some inscrutable world that fascinated them but which they didn’t really understand? Was he secretly pleased that the people “were trying to make him be two folks?” The fact that he played on a bridge only seems to add some special symbolic meaning to the whole affair. 

The ultimate reasons for Patton’s extraordinary popularity in the Delta are hard to pinpoint. Clearly, Fahey was right, in a sense, in stressing Patton’s role as a consummate entertainer. He could give an audience what it wanted in the way of repertoire and style, and he did many tricks with the guitar, snapping the strings, playing it behind his head and between his legs, flipping it, tapping on it with his fingers, and so forth. But there were plenty of other blues artists who could do tricks and gave audiences what they wanted. Many, like Willie Brown, may have been technically better and more versatile guitarists and were often judged so by their peers. Others, like “Son” House, had better natural voices. But there is something special that seemed to set Charley Patton beyond the others in his own day and which still exerts a great power through his records almost seventy years after his death. There is a special quality of timing in his singing and playing that is hard to define but immediately arrests the attention. Beyond this there is a sense of absolute conviction in his singing and playing. To a greater degree than the others, over a longer period of time, on a more regular basis, and equally in front of black and white audiences, Charley Patton was able to plumb the depths of feeling contained in his blues, spirituals, and other folksongs. Even when he garbled his words or meaning or made mistakes on the guitar, as he occasionally did, the feeling is there: one of overwhelming intensity. It is a feeling that Palmer has aptly called deep blues, a phrase used by blues artists themselves as their ultimate aesthetic criterion for the music and its performers.32 And despite his occasional mistakes and shortcomings, his records reflect a feeling of intense pride in his work. He may have considered his recording sessions to be just another job, he may not have rehearsed his songs as much as he should have, but underlying this casual approach and willingness to please all audiences there was a strong oneness and wholeness of character and talent in a man that people were trying to make into “two folks.” 

ONE OF THE most unfathomable aspects of Charley Patton’s life is his actual personality. As already noted, several writers have painted a rather negative picture of the man. This picture, however, is not consistent with the great respect that was accorded to him. His nephew states that he was “friendly with everybody.” Rev. Rubin Lacy, a former blues singer, who knew Charley in the Delta around 1929 or 1930, stated, “I thought he had fine ways and actions. He wasn’t no bad man.... He had a good record. He stood good. He had no bad marks on him. Oh yeah, he was a nice guy.”33 Some of Patton’s alleged failings might be taken another way. For example, “Son” House has stated that he was tight with his money.34 On the other hand, this might be viewed as an inclination to save or not spend his money foolishly. Unlike most blacks in the Delta, Charley had money throughout the year, and there must have been many “friends” who approached him for loans. Knowing from his father how the credit system worked in the Delta, Charley probably wisely chose not to “furnish” his friends for the year. 

There is no doubt that Charley Patton drank liquor. Possibly he could have been classified as an alcoholic. The nature of his profession meant that he would always be in an environment where drinking was a normal form of behavior. He must have had many drinks offered to him. But for all the reports of his drinking, there are none that have him “sloppy drunk” or unable to perform at his best. The main reports of heavy drinking come from the last two years of his life, when he knew he had heart trouble. Possibly in these years his consumption of alcohol was no greater than it had been earlier, but he was simply less able to withstand its effects. His sister Viola stated that “he hardly drank at all.”35 Reverend Rubin Lacy’s comment was simply, “Well, his drinking, a lot of us fellows did that.”36 Perhaps the situation is best summed up by Tom Rushing, a former deputy sheriff of Bolivar County whose specific duty it was to arrest the makers of moonshine whisky. Rushing said, “He seemed to be a more or less sober man. I don’t think, probably he would have ever gotten where he did if he’d been fighting that hundred proof corn whisky.” 

Charley Patton’s argumentativeness seems to have been confined mainly to his relationships with women. These relationships will be examined shortly. His relatives have stated that he was friendly, and most other musicians agree with this assessment. There are consistent reports, however, that Patton argued frequently with Willie Brown. Brown was an outstanding artist and technically may have been a more accomplished guitarist than Patton. He was not as charismatic, however, and perhaps doubted his ability as a singer, preferring to accompany other artists. Charley was undoubtedly aware of Brown’s ability and may have felt threatened. Other blues musicians in particular rated Brown highly and tended to compare his playing favorably to Patton’s. Patton was proud of his popularity and may have resented Brown’s reputation among their fellow musicians. He and Brown are said to have argued mainly over musical matters. Perhaps, though, their arguments were more in the nature of “lovers’ quarrels.” Patton and Brown did, after all, perform together off and on for about twenty years, the longest partnership in either musician’s career. Patton had partially taught Brown, as he did many other musicians to the end of his career. Even after Brown moved to Lake Cormorant in the northern part of the Delta around 1930, he continued to play frequently with Patton. Patton was furthermore responsible for calling Brown to the attention of a record company, something he did also for such artists as Henry Sims, “Son” House, Louise Johnson, and Bertha Lee. 

Patton’s attitude toward and treatment of women may not have been exemplary in all cases, but they become a bit more understandable when one realizes two facts. One is that Charley clearly believed that the Patton family deserved his primary loyalty. His niece and nephew both have said that he was very generous and helpful to his parents and sisters. As a corollary to his attitude that he should help the Patton family, particularly its women, Charley evidently believed that his own wives or girl friends should be self-supporting. He made good money himself and must have thought that he deserved a woman who did the same. “Son” House has said that Patton was the kind of man who liked to have a woman who worked in the white folks’ kitchen. In this way he wouldn’t have to pay for her food, as the woman could bring home enough left-over food from the kitchen to feed them both.37 House may have been generalizing from the particular position of Bertha Lee, Patton’s last wife and apparently the only one House knew. However, even if this was generally the case with Patton, his attitude is quite understandable. As someone with a cash income, Patton was automatically a highly desirable mate. Charley Patton was in a position to have plenty of casual affairs with women, but for his steady woman he probably wanted someone of economic standing similar to his own. 

A Biography of Charley Patton (Part 1)

A Biography of Charley Patton (Part 1)
By David Evans and Dean Blackwood of Revenant Records

Please consider helping us mark the grave of Belton Sutherland and Join us for the dedication of Bo Carter's headstone on July 29, 2017!

Charley Patton died on April 28, 1934, some three months after his final recording session. During the preceding five years he had become the most extensively recorded of the early Mississippi folk blues artists, leaving behind a legacy of fifty-two issued songs as well as accompaniments of other artists. 

Patton was the first recorded black folk artist to comment directly and extensively on public events that he had witnessed or experienced and to treat events in his own life as news. He was also the first recorded black folk artist to mention white people from his own community in his songs, sometimes unfavorably. He did all of this while continuing to live his life in the Mississippi Delta, a region which featured perhaps the most rigid racial caste system in the entire nation.1 

Charley Patton was almost certainly born in 1891, making him more or less a younger member of the first generation of folk blues singers, the originators of this genre. It is known that Patton himself learned some of his music from other artists who were a few years older. He is nevertheless the earliest Mississippi blues artist about whom we have much information, although much of this information comes from the last five years of his life during which he made his recordings. He was extraordinarily influential on other Mississippi blues artists and was a role model in both music and lifestyle for many of them. Among the many artists he is known to have influenced or inspired are Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, “Son” House, Bukka White, Big Joe Williams, Howlin’ Wolf, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, and Roebuck “Pops” Staples. Bukka White, a great Mississippi blues artist eighteen years Patton’s junior, recalled saying as a child that he wanted “to come to be a great man like Charley Patton.”2 White was not alone in his great respect for this man. It is probably fair to say that Charley Patton is the only black person of his generation to live virtually his entire life in Mississippi who still has a national and international impact and whose name and accomplishments are known to many outside his immediate family and community over a century after his birth and almost seventy years after his death. This piece does not purport to be a full-scale biography but is mainly concerned with matters of personality and with reaching an understanding of the social context of Patton’s life and music. It is based largely on the internal evidence in Patton’s songs that contain biographical details and allu¬sions and on interviews with relatives and associates of Charley Patton, particularly his sister Viola Cannon, his niece Bessie Turner, his nephew Tom Cannon, and Tom Rushing, a figure in one of his songs.3 

Previously published accounts4 of Charley Patton’s life, character and personality have been based on the evidence of his records as well as interviews with fellow blues artists (especially “Son” House), friends, relatives, ex-wives, and girl friends. The first publication to give much significant information about Patton was a booklet by Bernard Klatzko published in 1964 as the notes to a reissue album of some of Patton’s records.5 Klatzko obtained his information during a brief field trip to the Delta in 1963 with fellow researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow. Although their interviews of a number of Patton’s relatives and friends were brief and superficial and contained some errors, Klatzko was nevertheless able to piece together an outline of Patton’s life that served as a useful starting point for further research. As for Patton’s lifestyle and personality, Klatzko revealed that he was popular with women and had married several times, that he was fond of drinking liquor and tended to be argumentative. Klatzko also revealed that Patton traveled constantly and was well known in Mississippi. A subsequently discovered photograph showed Patton as having a rather light complexion and curly hair, clearly the product of a mixed racial ancestry. Based on the evidence of Patton’s performing style on his records, Klatzko speculated that the artist felt some sense of outrage, stating, “It must have seemed strange to a man like Patton who looked little different from white men to be relegated to a second class status. At any rate, Charley’s outrage, whatever sparked it, was released in the blues.”6 Later researchers have largely ignored this speculation or tried to paint a portrait of Patton as a carefree entertainer. 

About the time that Klatzko presented the first factually based outline of Charley Patton’s life, “Son” House was rediscovered. House had known Patton for the last four years of the latter’s life and was a Mississippi blues artist of comparable stature to Patton. House clearly found some of Patton’s character traits hard to comprehend or annoying. He told Stephen Calt and Nick Perls in an interview published in 1967 that Patton was argumentative, far from generous with his money, unable to read and write, and careless about his music, preferring to clown for the audience rather than take care to structure his songs coherently.7 In an article published in the same magazine issue as House’s interview, Gayle Dean Wardlow and Stephen Calt (writing under the pseudonym of Jacques Roche) work from House’s assertions and paint an unflattering portrait of Patton as illiterate, self-centered, a drunkard, a glutton, and a hustler of women.8 

In the same year Samuel Charters, drawing upon Klatzko’s booklet and an interview with Patton’s last wife Bertha Lee, presented a more favorable image of Charley Patton and tried to interpret the meaning of some of his songs.9 Stephen Calt, however, soon returned to the offensive. In the notes to the then most widely circulated reissue album of Patton’s recordings Calt asserted that Patton “never learned to read or write and passed most of his time . . . in total idleness,” that he was a “perpetual squabbler,” “extraordinarily tight with money,” always courting women and entering sham marriages with them, beating his wives, and “eating out of the white folks’ kitchen.” Calt adds that Patton was “reportedly disavowed” by his daughter from one of his marriages. 10 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

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...

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.

Thank the Blues Gods for Preston Alvin Stone (1927-1993)

A.G. LETTER From Mississippi 
Dear fellow blues travelers, 

The author in 2002
From the Greenwood Commonwealth
I'm writing from out in the north Mississippi countryside, where my life has become complete! I've just found and played the 1932 National Style N single-cone resonator guitar originally owned by my favorite musician: 1930s bluesman Bo Carter, who died in 1964, leaving nothing but his recordings and this instrument. My Holy Grail stands caseless, blithely leaning against a living-room wall in the home of Bill Gandy, a retired railroad engineer and amateur guitarist. Bill, his wife, Beverly, and their teenagers, dogs, and pet pig live here, a few miles out from Potts Camp (population 500). 

For years, I have been fascinated by Bo Carter, the remarkable guitarist and saucy lyricist responsible for such classics as "All Around Man," "I Want You to Know," and "Your Biscuits Are Big Enough for Me." I have spent countless hours listening to his 118 recorded sides and then learning and performing them. His guitar parts are perhaps the most challenging of any country blues artist's, with varied keys and tunings (including the unusual D G D G B E), strange chord shapes, and sparkling runs.

The author (right) in the band Jackolope
Arizona Republic Feb 14, 1987
Five years ago, my fascination progressed to downright obsession. I moved from Arizona to Mississippi to get more in touch with my inner Bo Carter. I enrolled in the master's program in southern studies at the University of Mississippi and did my thesis on Carter. I visited his unmarked grave in a weed-clogged cemetery in Nitta Yuma. I traveled to towns where he hung out. I met a few people who had heard him play. One was a man who marveled about how, totally blind late in life, Bo could tell the difference between a $5 bill and a $10 bill when you handed him a tip. Another was a well-off Vicksburg woman whose mother had employed Bo's wife as a maid. When Bo stopped by to pick up his wife, the woman re-called, he'd break out his guitar and entertain the children with smutty that National guitar songs. Wandering Bo's turf, performing his music, and picking up tidbits of information about him here and there—that's as close to him as I ever expected to get. 

Until I picked up that National guitar.

The Grave of Preston Alvin Stone
Bethel Cemetery, Desoto County , MS
Bo liked it, no doubt, for its flashy look as well as for its loud and distinctive sound and its durability. He still had it in 1960, when British blues researcher Paul Oliver happened to meet him in Memphis and interviewed and photographed him for the book Conversation with the Blues. 

Probably shortly before Carter's death, the guitar passed into the hands of one [Preston Alvin] P.A. Stone [Dec 19, 1927 – Feb 9, 1993 buried in Bethel Cemetery, Desoto County, MS], who ran a trading post from his house in Hernando, Mississippi. Stone was a guitarist himself, a country picker who sometimes played lap-style slide. He liked resonator guitars, but he preferred them with wooden bodies and square necks. This metal-bodied, round-necked guitar was not something he cared to play. so he stuffed it into the crawl-space basement of the building that was his home and store. There it lay hibernating, literally underground, for more than ten years.

Bo Carter in 1960
Photo by Paul Oliver
The guitar was thick with green mold and other corrosion when Stone pulled it out in the late 1970s to show it to Gandy, who was looking for a resonator guitar on which to play slide. Gandy remembers Stone telling him that the guitar had belonged to "an old blues player from Mississippi who could play anything." According to Gandy, he said, "He could play rags, he could play blues, he could play anything, whatever the gig was." Gandy had expected to spend a couple hundred dollars on an old resonator guitar. So when Stone asked for $50, Gandy gave him a puzzled look. Stone apparently misread the look and said, "How about $40?" Gandy bought it, took it home, and used a power sander to remove the crud. He took it to a guitar technician in Memphis to have the neck straightened out so he could play it. And play it he did. "I carried it on a caboose for years," Gandy says. "It sounded so good in there." A native Mississippian, Gandy plays in various styles, including a bit of the blues. He is interested in the music's history and lore. He met Gayle Dean Wardlow, a blues researcher and collector of old 78s and guitars, and told him the National was supposed to have belonged to an old bluesman. Wardlow figured out whose it was and showed Gandy the Oliver photographs. It was uncanny how the wear marks matched. It seemed that Gandy had the guitar of a great bluesman. "It ruined it, in a way," Gandy says. "I was afraid to carry it out. Before that, I had a lot of fun with it on the railroad."

Bo Carter
(circa 1937)
When I pick up the guitar and play Bo Carter songs on it, Gandy and his wife grin with pleasure. They are great songs, yes. But they sound especially great on this guitar. Watching my hands, Gandy notes that the wear spots in the fingerboard match the places where I play the chords Carter used. This is definitely a guitar that was played a lot, by someone who held it the same way Bo Carter did. Its main wear patterns are strikingly like those in the photo. It has a few small marks that don't match the guitar in the picture. But this guitar went through a lot since the picture was taken. Underground storage, sanding, and re-pair may have caused or removed some marks. The guitar also has two provocative dents on the seam—perhaps formed when Bo used the guitar in self-defense, which was another reason the blues players favored metal guitars. Because of the angle of the Oliver photos, those dents, if they're there, are not visible. The guitar handles very well, and Carter's licks fall easily onto its narrow neck. Its sound is punchy and loud, yet warm with age. It sounds like Bo Carter! It's got that plonk to it. I linger for hours at the Gandys' house, listening to records, eating fresh-caught catfish and homemade hush puppies, and playing that guitar. Each time I start to get up to leave, I think of another song I want to try on it. Of course I ask about buying the guitar. But it's not for sale. Gandy is proud of it, of its connection to a great early bluesman, of the strange way he acquired it. And he has been playing it for years. I ask him to talk to me first if he ever decides to sell it. It's a darn nice guitar, whether it was Bo Carter's or not. I head home, listening to Bo playing that guitar on his old recordings on my car stereo. At home, I toast Paul Oliver for photographing Bo Carter's guitar and thus allowing us to identify it now, Bill Gandy for restoring it and giving it a good home, and Bo Carter for making it sing through the ages. Then I pick up my own guitar and play those old licks. So long, baby, so long, 

Written by Steve Cheseborough
For Acoustic Guitar magazine 2002

$10,000 to Save Mt. Zion Church Clarksdale Press Register - 1990

$10,000 to Save Mt. Zion Church
Clarksdale Press Register - 1990

On his recent trip to Clarksdale, vintage guitar dealer Raymond "Skip" Henderson of New Brunswick, N.J., displays a check for $10,000 donated by Columbia Records to the Robert Johnson Memorial Fund. Henderson organized the non-profit corporation with Clarksdale attorney Walker Sims to preserve Mt. Zion M. B. Church near Morgan City where the blues giant Robert Johnson may have been buried. The recent remastering of Robert Johnson's records by Columbia and their skyrocketing-success on Billboard charts has produced an in-tense interest in Johnson's life and death. A strong supporter and fundraiser for Clarksdale/s Delta Blues Museum, Henderson is concerned about preserving blues landmarks in Mississippi. 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Chimney Sweep & Fireman Gets an Early Education of The Blues

Fireman Gets an Early Education of The Blues
By Larry Biz - Clarksdale Press Register - 2005 

Rack 'em up. That phrase is associated with someone familiar with life around a pool hall. Robert Birdsong says he learned a lot about the more important aspects about Clarksdale from being a "rack boy" in his youth. "I was a 'rack boy' at a pool hall and got paid a nickel every time I racked them up," informed Birdsong, a captain with the Clarksdale Fire Department, who also operates a tour guide service up and down the Delta which is more of a hobby than a "money maker," he told Clarksdale Exchange Club members. 

Birdsong worked as a
chimney sweep in the 1980s
Birdsong said when he was seven he found a directive from his father "not to cross the railroad tracks" to the poorer side of town irresistible. Birdsong said he developed a love for Clarksdale's best known commodity—the blues—at an early age. A lot of people who hung around pool halls strummed their guitars and played their harmonicas. After Birdsong graduated from high school in 1972, he moved to Memphis where he came across "juke joints" and blues performers in the older section of the downtown. When Birdsong returned to Clarksdale years later he began researching the history of the blues, dating back to 1900. Birdsong said the blues got a major push from WC. Handy, known as the "Father of the Blues" when he wrote in his autobiography in 1903 about experiences in Clarksdale after riding a train into town from Tutwiler. Birdsong said Handy wrote about hearing some "weird sounding music" that came from a guy playing a wind instrument. The weird sound was the blues, Bird-song said. Handy's fondness of the blues helped popularize it and turn into a true American folk art. 

Birdsong smiling big
Handy came to Clarksdale to direct a band called the Knights of Pythias. It turned out to be a lucrative venture for Handy who stayed in Clarksdale for six years, according to his autobiography. "The Year of the Blues was celebrated in 2003, " Birdsong said. Birdsong said those who performed the blues instrumentally, vocally or both, were often associated with "destitute" people who were around railroad depots and in juke joints. Birdsong said when Charles Peabody came down to the Mississippi Delta in 1902 from the Smithsonian Institute excavated Indian mounds he found remnants of the blues. Birdsong recalled meeting John Wrencher playing a harmonica in Memphis and how the bluesman scrimped to save enough money to go to St. Louis and later to Chicago to ply his musical skills. 

Click HERE to visit John Wrencher's memorial page

Birdsong said Wrencher returned to his roots in Clarksdale near the end of the 1970s. After a relentless, seven-year search for Wrencher's gravesite Wrencher said he found the late bluesman's plot next to where Wrencher's father's body was buried. "I had to ask some neighbors who knew Wrencher where he was buried." Birdsong said. Birdsong said an elderly woman directed him to some old burial plots in Shufordville, a community that has long since faded from memory, but was once located near present-day Lyon. Birdsong said many lesser known blues performers are buried in the Delta without grave markers. Birdsong said some aspiring young blues performers in their late teens and early 20s are trying to find a breakthrough in the recording business. 

John Wrencher in Belgium
He said what holds some back is their lack of "work ethics" which older and many deceased blues performers had ingrained in them from their childhood. "We have some really talented young artists who need time to develop their skills," Birdsong. Pointing to several individuals who made Clarksdale their adopted home for Blues performances, Bird-song said Joe Willie "Pine-top" Perkins was among them. Perkins, now 91, has been nominated for a 2005 Grammy in the Traditional Blues category for his CD, "Ladies Man." The Grammys will be presented Feb. 13 at The Staples in Los Angeles. As for his touring service, Birdsong said he often provides excursions to folks traveling through the Delta, giving them an overview of the region and its blues history. "I'll take them wherever they want to go in the Delta," Birdsong said. 

Blues Guitarist's Lack of Documentation Threatens Opportunity to Tour in Italy

Blues Guitarist's Lack of Documentation
Threatens Opportunity to Tour in Italy 
By Leah Square 2007 - Clarion Ledger

Lee Chester Ulmer was invited on an all-expenses-paid trip to Italy, an offer he gladly accepted. But when the plane leaves today, he doesn't know if he will be on it. 

The 78-year-old Ellisville blues guitar musician, who hopes to join the Mississippi-based band Afrissippi for a weeklong gig, has been on an adventure of a different kind — trying to get a passport. 
Without the proper paperwork, not to mention the U.S. Department of State's passport logjam, Ulmer has faced an uphill battle since his application process started early last month.

He has no birth certificate, no baptismal certificate, no family Bible and there's no record he received a formal education. He even says he's never been to the hospital. While his friends describe him as a "treasure in Mississippi," Ulmer doesn't exist to the government because he has no certified documentation.

"I was born in the U.S., raised in the U.S. and am a citizen of the U.S.," Ulmer said, frustrated by his dilemma. "My daddy was a sharecropper, so you know I've got to be born here." 

Bizarre Circumstances 

Ulmer was born on a backcountry plantation in Stringer in 1928. He was delivered by a midwife, so there's no certified birth certificate or hospital birth certificate. He was baptized in a creek — so no baptismal certificate. He applied for a Census record online, but the request takes three to four weeks to process — time Ulmer didn't have. He attended all-black country schools that did not keep records. Ulmer doesn't have a family Bible because it was lost in a tornado in 1939. 

Both his parents are deceased. His 12 older siblings also are deceased, so there is no one to submit an affidavit of birth. He has never been on an air-plane. The musician took a personal trip to England on an ocean liner about 50 years ago, but passports weren't required back then. 

Aware of Ulmer's situation, friend and Oxford musician Justin Showah of the band Afrissippi helped file an expedited passport application May 8 at the main post office in Laurel. The four-member country blues band invited Ulmer in April to accompany them to Italy and play in a number of cities there, including Vienna, Parma and Siena. 

Ulmer supplied the post office with everything he had to prove his existence — driver's license, voter registration card, Social Security card, musician's union card and other documents. "It weighed about 10 pounds," he said. Post office employee Judy Smith said his application was in order and sent it to New Hampshire for processing. But Ulmer got a rejection letter nine days later. 

Road block 

The citizenship evidence Ulmer had provided was "unacceptable," the letter said. The letter addressed by the U.S. Department of State said Ulmer needed to submit a statement from the state registrar of records certifying there is no birth record on file, which must be accompanied by a public record created around the date of birth. Also, the photos taken at the post office were too dark.

Baffled at the sight of another road block, Ulmer hastily refiled his application equipped with an expedited 1930 Census record. Meanwhile, Showah wondered how Smith could not have known about the birth record state-ment and other papers Ulmer needed. "I mean, she does this all the time," Showah said. "The pictures she took were too dark, so that would have held it up anyway." Doug Kyle, communications programs specialist for the Laurel post office, said his office's only job regarding passports is to go by the application guidelines furnished by the Department of State. 

"There is a checklist of things we tell customers," Kyle said. "She was acting on the things we were given." Former Jackson City Council member Marcia Weaver, business manager of Jackson musician Dorothy Moore, heard about Ulmer's situation through a mass e-mail to music enthusiasts sent by the blues-man's friends. Weaver didn't know Ulmer personally, but was moved by his story. She contacted 4th District U.S. Rep. Gene Tay-lor's office for assistance. Tay-lor aide Bill Felder secured an appointment for Ulmer with the New Orleans Passport Agency for Thursday morning to see if anyone there could straighten out the mess. "It's pretty short notice to get something done," Felder said. "All we can do is call and get an appointment." 

But Ulmer never made it to New Orleans Thursday. Too weary from the long week of running around and "getting the runaround," Ulmer banked on getting his passport by Friday from the New Hampshire office. 

A National Problem 

Felder said Ulmer's situation was further compounded by the enormous backlog the Department of State is facing with the influx of passport applications. Passports are taking 10 to 12 weeks to process and arrive in the applicant's hand, said Department of State spokes-woman Janelle Hironimus. She also said a half million applications have slipped past the 12-week deadline.

"We're getting about 1.5 mil-lion passport applications per month, and we've had 17 million for the fiscal year," Hironimus said. She added that the Department of State hopes to be caught up by September. Hironimus said she could not comment on Ulmer's case, but Felder said Ulmer's situation is not uncommon.

"There are lots of folks out there with births that were never recorded, especially people Ulmer's age," he said. "We work these kinds of cases quite often." When the plane leaves for Italy today, Ulmer hopes to be riding high with the rest of the band. When asked if he was scared about possibly taking a plane ride for the first time, Ulmer replied, "nothin' don't scare me." 

The bluesman said it will be a "miracle from God" to secure a passport in time. If it happens, he says, it will be because of the help of many people. "You wouldn't believe all these people wanting me to make that journey. "It's an amazing feeling, like love just flowing (from) every-where. That's what it feels like."