Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Father of the Father - Prince McCoy Revealed in Photo

Newspaper article from October 2017

Even the father of the blues received
inspiration and tutelage from somewhere.
Nobody is calling Prince McCoy the grandfather of the blues, but if he influenced W.C. Handy, commonly called the “Father of the Blues,” then a good case can be made that this one-time janitor at the Bowman Gray School of Medicine is indeed a key player in the development of an American art form that helped give birth to rock ‘n’ roll, country and about every popular music form.

Today, in his childhood home of Greenville, Miss., McCoy will get a historical marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail, joining a roster of some of the most revered artists in all of American music, including Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis Presley, John Lee Hooker and of course, Handy, who is credited with taking the blues to the mainstream with his compositions “St. Louis Blues,” “Yellowdog Blues” and “Beale Street Blues.”

Handy was an orchestra leader who played polished show tunes and marches. Though he was exposed to the blues in the late 1800s, he had what music historians call an “enlightenment” to the power of that music in the early 1900s.

In his 1941 autobiography, Handy wrote about playing a dance for white people at a courthouse in Cleveland, Miss. At one point, some people in the crowd asked Handy to play “some of our native music.”

Handy gave it a shot, but the crowd was not satisfied and asked instead if a local band could play, according to Jim O’Neal, a researcher for the blues trail.

A trio of ragged-looking musicians took the stage, led by a guitar player who Handy described as a “long-legged chocolate boy.” They commenced to rock the courthouse with a style of music that had the crowd dancing and tossing silver dollars at the stage in appreciation.

Handy stood on the sidelines amazed, not just at the music’s raw power, but the ecstatic reaction from the crowd. The scene, and others, convinced Handy that the music deserved a wider audience, O’Neal said.

“That showed him the beauty of primitive music,” O’Neal said. “It was not for the art of it, but for what it could do to a crowd.”
Early clue

The trio was left nameless, but Handy researcher Elliott Hurwitt has found at least four unpublished manuscripts of Handy’s autobiography that identify the “long-legged chocolate boy” as Prince McCoy, a popular band leader in the Mississippi Delta at the time.

For unknown reasons, McCoy’s name was stricken from the published autobiography, relegating him to obscurity.

Hurwitt’s discovery, which he made in 2006, has rekindled interest in McCoy. A historical marker at the site of the courthouse dance in Cleveland was unveiled in 2013, mentioning McCoy’s impact on Handy.

But for all his influence on Handy, little is known about McCoy.

“Basically, he’s a phantom at this point,” Hurwitt said.

He was born Prince Albert McCoy in Louisiana in 1882 and moved to Greenville, Miss., with his mother. At some point, he became a musician, leading an orchestra that played dances, civic functions, and even the Alabama-Ole Miss football game in 1910.

In 1927, he left Mississippi for Winston-Salem and married the former Carrie Young of Chester County, S.C.

He and Carrie first show up in the city directory in 1934, where he listed his occupation as a musician, living on East Eighth Street. O’Neal’s research shows that he played with an eight-piece orchestra that traveled with Maxey’s Medicine Show, entertaining the crowd with vaudeville songs.

“This was a big show on the scale of the larger minstrel shows with a fleet of vehicles carrying people around,” O’Neal said. “It was a free show, and Maxey would make his money trying to sell tonics to the crowd.”

O’Neal found one advertisement of the medicine show playing in Boston, giving McCoy, a product of the segregated South, a chance to see the country.

Around 1943, McCoy left music as a professional pursuit and became a janitor for the Bowman Gray School of Medicine, a position he held for several years. Late in life, he moved to Blair’s Rest Home on East Fourth Street, and died on Feb. 4, 1968, at the age of 85. He and Carrie, who died in 1962 at the age of 62, had no children, and no relatives have been found.

McCoy is buried at Evergreen Cemetery off New Walkertown Road, with his simple, nondescript grave marker engraved with the words: Prince McCoy, 1882-1968. The other day, it was mostly covered in fallen leaves and twigs and a film of sandy soil.

The Mississippi Blues Trail and Hurwitt are among those hungry for information on McCoy. He never published or recorded music, so there is no trail of documentation that could give glimpses into his musical career. There are anecdotes from Handy’s band that the music that McCoy played that night in Cleveland may have prompted Handy to record “Memphis Blues,” one of Handy’s biggest hits. But those recollections are murky and unverifiable, Hurwitt said.

It’s not even certain that the music McCoy played that night was the blues. McCoy was, after all, an orchestra leader, making it perhaps more likely that he was playing ragtime that night, and not the blues.

“(Handy) does say that McCoy’s band played a type of downhome music that influenced him and allowed him to see working-class black music as a source of material worth adapting and arranging and playing commercially,” Hurwitt said, “and that’s very big stuff.”

Looking for information on McCoy, O’Neal contacted the Winston-Salem Journal last week hoping readers might provide some information on McCoy or unearth a photograph that would, at least, put a face to a musician whose contributions have been lost to time.

Earlier this week, a librarian at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center’s Coy C. Carpenter Library flipped through stacks of company newsletters in search of McCoy and came across a photo from the January 1951 edition of Baptist Hospital News.

The frame was crowded with black men and women, most likely custodial employees, at a hospital Christmas party. Two women stand in front of a punch bowl, holiday trimmings at its base. A bald, bespectacled man towers over the crowd, a violin case tucked under his left arm. He is, indeed, long-legged.

The caption for the photo identifies him as someone who “proved his ability as a violinist for the occasion.”

It was Prince McCoy.

UPDATE - Winston-Salem Journal - January 6, 2018.

Alma Peay’s memories of Prince McCoy are somewhat hazy. After all, she was a young child of maybe 4 or 5 years old when she lived next to him in a duplex between Patterson Avenue and Chestnut Street in the 1950s.

A picture of the tall, bespectacled man that ran in the Winston-Salem Journal in October stirred her memories.

“I remember him playing fiddle,” said Peay, adding that he was quiet and kind.

Not much is known about McCoy, who died in 1968 at the age of 85. But music historians are hungry for information on the violinist, who set aside a professional music career to work as a janitor at Bowman Gray School of Medicine for several years.

The day the story ran in the Journal, the state of Mississippi erected a historical marker in Greenville, Miss., honoring McCoy’s contribution to the blues. The marker is part of the Mississippi Blues Trail, whose honorees also include B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf and Elvis Presley, among other musical pioneers. McCoy is credited with exposing W.C. Handy, the Father of the Blues, to the primitive style of music that was popular among working-class black people in the early 1900s.

Handy took the blues to the mainstream, which eventually led to the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, making McCoy an important footnote in America’s cultural history.

In his 1941 autobiography, Handy recalled seeing a “long-legged chocolate boy” in Cleveland, Miss., playing a raucous style of music that rocked the house. Unpublished manuscripts of the autobiography, discovered by Handy researcher, Elliott Hurwitt, indicate that the musician was McCoy, a popular band leader in the Mississippi Delta at the time.

That makes McCoy of considerable interest to blues scholars.

The problem is that they know so little about him. In an interview in October, Hurwitt called McCoy a “phantom” to researchers.

The trail on McCoy turned cold after he moved to Winston-Salem from the Deep South, in the late 1920s. He married Carrie Young, formerly of Chester, S.C., and worked as a musician before taking on steadier work as a janitor at what is know known as the Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

The blues trail folks in Mississippi hadn’t been able to find any photos of McCoy and no known recordings exist.

At the request of the Journal, librarians at the Coy C. Carpenter Library at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center scanned their records and came across the only known photo of McCoy from a company newsletter in January 1951. McCoy towers above several fellow employees at a Christmas party for the black employees, a violin case tucked under his left arm, indicating he had been part of the party’s music program.

Peay saw the photo and story in the Journal and recollected the tall, soft-spoken man who used to play his violin on the front porch of the duplex that the McCoys lived in, next to Peay and her mother and grandparents.

The McCoys and the Peays attended First Baptist Church, then on the corner of Sixth and Chestnut streets.

In December, Peay viewed a film that someone in the church made to commemorate the groundbreaking of its new home on Highland Avenue, on Jan. 26, 1947. It is remarkable footage, showing streams of churchgoers in long coats and hats, dressed in their Sunday finest on a cold and misty winter day. The sharp-eyed Peay spotted McCoy, playing in a small orchestra outside the site of the new church, a violin propped against his chin.

Unfortunately, there is no sound to the footage.

Peay watched the film again recently, with Rev. Paul Robeson Ford, the church’s new pastor.

As she watched people file out of the church and onto the sidewalk, she pointed to the ones that she knew. When the camera panned to McCoy, Peay identified the young clarinet player in front of him as Christine Hedgley, the daughter of the church’s pastor at the time, Rev. David Hedgley.

She is now Christine Hedgley Johnson, who lives in Santa Fe, N.M., after a long career with the U.S. Public Health Commissioned Corps. In the film, she was about 11 years old, and was a student at 14th Street Elementary School.

“In the black community at that time, if you played an instrument in the school band, you automatically played in the church band,” Johnson said last month.

She knew McCoy as a reserved man who played jazz gigs with local black musicians, including Harry Wheeler, a legendary band director at the old Atkins High School.

“Most of his music was outside the church. White people paid for him and his band to play gigs, their graduations and receptions and stuff like that,” Johnson said. “He did a lot of music for the doctors when they had receptions and Christmas parties.”

McCoy died on Feb. 4, 1968, at the age of 85, with his contributions to the larger world of music unknown until last year.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Molton Blues is the Truth

Blues traditions continue with Cornell concert series
The Ithaca (NY) Journal - 1986

What could be more lonesome than the sound of "last call" in an empty barroom, a park bench without pigeons, or a comedian with no audience? It's the color blue, and when blue is filtered through Flora Molton and Eleanor Ellis, it radiates multicolor sensation.

This weekend is the second in a series of "Blues Traditions" at Cornell University. Flora Molton and Eleanor Ellis will be joined by Rosetta Reitz, a jazz historian, filmmaker and record producer. Reitz will give a lecture today at 3 p.m. entitled "Shouters and Wailers." The lecture — at Willard Straight Hall Art Gallery — is free and open to the public. On Saturday, Molton and Ellis blend their raw, passionate blues style for an unforgettable appearance.

The "lonesome sound" of singer/guitarist Molton is a powerful union of turn-of-the-century black spirituals, gospel and old-time country. Molton, about 74-years-old, calls herself the "Lady Streetsinger" because her music has kindled its energy from rural Virginia and Washington D.C.'s downtown streets. Molton's sound might be lonesome, but she is rarely alone. Molton will be joined by Ellis to tap the roots of the blues. Ellis is a native of New Orleans where she was drawn to the rural blues style..

She has a talent for rearranging songs and her expressive, gritty vocals can move a melody with airborne grace. Two such powerful and fascinating musicians uniting in Ithaca is a rarity and Molton and Ellis won't be holding anything back. They will be giving a master class from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday in the Music Room in Straight Hall, and a concert later that night at 8 in Willard Straight Theater. Reitz is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant to produce a series of television pro-grams for PBS entitled "The Blues is a Woman."

BLUES SISTERS: Flora Molton (left) and Eleanor Ellis [brought] their soulful music to Cornell's Willard Straight Hall for a Saturday concert.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Arlo Guthrie & Alice Now Staples of fall Holiday

By Jim Beckerman - 2015

November 26, 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of the events that inspired Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant Massacre" and the freaks and free spirits got their own Thanksgiving.

"Alice's Restaurant," now a holiday staple at many radio stations is the counterculture's answer to the kind of wholesome Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving we're all familiar with -- not least from Norman Rockwell paintings.

So consider this curious footnote to history: Rockwell and Alice shared an address.

Alice Brock's restaurant -- the inspiration for Arlo Guthrie's famous album and "talking blues" song -- was in fact located directly below the studio of Norman Rockwell at 40 Main St., Stockbridge, Mass.

"It's kind of funny to think that I have become another attraction, in addition to Norman Rockwell, to the town of Stockbridge," Guthrie told The Record, by email.

The actual article from the
Berkshire Eagle detailing the
arrest of Arlo Guthrie for
littering and his sentencing 
of picking up the garbage
on Thanksgiving 1965.
This year's "Alice" anniversary marks, not the birth of the album or song -- both came out in 1967 -- but the real-life incidents that inspired them. It was 50 years ago today -- Thanksgiving 1965 -- that 18-year-old Arlo, son of legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie ("This Land Is Your Land"), volunteered to haul some garbage for his restaurateur friend Alice and her husband Ray. Fans of "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" (the track's official title -- "massacree" being Ozark-ese for a tall tale) know what happened next: an 18 1/2-minute whopper involving cops, a blind judge, a draft board and a memorable group of social rejects on "the group W bench."

This year, to mark the golden anniversary, Guthrie ("The City of New Orleans") is reviving his famous story-song in concert -- something he does only sparingly these days. Guthrie, who also has a new children's book, "Monsters," out for the holiday season, will be at NJPAC on Sunday.

"We're doing a really big show for the 50th anniversary - lights and multimedia effects and even a fog machine," Guthrie says. "It's a little crazy, especially for a folk singer. But it has been very well received so far."

Meantime, many radio stations today will be doing what they do every year -- playing the entire, lengthy track as a holiday treat. Guthrie's non-traditional Thanksgiving yarn has itself, over time, become a much-loved Thanksgiving tradition.

"It's taken on a life of its own," says Kenny O'Boyle, host of WFDU's "Let There Be Country," who will be playing it at noon today. "Obviously the fact that the incident happened on Thanksgiving has a lot to do with it."

Back in the 1960s, of course, the takeaway of "Alice's Restaurant" had less to do with Thanksgiving than Vietnam. The punchline of the song, you'll recall, is that Arlo's criminal status as a "litterbug" makes him unacceptable as a soldier. "In the Vietnam era, it had such a poignant message," O'Boyle says.

Nevertheless, there's a reason the song has become a kind of alternative anthem for the holidays, O'Boyle says.

"We all know not everybody gets along with their family so great," he says. "Some people dread Thanksgiving. How about a Thanksgiving with your friends, the people you relate to?"

In the song "Alice's Restaurant," and even more in the 1969 Arthur Penn movie version, starring Arlo as himself, new-agers got an alternate take on Thanksgiving -- a laid-back day to celebrate with your groovy friends in a wicked cool setting. Possibly even one as cool as the deconsecrated church (now the Guthrie Center in Great Barrington, Mass.) where Arlo and his pals had their famous "Thanksgiving dinner that couldn't be beat."

The film version, which paints Alice and Ray's church as almost a proto-hippie commune, may push this a bit far, Guthrie thinks.

"The movie version of it was so believable that even my kids thought it was a re-creation of actual events," Guthrie says. "But it was nothing like what really took place. There were just a half-dozen friends who had been invited by Alice and Ray Brock. We sat around, sang some hymns and old ballads after dinner. I loved the old church where they lived, and I slept up in the bell tower that night."

Moreover, by the time the movie was made, 1969, the end of the hippie era was plainly in sight, and the "Alice's Restaurant" film has an elegiac vibe that Guthrie isn't entirely happy with.

'30-percent-true story' 

"I loved working with Arthur Penn who directed the movie," Guthrie says. "But I didn't like the way the movie eventually came out. It was kind of depressing, and in real life we were not depressing people. I think what happened is that they wanted to make a 90-minute movie based on a 20-minute song. So they had to make up a lot of stuff. They made up parts that had much less humor, and used 100-percent real people to tell a 30-percent-true story."

But the fact that the movie was made at all was just one more improbable chapter in the odd saga of "Alice's Restaurant" -- one of the stranger tunes ever to hit the Top 20 (No. 17 on the Billboard charts). A shaggy-dog story set to some folksy strumming, nearly 20 minutes long, with a chorus that might be mistaken for an advertising jingle, is not exactly the definition of radio-friendly -- then or now. It was an odd combination of circumstances, Guthrie says, that made "Alice's Restaurant" a hit.

"WBAI in New York was where the song first got recorded," Guthrie recalls. "Just because I had wandered in the station late one night, and sat down to goof off with Bob Fass, who was the host of a late night show. The song got played a lot as a fundraising effort for the station. Later that year, in the summer of 1967, I went to the Newport Folk Festival and was invited to sing before the largest crowd I'd ever seen. Again, no one was expecting much of me, I was just a kid. But the following day the headline in The New York Times read 'Festival His - Just for a Song,' or something like that. They liked it. Within a few weeks, I'd had a record in the works which came out later that year. ... After that, all hell broke loose."

In the end, the most important fan of "Alice's Restaurant" may have been the first. Guthrie family tradition has it that "Alice's Restaurant" was the last song Woody Guthrie heard before he died on Oct. 3, 1967. "That's true," his son says. "He got to hear the reference recordings -- what we called 'test pressings' in those days. He passed away very shortly thereafter, a few weeks before the record came out."

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Legend Obscured: The Story of Henry Speir's Blues Scouting

By Gayle Dean Wardlow - 1966
Hayes McMullan (Photo: GDW)
No other legend stands out across the grooves of recorded music in memoirs of Mississippi blues and sanctified music than the name of Henry C. Speir.

Speir, a Jackson, Miss. music store owner for nearly a quarter of a century searched the entire Southern area from Virginia to New Mexico for talent to send to the various recording companies for recording purposes. He was also an active Artist and Repetoire director and did two sessions entirely by himself; one in Jackson in 1930 for Okeh, which is erroneously listed in the Okeh files for Atlanta, Georgia, and the other in Jackson in 1935 for A.R.C.

He helped record various artists in Houston, New Orleans, Birmingham,. Chicago, Grafton and Dallas. Speir once said, "I've recorded in almost every major city in the nation over a period of 23 years. I've found so many singers I can't remember many of their names, and I've forgotten about many others".

Speir, who was reported by Skip James and Son House as having perished in a 1942 fire which did end his music ventures, lost an by David Evans. address book as big as a novel in the tire with names and addresses of the artists he had recorded and their home addresses. (This is a disaster in itself, for Speir does not remember many of the artists he recorded, only towns where he found singers. Because of personal beliefs he has steadily re-fused to listen to my collection of blues and sanctified recordings, but he has mentioned towns where he found artists or verified towns for me after I had located these areas with my personal research).

H. C. Speir
When I asked Speir in one of our long interviews who he considered of all the singers he located in the blues field, he replied, "Ole Charley (Patton) was the best I ever seen. But, you know, James, Skippy James, he was real tough: Catch Skippy on the right day -mind you now - the right day and he was as good as Patton, but over-all Patton was the best. His little friend Willie Brown was the best guitar player I ever heard in 23 years of talent hunting. He could really make it talk, great guitar player"

Of course it becomes obvious very quickly that this man was a giant among talent scouts. He not only knew the artists, he knew what the record companies wanted and he gave it to them. He was almost solely responsible for the Columbia 14000s country and urban series, which has been described as awkward and misdirected by one blues historian in a published book on blues. Speir commented on this by saying - "I sent artists everywhere, and tried to woc}c with all the companies but I probably did send the best artists to Grafton, Wisconsin - the Paramount Record Company. We worked real close, me and Art Laibly!" Speir further commented, "I worked with Laibly and also with Ralph Peer of Victor, and P.T. Brockman of Okeh. That place in Richmond, Indiana (Gennett) got lots of my artists in my early years."

When one looks at the Paramount roster of recorded artists it be-comes obvious that Speir not only found almost all of its talent; he even helped record it in Chicago and Grafton and helped Laibly remodel the Grafton studios to get a better sound on the later Para-mount recording.

In December 1930, Okeh Records asked Speir to direct a session in Jackson, Miss. to record various Okeh artists living in the Jack-son area. Speir directed nearly 100 masters in the King Edward Hotel, recording such groups as the Mississippi Sheiks, Bo Carter, Charlie McCoy, Slim Duckett and Pig Norwood, Elder Curry, the Campbell College Quartet, Elder Charles Beck and a forgotten blues singer from Louisiana, Mississippi Coleman Bracey and his wife.

As recording activities declined in the early 30's with the change of policies of certain companies, Speir began a closer association with the expanding American Recording Corporation of New York City and its two field directors, W.R. Callaway and Art Satherly. In 1930s, Speir made tests of Charley Patton, his wife Bertha Lee, Son House and Willie Brown, on recording equipment that he kept on the second floor of his business for testing purposes. These tests were forwarded to Callaway, and early in 1934 Calla-way made the trip to carry Patton to New York for his last session.

Speir began work with Decca and its subsidiary label Champion in 1934 and was responsible for Kokoma Arnold being waxed. In the fall of 1935, Speir set up a session in Jackson on the second floor of an old dance hall on Farish Street, one block above his music store and recorded nearly 120 masters. Speir brought Robert (Tim) Wilkins from Memphis along with Will Shade, Minnie Wallace and Little Son Joe, and went into eastern Arkansas for Kid Stormy Weather.

Young Isiah Nettles came to the Studios one Sunday to record four songs in the old country style -probably some of the last with the exception of Booker White's 1940 session in Chicago.

In 1936, Speir directed a third session as artist and repertoire director - one I failed previously to mention - in Hattiesburg, Miss. and recorded such artists as Blind Roosevelt Graves, Cooney Vaughn, Zeke Bingham, the Laurel Fireman's Quartet and other sacred and secular items. This was the session that produced the now famous Mississippi Jook Band records.

Because of A.R.C. administrative policies, he discontinued working relations with the corporation shortly after the session, but he vaguely remembers Callaway coming through Johnson in the fall of the year on a trip into the Mississippi Delta searching for talent to carry to Texas for a session that was beginning in a couple of weeks. From all circumstantial evidence available, Callaway evidently discovered the most controversial Mississippi blues singer of all generations, Robert Jackson, in one of the small Delta towns near Memphis that Speir and Callaway had previously searched for talent on previous trips.

Speir remembers, "that 1938 was the worst year of all for new talent, the record companies just didn't want any new talent for records". This fact is borne out more by the sale of A.R.C. to Col-umbia BrOadcastink System in 1938, in which the A.R.C. equipment became the property of Columbia Records.

After the 1942 fire chat destroyed part of his music store, Speir discontinued his musical interests. Undoubtedly the record ban of 1942 added to this situation. The search for talent was an exciting one for often Speir would drive hundreds of miles to listen to a group or individuals that he heard of in rumours from other musicians. With blues singers, he usually used an approach similar to the following: "I hear you're a good singer, how about singing some of your songs for me?" After the singer finished, he would tell him, "You sound pretty good. You know, I make records; if you will keep practising and get your songs together real good and come to Jackson in a couple of days, I see that you get on records". If the singer balked at Speir's legality as a record scout, he would then tell the singer a long line of musicians he was responsible for recording, such as Charley Patton, Sam Collins, Tommy Johnson, William Harris, etc...

When the singer showed up in Jackson, he reimbursed him for his travel expenses and gave a couple of extra dollars for spending money while going to a session. (See also the earlier B.U. account of Skip James' trip to Grafton, Wisconsin)

When travelling to a session in Texas or an alternative site such as New Orleans or Memphis or Atlanta, the alternative of driving the artist in his car or a rented vehicle was used. He also remembers that each year for many years, he ran a special train or cars on a train from Forth Worth to New York picking up talent in various cities from his own research or from scouts whom he closely worked with. Although many artists were paid little for their services Speir's artists were probably the best paid of the artists recorded for various scouts. The average fee was $50 a side or either 10 percent of the royalties of the sell of issued titles. (Ed's note - this is considerably more than many artists were paid. per side 10 years later).

Race artists that stand out in his memory most are - Patton, Tommy Johnson, Ishman Bracey, James Harris, Kokomo Arnold, the red-headed woman (probably Lucille Bogan) and many others as their names are brought to his attention.

In addition to the vastness of his blues and jazz and sacred re-cording, he was responsible for many hillbilly and country artists being recorded. One of the many he remembers was Uncle Dave Macon, whom he recorded in Memphis - after Macon wrote him from Nashville about the possibilities of doing such. Later, Speir traveled a number of times with Macon into the Appalachian Mountains on talent hunts. "That was the most dangerous place I ever went in my life -once they knew you, the people were as friendly as could be; but until they found out you weren't a revenue agent, your life was in real danger."

Added to all his other accomplishments is the fact that Speir recorded many of the finer jazz groups. 'I found five or six bands in New Orleans." He also tried to get Louis Armstrong to record, after he spent an evening - the only white man - on board a pleasure ship on the Mississippi River at New Orleans listening to an Armstrong group. However, Armstrong told Speir that he was already recording in Chicago and had been for about a year. Speir told him he would be a great artist and this has certainly proved correct.

Another item of importance is that he was the first person to locate Jim Jackson, whose rights he sold to another talent scout in Memphis, named Watson. Jackson, of course, made a remarkable hit of his 'Kansas City Blues', which he was singing when Speir found him in Hernando, Mississippi.

On the question of why the Mississippi blues singers seemed to be the more productive artists in quality, he said "the Negroes in Mississippi played more music and were friendlier to each other than in other areas. There were more of them living closer together, and they swapped a lot of ideas among themselves".

At the age of 70, Speir divides his time between his gardens and a part-time real-estate business.

As a true legend, almost forgotten by the historians of modern written jazz and blues, this man indeed was a gentleman of great in-sight and ability.

Muddy Waters in 1960 - By Paul Oliver

Muddy Waters said to me once: "When I sing the blues, when I'm singing the real blues, I'm singing what I feel. Some people maybe want to laugh; maybe I don't talk so good and they don't understand you know? But when we sing the blues - when I sing the blues it come from the heart. From right here in your soul, an' if you' singing what you really feel it comes out all over. It ain't just what you saying, it pours out of you. Sweat runnin' down your face".

He is not a markedly eloquent man in conversation, but he never wastes words and what he has to say is always directly to the point. In those few sentences he summed up his attitude to the blues, what the blues meant to him and the effect that creating blues had upon him. Anything else is in a way, superfluous. Or perhaps, anything that one has to say about Muddy Waters is an amplification of these observations of his, if it is to have any value at all.

In more than one sense he is the ideal blues singer, for he epitomizes the blues for so many different groups of people. He is eminently sincere in what he does. He has no artifice, though at times he can be puzzling because he is so quiet in manner when he is not working. So his blues have meaning for him and they have depth; depth as great as his own complex personality. For those who live .by the blues his blues are an inspiration, and for those who are blues enthusiasts like ourselves, his blues are satisfying. I make the distinction because there is no real comparison between the significance of the blues within the black community and its significance to us who are so very much outside it. This is not to argue that our interest is in any way invalidated, but that it is of a different order. Most serious blues enthusiasts over here will know more about blues and the lives, work and recordings of the singers than the people who throng the small Chicago clubs, but the latter are there by reason of an inner compulsion and desire to share the music. For them the blues singer of the stature of Muddy Waters is a hero-figure, a "Race Man" as he would have been called a decade ago, who symbolizes achievement and success in his field - that of entertainment rather than just "blues". The blues enthusiast here may deplore the cultivation of the singers by the folknik clubs, the college circuit, the jazz festival. But the black man doesn't for these are significant inroads into a fairly well protected white dominated part of society. For the Mississippi black- who knows and hears every Muddy Waters record and is generally referred to in a matter of minutes - he is the perfect example of the "local boy makes good", the black rags-to-comparative-riches of the Great American Dream.

Saturday, March 31, 2018


 Booba Barnes on Nelson Street (c. Alan Weiner)
By Elli Light - The Record (New Jersey) - July 30, 1989 

Booba Barnes place seemed easy enough to find: Drive along the levee past the marina and the boatyard, take the steep road down, and turn onto Nelson Street, the main drag through the black quarter of Greenville, Miss., a port city on the edge of the Mississippi Delta.

But where is 928 Nelson St.? Where is Barnes Playboy Club in this shambling business district where stores have no signs, doors have no numbers, and lots of people hanging out on a warm, late December afternoon apparently have nothing to do?

I make a U-turn in the 1000 block, grip the wheel, and tell myself: OK, time to roll down the window and ask.

There is no need. Barnes is standing in the street, watching, waiting for me to recognize him, just a hint of a smile on his intense, deeply lined face.

"Jim O'Neal told you to come, right? " he asks eagerly, and disappears into the huge white Cadillac parked at the curb, pulling out so I can have the space directly in front of the club I'd driven past.

Roosevelt "Booba" Barnes is a blues musician, and his Playboy Club is what is often called a "juke joint," a country store or shack or place in town where beer is served, blues is played, and the grinding reality of menial work, or no work at all, disappears for a while.

He is one of many musicians continuing the tradition of blues playing in the Delta, and his first album, "Heartbroken Man," will be out by the end of the summer on O'Neal's Clarksdale-based Rooster Blues Records label.

Inside, the Playboy Club, a former warehouse, is cavernous. Folding metal chairs and formica-topped tables are casually scattered about. A bicycle and a shopping cart full of empty beer cans sit near the stage.

Barnes tinkers with the juke box, and suddenly his recently released Rooster Blues 45, "How Long This Must Go On," is reverberating off the cement floor, graying plaster walls, and high wooden ceiling. He offers a beer, talks very briefly about himself, then insists, almost urgently, that his visitor return Friday night.

Blues grabbed mamachild,
tore him all upside down.

The Mississippi Delta is a relentlessly flat, extraordinarily fertile plain stretching from Memphis, Tenn., in the north to Vicksburg, Miss., in the south, from the central Mississippi hills in the east to the Mississippi River in the west. Some say it is where the blues was born. It probably is not.

While musicologists have traced the roots of blues from African musical forms through field hollers and religious songs of African-American slaves, no one knows exactly when or where the blues originated.

What is known is that by the early 1900s, an intense, percussive, hypnotic form of blues was being played at cotton plantations all over the Mississippi Delta. Eventually referred to as Delta blues, the music would become the foundation of rock-and-roll and a significant influence on jazz and country music.

For anyone interested in blues, the Delta, as Mississippians call it, is an intriguing place to visit; Clarksdale home to the Delta Blues Museum is a good place to begin; and Booba Barnes Playboy Club is an inspiring place to end up.

Highway 61 south from Memphis is the best way to get there.

The 70-mile drive, or rather descent, from the bluffs of Memphis down into the low-lying Delta, especially in the summer toward dusk, can be stunning.

Beyond the whirligig of Memphis beltways, down beyond the projects and auto-body shops and more projects, just past a cluster of trees and some dips and rises and dips again is, suddenly, a land vast and flat and pine-emerald green, its sky big and endless, its light orange, lavender, gold, and pearl-gray playing softly down over mile upon mile of cotton and soybean fields.

Clarksdale, by comparison, may seem a little anti-climactic, as may the blues museum. The city of 21,000 spreading out from Highway 61 is the commercial and administrative center of Coahoma County and has the look and feel of Hackensack.

The museum, located in the heart of town, on Delta Avenue, is housed in the third story of the Carnegie Public Library. The floors creak, the paint is peeling, pipes are exposed, and in winter an electric space heater is the only source of warmth.

But it contains a tantalizing collection of records, videotapes, photographs, posters, paintings, musical instruments, memorabilia, books, and journals that pay tribute to the blues legends the Delta has spawned: Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Son House, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Howlin Wolf, Frank Frost, Houston Stackhouse, and B. B. King, to name a few.

The museum has sponsored concerts and symposia, been host to State Department tours, and become known internationally especially in Europe and Japan as a major point of interest for blues lovers visiting this country. It attracts about 2,000 visitors a year.

It was the brainchild of Carnegie Library Director Sid Graves, a native Deltan who saw the museum as a way of enhancing local pride and attracting new patrons to the library. But as the collection has expanded, so has the vision for the museum.

In May, the Texas-based blues band ZZ Top, in conjunction with New York City's Hard Rock Cafe, began a million-dollar campaign for the museum. With that money and hopefully with grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and other sources, Graves foresees the museum including an auditorium for blues performances and lectures, a research library, a guitar collection, recording and video equipment, an oral-history program, a full-time professional curator, and professionally designed exhibits showing the history of the Delta and Delta blues and how Delta blues has influenced other musical forms.

At about the same time ZZ Top announced its campaign, Carter Stovall, heir to Stovall Plantation, announced a donation of a different kind: the shack that was home to McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters.

The shack still sits on Stovall Farms, three miles outside Clarksdale. According to blues lore, Stovall's father, Col. William

Howard Stovall, refused to raise Morganfield's salary from 22 1/2 cents to 25 cents an hour, so, like many black Deltans, he boarded an Illinois Central train for Chicago, there to become the driving force behind modern, urban, electrified blues.

The museum intends to use the remaining wood from the shack, which has been nearly demolished by a tornado and vandals, to reconstruct a typical Delta front porch or juke joint.

I got to keep movin',
Blues fallin down like hail...
I can't keep no money,
Hellhound on my trail.

The explosion of creativity among Delta blues musicians in the early decades of the 20th century parallels the region's booming agricultural economy.

Although some planters and small farmers were living in the Delta before the Civil War, it was not until the second half of the 19th century that it opened up. Devastated by the war, white Mississippians and other Southerners saw the swampy, mosquito-infested forestlands as a new frontier, a land of opportunity.

They drained the swamps, leveled the forests, and planted the rich, alluvial soil in cotton, cotton, and more cotton. And they made a killing.

By the 20th century, Delta planters had become famous for their wealth, and Delta plantations, with their seemingly boundless opportunities for work, had become magnets for blacks in search of work. Indeed, so impressive were the fortunes being amassed by planters in and around Clarksdale that in 1921 Wall Street dubbed it the "Magic City. "

Always in search of better wages and better living conditions, workers moved from plantation to plantation, as owners, ever in search of more hands to pick cotton, competed with each other for labor. Blues musicians went where the most people could hear them play.

For blacks, Clarksdale's "magic" was in its music and its trains. Saturdays, when workers streamed into the city from the countryside, blues could be heard everywhere on streets, in stores, in taverns, and especially at the Illinois Central railway station, where those who saw little in cotton but drudgery were boarding trains for cities to the north. The musicians were not far behind.

Today, the Delta is neither so rich, economically or musically, nor such a magnet for workers, black or white.

Plantations have become corporations, and machines and chemicals have replaced mules and men. Catfish farms and rice paddies are increasingly common, and there is much talk of attracting industry to what was once considered land too fecund to use for anything but agriculture.

In the last decade, unemployment has reached into the double digits. Food stamps are a common sight at supermarkets. And the sons of planters, worried about mortgaged lands, often leave the region to find work, as tens of thousands of Delta blacks before them have done.

Though Clarksdale is no longer a blues center, the creation of the blues museum has attracted several blues-related businesses and complimented others already in existence.

Around the corner from the museum, on Sunflower Avenue, is Sajjas, a nightclub that occasionally features blues. Next door, in a building with the facade of a Mississippi steamboat and a potted cotton plant at the door, is Stackhouse Records. The store specializes in blues, and is owned by Jim O'Neal, a founding editor of Living Blues magazine.

O'Neal also owns Rooster Blues Records, a recording company with a roster of 25 artists, most of them born in Mississippi. Eventually, he would like to build a studio in Clarksdale to record gospel and country, as well as blues artists.

Another of O'Neal's enterprises is Saturday's Sunflower Riverbank Blues Festival, a daylong event at Martin Luther King Park, on the banks of the Sunflower River.

On Clarksdale's AM station, WROX, Andy McWilliams is host of "Clarksdale Saturday Night," a six-hour weekly blues show. The show is part of a long tradition of blues programming at the station. In l947, WROX hired the South's first black DJ, Early Wright, who is still playing blues on his weeknight "Soul Man's Show," and in whose name a scholarship fund has been set up at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

Got up this mornin',Blues walkin like a man.Well, blues, give me your right hand.

Beyond Clarksdale, on Highways 61 or 49 or 81, or any of the smaller roadways crisscrossing the Delta, there is not so much as a hill or gentle rise to obstruct the view. Towns begin and end in fields, and fields stretch for miles and miles to the horizon, broken only by stands of willow and swamp cypress. A house, a barn, a church, a tree stand starkly silhouetted against the huge expanse of endlessly changing sky, which dwarfs the land and everything on it.

So dramatic and open and strangely beautiful is this land that a visitor can experience an exhilarating sense of freedom and timelessness driving through it.

Yet the Delta is also where masses of people lived and died planting and picking cotton from sunup to sundown. To imagine waking every morning in a shack in the middle of a Delta field, to a life of working cotton fields always owned by someone else, is, it seems, to imagine utter despair.

And so, there is something a little eerie, and perhaps a little fatuous, too, about driving past places where blues history was made: the town of Tutwiler, where bandleader W. C. Handy heard his first Delta blues at the train station; Parchman Prison, in which and about which many blues songs have been sung; Dockery Farms near Drew, where Charley Patton played and which may be where Delta blues originated; or Three Forks store below Itta Bena, where 26-year-old Robert Johnson supposedly was kn ifed to death by his lover's jealous husband.

Yet one studies the map, goes, and gapes, and tries to fathom the strength and courage and spirit of those who, despite the despair, created and played, listened and danced, laughed and cried to the blues.

Friday night on Greenville's Nelson Street, the Delta seems a long way off. The sidewalks are crowded and the muffled sounds of music infuse an atmosphere vibrant with the promise of good times.

As the door of the Playboy Club opens, the raw, fierce, thunderous blues of Barnes and his band, the Playboys, is overwhelming, and it is easy to see why people are smiling and laughing. It is as a world the direct opposite of sentimentality and despair.

Barnes, who plays guitar and harmonica, and his band, a no-holds-barred duo playing guitar and drums, are pumping out good-time, danceable music that has the crowd, young and old, on its feet for hours, and has a visitor feeling that this a place where people can, through the power of music, feel more intensely alive than perhaps at any other time in their lives is the heart and soul of the blues.

Archive of the blues

For blues lovers intent on academic research, the Blues Archive at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, 60 miles east of Clarksdale, is without parallel.

Across the street from the university's 10-year-old Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the archive includes some 40,000 records and thousands of other books, journals, and documents associated with blues.

More than 80 percent of the record collection comes from three sources: B. B. King, who was born in Indianola, near Itta Bena, in the Delta; Kenneth S. Goldstein, a folklore professor at the University of Pennsylvania; and Jim O'Neal and Amy Van Singel, founding editors of Living Blues magazine.

The archive also has dozens of videotapes about blues and other aspects of Southern culture, including some made by William Ferris, center director and blues scholar. Ferris has also written a highly readable book called "Blues in the Delta," and once a week he hosts his own blues show, "Highway 61 Blues," on Public Radio of Mississippi.

Friday, March 30, 2018

In League with Satan

“In League with Satan: Marvellous Powers Possessed by an Old Man Who Sold His Soul to the Devil,” New York (NY) Herald, May 23, 1892, p.10. 

Alexandria Gazette, May 23, 1892.

Feature Story

More than a Memorial to the Voice of the Delta

Charley Patton’s Grave: More than a Memorial in Holly Ridge Mississippi Folklife