Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Story of the Undercover Blues Tourist in Clarksdale

By Bill Steigerwald - 2009

Republished with additional photos 
and captions by DeWayne Moore - 2018

In August 1948, the Post-Gazette published an explosive series by Ray Sprigle, "I Was a Negro in the South for 30 Days" -- the reality report of a white man, passing for black, in the Deep South. Bill Steigerwald revisits the path that Sprigle and his courageous collaborator, John Wesley Dobbs, took to chronicle the indignities and deprivations that black Americans still faced at the time.

The tomb erected by wealthy black Clarksdale dentist,
Dr. P.W. Hill in honor his wife Marjorie
and his unborn daughter in 1939.
OUTSIDE CLARKSDALE, Miss. -- The two great men whose ghosts I was chasing were midway through their dangerous undercover mission when they stopped here in May of 1948.

Talkative, well-spoken and a little too curious, they stood out as strangers in this corner of the Mississippi Delta, where cotton was king, the blues were born and raised and local Jim Crow laws kept the races separate but unequal.

If anyone looked closely, the strangers had a "big city" and maybe even "big trouble" written all over them.

But they had no problem passing themselves off for a week as just a couple of relatively prosperous old black guys from Pittsburgh and Atlanta who were tooling around the Delta's dirt roads and small towns in their dusty new 1947 Mercury.

It's a good thing the white folks who owned, operated and policed the Delta like a feudal kingdom never found out who their subversive visitors really were.

Click HERE to read Ray Sprigle's 21-part series.
His original article about visiting the 
cemetery is added to the bottom

If they had known the strangers were working on a secret journalism project that would soon shock the North, enrage the South and spark one of the country's earliest national discussions about ending their beloved system of racial segregation, they might have lynched them on the spot.

Sixty-one years later, as part of a four-day, 1,600-mile research swing from Atlanta to the Delta and back, I was following the trail of those same two great men.

As I had done for a Post-Gazette Sunday feature story on Aug. 2, 1998, I was going to some of the same places they visited, on their 3,400-mile trip to see for myself what they looked like or how much they had changed.

In 1998, I found a 76-year-old man who told me about meeting the daring codgers when they stayed overnight at his father's farmhouse in northwest Georgia.

But in May of this year, as I searched a badly overgrown old cemetery for a heartbreaking tomb the two men had visited, I wasn't expecting to be so lucky.

One of the great men, the proud owner of the 1947 Mercury, was John Wesley Dobbs, 66, a prominent black Republican political and social leader from Atlanta.

A powerful public speaker, a Yeats-and-Milton quoting neighbor and friend of the young Martin Luther King Jr., the grand master of Georgia's black Prince Hall Masons, the son of a freed slave, the grandfather of Atlanta's future black mayor Maynard Jackson -- Dobbs was already headed for the history books as an important activist and civil rights pioneer.

The resume of his light-skinned companion from Pittsburgh was also impressive. However, he was not actually a Negro named James Crawford, despite what "Mr. Crawford" himself and the fake identification papers in his wallet claimed.

"Crawford" wasn't even black. He was Pittsburgh's own Ray Sprigle, 61 -- a nationally famous, and very white, star reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In 1938 he had won a Pulitzer Prize for proving that Hugo Black, the U.S. senator from Alabama who FDR picked for the Supreme Court in 1937, had been a loyal member of the KKK.

Now, with great secrecy, careful planning and the encouragement of the national office of the NAACP, Sprigle was pulling off the most ambitious and riskiest story of his impressive career.

Traveling through the Jim Crow South disguised as a Negro, Sprigle was seeing firsthand how 9 million blacks lived under Dixieland's infamous public-private system of legal, social, economic and cultural apartheid.

Later that summer, in August 1948, he would report to the world what he saw and experienced during the 30 days he "ate, slept, traveled and lived black."

The controversial, highly charged, 21-part syndicated newspaper series would appear in about 15 papers -- all north of the Mason-Dixon Line. In the Post-Gazette, the series was titled "I Was a Negro in the South for 30 Days." It was later repackaged as the 1949 book "In the Land of Jim Crow."

Making no pretense of objectivity or fairness or balance, Sprigle assailed the "iniquitous pattern of oppression and cruelty" that the South's mostly poor, rural and disenfranchised black population endured under a system he charged was patently immoral, inhuman and unconstitutional.

His withering first-person attack was widely read by the public and extensively commented upon by the chattering class of his day -- mainly radio commentators and newspaper columnists. It generated hundreds of letters -- 70 percent of them unfavorable.

It also quickly drew return fire from a lot of understandably defensive Southern newspaper editors, most of whom were quite fond of the "pattern of segregation" that used state and local Jim Crow laws to separate the races in public places like buses, bathrooms, ballparks and ocean beaches.

They did not appreciate "liberal" Yankees like Sprigle -- who in fact was a staunch conservative Republican -- parachuting into their turf and pointing out the oppression and cruelties of segregation that they countenanced, downplayed, excused or pretended didn't exist.

This film documents our visit to Shufordville Cemetery in 2017
(This film contains disturbing footage that may not sit well)

Passing as a black man was no small task for the lily-white German-American whose earlier front-page undercover stories for the Post-Gazette included pretending to be a coal miner and assuming the guise of a black market meat merchant for a month during World War II.

Thirteen years before John Howard Griffin published "Black Like Me," Sprigle tried but could not find chemicals to safely dye his skin. He ended up having to rely solely on a deep Florida suntan, but it worked.

With the respected and widely known Dobbs serving as guide and wheel-man, the pair put more than 3,400 hard, dusty, bigoted, pre-interstate, pre-Holiday Inn miles on Dobbs' 1947 Mercury. Dobbs -- whose identity was such a well-kept secret that his role was not made public until 1998 -- was crucial to the success of Sprigle's mission.

Using Dobbs' big house in Atlanta as their base of operations, and relying on Dobbs' deep knowledge of the South and his Masonic contacts in small towns, the team of subversive seniors raced over the dangerous back roads of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.

When they arrived in the Delta in mid-May, they didn't hang out in the juke joints of Clarksdale listening to blues. They inspected the pitiful Negro schools that white people considered separate but equal. They sampled the opinions of local black leaders.

They observed the living conditions of the Delta's impoverished army of 500,000 black sharecroppers and day-workers, who, almost 100 years after the end of the Civil War, lived mostly in shacks and slaved from dawn to dusk behind one-mule plows on the sprawling cotton plantations.

Dr. P.W Hill was a member of the
Imperial Quartette of Clarksdale, Miss.
The Press Register, July 28, 1927.
Sprigle and Dobbs also went to Lyon on the outskirts of Clarksdale to pay their respects to two tragic victims of the South's coldhearted race laws.

The victims -- a mother and her unborn child -- were interred in an expensive crypt in Shufordville Historical Cemetery, which today sits on a dirt road across from the Lyon town sewage lagoon.

As Sprigle explained in his series, and without bothering to hide his rage, the tomb had been erected by a wealthy black Clarksdale dentist, Dr. P.W. Hill, to honor his wife Marjorie.

Both she and their unborn baby had died in 1939 on an operating table in a black Memphis hospital 78 miles away after Dr. Hill had to send them north by ambulance in the middle of the night.

Dr. Hill knew his wife needed an emergency Caesarian section to save her life. But like most Southern blacks of his age, he never considered sending her to Clarksdale's white-only hospital because he knew blacks were not admitted under any circumstances.

In May 1948, Dr. Hill proudly showed Sprigle and Dobbs his newly erected memorial, which Sprigle described as a "magnificent tomb of white Alabama marble" on the edge of the cotton fields.

Sixty-one years later, I set out to see Dr. Hill's "gleaming" tomb for myself. Unfortunately, after being led by two of Lyon's 418 residents over the railroad tracks to Shufordville Historical Cemetery, there was not a single tomb in sight.

I soon realized the tidy fenced-in graveyard with the big sign and the well-tended headstones was only the white half of the cemetery, which is still segregated after 159 years.

The black half -- where Dr. Hill's tomb would be -- was buried under the wavy tall grass, dense bushes and clumps of trees on the other side of the dirt road.

With only a few Bic pens, an official reporter's notebook and a digital camera to protect me from mosquitoes and ghosts, I pushed deeper and deeper into the thick savannah in search of a tomb, any tomb.

Lyon's old cemetery wasn't the first stop on my research trip, or my last. The next day I would meet Dobbs' youngest daughter June Dobbs Butts and see Dobbs' old house, where Sprigle stayed on weekends during his trip.

I had already gone to the site of the infamous Andersonville Prison south of Atlanta, where almost 13,000 Union prisoners of war died and are buried.

As Sprigle wrote, one evening he and Dobbs had the luxury of drinking from the same spring-fed public water fountain as white people did; it was federal land, so Jim Crow rules did not apply. Today water still bubbles from Providence Spring, but is no longer potable.

I also had stopped at the southwest Georgia crossroads village of Bluffton, where Sprigle railed about the shocking inadequacies of a "dilapidated, sagging old shack" that served as the separate elementary school for Clay County's black kids.

Dr. P.W. Hill's tomb in 2017
All memories and traces of that "school" were long gone, erased by the march of time and higher civilization. Could Dr. Hill's magnificent marble monument be gone, too? I thought, almost stepping on another ancient gravestone hiding in the tall grass and smashing a mosquito on my sweaty arm.

Just as I was about to give up, Dr. Hill's tomb emerged from a clump of dense bushes like a Mayan ruin. Far from gleaming, its white Alabama marble was soiled and discolored by nature and human neglect.

Its heavy metal door was off and leaning against an inside wall. An overturned vase of weathered plastic flowers lay at its front step. Inside were five marble vaults, including one carved with "Margie Hill, Born October 30, 1904; Died October 10, 1939."

Sprigle wrote that Dr. Hill regarded his tomb "only as his tribute to the ones he loved." But Sprigle, who by that time had had as much of Jim Crow's unequal domain as he could stomach, was not so naive.

He declared Dr. Hill's tomb "a monument to the cold-blooded cruelty of the white man; to the brutal mandate of a white world that black men and women must die rather than be permitted to defile a cot or an operating table in a white hospital with their black skins."

I have no idea what Dr. Hill's broken tomb would symbolize to Sprigle or Dobbs today, but they would be most dismayed at the lack of civility in public discourse as well as the societal abandonment of the goal of the beloved community.  Sadly, a visit to the tomb of Dr. Hill suggests that we have come only a very short distance despite so much time and energy having been exhausted in hopes of realizing the dream of equality.  The erection of a fence in the 1980s to divide the black and white sections of the graveyard continues to impede efforts of a more unified preservation vision.

A Marble Monument To Cruelty
By Ray Sprigle - 1948

In this little, straggling Negro cemetery, its graves weed-grown, its headstones leaning drunkenly, stands a magnificent sarcophagus of white Alabama marble. It is an astonishing thing to find here on the edge of this Mississippi Delta town of Clarksdale. Quite likely there’s nothing like it all up and down the Delta in either white or Negro cemetery.

Within it lie the bodies of a dark woman and her baby, both dead in the hour of the baby’s birth. Proudly, Dr. P. W. Hill, wealthy Negro dentist, shows us through this gleaming mausoleum where his wife and baby lie and where someday he too will rest.

In all simplicity, he regards it only as his tribute to the ones he loved.

Monument to Cruelty

But this beautiful tomb out here on the edge of the cotton fields is a monument to the cold-blooded cruelty of the white man; to the brutal mandate of a white world that black men and women must die rather than be permitted to defile a cot or an operating table in a white hospital with their black skins.

Marjorie Hill and her husband had planned to have their baby at home. Mrs. Hill was strong and active and in perfect health.

The competent Negro physicians in attendance foresaw no complications or difficulties. Her approach to motherhood was wholly normal until just a few hours before another little dark soul was due in this white world. Then something went tragically wrong. Only a Caesarian section could save his wife and baby, Dr. Hill was told by the doctors.

Clarksdale boasts of a small but adequate hospital. But it is sacred to white patients. Dr. Hill didn’t even seek admission for his wife and unborn baby. Just before midnight he put them into an ambulance and started a mad drive north to Memphis and its Negro hospital, 78 miles away, in a desperate race with death. Death won. Mother and new-born baby both died on the operating table just before dawn.

Has Learned Big Lesson

The Clarksdale Press RegisterSep 5, 1972.
Dr. Hill, small,. spare, scholarly, reserved, is not, embittered. He has learned his lesson well. He is a black man in a white world.

"But, Doctor," I insisted, "you didn’t even try. You didn’t even ask Clarksdale Hospital authorities to admit your wife."

Both Dr. Clark and my companion broke in before I had finished:

"In the South," they told me, "when you’re black you don’t try to fight the pattern. Hospitals are for white people. White people do not admit black folk to their hospitals. Black folk do not even ask for admission. They just die."

But I wasn’t satisfied. Back home, and a white man myself again, I decided that here was one barbarity charged to my race that I’d disprove.

I wired Miss Louise Francis, director of Clarksdale Hospital. Western Union reported back that the wire had been delivered to her personally.

"Clarksdale Negroes insist that no Negroes are admitted to Clarksdale Hospital even in an emergency such as auto accidents, Caesarians. Will you wire me collect if Negroes would be admitted under any circumstances?"

No Reply to Telegram

I have yet to receive a reply.

Twelve days later I sent Miss Francis a registered letter referring to my telegram:

"Would you then be good enough to let me know if under any circumstances such as an automobile accident in front of the hospital or an immediate Caesarian, would a Negro ever be admitted to your hospital?"

I hold a postal receipt for that registered letter but there has been no reply. Which seems to establish the record and prove that Dr. Hill made no mistake when he didn’t bother to seek admission for his wife even on the threshold of death.

The segregated black section of Shufordville Cemetery also contains the graves of blues fiddler Henry "Son" Simms, who recorded with Muddy Waters and Charley Patton. Moreover, local blues enthusiasts placed a marker for harmonicist One-Armed John Wrencher in the cemetery in 2014.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

A Hard Road to Mississippi John Hurt's Grave

By Susie James For the Commonwealth
November 1997

VALLEY — Vividly colored fallen leaves mingle with the mementos visitors leave at John Hurt's headstone during their pilgrimages to his grave. The remains of the internationally-respected blues musician and recording artist lie in the tiny Hurt Cemetery a couple of miles down the narrow, wooded St James No. 1 Church Road. Flashes of hunter's orange, sounds of rifle shots, growls of four-wheel drives interrupt the solitude these days. Tires from increased traffic damage the simple roadbed — facts which figure in opinions about whether Carroll County's District 2 Supervisor Honey Ashmore should treat this largely ungraveled road as public or private.

Ashmore says that, while his crew works the road, winding northerly along the edge of Valley Hill five miles above Avalon, a couple of times a year. he doesn't consider it a public road.

New residents Brady and Shannon Smith, whose mobile home is less than a mile south of the Hurt Cemetery, are among those who say otherwise.

What's more, the Smiths say, it's a shame the county seems to care so little about landmarks such as Hurt's grave, which attract pilgrims off and on during the year — and would probably bring more if directional signs existed. "Seems like if there's an active cemetery on it, it'd still be a public road," said Charles Spain of Greenwood, who bought property adjacent to the cemetery in the spring. The old road's in pretty bad shape now. Plus, it's raining, and first day of deer season's tomorrow," Spain said Friday.

Before people started buying land here, and putting up homes; before two hunting clubs acquired rights on acreage down the road from the cemetery, the spartan quality of the upkeep suited the traffic and the silent tenants of Hurt Cemetery.

No longer, agrees longtime Valley resident Jerry Carver, who hunts along with his brothers in the woods surrounding Hurt's grave.

"So many people have bought land around there it's hard to keep up," Carver said. 'The road is definitely in bad shape." 

Mrs. Smith said in order for a burial to take place last year —that of Andrew Hurt, who died April 8, 1996 — a front-end loader had to be used to scrape up the mud from the road.

Prior to moving to Valley in July, Mrs. Smith said, she'd never heard of John Hurt. Even now, she said, "I have no idea what his recordings even sound like."

A California man, who was one of the frequent pilgrims looking for the cemetery, sent her information about Hurt. The musician's "Avalon Blues" and "Candy Man" are among blues classics.

Her husband estimated that seven to nine tourists come by their house some weeks. On other weeks, there might be no tourists. The Smiths' home is the last residence on the road before reaching the cemetery entrance, which is marked with colored plastic ribbons. The cemetery is on the west-ern side of the road, at the back. The Smiths' trailer is on extensive-ly landscaped grounds on the east-ern side.

`They go to the grave and leave things, take things," said Mrs. Smith.

Last week, there were some coins, a couple of guitar picks, and one strand of yellow Mardi Gras beads at the base of the simple marker. "There's usually more here than this, a lot of guitar picks and more beads."

Hurt, born in 1892 in neighboring Teoc, used to worship at the first St. James Missionary Baptist Church across the road from the cemetery. It eventually was torn down. A new St. James was erect-ed, according to Lucille Hurt, the widow of Henis Hurt, another famous cemetery resident, "under the hill." St. James No. 2 is still being used.

Mrs. Henis Hurt, in an interview 12 years ago, spoke of her late husband, who was the blues musician's older brother. John was a beloved singer and guitarist, worked as a tenant farmer for A.R. Perkins to the east, past the old Valley School, at the going rate of $3 a day.

Henis Hurt was a "distiller" and sometimes farmed, Lucille Hurt said. He died in 1969, going blind in 1968. Born in 1887, he made moon-shine and was jailed a few times, once in a federal prison in Atlanta. Later. he claimed to have made whiskey in prison from "the top man."

Old-timers recall Henis Hurt's artistry with bootleg whisky.

'They'd arrest him every now and then, but the big shots in Greenwood would go bail him out," said Arnie Watson, a North Carroll-ton man who remembers both Hurts. "He was their bootlegger."

A compact disc released Oct. 7 by Rounder Records Corp. should inform a new generation of Hurt's plain but complex and winsome style.

"Legend" includes 14 songs originally recorded in 1963 and 1964 for Tom Hoskins of Music Research Inc. Other Hurt titles available from them are "Avalon Blues" and "Worried Blues".

Songs on "Legends" range from 'Trouble. I've Had It All My Days" to "Coffee Blues", "Pay Day" and a cut titled "Stack-O-Lee", which sounds for all the world like "Stagger Lee". Some would say nixie of the songs. all richly rewarding. quite top the incredibly brief "Do Lord Remember Me".

It's like a prayer, and Hurt the angel, asking God's blessings upon anyone who hears him.

KTBA Nomination for Bill Pichette

Pichette and Memphis promoter Al Capone
Photo: Judy Peiser
Keeping the Blues Alive Award Nomination 

Bill Pichette

Since moving to Memphis in 2014, Bill Pichette has endeavored to learn more and more about the current generation of Memphis musicians, and he has proven one of the most enthusiastic and dependable individuals who has ever dedicated himself to the preservation of the graves of Memphis blues artists. After reading an article announcing the dedication of the headstone of Memphis blues legend Frank Stokes in the Memphis Flyer, he attended the ceremony in Hollywood Cemetery, which served as the genesis of his amazing work that makes him a deserving recipient of an award for Keeping the Blues Alive.

Pichette and his trusty companion 
searching for graves in a forested burial ground

At the dedication of the Stokes marker, Bill met several passionate blues enthusiasts and musicians, such as Eric Hughes, a local stalwart of the blues scene, Joe Kowalski, an avid collector of original 78-rpm records, and the grandson of Frank Stokes, Nathaniel Kent, who is also a Memphis musician. I think it’s safe to say that meeting these energetic and humble local artists and enthusiasts impelled the recent transplant to begin attending and documenting musical performances at Memphis venues, such as the Levitt Shell and the Center for Southern Folklore, among others. Through his encounter with legendary blues artist manager and photographer Dick Waterman, he also learned to respect the originators of the music and their descendants in the African American community. Over the next three years, he listened to the experienced individuals he met and took their advice to heart, eventually coming to embody the phrase, “Research is Respect.”

William Henry Barth: Carpetbagging Savior of the Blues

William Henry Barth (Born: December 13, 1942 - Died: July 14, 2000)was a musician, concert promoter, and entrepreneur, who has been described by some as "underrated" and misunderstood even among his own coterie of friends and collaborators. He may be best known for acting on information forwarded by record collector Gayle Dean Wardlow (obtained from musician Ishmon Bracey) and tracking down 1930s blues artist Skip James.

Barth wrote about his experience locating Nathan Beauregard in the 1960s.

He is also mentioned in this article by Stanley Booth about the Memphis Country Blues Festival from 1966-1970.  Click HERE

Barth was a central reason that it came from Memphis.  He co-founded the Blues Society too.

Skip Henderson had provided almost every single original concept for the city of Clarksdale's eventual blues tourist landscape, but he wrote a letter to the editor of the newspaper that put him on the wrong side of the new library director, Ron Gorsegner, who, along with the library board, took steps to take control of the tourism industry from the visionary. He was lucky that Bill Barth and Tim "The Royal Truth" Kendall--who lives near that dread place known as Paganhill, bought the Crossroads Bar from him as well.

Kendall corrected an often reported error about the re-discovery Skip James in the 2000s. He emailed Ed Denson not long after Barth died to confirm that Denson only engineered the early re-recordings of Skip James with Fahey and was involved finding Bukka White. He also engineered stuff for Fahey's Takhoma label and managed Country Joe and The Fish. Denson, however, denied having anything to do with finding Skip James in Tunica.]

Bill Barth, John Fahey, and Henry Vestine, of the band Canned Heat, found him posted up in a Tunica, Mississippi hospital in 1964. After paying his supposedly modest medical bill, the trio drove the rediscovered legend to the Newport Jazz Festival, where his surprise appearance delighted the audience and set in motion the second and perhaps even more influential musical career of Skip James.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Barth Burns About Blues Society

Billboard magazine - March 1969

Several years ago, Bill Barth, leader of the Insect Trust, who records for Capitol Records, founded the Memphis Country Blues Society which is dedicated to the restoration and perpetuation of Memphis Blues.  One a year, for the past three years, the Society has held a blues festival in Memphis where they present old classic blues artists to a continually growing public.  A fourth festival to take place this summer is currently being organized.

Barth’s interest in blues, along with an interest on the part of Nancy Jefferies and Bob Palmer, who joined Bill in the early days, led to the formation of his own group, the Insect Trust. The Trust itself is called by manager-producer Steve Duboff: “The world’s first country-jazz-folk-blues-rock-swing band.” They are strongly involved with their own music as well as the preservation of the past. Bob Palmer puts it this way: “It is the group’s perspective on a musical tradition rather than any attempt to recreate the music of the past, that gives the Insect Trust its sound.”

Barth first became interested in the blues through early reissues of 1920’s blues records, which were known as race records when they were recorded. In California, he met John Fahey, who now records for Vanguard and Henry Vestine, who is now lead guitarist for the Canned Heat. The three headed for the South in search of several blues artists who were still alive but hadn't recorded since the 1930’s. This, of course, was long before the present revival of interest in the blues.

Among the people they found were Bukka White (of "Fixin’ to Die” and “Shake ’Em Down” fame), Skip James (Barth later became his manager), and the Rev. Robert Wilkins (one of whose songs has just been recorded by the Rolling Stones). Vestine and Fahey returned to California but Barth decided to stay and continue his research.

It was this trip that led to the formation of the Memphis Country Blues Society by Barth. In 1966, Barth, with the help of several other blues enthusiasts, organized their first blues festival in Memphis. It featured bluesmen from Memphis and the Mississippi Delta, as well as jazz and r&b groups. Similar festivals were held in 1967 and 1968, the last being recorded by Mike Vernon, British producer of such groups as John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers and Ten Years After. Vernon produced an album from the tapes he made on his Blue Horizon label in England and it was released by Sire Records here in the States.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Nathan Beauregard was Born Blind

by William Henry Barth  (1995)
Born: December 13, 1942
Died: July 14, 2000

[In the summer of 2018, the MZMF received several short stories written by Bill Barth in emails to Tim Sexton, who co-owned Crossroads Bar with Bill in Clarksdale during the late 1990s.  Barth's writing was inspired by Robert Gordon's book It Came from Memphis, which featured a chapter devoted to the Memphis Country Blues Festival, 1966-1970.  With a documentary on the festival in the works, we plan to publish several excerpts from his unfinished manuscript Confessions of a Psychedelic Carpetbagger. TDM]

Late that night we got a ride from a truck driver, hurrying through the mountains to get out of the State of Virginia, where he had gotten nine speeding tickets. I crawled in the back of the cab and slept more or less, while Sonya took pills with the driver and chatted the night away. He gave us some to take along, white cross Benzedrine it looked like, but we lost them the next morning while making it, rolling around in the tall grass next to the highway. "Why don't we do it on the road?," we queried earlier, "No one will be watching us."  No one did. 

When we got to Memphis, we stayed at the home of John McIntire, where Fahey and I had stayed the year before, and we got jobs modeling nude at the Memphis Academy of Arts, where McIntire taught a course in design. After a week or so I slowly began canvassing block by block, looking for old records in the rows of black occupied houses behind Madison Avenue, spending the $11-$25 per week I was making while artsy middle-aged ladies with cold clay covered hands had checked to make sure my upper calves were proportioned exactly as they modelled them. One day, I think it was a Sunday, I was working a nearby street asking if anyone had any old records, "like Blind Lemon or Charley Patton," when someone invited me to take a look at a guitar they might want to sell. The house was small and very dark inside. Walking into the gloom; mid-day Memphis burning outside the door though not a droplet of light could penetrate the shadows into the back of the inside room. 

I didn't even see him at first, the pupils of my eyes slowly opening, adjusting to the darkness.
Everything was either old or older, and in the middle, in a chair that seemed to be swallowing him, was a gnome-like old man, not moving. Asleep or dead, probably asleep I figured with my usual lightning perception. The guitar was wrapped in plastic, a bag from the dry cleaning store quite naturally and the strings were very old, it hadn't been used in quite a while. An F-hole, arch top Epiphone; I recall it needed repair work, maybe the neck was slowly coming off the body at the heel, something. I tuned it up tenuously, working the strings into some relative of standard tuning, a couple of steps down. Five feet away the chair containing the gnome hadn't moved, neither had its contents, still dead or asleep.

Beauregard during the Memphis Blues Fest.
From Blues Unlimited #73, June 1970.
Photo: Chris Strachwitz.
"Whose guitar is this?" I asked...

"Oh, it belong to him, but he don't play no more." Came the reply. It belonged to the gnome, and I began to hope he was just asleep, cause then I could probably wake him.

"Uhh, oh I see...” slowly picking out a tune from the 1930's.

"Does he play this one?"

"Oh yeah he play it, but he don't play no more, and anyway you can't get him to play cause it's Sunday." (So, it was on Sunday) I thought I detected signs of breathing coming from the chair...

"Well, does he maybe play this one...?”

I tried picking out a local favorite from the 20's, backing up 10 years. A slight wheeze from the chair.

"Oh yeah, he know that one too, but he don't play no more, and besides it's Sunday, and he don't never play no how on Sunday." 

There it was syntax and all..."O.K., I understand, but does he know this one?" Backing up again, to the turn of the century, to pre-blues tunes, I picked out a rough version of Spoonful, in John Hurt mode. 

Again the answer came, as inevitable as the ticking of a clock, "Oh, he play that one too, but he don't play cause it's Sunday. You like the guitar?" 

"Sure, it’s real nice y'know, but I'd really like to hear him play, uhh maybe I could come back
another time and we could play some. I'll leave the guitar for now and maybe buy it later on."

Call me eccentric, call me worse, but I swear there was definite movement, stirrings, coming
from the chair. No voice though, no comment, no question, and no affirmation.

"Why sure, come on back when you want to, we'll be here."  I went back a few weeks later and they had gone, moved out. 

Nathan Beauregard and his nephew Marvin with
unidentified woman, while Verlena Woods
lingers in the background.
I had been canvassing more as I could afford it. I hadn't learned to drive yet, so I hit various parts of town using a three-speed bicycle for transportation just to get some feel for the place. Up towards north Memphis, I knocked on the door of a lady who had just thrown her records in the garbage. She volunteered to show me where. We went out back, and she lifted up the garbage can lid. I took a look and then reached and pulled up half a dozen 78's she had placed neatly in the bottom of the garbage can. Fortunately, nothing else had been thrown out onto them as yet, and for the then price of a quart of milk, I walked away with a V+ Joe Evans record and a few other good ones as well. 

Towards the end of the year, I began finding a few other small pockets of black row houses in mid-town, and I'd canvass them one by one, usually with fairly poor results. I'd spotted a small street right near where Elvis' teacher Kang Rhee's had his Karate Dojo. It was off Poplar Ave. and just across from Overton Park. I'd pass the Street on the way to work at the Art Academy in the park, and made plans to stop and canvass when I could. It was about a week later, late afternoon and I thought I'd give it a try. As usual, there wasn't much, one house had a candy dish made by melting an old LP until the edges could be curled, but I wasn't buying. I figured it was a waste of time since it looked like the type of street people didn't live on for very long, and indeed there didn't seem to be many long-time residents. I got to the end of the row of grey shotgun shacks and was about to knock on the final door when I heard an old blues record coming from inside the house. I could not believe what I was hearing at first. I noticed my hand was frozen, still raised in a fist to knock on the door. I'd once heard of a collector who had come across a house where an old lady was sitting and listening to her old blues records on her wind-up graphonola as the collector knocked on the door, and I flashed that this might be the same sort of thing. So I knocked on the door.

"Come on," the voice from inside beckoned. I opened the door and put a foot in the room, immediately looking for the graphonola, and noticing that there wasn't one.  What there was instead was the old man whose guitar had been offered to me for sale two or three months earlier, only this time he was playing Crow Jane on it. He had come out of 

"How ya' doin?" Well, what could I say? "Sit down."

I sat. We got acquainted. "Hey man, don't stop." He played some more. I was of course in heaven, or the blues version of it, but what emerged later was even more surprising. 

Nathan Beauregard was born blind in 1863. 

The elder blues artist was born Nathan Bogard in 1893.
Already in his mid-sixties at the time of the race recording era of the 20's, he had witnessed younger men who he could outplay achieve successful recording careers. He had, in fact witnessed it all. He stopped learning new material at the end of the 30's, and his latest most up to date tunes were proof of it. Both tunes had become big around 1940, just before the onset of the Petrillo ban and World War II ended much of the country blues recording which had been possible without union interference until then. Highway 61 in a sort of Tommy McClennan type of style but more long and lonesome; older, more authoritative, and Memphis Minnie's Bumble Bee. His earliest tunes were pre-blues country songs and dance tunes like "Pretty Bunch of Daisies," or "Spoonful," which he indeed played using the same melody that John Hurt used. He asked me whatever had happened to Uncle Dave, whose songs he'd enjoyed in earlier days when the music played by black and white country cultures had been similar. Nathan had small hands, delicate, with strong nails, and he could get a very clean and accurate picking sound when he wanted to, although he had naturally slowed a bit by the time we met when he was 103. His voice was high and lonesome, the kind you once heard coming from the front porch and out on across the fields, in an earlier century. 

"I got 19 women, and I wants one more," he sang in 1963.

Barth figured he was entitled.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Oldtime Bluesmen Get Share of Attention They Deserve

By Ted Estersohn - Philadelphia Daily News, Dec 17, 1970.

The blues boom is on. Now that everybody knows what Clapton and the Stones and the rest learned from B. B. King and Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, people are discovering the roots of urban blues.

Columbia records has finally issued recordings of Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, Bessie Smith and others that they've been sitting on for years. Men like Fred McDowell are starting to get some of the attention they deserve.

All too often, however, the public doesn't discover a blues man until he's dead, which is a drag.

Sure, Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton died in the thirties but Skip James was alive and making music, great music, in our lifetime. Now that he's gone, folks start to listen to his records and when they do they turn around and realize that they're hearing a genuis.

They're not all dead, though. There are still some men left who have yet to succumb to the troubles of their hard, long lives; men who are seminal creators within the blues idiom.

But they are poor and not well known. and they need people's support now. They do not need to be hiply mourned when they do die.

Son House is the Mississippi blues. In the thirties he played with Charlie Pat-ton and Willy Brown. He taught Muddy Waters how to play the guitar. Of Robert Johnson, Son says, "we'd all play for the Saturday night balls and there'd be this little boy standing around. That was Robert Johnson."

In the forties, Son put down his guitar. It seemed nobody wanted to hear him. Ile moved to Rochester. N.Y., where he got a job with h the New York Central.

In Rochester, Son also pastored a Baptist church attended by a certain Franklin family whose daughters Aretha and Irma sang in his church choir.

In 1964 Dick Waterman and Phil Spiro found Son House in Rochester, having searched for him in Mississippi and been directed to New York by Son's relatives. They were able to convince him that people remembered him and would pay to hear him again.

In the June 1965 issue of Sing Out! magazine, Son said, "I'm glad to be back playing now. At first, I didn't feel like I should fool with it because my memory of all the old songs had gone from me. It had been 16 years or more since I'd fooled with it and I felt that nobody wanted to hear that old stuff they used to play.

"But then I got to thinking about old man Louis Armstrong. Old Louis is older than I am and he came back with that 'Dolly' song. Everybody's talking about 'Dolly. Dolly.' You know, he's got a funny voice anyhow.

"I said, 'Jesus! If that old guy can come back, maybe I can.' I haven't got it back perfect like I could then, but I keep getting a little better and better."

Son House's music is basic blues. His strength lies not in polish and sophistication, but in unshakeably honest direct emotional power, with his rich strong voice over the hard flashing rhythm of his guitar. Hear his record "The Father of Folk Blues" on Columbia and never miss a chance to see Son.

Jess "The Lone Cat" Fuller from Oakland, Calif., and Atlanta, Ga., is a lively 74-year-old whose ragtime music has earned him friends all over the world. But acceptance has. been a long time coming. He has spent most of his life at day labor, shining shoes and working railroads.

Let's talk about his mu-sic from the ground up. With his shoeless right big toe, Jesse plays his fodella, an instrument he invented to play bass runs. His right foot plays high-hat cymbal on the off-beats, while he plays 12-string guitar with his hands. In a harmonica holder around his neck. he has a harp, a kazoo and a voice mike. Jesse's the Lone Cat, you see.

"You know, there are two kinds of blues." he says. "Me, I don't like to play no sad stuff. Now Lightning, he can sad you good .. but when they get to singing that sad stuff I move on down the line. I don't want to start crying.

"I play happy blues, you notice, boogie woogie and things, to make 'em dance and be happy and have fun. Good time music."

Jesse's best-known tune, "San Francisco Bay Blues," is a fine ragtime piece. Sung in his rough voice with all his instruments going, it typifies what he calls good-time mu-sic. A blues story with a lively, undaunted beat. His records on Prestige and Good Time Jazz will make you feel good. 

An example of what Jesse Fuller calls sad blues is the music of Robert Pete Williams. Robert Pete was found at Angola Prison Farm in Louisiana by Harry Oster. Robert Pete was serving natural life (life with-out parole) for murder.

After being exonerated (it was self defense and the state's witness admitted to perjury), Robert Pete moved to Zachary. La.

"I haven't picked up a guitar in six months, or longer than that." he recalls. "I go there I go to work. I cut iron. sell metal and stuff, you know."

Robert Pete sings in a high voice and plays in a subtle, melodic style. He has never been well known but has been warmly received at blues festivals here and abroad.

'When the blues hit you you'll play and you'll sing too." lie says. "Blues is a funny thing. Because you got this guitar across your lap and I've got this one across mine, that don't say you got the blues. We're just playing around with them. The blues come about if you're kind of misused or mistreated.

"You know there are two kinds of blues. Me, I don't like to play no sad stuff. Now Lightning, he can sad you good . . . but when they get to singing that sad stuff I move on down the line. I don't want to start crying."

"I got to thinking about old man Louis Armstrong. Old Louis is older than I am and he came back with that 'Dolly' song. Everybody's talking about 'Dolly...Dolly.' You know, he's got a Puny voice anyhow. I said, 'Jesus! If that old guy can come back, maybe I can."

Listen to Robert Pete Williams. (His folk-lyric will soon be reissued on Arhoolie ►. Listen to Jesse Fuller and Son House. Lis-ten to the Rev. Gary Davis and Bukka White and Furry Lewis and Sleepy John Estes and Lightning Hopkins. Listen to them because they make great music. Lis-ten to them because you can't completely under-stand contemporary pop music unless you know the vitality and musicianship, that was learned from the country blues.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Elder Green Part 1: Reprobate Preacher or Folk Hero?

By T. DeWayne Moore
University of Mississippi

Elder Greene is (gone), Elder Greene is gone
Gone way down the country with his long coat on

Elder Greene told the deacon, let's go down in prayer
It's a big ‘ssociation at New Orleans, come and let's go there

Don't you leave me here, don't you leave me here
Lord I don't care where in world you go, don't you leave me here

I like to fuss and fight, I like to fuss and fight
Lord and get sloppy drunk off a bottled in bond and walk the streets all night

Elder Greene told the deacon, let's go down in prayer
You can find highway robber on the road somewhere

Charley Patton “Elder Greene Blues” (Paramount 12972B)
Recorded in October 1929 in Grafton, Wisconsin

This article came out of a question someone posted on a country blues message board, someone recently asked, “Has anyone ever asked or investigated if the ‘Elder Greene’ from Charley Patton's song was an actual historical person?” At one time, some record collectors assumed that Patton had been to every town and known every character mentioned in his songs. In an early article from 78 Quarterly, Stephen Calt takes on the persona of “Jacques Roche” and explains that Son House suspected that “the proper names which abound in Patton’s blues, right down to ELDER GREEN, were faked,” or invented.[i] Patton, however, “would hardly have had to fake his ‘Elder Green’ piece,” as Bob Groom subsequently pointed out, because “it was already in common use” at time of the blues singer’s October 1929 recording session in Grafton, Wisconsin. The most intriguing research on the subject thusfar comes from the recorded interviews and research notes of Gayle Dean Wardlow. In one 1968 interview in Greenwood with Booker Miller, Wardlow relays that some believed that Elder Green was a real-life preacher from Memphis, whose vice was games of chance. To avoid encountering his congregation or family, Wardlow added, the supposed elder used to come down and take care of his gambling jones in the Delta.[ii] While he offers a very unique tale, the much more interesting elements of the interview come in the reactions and responses of Miller. As Wardlow speaks the words “Elder Green,” Miller immediately recognizes the term and associates it with the repertoire of Blind Lemon Jefferson, who—like many other artists--did indeed record a song about the alleged reprobate preacher.[iii] Miller, however, recalled it from somewhere else; it definitely rang a bell. “That must have been before my time,” he admitted, “I can hear my father and grandfather talk[ing] about something like that.” He tried to tell him that he needed to look a bit deeper into the past, a bit deeper into the folk culture of earlier generations in the Delta.

“Most likely,” contends Stephen Calt in Barrelhouse Words, the term “Elder Green” is the “personification of a preacher or lay preacher, deriving from green-apron, a term for lay preacher of 17th century vintage, or lady green, a thieves’ term for a clergyman.”[iv] For his lifelong endeavor to understand the meanings behind all of the slang used on blues records, Calt consulted John Farmer and W.E. Henley’s Slang and its Analogues, first published in seven volumes between 1890 and 1904. Though neither of the London-based authors spent much time in the United States, they were leading lights in literary circles and provided relevant information for a host of terms later found in blues. Renowned blues scholar Paul Oliver, also from Britain, in his 1984 monograph Songsters and Saints, demonstrates that “Elder Greene Blues” has close affinities to the version of “Alabama Bound” collected by Gates Thomas, in which “the wayward elder sheds his religious obligations to indulge in more worldly pleasures.”[v] The fictional Elder Green, in this sense, served as a tool for the blues singer to provide social commentary on the “hypocrisy riddling the church,” and this interpretation of Patton’s “Elder Green Blues” has been widely accepted over the years. David Evans and Luigi Monge embrace the contentions of Oliver and take them a step further in suggesting that Elder Greene was in the pentecostal or “sanctified” church, in which ministers known for their highly emotional style of worship and were often called “Elder.” Many folks in old-line churches ridiculed the “saints” or “holy rollers” and circulated all sorts of rumors about the pastors in these so-called cults.[vi] Monge even locates an Elder Green living in Greenwood, Mississippi around 1909--when “Alabama Bound” was first popularized.[vii] He admits that there is no way to determine whether or not he is the subject of the folk song. 

The folk culture of African Americans in the South produced two gendered cultural constructs, the Bad Negro and Bruh Rabbit, both of which are useful in analyzing the legacy of our Elder Green from the Delta. While having their origins in traditional African society, each of the cultural prototypes were constructed during slavery, remained active under Jim Crow, and continue to demonstrate their resiliency in the contemporary experience of African Americans.[viii] The individual and informal acts of resistance that reinforce these cultural constructs also supported the maintenance of an insurgent black consciousness in an era when accommodation was a dominant ideology in African American communities in the South. 

African Americans possessing the resources or physical property to avoid the constant humiliation of subjugation experienced by the majority of black southerners were often seen as “Bad Negroes.” Unlike their sharecropping brothers and sisters, African American landowners possessed the resources to live a semiautonomous existence away from segregated society. Some black folks in the rural Mississippi Delta, who owned land and managed to support their households without being involved in agrarian peonage, might also be considered “Bad Negroes." 

Though African American resistance was often acknowledged and revered in the form of “Bad Negroes,” defiant actions and consciousness were rarely overt and visible to the public.[ix] “Bad Negroes” were exceptional figures and rare in history. The “tricksters” of black folklore—whether an animal, such as Bruh Rabbit, or person, such as Elder Green—manipulated others and used deception to overwhelm their enemies. The majority of African Americans, similarly, “feigned deference while maintaining an oppositional consciousness, quietly rejecting the assumptions of White supremacy.”[x] Historian Neil McMillen believed that African Americans living in apartheid-era Mississippi possessed a dual consciousness, exhibiting an “accommodative demeanor [that] often masked a resentful spirit.”[xi] It was indeed more common to show disdain for the imperatives of white supremacy in the privacy of their own communities, away from the eyes and ears of whites. Thus, the majority of African Americans in the South maintained two selves: one persona for white society and another within their own world. 

This essay compiles evidence from newspapers, government documents, discographies, and secondary scholarship on blues, folklore, and the Mississippi Delta to argue that, contrary to the assumptions and musicological deductions of numerous scholars over the past fifty years, Charley Patton’s “Elder Greene Blues” may not be about a preacher who lacks conviction and indulges in various earthly pleasures. It may be about a formerly enslaved and rather ingenious African American farmer in the late 1880s who devises a plan to avoid debt peonage using his knowledge of the existing prejudices in white society. The protagonist, Elder Phillip Green, who had also served in the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War, successfully circulates a story about his own lynching and disappears until his creditor in Vicksburg recoups what he can of his outstanding debt, at which time he returns to his family and resumes his life, only now free from the burdensome debt. The references to getting “sloppy drunk off a bottled in bond and walk[ing] the streets all night,” in this context, comes off as more of a celebration of his economic freedom rather than a preacher’s confession of libidinal desires, or social commentary on hypocrisy in the church. Patton’s lyrics, in essence, may contain a hidden transcript, dramatizing different scenes in the clever saga of a black folk hero of the Jim Crow era. 

Born into slavery in Virginia sometime between 1829 and 1841, Phillip Green was one of an estimated one million enslaved blacks sold into the flourishing domestic slave trade, which, according to historian Steven Deyle, not only contributed greatly to the emergence of the deep South, but also exacerbated tensions between the upper and lower South and helped push the country towards Civil War.[xii] The speculators and traders who dominated the interregional slave traffic between the Upper and Lower South were practical and likely motivated by purely economic concerns when separating him by sale from his family and sending him to Issaquena County, Mississippi.[xiii] The internal trade in human property “led to the creation of the Cotton Kingdom” and “contributed to its eventual demise,” as the enslaved had simply become too valuable to surrender for the South. 

In mid-1863, Union General Ulysses S. Grant laid siege to the city of Vicksburg and took control of the Mississippi River, a major turning point in the Civil War which crippled the South. The United States War Department, in addition, had issued General Order Number 143 earlier that year on May 22, 1863, which established the Bureau of Colored Troops and actively recruited African-American soldiers for the Union.[xiv] According to his USCT service record, Phillip Green was still enslaved in “Eseguena”[sic] County, Mississippi when he enlisted at “Camp Hibben” on November 22, 1863 to serve three years in the 52nd Colored Infantry.[xv] Standing five feet, three inches tall, the 22 year-old “field hand” seems to have had an intermittent service record. Rather than being mustered out of service, he’s noted as missing in action on July 4, 1864, perhaps having deserted from military service. In any case, it seems Phillip Green made the decision to embrace his newfound freedom and return to Issaquena County, perhaps to find his wife Martha, to whom he is married later in 1870. One census enumerator documents that he lived in the Issaquena town of “Schola” with his wife, a five-year old son Tom, and a four year-old daughter Lucy.[xvi] By 1880, he had relocated his family to District 3 of Sharkey County, specifically near the town of Cary.[xvii] Over the next six years, he established a line of credit in Vicksburg with a merchant named Albert Formowski, who had immigrated from Danzig, Prussia and amassed considerable property and wealth. Known as one of Sharkey County’s “leading colored planters,” Phillip Green had managed to take advantage of the available tenant farming lands, the Delta’s rich soil, and the continuing demand for cotton during the 1880s. 

Not until after the Civil War did the Mississippi Delta begin to open up the bottomlands, ninety percent of which remained undeveloped. The great swamp attracted thousands of domestic migrants to the frontier of the old Southwest, many of whom hoped to clear enough land to eventually purchase some of it through the sale of lumber. Though both black and white settlers came to the region, an estimated two-thirds of the independent laborers in the Mississippi Delta were African American by the end of the century. The low price of cotton caused many black folks who settled in the hill country to go deeply into debt, and some of them decided to steal away to test their fortunes in the Delta. Some of them were given other incentives to leave their homes in the hills to come help on the large cotton plantations of the Delta. On December 17, 1886, a special to the New Orleans Times Picayune from Edwards, Mississippi exclaimed that the “negro exodus from this vicinity continues unabated.” Every freight train, the special complained, 

“carries off carloads of plunder and darkies, who go, not in single files, but in battalions—men, women, and children—victims of the immigration agent, leaving homes and unpaid accounts, for the Yazoo bottom, which has been painted to them as a veritable negro’s heaven, where crops can never fail and where money grows on trees.”[xviii]

The community of Edwards signed a proclamation stating that since the emigration agents carried away the local labor force, all of the agents had to either desist or leave the community. The town also appointed fifteen people to deal with, “in a becoming style, all such agents who refuse or neglect to comply with our modest but earnest demand.”[xix]

The excitement created by the proclamation, its enforcers, and the accelerated emigration of black folks from the Mississippi hill country to the Yazoo Bottom created a potentially hostile environment in the Pine hills of southwest Mississippi. The creation of a “law and order” league in Edwards to deal with any labor agents who failed to desist certainly reflected the formation of a lynch mob. Since the serious warnings at the Edwards meeting, therefore, labor agents generally started to work though black deputies. Everyone realized that carrying out the duties of a labor agent was a very risky proposition. Being one of the largest African American farmers near the town of Cary and bringing to Vicksburg well over a hundred bales of cotton each season, Elder Green regularly induced workers from around Gloster Station, in Amite County, to relocate for a while to the Delta.

In the second week of January, Elder Green took the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley south to Gloster Station. According to him, he had to pay some workers for their help the previous year and arrange for their permanent transfer this year from the hills to the farm. While he was sitting at the train depot if Gloster, a group of white men walked up and started to harass him. Elder Green lit out for the woods as fast as possible with the mob on his heels. He may have managed to escape from the men, but they returned to the train depot, warned a white planter, Col. T.J. Gibson, also of Sharkey County, against stealing away their hands, and explained that they would not stand for it. Thus, Gibbons claimed that he had not come to Amite for any such reason, but rather to clear a few debts. The men allowed Gibson to leave in peace, and Green managed to outrun the men and catch a train back to Vicksburg.

According to a special out of New Orleans to the New York Sun, Elder Green was terrified, yet decided to return to Gloster to arrange for the emigration of labor.[xx] On the morning of January 8th, an unsigned dispatch was received in New Orleans from Gloster. It read: “If you want Elder Green you had better send a box for him.” The dispatch did not reveal any particulars about how Green met his death. Robert Smith McLain, the mayor of Gloster Station, read about Elder Green’s terrible fate in the New Orleans Times Picayune, which prompted an investigation that failed to locate his body. Thus, in his own dispatch to the Picayune, the mayor denied the reported murder of Elder Green and informed that his body was nowhere in the town. “I desire to state,” he opened, “after investigation, that Elder Green visited Gloster at the same time as Col. Gibbons, but each of them left the city that evening.”[xxi] One dispatch from Vicksburg to New Orleans states that Elder Green was afterwards seen by Gibbons in Vicksburg, and the mayor of Gloster maintained that Elder Green never returned to Gloster. “If Green has been foully treated,” the mayor concluded, “it has been somewhere else and under different circumstances, and these bogus dispatches have been gotten up to mislead the public.[xxii]

Notwithstanding the formal denial of Mayor McLain that Elder Green was not lynched and left in his town, reports in several newspapers still maintained such was the case. The Leland Record, for example, forwarded a circumstantial version of events, though no names were mentioned.

“A colored man, who was acting as a labor agent for Goodman & Company out of Cary, MS was found dead on the streets of Gloster, LA, where he had gone to pay off some balances due, by parties who expected to leave Wilkerson County and come to Sharkey He had all his money and pistols on when found. There were three or four gunshot wounds on his body, but little blood nearby. He was evidently killed outside of town and his body brought to where it was found. Of course no one there tried to find the dastardly murderers.”

The editor of the Vicksburg Evening Post asserted that there were “more versions of this affair than of any similar incident that has happened in the State in many years.” At the time, all indicators suggested that the facts of the case would never be ascertained.[xxiii] The last news items about Elder Green that January concerned his alleged burial. Assuring that “there is no question about the death of Green,” a planter from the Deer Creek section named John Hogan informed that Elder Green had been buried near the home of Colonel Gibbons at Cary, on the Louisville, New Orleans & Texas Railroad.[xxiv] Other brevity’s forwarded the same general information with a new title, “Elder Green Planted” at Cary.[xxv]

Barely a month had passed since the people living at Gloster Station, in the hill country of Amite County, found themselves accused in the New Orleans newspapers of lynching labor agent Elder Green. The mayor of the town refuted the assertion, but subsequent reports of his burial exacerbated the psychological interplay in his continued absence. Since he had not been heard from in a month, Elder Greene’s wife and son-in-law “give it out that he was dead” and set their minds to handling his affairs. As a tenant farmer, Elder Green was indebted to the sum of about $1,000, secured by a deed of trust. Not long after his reported burial, Elder Green’s son-in-law A.G. Washington came to the city, informed Albert Formowski of his death, and suggested that a visit to Cary Station was in order to take charge of the Elder’s effects. The court appointed Frank Little, a local constable, as trustee to confiscate and dispose of the effects of Elder Green. Having posted the required legal notice and seen it expire, the constable sold all of his five mules, three cows and three calves, the wagon used on the farm, for forty bushels of corn, which amounted to $750 towards his outstanding debt. His wife, daughter, and son-in-law were relocated, along with the personal effects of Elder Green, to the farm of the constable about 12 miles outside Vicksburg. He provided them with two mules, one cow and one calf, a wagon, and enough supplies to last two months.[xxvi] Although certainly not ideal, the arrangement gave Martha Green, her daughter, and her son-in-law some time to mourn and then get back on their feet

It might have worked out well too, but the “wily” Elder Green proved a lively corpse when he turned up in February at the farm of Albert Formowski. He decided to turn up coincidentally at the same time that his creditor’s sister passed away. Her death was reported on the same day reports of his reappearance surfaced, February 11, 1887.[xxvii] According to the New Orleans Times Democrat, Elder Phil Green and his son-in-law wasted little time in moving away their effects. Save for one mule, which he left behind for one of the farmhands recruited in Gloster, they took everything of value that had not been nailed down. To give them time to escape, Green instructed the farmhand to wait a couple days and then ride the mule into town and tell Formowski about his resurrection and flight. He followed instructions and refused to tell; the creditor anything else. Formowski, however, was otherwise occupied with the funeral being at his home, so he sent his clerk with farmhand to look for the other mule and supplies, which he had furnished his family. On the way out of town, the clerk spotted “Squire B.B. Bowie,” a justice of the peace, who forced the farmhand to reveal the location the creditor’s property. Upon securing the information, Bowie went to the station at Redwood, about 12 miles away, where he found the creditor’s property, according to the Times. Green’s son-in-law, soon after Bowie’s arrival, sent a telegram requesting that his effects be sent to north to Huntington, which sits above Greenville on the Mississippi River. To end the matter, Bowie confiscated the creditor’s property, and the Times concluded:

“It now appears that Greene had become involved with his merchant and, being cunning, circulated a report of his murder in Gloster, where he had been recently recruiting workers, then he went to Arkansas in quest of a new field and a new merchant, intending to secure a place, come back, and spirit away his effects before Formowski suspected any wrongdoing. Yet, he never let his son-in-law in on the subterfuge, and to make himself whole notified Formowski.”[xxviii]

On the same day the above report appeared in the New Orleans Times Democrat, however, the Vicksburg Herald featured a brevity based on the testimony of constable Frank Little, who reported that Elder Green had been found and positively identified. He had accepted a position on a plantation near the Vicksburg & Meridian railroad in Warren County.[xxix] He couldn’t be working on a plantation outside Vicksburg and awaiting his effects up in Huntington. It’s clear that no one really knew what happened. On February 14, the Vicksburg Herald commented that “the celebrated Elder Green…has turned up alive and vigorous. There is no room to doubt that his alleged death was a subterfuge of his own invention.[xxx] Several days after that comment the Delta Democrat Times noted that he turned up in Warren County as well and declared, “perhaps he thinks it is the right season for greens to turn up.”[xxxi]

Elder Green had returned to the Delta, and soon he and his family returned to Sharkey County. Almost exactly two years later, Albert Formowski followed his sister to the grave, leaving the wily elder free from any potential debts.[xxxii] Elder Green fell ill later in life and procured the services of a preacher to submit his military pension application. The editor of the Vicksburg Herald, in a lengthy editorial on pension fraud, offers one last newspaper account in the life of Elder Phil Green. In describing the crimes of a so-called pension agent named Rev. T.A. Young, he explains how the agent made an application for “Phil Green, of Cary, a poor old negro ex-soldier,” in exchange for $1.50 cash. Soon thereafter, the agent wrote to Elder Green saying that he had the desired pension document and needed another three dollars sent to him, “which was done by express and received, as books” showed. Elder Green, however, did not receive the document or any more information after the lapse of a year (nearly) and repeated efforts. Someone agreed to help him and offered to procure a duplicate free of charge. Once they made a claim on his pension, however, it came back refused on the grounds that the records showed the applicant listed as a “deserter.” His military record did indeed list him as a deserter. At last realizing “how such divinity had got him,” the editor asserted, Elder Green “regretted he had ever seen a negro preacher.”[xxxiii]

I obtained a copy of the application card for the military pension of Philip Green, and it was filed for him a few months later. On March 6, 1891, an African American attorney and staunch supporter of the Republican Party named C.J. James submitted the application under “invalid” status and secured the pension despite the notation that he deserted the USCT. The following year, his attorney was shot four times by a man named Joe Chefus, who claimed that James was “ruining his sister.”[xxxiv] James’ death, however, did not impede Martha Green from applying to receive his pension on November 9, 1896, which was apparently required upon her husband’s death. Martha Green is listed in both the 1900 and 1910 census as living in Beat 2 of Sharkey County, Mississippi.[xxxv] It is not clear when she passes away exactly. Nor is it clear at all where either Elder Green or his wife were buried.

Alas, this was not "our" Elder Green after all.

Chapter 2 - Coming soon 


[i] Jacques Roche, “The Words,” 78 Quarterly 1:1 (1967): 51-55.

[ii] Booker Miller, interview with Gayle Dean Wardlow, 1968, Greenwood, MS, tta0182ee,

[iii] For an extensive list of these artists, see Luigi Monge and David Evans, “New Songs of Blind Lemon Jefferson,” Journal of Texas Music History, 3:2 (2003): 6. (1-21)

[iv] Stephen Calt, Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 84; John S. Farmer and W.E. Henley, Slang and its Analogues: Past & Present (London: Harrison & Sons, 1893; 1896).

[v] Paul Oliver, Songsters and Saints: Vocal Traditions on Race Records (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 117; Elder Green also appeared in early printed versions of “Alabama Bound” collected by Newman White in Alabama and Will H. Thomas in Texas.[v] The reprobate preacher, moreover, appears in many recorded versions of “Alabama Bound,” specifically those of New Orleans-native Papa Charlie Jackson (May 1925), Pete Harris of Texas (May 1934), Leadbelly of Louisiana (March 1, 1935), and Mance Lipscomb of Texas (1961). Natchez bluesman Cat-Iron (William Carradine) talked about him but called him “Jimmy Bell” (Folkways FA 2389) in 1958, and a white string band called the Tennessee Ramblers waxed vaguely nostalgic on “The Preacher Got Drunk and Laid Down His Bible” (Brunswick 259) in 1958.

[vi] For further information on these themes, see Horace Clarence Boyer, The Golden Age of Gospel (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 12-29; E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro Church in America (New York: Shocken, 1964), 47-67; Joseph R. Washington, Jr., Black Sects and Cults (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1972), 58-82; Paul Oliver, Songsters and Saints, 199-228; Anthony Heilbut, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times, rev. ed. (New York: Limelight, 1985), 173-186.

[vii] An Elder Green, described as “minister,” is included in a 1910 list of black residents of Greenwood, Mississippi. See http://www.rootsweb. com/~msafamer/msleflore1910Dir.txt. We wish to thank Bob Eagle for calling our attention to this source. There is no way to determine if this Elder Green is the subject of this folksong.

[viii] Lawrence Levine, in his book Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 367-440, discusses several archetypes of African derivation in the culture of African Americans. These archetypes include the “Bad Man,” a merciless killer who lacks remorse; “the moral hard man” who possesses the strength and courage to flout the limitations of white society; and the “tricksters,” who attain their goals through wit and guile rather than power and authority. The “moral hard man” develops from concepts of the warrior in the folk culture of Central Africa, whereas the trickster archetype in tied more to West African origins; for more on the warrior, see Clyde W. Fords Hero with an African Face (New York: Bantam, 1999), 68-94, for a description of the warrior in traditional African folklore.

[ix] Allison Davis, Burleigh Gardner, and Mary Gardner, Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1941), 23, 249, 534.

[x] Akinwele Umoja, We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2013), 21.

[xi] Neil McMillen, Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 49.

[xii] Steven Deyle, Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 97.

[xiii] Michael Tadman’s Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989).

[xiv] Dudley Taylor Cornish, The Sable Arm: Negro Troops in the Union Army, 1861–1865 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1965), 130.

[xv] Phillip Green was born in “Esegueui [sic]” or Issaquena, Mississippi circa 1841, according to his United States Colored Troops service record; see, U.S. Colored Troops Military Service Records, 1863-1865 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2007.

[xvi] 1870; Census Place: Schola, Issaquena, Mississippi; Roll: M593_731; Page: 275A; Image: 51896; Family History Library Film: 552230

[xvii] Phil and Martha Green had two children, Tom, 15, and Lucy, 14; see, 1880 US Census, Sharkey, Mississippi; Roll: 664; Family History Film: 1254664; Page: 117B; Enumeration District: 113

[xviii] “Edwards, Indignation of the People with the land Agents,” (New Orleans, LA) Times Picayune, Dec 17, 1886.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] “They Killed Elder Green: He Was Enticing Laborers to Leave the MS Hills,” The (NY) Sun, Jan 12, 1887.

[xxi] Vicksburg (MS) Evening Post, January 13, 1887.

[xxii] “Negro Exodus,” Fort Worth (TX) Daily Gazette, Jan 13, 1887, p.6.

[xxiii] “The Elder Green Affair,” Vicksburg (MS) Evening Post, Jan 17, 1887.

[xxiv] “Gloster: Elder Green Dead and Buried,” (New Orleans, LA) Times Picayune, Jan 14, 1887, p.1.

[xxv] “Elder Green Planted,” Vicksburg (MS) Evening Post, Jan 14, 1887.

[xxvi] “Elder Green Turns Up: And Attempts to Defraud Merchant Out of Advances” The (New Orleans, LA) Times Democrat, Feb 11, 1887.

[xxvii] “Death of Mrs. Biedenharn,” Vicksburg (MS) Evening Post, Feb 11, 1887.

[xxviii] “Elder Green Turns Up: And Attempts to Defraud Merchant Out of Advances” The (New Orleans, LA) Times Democrat, Feb 11, 1887.

[xxix] Vicksburg (MS) Herald, Feb 11, 1887.

[xxx] Vicksburg (MS) Evening Post, February 14, 1887.

[xxxi] Delta (Greenville, MS) Democrat Times, Feb 19, 1887.

[xxxii] Vicksburg (MS) Evening Post, February 23, 1889.

[xxxiii] “Pension Frauds,” The (Vicksburg, MS) Daily Commercial Herald, Dec 5, 1890.

[xxxiv] “Killing Yesterday Evening,” Vicksburg (MS) Evening Post Nov 8, 1892.

[xxxv] 1910; Census Place: Beat 2, Sharkey, Mississippi; Roll: T624_749; Page: 2A; Enumeration District: 0083; FHL microfilm: 1374762.a

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