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 
retirement.

"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
Historian
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 

NOTES 

[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: Ancestry.com 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

Eli Green is Dead


Eli Green is buried in the Greenwood Baptist Church Cemetery near Lamar in Benton County, Mississippi. 


"He once told a story about Eli Green, a local blues musician who had a profound influence on Kimbrough. Green was a firm believer in voodoo and allegedly could throw a pack of cards in the air so that they all stuck on the ceiling. Once the cards were in place, Green could call out the name of a card, and that card would fall to the ground."

Oliver states that Green was from the McIntyre community near Chulahoma in Marshall County.

From the book Goin' Back To Sweet Memphis: Conversations With The Blues

     Eli Green? Is he still alive?

     No, he's dead, I think he's dead…I think he's dead.

     With McDowell's help, Chris Strachwitz located Eli Green near Holly Springs, MS, in 1965. He was able to records two songs, "Brooks Run Into The Ocean and "Bull Dog Blues", by Green with backing from McDowell…and are "all that remains for posterity of the remarkable Eli Green who in turn had apparently learned a great deal from Charlie Patton.

     Sylvester Oliver states that Green was born in the first years of the twentieth century, making him a contemporary of both McDowell and Boose Taylor. McDowell remembered, "we did a lot of playing all around the Delta together - in Cleveland and Rosedale, towns like that" In the 1920's, McDowell sharecropped on a farm east of Hudsonville, MS. It was there that he met Eli Green...

     Junior Kimbrough, as a boy, learned guitar from McDowell and Green. The two musicians used to come on Sundays to get haircuts from Kimbrough's father. Kimbrough remembered Eli Green as "a bad guy" who "had a lil' man he kept in his pocket. He take that lil' man out and he dance around in his palm. If Eli git locked up in jail, that lil' man steal the keys for him". Kimbrough said that Green kept a magic bone that he had obtained by boiling a live cat. This bone allowed Green to walk through walls. Kimbrough also said that Green would "throw a deck of cards and they'd all stick in the ceiling. He'd name one and it would come down."

     Oliver interviewed older residents of the area who remembered Green as a "bad and dangerous man" who had special hypnotic magic powers. One informant recounted the story of Green going into a cafe and hypnotizing all the women, and apparently men also, making all of the women dance around with their dresses above their heads." Another of Oliver's informants told of how Green could change into an animal (like the Haitians' feared loupe garou), eat light bulbs, and disappear at will.

     Green was described as a gambler and a dandy dresser "in-well tailored black suits" and "white spats with his highly polished black shoes." He is rumored to have gotten drunk and lost his amulet of power.

     When Strachwitz found him in 1965, Green was living in a remote shack without electricity and a long ways from the road…


Saturday, June 23, 2018

101 Reasons Not to Stop Someone from Dancing on the Train Tracks


Album Review: 
Tony Manard - Know Why 
http://tonymanard.com

The above listed site, on the main page, will get you to a place where you can pick up the above album by Tony Manard, who perhaps goes around wanting to "know why" everything is the way it is. I don't "know why" that's the name of his album, but if a man was to use his intuition and intellect and think of what might be on said album, he might not be all that surprised to find six of these songs coming from Manard.  In truth, I'm no Manard expert, but like all plural beings, I possess the ability to profile and judge folks, perhaps cold-read is a more acceptable term in our times. So I make assumptions and speak truth to power despite the offensive potential to a gracious and cordial individual who seems a genuinely kind soul. 

In my own mind, "Mississippi (Why You Gotta Be So Mean?)" is the artist taking on the role of a blue-collar southerner who wants to murder his employer, yet also desires some sort of job security so that he can grow old with a little grace and get a taste of the not-so-complicated twilight of life. There is also a tinge of sympathy for the plight of the unskilled laborer (read: redneck) in today's society whose job prospects are dwindling. While it's not mentioned directly in the song, it's implied that the increasingly diversified population and economy in the southern states is going to require folks to attain a different skill set to maintain their productive status in society. Of course, many of our brothers and sisters find themselves lost and feel as if they have no options, nothing to lose, and many people go the same route of our protagonist, learning the hard way that they had more than most. I think I hear Cecil Yancy back there on a harmony, and Alice Hasen demonstrates her abilities as a catgut scraper too on the opening track.  A full-length video directed and produced by Libby Brawley, one of the newer filmmakers in the Memphis-New York connection, is embedded below. 

The track that stands out to this lifelong admirer of the music of Beck and Leonard Cohen is "Track 6: B-Movie Actor," which contains lyrics that remind me of a love affair between two beatnicks.  The most interesting aspect is the rhythm and the melody and even the vocal. It's a shake up for Manard. Granted, it may be a bit groggy on the highs, but compared to the tone on the rest of the album, I'm actually quite refreshed and invigorated by its steadiness. Manard's skill as an instrumentalist cannot be denied by any sober critic, but I always felt that Robert Jr. Lockwood said it well when he said, "Don't play too much." Unlike a few other places on the album, the business of filling up space is abandoned in favor of pedantic, progressive rhythm on this aural delight, which should not fail to peak the curiosity and interest of Manard's more dedicated following. It is notable for nothing else if not Vincent Manard's closing with the Aztec Death whistle.  It makes you feel as if things will be all right despite a lot having gone wrong.  With no more ado, enjoy the show - TDM

"Mississippi (Why You Gotta Be So Mean?)"
Tony Manard
.

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Opioid Blues

The Philipsburg Mail, Nov 24, 1899.

"You see the drug was so deceptive that while under its influence I could work and be free from pain, so instead of laying up and letting Nature do her work and cure me, I kept taking the injections until the pain would grow worse when I was completely from under the influence. The first thing I knew I could not do without it. I was compelled to take it night and morning to be at all comfortable. Then as I used it, I was not content to simply have enough to keep me free from pain. But like that fire, when once kindled, it grew in force and strength."

These are the vivid words of a man struggling with opioid addiction, but they do not adorn the pages of a contemporary news outlet, nor do they advance the underlying political platforms promoted in the pages of a modern newspaper. They come from an 1878 issue of the Chicago Tribune.

Americans struggled with their own opioid crisis in the nineteenth century. An estimated 1 in 2001 people were addicted to opioids by the end of the 19th century, not that far off from the approximately 1 in 1542 Americans who were dependent on or addicted to opioids in 2016.



What were the causes of the 19th-century opioid crisis?

Over-prescription by doctors and easy access to opioids—remarkably similar to the causes of the modern epidemic.

In the 19th-century, opium-based patent medicines such as laudanum and paregoric were popular solutions to a wide-range of ills, from coughs, to aches and pains, to diarrhea, to the euphemistic “female complaints.” In fact, many of the opioid addicts during the late 19th-century were women, particularly white women of the middle and upper classes, who became addicted after being prescribed opium-based medicines by their physicians.

These opioid-saturated medicines were widely available, with ads for them appearing in newspapers around the nation. One such medicine, Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, was geared toward young children and promised to not only soothe teething babies but also claimed it “corrects acidity of the stomach, relieves wind colic, regulates the bowels, and gives rest, health, and comfort to mother and child.” The fact that it was laced with opiates wasn’t mentioned.

The Civil War introduced a new demographic of opioid addicts: soldiers. Morphine, derived from opium, had been around since the early 1800s, but the introduction of the hypodermic syringe into mainstream medicine around the time of the Civil War made it possible for military doctors to easily treat wounded soldiers without the side effects of orally administered opioids.

When the soldiers returned home, some of them returned addicted to the morphine administered to them in hospitals, while others became addicted after the war as a way to treat the chronic pain resulting from war wounds.

So how was the 19th-century opioid epidemic resolved?

In the late 19th century, medical professionals began to realize the detrimental effects of opioids. “Who is responsible for […] morphine victims?” asked a doctor in an 1892 issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He then answered his own question: “The physician and the druggist, most largely.”

As awareness of the dangers grew among doctors and pharmacists, opioids were prescribed less often and became less freely available, which helped lower the number of new addicts. This, combined with state and federal regulatory legislation, helped eventually end the epidemic.

Of course, just because the 19th-century epidemic ended, it didn’t mean opioid abuse was completely eliminated. Abuse continued on a smaller scale, complicated by the introduction in the late 19th century of an opioid marketed as a safe alternative to morphine: heroin.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

A Note about Fred McDowell from Straw, MN 55105

Earlier this month, I went to the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund post office box and pulled out a package from Mr. Kevin Hahn.  The package claims to have been sent from a place known as Straw, MN 55105.  Of course, this place does not exist.  Nevertheless, inside I found several photographs and the note below:





Thursday, May 31, 2018

Peter May Finds Solace with Patton

JERI ROWE - Greensboro News & Record - February 1, 2001 

Peter May closes his eyes and scrunches his face when he recalls his trip last September to Mississippi.

He hears the industrial whirring of a huge cotton gin and sees a small, white-plank church bathed in a van's headlights. As he walks toward the clouds of cotton dust, he looks for the sight he wants to find: the grave of legendary blues musician Charley Patton.

He grabs his guitar and camera from the van and ambles into a cemetery choked with knee-high weeds. He stumbles, looks around, stumbles again. Then, he sees in front of him, chiseled in granite, the words, "CHARLEY PATTON, THE VOICE OF THE DELTA."

He found it. His home.

"Come on up and talk to us, Charley,'' May says, smiling.

May is 35, a short, slender man with long, boyish, brown bangs. He rolls his own cigarettes, shaves every few days and helps his wife, Susan, take care of their four daughters, ages 5 to 11. He sells tires by day; he plays the blues by night.

And May can play. He plucks the guitar strings like some jazz-cat drummer and sings in a bar-worn, scruffy voice about leavin', liquor, redemption and a girl named Laura Mae.

Hear for yourself Friday at The Garage in Winston-Salem, Sunday at The Blind Tiger in Greensboro or next Thursday at Ziggy's nightclub in Winston-Salem. Or simply pick up his latest release, ``Black Coffee Blues,'' a CD of haunting authenticity filled with the ghosts of Patton, Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Those were the very ghosts May has wanted to find. In September, he spent 14 hours on the road with three friends. They traveled through the Deep South to pay respects to the people who had created the music they all loved.

"Breathing that same air and walking on that same ground, it gives you a perspective you can't find in North Carolina,'' May says.

May discovered Patton through listening to bluesman Skip James. Then May created his own school to understand the man who had helped create Mississippi's rural blues, the foundation of today's rock 'n' roll.

May read books. He listened to Patton's recordings. He went to a blues workshop in Connecticut and took private lessons in Massachusetts. Then he sat on his bed for hours, playing Patton's tunes over and over until he got them right.

Finally, for his own self-styled graduation, he went on a blues pilgrimage to a cemetery south of Indianola, Miss.

When he found Patton's tombstone, he felt dazed at first. But that feeling vanished when he saw a ``tall boy,'' a 22-ounce Budweiser can, near Patton's grave. He tossed it, thinking of a line from the old blues song ``One Kind Favor'': ``See that my grave is kept clean.''

Then he lit one of his hand-rolled cigarettes, knelt beside the grave and, inside the blinding swath of the van's headlights, began to play ``Down the Dirt Road Blues.'' The tune seemed appropriate as he sat alone in the dark beside a dirt road in Mississippi.

I'm going away to a world unknown

I'm going away to a world unknown

I'm worried now. But I won't be worried long.

"It seemed like the air just soaked up that music,'' May says.

May often wonders why he - a preacher's son from Winston-Salem - has become so intrigued by this black-born music. He hasn't an answer. But like many of us, he enjoys the search. Especially that night in Mississippi.

"This music is about freedom,'' he says. ``When you listen to it, there's always some kind of line about going down the road and being by myself. It's like you've been somewhere, and you think, 'I am somebody.' And man, I think I need that freedom. It's liberating.''



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