Saturday, March 25, 2017

Ralph Lembo - The Blues Talent Scout of Itta Bena

Ralph Lembo was not only keen in booking Blind Lemon Jefferson in 1928, but he also invited other recording artists to perform in the tiny metropolis, specifically ART GILLHAM, the Whispering Pianist of Columbia Records. 

ITTA BENA, Miss.---- Art Gillham, the famous Columbia piano artist, was here in Itta Bena yesterday for a short time. He honored the people of this town with a few of his hits. Among them were: "I'd walk a million miles to be a little nearer to you," "So Tired," "Now that I have You," and "I'm Drifting back to Dreamland."

Mr. Gillham’s visit came as a complete surprise and only a few were fortunate in getting to hear him. Ralph Lembo, local music dealer, called Mr. Gillham and had him come over.

From 1926-1929, Gillham toured the Pantages circuit on the West Coast and the Loew's--Saenger circuit in the South. The intimate style that made him popular on radio and records did not translate well into large theaters. His style limited him to the smaller theaters, because amplifiers and speakers had not yet been installed in most theaters. He was on stage by himself with a piano and a telephone. The telephone was for "conversations" with his sweetheart, who no doubt was jilting him. Art used this as an introduction to his "sob" songs and to promote his image of not being able to get or keep a sweetheart. His radio and record image of being an old, balding fat boy could not have been used where his audience could see he was young, thin, with a head full of dark wavy hair. His appearances were usually well advertised, frequently with full pages of ads for his appearance and his Columbia Records.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Henry Stuckey: Father of the Bentonia School of Blues

The Obituary of Henry Stuckey: 
Father of the Bentonia School of Blues
and Teacher of Young Skip James
By Jacques Roche (Stephen Calt) for 78 Quarterly in 1968

Today's strange state of affairs, which brings the rural blues singer acclaim for ethereal but earthy qualities he never intended to cultivate, and then gives him a commercial brush-off, prevented the public recognition due Henry Stuckey before his death on March 9, 1966. 

Referring to the gushy compliments and reviews that have beset him since his rediscovery, Skip James once remarked: "You can't live off air puddings. Henry knows that, too; he's too smart for these slicks who talk you into studying the music racket again." At Mr. Criswell’s plantation in Satartia, Mississippi, where Gayle Wardlow dis-covered him early in 1965, Henry Stuckey both laughed off and shrugged at the concert success of his former protege, matter-of-factly commenting: "I can play just like him."

Henry Stuckey, according to one who saw him play, had a "beautiful, deep voice, but was so ugly I couldn't bear to watch him long." Although it is difficult to asses the worth of a bluesman whose music was never made public, Stuckey's reputation was such that H.C. Spiers, when interviewed by Wardlow, still remembered him from the 1920's. Even at that, none of his discoverer's overtures to record companies produced an encouraging response.

"How old is this singer? In his sixties?" an Electra secretary peevishly wanted to know. "Well, we can’t speculate on every kid that comes along with a tape recorder; we backed one kid once and he never found a single blues singer. Send a tape." Since word got around that the Library of Congress' unctuous impresario paid only in cokes, blues singers have also been unwilling to speculate on the promise of 'sending a tape'. On the premise that even a `has-been' country blues artist merits closer scrutiny than any would-be blues ' interpreter', the following data in regards to Stuckey has been compiled by Gayle Wardlow and myself.

Henry Stuckey, born in the 1890’s, saw his first guitar in 1904. A year later, he took up that instrument.  Between 1907 and 1909, the young Skip James wandered into a Bentonia Jukehouse to watch Stuckey and an older musician, Rich Griffith (also deceased), accompany a fiddler who was playing Drunken Spree. Though that title is still part of James repertoire, Stuckey had completely forgotten it some 55 years later. Upon his return from the war in 1917, Stuckey taught James how to play guitar. The style he is said to have shown Skip was built around ragtime pieces like Salty Dog ("The old version") and Stack 0 Lee, all played in the key of G. Soon, Stuckey was pirating Skip out of his house at night, when, unbeknownst the James family, the pair played in nearby barrel houses. Stuckey, who towered over his young partner, served as a general bodyguard at such times.

As many as a dozen musicians worked around the Bentonia area during that period (Stuckey himself had a brother, Shuke, who “played better than Henry did.”)  "I’d follow them like the pied piper, all over town," Skip reports. James learned some local pieces, including a version of Slidin’ Delta ("They’d have a real deep, sad sound even when they were rapped or frailed"), and then quit playing guitar for a year to "study" what he had seen and learned. From that point on James's music—such as his early composition, All Night Long—started .coming from "within," though some songs, like I Looked Down the Road, still retain an older, possibly local, touch.

The school of blues-playing developed by James on his Paramount recordings could be designated “Bentonia,” for Skip, now falsely billed as a “Delta” bluesman, adhered to no distinct regional style: e.g. Delta. Only James and Blind Joe Reynolds, among the blues singers who count, were so musically isolated. Both men were among the most eclectic of blues singers. Whereas some blues singers like Tommy Johnson (whose Coal Black Mare, a piece in Spanish tuning, was learned by Skip appeared in nearby Flora during the early 1920s, the music played by Skip and Henry Stuckey never spread out of Bentonia. Within Bentonia, both James and Stuckey set out to destroy all their competition.

These two men performed whenever Skip happened to be in town. ("I never got into anything or anyplace too deep or long; that's why I reckon they call me Skip.") Both picked their Stella guitars with three fingers and played in cross-note' tuning. When the first country blues records came out, they “studied” some of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s pieces, as well as those of later artists (like King Solomon Hill), but only for the purpose of “playing them better.” Today, Skip will reluctantly perform a few such acquired pieces, like Jack O’ Diamonds.

In neighboring towns like Pocahontas, James was not adverse, Stuckey recalled, to singing his blues on Saturday night and going "up the road" to preach on Sunday.  Neither married man stayed home at night: "We treated our wives in any kind of way," said Stuckey. Both readily acknowledged their excessive drinking: "I was trying to be a 'man,’ so quite naturally I was a habitual drunkard," James said.  According to James, Stuckey was an expert and wily crapshooter: “I never would join a game with Henry when he shot those craps with strangers.” In his own right, Stuckey was an entrepreneur who would, rather than hire himself out to house parties (at which food and admission prices made up the musician's fee), rake in the entire profit from his own parties in Sartartia. “He’d do most anything to get out of work. Henry always liked to take it easy—you'd always find him out hunting or fishing somewhere."

Stuckey, in turn, when asked if Skip worked as a youngster, replied, "His mother sure did. Hah!" The personal attitude of each rediscovered man towards the other was totally patronizing, and somewhat conspiratorial in matters pertaining to music and other Bentonians. Skip, when referring past local violence directed against himself, would validate his remarks by saying: "Henry Stuckey could tell you about it." Stuckey, on the other hand, would only snicker at Wardlow's then-relayed accounts.

Even when James made the Bentonia scene, their respective sidelines often sundered the pair. However, Stuckey was able to con-firm the fact that Skip's Cherry Ball was composed at his Grafton session. He was familiar with many of Skip's compositions, like Cypress Grove and Devil Got My Woman, a piece he said had been once known locally as Devil's Dream. He remembered Skip's unrecorded Crow Jane and Catfish ("an old song") from the 1920's. Of Special Rider, he said: "A woman died while singing that song." While Stuckey knew little about the development of Skip's piano style, he sometimes backed up his piano-playing on guitar.

During the 1930s, Stuckey ran a barrelhouse in the Mississippi Delta ("He got as far as Belzoni," said Skip). At that time, he met Charley Patton, whose style, he, unlike James, personally appreciated.

In 1935, James came back from Texas and happened to pass by a party at which Stuckey was playing. Although Skip had, for the most part, quit playing blues since his recording session, he teamed up with Stuckey that night. Earlier that same day, Stuckey said, someone had recorded him. No record of a Stuckey session exists. James remembered that particular house party, but maintained that his own involvement was minimal and that, not having wished to "make a show" or intrude on Stuckey's performance, he tactfully waited until other Bentonians threw a party in his honor before playing in public.

James soon went on to Alabama but, in the late 1940s, returned to Bentonia with his second wife, and once again took up blues-singing with Stuckey. Henry s cousin, "Sport" Stuckey, threw parties every Friday night at which the two entertained, while James' cousin, Lincoln (Buddy) Polk of Yazoo, ran a cafe in Bentonia which featured both men. Another cousin of Stuckey’s, Burd Slater, also played locally and performed some of their songs, although James reports that he had a predilection for "Muddy Waters’ stuff."  Stuckey and James also accepted invitations from friends to play for nearby Delta parties. Once, Stuckey recounted, both men saw Kid Bailey playing in a Delta barrelhouse, though the incident is not remembered by Skip.

Soon, Stuckey was advising James to go up North, where musical opportunities seemed greater. To James this meant living in a 'reprobated’ city like Chicago which he felt should be ‘wiped off the map'. Nevertheless James, who disliked his job residency in Sartartia, suddenly left with his wife in the early 1950s. Yet, tiring of the travelling required of a musician, he then abandoned-his-brief comeback altogether. Stuckey in turn went up to Omaha and found work as a band guitarist. They never met again.

At the time of his discovery by Wardlow, Stuckey was living in a barren, one-room shack with his wife, daughter, and grandchild. ("I imagine his luck must have struck tough in the North.") Blandly, Stuckey indicated that his Delta barrelhouse operation had netted him more money than his Omaha career. Despite a plantation strike in ‘tense’ Leland which took place at the time of one interview, Stuckey remained characteristically relaxed. His affable and reserved demeanor suggested that of a Delta rather than a Yazoo County resident. In discussing his erstwhile friend; the older man didn't seem to believe in or comprehend Skip's transformation from his comprehend days on the Whitehead plantation. Just the same, Stuckey, while lacking James' ambition to travel, record, and take up the ministry, nevertheless exhibited the same detachment from his surroundings and contemporaries which made Skip, by his own description, "an odd fellow.'

Puffing on a cigar, Stuckey, who had kept up with James' career through the `grapevine' (Skip's cousin in Yazoo), stated, " I' like to meet him again. I was up in the Delta in the fifties and heard somebody playing .22-20 in a house. When I went inside, I only found a phonograph record." 

Skip James, who "wouldn't play in Bentonia again for $10 a minute," had, just before receiving news of Stuckey.'s death, been discussing an eventual visit to Sartartia to see him.

Nitta Yuma, Mississippi

The Headstone Application of James Huntley
Nitta Yuma Cemetery

The Military Marker of James Huntley

Nitta Yuma Plantation Store

Abandoned House at Nitta Yuma

Nitta Yuma Cemetery

On March 18, 2017, the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund visited Henry Phelps in Nitta Yuma, Mississippi. We visited a couple of different cemeteries in the vicinity, including Nitta Yuma Cemetery, the final resting place of Armenter Chatmon--aka Bo Carter, of the Mississippi Sheiks. He wanted us to let everyone know that the cemetery is open to the public and accessible via an easement that goes around the adjacent field. This short film shows the relatively well-kept rural burial ground as we found it upon our arrival. We plan to dedicate a historical marker in honor of Bo Carter in July. The last frame shows the view from Carter's grave on the edge of the field.

Please visit…

Music by the Coffee Grinders

Thursday, March 16, 2017

An Open Letter From a Blues Fan [Bob Koester] 
By Robb Baker - Jan 19, 1969

Our recent series on the rock-blues scene brought a most welcome letter, part plea, part protest, from a Chicagoan with a knowledge of this city’s blues so extensive that we wish ours was one-tenth as great.  

Bob Koester runs one of the town's few record stores with real character, The Jazz Record Mart at 7 West Grand Ave, and has his own recording company for local blues artists, Delmark Records, at the same address.

He writes about blues with the same nonstop excitement with which he speaks of them. Here, unedited except for one word not for family newspaper consumption, is what he said:

The blues scene in Chicago is as it has always been, enormous--far more important (I am truly sorry to say) than the jazz scene here, and certainly relevant to the rock scene and to the readers of your column. It is silly that southern city like New Orleans finally recognizes its culture !To the extent of city-wide support of a jazz club, a jazz museum and annual jazz festivals, while Daleytown refuses to pay the slightest homage to the roles of black bluesmen in the current rock-pop-blues revolution.

Face it rock is all-too-often just whitey's imitation of blues Chicago style. (Maybe I should make that plural—there is quite a range of styles in the Chicago school). The Grateful Dead’s version of GOOD MORNING LITTLE SCHOOLGIRL is a blatant imitation of Jr. Wells' recording of several years earlier (Closer than Jr. would be if he were to re-record it [and not bad for the in all likelihood inebriated Pigpen]); another two tracks from the same album ("Hoodoo Man Blues," Delmark DS-9612, which has never seen so much as one slug of type in the Chicago press) were lifted bodily and spliced together for THE DIRTY BLUES BAND'S first album track, "Hound Dog."

As no rock band (To my knowledge—I don't follow the imitation-blues scene that much) has imitated our recent MAGIC SAM release, I will stop short of giving Leonard Chess’ product free advertising, though I could go on.

It (blues) would seem to be an important part of the rock scene if so much…imitation can be passed off as serious art worthy or "criticism"—so why not lift the bushel and see the light.  Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, and a very few other young Chicagoans did put in their sit-in time on the band stand of the generous black artists, picked up a few licks, organized bands that come fairly close to the original thing and were accepted by the young whiteys (who were culturally deprived by racism and segregation and thus unable to hear the originals); a few of the kids even became members of blues bands (Otis Rush has had a white guitarist—2 different guys—for 3 years now; Memphis Charlie Musselwhite played regularly with Johnny Young before he got tired of being hassled by fuzz and split for S.F. where he is a minor folk hero.)—but the sanctioning of this music by a whole generation of whiteys in imitation (occasionally the sincerest form of flattery but more often than not just a good way to make a buck, pick up some ego, make an identity with the folk "Negro" that helps one’s self-respect perhaps, etc. etc. etc.) has raised the originators from obscurity to legend to an occasional factor in name-dropping on litter notes to help sell the pale imitations.

For God's sake, for art's sake, for journalism's sake, Robb, you know where it's really happening!  Tell the people.  I appreciate the many kind references to my shop, myself and my label. But blues in Chicago depend on the Big Walters and the Magic Sams and the Carey Bells, not on Mike Bloomfield, who wonderful guy that he is, is in a blind alley musically. No black man is going to change his idea of guitar-playing because of a Mike Bloomfield record, and most of the young Whiteys are too interested in the buck to go thru the changes Mike, Paul, and damnfew others did to pick up what must be learned.

If black artists must wait as long as Bird (Charley Parker), (Fletcher) Henderson, Louis (Armstrong)—or Fats Waller) — to achieve recognition (or maybe some bread), they must die first in too pathetically many cases. Here at the Jazz Record Mart we sell the hell out of Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James (all discovered by whitey immediately after their death as if the press releases had been prepared in advance).

The whiteys land, culturally, I must include Taj Mahal and quite a few others—haven’t decided about Hendrix because he bores me) make the loot and the black man creates the music.

That's barely a fourth of Koester's letter. Most of it takes issue with our article entitled "Urban Blues: No Longer Easy to Find in Chicago" ("if the blues are hard to find in Chicago it is only because someone thinks of Chicago as meaning ‘white Chicago ghettoes’ and not of Chicago as a very large city with many different ghettoes for many different people of many different cultures"), and for proof gives an extensive list of clubs on the south and west sides, followed by three lists of local bluesmen, headed "Usually on the Road," "Legendary Outside Chicago but Generally Staying at Home," and "Up and Coming."

Last, Koester issued an invitation to visit those clubs with him some Saturday night. It looks like it will take a lot more Saturdays than one. Happily.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Elizabeth Cotten

Noted folk singer Elizabeth Cotton
Still Going Strong at age 92
By Jim Reilly - 1985

When Elizabeth Cotton was a little girl growing up outside Chapel Hill, N.C., she used to dream about playing a guitar and having crowds of people join her in song.

Now, at 92, she has lived that dream many times.

Best known as the songwriter of "Freight Train," "Shake Sugaree," "Oh Babe It Ain't No Lie," and other classic country blues, she has played at clubs and festivals from New York to Hawaii. She's still an active performer, often appearing with her singer/songwriter granddaughter, Johnine Rankin.

Cotton's wit and storytelling skills remain sharp, though her hearing has faded and her voice has grown a bit thin.

In concert, she complains she “can't play like [she] used to," and warms up with an old blues guitar progression. Between songs, she pulls the long fingers of one hand through the other, complaining of the cold. But she projects a warmth that draws little children to her and compels an audience of strangers to sing aloud the songs she teaches them.

"0l' Georgia bug, ol' Georgia bug, ol' Georgia bug said so," Cotton sings, watching the crowd. "Sing, son," she prods as the little boy joins in.

She sings "Freight Train" with a little wide-eyed, red-haired girl she calls up out of the audience, then "I'm on My Way to the Promised Land," "Do Lord Remember Me," and "Tell It on the Mountain High."

She ignores the repeated requests for "Shake Sugaree."

These days, she leaves the blues to granddaughter Johnine, who sings her own songs, her grandmother's songs, and traditional folk and gospel songs in a rich, ringing voice.

"I don't sing the blues no more unless I have to," Cotton said afterward.

"When I joined a church in Chapel Hill, the deacon said I couldn't play those worldly songs and be a member of the Baptist Church ... so now I play church songs, and it's done me a world of good."

By her own account, Cotton had it hard much of her life. As youngest child in a family of five, she worked as a domestic for 75 cents a month. She bought her first guitar for $3.75 at age 9, and wrote "Freight Train" two years later. Her parents, two of her brothers, and her sister died when she was young.

She learned to play the guitar by picking out a tune on one string and then adding to the skill. She plays left-handed, but with the guitar strung for a right-handed player, so in effect she is playing upside down. Her rhythmic "Cotton picking" guitar style has influenced many other blues and acoustic guitar players. She learned to play the listening to her older brother and sneaking practice time on his banjo when he was at work.

"He didn't have to show me nothin' 'cause I heard it day and night,” she said. "I was always breakin' the strings. I'd play it till the string said pwang, then I'd hang it hack up on the nail and hide under the bed."

Morristown Daily Record, June 30, 1987
After a move to Washington, she went to work for the musical Seeger family. She had been working in a department store when she met Ruth Crawford Seeger, and left to help with housework and care for the young Pete and brother Mike (both became well-known folk singers). She also helped raise her own five grandchildren.

It was with the Seegers in the early 1960s that Cotton picked up her guitar and began performing again, eventually joining the Seegers in concert.

Early in 1984, Cotton, who now lives in Syracuse, was named National Heritage Fellow along with 16 other traditional folk artists.

She says her favorite song is On My Way to the Promised Land," an old spiritual, “cause I'm on my way.” She ends her concerts with “God Be' With You Till We Meet Again.”

Her body was cremated after she passed in 1987.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Johnny Shines: Blues Singer Shines Helped Lay Rock Foundation

Blues Singer Shines Helped Lay Rock Foundation
By Phillip Rawls for the Montgomery Advertiser 1976

TUSCALOOSA, AL — Johnny Shines will tell you, "If you didn't have the blues yesterday, look out for them tomorrow, if you don't have them now because they're as certain as death."

Shines is a 61-year-old delta blues singer and guitarist who lives in Holt, a working class suburb of Tuscaloosa. Like many blues musicians, Shines laid the foundation for modern soul and rock music, but he has never received any recognition.

The delta blues, according to Shines, are the gut bucket blues, as opposed to the Chicago blues, which are more brassy.

Shines was born five miles outside of Memphis in Frazier, Tenn., and learned to play blues guitar by hanging around with famous Beale Street musicians like Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf.

Thirty years later, rock guitarist Johnny Winter learned how to play the blues by hanging out with Shines and his friends. Just as Shines once did, Winter "would play a lick like we played it, and then he would change it to suit his style."

Although the blues guitar was learned, blues singing came natural for Shines. The blues "is what we did in the church and what people sang in the fields at the end of the day, but it wasn't called the blues then," explained Shines.

When Shines was a young man, black audiences turned against the ' blues because "they were taught that it represented everything that was bad.

"The blues is not as bad as it is said to be. It's not sinful to sing the blues," said Shines, who had to give up playing from 1957 to 1964 because there was no audience.

In 1964, white audiences flocked to the blues when Cream, an English group with Eric Clapton, hit the charts with an old Johnson song called "Crossroads."

"If it wasn't for whites, there wouldn't be an audience for the blues today," Shines notes.

When asked what's the best song he ever wrote, Shines lets loose with one of his barrel chested laughs and says "I Don't Know," a song he wrote in 1966.

Like all of Shines' songs, "I Don't Know" tells a story.  The song tells of a country boy who leaves his sweet-heart at home and goes to Chicago. Once in Chicago, he begins to miss the girl and sends for her. But when she gets to Chicago, she finds her old boyfriend has been changed by the city lights, and she falls in love with another man.

When asked if the story is true, Shines answers in a whisper, "Yeah."

Like the blues lyric that says, "If it wasn't for bad luck. I wouldn't have no luck at all," Shines had plenty of down and out times before moving to Tuscaloosa in 1969.

Several times he made records but "never got any-thing but union fees and a piece of paper that was no good.  Not until the 1970's did Shines ever see any record royalties.

While he and his wife Hat-tie were living in a kitchenette apartment in Chicago, their daughter died, leaving them seven school age grandchildren to take care of.

Shines decided that Chicago was no place to raise the children, so the family moved to his wife's home town, Tuscaloosa.

Shines is getting old and he knows his musician days are numbered. "I know I don't play as well as I used to, and I don't have the range I once did. But. friends tell me I sound just like I always did," he said.

The Anniston Star, Apr 20, 1992.
The only recognition Shines will probably ever get will be a small obituary in "Rolling Stone" magazine, but that doesn't worry him. Passing on his music is more important.

Through federal and state grants to the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project, Shines is able to perform in schools, prisons and hospitals.

Elementary school children make a great audience, according to the blues musician. "You will think they're not paying any attention to what you're doing, and then you will see them copying what you're doing. You know you’re getting through,” he said.

Thursday afternoon, the mailman brought Shines a not letter saying that the Alabama State Council on Arts and Humanities is awarding Shines and friends $1,000 to keep playing in schools. "I've got the happy blues today,” he laughed.

The Montgomery Advertiser, Mar 28, 1976.


Sharkey County, Mississippi

In the book It Came from Memphis,  Robert Gordon forwards one explanation behind the band name for Tav Falco and the Panther Burns: 
“The band’s name reflected the lore surrounding Panther Burn, Mississippi.  This town was menaced by an elusive wild beast that, when finally cornered, was set aflame.  Its dying shrieks so horrified the citizens that they named the community for it.  The moniker was appropriate for” Tav Falco’s assembly of musicians, The Panther Burns.
It's not clear where this lore came from--perhaps the mind of Falco himself--but below is some historical information regarding the actual naming of the town.

Population in 1987: About 100 families

Industry: Panther Burn Co., a plantation with about 6,500 acres of farmland growing cotton, soybeans, rice and wheat. The plantation employs 60 to 150 people, depending on the season.

Settled: 1832 Government: The area is not incorporated so there is no local governing board. The area is under the jurisdiction of the Sharkey County Board of Supervisors.

Name derivation: There are several theories on how the community got its name. Some believe panthers once roamed in great numbers in the woods. When the area was cleared for farming, panthers were seen running from the burning piles of trees. In some reports, panthers were killed in the fires. Others believe the community received the name because of the numerous panthers in the area and because "burn" in the Scottish dialect can mean swampy.

Of Note: The last reported panther sighting near here was about five years ago by farmers. 

(Jackson, MS) Clarion Ledger, Nov 1, 1987.

The Grave of Jack Gordon Owens

“Jack Gordon Owens was Widely Known as a Country Blues Pioneer”
By Billy Watkins, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer 1997

BENTONIA — Clara Bell Griffith sat in a folding chair in the back of Old Liberty Missionary Baptist Church a few minutes before Jack Gordon Owens' funeral and recalled the day many years ago that he found religion. "Came up here to church on a mule," she said, laughing, "and left here on him just a runnin'. He said the mule was full of the Holy Ghost, too."

About 100 friends and admirers gathered here Thursday afternoon to remember Owens, a legendary blues pioneer who died Sunday following an illness at the age of 92. They braved the cold and dampness, and they talked more about Jack Owens, the man, than they did the musician.

Friends spoke of how he gave up many chances to play his music world-wide so that he could care for his bedridden wife, Mabel, who died in 1989. They noted that he couldn't read, yet he could find his way anywhere he wanted to go, without the help of road signs. And they talked proudly of his 1995 National Heritage Award and his opportunity to play for President Clinton in Washington.

David Evans, a professor of music at the University of Memphis, knew Owens for about 30 years. He drove down Thursday morning to attend the service.

"I came here in 1966 as a 22-year-old looking for music, and Jack Owens opened his doors to me," said Evans, 53. "He was a link to the heyday of the old country blues, when the music was pure and at its peak, back in the 1920s and '30s. For young people, there weren't many opportunities to hear someone who embodied that music. And with his passing, there's hardly any left. There are others who can recreate it, but Jack was there. He lived it."

Mary Cox, 48, knew Owens all her life.

"I'll never forget those summer days when I'd be on the outside and hear him, sittin' out there on his porch, singing and playing the guitar," Cox said. "And my house is where every-body used to stop to get directions to his. I've seen buses, cars, hundreds of people drive up to his house. He was a great artist."

In his tribute printed in the program, Eddie Nelson, Owens' nephew, wrote that Owens' was born L.F. Nelson. Owens' parents were Celica Owens and George Nelson, but he was raised by Sam Owens of Bentonia. Nelson also wrote: “you played your music in Europe, and then you came home and was plain old Jack Owens. You didn't change.  So God had a plan for L.F. Nelson that lasted 90-plus years. Now it's time to rest."

Another Account of the Funeral of Jack Owens
Nov. 17, 1904 - Feb. 9, 1997

On Thursday, February 13, 1997, a hundred or so people filed into the Old Liberty Missionary Baptist Church in Bentonia, Mississippi. They came for the funeral of Jack Owens who had passed away four days earlier in a Yazoo City hospital at the age of 92. Some came to mark the passing of "Mr. Jack", the farmer down the road who played old-time blues on his front porch for visitors from around the world. Others came to say farewell to a friend who had for the better part of a century provided an escape from life's hardships in the form of weekend front-room juke parties. Still others came to pay their respects to one of the last surviving links to the roots of Black American music.

Jack Owens farmed all his life in the small town of Bentonia, running a juke joint on weekends where he'd sell barbecue and his homemade white whiskey. "When I was real young, I used to hear the young guys talking about that they was goin' up to Jack Owens' place", recalls Bentonia native Dorothy Burrell.

"Jack Owens' place" was the front parlour of his small house, cleared of furniture and with a hole punched in the wall through which food and drink were served from the kitchen. The party would start Friday night and often run until Sunday evening, and would feature local blues players like Henry Stuckey, Skip James, and Adam Slater.[1] Sometimes Owens himself would play for the dancers, matching the driving rhythm of his thumb-picked bass lines with the heavy stomp of his foot.

Except for the occasional weekend fracas set straight by Owens and his pistol, he led a relatively quiet life. He never felt the need to leave his native Bentonia; he was well-liked in the community and had carved a comfortable niche for himself there. Unlike fellow Bentonian Skip James, who travelled and lived throughout the South, Owens never had the opportunity to be discovered by a talent scout like H. C. Spier, whose audition of James in Jackson led to a 1931 recording session for Paramount which saw 18 remarkable sides released.

Jack Owens's legal name was L. F. Nelson, although this was not widely known until his funeral. No one, not even Owens' three surviving sisters, recalls what the initials "L. F." stand for. "I knew that he was a Nelson," recalls Burrell, "but everybody knew him as Jack Owens because he was raised by the Owens family."

Owens was born to Celia [1] Owens on or about November 17, 1904. His father, who's last name was Nelson, ran off when he was five or six years of age. This left young Jack to be raised as an Owens in the household headed by his grandfather Samuel Owens. A 1910 census lists the children of the household as Savannah, Will, Lonnie, Jack (mistakenly listed as "Nelson Owens"), Leonard (listed as "Lennon"), Pearlee, Lucy and Willie. Leonard and Pearlee are listed as having the Nelson surname. At least two more children were born after 1910; not named in this census are Owens' sisters Lee Esther and Viola, who, along with Willie, are still living in 1997.

Owens learned to play the fife as a child, and early on picked up a few chords on the guitar from his father and uncle. He also learned a bit of piano and fiddle at some point, although the guitar was to become his main instrument.

In 1966, folk musicologist David Evans interviewed Bentonian blues singer Cornelius Bright, whom Evans had heard about from Skip James. Bright took Evans to meet Jack Owens one night, and Evans was hardly prepared for what he was about to hear. Owens' playing recalled that of Skip James, but with a rough edge not found in James' more delicate style. Owens was also a more forceful singer who didn't employ much of the falsetto that James favoured. Thrilled with his discovery, Evans began a series of recordings that night which would extensively document Owens' music for the next decade or more.

A handful of cuts from these recordings appeared on various compilation albums, but it wasn't until 1971 that a full album of Owens' music (with Bud Spires on harmonica) was released on the Testament label. These tracks, plus some unissued recordings, were reissued in 1995 on compact disc [see accompanying discography].

Thirty years later, Evans still holds a great deal of respect for Owens' playing, calling his style of blues "one of the most complex ever developed within a strong folk tradition." Owens used a number of alternate guitar tunings, including certain variations on standard tuning that seem to have originated with him. He used fingerpicks to achieve a brighter, louder tone and maintained a solid beat with his foot. Unlike Skip James, who considered his own playing to be art music intended for close listening, Owens created music that was well-suited for dancing and drinking. The two men shared a common repertory of lyrics, melodies and guitar figures, but the overall tonality of their music differed greatly. Many of the differences have been largely overlooked, with one writer even dismissing Owens entirely as a "derivative amateur"[2]. This curious conclusion could only have been reached without the benefit of hearing Owens's recordings; his singing and playing styles were as individualistic as they were complex.

Jack Owens was perhaps the strongest living embodiment of a musical tradition all but drowned out by the din of today's entertainment industry. With his passing we lose one of the last tangible connections to the time and place that brought forth the blues.

1. According to Evans, Owens called his mother "Celie", but she is listed as "Celia" on the 1910 census. Her name is spelled "Celica" on Jack's funeral program.

2. Calt, Stephen. I'd Rather be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues_, p. 20 New York: Da Capo Press, 1994.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Yazoo County Blues, a Well-Kept Secret (3 of 3)

Yazoo County Blues, a Well-Kept Secret (3 of 3)
Yazoo-styled blues spreads northward and around the world after World War II
By The Rev. Ken Cook Special to The Yazoo Herald 1999

Click HERE to read Part 2

Jimmy Holmes and Jack Owens (1982)
Like Mary Johnson, Tommy McClennan, and Robert Petway, Yazoo City's Arthur Spires (1912) became part of the massive migration of Southerners (mostly black) to the North in the 30s, 40s, and 50s.

Usually they left on the Illinois Central in search of opportunity. Mary got off in St. Louis. Tommy, Robert, and Arthur traveled on to Chicago.

By the late 1940s, Spires had been able to found his own band, The Rocket Four. Fortified by two or three electric guitars and a drumset--and sometimes including Little Willie Smith on harmonica--the blues had become urban. By 1952 Spires' producer, Leonard Chess, gave him the state name he would share with Elvis' inspiration, Arthur Crudup: "Big Boy." No full CD is devoted to his music at this time, but selections are avail-able on Morris Pejoe/Arthur "Big Boy" Spires and Chess' Chicago Blues Anthology. His "You Can't Tell" (from the first CD) is irresistibly funny.

Robert Covington (born Robert Lee Travis, December 13, 1941, in Yazoo City) would go north, too. A drummer in the band at Alcorn State, he would arrive in Chicago by 1962. After serving in the bands of Little Walter, Buddy Guy, and Sunnyland Slim, Covington struck out on his own as a vocalist with his own club band, recording two albums. His rich baritone earned him the title "Golden Voice of the Blues." Look for his Blues in the Night CD.

Because blues music was establishing broad national and international appeal by the early 60s, Jack Owens (born L. F. Nelson, November 17, 1904, in Bentonia) and James "Son" Thomas (October 14, 1926, in Eden) did not have to leave the Delta to be discovered.

Producers--from New York City, Memphis, and Germany--with their recording crews searched them out. Both are akin to the earlier "country bluesmen." Jack is often seen as the major student of Skip James. Both Owens and Thomas played amplified guitars and were often accompanied by other musicians (Owens by his partner, harpist Bud Spires of Bentonia, born 1931, the son of "Big Boy"). Son played in the Reagan White House in 1982, while Jack was featured in a Levi's television ad in 1995. Owens and Spires' work can be found on It Must Have Been the Devil; Thomas' recordings from Leland and, later from Germany, are to be found on his Beefsteak Blues (which includes an obscene version of "Catfish Blues").

The most recent Yazoo County native - but raised in Missouri - to sing and play the blues is Mike Henderson (Yazoo City, July 7, 1951). Something of a purist who works with a seasoned four-piece band, The Bluebloods, he offers powerful versions of country tunes like "Pony Blues," Chicago blues classics such as "How Many More Years" and originals including "All My Money's Gone." The listener might want to listen to First Blood (1996) or Thicker Than Water (1998).

The ten recording artists mentioned in this series have had, by means of the larger medium of blues music, a significant worldwide impact. Through their music they have exported Southern culture throughout the United States and wherever American troops from the South have been stationed since World War II. Since the blues tradition consistently embraces and reveres its past, the contributions of these local artists is not likely to diminish. 

One last note: with this constellation of musicians, Yazoo City was once thought to only be rivaled by Clarksdale, but the largest Delta city of Greenville has proven a major source of Delta blues music, namely Prince McCoy, Little Milton, Eugene Powell...among others...

The Yazoo County Blues —A Three-Part Series

This three-part series concludes with this issue tracing the spread of Yazoo-styled blues northward to Chicago and Detroit and from there around the world.