Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Dedication of Bo Carter's Headstone - July 29, 2017

Nitta Yuma is off Highway 61 in Sharkey County, Mississippi
The grave marker (without the black granite inlay of Bo Carter's National at the top)
Henry Vick Phelps III
Bill Steber and Ron Bombardi of the Jake Leg Stompers
Miles Floyd, the grandson of Bo Carter
Kenny Brown, testing out the hill country blues on Bo Carter's National

Bill Gandy, the owner of Bo Carter's National
Steve Cheseborough, introducing everyone to the music of Bo Carter
Andy Cohen and Moses Crouch
MZMF Director DeWayne Moore

Friday, July 28, 2017

An Interview with Old Time Record Producer H.C. Speir

by David Evans

[In the 1920s and 1930s, the key link between the various local folk musics and their eventual capture on commercial disc was provided by the A & R (Artist and Repertoire) Man — a combination talent scout, producer, manager, etc. The great early A & R men have been likened to folksong collectors on field trips. In only a few cases have the career's and roles of these men been treated in more than a few passing sentences (see, for example, "I'm a Record Man — Uncle Art Satherley Reminisces, " JEMFQ #25, p. 18; or Mike Seeger's essay on Frank Walker in The New Lost City Ramblers Song Book, pp. 26-29). On the following pages, blues collector and authority David Evans offers some comments on a lesser known A & R figure. Evans has contributed many book reviews to the JEMFQ.]

The news of the death earlier this year of Henry C. Speir, former talent scout and agent for several record companies and discoverer of many great blues, gospel, jazz, and hillbilly artists, prompted me to take a look at the notes of an interview I had done with him. Although it was by no means comprehensive, it did elicit some information which may shed some light on the aspect of the recording industry in which Speir played a part. Outside of the mention of him as their original discoverer by blues "rediscoveries" Son House and Skip James, the first news of Speir's career came from Mississippi blues researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow, who located him and published an article on his career called "Legends of the Lost" in several installments of Blues Unlimited in 1966. This has been reprinted in Back Woods Blues, edited by Simon A. Napier (Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex: Blues Unlimited Publications, 1968; pp. 25-28).

The article is a general outline of his career in the music business, though some of the information in it has subsequently proved inaccurate. The only other published information on Speir comes from my interview and appears in my book Tommy Johnson (London: Studio Vista Limited, 1971; pp. 45-68, 80). This information dealt only with Tommy Johnson, however.

My interview was conducted at Speir's home in Pearl City, across the Pearl River from Jackson, Mississippi, on the evening of 1 September 1966. Others present were Speir's wife, Gayle Wardlow, and Marina Bokelman, who took notes on paper. Speir did not want his conversation tape recorded, as he distrusted his memory on many matters so far back in the past. In view of this, I cannot vouch for the complete accuracy of the information presented here, although I can say that it was written down as Speir told it. I was mostly interested in information on Tommy Johnson and Speir's methods of dealing with blues artists, and my time was limited. Consequently, I did not question him extensively about his own life or the many other artists he discovered and recorded. These topics are dealt with, however, at some length in Wardlow 's article.

 I must at this point regretfully mention that Speir expressed a number of stereotyped views of Negroes and of musicians in particular. These views were not always negative, however, and in many cases it was difficult to tell whether they were based on commonly held beliefs from his own cultural background or his particular experiences with musicians. I will only discuss here his views which pertained to music. It is perhaps ironic that a man like Speir could hold stereotyped views about Negroes yet also have a deep appreciation for and a considerable understanding of black music. Yet such was the case. His personal and business relationships with black musicians were apparently very honest and open, and I have never heard a bluesman who had dealings with him say anything but good about Henry C. Speir.

Speir was born in Mississippi in 1895. He grew up hearing and liking black music. In around 1919 he went to New Orleans and got a job assembling phonographs. The cabinets would be made in the North and shipped to New Orleans where the motor, handle, tone arm, and other parts were added. At this time he got the idea that black music should be recorded, and he kept trying to convince others of the feasibility of the idea. It was, of course, in 1920 that Mamie Smith did record the first blues, so that it may have been that with Speir and others urging such a policy the time was ripe for a change in industry attitudes.

Speir was unable to become involved in the recording of music at this time because the climate of New Orleans was too damp for the spring-operated stylus arms of the recording machines. This was remedied in 1923 when the industry switched to cable and weight arms. In about 1926 he opened a furniture and music store in downtown Jackson, Mississippi, and began searching for local musical talent for the record companies. The last session he is known to have organized, according to Gayle Wardlow, was in Hattiesburg for A. R. C. in 1936, He had earlier tried to persuade the Jackson City Council to help him purchase the bankrupt Paramount Record Company and move it to Jackson, but they were reluctant because of the deepening Depression, and the idea was dropped. In 1942 Speir' s store went up in flames, and he quit the record business completely for real estate. When I interviewed him, his main interest was organic gardening, to which he devoted much of his time.

In addition to the 1936 session, Speir supervised two others in Jackson, one in 1930 for Okeh and one in 1935 for Decca. He was always a freelance operator, as his main business was his store which stocked all the major labels. His connection with most of his artists was as a talent scout and agent. He scouted all over Mississippi and in New Orleans, though most of the music in that city was jazz, and he was more interested in blues and spirituals. By the late 1930' s the companies discontinued making recordings of black music in Mississippi, Memphis, and New Orleans, and Speir' s services were probably no longer required. It must also be admitted that although he probably unearthed and got on record more great blues talent than anyone else in the history of the recording industry, very few of his artists were commercial successes. Their music may have sounded good to Speir 's ear, but their sounds were probably too local and lacking in national appeal. Gayle Wardlow has reported that Speir was responsible for the appearance on records of Uncle Dave Macon and Kokomo Arnold, but in the case of Macon this is known to be inaccurate, and with Arnold it seems quite unlikely. Probably his most popular blues artist was Charley Patton, really only a moderate seller, and for hillbilly music the Leake County Revelers. Speir did, however, claim the honor of putting the first preachers of both races on records. 

Rev. Grayson - April 19, 1928
The white preacher was a Rev. [C.M.] Grayson, [former evangelist and then pastor of a church in Magee, MS] who recorded for Columbia in Memphis on the topic of Judas. He could not remember the black preacher's name, but he was from the Delta although living in New Orleans. The recording was done in Montgomery. I have not been able to trace either of these sessions, and in any case no race records are known to have been recorded in Montgomery before World War II.

Some of the confusion in Speir's recollections may be due to the fact that he often made test recordings of singers in Jackson or elsewhere and sent them to the companies for approval. If the response was favorable, the normal procedure was to send the artists north for recording in a studio. Sometimes Speir would go on these trips. On one to Chicago he remembers being surprised to encounter some black recording engineers, one of whom was probably Mayo Williams. He recalls meeting Ralph Peer of Victor and noted that Peer never seemed to show any outward signs of feeling for or against the music he heard. He would simply listen calmly and then either accept or reject the selection or artist. Speir also recalls that Victor records did not sell as well as Paramounts, Columbias, and Okehs, a fact which he attributes to Victor's lack of advertising for its race series.

Speir stated that it usually took a sale of about 5,000 for a record to make money for a company. The companies would pay the artists and then give Speir a flat rate for providing singers, but often he had to buy 500 copies of the record from them "just to record some nigger." This was proof to the company that he had confidence in the record's sales potential. Then the company would send samples to all of their wholesalers. One of the company practices that particularly annoyed Speir was the sale of masters to cheap off-brand companies that would reissue the songs under pseudonyms. These records were sold at dime stores, while his own store carried only the major labels at higher prices. He also suspected that some companies would record singers while they were "practicing" a piece and then issue it under a pseudonym without the knowledge of the singer. 

Occasionally Speir would go north for sessions. He helped at some of the Paramount sessions at Grafton, Wisconsin. He would make suggestions as to whether the singer should be louder or softer. Usually blues singers were too loud and would sometimes break the diaphragm. Sometimes Speir would be able to anticipate a high note from his familiarity with the singer's music, and he would turn the recording level down for it. He recalled that black musicians never got nervous in front of a microphone, but that whites frequently did. (I have also found this generally true for black musicians in field recording situations, but I could name many exceptions.) But he believed that a Negro had to be in the right mood to sing and that most used some stimulant to produce this mood. He vividly recalls Tommy Johnson drinking "that jake leg stuff," probably Canned Heat, and remembers Jim Jackson as a dope addict. Johnson would only sing when he had a can of Canned Heat inside him.

Speir stated that it was impossible to predict who would be a "good" blues singer, i.e., a commercially successful one on record. Some would "really tear it up" in person but sound terrible on wax, and others vice versa. He had no rules for picking blues singers beyond his own personal taste. He felt that a singer should have "harmony," by which he simply meant appeal to his ear. He never took into consideration the fact that a singer might have a reputation for popularity in the black community. He also never used blues singers as scouts, though he did admit that after he began auditioning and recording singers, they would tell others to "go see Mr. Speir." Tommy Johnson came to his store in this manner, apparently having heard about him from Ishmon Bracey, of whom Speir had made test recordings that were approved by Victor. Sometimes singers would make suggestions for accompanying musicians. 

The companies wanted Speir to be sure that each singer to be recorded had at least four different songs of his own composition. Many of them could sing plenty of songs, but they were not original. In other words, they were either traditional and had already been recorded in variant form, or they were interpretations of the hit records. Sometimes Speir would suggest a title or subject to a singer that he thought was promising. To one he suggested the title "Black Snake Blues." When the record came out, Speir fixed a rubber black snake to a phonograph turntable and put it in the display window so that when it turned, the snake would jump out at the customers. Every time it would jump out, the Negroes would jump back, and he attributed good sales to this device, Speir claimed also to have helped in the writing of Kokomo Arnold's "Milk Cow Blues." He stated that at that time he didn't realize that most blues had a "code." A man would sing that he "ain't had no milk since my cow been gone," but he really meant that he hadn't had an affair with a woman in a long time. Most of this code had something to do with "nature." Speir believed that if he had known the code then, he would have known better what would sell and whether the singer was "good." He felt that today, however, he would have been just as confused, because now the music is based on movement, and he was unfamiliar with the modern dances.

Speir probably got to know Tommy Johnson best of all the blues singers he worked with. Johnson made a test of his "Cool Drink of Water Blues" which Ralph Peer approved. Speir then had to find Johnson and prepare him for his recording session. He located him playing in front of a fish fry stand up the Pearl River. Speir had to make certain that Johnson knew four different original songs. He claims that at the time Johnson could only produce two, but they worked together until he reached the required number. Johnson did two sessions for Victor in 1928 and one for Paramount in 1930. Speir doesn't know why he switched companies but assumes that Victor did not have him under contract by 1930. Often companies would simply ask Speir if he had any spare talent not under contract and would accept whomever he sent them. Johnson's Victors sold well throughout the Mississippi River valley from Milwaukee to New Orleans, and Speir thinks one may have sold 200,000. This seems highly exaggerated, however, as his Victors are all hard to find today and the Paramounts extremely rare. Speir recalls that Johnson would twist his mouth, roll his eyes, grimace, and "put a lot of expression" into his singing. The Canned Heat he drank would make him perspire profusely. This report is confirmed by others who knew Johnson. On one occasion in about 1937 Johnson got drunk in Jackson, caused a disturbance, and was thrown in jail. Speir bailed him out for $500, but Johnson immediately left town for Angle, Louisiana, where he had been living with his wife Rosa. Speir tracked him down, despite losing a whole night's sleep because of the noise of a newly-wed couple in the hotel room next to his. He found Johnson working in a field outside his house. Speir put handcuffs on him and returned him to Jackson for trial, where he was put on the county road gang. After he had served his time, he and his wife moved to Jackson permanently. Johnson continued to drop by Speir's store to chat after this incident.
Hopefully someone else has interviewed Speir about other aspects of his career. The role of the free-lance Southern talent scouts in the music industry is too little known despite the fact that they provided much of the finest local talent to the companies which otherwise never would have been recorded. Polk Brockman's work with hillbilly musicians in the Atlanta area is now well known, but his equally important dealings with black musicians are still largely a mystery. J. B. Long is still living in Durham, North Carolina, and some important information on him has appeared in Bruce Bastin's Crying for the Carolines (London: Studio Vista Limited, 1971), But was he also involved with hillbilly singers in the 1930's and early 1940 's? In contrast, however, the work of Ralph Lembo of Itta Bena, Mississippi, also a furniture and music store owner, is virtually unknown. He provided blues, gospel, and preaching talent for Columbia, Paramount, and Victor between 1927 and 1930, but he was never reached in time to tell his story, and his widow knew nothing of his business dealings when I spoke to her in 1967. It is known that some black musicians themselves, like Charley Jordan, Will Shade, Big Bill Broonzy, and Rev. Lonnie Mclntorsh at various times acted as talent scouts. Were there others?
DE--California State University Fullerton

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Samuel Hopkins' Street Corner, Texas Blues--1959

Samuel Hopkins' Street Corner, Texas Blues--1959
Mack McCormick - Jazz Monthly - October 1959, p. 4-6 [Ctsy PV-RBF]

Buried Broom Ritual Appears 1960s 

Contemporary Artist's Rendition of Hopkins
Lightnin Hopkins is a street corner blues minstrel who lives in a world crowded by jukeboxes. Since first recording in 1946 he has produced songs for more than a dozen firms ranging from Decca and Mercury to the mysterious and suspect label which simply bore the name "Lightnin". Along his native Dowling Street in Houston's Third Ward, the coin machines abound with these cluttered and uncharacteristic examples of himself.

Sipping a beer in a corner jook joint, Lightnin will grunt disapproval at his own voice coming from the jukebox. As if in retaliation he'll wander outside, guitar in hand, to delight a circle of friends with some freely improvised blues—a mixture of narrative and song underscored by his easy, dramatic guitar.
Lightnin is fundamentally incapable of joining in on the trends of the music industry. He remains true to his inheritance: the simple, honest blues of wandering, begging songsters. He stays where he feels the people best understand his music. He earns his way in the world with his voice and his guitar, and he takes his satisfaction in the look of understanding that flickers across a friend's face as he sings about some intimate, common experience.
This attitude is the living, breathing, here and now of traditional music. Yet Lightnin is a menace to the concept of a "pure" tradition. He stands amid the great whirlpool of the blues, drawing upon it at random, bending it to suit a mood, taking impish pleasure in creating surprises—constantly shaping, shattering, and remaking the blues in his own image.
When on rare occasions he touches members of the cadre such as See See Rider or Trouble In Mind, fresh new verses are invariably present. Singing Long John, the Texas prison song which relates a legendary escape, he transforms it into a first person narrative, lending personal frenzy as he cries " . ... them hell's hounds, boy, coming after me."
His Backwater Blues has only the barest hint and glimpse of the song as Lightnin first heard it from Lonnie Johnson (and as it become famous through Bessie Smith's recording). This memory mingles with his recollection of Blind Lemon Jefferson's singing Rising High Water Blues and of Texas Alexander's singing Frost, Texas Tornado Blues. It crosses his own experience with a tornado slashing across the "Piney Woods". Dominated by Lightnin's personality, just as each of the parent songs was dominated by the inclinations of the singer, the final distillation is That Mean Old Twister. Lightnin's rich voice rings out its startling plea: "Lord—turn your twister the other way."
The process is of course basic. A tradition such as the blues is perpetuated not by attempts to emulate and preserve, but through growth and the contributions of many egos. Such growth occurs dramatically in the day-to-day work of Sam Hopkins. Exposed to and accepting all influences, he absorbs and contributes with a proud sense of his uniqueness. He often prefaces himself with a statement such as "Now this song I'm going to sing—don't nobody sing it this way but Lightnin Hopkins, himself, alone."
Born in 1912 in Leon County, Texas, Lightnin's apprenticeship was alongside Blind Lemon, Lonnie Johnson, and Texas Alexander. He has spent his life wandering the same streets and highways as Leadbelly and Blind Willie Johnson. He regards his predecessors with moderate awe and his contemporaries with scorn. Speaking of the many singers who merely imitate his manners and steal his lines, rushing off to record for minor jukebox labels, Lightnin's eyes flash murderously. Nonetheless, the number of his imitators is an index to his own influence and rank.
The unchallenged reigning blues minstrel of Houston's streets, Lightnin sleeps in a tawdry rented room and lives with the easy grace of royalty. On one of his rare excursions outside Texas an engagement in a Los Angeles dance hall in connection with a recording session, his billing read "Internationally famous recording star." Lightnin's scowl at this high-flown phrase was simple disinterest, a real failure to attach any significance to the statement. In his own scale of values, international fame is of small consequence. What is vital and significant is the continuing respect and adulation of those who stroll Dowling Street, crowding around him to offer coins in exchange for songs.
Lightnin is intensely upset by the scorn of youthful [blacks] who regard the country blues as somehow degrading to the race. The plaudits of European critics, the discographical mass of his more than 200 records, and the enthusiasm of visiting folklorists do not quite offset the sneer of a single bongo-playing jazzman from the next block. The critics, the records, the folklorists merely represent the abstract and unknown world outside of East Texas. The bongo player represents Lightnin's own tribe and culture, his roots and his audience. He belongs to this home territory and its people—and its blues tradition— with absolute kinship. Alternately the jester and the wizard serving at the royal court, he serves his culture with the sly jest and personal aside, the easy mockery of injustice and full throated cry of tragic awareness.
His isolation and his ignorance is self-imposed, and can be startlingly complete. During a recent recording session for Doug Dobell's limited-edition "77" label, Lightnin searched conscientiously for the proper songs "to sing for those people over across that water." He briefly considered one that begins "Buses stopped running, trains won't allow me to ride no more." He rejected it with the question, "But do they have buses and trains over there?" Some insight to the careful choice of ignorance can be gained if one considers that Lightnin has been exposed to British-based films just as much as the average American citizen. He merely disregards the world beyond his culture.
Even when recording for domestic consumption he is sometimes anxious to make himself understood. Singing " . . he had a little brown jersey" he felt compelled to inject the explanation "I'm talking 'bout a cow". Yet, in another song he casually commented "Play that, molly trotter" and seemed unconcerned that this vernacular name for a raccoon is pretty much unknown outside the rural South.
However the brash sweep of Lightnin's personality communicates itself even where literal meaning is lost. He recently participated, after squelching his own apprehensions, in a Hootenanny presented by the Houston Folklore Group. The occasion was his first experience before a concert audience or before a predominately white audience of any kind. Nonetheless within moments of his loping onstage and carelessly propping his guitar against a raised knee he had completely stolen the night. He stood before an audience accustomed to the carefully preserved ballads and showed them the raw meat of folk music, casually improvising songs about his own sex habits, his kinky hair, and his days on a chain gang, and the audience roared its approval. The impact of his personality brought the realization that they were having the rare experience of being confronted by the essence of a vital people's music.
In such circumstances—the street corner or the concert stage—much of his charm lies in his animation and innate plucking for responses. Midway in a song he is liable to twirl the guitar away from his body, swinging it back to finish a phrase or slap out rhythms with his palms caressing the sound board. He's able to improvise a dance, twisting and stomping his feet to lend accent to a particular song. He may pick out anguished, lingering guitar phrases, then raise a solemn finger to point at a listener, his voice filling the air "I been asking Jesus, what wrong have I done . . . "
In his finest moments Lightnin becomes a dramatist with an incredible knack for spontaneous rhyme and crisp, scene setting narration. He'll state an experience in the first-person present-tense—picking some intimate memory and bringing it completely forward to the moment—while the guitar suggests shifts of mood and underlines the action. For his last number of the recent concert, Lightnin slumped into a chair, noodling aimlessly until he found a simple boogie pattern to amuse himself. "In the morning I'm getting up and I've got to boogie . . ." His manner suggests coming awake and his talk rambles on about the early morning chores. The boogie slyly fades into When The Saints Go Marching In. "It must be Sunday morning, so I'm getting up and I got to boogie and then I'm got to go down the road to church ... Here I am, singing and shouting...
"I want to be in the that number"
And then they call on old Lightnin' to pray." His head bows and the guitar seems to represent a silent entreaty. "Now, I'm going back home..." The guitar imperceptibly reverts to the boogie. "...and I'm got to boogie some more." After a moment the tempo slows. Lightnin' explains, matter-of-fact, "That's when it's getting soft."
Lightnin's songs range over his view of modern life: Policy Game, Sad News From Korea, You Got To Work To Get Your Pay. He's spooky about singing Death Bells and reluctant to sing Tom Moore's Farm because "when I first made that song, them four Moore brothers come looking for me with a big stick." 

His finest impulses seem directed at pure autobiography. Bunion Stew, Mama and Papa Hopkins, and I'm Gonna Trip This Town present a total picture of his family.  Penitentiary Blues is based on the incident that caused him to serve time on a County road gang; Like A Turkey Thru the Corn is his dream of escape; How Sad and How Bad to be a Fool is the song apologizing to the sentencing judge who visited the road gang and was thus moved to release Lightnin; Prison Blues Come Down On Me is a bitter, evocative picture of his returning home wondering "is my family still there."
Just as this utterly subjective approach leads to his finest, it also leads to his faults. At times he will retreat into a sullen mood, losing interest in his audience, and content to be a dreary and poor imitation of himself. This is especially true when he works five and six hours dance hall jobs—using an amplified guitar and a drummer and having to fit his songs to fast, rocking tempos. At his worst he will repeat himself endlessly, hacking out the same tune with disinterest, monotonously sticking to a single theme of a woman "trying to quit me."
 A similar attitude has defaced many of his recordings. Confronted by overbearing supervisors who visit Houston on hasty field trips, thrust into the sterile environment of a sound studio, restricted to strict jukebox tempos and time limitations, Lightnin has on many of these occasions resorted to the easy and convenient cliches. "It's too bad about them records," Lightnin says: "They get me in that big room and they go watch me through a glass wall and I don't feel like nothing. Oh, course those records are good, cause everything I do is good—but they ain't the best. The best only happens when I'm feeling easy."
The amount of whiskey taken during a session is the clue to his inner mood. When uncomfortable, he'll drink himself to the point of sluggish indifference and a tone of self-pity will seem to dominate his voice. The phrases and mannerisms of one song will be duplicated in the next.
More than anything else Lightnin's comfort depends on having a familiar and enthusiastic listener opposite the microphone. On such an occasion, relaxed and with a mild whiskey glow, Lightnin enjoys his own free flowing imagination. With only a bare, fleeting notion he will charge into a song, a composition that is created and forgotten within the time of its performance. This Lightnin is the embodiment of the jazz-and-poetry spirit, representing its ancient form in the single creator whose words and music are one act.
When given complete freedom he will begin each session with a general statement of his particular mood. On one occasion he nodded for the tape machine to be switched on, picked a few tentative chords, and tossing his head back he noticed the rain pattering down a window, and then simply sang the thoughts uppermost in his mind: "Lord, I'm just sittin' down here thinking, what am I gonna do on this rainy day ?"
What he did do on that February afternoon—eleven songs telling about women, prison, worry, joy, and death—is now available on an LP released in the U.S. by Tradition Records. That session, typically, concluded with a joyous boogie in which Lightnin invites three imaginary women to come join the three men present in an after-work celebration: "Come on in ... just us three here...we gonna pulla party."
On a more recent session, with his thoughts directed at the British Isles, he impulsively decided on a "Blues for Queen Elizabeth" (inspired by her recent visit to Chicago). In shaping up the song he used the line "I want to go to England so's I can meet the Queen." During the actual recording however, his eye fell on a magazine cover photo of Her Majesty and Lightnin cunningly avoided misunderstanding by singing the line "l want to take my wife to England so's she can meet the Queen. " The song certainly represents a new kind of international diplomacy with its opening line "Yeah, you know this world is in a tangle now, baby, look like this world is going round and round."

The completeness of Lightnin's expression, his ability to focus his personality in song, places him in the centre of the blues tradition. All of the circumstances of his life and choice to remain close to the source are vital contributors to his art's veracity. He is a folksinger who still knows which are his folk. Ultimately, Lightnin's greatest gift is his complete confidence in his own ability to "make it up as I go . . . "

Always apprehensive about strange experiences, Lightnin' has recently grown less wary of travel. Photos and live-concert recordings which he has been shown and heard have given him the realization that interest in the blues extend far beyond the Third Ward. He has discovered that his contemporaries— often men of lesser ability and those far divorced from their sources—have enjoyed the benefits of concert stages in distant lands. He has already found that a stage offers the same freedom as a street corner. He has partially rejected the latter only because of the uncertainty of "having to be like a beggar." Yet the street corner or the concert stage is, he knows, the ideal situation in which to grip and surprise an audience.
"Texas is where I'm from and where the blues is from," he says, "and it's where we'll always be—but still and all, if there's people over across that water that like my blues and want me over there, I'll go . . ." His impulse to do so has the pure joy of a child's hug. After reading Belgian critic Yannick Bruynoghe's enthusiastic review of his old records recently reissued on Score, Lightnin slapped his leg decisively and said "I'm just going to have to go over there and sing that man a song."

The Dedication of Bo Carter's Headstone and Celebration in Nitta Yuma

Nitta Yuma is located on Highway 61. From the north, once you enter Nitta Yuma, turn right after the chapel onto the road in front of the home of Henry Phelps' sister. If you follow the road around the house and to the field, you'll see the cemetery on the right side of the cotton field. The dedication will begin until 5:00 p.m. But folks are more than welcome to come early and have some dinner, which will be setup in one of the buildings (like the commissary) on the street in front of the chapel. These building will also be used for the ceremony in the event of evening showers. If it is raining, do not attempt to drive through the field. Visitors can walk around the ghost town of Nitta Yuma, but do not enter any of the older unless invited inside to look around.
July 29, 2017 - 5:00 p.m.
The Headstone Dedication and Celebration of Bo Carter
Nitta Yuma Cemetery
Nitta Yuma Plantation - Sharkey County, Mississippi

Join us for the headstone dedication and celebration featuring the original fiddle used by Alonzo Chatmon, the actual National Style N guitar once owned by Bo Carter and all of the amazing musicians who plan to perform at the event in Nitta Yuma, MS on July 29, 2017, such as....

- Ron Bombardi (who like Armenter Chatmon, or Bo Carter, adopted a new name as a musician, "Jersey Slim" Hawkins) is a professor and philosopher with dextrous mental abilities, which he readily transfers through his body so he can walk around town, talk to people, and even write a few simple words every now and again in the academic journals and monographs. The longtime fiddle player for the Stompers, in fact, models his playing style after the Mississippi Sheiks most-accomplished fiddle player, Lonnie Chatmon, the brother of Bo Carter (The two brothers stand to the left of Walter Vinson in the below photo). It is very fitting then that his hero's fiddle will be available for his use in Nitta Yuma.  Lonnie Chatmon's fiddle may be heard once again with the steel-bodied National Style N guitar of Bo Carter.

Bill Steber is the photographer who got the good shots of the most recent group of the blues legends, whose work you may have seen at the local university or in Oxford American magazine, but he doubles as one of the potent musical forces behind the Murfreesboro, TN-based Jake Leg Stompers.
- Blues musician Andy Cohen's amazing career has spanned decades so I have prepared a collection of content for your reading and viewing pleasure HERE or you can visit his website HERE

- Blues traveller and musician Steve Cheseborough's admiration and enthusiasm for the music of Bo Carter is all but limitless. He has informed the owner of the National Style N guitar of Bo Carter!!!! And he is Nitta Yuma bound and down!!! Click HERE to read Cheseborough's epic quest for his own personal Holy Grail of the Blues!

- Moses Crouch is a hill country musician of the most committed order who is often heard cooking up his liniments and draining out special orders of snake oil juice with the Memphissippi Medicine. Despite being the youngest musician to confirm thusfar, his repertoire includes plenty of music with an old soul...

Henry Phelps, the landowner of the small hamlet, plans to have a large celebration and reception with food and refreshments following the dedication. He has done many excellent renovations of the historic buildings in Nitta Yuma, and the commemoration of Bo Carter's headstone offers everyone a chance to experience this jewel of the mid-Delta through the lens of a unique celebration.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

As a Lead Boy for Blind Musicians, the Blues Aesthetic Emerged:

As a Lead Boy for Blind Musicians, 
the Blues Aesthetic Emerged:
Remembering Josh White

Funeral services were held for world-renowned blues singer Josh White at the Epworth Methodist Church in the Bronx where he and his widow Carol were married 34 years ago. White died Friday Sept. 5 while undergoing surgery at Northshore Hospital. He was 61 years old.

Josh White Jr.. son of the illustrious entertainer delivered the eulogy and recited a poem written by one of the deceased's surviving four daughters.

White, who was to have a defective valve in his heart replaced by the surgery, was born in Greenville S.C. He it moved to New York in 1932 where he began a career that revolutionized folk singing, and made it the music of urban cabarets in the 1940s, when he reached the height of his popularity.

His amiable, suave, and sophisticated renditions, coupled with his casual charm created his individual authoritative, sensual style, that made his listening audience consider him a leading popularizer of the blues.

His trademark was a casually worn sportshirt, always invariably opened at the neck, and his performance was always offered while sitting on a stool, with his foot resting on the rung. Another of his trademarks was the presence of a lit cigarette, always tucked neatly behind one ear.

The big husky singer had a —smooth firm, baritone voice, and a broad confiding smile. He phrased his songs with a wide range of emotions, from sheer joy, to anger defiance, accompanying himself on the guitar. Josh White was named Joshua, by his mother who hoped that a name like that would inspire him to become a minister. He used to say that to become a preacher you had to know an awful lot and Josh dropped out of school while in the sixth grade. but when he was only seven, he helped a blind singer home and inadvertently started his singing career. 

The singer later asked his mother if he could accompany him to Florida for the winter. His mother gave him permission to go because he felt that to lead the blind would be "doing God's work." He became the protege of Joe Taggert and for four years the two wandered from town to town Taggert singing and White playing the guitar. The boy, Josh White, began leading other blind minstrels on their tours. One of them was the noted blind Lemon Jefferson. White often said that it was then that he really began to hear and learn songs but they were different songs, songs only Lemon knew, songs he had heard old old people sing when he was a small boy. Pre-Civil War songs and eery rare spirituals. This was the beginning of Josh White's folk singing career.

Lemon Jefferson was famous for moans and shouts but Josh remembered him when he sang lonely songs---songs that one man must sing alone binding his heart to all hearts of all who hear him. Many people felt and have said that White absorbed this gift from Lemon. Although White was only 16 when Lemon died, his close', association with the great minstrel was not forgotten for in 1932 he had an offer to go to New York and record many of Lemon's songs. Once there, he quickly got a contract with a folk song group known as the Southernaires for three performances a week for $84. He then won a recording contract and was billed as the "Singing Christian". He also sang under the name of Pinewood Tom. His many famous songs included "One Meatball" "Out-skirts of Town" "Hard Time Blues" and John Henry." He became nationally famous with his "Chain Gang" album and as a result of it earned the title a "repository of rare 'Southern music." He is survived by a widow, one son, and four daughters.

His remains were buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, Kings County, New York.


by Wayne Walker - Thursday, November 8, 1973

We called him the Ole Fiddler. Back in the 20's it was a big thrill for us kids when the Ole Fiddler would pay us a visit. He rode an old grey mule, Maude, he called her, with a rheumatic gait. She seemed to kinda stagger along with the old man's weight almost too much for her to bear. I can see the Ole Fiddler now astride ol' Maude and huggin' his fiddle case across his chest like an infant in his arms. 

His long, white beard waving in the breeze -- not from Maude's great speed, however, Maude could trot no faster than a man can walk. Before coming to the house the 01' Fiddler would stop and feed, water and put ol' Maude away for the night in a spare stable in the barn. With a stiff, rheumatic gait that was worse than Maude's, he'd come amblin' up the lane, still baby-totin' his fiddle. Us young'uns would dash out to meet him. We'd catch up to him and begin pullin' and tuggin' at his loose clothing for goodies like jelly beans, peppermint sticks and orange gum-drops we knew he had for us. 

Teasingly, he would scold us as we felt about his person for the candy: "Git, you young'uns! I ain't got no candy this time. Git along with you now. Stop it. I say – y’all gonna make me drap my fiddle. Go on -- shoo!" We'd get the candy when inside the house and the Ole fiddler got settled down and stated that he had just come to set a spell -- that meant he'd stay all night. Carefully he would place the battered old fiddle case down beside his chair and start the conversation with little unimportant bits of news that was a stall until someone would re-quest that he play the fiddle.

In the Ole Fiddler's estimation, he was a great fiddlin' man; but alas, he could not even tune it properly, and more alas, than that, he only knew two pieces (his word for a song) -- Turkey In The Straw and - Leather Britches. , Finally us young'uns would yell for him to play the fiddle -- he gave us candy didn't he? Talkin' about fast: The Ole fiddler could quick-draw that -fiddle from the case quicker 'n -,, any wild west hired gunman could draw and smoke a 38! My daddy, Doctor Walker, was quite a fiddler in his youth and when the Ole Fiddler held his fiddle up next to his good ear and plunked those out-of-tune strings, daddy would cringe and wince like a dog being whipped. 

The Ole Fiddler adjusted a string or two professionally, rosin' up the bow, and Mama, being allergic to bad fiddlin', excused herself, "to fix supper," she said and departed forthwith. After one piece, the doctor would depart forthwith. With a twinkle in his eyes, the 01' Fiddler would chin that fiddle and shout with gusto: "How'd ya'll like to hear Ole Joe Clark'?" Before anyone could answer he'd rack out with (I'm sorry to say) absolutely and positively the world's worst rendition of -- guess what? yeah, Turkey In the Straw. "Look out now! Here comes the 'Yaller Rose of Texas'!" 

Shouting the Rebel yell, The Yaller Rose of Texas sounded exactly like -- you guessed it --Leather Britches. After supper, it was a repeat performance same as before supper, only more so. He must have had 40 titles for Turkey In the Straw, and 40 titles for Leather Britches! How I loved to "Watch him go," mainly because of his honest sincerity and the way he stomped his foot, off-beat and also out of time to boot. He wore brogan shoes and when he raised that right foot a foot off the floor, the crash made the floor vibrate and the sound mercifully drounded out most of his fiddlin'. 

No. I ain't makin' fun of the Ole Fiddler. He put on a honest and sincere show. I was amazed at how he mesmerized himself with his own fiddlin'. He seemed to go into some kind of trance with wide open mouth, rollin’ his eyes and a lot of crazy head rollin' and shakin’. I know that somewhere in Great Beyond, the Ole Fiddler is playing up a storm out of tune fiddle and out of time stompin'. But maybe, by now, he has learned him a new piece (song) and that will add 40 more titles to his already expansive repertory.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Letter from MS: Paying Elmo a Visit in Ebenezer

 Letter from MS: Paying Elmo a Visit in Ebenezer
By Rafael Alvarez - 1993

Trying to describe the music of Elmore James, someone said the other day, is like trying to describe a primary color.
A color that screams your name as you walk by
That cries all night long
And bleeds
Not just on you, but through you
All the way through to the other side
The color is blue
Electric blue

And it came down in buckets when the great Elmore James opened his mouth. “When Elmo played the blues you could feel a chill going over you,'' remembers guitarist Jimmy Spruill, who made records with James in the 1950s. “He made you feel like your mother just died: sad and miserable and doubtful.''

From the late 1930s, when he began his rambles through the American South with Robert Johnson and Rice Miller, until his fatal heart attack in 1963, Elmore James used his voice and a slide guitar to paint lusty narratives with the primary colors of sadness, misery, and doubt.

"The sky is crying," he often sang, "look at the tears roll down the street..."

The sky above the Newport Missionary Baptist Church graveyard is graced today with a pale, afternoon moon; a sky that is pleased on this warm and quiet Tuesday in February, carrying gentle winds of an early spring through fields of pine.

Down below, Elmore James lies in his 30th year of silence.

He is here, somewhere in this churchyard of rolling hills and crumbling tombstones off of Highway 17, but I am not sure just where because his grave went unmarked until late last year.

Last December, a handsome stone of ebony granite was erected at the cemetery entrance by Elmore's fans. No one is around on this bright afternoon to tell me if the man who could make an electric guitar sound like a tom cat being skinned alive is actually beneath it.

A black pick-up truck rumbles down the gravel road in front of the church, and the driver waves as he goes by. Nothing stirs but the wind until the pick-up comes back the other way and the driver waves again.

The stone sports a bronze relief of a bespectacled James in suit coat and tie; a small, metal "slide'' tube envelopes his pinky finger as he grips a six-string guitar: Elmore staring out across the quiet Mississippi countryside where he grew up as a farmhand.

Every man is the King of Something, if only his own lonely wanderings, and Elmore is memorialized as ``King of the Slide Guitar.''

Because the three-foot-tall monument is so far removed from the rest of the graves (it's the first one you meet, alongside a wooden sign welcoming people to the church), I wondered if the exact location of Elmore's body has been forgotten and they put his marker out front so pilgrims wouldn't miss it.

The other graves -- ``Queen Davis, Born 1850, Died Nov. 16, 1918'' and ``Omega Owens, Born July 26, 1908, Died August 11, 1970'' -- are out behind the church, a good 50 yards from the bluesman's headstone.

I stare at Elmore for a few minutes, the eerie, Hawaiian twang of his guitar looping through my mind, and walk around behind it to find an inscription chiseled on the back: ``Born in Holmes County, Mississippi, Elmore James electrified the Delta blues with his unique slide guitar style, creating a powerful legacy that will remain forever in American music.''

The legacy, which continues today through rock and roll, began on the sly.

At the gravestone's dedication on December 10, 1992, a cousin of Elmore's named Bessie Brooks told of a young James, known then as ``Joe Willie,'' singing gospel for the grown-ups, ``but when my parents would leave to go visiting he played the blues for us.''

By the age of 12, already working in the fields, he was making sounds on wire uncoiled from a broom head and strung on the shack wall.

Such a blues conviction made for trouble with his parents, who only held to the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and soon he went to live with a more permissive aunt.

The Jackson (Miss.) Advocate quoted another cousin at the dediction, a woman named Annie Redmond who remembered Elmore making a guitar out of an old coffee can and two wires used to hang clothes.

"When my mother saw how determined he was to play the blues, she started throwing house parties to raise money to buy him a guitar,'' Ms. Redmond said.

Coming back to the front of the tombstone, I notice that birds have soiled the stone and I retrieve a bottle of glass cleaner and some paper towels from the car and go over the smooth face of the marker like an old Polish lady in Canton getting the streaks out of her front window.

After putting the cleaning stuff back in the car, I come back with a tape player and set it in the grass next to the stone.

I push a button and Elmore comes alive, the stillness broken, his voice booming deep blue philosophy across the countryside: ``When things go wrong . . . so wrong with you . . . it hurts me too....''

It took me back to a Southside Chicago funeral parlor in May of 1983 when a loudspeaker above an open coffin allowed Muddy Waters to sing at his own funeral.

The music that sails across this Mississippi churchyard comes courtesy of Elmore James by way of Capricorn Records, which last summer released 50 of Elmore's singles from 1959 to 1963 in a two CD set titled: ``King of the Slide Guitar.''

Phil Walden, Capricorn's president, was one of the many who helped raised the cash for Elmore's tombstone.

Elmore's voice shadows me as I walk among the other graves, knowing little about his boneyard brethren except what information will fit on a grave marker: ``Wash Brooks, March 16, 1872 to October 30, 1925 . . . Asleep.''

The thunder of Elmore's voice and the sting of his guitar recall a poet's description of strong coffee: ``Black as night/strong as sin/sweet as love/hot as hell.''

Elmore James died on my fifth birthday -- May 24, 1963 -- nine months before the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan and my life changed forever.

Those bright boys with bangs led me to the dark thrills of the Rolling Stones who opened the door to Johnny Winter who introduced me to Muddy Waters who carried me to Elmore James and a little graveyard down at the end of Newport Road in Lexington, Mississippi.

I don't remember my parents interrupting my birthday party to break the news: ``Ralphie, we're sorry to have to tell you this, but Elmo has passed.''

I wouldn't come to know the voice of Elmore James for another 15 years.

No one who loves music should wait so long.

As I take a last glimpse of Elmore's grave, the bluesman moans from the tape machine: ``I believe . . . I believe . . . I believe my time ain't long. . . .''

The sun is dropping behind the pines and it is time to drive toward it. Rafael Alvarez is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.