Thursday, August 31, 2017

Frank Little’s Blues: Hey Y’all Here I Am

Frank Little’s Blues: Hey Y’all Here I Am
By Connie White – Clarksdale Press Register – Nov 4, 1979

It was a grey morning with drizzly rain and dark cloudy skies and Frank Little was walking, walking down U.S. 61, going from the Delta Blues Museum to Wade Walton's barber shop on Fourth Street.

Little had flown in for a visit with friends and his 67-year-old mother who still lives on McKinley Street.

In the barbershop, Little talked with his friend Wade Walton. The memories were punctuated with chords from blues songs, songs the two had played together when Little had first moved to Clarksdale.

"I used to play for quarters on the corner," Little said, strumming Walton's electric guitar. "In fact I made some quarters on the corner right there when I first came."

Little pointed out to the corner of Fourth and Issaquena Streets.

"People used to say 'play that guitar for me boy and I'll give you a quarter,"' Little said accenting his words with strummed guitar chords. "Well a quarter was a lot of money back then."

"You know a young black kid wan-ting to go to school and buy a hot dog or something," Little said. "Somebody say 'play me a tune' and, man, I'd light into it.''

"I lived down by the Ellis flats on Sunflower Street back near the jailhouse," Little said. "That was back when if they threw you in jail you knew you were in jail."

"When I moved here I got attached to Ike Turner, to Wade Walton, you know, and that started really my interest in the blues," Little said.

Little still holding the guitar picks the first chords of a song. "You remember that one Wade," he said.

Little went into military service in 1960 and got out in 1967. He made his home In New Jersey and only comes to Clarksdale once a year now.

Little played In special service bands during his years in the service and began playing with the big blues bands in 1967.

"I play with the Duke Anderson Orchestra," Little said. "We play something like the high society quarters so to speak, play for the governor and the mayor."

"I had the privilege of working behind Aretha Franklin's sister Norma, and Judy Clay who did Storybook Children," Little said leaning back in his chair and picking out a few more chords.

"I played with Gloria Gaynor when she first started out in Newark, New Jersey," Little said. "You can't touch Gloria Gaynor now. I bet she's even forgot that I was once her guitar player back in 1968."

Little is giving himself two years to pull in that same kind of success. He even has his own record label now; the label's name is Shucks.

"Do you ever say that — Aw Shucks — when you make a mistake?" Little said starting to laugh. "I do."

Little is pleased with his label rights, and the protection it will give royalties from his records. But he admits he made a mistake with the producer of his last single. "I made a mistake by picking the wrong producer for the last two songs that I cut," he said. "He didn't have the capital to push the record like it should have been." "I'm looking for another producer to push the 25 tunes that I have ready for an album," Little said. "Because of the way the economic situation is now it's hard to get the investor, the producer, to throw the money out behind you," Little said. "Because many records are going to the warehouse and stacking up."

Little will be speaking on the subject of commercial blues, giving pointers to young artists or any blues enthusiasts Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Delta Blues Museum in the Myrtle Hall Library on U.S. 61.

Besides talking about the different problems facing blues artists, Little will play some songs and possibly be accompanied by Walton. "People are not buying blues records like they were at one time," Little said. "You're taking a chance when you produce a blues record or a blues album — you're taking a chance."

Little is looking for a producer to "take a chance on him." But he says if he doesn't make it in two years he will go into the song writing end of the business.

Sitting in the barber shop though, looking out on the corner where he used to earn quarters playing tunes, the dreams of big success come back. "If I run into the right producer," Little said laughing. "They'll put me on T.V. and I'll get my teeth fixed good."

"I'll be saying 'hey y’all here I am,"' Little said. "Shucks." 

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

"The Blues Traditions in Clarksdale and Coahoma County"

The Clarksdale Press Register -- May 31, 1979 

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Carnegie Public Library of Clarksdale and the Mississippi Committee for the Humanities recently presented a program on the history and background of Delta blues. One of the main features of the program was a scholarly address by Dr. David Evans, director of regional studies in ethnomusicology at Memphis State University and author of several books and articles on Delta blues. The speech was recorded by Michael O'Keefe, director of instructional television in the Clarksdale City Schools, and was transcribed by Mrs. Joan Stevens of the Clarksdale Press Register staff. The speech is reproduced here, some minor editing having been done to adapt the spoken remarks to the printed media.

"The Blues Traditions in Clarksdale and Coahoma County" 
Transcript on an address delivered by David Evans on May 17, 1979 
at the Carnegie Public Library's Myrtle Hall Branch

It isn't really an easy topic to speak about because in a place like the Delta you have had so much movement over the years; it is nothing to travel from one county to the next or one town to the next—up the line, first on the railroad, then later on the paved roads, Highway 61, etc. So probably every blues singer of any renown in the Delta has at one time or another played in Clarksdale or Coahoma County. Of course, there have been many blues singers with national reputations who have played here in Clarksdale. It is a pretty large town and has been a center for the surrounding area.

Bessie Smith was the greatest of all the blues singers. She, unfortunately, died outside of Clarksdale on Highway 61 in an automobile accident. But the music that she sang didn't really have much to do with any indigenous tradition in Clarksdale. She was from Chattanooga, Tennessee; she went up to New York. There were many singers like Bessie Smith who had a national reputation who would pass through Clarksdale and other parts of the Delta over the years.

What I am going to try to talk about this evening is the blues singers who were raised here in Clarksdale—who learned their music, made their music here in Clarksdale and Coahoma County. Some of them later did go on and obtain national and in some cases international stature in the field of blues and popular music. 

Blues itself is a relatively recent form of music in American history. Our earliest evidence for anything that is recognizable as the blues, that is the blues as music, comes only from the 1890s. Much of this documentary evidence is centered very close to this part of the South. 

For example in 1903, W.C. Handy—famous blues composer—recalled en-countering blues for the first time. Handy was the leader of a band right here in Clarksdale, and his band would travel through the Delta. He recalled encountering a guitar picker in the railroad station at Tutwiler, just a little way down the line, singing the line called "I'm going where the Southern cross the Dog," about two railroad lines crossing at Moorhead Mississippi. 

A little bit later his orchestra was playing Cleveland and during an intermission, a local string band came on. This is still in 1903. Rather than playing the kind of music that Handy's band was playing, which was the nationally popular music of the day, this local group played the blues and other kinds of folk songs and the crowd just went wild and started throwing money up to these local musicians. Handy and his men just stood there with their mouths open, wondering how this kind of music that had never been written down could get this kind of response. Handy wrote in his book that this incident was the beginning of his rebirth as an American composer. 

From that point on, still being based right here in Clarksdale, Handy began notating and arranging the blues and other folk songs that he heard around him. Of course. a few years later he moved up to Memphis and by 1912 he began publishing his songs—"The Memphis Blues," "The St. Louis Blues" and many other fine compositions. All of the arrangements were based on folk tunes that he had heard—many of them right here in Coahoma County. 

Also in 1903, another very important event happened; this is more of a scholarly nature because it was one of our first contemporary accounts of the blues. Charles Peabody, an archaeologist from Andover, Massachusetts, was excavating an Indian mound out on Stovall's Plantation, and he happened to notice that his workers who were black were singing songs while they worked and also when they were coming and going from the camp where they were staying to the Indian mound where they were digging. 

Peabody had a little bit of training in music and had an interest in those songs, being an anthropologist himself, and he wrote down some of the lyrics and in a few cases even the tunes. Unfortunately, he did not say much about the instrumental music other than to note that the men did play guitars and harmonicas in the camp and on their way to work. Some of these songs look very much like the earliest kind of blues that we know about, so Peabody published his articles in the 1903 edition of The Journal of American Folklore, and it is a very important reference for blues in general, especially for blues in this area. 

It was not until the 1920s though that we get much further evidence for blues in Coahoma County. In the year 1920, the first commercial blues recording was made--Mamie Smith's record "That Thing Called Love," followed up by a record called "The Crazy Blues." Many other commercial records followed those on various labels during the 1920s. 

By 1926, male blues singers began recording in large numbers. Until that time, it had been mostly women who performed mainly in northern cabarets and theaters. By 1926. men—many of whom were from the South—began recording. 

Quite a few Mississippi blues singers recorded in the late 1920s and the early 1930s, thanks largely to the field trips that some of the companies would make—Memphis was one of the main stops—and then there would be talent scouts in Mississippi, men like H.C. Speir, or Ralph Lembo, who ran a furniture store in Itta Bena, and they would scout out local blues singers and bring them to the attention of the record companies. 

For many of the Mississippi singers, we know exactly where they were based. Undoubtedly, many of them played in Clarksdale people like Freddie Spruell, and others like Charley Patton are known to have played here. Some of them are very obscure and little is known about them-others have been written up fairly extensively. But also in the year 1927 Gus Cannon. a banjo player who is still living in Memphis at the age of about 97. recorded a song called "The Jonestown Blues." Cannon earlier in the 1900s spent quite a bit of time living at Jonestown and making music there and elsewhere in the Delta. 

Then in November 1929 perhaps the first known resident of Coahoma County recorded some blues. This is a man named Henry Sims, who was a fiddler and he backed up Charley Patton, who was from Merigold and Cleveland and that area down around Bolivar and Sunflower counties. Patton was a very famous singer and guitar player and made over 5o recordings between 1929 and his death in 1934. In his 1929 session in November, he brought Henry Sims with him. 

Sims was from Farrell. Mississippi, a few miles from here, and Sims backed Patton on most of his songs and then Sims recorded four songs of his own singing and playing the fiddle with Charley Patton backing him up on guitar. One Sims recording is called "The Farrell Blues."

In the following year, 1930, a man from Lyon, Mississippi--Eddie House, better known as Son--recorded some songs. Charley Patton, who played the guitar in his last piece, had another session in 1930, and he had met Son House up in Lula and brought Son with him up to Grafton, Wisconsin to record for the Paramount Record Company. and House recorded nine sides that we know of. Only six of them have been recovered on records. The other three are known to have been issued, but nobody knows of any copies of them, including one called "The Clarksdale Moan."

The six House recordings that still exist were all two-part records and they are all very, very fine recordings. One is a piece called "My Black Mama." 

Son House could probably be considered the granddaddy of Clarksdale blues.

He is still living in Rochester, New York, at the age of about 79, and he is no longer playing actively. But he was rediscovered so to speak in the 1960s and had quite a good career for several years until he got kind of sick. He made an album for Columbia and several other pieces--I think another album on a European label. He has been interviewed extensively; I interviewed him myself in 1964 shortly after he was rediscovered.

Son House is important, and not only because he is a very fine blues singer and one of the first from this area to be recorded but also because he was a major influence on one of the other great singers from the Delta, a man named Robert Johnson, who lived up in Robinsonville. Johnson made 29 recordings in 1936 and 1937. He was killed in the following year; otherwise, he undoubtedly would have gone on to even greater fame. But several of Johnson's recordings show the influence of Son House. 

Robert Johnson also sang about places in the local area such as Friars Point, which is the setting for one of his songs called "The Travelling Riverside Blues." Then in 1941, another singer from Clarksdale named Tony Hollins recorded eight songs in Chicago, for the Okeh label. One of these was quite a big hit at the time, a piece called "The Crawling King Snake." It not only has Troy Hollins singing and playing guitar but also a washboard player with him and someone playing a one-string bass. Tony Hollins made several recordings in the late 1940s and then seems to have dropped out of sight as far as recordings are concerned. There are rumors that he is still living in Chicago--perhaps he still has some relatives here in Clarksdale, or maybe he has moved back to this area. If he is still living, he would certainly be worth trying to locate.

In the early 1940s, John Lomax and son, Alan---working for the Library of Congress---came to the Clarksdale area to record some folk music. They had a colleague called Louis Jones and the three of them together spent quite a bit of time in this county and recorded some very fine music. [John Work from the Nashville HBCU Fisk University was also shown to have been involved in this field trip.]

They relocated Son House who had actually moved a little bit north up to Lake Cormorant and then in 1942, in Robinsonville, recorded about 20 pieces from Son House and some also from his partners Willie Brown and Fiddling Joe Martin up there. Brown and Martin were from other parts of the Delta and not from Coahoma County. They also made some recordings of a new teenage blues singer out on Stovall's Plantation, a man named McKinley Morganfield, who shortly thereafter moved to Chicago and came known as Muddy Waters. Well actually he was known as Muddy Waters even here but the Library of Congress recordings are registered as McKinley Morganfield. 

They recorded fourteen pieces by Muddy Waters, some of them with a string band of the Son Sims Four. Son Sims was none other than Henry Sims, who had recorded with Charley Patton in 1929. The Son Sims Four included Muddy Waters on guitar and singing. Percy Thomas on guitar, Son Sims (or Henry Sims on fiddle and Louis Ford on mandolin and also doing some singing.)

They then recorded another man, Charley Berry. who sang some unaccompanied songs and then also played guitar with Muddy Waters.  In fact, I would be very interested in knowing if Charley Berry is still around. He was apparently quite a young man at the time and may still be in the area. He was a very fine singer. 

Another man who recorded in this project in Clarksdale was David Edwards, also quite a young singer at the time. He recorded 15 pieces as well as some talks and toasts and quite a bit of interview material. And then a fine pianist, as recorded in Clarksdale and Friars Point, a man named Thomas Jones, better known as JayBird Jones.

Bird Jones had earlier recorded in Memphis in, I believe, the late 1920s. One of the pieces he recorded on the project in the 1940s was called "Keghouse Blues." He also accompanied a woman in singing one song. 

Some of the material has begun to be issued. almost all of the Muddy Waters material is out on an album on the Testament label. Some of the David Edwards material just recently came out on an album on the British Fly Right label. 

Muddy Waters recorded "The Country Blues" in 1942. It is a version of the same song that Son House recorded as "My Black Mama." Muddy Waters is still active in Chicago and has made many albums and I understand he tours this area occasionally. I know he was in Memphis on Labor Day weekend and probably gets down here at least once a year, one of the great figures in contemporary blues. The Son Sims Four recorded in the same session with Muddy Waters. This was right out at Stovall. One piece is called "Joe Turner Blues." This is one of the oldest traditional blues that is known. Many' blues singers consider "Joe Turner Blues" to be the first blues, the daddy' of them all.

Joe Turner was the brother of the governor of Tennessee in the 1890s and his name is actually Joe Turney. He was in charge of taking prisoners from the courthouse where they had been sentenced to the state penitentiary in Nashville. Of course, the song about him drifted over to the other parts of the South, including Mississippi, and undoubtedly many of the singers did not have any idea who the real Joe Turner was. Some of the details still remained in the songs, such as the line "he come with 40 lengths of chain. . .They tell me Joe Turner is in this town." He is obviously somebody to beware of. 

David Edwards' music at this time begins to demonstrate a synthesis of some of the styles that were being issued on commercial records. Most of what you have heard up to this point represents pretty much a local tradition here in Clarksdale and the Delta without showing a great deal of influence from the blues tradition in general. 

David Edwards was a young man; he undoubtedly listened to records, perhaps traveled around quite a bit. I know he did after these recordings, and he absorbed quite a few influences into his music and synthesized it. David Edwards is still living up in the North--I think in New York or maybe Chicago. He recently performed at the 50th-anniversary celebration of the Archive of Folk Song in Washington, D.C., just a few months ago. So it was a great honor for him and of course, I think also for the Clarksdale blues tradition. 

Edwards recorded one piece called "Worried Life Blues." This song itself was derived from a commercial phonograph record that had been issued a few years earlier. Edwards is a very fine, in fact, a spectacular guitar player. 

There was a kind of hiatus in recording during the Second World War and of course, a lot of people moved around. Many musicians from this area, including Muddy Waters, moved North to take advantage of the opportunities in the industry that the war created. Others were in the army and served overseas. But the recording industry picked up in the late 1940s and on into the 1950s with the proliferation of many small independent labels and many of the people operating these labels would record almost anything that happened to appeal to them. They did not know much about the history of the blues--they didn't care-they just recorded what they liked. As a result of this a lot of very interesting and very fine music was recorded. 

A lot of people got a chance to record who otherwise never would have. One of these was a young man from Clarksdale who was living in Detroit in the late 1940s and named John Lee Hooker. He had a style that was very different from anything that had ever been commercially recorded previously. If he had tried to record in say the early 1940s for one of the big companies like Columbia, RCA or Decca, he probably would have been turned down as just being too strange, too weird. But he did record for a number of independent companies in Detroit and then later in Chicago, and his songs proved to be very successful.

In fact. John Lee Hooker is still going at it after some 30 years in recording. He made numerous albums, probably recorded hundreds of songs, traveled overseas and had a very successful career for himself. I do not know if he gets back to Clarksdale very often to play, but he is a native of Clarksdale. One of his biggest hits is a piece called "Boogie Chillun." 

Also in the 1950s another young man from Clarksdale who had a band that was quite active in the Delta was named Ike Turner. He began recording for Sam Phillips in Memphis. the man who discovered Elvis Presley. and who recorded many other fine musicians. Ike Turner not only recorded for himself, but he backed up many other singers and acted as a talent scout for Sam Phillips. Later he got with Bahari Brothers in Los Angeles, who had the Modern record label and he recorded and worked for them. 

One of Ike Turner's best-known recordings was done about 1950 or 1951, a piece called "Heart Broken and Worried" and issued on the Chess label from Chicago. 

Many of the ones who recorded from Clarksdale by the 1950s were living in other parts of the country--Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles. One man called Eugene Fox recorded in Los Angeles under the professional name of Sly Fox and recorded eight pieces in 1954, some of which were fairly good hits. 

Starting in 1960, researchers began coming to Clarksdale looking into the history of the blues, trying to see whether there were many musicians here who were carrying on in the tradition of people like Son House, Muddy Waters, Son Sims, David Edwards, and some of the others we have discussed. One gentleman whom researchers began encountering was the man sitting right next to me, Wade Walton. Mr. Walton recorded an album for the Prestige Bluesville label and has cooperated with the other researchers in the last 19 to 20 years, leading them to other singers in the area, and I think from this point on, it might be best to let him fill in a little bit about the blues scene in Clarksdale in the last 20 years and perhaps what is happening in the blues field right now. 

WALTON: I once recorded with Ike Turner and Raymond Hill. Raymond Hill is still in Clarksdale, and Jackie Vincent he is still here. Raymond Hill played with Ike Turner and Eugene Fox once played with them back in the '50s. 

QUESTION: Are many of them still active in music?

WALTON: Well, I would say that Jackie still plays; Raymond, well he plays but is really not active. Sometimes they call him out and on special occasions, they play. Back in the '50s and '60s, it was in 1961 that I recorded for Prestige Record Company, I did two LP's with Prestige. 

QUESTION: Who are some of the actives blues singers here besides yourself?

WALTON: C.D. Ville, Frank, Jack is still playing-Jackie Vincent; Frank Frost-he lives up at Lula and he plays locally every Monday night right down on Fourth Street. Frank Frost has recorded an album for the Jewel label out of Shreveport, La. He also made some recordings for Sun in Memphis but I don't believe they ever came out. 

QUESTION: What about Sam Cook?

WALTON: Sam Cook? He was from around Lyon, Mississippi? Was he? I didn't know that. Of course, he sang with the Soul Stirrers. They were down in Houston, Texas. I didn't know he was from here. I figured he was from Texas. 

QUESTION: Who wrote "Walk Right In" and wasn't he from here? 

EVANS: No, he was born in Red Banks, Mississippi. He was the man I mentioned who sang "The Jonestown Blues" recorded in 1927. He spent some time around herein 1910, 1915, sharecropping in this area. But he is living in Memphis now. I think he is 97. [He] plays a banjo and he led a jug band in the 1920s. 

CLOSING REMARKS (by Sid Graves, master of ceremonies) : 

I would like to say that the library has started a Delta Blues Museum, while we feel this an important part of our history, we would like any individuals who have knowledge and information about the blues, blues artists to let us know. We would like to arrange oral history and videotape interviews so that we can get this part of the record of our local history because its not only important locally but all over the world and we would like everybody here to help us collect items that relate to the blues--photographs, records and memorabilia and interviews and people's names so that we can begin to interview these people and work with people like Dr. Evans and Dr. William Ferris, whose book "Blues in the Delta" was published last year. Dr. Ferris has agreed to be our museum consultant. Also, we hope all will help us to make this something because it would really attract a lot of people from all over the country if not further if they knew it was available. Clarksdale and Memphis are really the blues capitals of the nation and internationally considered that way. 

Monday, August 21, 2017

The "Gospel Blues" of "Bishop" Joe Perry Tillis

(b. July 29, 1919 - d. November 3,  2004)

Photograph © Axel Kustner 1990

One of the last generation of performers in the rural African American musical tradition of the "gospel blues," Tillis died  at the age of 85. He first attracted attention as an itinerant musician more than 60 years ago when he performed with B
lind Willie Johnson.

Born in Talladega County, Alabama and raised in Coffee County, near the town of Elba, his family worked as sharecroppers, which meant that he also worked on the farm beginning in his youth. His father, however, found relief from the acerbic nature of farm labor in music and religion. Often hosting Saturday-night fish fries on his farm, complete with blues accompaniment, he found balance in attendance at the local Pentecostal church

Tillis took up music when he was 14; his first instrument was a ukulele. Having saved for months for an acoustic guitar, he took his instrument to the streets, while still working on the family farm. Before long, however, he discovered that playing the music coming out of the regional blues tradition--a pastiche of styles that flourished across the South--paid better. Tillis sang and played slide guitar. "I always did play alone," he later told an interviewer. "I never did like no band. If I went off and things didn't go good, nobody would know it but me." 

Tillis travelled all over the country as a musician, initially hitchhiking or riding freight trains. The reason he never got recognition from the largely white audiences who have embraced blues music since the 1960s is that he refused to record.

"I never did want no records much," he said. "There just wasn't enough in it. See, I could get out there with my guitar, I played the blues and I'd get out there in a club or some building and make myself $2000 a week. I couldn't get that on records."

Out on the road, Tillis often encountered some of the more recognizable artists, such as Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker.

In the late 1940s, Tillis drove trucks for a local firm, but had to retire after the onset of blindness in 1954. He focused on playing blues again and employed a neighbor to drive him around the country until 1967, when a religious conversion returned him to the church.

Instead of giving up music, he turned his talents to making gospel music at Our Saviour Jesus Holiness Pentecostal Church in Samson, Alabama. In 1970 he began playing electric slide-guitar to accompany his hymns and preaching. Never ordained, he adopted the title "Bishop" and until recently gave services on the first and third Sundays of every month.

It was his "gospel blues" style--similar to that of Leon Pinson and Elder Roma Wilson, that drew the attention of folklorists, In the end, Tillis allowed some both European and American musicologists commit his virtually extinct rural form of music to tape.

He was survived by his third wife, daughter, son and several stepchildren.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Blues Scholar Paul Oliver dies at 90

Paul Oliver interviewing the blues artist
Mance Lipscomb in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1970.
Credit - Chris Strachwitz/Arhoolie Foundation
Paul Oliver, a Briton who wrote some of the earliest and most authoritative histories of one of America’s great indigenous musical forms, the blues, died on Tuesday in Shipton-under-Wychwood, Oxfordshire, England. He was 90.

His death was confirmed by Michael Roach, the co-executor of his estate.

Mr. Oliver first heard black American music as a teenager in England during World War II. While he was gathering crops for the war effort at a harvest camp in Suffolk, not far from an American military base, a friend asked him if he wanted to hear something unusual.

“He took me down to a kind of hedge between the two farms, and there was this extraordinary crying and yelling,” Mr. Oliver told the web publication in 2009. “I couldn’t call it singing, but it was quite spine-chilling. He said, ‘Do you know what this is?’ I said, ‘No, I’ve no idea,’ and he said, ‘You’re listening to blues.’

“He wasn’t quite right, really,” Mr. Oliver added, “because we were actually listening to field hollers, but nevertheless I found it quite extraordinary.”

The extraordinary sounds sent Mr. Oliver on a lifelong quest as a record collector, field researcher and historian, the British counterpart to Samuel Charters, the American historian whose groundbreaking book The Country Blues appeared in 1959, the same year Mr. Oliver’s biography Bessie Smith was published in Britain. Mr. Charters died in 2015

Mr. Oliver, a scrupulous researcher with a fluent writing style, opened the eyes of readers in Britain and the United States to a musical form that had been overlooked and often belittled.

“He possesses broad sympathies and deep insights lacking in most American writing on the blues,” the folklorist Benjamin A. Botkin wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 1960, reviewing Mr. Oliver’s second book, “Blues Fell This Morning,” one of the first efforts to examine closely the music’s language and subject matter.

After taking a trip through the American South in 1964, interviewing and recording blues singers, Mr. Oliver wrote The Story of the Blues. Published in 1969, it was the first comprehensive history of the genre and remains an indispensable work.

“He provides a complete factual panorama from field hollers to Chicago electronics,” the jazz historian Stanley Dance wrote in Saturday Review. Mr. Oliver, he added, “relates people, time and place in a way that has not been done before.”

Despite its importance, Mr. Oliver’s work on the blues was a sideline to his principal occupation, as an architectural historian. He wrote extensively on local forms of architecture around the world, a field he extended to include suburban housing tracts and squatters’ camps, which he regarded as forms of cultural expression worthy of study, like the blues.

While teaching in the architecture department at Oxford Brookes University, he edited two monumental reference works: the three-volume Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World (1997) and, with Marcel Vellinga and Alexander Bridge, “Atlas of Vernacular Architecture of the World” (2007).

Paul Hereford Oliver was born on May 25, 1927, in Nottingham, to W. Norman Oliver, an architect, and the former Dorothy Edmunds. The family moved to north London when he was young, and he attended the Harrow County School for Boys.

He trained as a painter and sculptor at the Harrow School of Art, but switched to graphic design because most art materials aggravated his asthma and various allergies. At the school he met Valerie Coxon, whom he later married. She died in 2002. He leaves no immediate survivors.

Published in 1969, “The Story of the Blues” was the first comprehensive history of the genre and remains an indispensable work.

Paul Oliver interviewing the blues artist
Lightnin’ Hopkins in Houston in 1960.
Credit - Chris Strachwitz/Arhoolie Foundation
After earning a diploma in 1948 from Goldsmith’s College in London, Mr. Oliver returned to the Harrow County School to teach art. There he founded the Harrow Jazz Purist Society; played mandolin in the Crawdads, a skiffle band; and in 1951 wrote his first scholarly article, on gospel songs, for Jazz Monthly.

Dissatisfied with the quality of the cover art on records released by the British Decca label, he wrote to the company to complain and was hired as an illustrator. His first assignment was the cover for “Backwoods Blues,” a collection of songs by Bobby Grant, Buddy Boy Hawkins, King Solomon Hill and Big Bill Johnson, released in 1954.

He later illustrated and wrote the liner notes for dozens of albums. In 1955 he earned an art-history degree from the University of London.

Mr. Oliver was at work on Blues Fell This Morning when an editor at Cassell approached him to write a biography of Bessie Smith for its Kings of Jazz series. Pleased with the result, Cassell then brought out his second book.

Encouraged by librarians at the United States Embassy, Mr. Oliver won a grant from the State Department and received financing from the BBC to travel to the United States and record blues artists. His journey through the South led to an enormously popular exhibition at the embassy that was attended by the singer and guitarist Lightnin’ Hopkins, whom Mr. Oliver had interviewed at his house in Houston.

The exhibition became the starting point for The Story of the Blues, which was accompanied by a double album tracing the music’s development from its African roots to the 1960s.

Mr. Oliver edited nearly a hundred interviews from his trip for Conversation With the Blues (1965), an oral portrait of the music and the American South that included indigenous musical artists of every description.

He wrote in the introduction: “Barrelhouse pianists and juke-joint guitarists, street singers and traveling show entertainers, jazz musicians and jug band players, sharecroppers and millworkers, vagrants and migrants, mechanics and laborers — these were amongst the speakers. Some had secure jobs, some had none; some were on relief and some in retirement; some played for themselves, some played for others, some had once ridden high and others were going down slow, some were famous, some unknown, some were young and others venerable: all had played their part in shaping the pattern of the blues.”

He explored the myriad influences on the development of the blues in Screening the Blues: Aspects of the Blues Tradition (1968) and Savannah Syncopators: African Retentions in the Blues (1970).

His other books on the subject included Songsters and Saints: Vocal Traditions on Race Records (1984), Broadcasting the Blues: Black Blues in the Segregation Era (2006) and Barrelhouse Blues: Location Recordings and the Early Traditions of the Blues (2009). His liner notes were collected in Blues Off the Record: Thirty Years of Blues Commentary (1984).

During this time, Mr. Oliver’s career as an architectural historian also blossomed. In 1960 he joined the Architectural Association as an artist. He became a lecturer on art and art history, and in the early 1970s served as head of the association’s graduate school.

He left in 1973 to lead the art and design department at Dartington College of Arts, in Dartington Hall, Devon, and in 1978 he joined the architecture department at Oxford Polytechnic in Headington, near Oxford. It was renamed Oxford Brookes University in 1992.

Mr. Oliver’s interest in vernacular architecture sprang from the same impulses that fueled his passion for the blues. Local forms, he said in a lecture at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford in 2015, “are an expression of the cultures that built them.” Architects failed, he added, by regarding architecture as an “abstraction separate, in a sense, from the values or the qualities that the peoples of the various cultures require in their buildings.”

His many books on architecture included “Shelter and Society” (1969), “English Cottages and Small Farmhouses: A Study of Vernacular Shelter” (1975), “Dwellings: The House Across the World” (1987) and “Built to Meet Needs: Cultural Issues in Vernacular Architecture” (2006).

At his death Mr. Oliver left a 1,400-page manuscript on the Texas blues that he had begun writing with the researcher Mack McCormick in 1959. The project was abandoned after the two men quarreled. Mr. McCormick died in 2015.

Texas A&M University Press is scheduled to publish it in fall 2018, with essays by Alan Govenar and Kip Lornell, as “The Blues Come to Texas: Paul Oliver and Mack McCormick’s Unfinished Book.”

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Blues Sleuth Earns Spot in Music Hall of Fame

 Blues Sleuth Earns Spot in Music Hall of Fame
By Peggy Gale - Pensacola News Journal - May 17, 2006.

Special to Santa Rosa Extra Gayle Dean Wardlow holds a 1923 78 rpm recording of Edith Wilson singing "Pensacola Blues." This is just one of the 2,000 records he has collected from the 1920s, '30s and '40s.

A lifetime of chasing blues music has landed a Milton man in the Blues Hall of Fame. 

Blues researcher and author of the book, Chasin' That Devil Music, Gayle Dean Wardlow, 65, accepted the honor from the Blues Foundation last week at the Memphis Convention Center. Wardlow, who began seriously collecting old 78-rpm records of hillbilly country music at age 12, said the blues bug bit him in 1961 and he has been chasing down blues records and musicians ever since. His record collection has now grown to about 2,000 recordings and has become one of the best collections of 1920s and '30s blues music in the world. He started collecting old blues records when some New York collectors told him they were looking for Mississippi blues recordings made by pioneer musicians that were fast slipping into historical oblivion. 

"They had some of these old records by some of these blues singers, but no one knew anything about the guys who actually made the records," he said. "All they had were the records. They didn't know whether they were from Louisiana or Mississippi. So I started knocking on doors in black neighborhoods looking for records from the '20s and '30s. I told people I buy old Victrola records and pay 25 to 50 cents. I did this for more than 25 years until the 1980s." 

During that period, Wardlow worked for newspapers in both Meridian and Jackson, Miss. On his days off, he would visit towns in the Mississippi Delta searching for both records and information about blues music and blues musicians Charley Patton, Skip James, Son House, and Robert Johnson, which he chronicles in Chasin' That Devil Music.
"I became a blues detective," Wardlow said. "I was going to find out what happened to these guys. I was tracking down relatives and people who knew them." It was Wardlow's investigation that turned up the true story of blues musician and composer Tommy Johnson, which was depicted in the movie "O Brother. Where Art Thou." [Actually, that distinction goes more to David Evans, who wrote the book Tommy Johnson in 1971.]

He said being a southerner helped him gain the confidence of elderly blacks while trying to glean information from them about blues music and musicians. "They were amazed that a white boy was interested in the music they had listened to when they were young," he said. "I was able to solve most of the mysteries about who the musicians were and where they came from"

Wardlow was sometimes very lonely out there driving 200 or 300 miles looking for someone or a relative to talk to." Mark Ellis, 33, Pensacola's Tringas Music store manager and member of the local band Good Foote, said he has become friends with Wardlow during the past three years. "I am a really big blues fan," he said. "There is no one in the United States who has the knowledge of those musicians and their music that Wardlow has. Without Gayle finding out who wrote the songs and who recorded them, we would be missing out on a large piece of American history."

Mississippi attorney Wendell Cook, 65, said Wardlow is one of the world's foremost authorities on the blues and has been for many years. "It is great that he is being recognized by his peers," he said. "He now has an international reputation as a blues researcher and expert. He is also a lifelong friend, and a good, decent man."

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Old Walter Phelps Goes Uptown - Asheville Citizen Times, Apr 4, 1978.

"I had me a band," said Walt Phelps, and the gaze from his red-rimmed old eyes drifted off into the distance of time. “Used to play round here till all my boys died off some time back. We'd play uptown, out toward Black Mountain, Waynesville, Burnsville..."

"One fellow played the washboard, and had him two fryin' pans — different sizes — a cowbell, a cymbal. and thimbles on his fingers. We had a washtub bass. I was lead man, and then we had a fellow who got him one of them big old horns from a old Sab. Edison phonograph, then went up to the pawn shop and got him a kazoo. He had that kazoo welded into the end o' that big old horn and called it his saxophone. That sounded better'n a kazooxophone'. He could play that thing. too."

Walt Phelps was a music man. He played music to pay the rent, to feed himself, and purely for the fun of it. He loved music, he said, almost as much as he loved white liquor--the corn squeezings that came out of a hundred copper stills between here and the South Carolina line.

Soon to be 82, his face less wrinkled than most men of that age, and his hair a close-cropped white, Old Walt still makes music — only now he's really gone uptown.

From Street Corners To Concert

In his younger days, he played on street corners or playgrounds, or in the ball park, wherever he thought he could draw a crowd and make a few dollars.

Now he's a concert performer. In his old age, with music still working its way out of him, Walt Phelps does shows on college campuses and at the Asheville Junction and draws rave applause from audiences and good notices in such publications as "The Arts Journal."

"The Arts Journal said he graduated from the fourth grade," said Walt s wife, Ethel.

"I didn't graduate from no fourth grade," said Walt "I just got in the fourth grade. Never did get out."

His education didn't come from school. It came from his music. "Even in school," he said. "I was always playin'. That was in Laurens, South Carolina, where I was raised on a farm. In school, when we went out for recess, they'd put the little girls on one side and the little boys on t'other. I bought me a five-cent harmonica and learned to make enough music with it to make them little girls dance. You should'a seen 'em a-kickin' an' a-stompin."

Walter plays the blues — the deep down, gut-level, bone-chilling blues.

"This is the blues," declared Dan Lewis, laying aside his guitar for a moment. "These people stood around on street corners, or sat on back porches, and really lived the blues." They're totally real. They can put aside all the garbage and get down where it is. This is the raw, crude thing. The energy is incredible."

Lewis makes music with Ethel and Walt Phelps. "You should have seen the people at Warren Wilson College taking to Walt's music," explained Lewis. "He had them on their feet when he did 'Darktown Strutters Ball' and 'Big Crap Game,' and he kept them on their feet the rest of the night."

Medicine Show Days

On Saturday night, Lewis and Walt and Ethel will do a concert in Lipinsky Auditorium at the University of North Carolina--Asheville. "You come and watch Old Walt," Lewis said. "He'll have them in the aisles."

Walt's had 'em in the aisles all his life. He used to stop the ball games at McCormick Field when he'd suddenly appear in the grandstand aisle on the third base side, dressed in a swallow-tailed coat and plug hat, dancing and huffing on an old harmonica. We didn't know him as Walt Phelps; he was just "Old Walt."

Walt's fondness for music and corn whiskey helped him make a living.

"Back in the thirties," explained Walter Phelps, "I worked with Dr Nonzetta's Medicine Show. I wore a split-tailed coat and top hat, and Doc called me 'Stovepipe.' I'd draw a crowd playin', tellin' jokes, dancin', and cuttin' shines, and Doc Nonzetta sold patent medicine and some soap that he'd made hisself."

He'd pour iodine on his shirt sleeve — he always wore white shirts — an' that soap would wash that iodine out of his shirt ever bit. He sold three little bitty cakes of that soap for a quarter, and they went like hotcakes. I'd go out in the crowd and sell his medicine — it was pretty good stuff, too — and soap, and sell my corn liquer on the side."

"I'd holler and say, 'Doc, I done sold out,' and then I'd tell 'em, 'but I got some of my own.' I bought that stuff fer $3 a gallon and sold it $1.50 a pint. Lots'a times, though, I was my own best customer."

Walt worked for the city 19 years, but before that he worked wherever work could be found. "Back before World War II." he said. "they hired me and Peg Leg Charlie Williams to sit on two cotton bales out front of the Imperial Theater and play music to draw crowds for that new mom' picture. 'Gone With The Wind.' I'm tellin' you, we whomped up some mighty big crowds for that picture show

Back To Music

"But the most fun of all was that medicine show. Doc hired Georgia Dooley from over on the East End. and she was supposed to be my wife. Georgia was two feet tall and had awful big feet. Old Doc would say, 'Look at 'ern. folks, that big old feller and his dear sweet little wife, the mother of his six children,' and they'd look at me, six feet tall, and at Georgia and her great big feet. 'We're a-tryin' to make them some money.' Doc would say, "an' them people would open up their pockets."

"When I wasn't playin' with Doc '• Walt said, "we sometimes had trouble payin' the rent, so we'd cook up a big mess o' chittlins, fry some fish, make a big pot o' chili, an' throw a rent party. People would come from all over to eat that stuff and lissen to our music. They'd pay a quarter apiece, an' we'd pay the rent.

When World War II came along, Walt was drafted at age 46 and went to Fort Bragg for his physical.

The doctor looked at him and asked, "What county you from?"

"Buncombe." "I thought so " "Huh?" "Never saw a man from Buncombe yet didn't have some other man's initials on his face " The doctor pointed to a scar on Walt's forehead "Yes, sir." Walt said. "Them's initials, all right. But you should'a seen t'other man, I wrote my whole name on his face.”

The Army rejected him, and Walt looked for more honest labor than the medicine show. He went to work at Fontana where the TVA was building the highest dam.

In the east "I saw seven men killed there," Walt said. "Last one killed got hit with a bucket full of seven yards of concrete. He was standing right beside me. I was wearing one'a them tin hats, an' a rock come down and chipped my nose an' split my chin like a apple Man, I didn't stop till I got to the personnel office."

He went back to his music then, and he's been with it since.