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."

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