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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 pro-gram 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 1890's. 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 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 Jay Bird 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 per-formed 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 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 1950's 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 1950's 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 50's. 

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 50's and 60's, it was in 1961 that I recorded for Prestige Record Com-pany, 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 1920's. 

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 an important part of our history, we would like any individuals who have knowledge and in-formation about the blues, blues artists to let us know. We would like to arrange oral history and video tape interviews so that we can get this part of our record of our local history because it s 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.