Monday, October 30, 2017


By Louis Barnewitz - International Discophile, Issue No. 3, Spring 1956

Who will tell me why the blues singer Leroy Carr always has been a step-child in the steadily growing jazz literature ? Where do we find a jazz writer or collector willing to remedy this neglect?

Apart from discographical material, nothing has been written by any ,American jazz writer about this outstanding folk singer. Maybe you have read a short article which included a very important discography in "The Record Changer" of May 1947, written by the English collector and writer, Albert J. McCarthy, or an article in the English magazine "Jazz Journal" a couple of years ago. Besides, you may have had the opportunity of reading a few opinions expressed by a couple of contemporary American blues singers, but you are unable to look up as much as a single article dealing with Carr's biography. Not even Rudy Blesh took the trouble to mention any of Carr's recordings in his book, "Shining Trumpets." He mentions him in passing only, and calls him great. That's all! Such negligence is unpardonable.

It was a great disappointment to me that Big Bill Broonzy, of all people, does not mention Carr in his autobiography, "Big Bill Blues. "In this connection, it is of interest to quote the remarks Big Bill made in "Jazz Record" (March 1946 issue);

"I never worked with him but I think Leroy Carr was the greatest blues singer I heard in my life. I know him from seeing him around and listening to him, and he was the best guy you ever met. "

If it is correct that Big Bill has met Carr in person and listened to him, I wonder how he could write his book without mentioning this wonderful blues singer, even if his lyrically accentuated and relaxed singing was a kind of city blues far away from the primitive and untrained blues singing, which for example, Blind Lemon Jefferson was a typical exponent. Can this be the reason why American jazz writers so entirely ignore this fascinating interpreter of the blues?

The guitarist Scrapper Blackwell accompanied Carr in his more than 120 recordings issued on the Vocalion and Bluebird labels. His playing in these records places him among the most pleasing blues accompanists, and moreover his ensemble playing with the piano-playing Carr was taken as a model, and has been imitated by lots of piano-guitar duos with varying success. A great similarity in thought and musical expression must have been a condition for the splendid ensemble playing. As this amazing oneness is apparent already in their first record, Carr's melodious composition, "How Long Blues, " it seems safe to assume that they had been playing together long before 1928, the year they started recording for Vocalion.

Besides "How Long Blues," which is one of the classic blues compositions and maybe Carr's most beautiful work, he has composed such tunes as "Blues Before Sunrise" and "When The has Goes Down. "His record-ings of these tunes as well as "Midnight Hour Blues.' and "Alabama Woman Blues, " belong to his very best vocal performances. "Muddy Water" should also be mentioned because of Blackwell's very exciting guitar accompaniment which is played with a growing rhythmical excitement.

The words in Carr's songs are not much different from the lyrical poetry in the blues sung by most of the blues singers from the South, but in Carr's melodious form of expression this simple and artless poetry seems to take on a deeper meaning. His intonation is often melancholy but never sentimental. I should think that the only objection against Carr may be that too many of his songs and compositions were built on the same themes. He often used the same theme three or four times (perhaps even more; I am not familiar with more than half of his production), and even if he chose different titles for his records and used different words, it tends to make his repertory slightly monotonous, Nevertheless, it is an incomplete collection that does not have some of Leroy Carr's recordings, and for my part, I feel that he ought to have a seat in the Library Of Congress, side by side with America's finest folk creators!

May I finally express a hope for a Long Play record comprising some of Carr's best recordings. There is no doubt that such a record would fulfill the wish of record collectors the world over, and at the same time it would widen the knowledge of the performances of one of the best blues artists who ever existed. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

101 Reasons Not to Stop Someone from Dancing on the Train Tracks

Album Review: 
Tony Manard - Know Why

The above listed site, on the main page, will get you to a place where you can pick up the above album by Tony Manard, who perhaps goes around wanting to "know why" everything is the way it is. I don't "know why" that's the name of his album, but if a man was to use his intuition and intellect and think of what might be on said album, he might not be all that surprised to find six of these songs coming from Manard.  In truth, I'm no Manard expert, but like all plural beings, I possess the ability to profile and judge folks, perhaps cold-read is a more acceptable term in our times. So I make assumptions and speak truth to power despite the offensive potential to a gracious and cordial individual who seems a genuinely kind soul. 

In my own mind, "Mississippi (Why You Gotta Be So Mean?)" is the artist taking on the role of a blue-collar southerner who wants to murder his employer, yet also desires some sort of job security so that he can grow old with a little grace and get a taste of the not-so-complicated twilight of life. There is also a tinge of sympathy for the plight of the unskilled laborer (read: redneck) in today's society whose job prospects are dwindling. While it's not mentioned directly in the song, it's implied that the increasingly diversified population and economy in the southern states is going to require folks to attain a different skill set to maintain their productive status in society. Of course, many of our brothers and sisters find themselves lost and feel as if they have no options, nothing to lose, and many people go the same route of our protagonist, learning the hard way that they had more than most. I think I hear Cecil Yancy back there on a harmony, and Alice Hasen demonstrates her abilities as a catgut scraper too on the opening track.  A full-length video directed and produced by Libby Brawley, one of the newer filmmakers in the Memphis-New York connection, is embedded below. 

The track that stands out to this lifelong admirer of the music of Beck and Leonard Cohen is "Track 6: B-Movie Actor," which contains lyrics that remind me of a love affair between two beatnicks.  The most interesting aspect is the rhythm and the melody and even the vocal. It's a shake up for Manard. Granted, it may be a bit groggy on the highs, but compared to the tone on the rest of the album, I'm actually quite refreshed and invigorated by its steadiness. Manard's skill as an instrumentalist cannot be denied by any sober critic, but I always felt that Robert Jr. Lockwood said it well when he said, "Don't play too much." Unlike a few other places on the album, the business of filling up space is abandoned in favor of pedantic, progressive rhythm on this aural delight, which should not fail to peak the curiosity and interest of Manard's more dedicated following. It is notable for nothing else if not Vincent Manard's closing with the Aztec Death whistle.  It makes you feel as if things will be all right despite a lot having gone wrong.  With no more ado, enjoy the show - TDM

"Mississippi (Why You Gotta Be So Mean?)"
Tony Manard

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Muddy Waters' Obituary

The Clarksdale Press Register - Monday, May 2, 1983

Muddy Waters, the little boy who came to live with his grandmother in Stovall in 1918 and grew up to be a blues music superstar, died Saturday in Chicago.

Waters died of "cardiac arrest" at home in the Chicago suburb of Westmont, said his manager, Scott Cameron. He was pronounced dead at 2:17 a.m. Saturday at Good Samaritan Hospital in suburban Downers Grove, spokeswoman Roberta Butler said.

The rotund singer hadn't been ill and had planned to make another album this summer, Cameron said. He had earned six Grammys during his career.

Waters was born April 4, 1915, in Rolling Fork. His name was McKinley Morganfield and his father Willie Morganfield was a farmer and musician. After his mother died, he moved in with his grandmother in Stovall.

Friday, October 13, 2017

"Area History Rich in Musical Traditions" by Sid Graves 1978

Sid Graves - November 14, 1978 - Clarksdale Press Register  

A rich aspect of Clarksdale and Coahoma County's history is that of its music. Natives of the city and county, as well as those who have visited and performed here and the surrounding Delta, have contributed to the blues musical tradition which has reached beyond regional borders to influence the other uniquely American music forms of jazz and country, in addition to rock and roll, pop, and western music.

From blues popularizer W. C. Handy who relates in his autobiography that he first heard the blues fourteen miles from Clarksdale) to John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and others, the area has been prominent and includes talents as diverse as B. B. King, Mississippi John Hurt, Sam Chatmon, Ike Turner and white bluesman Mose Allison of Tippo.

The heritage of the blues ( from "blue devils" ) is competently treated by folklorist William Ferris in his recently published Blues from the Delta.
A native of Vicksburg, Ferris is the founder and co-director of the Center of Southern Folklore in Memphis, and associate professor of Afro-American Studies at Yale. Currently on a European tour for the U. S. Department of State, he will assume duties as director of the Center for Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi next year. His films, recordings and photographs on Southern Folkways, artists, musicians and craftsmen have helped preserve for posterity ways of doing things and being that are rapidly disappearing. ( His exhibit on folk architecture is scheduled for a 1981 showing at Carnegie Public Library.

Ferris has also recorded three albums of Delta bluesmen, and his record of Mississippi mule trader Ray Lum is a fine example of the use of oral history to record and enrich our understanding of the American heritage. The young folklorist, who received his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, has published numerous articles on the blues, and this book is a more detailed treatment of the subject which was published in his book of the same title in England in 1970. 
Blues from the Delta is based on inter-views with the individuals who make and perform the music. In 1967, Ferris began his research, the methods of which are related in this illustrated volume and which were described as "past strange" by a fellow white Mississippian.

Living with the families of the subjects of his study resulted in friendships which are illustrated with letters and photographs. More importantly, the completed book is an accomplished document of the blues history and our social history. 
Bluesmen, such as Pine Top Johnson and Jasper Love of Clarksdale, were interviewed, and the transcript of a "house party" held in Clarksdale is included in the work. While B. B. King is achnowledged for his important assistance in the book's preparation, it is the lesser-known Delta bluesmen who are treated more fully and to whom the work is dedicated. These included Shelby "Poppa Jazz" Brown, Wallace "Pine Top" Johnson, Lee Kizart, Jasper Love, Maudie Shirley and James "Son" Thomas.

These performers and others recall their experiences and interpret the blues in their own language as Ferris includes transcripts of interviews as well as sections on the roots and the composition of the blues.

Interesting chapters on bluesmen and preachers, verses, proverbs, audiences and other subjects reveal a keen appreciation of the music. A helpful bibliography, discography and filmography are also included. Clarksdale is frequently mentioned in the book, and there are photographs of this city, Lula, and the performers from the vicinity.

While some may object to the rough language contained in the publication, the many devotees of the blues and admirers of its performers and the history of their important music will rejoice and enjoy.
Blues from the Delta is available at the public library and the local bookstore. Persons wishing to check copies out may telephone 624-4461 to place their name the request list.

The sixty-minute videotape Good Mornin Blues, produced by the Mississippi Authority for Educational Television and narrated by B. B. King, is available for individual or group viewing at the public library. A series of films made by William Ferris will be shown at the branch library at dates to be announced in the future.


The Disappearance of Robert Petway: A New Theory

By Jason Rewald - first published in 2011 for American Blues Scene

Robert Petway, a blues musician from the 1930’s and 40’s, is known primarily for one thing: penning the great “Catfish Blues”, one of the most prolific songs in blues history, influencing Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix and countless others.

Very little is known about Robert Petway’s life. It has been said that he was born around 1908, around Yazoo City, most likely on the J.F. Sligh Farm. This information is largely accepted, as his closest friend, Tommy McClennan, was born at this location. All other information, including the cause, location, and time of his death, are unknown. All that is known for certain is this: Robert Petway recorded 16 songs, and only has one known photo taken around 1941 as a record company publicity shot.

However, after researching Petway for some time, I have formed a new theory.

With little to go on, I began by researching Robert Petway’s last name. Although by today’s standards this might seem like a fairly common name, in the early 1900’s, it was anything but common. In fact, when searching Census Records, there is only one African American Petway living in all of Mississippi in 1920. Even he was born in Alabama. By 1930, not a single Petway resides in Mississippi (according to the Census Records). 
While doing other research on other blues stars of the day, I came to see patterns. A common pattern I tend to see has to do with last names. Usually, one can find family with the same surname in or around the area where these stars where presumably born. If Robert Petway was indeed born in Mississippi, then it becomes somewhat safe to assume you would find other family members – parents, spouses, siblings, etc – also in the area, or at least the state. This was obviously not the case. Though our blues stars loved to ramble, travel, and never settle down, usually the parents – sharecroppers, laborers, etc – didn’t move around much. So I expanded my search.

Turns out the name Pettway (note the extra “T”) does have historical significance. Gee’s Bend, also known as Boykin, is a very poor tenant community on Alabama. It lies on the edge of the Black Belt in Wilcox County. It is named after Joseph Gee, a planter, and the first white man to settle in the area. In 1845, this land was sold to Mark Pettway to settle a $29,000 debt. About a year later, in 1846, the Pettway family moved from North Carolina to Gee’s Bend, bringing with them over 100 slaves. When the slaves were freed, many of them stayed, continuing to help the Pettways as sharecroppers, planters, and laborers. A lot of these ex-slaves took the surname Pettway or a derivative of it. In fact, Arthur Rothstein, credited with photographing many of the black tenants of Gee’s Bend as hired by the Resettlement Administration, noted that most of them had the last name Pettway or Petway. 

Pettway Plantation, Gees Bend, Alabama
In fact, I believe that Robert’s Father, Tom Petway, lived with his uncle Robert (listed at “Robt.” on the 1880 Census Record) in Gee’s Bend, and worked as a sharecropper after the Pettway family took over in 1845. The Census Record I uncovered shows a young Tom, age 10, living with his Uncle Robert and his family. The record shows “Rehoboth Beat” in Wilcox as the area he lived in. The Rehoboth Beat covered Gee’s Bend.

Though I have no outstanding proof, I believe that Robert Petway, our famous author of “Catfish Blues”, was born in Gee’s Bend, Alabama. I believe his father, Tom, got into the sharecropping business as he became older. He fathered a son, Robert, who stayed in Gee’s Bend and learned to farm cotton, among other things. On the Census Record I found for Robert, it shows him at age 12 (born October 18th 1907) living in Gee’s Bend with his father Tom, a farmer. It also shows a sister, Idenia, living with them. Could it be that Robert Petway, whom we love and adore, was named after Tom’s uncle with whom he lived with? A 1920 Wilcox County, Alabama Census listing Robert Petway, second from the bottom.

Any way you slice it, Gee’s Bend was not the best place to be. It was isolated. It had a ferry come from time to time, but the ferry was unreliable. The town was poor, and falling apart. In about 1932, the Red Cross started to help Gee’s Bend with public assistance. Being as bad as it was, many of the younger residents, who did not have a personal stake in Gee’s Bend, began to leave. In 1932, Robert Petway would have been about 25 years old, a prime age to leave the failing town of Gee’s Bend.

I believe it was around this time that Robert fled to Mississippi, not for the love of music, but for his ability to farm. The rumors of ever fertile soil and the ability to buy land in the Mississippi Delta would have made it an appealing prospect. It wasn’t until the 1940’s that you could buy the land in Gee’s Bend. I believe Robert left to do what he knew best: make a better living farming. This excursion took him to the J.F. Sligh Farm in Yazoo City. I believe this is where he may have met – or reunited – with McCelnnan. But I think McClennan was more than a friend. I think he was his musical mentor. Robert Petway most likely was a farmer by day, and learning the blues and playing parties by night.

After a few years playing music in the Delta, Robert Petway headed north to Chicago in 1939. This much we know to be true – he, in fact, recorded for Bluebird in Chicago in 1941. Not to mention, by 1939, McClennan was already in Chicago, and it’s more than likely that Robert Petway went to join him.

I believe Petway never left Chicago after traveling north. After all, why would he? Life in the north, though often tough, was far better than life in the south at that time. Work paid better, apartments and living arrangements were often better. What small town farming boy wouldn’t want to stay in Chicago? Even Honeyboy Edwards recalled Petway staying on the North side of Chicago, and never being heard from again. In my opinion, Robert Petway died in Chicago, in Cook County, on May 30th 1978. There are both national and state death index records stating as much.

Some other interesting facts?

Honeyboy Edwards recalled Petway talking about living and farming in Blythville, Arkansas. Petway was from Boykin, Alabama.

If Robert Petway arrived in MS around 1932, and left by 1939, there would be no Census Record of him living in MS.

It is also rumored that Petway once played the Three Forks Bar, where legendary bluesman Robert Johnson was allegedly poisoned.

The one known photo of Petway depicts him in rural farming attire. Even his traveling buddy McClennan borrowed a suit for his own photo. I believe Petway wore this outfit because it is what he was used to wearing – he was, after all, a farmer.

With so little to go on, no one will ever know for sure. However, in my opion, Robert Petway was born October 18th 1907 in Gee’s Bend Alabama to sharecropping parents. He left Gee’s Bend around 1932, and headed to Mississippi to farm. I believe he met, learned from, and played with Tommy McClennan, before heading to Chicago in 1939. After recording for Bluebird in 1941, he would later die May 30th 1978.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

David Evans' Letter about "Yazoo County Blues" Issue

Dear Living Blues,

I was pleased to see the the feature articles on “Yazoo County Blues” in the latest Living Blues (#249, Vol. 48, no. 3, June 2017), particularly the very detailed history and overview of the county’s blues activity by Jim O’Neal and the lengthy profile of Jimmie Holmes by Scott Barretta, as well as the reports of other performers who are active today. I was surprised though that no one from Living Blues asked me for input, as, to the best of my knowledge, I made the first documentary recordings of blues in the county back in 1966. 

In the spring of that year Skip James stayed for a few days with me and Al Wilson when he was in Los Angeles for some concerts at the Ash Grove. We took the opportunity to interview him, and I asked him about other blues artists who might be still active in his home town of Bentonia. I was planning a field trip to Mississippi that summer and was interested to find out to what extent Skip was a unique and individual musical “genius” or whether his blues were part of a local or regional tradition. I heard many elements in Skip’s lyrics and melodies and even occasionally in his guitar playing that were shared with other blues musicians, and I wanted to compare his music to that of other local players. I knew that Gayle Dean Wardlow had contacted Henry Stuckey the year before. Stuckey was an artist that Skip often mentioned as an influence and musical partner, and of course I wanted to meet and record him. Skip also suggested that I look up Cornelius Bright and Bert Slater. Armed with these leads, I headed for Mississippi with Marina Bokelman in August. We met Wardlow in Jackson and drove with him up to Bentonia and nearby Satartia on September 2, only to find out that Stuckey had passed away earlier in the year. I had no luck catching up with Slater in 1966 or in later visits to Bentonia, although he was around. In any case, I heard that he had joined the church and given up blues. We had better luck finding Cornelius Bright, and on September 6 Marina and I recorded him in Bentonia at a session that turned into a somewhat raucous house party. Toward the end of the session a blind man wandered in and sat in on a couple of songs with harmonica. I asked someone his name and was told Robert Sims, but I believe that was the name of the person I asked or of someone else in the room and that the harmonica player was actually Benjamin “Bud” Spires. He sounds very much like Bud, whom I would meet and record later, and at the end of the session he gave me an account of how he had come to be blinded that was very similar to the story Bud would later tell me. Contrary to what Jim O’Neal reported as told to him by Jimmie Holmes, Bud told me he went blind gradually as a result of the unsafe handling of chemical fertilizer on his job.

Cornelius was very helpful and seemed to take an interest in my research, as he invited us to come back the next evening and record an older friend of his who was still very active in music. I came back alone on September 7, and Cornelius took me out in the country to meet and record Jack Owens. Jack was a major discovery, an artist comparable to and contemporary with Skip James, performing in a similar style though more “country” and less polished. His music confirmed that Skip was both a “genius” and deeply embedded in a local tradition. I returned to Bentonia in 1967 and recorded Jack Owens again, and this time two more guitarists showed up and played a few pieces, Robert Rouster and Roosevelt Grays. They were typical of the sort of local player who can perform one or two pieces with a moderate degree of competence but who is not too serious about music and is more interested in drinking and acting rowdy. Jack later told me that both men came to bad ends. Meanwhile in Chicago, on May 12, 1966, Pete Welding recorded an artist from Yazoo County named John Williams, who performed a version of “Rather Be the Devil.” Rouster, Grays, and Williams can be added to the list of artists from Yazoo County in Jim O’Neal’s survey.

In 1969 and 1970 I returned to Bentonia and recorded Jack Owens with Bud Spires. I continued to visit and record Jack from time to time, sometimes alone and sometimes with Bud, especially after I relocated to Memphis in 1978, but I didn’t record any new artists in the area until July 22, 1984, when I recorded five songs at the Blue Front Cafe from Jimmie Holmes and his brother John Holmes on electric guitars with Bud Spires on harmonica. I thought these were the first recordings of Jimmie, whom I had met a few years earlier through Jack, but I later found out that Jimmie had been recorded for Wolf Records in 1981. By the late 1970s other researchers and fans had begun to visit Bentonia after hearing some of the recordings I had made earlier and issued on LPs. After this I continued to document Jack’s music up until his death in 1997 and accompanied him on his two European festival appearances and his trip to Washington to accept a National Heritage Award. My activities with Jack are described in two series of my “Ramblin’” column in Blues Revue Quarterly 12-13 and 24-26.

As Scott Barretta correctly noted, “it was primarily through Owens that [Jimmie] Holmes learned the traditional repertoire of the Bentonia style,” although Holmes had also heard Cornelius, Henry Stuckey, and other local performers. Holmes very likely was impressed with the attention that Jack was beginning to get in the late 1970s and early 1980s from his recordings and an increasing stream of visitors and researchers, including Alan Lomax, who arrived in 1978 with a video crew and fully equipped sound truck. Many of these visitors would stop at the Blue Front and ask for directions to Jack’s house out in the country. Jack would occasionally stop at the Blue Front himself on his trips into town, but he rarely performed at the cafe except when visitors took him there to use it as a recording space. It’s doubtful that he ever performed a real “gig” at the the Blue Front, as he ran juke houses of his own in the 1960s and 1970s and continued to sell moonshine from his home into the 1990s, occasionally entertaining crowds of customers there. Any gig for the locals at the Blue Front would have paid little, and Jack could do much better staying home and waiting for the arrival of a busload of Japanese blues tourists. He also had a disabled wife at home, to whom he was very devoted, and wouldn’t have stayed out late playing music in town. I remember Holmes sometimes coming out to Jack’s house and observing the master musician. Jack was somewhat disdainful of the younger man's playing, but that’s no reflection on Jimmie's abilities. Jack was that way with every other musician, no doubt including myself, although at the same time he was always encouraging to those who tried to learn from him. He simply believed that no one would ever master his intricate style of playing. Skip James was the same way, though never so encouraging to his followers. And they were right! Just as Lightnin’ Hopkins played a simpler but electric version of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Honeyboy Edwards played a simpler electric version of Robert Johnson, so Jimmie Holmes was playing a simpler (and probably electric) version of Jack Owens. These simpler versions were more suited for the times in which the younger bluesmen operated.

While I enjoyed LB's Yazoo County coverage overall, I was a bit disappointed at the occasional touch of blues mythology, perhaps mixed with a bit of boosterism. The most serious example was the designation of Henry Stuckey as the “Father of Bentonia Blues” in Gayle Dean Wardlow’s article on him and on the cover of the magazine. It seems to be a characteristic of western cultures that we want to identify “father” and “mother’ figures and “birthplaces” of every cultural trait. Thus we have W. C. Handy and “Ma” Rainey as father and mother of the blues and Buddy Bolden of jazz, and every town from Tutwiler to Timbuktu is touted as the birthplace of the blues. Some years ago, when I reported the name of Henry Sloan as an early influence on Charley Patton and noted that the trail of influences ended with him (i. e., we don’t know and probably will never know who influenced Sloan), other writers began elevating Sloan to the status of “founder” or “father” of the style that Patton displayed on his recordings. It’s very convenient, of course, when the alleged "father" never made any recordings, as in the cases of Sloan, Bolden, and Stuckey. Henry Stuckey clearly was an important figure in the local music scene, as Skip James himself acknowledged, but Jim O’Neal’s survey shows clearly that there were others. Wardlow suggests that Stuckey learned the open D (or E) minor guitar tuning, which is the most distinctive feature of the Bentonia blues style, while serving in the military in France at the end of World War I. Stuckey attributed it to some soldiers he encountered there from the Caribbean. I believe this is a red herring. Blues was thriving at the professional and rural folk levels in the South by 1918, and the minor tuning is known elsewhere in Mississippi blues tradition. Its prominence in Bentonia is almost certainly a local development out of something that was already in the area. There surely were soldiers from the West Indies in both the British and French armies in World War One, even some among the American forces, but I am aware of no West Indian style of guitar music that sounds remotely like blues guitar or uses this tuning. All other African and African-American guitar styles of the early twentieth century use the western scale and harmonies that are more or less built into the instrument’s fretboard and lack the note-bending and responsorial qualities of blues guitar or the use of repeated riffs, the return to the tonic at the ends of lines, and other qualities that make blues guitar so distinctive. Wardlow offers direct quotes from Henry Stuckey that seem to confirm the Caribbean origin of this tuning. Now it is to Wardlow’s credit that he found and interviewed Stuckey and conducted the first blues research in Yazoo County, but the fact is that Wardlow did not have a tape recorder with him at this time and evidently didn’t take written notes. When I asked him in 1966 how he kept his information, he told me it was all stored in his head. I’m not certain whether Wardlow reported anything immediately in print, but the first major article about Stuckey was by "Jacques Roche" (a pseudonym for Stephen Calt) in 78 Quarterly #2 in 1968, fully three years after Wardlow’s last interview with Stuckey. Some of his information came from Wardlow, including more direct quotes from Stuckey, but most of it actually came from Skip James talking about Stuckey. However, Calt makes no mention of the Caribbean connection. If there is any Caribbean connection, we ideally need Stuckey’s exact words about his encounter in France, as well as the questions that were asked, not reconstructed quotes given from memory years later. Let’s give Henry Stuckey a place of respect in the Bentonia tradition, but I don’t think he should be called a “father” or founder.

The other thing that bothered me was Bill Steber’s statement in his otherwise excellent photo essay that Son Thomas’s “human heads and animal sculptures were modern versions of African fetish figures and talismans, suffused with spiritual power that called forth the animistic religions of the ancients.” Many of Thomas’s human heads from sun-dried clay with painted features or added objects (human teeth, marbles for eyes, pipes stuck in the mouths, cotton glued on as hair, etc.) were crude but more or less realistic sculptures, often with Caucasian features, similar to and probably modeled after busts like those of George Washington and other historical figures to be seen in public buildings such as courthouses and schools, or of figures like Beethoven sitting on the tops of pianos in affluent homes and schools. His animal and bird sculptures were similarly crude but realistic and probably modeled after knick-knacks to be found in stores and homes. I have several of his busts and bird figures like these in my own collection. Other heads had more Negroid features, and some had the back of the head hollowed out to serve as ashtrays or containers. Some were not faces but skulls, but, after all, his occupation was that of a grave digger. These latter items tended to be favored by collectors and exhibit curators for their supposedly “African” qualities, and Thomas was encouraged (and sometimes well paid) to concentrate on this side of his repertoire. Without denying African influences on his sculptural (and musical) style, we should be very cautious about attributing an African meaning to these artistic products, especially as Thomas himself never expressed anything of this sort.

Once again, congratulations to Living Blues and the authors for this special edition on Yazoo County blues.

David Evans

After reading this letter, one man from Greer, SC write

"It has been my experience, the further we get in time and space from the actual events the more of the true essence of what happened in our experience gets lost to those who see it all in hindsight. They never walked the land with the those we knew, saw these people as they spoke of their lives, performed their art, were themselves, shared their views on life as it unfolded before us. The longer you spent with each person, the more insights were revealed. Those insights are not often available later on unless completely documented. When I heard some of the artist Dr Evans recorded from the region it immediately became clear that Skip James was the product of a local environment, that he did not incubate this unique style in a some sort of vacuum.

Having been part of a few different local music scenes over the past 7 decades the factors that shape those scenes and produce local artists differ but one that remains true is that one or more artists may emerge as stars from any scene and go on to greater notoriety.They are not necessarily the best but those best able to cut ties and move on. Those who remain may not grow beyond a certain point and either remain known only in their community. This can have a stifling effect on them combined with other influences and events that prohibited them or caused them to make conscious decisions to not pursue further careers. This kind of thing can only be annotated and not known, Thank you Dr. Evans for sharing from your extensive experience and enlightening us on this important history."

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Obituary of Henry Stuckey:

The Obituary of Henry Stuckey:
By Jacques Roche (Stephen Calt) for 78 Quarterly in 1968

The military marker of Henry Stuckey at
Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery, 

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

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

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

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

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

Jimmy "Duck" Holmes at the grave of Henry Stuckey in 2017
As many as a dozen musicians worked around the Bentonia area during that period (Stuckey himself had a brother, Shuke, who “played better than Henry did.”)  "I’d follow them like the pied piper, all over town," Skip reports. James learned some local pieces, including a version of Slidin’ Delta ("They’d have a real deep, sad sound even when they were rapped or frailed"), and then quit playing guitar for a year to "study" what he had seen and learned. From that point on James's music—such as his early composition, All Night Long—started .coming from "within," though some songs, like I Looked Down the Road, still retain an older, possibly local, touch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

CeDell Davis, 91, Dies Sep 27, 2017

CeDell Davis, 91, Dies Sep 27, 2017
Jon Pareles - The New York Times

CeDell Davis, a Delta bluesman from Arkansas who used a knife for a guitar slide, died on Wednesday. 

He was 91.

His Facebook page confirmed the death. He had been hospitalized since Sept. 24 after a heart attack.

Mr. Davis spent decades performing around the South at juke joints and house parties before a broader audience got a chance to hear his electrified rural blues in the 1980s.

His voice was a grainy moan as he sang about woman troubles and hard luck; his guitar could drive dancers with boogie and shuffle beats or play leads that were lean and gnarled, gliding smoothly and then coiling into a dissonant sting.

After childhood polio constricted his hands, he developed his own technique of using a knife along the fretboard of his guitar. The New York Times critic Robert Palmer called it “a guitar style that is utterly unique, in or out of the blues."

 Mr. Davis was born Ellis CeDell Davis in Helena, Ark., on June 9, 1926, though some sources say it was 1927. His mother was known as a faith healer, and his father ran a juke joint. Although his mother thought the blues was devil’s music, he took to the style early, starting on diddley-bow, a one-stringed instrument made by nailing a wire to a wall. He moved on to harmonica and guitar, often sneaking into juke joints to listen to music.

He contracted polio when he was 10, leaving him with partly paralyzed arms and legs and requiring crutches to walk. But he was determined to stay with music. He told Mr. Palmer: “I was right-handed, but I couldn’t use my right hand, so I had to turn my guitar around. I play left-handed now. But I still needed something to slide with, and my mother had these knives, a set of silverware, and I kind of swiped one of them."

He reinvented his playing using the handle of a table knife. “Almost everything that you could do with your hands, I could do it with the knife,” he told David Ramsey this year in the magazine The Oxford American. “It’s all in the way you handle it. Drag, slide, push it up and down."

As a teenager, Mr. Davis played street corners and juke joints around Helena, which at the time was a bustling Mississippi River port, “wide open” with gamblers, bootleggers and honky-tonks, Mr. Davis recalled in the 1984 documentary Blues Back Home.

There he met some of the era’s leading blues musicians and started appearing on two live blues radio shows on KFFA in Helena: “King Biscuit Time” with Sonny Boy Williamson and “Bright Star Flour” with Robert Nighthawk, a fellow slide guitarist. From 1953 to 1963, he and Mr. Nighthawk performed together, and they moved for a time to St. Louis.

Mr. Davis was further disabled in 1957 when he was trampled after a brandished gun led to a stampede at an East St. Louis bar where he and Mr. Nighthawk were performing. Multiple leg fractures left him using a wheelchair.

In “Blues Back Home,” Mr. Davis said, “Whether I could walk or not, I had to make my place in this world, and find my own way, and I found it.”

He continued to work the juke-joint circuit. In the early 1960s he moved to Pine Bluff, Ark., where he would live for decades until moving to a nursing home in Hot Springs, Ark. He made his first recordings in 1976 for the journalist and folklorist Louis Guida; they appeared on the 1983 collection Keep It to Yourself: Arkansas Blues Volume 1, Solo Performances.

Those recordings reached Mr. Palmer, who went to hear Mr. Davis at Delta juke joints in the early 1980s. In The Times in 1981, Mr. Palmer wrote about a juke-joint gig in Little Rock, calling Mr. Davis “a virtuoso with the table knife.”

He continued, “The scraping of the knife along the strings of his bright yellow electric guitar makes a kind of metallic gnashing sound that conspires with his patched-together guitar amplifier and his utterly original playing technique to produce some of the grittiest music imaginable.”

Mr. Palmer befriended and championed Mr. Davis, drawing attention to him. Soon Mr. Davis was working the national and international blues circuit. Some listeners complained that he was out of tune, but Mr. Palmer observed that Mr. Davis played in a consistent, precise “alternate tuning system.”

Mr. Palmer eventually brought Mr. Davis to the Mississippi label Fat Possum and produced his 1994 debut album, “Feel Like Doin’ Something Wrong.”

Mick Jagger and Yoko Ono attended Mr. Davis’s first gigs in New York City, in 1982. Other musicians became admirers and collaborators. The guitarist Peter Buck, from R.E.M., and the drummer Barrett Martin of Screaming Trees were in Mr. Davis’s studio band for his 2002 album, “When Lightnin’ Struck the Pine.”

Mr. Davis had a stroke in 2005, after which he could no longer play guitar. But he continued to sing, and though he was already living in a nursing home, he returned to performing in 2009. He released two more albums, Last Man Standing in 2015 and Even the Devil Gets the Blues in 2016, recorded in Seattle with Mr. Martin producing and a band that included Mike McCready from Pearl Jam.

Mr. Davis told The Oxford American that he had been married twice, had two children and had helped raise stepchildren. He said he had lost touch with the children. He was scheduled to perform on Oct. 6 at the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena.

“I play the blues the way it is,” Mr. Davis said in Blues Back Home. “It tells it all.”

Cedell Davis Offering Delta Blues Tradition

Cedell Davis Offering Delta Blues Tradition
By Stephen Holden - May 28, 1982
Although the history of the generation of guitarists of the Mississippi Delta who brought the blues north to Chicago in the 1940's has often been told, many of the musicians who stayed in the South to carry on the blues tradition are only now being discovered by historians and blues aficionados. CeDell Davis, the singer-guitarist who will make his New York debut tonight at Tramps, 125 East 15th Street, is a perfect case in point.

Mr. Davis, who taught himself to play the slide guitar with a table knife after a crippling attack of polio, has been earning a precarious living playing the juke-joint circuit of the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta since the 40's. But he has only recently been discovered by blues anthologists, and even now the only commercially available recording of his playing is in anthologies issued by an obscure German label, L & R.

Yet Mr. Davis, who has lived in Pine Bluff, Ark., since the early 60's, plays with a special verve and style that is attracting increased attention and has begun to appear outside the Delta. His large repertory includes many blues standards by Joe Turner, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters and B.B. King as well as original songs, many of them never written down.

Born in Helena, Ark., in 1927, CeDell Davis taught himself to play the guitar at the age of 7, when his family sent him to live with his cousin, the future ''Dr. Ross, the Harmonica Boss.'' At the house where Mr. Davis stayed, the family had rigged up a ''diddey-bow,'' a one-stringed instrument made from a strand of wire attached to the side of a house. Stretched taut by means of a block of wood at one end, it became a one-string slide guitar played with a bottle. From Diddey-Bow to Guitar

Elmore James, Albert King and many other celebrated musicians taught themselves the rudiments of guitar using a diddey-bow. When he went back home, Mr. Davis made a diddey-bow for himself, and from there he graduated to a real guitar.

''We also had windup Graphophones back then,'' Mr. Davis recalled in a recent interview, ''and I learned to play from listening to old records by guys like Charlie Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson.''

At the age of 10, Mr. Davis was stricken by polio and hospitalized in Little Rock for more than two years. With his hands and legs partly paralyzed, he found he had to teach himself to play the guitar all over again.

''When I got out of the hospital, I couldn't use my hands as good, so I had to turn the guitar around and play left-handed,'' he said. ''My mother had some knives. I thought I'd feel one of those knives out, and I learned to play with it, bar-style, with the left hand over the top of the neck, not under like people use a slide.'' Plays With Butter Knives

Mr. Davis has played the guitar with butter knives ever since. And his mastery over his disability has helped determine a singularly rhythmic style in which he does an amazing job of keeping a steady rhythm on the bass strings and playing leads on the treble strings all at once.

For 10 years, on and off, in the 50's and 60's, Mr. Davis worked with Robert Nighthawk, an important slide guitarist who influenced Muddy Waters. And he was also a frequent guest on the fabled King Biscuit Time radio show in the South, playing behind Sonny Boy Williamson. In the late 50's, Mr. Davis worked in St. Louis with Bobby Brown.

It was in East St. Louis in 1958 that Mr. Davis suffered a second physical setback when his legs were broken in a bar brawl. Before that, he had been able to walk a mile or two on crutches. Today, his mobility is considerably more restricted.

Mr. Davis returned to Arkansas in 1962 to play with Mr. Nighthawk at a club called The Jack Rabbit, and he has lived in Pine Bluff ever since. But work has not always been easy to find. Leverage, Then a Job

''Bobby and I used to go around to the clubs, and if they were crowded, the owners would say they didn't need no band,'' Mr. Davis recalls. ''So we'd offer to play four or five numbers for free, and the owners would say O.K.

''After we'd gotten everyone out onto the dance floor,'' he continued, ''we'd just stop right in the middle of the scene, take down our stuff and be moving out the door. And the people would say, 'Isn't there gonna be no band?' And then they'd start leaving. Then the owner would stop us and ask what we'd charge to play, and that's how we'd get the job.''

Mr. Davis's name began to circulate outside the Delta only recently. He is in demand as one of the last Delta blues musicians playing in a pure rural style.

CeDell Davis's blues is dance music. He plays shuffles, boogies and stomps with a furious rock beat, hammering out bass lines and playing stinging treble-string leads with his knife on a canary-yellow electric guitar. He is also an utterly original stylist who transforms even familiar blues standards by Jimmy Reed or Joe Turner into down-home stomps. And his vital expressive singing is part Joe Turner shout, part Delta moan.

At Tramps, where he will be performing on Friday, Saturday and Sunday for the next two weekends, he will be accompanied by a two-man horn section and drums. Show times are 9 and 11:30 P.M. on Fridays and Saturdays, and 8:30 and 11 on Sundays. There is a $6 cover charge. For reservations, call 777-5077.