Sunday, December 31, 2017

Burning More Than a Few with the Blues

Mose Vinson & Arne Brogger
Written by Arne Brogger 
Original Title - "Ghost Story"

Business took me to Nashville for three days and I decided to take a long weekend and visit Memphis. I hadn’t been there in almost twenty years, not since the funeral of my old friend and co-conspirator, Walter “Furry” Lewis. Furry was a charter member of the Memphis Blues Caravan (MBC), a group of geriatric bluesmen whom I had the pleasure of booking and managing in the Seventies.

On a Friday morning I headed southwest out of Nashville on I-40 (The Music Highway, as the sign said) across the Tennessee River, through the rolling Cumberlands, on down to the brown and wide Mississippi. I had promised myself this trip for years. I had fantasized about it. Obsessed over it. It was like a reverse Vision Quest. I wanted to go back, to recapture scenes that had been an important part of my life, but knowing all the while that was not possible. Most of the folks I had known were now gone. But they had stayed with me – and I thought…who knows what I thought. I knew it was a trip I had to take.

Capitol Loans
Capital Loans
I arrived early afternoon. The first stop was the Cozy Corner CafĂ©, BBQ ribs and chicken (with a side of beans), just to get in the right frame of mind. Then up Poplar Avenue to the intersection of Mannassas, where sat the global headquarters of Capitol Loans. Capitol was the pawnshop where Furry would hock his guitar every time he came off the road. When it was time to go back out again, it was up to me to “un-hock” it so that he could play the dates.

Turning on Mannassas I drove one short block to Mosby Street where Furry had once lived at number 811. The house is gone, having burned down a month before he died of complications from the fire. But standing next door was its duplicate. A four-room shotgun style house. Six or eight folks were sitting on the front porch. I asked if any of them knew Furry Lewis who used to live next door. An old woman volunteered, “the gittar picker?” I nodded. “You know he gone. Passed some time ago.” Yes, I know.

I looked over at the empty lot and remembered walking up on the porch, through the front door, into the main room where Furry sat on his bed. A whiskey glass stood on the table next to him covered by a saucer. “Spiders” he said, “can’t see too good. Don’t want no surprises.” That was in 1973.

Big Daddy’s Office

Bukka White’s “office” consisted of a chair leaned against a brick wall. Next to the chair was a wooden crate. Both sat on the shady side of the street beside Triune Sundry. This is where I first met him, having been told earlier by his wife that “Big Daddy ain’t home. He’s at his office.” Cruising the streets near Mosby, I knew it was around the area somewhere. Suddenly something told me to turn right at the corner of Leath. There it was.
Triune Sundry
Triune Sundry

Triune Sundry

It was a hot day in 1973 when I had first stood on that corner and shook hands with a legend. He was B. B. King’s big cousin and had given B. B. his first guitar, a Stella. Muddy Waters would later tell me that there were licks Bukka did that he (Muddy) was still trying to figure out. And Bukka was the man who literally sang his way out of Parchman Farm Prison. I stood on the corner for a while. I took a few pictures. I could hear the rolling thunder of Aberdeen Blues and see his hands, hopping back on forth on the guitar. I got in the car and headed for Beale.

Daddy’s Dogma

Land Where the Blues Began

By Carl McIntyre
Jackson, MS Clarion Ledger
Sep 30, 1979

To the accompaniment of the diddley bow and a cane fife, the blues was born in the Mississippi Delta.

A musical form all its own, growing more popular the world over. the blues "was transplanted from Africa, reformulated and given English words," according to Alan Lomax, probably the world's foremost folklorist.

To prove his point, and to preserve the fading vestiges of the original blues singers for all time, Lomax has been in the Delta this year filming and recording.

"THE LAND WHERE THE BLUES BEGAN" is ready as a special for Mississippi Educational Television. It is being delayed for a time in order to see if it can be scheduled for a national audience on the Public Broadcasting System.

An hour long program, it just hits the high spots of Lomax' latest venture into American folklore. He re-corded and filmed more than 40 hours of the Delta blues, using as his "stars" some of the old timers who still remember the original verses as well as the tunes.

He features Sam Chatmon, Bud Spears, Jack Owens, Beatrice Maxwell, Lonnie Pitchford, Othar Turner, Clyde Maxwell, Lucius Smith and others. They range in age up into their 90s.

If listeners are able to understand all the words that some performers sing, there may be a hullabloo over the airing, for the blues had down to earth lyrics.

THAT'S WHAT MADE IT the blues, Lomax declares.

"It was music that gave vent to the emotions of people who expressed their frustrations, their ill treatment, their lack of hope in their singing," Lomax points out.

Shunted into a narrow world of their own, they knew mostly poverty. However, even their menial work they turned into a dance and the rhythmic motions were keyed to a melody. The words gave expression to their thoughts.

Life's basics were their themes. This can be under-stood by those who study the lyrics. One can see how they could almost rejoice in a love of living — or perhaps that is a living of loving.

From that, "Make me a pallet on your floor so your man will never know" or "Shakin' in the bed with me" came to be among the most popular of the ballads.

LOMAX BELIEVES the blues was born in the Del-ta because of the isolation of the big groups of former Africans on large plantations. In their work and play they used music as a link to their past.

They had brought the "beat" as well as the body movements of the dance when they were uprooted from their homeland. In a new environment they applied their innermost emotions in a natural adjustment to a completely new way of living.

Even the dull. tiring, sweating task of hoeing a cot-ton patch became a dance and the hoes sounded a beat as they, almost in unison, were swung to the ground in a musical cadence. The words just came naturally. They expressed their resentments as well as their desires.

IT WAS THE SAME if they were choppin' down trees. There was a beat to the striking of the axes. When called upon to carry heavy loads, their labor became lighter as they virtually danced in step to a home grown ballad.

Those songs have lingered, but today the old words are giving way to new ones, and the younger generation is learning different verses while the melody lingers on.

Lomax had decided, from more than 40 years of study, that the blues had come from the cotton fields along the Mississippi River. He had recorded some of the music, as his Mississippi-born father had before him, but they had not filmed it, and they had missed some of the original lyrics.

NOW, WITH 40 HOURS of filmed music, the Archives of American Folklore, which Lomax' father, John A. Lomax, founded at the Library of Congress, is richer. It already had dozens of tapes and records made by the Lomax team since the 1930s.

Alan Lomax can hardly remember when he was not interested in folklore.

His father made it his life's work, beginning with the cowboys along the Chisholm Trail. Later, he brought a young Alan with him to Mississippi and other Southern states to record the folk music of prisoners in several penitentiaries.

That was in 1933.

Since then, Alan has combed the world for its folk-lore and has recorded more than 4,000 songs in 400 cultures.

He spent years in England, Ireland and Scotland, and found that this music had been continued in America by the people of Appalachia.

THEN HE TRAVERSED Spain, Italy and on to the Near East, Far East, Central and South America, tracing patterns of music from varied sources, but finding each had its tendrils deep into another area.

From this, Lomax "invented" cantometrics and choremetrics, which today are the world's lone systems for classifying songs (canto) and dance (choreo). From his home base as a member of the faculty at Columbia University in New York City, he teaches these systems and continues the research that the family has pioneered. He shows how the music and dance of one people jumped thousands of miles to be found in a new environment, enjoyed by a foreign populace.

Musical instruments for the blues, Lomax has found, were home made. Most often they copied those that had been made by the Africa natives and used hundreds, even thousands, of years earlier.

The drum, of course, is recognizable anywhere. So is the pan (cane) pipe, which is universal.

THE DIDDLEY BOW is perhaps the unique instrument for American music although it is copied, after a manner, from a one stringed instrument used in Africa.

The Delta diddley bow had these parts: a piece of broom wire, a snuff box (the round one, not the flat one, about an inch in diameter and one and a half inches long) and the broken neck of a glass bottle.

To make one, the wire was nailed to a wall and the snuff box was placed under the wire. Then, running a finger up from the bottom, one flicked the wire until the proper pitch was found. At this point the wire was cut to that length, fastened to a board, the snuff box used as a bridge.

To play it, the strummer put the neck of the bottle around a finger on his left hand and used it to slide up and down the wire to change pitch. The right hand was the "twanger." With both hands in motion, each moving about as speedily as the other, the music burst forth.

WITH A PAN PIPE fife and a drum or two, it was an orchestra. Othar Turner's fife and drum band has played at many places over the states.

Later, of course, the guitar and the banjo were added, but these were not originals.

In the era between 1905 and the 1930s, Lomax believes the blues had not only their heyday but also their introduction to others outside the Delta.

Rivermen, as they were known, were without families. Homeless, they moved about freely looking for work. They carried their dancing patterns to their new jobs, and sang as they labored. In the evenings, they looked for the love and other emotions that had escaped them in the drudgery of their daytime tasks.

Their journeys took the blues to the outside world and opened the way for its acceptance as a new form. From there on it was the birth of the blues for all America — and the world.

BACK IN THE DELTA. however, where it had all begun, it was still the home grown, completely unique musical form that had come into being a hundred years before. The environmental changes had altered it only slightly, reformed it into a new vehicle for a people's message.

As Lomax' film proves it now, the blues is still a North Mississippi phenomena — and one he enjoys. Watching the anthropologist with the fringed beard as he played back the tapes of his show, we wondered how he had ever stopped recording. He gets so wrapped up in the beat, so hip with the tunes it is with obvious difficulty that he sits quietly to edit the material. We fully expected him to jump up, imitating the dance and joining in the choruses.

His father, born near Clarksdale, was one of 21 children in the family which moved to Texas when he was but two years old.

THEIR TEXAS HOME WAS ON the Chisholm Trail and the cowboys passed by regularity. John Lomax was fascinated by their songs. By the time he was ten he had written down the words to dozens.

When he finally was able to enter Texas U. at the age of 32, he was so ready for an education that he graduated in two years. From there he went to Harvard and found a grant awaiting that let him tour the West with one of the early recording cylinders.

When he had all the cowboy music he felt necessary, he started with the blues. And this is when and where Alan came into the picture.

Now, 40 years later. Alan has no peer, at home or abroad, in the field of folklore.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Really the Blues - Mezz Mezzrow (1946)

If you get the chance and you either have or have not read Really the Blues (1946) by Mezz Mezzrow with Bernard Wolfe, pick it up! Mezzrow, in his life-affirming story, is a man who followed his passions no matter what. While the title may confuse, the book is not about the country blues or what you may consider blues. Born in 1900, Mezz Mezzrow was a white Chicago musician, who plays New Orleans-style jazz, which includes some blues songs. He discusses how white musicians were “out of the gallion” when it came to playing the blues, but it is of no great consequence to him.

He runs around with--and plays with and even mentors—several of great musicians. He performs in speakeasies for gangsters, and he immerses himself in underground African American culture. Along the way he almost single-handedly turns Americans on to cannabis, which remained legal in the states. Speaking in the pre-Beatnik slang of the day, this book marked the beginning of counterculture in American literature. Some examples of slang from the 20s and 30s, were terms like 'wig-trig': idea; 'tall': intoxicated on marijuana; 'knock a fade': go away, leave; and the 'Head Knock': God.

In the Introduction to the book, Ben Ratliff takes some air out of the image that Mezz gave himself. But you can't help but not care if Mezzrow was tootin' his own horn a bit.  The book is a great description of the first few decades of the 20th century in Chicago and New York, and a great book to read in the context of the current inabilities to understand the polyvalent concept of race in America.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Nature isn't on a Rampage, but We Are

By Cynthia Barnett--a journalist in residence at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications and the author of three books on the water including "Rain: A Natural and Cultural History." She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times. 

In 1927, as the muddy waters of the Mississippi River began to recede from what was then the deadliest storm-related flood in American history, blues musicians wailed their sorrow and rage. Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded his "Rising High Water Blues" that May: 

Children stand there screamin'
Mama we ain't got no home
Awww, Mama we ain't got no home
Papa says to the children, "Backwater left us all alone

The gut-wrenching disaster and others that swept through the Mississippi's fast-populating basin in the early 20th century led to more blues devoted to rain and flood than any other natural event. But Papa was wrong. It wasn't the water that left families homeless and alone. 

Under pressure to allow development of the Mississippi's natural floodplain that once absorbed nearly half the nation's rainfall, Congress had ignored Progressive Era wisdom that flood control required a mix of reservoirs, levees and preserved wetlands and forests. Instead, lawmakers caved to a levees-only strategy that ushered in what the flood-law scholar Christine A. Klein calls "a century of un-natural disaster." 

We've long sung our blues, conjured our demons and imagined our enemies in deluges and sky-darkening storms. Even today we imbue the atmosphere with evil intention, like how we once saw swamps as villainous forces. This way of thinking about storms leaves us feeling helpless and also off the hook. The problem is the weather, rather than human decisions that impede safety and drainage or deny the climate science we need to better understand the atmosphere, including record-breaking tropical storms. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma did not surprise climate scientists, who have grown hoarse warning that the warming seas and atmosphere will amplify hurricanes and other natural disasters. And yet, media and meteorologists dubbed the exceptional cyclones "monsters," as if they were spun from a fairy tale rather than hotter-than-usual ocean waters. We have cried "beast" and "zombie storm," watching Irma break global wind speed records and Harvey the U.S. record for greatest rainfall in a single storm.

Fear, perhaps, returns us to the ancient superstitions that named these storms after Huracan, the ancient Mayan god of the storm. In his new film on the climate change crisis, "An Inconvenient Sequel," Al Gore describes the extremes that have drowned cities from Baton Rouge to Bangladesh as "rain bombs," suggesting an angry god throwing down torrential rains and ruinous floods. 

Last year, when Stu Ostro, a meteorologist with the Weather Channel, saw a smiling skull in Hurricane Matthew on infrared satellite imagery, its creepy eye over Haiti, he posted the "sinister-looking face" to Twitter. The skull went viral. The Weather Channel, CNN and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution all assigned reporters to the "story." Many TV broadcast meteorologists took precious air time to feature it. 

We writers are not immune. I was taken aback by this line in a favorite reporter's story: "The weather appears to be on an unprecedented climate-change-induced rampage." But the weather is not sinister. It is not on a rampage. It is not the bomb.

In the history of humans and their climate, such misplaced attribution has led to our most profound mistakes. In medieval times, people became convinced during the weather extremes of the Little Ice Age that witches were conjuring the storms. As frightening weather intensified, so did witch trials, torture and executions of thousands of innocent people accused of "weather magic." Two hundred years later, British parliament quashed pioneering storm forecasts under pressure from those who thought that the ability to foretell rain was black magic — a fear flamed by ship salvagers who worried predictions would cut into shipwrecks, and their profits. The brilliant Royal Navy vice-admiral who developed the advanced warnings, Robert Fitzroy, committed suicide in the wake of the merciless doubt. 

In mid-20th century America, from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to the Everglades of Florida, federal engineers hyped up water as "the fierce, uncompromising enemy." The propaganda film "Waters of Destiny" breathlessly describes the Army Corps of Engineers' massive replumbing of the Everglades to save South Florida from "devastating, ruining, havoc-wreaking rains." In fact, it was the compulsion to vanquish an enemy rather than live in water's balance that put future generations in grave danger. 

Soft rains, torrents, and even hurricanes are part of that balance. Hurricanes are essentially giant engines that transfer heat from sea to atmosphere. Scientists are working hard to understand the extent to which global warming may fuel them. Yet at this most crucial time, the Trump Administration has purged climate experts, research funding and even the science itself from public websites as if we were back in the witchcraft days. Lessening the blows of both storm disasters and climate change requires us to see the cycle rather than the Cyclops. Failure to do so will cause more of the same catastrophic destruction and human suffering now occurring in Texas, the Caribbean, and Florida. 

We are not powerless. Unlike hapless children in a blues song or a fairy tale, there is plenty we can do. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has said that a hurricane emergency is not the time to talk about climate change. To the contrary, it is just the time to draw the nation into the conversation. In recovery mode, we can remake cities to better withstand storms — in ways that help us reduce the carbon emissions warming the planet. We can plan retreat from those parts of the coast becoming unsafe for people. And we can hike investment in the science of climate change so that we can understand, rather than fear. 

By putting the evil eye on nature, we take it off the humans who have science in their hands, but hold it behind their backs. The rain is not the bomb. The storms are not the monsters. The weather is not on a rampage. That would be us. 

Friday, December 22, 2017

Tommy Johnson's Grave: Ode to Singer Took Years of Wrangling

By Therese Apel – (Jackson, MS) Clarion Ledger – February 5 & 7, 2013.

Click HERE for the follow-up article showing it was not vandalism

The 2001 Dedication at the Railroad Park
in Crystal Springs, Mississippi
The niece of a Mississippi blues legend was heartbroken Sunday morning to find the marker she and others had fought since 2001 to have erected for her uncle had been vandalized. Vera Collins Johnson's uncle is Tommy Johnson, a blues leg-end from Crystal Springs who was portrayed in the movie "0 Brother Where Art Thou." His family commissioned the headstone, and the nonprofit Mount Zion Memorial Fund paid for it via a grant from singer Bonnie Raitt. "They tried to take the headstone completely off the grave. It was screwed down, and it was kind of difficult to take off," she said. The vandals left tools and a two-by-four, but only after smashing parts of the headstone when they couldn't pull it up. "We didn't touch anything. There was one part that had his face, his picture on it, and they broke that into pieces," she said. "It was something that was deliberately done. They didn't mess with the rest of the graves." Collins believes the destruction is racially motivated. "The only thing I would have to say is that I thought Crystal Springs had outgrown their old tricks, and this kind of thing has been going on since I was a girl," she said. "This is an act of nothing but hatred."
"I thought Crystal Springs had outgrown their old tricks,” hurled Vera Johnson Collins.  “This is an act of nothing but hatred." Her statement in the wake of the incident certainly seemed to ring true in the one-time safe haven of the MWK, and a recent incident of unabashed racism shown by the congregants of Crystal Springs Baptist Church did little to dispel the bold claims of Collins.

Collins said she waited four hours by her uncle's grave for the Sheriff's Department to come out and take a report. No one ever came. Someone at the sheriff's department told her they were very busy, she said. Copiah County had three fatal accidents within 24 hours between Saturday and Sunday. "They could have come and just taken a report," she said. Copiah County Sheriff's Department officials said a deputy was unable to locate the graveyard on Sunday and that they are looking into the incident.
Johnson's headstone was dedicated at a public ceremony in Crystal Springs on Oct. 20, 2001, but it wasn't until last year that Copiah County was able [magically, or perhaps due to some act of God, apparently] to create an access road to the cemetery.
"I'm very weary of this. We've been doing this for so long. I've had to comfort Vera, who was weeping, understandably," said Skip Henderson, the director of the Mount Zion Memorial Fund. "I have to go back to Bonnie Raitt now; she's going to be very upset." [No one was too upset really except for one man from West Virginia who shamelessly pushed the desecration myth and dubiously left crucial pieces of evidence to the contrary out of accounts on his once very active blog, The Pomeroy Jazz & Blues Society.]
The Warm Springs Cemetery sits back in a rural area of Copiah County. It used to be next to the Warm Springs Methodist Church, which burned down in the 1970s. After the road was abandoned for a while, it became the property of the landowners.
A lot of politics and legal wrangling [Interviews with all involved and a lot of serious research, the solicitation of many different attorneys before finding one willing to work pro-bono, and the filing of a single, deliberate and strategic lawsuit against private landowners] finally restored the road to the county, said District 5 Supervisor Jimmy Phillips.
"This took several years. I worked on it for almost 10 years," he said, adding that the process sped up when Ole Miss doctoral fellow [DeWayne] Moore got involved a little over a year ago.
"I told him, 'All I want you to do is get me a right-of-way to that property, and I will build you a road,"' Phillips said. "As soon as he got the right-of-way, we built the road. It took up the biggest part of the summer." [We met with the County Board of Supervisors in October 2011, and the cemetery access road had not been added to the E-911 map of county roads at the time of the incident].
Moore said he worked with the Board of Supervisors to secure an easement. The matter was finally settled out of court after more than 10 years, Moore said. "One of the things I wanted to do was work with them and see what their actual argument was for why they couldn't protect a site that was recognized by Mississippi Department of Archives and History," he said.

According to Phillips and Collins, Moore basically saved the project.

It has only been within the last few years that Copiah County officials have known the historical gold mine they sit on, Phillips said. "We all grew up in this county and didn't know that much about blues." Former Cultural Affairs director Janet Schriver "sat us down, and we all went to blues school," Phillips said.
"Most of the people in this area don't understand the importance of the blues in Copiah County. We've got Tommy Johnson, and we also have Robert Johnson." Tommy Johnson's best-known songs are "Canned Heat Blues," "Big Road Blues" and "Maggie Campbell Blues." A recording artist for Victor and Paramount Records, he was born in 1896 in Terry and died in 1956. Phillips said he doesn't know much about the vandalism, but it made him angry. "I hope they find out who it is, and I don't care who it is and if they are white, black, green or purple," he said. "I hope they burn their butts. It's wrong to desecrate a grave." 

Tommy Johnson: “Time, Not Vandals, Likely Culprit, Investigator Says”

By Therese Apel – (Jackson, MS) Clarion Ledger – February 7, 2013.

Damage to Copiah County blues legend Tommy Johnson's tombstone appears to have happened when the marker fell over instead of as the result of vandalism, sheriff's department officials say, but family members say missing fencing equipment leads them to another conclusion.

Vera Johnson Collins, who found her uncle's 500 pound headstone broken in pieces when she showed up Sunday at the rural graveyard where he is buried, said Wednesday that almost $2,000 worth of materials to build a wrought-iron fence around the grave were taken over the weekend as well.

"All this happened between Friday and Sunday," she said. The Warm Springs Cemetery sits on a county road that has been newly re-opened. When Collins found the headstone broken Sunday morning, she called the sheriff's department. Officials said because the road is not on E-911 maps yet, a deputy could not find the location.

The cemetery is at the site of the old Warm Springs Methodist Church, which burned in the 1970s. It was given a certificate of historical recognition in 2001, said William Thompson of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Sharing the graveyard with the celebrated musician is another kind of hero, his nephew, PFC B.W. Johnson, a World War II veteran who died in 1967 at the age of 45. Another Tommy Johnson and his wife Inez are there as well. Collins said those were her great-great-grandparents. In another grave lies Sally, a midwife who delivered over 90 babies in her community, Collins said.

Tommy Johnson's headstone stands roughly five feet tall, is more than two feet wide and about four inches thick. It is not attached to the ground anymore, and the screws that bolted it in place at one time are broken. Sheriff's department investigator Milton Twiner said authorities recovered the screws. One was completely bent down, he said, and the other was broken off even with the slab.
However the stone went down and someone took the time to put the bottom part back up. Someone...

A photo taken by Collins on Sunday shows a pick or a screwdriver of some kind wedged beneath the stone. On Wednesday, the same tool was there, and it kept the headstone from rocking forward. Removing it made the stone unstable. Collins said she doesn't believe the stone was off its pins on Sunday. She said she pushed on it with a stick and that it didn't budge. Twiner said while he can't rule out the headstone being pushed over, it doesn't look like it was hit with anything.

"At this point, I believe that the stone fell over. There's no indication that the stone was beat or hit with a hammer when you look around it. I believe it fell on the two-by-four and it broke the top off it," Twiner said. Twiner points to equilateral marks on each side of the front of the headstone that seem to be at about the same spot where the stone would have hit the piece of lumber if the tombstone had fallen on it. A crack can be seen coming from one of the two marks. "This cemetery is not sitting beside the road where you can see it or anybody would see it to create any drama about it, for lack of a better word," Twiner said. William Thompson, a cemetery expert who works with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, said in his experience working with abandoned cemeteries, headstones will turn over if land shifts. If a tombstone isn't set well when placed, over time gravity can take its course. "It would take more than just a year, I would imagine, for a headstone of that size to just fall over," said Thompson. "But if you bump into it and it falls over, that force would be enough to crack or break it."

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Bill Barth: Carpetbagging Savior of the Blues

Bill Barth was a musician, concert promoter, and entrepreneur, who has been described by some as "underrated" and misunderstood even among his own coterie of friends and collaborators. He may be best known for acting on information forwarded by record collector Gayle Dean Wardlow (obtained from musician Ishmon Bracey) and tracking down 1930s blues artist Skip James.

Barth wrote about his experience locating Nathan Beauregard in the 1960s.

He is also mentioned in this article by Stanley Booth about the Memphis Country Blues Festival from 1966-1970.  Click HERE

Barth was a central reason that it came from Memphis.  He co-founded the Blues Society too.

Skip Henderson had provided almost every single original concept for the city of Clarksdale's eventual blues tourist landscape, but he wrote a letter to the editor of the newspaper that put him on the wrong side of the new library director, Ron Gorsegner, who, along with the library board, took steps to take control of the tourism industry from the visionary. He was lucky that Bill Barth and Tim "The Royal Truth" Kendall--who lives near that dread place known as Paganhill, bought the Crossroads Bar from him as well.

Kendall corrected an often reported error about the re-discovery Skip James in the 2000s. He emailed Ed Denson not long after Barth died to confirm that Denson only engineered the early re-recordings of Skip James with Fahey and was involved finding Bukka White. He also engineered stuff for Fahey's Takhoma label and managed Country Joe and The Fish. Denson, however, denied having anything to do with finding Skip James in Tunica.]

Bill Barth, John Fahey, and Henry Vestine, of the band Canned Heat, found him posted up in a Tunica, Mississippi hospital in 1964. After paying his supposedly modest medical bill, the trio drove the rediscovered legend to the Newport Jazz Festival, where his surprise appearance delighted the audience and set in motion the second and perhaps even more influential musical career of Skip James.

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Grave of a Proprieter for the Early Blues

Calvary Cemetery, Memphis, Tennessee

Sunday, December 10, 2017


by Pete Welding

Howlin' Wolf, the powerful Mississippi born singer who was one of the major shapers of the electrically amplified modern blues style that has been so dominant an influence on all popular music since his time, died January 10, 1976, of complications arising from a kidney disease for which he was being treated. At the time of his death he was 65 and had been active as a blues performer for more than four decades, first as an itinerant singer-guitarist at simple back country entertainments in his native Mississippi and Arkansas, and from the late 1940s as a recording artist, radio per-former, and leader of one of the first electric blues ensembles to achieve national prominence.

For the last 25 years of his life he was one of the foremost and greatly respected blues artists resident in Chicago, where he had moved in '1952 after signing an exclusive recording contract with that city's Chess Records, for which he made his finest recordings and continued to record until the recurring illness of his final years forced him to curtail much of his performing and recording activities. Still, despite several heart attacks and a kidney illness of such severity that he required regular dialysis treatment and heavy medication, Howlin' Wolf did not give up performing entirely, and he invariably made his scheduled concert appearances.

Like most of the performers of the early postwar period, Wolf was fundamentally a traditional Mississippi blues musician, a spell-bindingly powerful singer, guitarist, and harmonica player whose strongest and most durable musical allegiance over a long profession-al career was to the traditional blues of the Southern countryside where he had been born, raised and first drawn to music. Many of Wolfs early recordings derived in fact from the work of older musicians he had encountered in the Mississippi Delta region, most notably his mentor Charley Patton, and, as do few recordings of the postwar period. they possess a sense of dark power and naked emotional force that are almost overwhelming in their intensity. Typical of this approach are recordings such as Saddle My Pony (learned from Patton and recorded in 1948); Moanin' At Midnight, How Many More Years and Dog Me Around (from 1951); Baby How Long, No Place To Go and Evil Is Goin' On (all from 1954 Forty-Four (1955); Smokestack Lightnin' and I Asked For Water (from 1956), and Who's Been Talkin'?, 'Moanin' For My Baby, Tell Me and Sittin' On Top Of The World (all recorded in 1957), among others. His wry, vinegary harmonica playing, more rural in orientation than that of virtually any other postwar player of the instrument, is heard on just about every one of these performances, for he tended to feature harp on his most country-styled songs, though not exclusively so, and he continued to utilize it throughout his recording career.

Additionally, a number of his performances were organized on scalar and modal rather than on harmonic principles as, for examples, Moanin' At Midnight, Riding In The Moonlight, Crying At Daybreak, Smokestack Lightnin', No Place To Go, I Asked For Water and Moanin' For My Baby—an approach that is typical of some of the older forms of Mississippi and Deep South blues and which permits the projection of a particularly forceful rhythmic base of hypnotic intensity. On numbers of this sort Wolf frequently employed to striking effect a wordless moaning and falsetto melisma, giving his recordings a highly distinctive character as a result.

In light of his early background as an exponent of the blues of his native state, the strong, sustained traditional bias of Wolfs music is explicable. He was born Chester Arthur Burnett on June 10, 1910, in West Point, near Tupelo, Miss.. and as a young teenager moved. in 1923, to Ruleville, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. It was while living in this cotton-producing area, where his parents were employed on Young and Mara's plantation, that Wolf was first drawn to music, his inspiration being the great Delta singer and guitarist Charley Patton who lived on the nearby Dockery's plantation.

"It was he who started me off to playing," Wolf recalled. "He showed me things on the guitar, because after we got through picking cotton at night, we'd go and hang around him, listen at him play. He took a liking to me, and I asked him would he learn me, and at night after I'd get off work I'd go and hang around.

He used to play out on the plantations, at different one's homes out there. They'd give a supper, call it a 'Saturday night hop' or some-thing like that. There weren't no clubs like nowadays. Mostly on weekends they'd have them. He'd play different spots., he'd be playing here tonight and somewhere else the next night, and so on. He mostly worked by himself because his way of playing was kind of different from other people's. It took a good musician to play behind him, because it was kind of off-beat and off-time but it had a good sound the way he played. I never did work with him because he was a traveling man. In the spring of the year he'd be gone; he never came in until the fall. He followed the money. He couldn't make too much money in Mississippi in the spring of the year because people didn't have any money until harvest time. He'd always conic back in the fall.

"I felt like I got the most from Charley Patton and Lemon Jefferson—from his records, that is. He came through Mississippi, in different areas, but I never did see him. What I like about Lemon's music most was that he made a clear chord. He didn't stumble in his music like a lot of people do—plink! No, he made clear chords on his guitar, his strings sounded clearly. The positions he was playing in—that made his strings sound clear. There wasn't a smothered sound to his chords. As a kid I also heard records by Lonnie Johnson, Tampa Red and Blind Blake—they played nice guitar. heard tell of Tommy Johnson too but I never did see him.

"After Charley started showing me guitar I came along slow. I didn't really pick up my time—didn't get that right—until somewhere in the '40s. I got my first guitar in 1928. My father bought it for me before we left Ruleville. We were living out there on the Quiver River, on Boosey's plantation...At that time I was working on the farm with my father, baling hay and driving tractors, fixing fences, picking cotton and pulling corn....It was in the late 1920s when 1 decided to go out on my own. to go for myself. 1 just went running 'round through the country playing, like Charley and them did. ... Just all through the cottonbelt country, and mostly by myself. I was just playing blues and stuff like that. Some of the first things I learned how to play was How Many More Years and Smokestack Lightnin', just common songs you heard down there. When I started playing guitar and blowing my harp, anything come to mind I'd just sing it and rhyme it up and make me a song out of it. Mostly I'd just take things 1 heard from people round there. I just picked up music, just playing guitar. I mostly just stayed in the country farming.

"It was Sonny Boy Williamson—the second one, Rice Miller—who learnt me harmonica. He married my sister Mary in the '30s. That's when I met him. He was just loafing around, blowing his harp. He could blow though. But he lived too fast; he was drinking a lot of whisky and that whisky killed him. Sonny Boy showed me how to play. 1 used to strum guitar for him. See, he used to come there and sit up half the night and blow the harp to Mary. I like the harp, so I'd fool around and while he's kissing Mary I'd try to get him to show me something, you know. He'd grab the harp and then he'd show me a couple of chords. I'd go around the house then, and I'd work on it.

"It was somewhere around this time that 1 met Robert Johnson. Me and him played together, and me and him and Sonny Boy—Rice Miller—played together awhile...I worked a little while with him around through the country; we was playing around Greenwood. Itta Bena and Moorhead Mississippi). We didn't stay together too long because I would go back and forth to my father and help him in the farming. 'Cause I really wasn't ready for it—the music, you know. At that time I couldn't play near as well as he could; I'd just be hanging around trying to catch onto something. Rice, though, he could play with him. We took turns performing our own tunes. If I played lead and sang, they'd back me up, see, 'cause at that time I wasn't good enough to back them up.

"I don't know how long Robert had been playing when I met him but at that time he was playing nice...I believe Son House mostly taught him because, Son and Willie Brown, I used to play a little with them. I worked with the two of them at some of those Saturday night hops. They was playing music for dancing mostly, fast numbers to dance to. That's the only time those people would have a chance to enjoy themselves—on a Saturday night or a Sunday—'cause those landlords would want them to work any other time.

"When I'd go out on them plantations, the people played me so hard. They look for you to play from 7 o'clock in the evening until 7 o'clock of the next morning. That's too rough! I was getting about a dollar and a half and that was too much playing by myself. People would yell, 'Come on, play a little, baby!' A bunch would come in and they was ready to play and dance. So I decided I would get a band, get two or three more fellows to help me out, but I didn't do that until 1948. Some of the jobs I had taken was 50 cents a night, back in Hoover's days. Seven in the evening 'til seven the next morning."

Wolf continued this life of farming and occasional or part-time performing until he was inducted into the Army in 1941 . He remained in the service for the duration of the war, spending much of his tour stationed in Seattle, Wash. He returned to Mississippi and farm work in 1945, later rejoining his father on a plantation in Arkansas. After two years of farming on his own in Penton, Miss., he moved to West Memphis, Ark.

"It was there." he recalled, "in 1948, when I formed my first band and began to follow music as a career. On guitars I had Willie Johnson and M. T. Murphy. Junior Parker on harp, a piano player who was called Destruction [Bill Johnson]--he was from Memphis, and I had a drummer called Willie Steele. We played all through the states of Arkansas. Alabama, Mississippi and Missouri. The band was using all electric, amplified instruments at that time. After I had come to West Memphis I had gotten me an electric guitar. I had one before I went into the Army and when I came out 1 bought another one. I was broadcasting too, on a radio station in West Memphis, KWEM. It came on at 3 o'clock in the evening I afternoon. It was in '49 that I started to broadcast. I produced the show myself, went around and spoke to store owners to sponsor it, and I advertised shopping goods. Soon I commenced advertising grain, different seeds such as corn, oats, wheat. then tractors, tools and plows. Sold the advertising myself, got my own sponsors."

Wolfs regular radio broadcasts were extremely helpful in creating a demand for the music of his group, and he began to perform widely through the Deep South. Also helpful were recordings, for at about the same time he began making records, his earliest sides being made in Memphis for the then newly established Sun Records operation of Sam Phillips. The recordings—which included Saddle My Pony, Worried All The Time, Moanin' At Midnight, How Many More Years, Howlin' Wolf Boogie, My Last Affair, Oh! Red, and others—were issued as singles on Chess Records, the Chicago-based independent to which Phillips was providing master recordings. At much the same time Wolf was recording for RPM Records through the agency of the young Ike Turner. who was serving as talent scout and record producer for the West Coast label. As a result of the success he enjoyed with Moanin' At Midnight/How Many More Years (Chess 1515), Wolf was signed to an exclusive recording contract with Chess and, following a second recording session for them in Mem-phis, he moved to Chicago late in 1952, where he made his home for the rest of his life.

The move was to prove beneficial to the development of his music. With few exceptions his Memphis-made recordings were not particularly distinguished, at least when com-pared with the strong, well-focused recordings he soon was making under the direction of
Leonard Chess. As a result of his recording of Muddy Waters and others. Chess had developed a real understanding of rural-based modern blues of the type Wolf performed so well, and he lavished considerable care and attention to recording Wolf's music, providing him supporting musicians sensitive to its demands. It paid off' handsomely: Wolf's finest and most successful records, artistically as well as commercially, have all appeared on Chess Records.

After recordings had created a demand for his music, Wolf set about establishing himself on the busy competitive Chicago blues performing scene and put together a solid band of his own with which he began working the city's blues clubs. The most notable addition to his band was guitarist Hubert Sumlin, who under Wolf's tutelage and encouragement developed into one of the most consistently interesting and individualistic of all modern blues guitarists. From the start Sumlin has been one of the most important contributors to the distinctive, characteristic sound of Wolf's records. For the rest, Wolf employed Chicago musicians. drawing from the large reservoir of superior bluesmen resident there.

During the 1960s he settled in to a long stint at Sylvio's Lounge on Chicago's near West Side and for a number of years his was among the finest, most consistent and satisfying club presentations to be heard in the city. With regular employment, the personnel of his band remained considerably more stable and, consequently, the performance quality invariably higher than that of just about any other ensemble on the Chicago blues performing scene. And the live performances of his music were fully the equal of his recordings.

"Now, I don't consider myself a profession-al musician," Wolf observed. "I couldn't say I'm a professional 'cause I don't know too much about music, I'm just an entertainer: I can entertain pretty well in my way of doing. Before I became an entertainer, though, I sang for myself. Anything I set up and figured was good, I made up a song about it. I just watch people, their ways. I play by the movement of the people, the way they live. You see, every-thing that I sing is a story. The songs have to tell a story. See. if you don't put a story in there, people won't want to listen to it, because people mostly have been through the same emotions. Since I'm an entertainer, that's what I have to give the people who come to hear me, buy my records. I always tried to play a different sound from the other fellow ... have a good sound, to play something different. My music."

Howlin' Wolf left a rich legacy of music behind him. The best single introduction to his glorious Mississippi-based modern blues is provided by the low-priced 2-LP set Chester Burnett A.K.A. Howlin' Wolf (Chess 60016). His early RPM recordings have been collected on Howlin' Wolf Sings the Blues (Crown 5240), which also has been issued as Big City Blues (United 7717). Single LP al-bums on Chess include Moanin' In The Moonlight (Chess 1434), which later was issued as Evil (1540); Howlin' Wolf (1496); The Real Folk Blues (1502): More Real Folk Blues (151 2); Change My Way (418); Message To the Young (50002); Live And Cookin' At Alice's Revisited (50015); The Back Door Wolf (50045); The London Sessions (60008) and The Howlin' Wolf Album (Cadet Concept 319). He will be missed, and sorely too.

Honor his memory.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Obituary: Van Zula Carter Hunt

Van Zula Carter Hunt (1901-95), singer and guitarist, moved from her hometown of Somerville to Memphis around the late 1910s and began her professional musical activity, traveling for several years with larger minstrel shows (such as Rabbit Foot, and Silas Green) as well as with her own show, Madame Hunt's Traveling Show. She played with local blues artists such as Sleepy John Estes, Frank Stokes, Gus Cannon, and Memphis Minnie, and the Memphis Jug Band. 

New Park Cemetery in Memphis, TN

She recorded some gospel sides as a chorus member with Rev. E.D. Campbell for Victor Records in 1927.  In 1930, she recorded the vocal "Selling That Jelly" with the Carolina Peanut Boys (Noah Lewis, John Estes, Ham Lewis, and others) for Victor Records. She reportedly made other recordings in the prewar era and recorded for Sun in the 1950s. Two songs were released on Adelphi LP 10105 Memphis Blues Again, Vol. 2 in 1970.  Hunt is backed on a number of tracks on the first volume of the Blues At Home Collection by pianist Mose Vinson, who was also recorded solo, as well as Hunt's daughter Sweet Charlene.

Steve LaVere, who learned of Hunt through washtub bass extraordinaire Dewey Corley, said of her, “She knows everything about everybody." In an obituary, Ed Tremewan stated that Hunt appeared locally in festivals from the "early 1960s and well into the 1980s, when declining health slowed her activities down. 

Obituary: Mose Vinson (1917-2002)

By Richard Allen Burns - 2002

Barrelhouse blues piano player Mose Vinson was born June 2, 1917 in Holly Springs, Mississippi. He passed away on November 16, 2002 from complications from diabetes.  He was eighty-five. One of the last of his kind, Vinson approached music by mixing blues with jazz and gospel. A regular on Beale Street, he played with such greats as Booker T. Laury, Sunnyland Slim, and B.B. King.

Vinson learned to play piano from his mother in church, but this religious influence contrasts with that which his father provided. In a 1993 interview, when Vinson performed on the campus of Arkansas State University, he recalled that his mother attended a church near Memphis. He remembered: "They [his parents] used to send me around--well, you know--to sing a solo. Wasn't nobody in there. She'd take my finger and make me go over the song. My pa, he took me around to hear the people play. I listened to the people play a little bit though, come back, and in two or three days, I'd he playing their songs." But that same year, Vinson's father also took him to jook joints, and by the time he was a teenager, Vinson was playing jazz and blues. "I'd been playing since I was a little boy, five years old. When I got big enough (by 1932 I was fifteen years old), I was playing for nightclubs. They put me in a reform school for that, and 1 had to quit that!" he recalled. Tired of country life, his family moved to Memphis in 1932. There Vinson met Sunnyland Slim. By then he was playing in a style that was typical of the 1930s, and throughout the 1940s, Vinson continued playing in jook joints and at parties in and around Memphis. His friends called him "Boogie," reflecting the style he played best.

Blues scholar David Evans said of Vinson, "He was one of the last of the old-time solo piano players." He worked, as a studio caretaker at Sun Records and played piano between sets until Sun founder Sam Phillips heard him and recorded him in 1953. Though none of these initial recordings were released at the time, most of these can now be heard on the CD boxed set Sun Records: The Blues Years, 1950-1958. The year following his first recording with Sun, Vinson recorded on one of Sun's greatest singles, James Cotton's "Cotton Crop Blues." He also recorded on Sun with Walter Horton, Joe Hill Louis, and several other recording

During the last three decades of his life, Vinson played in festivals and at colleges and universities, including the Chicago Blues Festival, the University of Chicago Folk Festival and the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee. In 1992, he was featured on National Public Radio's program, Bluestage. During the 1980s and 1990s, Vinson could be heard playing at the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival and at the Center for Southern Folklore. The Center's director, Judy Peiser, co-produced Mose Vinson: Piano Man, Vinson's only album. The album features eighteen cuts of some of Vinson's finest piano playing that he had perfected over a span of seventy years. He was also featured, along with Booker T. Laury in Memphis Piano Blues Today, a collection of 1990s Memphis blues. In 1998, he appeared on the Junkyardmen's album, Scrapheap Full of Blues.

Evans told a reporter that like other musicians of his time, Vinson was "under-appreciated, more or less taken for granted here in Memphis . . . a real jewel." Peiser remembered him as quite personable, inspiring others, both young and old, to play along with him. When Peiser brought Vinson to perform at ASU, there was a standing-room-only crowd. Vinson invited audience members to join him onstage. Taking the hands of adults as well as children, he guided them across the keyboard in familiar tunes. An unsung hero on Beale Street, Mose Vinson will be missed throughout Memphis and the Mississippi Delta.

Two guys snuck into the cemetery in 2015.  Instead of asking former acquaintances and friends to help honor Mose Vinson properly, they laid a small footer in his plot at New Park Cemetery.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

A Dark Collusion in a Mississippi Juke

A Dark Collusion in a Mississippi Juke
By Bughouse Pile - Dec 2017

The Year was 1979 and we had set out to find Sammy Myers, the Blues singer whose classic “Sleeping in the Ground” was a favorite anthem of British Blues collectors. [To read more about the Mississippi artist, please read this interview from 1980To experience a room full of slightly drunk young English punktards, grasping Brown Ale bottles and rocking back and forth on upright chairs to the rhythm of this tune was to be assured that all was well with our world. No matter how long it took, or to what lengths we had to go, or what energy we expended, we simply had to find this heroic singer and photograph him, for the lads back home were depending upon us! It wasn’t difficult, we were not very smart. We had his address and still had trouble. Bill interviewed him for Blues Unlimited, took the photos, and we left with an invitation to see him perform that night at the local juke joint. We hung out in downtown Jackson and then, as the sun removed its afternoon cap, we went and found Richard’s Playhouse, where Sammy had said he’d be. 

It was a long, low, dark, narrow and deafeningly noisy juke joint. You HAD to shout to be heard, thereby adding to the cacophony. Boy Scouts would have to have used semaphore to offer Bob-a-Job week services.[1] I don’t think they bothered. We took seats up front, near the shoebox-sized bandstand and watched the band set up. Bill recognized the guitarist King Edwards and introduced himself. We were joined by the tenor sax player, a guy called Cadillac Shorty, who immediately told us he’d been on every Little Richard record ever made. The drummer chimed in to inform us that his was the insistent beat we heard on Isaac Hayes' Shaft.

If they wanted big time bullshit, we were the guys to deliver...

When they kicked in, however, they were good and the place suddenly exploded as the tight little dance area in front of us quickly filled with a motley selection of interesting characters. A pot-bellied mid-life guy with a pork pie hat and a chomped cigar dancing with a woman twice his size. A tall, lanky solo dancer was doing Limbo moves without a pole, and getting deeply into it. We never saw him again. Two large and tightly clad women danced around each other, followed by many eyes linked directly to libidos. We sat, whitely, and observed.

Sammy came on stage and played a solid, very loud set of Blues. His voice was still good, his harmonica playing still sharp, the overall sound thick, woolly and chugging. I’d never been in a juke joint before; the pace was frantic, the noise deafening, the edge palpable. The owner, a tough -looking woman in the middle range of her life, tolerated neither trouble nor the seeds of it. Yanking one guy out the door with just one hand, for crimes we didn’t understand, she shot a glare across the room that indicated immediate rough justice for anyone else who might get above-station ideas. When the set had finished, I went to take a leak in the snug little men’s room behind the bandstand. As I was standing at the wall, Sammy Myers appeared at my side. His very limited vision and the dark that we stood in immediately colluded in his dampening my jeans and shoes. I came out shaking drops off my leg and squelching ever so slightly, explaining to Bill what had happened. “You lucky bitch”, he laughed, “you’ll dine out on that story more than once”.

[1] Semaphore - an apparatus for visual signaling (as by the position of one or more movable arms or flags)

Bob-a-Job week is when the boy scouts go round the village once a year doing jobs for a bob, which was the old name for a shilling, now 5 pence.

[2] Paul Vernon often goes by his nicknames, Garbage Pile or Bughouse Brister.