Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Bill Barth

1942 - 2000

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, John Fahey, and Ed Denson 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.

In the mid-1960s, Barth moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where, in the company of other musicians and blues enthusiasts, he co-founded the Memphis Country Blues Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the Delta blues. This organization produced five festivals between 1966 and 1970 featuring artists such as Furry Lewis, Gus Cannon, Bukka White, Sleepy John Estes, Yank Rachel and Fred McDowell. An accomplished guitarist, Barth himself appeared at these festivals as a member of the blues-tinged psychedelic band, The Insect Trust, and in duet with John Fahey. One performance by the latter pairing, under the comic pseudonyms Josiah Jones and R.L. Watson, was recorded by Arhoolie Records’ owner Chris Strachwitz for the Blue Thumb two LP set “Memphis Swamp Jam.“ Because of their mastery of country blues guitar, the true identity of the players remained for many years a mystery to fans who believed the liner note description of two black, mute pantomime artists “discovered“ on the streets of Memphis by Strachwitz.

Bill Barth spent the almost all of his last twenty years in Amsterdam, in self-imposed exile from the music business, focusing the bulk of his energies on the study of life extension through nutritional supplements. He continued to play and write, occasionally jamming with well-known artists like Alex Chilton, Taj Mahal and Sam Duffy, as well as local performers, but Bill chose to publish his own work on the internet, a sample of which may be found at the IUMA website. His last public appearance was in New York City in 1999.

He passed away of a heart attack in his sleep, at his home in Amsterdam, Holland on Wednesday July 15, 2000, at the age of 57.

The Clarksdale (MS) Press Register, Jan 28, 1997.

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