Wednesday, March 29, 2017

James 'Son' Thomas and Those Lazy, Smoky Blues

James 'Son' Thomas & Those Lazy, Smoky Blues 
By Lynda Smalhout Southern Style Staff Writer to the Clarion Ledger 1978
c. Bill Ferris
LELAND — A haze hangs over the Mississippi Delta in the summertime, and fields of cotton and soybeans zip by the car window like the edge of a roulette wheel, creating pleasant monotony. 

Just east of Greenville is Leland, an immaculate, quiet little town where every man knows his neighbor and stores still close on Wednesday afternoons. 

Its also a place where the 'old time' blues have survived in the homes and juke-joints just the other side of the Southern railroad tracks.

Blues singer James`Son' Thomas lives there, on Stone Street, in a.3- room shotgun house with a half-screened-in front porch and a '66 Ford parked out front. An old tire lies forgotten in the yard, and candy wrappers are wedged into the cracks of the well-worn wooden doorsteps. 

Inside, a floor fan cuts through stale, 98-degree air, and a hint of a breeze pushes past the flowered, plastic curtains.Everything that's of any value to Thomas is nailed to the paneled walls of his front room, along with portraits and snapshots of family and friends. The photographs that don't fit on the walls are stuffed into a cardboard box under the bedside table. 

A fishing pole is propped next to Thomas' electric guitar on the greenlinolium floor, and a sculpted head, with a gold tooth in its mouth, is on a nearby table. Besides being a blues singer, Thomas is also a talented sculptor and "goes to the hills" when he gets the whim to bring back a supply of Yazoo Clay. 

The gold tooth came out of Luddie Randolph's mouth. She's his third wife. His first Wife left him —gave him the blues, he says — and the second one threw him out with his clothes. "I'm gonna put that tooth in a better head when I make some money," says Thomas.

Its probably accurate to say that Thomas' place hasn't changed much over the years, not even since he became a celebrity of sorts back in the late 1960s, when he first shook hands with Bill Ferris.

Ferris, who researched and wrote the book "Blues in the Delta," wasn't interested so much in making Thomas a celebrity; just in making him a living example of a blues musician who was born, raised and probably will die some-where in the rich Delta countryside. 

Thomas, along with other musicians such as 'Sonny Boy' Watson, the late Poppa Jazz and 'Little Son' Jefferson, is mentioned frequently in Ferris' book. And as a result of their friendship, Thomas has has re-corded several albums, appeared on the NBC Today Show, educational television and on documentary films about Southern culture. 

He's also been a 'visiting professor of music' at places such as Yale University, and the Universities of Connecticut, Indiana, Arkansas and Delaware. It doesn't matter that he never got past the fifth grade at the Morning Star church school in Eden, or that he only plays music by ear.

"I think I can beat the guy who's gonna study music out of a book," says Thomas. ''While he's still learning the note, I've already got mine and gone with it."

"What's interesting to me is to see musicians like James Thomas move in different worlds," says Ferris. "I first met him in his world, but since then he's been to the Smithsonian Festival, Yale, Jackson State University, and featured on the Today Show. He's al-ways completely at ease, relaxed and unimpressed by the whole fan-fare. He seems to grow through all these experiences. To me, that says something about the fact that he is an artist." 

Thomas is a wiry man with a pack of Camel cigarettes in his front pocket and a Miller beer in one hand. 

"Ain't but one thing make me nervous," he says, grinning, "and that's when I see I ain't gonna make no money. I reckon all that corn whiskey I used to drink gave me nerve." 

Although Thomas had never been any farther away than Tennessee before he met Ferris, traveling to faraway cities by plane and bus doesn't bother him much. "I done got use to it now, cause a met so many people." He was•born 52 years ago in Yazoo County and lived there on his grandparent's farm until 1961, when he moved to Leland. "They always told me that if I moved to town, I'd starve to death. But I made so many crops and didn't make no money I told them I'd move to town and ,eat out of the garbage can, if I had to." 

There are lots of blue singers in the Mississippi Delta, just like Thomas, who have preserved their black tradition. And nearly all of them are men. 

In the rural areas, there weren't many women into the blues," says Ferris. One of the reasons is that it was very dangerous. At times fights would break out and a man could handle himself a little better in situations like that. But I'm only guessing.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Ralph Lembo - The Blues Talent Scout of Itta Bena

Ralph Lembo was not only keen in booking Blind Lemon Jefferson in 1928, but he also invited other recording artists to perform in the tiny metropolis, specifically ART GILLHAM, the Whispering Pianist of Columbia Records. 

ITTA BENA, Miss.---- Art Gillham, the famous Columbia piano artist, was here in Itta Bena yesterday for a short time. He honored the people of this town with a few of his hits. Among them were: "I'd walk a million miles to be a little nearer to you," "So Tired," "Now that I have You," and "I'm Drifting back to Dreamland."

Mr. Gillham’s visit came as a complete surprise and only a few were fortunate in getting to hear him. Ralph Lembo, local music dealer, called Mr. Gillham and had him come over.

From 1926-1929, Gillham toured the Pantages circuit on the West Coast and the Loew's--Saenger circuit in the South. The intimate style that made him popular on radio and records did not translate well into large theaters. His style limited him to the smaller theaters, because amplifiers and speakers had not yet been installed in most theaters. He was on stage by himself with a piano and a telephone. The telephone was for "conversations" with his sweetheart, who no doubt was jilting him. Art used this as an introduction to his "sob" songs and to promote his image of not being able to get or keep a sweetheart. His radio and record image of being an old, balding fat boy could not have been used where his audience could see he was young, thin, with a head full of dark wavy hair. His appearances were usually well advertised, frequently with full pages of ads for his appearance and his Columbia Records.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Nitta Yuma, Mississippi

The Headstone Application of James Huntley
Nitta Yuma Cemetery

The Military Marker of James Huntley

Nitta Yuma Plantation Store

Abandoned House at Nitta Yuma

Nitta Yuma Cemetery

On March 18, 2017, the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund visited Henry Phelps in Nitta Yuma, Mississippi. We visited a couple of different cemeteries in the vicinity, including Nitta Yuma Cemetery, the final resting place of Armenter Chatmon--aka Bo Carter, of the Mississippi Sheiks. He wanted us to let everyone know that the cemetery is open to the public and accessible via an easement that goes around the adjacent field. This short film shows the relatively well-kept rural burial ground as we found it upon our arrival. We plan to dedicate a historical marker in honor of Bo Carter in July. The last frame shows the view from Carter's grave on the edge of the field.

Please visit…

Music by the Coffee Grinders

Thursday, March 16, 2017

An Open Letter From a Blues Fan [Bob Koester] 
By Robb Baker - Jan 19, 1969

Our recent series on the rock-blues scene brought a most welcome letter, part plea, part protest, from a Chicagoan with a knowledge of this city’s blues so extensive that we wish ours was one-tenth as great.  

Bob Koester runs one of the town's few record stores with real character, The Jazz Record Mart at 7 West Grand Ave, and has his own recording company for local blues artists, Delmark Records, at the same address.

He writes about blues with the same nonstop excitement with which he speaks of them. Here, unedited except for one word not for family newspaper consumption, is what he said:

The blues scene in Chicago is as it has always been, enormous--far more important (I am truly sorry to say) than the jazz scene here, and certainly relevant to the rock scene and to the readers of your column. It is silly that southern city like New Orleans finally recognizes its culture !To the extent of city-wide support of a jazz club, a jazz museum and annual jazz festivals, while Daleytown refuses to pay the slightest homage to the roles of black bluesmen in the current rock-pop-blues revolution.

Face it rock is all-too-often just whitey's imitation of blues Chicago style. (Maybe I should make that plural—there is quite a range of styles in the Chicago school). The Grateful Dead’s version of GOOD MORNING LITTLE SCHOOLGIRL is a blatant imitation of Jr. Wells' recording of several years earlier (Closer than Jr. would be if he were to re-record it [and not bad for the in all likelihood inebriated Pigpen]); another two tracks from the same album ("Hoodoo Man Blues," Delmark DS-9612, which has never seen so much as one slug of type in the Chicago press) were lifted bodily and spliced together for THE DIRTY BLUES BAND'S first album track, "Hound Dog."

As no rock band (To my knowledge—I don't follow the imitation-blues scene that much) has imitated our recent MAGIC SAM release, I will stop short of giving Leonard Chess’ product free advertising, though I could go on.

It (blues) would seem to be an important part of the rock scene if so much…imitation can be passed off as serious art worthy or "criticism"—so why not lift the bushel and see the light.  Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, and a very few other young Chicagoans did put in their sit-in time on the band stand of the generous black artists, picked up a few licks, organized bands that come fairly close to the original thing and were accepted by the young whiteys (who were culturally deprived by racism and segregation and thus unable to hear the originals); a few of the kids even became members of blues bands (Otis Rush has had a white guitarist—2 different guys—for 3 years now; Memphis Charlie Musselwhite played regularly with Johnny Young before he got tired of being hassled by fuzz and split for S.F. where he is a minor folk hero.)—but the sanctioning of this music by a whole generation of whiteys in imitation (occasionally the sincerest form of flattery but more often than not just a good way to make a buck, pick up some ego, make an identity with the folk "Negro" that helps one’s self-respect perhaps, etc. etc. etc.) has raised the originators from obscurity to legend to an occasional factor in name-dropping on litter notes to help sell the pale imitations.

For God's sake, for art's sake, for journalism's sake, Robb, you know where it's really happening!  Tell the people.  I appreciate the many kind references to my shop, myself and my label. But blues in Chicago depend on the Big Walters and the Magic Sams and the Carey Bells, not on Mike Bloomfield, who wonderful guy that he is, is in a blind alley musically. No black man is going to change his idea of guitar-playing because of a Mike Bloomfield record, and most of the young Whiteys are too interested in the buck to go thru the changes Mike, Paul, and damnfew others did to pick up what must be learned.

If black artists must wait as long as Bird (Charley Parker), (Fletcher) Henderson, Louis (Armstrong)—or Fats Waller) — to achieve recognition (or maybe some bread), they must die first in too pathetically many cases. Here at the Jazz Record Mart we sell the hell out of Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James (all discovered by whitey immediately after their death as if the press releases had been prepared in advance).

The whiteys land, culturally, I must include Taj Mahal and quite a few others—haven’t decided about Hendrix because he bores me) make the loot and the black man creates the music.

That's barely a fourth of Koester's letter. Most of it takes issue with our article entitled "Urban Blues: No Longer Easy to Find in Chicago" ("if the blues are hard to find in Chicago it is only because someone thinks of Chicago as meaning ‘white Chicago ghettoes’ and not of Chicago as a very large city with many different ghettoes for many different people of many different cultures"), and for proof gives an extensive list of clubs on the south and west sides, followed by three lists of local bluesmen, headed "Usually on the Road," "Legendary Outside Chicago but Generally Staying at Home," and "Up and Coming."

Last, Koester issued an invitation to visit those clubs with him some Saturday night. It looks like it will take a lot more Saturdays than one. Happily.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Elizabeth Cotten

Noted folk singer Elizabeth Cotton
Still Going Strong at age 92
By Jim Reilly - 1985

When Elizabeth Cotton was a little girl growing up outside Chapel Hill, N.C., she used to dream about playing a guitar and having crowds of people join her in song.

Now, at 92, she has lived that dream many times.

Best known as the songwriter of "Freight Train," "Shake Sugaree," "Oh Babe It Ain't No Lie," and other classic country blues, she has played at clubs and festivals from New York to Hawaii. She's still an active performer, often appearing with her singer/songwriter granddaughter, Johnine Rankin.

Cotton's wit and storytelling skills remain sharp, though her hearing has faded and her voice has grown a bit thin.

In concert, she complains she “can't play like [she] used to," and warms up with an old blues guitar progression. Between songs, she pulls the long fingers of one hand through the other, complaining of the cold. But she projects a warmth that draws little children to her and compels an audience of strangers to sing aloud the songs she teaches them.

"0l' Georgia bug, ol' Georgia bug, ol' Georgia bug said so," Cotton sings, watching the crowd. "Sing, son," she prods as the little boy joins in.

She sings "Freight Train" with a little wide-eyed, red-haired girl she calls up out of the audience, then "I'm on My Way to the Promised Land," "Do Lord Remember Me," and "Tell It on the Mountain High."

She ignores the repeated requests for "Shake Sugaree."

These days, she leaves the blues to granddaughter Johnine, who sings her own songs, her grandmother's songs, and traditional folk and gospel songs in a rich, ringing voice.

"I don't sing the blues no more unless I have to," Cotton said afterward.

"When I joined a church in Chapel Hill, the deacon said I couldn't play those worldly songs and be a member of the Baptist Church ... so now I play church songs, and it's done me a world of good."

By her own account, Cotton had it hard much of her life. As youngest child in a family of five, she worked as a domestic for 75 cents a month. She bought her first guitar for $3.75 at age 9, and wrote "Freight Train" two years later. Her parents, two of her brothers, and her sister died when she was young.

She learned to play the guitar by picking out a tune on one string and then adding to the skill. She plays left-handed, but with the guitar strung for a right-handed player, so in effect she is playing upside down. Her rhythmic "Cotton picking" guitar style has influenced many other blues and acoustic guitar players. She learned to play the listening to her older brother and sneaking practice time on his banjo when he was at work.

"He didn't have to show me nothin' 'cause I heard it day and night,” she said. "I was always breakin' the strings. I'd play it till the string said pwang, then I'd hang it hack up on the nail and hide under the bed."

Morristown Daily Record, June 30, 1987
After a move to Washington, she went to work for the musical Seeger family. She had been working in a department store when she met Ruth Crawford Seeger, and left to help with housework and care for the young Pete and brother Mike (both became well-known folk singers). She also helped raise her own five grandchildren.

It was with the Seegers in the early 1960s that Cotton picked up her guitar and began performing again, eventually joining the Seegers in concert.

Early in 1984, Cotton, who now lives in Syracuse, was named National Heritage Fellow along with 16 other traditional folk artists.

She says her favorite song is On My Way to the Promised Land," an old spiritual, “cause I'm on my way.” She ends her concerts with “God Be' With You Till We Meet Again.”

Her body was cremated after she passed in 1987.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Johnny Shines: Blues Singer Shines Helped Lay Rock Foundation

Blues Singer Shines Helped Lay Rock Foundation
By Phillip Rawls for the Montgomery Advertiser 1976

TUSCALOOSA, AL — Johnny Shines will tell you, "If you didn't have the blues yesterday, look out for them tomorrow, if you don't have them now because they're as certain as death."

Shines is a 61-year-old delta blues singer and guitarist who lives in Holt, a working class suburb of Tuscaloosa. Like many blues musicians, Shines laid the foundation for modern soul and rock music, but he has never received any recognition.

The delta blues, according to Shines, are the gut bucket blues, as opposed to the Chicago blues, which are more brassy.

Shines was born five miles outside of Memphis in Frazier, Tenn., and learned to play blues guitar by hanging around with famous Beale Street musicians like Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf.

Thirty years later, rock guitarist Johnny Winter learned how to play the blues by hanging out with Shines and his friends. Just as Shines once did, Winter "would play a lick like we played it, and then he would change it to suit his style."

Although the blues guitar was learned, blues singing came natural for Shines. The blues "is what we did in the church and what people sang in the fields at the end of the day, but it wasn't called the blues then," explained Shines.

When Shines was a young man, black audiences turned against the ' blues because "they were taught that it represented everything that was bad.

"The blues is not as bad as it is said to be. It's not sinful to sing the blues," said Shines, who had to give up playing from 1957 to 1964 because there was no audience.

In 1964, white audiences flocked to the blues when Cream, an English group with Eric Clapton, hit the charts with an old Johnson song called "Crossroads."

"If it wasn't for whites, there wouldn't be an audience for the blues today," Shines notes.

When asked what's the best song he ever wrote, Shines lets loose with one of his barrel chested laughs and says "I Don't Know," a song he wrote in 1966.

Like all of Shines' songs, "I Don't Know" tells a story.  The song tells of a country boy who leaves his sweet-heart at home and goes to Chicago. Once in Chicago, he begins to miss the girl and sends for her. But when she gets to Chicago, she finds her old boyfriend has been changed by the city lights, and she falls in love with another man.

When asked if the story is true, Shines answers in a whisper, "Yeah."

Like the blues lyric that says, "If it wasn't for bad luck. I wouldn't have no luck at all," Shines had plenty of down and out times before moving to Tuscaloosa in 1969.

Several times he made records but "never got any-thing but union fees and a piece of paper that was no good.  Not until the 1970's did Shines ever see any record royalties.

While he and his wife Hat-tie were living in a kitchenette apartment in Chicago, their daughter died, leaving them seven school age grandchildren to take care of.

Shines decided that Chicago was no place to raise the children, so the family moved to his wife's home town, Tuscaloosa.

Shines is getting old and he knows his musician days are numbered. "I know I don't play as well as I used to, and I don't have the range I once did. But. friends tell me I sound just like I always did," he said.

The Anniston Star, Apr 20, 1992.
The only recognition Shines will probably ever get will be a small obituary in "Rolling Stone" magazine, but that doesn't worry him. Passing on his music is more important.

Through federal and state grants to the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project, Shines is able to perform in schools, prisons and hospitals.

Elementary school children make a great audience, according to the blues musician. "You will think they're not paying any attention to what you're doing, and then you will see them copying what you're doing. You know you’re getting through,” he said.

Thursday afternoon, the mailman brought Shines a not letter saying that the Alabama State Council on Arts and Humanities is awarding Shines and friends $1,000 to keep playing in schools. "I've got the happy blues today,” he laughed.

The Montgomery Advertiser, Mar 28, 1976.


Sharkey County, Mississippi

In the book It Came from Memphis,  Robert Gordon forwards one explanation behind the band name for Tav Falco and the Panther Burns: 
“The band’s name reflected the lore surrounding Panther Burn, Mississippi.  This town was menaced by an elusive wild beast that, when finally cornered, was set aflame.  Its dying shrieks so horrified the citizens that they named the community for it.  The moniker was appropriate for” Tav Falco’s assembly of musicians, The Panther Burns.
It's not clear at all where this supposed lore came from--perhaps the mind of Falco himself, or Gordon's own exaggeration--but the town of Panther Burn has plenty of actual historical information related to the naming of the town.

There are several theories based in fact on how the community got its name.  Before the draining and clearing of the Delta, panthers roamed the swamps in significant numbers in the woods.  Some folks point out that the clearing of land  sent many panthers in search of a new home.  Some of them got caught up in the burning piles of trees, and they were killed in the fires.  Still other people believe the community simply received its name due to the numerous panthers in the area combined with the fact that "burn" in the Scottish dialect can mean swampy.  It is highly unlikely that a menace panther had to be burnt alive.  Indeed, it is much more likely that Gordon's putting down some fire to sell some more books.

Population in 1987: About 100 families

Industry: Panther Burn Co., a plantation with about 6,500 acres of farmland growing cotton, soybeans, rice and wheat. The plantation employs 60 to 150 people, depending on the season. 

Settled: 1832 Government: The area is not incorporated so there is no local governing board. The area is under the jurisdiction of the Sharkey County Board of Supervisors.

Of Note: The last reported panther sighting near here was about five years ago by farmers. 

(Jackson, MS) Clarion Ledger, Nov 1, 1987.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

“Sexiest Man Alive Spends Weekend in Clarksdale Visiting Blues Sites, Cotton Harvest"

“Sexiest Man Alive Spends Weekend in Clarksdale Visiting Blues Sites, Cotton Harvest"

`By Howard Stovall, Tourism Spokesperson
October 26, 1991

Clarksdale had a distinguished visitor recently when John F. Kennedy Jr., son of the late U.S. president, stayed here for one entire weekend.  

Named "The Sexiest Man Alive" by People Magazine, Kennedy is presently working for the district attorney’s office in New York City and was traveling here with a friend from law school, Karen Hefler, a lawyer with the NY firm of Cravath, Swaine and Moore.

"Clarksdale is a wonderful place," Kennedy commented to me during his visit.  Informed about the local promotion of tourism and the upcoming vote on funds to support a tourism commission, Kennedy said, "I wonder if the people that live here realize how refreshing Clarksdale is to someone visiting from a place like New York."

"I think tourism could be a great industry for Clarksdale. I've certainly had fun here." Because of my position as president of the Sunflower River Blues Association and spokesperson for the Tourism Commission, he had been given my name by Rex Miller. Miller is a New York photographer who visited Clarksdale several months ago. "I was constantly amazed at how genuinely warm and friendly the people are," Kennedy continued. "It's a lovely town and a great place to relax and get away from the pressures of New York City."  Kennedy and Hefter explained that they had wanted to come south for a blues festival for some time and were steered here by Rex Miller.

Suggesting Clarksdale's Sunflower River Blues Festival or Helena's King Biscuit Blues Festival as enjoyable festivals, Miller "insisted that we stay at the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale because of its blues heritage and because Mrs. Hill is such a nice person," Hefler said. For three nights, the two stayed at the Riverside which is the old G.T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital where the Empress of Blues, Bessie Smith, died following a car crash on Highway 61 in 1937.

Since Mrs. Hill began operating the Riverside as a hotel and boarding house, it has been home to many famous blues musicians. Although Kennedy had planned to get in touch with me on Monday following the King Biscuit Blues Festival, we ran into each other at the Varsity Club in Helena Saturday night.

Inviting them to visit Stovall Farms, I gave them a tour of the area all day Sunday. They were really interested in cotton harvesting. Although the gin wasn't running, we were picking that day, and they got a kick out of seeing the pickers in operation and checking out the bales of cotton on the loading dock.

I explained how the crop developed and how it was marketed.

When they opened their car trunk later on, I saw they had picked two big cotton plants they were planning to take back to the city. They were pretty embarrassed when I saw the plants, but I got a big kick out of it.

On Monday the famous tourists visited the legendary bluesman Son Thomas of Leland and Eugene Powell of Greenville.

They were such nice men," Hefler said. "Mr. Powell played for us, and it was some of the most beautiful music I had ever heard."

Although Kennedy had to make an early return to New York, Hefler saw more local attractions before she left including a meal at Abe's and an interview at WROX by the Soul Man Early Wright.

The two visitors were surprised to learn that the playwright Tennessee Williams had grown up here, and I would have liked running up to Moon Lake to Uncle Henry's and Grant's Pass with a stop at the Friars Point Museum. But we just didn't have time.

But before he left, Kennedy said, "We plan to return in August for the Clarksdale blues festival."

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Robert Covington’s Soul is at Home in a Suburban Ranch

Blues Don’t Fade on City’s Collar
Robert Covington’s Soul is at Home in a Suburban Ranch
By Dan Kening - 1992

Schaumburg may seem like an unlikely home base for one of Chicago's most in-demand blues singers, but Robert Covington is not your average bluesman.

A native of Yazoo County, Mississippi—the birthplace of such blues icons as Skip James, Tommy McClennan and Robert Petway—he came north to Chicago in the mid-1960s and has lived in the northwest suburbs for the last 15 years.

Often performing seven nights a week in city and suburban clubs either with the house band at Kingston Mines in Lincoln Park, with the group Mississippi Heat, or with his own band, which bears his name, Covington is one of the few blues drummers who's successfully been able to come out from behind the drums and achieve frontman status. With a buttery baritone that recalls such classic blues singers as Bobby "Blue" Bland and Little Milton, there was no way that Robert Covington was going to remain hidden behind the drums forever.

Working the crowd on a recent Wednesday night at Kingston Mines, decked out in a three-piece suit and fedora, his declamatory vocal style on both originals and blues classics like Willie Dixon's "1 Just Want to Make Love to You" virtually lights up the room. On his own "Better Watch Your Step," Covington goes into an extended rap about his woman cheating on him. "1 know you weren't out with your best girlfriend last night 'cause she was with me!" It's a clever lyrical turnaround typical of Covington's approach to his music: "Don't just sing a song—tell a story."

"That man can sing some good blues," said octogenarian blues piano legend Sunnyland Slim, with whom Covington performs on drums and vocals Sundays at B.L.U.E.S. on Chicago's North Side, "He's a good drummer and a good man—he's excellent."

It should be noted that Sunnyland, who helped launch the careers of such blues giants as Waters and Wolf, is notoriously parsimonious with his praise. An-other Covington booster is Doc Pellegrino, owner of Kingston Mines, where Covington performs five nights a week.

"Robert puts a lot of heart and soul into what he's singing, and when you're in the audience it's as if he's singing just to you," he said. "And the people really seem to love him."

Indeed, at the end of his set Covington is surrounded by both new and old fans, all waiting to pay their compliments.

"Sometimes onstage you have such a feeling of control, like you have the audience in the palm of your hand," said Covington after the show. "It's like you can't do or say anything wrong."

Covington lives in a neat-as-a-pin ranch house just off Roselle Road that he shares with his wife, Ernestine, and daughter, Tiffany, a junior at Schaumburg High School. A son, Keifer, a senior majoring in criminal law at Southern Illinois University, worked for the Schaumburg Police Department as a bicycle patrolman this past summer.

Wearing a blue T-shirt and dark glasses, Covington's gravelly voice reveals that he's recently climbed out of bed, having worked until 4 a.m. the previous night at King-ston Mines, No overt signs that a musician lives there are obvious. In fact, the decor bears the distinct signs of Ernestine's feminine touch.

Covington credits his wife, affectionately known as Ernie, with his move to suburbia. He finds the relative peacefulness of suburban life an antidote to the boisterousness of his work world.

"I like how serene it is here compared to the city, said Covington, gazing out through the glass patio door to his well-manicured backyard. "Before that I lived all over the city of Chicago—north, south, east and west. In the city, no matter what time of the day or night it is there's always a bunch of people hanging out on the street.  \

"Ernie Covington, who owns the Schaumburg resale-consignment shop Next To Nothing near their home, offers a portrait of the bluesman as homebody.

"Robert likes to cook, and he's a good one," she said. "His specialty is seafood, especially fried fish. I know that when I come home from work we're going to eat fish nearly every day. The only time I can get the fish smell out of the house is when he goes on tour to Europe.

"He also likes cleaning the house. When he's not working he's really a homebody," she added. "He's not into hanging out like many musicians are. He'd rather be at home watching videos."

Covington's route to suburbia has been an interesting one. Born in Yazoo City, Miss., 50 years ago, he spent three years at what is now Alcorn State University. But despite his mother's desire for him to be a teacher and his own interest in journalism, music eventually won out. More specifically, when the bandleader for rhythm and blues kingpin Big Joe Turner put out a call that they needed a drummer for some Mississippi shows, Covington answered the call.

"I was no Gene Krupa back then, but I got pretty good playing drums in college," lie said.

With such hits as "Shake, Rattle and Roll" and "Honey Hush" to his credit, Turner was a certified legend, a larger-than-life figure with a booming voice. Covington's first professional gig was one he'll never forget.

"We're all up onstage at the nightclub waiting for him to come on, and I was real nervous because I still hadn't met him," said Covington. "You see, he never came to rehearsals. Finally he comes waddling through the crowd to get to the stage and I could immediately see that he was stone drunk. When he finally got on-stage, he was weaving and rocking so much that he finally just tipped over the front of the stage and fell right off it. Bottles and glasses were flying all over, the audience was screaming, and I started laughing. I couldn't help it. The bandleader fined me $25 for laughing, and I was only making $15 a night."

Such was Covington's initiation into show business. Later he led his own band in Mississippi, com-ing north to Chicago in 1965 to escape an ill-fated first marriage. Knowing no other musicians in Chicago, it took him awhile to establish himself in the blues hierarchy, so he worked the second shift at factory jobs to pay the rent.

"I started to sit in at juke joints on the South and West Sides when I got off work," he said. "I used to go into some of the most danger-Otis places you ever saw, but that was where you found the real low-down blues."

Gradually he worked his way up in Chicago's insular blues scene, playing both on stage and in the recording studio with a who's who of blues stars that includes Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Lonnie Brooks, Fenton Robinson and James Cot-ton. By the mid-1970s he was a fixture behind the drums at the city's North Side blues clubs.

Covington's secret weapon was a singing voice that was often better than that of the people he backed up. The title of Covington's 1988 album on the local Red Beans record label, "The Golden Voice of Robert Covington," is no brag. His longstanding Sunday night gig with Sunnyland Slim aside, it's rare these days that you'll find Covington behind a drum kit. Now he's a legitimate frontman.

"I recognized the quality of his entertaining ability, and it was get-ting lost behind the drums," said Kingston Mines' Pellegrino, whom Covington credits with helping establish him as a singer who also plays drums, as opposed to a drummer who sings. "I convinced him to come out from behind the drums, and now I think he's really a great entertainer."

"No matter how good you are, people always look at drummers as just sidemen," said Covington. "I figured I'd wait until it was my time, and now it is my time."

There's no doubt that Covington is serious about his career. With his steady gig at Kingston Mines, work with Sunnyland Slim and occasional dates with Mississippi Heat at clubs like Slice of Chicago in Palatine, Covington is perhaps the hardest-working man on the blues scene.

"The thing is, I remember those lean years when I first came to Chicago and was wishing for work," he said. "So now I'm sort of superstitious about turning work down. In this business it's ei-ther feast or famine. And luckily right now I'm feasting."

"Robert lives for his career," said wife Ernie. "The only time I've seen him really upset is when he had kidney problems five years ago and was on dialysis. His doctors told him he had to give up playing music, but he's tough. He really loves what he's doing. If he had to choose between giving up his music or giving up me, I'm not sure which he would choose."

After his kidneys failed as a result of complications of high blood pressure, Covington had a kidney transplant. He says that his brush with death totally changed his outlook on life.

"Before that I used to take life for granted," he said. "I just didn't give a damn. But now I have a sense of purpose, so 1 try to make every day count and be meaningful. I try to instill that in my kids, that there are no shortcuts in life. We were all put here for a reason and we should find the best way to make things happen for our-selves."

One place where Covington is especially in demand these days is in Europe. Just back from his third European tour this year alone, Covington, like many Chicago blues musicians, relishes his jaunts overseas.

"There's a big, big market for blues and jazz in Europe," he said. "The people respect the blues so much more there, especially traditional blues. They know who you recorded with, who you played with, everything you've ever done. They treat you like a king.

"You know, I've come a long way, and I'm proud of what I've accomplished. My mother and father never left Mississippi, nor did a lot of the friends I grew up with. I wish they could have seen sonic of the places I've been to and met some of the people I've met. Every time in an airplane flying off to Europe I think to myself, 'Damn, not bad for a country boy from Mississippi!'"

In January 17, 1996, Covington succumbed to complications from diabetes.

Chicago Tribune, Feb 16, 1996.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Worse Than Slavery?

“Convict-Lease System in the Southern States”
By Frank Johnson for the (Jackson, MS) Clarion-Ledger, November 1903

A brief history of the prison system, known as convict leasing, which formerly existed in this State, in common with other Southern States, and exposition of the present Mississippi prison system, may be useful in aiding or promoting the development of a public sentiment that will lead to the abolishment of convict leasing in the State of Georgia.

After the close of the civil war there was established in Mississippi a State prison system by which the convicts were leased to and placed in control of a lessee for hire, with a sub-leasing feature added, and the lessees and the sub-lessees worked the convicts for their own individual profit.

This system was established originally in Mississippi by the military government under which the State was placed at the close of the civil war. It was continued by the reconstruction government in 1870, and was retained by the Democratic State government in 1875, and until the year 1890, when it was abolished by the constitutional provision that went into operation on January 1, 1895.

In the year 1884 a batch of convicts was brought to the main prison at Jackson from a sub-lessee's plantation in the Yazoo-Mississippi delta in a deplorable condition, caused by bad treatment of almost every description.

This led to a searching legislative investigation of the treatment of the convicts and of the practical inside workings of the convict system, which brought to light a condition of things in the convict camps, as they were termed, which astonished and shocked the people of the State. At the session of the legislature that year there was some stringent reform legislation on the subject in the expectation of correcting the many evils and abuses that had been exposed by the investigating committee, an anticipation that was never realized.

At that time the convicts who had been previously worked by sub-lessees on their plantations, and a few under railroad contractors in railroad con-struction, were leased to a railroad company then engaged in constructing its road in this State.

Rumors of the bad treatment of the convicts came from time to time from different convict camps on the line of this railroad. This caused a second legislature investigation of the condition and treatment of the convicts in 1888 by a committee of the House, with Hon. J. H. Jones, of Lafayette, Miss., who was afterwards lieutenant governor of the State, as its chairman.

This committee took the testimony of a greater number of witnesses, and through subcommittees inspected the different convict camps.

Nov 23, 1903
The result was a report condemning the whole lease system in every form in which it had been tried. The committees reported that the convicts were not properly housed, that they did not get the proper food and clothing, and that cruelty, overwork, brutal punishments, inhuman treatment of many kinds, a high death rate and a high escape rate were shown to be the characteristics of the convict leasing system. The sick were not properly cared for, and were kept with the well convicts in the structures in which they slept, which were called in the prison vernacular "shacks." These were simply rude stockades roofed over with rough boards and with dirt flooring. Want of ventilation and the want of proper warmth in winter, and a total disregard of the most ordinary principles of sanitation went to make up the sum total of the evils of the system.

It is not surprising, in view of this catalogue of human sufferings and miseries, that the death rate of the convicts one year reached the point of 17 per centum of the entire prison population; another year it went to 15 per centum, and 10 per centum was about the usual death rate.

It is fair to say that the lessee was not personally or directly responsible for the treatment of the convicts, but it was due to the sub-lessees and to the character of the guards and employees who were necessarily a low class of men.

On the heels of these developments the railroad company surrendered the convicts to the State voluntarily, and they were again leased to one lessee, who in turn sub-leased them for work on private cotton plantations in the Yazoo Mississippi delta.

The abuses and evils of the leasing system continued, notwithstanding the severity of the penal statutes that had from time to time been enacted, to secure, if possible, the proper treatment of the convicts. All this reform legislation proved ineffectual for the reason that under this leasing system the convicts were practically at the mercy of the guards.

The convict lease system, with its cruelties and barbarities, was not peculiar to Mississippi. Its abuses were first brought to light in this State, and Mississippi was the first State to abolish the system. Here is what the Mississippi legislative committee of 1888 said of the leasing system in its report to the Legislature:

"We submit that the leasing system, under any form, is wrong in principle and vicious. Experience teaches us that when human labor is farmed out for a consideration, uncontrolled by any interest the contractor may have in the welfare of the laborer, the laborer is very apt to be worked with a view to the highest possible gain to the employer, The system of leasing convicts to individuals or corporations, to be worked by them for profit, simply restores a state of servitude worse than slavery, in this, on that it is without any of the safeguards resulting from the ownership of the slave. If the leasing system is objectionable, that of sub-leasing is doubly so." Appendix to House Journal of 1888.

This report appears also in full, as an appendix to a paper on the subject by ex-Lieut. Gov. J. H. Jones, in Vol. VI. of the publications of the Mississippi Historical Society.

Every effort to abolish the leasing system in the Legislature was defeated by the influences of the lessee lobby, and it was not until the constitutional convention of 1890 that the system was abolished.

In the year 1895 the present convict system was established of working the convicts on State lands, at agricultural pursuits, for the benefit of the State, and under direct and exclusive control. 

The State now owns a large tract of land, all in one body, of first-class alluvial cotton land in the Yazoo-Mississippi delta, known as the Sunflower place, consisting of over 13,00u acres, of which about 6,000 acres are cleared. [The current site at Parchman]

Another first-class cotton plantation, also in the delta, consisting of 1,000 acres, known as "Belmont“; a farm Known as "Oakley," containing 2,000 acres and a farm of 2,000 acres in Rankin county. 

[NOTE: Indeed, both the Belmont plantation and Parchman were the targets of much attention in 1972. Belmont was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on April 11, 1972. After revealing evidence of all the murders, rapes, beatings and other abuses they had suffered in Parchman, the inmates brought a suit against the prison superintendent in federal district court in 1972, alleging their civil rights under the United States Constitution were being violated by the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment.

In the case, Gates v. Collier (1972), the federal judge William C. Keady found that Parchman Farm violated the Constitution and was an affront to "modern standards of decency." Among other reforms, the accommodation was made fit for human habitation, and the trusty system, (where lifers were armed with rifles and set to guard other inmates), was abolished. The state was required to integrate the prison facilities, hire African-American staff members, and construct new prison facilities.]

These lands are worth at least $250,000. The penitentiary also owns personal property, stock, farming utensils and machinery worth at least $150,000. All of this property has been paid for out of the earnings of the convicts, and has not cost the taxpayers a dollar.

The net cash earnings of the convicts amount to at least $50,000 annually, which is paid into the State treasury. This does not include the labor that is directed to the clearing up of the land on the Sunflower place, and the construction of improvements thereon, and*the improvements of the other lands. 

The convicts are well cared for and properly treated in all respects. They are well housed, well fed and well clothed; the sick are treated in hospitals and sanitary rules are properly observed. They are worked in proper moderation: and no sort of cruelties are permitted. 

The death rate of the convicts has been reduced to one-third of the average death rate that characterized the leasing system. 

About 10,000 acres of the "Sunflower place" will soon be put into cultivation, and when all of the contemplated improvements are made and the system perfected, it is expected that the net income to the State will his not be less than $100,000 per annum. 

A few years ago the State of Louisiana sent commissioners here who examined the practical workings of the Mississippi convict system, and upon son their report this system was adopted to by that State, with results that are satisfactory in all respects. Texas has also adopted the Mississippi penitentiary system.

This is the natural and logical solution of the convict problem where the convict population is largely made up of negroes who are not skilled to workmen, but plantation hands and ordinary day laborers.

The population of the Mississippi penitentiary at present is about 1,100, of which about 90 percent are negroes. It is thus seen that the employment of the convicts at agricultural labor on State lands is the obvious and natural solution of the convict problem in the Southern States.

FRANK JOHNSTON, Jackson, Miss. 1903