Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Jessie's Mae Backyard Babydoll Delta Blues (1996)

Leon Morris - Sydney Morning Herald, The (Australia) - October 12, 1996 
Jessie Mae Hemphill being the essence of the hill country in 1996
Down in the Delta, there's a whole lotta weepin' and wailin' going on as the sounds of the Deep South enjoy a home-grown resurgence.

Earlier this year, the remnants of the wooden shack in which bluesman Muddy Waters once lived were removed, log by log, from the Stovall Plantation in Coahoma County, Mississippi. The spot is just a short drive from the crossroads of highways 49 and 61, where legend has it Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his blues guitar skills.

After careful restoration, the shack will begin a five-year promotional tour around the fast-growing American chain of music theme clubs The House of Blues, before being returned to its original site.

The crossroads of highways 49 and 61 mark the entrance to the town of Clarksdale, signposting the town's reputation as the home of the blues. But Clarksdale itself has been slow to cotton on. About 18 months ago, the head of Clarksdale's local tourism authority snarled at a northern interloper with plans to turn Clarksdale's disused railway station into a blues tourism attraction, "What makes you think that people are going to pay to see a black man play the guitar?"

Now, however, the county tourism authority has received a Federal government grant to renovate the station and the interloper holds the exclusive liquor licence for a performance, tourism and shopping theme complex to be called Bluesland. The blues, it seems, has come a long way.

The small number of (mostly) men who brought Mississippi blues from its Deep South origins were the descendants of African slaves whose freedom was illusory.

Their musical response to the hardship and alienation of exploitative share-

cropping and overt, institutional racism had largely been ignored, until a resurgence of interest in the blues was triggered by the British invasion of rock musicians, notably the Rolling Stones, in the '60s.

In hindsight it is difficult to exaggerate the impact the blues has had on contemporary culture. Quite simply, without the blues there would be no rock'n'roll.

Jim Dickinson, a white, Memphis-based musician who participated in what he calls the "cultural collision" between black and white music-makers in the '50s and '60s that created what we now know as rockabilly, soul and rock, challenges us to "imagine the world without rock'n'roll".

One of Clarksdale's leading contemporary blues musicians, Arthneice Jones, simply says, "The blues had a baby and they called it rock'n'roll." Or in the words of Robert Gordon, a writer and filmmaker on Memphis music, rock'n'roll is simply "the failed attempt of white people with a country background trying to play the blues".

Dickinson traces a neat musical history back to the African origins of slavery. "An African work song is not a complaint - it is a celebration of life. Add to that slavery, the four beat of Anglo Saxon ballad form, and it becomes a complaint of the human condition - it's the blues. You take that back across the line to a teenage white kid who puts a four beat at the bottom of it, and its rock'n'roll."

Clarksdale, Mississippi is an obvious starting point in trying to understand the blues - where it came from and what it means today.  Clarksdale is in the heartland of what is known as the Mississippi Delta. Not a delta at all, it is, in fact, the floodplains of the mighty Mississippi River - the richest farming land in the United States.

The Delta is said to run from the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis south to Vicksburg, where the American Civil War was won and lost. It is about 320 km long and 110 km wide, bounded to the east by the hill country around Greenwood and to the west by the Yazoo River, which snakes south to Vicksburg.

Driving into the Delta from any direction is like stepping backwards into a world strangely familiar from the documentary and news footage of the American civil rights movement. The grey and dusty furrows of the cotton fields that stretch in every direction speak of the desolation and despair of rural poverty - a reminder of slavery and share-cropping in the not too distant past.

The promise of cotton abloom on these same fields speaks of the life of plenty on the "other side of the tracks", where suburban and rural mansions boast their wealth - seemingly oblivious to the neighboring poverty. Tragically, rural hardship now meets the symptoms of urban-style disaffection: crime, crack and teenage pregnancy are on the rise.

Arthneice Jones knows what it is like to live on the wrong side of the tracks. He lives on a Clarksdale street that is broken by a now derelict railway line. To drive from the town side of the street to the side on which Jones lives requires a detour of at least six blocks.

The railway line that marks this separation is the same railway line that carried Muddy Waters north to Chicago in 1943. lt is the same railway line that carried hundreds of thousands of southern blacks north after World War I - a desperate bid to escape the racism of the Deep South - in the single largest internal migration of people in American history.

Jones represents a generation of blues-men indebted to their blues ancestors but doing what blues has always done - moved with the times.

He is just as likely to be cooking up

a party with driving soul music as reaching down into the depths of the blues tradition to experiment with links to jazz and rap.

This is how he describes the origin of the blues: "The black people brought forth the blues through being suppressed; through hard times and denial; through being hated not loved; through being misunderstood as another race in another world where you once were bought and sold. And the same act went on and on for hundreds of years past the time of slavery. They still took advantage of people. We was just a denied people as we are today."

The blues, according to Jones, was "the feeling of expression, to be able to talk back, to speak in another way in a language on our side of town. To blow off steam when you [white people] weren't there. You wasn't going to listen to that nigger music - no way. But it was a form of art being developed right around you for years and years and years that controlled the basic front part of the beat of modern music."

African slaves were first brought to America in 1619. It wasn't until 1862 that the first of a series of constitutional amendments began the process of abolishing slavery. By 1870, slavery was unconstitutional but the misery of southern blacks continued through a cruel and exploitative share-cropping system. Black labourers would farm land and "share" profits with the landowner. The landowner would deduct expenses from the sharecroppers' half so that most black workers earned a pittance or, worse, built up debts to landlords who built plantation houses of overwhelming grandeur.

For the black workers and their families, the enduring "shot-gun" shack - so named because a bullet fired from the front door would pass straight through the simple two-room shack and out the back door - has come to represent their life of hardship and violent oppression.

These days, the ubiquitous trailer home is slowly replacing the shotgun shack as the main housing for the rural poor.

It is in one of these leaking and rickety trailer homes in a desolate trailer park that Jessie Mae Hemphill, one of the great women blues musicians, now languishes.

Jessie Mae Hemphill is the last of the Hemphill blues family. Taught by her grandfather, Sid - one of the legendary greats from the hill country marking the eastern border of the Delta - she came to blues performance late in life but has won three major blues awards for the one album she recorded, She-Wolf.

She recently suffered a stroke at the age of 60 and is partly paralyzed. Most of her possessions were stolen when she was hospitalized with the stroke.

Her single album and the occasional song on an anthology is all that is left of her legacy to the blues. "I'm staying on God's side now," she says. If Hemphill records or performs again it will be in the gospel tradition.

The tension between the blues and the church is a continuing theme in the Deep South. These days the description of the blues as the Devil's music is more directed towards the lifestyle associated with it than the music itself.

The Reverend Willie Morganfield is an accomplished gospel singer with 13 records to his name. He fondly remembers his cousin, Mckinley Morganfield (the legendary Muddy Waters), playing blues on a keg of nails. "There's a thin line between love and hate, same thing with blues and gospel," he says.

Of the Mississippi musicians I spoke to, all of the older musicians and many of the younger ones spoke of their faith in the church as their spiritual guide in the face of hardship and oppression. Of the four old-timers I tracked down, each had stories of physical torment in the cotton fields, and all spoke of the stringent discipline - "whippings" - that characterized parental and penal discipline in their younger years.

In 1900, W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the early leaders of the black civil rights movement talked of the color line in southern America. "A line drawn in black and white and the blood red of violence." Between 1900 and 1930, the 17 counties of the Mississippi Delta averaged a lynching every five-and-a-half months. Of the 539 recorded lynchings in the US between 1882 and 1964, more than one-third occurred in Mississippi.

Willie Foster grew up through these times. At 75, he is the living embodiment of the original blues man. Still playing the warm and soulful harmonica that made him one of Muddy Waters's favorite side-men, he is now almost blind and is confined to a wheelchair. Foster explains the origins of the blues like this: "I wasn't a slave, my parents weren't, but my fore-fore-parents were. We were writing the same book that the slaves were; they just didn't name it slavery. The only thing was you was not bought. I saw enough of it to know."

Foster certainly does know. As he puts it, "I was born in the blues and raised in the blues. I've had all kind of blues from the broke-toenail blues to the last-strand-of-hair-in-my-head blues. As low as I am and tall as I am. In other words, I've had the hungry blues, the hurtin' blues, the hard-workin' blues, the couldn't-go-to-school blues."

Despite a tragic personal history, he maintains a warmth and joy that defies his life story. He personifies the words that introduce the Civil Rights Museum, built around the hotel in Memphis where Martin Luther King was assassinated. "The history of African-Americans in this country is one of tragedy and violence, but it is also one of courage and strength, filled with determination and hope."

In 1921, Foster was born while his mother was working in a cotton field. Tears flow from this blind man's eyes as he recollects the memory of his childhood nearly 70 years before.

"I knew what the blues was when I was seven years old. I didn't have anyone to play with and I decided to ask my Mama why don't she get me a sister or brother? That's when I realized what the blues was all about. She said enough to let me know that I was the causing of it. I was born out across the field and they didn't have time to rush me in and cut my navel string, so it kind of mortified. About six months later, my mother's health began to get bad and she couldn't have any more children ..."

Foster, like most of the old-timers still alive today, knows what it was to work from sun-up to sun-down ploughing rock-hard ground with mule teams that would be worked to death in the stinking heat of the cotton fields.

"Music," he says, "is a thing beginning from a hoe. You chop the grass and it goes ching ching. A man be cutting wood and he go ting ting as he hit the wood and his axe is saying pop pop pop. That's a musical sound."

"The name blues," he explains, "is from 'I'm blue'. We put the "ues" to it when you feelin' down and out. You feel sad and blue and hurting. That puts a burden on your mind and makes you feel blue. The blues is an inspiration to keep you from crying because you're tired."

A few miles away, in the centre of Greenville, lives Eugene Powell, one of the last of the great blues guitar pickers. "The blues," he says, "comes from colored people. Colored peoples wasn't counted with white folk. Nobody seemed to like colored people - do them bad, beat 'em up. The blues is playing your feelings." In his song Suitcase Full of Trouble, Powell sings: I've got a suitcase full of trouble and a trunk full of worries.

Blues ain't nothin' but a worry on my mind.

You be bothered all the time.

Foster, Powell and a handful of other old-timers are all that is left of today's advertising stereotype. The old man playing guitar or harmonica on the front porch is not the same as today's blues men and women because the problems are not the same.

As Arthneice Jones explains: "B.B. King can go in through the front door now. When he first started travelling he had to go in the back door. He can drink out of any water fountain now. You'd have had a colored water fountain and a white water fountain. Music has to be about what goes on in your life. New blues is just new problems."

Jones the poet and songwriter takes over:

All the cotton been picked and the mules been ploughed,

The story been told and laid to the side.

A lot of folks have written about the blues but most of them have lied.

In order to know the truth you must have lived the life and damn near died.

John Ruskey is curator at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi. A musician himself with the Wesley Jefferson Blues Band, he greets thousands of visitors from all parts of the globe coming to Clarksdale to learn and pay their respects to the greats and the music they love.

Ruskey argues that the only way to understand the blues is through its performance. "People dance and actively participate in the making of the music. There's a lot of call back and forth between the musicians and audience. It's kind of a communal moving on - that's the hope of the music."

Ruskey says, "Music is a way of telling your story, of talking to people, telling your feelings. Music is an integral part of life here and is as important as talking is to an English teacher or a computer to a Wall Street banker. Music is found at all weddings, family reunions, community gatherings and the juke joints, in the church with gospel music, riding around in your car, in your home."

Live music performance in the Delta is usually confined to Friday or Saturday nights, with the juke joint tradition living on. The juke joint is usually a run-down building that comes alive as a bar and music venue on weekends.

The most regular juke joints are in Clarksdale and nearby Shelby. The musicians of this region are a close-knit family

and play together at clubs, juke joints and on special occasions.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to a number of blues gigs and a description of just two may help to explain what the blues means as a living, rather than a recorded, tradition.

The opening night of a new club in Clarksdale attracted most local musicians to perform and jam together. Special guest was Terry "Youngblood" Williams, who had been released from the local jail for the evening to play for the first time in three months.

Williams had been jailed for failing to make fine payments on a minor drug charge. He had been arrested by his parole officer when he came off stage from the 1995 Annual Sunflower Festival in Clarksdale. The last time he had picked up a guitar was in February 1996 when he was released to play at a benefit concert.

Referring to his time in jail, Williams told me, "Since I've been in here I've been divorced, I've been spit on, slapped on. Well, I know what the blues is all about now."

Williams plays with a sweetness of sound and deftness of touch that belies his recent experience and underscores the talent of real blues men. When he was joined by his two young sons, the soul of the blues man was poignant. His skill lies in a confidence in his own ability and musical heritage not to show off with the loud and showy licks that characterise many white blues players.

Just as jazz music is largely about knowing when not to play, real blues is all about feeling and expression, and fine blues musicians can create more feeling and sensitivity with one bent note than the flashy affectations of rock musicians and their desperate attempts to demonstrate their arsenal of guitar skills.

Later that same night, 50 km away in the town of Shelby, Robert Walker was playing at the region's most active juke joint, the Do Drop Inn. A cotton grower from Mississippi now growing cotton in California, Walker had returned to Shelby for a family funeral. The Do Drop Inn is a crumbling facade on a run-down corner. On weekends the streets are alive with people and cars. A couple of dollars at the door gains entrance to a long rectangular room lined with large sheets of chipboard covering the floors, walls and low ceiling. In the front half of the room is a bar and pool table, while there is a seating, dance and performance area in the back half of the room.

Walker plays with an intensity that can only be compared to Chuck Berry at his dirtiest. Backed by the irrepressible James "Super Chickan" Johnson on drums and a languid bass player holding down the beat, Walker's playing inspired extraordinary audience reaction from licentious dancing through to respectful homage and interplay. That the blues tradition can live on in places like Shelby and Clarksdale, so very far away from the commercial interpretations that now pass for blues, is a tribute to the continuing creativity and musical talent of Delta musicians.

The endurance and popularity of this musical form which developed as a response to the hardship and deprivations of share-cropping around the turn of the last century owes much to the blues' universal message of joy and sorrow - a message that cuts across racial, cultural and language barriers. Willie Foster simply says, "What's from the heart reaches the heart."

At a time when the blues is being targeted as a mainstream musical product, one wonders whether the Delta's place in blues history will at last be recognised. In the words of Arthneice Jones:

The blues is nothing but a lifestyle,

I'm telling you as simple as it can be.

I didn't choose the blues,

The blues chose me.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Jo Ann Kelly: Memphis Bound

Jo Ann Kelly: Memphis Bound
By Pete Moody - 1988
This article covers her career from the mid-sixties to the hey-day of early success in concert and on record....

Jo Ann Kelly warming up backstage
In 1965, amplified R&B was competing well with both Jazz and Beat music. Acoustic Blues was also successful in competing with unamplified music in Folk clubs, which had strong traditions in English folksong, ballads and poetry. One such club, Bunjies Folk Club and Coffee House was steeped in these traditions but gave the "new music" a chance. An established resident, Les Bridger, was keen for Jo Ann Kelly to perform, and it soon became a regular event, with both Jo and Les doing sets on the same night. Jo's repertoire included numbers by Lil' Green, American standards "It Ain't Necessarily So", "Summertime" and "Saint James' Infirmary".

Les, keen to play twelve string guitar, suggested that Jo "would sound good on one" and introduced her to Watkins of Balham, a music store run by Chris Ayliff. Jo purchased a Framus twelve string, to the immediate delight of Les and, later, to the delight of her new following. Gigs at Bunjies continued until 1970.

Chris Ayliff became a good connection because he knew such folk luminaries of the day as John Renbourne, Bert Jansch and the like. He also introduced Jo to Leadbelly and Jesse Fuller tunes. Fuller's "Working On The Railroad" and Leadbelly's "Black Girl" and "Ella Speed" were added to the repertoire. Jo was also digging deeper into the Swing Shop's stocks with the continuing aid of Bob Glass. It was at the Swing Shop that Jo met Steve Rye. She had previously seen Steve passing her home, playing blues harp while 4 walking along the road.

By 1966 more clubs were featuring blues. In addition to Bunjies, Jo and Les would play at "The Scots Hoose" at Cambridge Circus and "The Hole In the Wall" at Swiss Cottage. They were also offered more residencies at other clubs, so that in any given week, Jo was working most nights.

Jo was one of the first blues artists to be booked for Surbiton Folk Club at The Assembly Halls — at a fee of £6. "Les Cousins" in Greek Street, often frequented by Davy Graham and Alexis Korner, was a regular spot in Jo's working week.

Jo, following the Yardbirds experience, still fancied sitting in with bands and would do so with John. Lee's Groundhogs at any opportunity — "Not too much" Jo recalls "John Cruikshank was not too keen to have me fronting the band... he enjoyed the singing role"

In 1966, the Folk Blues boom took off in towns up and down the country, such as Bristol, Newcastle and Reading, where clubs were run with great success. Jo became a regular act at the Bristol Club, often leaving for the gig immediately after the Sunday afternoon sessions at Lon-don's Studio 51 Club. College and University gigs were also entering the diary and in 1966 too, Jo often sat in with another band — Brett Marvin and the Thunderbolts.

The themes of '66 were continued into 1967, with blues riding high. Dave Kelly joined the ranks of the long-serving John Dummer Blues Band — his first such band venture —and by 1968 the scene had really opened up.

Jo did a radio show with Alexis Korner on the BBC Third Programme in July, guested with Fred McDowell in London's Mayfair Hotel and recorded for Matchbox and Liberty. She performed at the First National Blues Convention in September and a London Blues Society concert in December, both at The Conway Hall. Ron Ede and Mike Gavin, who ran the Bridge House Club at the Elephant and Castle, gave Jo a Wednesday night residency. Among the acts appearing were John Lee Hooker, Big Boy Crudup, Big Joe Williams and Fred. McDowell. Tony McPhee was a frequent visitor, as was Bob Hall, with whom Jo would, on occasion, rekindle the Kelly/Hall duets. It was at the Bridge House that Jo met Nick Perls when Simon Prager brought him round following a session at Bunjies. Nick was looking for talent to record and Simon knew "just the person".

Nick and Jo met up again at the Blues Convention and struck a deal to record an LP. Fourteen sides were recorded in London in March 1969. Nick's idea was to sell to a major label, and Lawrence Cohn signed her to CBS-Epic Records. The album was released in both the UK and the USA. On the strength of the American release, Jo performed at the Memphis Blues Festival in June, working alongside Furry Lewis, Fred McDowell, Bukka White and Sleepy John Estes. Here too, she met up with Johnny Winter.

Jo returned to the UK before Cohn brought her back for more success with gigs at the CBS Convention in Los Angeles in August, the Second Farnham Blues Festival in September, a concert in Oslo and a ten-day Melody Maker tour up and down the UK, commencing at the Albert Hall. Three more Liberty records featured her and with two albums on Immediate's Blues Anytime series, appearances on three albums with her brother ("Tramp", John Dummer's "Cabal" album and Dave Kelly's "Keep It In The Family") 1969 was a hard year to follow.

CBS thought that a Jo Ann Kelly/ Johnny Winter tour would be a commercial success. When Winter had met Jo at Memphis and Los Angeles, he may have "liked what he saw" but once Cohn found out that Winter was going to do a major tour, he had to ask him to consider taking on Jo Ann. Johnny Winter's concept for the tour was that they would open the show together as an acoustic duo, and afterwards, he would plug in. [Moody's contention that each of them "would do an acoustic set, then duet, after which Winter's band would back Johnny with Jo sitting in" is about as absurd as it gets really.]

[Moody further contends that, "when she declined to work with Johnny Winter, Jo Ann lost the opportunity for a second CBS Album, because the company supported Johnny Winter's ideas for a 'rock' album." Jo parted company with CBS, in his view, due to her disappointment with Winter. Lawrence Cohn, however---the record executive who signed Jo to CBS/Epic, released her LP, brought her to the Annual International CBS Convention in Los Angeles, where she was the absolute hit of the event, and set her up to go out on tour with Winter---remembers a quite different series of events altogether. "She started rehearsals with him," Cohn informs, "the plan being that she and Johnny would open up the show as a duo and thereafter Johnny would go electric with his mountain of Marshalls...and then as I had feared, she opted to leave abruptly and return home to UK." Jo never really wanted to be a huge rock star and perform in stadiums to capacity crowds, Cohn explains. "She...was quite content to do pubs and small concerts in Europe." Her departure from CBS/Epic, moreover, "had absolutely nothing to do with Winter." He released Jo from the label, quite simply, because he recognized that "it was the right thing to do."]

The culture was different — Rock had swallowed the Blues in the States and turned heavy. Winter's band sounded alien to Jo's ears. It wasn't what she wanted, so after a four-day stay, Jo declined the offer and returned home.  The remainder of 1970 was a busy time, with gigs throughout the UK, many on the strength of her album, though she took time off for a USA holiday, in upstate New York with Nick Perls. Her music was now spreading into Europe as well as the States. Solo work was still the theme, but not for long...

During 1970, following the CBS Album release, Jo began to see more of 'Life' in the States. She travelled from New York to Memphis — staying at the Peabody Hotel, journeyed to Brownsville, then went into Mississippi to Clarksdale. The trip was a real eye-opener — showing how blacks lived in the South... with deprivation went the added hardship of combatting the heat and humidity —with neither refrigeration nor air conditioning. Homes were simple timber shacks down on the 'Other Side of Town'. Jo's interest in all this roused the suspicion of the local whites — a sad fact that becomes reality for visitors to the Country.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

"Hey Fu***r! I'm Dry Up Here": The Critical Agency of T-Model Ford

...died at home on July 16, 2013, and the news of his passing generated a groundswell of support from friends and admirers of the ninety-two year-old musician. Amos Harvey, formerly of Fat Possum Records, stepped up to help cover the costs of the visitation at Redmond Funeral Home, while fundraising campaigns at such venues as the Walnut St. Blues Bar and the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic brought in enough money to finance a commemorative stone to mark his burial site.

The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, on behalf of Estella Ford and Fat Possum Records, dedicated the headstone of Ford at Green Lawn Memorial Gardens in Greenville at four o’clock on Saturday afternoon, May 31, 2014. The flat granite marker, which bears an engraving of the Peavey electric guitar known as Black Nanny, was conceived by Amos Harvey, formerly of Fat Possum Records, who delivered the eulogy at the dedication ceremony. His vision was etched in stone by Arcola-native Alan Orlicek—also in attendance at the event.

Despite the presence of threatening storm clouds on the horizon, the heat of the early summer sun blessed his widow, Estella Ford, other family members, and the small crowd of perhaps fifty people who turned out to pay their final respects at the graveside ceremony.  The highlights of the hour-long ceremony were the musical performance of Belzoni-native Bill Abel, a frequent playing partner of Ford’s, who powered his amplifier with a car battery to go electric at the gravesite, and the surprise appearance of Reverend James Ratliff, pastor of the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Morgan City, the site of Robert Johnson cenotaph.  Having delivered sermons at several headstone dedications in the nineties, Rev. Ratliff showed up unannounced at the graveside service, surprising his longtime friend and MZMF founder Skip Henderson, who took the opportunity to reminisce about the organization’s earliest days and emphasize the broader mission of the MZMF beyond the blues, beyond ribbon cuttings and ceremonial pleasantries.  By seeking out endangered historical sites and installing “permanent” testaments to the significant achievements of African Americans, particularly in regards to the cultural impact on popular music, the monuments of the MZMF stand in bold contrast to other, more prominently displayed symbols of the Lost Cause.

By T. DeWayne Moore
Director of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund

© Bill Steber
“The story of T-Model Ford’s life often seemed too tall to be true, even by blues standards,” commented one obituary for the blues singer in 2013. One writer for Observer Music Monthly, in fact, described his early life as a “horror story.” He lost a testicle before the age of ten, because his father beat him with a piece of firewood, and his ankles bore the scars of his time working on the chain gang. One of his wives slashed his throat, which left a noticeable scar across his neck. Ford, in addition, had been shot, stabbed, pinned under a fallen tree, and beaten with a metal chair. His first wife left him for his own father, and another wife drank poison and died trying to induce a miscarriage. The only woman he ever really loved poisoned his breakfast one morning; he woke up in the hospital and “never saw her again." It was not until the mid-1970s, however, that he picked up his first guitar. 

On June 24, 1921, sharecroppers Jim and Annie Ford had their third child, James Lewis Carter Ford, while living along Highway 80 in rural Beat 2 of Scott County.[3] Though one census enumerator noted that he made it through the fourth grade in school, Ford had to wait until he was older to develop his reading and writing ability. He worked on the farm as early as a young man, and he continued to labor alongside his father into his late teen years.[4] When he secured a position at a local sawmill, he managed to impress an agent for a large lumber company in the Delta, near Greenville, which later recruited the quick study, eventually promoting him to truck driver. 

Though Ford was sentenced to ten years in prison for second-degree murder, he managed to secure an early release after serving only two. Grinning, he revealed to one writer, “I could really stomp some ass back then, stomp it good. I was a-sure-enough-dangerous man.” Though granted an early parole, he continued to come into conflict with local law enforcement in Washington County, which boasted a number of rural juke joints around Leland as well as a thriving nightlife along Nelson Street in Greenville. Ford claimed to have had six wives and fathered twenty six children during his lifetime. Being a ladies’ man in the Delta, however, was often a dangerous endeavor.[5] A survey of newspaper articles in the Delta Democrat Times reveals the potential for violence in the social atmosphere of rural juke joints and night clubs. In October 1953, for example, the Little Milton Band performed in Greenville at Earnest Horton’s CafĂ©. When “the lights were low [and] the band was just beginning to play,” a young woman pulled a knife and stabbed drummer Theophlies Hurd in the arm.[6] In the early months of 1951, the music, dancing and dice games at Big Son’s Place in Metcalfe attracted so many people that traffic was sometimes blocked along the highway. Will Smith, operator of the popular night club, soon attracted the attention of local police, who later arrested him for public drunkenness and threatening to shoot another man for making advances on his ex-wife.[7] Ford’s numerous marriages, along with his other unfortunate experiences coming up, led him to adopt a tough, “dangerous” posture to maneuver in the hostile social climate of the Delta.

Music writer Will Hodgkinson, who interviewed Ford for his book, Guitar Man, learned that the late-blooming bluesman started playing the guitar after his fifth wife left him in the mid-1970s; she did not take her guitar, however, which Ford regarded as a “leaving present.”[8] Without the ability to read music at all, he trained himself, Hodgkinson observed, and thusly had a difficult time explaining his musical style. Ford simply “played by ear,” working out a distinct style of playing by imitating the sounds of certain admirable musicians—in Ford’s case, the guitar licks on the records of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. According to one reviewer of his first full-length record, Pee-Wee Get My Gun (1997), Ford “didn’t play the way most people do.” Over the top of “extremely elastic rhythms, he growls and mumbles bits of other songs and his own violent warnings against unfaithful women and musical rivals.”[9]

It was during the early 1980s that Ford started to perform rather than patronize the rural juke joints and other sketchy venues in the Delta.[10] “To get a solid earful of savage mutant-bluesoids," music writer Robert Palmer argued in mid-1980s, “you had to hang out in joints so dangerous they should carry the Surgeon General’s warning sticker.”[11] In rural haunts as well as the occasional blues festival, Ford performed with other Mississippi blues artists of his generation, such as harmonica player Willie Foster and drummer Sam Carr. In the fall of 1991, he recorded his first single, “Tell Me What I’ve Done,” which also featured his version of “The Broken-Hearted Man,” by Booba Barnes & the Playboys. He later complained to one journalist that a “good part” of the money from that single went to cover travel expenses to record it in Memphis.[12]

In 1995, Matthew Johnson “discovered” and recorded the music of Ford on his label, Fat Possum Records, under which he released five albums from 1997 to 2008. Johnson, who one writer described in 2003 as the “disheveled, hard-drinking, fiercely iconoclastic founder” of Fat Possum Records, informed that “T-Model Ford got robbed for 2,000 dollars” after “someone threw a brick through his window” in Greenville, “one of the worst shitholes in America for violence and crack and degenerate goddamn madness.” Though Johnson implored that he wanted to get Ford “out of there,” he explained that the blues singer just “won’t leave.”[13] Ford, indeed, remained a resident of the Mid-Delta city until his death. 
© Bill Steber 

In July 2008, the Seattle-based band GravelRoad agreed to serve as the backup band for Ford at the Deep Blues Festival in Minnesota. Being longtime fans of Ford, the band also decided to backup the blues singer on a ten-show national tour through the rest of the summer. Ford had a pacemaker installed after the tour, but it did not slow down the elderly musician. GravelRoad, according to one review of a 2009 performance, “followed him through every turn in the music, came in strong with every song and made T-Model sound better than he’s been in years. They gave T-Model’s music drive and energy where there has been sloppiness. They made him sound like a man reinvigorated. This music had power.”[14]

He continued to appear with GravelRoad until he suffered a stroke while on tour in early 2010. Even though he experienced some difficulty with mobility in his right-hand, Ford managed to complete the successful tour with Gravel Road. Ford and GravelRoad opened the third day of the All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival in New York during Labor Day weekend before concluding the tour with an appearance at the Pickathon Festival in Oregon. GravelRoad also backed Ford on his last two albums, The Ladies Man and Taledragger, both released by Alive Naturalsound Records in 2010 and 2011, respectively.

© Bill Steber 
Ford suffered a second stroke in the summer of 2012. Though he curtailed his public appearances, he managed to perform in October at the King Biscuit Blues Festival; he had performed at the inaugural Helena, Arkansas event in 1986 with drummer Sam Carr and harmonica player Willie Foster.[15] One Minnesota blues enthusiast noted in 2013 that “Mississippi cult hero” T-Model Ford had recently “suffered several strokes and other hardships.” The tragic events prompted Minneapolis blues artist Ken Valdez, who crossed paths several times, and even wrote a song, with Ford, to release a new record, Jack Daniel Time—A Tribute to the Legendary T-Model Ford. In addition to a benefit concert and silent auction, he hoped to raise funds for the ailing blues singer by promoting the album.[16]

Fat Possum Records announced that Ford died at home in Greenville of respiratory failure after a prolonged illness on Tuesday, July 16, 2013. Immediately following his death, his wife Estella Ford started to solicit donations to pay for the blues singer’s funeral. Amos Harvey, of Fat Possum, stepped up to help cover the costs of the visitation at Redmond Funeral Home on North Broadway Street in Greenville, and friends and admirers of the blues musician held fundraisers at the Walnut St. Blues Bar in Greenville and the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic. Immediately following the visitation on the afternoon of July 26, his wife organized a fundraising event at the Ford’s home at 216 North Delta Street. The funeral service for James Lewis Carter “T-Model” Ford was held at the Washington County Convention Center on Saturday July 27, starting at 11:00 a.m. Musician and songwriter Robert Mortimer, Jr., who co-owned Mortimer Funeral Home and managed Green Lawn Memorial Gardens Cemetery, donated the burial plot and vault for the local blues singer in the newly named “Legends” section of the burial ground, which is located on Highway 82 West in Greenville, Mississippi.[17]

Born in June 1921 in rural Beat 2 of Scott County, Mississippi, James “T-Model” Ford was a late-blooming blues artist who did not pick up the guitar until the mid-1970s, when his fifth wife bolted and left behind a guitar. This “leaving present,” as he called it, was the foundation on which he built his career as a blues artist, eventually recording seven albums and earning a reputation for his rough and raw sound, whiskey-driven live shows, and spirited interaction with the audience.

© Bill Steber 
Greenville-based blues artist James “T-Model” Ford died at home on July 16, 2013, and the news of his passing generated a groundswell of support from friends and admirers of the ninety-two year-old musician. Amos Harvey, formerly of Fat Possum Records, stepped up to help cover the costs of the visitation at Redmond Funeral Home, while fundraising campaigns at such venues as the Walnut St. Blues Bar and the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic brought in enough money to finance a commemorative stone to mark his burial site.

The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, on behalf of Estella Ford and Fat Possum Records, dedicated the headstone of “T-Model” Ford at Green Lawn Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Greenville at four o’clock on Saturday afternoon, May 31, 2014. The flat granite marker, which bears an engraving of the Peavey electric guitar known as Black Nanny, was conceived by Amos Harvey, formerly of Fat Possum Records, who delivered the eulogy at the dedication ceremony. His vision was etched in stone by Arcola-native Alan Orlicek—also in attendance at the event. Despite the presence of threatening storm clouds on the horizon, the heat of the early summer sun blessed his widow, Estella Ford, other family members, and the small crowd of perhaps fifty people who turned out to pay their final respects at the graveside ceremony. The highlights of the hour-long ceremony were the musical performance of Belzoni-native Bill Abel, a frequent playing partner of Ford’s, who powered his amplifier with a car battery to go electric at the gravesite, and the surprise appearance of Reverend James Ratliff, pastor of the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Morgan City, the site of Robert Johnson cenotaph. Having delivered sermons at several headstone dedications in the nineties, Rev. Ratliff showed up unannounced at the grave of T-Model Ford, surprising his longtime friend and MZMF founder Skip Henderson, who took the opportunity to reminisce about the organization’s earliest days and emphasize the broader mission of the MZMF beyond the blues, beyond ribbon cuttings and ceremonial pleasantries. By seeking out endangered historical sites and installing “permanent” testaments to the significant achievements of African Americans, particularly in regards to the cultural impact on popular music, the monuments of the MZMF stood in bold contrast to other, more prominently displayed symbols of the Lost Cause.

With storm clouds and the sound of falling rain getting ever closer, MZMF director DeWayne Moore concluded the ceremony just as the heavens opened up and unleashed a torrential downpour on the gravesite, sending all in attendance hurrying to their vehicles. Danny and Sharon Peeples hosted the reception at the Walnut Street Blues Club, which provided plenty of good local food and music from some the Taledragger’s most enamored subjects.

[1] Rob Hughes, “T-Model Ford,” Uncut 196 (Sep 2013): 135.
[2] Richard Grant, “Fat Possum Label Keeping Blues Alive,” The Observer (Nov 15, 2003): 30.
[3] According to the bulletin at his funeral, he was born on June 24, 1921; James Ford was the third of six children; see, 1930 US Census, Beat 2, Scott, MS; roll: 1165; page: 2A; enumeration district: 0005; image: 16.0; FHL microfilm: 2340900.
[4] The census enumerator notes that Ford made it through the fourth grade; see, 1940 US Census, Scott, Mississippi; Roll: T627_2063; Page: 8A; Enumeration District: 62-6.
[5] “Blues Singer/Guitarist T-Model Ford Dies,” USA Today, July 16, 2013,
[6] “Band Ready to Play, But Trap Drummer Didn’t Join In—Arm Slashed,” DDT, Oct 23, 1953, p.1.
[7] “‘Big Son’ Smith Out, In Again,” DDT, Mar 7, 1951, p.2; “Night Club Owner Fined after Raid,” Mar 6, 1951, p.2.
[8] Will Hodgkinson, Guitar Man (New York: Da Capo Press, 2007), 161-167.
[9] Geoffrey Himes, “T-Model Ford: Pee-Wee Get My Gun,” album review, The Washington (DC) Post, Sep 19, 1997, p.16.
[10] Will Hodgkinson, Guitar Man (New York: Da Capo Press, 2007), 161-167.
[11] Robert Palmer, “The Jelly Roll Kings,” Spin 3:8 (Jan 1, 1988): 67.
[12] Donna St. George, “Blues,” (Baton Rouge, LA) State Times Advocate, Sep 4, 1991, p.4C.
[13] Richard Grant, “Fat Possum Label Keeping Blues Alive,” The Observer (Nov 15, 2003): 30.
[14] Warren McQuinston, review of T-Model Ford & GravelRoad concert at Comet Tavern, Seattle, WA, April 4, 2009, Performer Magazine.
[15] Robert Palmer, “Blues Live at King Biscuit Festival,” New York Times, Oct 23, 1986, p.C26.
[16] Chris Riemenschneider, “Roots, Rock, and Deep Blues Festival,” (Minneapolis, MN) Star Tribune, July 12, 2013.
[17] Euphus Ruth, email to T. DeWayne Moore, Jan 5, 2014.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Interview w/ Joanne Fish - Her Handy documentary debuts in Shoals

Interview w/ Joanne Fish
Her Handy documentary debuts in Shoals
By Monica Collier - The Times Daily - July 2017

Joanne Fish made her way to a section of Alabama called the Shoals several years ago on one of her many fact-finding missions.  "It took roughly 10 years of her life," W.C. Handy Music Festival Chairwoman Tori Bailey asserted, "but Fish completed her documentary on W.C. Handy” this past November.  She titled it,  “Mr. Handy’s Blues." Now she is headed back to the Shoals to give locals the first peek at her polished gem during a music festival named in the native musician's honor.

“She spent a lot of time, a lot of energy and her own resources on this film — it was a labor of love for her,” Bailey said of Fish. “For her to be able to come back and share that with the festival — we are so fortunate to have her.” 

There will be three free screenings of “Mr. Handy’s Blues” during the W.C. Handy Music Festival with the first being at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame on U.S. 72 in Tuscumbia. The hall of fame will also show the documentary at 1 p.m. Thursday.

The final showing will be at 10 a.m. Friday at the Florence-Lauderdale Tourism Visitor Center at McFarland Park in Florence.

“So many people who met Fish, while she was doing interviews for the documentary, are apparently as impressed with her as I am,” Bailey said. “They’re coming to support the screenings. Dr. Carlos Handy — W.C. Handy’s grandson — will be here. I also talked to Dr. (Willie) Ruff — he is coming. He has recently retired from Yale and is back in the area. Dr. Ruff, along with Dr. David Mussleman, are the two who created the (Handy) festival.”

Bailey calls the screenings dual events because not only will there be a question-and-answer session with Fish at each one, Carlos Handy will be present signing copies of W.C. Handy’s "Father of the Blues: An Autobiography."

Fish recently took time from touring with the documentary to answer a few questions by phone.

TimesDaily: You are not from the Shoals, correct?

Fish: That’s correct.

TimesDaily: You are not a musician, are you?

Fish: No.

TimesDaily: So, how in the world did you get interested in telling W.C. Handy’s story?

Fish: OK, well, I’ll make a long story short. I was in Florence, Alabama, in 2007 for the George Lindsey Film Festival. I had a film in that festival, it won second place in the documentary category. I really got a chance to explore the area then.  I had been there once before working for the Discovery Channel on a show just for a day. I had eaten at Ricatoni’s and I had been to the (University of North Alabama) campus, but I really hadn’t explored all around. Being at the film festival gave me that opportunity. The film I had in the festival was about Wanda Jackson, the queen of rockabilly. I’m interested in music. I used to work for CMT and the Nashville Network.

I went to the Handy home. I felt enlightened going through the Handy home. It was like the heavens opened up and gave me this gift of all this information and this wonderful story. The people there talked to me and gave me more information.

I went back three or four times during the course of the four or five days I was there.

After that, I went to a film festival in Texas. It was the last one for my film. I told my husband, I’m going to miss Wanda and the film. He said to me, what about Handy?

TimesDaily: Did you start work right away?

Fish: I told my husband, surely someone has done a documentary about him. I was positive there must be a great film out there. So I spent the next year or so trying to find that film that did not exist.

The following year, I met up with Dr. Carlos Handy (W.C. Handy’s grandson) at the Handy Music Festival in Florence. I told him what I wanted to do, and he said OK. So here were are.

TimesDaily: Yes, here we are roughly 10 years later. Did you realize you were signing up for a decade-long labor of love?

Fish: No. (She said laughing.)

TimesDaily: It has been that long, right?

Fish: Yes ma’am, it has been that long. It’s like when I signed up to run a marathon in the year 2000. If I had known what it was going to take to train for that marathon, I never would have done it.

Fish: Her Gaze Can Daze
I won’t say I spent every minute of the past 10 years working on this. But I was constantly thinking about it and writing grants. First, I had to find the experts to make sure I had the right information. The research and grant-writing took a long time. Also, just making connections and meeting people and trying to figure it all out took time. I’d say that was the first five years.

TimesDaily: You had to put in the legwork before you could get to the fun part?

Fish: Yeah, exactly. The past five years has been the shooting and putting it together.

Documentaries typically take a long time. It’s just a long process. People aren’t funding them every day.

TimesDaily: When I watched the trailer — — I wondered if you found yourself going down a rabbit hole. The documentary is about more than the music Mr. Handy created. It’s about him being a groundbreaker in many ways, correct?

Fish: Yes. Yes.

It is a rabbit hole. That’s a really good way to describe it. You can’t understand Handy unless you understand the entire Civil War and what happened after that …

Then, you have to understand why Florence was such a unique place. It was the fertile ground that gave Handy a lot of the tools and confidence to go forward.

TimesDaily: Was that uncommon for a small southern town in the late 1800s?

Fish: As far as I can tell, it was very unique. Also, his decisions after that — in the face of a Great Depression in 1894 and then Jim Crow – are unique.

When you go to the Handy home, what comes through is the overlay of all of that. This guy has a very optimistic story. This is about a person who was successful against all odds. He was able to make his journey to the top.

TimesDaily: You mentioned the Handy home. Did you work closely with several people in the Shoals?

Fish: Oh yes. It all started with Barbara Broach at the Kennedy-Douglass Center. I met her, and she had to be the first one to say yes and that she would help me. She put me in touch with Carlos Handy. She told me he was the member of the Handy family that I needed to talk to. That really started it all.

Then, I was given access to the Handy home. They have boxes and boxes of photographs in a closet over there. Mary Nicely was my main partner in crime in Florence. I shouldn’t say crime … (laughing), but we spent so many hours going through those boxes after hours and scanning things. We got to be good friends. I respect her and love her so much.

TimesDaily: So you found Florence welcoming and supportive of “Mr. Handy’s Blues” being made?

Fish: Yes! It was so easy. I didn’t have to convince anyone. I am so grateful that Barbara saw me — without knowing me — and said, “OK, you want to do this? Then that’s great.” The only thing she asked was that I made sure people knew Handy was from Florence, Alabama, and not Memphis, Tennessee.

TimesDaily: Not only did you have the blessing of the Handy family, was Carlos Handy part of the project?

Fish: Yes. I couldn’t have done it without Carlos. He gave me the permission. I have permission from the Handy home and I have releases from all the people who interviewed with me, but I had to have the blessing from the family. I think he (Carlos Handy) felt like I did — people should know about W.C. Handy, and we should preserve his legacy. A film is a good way to do that.

I don’t think he (Carlos Handy) thought it was going to take this long, either … (laughing), but he has hung in there. He trusted me. He had patience and faith that we would get this done.

TimesDaily: You interviewed several contemporary artists who have been influenced by W.C. Handy. Did you find that those artists welcomed the film as an outlet to show their appreciation?

Fish: Yeah — and I do appreciate them coming forward. I mean, Taj Mahal and Bobby Rush are huge — not just in blues but in the history and story of music. They are well known around the world.

In fact, Bobby Rush heard about the film and came to us. That meant a lot to me. I wouldn’t have known that W.C. Handy was his idol and how much Handy had influenced him if he hadn’t reached out to me.

TimesDaily: Has “Mr. Handy’s Blues” been well received at the initial screenings?

Fish: Yes, very much so. We had what I called a “St. Louis Celebration of W.C. Handy” a couple of weeks ago. It was a private event, not a festival, for the people of St. Louis who participated and supported the film. I also went there early on to meet people. Wow. Over the years, I’ve gotten so much support. We had the screening in a big movie theater. The mayor proclaimed it “W.C. Handy Day.” It set the tone so beautifully. Handy was only there for a minute, but it was kind of like his crossroads. And, of course, there’s the song “St. Louis Blues.”

There were all kinds of people who attended — young, old, black, white, musicians and non-musicians. I was most surprised by the reaction from the younger people. They know about Handy. They had not even made the connection with the St. Louis Blues hockey team to the song. It’s precious, really. Their eyes lit up and they were happy to know the information.

TimesDaily: Have you thought at all about how special it is for you to be screening the documentary during the W.C. Handy Music Festival?

Fish: I have dreamed about this. I have played out that scenario in my head many times. I do want to mention that we were lucky to have Professor Willie Ruff in the film. He has told me that he will be attending one of the screenings. Interviewing him was such a great experience. He really makes the film because he actually shook the hand of W.C. Handy. That was a key interview.

When I first spoke with Tori (Bailey), who heads the festival, the museum was a place I suggested. I left it up to her, of course, but that came to my mind right away. It’s just amazing how it has all worked out. I’m very excited.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Fred McDowell: The Alan Lomax Recordings

Track List

1, "Shake 'Em on Down"
2, "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl"
3, "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning"
4. "Fred McDowell's Blues"
5, "Woke Up This Morning with My Mind on Jesus"
6, "Drop Down Mama"
7, "Going Down to the River"
8, "Wished I Was in Heaven Sitting Down"
9, "When the Train Comes Along"
10, "When You Get Home Please Write Me a Few of Your Lines"
11, "Worried Mind Blues"
12, "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning"

In 1959, when he traveled through the American South on his "Southern Journey" field-recording trip, Alan Lomax made no plans to visit the Mississippi Delta. He had spent considerable time there some years earlier, in 1941 and 1942, when he and a team of researchers from Nashville's Fisk University had undertaken an extensive sociological study of Coahoma County in the heart of the Delta, with Lomax directing the musical investigations on behalf of the Library of Congress. That had resulted in the first recordings of Muddy Waters and Honeyboy Edwards; a trip to Robert Johnson's mother's house brought the news that "Little Robert" was dead, but Lomax was able to meet Johnson's mentor, Son House, who made for Alan his first recordings since House's slender pre-war output for the Paramount label. It was a hugely successful expedition to what Alan later called "the land where the blues began." But signs of a shifting in taste, among players and listeners alike, were evident even then: records of jump blues and big-city jazz beginning to fill up the "Seebird" (Seeburg) jukeboxes; talk of migration north to Chicago among the more talented of the Delta musicians, Muddy Waters foremost among them; and the increasing electrification of the combos that stayed behind to play in the small-town clubs and country jukes.

It was during the Coahoma County study that Lomax first visited the Mississippi Hill Country, the uplands to the east and northeast of the Delta. While doing research in Clarksdale, Alan had met a blind street singer and harp-blower named Turner Junior Johnson, who advised him to seek out Blind Sid Hemphill, the musical patriarch of the Hill Country. Lomax found Sid at his home in Senatobia, Tate County, and went on to record from him and his band some of the old-time black country dance music played on banjos, fiddles, fifes, drums, and quills that had survived in the hills, away from the social and economic changes roiling the Delta, and relatively isolated from the urbanized black music filling the airwaves and the jukeboxes.

Nearly twenty years later, in 1959, Lomax returned to the Hill Country instead of the Delta, hoping to find some of the raggy old dance tunes still holding on. He wasn't optimistic, worrying that he'd find, as he had on many other occasions, "that the best people had passed away or withered and their communities had gone to pieces." But not only were Hemphill and his friends and family still going strong in Tate County, Lomax discovered in neighboring Panola the string duet of the elderly Pratcher brothers, with their repertoire born of the minstrel and medicine-show eras, as well as the fife-and-drum music of the Youngs, Ed and his brother Lonnie. What he didn't expect to find, however, came by Lonnie's porch one evening: a diminutive farmer in overalls, carrying a guitar. He was Lonnie Young's neighbor, and had just finished his day picking cotton. His name was Fred McDowell. Alan's travelling partner and assistant, the English folksinger Shirley Collins, recounts that at first they resented the younger man's intrusion, but when Fred started to play, they realized they were in the presence of a master musician.

"Alan Lomax recorded me for the first time. I remember he was at the Pratcher brothers' house doing some recording, and somebody sent for me and said I should bring my guitar along. I did come by and played a little for Lomax, and he asked could he come to my house on Saturday night to record, and I said sure. So come that Saturday night, the house is full of people come to hear me recording and wanting to record, too. But right away Lomax said, 'I'm not interested in nobody but Fred.'" (Quoted in Bruce Cook, "Listen to the Blues", 1973.)

In the '20s and '30s, A&R men from commercial record companies scoured the southern states in search of talent for their "race" and "hillbilly" catalogs. They set up temporary studios in hotels, warehouses, and vacant storefronts and took out advertisements in local papers inviting people to come out, audition, and maybe even make a record. This turned up hundreds of artists who might well have otherwise remained unknown, but Fred McDowell was not among them. At the time Fred was in his teens and had just begun playing guitar, picking out the notes one string at a time on borrowed instruments, to songs he heard locally and on records by artists like Tommy Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Alan Lomax, too, had missed Fred, during his earlier trip through Panola and Tate counties in 1941, right about the time McDowell moved down from Memphis. He had yet to appear on the local picnic circuit; Hill Country tastes were still largely tuned to the sound of the Hemphill string band. Besides, although Fred had been playing weekend parties throughout the Memphis countryside for a decade or more, it was his move to Mississippi and his exposure to a new community of gifted musicians that expedited his musical development. Nearly twenty years later, however, a talent as big Fred's in a community as small as Como could not stay buried for long. It was inevitable that the two strangers making their way around town with a 26-pound, two-track reel-to-reel tape machine and talking of making records would run into it.

Fred McDowell was born around 1905 in Rossville, Tennessee, just a few miles north of the Mississippi border and another fifty from Como. From an early age he farmed cotton, peas, and corn with his family. Music was all around him. In Rossville, he remembered, "there wasn't hardly any seen who couldn't play guitar." Two of the better players he recalled were Raymond Payne and Vandy McKenna, neither of whom ever recorded. Fred watched them and picked up what he could. The first song he learned to play was "Big Fat Mama Blues" ("Big fat mama with the meat shakin' on your bones") from a 1928 record by Mississippi blues-man Tommy Johnson. "I learned it on one string, then two, note by note," Fred explained to a student years later. "Man, I about worried that first string to death trying to play that song." By his own account, Fred was a disciplined autodidact, which no doubt explains why his sound was so in-tensely individual.

"I never could hardly learn no music by somebody trying to show me. Like, I hear you play tonight, well, next week sometime it would come to me what you was playing. I'd get the sound of it in my head. Then I'd do it my way from what I remembered."

Fred's uncle Gene Shields played slide guitar with a filed-down piece of rib bone from a cow. "I was a little bitty boy when I heard him do that and after I learned how to play, I made me one and tried it too. Started off playing with a pocket knife." Eventually, he would settle on a glass bottleneck (preferably from a Gordon's Gin bottle), which provided the most clarity and volume.

McDowell moved west from Rossville to Memphis in 1926 and took a series of labor jobs beginning at the Buckeye Oil Mill. He had begun experimenting with the slide guitar style that he had seen his uncle playing, and that he would eventually make uniquely his own. Two years later, while working in Mississippi, he heard Charley Patton at a juke joint in Cleveland, and set to adapting some of his songs. Weekends found him sitting in at Saturday night parties, fish fries, and country picnics where the music was all about working for six days and shaking it for two. Yet he did not own his own guitar until 1940, about the time that he moved to Mississippi.

In the Hill Country, Fred joined his sister, Fanny Davis, who had relocated to Como after their mother died in Rossville. There he met his wife, Annie Mae, a Como native. Soon he was traveling throughout the region for work, which brought with it exposure to a variety of music. Sid Hemphill, the Pratcher brothers, Ed and Lonnie Young all playing something quite other than blues grounded his musical community around Como and Senatobia, while a blues guitar player and singer named Eli Green emerged as a valued teacher and frequent traveling companion throughout the Delta. "When You Get Home Write Me a Few of Your Lines" (Side B, Track 4) is a song Fred learned from Green, and one of the most impressive in his repertoire.

In addition to the old-time country dance music made by the Pratchers, the Youngs, and Blind Sid, the Hill Country was and continues to be fertile ground for African American congregational music. Singers like Viola James, James Shorter, Fred's sister Fanny, and his wife, Annie Mae, were all highly regarded performers in churches like Hunter's Chapel in Como, Independence Church in Tyro, Free Springs Methodist in Harmontown, and Greater Harvest Missionary Baptist in Senatobia. Always catholic in his repertoire, McDowell was as adept performing or accompanying sacred material as he was blues as he told a Sing Out! interviewer in 1969, "I play most anything I hear anybody else sing." Fred showed no evidence of internal discord over combining the sacred and the profane in his repertoire, a struggle that famously tormented his fellow Mississippian Son House, Here McDowell seamlessly follows his sister's plaintive rendition of "When the Train Comes Along" with a hot-blooded "When You Get Home." A 1964 LP of Fred's, entitled (speciously) "My Home Is in the Delta," devotes its first side to blues and its second side to spirituals and hymns sung with Annie Mae, among them "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning" and "Amazing Grace."

The goal of Lomax's "Southern Journey" field recording trip of 1959 and 1960 was to demonstrate the diversity of vernacular expression still thriving in the American South, from the old-time banjo breakdowns of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the ring shouts of the Georgia Sea Islands. In the Hill Country, the spectrum extended from the picnic proto-blues of the Pratchers, representative of an older, fading collective tradition, to the music made by Fred McDowell, an integration of various traditional, vernacular, and popular influences into an artistry all his own. Some of the prison singers Lomax met at Parchman Farm had similarly synthetic repertoires, as did country gospel songwriter and arranger E.C. Ball of Rugby, Virginia, and Arkansas cotton-country bluesman Forrest City Joe, But Fred embodied this synthesis most succinctly, and his interpretative and compositional abilities only deepened during his era of international success.

The Atlantic and Prestige releases of the "Southern Journey" material brought McDowell's music to an increasingly blues-hungry public turned on by the efforts of impresarios like John Hammond and the Newport Folk Festival. The versatility and depth of Fred's repertoire made him one of the most popular blues-men of the era. He quickly and nimbly adopted the electric guitar, though not at the expense of his distinctive chops, and he was sensitive to differences in audiences' tastes. (Before a trip to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1964, he wrote Arhoolie Records' Chris Strachwitz, asking, "Should I bring an electric guitar or a plain one?") A few years later, he explained in "Sing Out!," "I'm using the electric guitar for the sound: it sounds louder, and then it plays easier, too. But my style's the same."

Influencing as it did McDowell's landsmen and musical heirs R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, that style put the blues of the Mississippi Hill Country on the map, counter-poising the heavily chorded, song-based Delta blues with a droning, "groove"-based approach that has often been compared to the music of West African griots. Alan Lomax wrote in 1993 that Fred was "quite the equal of Son House and Muddy Waters but, musically speaking, their granddaddy."

"I look at it this way," Fred told "Sing Out!," "If you've got a gift, you do that, you don't know what may turn up in your favor." It was a gift that sent him around the world to perform, and it was represented on more than a dozen al-bums between 1960 and 1972, when McDowell died in Memphis. A year earlier the Rolling Stones had covered his "You Got to Move" on their Sticky Fingers album. The Stones "made much of him," Lomax later remarked. They "wined and dined him, and bought him a silver-lame suit, which he wore home to Como and was buried in, for he died soon after, much reduced by the life that fame and fortune had too late introduced him to."

But at least Fred McDowell had received the introduction, beginning that early fall evening on Lonnie Young's porch, when, hearing his recordings played back to him, "He stomped up and down on the porch, whooping and laughing and hugging his wife," as Lomax remembered. "He knew he had been heard and his fortune had been made." Fred's sister Fanny patted Alan. "Lord have mercy," she exclaimed. "Lord have mercy!"

Track List
1,   "Shake 'Em on Down"
2,   "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl"
3,   "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning"
4. "Fred McDowell's Blues"
5,   "Woke Up This Morning with My Mind on Jesus"
6,   "Drop Down Mama"
7,   "Going Down to the River"
8,   "Wished I Was in Heaven Sitting Down"
9,   "When the Train Comes Along"
10,   "When You Get Home Please Write Me a Few of Your Lines"
11,   "Worried Mind Blues"
12,   "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning"
(Instrumental Reprise)

Feature Story


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