Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Deepest Blues and a Hit of Acid Rock Make a Sweet Music Festival in Memphis (1966-1969)

The [Memphis Country] Blues Festival [was] an occasion unto itself, quite unlike any other. The aging troubadours of the first truly American music converge to unfold the eternal story once again. Their audience, happily disregarding the erosions the years have wrought upon these performers, hears what it needs to hear—especially the echoes of an earlier, rougher, more joyous, simpler era. (Choose your own fantasy of the American South during this century's opening decades.) Two of the most important blues festivals in recent memory were the Memphis [Country] Blues Festival and the [1969] Ann Arbor Blues Festival...Stanley Booth's article on the memorable Memphis festival gets inside that event to the meaning of the blues, while Bert Stratton tells what it's like to be 19, totally inexperienced as a promoter/festival organizer, and suddenly to find a full-scale blues festival growing out of your daydreams. 

Even the Birds Were Blue
By Stanley Booth - Rolling Stone - April 10, 1970 

At about five o'clock in the afternoon on the second day of the Memphis Country Blues Festival, the old blues artists Fred McDowell and Johnny Woods were huddled together on folding chairs at the front of the stage at the Overton Park Shell, just getting into "Shake 'Em On Down," when a gang of men began moving a long series of big black amplifier crates from one side of the rear stage to the other. Hearing the clatter, Woods stopped playing harmonica and cast a worried glance backwards over his shoulder.  "I thought it was a big ole train a-comin'," he said. The crates were stamped WINTER, because they contained the many amplifiers of Johnny Winter, the Columbia Recording Company's $300,000 cross-eyed albino Texas electric blues bonus baby, and I mention them because they will serve adequately as a symbol of what nearly killed the Memphis Country Blues Festival in its fourth year.

To understand the Blues Festival, you must know that Fred McDowell, the best living Mississippi bluesman, has been for most of his life a sharecropper, sometimes making a year's profit (after paying his bowman for rent and equipment) of as much as $30; and that Furry Lewis, who is virtually all that remains of Beale Street, worked for the City of Memphis 43 years, collecting garbage, sweeping the streets, and then retired without a pension. No matter how they could play and sing, they were still just a couple of [black men in the South]. They and others like them had been recorded on labels like Bluebird and Vocalion in the early days of race records; then, with the Depression and the WWII recording ban, they were forgotten. Through the days of the first electric blues bands, the Sun Records era of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, the late Fifties rhythm-and-blues, and the rock revival of the Sixties, the old men whose music provided the foundation for it all were ignored. When they were not ignored, they were exploited.

Just about the only people who ever really cared for the old Delta bluesmen were a few vintage Southern beatniks. Although struggling for their own survival, they recognized a spiritual tie and responsibility and saw to it that the old men worked whenever possible. Charlie Brown, poet, hermit, actor, snake trapper, entrepreneur, was probably the first to hire the old men for public appearances, at the Bitter Lemon and O So coffee houses in Memphis in the early sixties.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

A Biography of Charley Patton (Part 1)

A Biography of Charley Patton (Part 1)

David Evans won a Grammy award in 2003 for “Best Album Notes” for the following essay in Revenant 212, Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton.

Charley Patton died on April 28, 1934, some three months after his final recording session. During the preceding five years he had become the most extensively recorded of the early Mississippi folk blues artists, leaving behind a legacy of fifty-two issued songs as well as accompaniments of other artists. 

Patton was the first recorded black folk artist to comment directly and extensively on public events that he had witnessed or experienced and to treat events in his own life as news. He was also the first recorded black folk artist to mention white people from his own community in his songs, sometimes unfavorably. He did all of this while continuing to live his life in the Mississippi Delta, a region which featured perhaps the most rigid racial caste system in the entire nation.1 

Charley Patton was almost certainly born in 1891, making him more or less a younger member of the first generation of folk blues singers, the originators of this genre. It is known that Patton himself learned some of his music from other artists who were a few years older. He is nevertheless the earliest Mississippi blues artist about whom we have much information, although much of this information comes from the last five years of his life during which he made his recordings. He was extraordinarily influential on other Mississippi blues artists and was a role model in both music and lifestyle for many of them. Among the many artists he is known to have influenced or inspired are Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, “Son” House, Bukka White, Big Joe Williams, Howlin’ Wolf, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, and Roebuck “Pops” Staples. Bukka White, a great Mississippi blues artist eighteen years Patton’s junior, recalled saying as a child that he wanted “to come to be a great man like Charley Patton.”2 White was not alone in his great respect for this man. It is probably fair to say that Charley Patton is the only black person of his generation to live virtually his entire life in Mississippi who still has a national and international impact and whose name and accomplishments are known to many outside his immediate family and community over a century after his birth and almost seventy years after his death. This piece does not purport to be a full-scale biography but is mainly concerned with matters of personality and with reaching an understanding of the social context of Patton’s life and music. It is based largely on the internal evidence in Patton’s songs that contain biographical details and allu¬sions and on interviews with relatives and associates of Charley Patton, particularly his sister Viola Cannon, his niece Bessie Turner, his nephew Tom Cannon, and Tom Rushing, a figure in one of his songs.3 

Previously published accounts4 of Charley Patton’s life, character and personality have been based on the evidence of his records as well as interviews with fellow blues artists (especially “Son” House), friends, relatives, ex-wives, and girlfriends. The first publication to give much significant information about Patton was a booklet by Bernard Klatzko published in 1964 as the notes to a reissue album of some of Patton’s records.5 Klatzko obtained his information during a brief field trip to the Delta in 1963 with fellow researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow. Although their interviews of a number of Patton’s relatives and friends were brief and superficial and contained some errors, Klatzko was nevertheless able to piece together an outline of Patton’s life that served as a useful starting point for further research. As for Patton’s lifestyle and personality, Klatzko revealed that he was popular with women and had married several times, that he was fond of drinking liquor and tended to be argumentative. Klatzko also revealed that Patton traveled constantly and was well known in Mississippi. A subsequently discovered photograph showed Patton as having a rather light complexion and curly hair, clearly the product of a mixed racial ancestry. Based on the evidence of Patton’s performing style on his records, Klatzko speculated that the artist felt some sense of outrage, stating, “It must have seemed strange to a man like Patton who looked little different from white men to be relegated to a second-class status. At any rate, Charley’s outrage, whatever sparked it, was released in the blues.”6 Later researchers have largely ignored this speculation or tried to paint a portrait of Patton as a carefree entertainer. 

About the time that Klatzko presented the first factually based outline of Charley Patton’s life, “Son” House was rediscovered. House had known Patton for the last four years of the latter’s life and was a Mississippi blues artist of comparable stature to Patton. House clearly found some of Patton’s character traits hard to comprehend or annoying. He told Stephen Calt and Nick Perls in an interview published in 1967 that Patton was argumentative, far from generous with his money, unable to read and write, and careless about his music, preferring to clown for the audience rather than take care to structure his songs coherently.7 In an article published in the same magazine issue as House’s interview, Gayle Dean Wardlow and Stephen Calt (writing under the pseudonym of Jacques Roche) work from House’s assertions and paint an unflattering portrait of Patton as illiterate, self-centered, a drunkard, a glutton, and a hustler of women.8 

In the same year Samuel Charters, drawing upon Klatzko’s booklet and an interview with Patton’s last wife Bertha Lee, presented a more favorable image of Charley Patton and tried to interpret the meaning of some of his songs.9 Stephen Calt, however, soon returned to the offensive. In the notes to the then most widely circulated reissue album of Patton’s recordings Calt asserted that Patton “never learned to read or write and passed most of his time . . . in total idleness,” that he was a “perpetual squabbler,” “extraordinarily tight with money,” always courting women and entering sham marriages with them, beating his wives, and “eating out of the white folks’ kitchen.” Calt adds that Patton was “reportedly disavowed” by his daughter from one of his marriages. 10 

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Scrapper Blackwell Legacy Celebrated

Scrapper Blackwell - 1959
By Rachel E. Sheeley Staff Writer

Blues guitarist and singer Francis "Scrapper" Blackwell was in his 50s when he met Duncan Schiedt and began telling him stories of his hey-day performing with Leroy Carr.

Schiedt was a photographer with a passion for early blues and jazz. He befriended Black-well in Indianapolis during the revival of interest in the musical genres during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Schiedt talked about Blackwell on Friday night during the Starr-Gennett Foundation's Gennett Records Walk of Fame Music Festival induction and awards ceremony at the Gennett Mansion in Richmond.

The Walk of Fame Festival continues Saturday with an afternoon of free concerts in the Whitewater Gorge Park's Starr-Gennett Pavilion starting at noon. Blackwell is the 32nd induc-tee into the Walk of Fame, which celebrates the musicians who recorded with Gennett Records in Richmond or New York City.

Blackwell, Schiedt said, heavily represents the archetypical legend — he was famous for a short period, forgot-ten by most of the world for more than 20 years, revered by fellow guitarists and experienced a revival of his career before dying as a victim of a mugging.

A self-taught guitarist, Blackwell came to the public's attention as the partner of pianist Leroy Carr in the mid-1920s. Their June 1928 re-cording of "How Long, How Long Blues" was an instant hit.

In telling Schiedt about that era, Blackwell related a story about being sent to a Cincinnati record store to promote their music. Blackwell and Carr were hired to appear in the store window and pretend they were singing their hit while the record played over a loudspeaker.

Schiedt imagines it was one of the first incidents of "lip synching."

Blackwell also made solo recordings at Gennett Records in 1931-1932.

After Carr's death in 1935, Blackwell played in the Indianapolis area but faded from the scene, giving up music.

In 1958, Blackwell was "rediscovered" and re-corded by Colin C. Pomroy (but not released until 1967). Schiedt first photographed Blackwell at a Democratic Party picnic in Indianapolis. "He was so picturesque," Schiedt said. "He got little recognition outside the city (of Indianapolis) and he was so important."

In 1959, Schiedt welcomed Blackwell into a makeshift studio his basement where Black-well recorded an album. It was released on the 77 Records label. Blackwell died in 1962.

"I remember him so well," Schiedt said. "He was a different kind of guy. He was very quiet, but when he played, he was just transformed."

In addition to serving as an expert on Blackwell during the award ceremony, Schiedt received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Starr-Gennett Foundation for his service on its national advisory board, for his work as a jazz historian and author, for his "many contributions to our understanding of the history of jazz" and for "helping define popular culture in the 20th and 21st centuries."

Schiedt said he is pleased to be recognized, but feels more fortunate to have been part of the early group that thought it was important to pre-serve and share the Starr-Gennett legacy of recording.

Schiedt said he visited the Starr-Gennett buildings before they were completely demolished.

"Being able to come out on the site and see ... where it all began, it was a thrill to be that close," he said.

Jazz historian and photographer Duncan Scheidt
views a model of the Starr-Gennett building during
the Starr-Gennett VIP Reception in the
Gennett Mansion on Friday. 
He remembers making regular trips to Richmond in the 1980s to meet with like-minded people. He said part of the spark that helped the foundation develop came when Gennett descendant Laurel Gennett Martin be-came involved.

Today, there is an active preservation of the history, the Walk of Fame and the music festival to educate others about Gennett's role.

"We kept our eye on the prize, didn't we?" he said.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018


By Bill Ellis - The (Memphis, TN) Commercial Appeal - May 16, 1998.

Click HERE to help us honor Charlie Burse and Clean Up Rose Hill Cemetery

We live in a funny time. Just as a global philosophy of multiculturalism and ethnic tolerance has taken root, life and its myriad choices have become more and more ghettoized, music especially so.

A recent conversation with bluesman Jerry Ricks raised the issue. He laughed, noting how blues music was more integrated back when African-Americans were the most segregated. Now it seems, in an attempt to appease every demographic (and from a corporate standpoint, to squeeze every dollar from that demographic), we can no longer appreciate or support things of universal value.

The blues is no different. What qualifies as blues music is so narrowly defined by today's market, the individualism and creativity that fostered this uniquely American form have long ago been forced out.

I say this because modern blues, no matter how exciting and adroit it may be (the late Luther Allison comes to mind), doesn't quite compare with the sheer variety and ingenuity of past decades: when Robert Johnson made the guitar a virtuosic equal to the piano, when Muddy Waters discovered electricity, when B. B. King first took the blues uptown.

And when, way back in the '20s, the Memphis Jug Band found high art in the lowest of musical instruments, a blown whisky jug.

Will Shade
Though there were Louisville predecessors such as the Dixieland Jug Blowers and though Memphis-based Cannon's Jug Stompers were perhaps the genre's pinnacle, the Memphis Jug Band was the prototypical jug ensemble. Its combination of guitar, harmonica, fiddle, kazoo, banjo-mandolin, washboard bass and jug was an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach that produced wonderfully colorful arrangements.

Between 1927 and 1934, the Memphis Jug Band cut nearly 100 sides. They were the first group from Tennessee to record commercially, having been cut by Victor talent scout Ralph Peer, the man who, only months later, would record the Carter Family. The Memphis Jug Band put out some 60 sides on Victor and, after leaving the label in 1930, made more recordings for Champion in 1932 and OKeh/Vocalion in 1934. The versatile group also backed up Memphis Minnie and her first husband, Casey Bill Weldon, on several sessions and recorded under pseudonyms such as the Picaninny Jug Band and the Memphis Sheiks.

The group had many revolving members in its heyday, including Weldon, Furry Lewis, David `Honeyboy' Edwards, Big Walter Horton and Charlie Burse, who, according to some sources, was a gyrating influence on Elvis Presley's stage persona. Through every lineup, the Memphis Jug Band was led by Will Shade (1898-1966), a harmonica and guitar showman with makeshift sensibilities and, whether he knew it or not, a prescient multicultural vision.

Charlie Burse
"After riggin' up a three-piece band I met a feller by the name of Lionhouse but his real name was Elijah; old man of about sixty-five, so me and him got together,'' recounts Shade in Paul Oliver's Conversation with the Blues. ``He was playin' a bottle, wasn't playin' no gallon jug; he was playin' an ole whiskey bottle you pick up anywhere. So we said, `Let's get a gallon jug.' So after we got a gallon jug we commenced to play it an' I dubbed: I played harmonica, guitar and also a can. Some people call it a garbage can but I calls it streamline bass. Streamline bass, but some folks say garbage can. I made pretty good at it. Kep' on playin' up and down Beale Street.''

Like most jug bands, the Memphis Jug Band could play any style the occasion called for. They knew blues, rags, dance tunes, minstrel songs, jazz, country songs, Tin Pan Alley tunes - in short the entire scope of their generation's popular music. There was nothing esoteric about the Memphis Jug band. Their aim was to entertain. They performed for black and white alike at fish fries, dances, clubs, ballgames, and they were the favorite band for hire by E. H. `Boss' Crump at parties and campaign rallies.

Their range was impressive and in hindsight an interracial model for future Memphis music innovations from Sun rockabilly to Stax soul.

There were many other jug groups in Memphis at the time: Cannon's Jug Stompers; Jack Kelly's Jug Busters; the Three J's; Jed Davenport's Beale St. Jug Band (which, according to Lawrence Cohen's Nothing But the Blues, was the Memphis Jug Band in disguise).

But the Memphis Jug Band had a loose, carefree manner and rambling ensemble that was all their own. The music was born of minstrel and medicine show traditions, yet it transcended its environs like all great art does.

Two essential CD compilations are ``Memphis Jug Band'' on Yazoo and ``State of Tennessee Blues'' on Memphis Archives/Inside Sounds. Listen, and the results are anything but ragtag: the beautiful minor IV passing chord in Stealin' Stealin', the unique modal quality of I Can Beat You Plenty (That Hand You Tried to Deal Me), the raucous melodic charm of Cocaine Habit Blues, the major/minor ambiguities of Oh Ambulance Man.

The music still brims with life, humor and historical value. These old folks started it in more ways than one.

Billy Smiley, Sr.

By Thomas Howard - Delta Democrat Times - March 15, 2018

Billy Smiley Sr., a beloved local blues musician who was killed in 2017, will be honored with a special headstone today.

The Mount Zion Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit that since 1989 has worked to memorialize the contributions of musicians, will dedicate Smiley's headstone at 4 p.m. today in the Legends section of the Greenlawn Memorial Gardens.

T. DeWayne Moore, executive director of the Memorial Fund, said Smiley is being honored for his contributions to the community and the music of the blues and jazz.

"He's played festivals all over the Delta and worked in multiple Delta schools as the music director. We want to honor Mr. Smiley for his contributions."

The dedication, Moore said, will be lead by Woodrow Wilkins, a Greenville journalist and author, who knew Smiley and followed his music.

"He covered some of the events Mr. Smiley had done," Moore said.

Also present at the dedication will be one of Smiley's sons, local musicians, including Rob Mortimer, and other community members who want to pay tribute to the Greenville musician.

"It's up in the air as to who all will be participating," Moore said, adding he expects many more people to come than those who responded to the invitations. 

Anyone who attends will be given an opportunity to share thoughts or memories of Smiley, Moore said.

After the graveside headstone dedication, folks will be invited to the Walnut Street Blues Bar, 128 S Walnut St., where Smiley's name will be added to the Greenville Blues Walk.

"That's the sidewalk around Walnut Street," said Wilkins, who helped organize the event.

"They get their name and likeness added. It's modeled after the Hollywood Walk of Fame but for local artists."

Wilkins said Allen Orlieck, who carves the memorial stones for the Blues Walk, will be on hand to display Smiley's stone and install it in the sidewalk.

Since 1989, the Mount Zion Memorial Fund has memorialized and honored musicians in rural communities, where they may not have a marked grave.

Since the founding, the organization has raised the funds to build memorials for 22 blues artists and continues to raise money to expand that list.

However, Moore said, the memorial for Smiley is somewhat different.

"The family paid for it," he said. "This is not one of the ones we paid for. His family contacted us about doing a memorial."

Brief bio about Billy Smiley Sr.

Smiley, a Delta bluesman who loved to put on a show for his audience, succumbed to injuries sustained in a late night stabbing in February 2017. He was 59 years of age.

Hours before the stabbing, several local musicians, including Smiley, Leonard Stevenson Jr., Mortimer and John Horton, were jamming at Walnut Street Blues Bar with a German blues band who was in town filming a German blues documentary

Stevenson was later charged with two counts of capital murder in the stabbing deaths of Smiley, 59, and Ronnie Tubbs, 59. All three were involved, at one time or another, in Smiley & The Young Guns.

Smiley, who performed for about a decade with various bands, including The Billy Smiley Band, also taught music in the Greenville Public School District and was the band director at Greenville High School until 2013.

Smiley is survived by his sons, Billy Frank Smiley Jr., of Greenville, Dexter Lee Smiley, of Jackson, Billy Frank Lee Smiley, of Augusta, Georgia, and Elic Bankhead, of Madison, Wisconsin; his daughters, Dorian Weatherspoon, of Dallas, and Ronena Turner, of Oaklawn, Illinois; his brothers, James Alvin Smiley and Dornell Smiley, both of Greenville, and Robert Earl Smiley, of Shelby; his sisters, Lucy Solomon, of Milwaukee, and Barbara Wright, of Greenville; and five grandchildren. 

Smiley played keyboards for Jerry Fair's Cultural Blues Band in the mid-2000s, during
which time he was the band director for Coleman Junior High School in Greenville

Robert Charles: "Let no man on God's earth threaten to take the life God provided for you alone"

After hearing that hundreds of racists had joined in the lynching and mutilation of a black man in Georgia, one man called on his black brothers and sisters to take up arms in self-defense.  "Let no man on God's earth threaten to take the life God provided for you alone, and if someone does, pick up a gun and left them know, we will shoot back."  His name was Robert Charles and he was born in Copiah County, Mississippi. 

A drawing in the newspaper of Robert Charles

On 23 April 1899 Sam Hose, a black farm laborer, was lynched in Palmetto, Georgia, after killing his employer in self-defense. An excursion train was run from Atlanta carrying over a thousand people to watch the spectacle with the guard famously calling, “All aboard for the burning.” Even by the standards of the time (more than 80 black men and women were lynched in the US in 1899), Hose’s lynching was a brutal affair. His ears, fingers, face and genitalia were cut off in front of a jeering crowd of men, women and children. After this mutilation he was burned alive and his charred body cut up for souvenirs. Slices of his heart and liver were offered for sale at 25c a slice.

The killing outraged black America. W E B Du Bois, a successful black academic, was out walking in Atlanta when he was told that Hose’s knuckle bones were on display in a shop down the road. The episode convinced him to leave the safety of the ivory tower and launched him on a career of political activism. Ida B Wells, the great campaigner against lynching, raised the funds to hire a private detective to investigate the killing and went on to write her classic work, Lynch Law in Georgia. And in New Orleans Robert Charles, a black laborer involved in the Back to Africa movement, began urging his friends to arm, both to protect themselves and to prevent further lynching's. 

These were dangerous times. In Louisiana there was a campaign under way to strip black people of the vote. The number of registered black voters fell from 130,444 in 1896 to 5,320 in 1898. In New Orleans the newspapers were warning of a coming race war, with one paper arguing that the “extermination” of the black population would be necessary unless they accepted rule by “an iron hand”, and another advocating either deportation or sterilization. There was a routine, everyday brutalization of black people.

Robert Charles had had enough. On 23 July 1900 Charles and his friend Lennard Pierce were waiting for two women friends when they were approached by three policemen who accused them of loitering. One of the policemen began clubbing Charles, who broke away. The policeman drew his gun and shot and wounded Charles. Charles by now always went armed and he fired back, wounding his attacker, and escaped. Pierce was arrested. Later that day a squad of six policemen went to arrest Charles at the room he rented. Armed with a Winchester rifle, he once again made his escape, killing two of the policemen. He hid out with friends at 1208 Saratoga Street.

The hunt for this “black fiend” was joined by hundreds of armed vigilantes who unleashed a pogrom on the streets of New Orleans. A 75 year old black man, Baptiste Philo, was shot dead, as were two other people unfortunate enough to be caught by the vigilantes. A white sailor who objected to the lynchings had to be rescued by the police to save him from being strung up, but was fined $25 for “incendiary remarks”. According to William Ivy Hair, the historian of this episode, white hatred made an outbreak inevitable at this time and if it had not been Charles then some other pretext would have sparked off an attack on the black community.

By 26 July an informer had told the police where Charles was hiding out. The police laid siege to the house, reinforced by hundreds of armed vigilantes, watched by a crowd estimated at 20,000. Charles shot it out with a thousand hate-filled gunmen. Between 3pm and 5pm he fired some 50 times, killing five of his attackers and seriously wounding another seven. 1208 Saratoga Street was riddled with over 5,000 bullet holes. Unable to finish him off, the building was fired to smoke him out. Charles came out, gun in hand, and was shot dead. He was shot over 30 times and then the crowd rushed forward to stamp and trample his corpse until he was unrecognisable.

Any expression of sympathy with Charles placed the speaker in danger. The day after the final shootout a black man in Houston, Texas, who spoke up for him, was shot dead in the street. And attacks continued throughout the rest of the year. The black population had to be terrorised to ensure that Charles did not set an example. Nevertheless there was widespread admiration and support for him. The man who informed on him was shot dead by one of Charles’s friends later in the year. And his exploits inspired a blues song, the Robert Charles Blues, that became too dangerous to perform and has been lost.

In the Philippines, where US troops were fighting Filipino rebels, the rebels put up placards asking black troops why they were fighting for the people who had killed Sam Hose and Robert Charles. Ida Wells, herself an advocate of armed self-defence, memorialized Charles in her Mob Rule in New Orleans. She wrote, “The white people of this country may charge that he was a desperado, but to people of his own race Robert Charles will always be regarded as the hero of New Orleans.”

For more read William Ivy Hair’s Carnival of Fury: Robert Charles and the New Orleans Race Riot of 1900 (Louisiana State UP, 2008)

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Houston Stackhouse

Houston Stackhouse circa 1960s (Photo: George Mitchell)


It Must've Been The Devil Goin' Up The Country:
The Big Road Blues of David Evans
Join us as we aim the spotlight on the legendary field recordings of David Evans. An intrepid researcher, most of what he captured in the mid 60s and early 70s are fascinating documents of a time and place that otherwise
might’ve been lost to history.
Don’t miss this special episode of Blues Unlimited!

Pictured: Napoleon Strickland playing the fife while Othar Turner dances. Near Senatobia, Mississippi, 1970. Photo by David Evans. 

The Most Amazing Interview with Fred McDowell You Never Read

By Barry Foster, an undergraduate at Bowling Green University in 1971 in the Journal of Popular Culture 5:2 (1971).

During the current blues revival, there have been certain traditional bluesmen to rise to the forefront. Mississippi Fred McDowell is one of them. Fred is the innovator of the "slide" or "bottleneck" guitar and has played and visited with such current superstars as Johnny Winter and The Rolling Stones. 

BF: How long have you been playing the blues? 

FM: Well, I'll tell you, off and on—I started when I was a boy about 14 years old. After I learned how a little bit, I quit, you understand, because I wasn't interested in no guitar much no how. So I quit . . . my mother she asked me to quit playing because she wanted me to go to church, you understand. So I quit playin, and when I got started back again I was just about grown, you see, and—it's about six years ago 'fore I got more interested in a guitar than I was then, you understand, see, 'cause there have never been no-body down through my home—you sec my home is in—you see everbody calls me Mississippi Fred McDowell, but my home is in Tennessee. Rossford, Tennessee where I was born and raised. But after my mother passed, well I have a sister lives in Mississippi, you see, and she and I stay close together that's why Pm down there now, you understand. I likes it okay, it's good. I like that better than I do my own home, now.

BF: How did you develop the "bottleneck guitar"? 

FM: How I come by that, I was a small boy—my uncle was a guitar player and he played with a beef-bone not a bottleneck —a little round bone come out of a steak. He filed it real smooth and he played with it on this finger (pointing to his pinkie), sec I play it with my ring finger and that's why I said if I ever learn to play the guitar that's what I'm going to get me, a bone. But I didn' get a bone, I started out learnin' how to play with a pocketknife. Well, you see you can't make a chord with a pocketknife—see, you got to hold it this way (between his ring and small finger). When you're playin' the guitar—see you ain't got no action with these fingers here at all (pointing to his first two fingers), you see. So I discovered that bottleneck, an' made it myself.

BF: What do you think of people who have modified the "bottle-neck" guitar style, say like Johnny Winter? 

FM: Well, I tell you, nothin' but it's good. See, Johnny Winter, me and him plays together a lot, and he really can use it and also J. B. Hutto, Muddy—but they all don' play with a bottleneck, they play it with a bar, you see. But it sounds good to me, I like all.music. I don' care who's playin' it, just like those words I put on "I Don't Play No Rock'n' Roll," see a lot of people think just because I play blues that I don' like rock'n'- roll but it's a mistake. You see—that's just a good hit for me on my album, you understand, 'cause I like all music, I don' care who's playin' it. Whatever you play, you feel it and if it sound good to you, it sound good to me too, you understand. That's the way that goes.

BF: Then you like the electric things that BB King has been doing. 

FM: Sure, sure yeah. You see, I used to play acoustic all the time 'till about three years ago.

BF: Do you write most of the songs you do, or are they traditional blues handed down, or exactly what?

FM: I don't write any songs. I makes my own words—just a sound to my music, I don't write no songs. 

BF: So once you've done them, they're gone. Like the things you did tonight we'll probably never hear again. 

FM: Who won' hear it again? Well, here, you know, when you play music, man—this is the way I play, I play what I feel. See, I sing these different words with feelin' to them 'cause I feel them myself because of this—see, you come up, probably you don' know what a hard time is, see I do. See, you get to thinkin' how you been used, you understand, now that's where the blues come from. Now the blues, where it first started from, when I was comin' up as a boy they didn' call what we's singin' now the blues, you know what they call it? They call it the reel, well they change that name from the reel, to the blue, that's what that is. 

BF: Do you think that a lot of the feeling is gone out of music? 

                 Copyright Gary Tennant 
FM: No, it's comin' back in. You take like four years ago, and I'm from Mississippi, see, I live about 40 miles on this side of Oxford, but I played at Ole Miss at the university there about every other month, and it's gettin' popular there. See, they don' care nothin' 'bout the rock'n'roll, they call me an' say we'll get you on such and such a night. They done fell in love with the blues, they changed from what they were. And they seem to enjoy it better. 

BF: Do you think the blues has had much of an effect on rock music? 

FM: Yeah, it's taken a big turn. That's correct. That's true. Because they're gonna pay more attention, and they're gonna listen more to it than they did when rock was first startin' out. Still, you're always gonna find somebody who likes rock-'n'roll. Because, you know why? Because it's a fast piece, and it's a fast dancin' piece and you can do more things with it. All of it's good, hell, I like it all. 

BF: Do you think the volume of rock, in decibels, has hurt it at all? 

FM: Yeah, 'cause you see, last year, I was in Ann Arbor, I came from Toronto with John—I went up with him in the bus, an' come back in the car with him. Well that Sunday there's a rock festival, a blues festival over there where they give it the year before last. (At this point, Fred relates a story about a killing at the festival and expresses the feeling that this had a lot to do with the cancellation of another Ann Arbor Blues Festival) 

BF: Well there are going to be some blues festivals this summer somewhere aren't there? 

FM: But not there (Ann Arbor). I don' know, I would tell you yeah-I know we're going to be into something', I don' know what the hell it is, that's week after next in Philadelphia, I don' know what that is. Then we're supposed to be in Washington, D.C., I know that's a blues festival, goin' to hold it there in that hotel where they had it last year you understand. 

BF: Since the last Ann Arbor Blues festival, a lot of the traditional blues men have passed on, do you see this as an end to traditional blues, or will there be people to carry it on? 

FM: Yeah, I'll tell you, yeah because they likes it, they're just like me, and I don't think they're gonna change (talking about J. P. Hutto, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, etc.). 

BF: Do you see any difference in Chicago blues and urban blues? 

FM: Yeah, because I'll tell you, see, I play jus' a straight thing, but they get so many different beats, sorta halfway into rock and halfway into blues. An', you see, it's not their own tune, now you take Elmore James—everybody plays blues in Chicago, they got his lick in there, they got his run. Now they change the words, an' they change .the beat, but that's still his sound, you see. An' you can't find now, you can't find a one, —'cause I been with him, an' I've traveled with him in Germany and I've traveled with him everywhere, on the busses, and they have tried it and they've tried to play it but they can't do it. 'Cause they don't know how the guitar's tuned. 

BF: With your new album on Capitol, and Columbia's releases of old blues material, do you see a coming traditional blues revival? 

FM: On my album "I Do Not Play No Rock'n'Roll," that cat that plays bass...well that white boy, that's the first time lie ever saw me, and the first time I ever saw him, he's backin' me on that bass—and he's good. 'Cause he can play any kind of thing that you want to hear, and he knows exactly what beat to get, and what to play. 

BF: Did you know Bessie Smith, or did you ever hear her sing? 

FM: No, I heard her, but not in person. I ain't gonna tell no lies and say yeah, I know her—no I don' know her. 'Cause I was small when Bessie—See, Bessie was singin' with W. C. Handy an' them at that time you see, an' I wasn' nothin' but a little boy. But I can remember this, see, W. C. Handy had a home band, he had a few guitar players with him you understand, that played with the band, and they used to run a train that they called "The Excursion," that was on the Fourth of July, that's for the white people, see, you'd have a picnic on the Fourth day of July where they'd get them bands, from Memphis, and they'd get that train to bring trainloads of people to Rossford, Tennessee—that's my home, and we'd slip down there stand around there and sit on the fence—you couldn't go over there. 

BF: How do you feel about people that have taken the blues and covered it with white artists and studio musicians?

FM: Well, some of them have been sold for a lot more money, but you take like last year, you take Johnny Winter, see Johnny has a good manager, and Johnny had stuff that some of the people, they'd really like it, you understand. Well, he come into a good pile of money. Well everybody at that festival, they didn' pay him much attention 'cause they didn' like what he did. Well hell, they was wrong. They were tellin' me, "You know who should have had that money? Y'all, you an' Muddy an' them, Of s'posed to have it." No, I didn' neither. If we shoulda had it, we woulda got it through by our manager And if people—like he made that hit, that was his hit, not out one you see. But they couldn't see it that way, they wouldn't have much to do with him. Me and him, we went aroun' an' got drunk—damn 'em, he had that money in his pocket. 

BF: Who are your favorite blues artists, that is, who has most influenced your sound? 

FM: I like BB, I like Lightnin', I like the 'Wolf, I like all of them, really. 

BF: It must be nice to play a club where you know that your audience really knows the blues. 

FM: Yeah! You know one thing? Ever since I've been here, they listenin', but a lot of time, you got to talk to people, and get them to understand what you doin'. Now I have been that-a-way, see, I'd get good applause, but they just didn't understand what the blues were all about until I stopped and talked to them. Tell that the words mean this, and to listen at the words and listen at the guitar, and every word that I said. Then I'd play one or two more pieces, you could tell the difference, they'd start gettin' with the music, 'cause they'd be gettin' to understand what you doin'. Now you hear me sing, that guitar will say every word I sing, see I learned how to play like that. I can't play a guitar without singin' to it. That's just my way you understand, you see. I don't out-play nobody, and I don't try to out-play No-body, 'cause that's nothin' but shit, you sec. When you ask somebody to play with you, and run off and leave them, that just makes them feel bad. I wan' to ask you a question, do you think a white person can play the blues as well as a colored person? 

BF: No way. 

FM: You wrong, see, I had this person ask me in Seattle, he said Muddy said that a white person couldn't play the blues like a colored person, but if he can't play the blues like a colored person, what do you want with that harp player with him? That's all he's playin' is the blues, and he got him back there playin' with him. I'm going to tell you this, see, I've done traveled as much as Muddy, and I saw these two brothers, and Muddy or no damn body could have beat them playin' the blues to save your life. I don't give a damn where you come from. See, know music man, and there were two guitar players, and this other boy played this here thing that you lay across your lap. . . . 

BF: A dobro. 

FM: Yeah, boy, that son-of-a-gun would bust your heart with that there thing, those boys behind him with that guitar. Boy if you think they couldn't play the blues—boy, you wrong! tell you and Muddy both that. 

BF: At least I know I'm in good company when I'm wrong.

Augusta Palmer The Blues Society

Monday, February 12, 2018

Finding Blind Willie Johnson

The cenotaph placed in Blanchette Cemetery.
"Two Blues Fans Fill in the Gaps of Blind Willie Johnson and Get Historical Marker Approved" - Jazz News - February 18, 2010.

It all started with the music. His voice came from a place unknown, it was a low growl that powerfully came from the depths of his throat. His sound, his words, soul-reaching and stricken with alms for the Lord and the weary stuck in the hearts and minds of all those who heard him. From the mid-1920s, Willie Johnson played the streets of Marlin, Temple, Waco, and later Beaumont, Texas. He generously shared his talent with the world, to whomever might listen, standing there holding his guitar, with a tip cup hanging on the neck, playing bottleneck slide.

"Blind" Willie Johnson can be considered one of the first true troubadour's of blues and gospel music in modern times. He led the way for other musicians who would famously call the road their home. He had no one, he was alone, and had only his music to share with everyone he came across in his brief life. His life is important to all those who have felt like orphans in this world. His life is a legacy for blues history, gospel history, Texas history, and black history. His life is our history. He traveled from city to city, trying to find a warm bed and meal for the night. And even though his stay in these towns may have been brief, his music and soul leaves a permanent and lasting impact on this world. And here's to those brave people, like Willie, who took a risk to give their talents to this world, even though it may have meant sacrificing an easy life for themselves.

In 2007, Anna Obek and Shane Ford began a trip to find the graves of Texas blues musicians. They traveled around the state and the last site they visited was the grave of "Blind" Willie Johnson in Beaumont, Texas. As with the other graves, they had done some research as to where Mr. Johnson was buried. There was not much information to go on.  "It is for Willie, and those like him, that we have dedicated ourselves to this cause, " Obek and Ford said.

According to Mr. Johnson's death certificate, Johnson is buried in "Blanchette Cemetery" in Beaumont, Texas. There is a lot of confusion as to where "Blanchette Cemetery" is actually located. Finding "Blanchette Cemetery" seemed to be the main question. Anecdotal evidence suggested that "Blanchette Cemetery" was somewhere on Hegele Street in Beaumont. They did have some research experience so they got a map from the Jefferson County Clerk's office detailing the "Blanchette Cemetery". With map in hand, they set out to the edge of the railroad tracks on Hegele Street. They discovered an area in shambles. Instead of locating a grave, there was only a patch of land with broken, rotted headstones, caskets above ground and an unkempt lawn. None of the broken headstones yielded Mr. Johnson's name.

After realizing that Mr. Johnson had no headstone, Ms. Obek and Mr. Ford began a campaign to preserve his legacy. They departed Beaumont very disappointed. If Johnson was indeed buried in "Blanchette Cemetery" there was no trace of him now. They decided then and there that it would only be proper for this man who affected them so much to have a memorial. They knew first that they had more research to conduct to make sure the memorial would be placed in an accurate location. They walked Commerce Street in Marlin where Mr. Johnson played and areas of downtown Beaumont in order to find out more about Mr. Johnson's life.

For the next two years, they began collecting documents from the Jefferson County Clerk, obtaining maps and deed documents, as to gather more information on "Blanchette Cemetery". As is turned out, there were several "Blanchette Cemeteries." Time continued on, with little to no results, as to his exact burial site. It seemed impossible, due to the fact that the graves were shallow and with the storms that had come and gone, caskets were known to travel.