Thursday, May 31, 2018

Peter May Finds Solace with Patton

JERI ROWE - Greensboro News & Record - February 1, 2001 

Peter May closes his eyes and scrunches his face when he recalls his trip last September to Mississippi.

He hears the industrial whirring of a huge cotton gin and sees a small, white-plank church bathed in a van's headlights. As he walks toward the clouds of cotton dust, he looks for the sight he wants to find: the grave of legendary blues musician Charley Patton.

He grabs his guitar and camera from the van and ambles into a cemetery choked with knee-high weeds. He stumbles, looks around, stumbles again. Then, he sees in front of him, chiseled in granite, the words, "CHARLEY PATTON, THE VOICE OF THE DELTA."

He found it. His home.

"Come on up and talk to us, Charley,'' May says, smiling.

May is 35, a short, slender man with long, boyish, brown bangs. He rolls his own cigarettes, shaves every few days and helps his wife, Susan, take care of their four daughters, ages 5 to 11. He sells tires by day; he plays the blues by night.

And May can play. He plucks the guitar strings like some jazz-cat drummer and sings in a bar-worn, scruffy voice about leavin', liquor, redemption and a girl named Laura Mae.

Hear for yourself Friday at The Garage in Winston-Salem, Sunday at The Blind Tiger in Greensboro or next Thursday at Ziggy's nightclub in Winston-Salem. Or simply pick up his latest release, ``Black Coffee Blues,'' a CD of haunting authenticity filled with the ghosts of Patton, Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Those were the very ghosts May has wanted to find. In September, he spent 14 hours on the road with three friends. They traveled through the Deep South to pay respects to the people who had created the music they all loved.

"Breathing that same air and walking on that same ground, it gives you a perspective you can't find in North Carolina,'' May says.

May discovered Patton through listening to bluesman Skip James. Then May created his own school to understand the man who had helped create Mississippi's rural blues, the foundation of today's rock 'n' roll.

May read books. He listened to Patton's recordings. He went to a blues workshop in Connecticut and took private lessons in Massachusetts. Then he sat on his bed for hours, playing Patton's tunes over and over until he got them right.

Finally, for his own self-styled graduation, he went on a blues pilgrimage to a cemetery south of Indianola, Miss.

When he found Patton's tombstone, he felt dazed at first. But that feeling vanished when he saw a ``tall boy,'' a 22-ounce Budweiser can, near Patton's grave. He tossed it, thinking of a line from the old blues song ``One Kind Favor'': ``See that my grave is kept clean.''

Then he lit one of his hand-rolled cigarettes, knelt beside the grave and, inside the blinding swath of the van's headlights, began to play ``Down the Dirt Road Blues.'' The tune seemed appropriate as he sat alone in the dark beside a dirt road in Mississippi.

I'm going away to a world unknown

I'm going away to a world unknown

I'm worried now. But I won't be worried long.

"It seemed like the air just soaked up that music,'' May says.

May often wonders why he - a preacher's son from Winston-Salem - has become so intrigued by this black-born music. He hasn't an answer. But like many of us, he enjoys the search. Especially that night in Mississippi.

"This music is about freedom,'' he says. ``When you listen to it, there's always some kind of line about going down the road and being by myself. It's like you've been somewhere, and you think, 'I am somebody.' And man, I think I need that freedom. It's liberating.''

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Mt. Olive Cemetery is now listed on the National Register

By Roslyn Anderson - Nov 11, 2017 - Mississippi News Now

Ida Revels Redmond, the daughter of Hiram Revels.
A nearly forgotten cemetery in west Jackson, the burial site of African Americans as far back as the early 19th century, is being restored and recognized for its historical relevance. The more than 200-year-old Mount Olive Cemetery is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Jackson State University researchers and the work of members of the Stringer M W Grand Lodge on Lynch Street led to the restoration of a cemetery, home to slaves and statesmen. 

"We want to make sure the story is told how it was," said Heather Wilcox who spearheaded the Mt. Olive Cemetery Project.

That story is of African Americans in the cemetery adjacent to Jackson State University. It dates back to the early 1800's.

The burial site on Lynch street began on a plantation. There rest the souls of more than 1,400 slaves, laborers, business owners and an elected official.

"I found a death certificate of a man who was shot and killed by the police in 1940, and that was indicated on his death record," said Wilcox who began researching the cemetery in 2015. "Another shocking thing was the amount of babies that are buried there."

Combing through state death records, she discovered 268 identifiable graves and 1,193 unidentified. There are one thousand four hundred 61 graves. 

The Topeka Kansas native found documentation of 241 children less than one-year-old and 95 children five and younger.

It is history the researcher and JSU doctoral candidate was drawn to and yearned to know more about when she moved to Jackson in 2010 and visited the cemetery.

"I want them to know when they walk past that we remember them," said Wilcox. "That we know who they are and that we are paying homage to them because they've laid the foundation to where we are and where we're gonna go."

Two statues were restored and tower over the resting place of graves identified and unknown.

The Statue of Jim Hill in Mt. Olive
They are Jim Hill, a former slave, elected Mississippi Secretary of State in 1874 and Ida Revels Redmond, the daughter of Hiram Revels.

He was the first African American elected to the U.S. Congress in 1870.

"Our forefathers who built those statues wanted us to remember," added Wilcox.

"That cemetery reflects the history of Mississippi," said Milton Chambliss whose grandfather is buried in Mt. Olive.

J.R. Chambliss was a prominent Jackson businessman who operated a shoe repair business across the street from the cemetery.

The elder Chambliss also established the first African American Boy Scout Troop in the state at Pearl AME Church.

"We have actually a gold mine of black history in the United States, from the Civil War to slavery, before the Civil War to the Reconstruction Era to the Civil Rights Era and right up to today," said Milton Chambliss.

The ceremony celebrating the Mt. Olive Cemetery Project was filled with nearly 200 people; many who had a hand in the project from the university to cemetery descendants and the community.

Wilcox's research uncovered the first documented burial was that of a six-day old child who died June 25, 1807.

Mrs. Barbara Chris Curry Turner was the last known person to be buried at Mt. Olive. Her death date is April 18, 1997.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Tale of the Legal Battle over the Music of John Hurt

by Heather Heilman - October 21-27, 1999

"Do you know how good you are?" Tom Hoskins once asked elderly, belatedly famous Mississippi John Hurt.  "Yeah, I know it," Hurt said. "And I been knowin' it."

John Hurt is buried deep in the wooded hills of Carroll County, but dedicated blues pilgrims manage to find his grave.

Occasional bragging notwithstanding, Mississippi John Hurt was a gentle, sweet-natured man. Those who knew him say so, and you can see it in the photographs and hear it in his voice. He was small, barely over 5 feet. His eyes were kind. There was usually a brown fedora tilted toward the back of his head and a cigarette in the corner of his mouth.

Mississippi John Hurt was not a Delta bluesman, though he is often thought of as such. Scholars consider him more of a folk artist than a bluesman. His voice is calm, bemused, free of any emotional anguish. His music seems simple to the casual listener, but he is a virtuoso guitarist whose intricate, layered style continues to influence other musicians. He died a modestly famous but disappointed man, upset by the battles that had broken out over efforts to control him and his career.

Last May in Grenada, Mississippi, a judge decided that 109-year-old Gertrude Conley Hurt, the musician's first wife, and 17 of her descendants are the rightful heirs to the estate of Mississippi John Hurt. They won the right to share in Hurt's royalties, which these days amounts to less than $20,000 a year.

The decision was the result of a suit filed by Gertrude's family against Hurt's manager Tom Hoskins and Rounder Records. The suit also claimed that Hoskins, who rediscovered John Hurt in the early 1960s, manipulated Hurt and essentially robbed the musician of the proceeds of his career. Plaintiffs asked the court to set aside a 1963 royalty contract they claimed was unfair, but the court dismissed the charge. Gertrude's family says that's because their lawyers bungled the case, and are considering refiling the suit.

According to the May ruling, Gertrude's family will share royalties with Hoskins and John William "Man" Hurt, John Hurt's son by Jessie Lee Hurt, the woman he spent 40 years with and who was or was not his second wife, depending on whom you ask. So far, though, the family hasn't collected a cent, unless you count the change tourists leave on John Hurt's grave.

"We're just trying to right a wrong. I want my grandmother to get justice," says Lonnie Conley Hurt, the grandson of Gertrude and John Hurt. "Money would be good, but it's not about the money. It's about this family."

Hoskins says he loved John Hurt like a father.

"I promised him I would take care of Jessie and her two grandkids, and that was my intention," he says.

This is not a simple story.

It all began with a fiddling contest in Winona, Mississippi, where a white fiddler named Willie Narmour came to the attention of a talent scout for Okeh Phonograph Corp. Narmour told the man about another talented musician in the area, a guitarist named John Hurt. And so the first white stranger came to knock on Hurt's door, asking him to come to the big city and make records.

In 1928, at the age of 35, John Hurt traveled from his home in Avalon, Mississippi, to Memphis, where he made his first record, a single for the Okeh label.

"I sat on a chair and they pushed the microphone right up close to my mouth, and told me not to move after they found the right position," Hurt later said. "Oh, I was nervous, and my neck was sore for days after." The song was "Nobody's Dirty Business" with "Frankie" on the back side. He was paid $20 a song.

Then he went back to Avalon, where he finished the farming season as a sharecropper. That winter, the record company invited him to New York City to do more recording. He spent about a week in the city and cut an album's worth of material, as well as a Maxwell House Coffee jingle. One of the songs he recorded was "Avalon Blues," about his tiny hometown in Carroll County where the hill country rolls out into the Delta. He wrote the song one homesick night in New York and recorded it the next day.

It could have been the beginning of a successful and storied career. But it didn't work out that way. The Depression came. Hurt's records made little impact. Back in Avalon, Hurt farmed cotton and corn on 13 acres and turned over half his crop to the white landowner. On Saturday nights he played dances in Avalon and surrounding towns.

Thirty-five years passed.
Lonnie Conley Hurt says his grandfather John Hurt
had a profound influence on him as a teenager.

In the early 1950s, Folkways Records rereleased a couple of the songs Hurt had recorded for Okeh as part of its American Folk Music series. One of the songs was "Avalon Blues." Hurt didn't know about it -- the people at Folkways assumed he was dead -- but the record gained him a small group of new fans.

In Washington, D.C., 20-year-old Tom Hoskins was learning to play the guitar when his friend Dick Spottswood turned him on to Mississippi John Hurt.

"I thought, I wanna play like that," Hoskins says. "How the hell is he doing that?"

When he heard "Avalon Blues," a bell went off in Hoskins' head.

"Everybody thought he was dead. Nobody knew. But I thought 'Avalon Blues'? 'Mississippi' John Hurt? I started looking for Avalon, Mississippi, on the map," Hoskins says. He couldn't find it in a current road atlas, but he finally located the town in an atlas from 1898. With a tape deck and $100 in his pocket, he hit the road.

In March of 1963 he arrived in downtown Avalon, which consisted of Stinson's general store, post office, and gas pump. Locals in the store told him he could find Hurt about a mile up the hill, at the third mailbox on the right. Hoskins knocked on the door of the little shack situated in the middle of a cotton field.

"Yeah, who that?" came a voice inside.

"I'm looking for Mississippi John Hurt," Hoskins said.

"Heh, heh, heh," came the sly laugh.

Hurt opened the door with a wide grin, which fell when he saw an unknown white man standing at the door. Jessie, his second wife, ran out the back door to the house of landowner Mr. A.R. Perkins for help in this unexpected crisis.

"What do you want?" Mr. Perkins asked.

"I want to listen to him play the guitar," Hoskins answered.

"He ain't got a guitar," Mr. Perkins said.

"He can play mine," Hoskins said.

Hurt hadn't played for two years, but his skills were still there.

"I couldn't believe I was hearing what I was hearing and seeing what I was seeing," Hoskins says.

Hurt had been with Jessie for more than 35 years and was raising their son Man Hurt's two kids when Hoskins met him.

"She was the love of his life," Hoskins says. "He married Gertrude when he was young 'cause he wanted some, but Jessie was the one."

Gertrude remembers it differently. Withered by advanced age, she lives in a humble four-room frame house in Greenwood and is looked after by her grandchildren. She spends her days in a recliner in the corner of the living room, watching television and the comings and goings of her extended family. Despite her physical frailty, she is mentally alert and can be quite vehement on the subject of Jessie. She says the rift in her decade-old marriage was caused by conflict between John's music and her increasing involvement in the church.

"But he never stopped supporting me," Gertrude says. After she and John split up in the mid-1920s, she entered into a common-law marriage with Willie Conley. She remembers Jessie as a "loose woman" who traveled from southern Mississippi to a logging camp near Avalon in the hopes of finding a man. She claims Jessie was already pregnant with Man Hurt when she met John.

Gertrude says John never married Jessie. However, a search in the Leflore County Courthouse turned up the 1927 marriage record of John Hurt and Jessie Nelson. But John never legally divorced Gertrude, with whom he had two children. John once told Tom Hoskins that when he and Gertrude decided to split up he talked to his white boss about it, and his boss told him he would take care of it. In those days legal niceties weren't thought to apply to poor black sharecroppers. No one expected that John Hurt would one day have a legacy to fight over. When Hoskins met Hurt, he was making $28 a month taking care of Mr. Perkins' cows, while Jessie did the Perkins' laundry.

Avalon was a community of a few hundred people then. In such a small place, Gertrude's children and grandchildren couldn't have avoided knowing John and Jessie, and there's no reason why their relationship wouldn't be friendly. But Gertrude's grandchildren say they were more than just friendly with John and Jessie. They were family.

"We knew Miss Jessie wasn't our real grandmother, but we treated her like a grandmother," granddaughter Irene Smith says. Gertrude sometimes looked after Man Hurt, while Gertrude's descendants stayed close to Jessie even after John's death.

But Man Hurt remembers it differently. In a letter to the Greenwood paper last year, he said the only father and mother he ever knew were John Smith Hurt and Jessie Lee Hurt. "The only reason they are trying to claim my father is trying to get his royalty," he wrote of Gertrude and her grandchildren. "They only want his money."

"That hurt," says Lonnie Conley Hurt.

"He was here two months ago, sat down, and had dinner at our table," he comments about Man Hurt.

Lonnie Conley Hurt navigates his battered Mercury along a rutted dirt road in the hills of Carroll County. As the windows rattle, he comments, "This car gets good gas mileage. Sixteen miles a gallon."

Lonnie, now 51, has returned to Mississippi after many years in Indianapolis. He had to leave Mississippi to make a living, but he always knew he'd be back. His family is here, and he loves the countryside. "The fishing is good, and you can hunt anything you want," he says.

"Mississippi hasn't changed much," he says, a polite way to say racism is still alive and well. But he's older and has learned how to get along. "If some people don't want to be with other people, well that's their right," he comments.

The Carroll County Conservative, Nov 17, 1966.
At the top of the hill are two modest ranch houses. One belongs to Lonnie's mother and the other to his sister Mary Hurt Wright, who teaches in Chicago but spends her summers here. Behind Mary's house is a decrepit three-room, tin-roofed shotgun shack with holes in the floor, hay in the middle room, and no doors in the door frames. This is the house where John Hurt lived with Jessie all those years, the house where Tom Hoskins found him one afternoon in 1963. The family has moved it up the hill to their property to prevent it from being torn down. Lonnie wants to clean it out, fix the roof and floor, and keep it as a remembrance. Mississippi John Hurt fans would be welcome to visit.

Lonnie says that as a young man, his grandfather was the most influential person in his life. As he looks at the house where his grandfather lived and thinks about the conflict that now divides his family, he begins to weep.

"If you could have known my grandfather you'd understand," he says. "My grandfather was a very, very special person. I'm not talking just because of his music or the money he made, I'm talking as a person. When I was a kid he would talk to me. He encouraged me to make something of myself, without ever yelling at me. He taught me not to be bitter about the way things are. He's a part of me."

Everything changed when Tom Hoskins showed up and talked John Hurt into traveling to Washington, D.C. Hurt would later say he first agreed to go because he thought Hoskins was "the F.B.I."

"My grandfather left his whole way of life," Mary Hurt Wright says. "Everything was altered."

Hoskins, Dick Spottswood, and Spottswood's wife drove down to Mississippi to bring Hurt back to Washington. As they were loading up the car, Mr. Perkins suddenly "remembered" that Hurt owed him $100 for feed and seed. He couldn't leave until he paid up, Perkins said. It was common for landowners to keep sharecroppers tied-down with imaginary debts, and Hoskins knew it.

"Are you sure it's exactly $100," he asked Perkins, "not $97.50?"

But Spottswood's wife, with a cooler head, took $100 out of her purse and handed it to Perkins, while Hoskins commented that he should have held out for $1,000.

Hoskins tells this story as a commentary about the ways of the good ole boys, but another listener might hear something else in it. Some might think, here is a white man buying from another white man the right to a black man's labors. Or, if that is too harsh a judgment of Hoskins, Lonnie would say it's also too harsh a portrait of Perkins, a man Lonnie remembers as far kinder and more generous than most white landowners, who protected his workers from the Klan and who John Hurt always called on when he visited Avalon after the move.

In Washington, Hurt signed a contract with Music Research, Inc., a company formed by Hoskins and Spottswood with Hoskins as president.

Gertrude's family still believes the contract was unfair. According to Irene Smith, her grandfather was only barely literate and probably didn't understand the three-page document.

"He took advantage of him because he knew he couldn't read and write," Mary Hurt Wright says. "My grandfather wouldn't have signed it if he understood it. But he was a sharecropper all his life. If Hoskins gave him a few hundred dollars, that seemed like good money."

It might be, though, that she and her family have an inflated idea of how much Hurt's music earned for anyone.

According to the contract, Music Research Inc. and Hurt agreed to a 50/50 split of all Hurt's earnings, whether from recordings or performances. For recordings made by Music Research, Hurt was to receive 15 cents per record sold, in addition to 2 cents for every song that was his own composition. In other words, for an album of 12 songs, each written by Hurt, he would receive 39 cents for each record sold. This was at a time when an album retailed for between $1.50 and $3. It also gave Music Research power of attorney over Hurt's affairs and exclusive rights to make or arrange recordings. The contract was originally for five years and promised Hurt that he would earn at least $500 in that time.

In his defense in the lawsuit, Hoskins produced a slew of affidavits of record-industry experts, who said the contract Hurt signed was in line with industry standards and comparable to those of Lightning Hopkins, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Big Joe Williams. If anything, Hurt's contract was more generous than most. But just because a contract was typical doesn't necessarily mean it was fair.

Charles Kingman Mitchell, a lawyer for the National Association of Independent Record Distributors and Manufacturers, discussed underhanded record company practices in his affidavit.

"Unfair record company accounting practices often wiped out all royalties, no matter what the artist's contract provided," he said. "In general, if an artist of Mr. Hurt's stature was paid at all it was because of the personal integrity of some individual at the record company rather than because of enforceable contract provisions. The system was entirely corrupt."

"There is, in my opinion, nothing at all wrong with the agreement, given its time and circumstances," he wrote.

According to Hoskins, the contract was never enforced during Hurt's lifetime. Instead, all the proceeds of his music went directly to Hurt. And Hoskins says his work for Hurt went far beyond the normal duties of a musician's manager. He drove John and Jessie around since neither could drive a car. He enrolled grandchildren Andrew Lee and Ella Mae in school and sent them to summer camp. He took them to the doctor, paid for their clothes, and bought them groceries.

In Washington, Hurt recorded 39 songs for the Library of Congress, the last a love song dedicated to Jessie. In July 1963, at the age of 70, he made an appearance at the Newport Folk Festival.

"He was an absolute hit," Hoskins says. "He played guitar like nobody else did."

Then he went home to pick cotton, but in a month he was back up north to play the Philadelphia Folk Festival. He was lauded in Time magazine and The New York Times, and appeared on the Tonight Show. That fall, Hurt along with Jessie and their two grandchildren moved to an apartment in Washington, D.C., where Hurt made recordings and played in coffeehouses and on college campuses.

Even at the height of his popularity, according to Hoskins, Hurt's income was modest at best.

"While the fees for his appearances were very respectable, he was not able to work as often as a younger performer might be able. Additionally, someone had to travel with him, which added expenses for food, tickets, etc.," Hoskins wrote in an affidavit. Others have contended Hurt could have made more money if his career had been managed better.

Mississippi John Hurt was suddenly famous, but he could never get used to that fact. He was a 70-year-old product of the segregated South who was always a little uneasy around his white fans.

"He had a certain amount of disbelief that all these young people just adored him," Hoskins says. And although Hurt liked the attention and the travel, he was not entirely happy.

Dick Spottswood had moved Hurt into an apartment in northeast Washington, D.C., a crime-ridden inner-city neighborhood. Hoskins thought he should have been living in Takoma Park, Maryland, an integrated, Bohemian suburban area.

"He was miserable being stuck there," Hoskins says. "He was more comfortable in Mississippi." Hoskins and Spottswood had a falling out over this and other questions about Hurt's career, and Music Research, Inc. fell apart. Hurt was caught in the middle and unhappy about the way he was being treated financially. Some of his Northern relatives intervened and fired, or attempted to fire, Hoskins.

After two years in Washington, Hurt packed up and went back to Mississippi. While some of his biographers have written that he bought a house there, Mary Hurt Wright says that isn't true.

"My grandfather never owned a house in his life." Instead, she says he lived in poverty in a rented apartment in Grenada and "could barely eat."

Hoskins says he helped Hurt out as much as he could.

"All the money went directly to John," he says. "But it wasn't much more than nickels and dimes. I couldn't live on it."

Nobody disputes the fact that John Hurt died in his sleep in Grenada on November 2, 1966. He had no will and an estate worth $2,542.18. Hoskins helped Jessie file the petition that allowed her and Man Hurt to be named John Hurt's only heirs. Gertrude's family said in their lawsuit that they were given no notice of this and that the filings made by Jessie were "based upon fraud and fabrication."

Mary Hurt Wright thinks Jessie was ill-used by Hoskins.

"After my grandfather died, Miss Jessie lived in a housing project," Wright says. "She had nothing. Tom Hoskins even took my grandfather's hat and his guitar."

But Hoskins says that from 1964 until Jessie's death in 1981, he gave all royalties to Jessie.

"I didn't take a penny," Hoskins says. "It was my intent to take care of Jessie and the grandchildren. I promised John I would do that. I wouldn't take money away from them."

In 1990, Hoskins entered into an agreement with Rounder Records allowing the company to license the recordings of Mississippi John Hurt. The company currently has three of his albums in their catalog. Hoskins was paid a $2,500 advance and receives 15 percent of the list price for every record sold. Another Rounder artist, Bill Morrissey, has recently released an album of Mississippi John Hurt covers. Rounder will pay around 75 cents for every one of those sold to Wynwood Music, which administers the copyrights to Hurt's songs. Wynwood will in turn pay half of that to Hoskins.

The records made for Okeh in 1928 are now owned by Sony, which pays Man Hurt modest royalties.

Rounder Records was named in the suit brought by Gertrude's family, but co-owner William Nowlin said he would be happy to pay royalties to whomever the court decided was entitled to them. So far, according to Nowlin, the company has not been informed they should pay royalties to anyone but Hoskins.

Hoskins, who has no children of his own and who makes his living buying and selling old phonographs, has named Hurt's granddaughter Ella Mae his heir. She currently lives in Tacoma, Washington, and has five children. Her brother, Andrew Lee Hurt, died two years ago. Her father, John William "Man" Hurt, now lives in Minneapolis and has a sporadic career as a blues musician.

Hoskins said he bears no ill will toward Gertrude's descendants. But he's concerned that if the royalties are divided among a large number of people, they will be of little value to anyone.

"I have no animosity toward those people," he says, "But my loyalty is to John Hurt."

"Without Tom Hoskins, there wouldn't have been a Mississippi John Hurt," Lonnie Conley Hurt admits. "But he should have known better than to think a man my grandfather's age down here would've had just one wife and one son. If he and Man Hurt had done what was right, there wouldn't have to be all this hiring lawyers."

If Tom Hoskins had never gone looking for him, Mississippi John Hurt most likely would have died in obscurity in Avalon, and his music with him. There would be no royalties to fight over. But would Hurt have been better off if no strange white man had ever knocked on his door?

Hoskins comments that although Hurt had been poor in Mississippi almost his whole life, it had been a "good poverty."

"He was respected by everyone in the community, both black and white," Hoskins says. Still, he doesn't believe Hurt was content.

"No black man in Mississippi in the 1960s could have been happy," he says.

But neither was Hurt happy in Washington. He returned to Mississippi as soon as he could -- just like his grandchildren, who left to make money and to make something of themselves, but came back, drawn by the pull of family ties, by the land, and by the blues.

John Hurt is buried on a hill in Carroll County, in a secluded family cemetery, a clearing in the woods lined with simple grave markers and colorful wreaths. His headstone is a plain stone block with his name and the dates of his birth and death. Still, it's the most substantial monument here. On it, blues pilgrims -- the spiritual descendants of Tom Hoskins -- have left behind a drawing of the musician and a handful of coins.

MZMF - Headstone Blues Network

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Sunday, May 13, 2018

Watching Out at the Grave of Will Shade

The original marker erected by 
Arlo Leach et al. - Photo: Bill Pichette 
Fare thee Will: 
Concert Raises Funds to 
Honor a Jug Band Legend

April 13, 2008 - By Rick Kogan

Most of the time, a concert is just a concert.

But occasionally a concert is a cause and that was the case recently when the Old Town School of Folk Music hosted a gathering of musicians to raise money to do right by a man named Will Shade.  Unless you are a musicologist or a devoted fan of the blues, that name likely means little or nothing to you. But Shade is regarded as one of the giants of the genre.

Born in 1898, he created the important-now legendary-Memphis Jug Band in 1927. He played guitar, harmonica and sang. He also wrote songs, among them "Stealin' Stealin'" and "On the Road Again." He and the band recorded a lot of tunes in the 1930s but the popularity of jug bands (loosely defined as bands using a mix of such traditional instruments as guitars, violins, banjos and mandolins, and such home-made instruments as jugs, spoons, washboards and kazoos) faded in the 1940s.

The front sign for Shelby County Cemetery in Memphis
Shade kept playing, kept forming new bands, but just as his music was beginning to attract attention from the generation of performers who would form such bands as the Grateful Dead, Lovin' Spoonful and Creedence Clearwater Revival, he died of pneumonia.Like so many musicians of his era and place, Shade died [broke]. He was buried in 1966 in an unmarked grave in a pauper's cemetery.

Arlo Leach, a teacher at the Old Town School, revered Shade. He started teaching guitar at the school and a couple of years later added jug band classes to his curriculum. He has also made it a kind of mission to find the graves of the jug band greats. He was understandably shocked to discover Shade's final resting place in the fall of 2005, and it was he who had the idea for the Old Town School concert. It featured a number of big-name jug bands, including Leach's own Hump Night Thumpers, all donating their talents. It was billed as the Will Shade Gravestone Benefit.

The marker broke in 2016 and the 
replacement was installed in May 2018. 
One of the Hump Night Thumpers is Sallie Gaines, a former Tribune colleague, who plays the jug and washboard.

"We work hard to learn the traditional jug band songs that musicians played in the river cities in the 1920s and 1930s," she says. "It is strange to see a bunch of urban white folks playing this old black music, but once you start you can't walk away."

The concert was a great success. More than 400 people showed up and enough money was raised to get a headstone and send Leach and some other musicians to Memphis this month. There they will mark Shade's grave and, you've got to believe, find some Memphis musicians with whom to have a jug band jam.

The second marker placed in honor of Will Shade in May 2018 in the Shelby County Cemetery.

Photo: Bill Pichette 2018
Photo: Bill Pichette 2018

Good Morning Blues -1978

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Story Of Eugene Powell

By Bob Eagle

For me, the hit of the 1972 Smithsonian Festival Of American Folk Life, held in Washington, D.C., was the appearance of Eugene Powell.

Eugene, who had recorded in New Orleans on Bluebird in 1936, was also known as Sonny Boy Nelson: his 'step-daddy' was one Sid Nelson. He was born at Utica, Hinds County, on 23 December, 1908. At about the age of six, a boy with a piece of wire and a homemade `arrow' shot the arrow into his right eye, resulting in his losing the eye.

At the age of seven, the family moved to the E.F. Lombardy plantation in the Delta. Here he heard the singer/guitarists Prince Flowers and Rich Flowers. He also heard some of the prisoners from the nearby Lombardy camp singing and playing their guitars on Sundays, while he was still only seven or eight years old.

About this time he took up the guitar: he recalls that he did not attend school much, possibly because of his impaired eyesight. His half-brother Bennie 'Sugar' Wilson, who is now deceased, played mandolin and may have been the inspiration for Eugene also to learn the banjo-mandolin. Eugene remembers an old, blind guitarist from Utica, known only as `Stackerlee', but he appears to have seen this man in later years, rather than in the time before he moved to Lombardy.

Eugene also spent some of his formative years in Hollandale, and played there with `Hacksaw' Harney (`Can' of Pet and Can), and with Johnny Hoeffer, a guitarist who was killed at Panther Burn (Sharkey County). But Eugene preferred to work with Willie Harris Jr. more than anyone else. Willie came from a musical family — his brothers Doc, Ned and Sam all sang: Doc and Ned also played guitar. Doc died at Hollandale, Ned in Chicago and Sam is deceased too.

Eugene last heard of Willie in Cleveland, Ohio, but there are reports of his being in Toledo and on Detroit's West Side in recent years. Powell thought Willie had not recorded before the trip to New Orleans, and said they were working together in Mississippi when one Willie Harris recorded in Chicago for Brunswick in 1929 and 1930, so it seems the Brunswick artist is another man despite some aural similarity. Willie was known as 'Brother', and commonly seconded Powell's fluid picking.

Other musicians remembered around Hollandale were Will Hadley, a guitarist who came into town with harp-player Robert Hill; and two brothers Sol (left-handed) and Touma, both guitarists, and another guitar-player Dennis.

Eugene bought himself a Silvertone guitar in about 1933 and inserted an aluminium resonator into it like those found on the National guitars. He also fitted a seventh string, using the twelve-string models as his inspiration: the extra string was a 'C', an octave higher than the conventional string. This was the arrange-ment he used in the 1936 recording session.

By about 1934, Eugene was in Marion, Ark., where he renewed his friendship with Hacksaw, and also recalls seeing guitarist Big Jim Richard-son, who was then an old man and weighed over 200 pounds. Powell remembers him singing `Bottle It Up And Go', apparently some years before Tommy McClennan recorded the song. Later Eugene went to Memphis, where he bought a Stella guitar.

Meanwhile, he returned to the Delta, picking cotton between Delta City and Anguilla. Here he married a singer, Mississippi Matilda, in September 1935. However he was also well-known around Wayside, south of Greenville, at this time, with his partner Willie Harris. Eugene was known as 'Red' in this area because of his light-pigmented skin.

Bo Carter, still then a successful recording artist, heard Matilda sing, and she and her husband, along with 'Brother' and other members of the circle of friends of the Chatmon brothers, made the trip to New Orleans to record.

Although Eugene was best-known in Mississippi by his real name, for some reason his step-father's name was adopted to give him a pseudonym. Generally his six sides are unusual. They feature very crammed vocal lines, with intricate picking by Eugene, who utilized a 'drumming' effect on the treble strings, while 'Brother' played the bass part. 'Pony Blues', his last title, is not the same as other songs with similar lames.

After this, Gene and Matilda continued to play music and pick cotton at Hollandale, Delta City, Scott and other towns in the Greenville/ Greenwood areas. Matilda had eight children by Gene, and she now lives with one of their daughters, Rosetta, in Chicago.

Eugene remembers a number of other musicians in these areas, including a pianist, `C.B.', who died of tuberculosis; Nate on harp (possibly Nate Scott, who was based around Drew); and a guitarist named Johnny Holt. Gene played with the late pianist, 'Big Fat', in Greenwood, and remembers guitarists 'Nub' and Johnnie Mac Hardy from around Indianola and Moorehead. There was also the late Andrew Hardy, a guitarist from that area who made a big impression on the younger Charlie Booker.

Another well-known and respected musician was Amzie Byrd, who played both violin and guitar. He had his own plantation in Humphreys County, between Belzoni and Hollandale, but is now deceased. Although the Library of Congress files show he recorded in Parchman behind Jim Henry and Eugene Wise in 1937 and Ross 'Po' Chance' Williams in 1939, there must be doubt about this: Eugene, Stackhouse and Hacksaw all knew Amzie and said that he was not in Parchman, although his brother had life there and his son also. Possibly pseudonyms were used for these recordings and Amzie's name was taken over completely?

Amzie had played with a guitarist remembered as `Dulcie' in Hazlehurst. `Dulcie' also worked with Willie Fierce, Jack Holmes, Mott Willis and a jazz band known as the Nitta Yuma Band: he now lives in Greenville.

Another musician who travelled widely in the area was a woman who stayed in Memphis and is remembered only as 'Aunt'. She played guitar 'just like Sister Rosetta Tharpe', but from photos it is clear the two were not the same.

Eugene also remembered a guitarist known as Ben Patton, who was said to be related to Charlie Patton. Ben was a 'little low' man who ) sang well and was supposed to have been in Parchman. He has passed, but was living in ;Drew and may be the man Dave Evans heard about, who was known as Ben Maree.

In 1952, Gene and Matilda separated. She I continued to farm at Scott, north of Greenville, for a few years before moving to Chicago. Eugene seems at this time to have moved to Greenville.

Here he played with the late piano-player `Blind Bob', and a harp-player Joe Reynolds (not the pre-war guitarist who recorded under that name). Joe also played with the late Tom Toy, a guitarist who stayed at Wilmot, out from Greenville, but was based at Tunica.  Eugene recalls that Tom sang 'Catfish' and said he died in Florida. Then there was 'Vamp', reputedly an excellent guitarist, who is now a mail carrier in New York City: 'Vamp' is none other than Lonnie Holmes, who recorded for Trumpet with Willie Love in 1951, and sang Hand Me Down My Walking Cane'. Gene also remembered the late 'Big Shimmy', a guitarist from Knox Lake, near Leland.

Eugene himself had married again. His wife took sick some years ago and he has devoted most of his time to looking after her. His playing became very much a part-time thing, and he increasingly played for himself rather than for an audience: he began to sing less, concentrating on the guitar.

John Fahey (in his booklet Charley Patton) states that Eugene is the second guitarist, where it appears, on the sides by the Chatman Brothers (Lonnie and Sam) made the same day as the 'Sonny Boy Nelson' session. Possibly his talent with the instrument and his obvious
Eugene Powell with son 'Little Man', right, and friend, Greenville, Miss. 1978 (Valerie Wilmer) enthusiasm for it, were the basis of this arrangement. Fahey's booklet contained the first indication that Gene had been rediscovered, although in fact he had been recorded in Greenville by Gene Rosenthal and Mike Stewart the year before (1970), for Rosenthal's Adelphi label.

However the strong bond between Eugene and his ailing wife had the unfortunate side-effect of preventing his travelling far from home, and any comeback on the college circuit seemed out of the question. Finally, the 1972 Smithsonian Festival came near, and there were plans for special emphasis on blues from the Jackson, Mississippi area. Steve LaVere was asked to help bring people to the Festival and to assist in settling the performers who were to come. Steve and I discussed the possibility of Eugene going along, and as Gene was able to find a relative to look after his wife for a few days, he was included in the programme.

The trip to Washington was great. Stack-house, Hacksaw, Sam Chatmon and Eugene had known each other for years, and it was like a reunion. To cap it off, we picked up Harmonica Frank in Cincinnati, and he and Eugene hit it off well, swapping yarns and so forth.

The Festival began 29 June. One of Eugene's tricks was to play 'Poor Boy' with the guitar
flat on his lap, fretting it with a pen-knife, but it soon became clear that the song he liked best himself was a stomp, involving intricate finger-picking on the treble strings and much snapping of the bass string a la Willie Brown. Eventually he recalled about three verses and the piece became known as 'Sandy Field' because the first line ran: 'I was born out in the desert, raised up in the sandy field'.

Eugene played guitar duets with Hacksaw, with Sam Chatmon and, from memory, Stack-house as well. Perhaps the most successful set was with Hacksaw, since their styles are closest, but Powell received a good reception through-out. Eugene also recorded further titles for Adelphi on 4 and 5 July, 1972, and the proposed album should be excellent.

Gene then appeared at the second River City Blues Festival in Memphis on 24 November, 1972 and once again the reviews were excellent. He was to appear at the San Diego Festival in April 1974, with Sam Chatmon, but his wife lost her daughter and it seems that it will be even more difficult for him to get some time to travel in the future. But he is such an exuberant performer and talented picker that surely a solution will be found to enable him both to care for his wife and to receive some acclaim for his art.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Sam Chatmon Talks with Lou Curtiss

By Lou Curtiss, May 2011

Sam Chatmon was one of the most remarkable individuals I have ever known. During the years he spent in San Diego (1966-1982, where he became an important part of the blues scene), I had a lot of chances to sit and talk with him. This excerpt is taken from one of those conversations.

I was born in 1899 at a little place between Jackson and Vicksburg, Mississippi, called Bolden, at a man’s place called John Gaddess. There were so many of us in the family then. My Daddy [Henderson Chatmon] had had three wives and my mother had the least [amount of] children of any of them, which was 13. Daddy said he had 60 children with the three wives, but that ain’t counting Charlie Patton and all of them on the outside. Papa died in 1934 when he was 109 years old. My grandmother lived to be 125. She said she’d come from the place where they’d caught the slaves on the Niger river. She said, “They’s put molasses out and catch them and herd them into a boat.” My Daddy was a fiddler in the slavery time too and when we kids messed off he’d tell us about how it was in them days. I remember once going out and playing music at night, and the next morning my brother Bert asked me how much I had made. I complained that I didn’t make nothing but a dollar and a half. Daddy’d yell out, “Well you ought to be happy; I had to play every night and didn’t get nothing but a whipping.”

They used to have long troughs just like you’d have to feed hogs out of and would give you cornbread with as much rat fertilizer in the meal as there was corn. They’d put that old black bread in those troughs for the little children and make them eat out of there just like the hogs. They’d grease their mouths every Sunday with a meat skin on a string. My Daddy would always linger behind and try to get that meat skin, because it would be the only meat he could ever get. Every morning before they left the house, they’d have to come up to the master with a strap and let her whup them. Then she’d say, “You all be good little children. Go ahead now and get your breakfast.” And they’d line up at the trough.

My Father would play music with old Milton Bracy, just two fiddles and no other instruments. He didn’t play no music like we played, but just those old breakdowns: “Old Grey Mule,” “Chickens in the Breadpan Kickin’ Up Dough,” “Hen Laid the Eggs,” and all them things.
Can’t get the saddle on the old grey mule
Can’t get the saddle on the old grey mule
Whoa! Whoa!
Can’t get the saddle on the old grey mule

He had whiskers down to his waist and sometimes he’d have to tie them to the side with a cord to hold them off the fiddle. He didn’t play too much by the time I was around but if my brother Lonnie wanted Daddy to play, he’d just start fiddling one of his old tunes. Then Daddy would say, “Boy, that ain’t no way to play it, bring that violin here and let me show you how.” Those old square dance tunes took a bow arm to play, but these blues and things takes a pull. Lonnie had learned to play the fiddle by reading the music. He was the only brother that could read. When the white folks wanted us to play something, they’d buy the sheet music in Jackson and give it to us. Then Lonnie would tell us all our parts and it was like we’d known it all our lives.

Music was just a giving thing in our family. I got it from watching my brothers. It’s just like driving a car. You sit next to somebody and watch what they do and you can do the same thing with a little practice. If you ain’t got nerve to try it you can still make a little stab. My brother’s and sisters all played; my Daddy and Mama too. My cousins the McCoys [Joe and Charlie] and the McCollums [Robert, who later became Robert Nighthawk] all played too. We all played so many pieces, I could be here several hours just listing them for you. I wrote the words and Lonnie wrote the music for several of our best known tunes like “Ants in My Pants,” “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” “Stop and Listen,” “Corrina Corrina,” and “Pencil Won’t Write No More.” We also did all the old blues and written songs from the sheet music like “Alberta,” “Sheiks of Arabee,” and “Sleepytime Down South.” I started playing guitar when I was four years old. Even before I started to play I remember my older half brother Ferdinand [who made records under the name Alec Johnson] and Charlie Patton singing about the first blues I ever heard, something about “going down to the river” and “if the blues don’t leave me I’ll rock away and drown.” The first tune I learned to pick was “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor.” Me and Lonnie put that out later as “If You Don’t Want Me, You Don’t Have to Dog Me Around” and folks thought it was a new tune that I’d got out. I’d sing a verse and then holler, “Oh, step on it,” and Lonnie would get out on that fiddle.

When I was seven, I started playing bass viol with my brother Lonnie – bull fiddle they called it then. I had to carry a box along so I could reach it. I didn’t see no banjos until I was 18 in Memphis. I picked up the tenor banjo then tuned it like the first four strings of a guitar. All of us nine brothers played together. Lonnie and Edgar played the violins; Harry played guitar, piano, or violin; Willie and Bert played the guitar; Bo played guitar, banjo, and sometimes violin; and brother Laurie played the drums. I usually played the bass and sometimes guitar. Our cousin Charlie McCoy often joined us on the mandolin and sometimes his brother Joe came along too. Neighbor Walter Vincent joined us in 1921. We usually called ourselves the Mississippi Sheiks but sometimes in different groupings we were Chatmon’s Mississippi Hot Footers” and often just Lonnie and I would go out [sometimes joined by Charlie McCoy] as the Mississippi Mud Steppers.

We used to play in the white folks’ houses or halls. Sometimes we’d play for a white man at a dance for three hours at six dollars per musician and then work 15 hours in the field for the same man for 50 cents the next day. When we put on a dance for our own people, we’d rent the hall for two dollars and charge them two bits at the door to get in. But mostly we’d work the white folks’ dances.

The only other band around was the Carter Brothers and Henry Reed. Lonnie sometimes played with them because he didn’t like to farm. The rest of us brothers planted a crop every year and when we were working out crops, Lonnie’d go over to Raymond and play with the Carter Brothers. I don’t know any other bands around there then and we were the main band people would call.

We used to play all the time at Cooper’s Wells and at Brown’s Wells where the healing waters were. That’s right near the county seat of Hinds County. Even after I moved to Hollandale in 1928, I’d leave off all the time to play for those people. They usually didn’t have much more than 35 couples there; that’d be about all you’d have. Sometimes we’d play for square dances too. In fact, the last dance we did was a square dance [shortly before Lonnie and Harry died]. It was at a hall built over the back of the Sunflower River below Hollandale. They were passing around whiskey in molasses buckets there. We never called the dances; a white man in a long dress coat and a fancy cane would do that. I always liked the blues, foxtrots, and one-steps the best, because on a square dance you’d never get a chance to change chords. Sometimes those tunes would last for a whole hour and just when you thought it was over, someone would call, “Promenade to the bar treat all the women folks to a drink,” and then we’d have to start back again.

In 1928, we went to Atlanta and recorded for a fellow named Brock. He’s come out to our place and found us there and asked me, Lonnie, Bo, and Walter to go. He didn’t want no bass fiddle so I played guitar. That's where we first used the name the Mississippi Sheiks as we were all from Bolden, Mississippi. They gave me 20 dollars and Lonnie, Bo, and Walter 30 dollars each and no royalties. That’s the time we put out “Stop and Listen” and “Sittin’ on Top of the World.” Bo changed his name to Carter so he could record separate from us. This guy Brock had him under contract. Later on my brothers Lonnie and Harry did the same so they could record separate too. Walter Vincent became Walter Jacob for the same reason. I never changed my name for any reason except at birth. I was named “Vivian” and I changed it to “Sam” because that was a girl’s name and I didn’t want to be named after no woman.

The next time I recorded was in Jackson and that was the time all of us brothers were there: Bo, Lonnie, Harry, Seth, Edgar, Willie, myself, and Walter Vincent, Charlie and Joe McCoy were there with Memphis Minnie. I did some duets with Bo and also a couple with Charlie McCoy [Charlie and I had been playing out as a duet in that time]. I didn’t go to a session again until 1936 when Lonnie and I recorded as the Chatmon Brothers for Bluebird. After that I was going to record for a man by the name of Williams in Chicago but he tried to beat me out of some money and blackmail me because I didn’t belong to the union. So I told him, “I ain’t got nothing to do with you.”

In the year of 1937 I lost three brothers (including Lonnie and Harry) and two sisters and after that our band didn’t play together. Also my picking partner Charlie McCoy moved on to Chicago to join his brother’s band (the Harlem Hamfats). I took up picking some with Eugene Powell (AKA Sonny Boy Nelson) but I never did any more recording. I kept farming til 1950. I rented that land and worked it ‘til I quit with my own team and all. Then I went to work as a night watchman and bought me a house and a half acre. I didn’t play much music until 1965 when Ken Swerilas [a San Diego record collector] came by and talked me into coming out to California to play.

Starting in 1966 Sam started coming regularly out to the West Coast, where he became part of the regular lineup at THE SAN DIEGO STATE FOLK FESTIVAL in 1969. He remained a part of that festival until 1982. During that time Sam made new recordings for Blue Goose, Rounder (which I had the honor of co-producing) and Flying Fish (he also recorded sides that appeared on collections from Advent and Arhoolie and there was an LP on an Italian label recorded by a couple of Italian collectors in his hometown of Hollandale). Shortly before his passing Sam took part in a series done by Alan Lomax called “Confessions of the Noble Old” for PBS television. He died in 1982.