Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Story Of Eugene Powell


'BORN IN THE DESERT, RAISED IN THE SANDY FIELD...'
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.


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