Sunday, July 29, 2018

A Hard Road to Mississippi John Hurt's Grave

By Susie James For the Commonwealth
November 1997

VALLEY — Vividly colored fallen leaves mingle with the mementos visitors leave at John Hurt's headstone during their pilgrimages to his grave. The remains of the internationally-respected blues musician and recording artist lie in the tiny Hurt Cemetery a couple of miles down the narrow, wooded St James No. 1 Church Road. Flashes of hunter's orange, sounds of rifle shots, growls of four-wheel drives interrupt the solitude these days. Tires from increased traffic damage the simple roadbed — facts which figure in opinions about whether Carroll County's District 2 Supervisor Honey Ashmore should treat this largely ungraveled road as public or private.

Ashmore says that, while his crew works the road, winding northerly along the edge of Valley Hill five miles above Avalon, a couple of times a year. he doesn't consider it a public road.

New residents Brady and Shannon Smith, whose mobile home is less than a mile south of the Hurt Cemetery, are among those who say otherwise.

What's more, the Smiths say, it's a shame the county seems to care so little about landmarks such as Hurt's grave, which attract pilgrims off and on during the year — and would probably bring more if directional signs existed. "Seems like if there's an active cemetery on it, it'd still be a public road," said Charles Spain of Greenwood, who bought property adjacent to the cemetery in the spring. The old road's in pretty bad shape now. Plus, it's raining, and first day of deer season's tomorrow," Spain said Friday.

Before people started buying land here, and putting up homes; before two hunting clubs acquired rights on acreage down the road from the cemetery, the spartan quality of the upkeep suited the traffic and the silent tenants of Hurt Cemetery.

No longer, agrees longtime Valley resident Jerry Carver, who hunts along with his brothers in the woods surrounding Hurt's grave.

"So many people have bought land around there it's hard to keep up," Carver said. 'The road is definitely in bad shape." 

Mrs. Smith said in order for a burial to take place last year —that of Andrew Hurt, who died April 8, 1996 — a front-end loader had to be used to scrape up the mud from the road.

Prior to moving to Valley in July, Mrs. Smith said, she'd never heard of John Hurt. Even now, she said, "I have no idea what his recordings even sound like."

A California man, who was one of the frequent pilgrims looking for the cemetery, sent her information about Hurt. The musician's "Avalon Blues" and "Candy Man" are among blues classics.

Her husband estimated that seven to nine tourists come by their house some weeks. On other weeks, there might be no tourists. The Smiths' home is the last residence on the road before reaching the cemetery entrance, which is marked with colored plastic ribbons. The cemetery is on the west-ern side of the road, at the back. The Smiths' trailer is on extensive-ly landscaped grounds on the east-ern side.

`They go to the grave and leave things, take things," said Mrs. Smith.

Last week, there were some coins, a couple of guitar picks, and one strand of yellow Mardi Gras beads at the base of the simple marker. "There's usually more here than this, a lot of guitar picks and more beads."

Hurt, born in 1892 in neighboring Teoc, used to worship at the first St. James Missionary Baptist Church across the road from the cemetery. It eventually was torn down. A new St. James was erect-ed, according to Lucille Hurt, the widow of Henis Hurt, another famous cemetery resident, "under the hill." St. James No. 2 is still being used.

Mrs. Henis Hurt, in an interview 12 years ago, spoke of her late husband, who was the blues musician's older brother. John was a beloved singer and guitarist, worked as a tenant farmer for A.R. Perkins to the east, past the old Valley School, at the going rate of $3 a day.

Henis Hurt was a "distiller" and sometimes farmed, Lucille Hurt said. He died in 1969, going blind in 1968. Born in 1887, he made moon-shine and was jailed a few times, once in a federal prison in Atlanta. Later. he claimed to have made whiskey in prison from "the top man."

Old-timers recall Henis Hurt's artistry with bootleg whisky.

'They'd arrest him every now and then, but the big shots in Greenwood would go bail him out," said Arnie Watson, a North Carroll-ton man who remembers both Hurts. "He was their bootlegger."

A compact disc released Oct. 7 by Rounder Records Corp. should inform a new generation of Hurt's plain but complex and winsome style.

"Legend" includes 14 songs originally recorded in 1963 and 1964 for Tom Hoskins of Music Research Inc. Other Hurt titles available from them are "Avalon Blues" and "Worried Blues".

Songs on "Legends" range from 'Trouble. I've Had It All My Days" to "Coffee Blues", "Pay Day" and a cut titled "Stack-O-Lee", which sounds for all the world like "Stagger Lee". Some would say nixie of the songs. all richly rewarding. quite top the incredibly brief "Do Lord Remember Me".

It's like a prayer, and Hurt the angel, asking God's blessings upon anyone who hears him.

William Henry Barth: Carpetbagging Savior of the Blues

William Henry Barth (Born: December 13, 1942 - Died: July 14, 2000)was a musician, concert promoter, and entrepreneur, who has been described by some as "underrated" and misunderstood even among his own coterie of friends and collaborators. He may be best known for acting on information forwarded by record collector Gayle Dean Wardlow (obtained from musician Ishmon Bracey) and tracking down 1930s blues artist Skip James.

Barth wrote about his experience locating Nathan Beauregard in the 1960s.

He is also mentioned in this article by Stanley Booth about the Memphis Country Blues Festival from 1966-1970.  Click HERE

Barth was a central reason that it came from Memphis.  He co-founded the Blues Society too.

Skip Henderson had provided almost every single original concept for the city of Clarksdale's eventual blues tourist landscape, but he wrote a letter to the editor of the newspaper that put him on the wrong side of the new library director, Ron Gorsegner, who, along with the library board, took steps to take control of the tourism industry from the visionary. He was lucky that Bill Barth and Tim "The Royal Truth" Kendall--who lives near that dread place known as Paganhill, bought the Crossroads Bar from him as well.

Kendall corrected an often reported error about the re-discovery Skip James in the 2000s. He emailed Ed Denson not long after Barth died to confirm that Denson only engineered the early re-recordings of Skip James with Fahey and was involved finding Bukka White. He also engineered stuff for Fahey's Takhoma label and managed Country Joe and The Fish. Denson, however, denied having anything to do with finding Skip James in Tunica.]

Bill Barth, John Fahey, and Henry Vestine, of the band Canned Heat, found him posted up in a Tunica, Mississippi hospital in 1964. After paying his supposedly modest medical bill, the trio drove the rediscovered legend to the Newport Jazz Festival, where his surprise appearance delighted the audience and set in motion the second and perhaps even more influential musical career of Skip James.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Barth Burns About Blues Society

Billboard magazine - March 1969

Several years ago, Bill Barth, leader of the Insect Trust, who records for Capitol Records, founded the Memphis Country Blues Society which is dedicated to the restoration and perpetuation of Memphis Blues.  One a year, for the past three years, the Society has held a blues festival in Memphis where they present old classic blues artists to a continually growing public.  A fourth festival to take place this summer is currently being organized.

Barth’s interest in blues, along with an interest on the part of Nancy Jefferies and Bob Palmer, who joined Bill in the early days, led to the formation of his own group, the Insect Trust. The Trust itself is called by manager-producer Steve Duboff: “The world’s first country-jazz-folk-blues-rock-swing band.” They are strongly involved with their own music as well as the preservation of the past. Bob Palmer puts it this way: “It is the group’s perspective on a musical tradition rather than any attempt to recreate the music of the past, that gives the Insect Trust its sound.”

Barth first became interested in the blues through early reissues of 1920’s blues records, which were known as race records when they were recorded. In California, he met John Fahey, who now records for Vanguard and Henry Vestine, who is now lead guitarist for the Canned Heat. The three headed for the South in search of several blues artists who were still alive but hadn't recorded since the 1930’s. This, of course, was long before the present revival of interest in the blues.

Among the people they found were Bukka White (of "Fixin’ to Die” and “Shake ’Em Down” fame), Skip James (Barth later became his manager), and the Rev. Robert Wilkins (one of whose songs has just been recorded by the Rolling Stones). Vestine and Fahey returned to California but Barth decided to stay and continue his research.

It was this trip that led to the formation of the Memphis Country Blues Society by Barth. In 1966, Barth, with the help of several other blues enthusiasts, organized their first blues festival in Memphis. It featured bluesmen from Memphis and the Mississippi Delta, as well as jazz and r&b groups. Similar festivals were held in 1967 and 1968, the last being recorded by Mike Vernon, British producer of such groups as John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers and Ten Years After. Vernon produced an album from the tapes he made on his Blue Horizon label in England and it was released by Sire Records here in the States.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Nathan Beauregard was Born Blind

by William Henry Barth  (1995)
Born: December 13, 1942
Died: July 14, 2000

[In the summer of 2018, the MZMF received several short stories written by Bill Barth in emails to Tim Kendall, who co-owned Crossroads Bar with Bill in Clarksdale during the late 1990s.  Barth's writing was inspired by Robert Gordon's book It Came from Memphis, which featured a chapter devoted to the Memphis Country Blues Festival, 1966-1970.  With a documentary on the festival in the works, we plan to publish several excerpts from his unfinished manuscript Confessions of a Psychedelic Carpetbagger. TDM June 2018]

[Augusta Palmer, the filmmaking professor in New York and director of a working-film about the Memphis Country Blues Society, contacted us and declared that Nathan Beauregard was due for some recognition. I have been looking for his grave for several years now.  MZMF Memphis affiliate Bill Pichette recently searched the Tri-State Defender and the Commercial Appeal for his obituary from May 1 - June 15, 1970.  He apparently died on May 25, 1970.  His grave remains unmarked.  We need a copy of his death certificate.  For that, we need to find some descendants. If anyone has a lead, please reach out and holler at us...TDM March 2019]

The following story was written by Bill Barth.

Late that night we got a ride from a truck driver, hurrying through the mountains to get out of the State of Virginia, where he had gotten nine speeding tickets. I crawled in the back of the cab and slept more or less, while Sonya took pills with the driver and chatted the night away. He gave us some to take along, white cross Benzedrine it looked like, but we lost them the next morning while making it, rolling around in the tall grass next to the highway. "Why don't we do it on the road?," we queried earlier, "No one will be watching us."  No one did. 

When we got to Memphis, we stayed at the home of John McIntire, where Fahey and I had stayed the year before, and we got jobs modeling nude at the Memphis Academy of Arts, where McIntire taught a course in design. After a week or so I slowly began canvassing block by block, looking for old records in the rows of black occupied houses behind Madison Avenue, spending the $11-$25 per week I was making while artsy middle-aged ladies with cold clay covered hands had checked to make sure my upper calves were proportioned exactly as they modelled them. One day, I think it was a Sunday, I was working a nearby street asking if anyone had any old records, "like Blind Lemon or Charley Patton," when someone invited me to take a look at a guitar they might want to sell. The house was small and very dark inside. Walking into the gloom; mid-day Memphis burning outside the door though not a droplet of light could penetrate the shadows into the back of the inside room. 

I didn't even see him at first, the pupils of my eyes slowly opening, adjusting to the darkness.
Everything was either old or older, and in the middle, in a chair that seemed to be swallowing him, was a gnome-like old man, not moving. Asleep or dead, probably asleep I figured with my usual lightning perception. The guitar was wrapped in plastic, a bag from the dry cleaning store quite naturally and the strings were very old, it hadn't been used in quite a while. An F-hole, arch top Epiphone; I recall it needed repair work, maybe the neck was slowly coming off the body at the heel, something. I tuned it up tenuously, working the strings into some relative of standard tuning, a couple of steps down. Five feet away the chair containing the gnome hadn't moved, neither had its contents, still dead or asleep.

Beauregard during the Memphis Blues Fest.
From Blues Unlimited #73, June 1970.
Photo: Chris Strachwitz.
"Whose guitar is this?" I asked...

"Oh, it belong to him, but he don't play no more." Came the reply. It belonged to the gnome, and I began to hope he was just asleep, cause then I could probably wake him.

"Uhh, oh I see...” slowly picking out a tune from the 1930's.

"Does he play this one?"

"Oh yeah he play it, but he don't play no more, and anyway you can't get him to play cause it's Sunday." (So, it was on Sunday) I thought I detected signs of breathing coming from the chair...

"Well, does he maybe play this one...?”

I tried picking out a local favorite from the 20's, backing up 10 years. A slight wheeze from the chair.

"Oh yeah, he know that one too, but he don't play no more, and besides it's Sunday, and he don't never play no how on Sunday." 

There it was syntax and all..."O.K., I understand, but does he know this one?" Backing up again, to the turn of the century, to pre-blues tunes, I picked out a rough version of Spoonful, in John Hurt mode. 

Again the answer came, as inevitable as the ticking of a clock, "Oh, he play that one too, but he don't play cause it's Sunday. You like the guitar?" 

"Sure, it’s real nice y'know, but I'd really like to hear him play, uhh maybe I could come back
another time and we could play some. I'll leave the guitar for now and maybe buy it later on."

Call me eccentric, call me worse, but I swear there was definite movement, stirrings, coming
from the chair. No voice though, no comment, no question, and no affirmation.

"Why sure, come on back when you want to, we'll be here."  I went back a few weeks later and they had gone, moved out. 

Nathan Beauregard and his nephew Marvin with
unidentified woman, while Verlena Woods
lingers in the background.
I had been canvassing more as I could afford it. I hadn't learned to drive yet, so I hit various parts of town using a three-speed bicycle for transportation just to get some feel for the place. Up towards north Memphis, I knocked on the door of a lady who had just thrown her records in the garbage. She volunteered to show me where. We went out back, and she lifted up the garbage can lid. I took a look and then reached and pulled up half a dozen 78's she had placed neatly in the bottom of the garbage can. Fortunately, nothing else had been thrown out onto them as yet, and for the then price of a quart of milk, I walked away with a V+ Joe Evans record and a few other good ones as well. 

Towards the end of the year, I began finding a few other small pockets of black row houses in mid-town, and I'd canvass them one by one, usually with fairly poor results. I'd spotted a small street right near where Elvis' teacher Kang Rhee's had his Karate Dojo. It was off Poplar Ave. and just across from Overton Park. I'd pass the Street on the way to work at the Art Academy in the park, and made plans to stop and canvass when I could. It was about a week later, late afternoon and I thought I'd give it a try. As usual, there wasn't much, one house had a candy dish made by melting an old LP until the edges could be curled, but I wasn't buying. I figured it was a waste of time since it looked like the type of street people didn't live on for very long, and indeed there didn't seem to be many long-time residents. I got to the end of the row of grey shotgun shacks and was about to knock on the final door when I heard an old blues record coming from inside the house. I could not believe what I was hearing at first. I noticed my hand was frozen, still raised in a fist to knock on the door. I'd once heard of a collector who had come across a house where an old lady was sitting and listening to her old blues records on her wind-up graphonola as the collector knocked on the door, and I flashed that this might be the same sort of thing. So I knocked on the door.

"Come on," the voice from inside beckoned. I opened the door and put a foot in the room, immediately looking for the graphonola, and noticing that there wasn't one.  What there was instead was the old man whose guitar had been offered to me for sale two or three months earlier, only this time he was playing Crow Jane on it. He had come out of 

"How ya' doin?" Well, what could I say? "Sit down."

I sat. We got acquainted. "Hey man, don't stop." He played some more. I was of course in heaven, or the blues version of it, but what emerged later was even more surprising. 

The elder blues artist was born Nathan Bogard in 1893.
"Nathan Beauregard was [NOT] born blind in 1863," as Barth suggests in this piece (see WWI reg card, LEFT) Already in his mid-sixties at the time of the race recording era of the 20's, he had witnessed younger men who he could outplay achieve successful recording careers. He had, in fact witnessed it all. He stopped learning new material at the end of the 30's, and his latest most up to date tunes were proof of it. Both tunes had become big around 1940, just before the onset of the Petrillo ban and World War II ended much of the country blues recording which had been possible without union interference until then. Highway 61 in a sort of Tommy McClennan type of style but more long and lonesome; older, more authoritative, and Memphis Minnie's Bumble Bee. His earliest tunes were pre-blues country songs and dance tunes like "Pretty Bunch of Daisies," or "Spoonful," which he indeed played using the same melody that John Hurt used. He asked me whatever had happened to Uncle Dave, whose songs he'd enjoyed in earlier days when the music played by black and white country cultures had been similar. Nathan had small hands, delicate, with strong nails, and he could get a very clean and accurate picking sound when he wanted to, although he had naturally slowed a bit by the time we met when he was 103. His voice was high and lonesome, the kind you once heard coming from the front porch and out on across the fields, in an earlier century. 

"I got 19 women, and I wants one more," he sang in 1963.

Barth figured he was entitled.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Oldtime Bluesmen Get Share of Attention They Deserve

By Ted Estersohn - Philadelphia Daily News, Dec 17, 1970.

The blues boom is on. Now that everybody knows what Clapton and the Stones and the rest learned from B. B. King and Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, people are discovering the roots of urban blues.

Columbia records has finally issued recordings of Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, Bessie Smith and others that they've been sitting on for years. Men like Fred McDowell are starting to get some of the attention they deserve.

All too often, however, the public doesn't discover a blues man until he's dead, which is a drag.

Sure, Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton died in the thirties but Skip James was alive and making music, great music, in our lifetime. Now that he's gone, folks start to listen to his records and when they do they turn around and realize that they're hearing a genuis.

They're not all dead, though. There are still some men left who have yet to succumb to the troubles of their hard, long lives; men who are seminal creators within the blues idiom.

But they are poor and not well known. and they need people's support now. They do not need to be hiply mourned when they do die.

Son House is the Mississippi blues. In the thirties he played with Charlie Pat-ton and Willy Brown. He taught Muddy Waters how to play the guitar. Of Robert Johnson, Son says, "we'd all play for the Saturday night balls and there'd be this little boy standing around. That was Robert Johnson."

In the forties, Son put down his guitar. It seemed nobody wanted to hear him. Ile moved to Rochester. N.Y., where he got a job with h the New York Central.

In Rochester, Son also pastored a Baptist church attended by a certain Franklin family whose daughters Aretha and Irma sang in his church choir.

In 1964 Dick Waterman and Phil Spiro found Son House in Rochester, having searched for him in Mississippi and been directed to New York by Son's relatives. They were able to convince him that people remembered him and would pay to hear him again.

In the June 1965 issue of Sing Out! magazine, Son said, "I'm glad to be back playing now. At first, I didn't feel like I should fool with it because my memory of all the old songs had gone from me. It had been 16 years or more since I'd fooled with it and I felt that nobody wanted to hear that old stuff they used to play.

"But then I got to thinking about old man Louis Armstrong. Old Louis is older than I am and he came back with that 'Dolly' song. Everybody's talking about 'Dolly. Dolly.' You know, he's got a funny voice anyhow.

"I said, 'Jesus! If that old guy can come back, maybe I can.' I haven't got it back perfect like I could then, but I keep getting a little better and better."

Son House's music is basic blues. His strength lies not in polish and sophistication, but in unshakeably honest direct emotional power, with his rich strong voice over the hard flashing rhythm of his guitar. Hear his record "The Father of Folk Blues" on Columbia and never miss a chance to see Son.

Jess "The Lone Cat" Fuller from Oakland, Calif., and Atlanta, Ga., is a lively 74-year-old whose ragtime music has earned him friends all over the world. But acceptance has. been a long time coming. He has spent most of his life at day labor, shining shoes and working railroads.

Let's talk about his mu-sic from the ground up. With his shoeless right big toe, Jesse plays his fodella, an instrument he invented to play bass runs. His right foot plays high-hat cymbal on the off-beats, while he plays 12-string guitar with his hands. In a harmonica holder around his neck. he has a harp, a kazoo and a voice mike. Jesse's the Lone Cat, you see.

"You know, there are two kinds of blues." he says. "Me, I don't like to play no sad stuff. Now Lightning, he can sad you good .. but when they get to singing that sad stuff I move on down the line. I don't want to start crying.

"I play happy blues, you notice, boogie woogie and things, to make 'em dance and be happy and have fun. Good time music."

Jesse's best-known tune, "San Francisco Bay Blues," is a fine ragtime piece. Sung in his rough voice with all his instruments going, it typifies what he calls good-time mu-sic. A blues story with a lively, undaunted beat. His records on Prestige and Good Time Jazz will make you feel good. 

An example of what Jesse Fuller calls sad blues is the music of Robert Pete Williams. Robert Pete was found at Angola Prison Farm in Louisiana by Harry Oster. Robert Pete was serving natural life (life with-out parole) for murder.

After being exonerated (it was self defense and the state's witness admitted to perjury), Robert Pete moved to Zachary. La.

"I haven't picked up a guitar in six months, or longer than that." he recalls. "I go there I go to work. I cut iron. sell metal and stuff, you know."

Robert Pete sings in a high voice and plays in a subtle, melodic style. He has never been well known but has been warmly received at blues festivals here and abroad.

'When the blues hit you you'll play and you'll sing too." lie says. "Blues is a funny thing. Because you got this guitar across your lap and I've got this one across mine, that don't say you got the blues. We're just playing around with them. The blues come about if you're kind of misused or mistreated.

"You know there are two kinds of blues. Me, I don't like to play no sad stuff. Now Lightning, he can sad you good . . . but when they get to singing that sad stuff I move on down the line. I don't want to start crying."

"I got to thinking about old man Louis Armstrong. Old Louis is older than I am and he came back with that 'Dolly' song. Everybody's talking about 'Dolly...Dolly.' You know, he's got a Puny voice anyhow. I said, 'Jesus! If that old guy can come back, maybe I can."

Listen to Robert Pete Williams. (His folk-lyric will soon be reissued on Arhoolie ►. Listen to Jesse Fuller and Son House. Lis-ten to the Rev. Gary Davis and Bukka White and Furry Lewis and Sleepy John Estes and Lightning Hopkins. Listen to them because they make great music. Lis-ten to them because you can't completely under-stand contemporary pop music unless you know the vitality and musicianship, that was learned from the country blues.