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 Sexton, 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]

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 
retirement.

"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. 

Nathan Beauregard was born blind in 1863. 

The elder blues artist was born Nathan Bogard in 1893.
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.


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