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.

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