Keeping the Blues Alive Award Nomination - Arlo Leach

On January 27, 2008, as many as five hundred people came out to the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago to raise money for a memorial to Will Shade, the good-time blues-rooted leader of the Memphis Jug Band, which was featured last year in the PBS television series American Epic. The benefit concert, which was headlined by Memphis blues harmonicist Charlie Musselwhite, was the initial effort by music teacher, musician, and dedicated researcher Arlo Leach. Having been inspired to memorialize Shade during a pilgrimage through the South to locate the graves of his blues heroes, Leach raised more than enough money to commission and install a headstone over Shade’s unmarked grave. The successful project was only the first of his many important and continuing memorialization efforts that make him a most deserving recipient of a Keeping the Blues Alive award.

R. L. Lawson described the blues as the counterculture to Jim Crow. The relationship of former Galva-Holstein, Iowa High School valedictorian Arlo Leach to the blues might also be viewed as a product of his own life and career that has run decidedly against the grain. A man who is never shy in public and not easily intimidated in debates with even the most aggressive intellectual, Leach earned bachelor’s degrees in English and Music at Grinnell College, worked as a professional musician in Madison, Wisconsin, and started a band in Chicago while teaching at the Old Town School of Music. His musical interests evolved over the years, growing from a fascination with 1930s folk music to a love of increasingly older and more obscure musical traditions. He had listened to the Beatles and Bob Dylan on the radio in high school, which led him to Harry Smith, the Carter Family, Uncle Dave Macon and eventually to the Memphis Jug Band. He performed and wrote original music for several years, but his recording of an album called Music of My Ancestors reoriented his creative focus towards research. He has since sought to revive the musical gems of an earlier, some might even say lost, era of recorded music.

In addition to studying and understanding different musical traditions, Leach also started to conduct research into several of his favorite, and most under-appreciated, pre-World War II blues musicians. For example, he did some digging and learned that Will Shade had been buried in a potter’s field, or just a bunch of unmarked graves maintained by authorities in Shelby County. He had visited other musician’s graves in the South, and he located many of their respectable grave markers, at which devotees paid their respects and sometimes left behind flowers or harmonicas. Nothing provided visitors to Shade’s grave, however, a chance to honor the local blues stalwart. Shade died a penniless widower on September 18, 1966. The absence of any proper memorialization “didn't seem fair,” Leach declared flatly, so he set his mind to attracting global support for the project in honor of the Memphis blues. He dedicated the memorial with ethnomusicologist David Evans, musician Andy Cohen, and dozens of his fellow admirers on May 3, 2008. 

Leach also played a significant role in the National Jug Band Jubilee’s campaign to mark the grave of jug band blues pioneer Earl McDonald in Louisville, Kentucky. The organization contracted southern Indiana sculptor David Ross Stephens to design and install the robust black granite headstone in Louisville Cemetery. The Kentucky Historical Society also unveiled a historical marker in honor of McDonald at Louisville’s Waterfront Park to kick-off the 5th annual National Jug band Jubilee in September 2009. Leach maintained that Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band had been directly influenced by the musical innovations of McDonald.

Leach once again organized a benefit concert at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music on October 3, 2011, to erect memorials for transitional country blues artists Charlie and Joe McCoy, the last of whom wrote “When the Levee Breaks” in 1930 with his then-wife Memphis Minnie. Having played important roles in the development of African-American music from its rural roots to the foundations of rock and roll, their careers reflected the exodus of African-Americans out of the South and into more crowded, urban spaces. The Great Migration to the more industrial cities of the Midwest, however, often proved quite a daunting task for even more experienced musicians. Each of the McCoy brothers died in 1950, and Leach wanted to raise awareness of their music and install granite markers on each of their graves in Restvale Cemetery. Leach served as emcee of the benefit, which featured a host of local blues and roots artists, and he facilitated the dedication of two markers at an informal ceremony on May 22, 2011.

Leach has since moved out to Portland, Oregon, where he has been experiencing the joys of fatherhood. While he has been living out on the West Coast, he has not stopped supporting campaigns to honor the underrecognized artists who played such an important role in the development of American musical traditions. I was fortunate enough to receive his support for several campaigns of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, a private research and historic preservation group founded in 1989 and dedicated to marking abandoned graves and maintaining the cemeteries in which the most seminal blues artists, including Frank Stokes, James “Son” Thomas, Eugene Powell, Sam, Chatmon, Bo Carter, Charley Patton, Memphis Minnie, Fred McDowell, and many more, were laid to rest. 

Leach also initiated a campaign from long distance to honor another one of his Memphis musical heroes, Charlie Burse - The Ukulele Kid. Not knowing where the grave of Burse was located, Leach reached out to me personally and has proven an important asset throughout the research process, developing a relationship with the descendants of Charlie Burse, with whom he designed the grave marker for installation in January 2019. In addition, he conducted research about the life and music of Burse, composed a sharp example of music scholarship, and published his findings in The Frog Blues and Jazz Annual 6 (2018) out of London. Leach was also responsible for negotiating with officials at the Shelby County Cemetery to replace the damaged headstone of Will Shade that he originally had installed back in 2008. 
I am particularly proud of the work he has done in tandem with myself and Bill Pichette, the Memphis affiliate to the MZMF in charge of the Charlie Burse project. While collaboration is sometimes difficult for folks who exhibit a great deal of passion and conviction about the honorific process, Leach more than made up for the issues that come with a long-distance working relationship (via email) by exhibiting patience, understanding, and support in all steps of the process. Not only did he wholly embrace our motto that “research is respect,” but he realized the importance of working with the local community to clean up the cemetery grounds and supported the imperatives of the MZMF to establish a relationship with local church groups and ensure the graves of blues artists are kept clean. By demonstrating many of the same qualities that garnered MZMF founder Raymond “Skip” Henderson the Keeping the Blues Alive award in the early 1990s, Arlo Leach’s memorialization efforts situate him squarely inside the definition of a worthy recipient. Simply put, Arlo Leach’s life and work are the embodiment of the very spirit of the Keeping the Blues Alive award.


Popular Posts