Friday, October 19, 2018

The Genius of the Country Blues

An Anchor Blues Biography: 
The Chatmon Family

By T. DeWayne Moore

It is difficult to exaggerate the historical significance of Armenter (Bo Carter) Chatmon in regards to the Mississippi blues. He was a blues singer and a guitarist most often, but sometimes he picked up the banjo, the string-bass, the clarinet, and the mandolin. While his brothers initially limited him to playing bass viol, or the “bull fiddle” in the family band, he eventually developed into a master musician and clever songwriter who logged an almost unprecedented amount of studio time. From 1928 to 1940, no blues artist from Mississippi made more pre-World War II records than Bo Carter.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Bo Carter: The Genius of the Country Blues

By T. DeWayne Moore

Bo Carter circa 1940
It is difficult to exaggerate the historical significance of Armenter (Bo Carter) Chatmon in regards to the Mississippi blues. He was a blues singer and a guitarist most often, but sometimes he picked up the banjo, the string-bass, the clarinet, and the mandolin. While his brothers initially limited him to playing bass viol, or the “bull fiddle” in the family band, he eventually developed into a master musician and clever songwriter who logged an almost unprecedented amount of studio time. From 1928 to 1940, no blues artist from Mississippi made more pre-World War II records than Bo Carter.

Bo Carter's blues music proved some of the “most inventive” of all the recorded blues musicians.[1] Considering the deep well of traditional material that he could have drawn from, his inventiveness is even more remarkable. The majority of his more than one hundred songs reflect the work of a prodigious composer and astute businessman who managed to work as a songwriter, recording artist, and entertainer long after the careers of his brothers had ended. Yet Bo also served as the central organizing force in the Mississippi Sheiks, a string band made up of his kin that has since achieved legendary status in the annals of American music. 

Despite a massive recording catalog, Bo’s life and career have suffered from serious neglect among popular musicians and scholars of the pre-World War II music industry, whether due to his reputation for using sexual metaphors in his songs or his lack of adherence to the gendered cultural construct of a country bluesman. “Trite pornographic ditties,” according to Stefan Grossman, made up the “majority of his pieces,” which suffered from his “lack in taste in making up lyrics.”[2] Samuel Charters lampooned some rhythms of the Mississippi Sheiks, especially with Bo on guitar, as “so dull” they were “almost as bad as the white music” he heard in Memphis.[3] Myths, debauchery, romanticism of an itinerant lifestyle, and folklore proved too enticing for others who simply hoped to perpetuate a stereotype, or fit blues artists into a certain romantic image of some “authentic” blues. The professionalism, integrity, dependability, stamina, versatility, and creativity of Bo Carter, however, have proven easy to dismiss as a dull footnote in the career of a purveyor of hokum blues. 

Bo Carter circa 1930
Almost three decades after interviewing the “Old Man,” Paul Oliver admitted that he had underrated “the importance of Bo Carter.” The British blues scholar also acknowledged that Bo Carter was not merely a “prolific recording artist,” but also “the Delta bluesman on whom the record companies could depend,” playing an entrepreneurial role, arranging sessions and booking engagements.[4] By examining local newspapers, government documents, song lyrics, and unexamined oral histories with former acquaintances, this article synthesizes all the extant source materials on Armenter Chatmon and traces one of the most extensive career of a pre-World War II blues musician from Mississippi, whose body of work has neither succumbed, nor diminished in significance, despite the lack of popular interest. Though his final years may have been spent in Memphis, he had only recently arrived when Oliver found him living off Beale Street. This article also contains new evidence and photographs from his later life and career in Sharkey County.


Most roots music enthusiasts, at the very least, possess some knowledge and reverence for the Chatmon family, a large group of talented instrumentalists, many of whom possessed the type of creativity and versatility out of which a new form of music emerged in the black communities of the turn-of-the-twentieth-century South. Sam may be the most well-known member of the Chatmon brothers band, “The Mississippi Sheiks,” which also included his brothers, Armenter (Bo) and Alonzo (Lonnie). Some folks may even know about the fiddling patriarch of the family, Henderson Chatmon, and the guitar-playing matriarch, Eliza Jackson, but not even die-hard blues enthusiasts and string-band junkies know about their ancestors. And that is where the story of the Chatmon family begins, in mid-19th century Mississippi, before the Civil War.

Henderson Chatmon was born a slave in 1849 to Nancy (b. 1831) and Polk Chapman (b. 1832) while living, most likely, on the plantation of Colonel M.L. Cook in Hinds County, Mississippi.[5] In the 1959 interview with Fred Hoeptner and Bob Pinson, Sam Chatmon claims that the overseer (not the owner) of the plantation where his father grew up was named Martin, and a survey of census records in Hinds County in 1860 reveals that twenty-four year-old Thos D. Martin worked as the overseer of the $115,000 farm of Col. Cook, who owned over eighty slaves, several of whom were in the age range of Henderson.[6] While several slave owners in Hinds County were named Chapman, its evident that one of his parents was sold away after the birth of Henderson, perhaps his father, who remained in the Newton/Scott County—where he was sold—after emancipation. During the Civil War, Sam recalled his father saying the number of casualties was so high that folks piled up dead bodies in the creeks “until they could drive their wagons on across,” a gruesome recollection that only make sense in the wake of a major battle. In mid-May 1863, the Battle of Champions Hill was a bloody and decisive Union victory four miles west of Bolton. In his Personal Memoirs, General Ulysses S. Grant claimed to have seen “his enemy mowed down by the thousand, or the ten thousand.”[7] Though the number of causalities at the battle did not reach as high as ten thousand, an estimated eight hundred men died and several thousand more were wounded or missing—surely enough to bridge a ditch.[8]

While Sam claimed that his father “worked in the field [and] played music in slavery time,” Henderson was not yet a teenager when the war broke out. In the film, The Land Where the Blues Began, moreover, Sam claims that his father “and old man Milton Bracey were the fiddle players.”[9] Born around 1829, Milton Bracey had fled his owner’s farm in Lawrence County to enlist in the United States Colored Troops at Vicksburg in early 1865.[10] He shows up in later in Hinds County, living with his wife and several children in 1870, and he continued living in the area until at least 1910.[11] Thus, Sam probably knew the elder catgut scraper and may have even played music with him as a youth, but it’s doubtful that his father played with Bracey during “slavery times.”

Henderson lived in the household of Polk Chapman, a thirty-eight-year-old formerly enslaved farmer at the Damascus Post Office in Beat 5 of Scott County, located to the east of the state capital, in 1870.[12] The strangest single entry about a member of the Chatmon family in government records relates to the enlistment of one “Polk Chapman” for service during the Civil War. On M232 roll 7 in the database of U.S. Civil War Soldiers, one “Polk Chapman” ranks in and ranks out as a “musician” in Company C of the 46th Regiment of the Mississippi Infantry.[13] While many of the enslaved accompanied their masters as body servants during the conflict, none of them were included in the enlistment rolls. The desperation enrollment of slaves would not have included musicians. The fact that he served as a “musician” lends itself to the idea that he was the musical genesis of the Chatmon family, but his enlistment on the side of the Confederacy suggests that he enjoyed a status above that of an enslaved body servant. Indeed, it suggests he was not black at all, and therefore, not the man who one census enumerator noted later in 1870 had named his two children born in the wake of emancipation after the most popular and brutally effective generals in the Union Army. Sherman and Grant Chapman were five and three years-old, respectively.[14]

Regardless of this most peculiar recording of his service, the Polk Chapman listed as head of household in 1870 was one of over a million enslaved blacks sold into the flourishing domestic slave trade, which, according to historian Steven Deyle, not only contributed greatly to the emergence of the deep South, but also exacerbated tensions between the upper and lower South and helped push the country towards Civil War.[15] The speculators and traders who dominated the interregional slave traffic between the Upper and Lower South were practical and likely motivated by overwhelmingly by economic concerns when sending him from his Virginia home to the cotton fields of Mississippi. The internal trade in human property led to the creation of the Cotton Kingdom and contributed to its eventual demise, as the enslaved had simply become too valuable to surrender for the South.[16]

Sam claimed to remember that his grandmother, Nancy Perry, lived over one hundred years. Henderson’s mother was indeed named Nancy, and she married the much older John Perry after emancipation. She did not live for more than one hundred years. Both of them lived in the household of Ben and Rose Hennington in Hinds County in 1870.[17] By 1880, her husband had passed and she lived in Bolton with her two youngest children.[18] One census enumerator in 1880 listed Henderson Chatmon as being twenty-nine years-old and married to a twenty-five year-old woman named Mary (or Mollie) Simmons. No longer in Scott County, the emancipated couple lived in the Bolton precinct in Beat 2 of Hinds County with a two daughters (Gina, age 7 and the infant Lena) and three sons (Ferdinand, age 5, Fleming, age 4, and Henderson Jr., age 2), all of whom had been born in the 1870s. His younger brother Grant also lived with them.[19]

Bo’s mother was named Eliza Jackson, and she was born around 1863 to Daniel and Creasy Jackson, who lived in Bolton in 1870.[20] She may have learned to play the guitar while growing up around Bolton, but she may have developed her skills as a musician after the relocation of Henderson and Mary Chatmon sometime in the 1870s. Sometime in the early 1880s, Henderson’s first wife passed away. He got remarried to her niece, Eliza Jackson on Aug 18, 1886, a union that produced some very talented musicians.[21] Bo’s father and mother were instrumentalists, and all of their children would learn to play instruments as well.

Ethnomusicologist David Evans explains that Charley Patton (b. 1886) received his first musical instrument in his early teens and began playing with members of the Chatmon family and other local musicians around Bolton. Patton’s sister Viola remembered that Henderson Chatmon and his sons, Ferdinand and Ezell (b. 1880), performed in a band that consisted of such instruments as the mandolin, fiddle, guitar and bass violin. According to Evans, Patton later returned to the home of his youth and played with the members of the Chatmon family who remained in the area.[22] “The Chatmons were an important musical family,” Evans declared, “and a younger set of Chatmon brothers would later become the famous band and recording unit, the Mississippi Sheiks.”[23] 

There is no evidence to support the later claims of Sam Chatmon that Charley Patton was his brother, or the son of Henderson Chatmon.[24]

Bo Carter was born Armenter Chatmon in January 1894[25] While his initial years were spent on the plantation of Dr. Henry Thomas Turner Dupree, his parents moved shortly thereafter to the Gaddis & McLaurin plantation, which surrounds the town of Bolton, sometime before the turn of the century. The Chatmons remained in the area on various farms until the 1920s.[26] He was nicknamed “Bo” in early childhood. Since he possessed a fascination with early automobiles, he earned some of his earliest income by chauffeuring folks to Bolton from the surrounding farms in a Model-T. A skilled tradesman, Bo also worked as carpenter and phonograph repairman, the latter of which is not too surprising considering his prodigious development as a recording artist. 

On November 8, 1911, Bo married Mary Henderson, and within three years, the couple had a son, Ezell.[27] Despite demonstrating an above average intellect and having engaged several vocations, the future recording artist settled down to farming and performing at the weekend dances of whites with his brothers, or other local players, such as Carter Delaney—the musician from whom Sam believes he later adopted the moniker Bo Carter. In May 1913, the Jackson Daily News reported on “Events at Bolton”:

“the negro band has been doing quite a lot of serenading of late, and on pretty nights one can hear the pretty music performed by these musicians playing at many homes where the troubadours are always welcomed and gladly paid for their services.”[28]

Jackson Daily News, May 7, 1913'
Bo came up in the highly musical world that seemed to reverberate around his family, which performed as a band all around at different house parties and tourist destinations, some of which impressed so much that local journalists made note of these troubadours in the newspaper. One brevity in the Vicksburg Herald mentioned that “a jazzy negro band” furnished music for one “dance at Coopers Wells” on Christmas night in 1922.[31] The Chatmon family, indeed, performed at almost every nightclub and venue in central Mississippi. As Sam explained:

We played at Coopers Wells—that’s in the hills, and we played at the Whitfield in Jackson. We played at that hotel in Jackson at the Edwards Hotel — if you can call him, we played them. Some were big-big places. Played at some where there was two, three hundred folks there, dancin'. We played for a picnic for Charlie Barrasso. He had a picnic, was down here—three or four thousand dollar picnic they had down here and he had a platform built and they couldn't even hold the people, they was dancin' off the platform. And we played all kinds of music for them.”[32]

Bo may have moved to Jackson as early as 1923. In the late 1920s, Bo moved to Kelly Drew Alexander's plantation, two miles east of Hollandale, where he continued performing with his family and where he served as the owner’s private instrumentalist. “He used to take Bo out to his girlfriend’s house,” Sam recalled, and “let him pick the guitar whilst he court, and every time Bo would go by his house, he’d more or less give him ten or twenty dollars.”[33] In one interview, Sam further explains:

“Now when we moved to the Delta in Hollandale here, in ‘28, we got to playin’ up at Leroy Percy Park for the white folks all the week. “Eyes of Blue,” that’s what we played for white folks. “Dinah,” that's another for white folks. But we played blues for colored. I just couldn't tell you when I first heard blues, but when I was big enough to hold up a guitar I went to playin ‘em.”[34]
Bo received a thorough musical education playing for white dances with his brothers. Dance crowds are traditionally demanding, and if a group is to remain popular it must be versatile. 

The Chatmons’ working repertoire, therefore, undoubtedly included all of the popular hits of the day. By learning these tunes, Bo developed unequaled harmonic sophistication. Pop music, as a rule, requires a much wider vocabulary of chords than does blues. His broad range of styles and repertoire helped him develop expansive melodies and fashion such tunes as “The Law’s Gonna Step on You” and “I Get the Blues.”[35] Since the Chatmons:

“still had a band [that] played for different picnics around…we put out “Corrine Corrina,” “Alberta [Blues],” “Stop and Listen [Blues],” “Ants in Your Pants,” [and] “What’s the Name of That Thing.” We played all different kinds of music — “Sheik of Araby” and “Sittin’ on Top of the World.” We played so many different pieces; I could be here two hours tellin’ you about it.”[36]

The list of recordings is rather extensive, but it won’t take quite that long to discuss his career as a recording artist. Even though he had moved over to Hollandale, Bo made his first records with musicians from around Jackson. Paul Oliver, in Songsters and Saints, contends that Bo Carter’s earliest recording session was playing fiddle behind Alec Johnson (with Charlie and Joe McCoy) for Columbia at Atlanta, Georgia on November 2, 1928.[37] Record collector John Heneghan, however, has recently argued that neither Bo nor the McCoys were the musicians in Johnson’s backup band.[38]

In any case, Bo definitely recorded at least five sides in New Orleans, Louisiana for Brunswick in November 1928. He was most likely backed up by Charlie McCoy on mandolin and his cousin Walter Vinson (Jacobs) on guitar. The trio also recorded behind Mary Butler at that session. The initial session for Brunswick produced the famous blues-ballad “Corrine Corrina” (Brunswick #7080, which was reissued by Supertone S2212).[39] While most enthusiasts and scholars agree that the song is traditional in theme, the reference to Corrina “way across the sea” likely came about in the segregated platoons of the American military in France during World War I, which suggests that “Corinna” was a veteran’s French love-interest.[40] Sam Chatmon—despite not attending the first session of his brother or the Mississippi Sheiks—claimed to have written most of the songs, and he told Alan Lomax that the song was about a young woman who lived in Anguilla. A search of the 1920 census reveals that there was a young woman by that name living in Sharkey County, the daughter of sharecroppers Herbert and Lillie Barnes.[41] Corinna Barnes had moved with her parents from Jefferson County sometime after 1910, but she would have been around 22 years-old when Bo recorded the song.[42] According to Sam, she liked the song so much she even bought a couple of copies of the record.[43]

The 1929 Jackson city directory lists “Beau Chatman” as a “musician” living with his wife Mary at 608 West Topp Street. His mother, Eliza Chatmon, had also moved to Jackson.[44] Bo settled on a farm for a while at Glen Allan, Washington County, sometime before 1930. One census enumerator listed Armenter and Mary Chatmon, as well as fifteen-year-old Ezell and seven-year-old Edgar, as farmers on a cotton farm in Beat 5 of Washington County, Mississippi.[45] Indeed, he could have supported himself at numerous skilled trades, and he believed that he was very adept as some aspects of farming. As his abilities developed as a “musicianer,” he started to engage in a level of songwriting and guitar playing that set him apart from his brothers. He travelled throughout the South as an accompanist for the Mississippi Sheiks, but he also started stepping out on his own and into his role as a soloist, embracing his new identity as Bo Carter.

After the success of their early recordings, it may be that Lonnie Chatmon wanted the money for each recording sessions split up two ways. “And I think Bo,” Chatmon family researcher Ed Payne asserted, “who knew Lonnie's free-spending habits and domineering personality, preferred recording as a solo artist for the same reason.” Sam Chatmon recalled that musicians weren’t “getting nothing for putting out” records. He explained that recording artists received about twenty dollars for each recorded side in those days. Though the dollar amount varied from company to company, and artist to artist, some put that figure a bit higher, at around fifty dollars in the 1920s. Once it was divided amongst the band, though, not too much was left really. It’s too bad no one asked Bo about his compensation for each session; he had recorded for just about every major record label, and he could have commented on the differences between them.

Charlie McCoy recorded with Tommy Johnson
 and Bo Carter in 1928.
When Charlie McCoy and Walter Vinson recorded for Brunswick in Memphis in September 1929, Bo probably was the fiddler in the accompanying band called “Chatmans Mississippi Hot Footers.” He was probably also present in February 1930, when Charlie Coy and Walter Vinson recorded for Brunswick in Memphis. Bo was on hand at the initial recording session under the name of the “Mississippi Sheiks” at Shreveport, Louisiana for Polk Brockman and Okeh on February 17, 1930. That session produced the group's biggest hits, “Sitting on Top of the World” and “Stop and Listen Blues.” In fact, Bo was present at almost every single recording session of the Mississippi Sheiks, but the billings as “Mississippi Sheiks with Bo Carter” from 1930 and 1934 indicate that he wasn’t a regular member of the group on records.

Bo took his brothers Sam and Lonnie Chatmon to San Antonio, Texas in June 1930 to record for Okeh Records. On June 9, Bo and Sam recorded behind Texas Alexander as the Mississippi Sheiks. The next day, Bo and Lonnie Chatmon recorded behind Walter Vinson on several sides, including “Sheiks Special,” issued as “Walter Jacobs and the Carter Brothers.” Later that day, Bo was the featured artist, accompanied by Sam. Although the first title indicates only two performers in the title, “We are Both Feeling Good Right Now,” Lonnie and Walter Vinson may have been present for some sides. The Okeh files give “Bo Carter” as performer credit for most titles, and Bo uses his steel-bodied National style N guitar on June 12, 1930, when, still at San Antonio, Bo and Sam recorded for Okeh as the “Mississippi Sheiks.” The two Chatmon brothers possessed “almost a country and western purity in their singing,” according to Samuel Charters, “and pieces like ‘Jail Bird Love Song,’ sung as a duet, were very effective in their imitation of white singing and accompaniment style.”[46] The records from this session demonstrate the dynamic abilities of Bo Carter to not only reach his audience through erotic symbolism but also appeal to white hillbilly audiences.

Okeh held Bo’s next sessions at Jackson, Mississippi in December 1930. He is most likely playing guitar behind Charlie McCoy on December 15 and 16, and Bo recorded his first sides under his nom de plume “Bo Carter” on December 15 as well. Walter Vinson was second vocalist for two sides, but Walter did not play guitar for the Bo Carter sides. Bo also sings for two duets with Charlie McCoy for Okeh 8853 on December 19, 1930. “The Northern Starvers Are Returning Home” and “Mississippi I’m Longing for You” were both songs intended to invoke homesickness through the theme of northern migration. Though he and Charlie McCoy were present at the sessions, the characteristic sound of Lonnie’s fiddle playing and Walter Vinson’s vocals and guitar mark the Sheiks’ recordings from this date.

Bo made his next recordings under his own name for Okeh in New York City in June 1931. These sessions produced such salacious songs as “Banana in Your Fruit Basket,” “Ants in my Pants,” his ode to inadequacy, “My Pencil Won’t Write No More,” and the relatively tame, yet notably advertised sides on Okeh 8906—“Backache Blues” and “Blue Runner Blues.”[47]

For the Okeh session in Atlanta on October 25 and 26, 1931, Lonnie is the fiddler on Bo’s recording of “Baby, How Can It Be?” as well as the recordings cut under the name “Mississippi Sheiks” at that two-day session, which feature Walter Vinson on guitar. Bo is the singer and guitarist who recorded the song “I Want You To Know,” which guitar instructor Woody Mann argues is “the most sophisticated song found” in a collection of tunes he compiles and examines by Six Early Blues Roots Guitarists.[48] Though originally thought to have been played in Spanish tuning, several of the songs in Bo's repertoire, such as "I Want You To Know," were actually played in the G tuning (DGDGBE). “For a guitarist of Bo's sophistication,” guitarist John Miller argued in a recent correspondence, “the advantage of G tuning over Spanish tuning [is] that in G tuning, the first four strings of the guitar are tuned the same as they are in standard tuning--thus, any chord positions played on the first four strings in standard tuning transfer over to G tuning intact. Bo utilized this feature of the G tuning to great effect. 

In fact, it was perhaps the most distinctive and personal contribution he made to Country Blues guitar playing.”[49]

Unlike Scrapper Blackwell, whose single-string snapping and runs made up one of the most widely imitated approaches to the country blues, the guitar-playing of Bo Carter was in no way limited to any particular style or pattern. Since Carter had developed his skills while playing with his brothers in the family string band, he boasted a vast repertoire that included straight blues, country, “hokey” ragtime, and of course some songs containing “dirty” lyrics. His considerable skill at creating sexual imagery out of anything from fruit to a cigarette often overshadowed his impressive skills on the guitar, but the licks that he coaxed out of that National style N guitar make up perhaps the most unique blues sound in the pre-World War II era.[50] One devotee of Bo’s guitar playing, who “spent countless hours listening to his 118 recorded sides and then learning and performing them,” asserted that his “guitar parts are perhaps the most challenging of any country blues artist.” His “sparkling runs” in “varied keys and tunings (including the unusual DGDGBE)” as well as all the “strange chord shapes” may, in fact, be the underlying motives for the derisive attitudes of instrumentalists, who simply lacked the skill required to perform them.[51]

One of his Atlanta sessions was made for someone who Bo referred to as “Mr. Miller.” While it remains unclear whether Miller was a talent scout for Columbia, Okeh, or Bluebird, he was probably the vice president of Myers-Miller Furniture Company, Andrew J. Miller, whom the Atlanta Constitution described as an active and enthusiastic business man.[52] In any case, Bo told Paul Oliver that “Mr. Miller” once travelled to the Delta and paid the Sheiks to make records in Atlanta. In 1960, Bo explained his responsible role in the band: 

“when we made the records for Mr. Miller in Atlanta, he come down to the Delta to see us and he asked us to go to Atlanta to record for him. My brother Lonnie, and Walter. So they say, ‘Mr. Miller, we want to see some money tonight.’ He say, ‘Well, you'll have to see Bo Carter, have to see him. How much do you want? He'll give it to you.’ So they says, ‘Oh, we want a hundred dollars apiece.’ So he gives me the money and I puts it in the can. 'Cause all them record makers hand it to me at that time, ‘cause I didn’t get drunk you see. So I gives them a little and those boys went right out and spend it like I knew they would. And Mr. Miller give me the money for the gas for to take me and Lonnie and all of them.”[53] 

Due to the rest of the group’s penchant for the nightlife, Bo was the group's manager and held all of the group’s money for travel, lodging, and other necessities during their excursions to record in not only Atlanta (GA), but also such cities as San Antonio (TX), Jackson (MS), Grafton (WI), New Orleans (LA), Chicago (IL), and Shreveport (LA). The talent scouts for the major record labels—such as Okeh and Paramount—demonstrated their complete trust in him over and over again to handle everything involved with transporting the group safely and on time to recording sessions in major industrial cities—urban locales that contrasted sharply with the rural flatness of the Delta.

Contrary to the assertion of Stephen Calt that he was a “lifelong teetotaler,”[54] Bo actually admitted to getting quite inebriated during a session in Atlanta.

“We did all the drinkin’ that day we were recordin’. We could have had ten gallons of whisky if we wanted. Say, ‘No…I don’t mind,’ when the bottle comes roun’. I passed him up three times. Then we been singin’ and I’m gettin’ kinda thirsty, then I say, ‘Oh, boy, I think I Will.” Those boys say, ‘Man, you comin’ on the Lord’s side…give him a drink!’ So I takes a drink and a few more and I…got so drunk I couldn’t hardly make it.”[55] 

Later in the day, the band was pulled over and stopped by the police. As opposed to his usually sober self, however, Bo was good and drunk behind the wheel. The police officers backed up in their vehicle, and they pulled in behind the musicians’ car across the street. One officer spotted the guitar and immediately queried, “What you been drinkin?” Bo’s response of ‘ice-water!’ upset the young peace officer. As he started to get “kinda ugly,” a veteran officer stepped in and vouched for the musician. Quite familiar with his “teetotaler” reputation, he exclaimed, “That’s ole Bo-Weevil—he don’t never get drunk!” The assurance of the older officer made the younger one lose interest in the vehicle of musicians. He caught a lucky break that day, because if not “for the older feller the younger one would've carried [him] to jail.”[56]

The American legal system was egregiously stacked against African-Americans in the Jim Crow South. The redeemed state governments of the former Confederacy all decided to rewrite their state constitutions in the 1890s to disfranchise the formerly enslaved and their descendants. At every level, from police officers on the streets to the lawyers and judges in the courthouse, most whites had little regard for the rights—whether human, political, or economic—of black folks. The antebellum traditions of paternalism persisted in many ways, and the intervention of prominent white citizens’ was often required for black folks to avoid trouble with local police. Anyone with close ties to bootlegging or the juke joint scene often operated in competition with the county sheriff, and many musicians provided social commentary about the legal system on early recordings. Bo Carter knew about the trouble that could have arisen from his inebriated encounter with the young police officer in Atlanta. In the originally unreleased 1931 song, “The Law Gonna Step on You,” he warns his listeners about the dangers of fast living as well as a system that considered all black folks criminals:

Now you may think that they're doing you wrong 
But they'll send you to the county farm 
Look here baby you’re going to fast, the law's gonna step on your... yes, yes, yes

Now if you wanna leave from home and muck around with a bottle of corn 
Look here baby you're traveling too fast, the law's gonna step on your... yes, yes...

Bo Carter was keenly aware of the disadvantages and unfairness of the legal system, especially outside his home community, and he had learned firsthand about the dangers of being unfamiliar with the authorities in other cities. Unlike his younger brother Sam, who abandoned his career in music and decided to settle down in familiar and safer surroundings, Bo possessed a great deal of pride in his much more extensive recording career, during which he had taken on the responsibilities of facilitating safe round-trips for the group. Had his eyesight not failed him, he may have continued to work in the recording industry after 1940. Though his ex-wife Vivian relayed that he had grown “mean” with his increasing blindness, his demeanor may have reflected his feelings about his brothers and other playing partners, who, hoping to avoid any more treacherous travels, retired early from music. The degradation of his singing skills, in addition, surely had a negative impact on his formerly affable demeanor.[57] 

Though Lonnie Chatmon and Walter Vinson are the two musicians who recorded at Grafton, Wisconsin in 1932 as the “Mississippi Sheiks” for Paramount Records, the sounds of an unknown pianist fill up the melody on “I’ll Be Long Gone” (Paramount #13153/ Champion 50004). Bo and Sam may have been present later in July when the young white men of Edwards, Mississippi hosted a dance on July 31st, 1932. Scholars had previously estimated that the Paramount sessions had occurred in July, which would have meant the brothers had only recently made it back in time for their performance as “Chatman’s orchestra,” as noted in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger on the last day of the month.[58] The recent discovery of the session cards in the John Steiner Collection at the University of Chicago, however, confirms that Lonnie Chatmon and Walter Vinson were the composers of the music as well as the performers on the records of the Sheiks.[59] 

The Mississippi Sheiks waxed their final sides for Okeh Records in Chicago, Illinois in June 1933, but only one record was ever released from that session. Sam Chatmon informed that he accompanied the Sheiks on a trip to Chicago, but did not join the group in the studio. The same may also have been true of Bo, who presumably remained a member of the Sheiks in live settings. The additional musicians, Sam explained, came along to fill out the sound for the live shows that filled their time on the way up to Chicago and on the way back to Mississippi.[60] 

Bo recorded for Bluebird in San Antonio, Texas in March 1934. He sings and plays the guitar along with Walter Vinson on second guitar and his brother Lonnie on fiddle at that session under the name of “Mississippi Sheiks with Bo Carter.” Bo recycled his hit song “Corrine Corrina” in the song “Sweet Maggie,” which just replaced the name of the woman and kept the melody. The original recording of “Queen Bee,” (Bluebird B5489) was almost certainly the inspiration for the similarly titled song of John Lee Hooker.

Bo recorded twelve sides in New Orleans on January 19, 1935 presumably with pianist Harry Chatmon, who had worked as a “musician” and lived in Jackson with his wife Neurlee since as early as 1932.[61] The sides recorded by the Mississippi Sheiks at that session were the last to feature the group under that name. Bo is probably the guitarist who backs Harry “Carter” Chatmon at that session, and Bo may have also been the guitarist for the sides recorded by Harry Chatmon at Jackson in October 1935 for Vocalion 03143. 

While it may have been Leroy Carter on guitar, Bo told Paul Oliver about recording in Jackson for an overzealous engineer. “When we went to make the records in Jackson,” Bo revealed to Oliver, the engineer apparently overstepped his technical role in the session in trying to show the musicians how to “stop and start the records.” He tried “to tell us when we got to begin and how we got to end,” Bo asserted, “and you know, I started not to make ‘em!” We “traveled all over and we made records and we played just about anywhere you could name,” he reasoned, “so how could he tell me how to stop and start the song?” Bo never again recorded with his piano playing brother.

In any case, Bo returned to New Orleans in February 1936 to record for Bluebird Records. At the St. Charles Hotel in October 1936, he took part in an amazing session, the first part of which featured the Chatmon brothers—Lonnie and Sam, but not Bo—with assistance on guitar from Eugene Powell, of Greenville. Sam and Lonnie recorded twelve songs, and Bluebird released ten of them. Each of the ten songs sounds like Lonnie Chatmon, of the Mississippi Sheiks, only slowed down a little, dragging. The next twenty-one sides feature a second guitarist named Willie Harris, Jr. and the session workhorse, Eugene Powell, whose musical education began in earnest around 1920, when his family moved to Hollandale. It was there that Powell first came into contact with the famed Chatmon family. Around this time, Powell started to work under the moniker of Sonny Boy Nelson, a name he took in recognition of his stepfather Sid Nelson. He would sometimes join the Sheiks on guitar at their performances over the following decade, and he also worked with piano tuner and amazing guitarist Richard “Hacksaw” Harney as well as vocalist “Mississippi Matilda,” whom he later married. A proficient musician, Powell could play a number of different instruments, including the banjo, mandolin, fiddle and harmonica. Powell added a seventh string on his guitar to ensure a unique sound, and he even placed an aluminum plate in the sound-hole of his Silvertone in an attempt to mimic the tonal qualities of a resonator.[62] He was fully prepared for the marathon session.

Powell takes turns on vocals on the twenty-one sides with his girlfriend, Matilda Powell, and a harmonica player named Robert Hill. Bluebird released a few sides under the name “Mississippi Matilda,” who produced the acceptable “Happy Home Blues” and “Hard Working Woman,” the second of which answered Bumble Bee Slim’s 1934 recording of “Cruel Hearted Woman Blues.” Powell recorded a total of six sides with Harris as “Sonny Boy Nelson.” Eugene Powell’s guitar style demonstrates how someone from the same generation as Robert Johnson could develop his own style of Delta blues, adopting the inflections of Leroy Carr, hokum, and swing. Indeed, Bo probably wanted him on guitar for these sessions due to his versatility. Robert Hill recorded a total of ten sides on vocals and harmonica, backed on guitar by Powell and Harris. In fact, Powell played guitar on 32 straight songs during the session—an amazing display of stamina and endurance. 

“Bo Carter,” a consummate professional and a popular star at the time, largely because of his use of the double-entendre, concluded the day by singing and playing guitar on twelve straight sides with no accompaniment. Since the first part of “All Around Man” was a hit for Bo, the record label thought it merited a sequel. Among the songs he recorded that day were the usual 12-measure blues tunes, an 8-measure tune (“Pussy Cat Blues”), and a couple of songs containing the same verse structure as Jim Jackson’s “Kansas City Blues”—“Got to Work Somewhere” and “All Around Man Part 2.” John Miler described his approach to compiling and composing his songs as “exceptionally compositional.” In the same tradition as Antonio Vivaldi, Johan Sebastian Bach, and George Friedrich Handel, Bo made dynamic use of the same concepts in several different pieces. He was indeed an innovator in terms of structure, and he recorded a few songs in the 32-bar format, or what Miller recently coined as “Pop Blues.” Miller maintains that the only 32-measure song recorded at this session was indicative of Bo’s formidable skills iof the guitar:

Harmonically, working in this Pop archetype seems to have had the effect of opening things up for Bo, and making more options seem appropriate. As an example, the second chord played in "Your Biscuits Are Big enough For Me", played by Bo in C, is an F minor 9. You don't tend to run into too many F minor 9 chords in this music, but in this context it fits beautifully and adds some harmonic color that sounds really fresh. Lyrically, the primary advantage seems to have been to give some variety to the phrasing, and to allow ideas to turn over and percolate at a different rate than had become the norm in the blues by the time that Bo made most of his records. At the same time, a 32-bar form allows the lyric writer to be more economical with ideas, since the longer form allows time for fewer repetitions of the form in the course of a recorded performance.[63]

Henderson Chatmon’s death certificate
Sam Chatmon referred to several deaths in the family between 1936 and 1938, but there is no evidence to support this claim. One census enumerator in 1940 listed Bo’s mother, Eliza Chatmon, as living in Jackson with her daughter, Josie.[64] In fact, as late as 1945, she is listed in the Jackson City Directory, living at 235 Fairbanks. Josie (Williams) Moore is the informant listed on Henderson Chatmon’s death certificate, which tells us that he passed away on July 21, 1934.[65] While his brothers Alonzo and Harry lived into the 1940s, it is possible that they died within a few years of his mother, but it would have been later than 1945.

Bo nevertheless declared a moratorium on recording for almost two years after the epic session at the St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans, but he returned with one of his most productive sessions all-time—recording eighteen sides—for Bluebird Records in San Antonio in October 1938; he also recorded another fourteen sides in his final Bluebird session in Atlanta on February 12, 1940. “Arrangement for Me—Blues” is a version of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Match Box Blues,” but on the other side of Bluebird 8758 was “The County Farm Blues,” a vast departure from the double-entendre and hokum that sustained his career for so long. Unlike earlier in the decade, when Okeh decided not to release his unique song of warning, “The Law Gonna Step on You,” his story about the “County Farm Blues” laid the truth out bare in five verses on Bluebird 8397.

Many blues songs deal with folk myths, and many others dramatize sexual prowess or historicize events. A whole range of themes and traditions fall under the purview of a “blues song,” but there are those blues songs that seem to cut through the mysticism and speak more directly to the listener on a personal level, revealing evidence of historical realities in the Jim Crow South that continue to shape contemporary public discourse. “The County Farm Blues” is one of the last and one of the most honest recordings of his epic career. 

Though no evidence exists of the blues artist spending any time in prison, he was born on the plantation of Dr. Henry Thomas Turner Dupree in Bolton, Mississippi, where the doctor used to house and work convicts from Hinds and Warren Counties.[66] Several convicts managed to escape from his plantation and return home in the late 1880s, which left the citizens of the region unsettled. The reasons each of them provided for fleeing the doctor’s estate led to a full-fledged investigation. His methods of incarceration, in fact, proved so brutal that officials in the Warren County seat of Vicksburg deemed them too egregious and inhumane to allow the convicts to remain under his care. Even though the state convict lease system was abolished under the new state constitution in the 1890s, the county convict lease system remained alive and well into the twentieth century. Bo Carter provides one of the most historically accurate depictions of how an African American experienced the criminal justice system in turn-of-the-century Mississippi.[67] The use of sentencing at all levels was a means to obtain free labor on any one of the eighty-two county work farms in the state. In “County Farm Blues” (Bluebird B8397), Bo Carter testifies:

Boy when I got arrested 
What do you reckon man was my fine, hey boy
Boy when I got arrested,
What do you reckon man was my fine
I mean it twas a pick and a shovel,
And I tripped right on down the line 

Said the jury they found me guilty,
And the clerk sure wrote it down, sweet baby
I mean the jury they found me guilty
And the clerk sure wrote it down
I mean the judge gimme ninety [days] and a hundred [dollar fine]
Down on the man’s little ole county farm 

Said the hundred wasn’t so bad
But the ninety is so doggone long, sweet baby
I mean the hundred wasn’t so bad
But the ninety is so doggone long
I didn’t mind rollin’ up the ninety
But I got to be there all alone 

I’d rather pay two hundred dollars
Than work them ninety long days
I’d rather pay two hundred dollars
Than work them ninety long all days
I didn’t have no idea the judge
You’d treat a poor prisoner this way 

But I’m gonna roll up my ninety
Gon’ pay my fine and get gone,
Sweet baby I’m gonna roll up my ninety
Gon’ pay my fine and get gone
I’m gon’ wonder back in the Nation
Gon’ make the territo[ry] my home

Bo Carter invites the careful listener to learn about what it was like to face an unsympathetic judge who needed bodies to work and passed sentence of ninety days and a steep fine. Most folks, of course, lacked the cash on hand to dole out one hundred dollars in the Great Depression. In the end, Bo Carter reveals his opinion that it's impossible to experience true freedom under such an oppressive system. He plans to leave that place upon his release and invokes an old image of freedom from his youth.

The truth of “County Farm Blues” is unadorned with entendre, lacks any comical theme, and is devoid of any slick language. It’s an accurate account of the justice system in Mississippi from perhaps the most gifted individual who navigated the recording industry in the late 1920s and 1930s. The more than legendary status of Bo Carter challenges stereotypes about blues artists of the period and explodes the myths about blues musicians from the country. He was sober, intelligent, clever, and efficient manager in almost every aspect of the business. He really was “an all-around man.”

Sharkey County Years: 1940-1960

On 20 April 1940, Bo resided in the household of Earnest and Fannie Steed at Nitta Yuma in Beat 4 of Sharkey County.[68] He became their son-in-law when he married their daughter Vivian, who later separated from the elder musician yet remained one of the many friends on whom the blind bluesman relied daily. Elaine Hughes may have never had the pleasure of hearing Bo play on her father’s porch in the late 1950s if not for Vivian Steed. 

Nitta Yuma was one of the rural areas dominated by African Americans in the Delta. In the 1890s, for example, when Lee Walton robbed and murdered another black tenant farmer after a disagreement over “working a tract of land” on the Cameron farm, five hundred African Americans took the suspected murderer from a “posse of officers” and hanged him from a limb at the scene of the crime.[69] Then they filled his body with bullets.[70] The confidence of the local black community was restored, for the moment, through extralegal violence. Most black lynch mobs, according to historian Karlos Hill, believed that “the criminal justice system ignored criminal activity committed against blacks,” whereas whites often argued that the courts did not act quickly enough.[71] As the racialization of lynching increased during the 1890s, however—as reflected in the increasing proportion of black people dying at the hands of white lynch mobs—black leaders started denouncing the participation of African Americans. The lynching at Nitta Yuma was one of the last black-on-black lynchings of the period.

Among the many points of interest, the little town of Nitta Yuma, 53 miles from Vicksburg, took prominent rank for one journalist in the 1890s. He happened upon a fete that was in progress.

The inspiring notes of a brass band, imported for the occasion, woke the echoes with its lively strains and the streets were a mass of humanity, gathered from a radius of twenty miles to usher in the New Year in appropriate fashion. The stores of the village were packed with purchasers, whose well-filled pockets and lavish instincts brought smiles to the faces of erstwhile polite and attentive clerks. Even that dizzy maiden, the “Flying Jinney,” was on hand with its troop of fiery, untamed steeds, whirling madly in their given circle to the boisterous strains of a barrel organ.[72] 

The black community also came together to support the segregated black schools, specifically through the attendance of musical performances. King Thomas Evans, Sr. moved with his family in 1926 to the Vickland Plantation at Nitta Yuma.[73] In an interview with folklorist Worth Long, he revealed his close familiarity with the entire Chatmon family. Evans also recalled meeting “Howlin’ Wolf…because he sang up there Nitta Yuma. See we used to have dances and things at school.” Chester Burnett, indeed, “used to perform for fundraisers that the school held to buy supplies, pencils, paper, etc...” Evans described the school year as an abbreviated:

“six-month school in Nitta Yuma [called the] Rosenwald Building Anguilla Separate District School. It was four classrooms [and] we didn’t have but three teachers in it. Three teachers in a four-classroom school there, yeah. And then we-but, you know, there were some people that didn’t send their children to school until after Christmas.’ ‘We’re going to start school after Christmas.’ And see if school started in November, you might say-yeah, school started in November, and he didn’t go until after Christmas, and he had stopped school around the first of March. Some of them did [that] to plant cotton or plant corn or whatever it was; they had to go to work. So they didn’t get very much schooling.”

Evans was more than an acquaintance to musicians such as Ed Chatmon, Lonnie Chatmon, Bo, and Sam. “I knew them all,” he declared, but he never saw a performance on any instrument by Lonnie. On March 20, 1946, the Delta Democrat Times reported that Lonnie Chatmon sold his store in Glen Allan, Mississippi to Annie W. Spencer, a widow who directed the planting operations at her husband’s farm in Glen Allen.[74] Lonnie disappears from the written record after selling his store, and he must have died soon thereafter because he is not remembered as a musician by folks who knew the Chatmon family in Sharkey County. According to Henry Vick Phelps III, Lonnie Chatmon was no longer able to perform music due to his arthritis.[75]

In the early 1950s, Hattiesburg-native Lillian McMurry founded the independent label Trumpet Records in Jackson. It did not take long for her to sign exclusive deals with popular blues artists, such as Sonny Boy Williamson II, Willie Love, and Elmore James. In one 1972 interview with Darryl Stolper, McMurry revealed that several older musicians also came to see her and audition for a chance to make some records again. “Bo Carter also wanted to record” for Trumpet, she recalled, but musical tastes had shifted considerably over the past decade and may have been apparent in his choice of choice of material performed at the audition. McMurry ultimately declined to work with Carter, and she explained her decision in terms of his diminished abilities as a performer. She claimed that his “his voice was gone by then.”[76]

Bo Carter performing for the children 
of photographer Milton Kline
Sharing the instrumentalist duties with his nephew Edgar, the son of Lamar Chatmon who took over the fiddle playing duties, Bo Carter often serenaded the local people who lived in and around Anguilla, Mississippi in the 1950s. The stories of his regular performances, indeed, sounded similar to his early years around Bolton. According to Leslie Miller, one of the children in the recently discovered pictures of her father, he performed for folks around town on many occasions, usually starting out with “Tennessee Waltz” and saying his other songs were too dirty for children! 

One picture of her father’s show Bo playing solo for the children in front of their home in the late 1950s, another shows Bo on guitar with Edgar behind him on fiddle, and a third, taken in the summer, shows the two musicians again playing for the children, who were preparing to go swimming, After meeting Leslie Miller in July 2017, she conducted a brief interview in with Magnolia Birdstraw, a ninety-seven-year-old former acquaintance of Bo’s from Anguilla, who recalled that her first cousin’s aunt, Frances, was married to Bo later in life.[77] 

Edgar Chatmon and Bo Carter in Anguilla 
(Photo: Milton Kline)
Bo’s cataracts had gotten worse during his time at Anguilla. “I carried him to the doctor most of the time,” King T. Evans informed. “I carried him to Rosedale, Tribbett, and every place [he asked me to take him.].”[78] While Evans believed that he suffered from glaucoma, ethnomusicologist David Evans thought it was syphilis, and another investigator of the Chatmon family thought diabetes was his problem, it makes the most sense that he suffered from cataracts. He was not taking regular injections of any sort, and Sam told one interviewer that something like “skin grew over his eyes,” which sounds like a visible description of an advanced stage of cataracts. He had a stroke in 1957, however, which left him not only blind but half-crippled. He needed someone to assist him most of the time. His ex-wife Vivian did what she could for him, and she took him to work with her so he could perform for folks. The couple had been separated for many years, she informed, but she remained sympathetic towards the elder musician. He performed for Elaine Hughes at her father’s home in Vicksburg in 1959, the last glimpse we have of his performance career of the 1950s.[79] As his condition worsened, he moved away from his family and friends to Memphis. 

Paul Oliver's melancholy photograph from his 1960 book
Sharing a corner in the bare, two-story shotgun building on south 4th Street owned by the former leader of the Memphis Jug Band, Will Shade, the “ailing, blind, light-skinned man whom the occupants” referred to as “Old Man” was waiting for Paul Oliver to show up and brighten his day in 1960.[80] Though the British researcher thought he could barely hold the strings down on the steel-bodied National style N, he slowly regained control over his faculties and soon took command of the worn-out fretboard. “In a broken voice, that mocked the dear and lively singing on his scores of recordings under his own name and with the Mississippi Sheiks,” as Oliver later wrote, Bo recalled a few tales about his life as well as some of the songs that had made him one of the most famous blues singers of the period. 

Paul Oliver's second photo w/National 
The tone in which Oliver depicts his encounter with Bo has contributed to the negative impressions forwarded by other scholars over the years about him and even his possessions. Julie Lyonn Lieberman, for example, in her examination of the Blues Fiddle, asserted that “his guitar was too worn with age and use to be played on again” when Oliver found him “living in an unfurnished slum apartment.”[81] Sometime after Oliver left him in Memphis, the guitar found its way into the hands of Preston Alvin Stone, a fellow guitar picker, who stuffed it into the crawl-space underneath his home and trading post in the hill country near Hernando. It remained hidden from the light for more than ten years, until a railroad engineer named Bill Gandy bought it and had the neck straightened in Memphis. While Lieberman makes it sound as if Bo’s National was only good as a museum piece, it only needed a little adjustment and some attention. Gandy carried it and played “on a caboose for years.” Indeed, he maintained that Bo’s guitar “sounded so good” that he made it his constant companion during his career working for the railroad.[82]

During the encounter in 1960, Oliver also recorded a few solo performances of Bo on guitar and vocals as well as a few tunes on guitar with Will Shade, Gus Gannon, and Dewey Corley. Neither his solo pieces, nor the group performances, were ever released to the public, but this author managed to get ahold of the recordings through an underground source who once worked with the collection and digitized the tapes. The solo performances are a bit meek vocally and do reveal his advanced age, but splashes of his former abilities shine through during his determined renditions of “Little Pretty Woman” and “Crazy Blues.” I have to agree with the opinion expressed by ethnomusicologist David Evans, with whom I shared the recordings; in one correspondence, he asserted that “the ensemble piece was awful though!” It must have been difficult for Paul Oliver, who demonstrated his very passive nature as an interviewer, to sit there during the extended display of cacophony. In contrast, he obtains some gems of information in the recordings, as noted throughout this article, but the interviews should have been conducted on an individual basis as opposed to having all of them together. The tone of their speech—which tends to be more boastful due to the presence of the other men—led Oliver as well as Stephen Calt to judge the offerings too harshly as evidence of a self-absorbed personality. Of course, we are very lucky that he had enough knowledge of the music to approach and record these men at all.

Paul Oliver’s photographs from the 1960 encounter have also shaped the legacy of Bo Carter to some degree in popular memory. While the two photographs of him alone come off as reflective of the despondency in his writings, another photograph of Oliver’s, which amateur image manipulator and veteran discographer Stefan Wirz managed to combine from several published sources, shows the formerly popular recording artist smiling and looking down as his fingers form a C chord on his National. Will Shade also stares at his left hand as he chords an A minor and Gus Cannon, holding his banjo and his head upright, stares at the photographer through a pair of spectacles that have started to slip down his nose. Dewey Corley is also visible off to the right strumming his string bass. The composite photograph, along with the earlier images of Bo Carter alone with his guitar and guitar case, give us a much more pleasant image that also comes through when you listen to his interview with Oliver. As opposed to the bleak picture given in Conversation with the Blues, Bo sounds pleased, even thrilled at times, to offer stories about his life as a professional “musicianer.” Several times during the interview, he sounds so similar in tone to his brother Sam that you can almost visualize him sitting and conversing with the British researcher.

Bo, Will, Gus, and Curly
One late account comes from Samuel Charters’ error-filled second book, The Bluesmen. It was perhaps late 1963 when Charters found Bo Carter “blind and unable to play…in a shabby wooden building on the same rutted alleyway behind Beale Street,” where Will Shade lived in “helpless squalor.” He claims that Bo was married to a woman who asked folks to leave him alone so that he’d forget about the blues and get his mind right “so that he can think about the life to come” on the other side.[83] It was probably Shades’ wife, Jennie Mae.

The latest report that we have on Bo Carter comes from Charlie Musselwhite, who, during his early years in Memphis, used to see him sitting outside of their house just off 4th Street between Beale and Linden. Musselwhite sometimes visited with Will Shade and his wife.[84] While Shade would sit “by the window all day and everyday looking out across the city, speaking to passersby [and] joking with old friends,” Bo’s cataracts had long since taken his sight and forced him to sit there “just waiting for the end of another day.”[85] Musselwhite penned a few articles about his time down on 4th Street, but he never actually mentions seeing Bo in any published source. Rather, he contacted this author on social media in the spring of 2017, and he relayed that very simple fact. In one 1964 article, Musselwhite notes that many of the “great blues musicians” were “always stopping” by to socialize and play with the elder statesmen of southern musical tradition. “The band usually consists of violin, uke or banjo, guitar and harp. They don’t play in any clubs, just at home, getting people to come over and spend their money on something to drink.” Far from a sense of loneliness, he leaves us in the last year of Bo Carter’s life in Memphis with a scene full of fights, visits from friends, and the music of fellow musicians.

It was partly cloudy on the day he passed away. The sky opened up on the afternoon of September 21, 1964; storm clouds hung over the Shelby County Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, where a cerebral hemorrhage had done its work on the aged musician. His brother Sam had visited him in the hospital, knowing what was about to come, and he carried him back to Sharkey County for burial.[86] Hollandale Mortuary conducted his funeral at Nitta Yuma Cemetery, which sits to the west off Highway 61, just past the chapel that sits proudly marking the tiny hamlet of Nitta Yuma. His marker is towards the back of the crescent-shaped burial ground that sits alongside Deer Creek.

In regards to his musical legacy, professional guitar instructor John Miller considered Bo Carter one of the “bona-fide geniuses of the country blues.” He picked the guitar with all five fingers of his right hand, and his songs reflect the basic function of the blues—to entertain a crowd. Yet, the more serious-minded blues themes have been constituted the “true lowdown blues,” and his relatively innocuous songs were written off as smut.[87] A highly sophisticated blues artist from a “harmonic viewpoint,” Bo could play equally well in five tunings, and he showed a prodigious level of originality in his melodic and rhythmic concepts. In addition, Bo Carter possessed the ability, according to Miller, 

“to play one riff in two or three different keys or tunings. Most country bluesmen tailor what they play to the key or tuning they're playing in thus each key or tuning sounds distinctly different from all others. Bo, however, can play phrases in A standard that sound identical to those he plays in Spanish or G tuning; he'll play identical runs in E standard and Spanish.”[88]
The simple fact alone is remarkable. Bo Carter’s decision to learn how to play all the same runs and harmonies in all the different keys indicates intense dedication to his craft and produces an aesthetic unique to the country blues—hard work as opposed to selling ones’ soul, a less romantic yet still novel concept on which to close.

To read more about his headstone and to hear the moving speech of his grandson, Miles Floyd, please click HERE.


[1] Woody Mann, Anthology of Blues Guitar (New York: Oak, 1993, repr. 2014), 12. 

[2] Stefan Grossman, The Country Blues Guitar (New York: Oak, 1968). 

[3] Samuel Charters, The Bluesmen: The Story and the Music of the Men who Made It (New York: Oak, 1967), 136. 

[4] Paul Oliver, liner notes, Sonny Boy Nelson with Mississippi Matilda and Robert Hill (1936) (Vienna, Austria Wolf WSE 128 1989.) 

[5] The Martin/Cook connection is a product of the research conducted about the Chatmon family by Ed Payne, formerly of Bolton, Mississippi, whose exhaustive searches turned up many marriage certificates and other information about the family. Indeed, his deep well of knowledge is reflected in many sections throughout this article. Few men possess such integrity; none are more humble, yet none have more cause to boast. 

[6] Thomas D. Martin lived in the Cook household; see, 1860 US Census, Hinds, Mississippi; Roll: M653_582; Page: 600; Family History Library Film: 803582. 

[7] Ulysses Simpson Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Charles L. Webster & Company, 1885, repr. Dover, 1995), 205. 

[8] Michael B. Ballard, Vicksburg, The Campaign that Opened the Mississippi (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 282-319. 

[9] Even though Alan Lomax believed that Sam Chatmon said “old man Miller Davis,” the name is transcribed correctly in other interviews with Haxton Ayers in Hollandale 1977, Lou Curtiss in San Diego, and Hoeptner and Pinson in Hollandale 1959; see, Sam Chatmon, interview with Alan Lomax, August 1978, Hollandale, Mississippi, [accessed August 8, 2017]. 

[10] U.S., Colored Troops Military Service Records, 1863-1865 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2007. 

[11] “Milton Bracey,” 1870 US Census, Township 5, Hinds, Mississippi; Roll: M593_730; Page: 545B; Family History Library Film: 552229; 1910 US Census, Beat 5, Hinds, Mississippi; Roll: T624_742; Page: 39B; Enumeration District: 0016; FHL microfilm: 1374755. 

[12] A black woman named Manda Chapman is also listed above his name in the census, and a younger woman named Laura is listed directly below him, followed by Sherman, age 5, Grant, age 3, and a 21 year-old formerly enslaved farmer from Georgia named Henry Walls; see, 1870 US Census, Beat 5, Scott, Mississippi; Roll: M593_748; Page: 249A; Image: 62513; Family History Library Film: 552247 

[13] U.S. Civil War Soldiers, 1861-1865 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2007. 

[14] In 1880, Sherman lived in Edwards, a small town about eight miles west of Bolton; he is listed as an “orphan,” which suggests that Polk Chapman was dead. His brother, Grant, married one Mary Johnson in 1889, but no other records exist about him. Sherman moved back to Newton County in 1900, but he apparently died before the 1910 US Census, when one census enumerator listed his wife, “Alice Chapman,” as a widow. 

[15] Steven Deyle, Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 97. 

[16] The 1870 census lists his birthplace as Virginia; see also, Michael Tadman’s Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989). 

[17] Josie Williams recalled the names of several of the children living with the couple; see, 1870 US Census, Township 6 Range 3, Hinds, Mississippi; Roll: M593_730; Page: 615A; Family History Library Film: 552229. 

[18] “Nancy Perry,” 1880 US Census, Boltons Depot, Hinds, Mississippi; Roll: 648; Family History Film: 1254648; Page: 174A; Enumeration District: 007. 

[19] 1880 US Census, Boltons Depot, Hinds, Mississippi; Roll: 648; Family History Film: 1254648; Page: 175C; Enumeration District: 007. 

[20] Daniel and Creasy Jackson lived with several children in Bolton; see, 1870 US Census, Township 6, Hinds, Mississippi; Roll: M593_730; Page: 624A; Image: 392598; Family History Library Film: 552229. 

[21] Raymond Courthouse marriage records (license 10-380), courtesy of Ed Payne. 

[22] Henderson Chatmon remained around Bolton until his death in 1934—the same year of Patton’s demise. 

[23] David Evans, liner notes to Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton, Revenant 212. 

[24] The children of Henderson and Eliza Chatmon were 1) Alonzo [Lonnie] b.1888, 2) Edgar [Ed], b. 1890, 3) Armenter [Bo] b.1894, 4) Willie [Crook] b.1896, 5) Lamar/Burton/Bert b.1897, 6) Vivian [Sam] b.1900, 7) Larry/Lorin b.1902, and 8) Harry [Ty, Tie] b.1904. Sam loved to claim he was the seventh son, and he included a brother named “Charlie,” perhaps also including Charlie McCoy as an honorary brother, but students of the Chatmon family now accept that there may have in fact been another brother named Charley; most of the geneology of the nuclear family of Henderson Chatmon comes from an early graduate thesis in ethnomusicology; see, Michael Beebie, “Sam Chatmon: A Musical Biography,” master’s thesis, SUNY Binghamton, 1974. 

[25] Bo Carter’s birthdate has been the subject of some debate, but we all tend to agree that the earliest document containing the most reliable information should be given the most weight; the earliest document containing information about his birth comes from the 1900 US Census. His mother told one census enumerator that he was born in January of 1894, which is the information that adorns his headstone. On his death certificate, Sam Chatmon informed that his birthdate was March 21, 1893. His World War I registration card offers another date—June 30, 1892; see, 1900 US Census, Beat 2, Hinds, Mississippi; Roll: 809; Page: 26A; Enumeration District: 0058; FL microfilm: 1240809.

[26] Henderson and Eliza Chatmon still lived in Beat 2 of Hinds County in 1910 and 1920. 

[27] Bo Chatmon and Mary Henderson , marriage license, #23-119, Nov 8, 1911. 

[28] “Events at Bolton,” (Jackson, MS) Daily News, May 7, 1913. 

[29] “Delinquent Tax List,” Hinds County (Raymond, MS) Gazette, Mar 30, 1917, p.9 

[30] 1920 US Census, Bolton, Hinds, Mississippi; Roll: T625_878; Page: 8A; Enum. District: 18. 

[31] “Dance at Cooper’s Well,” Vicksburg (MS) Herald, Dec 23, 1922. 

[32] The Barrassos owned black music/entertainment enterprises in Memphis. Fred Barrasso established the first touring black vaudeville circuit ca. 1911; see Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff, The Original Blues: The Emergence of the Blues in African American Vaudeville (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2017), 232; Paul Oliver, Conversations with the Blues (London: Cambridge University Press, 1965), 47. 

[33] Stephen Calt, liner notes to Bo Carter: Twist It Babe, 1931-1940 (Yazoo L-1034 1973). 

[34] Oliver, Conversations with the Blues, 47. 

[35] John Miller, liner notes to Bo Carter: Twist It Babe, 1931-1940 (Yazoo L-1034, 1973). 

[36] Oliver, Conversations with the Blues, 47. 

[37] Paul Oliver, Songsters and Saints: Vocal Traditions on Race Records (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 97. 

[38] “The fiddle playing is in a style not even close to anything any Chatmon ever played,” Heneghan argued in a recent discussion of Alec Johnson’s records on the Facebook group “The Rarest 78s,” and “the mandolin doesn’t sound like Charlie [McCoy] even a little bit…I'd say it's almost impossible that it's those guys. If you play an instrument you should be able to hear that the style, approach and execution are all completely opposite of any McCoy/Sheiks band”; John Heneghan, comment on Alex van der Tuuk’s post about Alec Johnson’s “Miss Meal Cramp Blues” in the Facebook group “The Rarest 78s,” July 26, 2017. 

[39] In Cliff Bruner’s version for Decca 5350, master 61645, the composer credits are shown as shared by J. N. Williams and “Bo Chatman [sic],” which suggests Mayo Williams was involved somehow in the recording as well as the publishing of the song. “Corrine Corrina” was first copyrighted in 1929, and then again in 1932, with Mitchell Parish also involved somehow. 

[40] Christopher A. Waterman, “Race Music: Bo Chatmon, “Corrine Corrina,” and the Excluded Middle,” in Music and the Racial Imagination, eds. Ronald Rodano and Philip Bohlman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 172. 

[41] 1920 US Census, Beat 3, Sharkey, Mississippi; Roll: T625_892; Page: 9A; Enumeration District: 107. 

[42] 1910 US Census, Beat 2, Jefferson, Mississippi; Roll: T624_744; Page: 14A; Enumeration District: 0071; FHL microfilm: 1374757. 

[43] Sam Chatmon, interview with Alan Lomax, August 1978, Hollandale, Mississippi, [accessed August 8, 2017]. 

[44] Eliza Chatmon lived at 235 Fairbanks; see 1927 Jackson, Mississippi City Directory (Jackson, MS: Jackson City Directory Company, 1928), 207. 

[45] Bo is listed as “Arnoules Chatmon”; see, 1930 US Census, Beat 5, Washington, Mississippi; Roll: 1170; Page: 10A; Enumeration District: 0025; Image: 1110.0; FHL microfilm: 2340905. 

[46] Charters, The Bluesmen, 139. 

[47] “Backache Blues” derives musically from Victoria Spivey's 1927 recording of “T.B. Blues,” featuring Lonnie Johnson on guitar; the songs have the same melody, but they are about different maladies; thematically, the song title may be a reference to syphilis symptoms, or perhaps treatments. The established treatment in the 1930s of this venereal disease was spinal injections of hard metal. In fact, the infamous Tuskegee Experiments—contrary to contemporary myth—focused on a group of black men with the disease, who, for years, believed they had received treatment, but later learned the true nature of the study—to monitor the unchecked ravages of the disease on the human body. Susan M. Reverby, Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and its Legacy (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina, 2009) and Okeh 8906 was advertised in the Chicago Defender, Nov 7, 1931, p.5. 

[48] Woody Mann, Six Early Blues Roots Guitarists (New York: Oak, 1973, repr. 2014). 

[49] John Miller, email to author, April 20, 2018. 

[50] Steve James, Inside Blues Guitar (Dan Anselmo, CA: String Letter Publishing, 2001), 11.

[51] Steve Cheeseborough, “A.G. Letter from Mississippi,” Acoustic Guitar (August 2002): 28. 

[52] Atlanta Constitution, Jan 19, 1919, p.5. 

[53] Oliver, Conversations with the Blues, 127. 

[54] Stephen Calt, liner notes to Bo Carter: Twist It Babe, 1931-1940 (Yazoo L-1034 1973). 

[55] Ibid. 

[56] Ibid. 

[57] Bo’s abilities as a vocalist at least had fallen off between 1940 and his failed audition for Trumpet Records in the early 1950s; see also, Elaine Hughes, “The Day Bo Carter Played On My Mother’s Porch,” Living Blues 173 (July/August 2004): 42-43.

[58] “Young People of Edwards at Dance,” (Jackson, MS) Clarion Ledger, July 31, 1932. 

[59] Jim O’Neal, Alex van der Tuuk, and Guido van Rijn, “Paramount Records: A Centennial Celebration,” Living Blues 247:48:1 (February 2017), 27-38. 

[60] Sam Chatmon, interview by Hoeptner and Pinson, 1959, Hollandale, Mississippi. 

[61] 1932 Jackson City Directory (Jackson, MS: Jackson City Directory Publishing Company, 1933), 195. 

[62] Simon J. Bronner, “Living Blues Interview: Eugene Powell: Sonny Boy Nelson,” Living Blues 43 (Summer 1979): 14-25; Enzo Castella and Gianni Marcucci, Eugene Powell: Police in Mississippi Blues (Italy: Albatros VPA 8422, c1984; Bob Eagle, “Born in the Desert, Raised in the Sandy Field’: The Story of Eugene Powell,” Blues Unlimited 139 (Autumn 1980): 18-19. 

[63] John Miller, message board thread, “Bo Carter’s Pop Blues,” July 12, 2009, [accessed May , 2009]. 

[64] “Leza Chatmon,” 1940 US Census Place: Jackson, Hinds, Mississippi; Roll: T627_2026; Page: 5B; Enumeration District: 25-10A. 

[65] “Henderson Chatmon,” death certificate 11070, Mississippi State Board of Health, July 21, 1934. 

[66] “The County Convict Farm,” Hinds County (Jackson, MS) Gazette, Oct 8, 1887. 

[67] After the close of the Civil War, the military government in power decided to implement the convict lease system, which hired out convicts under the 13th Amendment to a lessee, who had the option of sub-leasing the convicts, and the lessees and the sub-lessees worked the convicts for their own individual profit. The prison system was continued through Reconstruction and retained by the Democratic Bulldozers in 1875. Until it was abolished by the constitutional provision that went into operation on January 1, 1895, many convicts—such as one group brought to the main prison at Jackson from a sub-lessee's plantation in the Yazoo-Mississippi delta—lived in deplorable conditions and received “bad treatment of almost every description.” Every effort to abolish the leasing system in the Legislature was defeated by the influences of the lessee lobby, and it was not until the constitutional convention of 1890 that the system was abolished. In the year 1895 the present convict system was established of working the convicts on State lands, at agricultural pursuits, for the benefit of the State, and under direct and exclusive control; see Frank Johnson, “Convict Lease System in the Southern States,” The Vicksburg (MS) American, Nov 24, 1903, p.6 

[68] Bo is listed as “son in law,” who married Vivian Chapmon, age 23; Josie Johnson, age 10, and Ruby Lee Johnson, age 8, were granddaughters of Earnest Steed, but probably not the children of Vivian. All six household members had resided in the “same house” in 1935; see, 1940 US Census, Sharkey, Mississippi; Roll: T627_2064; Page: 10A; Enumeration District: 63-8 

[69] “Killing at Nitta Yuma,” The Vicksburg (MS) Herald, Mar 12, 1893. 

[70] “Lynched by Negroes,” Keowee (HI) Courier, Mar 16, 1893. 

[71] Karlos Hill, Beyond the Rope: The Impact of Lynching on Black Culture and Memory (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 30. 

[72] “Nitta Yuma: The Business Oasis of the Delta,” Vicksburg (MS) Herald, Jan 2, 1891. 

[73] King T. Evans, interview by Worth Long, March 20, 2000, Mississippi Oral History Program of The University of Southern Mississippi. 

[74] “Notice,” DDT, Mar 20, 1946; “Mrs. Annie Spencer,” Delta (MS) Democrat Times, Sep 30, 1963, p.2.

[75] On July 29, 2017, Henry Vick Phelps III spoke at the headstone dedication of Bo Carter, and he told the story of Lonnie Chatmon gifting his fiddle to Phelps’ mother before he died, because his arthritis had already gotten so bad that he could no longer play. 

[76] Darryl Stolper, “It Was Very Rewarding - Trumpet Records History,” Blues Unlimited 88 (January 1972): 4-6. 

[77] Leslie Miller, email to author, August 1, 2017. 

[78] King T. Evans, interview by Worth Long, March 20, 2000, Mississippi Oral History Program of The University of Southern Mississippi. 

[79] Elaine Hughes, “The Day Bo Carter Played On My Mother’s Porch,” Living Blues 173 (July/August 2004): 42-43. 

[80] Paul Oliver, Conversations with the Blues (London: Cambridge University Press, 1965), 186. 

[81] Julie Lyonn Lieberman, Blues Fiddle (New York: Oak, 1986, repr. 2014), 22. 

[82] Steve Cheseborough, “A.G. Letter from Mississippi,” Acoustic Guitar (2002): 39-40. 

[83] Charters, The Bluesmen, 139. 

[84] Sadly, he was unable to attend the headstone dedication at the end of July. 

[85] Charlie Musselwhite, “Son Brimmer Today,” Blues Unlimited 11 (April/May 1964): 6. 

[86] The death certificate for “Armetia Chatmon” was provided by Jim O’Neal, the co-founder of Living Blues magazine. 

[87] Steve Calt, liner notes to Bo Carter: Banana in Your Fruit Basket (Yazoo 1064HLP 1979.) 

[88] John Miller, liner notes to Bo Carter: Twist It Babe, 1931-1940 (Yazoo L-1034 1973).