Monday, May 20, 2019

The Most Comprehensive History of the Delta Blues of all Time

 The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund is developing its most ambitious project to date.  We aim at nothing short of a complete transformation of our organization's financial standing and the mindset of anyone who takes the time to watch our documentary on Chas. (formerly Charley) Patton and the Delta Blues.

In addition to our prior functions as a research and memorialization firm, we are now starting an audio and video production arm, specifically for the production of a documentary film about Patton and his family. The film begins with the domestic slave trade and the introduction of his real grandfather and grandmother and it goes all the way up to the DNA tests that are supposed to tell us of his Native American heritage.

We need your help! 

If you know of any grant programs or any artists who might excel at visually creating and/or animating the characters in the film, 
please contact us at 

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Old Time Ben Payton


Most people, when they see me, think I've been playing blues guitar all my life." 
Ben Wiley Payton, Greenwood's own master of traditional acoustic country blues, sounds like a player raised on the Delta's music with his scratchy bass vocal delivery and agile bending of blues chords. 

An accomplished musician with two CDs of original material under his belt and performances in some of the most vaunted venues in the country, including the Library of Congress and the Kennedy Center in Washington, Payton has made a late-life career preaching the gospel of the blues to the initiated and uninitiated alike. But Payton — who was born in 1948 in the hills around Coila and who lived in and around Greenwood until he was 13 — took the long way home to Mississippi and the blues, coming back to them only after he'd made a career in Chicago playing with house bands for R&B, soul and jazz acts, and after passing nearly two decades outside the music industry altogether. For this 70-year-old bluesman, discovering the intricacy of blues fingerpicking depended upon going far from home and, finally, returning.

A warm man, tall and soft-spoken with a big barrel chest, Peyton has dimples that spread when he smiles. That's most of the time. He speaks slowly, with concentration, relating the details of his circular life and career. After moving to Chicago with his mother in the 1960s, Payton, in the 1970s, enjoyed the life of a musician in a house band at Chicago nightclubs, backing now legendary acts such as Bobby Rush and Otis Clay, banging out chords on an electric guitar. 

But by the 1980s, when disco music infiltrated those clubs, the chances of making a living playing live music dried up. "There were no house bands anymore, just DJs," Payton said. "It really wasn't any money in music." Payton left his performing career in the '80s and '90s to raise a family and pursue other interests, including Bible studies at the Moody Bible Institute. He studied African-American history after settling down to a domestic life, and he learned the history of one of the most influential gospel songs ever written, "Take My Hand, Precious Lord." "The writer of that song Thomas Dorsey, they didn't want him to sing that song in church," Payton said. "The main reason was he was a bluesman, a blues piano player. He had that low-life association." Payton concluded that no matter what your skills —whether you're a good janitor or a good construction worker or a good blues musician — "glorifying Him through what you do, that's what it's all about." He started a church in Chicago in 1983 that closed in 2003 because of big-city parking problems and dwindling membership. His marriage busted up, and he found himself at loose ends. Still a Mississippi boy at heart, Payton decided it was time to come home, where he would be born, yet again. 

Payton clearly remembers his first musical awakening when he was a second-grade boy, living in the Delta. "It was a homecoming parade," he said "There, down, the street, came this big marching band from Tchula." 

Payton went home, found a big can and two sticks and, "Boy I was in the band!" That fascination took a back-seat to basketball for a time, but when Payton's mother moved him to Chicago as a teenager, he became the bass singer for a doo-wop group, a cappella singers who serenaded from a street corner. "That was my first time performing," he said He started taking guitar lessons from a retired school-teacher, John House, and learned enough from chord books to land a gig with a house band at a few Chicago night-clubs, including Peyton Place, where Otis Clay played regularly. "I met a lot of fellows through a friend of mine who knew blues musicians," he said. "I played for whoever was playing. The entertainment was always switching" Adept at the chords and beats that drove soul and rhythm and blues songs, Payton's versatility and open ear led him to play with a number of jazz musicians, but he hadn't mastered fingerpicking yet. Then came Morocco. In the late '60s, jazz pianist Randy Weston recruited Payton for an extended stay at the African Rhythm Club in Tangiers. Payton and his band played soul, but he became a fan of the acoustic musicians of North Africa during his time off. He absorbed the sounds these musicians made with their subtle instruments — the oud, a watermelon-shaped, four-stringed instrument with a long neck, accompanied by the delicate snap of finger drumming. "I learned how small instruments could make such a beautiful, welcoming sound," Payton said. It's a lesson he remembered when his musical career went fallow and, 20 years later, when he returned to Mississippi and his true musical roots. 

"When I came back to Mississippi, I spent time with Steve LaVere and Steve Cheeseborough, learning the licks of the old country blues players," Payton said. LaVere, a Grammy-winning music producer and blues promoter who lived in Greenwood until he died in December 2015, burned CDs for Payton of Charley Patton and Mississippi John Hurt and Robert Johnson. Payton, who had played in church and dabbled a little in folk over the past 20 years, had switched from electric to acoustic and played at LaVere's downtown restaurant, The Blue Parrot, while Payton expanded his blues repertoire. "It was hard," Payton said. "You don't just learn it like that You're learning to move chords with one finger holding in one place while the other plays a melody" Payton practiced, played and learned, relying on his stage presence and warm vocals as his individual picking style emerged. He lived in Jackson, played at gigs wherever he could find them, including in Greenwood, and developed a reputation as a serious blues player. In 2009, he cut his first CD of original tunes, Diggin' Up Old Country Blues, which was well-received by critics and received wide exposure over a blues station on Sirius XM Radio. He began hitting the festivals. He played the Chicago Blues Festival and the King Biscuit Festival He got gigs teaching acoustic country blues to music students at Boston's Berklee College of Music and at the Centrum music camp in Port Townsend, Washington. He was chosen to represent the state of Mississippi at the American Folklife Center's Homegrown Concert Series at the Library of Congress and took his act to the Kennedy Center. In 2015, he recorded his second CD of original tunes, adapting musical styles from traditional bluesmen and modifying them with his own unique style. 

Recorded at Mississippi Valley State University's B.B. King Recording Studio, Caught Up in the Blues reflects Payton's hunger to keep learning and to honor a range of musicians. The first track, "All Alone Blues," mimics the driving bass line of Lead Belly. Josh White's staccato guitar groove is evident on track two, "Beautiful Woman." "Amanda" borrows some of those haunting Moroccan chords, while "Fairy Tale Blues" gives a nod to Blind Lemon Jefferson and "New Plan" to Mississippi John Hurt. The last two songs on the CD, "Long Journey" and "Song of Strength," are gospel-influenced. The new CD, just recently pressed, traveled with Payton to the Chicago Blues Festival in early June, where he played for an audience he estimates at about 1,000 in the Visit 
Mississippi Juke Joint tent.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

"Myth" of the Blue Front Cafe Told in Letter

Dear Editor:

After receiving my October 25, 2003, issue of The Yazoo Herald, I feel I can no longer keep quiet about the myth that keeps being perpetuated in the paper about the Blue Front Cafe in Bentonia.

I was born in 1936 and my earliest memories are of' my mother, Bell Jackson, (Jessie Bell 'Jackson) running that cafe. In fact, my nephew in St. Louis still has the sign that says, "Bell Jackson's Cafe." She sold fish and chitterlings along cold pop and beer.

I can remember, being about knee-high to a duck, walking around with a bottle of beer in my hand. My love of beer continues til this day. When we got sleepy, she had a cot over behind the counter where we could sleep until she closed around midnight, and we went home.

Skip James and Jack Owens (who happens to be my cousin, deceased) never came or played there but Roscoe Fox (husband of Hattie B. Fox, employee of the Barbour family) did come every Saturday to collect the money from the juke box and change the records. Consequently, we had a great collection of Blues records because he gave us the used ones.

Mr. Hamp Cox, the local lawman came by frequently for a cold Coca Cola, and beer was regularly delivered by Mr. Moses' beer company. (I remember going along with my mother to visit Mrs. Josephine Moses, who passed away not too long ago.)

Mr. Hancock owned the store next to the cafe and Mr. Causey Fears ran the ice house. I remember "Silas Green from New Orleans" and "Rabbit Foot" performing in a tent on the grounds where the gin stood next door. (Still there but defunct.)

My mother ran that cafe until she had some sort of falling out with the Mutual Aid Society over who owned the building and they allowed Mrs. Mary and Carey Holmes to take over the building. I didn't know Duck. He must be one of Mrs. Mary's younger kids, but I was good friends with his older sisters, Honey T. Bone, Buke and Lula.

I happened to be in Yazoo City Aug. 28 and 29 and stayed at the Best Western where those kids from New York, who were doing a documentary on "Main Street USA," were staying. I was also at my lawyer's office on Main Street as they were interviewing Wardell Leach.

I told them this story and they wanted to know if I would tell this story on national TV. At the time, I said, "No."

However, I feel I cannot keep quiet any longer while my mother's memory is being sullied about and she is not given some credit for the operation of that cafe.

Barbara Jackson Williams Oakland, Calif.

Devil at the Crossroads

The Netflix documentary about Robert Johnson contains some innovative digital imaging sequences and a pastiche of a historical narrative, which gives the viewer a fairly standard (and mythical) biography.  I did not think it was nearly as bad as some folks out in the world.  For the most part, we heard from the usual cast of characters.  A few people were missing...Gayle Dean Wardlow, Peter Guralnick, Tom Graves, and attorney John Kitchens.  The new faces were 

  1. Steven Johnson, the alleged grandson of RJ, 
  2. Bruce Conforth, former scholar and museum director turned obsessive country blues romantic
  3. Adam Gussow, writer and musician who filmmakers have substituted as a historian in several films
  4. Taj Mahal, a musician whose interviews were poorly used in places
  5. Terry "Harmonica" Bean, a musician whose narrative about the competition between the preacher and the jook sounded as if he'd been talking to Adam

The most glaring omission, once again, is the addition of a historian to better contextualize the historical evidence and biography of Robert Johnson.  Although I have not seriously scrutinized the biography of RJ, I doubt that during the year he "disappeared" that he returned to the county of his birth, Copiah County, to seek out some unknown guitar player named Zimmerman. No, it's much more likely that he remained in the Delta and learned from some musicians such as Richard "Hacksaw" Harney.  Maybe one day I will tell you why....