Monday, April 13, 2020

Piedmont Picking: Blues Not Doleful In Etta Baker's Hands

By BRUCE HENDERSON - The Charlotte Observer, December 27, 1988

"I dream music. I hear chords in my sleep." — Etta Baker 

"I say they (the blues) make me feel good. It's supposed to be based on somebody's sadness, but aren't you glad it's somebody else's and not yours?" - Etta Baker

They call the music she coaxes from her six-string acoustic guitar the Piedmont blues, but to Etta Baker it is the language of joy and remembrance. 

It sounds that way, too, as she lightly picks out the melody of "Dew Drops," the first tune she can remember her daddy playing more than 70 years ago in the Caldwell County foothills. 

"A-many mornings I've been awakened by my daddy's banjo, and the smell of ham cooking and apples frying," she said last week. "And it was impossible to lay in bed when I smelled all that good food, and my daddy playing. 

"It's just been a wonderful life, as far back as I can remember." 

Folklorists regard Baker, at 75, as one of the finest guitarists in the two-finger picking style that characterizes the Piedmont blues. On Jan. 18 in Raleigh, she and seven other masters of traditional arts will be honored as the first recipients of the N.C. Folk Heritage Award from the N.C. Arts Council, worth $2,000 apiece. 

After 23 years of work at a Morganton textile mill, she now performs at festivals nationwide, including JazzCharlotte. 

Baker has no formal music training, nor can she read music. But, she said from her small frame house under a spreading magnolia tree, "I dream music. I hear chords in my sleep." 

Born in the Johns River community of Caldwell County, where her father hunted and farmed for a living, she grew up near Richmond as the last of eight children. The family, which later returned to North Carolina, had black, Cherokee and Irish and musical — bloodlines. 

Boone Reid, her father, played banjo, fiddle, and guitar: her mother played harmonica and Jew's harp. Her brothers and sister also played the eclectic mix of traditional mountain tunes and popular music in their racially mixed community, at corn shuckings and house parties where music was sometimes made all night. 

"I've seen my daddy dance, and he was a tall man, but so light on his feet that you could barely hear him on the floor," she said. 

Before age 3, she was plucking out notes on a small guitar as it lay flat across her lap. It was during the family's time in Virginia that she first heard "the most sweetest music" — the blues. 

"I've had people ask me how the blues make me feel, and I say they make me feel good," she said. "It's supposed to be based on somebody's sadness, but aren't you glad it's somebody else's and not yours?" 

She's known now for her inventive performances and the delicate picking style she developed. 

"I make myself play every day about one hour and 45 minutes," she said. "If I make a sound that doesn't sound just right, I'll do it all over again. I just want to get to the point where I can tell myself, 'Etta, you can play.' 

"But I'm not there yet. I'm working on it, though." 

Baker was first recorded in 1956 for the influential album "Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians" and two years later left the mill for music. 

She sometimes plays with her sister, guitarist Cora Phillips, as they did during the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, Tenn. The pair won the N.C. Folklore Society's Brown-Hudson Award for contributions to folk arts that year. 

It was at the fair that she composed her lively "Knoxville Rag," the result of those chords that come to her in bed. 

Her nine children, of whom eight survive, continue the family's musical tradition on piano and guitar. Daughter Darlene often accompanies her on festival trips, she said, while Dorothy has a beautiful singing voice. Baker rarely sings. 

As she tends her garden and her zebra finches at home, the music of Boone Reid haunts her still. She got a banjo a year ago and a fiddle this month and is teaching herself to play them, too. 

"I lay. in bed sometimes," she said, "and think back to how Daddy made it sound." 

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Junior Kimbrough's "Cotton-patch blues"

By JIM McGUINNESS Staff Writer
The Hackensack (New Jersey) Record, September 1, 1995.

Photo: Adam Smith
As I prepared for a phone interview with guitar great Junior Kimbrough, it dawned on me: What if the Mississippi bluesman was a bad — really bad — interview? 

There was a basis for such fear. Since the release of his critically acclaimed "All Night Long" debut album in 1992 —and his equally strong follow-up, last year's "Sad Days, Lonely Nights" — I couldn't recall seeing a single story in which Kimbrough was quoted at length. My trepidation intensified when a representative from his record company responded to my interview request with, "Oh, Junior. That guy's tough to get a hold of. You see, he doesn't have a phone."

Suddenly, I had a picture of poor Kimbrough risking injury by hanging from a telephone pole — "Green Acres"-style — to answer questions about his musical influences. 

Suffice to say, Kimbrough isn't exactly a quote machine. His short, barely intelligible replies only deepened the mystery surrounding the blues men of the Delta region. Robert Johnson himself — dead for 57 years —probably gives better interviews. 

Speaking in a Southern drawl thicker than Mississippi mud, Kimbrough grunted forth the essence of his music. 

"I just play my music," he said, speaking from a neighbor's home. "I just play for the people." 

Short, simple, and honest. 

Therein lies his charm. In a time when pop stars carry on as if their latest albums were the answer to world peace, Kimbrough is refreshing in his brevity. He's out of his element in an interview, preferring to let his music do the talking. 

His trance-inducing guitar style is dominated by eerily constructed riffs and raw, rocking rhythms. His original songs — one-chord droners —ring of the hard life. Farm worker. Moonshine runner. Tractor and bulldozer driver. Kimbrough has done what's needed to survive down along the Mississippi Delta. 

"I play that cotton-patch blues," said Kimbrough. "I was working in the cotton fields when I learned how to play." 

Kimbrough isn't a Delta blues man, per se. He lives in Chulahoma, a tiny town of 500 people in the northern Missisisippi hill country adjacent to the Delta. There he is a big man — the proprietor of a popular juke joint that bears his name. In the two-family house next door lives R.L. Burnside, a bona-fide blues man and Kimbrough's frequent partner in musical mayhem. A converted storehouse, Kimbrough's juke joint — which doesn't bother to have a sign —is the hot spot in Chulahoma. 

Photo: Adam Smith
"It's a place to play music, sell beer, dance, and have fun all night," Kimbrough said. "Sometimes we don't even close." Like Burnside, Kimbrough is affiliated with Fat Possum Records, an Oxford, Miss., label that specializes in recording gritty juke joint performers. At 58 or 65 (Kimbrough isn't very good with dates, so his age varies depending on the source), he seems unaffected by his apparent blues stardom at such a late juncture. 

"It surprised me," he said. "You never know." 

This much is known about Kimbrough. He was born in Hudsonville, Miss. At 8, following the lead of his three older brothers and one sister, he took up the guitar. He made his first record — "Tramp," backed with "You Can't Leave Me" — for the Philwood label in 1968. His only other recorded efforts were in the Seventies when he made "Keep Your Hands Off Her" backed with "I Feel Good Little Girl" for High Water and "All Night Long," a song that appeared on the Southland label's National Downhome Festival Series.

Kimbrough's big break came in 1992, when he was featured in "Deep Blues," a blues documentary put together by music journalist Robert Palmer. Shortly afterward, he recorded "All Night Long" for Fat Possum. Produced by Palmer and recorded at Kimbrough's juke joint, the album received glowing reviews in Rolling Stone (which called it the best Delta blues album in 40 years) and other music magazines. 

Kimbrough's belated recognition was nearly cut short late in 1992, when a stroke robbed him of some mobility in his left leg. But he's persevered, never thinking of himself as a star. 

"If my leg wasn't so bad, I'd like to work some," he said. "Maybe as a mechanic." 

Try to catch them at the World Financial Center. This kind doesn't come our way too often. 

(Jackson, MS) Clarion Ledger, Dec 12, 1982.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The Life and Death of Johnny Woods

The hard life of blues harmonica player Johnny Woods, 72, came to an end on February 1, 1990. He died of a heart attack in Olive Branch, Mississippi. Johnny Woods was born on November 1, 1917, in Looxahoma, Mississippi. His father was able to make a living by trading dogs, horses, and mule when he was not working in the cotton fields. 

In the liner notes to The Blues of Johnny Woods, on the Dutch label Swing-master, Woods recalled how he didn't even know there was such a thing as school until he was almost 13 years old. Woods was able to get more out of his farming job than the $20 he earned a month; he learned a lot about music from listening to work chants and hollers. Later, in his spare time, he would work out arrangements combining the shouts he heard with harmonica riffs. 

At 16 he married, and he and his wife had two children. His wife, in the middle of her third pregnancy, died from a stroke. 

As time went on, Woods be came an accomplished musician and a local favorite. In the '60s he recorded with Mississippi Fred McDowell, and in the '80s he traveled and recorded with R.L. Burnside, as well as many others. (Burnside was, perhaps, prouder of Woods' Swingmaster release than he was of his own album for that label.) 

In the liner notes on The Blues of Johnny Woods, he went on to say that one of the reasons his life had been so hard was due to the fact that he was never taught to read, write or count and had been unmercifully taken advantage of. In his late sixties, burdened with glaucoma and eye cataracts, Woods was trying to learn to spell his name and to read.

Shortly before his death, he and his second wife of 29 years, Verlina, had moved into government housing and were enjoying indoor plumbing for the first time in their lives. At the time of his death Woods was taking care of Verlina, who is totally blind and has not left her bed for more than ten years. He was to appear at the Eureka Blues Festival in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, this year, as well as at other local blues festivals. He also appeared regularly at the Rust College Blues and Gospel Festival. A local sculptor agreed to make a headstone for Woods.

By Matthew Johnson

Thursday, April 2, 2020

A Visit to the Grave of Sonny Boy Williamson II in 1971

James La Rocca, "I Got Ramblin' on Ma Mind," Blues Unlimited 82 (June 1971): 5-8.

On Wednesday, August 26th, I began my journey from my home in New Orleans, to Memphis where I had arranged to meet Houston Stackhouse. When I had last seen him, he expressed a desire to tour through the Arkansas-Mississippi area where he had played in past years, and I was on my way to keep him company. 

On my way, I stopped off in Canton, Mississippi, hoping to obtain some information on Elmore James. At a gas station I was given the address of a supposed brother of Elmore's. I made a note to return to Canton when I had more time, and follow this up.

I arrived at Memphis in the late afternoon and went to Joe Willie Wilkins' house, where Houston Stackhouse now lives. I stayed there overnight and early Thursday morning we drove to Little Rock, Arkansas. Here, Stackhouse occasionally played with Sonny Blair, Willie Wright (g), and James Harris (d) in the early '50s. After an unsuccessful attempt to locate Harris at a pool hall in town we ventured to College Station, a small Black community just outside Little Rock. Stackhouse remembered that Willie Wright lived there, but was unsure of the exact street. We spent a frustrating time driving up one street after another without finding the right one. Finally, we stopped in front of a house to ask directions. The tooting horn brought someone out to assist us - it was Willie Wright! Were we surprised and glad to see him.

Stackhouse was extremely pleased to see his old friend and I proceeded to ask Willie about Sonny Blair and the old group. I was told that Sonny had died in 1966 and that his real name was Sullivan Jackson. Willie had met James Harris and Sonny at Little Rock in 1955 and they formed a band called The Houserockers, which would include Stackhouse if he was in town. They played regularly until Blair died and since then Willie has not played much. Blair liked songs by Sonny Boy (Rice Miller) and these plus some originals and improvisations made up the ''Houserockers'' repertoire. In fact, Blair even quit the group for a short time to play with the "King Biscuit Boys" in West Helena. We thanked Willie, bade him farewell, and moved on.

Stackhouse recalled a great guitar player by the name of Ellis (CeDell) Davis who lived in Pine Bluff, so this became our next destination. We went to the "Jack Rabbit Club," one of the largest juke joints in the area and found it closed. Its owner, Son Sullivan, had died in '67. Stackhouse told me of the greats that Sullivan had booked there in the '40s and 50s...Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Joe Hill Louis and others including himself and the Houserockers. The youngest son of  Ellis Davis then took us to him and we arrived at his home on Thursday evening. He played for us till 1:00 am and then we stayed the night. His guitar-playing wasn't very impressive and he claimed he was out of practice, but his singing was surprisingly strong, in a Muddy Waters-Jimmy Rogers vein.

On Friday morning we went on to Clarksdale, Mississippi to find Raymond Hill at an address supplied by Mike Leadbitter. Stackhouse had known his father, Henry Hill, a pianist and juke joint operator. On finding Raymond we learned that his father had died recently. We learned he had first met Ike Turner when Ike was on the piano in a group of Henry's. Raymond joined Ike's band in 1953 and played with them in St. Louis for a period. In 1963 he formed an instrumental group, that recorded in Memphis before breaking up, in 1968. He told us that he had done many sessions with people like Clayton Love, Albert King, Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner.

It was late Friday afternoon when we left. Stackhouse wanted to go to West Helena to see Peck Curtis, but I persuaded hIm to travel an extra 20 miles to Tutwiler where I hoped we'd locate the grave of Sonny Boy Williamson (Miller). In town, we found someone who led us to the Whitfield Cemetary. The graveyard was two-thirds overrun by weeds six feet high and a tractor driver working nearby helped with the search. After much work, we uncovered a marker with a faded "Williamson" nameplate and the name of the funeral home. These facts were used to verify its authenticity. It is sad to note that two of Sonny Boy's sisters still live in Tutwiler and yet they had let his grave vanish under the weeds.

Leaving Tutwiler we traveled to West Helena and found Peck Curtis at his home. Stackhouse and Peck are t11e closest of friends and were happy to see one another again. While they reminisced about old times, I copied some of Peck's photos of Sonny Boy and Sonny Blair. When we mentioned finding Sonny Boy's grave Peck recounted this story.

In 1965, Sonny Boy was living in West Helena and playing with Peck on the King Biscuit show. They were to do a broadcast at noon one day, but Peck was unable to contact Sonny Boy by phone. He told the radio station to play records while he went to find out what was happening. He knocked on Sonny Boy's door and, getting no answer, went in to find him dead in bed...

After a little more talk we thanked Peck and headed back to Memphis and Joe Willie Wilkins. 

In Memphis, Stackhouse plays at ''Ann Brown's Club" every Friday and Saturday. After dropping him off there, I decided to go inside and see the club. It was pretty rowdy, with everyone drinking and fighting, and the musicians drunk and uninspired. The combined conditions led me to amuse myself elsewhere until the gig was over when I picked up Stackhouse and went back home with him to stay the night.

Saturday was spent checking out-dated addresses of musicians in the Memphis area.

I searched for Walter Bradford, Scott Jr., L.B.Lawson, Willie Nix, Jimmy de Berry, Albert Williams, and Big Memphis Ma Rainey (actually Lillie MAE GLOVER) without success. Giving up, and with time running out, I made my way back to New Orleans.

A sad footnote: Stackhouse called me to say that Peck died on November 1st.