Wednesday, May 8, 2019

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....

Friday, April 26, 2019

Graveyards, Though Quiet, Speak to Life

Don't tarry

Gregg Allman and his brother, Duane.

I have a predilection for walking through old graveyards, for there's a certain calmness enveloping a cemetery that can't be reproduced anywhere else. Never do I feel more in tune with history and my heritage. 

Because graveyards provide a tranquil, pensive experience, I've never feared such places, not even at night. Fear of the graveyard is a manifestation of our dread of death. By avoiding a cemetery, we avert facing our own mortality. But I loved graveyards long before such concepts entered my head. 

As a small boy, I would explore the cemetery across from our house. It seemed a gray, white and green amusement park, with its multiplicity of small stone shapes through which to navigate. When I got bigger, I hunted lizards in a church cemetery where several of my ancestors are buried. You can tell a lot about the deceased, and their heirs, by where and how they are laid to rest. 

Racial, class and religious segregation prevail more in cemeteries than almost anywhere else. How pathetically ugly when families dig up their departed to escape a graveyard's integration. Some rich people wear their wealth to the end, with gaudy crypts that tower over other plots. But all families can be fiercely clannish and property-conscious. Walled family plots seem to be saying, "Hey, we may not be well-off, but by God, this speck of land is eternally the Jones's, and you'd better not trespass or we'll haunt you." 

Who's remembered and Who's not 

It's also clear who's revered by their descendants and who's not, as nicely trimmed plots bor-der others strewn with weeds. I can't help but laugh when old relatives insist that they've purchased the "perpetual care" plan. Cemeteries display the eccentric and the tacky. Heart-shaped double-tombstones send the saccharine meter soaring. Stranger still is the graves sporting photos; often it's of an unshaven, hung-over Uncle Ray — just the image he would want us to remember.

Always noteworthy are the souls providing messages. My favorite such engraving was from an old lady who wrote, "Hi there. I knew you would come!" More ambitious are taped messages from beyond the grave, heard at the push of a button. Sadly, sexism reigns supreme. While men are commemorated with long lists of achievements chiseled into mini-monuments, women's graves typically mention only their husbands and children. 

Some of my most memorable graveyard experiences involve departed rock stars. To find the plot of Allman Brothers Band members Duane Allman and Berry Oakley in Macon's Rosehill Cemetery, I lagged behind a couple of hippies. Sure enough, the late rockers' headstones had engraved mushrooms — and the hippies lit up when they got there. The graves were atop a small natural amphitheater ringed by railroad tracks, a wonderful place to have a concert. 

There's also the grave of B-52s' guitarist Ricky Wilson in Oconee Hills Cemetery in Athens, with its unique pyramid tombstone. 

Barry Oakley
Jim Morrison's resting place, the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, is the most enchanting I've experienced. Old graves of every architectural style sit under gorgeous trees. My friends and I found Morrison's grave by following the arrows and signs penciled on other tombs ("Jim this way," and "Lizard King next right"). It turned out to be a little piece of graffiti-scrawled concrete dwarfed by larger crypts and swarming with stoned French teenagers.

The headstone was missing, and we laughed ourselves silly later at the thought of fried granola-heads making off with "Jim's head, man." I'd like to be buried in a placid setting, perhaps at a spot of special significance in my life. I'm glad that my great-great-grandfather chose to be planted under his favorite oak tree, near the place where he went fox-hunting. 

A cemetery is a future as well as the past. It reminds us to get on with life and do all the things we have been dreaming about. The older I get, the less impressive are those granite inscriptions and the more urgent the will to achieve my goals. 

Thursday, April 18, 2019

JOHNNY WINTER, 1944 - 2014


Johnny Winter, a rail-thin blues guitarist known for his scorching riffs, flowing white hair and gravelly, hard-times voice, died in Switzerland at the end of a European tour. He was 70. His death in a Zurich hotel room was confirmed by John Lappen, his public relations manager. Winter, who had emphysema, was recently diagnosed with pneumonia, Lappen said. Over the years, Winter had battled drug and alcohol addictions that made him appear prematurely frail. In 2005, he weighed 90 pounds, but with the help of fellow musician Paul Nelson he managed to shake his drug dependencies, gain 60 pounds, and resume a vigorous touring schedule. "He's stopped drinking and he's talking to people and is more accessible," Nel-son told the Jerusalem Post in 2013. "He walks out on the stage unattended now —this is huge! He was sitting down for 15 years." Winter performed from time to time with his young-er brother Edgar. Both were born with albinism, a disor-der that keeps the body from producing the pigments that color the skin, hair and eyes. The condition also leaves albinos with severe vi-sion problems. 

Born with albinism like his brother Edgar, Johnny Winter said his unusual appearance helped him identify with African American blues musicians.  In Beaumont, Texas, the brothers' hometown, it left Johnny feeling isolated and angry. He later said it helped him identify with African American blues musicians, whose music was kept off mainstream radio stations at the time. "We both had a problem with our skin being the wrong color," he told author Mary Lou Sullivan in her 2 010 biography, "Raisin' Cain: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter." In 1988, Winter became the first white musician named to the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. More drawn to jazz and rock, Edgar Winter became famous in his own right. 

Johnny was to have ap-peared with him on a U.S. tour next month, including an Aug. 22 performance at the City National Grove of Anaheim. However, Johnny's July 12 show at the Lovely Days festival in Wie-sen, Austria, turned out to be his last. Bruce Conforth, a University of Michigan profes-sor of American culture and a founding curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, said Winter blazed a musical trail by blending down-home blues and progressive playing. "Johnny was playing this unbelievably fiery guitar, but he was trying to do it within this very traditional context, which was so mind-blowing to most young, white blues aficionados at the time," Conforth said. 

"Any [blues artist] who picked up the guitar after 1968 was influenced by Johnny Winter." Born in Beaumont on Feb. 23, 1944, John Dawson Winter III grew up comfortably middle class, the son of a cotton broker-turned-building contractor. He took music lessons and sang in the church choir. At 10 or 11, he was transfixed by what he heard on a black radio station that was a fa-vorite of the family's maid. "It was real raw," he recalled, "completely different than the music my parents and grandparents listened to. I started listenin' to blues on KJET because I liked what I heard in the kitchen." Doing a ukulele act, Johnny and Edgar won a local contest that qualified them to audition in New York for "Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour." The judges were unim-pressed. As he got older, Winter played clubs around his hometown. After two years at Lamar State College, he quit, heading for Chicago to sing the blues. Within a few months, he was back in Texas, performing at bars and recording on small la-bels. Still an unknown, he drew the attention of Rolling Stone, which featured him in a 1968 story on the Texas mu-sic scene: "Imagine a 130-pound cross-eyed albino bluesman with long fleecy hair playing some of the gutsiest blues guitar you have ever heard." The next year, Columbia Records signed him to a $600,000 contract. That summer, Winter played at Woodstock, but his set was excluded from the epochal Woodstock film; his manager at the time refused to allow it because "he thought we wouldn't make any money," Winter later said. By the late 1970s, Winter had released a string of popular albums combining classic blues and original compositions. A master of lightning-fast finger work, he was named 63rd on Rolling Stone's list of the 100 greatest guitarists. He also produced four al-bums for his boyhood idol, bluesman Muddy Waters. 

With an on-again, off-again career, Winter appeared to be on at the end. Set for a September release, a new album, "Step Back," features Winter's collabora-tions with legendary guitar-ists Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons and Mark Knopfler. In addition to his brother Edgar, Winter's survivors include Susan Warford Winter, his wife of 22 years. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

FOUND! The Grave of Harmonicist Bud Spires and his Family

Benjamin Bud Spires 
Photo © Bill Steber
The Grave Marker of Arthur "Big Boy" Spires

The Graves of Other Members of the Spires Family

The Fading Nameplate on the Grave Marker of Bud Spires

Bud Spires: Bentonia Bluesman Plays only as Half of the Partnership

By Lisa Nicholas for the Yazoo Herald in 1978

Bud Spires can blow a blues harp, but only with one man, Jack Owens. They've been playing together for about 15 years.

Spires says Owens just "ran up on me playing the harp and we started fooling around until we commenced to play notes together."

"You know how a kid plays a harp? He just sucks the air in and blows out. Well, I could play like that before I met Jack, but no notes. After I heard him, I could play notes. It's got to where now anything he can pick, I can blow. And it's getting better, too. Some other guys tried to blow with him, but they couldn't."

Spires feels training with one partner for a long time allows them to play like one person. Although Spires can't play the guitar, he knows when Owens is playing wrong and usually can tell what he is going to do next.

When they first started playing together, Owens had an electric guitar. Spires had a double noted harmonica. He's never played an electric harp, but thinks he could.

"I could play that double noted harp so hard and loud that you could hear it over that guitar."

The two sit close together to play. Spires says he has to sit close to Owens so he can hear what notes to play. They've sat like this in houses and clubs, in Luckett's Club and the Blue Front in Bentonia.

"I can't play by myself. They'll be waiting for me to play all the time, but I can't get Jack. I'll blow the best I can, but I can't blow with nobody else."

Spires cups both his hands over his harp to play, conjuring a whining, wistful sound. He can't tell anyone how to play harmonica, because "you just have to know."

"Sometimes I volunteer and come on in there and sing a little, too. Me and Jack take turns. Like in 'Catfish Blues,' first it's his turn, then mine. 'Your Buggy Don't Ride Like Mine,' too."

Spires will stop and talk o Owens while he's playing, commenting on his verse, or telling him to speed up the music.

When Spires was young, listening to the blues was all he had in mind. His daddy used to pick a guitar, and blow a harp.

"He could sit on a sidewalk and play. He used to draw the people out of the stores. He was named Authur Spires. I guess I could do it, too."

He got his first harmonica as a child for 25 cents. He doesn't know what brand he plays, and doesn't care. Sometimes he dips his harp in water to loosen up the keys. He plays them until they wear out.

"I've blowed the sides off this one. I had to nail them back on."

Before they play, they tune. Some nights it's easier to get it right. When things aren't going fast enough, Spires says either the guitar is drunk, or the harp is sober.

Spires’ favorite harp is an A. He will blow a C if he can't get an A. If he plays a G, Owens has to "drop his strings way low, almost loose" to get in tune. The high notes on Spire's harp are like brand new because they are never used. They just don't play songs that go up in that range of notes.

"I ain't got nothing to do but this here. I grew up in Mississippi, ain't hardly been out. I'll get together with Jack anytime to play. I could play everyday."

Spires jokes around a lot when he plays, and usually catches the listener off guard with some belly cracker. When he starts grinning, he's set to play. 

Larry Hoffman remembers getting directions from Bud Spires:

I remember being dispatched by Jim O'Neal in Clarksdale, to take our friend photographer Jim Fraher down to Bentonia to pick up Jack and Bud and bring them back to Clarksdale to play in the Sunflower River Festival. We were told to first stop at Duck Holmes' store and get directions from Mr. Holmes to get through the winding brush-laden roads leading to Bud's house, and he would take us to Jack. The interesting thing about this errand was that Bud was stone blind! "Naw, don't worry about that, Bud will take you right there," promised Holmes. After a brief visit with Duck we traveled on to meet Bud and his mom who lived a few miles from the store. From there--as promised-- Bud gave us flawless directions to Jack's place. I have to smile thinking about Jack and Bud and the conversation that ensued as we speeded from Bentonia to Clarksdale. I was in a speedy mood, and was really trucking down those smooth Mississippi highways when Jack shouted out, "I feel like im flyin'!!" It was a great trip, and it was hard not to become immediately taken by both of those great bluesmen. RIP -- one thing that unites the really fine bluesmen is that -- to a man or woman-- each is one-of-a-kind, and never forgotten.