Friday, February 21, 2020

Reconciling the Blues King: Rubin Lacy and the Importance of Inclusive Memorialization Processes

Rubin Lacy circa 1930
Rubin Lacy was one of the most talented and influential artists in Mississippi blues during his short career as a secular performer. The grandson of a minister, Lacy was born in Pelahatchie on January 2, 1901. He was a well-known blues performer in the Jackson area and the Delta until 1932, when he put his guitar down and became a preacher. In the 1950s he moved to California, where he died on November 14, 1969. 

Although the Mississippi Blues Trail marker installed in 2009 to purportedly further "racial reconciliation" and rehabilitate the state's image as an intransigent racist backwater claims that he was buried in Pelahatchie, Mississippi (based on the information written on his death certificate), his remains actually never made it back to the Magnolia State--a fact that Latinx blues artist, custodian, and Mt. Zion Memorial Fund affiliate Gabriel Soria discovered in the early 1990s, when he raised the funds to mark his actual gravesite. Eschewing the Manifest Destiny-like memorialization process of so many blues "Puritans," Soria tracked down the descendants of the "Blues King," learned the actual location of his remains, and worked with them to design and install his headstone in Union Cemetery in Bakersfield, California. 

Letter from Ruby Thomas, the daughter
of Rubin Lacy, to Gabriel Soria
For the amateur blues researcher, it was important to consult with the family members of the artist during the process of memorialization. Indeed, the letters he sent to them showed respect by requesting information and seeking their blessing, and the letters he received in response demonstrated the importance of shared authority and collaboration (between admirer/scholar and family members) in the memorialization process. It is of the utmost importance to reach a consensus about the past in any serious effort at reconciliation, but the exclusive research process and premature installation of the MBT marker in downtown Pellahatchie, Mississippi suggests that the cultural legacy of Rubin Lacy was merely appropriated for its potential economic boon, which left a lot on the table in terms of the state's image and racial reconciliation. A more inclusive research and memorialization process, or shared authority with the descendants of Rubin Lacy (or even an enamored Latinx musician and respectful custodian in Cali), would have not only prevented the metal forging of a falsehood onto the marker, but also increased the power of the MBT to rehabilitate the state's image, bridging the societal and racial divide through the memorialization process.

The MBT did not consult with the family before it installed the marker in February 2009 at 716 Second St. in downtown Pelahatchie, Mississippi--in front of the city's museum and not far from the library. "We put it in the middle of town," Pelahatchie Mayor Knox Ross admitted. "It just adds one more thing for people to come see." - (Jackson, MS) Clarion Ledger, Feb 24, 2009.

Although Rubin “Rube” Lacy recorded only a handful of blues songs, he played an important role in the formative years of Mississippi blues. Lacy learned to play the guitar and mandolin by emulating George “Crow Jane” Hendrix, a multi-instrumentalist who led a string band in Pelahatchie. As a young man Lacy traveled widely, and among his experiences were meeting country music pioneer Jimmie Rodgers while both were railway workers, and working in Chicago with an uncle from Germany who taught Lacy to speak German fluently. After moving back to the Jackson area, where he became known as the “blues king,” Lacy played in an elite circle that included Son Spand, Ishmon Bracey, Tommy Johnson, Charlie McCoy, and Walter Vinson. He later moved to Itta Bena, where he met Italian immigrant and talent scout Ralph Lembo and toured the Delta performing with such artists as Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Ralph Lembo at his store in Itta Bena circa 1929
Lacy made four recordings for Columbia Records at a session in Memphis in December 1927, but none were released. The following March he traveled to Chicago, where he recorded two songs for the Paramount label, “Mississippi Jail House Groan” and “Ham Hound Crave,” both of which he learned from Hendrix. Accompanying Lacy on the trip was music talent agent Ralph Lembo of Itta Bena, who contributed a spoken part to “Ham Hound Crave.” The two Paramount tracks, the only blues recordings by Lacy that were ever released, are considered such prime examples of Mississippi blues that both songs have appeared on numerous reissue CDs and LPs around the world.

Rev. Rubin Lacy and his wife in the 1960s
Following a train-related injury in 1932 Lacy decided to join the ministry, a path followed at times by fellow Mississippi bluesmen of his generation, including House, Skip James, Ishmon Bracey, Skip James, and Robert Wilkins. Lacy preached in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Missouri before relocating to California. In1966 ethnomusicologist David Evans, John Fahey, and Alan Wilson located Lacy in Ridgecrest, California, and recorded him preaching and performing gospel songs together with members of his congregation. Although Lacy would no longer perform blues, he remained proud of his early recordings and suggested to Evans that the religiously devout feel the blues “quicker than a sinner do, ‘cause the average sinner ain’t got nothing to worry about.”

Lacy was one of a number of blues performers born in Rankin County. Others included Luther and Percy Huff, Shirley Griffith, John Henry “Bubba” Brown, Tommy Lee Thompson, Othar Turner, Elmore James, Jessie “Little Howlin’ Wolf” Sanders, and Pelahatchie native Lefty “Leroy” Bates. Griffith, Bates, and some of Lacy’s children later moved to Indianapolis, Indiana.*

The trivia section of the Clarion Ledger on Oct 16, 1990 asked readers to guess the name of the mysterious blues singer from Pelahatchie who died in 1972. 
The answer was Rubin Lacy, but he died in 1969.

Blues Researcher Anne M. Evans Passes at 103

Anne M. Evans (née Kunze) was born November 2, 1916 and died Feb. 7, 2020 in Millington, TN. She was 103 years old.

She grew up in Medford, Massachusetts, and lived in other New England locations before moving to Savannah with David Evans Sr. around 1974. She had only a high school education and no experience or training in field research, other than a bit of prior amateur folklore collecting in New England, and no real knowledge of blues and folk music or any particular interest in it, but she was in the South and wanted to know if she could somehow help her son, David Evans Jr. with his research. He suggested Blind Willie McTell, since his life was little known, at the time, other than that he had grown up in Statesboro not far from Savannah. Her son also suggested that she investigate around Thomson farther to the North, where McTell said he had been born. Anne and David Evans Sr., set out to find information, first asking around in Savannah, where they turned up a few memories of him. 

Anne also collected other folklore there, including folktales that her son used in a publication. Then the couple went to Statesboro and met and interviewed several informants who knew McTell, including McTell’s half-brother Robert Owens. 

Anne M. Evans “in the field” ca. 1977
with Georgia bluesman Embry Raines at his sister’s house

In the Thomson area, they found McTell’s cousin and other family members and Kate McTell Seabrooks in nearby Wrens. The relatives in Thomson led her to McTell’s burial site, which has since become well known and often visited. She also found active musicians Ira “Tiny” Coney and Embry Raines and some excellent church singers in Clyo, Savannah, and Pin Point. And she located McTell’s old partner Blind Log, following a tip provided by Pete Lowry. 

David Evans Sr. passed away in Savannah on Sept. 11, 1976, and Anne continued doing fieldwork for a while. In fact, she became quite good friends with Kate McTell, who also lost her husband around the same time. In 1975, her son began to follow up on her work, re-interviewing many of the informants and finding a few new ones, but she did the bulk of the basic work. 

David Evans Jr. published a preliminary version of the McTell research in 1980 in an essay in the booklet notes to Atlanta Blues: 1933, which won a Grammy nomination for “Best Album Notes” (shared with Bruce Bastin, who also contributed to the booklet). He also published shorter versions of the research in other album notes. 

I’d estimate that up to 75% of what the world knows about McTell’s life is due directly or indirectly to her efforts. (You wouldn’t know this from Michael Gray’s “biography,” where he convert’s McTell’s life into a travelogue of his own “voyage of discovery” - using, of course, the road map that her research had largely laid out.) In addition to making a mark in blues research, Anne Evans also published a number of children’s short stories and wrote several unpublished children’s novels in various historical settings. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Family of Robert Johnson Turns on Kitchens' Law Firm

Johnson's heir fights lawyers' perpetual pay

For more on this dubious legal case, click HERE - "How Claud Johnson won the Royalties of Robert Johnson's Estate"

For more on the problematic stories of blues tourism in Crystal Springs, Mississippi, read THIS ARTICLE.

Legend has it he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his talent as a blues musician, but few would hear his music. He mysteriously died at age 27 and didn't become famous during his lifetime. Even though he only recorded 29 songs, the royalties from his music are in the millions and the law firm which proved who was the rightful heir is still being paid for its services 20 years later. 

"That litigation went on from 1991 to 1999, actually, when the appeal came through,” said Michael Johnson of Crystal Springs. "It was settled in the Chancery Court in Greenwood, Miss. So, it actually was a 10-year battle from the beginning to the end." 

Friday, February 7, 2020

The Restored Headstone of Sonny Boy Williamson II

The restored headstone - All Photos by Alan Orlicek

In December 2019, the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund set out across the state of Mississippi to check up on the memorials we have erected over the past 30 years. Along the way, we conducted new research, surveyed several cemeteries, and visited the gravesites of several musicians whose graves have not been maintained for decades.

Thus, we recently commissioned master stonemason Alan Orlicek to repaint the lettering and level the detached headstone of Sonny Boy Williamson II in Tutwiler, MS. Indeed, we learned about several maintenance issues at other cemeteries containing the graves of blues musicians, and we have several ongoing projects to mark the graves of artists such as Nathan Beauregard, Zula Van Hunt, Roosevelt Graves, and many others!

We need your help to ensure these markers are available for viewing and visiting for years to come! You can write a review here:

You can make a donation here:

The seriously unmaintained marker as we found it in December 2019