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 

tdmoore@mtzionmemorialfund.org 

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Old Time Ben Payton

STORY BY KATHRYN EASTBURN 
PHOTOS BY JOHNNY JENNINGS AND PAUL JEHASSE

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

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.