Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Dedication of Bo Carter's Headstone - July 29, 2017

Nitta Yuma is off Highway 61 in Sharkey County, Mississippi
The grave marker (without the black granite inlay of Bo Carter's National at the top)
Henry Vick Phelps III
Bill Steber and Ron Bombardi of the Jake Leg Stompers
Miles Floyd, the grandson of Bo Carter
Kenny Brown, testing out the hill country blues on Bo Carter's National

Bill Gandy, the owner of Bo Carter's National
Steve Cheseborough, introducing everyone to the music of Bo Carter
Andy Cohen and Moses Crouch
MZMF Director DeWayne Moore

Friday, July 28, 2017

An Interview with Old Time Record Producer H.C. Speir

by David Evans

[In the 1920s and 1930s, the key link between the various local folk musics and their eventual capture on commercial disc was provided by the A & R (Artist and Repertoire) Man — a combination talent scout, producer, manager, etc. The great early A & R men have been likened to folksong collectors on field trips. In only a few cases have the career's and roles of these men been treated in more than a few passing sentences (see, for example, "I'm a Record Man — Uncle Art Satherley Reminisces, " JEMFQ #25, p. 18; or Mike Seeger's essay on Frank Walker in The New Lost City Ramblers Song Book, pp. 26-29). On the following pages, blues collector and authority David Evans offers some comments on a lesser known A & R figure. Evans has contributed many book reviews to the JEMFQ.]
 

The news of the death earlier this year of Henry C. Speir, former talent scout and agent for several record companies and discoverer of many great blues, gospel, jazz, and hillbilly artists, prompted me to take a look at the notes of an interview I had done with him. Although it was by no means comprehensive, it did elicit some information which may shed some light on the aspect of the recording industry in which Speir played a part. Outside of the mention of him as their original discoverer by blues "rediscoveries" Son House and Skip James, the first news of Speir's career came from Mississippi blues researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow, who located him and published an article on his career called "Legends of the Lost" in several installments of Blues Unlimited in 1966. This has been reprinted in Back Woods Blues, edited by Simon A. Napier (Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex: Blues Unlimited Publications, 1968; pp. 25-28).

The article is a general outline of his career in the music business, though some of the information in it has subsequently proved inaccurate. The only other published information on Speir comes from my interview and appears in my book Tommy Johnson (London: Studio Vista Limited, 1971; pp. 45-68, 80). This information dealt only with Tommy Johnson, however.

My interview was conducted at Speir's home in Pearl City, across the Pearl River from Jackson, Mississippi, on the evening of 1 September 1966. Others present were Speir's wife, Gayle Wardlow, and Marina Bokelman, who took notes on paper. Speir did not want his conversation tape recorded, as he distrusted his memory on many matters so far back in the past. In view of this, I cannot vouch for the complete accuracy of the information presented here, although I can say that it was written down as Speir told it. I was mostly interested in information on Tommy Johnson and Speir's methods of dealing with blues artists, and my time was limited. Consequently, I did not question him extensively about his own life or the many other artists he discovered and recorded. These topics are dealt with, however, at some length in Wardlow 's article.


 I must at this point regretfully mention that Speir expressed a number of stereotyped views of Negroes and of musicians in particular. These views were not always negative, however, and in many cases it was difficult to tell whether they were based on commonly held beliefs from his own cultural background or his particular experiences with musicians. I will only discuss here his views which pertained to music. It is perhaps ironic that a man like Speir could hold stereotyped views about Negroes yet also have a deep appreciation for and a considerable understanding of black music. Yet such was the case. His personal and business relationships with black musicians were apparently very honest and open, and I have never heard a bluesman who had dealings with him say anything but good about Henry C. Speir.

Speir was born in Mississippi in 1895. He grew up hearing and liking black music. In around 1919 he went to New Orleans and got a job assembling phonographs. The cabinets would be made in the North and shipped to New Orleans where the motor, handle, tone arm, and other parts were added. At this time he got the idea that black music should be recorded, and he kept trying to convince others of the feasibility of the idea. It was, of course, in 1920 that Mamie Smith did record the first blues, so that it may have been that with Speir and others urging such a policy the time was ripe for a change in industry attitudes.

Speir was unable to become involved in the recording of music at this time because the climate of New Orleans was too damp for the spring-operated stylus arms of the recording machines. This was remedied in 1923 when the industry switched to cable and weight arms. In about 1926 he opened a furniture and music store in downtown Jackson, Mississippi, and began searching for local musical talent for the record companies. The last session he is known to have organized, according to Gayle Wardlow, was in Hattiesburg for A. R. C. in 1936, He had earlier tried to persuade the Jackson City Council to help him purchase the bankrupt Paramount Record Company and move it to Jackson, but they were reluctant because of the deepening Depression, and the idea was dropped. In 1942 Speir' s store went up in flames, and he quit the record business completely for real estate. When I interviewed him, his main interest was organic gardening, to which he devoted much of his time.

In addition to the 1936 session, Speir supervised two others in Jackson, one in 1930 for Okeh and one in 1935 for Decca. He was always a freelance operator, as his main business was his store which stocked all the major labels. His connection with most of his artists was as a talent scout and agent. He scouted all over Mississippi and in New Orleans, though most of the music in that city was jazz, and he was more interested in blues and spirituals. By the late 1930' s the companies discontinued making recordings of black music in Mississippi, Memphis, and New Orleans, and Speir' s services were probably no longer required. It must also be admitted that although he probably unearthed and got on record more great blues talent than anyone else in the history of the recording industry, very few of his artists were commercial successes. Their music may have sounded good to Speir 's ear, but their sounds were probably too local and lacking in national appeal. Gayle Wardlow has reported that Speir was responsible for the appearance on records of Uncle Dave Macon and Kokomo Arnold, but in the case of Macon this is known to be inaccurate, and with Arnold it seems quite unlikely. Probably his most popular blues artist was Charley Patton, really only a moderate seller, and for hillbilly music the Leake County Revelers. Speir did, however, claim the honor of putting the first preachers of both races on records. 


Rev. Grayson - April 19, 1928
The white preacher was a Rev. [C.M.] Grayson, [former evangelist and then pastor of a church in Magee, MS] who recorded for Columbia in Memphis on the topic of Judas. He could not remember the black preacher's name, but he was from the Delta although living in New Orleans. The recording was done in Montgomery. I have not been able to trace either of these sessions, and in any case no race records are known to have been recorded in Montgomery before World War II.

Some of the confusion in Speir's recollections may be due to the fact that he often made test recordings of singers in Jackson or elsewhere and sent them to the companies for approval. If the response was favorable, the normal procedure was to send the artists north for recording in a studio. Sometimes Speir would go on these trips. On one to Chicago he remembers being surprised to encounter some black recording engineers, one of whom was probably Mayo Williams. He recalls meeting Ralph Peer of Victor and noted that Peer never seemed to show any outward signs of feeling for or against the music he heard. He would simply listen calmly and then either accept or reject the selection or artist. Speir also recalls that Victor records did not sell as well as Paramounts, Columbias, and Okehs, a fact which he attributes to Victor's lack of advertising for its race series.

Speir stated that it usually took a sale of about 5,000 for a record to make money for a company. The companies would pay the artists and then give Speir a flat rate for providing singers, but often he had to buy 500 copies of the record from them "just to record some nigger." This was proof to the company that he had confidence in the record's sales potential. Then the company would send samples to all of their wholesalers. One of the company practices that particularly annoyed Speir was the sale of masters to cheap off-brand companies that would reissue the songs under pseudonyms. These records were sold at dime stores, while his own store carried only the major labels at higher prices. He also suspected that some companies would record singers while they were "practicing" a piece and then issue it under a pseudonym without the knowledge of the singer. 

Occasionally Speir would go north for sessions. He helped at some of the Paramount sessions at Grafton, Wisconsin. He would make suggestions as to whether the singer should be louder or softer. Usually blues singers were too loud and would sometimes break the diaphragm. Sometimes Speir would be able to anticipate a high note from his familiarity with the singer's music, and he would turn the recording level down for it. He recalled that black musicians never got nervous in front of a microphone, but that whites frequently did. (I have also found this generally true for black musicians in field recording situations, but I could name many exceptions.) But he believed that a Negro had to be in the right mood to sing and that most used some stimulant to produce this mood. He vividly recalls Tommy Johnson drinking "that jake leg stuff," probably Canned Heat, and remembers Jim Jackson as a dope addict. Johnson would only sing when he had a can of Canned Heat inside him.


Speir stated that it was impossible to predict who would be a "good" blues singer, i.e., a commercially successful one on record. Some would "really tear it up" in person but sound terrible on wax, and others vice versa. He had no rules for picking blues singers beyond his own personal taste. He felt that a singer should have "harmony," by which he simply meant appeal to his ear. He never took into consideration the fact that a singer might have a reputation for popularity in the black community. He also never used blues singers as scouts, though he did admit that after he began auditioning and recording singers, they would tell others to "go see Mr. Speir." Tommy Johnson came to his store in this manner, apparently having heard about him from Ishmon Bracey, of whom Speir had made test recordings that were approved by Victor. Sometimes singers would make suggestions for accompanying musicians. 

The companies wanted Speir to be sure that each singer to be recorded had at least four different songs of his own composition. Many of them could sing plenty of songs, but they were not original. In other words, they were either traditional and had already been recorded in variant form, or they were interpretations of the hit records. Sometimes Speir would suggest a title or subject to a singer that he thought was promising. To one he suggested the title "Black Snake Blues." When the record came out, Speir fixed a rubber black snake to a phonograph turntable and put it in the display window so that when it turned, the snake would jump out at the customers. Every time it would jump out, the Negroes would jump back, and he attributed good sales to this device, Speir claimed also to have helped in the writing of Kokomo Arnold's "Milk Cow Blues." He stated that at that time he didn't realize that most blues had a "code." A man would sing that he "ain't had no milk since my cow been gone," but he really meant that he hadn't had an affair with a woman in a long time. Most of this code had something to do with "nature." Speir believed that if he had known the code then, he would have known better what would sell and whether the singer was "good." He felt that today, however, he would have been just as confused, because now the music is based on movement, and he was unfamiliar with the modern dances.

Speir probably got to know Tommy Johnson best of all the blues singers he worked with. Johnson made a test of his "Cool Drink of Water Blues" which Ralph Peer approved. Speir then had to find Johnson and prepare him for his recording session. He located him playing in front of a fish fry stand up the Pearl River. Speir had to make certain that Johnson knew four different original songs. He claims that at the time Johnson could only produce two, but they worked together until he reached the required number. Johnson did two sessions for Victor in 1928 and one for Paramount in 1930. Speir doesn't know why he switched companies but assumes that Victor did not have him under contract by 1930. Often companies would simply ask Speir if he had any spare talent not under contract and would accept whomever he sent them. Johnson's Victors sold well throughout the Mississippi River valley from Milwaukee to New Orleans, and Speir thinks one may have sold 200,000. This seems highly exaggerated, however, as his Victors are all hard to find today and the Paramounts extremely rare. Speir recalls that Johnson would twist his mouth, roll his eyes, grimace, and "put a lot of expression" into his singing. The Canned Heat he drank would make him perspire profusely. This report is confirmed by others who knew Johnson. On one occasion in about 1937 Johnson got drunk in Jackson, caused a disturbance, and was thrown in jail. Speir bailed him out for $500, but Johnson immediately left town for Angle, Louisiana, where he had been living with his wife Rosa. Speir tracked him down, despite losing a whole night's sleep because of the noise of a newly-wed couple in the hotel room next to his. He found Johnson working in a field outside his house. Speir put handcuffs on him and returned him to Jackson for trial, where he was put on the county road gang. After he had served his time, he and his wife moved to Jackson permanently. Johnson continued to drop by Speir's store to chat after this incident.
 
Hopefully someone else has interviewed Speir about other aspects of his career. The role of the free-lance Southern talent scouts in the music industry is too little known despite the fact that they provided much of the finest local talent to the companies which otherwise never would have been recorded. Polk Brockman's work with hillbilly musicians in the Atlanta area is now well known, but his equally important dealings with black musicians are still largely a mystery. J. B. Long is still living in Durham, North Carolina, and some important information on him has appeared in Bruce Bastin's Crying for the Carolines (London: Studio Vista Limited, 1971), But was he also involved with hillbilly singers in the 1930's and early 1940 's? In contrast, however, the work of Ralph Lembo of Itta Bena, Mississippi, also a furniture and music store owner, is virtually unknown. He provided blues, gospel, and preaching talent for Columbia, Paramount, and Victor between 1927 and 1930, but he was never reached in time to tell his story, and his widow knew nothing of his business dealings when I spoke to her in 1967. It is known that some black musicians themselves, like Charley Jordan, Will Shade, Big Bill Broonzy, and Rev. Lonnie Mclntorsh at various times acted as talent scouts. Were there others?
 
DE--California State University Fullerton

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Dedication of Bo Carter's Headstone and Celebration in Nitta Yuma


Directions
Nitta Yuma is located on Highway 61. From the north, once you enter Nitta Yuma, turn right after the chapel onto the road in front of the home of Henry Phelps' sister. If you follow the road around the house and to the field, you'll see the cemetery on the right side of the cotton field. The dedication will begin until 5:00 p.m. But folks are more than welcome to come early and have some dinner, which will be setup in one of the buildings (like the commissary) on the street in front of the chapel. These building will also be used for the ceremony in the event of evening showers. If it is raining, do not attempt to drive through the field. Visitors can walk around the ghost town of Nitta Yuma, but do not enter any of the older unless invited inside to look around.
July 29, 2017 - 5:00 p.m.
The Headstone Dedication and Celebration of Bo Carter
Nitta Yuma Cemetery
Nitta Yuma Plantation - Sharkey County, Mississippi




Join us for the headstone dedication and celebration featuring the original fiddle used by Alonzo Chatmon, the actual National Style N guitar once owned by Bo Carter and all of the amazing musicians who plan to perform at the event in Nitta Yuma, MS on July 29, 2017, such as....

- Ron Bombardi (who like Armenter Chatmon, or Bo Carter, adopted a new name as a musician, "Jersey Slim" Hawkins) is a professor and philosopher with dextrous mental abilities, which he readily transfers through his body so he can walk around town, talk to people, and even write a few simple words every now and again in the academic journals and monographs. The longtime fiddle player for the Stompers, in fact, models his playing style after the Mississippi Sheiks most-accomplished fiddle player, Lonnie Chatmon, the brother of Bo Carter (The two brothers stand to the left of Walter Vinson in the below photo). It is very fitting then that his hero's fiddle will be available for his use in Nitta Yuma.  Lonnie Chatmon's fiddle may be heard once again with the steel-bodied National Style N guitar of Bo Carter.

Bill Steber is the photographer who got the good shots of the most recent group of the blues legends, whose work you may have seen at the local university or in Oxford American magazine, but he doubles as one of the potent musical forces behind the Murfreesboro, TN-based Jake Leg Stompers.
- Blues musician Andy Cohen's amazing career has spanned decades so I have prepared a collection of content for your reading and viewing pleasure HERE or you can visit his website HERE






- Blues traveller and musician Steve Cheseborough's admiration and enthusiasm for the music of Bo Carter is all but limitless. He has informed the owner of the National Style N guitar of Bo Carter!!!! And he is Nitta Yuma bound and down!!! Click HERE to read Cheseborough's epic quest for his own personal Holy Grail of the Blues!






- Moses Crouch is a hill country musician of the most committed order who is often heard cooking up his liniments and draining out special orders of snake oil juice with the Memphissippi Medicine. Despite being the youngest musician to confirm thusfar, his repertoire includes plenty of music with an old soul...


Henry Phelps, the landowner of the small hamlet, plans to have a large celebration and reception with food and refreshments following the dedication. He has done many excellent renovations of the historic buildings in Nitta Yuma, and the commemoration of Bo Carter's headstone offers everyone a chance to experience this jewel of the mid-Delta through the lens of a unique celebration.




Tuesday, July 4, 2017

As a Lead Boy for Blind Musicians, the Blues Aesthetic Emerged:





As a Lead Boy for Blind Musicians, 
the Blues Aesthetic Emerged:
Remembering Josh White


Funeral services were held for world-renowned blues singer Josh White at the Epworth Methodist Church in the Bronx where he and his widow Carol were married 34 years ago. White died Friday Sept. 5 while undergoing surgery at Northshore Hospital. He was 61 years old.



Josh White Jr.. son of the illustrious entertainer delivered the eulogy and recited a poem written by one of the deceased's surviving four daughters.

White, who was to have a defective valve in his heart replaced by the surgery, was born in Greenville S.C. He it moved to New York in 1932 where he began a career that revolutionized folk singing, and made it the music of urban cabarets in the 1940s, when he reached the height of his popularity.

His amiable, suave, and sophisticated renditions, coupled with his casual charm created his individual authoritative, sensual style, that made his listening audience consider him a leading popularizer of the blues.

His trademark was a casually worn sportshirt, always invariably opened at the neck, and his performance was always offered while sitting on a stool, with his foot resting on the rung. Another of his trademarks was the presence of a lit cigarette, always tucked neatly behind one ear.

The big husky singer had a —smooth firm, baritone voice, and a broad confiding smile. He phrased his songs with a wide range of emotions, from sheer joy, to anger defiance, accompanying himself on the guitar. Josh White was named Joshua, by his mother who hoped that a name like that would inspire him to become a minister. He used to say that to become a preacher you had to know an awful lot and Josh dropped out of school while in the sixth grade. but when he was only seven, he helped a blind singer home and inadvertently started his singing career. 

The singer later asked his mother if he could accompany him to Florida for the winter. His mother gave him permission to go because he felt that to lead the blind would be "doing God's work." He became the protege of Joe Taggert and for four years the two wandered from town to town Taggert singing and White playing the guitar. The boy, Josh White, began leading other blind minstrels on their tours. One of them was the noted blind Lemon Jefferson. White often said that it was then that he really began to hear and learn songs but they were different songs, songs only Lemon knew, songs he had heard old old people sing when he was a small boy. Pre-Civil War songs and eery rare spirituals. This was the beginning of Josh White's folk singing career.

Lemon Jefferson was famous for moans and shouts but Josh remembered him when he sang lonely songs---songs that one man must sing alone binding his heart to all hearts of all who hear him. Many people felt and have said that White absorbed this gift from Lemon. Although White was only 16 when Lemon died, his close', association with the great minstrel was not forgotten for in 1932 he had an offer to go to New York and record many of Lemon's songs. Once there, he quickly got a contract with a folk song group known as the Southernaires for three performances a week for $84. He then won a recording contract and was billed as the "Singing Christian". He also sang under the name of Pinewood Tom. His many famous songs included "One Meatball" "Out-skirts of Town" "Hard Time Blues" and John Henry." He became nationally famous with his "Chain Gang" album and as a result of it earned the title a "repository of rare 'Southern music." He is survived by a widow, one son, and four daughters.

His remains were buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, Kings County, New York.












OLE FIDDLER: SHUCKING CORN

OLE FIDDLER: SHUCKING CORN 
by Wayne Walker - Thursday, November 8, 1973



We called him the Ole Fiddler. Back in the 20's it was a big thrill for us kids when the Ole Fiddler would pay us a visit. He rode an old grey mule, Maude, he called her, with a rheumatic gait. She seemed to kinda stagger along with the old man's weight almost too much for her to bear. I can see the Ole Fiddler now astride ol' Maude and huggin' his fiddle case across his chest like an infant in his arms. 

His long, white beard waving in the breeze -- not from Maude's great speed, however, Maude could trot no faster than a man can walk. Before coming to the house the 01' Fiddler would stop and feed, water and put ol' Maude away for the night in a spare stable in the barn. With a stiff, rheumatic gait that was worse than Maude's, he'd come amblin' up the lane, still baby-totin' his fiddle. Us young'uns would dash out to meet him. We'd catch up to him and begin pullin' and tuggin' at his loose clothing for goodies like jelly beans, peppermint sticks and orange gum-drops we knew he had for us. 

Teasingly, he would scold us as we felt about his person for the candy: "Git, you young'uns! I ain't got no candy this time. Git along with you now. Stop it. I say – y’all gonna make me drap my fiddle. Go on -- shoo!" We'd get the candy when inside the house and the Ole fiddler got settled down and stated that he had just come to set a spell -- that meant he'd stay all night. Carefully he would place the battered old fiddle case down beside his chair and start the conversation with little unimportant bits of news that was a stall until someone would re-quest that he play the fiddle.

In the Ole Fiddler's estimation, he was a great fiddlin' man; but alas, he could not even tune it properly, and more alas, than that, he only knew two pieces (his word for a song) -- Turkey In The Straw and - Leather Britches. , Finally us young'uns would yell for him to play the fiddle -- he gave us candy didn't he? Talkin' about fast: The Ole fiddler could quick-draw that -fiddle from the case quicker 'n -,, any wild west hired gunman could draw and smoke a 38! My daddy, Doctor Walker, was quite a fiddler in his youth and when the Ole Fiddler held his fiddle up next to his good ear and plunked those out-of-tune strings, daddy would cringe and wince like a dog being whipped. 

The Ole Fiddler adjusted a string or two professionally, rosin' up the bow, and Mama, being allergic to bad fiddlin', excused herself, "to fix supper," she said and departed forthwith. After one piece, the doctor would depart forthwith. With a twinkle in his eyes, the 01' Fiddler would chin that fiddle and shout with gusto: "How'd ya'll like to hear Ole Joe Clark'?" Before anyone could answer he'd rack out with (I'm sorry to say) absolutely and positively the world's worst rendition of -- guess what? yeah, Turkey In the Straw. "Look out now! Here comes the 'Yaller Rose of Texas'!" 

Shouting the Rebel yell, The Yaller Rose of Texas sounded exactly like -- you guessed it --Leather Britches. After supper, it was a repeat performance same as before supper, only more so. He must have had 40 titles for Turkey In the Straw, and 40 titles for Leather Britches! How I loved to "Watch him go," mainly because of his honest sincerity and the way he stomped his foot, off-beat and also out of time to boot. He wore brogan shoes and when he raised that right foot a foot off the floor, the crash made the floor vibrate and the sound mercifully drounded out most of his fiddlin'. 

No. I ain't makin' fun of the Ole Fiddler. He put on a honest and sincere show. I was amazed at how he mesmerized himself with his own fiddlin'. He seemed to go into some kind of trance with wide open mouth, rollin’ his eyes and a lot of crazy head rollin' and shakin’. I know that somewhere in Great Beyond, the Ole Fiddler is playing up a storm out of tune fiddle and out of time stompin'. But maybe, by now, he has learned him a new piece (song) and that will add 40 more titles to his already expansive repertory.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Letter from MS: Paying Elmo a Visit in Ebenezer

 Letter from MS: Paying Elmo a Visit in Ebenezer
By Rafael Alvarez - 1993



Trying to describe the music of Elmore James, someone said the other day, is like trying to describe a primary color.
A color that screams your name as you walk by
That cries all night long
And bleeds
Not just on you, but through you
All the way through to the other side
The color is blue
Electric blue

And it came down in buckets when the great Elmore James opened his mouth. “When Elmo played the blues you could feel a chill going over you,'' remembers guitarist Jimmy Spruill, who made records with James in the 1950s. “He made you feel like your mother just died: sad and miserable and doubtful.''


From the late 1930s, when he began his rambles through the American South with Robert Johnson and Rice Miller, until his fatal heart attack in 1963, Elmore James used his voice and a slide guitar to paint lusty narratives with the primary colors of sadness, misery, and doubt.

"The sky is crying," he often sang, "look at the tears roll down the street..."

The sky above the Newport Missionary Baptist Church graveyard is graced today with a pale, afternoon moon; a sky that is pleased on this warm and quiet Tuesday in February, carrying gentle winds of an early spring through fields of pine.


Down below, Elmore James lies in his 30th year of silence.


He is here, somewhere in this churchyard of rolling hills and crumbling tombstones off of Highway 17, but I am not sure just where because his grave went unmarked until late last year.


Last December, a handsome stone of ebony granite was erected at the cemetery entrance by Elmore's fans. No one is around on this bright afternoon to tell me if the man who could make an electric guitar sound like a tom cat being skinned alive is actually beneath it.


A black pick-up truck rumbles down the gravel road in front of the church, and the driver waves as he goes by. Nothing stirs but the wind until the pick-up comes back the other way and the driver waves again.


The stone sports a bronze relief of a bespectacled James in suit coat and tie; a small, metal "slide'' tube envelopes his pinky finger as he grips a six-string guitar: Elmore staring out across the quiet Mississippi countryside where he grew up as a farmhand.


Every man is the King of Something, if only his own lonely wanderings, and Elmore is memorialized as ``King of the Slide Guitar.''

Because the three-foot-tall monument is so far removed from the rest of the graves (it's the first one you meet, alongside a wooden sign welcoming people to the church), I wondered if the exact location of Elmore's body has been forgotten and they put his marker out front so pilgrims wouldn't miss it.

The other graves -- ``Queen Davis, Born 1850, Died Nov. 16, 1918'' and ``Omega Owens, Born July 26, 1908, Died August 11, 1970'' -- are out behind the church, a good 50 yards from the bluesman's headstone.


I stare at Elmore for a few minutes, the eerie, Hawaiian twang of his guitar looping through my mind, and walk around behind it to find an inscription chiseled on the back: ``Born in Holmes County, Mississippi, Elmore James electrified the Delta blues with his unique slide guitar style, creating a powerful legacy that will remain forever in American music.''

The legacy, which continues today through rock and roll, began on the sly.

At the gravestone's dedication on December 10, 1992, a cousin of Elmore's named Bessie Brooks told of a young James, known then as ``Joe Willie,'' singing gospel for the grown-ups, ``but when my parents would leave to go visiting he played the blues for us.''

By the age of 12, already working in the fields, he was making sounds on wire uncoiled from a broom head and strung on the shack wall.

Such a blues conviction made for trouble with his parents, who only held to the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and soon he went to live with a more permissive aunt.

The Jackson (Miss.) Advocate quoted another cousin at the dediction, a woman named Annie Redmond who remembered Elmore making a guitar out of an old coffee can and two wires used to hang clothes.

"When my mother saw how determined he was to play the blues, she started throwing house parties to raise money to buy him a guitar,'' Ms. Redmond said.

Coming back to the front of the tombstone, I notice that birds have soiled the stone and I retrieve a bottle of glass cleaner and some paper towels from the car and go over the smooth face of the marker like an old Polish lady in Canton getting the streaks out of her front window.

After putting the cleaning stuff back in the car, I come back with a tape player and set it in the grass next to the stone.

I push a button and Elmore comes alive, the stillness broken, his voice booming deep blue philosophy across the countryside: ``When things go wrong . . . so wrong with you . . . it hurts me too....''

It took me back to a Southside Chicago funeral parlor in May of 1983 when a loudspeaker above an open coffin allowed Muddy Waters to sing at his own funeral.


The music that sails across this Mississippi churchyard comes courtesy of Elmore James by way of Capricorn Records, which last summer released 50 of Elmore's singles from 1959 to 1963 in a two CD set titled: ``King of the Slide Guitar.''

Phil Walden, Capricorn's president, was one of the many who helped raised the cash for Elmore's tombstone.

Elmore's voice shadows me as I walk among the other graves, knowing little about his boneyard brethren except what information will fit on a grave marker: ``Wash Brooks, March 16, 1872 to October 30, 1925 . . . Asleep.''

The thunder of Elmore's voice and the sting of his guitar recall a poet's description of strong coffee: ``Black as night/strong as sin/sweet as love/hot as hell.''

Elmore James died on my fifth birthday -- May 24, 1963 -- nine months before the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan and my life changed forever.

Those bright boys with bangs led me to the dark thrills of the Rolling Stones who opened the door to Johnny Winter who introduced me to Muddy Waters who carried me to Elmore James and a little graveyard down at the end of Newport Road in Lexington, Mississippi.

I don't remember my parents interrupting my birthday party to break the news: ``Ralphie, we're sorry to have to tell you this, but Elmo has passed.''

I wouldn't come to know the voice of Elmore James for another 15 years.

No one who loves music should wait so long.

As I take a last glimpse of Elmore's grave, the bluesman moans from the tape machine: ``I believe . . . I believe . . . I believe my time ain't long. . . .''

The sun is dropping behind the pines and it is time to drive toward it. Rafael Alvarez is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.




Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Living History of Nitta Yuma - April 2017

The Living History of Nitta Yuma 

One family with deep roots (and deeper quirks) wants to turn their hometown into a Southern tourist destination 
By Billy Watkins - April 2017


Henry Vick Phelps III walks one of the few roads left in Nitta Yuma, which has a population of around 20. 

More than 6,000 eyes and not a blink or a wink. It is one of the largest doll collections in the state. More than 3,000 fill the sizable building that served as a general store in the 19th century. That is just one of the oddities of Nitta Yuma, a Delta community near the banks of Deer Creek in Sharkey County, 40 miles north of Rolling Fork and 35 miles south of Leland. Its story is like many others throughout Mississippi. Once a boom-ing cotton community with a population approaching 600, Nitta Yuma is now home to about 20 souls who wouldn't consider living elsewhere. 

But itty bitty Nitta Yuma also is unique. It had electricity before Vicksburg or most cities in the United States. 

A Sept. 23, 1896, story in the Memphis Commercial Appeal carried the headline "Nitta Yuma Is Up To Date." The story said Nitta Yuma was "entitled to distinction as the most remarkable town on earth, in point of enterprise and metropolitan progress." It went on to say, "Nitta Yuma's single street is illuminated by electricity" thanks to the "enterprise and liberality of Henry Phelps, the proprietor of one of the stores." It described Phelps as an "accomplished electrician."

Family members whose roots are 200 years deep in this fertile soil want to share Nitta Yuma with the world, and they have plenty to look at — including nine buildings constructed before the Civil War. "A lot of people preserve their home place, the house they grew up in," says 60-year-old Henry Vick Phelps III, who grew up on this property and still lives here, as does his sister, Carolyn May, and his 28-year-old son, Vick. "But we went a little further and kept the other buildings, too." 

Phelps credits his grandparents, Henry and Dorothy Phelps, for having the good sense to let the structures be. "We'd like to have a coffee shop, a place where people can stop and relax and then go through the buildings," Phelps says. "We want to reconstruct the houses back to their original form. We'd like to work with the Delta and serve as an ambassador for the South and for tourism. It's not going to hap-pen overnight, but it's something we can do steady along. "I think our audience would be anyone with a passion for old houses and the South and architecture." 

Bear tracks and buried dolls 

Nitta Yuma means "bear track" or "trail of the bear" in the Choctaw language. 

It was settled in 1768, with an original population of 25. In 1805, Burwell Vick purchased the land with jewels from the Choctaws.

The land eventually became a plantation owned by Vick's son, W.H. Vick, who developed what's called the 100 cotton seed in 1843, a seed that that helped planters maximize pounds of cotton per acre and was eventually sold commercially. 

In 1901, when the nearly 6,000 acres was divided among the four children, Henry Phelps became owner of the family homestead. It's now in the hands of his grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

And while some of the buildings still need to be renovated, others are ready for viewing. Among them: The general store/doll house and its thousands of occupants. The dolls were owned by Dorothy Cole Phelps, mother of Henry III and Carolyn May.

"Her father and uncle owned a funeral home," May explains. "She and her friends used to act like they were having funerals. They would bury dolls and say a prayer over them. "Later on in life, the memory of burying those dolls bothered her.

She started collecting them when she was 35. She died in 2011 when she was 99. What you see here are the dolls she collected over the course of 60 years." They sit side by side on rows of shelves. Others stare out of glass cases that were part of the store. Many look the same. But then there is the Planter's Peanut Man, smiling at you like an old friend. There, too, are Bozo, Popeye, the Jolly Green Giant and Howdy Doody. One glass counter holds only Barbies. This is the Delta, after all, and society status matters. "Whenever people come in here, they'll say, `Oh, I had a doll just like that one,' and point," Phelps says. "It really hits home with women of all ages."

Sprinkled among the dolls are musical instruments: A miniature piano. A snare drum. An accordion. A French horn, trumpet and trom-bone. A rusty harpsichord. I ask Phelps if he is sure the dolls don't talk and play music when darkness comes and humans are out of sight. "You never know," he says and smiles. Other Nitta Yuma buildings ready to visit include: »A furnished antebellum home built around 1855.

It was moved here from the Cameta Plantation, about two miles away. "My daddy gave this to my mother as a wedding present," Phelps says. 

The home where Phelps grew up and still lives. The original family home burned in 1901. Phelps' grandfather re-modeled the family's carriage house, which was built around 1760, and made it their main residence. »A late 18th-century log cabin, which was restored to its original look and moved to Nitta Yuma by Henry II. »A chapel built in 1988 to replace the one lost in a 1901 fire. It includes a plantation bell made of silver dollars hanging from the ceiling. A couple from Belgium is scheduled to have the first wedding there sometime in the fall.

No place like home 

"This place is a lot of work," Vick Phelps says. "Just keeping the grass cut is a project." But he loves it here and appreciates his family's history. He proves it whenever his dad wants to check a family fact. "Alfred the Great (former ruler of England) is my 35th great-grandfather," he says. "Remember Lewis and Clark, the explorers? 

Clark's brother, John, is my fifth great-grandfather. "It's pretty cool going back and learning this stuff, knowing your roots. It definitely helps you realize where you want to be." Contact 

Watch: Video tour of Nitta Yuma. clarionledger.com

Billy Watkins at 601-961-7282 or bwat-kins@jackson.gannett. coin. Follow @BillyWat-kinsil on Twitter.
July 29, 2017 - 5:00 p.m.
The Headstone Dedication and Celebration of Bo Carter
Nitta Yuma Cemetery
Nitta Yuma Plantation - Sharkey County, Mississippi




Join us for the headstone dedication and celebration featuring the original fiddle used by Alonzo Chatmon, the actual National Style N guitar once owned by Bo Carter and all of the amazing musicians who plan to perform at the event in Nitta Yuma, MS on July 29, 2017, such as....

- Ron Bombardi (who like Armenter Chatmon, or Bo Carter, adopted a new name as a musician, "Jersey Slim" Hawkins) is a professor and philosopher with dextrous mental abilities, which he readily transfers through his body so he can walk around town, talk to people, and even write a few simple words every now and again in the academic journals and monographs. The longtime fiddle player for the Stompers, in fact, models his playing style after the Mississippi Sheiks most-accomplished fiddle player, Lonnie Chatmon, the brother of Bo Carter (The two brothers stand to the left of Walter Vinson in the below photo). It is very fitting then that his hero's fiddle will be available for his use in Nitta Yuma.  Lonnie Chatmon's fiddle may be heard once again with the steel-bodied National Style N guitar of Bo Carter.

Bill Steber is the photographer who got the good shots of the most recent group of the blues legends, whose work you may have seen at the local university or in Oxford American magazine, but he doubles as one of the potent musical forces behind the Murfreesboro, TN-based Jake Leg Stompers.
- Blues musician Andy Cohen's amazing career has spanned decades so I have prepared a collection of content for your reading and viewing pleasure HERE or you can visit his website HERE






- Blues traveller and musician Steve Cheseborough's admiration and enthusiasm for the music of Bo Carter is all but limitless. He has informed the owner of the National Style N guitar of Bo Carter!!!! And he is Nitta Yuma bound and down!!! Click HERE to read Cheseborough's epic quest for his own personal Holy Grail of the Blues!






- Moses Crouch is a hill country musician of the most committed order who is often heard cooking up his liniments and draining out special orders of snake oil juice with the Memphissippi Medicine. Despite being the youngest musician to confirm thusfar, his repertoire includes plenty of music with an old soul...



Miles Floyd, the grandson of Armenter Chatmon, will be on hand at the event. So will the original instruments owned and played by the Chatmon family.

Henry Phelps, the landowner of the small hamlet, plans to have a large celebration and reception with food and refreshments following the dedication. He has done many excellent renovations of the historic buildings in Nitta Yuma, and the commemoration of Bo Carter's headstone offers everyone a chance to experience this jewel of the mid-Delta through the lens of a unique celebration.