Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Old Walter Phelps Goes Uptown - Asheville Citizen Times, Apr 4, 1978.

"I had me a band," said Walt Phelps, and the gaze from his red-rimmed old eyes drifted off into the distance of time. “Used to play round here till all my boys died off some time back. We'd play uptown, out toward Black Mountain, Waynesville, Burnsville..."

"One fellow played the washboard, and had him two fryin' pans — different sizes — a cowbell, a cymbal. and thimbles on his fingers. We had a washtub bass. I was lead man, and then we had a fellow who got him one of them big old horns from a old Sab. Edison phonograph, then went up to the pawn shop and got him a kazoo. He had that kazoo welded into the end o' that big old horn and called it his saxophone. That sounded better'n a kazooxophone'. He could play that thing. too."

Walt Phelps was a music man. He played music to pay the rent, to feed himself, and purely for the fun of it. He loved music, he said, almost as much as he loved white liquor--the corn squeezings that came out of a hundred copper stills between here and the South Carolina line.

Soon to be 82, his face less wrinkled than most men of that age, and his hair a close-cropped white, Old Walt still makes music — only now he's really gone uptown.

From Street Corners To Concert

In his younger days, he played on street corners or playgrounds, or in the ball park, wherever he thought he could draw a crowd and make a few dollars.

Now he's a concert performer. In his old age, with music still working its way out of him, Walt Phelps does shows on college campuses and at the Asheville Junction and draws rave applause from audiences and good notices in such publications as "The Arts Journal."

"The Arts Journal said he graduated from the fourth grade," said Walt s wife, Ethel.

"I didn't graduate from no fourth grade," said Walt "I just got in the fourth grade. Never did get out."

His education didn't come from school. It came from his music. "Even in school," he said. "I was always playin'. That was in Laurens, South Carolina, where I was raised on a farm. In school, when we went out for recess, they'd put the little girls on one side and the little boys on t'other. I bought me a five-cent harmonica and learned to make enough music with it to make them little girls dance. You should'a seen 'em a-kickin' an' a-stompin."

Walter plays the blues — the deep down, gut-level, bone-chilling blues.

"This is the blues," declared Dan Lewis, laying aside his guitar for a moment. "These people stood around on street corners, or sat on back porches, and really lived the blues." They're totally real. They can put aside all the garbage and get down where it is. This is the raw, crude thing. The energy is incredible."

Lewis makes music with Ethel and Walt Phelps. "You should have seen the people at Warren Wilson College taking to Walt's music," explained Lewis. "He had them on their feet when he did 'Darktown Strutters Ball' and 'Big Crap Game,' and he kept them on their feet the rest of the night."

Medicine Show Days

On Saturday night, Lewis and Walt and Ethel will do a concert in Lipinsky Auditorium at the University of North Carolina--Asheville. "You come and watch Old Walt," Lewis said. "He'll have them in the aisles."

Walt's had 'em in the aisles all his life. He used to stop the ball games at McCormick Field when he'd suddenly appear in the grandstand aisle on the third base side, dressed in a swallow-tailed coat and plug hat, dancing and huffing on an old harmonica. We didn't know him as Walt Phelps; he was just "Old Walt."

Walt's fondness for music and corn whiskey helped him make a living.

"Back in the thirties," explained Walter Phelps, "I worked with Dr Nonzetta's Medicine Show. I wore a split-tailed coat and top hat, and Doc called me 'Stovepipe.' I'd draw a crowd playin', tellin' jokes, dancin', and cuttin' shines, and Doc Nonzetta sold patent medicine and some soap that he'd made hisself."

He'd pour iodine on his shirt sleeve — he always wore white shirts — an' that soap would wash that iodine out of his shirt ever bit. He sold three little bitty cakes of that soap for a quarter, and they went like hotcakes. I'd go out in the crowd and sell his medicine — it was pretty good stuff, too — and soap, and sell my corn liquer on the side."

"I'd holler and say, 'Doc, I done sold out,' and then I'd tell 'em, 'but I got some of my own.' I bought that stuff fer $3 a gallon and sold it $1.50 a pint. Lots'a times, though, I was my own best customer."

Walt worked for the city 19 years, but before that he worked wherever work could be found. "Back before World War II." he said. "they hired me and Peg Leg Charlie Williams to sit on two cotton bales out front of the Imperial Theater and play music to draw crowds for that new mom' picture. 'Gone With The Wind.' I'm tellin' you, we whomped up some mighty big crowds for that picture show

Back To Music

"But the most fun of all was that medicine show. Doc hired Georgia Dooley from over on the East End. and she was supposed to be my wife. Georgia was two feet tall and had awful big feet. Old Doc would say, 'Look at 'ern. folks, that big old feller and his dear sweet little wife, the mother of his six children,' and they'd look at me, six feet tall, and at Georgia and her great big feet. 'We're a-tryin' to make them some money.' Doc would say, "an' them people would open up their pockets."

"When I wasn't playin' with Doc '• Walt said, "we sometimes had trouble payin' the rent, so we'd cook up a big mess o' chittlins, fry some fish, make a big pot o' chili, an' throw a rent party. People would come from all over to eat that stuff and lissen to our music. They'd pay a quarter apiece, an' we'd pay the rent.

When World War II came along, Walt was drafted at age 46 and went to Fort Bragg for his physical.

The doctor looked at him and asked, "What county you from?"

"Buncombe." "I thought so " "Huh?" "Never saw a man from Buncombe yet didn't have some other man's initials on his face " The doctor pointed to a scar on Walt's forehead "Yes, sir." Walt said. "Them's initials, all right. But you should'a seen t'other man, I wrote my whole name on his face.”

The Army rejected him, and Walt looked for more honest labor than the medicine show. He went to work at Fontana where the TVA was building the highest dam.

In the east "I saw seven men killed there," Walt said. "Last one killed got hit with a bucket full of seven yards of concrete. He was standing right beside me. I was wearing one'a them tin hats, an' a rock come down and chipped my nose an' split my chin like a apple Man, I didn't stop till I got to the personnel office."

He went back to his music then, and he's been with it since.

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