Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Bill Barth: Carpetbagging Savior of the Blues

Bill Barth was a musician, concert promoter, and entrepreneur, who has been described by some as "underrated" and misunderstood even among his own coterie of friends and collaborators. He may be best known for acting on information forwarded by record collector Gayle Dean Wardlow (obtained from musician Ishmon Bracey) and tracking down 1930s blues artist Skip James.

Barth wrote about his experience locating Nathan Beauregard in the 1960s.

He is also mentioned in this article by Stanley Booth about the Memphis Country Blues Festival from 1966-1970.  Click HERE

Barth was a central reason that it came from Memphis.  He co-founded the Blues Society too.

Skip Henderson had provided almost every single original concept for the city of Clarksdale's eventual blues tourist landscape, but he wrote a letter to the editor of the newspaper that put him on the wrong side of the new library director, Ron Gorsegner, who, along with the library board, took steps to take control of the tourism industry from the visionary. He was lucky that Bill Barth and Tim "The Royal Truth" Kendall--who lives near that dread place known as Paganhill, bought the Crossroads Bar from him as well.

Kendall corrected an often reported error about the re-discovery Skip James in the 2000s. He emailed Ed Denson not long after Barth died to confirm that Denson only engineered the early re-recordings of Skip James with Fahey and was involved finding Bukka White. He also engineered stuff for Fahey's Takhoma label and managed Country Joe and The Fish. Denson, however, denied having anything to do with finding Skip James in Tunica.]

Bill Barth, John Fahey, and Henry Vestine, of the band Canned Heat, found him posted up in a Tunica, Mississippi hospital in 1964. After paying his supposedly modest medical bill, the trio drove the rediscovered legend to the Newport Jazz Festival, where his surprise appearance delighted the audience and set in motion the second and perhaps even more influential musical career of Skip James.

In the mid-1960s, Barth moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where, in the company of other musicians and blues enthusiasts, he co-founded the Memphis Country Blues Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the Delta blues. This organization produced five festivals between 1966 and 1970 featuring artists such as Furry Lewis, Gus Cannon, Bukka White, Sleepy John Estes, Yank Rachel and Fred McDowell. An accomplished guitarist, Barth himself appeared at these festivals as a member of the blues-tinged psychedelic band, The Insect Trust, and in duet with John Fahey. One performance by the latter pairing, under the comic pseudonyms Josiah Jones and R.L. Watson, was recorded by Arhoolie Records’ owner Chris Strachwitz for the Blue Thumb two-LP set “Memphis Swamp Jam.“ Because of their mastery of country blues guitar, the true identity of the players remained for many years a mystery to fans who believed the liner note description of two black, mute pantomime artists “discovered“ on the streets of Memphis by Strachwitz.

Bill Barth spent the almost all of his last twenty years in Amsterdam, in self-imposed exile from the music business, focusing the bulk of his energies on the study of life extension through nutritional supplements. He continued to play and write, occasionally jamming with well-known artists like Alex Chilton, Taj Mahal and Sam Duffy, as well as local performers, but Bill chose to publish his own work on the internet, a sample of which may be found at the IUMA website. His last public appearance was in New York City in 1999.

He passed away of a heart attack in his sleep, at his home in Amsterdam, Holland on Wednesday, July 15, 2000, at the age of 57.

The Clarksdale (MS) Press Register, Jan 28, 1997.