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. 


Thursday, April 18, 2019

JOHNNY WINTER, 1944 - 2014

BY STEVE CHAWKINS

Johnny Winter, a rail-thin blues guitarist known for his scorching riffs, flowing white hair and gravelly, hard-times voice, died in Switzerland at the end of a European tour. He was 70. His death in a Zurich hotel room was confirmed by John Lappen, his public relations manager. Winter, who had emphysema, was recently diagnosed with pneumonia, Lappen said. Over the years, Winter had battled drug and alcohol addictions that made him appear prematurely frail. In 2005, he weighed 90 pounds, but with the help of fellow musician Paul Nelson he managed to shake his drug dependencies, gain 60 pounds, and resume a vigorous touring schedule. "He's stopped drinking and he's talking to people and is more accessible," Nel-son told the Jerusalem Post in 2013. "He walks out on the stage unattended now —this is huge! He was sitting down for 15 years." Winter performed from time to time with his young-er brother Edgar. Both were born with albinism, a disor-der that keeps the body from producing the pigments that color the skin, hair and eyes. The condition also leaves albinos with severe vi-sion problems. 

Born with albinism like his brother Edgar, Johnny Winter said his unusual appearance helped him identify with African American blues musicians.  In Beaumont, Texas, the brothers' hometown, it left Johnny feeling isolated and angry. He later said it helped him identify with African American blues musicians, whose music was kept off mainstream radio stations at the time. "We both had a problem with our skin being the wrong color," he told author Mary Lou Sullivan in her 2 010 biography, "Raisin' Cain: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter." In 1988, Winter became the first white musician named to the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. More drawn to jazz and rock, Edgar Winter became famous in his own right. 

Johnny was to have ap-peared with him on a U.S. tour next month, including an Aug. 22 performance at the City National Grove of Anaheim. However, Johnny's July 12 show at the Lovely Days festival in Wie-sen, Austria, turned out to be his last. Bruce Conforth, a University of Michigan profes-sor of American culture and a founding curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, said Winter blazed a musical trail by blending down-home blues and progressive playing. "Johnny was playing this unbelievably fiery guitar, but he was trying to do it within this very traditional context, which was so mind-blowing to most young, white blues aficionados at the time," Conforth said. 

"Any [blues artist] who picked up the guitar after 1968 was influenced by Johnny Winter." Born in Beaumont on Feb. 23, 1944, John Dawson Winter III grew up comfortably middle class, the son of a cotton broker-turned-building contractor. He took music lessons and sang in the church choir. At 10 or 11, he was transfixed by what he heard on a black radio station that was a fa-vorite of the family's maid. "It was real raw," he recalled, "completely different than the music my parents and grandparents listened to. I started listenin' to blues on KJET because I liked what I heard in the kitchen." Doing a ukulele act, Johnny and Edgar won a local contest that qualified them to audition in New York for "Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour." The judges were unim-pressed. As he got older, Winter played clubs around his hometown. After two years at Lamar State College, he quit, heading for Chicago to sing the blues. Within a few months, he was back in Texas, performing at bars and recording on small la-bels. Still an unknown, he drew the attention of Rolling Stone, which featured him in a 1968 story on the Texas mu-sic scene: "Imagine a 130-pound cross-eyed albino bluesman with long fleecy hair playing some of the gutsiest blues guitar you have ever heard." The next year, Columbia Records signed him to a $600,000 contract. That summer, Winter played at Woodstock, but his set was excluded from the epochal Woodstock film; his manager at the time refused to allow it because "he thought we wouldn't make any money," Winter later said. By the late 1970s, Winter had released a string of popular albums combining classic blues and original compositions. A master of lightning-fast finger work, he was named 63rd on Rolling Stone's list of the 100 greatest guitarists. He also produced four al-bums for his boyhood idol, bluesman Muddy Waters. 

With an on-again, off-again career, Winter appeared to be on at the end. Set for a September release, a new album, "Step Back," features Winter's collabora-tions with legendary guitar-ists Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons and Mark Knopfler. In addition to his brother Edgar, Winter's survivors include Susan Warford Winter, his wife of 22 years. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

FOUND! The Grave of Harmonicist Bud Spires and his Family

Benjamin Bud Spires 
Photo © Bill Steber
The Grave Marker of Arthur "Big Boy" Spires


The Graves of Other Members of the Spires Family

    
The Fading Nameplate on the Grave Marker of Bud Spires

Bud Spires: Bentonia Bluesman Plays only as Half of the Partnership

By Lisa Nicholas for the Yazoo Herald in 1978

Bud Spires can blow a blues harp, but only with one man, Jack Owens. They've been playing together for about 15 years.

Spires says Owens just "ran up on me playing the harp and we started fooling around until we commenced to play notes together."

"You know how a kid plays a harp? He just sucks the air in and blows out. Well, I could play like that before I met Jack, but no notes. After I heard him, I could play notes. It's got to where now anything he can pick, I can blow. And it's getting better, too. Some other guys tried to blow with him, but they couldn't."

Spires feels training with one partner for a long time allows them to play like one person. Although Spires can't play the guitar, he knows when Owens is playing wrong and usually can tell what he is going to do next.

When they first started playing together, Owens had an electric guitar. Spires had a double noted harmonica. He's never played an electric harp, but thinks he could.

"I could play that double noted harp so hard and loud that you could hear it over that guitar."

The two sit close together to play. Spires says he has to sit close to Owens so he can hear what notes to play. They've sat like this in houses and clubs, in Luckett's Club and the Blue Front in Bentonia.

"I can't play by myself. They'll be waiting for me to play all the time, but I can't get Jack. I'll blow the best I can, but I can't blow with nobody else."

Spires cups both his hands over his harp to play, conjuring a whining, wistful sound. He can't tell anyone how to play harmonica, because "you just have to know."

"Sometimes I volunteer and come on in there and sing a little, too. Me and Jack take turns. Like in 'Catfish Blues,' first it's his turn, then mine. 'Your Buggy Don't Ride Like Mine,' too."

Spires will stop and talk o Owens while he's playing, commenting on his verse, or telling him to speed up the music.

When Spires was young, listening to the blues was all he had in mind. His daddy used to pick a guitar, and blow a harp.

"He could sit on a sidewalk and play. He used to draw the people out of the stores. He was named Authur Spires. I guess I could do it, too."

He got his first harmonica as a child for 25 cents. He doesn't know what brand he plays, and doesn't care. Sometimes he dips his harp in water to loosen up the keys. He plays them until they wear out.

"I've blowed the sides off this one. I had to nail them back on."

Before they play, they tune. Some nights it's easier to get it right. When things aren't going fast enough, Spires says either the guitar is drunk, or the harp is sober.

Spires’ favorite harp is an A. He will blow a C if he can't get an A. If he plays a G, Owens has to "drop his strings way low, almost loose" to get in tune. The high notes on Spire's harp are like brand new because they are never used. They just don't play songs that go up in that range of notes.

"I ain't got nothing to do but this here. I grew up in Mississippi, ain't hardly been out. I'll get together with Jack anytime to play. I could play everyday."

Spires jokes around a lot when he plays, and usually catches the listener off guard with some belly cracker. When he starts grinning, he's set to play. 




Larry Hoffman remembers getting directions from Bud Spires:



I remember being dispatched by Jim O'Neal in Clarksdale, to take our friend photographer Jim Fraher down to Bentonia to pick up Jack and Bud and bring them back to Clarksdale to play in the Sunflower River Festival. We were told to first stop at Duck Holmes' store and get directions from Mr. Holmes to get through the winding brush-laden roads leading to Bud's house, and he would take us to Jack. The interesting thing about this errand was that Bud was stone blind! "Naw, don't worry about that, Bud will take you right there," promised Holmes. After a brief visit with Duck we traveled on to meet Bud and his mom who lived a few miles from the store. From there--as promised-- Bud gave us flawless directions to Jack's place. I have to smile thinking about Jack and Bud and the conversation that ensued as we speeded from Bentonia to Clarksdale. I was in a speedy mood, and was really trucking down those smooth Mississippi highways when Jack shouted out, "I feel like im flyin'!!" It was a great trip, and it was hard not to become immediately taken by both of those great bluesmen. RIP -- one thing that unites the really fine bluesmen is that -- to a man or woman-- each is one-of-a-kind, and never forgotten.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

The Last Known Bull Ride of the Delta Blues

Sam Chatmon's Long & Hard Road




Born in 1899 outside of Bolton, Mississippi, Sam Chatmon was one of 24 children born to well-known fiddler Henderson Chatmon and guitarist Eliza Jackson. First introduced to music at an early age, Sam played the bass in his family’s string band, which performed rags, ballads, and popular dance tunes at parties in the immediate vicinity of Bolton. As a young man, he developed into a versatile musician, who could play bass, guitar, banjo, harmonica, and mandolin. 

Beyond his early performances at local parties, Sam also worked as a solo act for small fees and tips on street corners and cafes in cities across Mississippi. In the 1920s, two of his brothers formed a popular string band the Mississippi Sheiks, which at the time of their first recording session for Okeh Records in 1930 included Lonnie Chatmon on fiddle, Armenter “Bo Carter” Chatmon on guitar, and Walter Vinson on guitar and lead vocals. 

While the Mississippi Sheiks recorded as many as seventy songs over five years for the Okeh, Paramount, and Bluebird labels, the band’s most commercially successful record was “Sitting on Top of the World,” (1930 Okeh 8784), which became a standard of traditional American music. It’s popularity inspired several derivative recordings by a host of musicians, such as Bob Wills, John Lee Hooker, Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte, Bill Monroe, Frank Sinatra, the Grateful Dead, and the Jeff Healey Band. The song also served as the musical basis for Robert Johnson’s later recording of “Come On in My Kitchen.”

In the late 1920s, Sam and his wife Palyetta Chatmon moved to Washington County in the Mississippi Delta, where he worked on occasion as a farmer on the plantations outside the town of Hollandale. He continued to perform during this period, sometimes alongside eminent blues guitarist and singer Charlie Patton, who also grew up in Bolton. After the Mississippi Sheiks disbanded in 1935, Sam and his brother Lonnie went on to make their final recordings, twelve duets, for the Bluebird label in 1936, which signaled the end of his career as a professional musician. He subsequently returned to his wife and children and settled down to farming in Hollandale. 

“I kept farming until 1950,” Chatmon recalled, “I rented that land and worked until I quit with my own team and all. Then I went to work as a night watchman and bought me a house and a half acre.” 


Ken Swerilas, a folk music enthusiast who had acquired several 78 rpm records of the Mississippi Sheiks, managed to track down the versatile blues musician in 1965. “I didn’t play much music until 1965 when Ken Swerilas came by and asked me to come out to San Diego,” he recalled, “So I came out West and wound up getting a whole new chance to play at colleges and coffeehouses and a whole new chance to make records.” Starting a new chapter of his career as folk-blues artist, Sam Chatmon recorded that same year for Arhoolie Records, and he later recorded for several other independent blues and folk labels. He toured extensively during the 1960s and 1970s. 

Hacksaw Harney, 
Sam Chatmon, 
and Eugene Powell
At Sweet’s Mill Music Camp in California, he made several recordings with a new band called The California Sheiks, which included such musicians Sue Draheim, Kenny Hall, Ed Littlefield, Lou Curtiss, Kathy Hall, and Will Scarlett. In the mid-1970s, Chatmon performed at some of the largest and most popular folk festivals, including the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, the Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto, and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. 

Music critic John Wilson, in one 1971 article for the New York Times, described the finger-picking guitar and moaning vocal style of Chatmon as a “living summation” of the Delta blues tradition. 

Even though he enjoyed an extended resurgence in popularity that took him to venues across the country, Chatmon always came back home to Hollandale. His presence in the Delta, indeed, served as a major promotional force and inspired a new respect for blues music in Mississippi.

The Mississippi Parks Commission, the Mississippi Arts Commission, and the National Endowment for the Arts combined forces to initiate the Classroom in the Parks Program in the summer of 1976, which included “A Tribute to the Delta Blues” at Leroy Percy State Park, featuring Chatmon and several other Delta-based musicians. 

Beginning in 1977, he also performed at different blues concerts and events sponsored by Mississippi Action for Community Education (MACE), a community action organization headquartered in Greenville, which organized the first Delta Blues Festival at Freedom Village in 1978. 

Chatmon was a featured performer for five years at the annual Delta Blues Festival. He was even honored with a reception at the Governor’s Mansion in 1982, the day before his final public performance on stage in Freedom Village. 

After an extended bout with pneumonia, Sam Chatmon died in South Washington County Hospital in the early morning hours of Wednesday, February 2, 1983. His funeral was held the following Sunday at Simmons High School Auditorium in Hollandale, and it featured the musical tributes of Dell Rico Jackson, the Hollandale Community Choir, and talented singer Barbara Howard. WNIX disc jockey Al Mike addressed the somber crowd and talked about his interviews with the eminent blues singer. “In an age of few true heroes,” Malcolm Walls offered, “Sam stood tall.” He represented a certain element of a state that “sometimes forgets or hides its cultural traditions,” as one staff writer for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger put it. His friend and student Libby Ray Watson also performed the Mississippi Sheiks standard “Sitting on Top of the World” at the funeral, a performance which, one attendee believed, “spoke quite eloquently for the swatch of sunbeams peeking through the clouds of an oppressively gloomy day.” 

There may be days you don’t know your name 
Why should I cry, why should I cry in vain 
But now you’re gone, and I’m not worried 
‘Cause I’m sitting on top of the world 

Chatmon was buried in an unmarked grave at Sanders Garden Memorial Cemetery until the late-1990s. It was not until a little more than fifteen years after his death that the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund marked his burial site with a flat memorial headstone. Indebted popular musicians Bonnie Raitt and John Fogerty contributed the majority of the $1,400 cost of the marker, which featured an engraved portrait of the blues artist as well as an inscription composed by MZMF founder Skip Henderson and former student Libby Rae Watson. Hollandale native Cousie Giglio, in conjunction with local officials, organized a dedication ceremony at the city auditorium in Hollandale, which attracted over two hundred people from all over the state on March 14th, 1998. Blessed with beautiful weather, the graveside service was a “pleasant one,” according to one observer. 

The Hollandale Fire Station hosted a subsequent reception in honor of Chatmon. With an abundance of food, including a cake in the shape of a guitar, the festivities included the screening of a film about the blues singer, a display of mementos relating to his life, several speeches of family and friends, and a live performance by Leland-based (Wilmot Born!) bluesman Eddie Cusic. Some folks, who wanted to continue the celebration, headed over to the Walnut Street Bait Shop in Greenville to enjoy libations as well as the musical stylings of T-Model Ford and the John Horton Band. The first headstone erected for Sam Chatmon was replaced in September 2015. 


Considering the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund decided to focus its efforts on 1) assessing the condition of markers and their surroundings and 2) taking the necessary steps to address any problematic discoveries. The most pressing and potentially costly problem we identified was the deterioration of Sam Chatmon’s headstone at Sander's Memorial Garden Cemetery in Hollandale, Mississippi. The commemorative marker had deteriorated significantly during the past seventeen years due to lawn mower damage and the unforeseen effects of erosion on the flat stone. The intense amount of weathering rendered the etched photograph of the musician unrecognizable—more like vanished in the dark black space. The marker, in addition, suffered from repeated attempts to correct a couple of words that a local monument company misspelled during the engraving process. Due to the extent of damage and vulnerable nature of the flat stone, the board decided to replace it with a more durable headstone, one less susceptible to damage from routine lawn maintenance and designed to resist the effects of weather. The suggestion was also made to erect a commemorative bench near his grave site. 

To assess our options in light of cemetery rules, MZMF board member Euphus Ruth discussed the installation of a more weather resistant marker with the manager the cemetery. Although he would not allow an upright stone, he granted permission to install a slightly raised, beveled stone, which will help prevent lawnmower damage as well as allow water to run off the front surface. He also agreed to allow the installation of a stone bench near the grave site, which serves not only to honor the versatile musician, but also provide a solemn performance venue for blues musicians and enthusiasts who visit each year from around the world! 

His Misspelled Marker
On March 28, 2015, the MZMF board of directors met in Greenville to discuss—among other projects—the progress of fundraising efforts to replace the damaged headstone of Sam Chatmon. Having asked for bids from four different monument companies, the board accepted the second lowest bid of Mortimer Funeral Home in Greenville, Mississippi. The board made this decision based on its conclusion that the experienced, Delta-based institution will provide the utmost in quality as well as show care and respect for this native artist. The quoted price for the beveled headstone is $1,915.06. The quoted priced for the simple, yet sturdy, stone bench is $739.37.




Saturday, April 6, 2019

“The Great Untold Story” of the Hill Country Blues

By T. DeWayne Moore

"I was talking to someone about Bobby Ray who had never met him recently, and they said, "Oh yeah, Charlie Freeman said he was a wild man!" Coming from Charlie Freeman that says a lot!"

- Chris Wimmer, 2017



“He was a wild man,” in the opinion of Mississippi folklorist Bill Ferris. Then again, Watson might have seemed tame compared to a lot of other folks running around the hill country of North Mississippi in the late 1960s, several of whom--as muleskinner and auctioneer Ray Lum put it—were “wild as shithouse rats.” This group of musicians, artists, writers, and blues enthusiasts “would do anything,” Ferris believed, “and Bobby Ray [Watson] was one of ‘em.”[1] The melodic and sometimes cacophonous experiences of North Mississippi musician Bobby Ray Watson may indeed be some of the greatest untold stories in the musical history of North Mississippi and Memphis during the late 1960s and 1970s.[2] Not only did he seek out and study under the “blues masters,” Watson also established friendships with such blues guitarists as Joe Calicott and Fred McDowell. In addition, Watson often carried Holly Springs blues singer R.L. Burnside to perform and record at the Memphis studio of famed session guitarist Roland Janes, who recalled he also carried a duffel bag, more often than not, stuffed full of homegrown marijuana and a couple quarts of corn liquor. The resultant music of the adulterated duo produced a strange, hybrid sound, which, according to one observer, was the result of “crazy hillbillies and crazy black guys” with recreational drugs, musical creativity, security and freedom of expression. The different personalities and musical energies of the two North Mississippians in the studio of Roland Janes, indeed, proved a “crazy combination!”[3]

Bobby Ray and Jack Owens
In addition to his associations to blues artists, Watson served as an important early organizer and producer of blues festivals and other events. It all started at a hippie hangout in Memphis called the Bitter Lemon, which booked older blues musicians and attracted an audience of “vintage Southern beatniks,” including world class photographer Bill Eggleston, musician Jim Dickinson, poet, writer, and intellectual Randall Lyon, musician Dan Penn, writer Stanley Booth, and musicologist Bill Barth, who Watson considered one the “greatest delta blues players” of the blues revival. He found a home among all these kindred spirits and members of the Memphis County Blues Society (MCBS), which organized a series of country blues/rock festivals at the Overton Park Shell from 1966 to 1970. By developing and maintaining friendships with several folk and blues musicians, such as Sam Chatmon and Big Joe Williams, he was the natural choice for talent manager, coordinator, and stage manager for the first Mississippi Delta Blues Festival at Freedom Village in 1978. He subsequently founded the Mississippi Country Blues Society, which put on several blues concerts around Jackson. In 1979, Governor Cliff Finch made him an honorary ambassador of goodwill for the state as well as appointed the versatile songwriter as one of the “colonels” on his staff, attaching to him a durable moniker that continues to precede his name to this very day, particularly in the South. 
The Colonel, as we sometimes refer to him, was born on October 17, 1943, and he grew up in the rural home of his grandparents in Pleasant Hill, Mississippi. Though his grandfather played the mandolin and his grandmother played the piano, Watson credited his uncles with introducing him to the blues and rock ‘n roll, initially over the radio, and later through the records of such native Mississippians as Big Joe Williams and John Lee Hooker. Having developed into an emotionally powerful singer in his teens, Watson was the lead singer of a high school band called Bobby Ray and the Rapscallions. He also later fronted a second, six-piece group of Rapscallions in Memphis, which performed at some venues in the city and further south in Desoto County, Mississippi.[4]

After graduating from Olive Branch High School in 1961, Watson attended Northwest Jr. College in Senatobia (MS) and Memphis State University until the summer of 1963, when he enrolled at the University of Mississippi. Having completed two years of coursework towards his Bachelors of Arts degree, Watson decided to try his luck as a “self-employed musician” in New Orleans, where he met Babe Stovall, who performed in the cafes and on the streets in the French Quarter. Watson recalled that Stovall, on occasion, played the guitar on the back of his neck while hollering so loud that everyone in the immediate vicinity could hear him. Stovall and his playing partner Slim Harpo, in particular, spurred his interest in the old timers and their music.[5] For thirteen straight weeks, Watson sang lead vocals for a band, the Pirates, in its own regular show, which featured the occasional guest vocalist, such as the soulful Aaron Neville, a “juicy baritone” by the name of Benny Spellman, or the amazing Earnest Kador, better known as Ernie K. Doe.[6]

In 1965, Watson moved to California to check out the vibrant music scene on the West Coast. He auditioned for a host bands over the next couple of years, but none of them quite fit his own, personal style and musical vision. Landing the city of Moorpark, Watson was eventually forced to work construction to earn a living, which limited the amount of time and energy remaining each day to cultivate his musical talent. As he continued to struggle into 1968, Watson realized that the West Coast scene was not conducive to his general well-being, and he returned to Pleasant Hill, where he built a new house on his grandparent’s farm.[7]

Back in Mississippi, he initiated a search for old blues records that so developed into a diligent search for older musicians, some of whom had performed on the radio and even recorded in the twenties and thirties. He realized that some of the old blues singers were still alive and got into the habit of asking older folks about folks who still lived in the hill country and played old music, particularly the blues. He soon procured several leads and started “tracking ‘em down…like a bloodhound.” It took little time, in fact, for Watson to make the fortuitous discovery of a harmonica player steeped in the hill country blues of North Mississippi. While driving one day in the pouring rain, he noticed a man and a woman walking down the side of the road near Pleasant Hill Cemetery. Watson stopped and picked up the couple, who lived right down the road from his grandmother, and when he asked if they knew any local musicians, the two smiling and drenched travelers, hill country harmonica master Johnny Woods and his wife Verlena, informed Watson of their own considerable musical abilities.[8] Watson’s chance encounter with the Woods’ not only encouraged his expectant quest for other musicians, but it also brought together the musicians and allowed for the blossoming of a lasting friendship.

Watson’s friendships with the elder statesmen of the hill country blues allowed him to serve as the bridge for many Memphis musicians to the cultural blues traditions of African Americans. His status as a cultivator of marijuana also proved an asset around the city. For example, Memphis musicians Jim Dickinson and Charlie Freeman ran out of pot one night while tripping blue mescaline so they called up the Colonel, who subsequently pulled onto the scene with a “bale” of his finest green. Watson always carried large quantities of, what he called, “Delta Delight.” As they sat on Dickinson’s screened-in porch and watched the sun rise over his neighbor's pasture, the conversation eventually turned into a discussion of “primitive country blues.” Freeman had never really understood what everybody saw in such artists as Furry Lewis. “He's just a nice old black guy that can't play anymore,” the uninitiated guitarist stated before admitting, “I don't get it.” His admission led to his introduction to the blues of Fred McDowell. Watson showed Freeman the light that morning, and a few hours later Dickinson was on the phone listening to Freeman’s musical awakening. "OK. I get it. This guy is the real thing,” he admitted, “I understand the blues in a whole new way.” Watson no doubt shepherded many ignorant young guitarists through a cultural awakening. As a young Kenny Brown would later experience as well, Charlie Freeman sat and listened to the master musician sing the hill country blues well into the night, and Watson, of course, was right there nodding his head; no doubt the immense compassion of McDowell and Watson was reflected that morning, on that porch, when everything seemed so good and right. It gave a new meaning to the term “Delta Delight," that is, at least for the rest of us.[9]

Watson was not only a frequent visitor to home of McDowell, he also developed a particularly strong bond with Joe and Doll Calicott, both of whom he considered his “best friends.” His relationship with Calicott, perhaps more than any other musician, instilled within him the desire “to save his music” as well as the music of other, older artists. Yet, Watson also wanted to ensure that his older blues artist friends be “paid fairly and given credit for their works.” Despite his appreciation for the work of folklorists to preserve the music of black folk artists and blues musicians, he vehemently believed that black artists had not received ample compensation for their intellectual property. Most of Watson’s own field recordings and interviews, in fact, remain unpublished and locked away in the “Colonel Bobby Ray Watson Archives.”[10] His unshakable convictions about redressing past wrongdoings, and his natural ability to develop bonds of kinship with not only the musicians, but also their families served the Pleasant Hill native well in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Fred McDowell and Bobby Ray
Following the death of Joe Callicott in 1969, Watson took up the duties of mentoring Kenny Brown, an aspiring young North Mississippi musician, who had lived across the street from late blues singer. He showed Brown how to play bottleneck guitar and introduced him to blues legend Fred McDowell at the one of the Memphis Country Blues Festivals. Watson even provided Brown a unique opportunity to play with harmonica player Johnny Woods.[11] After the passing of several of his older, musician friends, Watson not only carried on their musical traditions, but he also carried around the pain of losing his close friends. 

He continued to perform and record over the next few years. In 1972, Jim Dickinson invited Johnny Woods and the Colonel to Ardent Studios in Memphis, where they recorded a song titled “Shake Your Boogie.” It appears on a compilation album called It Came From Memphis Vol. 2, a digital audio companion to a book of the same name written by Robert Gordon. Watson, in addition, performed on two tracks included in Jim Dickinson’s Delta Experimental Projects Compilation; the first, “Holy Spirit,” features a host of excellent musicians, such Hammie Nixon, Sleepy John Estes, Lee Baker, and Ry Cooder. Watson played with Johnny and Verlena Woods on “Ol’ Man Mose,” which is shorter, yet a similar take on “Shake Your Boogie.” He also became friends with Brenda Patterson, a backup singer for Ry Cooder, who invited Watson to play harmonica on one song, “End of the Road” and sing background vocals on her 1973 self-titled album Brenda Patterson (Playboy 109). 

The Colonel spent the next several years working as a casual for Roadway Express, tracking down elder musicians in his free time, and performing at various clubs in the state capital of Jackson. The live music scene in Jackson attracted folks from as far off as Memphis and New Orleans to venues such as Poets and Widow Watsons. Singer/songwriter George Allen, as well as a lot of musicians from the Delta, performed and patronized the late 1970s Jackson club scene, where he met Pascagoula-native Elizabeth Thompson (most folks call her Libby Rae) who had recently moved to town to study and become a dental hygienist.[12] One evening, a friend came and picked up twenty-three-year-old Libby Rae to go hear some local music, and in the back seat of the car sat the thirty-five-year-old a transient musician hailing from the rolling hills of northern Mississippi. I think it’s safe to say Libby Rae was smitten with the Colonel, and that a most magical musical journey began in earnest that night in early 1977. 

Bobby Ray Watson
and Libby Thompson circa 1978
It was not long before the couple started traveling the state and visiting all of the elder statesmen of the blues, such as Big Joe Williams, who lived in Crawford, and Jack Owens, of Bentonia. It did not take long for the couple to make searching for musicians in Mississippi a regular adventure, a most intoxicating and romantic tour of legends. By simply driving around to different towns and asking folks if they knew any artists or musicians, the field researchers managed to locate some interesting people. “That’s literally how we found some people…just going to a town, stopping at a station, [and] asking people, ‘Does anybody around here play music?’” The scouting method proved successful on many occasions, as the couple usually tracked down some folks, who, even if they did not play anymore, “reminisced about the times they did.” On other occasions, they located “some cool folk artists,” one of whom lived in a small wooden house and produced her artwork using colored pencils. Another interesting individual built mechanical motorized robots that moved around in his front yard.[13]

After less than a year of travelling around the state with him, Libby Thompson had developed a rapport with the last living member of a legendary musical family, Sam Chatmon, son of fiddler Henderson Chatmon, of the Mississippi Sheiks, a popular string band that included his brothers Armenter (his brothers called him Bo) and Alonzo (Lonnie) Chatmon as well as Walter Vinson. Sam’s career in the recording industry had come to an end in the early 1930s, and he settled down to farming in Hollandale in the mid-1930s, bought a house and a half acre, and only played at local parties until his “re-discovery” in the early 1960s.[14] The couple visited him often at his home, and Libby started taking informal lessons from her chosen mentor. Chatmon did not mind her hanging around in the least; indeed, a pretty young female student was very welcome to come to learn for the elder Sheik.

The friendly relationships that the Colonel had developed with musicians in Mississippi made him a valuable asset not only to aspiring musicians but also to promoters. In December 1977, hoping to procure a paid apprenticeship grant to study under Chatmon, the couple traveled to Memphis to attend the quarterly meeting of the Folk Arts Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The panel of nationally recognized folklorists and community arts leaders met in largely closed sessions, but they also held some open meetings for the public, in which Bess Lomax Hawes, the director of the Folk Arts Program, discussed the new guidelines for folk arts projects in radio, film, and videotape. Hawes, however, had no affinity for apprenticeship grants, preferring to fund projects that impacted communities as opposed to individuals.[15] Though Libby Rae would never receive a grant-funded apprenticeship with Chatmon, it was not a wasted trip. The couple’s appearance allowed for a fortuitous meeting with Karen Shalong Morgan, the founding director of the Delta Arts Project, a cultural education initiative of the non-profit Mississippi Action for Community Education (MACE). Morgan had come to the panel hoping to make connections with knowledgeable individuals, such as Center for Southern Folklore (CSF) director Bill Ferris and ethnomusicologist David Evans. She recognized how fortuitous it was to meet the Colonel, however, and she immediately recruited them both to help coordinate the 1978 Delta Blues Festival. In essence, she hired the couple to “round up the musicians, get the contracts signed,” arrange for transportation and attend to the artists’ needs at the festival.[16] One brevity in Living Blues magazine notes that folklorists Alan Lomax, Worth Long and Bobby Ray Watson acted as masters of ceremonies.[17]

Almost immediately after the Delta Blues Festival in late October, the couple founded the Mississippi Country Blues Society (MsCBS) with their friends Ron Easley and Harriet Fitts. The MsCBS, in the main, organized concerts for Big Joe Williams, Sam Chatmon, Roosevelt Sykes, and Frank Frost & the Jelly Roll Kings at C.W. Goodnights and the old Fireman’s Lodge on the Barnett Reservoir near Jackson. The MsCBS only staged a handful of events before it faded from the scene. Libby Rae had, before long, completed her training as a dental hygienist, and her father Perry Augustus Thompson, himself a long established and affluent dentist in Pascagoula, beckoned her home to work in his office.[18] Even though the couple got married with the best of intentions, the almost magical musical aesthetic that seemed to encapsulate their relationship eventually turned into resentment, and the fairy tale ended in the 1980s. In 1986, the Colonel again enrolled at the University of Mississippi. This time, he studied under Bill Ferris at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture (CSSC). One document in the Blues Archive at the university library describes the Colonel’s “brown bag” presentation for the CSSC, which in a way served as a farewell to his home state—titled “Blues of a Different Color.” “Long before Ole Miss developed its own curriculum on the southern culture,” Watson had been “traveling around Memphis and through Mississippi” conducting field recordings and learning from master musicians. He drew upon his previous work and delivered interpretations of their music for the brown bag. He was also working on a book about his experiences.[19]

It was at this point “the music stopped” for a while. Watson went back to school and became a registered radiologic technologist. After working in the medical field for only a few months in Opelousas, Louisiana, he accepted another job in the same position in San Francisco, California. The newly-acquired professional skills of the Colonel offered a radically different sort of work environment, and his musical instruments remained in their cases as he adjusted to life of the West Coast. He did not, however, let them collect too much dust. Before long, he started playing guitar and writing music again. At one jam session in the Vista Club, he met the musicians who eventually formed the band, NXQS. Watson certainly did not miss a beat as a musician, and the band hit the practice room hard. 

Soon they started to receive some recognition in the Bay Area, particularly due to the group’s young female vocalist, Twanna Melby, who, in fact, was the long lost daughter of Clarksdale, Mississippi-native talent scout and popular musician Ike Turner. For almost thirty years, Melby had shied away from the notion of finally meeting her father and his famous former wife, Tina Turner. In the early 1990s, however, Turner was serving a four-year sentence in a San Luis Obispo prison on cocaine charges when he developed a relationship with his estranged daughter, who learned about her father’s troubled life from newspaper articles and her mother, Pat Richard. By getting clean and exhibiting good behavior, Turner was paroled after eighteen months and released into the custody of Melby, who allowed her father to live at her home. [20] On the day of his release, Turner admitted that he was nervous: “All the time I’ve been in jail I’ve been saying to myself when I get out I’m going to make some great music and re-establish my career…and now I got to do it.”[21] His daughter’s band NXQS was doing quite well, in fact, until Turner’s release from prison, but in short order the band broke up. 

Watson and Turner, however, made an immediate connection and soon became fast friends, offering the Colonel a rare opportunity to work with a legendary songwriter. Thus, the drug-free, yet still struggling, former band leader of the Kings of Rhythm lived with Watson at his house for over a year. The two men made music from sunup till sundown. “Ike was a workaholic,” Watson recalled, but “he worked me to my best ever.”[22] Looking to reassemble his life and music career, Turner put together a 14-piece ensemble called The Ike Turner Revue, and he handed the singing duties over to Watson. It would have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most people, but it was only the most recent collaborative effort of the Pleasant Hill native with an unrecognized music legend from Mississippi. The group played their first gig at Jimmy’s in Oakland on New Year’s Eve. Watson and Turner also performed at Eli’s Mile High Club in Oakland, Larry Blake’s Blues Club in Berkeley, as well as the Strand in Los Angeles. The group split up not too long after the release of the unflattering film, What’s Love Got To Do With It, however, and Watson parted ways with the infamous Ike Turner.[23]

The incessant practice sessions with Turner and his featured role in the Ike Turner Revue served to reinvigorate his libidinal passion for more traditional music, which lived deep down inside of the Colonel, in a place where his early musical kinships remained as alive and vivid as they were on the day he played with Jack Owens at his small home in Bentonia. In the summer of 1994, he played at clubs in Napa and Vacaville as well as fronted a band called the Rhythm Sticks at the Blues & Brew Festival in Fairfield. Watson told one local journalist he could play the “electric stuff,” but his favorite was “acoustic, bottleneck blues,” a style which, he believed, required real life experience to possess or convey any true meaning. He felt that he transmitted clear, mostly unambiguous, messages through his music. “Blues is communication,” he concluded, “It’s how I talk to people.”[24] Watson continues to perform around Sacramento on occasion as a special guest with The Used Blues Band, but he had also remarried and simply enjoyed living with the love of his life. 

In the summer of 2014, I started to track down the Colonel after locating very little evidence of “the great untold story” mentioned by Memphis producer Jim Dickinson. It took several months to find an accurate phone number, and several more months to get him to agree to an interview. Eventually, I learned of his desire to perform once again in the hill country of north Mississippi, and I secured him a plane ticket, a hotel room, and a slot the following summer on the bill at the Oxford Blues Festival on the campus of the University of Mississippi. He readily accepted the offer and even flew home early to see his family before the festival. Once he got situated onstage, he delivered an amazing set that including the Mississippi Sheiks’ classic “Sitting on Top of the World,” “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” and his old original tune “(I Gotta Have My) Sugar.” After demonstrating that he had not lost any of his chops whatsoever, he invited local blues singer Joyce Jones onstage to sing. The sweltering heat took its toll after over an hour of continuous performance, however, and he waved to crowd standing in the Grove on the campus of the University of Mississippi. Sweat had completely soaked his shirt, I noticed, as he carried his guitar off the stage. He walked over to a waiting vehicle and climbed inside in the air-conditioning as I secured his instrument. The Colonel had come and it was a sweet homecoming indeed. As I shuttled him back to his hotel, he turned to me exasperated and beamishly declared, “Only the strong survive!” 

NOTES

[1] Dr. William Ferris, telephone interview by T. DeWayne Moore, March 14, 2014. 

[2] In the liner notes to It Came from Memphis Vol. 2, a digital audio companion to a book of the same name written by Robert Gordon, Memphis record producer Jim Dickinson contends that Watson “may be the great untold story of Memphis in the late 1960s and 1970s.” 

[3] Andria Lisle and Mike Evans, Waking Up in Memphis (Sanctuary Publishing, 2003), 183. 

[4] Bobby Ray Watson, telephone interview, T. DeWayne Moore, March 30, 2015. 

[5] Ibid. 

[6] John Broven, Rhythm and Blues in New Orleans (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 1978; repr. 2016). 

[7] Bobby Ray Watson, telephone interview, T. DeWayne Moore, March 30, 2015. 

[8] The harmonica playing of Woods first gained notoriety in the late 1960s, when he began to accompany blues guitarist Mississippi Fred McDowell, and the duo recorded together first in the 1967 field recordings of George Mitchell; they also provided a few tunes for the compilation King of the Country Blues V2, produced by Chris Strachwitz, of Arhoolie Records, and in 1972, Tom Pomposello and Fred Seibert tracked him down in north Mississippi and recorded Mississippi Harmonica on Oblivion Records. 

Johnny and Verlena Woods appear together in episode five, “Who’s That Comin’—Blues,” of the All You Need Is Love documentary series, released in 1977. 

[9] Jim Dickinson, I’m Just Dead, I’m Not Gone (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2017), 242. 

[10] Stanley Booth, The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2014), copyright page. 

[11] Sue Watson, “Blues Musician Gets Grant,” The South Reporter Online, Aug 11, 2004. 

[12] Libby Rae Watson, interview by T. DeWayne Moore, September 29, 2013, Dublin, Mississippi. 

[13] Ibid. 

[14] Lou Curtiss, “Sam Chatmon Speaks,” website, San Diego Troubadour, http://sandiegotroubadour.com/2012/09/sam-chatmon/ [accessed April 26, 2015]. 

[15] The meeting was located at the Holiday Inn Central at McLean and Union Street; “Arts Folk Art Panel,” (Memphis, TN) Tri-State Defender, Dec 10, 1977, p.6. 

[16] Libby Rae Watson, interview by T. DeWayne Moore, September 29, 2013, Dublin, Mississippi. 

[17] Hans Pehl, “Greenville, Miss,” Living Blues, Nov 1978. 

[18] Born November 30, 1910, Perry Thompson had already received his education and license to practice dentistry in 1940; 1930 US Census, Citronelle, Mobile, Alabama; Roll: 40; Page: 7A; Enumeration District: 0001; Image: 252.0; FHL microfilm: 23397751940 US Census; Pascagoula, Jackson, Mississippi; Roll: T627_2032; Page: 20A; Enumeration District: 30-5. 

[19] “Watson Brown Bag,” Jan 26, 1987, “Bobby Ray Watson,” subject file, Blues Archives, J.D. Williams Library, University of Mississippi. 

[20] Beth Kleid, “Proud Turner,” The Los Angeles (CA) Times, Sep 4, 1991, F2. 

[21] Chuck Phillips, “Will They Still Like Ike?,” The Los Angeles (CA) Times, Sep 5, 1991, F1. 

[22] Bobby Ray Watson, email to author, April 30, 2015. 

[23] “Ike Turner Tells His Love Story,” The (Palm Springs, CA) Desert Sun, June 14, 1993, B1. 

[24] Brian Hamlin, “Foamy Fairfield Fest Celebrates Suds and Song,” Vacaville (CA) Herald, Sep 16, 1994.