Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Blues Scholars Give Up Integrity Clinging to Myths

Revisiting Ralph Lembo (click title to open) was published in the ARSC Journal in December 2018. The editor of the ARSC Journal made the decision to publish a response (click to open) from Gayle Dean Wardlow and Ed Komara in July 2019. I have provided both the original article as well as Komara's response here on the MZMF website. Below is my answer.

I originally submitted Revisiting Ralph Lembo in hopes that Ed Komara would be the reader who ARSC Journal editor Sarah Bryan sent it out to upon submission in September 2017. I learned about the revised King of the Delta Blues manuscript in the summer, as he had announced his projected end of the year submission on the RBF Book Forum, a Facebook group once controlled by Ulf Burgenblad. Whereas I expected to learn about some lost cache of research that warranted the book’s revisions, I ended up receiving no notes whatsoever or even a standard letter of recommendation for publication from the peer reviewers. I believe that Komara was the peer reviewer because I only received a request through the editor to cut the following section from the manuscript. It was an important analysis, however, and it’s a good thing that I only moved it to footnote 69:

In another interview with Miller, Wardlow asks another leading question, “Do you think Lembo was honest?” Having listened to Wardlow suggest that he wasn’t so “straight an arrow,” Miller replies, “I don’t think so.” Miller invokes Rev. Thornton’s non-existent royalty suit – not personal experience – to justify his answer. In addition, Wardlow had discussed most of the topics addressed in the taped interview at least once before turning on the recorder. One time, when talking about Rube Lacy, Miller passes off hearsay as a firsthand account. “I think he done mighty well in his musical career,” Miller declared, “and the last I heard from him he was a preacher.” Miller had not spoken with Lacy in decades, however, and a couple of seconds later, Wardlow realizes, “I told you that.” Indeed, the native record collector and his subject discussed several of the topics beforehand, which marred the interview.

To assess the degree to which the problematic testimony of Booker Miller was corrupted, I tried to find evidence of the lawsuit that he claimed Ralph Lembo lost for thousands of dollars. I never found any evidence of a lawsuit over royalties, which proves that the interview is thoroughly corrupted. It was Wardlow himself who advised that I check the courthouse records.

Yet, it’s not mentioned in the response. Komara instead engages in an almost imperceptible method of data manipulation—silencing. He intentionally leaves out that the information gleaned from the Miller interview is tainted. In one paragraph, he writes:

We agree (Komara and Wardlow), as did Wardlow and Calt in 1988, that in early 1929 Lembo met Patton before Speir did and spoke to him about making commercial records. According to…Patton's protege Booker Miller, Lembo did make an offer, which was declined by Patton.

And what reason did Miller claim inspired Patton’s refusal? He said that Patton had heard about Lembo’s theft of royalties from other artists, an assertion that I proved was but one of the numerous fabrications that developed out of the tainted interview with Booker Miller.

The response to "Revisiting Ralph Lembo," in fact, is a carefully constructed deception, which has no place in scholarly practice. As I explain in endnote 69, Wardlow coached Miller before the interview and asked leading questions to get the answers he wanted from him, specifically that Lembo was "tricky" and dishonest and lost a royalty suit for thousands of dollars. Instead of acknowledging that I checked the courthouse records and found no lawsuit, Komara leaves out my stroll into the Greenwood courthouse and my clearing the name of the innocent Italian American talent scout----as Komara should have already done while "updating and revising King of the Delta Blues” (footnote 47 in "Revisiting Ralph Lembo").

Lembo did not have a reputation for dishonesty.

Patton therefore never walked out on him in righteous indignation. And H.C. Speir certainly never drove up to Dockery “just to record some n____r,” as Speir liked to put it. [LINK - This is one example of how a scholar might effectively deploy the meticulously transcribed notes of ethnomusicologist David Evans.] Calt and Wardlow’s King of the Delta Blues, nevertheless, features a lengthy narrative on the first page about Speir driving up to Dockery.[i]

Gayle Dean Wardlow’s first 1966 set of articles in Blues Unlimited, which must have been composed using the notes that Ed Komara claims he wrote to paper after meeting Speir in 1964, reveals that Speir couldn’t “remember many of the names” of the artists he recorded much less their other distinctive qualities. The article does not mention any letter, nor does it mention a drive from Jackson to an audition at Dockery. Wardlow declares only that “Speir made tests of Charley Patton, his wife Bertha Lee, Son House and Willie Brown on recording equipment that he kept on the second floor” of his store on Farish Street.[ii] In one interview, Wardlow allows Speir to answer the question, and he claims that he received a letter from Patton: “Someone had given him my name. Of course, I told him I would pay his expenses to come down, which he did, and I accepted it.”[iii] If Patton sent a letter to Speir, it was almost certainly later in 1933 while working for Tom Robertson and living at Holly Ridge, where Ed Holmes had built a brand-new gas station—complete with gas pumps, tire service, batteries, and postal services.[v]

Komara's letter, therefore, allows me to prove that Wardlow's notes, which he surely used to write his articles in 1966, explain that Patton worked with Speir much later in 1933 or 34.

Thank you Ed Komara.

So the only question is how much damage has been done by Stephen Calt's invented opening fiction in King of the Delta Blues?

First, and perhaps most important, Calt's fiction on the opening page was convincing enough to persuade David Evans. In the article "Wabash Rag: Paramount's Chicago Studios," Alex Van Der Tuuk seems to paraphrase an interview with Rubin Lacy when he writes “Ralph Lembo was not pleased” at the state of affairs in Chicago after encountering “two black men at his recording session who seemed to be in charge.”[ix] No published interview with Lacy contains anything even close to this statement, and upon further examination, there is no statement about Lembo’s reaction to the recording setup in Chicago! The sentence comes from Lacy’s interviewer, David Evans, who believed that he “distinctly” remembered it.”[x] To make such a claim about the reason for the Italian American scout’s unpleasantness, however, we ideally need Rubin Lacy’s exact words about his recording session in Chicago, as well as the question that was asked, not a paraphrased reconstruction of a fifty-year-old memory—no matter how distinct it may seem.[xi] The session being managed by African Americans may have upset Ralph Lembo, but no one would ever learn that from the interviews conducted in Ridgecrest, California.

After reading Ed Komara’s response to “Revisiting Ralph Lembo” in the ARSC Journal, which merely repeats the lies about Lembo from the tainted interviews of Booker Miller, it seems that Wardlow is obsessed with enlisting other scholars to attack the reputation of Ralph Lembo. Indeed, the most egregious of all the scholarly works to obscure the contributions of Ralph Lembo is also the most recent. It is also the most thorough in silencing him from the history of the recording industry in Mississippi. In A&R Pioneers: Architects of American Roots Music on Record, Brian Ward and Patrick Huber allowed the unfavorable review of their manuscript by ethnomusicologist David Evans to greatly affect their judgment and integrity as scholars. Without much scholarship of Evans’ about A&R Pioneers to analyze and attack, the authors contend that the editor of the “American Made Music” series was “rather uncritical of the biography” and the racial attitudes revealed during his only interview with H.C. Speir, an interview dubiously moderated, interrupted, and limited to only questions about the career of Tommy Johnson by Gayle Dean Wardlow.

Huber and Ward could not believe the “willingness of commentators to accept the notion that [Speir] was some kind of iconoclastic blues savant.” I do not know of anyone who has ever seriously examined the evidence, but the narrative that Evans published about his interview with Speir is not problematic precisely because he simply reported the information given by Speir. Wardlow’s interviews with Speir, on the other hand, reveal how he constructed portions of the mythic biography for H.C. Speir to reflect his own adventures as a record collector. Yet, Ward and Huber go out of their way to move the focus of criticism off Wardlow, whose work is treated as inerrant and who, from the beginning, started to shape the idea of H.C. Speir into the “iconoclastic blues savant.” By devoting their analytical effort on criticism of Evans, the authors fail to realize the extent to which Speir’s voice had been misrepresented by Wardlow on tape and in print. As I explain on the pages of ARSC, Gayle Dean Wardlow manipulated his interviews with Speir and other informants, and he had constructed the myth of the “blues savant” first in his imagination, then he and Stephen Calt wrote it down on the pages of their 1988 book King of the Delta Blues, and now he has enlisted Ed Komara to help him continue to push the myth of the iconoclastic blues savant.

Huber and Ward were blind to the motives for creating the myth that they find so disturbing—to ascribe the discovery of Charley Patton to H.C. Speir. These two conclude that “there is no particular reason to challenge Speir’s claim that, in the spring of 1929, he drove out to Dockery Plantation, west of Cleveland, to hear Patton.” Considering that Speir never offers any such statement in any interview, and that all of the initial articles about Speir in the mid-1960s do not mention a drive up to Dockery, I count at least two reasons the authors’ had to question the story of Patton’s discovery by Speir at Dockery. When you add the March 1929 marriage certificate that places Patton at Penton in Tunica County, and the testimony of Tom Rushing, who never knew Patton to live at Dockery, there no reason to believe the story is true at all.

Huber and Ward even go so far as to join in and contribute to the fiction, introducing a new wrinkle into the discovery story of Patton. After learning that Bo Carter may have recommended Blind Joe Reynolds to Speir in 1929, Huber and Ward conclude that the same must have happened for Patton. Having never listened to an important interview with musician Booker Miller, they write that it was “highly likely that Patton had been recommended to Speir.” But it certainly was not.

This episode may explain how Gayle Dean Wardlow managed to insert Bo Carter into his fiction of Charley Patton and H.C. Speir. In one interview with Barry Kerzner, the former managing editor of American Blues Scene, at the 2017 Paramount Festival in Wisconsin, Wardlow expanded his tale before a festival audience:

Turns out that [Speir] heard about Charley Patton from Bo Carter. So, he went up to Dockery Plantation and auditioned Charley Patton…Speir arranged for [Patton] to come to Jackson, and pa[id] his expenses when he got there, [at which time] they put him [Patton] on a train and sent him to Richmond, Indiana for a month, month and a half.”[xii]

There is no evidence that Bo Carter told Speir about Patton. Wardlow has merely started to infuse Bo Carter into the fictional discovery narrative. I suspect that the authors also sympathized with Wardlow’s open and vocal disdain for ethnomusicologist David Evans. The three authors’ penchant for irritating the editor of the “American Made Music” series at the University Press of Mississippi, however, does not add up to any substantive evidence that Bo Carter was discovered by H.C. Speir.

Wardlow’s tainted interview with Booker Miller also managed to stain Lembo’s otherwise amazing working relationship with Booker Washington White in other monographs about the blues. For example, Fred J. Hay, in his 2001 book Goin’ Back to Sweet Memphis: Conversations with the Blues, draws on the tainted interviews of Wardlow in the footnotes of a transcribed interview with White. Even though White only referred to Lembo as the “fellow [who] brought me up here,” Hay decided that “his reputation among blues musicians was not a good one.” Wardlow’s tainted interviews had convinced him that many musicians complained about “being cheated by Lembo.”[xiii]

More recently, in an article based on a 1976 interview with Booker White, David W. Johnson comments in one footnote: “White's description of Ralph Lembo reflects the attitude of an African American musician of his time toward a white producer who he may have thought was exploiting him.” Yet, the footnoted section of the transcribed interview only discusses how Lembo was so proud of him for his performance that he treated him very “nice.”[xiv] White very well may have felt as if he was being exploited, and he may have indeed been exploited, but, considering that African Americans continue to struggle against economic inequality in this country coming up on 2020, a year when the nation may decide to elect a person who approves of such exploitation as president, we might need to admit that our standards are no longer high enough or appropriate to judge what are fair and honest business practices.

We also might admit that the pages of the peer-reviewed ARSC Journal are no longer appropriate for the submissions of serious scholars who seek to restore the good reputations of recording industry pioneers, highlight the irresponsible methods of researchers, or end the destructive feuds of overzealous record collectors. The response from Komara and Wardlow is grounded in unethical and deliberate silences that work to obscure the most important evidence from my published research. Komara should have stopped writing after the second paragraph. Wardlow should have owned his early mistakes, and he should have made amends to the descendants of Ralph Lembo. In truth, had Komara backed up his collaborator and walked into that courthouse, he would have disproved this falsehood long before it became a fifty-year fiction. Instead, Komara never took the time to corroborate the oral histories of Wardlow, essentially setting him up and leaving his published findings vulnerable to future research on every single subject ever addressed in his interviews.


Dr. T. DeWayne Moore
Executive Director of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, Inc.

[i] Calt and Wardlow, King of the Delta Blues, 11.

[ii] Gayle Dean Wardlow, “Legends of the Lost," Blues Unlimited 31 (March 1966):3-4; 34 (July 1966): 3; 35 (August 1966): 3; 36 (September 1966): 7.

[iii] H.C. Speir, interview by Gayle Dean Wardlow, near the Pearl River, May 18, 1968, [accessed July 31, 2017.]

[iv] Wardlow is always the person to give that information, and Speir shrugs it off with a series of “yeahs” each time; see H.C. Speir, interview by Gayle Dean Wardlow, near the Pearl River, May 18, 1968, [accessed July 31, 2017.]

[v] “Time Has Barely Changed the Holly Ridge store,” The (Indianola, MS) Enterprise Tocsin, June 1, 1978.

[vi] Tom Rushing, interview by David Evans, April 9, 1985, Cleveland, Mississippi.

[vii] Tom Rushing, interview by David Evans, April 9, 1985, Cleveland, Mississippi.

[viii] Charley Patton and Magnolia Hills, marriage certificate, March 10, 1929, Tunica County. Mississippi.

[ix] Alex van der Tuuk, “Wabash Rag: Paramount’s Chicago Studios,” Blues & Rhythm 131 (1998): 6.

[x] David Evans, email to author, July 2, 2017.

[xi] In a letter to the editor of Living Blues, David Evans takes issue with Gayle Dean Wardlow’s reconstruction of quotes from memory regarding Henry Stuckey’s instruction on guitar from fellow soldiers from the Caribbean. The same principle applies to the paraphrased sentence in Van der Tuuk’s article.

[xii] See Barry Kerzner, “Gayle Dean Wardlow Brings Paramount Legacy to Life,” American Blues Scene, Aug 30, 2017, [accessed Aug 10, 2018].

[xiii] Hay, Goin’ Back to Sweet Memphis, 14.

[xiv] Though Brian Ward and Patrick Huber managed to avoid any negative aspersions about Lembo in their recent monograph, A&R Pioneers: Architects of American Roots Music on Record, David W. Johnson inadvertently imposes such a reputation on him in his notes; see, David W. Johnson, “‘Fixin’ to Die Blues’: The Last Months of Bukka White with an afterword from B.B. King on Bukka White’s Legacy,” Southern Cultures 16:3 (Fall 2010): 27, 32.

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