Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Prakash Slim is Nepal's Blues Power

Ram Prakash Pokharel (aka Prakash Slim) is an international artist/performer and educator of the blues. 


He was born in a field on June,17th, 1980. Yes, a field. It was during the rainy season, in a small village called Lamatar, in the Lalitpur district, of Nepal. The village saw its first electric light bulb in 1983, and its first motor car in 1995. Slim was raised by a loving family of modest means, but his father died at the young age of 29, leaving his mother with three children to raise on her own. Slim had an older brother and sister, and his mother worked in the neighbors’ fields, gathering what food she could get to feed her kids. Slim waited until the village's annual festival celebration, an important time in his world when his uncle would give him a set of new clothes. 

Unlike most early blues artists in the American South, Slim got to go to public school, but instead of desks and benches, his school had dirt floors and straw mats. When asked about his ambitions when he was young,  Slim replied, 

"Ambition was a privilege that only rich kids had. 

The only ambition I had was staying alive."

He was interested in music since he was a child.  Slim would use the wood and other materials around their house to fashion his own instruments, he'd play music by drumming against a gallon water jug. He'd also drive his mother crazy singing songs all day.  

Music became his world. 

It called out to him, and he could not resist. His most prized possession back then was a bicycle that his sister gave him after she landed a job. Slim wanted to learn to play the guitar but he did not have one, and he had no money to buy one. He bought his first guitar by selling his bicycle. He told his family that a friend had taken it for a few days. He lied.

For two years, Slim gave up everything to search for a mentor who could teach him what he needed to know about the guitar. He found a teacher, a legendary musician named C.B. Chhetri, but he lived 10 kilometers away from Slim. Nevertheless, Slim never missed a lesson. It stormed; it rained, but he always showed up, usually ahead of time, and ready to learn.

After a little while, Slim became pretty good on the guitar, and he accepted Chhetri‘s offer to join a band. He cut his teeth gigging in a circuit of restaurants and playing rock music. At the same time, he started teaching music in schools. 

In 2008 he participated in a workshop entitled Teaching Music Effectively"  conducted at Kathmandu  Jazz Conservatory by the US  Cultural Embassy envoy, Dr. Gene Aitken. He enjoyed playing in rock n' roll bands for all those years, but Slim's thirst for musical knowledge, and a deeper musical experience, could not find satisfaction. The hole in his soul started to heal when he heard his first BB King record. Overwhelmed by what he heard, Slim started to research the Blues.

He became obsessed with Blues history. He also added Blues licks & grooves to his existing repertoire and gradually learned music theory. He developed a deeper understanding of how chords and progressions were formed both physically and numerically. From 2003 - 2015 he served as the lead and rhythm guitarist, bass guitarist, and vocalist for various bands throughout Nepal.

At 2015, he received an invitation to attend a musical retreat at Walden School of Music, San Francisco, California, USA. But a major earthquake hit Nepal in 2015. Buildings crumbled down to dust and Slim's hopes were shattered as he was unable to attend the retreat. The devastation hit him deep and hard. For the next several years, fear and pain were constant in his life. The Blues became his solace, his best friend.

In February, 2017, he fell sick and was confined to bed rest. While he was scrolling through his news feed aimlessly, he came across a facebook page named “Acoustic Blues Pickers." He was intrigued on seeing a world of blues lovers like himself. There he listened to Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues." He practiced playing it for a week and shared what he played on the page. A Facebook friend, on seeing his post on the page, offered to help him and magnanimously sent him a resonator guitar and some slides.

For now, Prakash Slim is not only playing and doing research in Blues, but also teaching BITS aka Blues in the schools. He's recently finished a Blues exhibition for his school in Nepal. No doubt... he's committed to playing forward BITS programs, and hence, is living, by example the axiom "keeping the blues alive" in Nepal & beyond. 

He's now a recognized, internationally affiliated Artist/Performer and Educator of the Blues with the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund (Executive Director Dr. T. DeWayne Moore) since January 2019. Slim is also active in a Blues mentorship program with T.J. Wheeler, a long time pioneer, advocate, activist teacher/performer of Blues, Jazz & related music and educator, from the USA. As a member of International Singer and Songwriters Association (issasongwriters.com) Georgia, USA Slim's own original Blues composition are also gaining him further attention.

 

Prakash Slim - "Villager's Blues"

Prakash serves as a member of the 

board of associates for Mt. Zion MemorialFund.

 

Prakash featured with American Blues Merchandise Wang Dang Doodle Tees, Illinois, USA.

Other exposure has included, being mentioned in America's first and leading Blues magazine - Living Blues in August 2019. A Nepali magazine called Yuwa Hunkar, published his autobiography where he says that Blues can be a music of healing for the people who’ve been through pain in life. His quote "B.B. King globalized the blues" is mentioned by the Phenomenal Scholar, Author and Storyteller Diane Williams in her new book’s presentation - The Life and Legacy of B.B. King at Mississippi Department of Archives and History - 22 January 2020.

He was interviewed in The Nepali Times Australia magazine, Australia, October 2020.

He was interviewed by Tucson Unified School District teacher Patrick Brenan and shared blues knowledge  for 5th grade students of John E White Elementary School Arizona USA in September 2020.

He was interviewed on The Phoenix Radio, Florida, USA with Big Low in September 2020.

He was interviewed on Kalakarmi Broadcasting & Media Production Company, Nepal in September 2020.

He was interviewed in Blues & Co magazine, France in September 2020

He was featured in Washington Blues Society’s Bluesletter magazine, August 2020 issue.  

He was interviewed for Grateful Web media/news company, Colorado, America in July 2020.

He was interviewed for Down At The Crossroads, Ireland  by Dr. Gary W Burnett on 26 June 2020.  

He represented  Nepal in International Blues Festival of Lima, Peru and published his biography in Almas Raices Productions, Lima, Peru.   

He played for the Crossroads Confined Countdown Festival (France) on 4th June 2020.

He performed for 5th Posadas Blues Festival, Argentina, on 6th November 2020. 

He played for Seventh Bleus Festival En El Rio, Argentina.

He has played for “Blues for a Cause” Nepal.

American Blues Scene magazine mentioned him “a living history of the blues” while premiering his instrumental track “Blues Raga” in November 2020.

A major Paraguayan newspaper ABC Color referred to him as a “Nepali Robert Johnson” and published his interview in May 2020.  

He played for International Blues Festival of Asuncion, Paraguay (indoor)2020.

He represented Nepal in “World Unity Open Mic” virtual event hosted by The Fire – a legendary live music venue, Philadelphia, Pennylsilvania, USA on 18 May 2020.

He was interviewed for American Blues Scene magazine, Florida, America in May, 2020.

He was interviewed on Blues Radio International Viral Anti-Viral world Tour,Florida, USA on 17 April 2020.

He was featured as an international blues educator in Central Iowa Blues society for the month of Februrary, 2020 at Where in The World : A Blues Ambassador’s Travel series.  

He was featured on KFMG Radio 98.9 FM Des Moines, Iowa on 11 February 2020.

He was interviewed for www.blues.gr, Greek Blues Union with Michael Limnios in October, 2019

A feature story on him was part of a Vicksburg Blues Society’s screening and presentation at Vicksburg Blues Challenge held in September 29, 2019. This was presented by Mississippi, Ambassador of Hall of Fame and president of Vicksburg Blues Society, Shirley Waring.  

His country blues originals and covers were aired on July 2020 and July 2019 for an entire month on Blind Dog Radio (Blues Hall of Fame Radio) Ukraine, and featured on Highway Blues 2NVR - FM 105.9 (2nvr.au.org), Australia on July 4, 2019.  His music is now increasingly being heard by in different countries in the western world, like USA, UK, Australia, Canada, Ukraine, Brazil, Israel, Chile, Ethiopia and in many others.

He did collaboration with a renown Italian harmonica player, Grammy nominee Fabrizio Poggi on Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues”.

A legendary blues artist Rory Block watched his interview on Blues Radio International and congratulated Prakash for his wonderful slide playing and International feel, in her home concert series on 21 April 2020.

Prakash has it in his heart that one day, he will play the Blues with a national guitar in Mississippi. For him it's the Mecca of the Blues ...the land that gave birth to blues, the land in which  he says 'is sacred to him."

You may find some of his country blues originals, covers  and the "Blues in the schools" video clips on his Facebook page, ReverbNation and YouTube channel - "Prakash Slim".

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Furry Lewis - and some 'Religious Songs'...

by Arne Brogger, organizer and road manager of the Memphis Blues Caravan in the 1970s, (blog post, "The Straight Oil From The Can: Tales from the Memphis Blues Caravan and other Stories,"  November 1, 2009)

© Norman Seeff, 1974

Walter “Furry” Lewis was born in Greenwood, MS in 1893, or so he claimed. It may have been 1900, or 1903, but who cares. He recorded his first side, ever, for Vocalion Records in Chicago in 1927. After some early success, he slid into obscurity and worked as a street sweeper for the Memphis Sanitation Department until he retired. He was 'rediscovered' in the late fifties and gained popularity in the early sixties through re-issues of his original recordings and new studio recordings.

Furry and I met for the first time, as mentioned, in 1972 when I flew him up to Minneapolis to appear at the University of Minnesota's Whole Coffeehouse for a concert. We were close friends and associates until his death some ten years later.

Furry was about as 'authentic' as you can get. He lived a life, in the classic blues tradition, of hardship and joy. He never married and had no children. His closest relative was a niece, Roberta Glover, who lived in Memphis nearby his home on Mosby Street. He lived quietly and played for friends and acquaintances whenever asked. He was able to supplement his meager income through his artistry, but, most importantly, his music gave him an opportunity to express himself in a way that few ever get a chance to do. I came to find that Furry played for himself as much as for anyone else.

One of the first things to strike me about Furry was the fact that he never did the same song the same way twice. In all the hundreds of Furry Lewis gigs I witnessed, never, ever, did I hear an exact repeat. His music was always timely and unique, reflecting how he felt or what he was thinking at a particular moment. Oftentimes, the changes he introduced in his repertoire were done solely to entertain himself. As mentioned, Furry was always his own best audience.

He began his career playing on the Medicine Show circuit selling, among other brands, Jack Rabbit Liniment from flatbed runways in small southern towns. His job was to attract and entertain a crowd so that the more serious business of selling the goods could be done by the Pitchman. The style he evolved was one that did not depend on a microphone to pick up the nuance of his performance, rather it was one that played to the 'back of the house' in broad form, unaided by electronics. Later, after the Medicine Shows were history, he played for dances and picnics where the production values were often confined to a stage, raised two feet or so above a dirt floor. The result was that Furry never learned the fine points of using a microphone and his performances relied on the physical. Dragging his left arm across the top few strings of his guitar and moving it up and down the neck, while his right hand kept the beat (check out the video below to see what I'm talking about - albeit fueled by a bit too much Ten High bourbon...), oftentimes resulted in live recordings of questionable quality, but drove audiences to cheers. That was the effect he desired. Coming off stage, his vision clouded by cataracts, he would ask, “Are they standin' up?” Nine times out of ten, they were.

The hallmark of any Furry Lewis performance was the emotional intensity he delivered on stage. It was not unusual for him to 'lose it' - breaking down in tears. He was equally as likely to dissolve in laughter at one of his oft-told jokes or an incident that struck him as amusing. When he finished a set, part of Furry the man, as well as Furry the performer, had been shared with his audience. I remember one incident when Furry 'lost it'. Listening to some tapes jogged my memory. We were in Texas, playing to a very enthusiastic house, when Furry, close to the end of his set, launched into “When I Lay My Burden Down”. He always liked to close with “some religious songs” and this was one of his favorites. The chorus begins with the line” I'm goin' home to be with my Jesus...” On listening to the tape, I noticed a shrill and unusual tone to his voice as he began the second chorus. Suddenly he stopped. A chocking sob rose. A second later, he called my name. My hurried footsteps can be heard as I came from the wing to down center. Following is the verbatim exchange as caught on tape. Furry: “I done broke down.” AB: “It's okay...don't worry about it. What do you want to do?” [i.e. which tune do you want to do next] Furry: “I don't know, what should I do?” AB: “Pick “Old Rugged Cross” and we'll hang it up.” I remember thinking at the time that we didn't want to risk another vocal, that it was best to take the set out with an instrumental.

Unaware of the details of this entire exchange the audience, to their credit had the good taste to applaud loudly and appreciatively. Furry picked the “The Old Rugged Cross” slowly and dramatically and, cane in hand, hobbled off stage to a standing ovation.

Furry lost his left leg below the knee in a railroad accident in the late teens or early twenties of the last century. He told me he had been in Chicago and had hopped a freight train back to Memphis. The train was rolling through southern Illinois and was about be begin a climb up a long grade. Furry was riding between cars and lost his footing. His leg slipped into the coupling just as the train started up the grade and was crushed in the mechanism. He spent four months in the Illinois Central Railroad Hospital in Carbondale, IL, and was released with a wooded prosthesis which he wore until his death some sixty years later. I have often thought of Furry lying in that hospital, enduring the loss of a limb, alone and uncomforted. I think of it particularly in reference to an incident that happened in Houston, TX in the mid ''70s.

I was attending a conference of music buyers from colleges and universities from across the country. As a part of this gathering, certain artists were selected to perform a thirty-minute 'showcase' of their talents for the benefit of these college entertainment buyers. Furry had been one of those chosen to perform. The only other traditional Blues performers so selected were Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee. Both Furry and Sonny & Brownie had been placed on the same bill, with Sonny & Brownie going on just before Furry. Evidently, the presenters of the conference thought such a pairing would result in a 'battle of the bands' among geriatric Blues performers. I thought it was idiotic. But what could we do?

I had a meeting with some folks who were interested in presenting the Memphis Blues Caravan at a group of universities and was rushing to get to the auditorium to attend to Furry. In my haste, I fell and badly sprained my ankle. I hobbled into his dressing room. He was very concerned about what had happened to my ankle. I told him it was nothing to worry about and that he should go out there and knock 'em on their ass. He smiled and repeated a line I had heard many times before. “Don't you worry, when I get to pickin', I'm like a rabbit in a thicket...it takes a good dog to catch me.”

After the show Furry would not leave my side. He offered me the use of his cane. He told me to lean on his shoulder for support. He insisted that we go back to my room so I could lie down. I was in no position to argue as the ankle was beginning to look like a small balloon.

It took us thirty minutes to clear the door of the auditorium because of the huge clutch of adoring fans. Furry worked the crowd like a seasoned politician. When we finally got back to my room, he sat on a chair opposite the bed. He said, “I ain't goin' nowhere. I'm gonna sit right here and sing you some religious songs that's gonna get you well.” He was without his guitar, it had been brought back to his room by one of my associates.

Furry Lewis sat with me and sang, a Capella, one hymn after another. The pain in my throbbing ankle slowly lifted and I fell asleep. I awoke an hour or more later. The room was dark. Furry was still sitting in the chair across from the bed...watching over me.

I often wondered if anyone sang for him, in that hospital in Carbondale.


Saturday, November 14, 2020

Alcohol and Violence Part II: "Time - and the OG"

by Arne Brogger, organizer and road manager of the Memphis Blues Caravan in the 1970s, (blog post, "The Straight Oil From The Can: Tales from the Memphis Blues Caravan and other Stories,"  October 2009)

He picked up the ringing phone. “Recovery House, Richard speaking.” The large black man with a scary demeanor listened, interjecting the occasional “un huh.” The story was an old one. He’d heard it many, many times. “Well, you called the right place. You want the pain to stop? Uh-huh…well, then you gotta do something about it. Why don’t you stopover, we can have a chat.” In an earlier time, where menace and threat were a way of life, invitations to chat had a darker meaning.

A Packard pulled to the curb at the corner of Broadway and River Streets. The Passaic River, swollen with the spring thaw, rolled silently a few yards away as it traveled to join the Raritan and the sea. The young man, who had been standing on the corner for the past fifteen minutes, slid into the passenger seat and slammed the door. The car left Paterson, headed south for Newark.

Motioning with his head toward the back of the car, the driver said. “I got what you need in the trunk – you can get strapped before we head for the tunnel. We’ll stop in Quigquake Park - private.” The young man was nervous, his eyes darting. “The first day of school, eh?” The driver smiled. The young man said nothing.

“You’ll be fine, kid. We gonna pick up Pops, get set up and head into Harlem. He doesn’t usually go on runs like this. Guess I wasn’t kidding about the school, huh. You got a name?”

“Yes, I do,” the young man said. He looked hard at the driver. “It’s Richard.” The driver smiled.

“We’re going to Harlem? I thought this was a Jersey thing.” The driver stared straight ahead, “Spanish Harlem, to be exact. A gun makes as much noise there as it does in Jersey. A problem?”

The metal ribs of the Pulaski Skyway hummed underneath them as they, now three, headed for Hoboken and the tunnel. Once into the city, they turned left on Canal and then pointed north on to the West Side Highway, exiting on 110th Street. Just past the top of Central Park, they turned left, traveling north to 118th Street, stopping in front of a five-story tenement walkup.

“Fifth floor, rear. 5C. We’re expected…” said Pops, a late middle age black man. “I’m getting’ too old for all this stair climbing shit.” Nodding to Richard, “You stay behind me on the way up, in front on the way down. Got it?” Richard, now wearing a trench coat, a sawed-off 12 Gage hanging from his belt, climbed out of the back seat. “And you,” said Pops, looking at the driver, “keep the engine on. This should be quick.”

Richard had wanted the Marine Corps; a uniform, training, a purpose, but the streets, the ‘hood, his companions, all conspired in a perfect storm of trouble.

The oldest of nine, care for siblings fell largely to him. Both parents worked – father in a silk factory, mother as a domestic. “You ain’t got a lick a sense, boy! You never gonna amount to nothin’!” his father bellowed in an alcoholic rage. His mother, often with blackened eyes and a bloused lip, said nothing. The young man vowed someday to kill him.

Quick with his hands, the PAL gyms were a second home. He fought well, both in the ring and out. But prizefighting, and a way out, eluded him. The Marines – that was the answer. So he hoped. He was smart, and early on, he was a reader. “Put down that goddamn book, where’s your shine box?!”

As a youngster, the shine box, and customers wearing suits, smoking cigars, provided an introduction of sorts. “Take this envelope to Broadway and Water, see Tony in the tailor shop. Give it to him. These five’s for you…” Numbers, dope, money. Up and down the streets of Paterson. An education. Later, when the shine box was gone, he’d sing doo-wop with his pals on street corners, kid the girls, roll the occasional drunk. “Kick that useless wino, what’s the matter with you?” ‘Soft’ doesn’t play well on the streets. Something inside him hurt, he didn’t want to cause pain, to be without mercy. “Kick that motherfucker!” He swallowed big gulps of that hurt, pounded it down, deep. He kicked. He fought. By late adolescence, stints in a Who’s Who of Jersey reformatories had nixed the dream of the Marines. “We don’t take criminals,” he was told, and summarily dismissed when he applied.

Fresh out of Jamesburg Reformatory, he met Pops.

Pops had had that name since he was in his late 30’s. Big, almost 300 pounds, he’d always seemed older than his years. He favored bespoke three-piece suits, starched white shirts, and perfectly knotted ties. Sometimes, a red carnation boutonniere appeared in a lapel. He had a presence, cultivated and nurtured. And had parlayed that presence into a lucrative career; numbers, then loan sharking and eventually, narcotics. Pops was always on the lookout for talent. Tough, strong, ruthless. He’d heard about a young man in Paterson and sent word to meet at a hotel downtown. Sitting in a high-backed chair in the lobby, the process glistening on his newly conked hair, Pops must have been an impressive sight. Richard shook his hand. He met a way out. He met his future.

The door to 5C opened before they got to it. Pops went in. Richard followed. An envelope was exchanged for a package about the size of a shoebox. Pops opened it, peered inside, then nodded. Outside 5C again, they headed down the stairs, Richard going first. Pops put his hand on the young man’s shoulder, whispering, “The motherfucker called someone, I can smell it. Let’s move fast.”

On the landing of the fourth floor stood a Hispanic man in his 30’s, arms folded. “What you fellas got there?” Richard stopped on the stairs, half a flight above him. “You best step out the way,” Richard said.

“Out the way?” Sneering, the Hispanic man said, “Which way’s that? The Jersey way? Where you think you are?”

Richard pulled back the right side of his trench coat, his hand on the shotgun. “Any old way, so long as it’s out,” Richard said. His unblinking eyes riveted on the Hispanic man.

“What you got in the package there?” the man said, gazing up at Pops. Pops was silent. “Got some dope there? I think we need to have a chat. And I bet you Jersey fucks can’t even shoot straight.”

As those words spilled from his mouth, the Hispanic man suddenly moved his hand toward his pocket. The shotgun swung from Richard’s belt, the muzzle flash lighting the semidarkness of the stairwell into bright, high relief. The Hispanic man’s left leg exploded and disappeared below the knee.

“Oh God! Oh God, Oh God…!” he screamed. Blood and bone splattered over the corner of the landing where he lay, writhing.

Richard walked down the stairs and stood over him.

“God’s not here, amigo. I’m the only motherfucker you got to deal with.”

It would be awhile before God and Richard would enjoy any proximity. Forty years, long stretches in two state penitentiaries. Finally, standing on the second tier, in front of his cell at Arizona State Penitentiary, he looked out on a patch of desert. The same patch he’d looked at for more than two decades. “I’m a drunk and an addict. That’s why I’m standing here.” He’d been told for years that he had a problem. His standard response had always been, the only problem I’ve got, is you telling me I have a problem. For the first time, he told himself, they might be right. He stood quietly as that thought ripened in his consciousness. In time, that thought would grow; it would morph into kindness, gratitude, courage, and Richard, cloaked in perpetual amazement, would find what he had always sought - a purpose.

“No – it’s not a cult. It’s about improving the quality of your life,” he said, speaking into the phone for the first time in more than a minute. “The God stuff is up to you, whatever you want it to be.” He listened some more. Finally, “I’m not here to convince you of anything, partner. You want to chat, I’m here. You don’t have to knock. Just walk in.” He hung up the phone.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Memphis Blues Caravan: "Rolling Through The Night"

by Arne Brogger, organizer and road manager of the Memphis Blues Caravan in the 1970s, blog post, "The Straight Oil From The Can: Tales from the Memphis Blues Caravan and other Stories,October 2009)

Buddy Guy has quite a different backstage
experience than artists on the Caravan...
Sometimes, when contiguous dates couldn't be routed, we were forced to make a 'hop' of several hundred miles to the next engagement. These were largely done overnight so that arrival would put us in at least six or seven hours before showtime. Generally, these overnight adventures were the exception. But we were not the Rolling Stones. We couldn't pick and choose which dates we would play. We took what we were given and made the best of it.

On nights such as these, we would leave directly after the show and rack up a couple hundred miles before stopping for a late snack. Of course, 'Snack' was a total misnomer for what happened at the hands of the Caravan members in a diner. These guys could eat.

One night we played Marion, Il, a town situated in the southern part of the state. The following night we were playing Charlottesville, VA, some 800 miles away. Leaving Marion at about 11:00, we eventually pulled into a truck stop in northern Kentucky called the Cross Keys. It was close to 1:00 AM. The establishment lay at the branch of Interstates 24 and 64. Ten miles before we arrived, the CB in the bus crackled with female voices promising all manner of delights. Each lady had a 'handle' descriptive of the services provided and was actively soliciting congress with truckers inbound to the Cross Keys. The interest level on the bus increased with each mile.

The Cross Keys was huge. It held about four acres of 18 wheelers - parked one after the other. The whole scene was illuminated by mercury vapor lamps perched high atop poles scattered about. The air was gray with diesel exhaust. And hopping from cab to cab were the hookers.

We pulled up to the front and walked single file into the restaurant portion of the complex. Heads, covered in Peterbilt, Mack, and Freightliner hats, turned as we made our way. Conversation stopped. For a moment, I felt like we were from Mars and had just made landing on some strange, bizarre planet. Slowly, we settled into booths and tables. Conversation resumed, heads turned back to coffee, biscuits, and gravy, or whatever. A waitress approached, "What kin ah gitcha, hon...?" she said to Furry, sitting at the head of a table.

We ate. And ate. 
We drank coffee. 
We paid the check. 
We left.

Walking back to the bus, past the hookers flitting from cab to cab, I was about to board when one of the ladies hopped down from a cab-over-Pete parked next to us. As the driver closed the door, I noticed what was written on its side, "Sawyer Transport". And underneath, in italic script, "Truckin' For Jesus."

Stomachs full and back on the bus, we high-balled out of the Cross Keys, disappearing into the eastbound darkness. Our next stop would be somewhere past the Smokey Mountains in the first rays of dawn.

The post-show adrenalin had pretty much dissipated and the hearty fare began to have a sedative effect. By twos and threes, the members ambled off to their respective bunks and fell asleep. Aside from myself, Furry and Red were the last two left conscious in the forward lounge. Furry was the first to drop and announced that he's like to stretch out. I helped him back to his bunk. Red sat slumped in a Captain's Chair, his great stomach taut against his T-shirt. Coe College it read. He wore it everywhere. With his hat still on his head, he closed his eyes and snoozed quietly. It was 2:40 AM.

I climbed into the jump seat above and behind the driver. Looking down, I could see the soft green glow of the instrument lights and ahead, through the broad front window of the Silver Eagle, our headlights pushed down the Interstate. I asked the driver how he was doing. "Just fine..." Did he ever get tired on these long overnight runs? "Nope. Driving is what I do."

Okay...

The radio was tuned to KAAY out of Little Rock or, alternatively, to KDKA, the nation's first commercial radio station, out of Pittsburgh. These were the days of Clear Channel AM radio and the two-megawatt giants came in like a local station. As a young man in Minneapolis, driving my father home formwork on winter nights, we would listen to KDKA's National News at 5:00 PM. And in the mid '50s, XERF, nominally out of Del Rio, TX (but really out of Ciudad Chilla, Mexico) would blast 100,000 watts of Rock 'n Roll to eager young ears in the Heartland.

Music played on the radio.
The driver and I listened in silence.

After a time, I slid out of the jump seat and stood in the stairwell leaning hands-on-chin against the Silver Eagle's broad, padded dashboard. Half a moon shown in the southern sky and the dark fields rolled on, reflected in a faint silver luminescence. America passed under my feet. Mile after mile. Vast didn't come close. Years later at various times, I would tell newly arrived British musicians, as they made ready to embark on a first US tour, "Gentleman, you are about to have a new appreciation of the word 'distance.'"

The music from the radio played not just in our ears that night. It played in the ears of the thousands who listened, busy with business that kept them up as the hours passed. It was a tie that bound all; familiar, comfortable, entertaining. The music spoke to some, stirred memories or emotions in others, and assured the rest that they were not alone. American music, sailing through the night air.

And here they were - a bus-load of dinosaurs. Country Bluesmen, the last living relics and purveyors of one of America's greatest musical traditions. Shining the light, declining the bushel. On their way to the next gig, just 800 miles down the road.

Memphis Blues Caravan: " A Day In The Life"

by Arne Brogger, organizer and road manager of the Memphis Blues Caravan in the 1970s, blog post, "The Straight Oil From The Can: Tales from the Memphis Blues Caravan and other Stories," October 2009)

The Memphis Blues Caravan show flyer
The Caravan was, in many respects, a party on wheels. It consisted of a group of co-conspirators who both enjoyed each others' company (for the most part) and shared a commonality of experience unique to a very small group - i.e. they were American Blues singers.

The day would begin with breakfast, usually a hearty affair heavy on the fried side of the menu. This would occur anytime between 5:00 and 9:00 AM depending on when we had a 'bus call'. The 'bus call' was previously agreed upon time signaling the departure of the bus for the next gig. This call was inviolate and could not be missed. With very few exceptions, it was never a problem - most of the Caravan members were early risers regardless of when they got to bed the night before.

After check out and settled on the bus, the Caravan fell into a routine. Each member sat in their respective seat in the lounge of the bus (by the second date, each had claimed a favorite) and entertained each other as the miles rolled past.

One of the favorite pastimes was to play "the dozens" a rhyming put-down game where one member tried to top the other with a well-aimed jibe or an answer back in kind. The origin of the name of this game was something I wondered about over the years. Anyone I asked, including members of the Caravan, had no idea. The response to a casual insult was many times a curt "don't do me no dozens..." It wasn't until years later that I would learn where the term originated.

In the antebellum South, when slaves became old or enfeebled or otherwise damaged (they were chattel), they were put in groups of 12 and sold as a lot at auction. Being 'in the dozens' was a situation to be avoided at all costs and carried with it a sense of shame. In modern-day, it had been softened to indicate mere discomfort at being "one-upped" by someone else. The king of dozens was, as mentioned earlier, Sleepy John Estes, the poet of the Blues.

At about 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon the call would go up to stop at a 'chicken store' to get some lunch. Simultaneously there would be a request to stop at the 'whiskey store' for fortification against the chill of the coming evening. The party had begun.

On reaching the gig, our first stop was the hotel. Check-in was always an experience, both from the reaction of the desk staff to the process of getting everyone sorted out and into their respective rooms. Red and Furry were 'roomies' as were the drummer and bass player from Joe Willie's band. Old partners for years, John and Hammy bunked together as did Stack and Joe Willie. Bukka and Clarence Nelson (Joe Willie's guitar player) had single rooms, as they desired.

The Memphis Blues Caravan show flyer
After everyone was in their respective rooms, I would go over to the venue, Sound and lighting had to be checked out to be sure contract rider demands for production were met. I would also meet with the producer to see if there was any last-minute press that had to be done (this was in pre-cell phone days when none of this could be accomplished en route, as it can today). Soon it was time for a soundcheck. This would require the presence of Joe Willie's rhythm section - Joe Willie and Stackhouse, who were 'stars', didn't have to involve themselves with these details. Drums were set and mic'ed, lighting cues were discussed, the band would run through a couple of tunes to set levels and any last-minute details were attended to. All this was usually finished about an hour before "doors" (when doors were opened and ticket holders were let into the house). As the auditorium filled, I went back to the hotel to round up performers and head back to the venue. We usually arrived about ten or fifteen minutes before showtime.

Some promoters felt this was a bit too close for comfort but they never had cause for concern. The Caravan never missed a curtain time. If we were supposed to hit at 8:00, we hit at 8:00.

The 'opener' for the Caravan was always Piano Red. He took great pleasure in his constant reminders to the rest of the group that it was he who had the hardest job of the lot. He also suggested that any enthusiastic response that the rest of the Caravan might receive was due largely to the warm carpet that his performance spread for them. He was, more often than not, at least partly correct. Bukka White followed next, then Furry Lewis. No one wanted to follow furry.

Lillie Mae Glover, known to 

Beale Street patrons as Ma Rainey #2.

After Furry's set, we generally had an intermission and then opened back up with Sleepy John Estes and Hammy Nixon. They were followed, in many instances, by Ma Rainey (Lilly Mae Glover) backed by Joe Willie's band. Joe Willie and Stackhouse joined the band next and at the end of their set, went into 'The Saints' and were joined on stage by everyone in the Caravan.

After the show, it was party time in earnest. Backstage was usually clogged with people, a great many with guitars in hand, asking questions about everything from tuning techniques to the brand of whiskey preferred by respective performers. It was at this time that I had to be on my guard as well-intentioned youngsters badgered the performers with questions. The problem came when a few would try to cut one or two of the performers from the pack (usually Furry and/or Bukka) and spirit them away to some house or apartment for an after-hours songfest. Both performers were always game for an adventure of this sort but I had learned from experience that this meant trouble.

Though probably well-intentioned, the hosts of these clandestine get-a-ways did not have the best interests of the performers at heart. Fueled by copious amounts of booze and God knows what else, these get-togethers had the potential for real havoc. We didn't need any trouble, "a thousand miles away from home, standing in the rain..."

After the backstage shenanigans, we went back to the hotel and usually gather in one another's rooms. The guitar would get passed from hand to hand, the bottle of Jack Daniels would slowly drain and by 1:00 or 1:30 AM, it was lights out.

The next morning we got up and did it all over again.

Alcohol & Violence - "...knowing that most things break"

by Arne Brogger, organizer and road manager of the Memphis Blues Caravan in the 1970s, (blog post, "The Straight Oil From The Can: Tales from the Memphis Blues Caravan and other Stories,"  October 2009)

"For soon amid the silver loneliness
Of night he lifted up his voice and sang,
Secure, with only two moons listening,
Until the whole harmonious landscape rang --"

Booker (Bukka) Washington White
(Click HERE to listen to his "Vaseline Head Woman")
Alcohol and violence were a constant in the lives of virtually every member of the Caravan. It was not unique to them, it was a byproduct of one other constant, poverty. If your life circumstances are shitty, alcohol provides an escape from those circumstances. Not that all poor people drink - or drink to excess. Far from it. The problem is, when some people drink, shit happens. And usually, it's not the shit that people want. Believe me, I know. Enough said.

Booze and music have always been co-ingredients in a roaring good time. Musicians have had a firm grasp on the power of the interplay between those two elements as well as an appreciation for the transformative escape provided by both. From the old song lyric, "If the river was whiskey and I was a diving duck, I'd dive to the bottom and never would come up" to the modern song title, "There Stands The Glass" - it's the same lick. Alcohol takes us someplace else. Away from where we are. Music does the same. Together, they can be a veritable magic carpet. But sometimes that carpet lands on the wrong side of the wall.

Bukka White was the only member of the Caravan to have served time in a State Penitentiary. None of the members, however, were unfamiliar with jails or the police. Bukka's crime was manslaughter and he would lager confide that his visit to Parchman wasn't his only experience behind bars. He had spent time also in the Shelby County Jail in Memphis for a similar crime. He never gave a definitive figure on the number of men he had killed. It was at least two, possibly more. He claimed that each incident was in self-defense and that he 'hated to do it.' Was he, or his victim, sober when these things happened? Probably not.

John 'Piano Red' Williams also had brushes with the law. While he never admitted to having been arrested, his conversation was rife with recollections of violent encounters. I remember one exchange, in particular, sitting with Red at the dining room table in my house in Minneapolis, where red was engaged in one of his winding stories of stream-of-consciousness descriptions of incidents experienced during his 80 or so years.

At this telling, he described an encounter with a 'devilish rascal' who had crossed him (hmmm, was anyone having a drink?). Their exchange escalated into a full-blown confrontation, forcing Red to pick up an ax handle. At this point in the story, he asked if I knew how to 'han'el' someone through the use of such a weapon.

"Ah, no..."

Pleasant and friendly, Red continued in his innocent-sounding, high-pitched voice:

"Well, first you him in the one arm. Him sharp, comin' down at an angle. You break they arm. Then you him on the other side, and break they other arm." Red paused, making sure that his lesson was getting through, perhaps expecting a question. "Then you take the axe han'el," he continued, in the same sweet voice, "and you hits 'em in they haid."

Joe Willie Wilkins circa 1977
Joe Willie Wilkins, a pacific and gentle soul, told me of a call he got from Muddy Waters in the late '50s informing him that he (Muddy) was sending his guitar player at the time, Pat Hare, back to Memphis. The instructions were that Joe was to arrange for Pat to 'lay low' for a while and not return to Chicago until he was sent for by Muddy. Pat had recorded for Sun Records in its early years and released a side ominously titled "I'm Gonna Murder My Baby" (re-released on Rhino in 1990). A few years later, in a jealous drunken rage, he killed a woman in Chicago and was under investigation for the crime, prompting the call from Muddy. Joe related that this was not the first time such a thing had happened to Pat Hare.

Hare's name was familiar to me as I remember reading an account of his crimes in the local paper years after his Memphis visit. Auburn 'Pat' Hare killed a woman in Minneapolis under similar circumstances. He also killed a policeman sent to investigate. Hare was roaring drunk at the time. Joe Willie allowed as Pat, sober, was a quiet and unassuming guy. Drunk, he was a homicidal maniac.

Auburn 'Pat' Hare died in Minnesota's Stillwater State Penitentiary in 1980. Had alcohol not taken him there, who knows where or when he would have died.

Whiskey and fried chicken fueled the Caravan in its years on the road. From management to performers, Jack and Jim were constant companions. Looking back through the haze, it's a wonder nothing more serious occurred than a pulled knife and some threatening words (both courtesy of Furry, but more of that later).

No injuries, no cops, no blood.
With a nod to E. A. & Mr. Flood...

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Blues and the Soul of a Man - A Blues Blog about Skip James

By Jeff Harris, February 23, 2020

Jeff Harris's radio show on February 23, 2020 focused on the music of Skip James, and the inspiration came from a new book issued by Stefan Grossman titled Blues and the Soul of Man: An Autobiography of Nehemiah “Skip” James. 

The book is James's story in his own words culled from interviews done between 1964 and 1969 by Stephen Calt, who spent countless hours with the Bentonia native, with the intent of compiling an autobiography; instead, Calt published the flawed and controversial, I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues. What Stefan Grossman did is take the raw interviews and shaped it into a compelling narrative, stripping away much of the subjective embellishments, and outright false story Calt pushes forward. On his radio program, Harris spins a batch of James's legendary 1931 recordings as well as some fine performances from the 1960s. In addition, he airs his interview with Grossman,.


Skip James grew up at the Woodbine Plantation in Bentonia, Mississippi and as a youth learned to play both guitar and piano. The music of Skip James and fellow Bentonia guitarists such as Henry Stuckey and Jack Owens is often characterized as a genre unto itself. Notable for its ethereal sounds, open minor guitar tunings, gloomy themes, falsetto vocals, and songs that bemoan the work of the devil. Stuckey learned one of the tunings from Caribbean soldiers while serving in France during World War I, and said that he taught it to James, who went on to become the most famous of Bentonia’s musicians. Inspired by Stuckey, James began playing guitar as a child, and later learned to play organ.

In his teens James began working on construction and logging projects across the mid-South, and sharpened his piano skills playing at work camp barrelhouses. In 1924 James returned to Bentonia, where he earned his living as a sharecropper, gambler and bootlegger, in addition to performing locally with Stuckey. James traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin, for his historic 1931 session for Paramount Records, which included thirteen songs on guitar and five on piano. He was sent to Paramount by talent scout H.C. Speir who was impressed by James’ audition. “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” alluded to the Great Depression, while the gun-themed “22-20 Blues” provided the model for Robert Johnson’s “32-20 Blues,” and the haunting “Devil Got My Woman” was the likely inspiration for Johnson’s “Hell Hound on My Trail.” According to Calt, James received only $40 for his 1931 recordings, and he soon quit the music business, bitterly declaring it a “barrel of crabs.”

As far as Skip James Paramounts, collector John Tefteller told me: “There are about 20-25 that have survived, if you include the Champion release and 15 or less if you leave that one out. They are some of the rarest and most desirable 78 rpm records of all time. There are a couple of them for which only one or two copies in playable condition exist.” James’s records sold poorly, and later in 1931 he moved to Dallas, where he served as a minister and led a gospel group. He later stayed in Birmingham, Alabama, and in Hattiesburg and Meridian, Mississippi, occasionally returning to Bentonia. He returned to Bentonia in 1948 and sometimes played for locals at the newly opened Blue Front Cafe, although he did not earn his living as a musician.

The first resissue of Skip James was in the 40’s when John Steiner pressed a 78 from from Paramount test-pressings. One Side was Skip’s “Little Cow And Calf Is Gonna Die Blues” (Paramount 13085) and the other side was “Fat Mamma Blues” by Jabo Williams. (Paramount 13130). This is the first country blues to be reissued for the white collector’s market. In 1962 Skip’s “Devil Got My Woman” was reissued on the compilation Really! The Country Blues. Regarding Skip, the notes contained the following: “No details. Said to have been from Louisiana. Was proficient on both guitar and piano. Present whereabouts unknown.” The idea that he came from Louisiana came from his song “If You Haven’t Got Any Hay, Get On Down The Road”: “If I go to Louisiana mama Lord they’ll, hang me for sure.” It was Gayle Dean Wardlow who first found concrete information on James from Johnny Temple. “Yeah, I knew Skippy,” Temple said, “I learned guitar from him.” He also learned that James was from Bentonia, halfway between Jackson and Yazoo City. Wardlow headed down there and picked up a few scraps of information but no one had seen him for ten years. Temple had last seen him in 1960 or 1961 in West Memphis.

In later years skip lived in Memphis and Tunica County, where he was located in 1964 by blues enthusiasts who persuaded him to begin performing again. In 1964, blues fans John Fahey, Bill Barth, and Henry Vestine found him in a hospital in Tunica, Mississippi. On that same day Son House was located in Rochester, New York. On the same day as James and House were re-discovered civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney were murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan and local police. Newsweek covered both rediscoveries in one story, rhapsodizing, “These two were the only great country blues singers still lost. No one knew whether they were alive or dead….The search for these old-time bluesmen has always had a note of urgency about it. Theirs was our finest and oldest native-born music, the blues, country-style, pure and personal, always one Negro and a guitar lamenting misery, injustice, but still saying yes to life.” 

In the introduction to Blues and the Soul of Man, Eddie Dean writes: “The bedridden James seemed to expect the sudden appearance of these fans; in fact, he seemed perturbed that they hadn’t come sooner to pay him homage. …A few days later, the hospital discharged him, after the pilgrims had paid not only James’ medical bills, but also the money he owed his landlord. At his sharecropper’s shack, James picked up the borrowed guitar and began playing his old songs, which he hadn’t performed in years. He was rusty, but he still clearly retained his talent.”

After his rediscovery James relocated to Washington, D. C., and then to Philadelphia to play folk and blues festivals and clubs. In Washington he stayed for a time with Dick Spotswood. “He really stood out from the mass of humanity,” says Spottswood. “If he had been raised in different circumstances and had some level of academic training, he could have been an original thinker in any number of fields. He had that brooding, inquisitive intellect that was never content to leave things unchallenged. I could have easily seen him teaching physics or philosophy. …I don’t think he had a lot more use for git-along Southern blacks than he did for the white oppressors,” says Spottswood. “He didn’t suffer fools or take no kind of shit.”

A few days after arriving in Washington, James went further north, this time to the Newport Folk Festival, for his first major performance since his rediscovery. Of his performance, Peter Gurnalack wrote: “Skip James appeared, looking gaunt and a little hesitant, his eyes unfocused and wearing a black suit and a wide-brimmed flat-topped preacher’s hat that gave him as unearthly an appearance as his records had led us to suspect he had….As the first notes floated across the field, as the voice soared over us, the piercing falsetto set against the harsh cross-tuning of the guitar, there was a note of almost breathless expectation in the air. It seemed inappropriate somehow that this strange haunting sound which had existed ’til now only as a barely audible dub from a scratched 78 should be reclaimed so casually on an overcast summer’s day at Newport. …As the song came to an end, the field exploded with cheers and whistles.” James would go on to recorded several albums and gained new renown and royalties from the rock group Cream’s 1966 cover of his song “I’m So Glad,” but the somber quality of much of his music and his insistence on artistic integrity over entertainment value limited his popular appeal. “We had expected that we had another John Hurt on our hands,” recalls Ed Denson, another member of the Washington blues circle. “And in terms of public acceptance, that was not true, and that was too bad.” James died in Philadelphia on October 3, 1969.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Donate to Help Maintain Blues Memorials



1) Online: Donate to new marker projects
or the upkeep of our existing memorials,




Please include any instructions for a 
particular project or memorial AND 

Please provide an address to receive commemorative blues items from our vault


2) Send us some mail:

4021 Pleasant Gate Lane, Columbia, TN 38401 

or

702 Santee St. Apt. 1210
Prairie View, TX 77445
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Saturday, August 22, 2020

Cora Fluker Drops Bombs on the Devil

By Bill Nichols

Your sons and daughters shall prophesy
Your old men shall dream dreams
Your young men shall see visions
Joel 2:28

Photo: Bill Steber
Just as the Lord God spoke to the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, so He peered one day over the undulating hills of Lauderdale County, Mississippi, into a whistle-stop town called Marion and found Cora Fluker.

They understood each other perfectly, Mrs. Fluker and God, and they struck a deal. She would sing His praises to the world and, though the fruits of material wealth would escape her through the whole of her life, He would fill her heart with the poetry of inspiration and give her soul a voice molded from the stuff of angels.

Both parties have honored the agreement more or less, and two-score years later, down a red clay-inlaid road six-tenths of a mile from downtown Marion in a house and church built of discarded wood and broken dreams, Cora Fluker sings on, witnessing to a faith that has become her only anchor in a voyage through poverty and despair.

I look in the East in the middle of the morning
I see God in the clouds
He's going to hear me crying

A small sample of the words of Cora Fluker, unlikely prophet, just singin' about her God to anybody who'll take the time to listen.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

The Campaign to Mark the Grave of Harmonicist Noah Lewis

Gus Cannon, Ashley Thompson, and Noah Lewis
Project Researchers: Jim Lill and Shawn Pitts


 


Noah Lewis was born in Henning, Tennessee, and he learned to play the harmonica as a child. He moved to Memphis, Tennessee, in his early teens, where he met Gus Cannon in 1907. By that time he was already a respected original stylist on the harmonica, noted for his liquid tone and breath control, which allowed him to generate enormous volume from the instrument. By then he was also noted for his ability to play two harmonicas at once – one with his mouth and one with his nose, a trick he probably taught to Big Walter Horton, who recorded briefly as a teenager with the Memphis Jug Band some 20 years later. Lewis developed unusual levels of breath control and volume from playing in string bands and brass marching bands on the streets of Memphis.

At their meeting in 1907, Lewis introduced Cannon to the 13-year-old guitarist and singer Ashley Thompson, with whom Lewis had been playing in the streets of Ripley and Memphis for some time, and the three of them worked together over the next 20 years whenever Cannon was in Memphis and not away working medicine and tent shows. When Will Shade's Memphis Jugband recorded and became popular in the late 1920s, Cannon added a coal-oil can on a rack around his neck and renamed the trio (Cannon, Lewis, and Thompson) Cannon's Jug Stompers.