Friday, May 15, 2020

The Most Amazing Interview About Blues Memorials You Never Read

Anne Rochell, “Marking the Blues,” SCLC: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference National Magazine 27:3 (1998): 90-95.

Rosetta Patton Brown holding a
picture of her father, Charley Patton
Duncan, Miss. — Rosetta Patton Brown wasn't there when they buried her father, Charley Patton, the first great Delta blues man, in an unmarked grave at the edge of a plantation in Holly Ridge.

“We got lost,” she recalled, still surprised 64 years later. 

It was 1934, and Brown was a teenager when her father died after a gig one night—from a heart condition—at age 43. Her mother and stepfather were driving her to the funeral when they lost their way. By the time they made it to the cemetery, the body was covered up.

"I cried so hard," says Brown, now 80 and a widow living among her children and grandchildren in Duncan, a Mississippi Delta town not far from Holly Ridge. She spits a wad of chew into a basket next to her fuzzy-slippered feet. "I wanted to see the body."

Brown didn't miss the second service honoring her father. It was in 1991, when a new headstone was placed at his grave in the corner of the old cemetery, between railroad tracks and a cotton gin.

Rock star John Fogerty didn't miss it either. Nor did Delta blues legend Pops Staples. There were cameras and speeches, and a new fancy headstone decorated with a black-and-white photograph of a young Charley Patton. The carved epitaph reads, "The Voice of the Delta: The foremost performer of early Mississippi blues whose songs became the cornerstones of American music." The stone stands out like a Cadillac in a junkyard; the graves around it are marked with names carved crudely into concrete slabs or wooden crosses, and many of them have fallen over or sunk into the soft, black soil.

The Headstone of James "Son" Thomas

The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund placed a large memorial headstone on the grave of James ‘Son’ Thomas on March 9, 1996 at the Greater St. Matthews M.B. Church in Leland, Mississippi. Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman John Fogerty financed the memorial. The unveiling was followed by a ceremony attended by Thomas’ large extended family and numerous local friends and musicians including Texas guitarist Rick ‘Casper’ Rawls and several other noted musicians from Austin and Memphis.

© 2019 - T. DeWayne Moore
Thomas, a gravedigger by occupation, who remained a beloved fixture in his home town of Leland, was also a renowned folk artist, sculpting figures in deathly repose as well as expressive skulls. His work has been displayed in the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. (where he met and charmed then-first lady Nancy Reagan) as well as in galleries in New Orleans and Memphis. He is remembered for his musings on the subject of death, often spoken at concerts and reflected in his lyrics which appear on his headstone.

© 2019 - T. DeWayne Moore

In one article for the (Clarksdale, MS) Press-Register, a photograph from Panny Mayfield shows four of Thomas' 13 children including (from left) Raymond “Pat” Thomas, who sang and played his late father’s guitar as part of the headstone dedication service directed by Mt. Zion Memorial Fund founder Skip Henderson (pictured in upper right congratulating three of Thomas’ other sons) Johnny Thomas, Wendle Thomas, and Patrick DeWayne Thomas. Sid Graves, the founder of the Delta Blues Museum, hosted a reception following the dedication, which featured a performance by Raymond "Pat" Thomas. The owners of Hopson Plantation Commissary also hosted a blues event in honor of "Son" that benefitted the Clarksdale Care Station, a non-profit founded in 1987 "to feed the sick and shut-in" by "providing meals to needy persons" and by feeding "their souls with God's word delivered daily by local pastors."

Greater St. Matthews M.B. Church
© 2019 - T. DeWayne Moore
Both the opening act—The Remains headed by Ronnie Drew—and the multi-talents of virtuoso guitarist Terry Williams (center) contributed to the success of the music benefit at Hopson that raised an estimated $400 for the Care Station. Featuring the "sharp dressed men" of the Wesley Jefferson Band (right) in black tuxedos and red vests including (from left in the photo below) Wesley Jefferson, James "Super Chikan" Johnson, Rip Butler, and Michael James, the benefit was filmed by Graham Video.

© 2019 - T. DeWayne Moore

© 2019 - Robert B. Mortimer
On August 13, 2019, Robert B. Mortimer of Mortimer Funeral Homes in Greenville, Mississippi raised and re-attached the headstone of James Thomas to the base. He is also the custodian of several other markers erected by the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund in Greenlawn Memorial Gardens. Click on the names of the artists for more information on the memorials to T-Model Ford, Eddie Cusic, and Billy Smiley.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

The Repeated Exhumations of Niccolo Paganini - The Violinist Who Allegedly Sold His Soul to the Devil

Originally published as "Burial of a Great Artist: Story of Paganini's Death Recalled by Recent Exhumation," Kellog's Wichita (KS) Record, Feb 8, 1896.

The late exhumation of Paganini's remains, near Parma, brings to memory all the other peregrinations they have gone through since they were first taken to the Nice cemetery in 1840—when Nice still belonged to Italy. Being refused there, however, because Paganini was not of Nice, the remains were taken to Marseilles, where they were also refused admittance. Not even Genoa, where Paganini was born would receive his body because an epidemic was then raging. A like refusal was received at Cannes.

Shall I tell you why it so hard to find a resting place for his bones? It was a common belief that Paganini had sold his soul to the devil, who would take it immediately after the poor man died! So, for five years, the body was left on the rocks of San Ferreol, where it might be still had not the duchess of Parma insisted on having it buried in the Villa Guime. In 1855, the coffin had to be changed, and in 1876 the body was again removed, this time to the cemetery of Parma. Then, however, all the people in Parma crowded the riverside, down which the body was carried by night, to the light of hundreds of torches. Baron Attilius Paganini, a grandson of the violinist, was also present. Once more, in 1893, the vault was opened, and the features of the great man were again seen. And now again the vault has been opened for repairs. A friend writes and says that the face is still perfectly preserved. The lower part of the body is mere bone; the face, however, is as perfect as ever, and has been photographed. Baron Achilles, Paganini's son (now an old man), has caused the body to be placed in another coffin, and this time a large piece of glass has been placed in the coffin. Thus any artist visiting Parma may now see the features of Paganini by asking Baron Achilles' permission. 

I am told that much of the music which bears Paganini's name was never written by him at all. His real compositions, however, are now going to be published, and they will be a surprise to artists on account of their mechanical difficulties, which will be a perfect test of ability to many of our modern violinists—great as they may be. He used to practice exercises by the hour together with a weight tied to his right arm. Then after this weight was removed his playing sounded as if it were a complete orchestra playing. There are some old people who still remember hearing him practice in this way. Whilst practicing he would also walk up and down the room, rarely looking at the music on the desk. From his youth he always had the preference for one bow. It never left him_ It was very long and was mended over and over again. It always lies on the chimney piece of the Green room in the Villa Gaione. It stands in a gold column, protected by a crystal shade, and on it is a paper telling what it is.

Aberdeen Journal and General Advertiser for the North of Scotland, Jun 17, 1893.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Piedmont Picking: Blues Not Doleful In Etta Baker's Hands

By BRUCE HENDERSON - The Charlotte Observer, December 27, 1988

"I dream music. I hear chords in my sleep." — Etta Baker 

"I say they (the blues) make me feel good. It's supposed to be based on somebody's sadness, but aren't you glad it's somebody else's and not yours?" - Etta Baker

They call the music she coaxes from her six-string acoustic guitar the Piedmont blues, but to Etta Baker it is the language of joy and remembrance. 

It sounds that way, too, as she lightly picks out the melody of "Dew Drops," the first tune she can remember her daddy playing more than 70 years ago in the Caldwell County foothills. 

"A-many mornings I've been awakened by my daddy's banjo, and the smell of ham cooking and apples frying," she said last week. "And it was impossible to lay in bed when I smelled all that good food, and my daddy playing. 

"It's just been a wonderful life, as far back as I can remember." 

Folklorists regard Baker, at 75, as one of the finest guitarists in the two-finger picking style that characterizes the Piedmont blues. On Jan. 18 in Raleigh, she and seven other masters of traditional arts will be honored as the first recipients of the N.C. Folk Heritage Award from the N.C. Arts Council, worth $2,000 apiece. 

After 23 years of work at a Morganton textile mill, she now performs at festivals nationwide, including JazzCharlotte. 

Baker has no formal music training, nor can she read music. But, she said from her small frame house under a spreading magnolia tree, "I dream music. I hear chords in my sleep." 

Born in the Johns River community of Caldwell County, where her father hunted and farmed for a living, she grew up near Richmond as the last of eight children. The family, which later returned to North Carolina, had black, Cherokee and Irish and musical — bloodlines. 

Boone Reid, her father, played banjo, fiddle, and guitar: her mother played harmonica and Jew's harp. Her brothers and sister also played the eclectic mix of traditional mountain tunes and popular music in their racially mixed community, at corn shuckings and house parties where music was sometimes made all night. 

"I've seen my daddy dance, and he was a tall man, but so light on his feet that you could barely hear him on the floor," she said. 

Before age 3, she was plucking out notes on a small guitar as it lay flat across her lap. It was during the family's time in Virginia that she first heard "the most sweetest music" — the blues. 

"I've had people ask me how the blues make me feel, and I say they make me feel good," she said. "It's supposed to be based on somebody's sadness, but aren't you glad it's somebody else's and not yours?" 

She's known now for her inventive performances and the delicate picking style she developed. 

"I make myself play every day about one hour and 45 minutes," she said. "If I make a sound that doesn't sound just right, I'll do it all over again. I just want to get to the point where I can tell myself, 'Etta, you can play.' 

"But I'm not there yet. I'm working on it, though." 

Baker was first recorded in 1956 for the influential album "Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians" and two years later left the mill for music. 

She sometimes plays with her sister, guitarist Cora Phillips, as they did during the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, Tenn. The pair won the N.C. Folklore Society's Brown-Hudson Award for contributions to folk arts that year. 

It was at the fair that she composed her lively "Knoxville Rag," the result of those chords that come to her in bed. 

Her nine children, of whom eight survive, continue the family's musical tradition on piano and guitar. Daughter Darlene often accompanies her on festival trips, she said, while Dorothy has a beautiful singing voice. Baker rarely sings. 

As she tends her garden and her zebra finches at home, the music of Boone Reid haunts her still. She got a banjo a year ago and a fiddle this month and is teaching herself to play them, too. 

"I lay. in bed sometimes," she said, "and think back to how Daddy made it sound." 

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Junior Kimbrough's "Cotton-patch blues"

By JIM McGUINNESS Staff Writer
The Hackensack (New Jersey) Record, September 1, 1995.

Photo: Adam Smith
As I prepared for a phone interview with guitar great Junior Kimbrough, it dawned on me: What if the Mississippi bluesman was a bad — really bad — interview? 

There was a basis for such fear. Since the release of his critically acclaimed "All Night Long" debut album in 1992 —and his equally strong follow-up, last year's "Sad Days, Lonely Nights" — I couldn't recall seeing a single story in which Kimbrough was quoted at length. My trepidation intensified when a representative from his record company responded to my interview request with, "Oh, Junior. That guy's tough to get a hold of. You see, he doesn't have a phone."

Suddenly, I had a picture of poor Kimbrough risking injury by hanging from a telephone pole — "Green Acres"-style — to answer questions about his musical influences. 

Suffice to say, Kimbrough isn't exactly a quote machine. His short, barely intelligible replies only deepened the mystery surrounding the blues men of the Delta region. Robert Johnson himself — dead for 57 years —probably gives better interviews. 

Speaking in a Southern drawl thicker than Mississippi mud, Kimbrough grunted forth the essence of his music. 

"I just play my music," he said, speaking from a neighbor's home. "I just play for the people." 

Short, simple, and honest. 

Therein lies his charm. In a time when pop stars carry on as if their latest albums were the answer to world peace, Kimbrough is refreshing in his brevity. He's out of his element in an interview, preferring to let his music do the talking. 

His trance-inducing guitar style is dominated by eerily constructed riffs and raw, rocking rhythms. His original songs — one-chord droners —ring of the hard life. Farm worker. Moonshine runner. Tractor and bulldozer driver. Kimbrough has done what's needed to survive down along the Mississippi Delta. 

"I play that cotton-patch blues," said Kimbrough. "I was working in the cotton fields when I learned how to play." 

Kimbrough isn't a Delta blues man, per se. He lives in Chulahoma, a tiny town of 500 people in the northern Missisisippi hill country adjacent to the Delta. There he is a big man — the proprietor of a popular juke joint that bears his name. In the two-family house next door lives R.L. Burnside, a bona-fide blues man and Kimbrough's frequent partner in musical mayhem. A converted storehouse, Kimbrough's juke joint — which doesn't bother to have a sign —is the hot spot in Chulahoma. 

Photo: Adam Smith
"It's a place to play music, sell beer, dance, and have fun all night," Kimbrough said. "Sometimes we don't even close." Like Burnside, Kimbrough is affiliated with Fat Possum Records, an Oxford, Miss., label that specializes in recording gritty juke joint performers. At 58 or 65 (Kimbrough isn't very good with dates, so his age varies depending on the source), he seems unaffected by his apparent blues stardom at such a late juncture. 

"It surprised me," he said. "You never know." 

This much is known about Kimbrough. He was born in Hudsonville, Miss. At 8, following the lead of his three older brothers and one sister, he took up the guitar. He made his first record — "Tramp," backed with "You Can't Leave Me" — for the Philwood label in 1968. His only other recorded efforts were in the Seventies when he made "Keep Your Hands Off Her" backed with "I Feel Good Little Girl" for High Water and "All Night Long," a song that appeared on the Southland label's National Downhome Festival Series.

Kimbrough's big break came in 1992, when he was featured in "Deep Blues," a blues documentary put together by music journalist Robert Palmer. Shortly afterward, he recorded "All Night Long" for Fat Possum. Produced by Palmer and recorded at Kimbrough's juke joint, the album received glowing reviews in Rolling Stone (which called it the best Delta blues album in 40 years) and other music magazines. 

Kimbrough's belated recognition was nearly cut short late in 1992, when a stroke robbed him of some mobility in his left leg. But he's persevered, never thinking of himself as a star. 

"If my leg wasn't so bad, I'd like to work some," he said. "Maybe as a mechanic." 

Try to catch them at the World Financial Center. This kind doesn't come our way too often. 

(Jackson, MS) Clarion Ledger, Dec 12, 1982.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The Life and Death of Johnny Woods

The hard life of blues harmonica player Johnny Woods, 72, came to an end on February 1, 1990. He died of a heart attack in Olive Branch, Mississippi. Johnny Woods was born on November 1, 1917, in Looxahoma, Mississippi. His father was able to make a living by trading dogs, horses, and mule when he was not working in the cotton fields. 

In the liner notes to The Blues of Johnny Woods, on the Dutch label Swing-master, Woods recalled how he didn't even know there was such a thing as school until he was almost 13 years old. Woods was able to get more out of his farming job than the $20 he earned a month; he learned a lot about music from listening to work chants and hollers. Later, in his spare time, he would work out arrangements combining the shouts he heard with harmonica riffs. 

At 16 he married, and he and his wife had two children. His wife, in the middle of her third pregnancy, died from a stroke. 

As time went on, Woods be came an accomplished musician and a local favorite. In the '60s he recorded with Mississippi Fred McDowell, and in the '80s he traveled and recorded with R.L. Burnside, as well as many others. (Burnside was, perhaps, prouder of Woods' Swingmaster release than he was of his own album for that label.) 

In the liner notes on The Blues of Johnny Woods, he went on to say that one of the reasons his life had been so hard was due to the fact that he was never taught to read, write or count and had been unmercifully taken advantage of. In his late sixties, burdened with glaucoma and eye cataracts, Woods was trying to learn to spell his name and to read.

Shortly before his death, he and his second wife of 29 years, Verlina, had moved into government housing and were enjoying indoor plumbing for the first time in their lives. At the time of his death Woods was taking care of Verlina, who is totally blind and has not left her bed for more than ten years. He was to appear at the Eureka Blues Festival in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, this year, as well as at other local blues festivals. He also appeared regularly at the Rust College Blues and Gospel Festival. A local sculptor agreed to make a headstone for Woods.

By Matthew Johnson

Thursday, April 2, 2020

A Visit to the Grave of Sonny Boy Williamson II in 1971

James La Rocca, "I Got Ramblin' on Ma Mind," Blues Unlimited 82 (June 1971): 5-8.

On Wednesday, August 26th, I began my journey from my home in New Orleans, to Memphis where I had arranged to meet Houston Stackhouse. When I had last seen him, he expressed a desire to tour through the Arkansas-Mississippi area where he had played in past years, and I was on my way to keep him company. 

On my way, I stopped off in Canton, Mississippi, hoping to obtain some information on Elmore James. At a gas station I was given the address of a supposed brother of Elmore's. I made a note to return to Canton when I had more time, and follow this up.

I arrived at Memphis in the late afternoon and went to Joe Willie Wilkins' house, where Houston Stackhouse now lives. I stayed there overnight and early Thursday morning we drove to Little Rock, Arkansas. Here, Stackhouse occasionally played with Sonny Blair, Willie Wright (g), and James Harris (d) in the early '50s. After an unsuccessful attempt to locate Harris at a pool hall in town we ventured to College Station, a small Black community just outside Little Rock. Stackhouse remembered that Willie Wright lived there, but was unsure of the exact street. We spent a frustrating time driving up one street after another without finding the right one. Finally, we stopped in front of a house to ask directions. The tooting horn brought someone out to assist us - it was Willie Wright! Were we surprised and glad to see him.

Stackhouse was extremely pleased to see his old friend and I proceeded to ask Willie about Sonny Blair and the old group. I was told that Sonny had died in 1966 and that his real name was Sullivan Jackson. Willie had met James Harris and Sonny at Little Rock in 1955 and they formed a band called The Houserockers, which would include Stackhouse if he was in town. They played regularly until Blair died and since then Willie has not played much. Blair liked songs by Sonny Boy (Rice Miller) and these plus some originals and improvisations made up the ''Houserockers'' repertoire. In fact, Blair even quit the group for a short time to play with the "King Biscuit Boys" in West Helena. We thanked Willie, bade him farewell, and moved on.

Stackhouse recalled a great guitar player by the name of Ellis (CeDell) Davis who lived in Pine Bluff, so this became our next destination. We went to the "Jack Rabbit Club," one of the largest juke joints in the area and found it closed. Its owner, Son Sullivan, had died in '67. Stackhouse told me of the greats that Sullivan had booked there in the '40s and 50s...Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Joe Hill Louis and others including himself and the Houserockers. The youngest son of  Ellis Davis then took us to him and we arrived at his home on Thursday evening. He played for us till 1:00 am and then we stayed the night. His guitar-playing wasn't very impressive and he claimed he was out of practice, but his singing was surprisingly strong, in a Muddy Waters-Jimmy Rogers vein.

On Friday morning we went on to Clarksdale, Mississippi to find Raymond Hill at an address supplied by Mike Leadbitter. Stackhouse had known his father, Henry Hill, a pianist and juke joint operator. On finding Raymond we learned that his father had died recently. We learned he had first met Ike Turner when Ike was on the piano in a group of Henry's. Raymond joined Ike's band in 1953 and played with them in St. Louis for a period. In 1963 he formed an instrumental group, that recorded in Memphis before breaking up, in 1968. He told us that he had done many sessions with people like Clayton Love, Albert King, Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner.

It was late Friday afternoon when we left. Stackhouse wanted to go to West Helena to see Peck Curtis, but I persuaded hIm to travel an extra 20 miles to Tutwiler where I hoped we'd locate the grave of Sonny Boy Williamson (Miller). In town, we found someone who led us to the Whitfield Cemetary. The graveyard was two-thirds overrun by weeds six feet high and a tractor driver working nearby helped with the search. After much work, we uncovered a marker with a faded "Williamson" nameplate and the name of the funeral home. These facts were used to verify its authenticity. It is sad to note that two of Sonny Boy's sisters still live in Tutwiler and yet they had let his grave vanish under the weeds.

Leaving Tutwiler we traveled to West Helena and found Peck Curtis at his home. Stackhouse and Peck are t11e closest of friends and were happy to see one another again. While they reminisced about old times, I copied some of Peck's photos of Sonny Boy and Sonny Blair. When we mentioned finding Sonny Boy's grave Peck recounted this story.

In 1965, Sonny Boy was living in West Helena and playing with Peck on the King Biscuit show. They were to do a broadcast at noon one day, but Peck was unable to contact Sonny Boy by phone. He told the radio station to play records while he went to find out what was happening. He knocked on Sonny Boy's door and, getting no answer, went in to find him dead in bed...

After a little more talk we thanked Peck and headed back to Memphis and Joe Willie Wilkins. 

In Memphis, Stackhouse plays at ''Ann Brown's Club" every Friday and Saturday. After dropping him off there, I decided to go inside and see the club. It was pretty rowdy, with everyone drinking and fighting, and the musicians drunk and uninspired. The combined conditions led me to amuse myself elsewhere until the gig was over when I picked up Stackhouse and went back home with him to stay the night.

Saturday was spent checking out-dated addresses of musicians in the Memphis area.

I searched for Walter Bradford, Scott Jr., L.B.Lawson, Willie Nix, Jimmy de Berry, Albert Williams, and Big Memphis Ma Rainey (actually Lillie MAE GLOVER) without success. Giving up, and with time running out, I made my way back to New Orleans.

A sad footnote: Stackhouse called me to say that Peck died on November 1st.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Sleepy John Estes was More than Music

[Originally published by Delores Ballard as "A Blind Bluesman's Music: A Heart Of Soul--Sleepy John's Been Places But Only His Songs Matter," Jackson (TN) Sun, November 17, 1974.

Sleepy John Estes at his home in Haywood County, TN

Blues. Soft, sad-sweet blues, nail-you-to-the-wall blues...two old men, a guitar, with four strings and a Hohner Marine Band harmonica. 

The afternoon wind, rising, chilling, tears the blue notes into fragments, blows them away over the sagging porch of Sleepy John Estes' dilapidated shack.

TOO CHILLED to frolic, an assortment of children build themselves a cocoon of old overcoats in the thin sunlight beyond the shadow of the house where Sleepy John is wailing and Hammy Nixon is beating the rundown heel of his shoe into the hard-packed earth: 

"I met Corinna 'way cross the sea 
I met Corinna 'way cross the sea 
She didn't write me no letter
She didn't care for me."

Their voices cross over, blend, harmonize. Sleepy John carries it alone while Hammy fishes a kazoo from his pocket and hums a saucy, horn-like sound through it. Then the harmonica again. Always, their voices are together. John's high and Hammy's low, when they reach the chorus.

There is nothing in this Haywood County afternoon setting to indicate that Sleepy John Estes, blind of eye and bony of limb, making music on an over-the-hill guitar, is an internationally famous blues singer. 

The house is a hovel. smelling bad and inadequately heated, overrun with children. A lone car, standing in front, has four flat tires and one door is propped open. A three-year-old is using it as a playhouse. The yard is a catch-all for refuse. 

"He makes good money," says a Brownsville friend of Sleepy John Estes, "but he lives in filth. People go wild over him everywhere else, but here...well, the young people get a little disgusted with him because he won't try to better himself."

SLEEPY JOHN, at 74, is the proverbial prophet without honor in his own home. He's little else in local estimation save a poor old black man who won't change his ways. 

But at the Newport Jazz Festival, or on the campus of a middlewestern university, or in Norway, John and his "harp-man" Hammy Nixon are a sensation — genuine, gutsy, low-down dirty bluesmakers, two of a remaining few, a vanishing breed. 

Sleepy John has come a long way to nowhere. From his beginnings as a musician with a streetcorner jug band to his present paradoxical state of nobody at home, star away from home, he has been an integral part of American blues. Hammy Nixon has been with him most of the way. 

"I was real young, around 11 years old, an' John came up and played at one of the ole picnics they used to have, you know...I was tryin' to blow harp a little and he wanted me to help him. Went to Memphis an Arkansas and he finally got me on tour. Then we went to hoboin'... hoboin' on them freight trains, and was that a life! We had a lot of fun — he could see, then..." 

John is hazy about the loss of his sight, thinks it began deteriorating after he was hit in the eye with a piece of glass "back when there was nothin' to do for it but bathe it in saltwater and go home." 

He went completely blind about 1959. 


"I started in music about eight years called Lauderdale County, near Ripley. I listened to music and thought I'd make me some. So I took an old seegar box and the broomwire off the broom...there was this fellow across the field that knew how to bring a guitar-sound from the string. and he learned me how to tune it. 

"Since I got so I couldn't see, why. I still hear it in my head. I make up the sounds in my head then I make 'em on the guitar until they match up."

Grizzled and skinny. John wears a shabby tweed coat, a battered plush black hat. When he sings, they become symbols. The ugly clothes, the ugly house, the cold winter wind, all blur together in the haunting indigo of John's soul-wail: 

"I thought my baby loved to lay in bed with me, 
But now I don't know where my baby be." 

John and Hammy are between flights. Five weeks ago they came home from Norway. Now, they're booked for Tokyo. 

"We leave Monday," Hammy says, "to stop over in Chicago and play an anniversary celebration for a friend of ours. Man, he was low when he found him, sleepin' on the concrete floor. Now he owns four record stores and has so much he can't keep up with it all. Seems like everybody we started with has come to the top of the well — they're all in the money but us. 

"Anyhow, after that stopover in Chicago, we're goin' on to Jay-pan ( Japan )." 

John and Hammy haven't come to the top of the well, but they remember good Memphis. when famous soul-singer Bessie Smith and her sister Mamie and blues singer Memphis Minnie "were all there together, an' we had a good time!"

"AN' WE'VE TRAVELED some. All the places I've been, I guess Frankford (Frankfurt), Germany was best. The people an' food an' everything suited me better...seemed mo' like home." 

Travel and appearing with Howlin Wolf and B .B. King and Bobby Blue Bland, however, are not what it's all about for Sleepy John. It's music. 

"Music...seems like it takes effect on me. When I'm alone, it's company to me. An' when I make music for other people. it makes me feel better." 

The Depression put an end to John's recording aspirations; Hammy Nixon's birth was never recorded so he can't even draw his Social Security. Yet here they are, about to board a plane and fly to Tokyo and sing "Tater-diggin' Man" and "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead. You Rascal You" to the applause of large crowds. 

Blues. Raunchy, shoot-from-the-hip blues that betides woe to the enemy and the fickle-hearted woman:

"Gonna give my baby a 20 dollar bill, 
Gonna give my baby a 20 dollar bill, 
If that don't get her, 
I know my shotgun will." 

The afternoon wind shivers across the porch where Hammy has the three-year-old cuddled under his coat. A grey-striped kitten picks its dainty way through the pile of debris near the door, sniffing hopefully for an edible, finds none. It is time for old men to be by the fire. Sleepy John Estes calls to a boy who takes his arm and leads him toward the house. 

Sleepy John steps heavily onto the slanting, sagging porch. feels the hoards give under his weight. "Got to move" he says. But everyone else knows he doesn't really care.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Starkloff Saved St. Louis during the Pandemic of 1918

St. Louis Post Dispatch - July 9, 2006

The 1918 flu is the subject of "The Great Influenza," an award-winning history written by John M. Barry and published in 1994. 

Although the book mentions St. Louis only in passing, Barry said in a recent phone interview, "St. Louis was a very interesting place in 1918. Now it's being studied to see what we can learn - whether the city had aggressive leadership or just plain luck." 

Luck? William Stanhope of St. Louis University's School of Public Health says St. Louis was lucky, but not in the sense that the Spanish Flu merely brushed against the city in random fashion. 

'This city was incredibly lucky," says Stanhope, whose research has delved deeply into the city's flu response. The reason for St. Louis' luck: "It had a hard-nosed health commissioner - and it had a mayor with the guts to back up the health commissioner." 

Friday, March 27, 2020

Rochester Blues Artist: Joe Beard

Joe Beard
A club in Chicago. A jam session. It's 1967, maybe '68, and Joe Beard is playing a John Lee Hooker song, "Sallie Mae."

"There was a guy standing at the bottom of the stairs," Beard says. "He had one of his arms in a cast. Watching every note I hit. And after I'm done playing, he comes up and says to me, 'Where did you learn to play like that? You play that better than John Lee Hooker.' I said, 'I learned it from John Lee Hooker.'

"And he says to me, I am John Lee Hooker.'"

A lot of guitarists probably learned a few licks by listening to John Lee Hooker records, but Hooker didn't turn up at their shows. Beard is a cool blues star in that cosmos. The music, and the historic musicians who created it, have been drawn to his modest gravitational pull.

There was B. B. King, before Beard himself ever thought to pick up a guitar.

And Albert King. "Albert King liked nobody," Beard says. "Nobody could deal with Albert King. He and I were best of friends.''

And Little Milton, "he didn't socialize well with people," Beard says. Except Beard.

And, "Bobby 'Blue' Bland, every time he was in the area, I'm the guy he wanted to open the show for him."

And Buddy Guy. Beard toured with Guy and Junior Wells a lot. When Guy played Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre at last year's Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival, Beard was hanging out backstage. Guy called him out, and they played Gambler's Blues together. "He wanted me to do more," Beard says. "But I didn't want to."

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Unearthed Headstone of a Rock N' Roll Legend

© Robert Birdsong
Jackie Brenston—the singer/saxophone player who, along with Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm, recorded the epic 1951 hit “Rocket 88,” the first ever No.1 hit on Chess Records, which some scholars consider one the first recorded rock ‘n roll songs—was thought to have been buried in an unmarked grave at Heavenly Rest Cemetery in the small hamlet of Lyon, just outside his hometown of Clarksdale, Mississippi. According to his obituary in the Clarksdale Press Register, Brenston suffered a heart attack and died at the Kennedy V.A. Hospital in Memphis on December 15, 1979. Reverend X.L. Williams presided over his funeral at Damascus M.B. Church on December 23, 1979, and the Delta Burial Corporation, of Clarksdale, subsequently buried the World War II veteran in the military section of Heavenly Rest Cemetery.[i] Living Blues magazine editor Jim O’Neal, who conducted two interviews with Brenston in the 1970s, visited the burial site shortly thereafter and photographed his temporary grave marker—a small metal plaque displaying a card on which someone typed his death date and his name, “Mr. Jackie Brenston.” Until recently, it was believed to have been his only grave marker.

© Jim O’Neal 1979
Having recently assisted the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund in the unearthing the long lost military headstone of eminent blues fiddler Henry “Son” Simms, Clarksdale native and local historian Robert Birdsong developed a renewed sense of determination in the winter months of 2014/2015. He never thought such a discovery was possible. He had spent much of his spare time digging through county records, scrolling through old newspapers, and traipsing through overgrown cemeteries in search of the unmarked graves of his blues heroes, but his exhaustive efforts had amounted to only a single discovery—the unmarked grave of Big John Wrencher, located not far coincidentally from the headstone of Simms at Shufordville Historic Cemetery in Lyon. The seemingly impossible discovery of Simm’s headstone, indeed, transformed Birdsong’s dismay into energetic optimism, activating his expectant quest to find the supposed unmarked grave of Jackie Brenston.

Armed with biographical knowledge and a local obituary, he visited the late Myrtle Messenger, caretaker and manager of Heavenly Rest Cemetery, who directed him to the section reserved for the military. Birdsong inspected the veterans’ graves and noticed several interesting gaps in the rows of markers. Believing that some of the open spaces might be the result of markers sinking into the earth, he procured a long probe and started penetrating the ground in suspicious areas. It did not take long, much to his delight, to find an unidentified object under the surface. Utilizing his reliable shovel, Birdsong excavated the flat, metal headstone of an army private who had served in World War II. His eyes widened as he read the raised letters at the top, which spelled the name “Jack Brenston.” 

© Jim O'Neal 1979
While the birth date on the marker, August 24, 1928, corresponds with the date recorded in his army enlistment records, Brenston’s date of birth has been the subject of some debate.[ii] In a 1974 interview, Brenston told Jim O’Neal and Amy van Singel that he was born on August 24, 1927—the same date as the marker only a year earlier. His obituary in the Clarksdale Press Register, however, lists his birthdate as August 15, 1930.[iii] O’Neal suggests a potential explanation for the discrepancies in his lengthy obituary for Living Blues, in which he argues that Brenston falsified his birth date to qualify for the armed services in 1944.[iv] A survey of secondary scholarship supports O’Neal’s theory in revealing the prevalence of false information volunteered by enlistees during World War II. A deeper analysis of his military enlistment records and personal interviews, moreover, suggests his mother, Ethel Brenston, likely falsified information to enlist her problematic teenage son in the military. 

Jackie Brenston (c. 1952) 
Brenston was admittedly unruly in his youth; he ran away from home several times in the early 1940s. With the nation embroiled in the bloody carnage of World War II, the rebellious fifteen-year-old returned home from his most recent escape attempt and volunteered—much to the delight of his mother, who, Brenston recalled, had to provide guardian approval for her underage son—to enlist in the army. The military, by law, did not accept anyone under the age of seventeen, but some scholars have pointed out that “underage enlistment was relatively common” in the 1940s.[v] Brenston claimed to have served for over three years in the 82nd Airborne, but the Department of Veterans Affairs recorded his enlistment date as January 10, 1946, and his release date as December 18, 1946, which amounted to less than one year of service. Considering that scores of “underage recruits” managed to enlist “through elaborate schemes, cleverly altered documents, and with assistance from military recruiters and parents,” Ethel Brenston likely volunteered her uncontrollable son for military service, perhaps even with the help of recruiters, who knowingly falsified his enlistment records. It remains difficult to discern, however, the exact length of time Brenston spent in the military during the 1940s.[vi].

After unearthing and placing the small, flat military marker of Brenston back on top of his grave, Birdsong realized it was especially vulnerable to souvenir-seeking tourists, many of whom flocked to Clarksdale each year to visit local clubs, attend festivals, and visit historic sites. He, therefore, contacted Coahoma County Coroner Scotty Meredith, who operates a local monument company and previously donated the headstone for Big John Wrencher, and talked him into mounting the military marker on top of a granite base. Never thought to have existed, the military headstone of Jackie Brenston now sits securely atop his grave in Heavenly Rest Cemetery. The burial ground, which awaits its turn to receive a historical marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail, also contains the unmarked grave of saxophone player Raymond Hill, who performed alongside Brenston in Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm.

© Robert Birdsong

i] “Jackie Brenston Burial Sunday,” Clarksdale (MS) Press-Register, Dec 21, 1979, 2A.

[ii] Jackie Brenston, interview by Jim and Amy O’Neal, November 11, 1974, “Subject File: Jackie Brenston,” Blues Archive, University of Mississippi.

[iii] “Jackie Brenston Burial Sunday,” Clarksdale (MS) Press-Register, Dec 21, 1979, 2A.

[iv] Jim O’Neal, “Jackie Brenston,” Living Blues 45/46 (Spring 1980): 18.

[v] See Melinda L. Pash, In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation: The Americans Who Fought the Korean War (New York: NYU Press, 2012), 230 note 4; and Colin Campbell, “For Some Veterans, Underage Enlistment is Point of Pride,” The Baltimore (MD) Sun, Nov 10, 2013, [accessed March 29, 2015].

[vi] Joshua Ryan Pollarine, “Children at War: Underage Americans Illegally Fighting the Second World War,” thesis, The University of Montana, 2008, p.2.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

I Shook Hands with Nathan Beauregard

By Dave Wood
(originally published as "Twisted Spine Tom Straightens Out" in Sailor's Delight November 3, 1982)

It was Friday afternoon in Mortician's Crotch, Alabama, (there is no Mortician's Crotch, Alabama) so of course, it was raining fish (it has never actually rained fish anywhere and never will, thus evidencing that this story is fiction). The sun hung low and a little to the left. On Main street an old man was picking his teeth. 

"Gimme the green set in the pickle jar behind the safety razor", he told the pawnbroker. 

He handed over a dollar and, due to the fact that the teeth were a half a dozen sizes too big left the store with a broad and beautiful smile upon his face; As he started to cross the street he heard and saw a car approaching. It was a black Ford sedan with New York plates, Dixie cups and flying saucers. At the wheel sat a young man with steel-rimmed glasses, a chin a little obscured by what may have been steam or the promise of a beard, and a faded blue sweatshirt which bore the legend “I SHOOK HANDS WITH NATHAN BEAUREGARD - MEHPHIS 1968 " 

As the car drew level with the old man it stopped and the young driver leaned out of the open window and spoke. 

Excuse me,” he said, “I’m looking for a blues singer.” 

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The First Blues Memorial in Mississippi - 1976

The Clarksdale (MS) Press Register July 29, 1976.
By Ken Faulkner

On the morning of July 28, 1976, a small group of residents in Tutwiler gathered at the park where the town railroad station once stood to honor an event that changed the course of the life of the American composer W.C. Handy. By his own account, Tutwiler was the place where he discovered "the blues." As part of the national Bicentennial Celebration, the National Music Council selected 200 national music landmarks. Tutwiler was selected as one of those sites. In a brief ceremony, a couple of white women--the president of the Mississippi Federation of Music and the Mississippi coordinator of the Bicentennial Parade of American Music--presented a plaque to the white mayor of the town of Tutwiler to commemorate the event. 

I know the Yellow Dog District like a book 
Indeed I know the route that Rider took 
Ev'ry cross-tie, bayou, burg an' bog 
Way down where the Southern cross' the Dog 

"One night at Tutwiler, as I nodded in the railroad station while waiting for a train that had been delayed nine hours, life suddenly took me by the shoulders and wakened me with a start. A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while t slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of a guitar. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly."

"Goin' where the Southern cross' the Dog." 

Thus W.C. Handy describes the moment when he first became aware of the value of the Negro folk music which he later adapted and popularized as "The Blues." Prior to that moment, Handy had been a band director and composer of the more traditional types of music popular around the turn of the century — waltzes, two-steps, etc. 

He now is known throughout the world as the “father of the blues." Handy, who lived in Clarksdale from 1903 to 1908, then moved to Memphis and Beale Street, traveled throughout the Delta playing at both white and black dances. He is still remembered by a few people. 

Dr. T.F. Clay, at 90 one of the oldest residents of Tutwiler, remembers dancing to Handy's music as a young man. "In those days every time a new store opened they would have a dance, and Handy played at many of them. But he didn't play the blues then, he was living in Clarksdale. He didn't start the blues until he went to Memphis." 

"He would come down on the train with his band and they would play all night. He'd get maybe $40 or $50, not like today with bands getting $500 or more. Handy moved to Clarksdale and the Delta at the invitation of another black man, S.L. "Stack" Mangham, who was mail clerk at the old Planters Bank and a member of an all-black band called The Knights of Pythias. Mangham had heard about Handy from a friend and invited him to Clarksdale to direct the hand. 

"I came to know by heart every foot of the Delta, from Clarksdale to Lambert on the Dog and Yazoo City railroads. I could call every flat stop, water tower and pig path on the Peavine with my eyes closed," Handy relates in his biography, The Father of the Blues. 

Joe Campassi, who at 83 is still energetic and alert, remembers his good friend W.C. Handy quite well. Campassi knew Handy both in Memphis and Clarksdale. "He was one of the finest men I've ever known," he relates, and is proud of his copy of Handy's autobiography with a personal note from the author. 

"In those days, everybody who knew him called him "Fess." 

"We were both working at a saloon called Pee Wee's on Beale Street in Memphis when Handy wrote the Memphis Blues. But then it was called ‘Mister Crump.' We were having an election for Mayor and Handy was hired by E.H. Crump to help get in the votes All the candidates had bands, but Handy wrote this song 'Mister Crump' and Crump won the election. He later changed the name of the song to "Memphis Blues". It was the first. 

"I was young in those days, 1910, only 16, helping manage Pee Wee's saloon, and selling policy (a gambling game also known as Louisianna Lottery).- "I moved back to Clarksdale later, but Handy would still come down to play for dances, and we would get together." 

Handy later moved to New York. When he wrote his autobiography, he thought of his friend, Joe Campassi, and sent him a copy. 

Mrs. G.T. Thomas, who lives at 504 Sunflower, won't confess her age, but she remembers Handy too. She came here in 1910, after finishing at Alcorn College, to teach in the black school. She knew Stack Mangham well, and through him, met Handy. 

He lived near the old "Brickyard" on Lincoln Street, I think. He and his wife. They had a son here in Clarksdale." 

"I remember going to some of his dances," she said. "Then I married Mr. Thomas, and he was a strict Baptist, so I didn't go to dances anymore." 

Although Handy moved from the Delta and Beale Street, he never forgot the place where the course of his life changed and returned frequently to renew his friendship with the area. 

Handy was born in Florence, Alabama in 1873. He left home at 16 against his father's wishes to pursue a life as a musician. After traveling with a number of roving bands, he settled in Clarksdale from 1903 to 1908, then moved to Memphis. He later moved to New York where he helped establish a music publishing company. He died in 1958.