Friday, March 3, 2017

“One of the Big Things Sunflower County Has to Show the World,”

“One of the Big Things Sunflower County Has to Show the World,” 
Jackson Clarion-Ledger, August 4, 1928.

Sunflower county is a great county, a large county, has an enviable reputation in many ways, and the world has been attracted to it by the county in three successive years, having the healthiest girl in the union. Besides this it has some of the greatest farms and some of the greatest farmers, and we invite the attention of the readers to the farm of Will Dockery, of Dockery. Sunflower county, Mississippi.

Mr. Dockery is an ideal farmer, he knows how to farm, he knows how to make his farm pay a dividend. Go and see his farm; he will be glad to show you over it.  There is not a man in the delta who has spent so much time in studying and trying to solve the problems of the delta planter.

John Rice and Richard Carter did not receive full 
compensation for building the store of Will Dockery. They made
threats of revenge, and the store burned the same night. 
A local posse thus hunted them, found them, and shot them; 
see the Clarion Ledger, Mar 10, 1892.
H. A. Carpenter, County Farm Demonstration agent, in a local paper, said, "After you ride over the large 1 plantation and talk with him or his most efficient manager, Mr. Jett,  you will see that they are much nearer to the solution of these farm problems than most farmers are."

Mr. Dockery does not believe that, any planter or farmer can make a success of farming unless he grows all of his feed and you will notice on this farm there are several hundred acres of feed stuffs of corn, sagrain, soy beans, peas, clover, etc.  He has several hundred acres of corn that will average around thirty-four bushels of corn per acre and his sagrain and soy beans are just as good or better than his corn.

He has about two hundred head of hogs that have been raised mainly on mellilotus pasture that are now ready to be turned on his sagrain and soy beans. 

His cotton crop will average a bale or more to the acre according to the estimates of those who have been over his farm.  On this farm, you can see what pure seed, fertilizers and the thick spacing amount to in the making of a profitable cotton crop.  One hundred and thirty-five acres of this cotton is in check rows and has been worked with tractors. It is interesting to compare the cost of making this checked cotton to that planted and worked in the drill.

A large number of farmers from all over the delta have visited this farm and I would like for groups of farmers from all over Sunflower county to go see it.

"Delta Blues Grew up on Plantation"
By Barbara Wright
Bolivar Commercial Staff Writer For The Commonwealth
1978 Review of "Good Mornin' Blues," 
a one-hour documentary broadcast on Mississippi ETV.

[NOTE: This promo piece romanticizes the past inline with the Moonlight and Magnolias narrative, which intentionally avoids (or silences) any uncomfortable aspects of the state's dark racial past and invokes racial stereotypes.]

DOCKERY — Back in the days when cotton was picked by hand and the old Peavine Railroad transported cotton and passengers, Joe Rice Dockery remembers seeing on his father's plantation.  Black children always dancing in the tenant houses and hearing singing in the old Baptist Church for a mile or two.

These were the days of the birth of country music blues in the Delta which has provided the basis for rhythm and blues, rock and roll, soul and much modern music.

"The Charleston was a native step to the children. And all the [black folks] had music in them, there's no question," Dockery said.

The Dockery plantation established in 1895 by Will Dockery off what is now Highway 8 just inside Sunflower County is the scene of part of the filming of "Good Mornin' Blues," a one-hour documentary broadcast on Mississippi ETV. The program, which is narrated by Mississippi-born B. B. King, has been accepted for national distribution by Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

Vicksburg Herald - 1901
King's narration was filmed at Dockery which is recognized as the home of many of the singers in the film. Others were filmed around Mississippi- where they live or work. The program traces blues music from its earliest origins around the turn of the century until World War II. Featured is the music of 18 blues musicians.

Dockery particularly remembers Charley Patton who lived on the farm for quite a while and whose cousin still lives in Cleveland. "He was quite a rounder as all blues people were," Dockery recalled. "Those kind were never steady farm workers. They'd much rather be singing at a party somewhere. They had no ambition other than to sing."

The Vicksburg Herald, Dec 28, 1902.
A blues record sent to Dockery includes a Charley Patton song in which he sings, “They run me away from Will Dockery." Dockery grew up in a time when a man who acquired money sent his family to live in the hills away from the malaria-ridden swamps. The Dockery children lived in Memphis and Joe Rice visited the Delta farm periodically.

But the workers lived on the farm and they had no entertainment other than themselves. "They had fun among themselves with dances, picnics and such. Saturday night was a first-class brawl for a lot of them," Dockery said.

"They were great crap-shooters. On Saturday afternoon there was a lot of drinking, gambling, cutting and scraping. But murder was always a crime of passion, not pre-meditated,” he continued.

"Generally the plantation owner would get his men out of jail because he needed them," he said. Dockery noted that his father took care of his workers providing a doctor to look after them and a non-profit burial society. 

Clarion Ledger, 1894
Music, particularly the blues, seemed to be a natural evolvement of the lifestyle. "Blues occurred when a person lost a loved one, particularly when a [black] man lost his woman. That's all they had, that and religion," Dockery commented.

"We used to have a big, brick store with five or six clerks, a post office and a tremendous railroad depot. The train on the Peavine made up in Cleveland, went to Boyle and backed all the way to Dockery before going to Rosedale. Back then it had passenger cars," he recalled.

But these all disappeared as farming became mechanized, trucks took over the railroad business, the labor went to town to shop and finally moved off to the city to live. But the blues music born in those times and surroundings has lived on.

The lifestyle on the Dockery farms has changed greatly since Will Dockery bought up thousands of acres in Mississippi and Arkansas, clearing the timber for crops.  Yet, in some very important ways, it remains the same. 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Juke Joints Bedrock of American Pop Music

Juke Joints Bedrock of American Pop Music
By Robert Palmer - November 18, 1981
Clarion-Ledger/Jackson Daily News

Little Rock, Arkansas
Juke joints, gin mills, roadhouses, dives---call them what you will, these disreputable and often dangerous establishments are the bedrock of American popular music. Tomorrow's rock stars often start out in juke joints. In fact, rock-and-roll was born in them.  Living in New York, one tends to forget that such places exist.  Musicians who perform in New York nightclubs tend to perform with one eye on their audience and the other on a favorable review or a recording contract — lucky breaks that only an urban media center can bestow.

Here in Arkansas, the writer's home state, musicians are still playing in juke joints for an audience composed primarily of their friends and neighbors. Sometimes these friends and neighbors start feeling fractious and go after each other with knives and broken bottles; sometimes juke-joint audiences are better behaved.  Sometimes the music is a dull rehash of the latest top-40 hits. Sometimes it's sheer magic.

America’s popular music is a spotted mongrel with an in-credibly tangled pedigree, and juke joints encourage mongrelization. Back in the early fifties, white country-and-western bands in the South and Middle West found that they had to play faster, with a more pronounced beat, for younger dancers who had been listening to black music from across the tracks. At the same time, black blues musicians began amplifying their guitars and harmonicas and cranking up the volume in order to be heard over the din of a typical juke-joint Saturday night.  Most of the nation's public facilities were rigidly segregated in those days, but that didn't keep white and black musicians from listening to and playing with one another in roadside juke joints and small-town taverns. And out of their fraternizing carne the mongrel music called rock-and-roll.

The Whitewater Tavern, a rickety frame building on an unpaved Little Rock back street, is a typical juke joint. And last Saturday night at the Whitewater got off to a typical start, with a band of white longhairs playing loud blues-rock for an audience of rowdy young beer drinkers. But gradually musicians began drifting in, and the music changed.

CeDell Davis
First came CeDell Davis, a black blues guitarist in his early fifties.  Davis was crippled by polio early in his life and learned to play the guitar the only way he could, by picking with his right band and using his withered left hand to run a table knife up and down the strings. Over the years he has become a virtuoso with the table knife.  He uses the edge of the blade when he wants one kind of sound and the flat of the blade when he wants another. The scraping of the knife along the strings of his bright yellow electric guitar makes a kind of metallic gnashing sound that conspires with his patched-together guitar amplifier and his utterly original playing technique to produce some of the grittiest music imaginable.

Davis has never played the white college and folk-festival circuit. He works the juke joints in Arkansas and Mississippi, performing almost exclusively for black audiences. But the white musicians who were playing at the Whitewater had backed him before, and his idiosyncratic playing fitted into their souped-up blues rock with no trouble at all.

Soon Gary Gazzaway, an animated young trumpet player, joined the group. Gazzaway has recorded and toured with Flora Purim, Milton Nascimento and other leading lights of Brazilian pop, but when he isn't on the road he lives in his hometown, Pocahontas, Arkansas.  Gazzaway's playing is a mixture of modern jazz, Brazilian influences and strange huffing and bellowing sounds that remind some listeners of mating elephants. This writer, who had played the clarinet with CeDell Davis a year earlier in a Mississippi juke joint, managed to squeeze onto the Whitewater's makeshift stage, along with an unidentified trombonist. The writer's sister Dorothy got up to sing, and so did a folk singer named Linda Lowe, who recently returned to her native Arkansas after living and performing for several years in Austin, Texas.

CeDell Davis
The music was a little like one of those John Cage compositions that pile sound on top of sound and event on top of event until one cannot possibly take in the whole and has to focus on some of the parts instead. The blues-rock band was playing blues-rock. CeDell Davis was playing wild, keening blues guitar. The horns were exploring an unmapped territory somewhere between Dixieland, fifties rhythm-and-blues, and the most clamorous free-form jazz.  The singers were singing old blues verses and making up new ones. And the members of the audience were either dancing in the narrow space between the bar and the pinball machine or standing on chairs and tables and screaming their lungs out.  Juke joints are like that.  At their best, they are still places where the most disparate musical styles get sloshed together and new mongrels are born.

It’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Little Rock to northern Mississippi, where the juke joints tend to be rougher, and more difficult for outsiders to locate, than city joints like the Whitewater. But this writer was playing music in Arkansas juke joints when he was fifteen years-old and has never outgrown his affection for them, and when a friend who teaches folklore at a Memphis University and plays blues guitar on the side told him about a joint near Looxahoma, Mississippi, he set out for it.  

The joint was at the end of a dirt road, which was at the end of a gravel road, which was at the end of a local two-lane blacktop. It was a square, windowless structure made of cinderblocks, with an oil drum for a stove, a woman selling barbecued goat sandwiches behind the bar and a small bandstand in one corner. The customers were all black and all ages, from preschool toddlers to the elderly. The children ran whooping in and out of the place in threes and fours, or sat quietly at the joint's long picnic tables, sipping Coca-Colas and watching their elders with undisguised interest. Behind the joint, in the glow of a Coleman lantern, a number of young, not-so-young and middle-aged men were throwing dice, and wads of dollar bills were rapidly changing hands.

Jessie Mae Hemphill, a blues guitarist and singer tram Senatobia, Miss., who wears leopard-skin tights and a bejeweled black cowboy hat and is one of a small handful of women still performing droning, old-style country blues, played an engaging set, backed by a bass player and drummer from nearby Memphis.  Her blues pleased the older members of the audience, who danced the slow grind and the snake hips to it, but some of the younger listeners began asking for soul music.

Alex Chilton
“I can sing like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett and all those guys,” said the drummer. "I can play all that soul stuff," said the bass player. "I think I can remember the horn parts," said the writer, who played soul music in dozens of long-for-gotten bands in the middle and late 60s. "I know the guitar parts," said Alex Chilton, a white rock musician who had driven down from Memphis. Back in the 60s, Chilton sang lead on the Box Tops' No. 1 one hit The Letter. He currently enjoys a cult following among new-wave rock fans in New York and London.  He had come to Looxahoma because he is inordinately fond of juke joints.

And so, from scratch, a soul band was born. The bulk of the audience, which had remained seated during the blues set, got up and danced and shouted their encouragement as soon as they heard the first unmistakable strains of the soul classic, In the Midnight Hour. The musicians, even the writer, made it through that and every other song they tried without getting lost, which was a kind of miracle.

Juke joints are not always fun and games. Around 1963, when the writer was 17, he was working with an otherwise all-black band in a Little Rock dive called the South Main Businessmen's Club. The "businessmen" were actually working-class whites who wore T-shirts with the sleeves rolled up, the better to reveal the tattoos on their impressive biceps. One night a bedraggled, unshaven man came in and requested a country-and-western song. "It'd sound mighty good to a man on the run," he said.

The band played the song, the man left, and a few minutes later a bevy of state policemen arrived, hot on his trail. It seems he had just escaped from the county penal farm. Nobody seemed to have noticed which way he went.

A few weeks later, the writer arrived at the club on an off-night looking for a friend, didn't see anyone be knew, and left.  He had waited a block and a half down the street when he heard a sudden explosion of gunfire. Several of the club's patrons that night had been a gang of bank robbers, and several had been plainclothes detectives. They settled their differences by overturning the tables they were sitting at and shooting at one another, leaving two bystanders dead and several others wounded. The resulting publicity painted the club in a decidedly unfavorable light and it closed a few nights later. Juke joints are like that. They come and they go.

But juke joints are important. They are the last bastions of everything that is quirky and unique about regional music and musicians. And the writer has never known a juke-joint audience to greet musical experimentation and off-the-cuff innovation with anything less than noisy enthusiasm—unless the musicians were intoxicated and/or inept, in which case they got the jeers, catcalls and flying bottles they deserved.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Booba Barnes: Living the Blues

Booba Barnes: Living the Blues
Story by Robert L. Koenig for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch 1990

"The blues is more or less a feeling that you get from something that you think is wrong, or something that somebody did wrong to you...and the onliest way you have to tell it would be through a song." - Li'l Son Jackson, bluesman


HE'S PLAYED Jook joints on Arkansas' dusty back roads, blues clubs on Chicago's South Side and smoky bars on mean streets in East St. Louis.

But after 40 years of singing the blues, Roosevelt "Booba" Barnes made it to his own club — a place where the dance floor is bare concrete, the stage light comes from naked bulbs and many of the fans are hookers who wander in from Nelson Street.

"Barnes' Playboy Club" reads the faded sign, painted on a sheet of graying plywood, warped from the sun and rain. There's no cover charge and not much to drink —just beer and soda at the bar.

But the club offers plenty of music by a 54 year-old bluesman who can play the electric guitar with his teeth, who duckwalks like Chuck Berry and sometimes jumps into the crowd to dance while he sings.

After a career that took him from blowing harmonica at age 7 to playing with big blues bands in Chicago in the 1960s, Barnes finally cut his own album — "Heart-Broken Man" — to be released this month by Rooster Blues Records in Clarksdale, Miss.

Like Barnes, the Mississippi Delta blues have been around a long time. And they've seen better days, back when singers like Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and Son House roamed the Delta with their guitars. But the Delta blues may well be coming back.

Jim O'Neal ought to know. He owns Rooster Blues and the Stackhouse record shop In Clarksdale. He was a founder of "Living Blues" magazine and helped put together Clarksdale's Delta Blues Museum. Now O'Neal is compiling a Delta blues history map.

Some sites in that fertile delta along Highway 61:

The weed-overgrown gin at the vast Dockery Plantation and the old sharecropper house nearby where Patton began playing the blues.
 The weathered "shotgun" shack outside of Clarksdale where bluesman Muddy Waters grew up.
The gravestone of harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson in the weeds outside an abandoned church near Tutwiler, Miss.
The site of the Tutwiler railroad station, where W.C. Handy said he first realized the potential of the blues as he listened to an old man playing the guitar in 1903.

That old train station is gone now, and downtown Tutwiler looks like a ghost town. The young people listen to rap and pop music on their radios, and many of the old folks don't listen at all.

"Blues left here a long, long time ago, " said Will McClinton, 100, who has lived In Tutwiler since 1916. 'Trains gone, and the station's gone too.

Used to be a lot A music here." Used to be a lot of blues played all over the Delta, the fertile plain that stretches southward from Memphis  'long the Mississippi River. Originating with "field hollers" sung by slaves on plantations, the blues emerged as a musical form in the 1890s that was popularized by Handy on Memphis' Beale Street in the early 1900s.
“Beale Street went into a steep decline after World War II, and retained a seedy district until Memphis began to redevelop the area in the late 1960s. 

Now Beale — a stretch of bars, blues clubs and shops — is one of the city's big tourist attractions, although it has some financial troubles. 

Beale remains one of the first stops for the blues players who emerge from the Delta with their guitars. But it's only one stop in a blues scene that runs from tiny jook joints in Leland, Miss., to swank clubs in places like New Orleans, St. Louis and Chicago. And- tens of thousands of blues fans from around the world converge each fall at music festivals like Greenville's Delta Blues Festival and the King Biscuit Slues Festival in Helena, Ark.

"Back in the 1930s in Helena, you heard the blues all over," said "Sunshine" Sonny Payne, who has announced the "King Biscuit Time" blues show on Helena's Radio KFFA since 1941.

"The players would go to these clubs with their guitars or harmonicas and let off steam. They'd sit on street corners or on the floodwalls down-town and just play and play," Payne said. "I'd sure like to see those days come back."

While Helena declined along with the blues in the 1960s and 70s, some city officials are hoping that Helena can develop some tourist attractions — including a Delta Cultural Center — to bring in blues fans. For example, Alderman Bubba Sullivan, who runs a blues record shop in Helena, wants to make a museum out of the crumbling skid-row boarding house where blues-man Williamson died in 1965.

Community activists in Greenville are also making the Delta blues part of their effort to revitalize the city — and to help keep bright young people from heading elsewhere. An organizer of the annual Delta Blues Festival is Mississippi Action for Community Education (MACE), an activist group.

"One of the reasons the music started to decline is it's hard to make money playing blues," said Larry N. Farmer, president of MACE. "The music still has its Delta tradition, but many young blacks associate the blues with hard times. But with these festivals, we're associating the blues with good times."

There is some evidence of a revived interest in the blues by young people. 

Terry Taylor, 23, the drummer in "Booba" Barnes' band, has been playing blues off and on for about seven years. He also plays for a rap band and a disco band. "The blues is steadily reaching out," said Taylor. "Cause of true feelings. It's more honest than other kinds of music." Leaning against the chipped Formica bar in his club, Barnes said he hoped more young people would start playing the blues, which he first picked up as a boy south of Greenville.

c. James Fraher
"The blues is coming back — I feel it coming back," Barnes said in a voice you might call boozy — except Barnes said he's sworn off liquor now "cause it was making my hands shake."

With his hair greased back and his eyes bugging out, Barnes in his T-shirt looked all of his 54 years in the dim afternoon light that struggled through the screen door. But that night, Barnes — in a pink shirt and a gray sharkskin suit — played the blues like a young man.

"He's the great one around here," said Hazel, a slim woman in a red-and-white dress who sat with a flask of Heaven Hill whiskey and a screw-top bottle of Thunderbird wine.

Hazel says she's 54 and he great-grandchildren. But she dance a blue streak on that concrete floor, in the shadows ca three lightbulbs that twirl from tric cords.

As Barnes sings "Louise," s smelling of barbecued chicken through the open door from a stf in the back of a pickup truck p outside. Depending on the crow his mood, Barnes plays till 2 a. later on Friday and Saturday nights.

"Sometimes we play all night,” said, “Til you start seeing the light coming through the door."

Satan's Eyes are White just like Willie aka Second Sight

By Karen Freeman for the Greenwood Commonwealth 1990

Willie Cobbs wants to win a Grammy Award,
and he's giving it his best shot.

To win such an award and to be recognized by one's peers is the goal of countless musicians. For some, like veteran rhythm and blues singer Bonnie Raitt (who can count among her recent Grammys a shared win with blues great John Lee Hooker) the recognition is decades in coming. For others, it appears to happen overnight. Some never make it.

Blues musician and singer Cobbs, 58, better known in Greenwood as Mr. C. of Mr. C's Barbecue, hopes it won't take too much longer to find his name in the book of winners. But more important, he just wants to make good music.

"I write songs about my way of life. I get visions for songs, and that's where they come from," said the relaxed Cobbs during an interview at his home in Greenwood.

Cobbs has much to be thinking about these days, and he says he has all the work he can do. His career takes him from Greenwood to Memphis, where he has a home, and to his family home in Smale, Ark. "Population 39, when I'm there," Cobbs joked.

His latest single is "Feeling Good," the flip side of "May the Years Be Good to You." Both receive a fair amount of air play from Greenwood radio station WGNL-FM, an urban contemporary station. And to showcase his talent, he has a couple of performances lined up for the people of Leflore County.

He will play with local musicians at CROP Day Saturday, Aug. 4, and on Aug. 5 he and his seven-member band are booked to play at Pine Acres Ranch in Itta Bena.

For Cobbs, it will be a nice change to be able to play for home folks. Most of his shows are in blues festivals and clubs in Memphis and Chicago and overseas in Japan and Europe, ,where blues is enormously popular.

In fact, because there is a larger market for blues in Europe and Japan many blues artists choose to go there to make their records. But to be accepted on one's own turf is a good indication of success.

Cobbs doesn't worry about not being enormously famous. He just keeps playing and singing, and gradually he's finding his success.

His latest project is to participate in a British documentary called "In Search of the Missing Chord," which will tell the origin of blues music and how it has spread to other countries and influenced many other artists. Cobbs and his manager have extended an invitation to the London production company to film part of the work at CROP Day and at the Pine Acres show.

Another promising sign for Cobbs is the interest a couple of record labels have shown in signing him. Cobbs said he turned down two recent offers, preferring instead to wait for a deal with a larger label that would bring him more distribution. His latest single is on Wilco Records, his own independent label.

Cobbs remains optimistic about his career and blues music in general, which he sees as having a largely white audience.

He noted that for many of his performances, such as at the Chicago Blues Festival which attracted hundreds of thousands of people, most of the crowd is white. In fact, all of his band members except one are white.

"That doesn't bother me. I just want a band that's like family, one that just wants to make music," he said.

Cobbs is glad of any audience attracted to blues music, and he believes that, if it were not for people's interest in it in the past few decades, blues as a distinct musical form would not have survived.

When pressed to name his favorite artist, he says he can't. "I like everybody. Whenever I hear I song that I like, that's just it."

Cobbs is encouraged by signs of renewed interest in blues music, both traditional and non-traditional.

"The Delta is the birth of the blues. I’ll bet many people around here, if they look far enough back, will find they are relatives of some famous blues artist," he said.