Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The life and times of blues artists Walter and Ethel Phelps

The Life and Times of Walter and Ethel Phelps
Timothy Burkhardt - May 12, 2017

When local businessman Dick Gilbert and folk singer Andy Cohen opened their coffeehouse, Asheville Junction, in 1975, they were looking for talented local musicians to perform for the growing folk music scene. Their search led to Walter Phelps, a then-elderly African-American artist who had been a local celebrity in the 1930s. Phelps and his wife, Ethel, were living in poverty in Asheville’s Valley Street neighborhood. 

“I had gone down to the corner behind the County Building and asked around about ‘that old guy who used to play blues around here’ and was directed to May’s Place, where you went to play the numbers,” says Cohen. “[Walter and Ethel] were there having a beer. We talked for a bit, and I asked them to come to the Junction, which was up the hill from there.”

The Phelps duo, it turns out, was a surprise hit. Ethel sang, while Walter played guitar. “There were about 25 or 30 people the night they first played, and we made some money,” Cohen remembers. “I like to think their existence was a bit of a revelation to the people who frequented the place.” 

He continues, “Old-time fiddle music is a major export from Asheville, [that although] the town is completely surrounded by blues players in every direction, what few of them lived here didn’t have much of a chance against the fiddles and banjos.”

Walter and Ethel’s blend of gospel, Delta blues and 1920s ragtime captured the imagination of the Asheville folk scene. They became regular performers at the Junction.
Local musician Dan Lewis, who was there that first night in 1975, says he felt an instant connection with the Phelpses’ music and charismatic personalities.

“They were the kind of people who you gravitated to and wanted to hang out with,” says Lewis. “There was something about their music that was spontaneous and energetic — I had to play music with these people. I was a long-haired white kid, and they were old enough to be my grandparents, but we quickly became close friends.” The three began performing together, with Lewis on the bottleneck slide guitar while Walter played rhythm guitar and Ethel sang. Lewis booked them gigs at local coffeehouses and bars, including the Town Pump and McDibb’s in Black Mountain. In 1978, they were the featured performers at the John Henry Festival in Princeton, W.Va., and, in 1980, they performed at Bele Chere.

Lewis played and recorded music with Water and Ethel for 10 years, until Walter’s death in 1985. Ethel died the following year.

According to Edward Kamara’s Encyclopedia of the Blues, Phelps was born in 1896 in Laurens, S.C., and was both a contemporary and acquaintance of bluesmen Pink Anderson and the Rev. Gary Davis. In the 1920s, Phelps first came to Asheville in the employ of Dr. Nonzetta and Chief Thundercloud, a pair of snake oil salesmen who ran a traveling medicine show.

Asheville Citizen Times, June 7, 1925.
“This was back in the days before the Food and Drug Administration, so [for] these snake oil medicine shows, people would cook up batches of tonic that had sugar and coloring, molasses, white liquor — God knows what else in there — and sell it as medicine,” says Lewis. Nonzetta and Thundercloud would pull up to Pack Square on the back of a flatbed truck. On a makeshift stage, Phelps would, as he phrased it to Lewis, “play music, cut shines and tell lies.” After the performance, Nonzetta and Thundercloud would sell their tonics, and Phelps would wander through the audience peddling moonshine.

Phelps decided to settle in Asheville, and, despite having to contend with systemic racism of the times, he thrived as a performing artist.

“Those times were very segregated,” says Lewis. “And yet Walter, because he was a musician, was able to cross a lot of interesting barriers and be places where there were normally few black faces at all. For example, the old Sky Club … a high-class speakeasy. Rich people would come there for gambling, entertainment and illegal liquor. Despite the ‘whites only’ policy, Walter and his friends would periodically play music there.”

In 1940, Walter and a friend were hired by the segregated Imperial Theater on Patton Avenue to sit on a hay bale and play music to draw crowds to the movie Gone With the Wind. According to Cohen, Walter also claimed to have been a part of a jug band that performed at McCormick Field, playing on the top of the dugout during the seventh-inning stretch. The band consisted of several guitars and a banjo, and an instrument that Phelps called a Kazooxaphone, which was made by attaching a length of garden hose to a kazoo on one end and a funnel in the other. “In exchange for the musical entertainment, Walter said he and his band were allowed to watch the games for free,” says Cohen.

Asheville Citizen Times, Aug 21, 1977.
As time passed and musical styles changed, interest faded in the blues that Phelps played. In the 1940s, too old to fight in World War II and no longer making money as a musician, he took a job working on the construction of the Fontana Dam in Swain County. He worked there for several months until a minor injury convinced him that the job was too dangerous. He returned to Valley Street, where he and Ethel were married. Ethel was 20 years Walter’s junior and a gospel singer in a local church choir. The couple lived in relative obscurity on Valley Street until meeting Cohen in the ’70s.

Lewis lives in Weaverville and still performs locally. He continues to play the songs that he learned from Walter and Ethel, and has many recordings of their performances together, including a studio album that has yet to be released. He plans to host a crowdfunding campaign through Kickstarter to raise the funds so that he can continue to share the music of Walter and Ethel Phelps in the 21st century.

“In a way, it’s about culture,” says Lewis. “It’s when people finally get the chance to experience, to be exposed to [another] culture they realize that there are wonderful things we have to share with each other. And until you do, you don’t know.”

Walter and Ethel exposed a lot of people to music that they never would have heard otherwise. “It was like a time machine when you were listening to them,” says Lewis. “You were back in their era.”

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Blues Development Prognostication in 1990s - Skip on Point

[This historic article from the MZMF archives reveals so much about what could have developed in the Delta. As opposed to a thriving retail center that provides jobs and space for charities and community outreach groups, museum exhibits occupy such spaces and a bar, Ground Zero, drives the downtown district.  On the very farm where the tractor was invented, a nostalgia-driven series of shotguns houses invokes the rural past and a couple of bars hire a few locals. Not too many folks worry about the potential of blues tourism...then again, things could be in better shape....the cemetery at Lyon, the segregated cemetery with one half in pristine condition called Shufordville Cemetery--one side has manicured landscaping and a fence protecting the grave markers and the other is covered with years of dead weeds, fallen trees, trash, dead and burnt foliage, among much more stuff--containing the graves of John Wrencher and Henry "Son" Simms is plain disgusting...go visit...see for yourself...TDM 2017]

Dear Editor,
Skip Henderson in 2012
I would like to thank the (Clarksdale, MS) Press Register for its coverage of plans for the development of downtown district, and take this opportunity to add a few items to the discussion. During my frequent visits to Clarksdale I am always struck by, the same impression, that of disbelief from local residents who express lingering doubt as to the actuality of Clarksdale becoming a 'tourist attraction.' Allow me to try to bring a little light to the subject. In 1991 a book called The Promised Land by Nicholas Lehmann, was published, to great acclaim. This nationally bestselling book spotlights Clarksdale as one of the most historically significant cities in America. Now a best-selling video and paperback, this book appears on college and university lists all over the country.

Clarksdale gave birth in 1944 to the first mechanized cotton picking operation, an enormous contribution to world agriculture. This development would in turn trigger the largest population shift in American history. It was during this perk' that the essential American musical art form of the Blues was sent from the Delta, focused directly through Clarksdale, to Memphis, Chicago, and the world.

Early Wright giving out the Early Wright Award to Skip in 1993
The fact that Highway 61 and Highway 49 intersect in Clarksdale is central to Blues legend, making the crossroads literally a Mecca for Blues fans the world over. Add to this the fact that Clarksdale has a proximity to Memphis International Airport connected by an enlarged and modernized Highway 61., a willing and supportive State tourism organizations, world-wide recognition of The Delta Blues Museum; the legacy of Tennessee Williams to American literature; the list could be ever longer.

This brings me back, finally, to the subject of the Clarksdale Station project. Train stations are by definition places of wide public accommodation, and so it will he with Clarksdale Station, only taken a few steps further.

Clarksdale Station will hold a professional sound stage. “This facility will be made available to any Church or civic group wishing to produce benefit performances, fundraising events, or local programs. Clarksdale Station in turn, will offer floor space to such groups as the Delta Blues Museum, Care Station, Public Library, Habitat for Humanity, or other groups wishing to hold membership drives, distribute literature, or do fund raising. Amidst polished marble in the newly restored structure, one banner will hang from the ceiling, with only two words. It will be hung in Clarksdale as a symbol of pride, for visitors from all over the world to see. It will read simply, Honor Mississippi.

The Delta possesses a unique wealth of history and cultural identity unmatched anywhere else in the world; and identity not simply white or black but most essentially, and honorably, Southern.

The dedication of Charley Patton's marker - 1991
As the principal developer in the Clarksdale Station project I can state to a fairly accurate degree that as of 1996 Clarksdale Station will be hiring people in food and beverage services, retail sales, security, management, state and concert production, musicians, drivers, guides, and other tourism related positions. This will be thanks in large part to the leadership of the Coahoma County Board of Supervisors, County Tourism Commission and the City of Clarksdale, in recognizing the real potential that tourism holds for the economic growth of Coahoma County.

Thank you very much, 

Skip Henderson, founder MZMF
Sept 1995

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Rabbit Important: Italians Track down the Blues

Rabbit Important: Italians Track down the Blues
Delta Democrat Times - Sep 5, 1976

Blues is more than a feeling. At least that's what two recent Greenville visitors have spent the summer trying to prove. Giambattista Marcucci and Enzu Castella, both students of the University of Rome in their native country, Italy, were in Tennessee and Mississippi during the month of July talking to and taping some of the area’s 'blues" musicians. The Italian students play "blues" songs almost as well as the artists who wrote them, but they're quick to point out that they aren't musicians. “We're cultural anthropologists," said Castello. 'Their purpose here was to establish a connection between Southern blues and old African religions. "Blues is not only music. In the verses one can understand many things. The word 'blues'—many people think it comes from 'to feel blue'—but it's much more," said Castello, who is the spokesman for the two since his mother, an interpreter, taught him to speak English.
His partner Marcucci gave the impression he didn't speak much English, but on close observation, it was apparent he understood very well what was being said most of the time. His silence was probably more due to timidity than ignorance. There was an urgency in their search for old blues players and singers because "the blues is almost finished" as Castello put it. "All the old blues players will die soon and young black people don't like the blues…they have so many other types of problems today."
The couple plan to write a book analyzing what they've found here. While in the United States they recorded BO 20-minute tapes. "The hardest part is to transpose the lyrics. It's really difficult to understand what they mean. “There are so many symbols in the words of their songs," Castella explained. The most common of these symbols is the rabbit, he added. "The rabbit is a very important symbol of blues. Often they say 'My hives jumped on a rabbit." This is particularly significant to the anthropologists since the rabbit is a popular figure in religious tales and myths of Western Africa, the native region of most of America's sieves -The myths of religion in Western Africa are like our Bible. These myths compose the mythology of their religion and there are many about the rabbit." When the slaves were brought to America their cultural contact with Americans resulted in the rabbit becoming synonymous with poor people,” Castella added. "The word 'blues' actually comes born the word 'Ina' which was translated into 'bias' and insets spirit, a very important spirit which is neither good nor bad, neither wise ear stupid. it's halt sum and half animal and is against the creator." Another commonly believed point which the anthropologists dispute is that blues was the root of jazz. "Blues is not the root or jazz—that's an evolutionist idea which isn't true. Blues is the real music cut the Afro-American people. Another difference is that ore must be a good musician to play jar —not so with blues. Blues players are good musicians...but not like the jazz musicians," said Castella, fighting for words.

"It's music of another culture and we can judge it by our own culture," he adds. Having started in Memphis, Castello. and Marcucci said they were glad to get to come to the Mid-Delta "because this is really the heart...it's different here for economic and cultural reasons. This Is the country and the people are more rural here."
"We've studied the different styles and learned about the different ways these people live. It's a big question. The blues may be the most important, most organic, most compact form of music today. It's not an individualist music like jazz. Its meaning is the kind of life of the community—it tells the condition of life in the community," Castella said.
It was "not a happy work" for him, said Castella--visiting the black musicians in their homes, talking to them about their life, their music and paying them a sum of money ("I'm not bashful to say we paid them money--what else could we give them that they'd want or need?" to record their music. "The cultural contradiction explodes—theirs' is another kind of life." And "blues" is an important part a that life since it has been the only way of communicating traditions from one generation to another. "The black race his no written culture. They're Americans, they've been here over 100 years, but most of their culture has never been written down.

"That’s why blues is more than just music—its the most important part of another culture."

The Grave of Bo Carter

Armenter Chatmon
(aka Bo Carter)
Nitta Yuma Cemetery
Sharkey County, Mississippi
Headstone Location: 33.021206, -90.853481

This project came out of the 2015 replacement of Sam Chatmon's marker in Hollandale,  but it also grew out of the failed efforts of other researchers. In the early 2000s, a Greenville cemetery investigator showed an Ole Miss master's candidate to the burial ground in hopes of locating a marker. The two men searched the burial ground, yet found nothing, and left unsatisfied. In the early 2010s, an enthusiast from Michigan traveled to Nitta Yuma to look for his headstone. He also came up empty. In a later article, the hapless northerner claimed to be searching for the folks who take care of the cemetery.  The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund picked up where logic eluded him. We knocked on the door of the home in front of the cemetery, which turned out to be the home of the landowners sister. Roy Schilling, of Hollandale, lord of the Sam Chatmon Blues Festival,  played a key role in pitching the project to Henry Vick Phelps III, the patriarch of Nitta Yuma.

Event Poster - Handmade by John Fabke
The stone was ordered at the end of May. At the beginning of July, we received word that it would not be done in time for the dedication. Thus, I cancelled the element of the marker that proved time consuming for the original monument company. I contacted a local engraver in plenty of time to get the black granite engraving of Bo’s National done in time, but the original monument company did not forward the specs for the engraving until three weeks later, despite two or three phone calls each week and several promises to forward the information. The local man had a crude version completed on the day of the dedication, but we decided to take a little time to get it right. The marker, after all, looks wonderful without it.

The back of the marker contains two single lines of lyrics from Bluebird B6295 ("All-Around Man") and Brunswick 7080 ("Corinne Corinna"). The inscription on the front came out of the fundraising campaign for the marker. Along with their donations, supporters were encouraged to write some thoughts down as well. One student of Bo Carter's complex guitar work wrote the engraved text and  made an online donation. He did not recall writing it at the dedication, however.

DeWayne Moore, director of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund

An estimated seventy people attended the dedication of Bo Carter's headstone in Nitta Yuma, MS, including friends from California, Washington, Michigan, Georgia and Mississippi. Nitta Yuma is a hamlet of maybe twenty inhabitants, on an old plantation in Sharkey County, Nitta Yuma Cemetery sits tucked into the corner of a huge field of corn and flush with Deer Creek., and we all drove through dusty paths to get there.

DeWayne Moore, director of Mt Zion Memorial Fund, which erected the monument and organized the dedication, spoke about the marker of Sam Chatmon in nearby Hollandale, and how working with locals on that project inspired this project. He also stated that the monument would also serve to protect the cemetery from agricultural encroachment, as it sits on the edge of a large corn field. Next to speak was Henry Vick Phelps III, owner of the plantation, who cooperated with the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund and granted a perpetual and public easement to the cemetery and hosted the event.

Henry Vick Phelps III
Miles Floyd prepared an amazing speech about his step-father, Ezell Chatmon, who had on his deathbed made him promise to fulfill three wishes. He wanted him to take care of his grandmother, take care of his mother, and make sure that Bo Carter gets the recognition he so very much deserves for his amazing recording career. Breaking into tears as he talked at the end, he stated that the marker was one more step towards completing the last wish and concluded: "Bo, I'm proud to be your grandson, very proud. And I can't wait to get to Bolton, Mississippi, stand beside your son's grave, and say your three wishes...have been fulfilled. Thank you.”

Miles Floyd
Mr. Floyd wanted his lawyer, Barry Shrum, to say a few words in the absence of Patrick Leblanc, a Greenville native and friend who has been helping to recover royalties made form from Eric Clapton's "Alberta, Alberta," which is actually a reworded cover of Bo Carter's 1928 classic "Corrine Corrina."

Alan Orlicek, the new engraver for the black granite, came up and helped unveil the headstone. Everyone was impressed with the marker and rushed to look at it and pose for pictures. The mayor of Rolling Fork had asked to say a few words in the spot on the program set aside for special guests, but about fifteen minutes after the unveiling, Cheseborough grabbed the National and started playing and singing, "I Want You to Know." The crowd quieted down and the mayor looked over at me. The crowd applauded at the end of the tune, and I didn’t want to interrupt at that point. I’m glad to hear it worked out well. I apologize to the mayor.

Bill Gandy, of Potts Camp, MS
Cheseborough spoke and invited Bill Gandy, owner of Bo Carter's guitar, to speak as well, asking him to tell the story of how he happened to acquire it and later discover its history. Beforehand, I had spoken to Gandy and he told me about bringing Kenny Brown (Gandy's neighbor, companion on the drive from Potts Camp to Nitta Yuma, and longtime R.L. Burnside sideman) to the event. Brown and I had recently discussed the headstone dedication of Joe Calicott back in the 1990s, and I intentionally left them off the program as a pleasant surprise to all those in attendance. Kenny Brown did not fail to wow the crowd using his metal slide on the National of Bo Carter and playing a tune by Muddy Waters.

Kenny Brown
Bill Steber and Ron Bombardi performed an amazingly stellar rendition of “Sitting On Top of the World.” Even though we had never discussed playing only one song, it was interpreted that the popular song title underneath their names on the program meant their set needed to be limited to that song only. Moses Crouch sang “County Farm Blues” and then Andy Cohen led all the musicians in "Corrine Corrina," which the musicians tried to get the crowd to sing along on, but they never could get together on the words themselves. The event, nevertheless, was perhaps the most heavily attended and most rural of my tenure. Andy Cohen was amazing 

Bill Steber and Ron Bombardi

Then we all trucked out of the cemetery, up the hill to Nitta Yuma proper, for a reception in the chapel, where Andy Cohen was sitting up front playing for a dozen or so people. He took turns doing songs with Steve Cheseborough, who stuck rigidly to Bo Carter while Andy did Rev Gary Davis and Lonnie Johnson in his own style. When Miles Floyd and his family came in Cheseborough played "All Around Man," Miles’ favorite Bo Carter song. He loved it. He even had it engraved on the back of the marker.

Andrew Cohen & Moses Crouch
Another highlight was meeting Leslie Miller who brought two photos of Bo Carter playing for her and other local children in 1956! He was playing the National. He wore coveralls in one picture, as if he had come from work as a mechanic. In the other he is dressed up and accompanied by a fiddler. I asked about the repertoire. She said he would start with "Tennessee Waltz," saying his other songs were too dirty for children! But he also played other songs which she doesn't remember. She said it was a frequent event, his performances in the area. She is going to talk to a woman in her 90s who might remember more about it, and get back to me with any info.