Monday, May 31, 2021

"They Say Drums was a-Calling": African-American Music from the Mississippi Hill Country

By Bill Steber, 1999

All Photos from the Alan Lomax Collection

Ed Young and Lonnie Young, 1959
On a small, nondescript farm in rural northeast Mississippi, between the towns of Senatobia and Como, is one of America's last and most tangible links to its African musical past.

It's here, at country picnics in the community of Gravel Springs, that 92-year-old Otha Turner still performs on the homemade cane fife as younger family members beat out African-based rhythms on drums, and members of the local community gather to dance, drink corn whiskey, and eat goat sandwiches just as they have for well over a century.

Otha Turner, known by friends as "Gabe," heads the last African-American fife and drum band in a region that once supported more than a dozen. And like the archangel of the same name, when Otha blows his instrument, it's a rallying cry linking the community to its ancestors. Dancers yell, "Blow it, Gabe" as they encircle Otha and his drummers, moving in harmony to the hypnotic rhythm of the drums as parts of a larger organism.

African-American fife and drum music can be traced back to British and early American military music. Thomas Jefferson's personal body servant even organized a small band to help rally the revolutionary war effort. But in the hands of slaves and their progeny, the stiff, formalized music used to direct military movements was transformed by the same African syncopations and poly-rhythms that eventually gave birth to jazz and blues.

In a time when drumming by slaves was strictly forbidden for fear of illicit communication, the fife and drum was an acceptable outlet, even used by confederate armies during the civil war.

Today, the fife and drum music performed by the Turner family has more in common with the music of West Africa than the Spirit of '76. These musical ties are reinforced by the dancers, who "salute" the drums with pelvic movements not unlike traditional dances still seen in Africa, Haiti and the West Indies.

Folklorist Alan Lomax, who was the first to record fife and drum music in 1942, considers it one of his greatest discoveries in a lifetime of research. In his 1993 book, "Land Where the Blues Began," he wrote: "in vaudou ceremonies, dancers make pelvic gestures toward the drum to honor the holy music that is inspiring them. I never expected to see this African behavior in the hills of Mississippi, just a few miles south of Memphis."

When asked about the origin of the fife and drum, Otha Turner replies "How old it is? I don't know. They said it's African, back in African times, that's what they say, I don't know, I wasn't thought of. And they say drums was a-calling. If a person ceased, and you carry them to the cemetery, loaded in the wagon, all them drums get behind them and marched, just like it was a hearse, and they brought them to the cemetery, playing the drums."

In the North Mississippi hill country of Tate, Panola and Marshall counties, the traditional venue for fife and drum music was the summer weekend picnic. Following an afternoon baseball game, fife and drum and black string band music was performed late into the night. Rural blacks heard the drums from miles away and were directed by the sound, arriving by foot or wagon.

Annie Faulkner of Abbeville remembers when her father Lonnie Young played: "If [daddy] was playing somewhere close around, like this time of evening [dusk], when he hit that drum we could hear it from our porch from across the river over there, a long ways away."

Dr. Sylvester Oliver, an ethnomusicologist from Rust College in nearby Holly Springs, sees the drums as the historic cultural centerpiece of Hill Country music. "I have interviewed several elderly individuals who told me...they would not start their picnic unless the drums came and kind of sanctified the area. They always wanted the drums to come and bless the area."

Today, the picnics held on Turner's farm in late summer and early fall are the last link to that tradition. The picnic begins with the slaughter of one or more goats early in the day that will be barbecued and served as $3.00 sandwiches along with beer and soft drinks, sold from Otha's picnic stand. People begin arriving at dusk as Otha, followed by two snares and a bass drum, begin performing the "Shimmy She Wobble", (a standard fife and drum tune named for the type of dancing it often inspires), and snake their way slowly across the farm lot usually inhabited by chickens, dogs, horses and goats.

In his younger days Otha could play for hours without stopping as dancers kicked up clouds of dust late into the night. Now in his nineties, he allows himself frequent breaks and augments the picnic entertainment with performances by local blues musicians like "Rule" Burnside, R.L. Boyce and Luther Dickinson. In the last few years, he's also brought in a DJ to provide music for the younger crowd. But the focus of the picnic is, as it has always been, the drums.

Otha's daughter, Berniece Turner Pratcher, still plays drums for her father and remembers the picnics of her youth. "Back then you could hear fife and drum pretty much whenever you got ready too," says Pratcher. "The picnics died out as the people died out. My daddy is about the only one who still has a picnic."

Annie Faulkner recalls attending picnics where her family's fife and drum band played: "The picnics that I went to, it was exciting. People would be kicking up dust. They'd be down on the ground. Kicking that dust, have dust flying. Both feet would be white with dust."

Otha Turner learned the fife by observing older local players like John Bowden, who used to perform at picnics when Turner was a teenager.

"He'd get on that fife man, it'd get late over in the evening, folks was running, hollering, ‘Blow it ,John,'" recalls Turner. "That son of a gun would get to blowing, kept his cap sideways, and I'd be walking along behind him, that son of a bitch would blow it for them."

Bowden, who at age 95 is the oldest known living fife player in the state, has long since retired from playing, but still recalls his glory years. "It's all gone," recalls Bowden. "Used to be a good time in them days. I didn't want to miss nothing. I'd hear a drum hit, and man I just, Whew!, I'd have a fit."

Turner acquired his first fife from a neighbor, R.E. Williams, when he was a teen-ager. "He was out there to the lot feeding his hogs," says Turner. "Fife in his pocket, he'd pull it out, he'd walk around there and blow, standing around and look at the hogs, he'd walk and blow.

"I said ‘Mama!' [She said] ‘What?' ‘I hear that man blowing that thing, I want to go up there mama.' She said ‘All right young man, I tell you what, I'm gonna let you go up there a little while and don't you stay long. Don't let me to meet you.' I went flying, I run every step up there, I had to go.

"‘Mr R.E.!' He looked around, ‘What?' I said ‘What is that you blowing?' He said ‘That's a fife son.' I said ‘A Fife?' He said ‘yeah.' Well I thought a fife was a dog. I said, ‘Mr R.E., will you make me one of them things?' He said, ‘If you be smart and industrious and obey your mama and do what she tell you, I'll make you one.'

"About a month after that he called me, handed it to me, said ‘Here's your fife' I said ‘THANK YOU! THANK YOU!' I said, ‘What's the price?' He said, ‘You don't owe me nothing.' I said, ‘I sure do thank you.'

"He said, ‘You ain't going to blow it'. I said, ‘I'm gonna try'. He said, ‘That's the best words you spoke, don't nothing make a fail but a try, son.' He said, ‘If you try and want to blow it, you gonna blow it, but if you never try, you never will blow it.'"

The sound of his early musical attempts annoyed his mother, so he was forced to practice on the sly. But his persistence eventually paid off.

"When I learned how to note that cane, I said, ‘I got it now!'" recalls Turner. "I learned it good. Sometimes I'd walk, going to visit somebody at night, I'd blow my cane all the way over there and back. [People] would hear it, ‘Man, you sure was blowing that fife last night.'"

His reputation got him jobs at picnics playing for men like George "Pump" Toney, and Will Edwards, who ran a racehorse track and provided barbecue and music for his guests.

It was at these gatherings earlier in the century that the fife and drum often alternated with a now-defunct musical form that equally characterized the unique music of the Hill Country: the black string band. These bands performed ballads, reels and old-time music on instruments like the fiddle, mandolin, banjo, string bass and guitar – playing in a style that many now think of as exclusively white in origin. Ironic, considering one of the primary instruments of white folk music, the banjo, is an entirely African-derived instrument.

Little is known about these early bands, since few recordings exist from the period, but Dr. Sylvester Oliver notes that the location of the Mississippi hill country helped create a unique regional mixture of "Southern Appalachian culture and the Mississippi Delta" within the black string band tradition.

Black hill country string bands played for white as well as black audiences all over the region, at movie houses, formal gatherings and private parties until their commercial potential was diminished by the Jim Crow laws of the '20s and '30s, according to Oliver.

Sid Hemphill, 1959
Perhaps the best known of these musicians was Sid Hemphill, who was born in 1878 and was the master of nine instruments, but was primarily known locally as a hot fiddle player. Hemphill was recorded by the Library of Congress in 1942 and again in 1959 performing ballads, break-downs, and fife and drum music: a cross section of 19th century black folk music pre-dating the blues. Most surprising was Hemphill's performances on the "quills," an ancient instrument heretofore unknown in black folk music with ties, according to Lomax, to Romania, ancient Greece, South America the Pygmies of Africa.

Sid's granddaughter, famed female Hill country blues guitarist Jessie Mae Hemphill, remembers a time when "country music" had a decidedly darker hue. "That white guy what play that fiddle about ‘Turkey in the Straw,' all of that come from my granddaddy," says Hemphill. "Wasn't no white band playing nothing like that. What they playing now, all that come from my granddaddy."

And just as blues from the Delta gave birth to rock and roll, the music of the North Mississippi Hill Country predates the Delta blues.

Dr. Oliver notes that the rhythms and percussive drive of fife and drum music had a "strong influence" on the development of Hill Country blues guitar, since most early bands performed fife and drum, string band music and/or blues – depending on the occasion and desire of the audience.

The most famous guitarist typifying Hill country blues was Fred McDowell, who, beginning in the '60s, often left his home in Como to play festivals where he became the darling of the blues and folk revival circuit. But Oliver considers the late David "Junior" Kimbrough to be "the last bastion of what Hill music was all about from a Folk perspective."

Kimbrough, who died in January of 1998, was a social and cultural institution in Marshall County. His house parties, and later his juke joint on Highway 4, provided the central gathering place for many blacks in the extended Hill country community since the late 1950's. He personally trained, or at least influenced, most blues musicians in the Marshall County area, including the late rockabilly legend Charlie Feathers, whom he taught to play guitar.

"[Junior] was like a magnet," says Oliver. "It was his university. He could draw musicians young and old. He didn't do a whole lot of talking with them but he would allow them to experiment. He would allow them to add their uniqueness to whatever he was doing."

And the complexity of what he was doing was often difficult to follow. Junior's son and long-time drummer Kinney Kimbrough remembers "It took me a long time to learn how to feel his music. He played his bass line and his rhythm all at the same time. See, other bands have their changes every 6 bars or so, but daddy [would] have his changes, this one on 3 bars, next time on 10, this time on 1 or 3. See, you have to know him, you have to feel him to know how to play with him."

Junior adapted hill country traditions into his own original compositions and style of playing that had a profound effect in the area. And like the fife and drum, Kimbrough's music had a propulsive, hypnotic quality that inspired people to dance. As he played songs like "All Night Long" and "You Better Run" with repeating guitar riffs, a song could stretch on for a half hour as dozens of bodies moved as one in the stifling summer heat of his country juke joint.

"People loved the rhythm of his music," remembers Kinney Kimbrough. "It makes them move. You know it's like a hill country funk blues or something."

Despite Junior's death, Kinney still opens his father's juke joint every Sunday night for crowds that have hardly diminished. "I really kept it open because I know how many people loved him," says Kimbrough. "And I know that that's the only way that they can feel kind of close to him. Some think of the place as their home away from home. It makes them feel good."

Junior's music lives on through Kinney and his brother David Kimbrough Jr., who combines his father's guitar sound with modern influences, but can play "Junior" like no one else. "It's just by the grace of God that I inherited playing music with my brother David," says Kinney, "So we could keep it going."

Junior Kimbrough's longtime friend and music partner R.L. Burnside still plays at the club on Sundays when he's not on tour across America or Europe promoting his latest album. Both Burnside and Kimbrough have become hill country blues phenomena over the last five years on the strength of critically acclaimed releases on the Oxford, Miss., blues label Fat Possum.

Kimbrough's first Fat Possum release, "All Night Long," was the recipient of a rare five-star (classic) album review in Rolling Stone magazine. In 1996, he did a two-week tour opening shows for punk/shock-rocker Iggy Pop.

Burnside, who first recorded his traditional hill country blues in 1967 for the Arhoolie label, has achieved even greater success in the wake of collaborative musical efforts with post-punk noise rocker Jon Spencer of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and tours opening for acts like the Beastie Boys.

But similar to collaborations in the '60s of African-American blues men like Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters and various British and American rockers, the results do more to increase the bluesman's name recognition and earning power than for creating memorable (or even listenable) music.

"I didn't like it when I first heard it," says Burnside of his latest Fat Possum release featuring dance remixes of his powerful, grungy hill country blues. "I thought it was coming out just like we did it, you know. And then it come out remixed. I didn't like it. But it's selling."

Burnside's music, though marked by the same propulsive, repetitive rhythms that distinguish hill country guitar, is a link between this tradition and post-war blues sound of John Lee Hooker and Lightning Hopkins.

Burnside learned guitar from Hill country musicians like Ranie Burnette, Son Hibler and Fred McDowell, but he spent his formative years going to the picnics where fife and drum music was performed.

When asked if fife and drum music influenced his playing, Burnside responds: "Yeah, I think it did. A lot of people say that the blues sounds like fife and drum music. All the blues, they say, started from fife and drum bands."

If Burnside's music, like Junior Kimbrough's, lives on, it will be through the musical efforts of his sons, especially DeWayne Burnside, who plays in a style closest to his father's.

But what of the mother of all Hill Country music, fife and drum? Who will evoke the spirit of Pan and inspire future lines of drummers to musical abandon? Who will keep the centuries-old tradition alive?

Most folks in the Gravel Springs community put their hope in the hands of Otha's precocious 8-year-old granddaughter Sharde, who made her musical debut at age 5 and continues to be the highlight of every picnic.

"Sharde's gonna be good," beams Otha, "She just needs somebody to keep pushing her, be with her, boost her up."

On the night of the picnic, everyone is waiting for Sharde to perform and they crowd around as she hits her first tentative notes on the fife to let the drummers know she's ready. As the snares begin their roll and the bass drum drops in, she leads the drummers with a seriousness and confidence that belies her 3-and-a-half-foot frame.

After playing a few phrases on the fife with authority, she breaks down into a dance that causes the crowd to erupt into cheers, laughter and shouts of encouragement. Her grandfather, Otha, stands close by, his hand hovering near her shoulder, a look of utter joy on his usually stern face for the first time tonight.

"Take your time," he calls to her, "Blow that thing!" She magically coaxes notes from her primitive cane fife that cut through the shouts and drum rhythms into the night air. All eyes are on her, but she is unshaken by the attention. She feels her grandfather's presence and is buoyed by his gentle encouragement. "Take your time."

When she blows her final notes and raises her fife into the air, counting out the final three beats of the song to end the drums, the crowd exhales a cathartic cheer. Someone emerges and embraces her. Adults laugh loudly and slap each other on the back, "That little girl is something else!"

Otha beams quietly, watching his granddaughter receive her praise with grace, confident in the knowledge that his legacy is in good hands.

Friday, February 19, 2021

The Meaning of "Panther Burn"

Sharkey County, Mississippi

In the book It Came from Memphis, Robert Gordon forwards one explanation behind the band name for Tav Falco and the Panther Burns: 

  • “The band’s name reflected the lore surrounding Panther Burn, Mississippi. This town was menaced by an elusive wild beast that, when finally cornered, was set aflame. Its dying shrieks so horrified the citizens that they named the community for it. The moniker was appropriate for” Tav Falco’s assembly of musicians, The Panther Burns.

It's not clear at all where this supposed lore came from--perhaps the mind of Falco himself, or Gordon's own exaggeration--but the town of Panther Burn has plenty of actual historical information related to the naming of the town. Here is one news item from the Vicksburg Whig in 1860 that explains how the town got its name.

Population in 1987: About 100 families

Industry: Panther Burn Co., a plantation with about 6,500 acres of farmland growing cotton, soybeans, rice and wheat. The plantation employs 60 to 150 people, depending on the season. 

Settled: 1832 Government: The area is not incorporated so there is no local governing board. The area is under the jurisdiction of the Sharkey County Board of Supervisors.

Of Note: The last reported panther sighting near here was about five years ago by farmers. 

(Jackson, MS) Clarion Ledger, Nov 1, 1987.

On February 17, 2021, I posted a link to the above blog post on a Facebook post containing an interview with Tav Falco [click here for the interview], and I was fortunate enough to get a lengthy response from Mr. Falco himself, who not only took the time to correct a couple of grammatical errors in my post--namely that I hade misspelled Vicksburg as "Vickburg" as well as got the name of the newspaper incorrect; instead of the Herald, it was the Whig. Both have now been corrected in the above post. I find Mr. Falco's response both enlightening and informative; thus, I republish it here for your reading enjoyment!

"Thank you for your comment. You have written, "It's not clear at all where this supposed lore came from--perhaps the mind of Falco himself, or Gordon's own exaggeration--but the town of Panther Burn has plenty of actual historical information related to the naming of the town. Here is one news item from the Vickburg Herald in 1860 that explains how the town got its name."

One might wonder how many panthers in Mississippi were shot down, trapped, maimed, or burned alive inadvertently or otherwise. I should imagine lots of them, esp. during the times when the wilderness was being cleared for cultivation of crops. Murdered and destroyed along with legions of other august creatures such as bear (Mr. Faulkner attested to that), bobcats, wild boar, foxes, and so on. That item Mr. Moore has cited appears to be from the Oxford Intelligencer 1860, yet it is credited to the Vickburg (does he intend VickSburg?) Herald 1860, while that newspaper did not begin publishing until 1897. Was this item a reprint 37 years later? Anyway, the point is that among the endless slayings of grand creatures of the wild, this instance of the slaughter of the 'treed varmint' may not have even been reported - as I suspect most were not - had the hunter not been a so-called "gentleman" who removed the paw of the animal and had taken it to a doctor's office for the public to view as the veracity of his claimed exploit. Does this newspaper item account for anything more than panthers were killed in the area?

This paragraph by Nick Nicholas, PhD in Linguistics from Melbourne University appears relevant to the topic:

"The English equivalent of “burn” in Scots/Scottish-English isn’t “burn” in the sense of “be consumed/damaged by fire”, it is “bourne” which has pretty much the same meaning of “stream” and is found in lots of place names like “Bournemouth” or “Holborn” in London. Both come from Anglo-Saxon, the ancestor language of both Scots and English, so it’s not that there has been a change in meaning, more that the term has survived in Scots and Scottish English, but fallen out of use in England, except where it has been fossilized in names."

So, we could surmise that in the Scottish dialect supposedly spoken around the Panther Burn area, the term 'burn' may - by a stretch - have described "swampy" conditions as alluded to in the note the Jackson, MS Clarion Ledger published in 1987. Swampy because many 'streams' in Mississippi are not flowing streams at all, rather they are swamps of brackish water.

If one happens to read my book, Ghosts Behind The Sun: Splendor, Enigma, and Death, there it is written how Tav Falco learned of the Panther Burn legend. A Memphis musician, the late Sid Selvidge, had been reared - so to speak - in the planter society of Greenville 34 miles distant from the community of Panther Burn. It was he who had related the legend to Falco to satisfy his curiosity. Mr. Moore is right in that 'it is not clear at all where this supposed lore came from.' Yet we have a reality that is irrefutable. We have the reality of a legend. As legend where concrete historical dates, names, and charters can only be implied, inferred or imagined. A reality that will forever remain a mystery and as such a legacy for which we can be grateful. Are we too eager to assault our minds and lives with purported historical facts, figures, and statistics in our quest to gleefully proclaim fiction over fact?

What is passed on by word of mouth and escapes the scrutiny of microscopic, analytical, methodical, deconstructive interrogation, might be that ineffable, elusive "rara materia" from which poetry, music, and art are created. When spoken stories do become legend, they become larger than life. One might howl: superstition! shadowy Romanticism! Well, yes. There are particles of these in all tales and legends. Yet legends loom larger than textbooks. We must approach legends on their own terms for they are larger than we are. We can perversely try to pick them apart and to deflate them, but they will always return. They will return because, in the end, you find that legends are drawn from fact however obscure; otherwise they would not exist. Nor would their supra-reality be one that lives and breathes across time, fashion, class, and culture.

The choice is ours. We can disregard legend, allow ourselves to be oppressed by it, or to be imaginatively stimulated, or allow ourselves to be inspired by it, or to charge off in all directions trying to live out legends. One thing is for sure. Legends loom larger than FATE itself.

As a final aside, the Memphis (b. Earle, Arkansas) artist, Carroll Cloar, entitled his painting on the legend as "Panther Bourne."

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Blues Experts Forensic Reviews of recent Robert Johnson Books

In January 2021, I posted a promotional article about the book Brother Robert on Facebook, and I received some interesting responses. First, Bruce Conforth tells us what' he thinks about Lauterbach's instant classic, and then ethnomusicologist David Evans details his thoughts about Up Jumped the Devil. It should be a fun ride!

Bruce Conforth Reviews Brother Robert, January 18, 2021

Brother Robert: Growing Up With Robert Johnson by Annye Anderson and Preston Lauterbach has gotten considerable media attention since it is the recollections of Johnson’s “step-sister” (she was actually no blood relation) about the blues musician and provides a legitimate third photo of Johnson. Greil Marcus wrote a review of it in the December 3, 2020 issue of the New York Times Review of Books. Based on his and other reviews many in the general public will be purchasing and reading this book not as a memoir, but for biographical information about Johnson. And indeed Anderson does provide some details about Johnson’s favorite foods and entertainers, brands of tobacco, and pomade. Beyond that, however, there is scant new information about Johnson and more about Anderson’s life and her resentment for not being able to take advantage of Johnson’s considerable estate. 

Most reviewers of the book rightfully consider it a memoir and not a biography and seem to have little or no knowledge of Johnson’s life or blues scholarship. They therefore tacitly accept the stories she tells without question: stories that quite frequently are completely factually wrong. They also give her credit for busting myths about Johnson that any Johnson scholar knew were busted years, or even decades ago. 

For instance, most reviews state that the book does away with the crossroads and other myths about Johnson, but that was already accomplished by numerous authors over the years. It is no revelation to hear that Johnson didn’t sell his soul to the devil. But since this book is about a relatively recent historical figure, a giant figure in blues history, it needs to be treated as more than a memoir, and the stories Anderson tells need to be fact-checked by someone who does know Johnson’s life and blues scholarship. 

It is time that someone more familiar with the life of Robert Johnson review Mrs. Anderson’s book and points out some of the glaring errors and omissions that are in it. Errors that are proven to be so because of facts, not opinion. This article will do just that and will discover just how much is factually wrong within its pages.

1) Mrs. Anderson is wrong about the house she claims Robert was born in. 

On page 17 of her book, she says Robert was born in the house Charles Dodds/Spencer built. On pages 145-147, she repeats the claim that she went to Hazlehurst to visit the house Robert was born in. She may have visited the house that Hazlehurst was going to claim was Robert's birthplace and use as the center for a tourist attraction, but they quickly gave up on that idea as local historians proved that it could not be Robert's birthplace. In our biography, Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson, we discuss how it is a matter of record, as found in the Copiah County Chancery Office, that in 1906, five years before Robert’s birth and twenty years before Mrs. Anderson’s birth, Charles Dodds defaulted on indebtedness and the house was lost (p. 28). Julia was evicted from that house for non-payment of taxes before Robert was even conceived, let alone born, and the house was turned over to one L. E. Matthews (p. 30). There is no conceivable way that Robert Johnson was born in the house identified by Mrs. Anderson.

And that's not even counting Rosa Redman's recollection of Noah Johnson's shack on the Mangold Plantation, where she lived as a child, as Robert’s actual birthplace.

2) Mrs. Anderson is wrong about when Robert left the Spencer family in Memphis to live with his mother and stepfather Dusty Willis.

On pages 25-26 of her book Mrs. Anderson says that “Brother Robert was becoming… mannish… In his teens, Brother Robert learned that my father wasn’t his real father. This is how I interpret them sending him back to his mother. My father sent him there.” And on page 157 she states: “He (Robert) was a teenager when he left my father.” “He was fourteen when he left my father. Then he went to his mother’s house.”

This is completely wrong and again was something that took place almost 10 years before Mrs. Anderson was born.

Robert was not sent away for being an unruly teenager. He wasn't a teenager and he was "collected" by his mother Julia to come work on her new husband's farm BEFORE he was a teenager. The 1920 census record shows Robert living with Julia and Dusty in Arkansas. He would have been 9. How does Mrs. Anderson account for that? The 1920 census DOES NOT show Robert living in Memphis with the Spencers. How does Mrs. Anderson account for R. L. Windum, Wink Clark and other childhood friends of Robert recalling playing with him and going to school in Commerce as a child? Or the Indian Creek school records in Commerce, Mississippi that show Robert attending school there when he was 12 and 14?

3) Mrs. Anderson is wrong that Charles (the father) taught Robert the rudiments of music and guitar.

Robert’s half-sister Carrie was on record as saying it was the son (who Mrs. Anderson calls "Son") Charles who taught Robert some music. That's a simple mistake I think. Mrs. Anderson mistook one Charles for another since she wasn't alive to actually see it, only hear stories. She even admits (p. 24) that “When he was teaching Brother Robert, I hadn’t been born. I got that from Sister Carrie. Evidently, my father quit music when he married my mother.” Carrie, on the other hand, described the son Charles as teaching Robert some music, and that she helped Robert make his first cigar box guitar, and then, in 1927 she helped him buy a cheap guitar with only 4 strings. Wink Clark recalled that Robert’s earliest musical endeavors were on a diddley bow he built on the side of the Willis shack.

4) Mrs. Anderson is wrong about Robert's height.

Robert may have looked tall to a child but he wasn't. On page 66 of her book, Mrs. Anderson says that Robert "was tall." Every adult who knew him, including his girlfriends, said he was little. All accounts make it clear that Robert was "at most" 5'8" and weighed 140 pounds.

5) Mrs. Anderson is wrong that both Julia and Dusty used to visit them in Memphis.

Carrie said that Julia after taking Robert was not welcome in the home.

6) Mrs. Anderson supports the idea that Robert actually wrote a deathbed confession.

Yet she offers no real evidence other than it was supposed to be part of Robert's belongings. According to who? Not very convincing.

7) Mrs. Anderson makes no mention of Callie Craft, Robert's second wife.

Mrs. Anderson would have been 7 years old when Callie died, certainly old enough to remember her. If she knew Robert so well why is there absolutely no mention of her?

8) Mrs. Anderson makes no mention of Robert having any illness that caused Carrie to force him into going to see the doctor before he went to Greenwood.

Carrie told many people (including Mack McCormick and Steven LaVere) that Robert was sick prior to leaving for Greenwood and that she forced him to go to the John Gaston Hospital to see a doctor where he was diagnosed with severe ulcers being ultimately responsible for his death. Mrs. Anderson would have been 11 at the time and this would have been a big event: Robert was ill. Why is there no mention of that?

9) Mrs. Anderson makes no mention of Carrie and the family having Robert exhumed and reburied in a proper coffin.

The undertaker who was hired to exhume and rebury Robert was interviewed and his records found. Why is there no mention of this?

10) Mrs. Anderson supports the idea that Robert actually wrote a deathbed confession.

Neither Anderson nor anyone else has ever offered any real evidence to support this claim other than the belief that it was supposed to be part of Robert's belongings. Other stories state that it was found in a Bible in the house of a sharecropper where Robert died. Any claim that the note is legitimate is highly questionable.

11) Mrs. Anderson is wrong when she claims that Johnson’s death certificate says that Johnson died of syphilis.

This is another attempt to discredit Claud Johnson from being Robert’s son, for she claims that if he had syphilis he would have been infertile and unable to father a child. In fact the death certificate list No Doctor as the cause of death. A note on the back of the certificate states that “The plantation owner said it was his opinion that the negro died of syphilis.” This statement was made to avoid a murder inquest. Luther Wade, the white representative of the plantation who made the statement, in all probability never even met Johnson.

12) Mrs. Anderson makes no mention of Carrie and the family having Robert exhumed and reburied in a proper coffin.

The undertaker who was hired by Carrie to exhume and rebury Robert was interviewed and his records found. 

12) Mrs. Anderson claims she never knew Robert to be a drinker or blasphemer.

Every other single person who knew Robert as an adult (Johnny Shines, Robert Lockwood, Honey boy Edwards, Calvin Frazier, Henry Townsend, Memphis Slim, etc) all said that Robert drank more than he was sober. When asked as to whether Robert drank Shines laughed and said "Don't ask IF he drank, ask what he drank! " Likewise no one who knew him as an adult ever knew him to go to church and many said that he blasphemed so badly that when he would start cursing God everyone would leave for fear of being struck down. Her stories are the recollections of a little girl who only saw Robert when he visited family and was probably on his best behavior.

13) Mrs. Anderson claims she never knew Robert to be a drinker or blasphemer.

Every other single person who knew Robert as an adult (Johnny Shines, Robert Lockwood, Honey boy Edwards, Calvin Frazier, Henry Townsend, Memphis Slim, etc) all said that Robert drank more than he was sober. When asked as to whether Robert drank Shines laughed and said "Don't ask IF he drank, ask what he drank! " Likewise no one who knew him as an adult ever knew him to go to church and many said that he blasphemed so badly that when he would start cursing God everyone would leave for fear of being struck down. Her stories are recollections of a little girl who only saw Robert when he visited family and was probably on his best behavior.

14) Anderson is wrong when she invokes her anger at Johnson contemporaries Johnny Shines, David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Robert Jr. Lockwood as men who sold often spurious information to an eager and careless press.

Anderson’s claims here are simply vitriolic and unfounded. Shines and Lockwood, in particular, knew Johnson far better than Anderson ever could have and their information about Johnson has been verified and cross-checked against other information. They told the truth about him and frequently did so for no financial remuneration.

15) Why did no one fact check any of Mrs. Anderson’s stories?

Neither her co-author, Preston Lauterbach, their editor, nor anyone else chose to fact check information that could have easily been disproven.

There are numerous other errors and omissions, but I think Mrs. Anderson was absolutely correct when she said "I don't know, I didn't have him in my pocket" as a way of explaining that she really didn't have many facts about what Robert did or didn't do apart from the few times she saw him when he visited the family in Memphis.

Anderson saves her greatest animosity for Johnson’s acknowledged son Claud Johnson. She spends six and a half pages attacking Claud and his family as the rightful heirs to the Johnson estate and in the process makes numerous erroneous claims. In general Brother Robert is filled with some legitimate recollections, but primarily with Anderson’s factual errors and anger at anyone who dealt with Johnson before her. Her frustration and anger over what Steve LaVere did to Carrie and how he basically defrauded her of a fortune are warranted, but her attacks on the Johnson family are simply crude and uncalled for. She also basically refutes and/or tries to denigrate the work of anyone who ever did any research about Robert Johnson.

[Editor's Note: The story of how Crystal Springs attorney Jim Kitchens, who also represented Klan assassin Byron de la Beckwith,  managed to convince a Mississippi Judge to award his client (60% and therefore his law firm receives 40% of) the royalties for the music of Robert Johnson is very curious (click HERE to read all about it), and even the descendants of Claud Johnson have now turned on the Kitchens firm (click HERE to read all about that), an interesting development that may, in the end, prove to attract curious attention to the case.]

Many of the champions of this book have been quick to mention that Mrs. Anderson is a sweet 94-year-old. That may be the case, but it does not excuse her for the many errors and attacks she makes in her memoir. Brother Robert is a reminiscence that tells us what this woman thought about Robert but the keyword is "thought." Let the buyer beware: most of Anderson’s stories are about what she “thought,” what she believes she was told or heard, and as such there are just too many factual errors (not my opinion, but provable, empirical facts) to make Brother Robert of any definitive value.

By Bruce Conforth

Okay, Bruce. Thank you for giving your ten cents about Brother Robert.

Up Jumped the Blues: A Review
by David Evans

Bruce Conforth is correct in most, if not all, of his criticisms of Annye C. Anderson’s recently published book, Brother Robert. The book does indeed contain factual errors that Conforth points out, and Ms. Anderson, although she was a member of Robert Johnson’s family, because of her youth at the time, was not in a good position to know a lot of factual detail about Johnson. Nevertheless, I think Conforth is too quick to reduce the value of Ms. Anderson’s book to a new photograph of Johnson and “some details about Johnson’s favorite foods and entertainers, brands of tobacco and pomade.” For one thing, the book also contains a reproduction of a postcard that reveals Johnson’s signature and handwriting. The latter could be compared with that of Johnson’s alleged “deathbed confession” to see if it matches. But beyond the factual biographical details, there is a wealth of information about Johnson’s family (one branch of it at least) and his physical and social environment in Memphis where he partly grew up. The book definitely serves to humanize Robert Johnson and make him more than just a musician who recorded twenty-nine songs and died tragically at an early age. Conforth also criticizes Ms. Anderson for downplaying Johnson’s time spent living with his mother and stepfather in and near Robinsonville, Mississippi, and instead exaggerating his time spent in Memphis with his other stepfather’s (and Ms. Anderson’s) family. I don’t think we can ever accurately determine how much time Johnson spent with each branch of his family, but by the time he was in his mid or late teens, he was very likely in a position to go wherever he wanted to. He was also beginning to play music in public by this time. Memphis and Robinsonville are only about twenty-five miles apart, and one could easily travel between them by bus, train, bicycle, hitchhiking, or even walking. Although Robinsonville may have been his “official” home most of this time, he could easily have gone into Memphis on weekends and on summer and holiday breaks from school. It’s not at all uncommon for black children not raised in a strict nuclear family (and even some who are) to experience a lot of visiting and “passing around” among relatives. Similarly, Conforth’s assertion that Ms. Anderson had no basis for claiming a share of Johnson’s considerable financial estate is based solely on laws of inheritance established by the western European legal tradition and disregards customary understandings of family, kinship, property, and inheritance in African American culture.

Reviews of both Ms. Anderson’s book and Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow’s recently published Johnson biography, Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson, have mostly been highly favorable. Conforth criticizes the reviewers of Ms. Anderson’s book for not being “Johnson scholars with an eye to fact-checking the work.” That may be the case, but I wonder how many reviewers of the Conforth/Wardlow book are “Johnson scholars.” The fact is that most reviewers, except sometimes those who write in academic and specialist journals, are not very expert in the subjects of the books they review. I don’t know that I can claim to be a “Johnson scholar,” but I have devoted a lot of research to his type of music and blues from his general environment in Memphis and Mississippi, and I got to know pretty well at least two of Johnson’s fellow musicians, Son House and Johnny Shines and knew through interviews two other associates, Houston Stackhouse and Peck Curtis. My only substantial writings on Johnson have been some encyclopedia and handbook entries, most notably the one in Samuel Floyd, ed., International Dictionary of Black Composers, and my three-part exploration and interpretation of the supernatural references in Johnson’s songs in Blues Revue 21-23 (1996). With that background, I’d like to offer a discussion of the Conforth/Wardlow book, which might be considered as a review of sorts. 

First let me state that, in my opinion, Up Jumped the Devil is the best and fullest biography of Robert Johnson to date, and for this, the authors are to be congratulated. I don’t think it’s the last word on Johnson’s life, however, and it does have some flaws. The operative word here is “biography.” In this respect, there is a wealth of new information on Johnson’s early life (i. e., before his recording career that occurred only in his last three years of life), and the authors have made extensive use of official documents and published and unpublished interviews of people who knew Johnson. There is, however, rather little discussion or interpretation of Johnson’s recorded songs. This is somewhat surprising, given the fact that his recordings are the main reason why anyone is interested in Johnson. The authors also largely avoid any detailed discussion and analysis of the other main reason why many people are interested in Johnson. That is Johnson’s relationship or attitude toward the supernatural, including the theme of an encounter with the devil at a crossroads. They simply try to rationalize the evidence or dismiss it as superstition. Whatever role superstition and the supernatural played in Johnson’s real life, it is an overwhelmingly pervasive theme in his songs, unmatched in its percentage of occurrence in the repertoire of any other blues singer, with the possible exception of J. T. “Funny Paper” Smith, where it occurs frequently but in a far more comic and less intense manner than in Johnson’s songs. Along with Johnson’s extraordinary musical talent, it’s one of the main things that makes him so distinctive a personality. It’s especially surprising that the authors downplay this theme while at the same time using it for the title of their book! They also ignore a number of statements made in interviews by others about Johnson’s life that could not be corroborated or verified but yet are plausible or worth considering. Conforth has claimed that he and Wardlow were forced or pressured by their publisher to cut a number of pages from their manuscript that examined some of these biographical byways and other non-biographical and interpretive themes, but I’m sure most readers would have willingly paid the few extra dollars to see this discussion in their book.

In the interest of future Johnson biography or the possibility of a revised and expanded edition by the same authors, I offer the following commentary on some incorrect or questionable passages in Up Jumped the Devil.

A frequent trait of their writing that I found annoying was the practice of creatively reconstructing and describing in some detail scenes from Johnson’s life, including his thoughts on various occasions. I noticed this on pages 9-10, 19, 75-76, 88, 95-96, 110, 115-117, 124, 128, 152, 154-155, 156, 162, 210, and 247. This practice may make the book more “readable” and seem less like a dry academic account, but it also pushes it in the direction of historical fiction. In my opinion, the authors should have resisted any impulse or pressure to adopt this style of writing. In fact, I found it rather jarring when it did occur since most of the book attempts to stick to the facts.

Up Jumped the Devil is also
the popular title of other books.
p.3 - It is stated that Gayle Dean Wardlow provided “the first factual information about Johnson’s life.” Wardlow was certainly on the case early in the 1960s and has provided a good deal of information through interviews and the uncovering of official documents, but he was not the first to investigate Johnson’s life. Not overlooking Frank Driggs’s notes to the first Johnson LP (1961) and the more speculative earlier accounts of Rudi Blesh and Samuel Charters, there was actual biographical research conducted by Alan Lomax way back in 1941-42, only a few years after Johnson’s death. This research is found in Lomax’s unpublished field diaries, which Conforth claims to have viewed but has dismissed as fabrications. It’s true that Lomax fabricated or “creatively reconstructed” from memory the findings of his early field research on Johnson in his 1993 book The Land Where the Blues Began, but there was no reason for him to do so in his actual diaries written some fifty years earlier at a time when there was hardly any public interest in Johnson. It was a small first step, but Lomax should be given credit for realizing that there was value in knowing about a blues artist’s life at a time when even jazz biography was in its infancy.

p.6 - The authors claim that the Sony box set of Johnson’s complete recordings has sold more than fifty million copies in the United States alone. That would amount to a copy in about every third household in the country!

p.8 - They state that “no book before this one has included all of the reminiscences of Johnson by the people who knew him personally.” That’s certainly not true, as there are no statements from Houston Stackhouse and James “Peck” Curtis in the book. They also seem to have used only one or two of the many variant statements given by Son House about his encounters with Johnson. Some of the variants contain important details not found in other variants.

Frank Stokes and Dan Sain did not play in a jug band.
p. 30 - The authors seem to mistake the notation “c” after Charles Spencer’s name in the Memphis City Directory as meaning “carpenter,” whereas it simply means “colored.”

p.39 - They call the Beale Street Sheiks a “jug band,” but they were merely a guitar duo.

pp.44-45 - The authors state that “Johnson’s ability to read and write was atypical” and that “most of Robert’s musical contemporaries were largely functionally illiterate because they were black plantation children.” Even Son House, who was a decade older than Johnson, was literate (and claimed to be able to read musical shape notation), as were artists closer to Johnson’s own age, such as Johnny Shines and Robert Lockwood, neither of whom grew up on a plantation.

p. 52 Henry Sloan is identified as possibly the guitarist heard by W. C. Handy playing in the knife style at the Tutwiler train station ca. 1903. Almost nothing is known about Sloan other than that he lived on Dockery Plantation and was an early influence on Charley Patton. Handy’s guitarist could have been anybody.

[Editor's Note: We actually know quite a bit about Sloan's family and early life in Hinds County. His parents are listed in the US Census as Salome, and Henry lived in the same area as the parents of Charley McCoy, the Chatmon family, and the Patton family in 1900. Henry apparently moved to Dockery around the same time as the Pattons, but we have no documents proving this move actually occurred. Despite the serious research efforts of Charles D. Roscopf, who found the death certificate of one Henry Sloan in Arkansas, and my own discovery of another Henry Sloan who was arrested in Helena in the aftermath of the 1919 Elaine pogrom, we have failed to trace this early influence on Patton after 1918.]

p. 88 They have Son House moving to Robinsonville in June 1930, but in fact, it was some time after House’s recording session in August of that year. On pp. 92-93 they also discount House’s claims that Johnson wasn’t a very good musician around this time. The fact is that we don’t know how good Johnson sounded at that time. We do know what House sounded like, and he set a pretty high standard!

p. - 94 The authors print without commentary H. C. Speir’s stereotypical characterization of male blues singers (“low class . . . smelled a little and had to have a drink before he could play . . . he wasn’t going to work”). Playing music for money isn’t work?

pp. 142-143 - They state that H. C. Speir was “responsible for the recordings” of Charley Patton, Son House, Willie Brown, Bo Carter, and Blind Joe Reynolds. This is simply untrue or unproven. Speir made a later test session of Patton with House and Brown, but there’s no solid evidence that he was responsible for their first recordings. He might have been involved in a later session by Carter but not his first, and Reynolds was from the St. Louis area, far from Speir’s territory in central Mississippi.

p. 150 - They claim that Speir was involved, with Polk Brockman, in a 1928 Okeh session in San Antonio, yet none of the artists recorded at that session were from Mississippi or Brockman’s Atlanta base. This implausible information is said to come from an unrecorded 1964 interview of Speir.

p. 162 They state that Johnson’s alternate takes of a recorded song were “almost identical.” This was sometimes true, but not always, as in the cases of “Kind Hearted Woman Blues,” “Traveling Riverside Blues,” “Cross Road Blues,” and “Come On in My Kitchen,” where there are some significant musical or lyrical differences. On pp.162-163 the authors even state that it was a general policy and practice of Johnson to perform his songs the same way every time. Robert Johnson was certainly more consistent than some of the earlier artists for whom we have alternate takes, such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Tommy Johnson, or Charley Patton, but it’s clear that some of his songs were still in a state of flux when he recorded them.

p. 168 They claim that Mexican laborers in the Delta used the open G guitar tuning that blues musicians came to call “Spanish.” There’s no evidence, however, that this tuning is used in Mexican music, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the name of the tuning is derived from the guitar showpiece “Spanish Fandango” that was composed (not by a Mexican) with instructions to be played in that tuning. Mexicans did bring hot tamales to the Delta, and that’s likely where Johnson got the inspiration for his song “Hot Tamales,” rather than from where he had lunch at the time of his San Antonio recording session (p. 175).

p. 200 It is stated that Blind Lemon Jefferson was “discovered” by J. Mayo Williams. Williams became his recording manager, but the best evidence indicates that R. T. Ashford or someone working for him in Dallas was the first to connect Jefferson with Paramount Records.

p. 215 They claim that the refrain of Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down” was earlier recorded by Luke Jordan and Dick Justice. This is untrue, although a variant of the song was later recorded by John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson.

pp. 271-272 The listings of the other artists at Johnson’s sessions unaccountably omit blues pianist Black Boy Shine, the artist at these sessions whose music was the closest to Johnson’s.

There are a number of other places where my disagreement with the authors is more arguable or where I think their interpretation has little or questionable support, but I won’t try to argue them here. I offer the above as an indication that there is still more to be said, and hopefully more yet to become known, about Robert Johnson.

David Evans

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

"Pimpin' The Blues": Systemic Racism, Heritage Tourism, and the Mississippi Blues Commission

By Tim Kalich, editor of the Greenwood Commonwealth - originally published as "Vendor Selection Dissapoints Jordan" on Sept 17, 2019.

The Greenwood legislator who spearheaded the creation of the Mississippi Blues Commission is unhappy about how the commission selected its vendors. "When you don't follow bid laws, you cut off other people who could have had a slice of the pie," said Sen. David Jordan. The Democratic lawmaker was responding to the report released in the fall of 2019 by MS State Auditor Shad White that heavily criticized the spending practices of the Blues Commission. In the performance audit, White found that the commission--since it began operations 13 years ago--had paid out nearly $2 million to vendors without a valid contract on file and failed to retain documentation to support almost another $1 million in spending. It also questioned why Greenwood ad agency Hammons & Associates as well as some other vendors were awarded work by the commission without putting the business up for bid. 

Hammons, the project coordinator for the creation and placement of more than 200 Blues Trail historical markers, has been by far the commission's largest vendor. The ad agency has received a little more than $1 million of the $2.9 million the commission has generated largely from state and federal grants and private donations. The commission incorrectly designated Hammons as a "sole source provider," according to the audit. That finding, said Jordan, has rankled other African Americans who feel that Black-owned enterprises were not given the opportunity to benefit financially from promoting the music that originated in the African American community. 

"Hammons may have been the best bidder, but there's no opportunity for us to know when he was the only one that was selected," Jordan said. Allan Hammons, president of Hammons & Associates, said it is incorrect to suggest that his agency was "just handed the business" by the Blues Commission. Early on, according to Hammons, the commission was leaning toward hiring as project coordinator a Virginia firm that had put together a Civil War trail in that state. Hammons said his agency designed a prototype marker, including the concept of using a printed vinyl insert on the back to allow for illustrations as well as more text, and paid to have it cast before pitching it to the commission. "We competed for (the business) in my mind and actually invested in it quite heavily on the chance that we could convince them we could do this work," he said.

The "printed vinyl insert on the back" has since faded and peeled away in the Mississippi sun, causing the commission to address the widespread dilapidation of older markers.

The Blues Commission was created in 2004 when Gov. Haley Barbour signed into law a bill on which Jordan was the lead author. Fred Carl Jr., the founder of Greenwood-based Viking Range, was named the commission's inaugural chairman by the Republican governor, although it was apparently two years later before the commission began its work in earnest. 

Jordan, Carl, and a predominantly African American delegation had actually gotten the idea of a blues commission rolling in 2003 while Democrat Ronnie Musgrove was serving as governor, the senator said. Ruben Hughes, president of Team Broadcasting, which owns Greenwood radio stations WGNL and WGNG, was part of that delegation that met with Musgrove. After the Democrat was defeated by Barbour in the 2003 election, "people like myself were pushed back ... and other people came in and took control like Mr. Hammons," said Hughes.

Sylvester Hoover, a blues promoter who is African American, said he has been displeased with the Blues Commission for a while, claiming it deviated from what those who initially advocated for its creation envisioned it to be. "It was supposed to enrich the neighborhood and teach the history of the blues here in the Mississippi Delta, but it didn't work out that way," said Hoover, who operates a blues museum in Greenwood's Baptist Town neighborhood and gives blues tours. "It went to the people that didn't know anything about the blues. They just took it over." 

He objects not only that Hammons & Associates got the bulk of the commission's work but also that Jim O'Neal of Kansas City, Missouri, and Scott Barretta of Greenwood were selected as the two main historians on the project. O'Neal co-founded the nation's first blues magazine, Living Blues, for which Barretta was a former editor. For their research and writing for the Blues Trail markers, O'Neal was paid $136,000 and Barretta almost $55,000, both as sole source providers. O'Neal and Barretta are white, as is Allan Hammons. 

"We said from the start they pimpin' the blues. They making money off the blues."

Sylvester Hoover Knows all About Systemic Racism

"We said from the start they pimpin' the blues. They making money off the blues," Hoover said of the Blues Commission and those involved with the creation of the markers. "That's not fair. They're not distributing money in the black neighborhood. None whatsoever. None. Zero." 

In addition to questioning the commission's spending practices, White has recommended that it be dissolved and its responsibilities turned over to the Mississippi Blues Foundation, a private, non-profit organization that has contributed financially to the commission. The current chairman of the commission, J. Kempf Poole, is receptive to the idea. So is Jordan. A member of the Senate Tourism Committee, Jordan said he would want to know more details before support-ing legislation to make such a change, but he is open to considering it. "If that is going to lubricate the wheels and make it run better for everybody, sure," Jordan said.