It was not with any feelings of high expectation that we left the home of Pink Anderson on Carpenter Street, Spartanburg, SC with our police escort still in place across from his place! (O&S #10) Squeaky’s directions to Baby Tate’s house were accurate and we managed to get ourselves there with little difficulty… it was only a few blocks away. Unfortunately, nobody was home. Just as we were going to head off to find a motel for the night, a neighbor asked who we were looking for. To our reply, he said that we’d find Tate at the Wash-O-Mat just a block and a half from where we’d come in a small shopping plaza. So back into my Rover (2000 TC) we went and headed off to the local laundromat (launderette/UK) to locate our quarry!
It was Bastin who plunged through the door, asking the folks inside if Baby Tate was there. And so a puzzled Charles Henry Tate emerged from his wet wash to see what the hell was going on. Two strange White guys, one all hairy (me) and one who talked really funny (Bastin) were not their usual patrons. Actually, Bruce’s Englishness helped immensely, for Tate had been in the UK during WW II (yes, stationed in Sussex!) and was a bit of an Anglophile as a result of his positive experiences there. Bastin even braved the performance arena (for those who do not know, he is singing-impaired… as am I) as he and Tate ended up bellowing rugby songs together there in the parking lot by my car, finishing up with a few verses of “Roll Me Over In the Clover”… you know, male bonding rituals!! Couple that with the cassette that I had with the two issued Willie Walker sides (SC Rag/Dupree Blues)… open sesame. We found our first real informant and a true soul mate, soon to become a friend. So we met Tate back at his house a bit later in the day – there was all that laundry to deal with! And so it goes.
Whenever Tate was not working as a brick-layer, he generously gave us his time because he knew that we were truly interested and had some knowledge that he could correct or amplify. There were week-end gatherings at his house where friends came around to eat vegetables from his garden, have a drink (usually bought from Pink), and to sing and play music. Included in this moveable feast at various times were Peg Leg Sam, his brother, Monroe, washboard player Wilbert, and Providence Thomas, a one-time bass-singer with The Sensational Nightingales. A whole new world was opened up for us to experience, thanks to Tate and his generous spirit. I mean, we had a tape with Willie Walker on it!! That was a musician that Tate idolized to the point of being reluctant to play any songs associated with him for us. Josh White has been quoted in BU referring to Walker as ‘the Art Tatum of blues guitar”; Tate just said, “he played in all the keys with all his fingers”. He must have been marvelous, for he is the only guitarist that Gary Davis had personally met (in Greenville, SC) about whom he had positive things to say! He MUST have been good.
Reality was always there, of course. When I stayed at Tate’s house, his girl friend, Tillie, was often there. She had a son in his mid-to-late teens who was somewhat retarded (or whatever the p.c. term is today). One night her son lost it and went wild, smashing the windows in Tate’s car parked in his front yard… mine had been parked around the corner. Whether or not my presence triggered his actions, I will never know… certainly it had not done so in the past. Reality for Tate was Tillie and her son, was long hours laying bricks or concrete blocks in the heat, coming home covered in mortar, often eating whatever was laying about the kitchen. Reality was poverty and racism, some things I was not strongly impacted upon as a White northerner. And yet Tate kept his sense of humor and a sense of reality and decency… no small feat. It was eye-opening for me.
I was able to record Tate at some length, often with different musicians playing with him – a 45rpm single was released on Trix (#4502): “See What You Done Done” (with Peg Leg Sam on harp)/“Late in the Evening” (solo, w. pocket knife slide). An album or two was planned whenever I could record his original material, for what I had gotten generally duplicated the repertoire of his Bluesville release. He believed in me enough to work up “new” stuff. Also, I was able, in the Spring of 1972, to have some input into the music planned for the big Spring Week-end all-day concert at the university at which I was then teaching Biology. I got Tate onto the bill, as well as Larry Johnson, and Eddie Kirkland (O&S # 49, 50, 51) who I got together with some local musicians for a band set. Tate was very pleased to be asked to come North, but ended up not having enough money on hand for his bus tickets to Ulster Co., NY. By then I had become a known quantity in Tate’s neighborhood and I must have seemed trustworthy because his same neighbor from the house on the corner from Tate (and who had a phone) was willing to front him the money. I promised to wire him the same amount to him a.s.a.p., which I did, checking that he’d gotten it promptly. Tate arrived in New Paltz, NY on a Friday afternoon and I took him back to my apartment for the night.
The next day, Tate played at the outdoor concert (headlined by The Lovin’ Spoonful and The Persuasions!) by himself, and with Larry Johnson seconding on some tunes. Larry was totally taken with someone who had known Willie Walker, who he had no doubt heard from the record collection of Nick Perls (for whom he was then recording). In fact, he volunteered to go South with me the next time I headed out for the summer to see Tate in Spartanburg and record with him. I realize now that I should have taken them both back to my place and set up the equipment then and there. Unfortunately, I didn’t and the joint trip never took place… one that got away. Tate was due in the Albany area that evening to play a coffee house gig that Kip Lornell (O&S # 43) had set up to get him additional money. Back he came to New Paltz on Sunday and back on a bus to Spartanburg and the bricks. I was looking forward to seeing him that summer when I got my long vacation, the usual time that I headed South while I was still teaching.
The summer of 1972 was marked by a number of things. Firstly, Bruce Bastin came over in advance of beginning his Masters degree program in folklore at UNC/Chapel Hill. We wandered around the SE, seeing all of our previous contacts, from NC to GA, and picking up old 78s. We stopped by to see Tate in Spartanburg on our way down to Macon and Atlanta, promising to be back in about ten days. He had even gathered up some 78s from his neighbors for Bruce to see, knowing of Bastin’s shellac addiction (including an Ed Andrews)! He also had worked up some new material, which he previewed for myself and Bruce that night. Round about the 25th of August we got back to Spartanburg to find Tate’s house locked, but that just meant he wasn’t home right then (no phone). As we sat in my new van (a replacement for the Rover) deciding our next move, Tate’s neighbor (that same one) came over to us and said, “They buried your friend yesterday.”
To say that this death had a major impact on either of us would be an understatement. This was the first such loss for us both, and shock, anger, and sadness all went through our hearts and minds, a feeling on being wrongfully robbed of an important person in our respective lives – a real friend had gone too soon (in his 50s of stroke – read the “Stroke Belt” entry in Wikipedia). Bruce went on that year to Chapel Hill, organized an evening blues concert (with Willie Trice [O&S # 9], Peg Leg Sam (O&S # 16], and Henry Johnson [O&S # 17]), then the big three day festival in March the following year (a campus first), researched in depth around Orange County, NC, got his degree in folklore, and ran record auctions out of his tiny student quarters.
I cannot speak for him, only myself, when I say that I was totally shaken by the mortality of one so close (and not really that old) and perforce motivated by that event. I felt that I had to “find” all the older Black musicians that I could in the Southeast because they were all dying like flies and nobody else could do it and nobody else was particularly interested in doing it. Hubristic as hell, I know now, but that is what drove me for the rest of the decade (1970 – 1980). Then I ended staying on the road and in the field for another six months, my first long stay (I was no longer teaching). Literally, I was so possessed by the death of Tate that I even stayed “out” over Xmas… the previous one I came down South briefly with my younger sister and her then-boyfriend, stopping first at Tate’s place to record him (and then Kirkland’s). In essence, the death of Baby Tate propelled me along for another eight years, when I finally ran out of steam and worked with Alan Lomax (O&S # 24) for a year in Washington, DC. I then took myself to Philadelphia to folklore school (University of Pennsylvania). Life and death move in mysterious ways. And so it goes.
Peter B. Lowry
Published: BLUES & RHYTHM #131 – Aug 1998, p.21.
Baby Tate was a keystone and inspiration to my decade’s work in the Southeast – first as an informant and friend, then as an impetus to go as hard as I could for as long as I could. Truly possessed. I was fortunate to have hit upon such a wonderful individual at the beginning of my efforts and equally proud to have shared my life with him, if even for so short a time – two years. Eventually, I burned out on “the field” and moved on, but I was pretty effective during that decade until the end. Sadly, not all that many folks “worked” the SE as I did after that – Tim Duffy, to an extent George Mitchell, Gaile Welker, Kip Lornell, Barry Lee Pearson, and Roddie Moore being among those few. At least SOMEthing was done and we are all the benefit for it all.