This piece might have been entitled “The Southern Bad Hair Day – Part One”, for this day in 1972 was the worst one I had in my decade of field-work in the Southeast. I made mention of this day back in BU 100 (April 1973 – p.22) without details… no need to be coy now! There had been other bothersome moments in my decade’s work, such as the pick-up truck that repeatedly and slowly cruised past with its full quota of racked shotguns and youngish rednecks as a bunch of us (Bruce Bastin, Danny McLean, Kip Lornell, and I) tried to talk to an older Black former musician. My van was parked out front (w. NY plates) and all five of us were in plain sight on the front porch one fine day in North Carolina. We left – Danny thought it best, under the circumstances. That was just an instance, but I’m talking about a full day of uncertainty and fear, not just a passing moment… and anger.
Initially, things started out well as Bastin and I picked up Roy Dunn (O&S # 12) in my van to go somewhere quiet that Roy knew in order to record him, having already met him at Cora Mae Bryant’s place. And that we did, going way out in the Newton County, GA countryside to a lovely old, large farmhouse. It was full of old furniture and photo portraits of various (Black) ancestors of the owners of the house, and was surrounded by pecan trees. It was bucolic, rural bliss and a great place to set up my equipment. Cora Mae Bryant, the daughter of Curley Weaver and a big help to us in her own right, was there as well (I think). She had introduced us to Roy and this was to be his first recording session. So we went ahead and recorded Roy for a while – Cora Mae might have attempted to sing a tune or two as well (she got better with age!).
The recordings finished, Roy (and Cora Mae?) elected to stay where they were for a while and would get a ride home later, so Bruce and I left by ourselves. It took some time wending our way back to get to the paved state highway, but we eventually managed that task. We made a right-hand turn off of the last of the dirt roads, planning on getting a quick lunch and then heading off to Atlanta for an appointment with Buddy Moss that afternoon. We had gone maybe a mile or so when we were pulled over by a Newton Co. deputy sheriff. And so it began.
This particular deputy sheriff had some special qualities about him – he was suspicious, he was stupid, and he was illiterate. Now, imagine, if you will, a large green van with out-of-state plates, a driver with a full beard and very long ponytail (I know, I should have known better!), a passenger with a really funny accent, all enclosed in a vehicle with suspicious locked boxes and two dogs inside. Imagine how it must have looked to that deputy sheriff with his special qualities and the I.Q. of Pooh (or less). I did not feel anywhere like Christopher Robin, I can tell you that. Granted, we got off to a bad start, for he could not read my driver’s license, which did not put him in a good mood or public light, and the words “New York” from my lips did not endear us at all. This man was not at all a happy camper and his “presence” did not overwhelm us with that fabled southern hospitality. He was angry and confused, not a pleasant combination in those circumstances when in the presence of a man with a gun and a badge. It got tense.
But help was on the way, although not from the cavalry! From the direction we had just come from came another Newton Co. deputy. That might not have seemed reassuring at first, but this fellow could read and that was a great improvement on his colleague. Now, we didn’t blind him with science, but the photos taken in Covington, GA (the Newton Co. seat) that were printed in CRYING FOR THE CAROLINES began to turn the tide in our favor. Bruce finally convinced this second deputy that what we had been doing was legitimate and that we were no threat to society or property, and would not scare the animals. Finally we were allowed to go on our way. BUT if we were to continue that sort of behavior in the future, we should come around and check in with the Sheriff’s office before doing so.
As near as we could figure, some White folks down the dirt roads had seen us driving in on those country roads with a Black man (and possibly woman) in our truck and then driving back out alone much later on. Being from out-of-state, hairy (in my case), and “foreign”, we just HAD to be doing SOMEthing illegal with their niggers. Stands to reason… there just wasn’t any other possible explanation. And that is why both directions we might have taken on the paved road had been staked out by the two deputies. We were going to be pulled over no matter which turning we made.
It would have been funny, living up to low expectations and all, except it was rural Georgia and we did look out-of-place and suspicious to many local denizens. I had two separate fears. The first is that deputy No. 1 would insist on searching the van and would damage the guitars and/or the equipment. The second fear (and it came later in the sequence of events) was that the two would search the van and one would plant a controlled substance in the vehicle. THAT would have been a really nasty turn of events in 1972… believe you me! I suppose that we seemed too naïve/innocent and were permitted to go about our business – with the one caveat.
When we later told Roy about our adventures (or mis-adventures!) some days later, he knew all about deputy No. 1 – he’d been fired (sacked: UK) from a number of other jobs, so he was made a deputy sheriff. Only in “South America” (to pinch a designation from Tarheel Slim). A hidden irony to all this is that the High Sheriff of Newton County was up for re-election and so we saw his posters all over the place… one Junior Odum. He was some sort of distant nephew to Howard W. Odum (of Odum & Johnson fame in NC) who was active through Newton Co. in the 1920s essentially doing that which we were doing in 1972 – collecting musical folkore from area Blacks. Of course, we were not locals, but… . And that was only the first half of the day shot… there was more to come, as you will find out next time.
Peter B. Lowry
Published: BLUES & RHYTHM #127 – Mar 1998, p.12.
Cora Mae Bryant was extremely helpful in the first half of the decade that I “worked” the Southeast – I spent less time with her in the later years as I was occupied elsewhere with others in my never-ending search for the ultimate picker! I kept in touch with her even after moving to Australia (which she confused with Austria, asking me to go see J. Parth and get her some money for the Weaver reissues), getting her copies of THE STORY OF THE BLUES and CRYING FOR THE CAROLINES – she had no other photos of her father than those in those two books.
Photograph finding was a real crap-shoot as too many domiciles were burned down due to being heated with wood in either a fireplace or a wood-stove. My “finds” were sadly few and far between over ten years. I DID get old photos of Curley as a baby, one with his mother, Savannah “Dip” Weaver… who seems to have taught her son how to play the guitar, as well as their neighbors’ kids – Robert and Charlie Hicks (“Barbecue Bob” and “‘Laughing’ Charlie Lincoln”)! It seems to me to be a transfer of banjo frailing over to the guitar in an open tuning (Jim Watson of the Red Clay Ramblers told me back in the day that OTM musicians referred to open guitar tunings as “banjo tunings”!), with the bottleneck thrown in for good measure.