So off to Atlanta much later than we had planned, thanks to the Newton County Sheriff’s Department and right into “The Southern Bad Hair Day – Part Two”. Our primary reason for going to Atlanta that day was to see Buddy Moss again, one of the under-praised geniuses of the Southeastern/Piedmont blues tradition. Bastin & I had not seen Buddy as yet this trip, the first contact since CRYING FOR THE CAROLINES had been published. The two of us were quite unsettled after our experience with the illiterate deputy, a.o., but we were looking forward to seeing our friend Buddy once again (albeit later than planned) and to find out how he liked the book (all main informants had been sent copies as a form of thanks and respect). We soon found out what his thoughts were in no uncertain terms… and they were not good.
Some background on Buddy, though. His recordings made during the early thirties were, along with those of Josh White, the main hit-sellers from the Southeast at that time (supplanting the disappeared Blind Blake). EVERYbody knew certain of his songs, especially (ironically) “Ride To Your Funeral in a V-8 Ford”! As big in the Black marketplace as was possible in the teeth of The Great Depression in the U.S., that is. Buddy accepted a flat fee for each side cut receiving no sales royalties, a common practice regardless of race and one most artists appreciated at that time… a “bird-in-the-hand” sort of perspective in those trying times. Bruce’s book mentioned that Buddy stopped recording after 1935, and re-appeared on disc around 1941. He did not fill in the gap with details as why that had happened, merely mentioning that he had been in prison during that time. Also that J.B. Long, Blind Boy Fuller’s former manager, had gotten him out of jail.
Buddy Moss was always a suspicious and bitter man, for whatever reasons, at the best of times and 1935 was not the best of times for him. Roger Brown (George Mitchell’s initial field-work running buddy) in the 70s located court/police documentation of what happened, while talks with Roy Dunn, Cora Mae Bryant, Frank Edwards, a.o. fleshed out the story. Moss thought that his girlfriend at the time was cheating on him…so he shot her… three times… and killed her. This resulted in incarceration in N.E. Georgia and his disappearance from the recording scene. (This, plus Josh White’s illness/injury at the same time left the SE field wide open and Fuller filled the gap.) There exists a series of photographs taken by Jack Delano in a NE GA prison in the files of the L of C showing a male convict dancing to a guitar player. That player is Buddy Moss and one of the series was used on a Yazoo cover long ago… many in Atlanta in the 70s identified Buddy to me from that album cover photo without any prompting from me. Pretty definitive.
Into the story then comes J.B. Long in 1940/41, having had his major artist (Fuller) die. Looking for a replacement (besides Brownie McGhee), he was tipped by Art Satherley that Moss was in a Greensboro, GA prison. Long remembered Buddy’s music from selling his 78s in his dry goods store in North Carolina a few years back. As J. B. Long told us the story, he found out where Buddy was in jail and proceeded to bribe the local parole board. Before he could capitalize on that, the board was disbanded for accepting bribes and so he had to do the same thing with the new parole board! Eventually, Moss was released into his custody with the understanding that he be taken out of Georgia for ten years. This explains two things – why he re-appeared recording with NC-based artists such as Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, a.o. in 1941 in NYC, and why he was not part of the Regal sessions in Atlanta in 1949. He was still under the conditions of his parole and was in NC working for Mr. Long as a caretaker at Long’s house in Elon College, NC. Mrs. Long remembered him fondly, despite his often sullen and withdrawn ways. By 1952, the ten years were over and Buddy Moss returned to the Atlanta area, an industry has-been with no outlet for his not inconsiderable musical talents. Music was to be a small part of the rest of his life, partly by circumstance, partly by his choice.
Among Buddy’s charming characteristics was an inability to take responsibility for his actions. He blamed the world around him for his “getting in trouble” as if someone else was the paranoid that pulled the trigger on that pistol in 1935. Of course, his recording career ended and Blind Boy Fuller came along to garner the massive (relative) commercial success that Moss probably felt was his due. As has been mentioned, Josh White was unable to play by 1936 – he recovered by the late 40s and found another outlet for his music in the essentially White folk revival circuit of the 50s. While Buddy did record once more before US involvement in WW II, his success as a Black artist was not to be rekindled. The war and all its effects on the recording industry, plus changes in musical tastes on the part of the Black audience, put paid to most of that. By the time the war was over, Buddy Moss had become a faint memory (at best) to the record companies and was involved in a state of semi-servitude taking care of Long’s herbaceous borders.
At any rate, Bastin and I arrived at Buddy’s house on Richardson in the Summer Hill district in the shadows of the (then) new Atlanta Stadium, home of the baseball Braves and the gridiron football Falcons. It was not a prosperous neighborhood then, and is probably still no better now, in spite of the touch-ups that took place before the Atlanta Olympic Games. It wasn’t a falling-down urban slum, either, just a southern urban lower/working class urban Black neighborhood that still retained some character and evidence that people cared about where they lived and how it looked. As had been already mentioned (O&S # 7), we were much later getting there than expected, but Buddy was at home waiting for our arrival (we had called the previous day) – and Buddy was seriously drunk. Not a good sign.
Almost as soon as we entered his house, Buddy launched into an abusive tirade about how the “so-called White man” got his jollies saying slanderous/writing libelous things about poor, down-trodden Black folks. (This I later found out, personally and from others, was one of his favorite themes.) And on and on and on. Not being in the best of humor I foolishly said, “Look, Buddy, I took enough shit from the cracker this morning… I don’t have to listen to any more.” I then left his house, heading for my van – Buddy immediately went to his dresser and got out his pistol and headed for the front door after me.
I was lucky, because Buddy’s wife, Dot, outweighed him by a factor of at least three and she inserted her bulk into his pathway. Somehow, Bastin gathered up the offending book and managed an exit around Dot & Buddy. He joined me (and my dogs) in the van, saying “DRIVE… NOW!!” and off we went to Conyers, GA for the night, disgusted by the events of our day. That was the last time that Bruce ever saw Buddy Moss. Call me masochistic, but I didn’t leave off with Buddy after that – he was just too good a musician to forget about. I spent time with him in later years taking his verbal slings and arrows (a young Black journalist was there one time and asked me when we left his house why I took that crap from Buddy – maybe the answer was obvious only to me!).
I eventually came this close to recording him one time, holding rehearsals with his bass player one Saturday afternoon. I called him the next day to say that I was on my way for the session and he told me that he had heard from Excello Records in Nashville that night and they wanted him to record for them. I told him, fine… I couldn’t offer him more than the promised $500.00 I had already indicated (a goodly bit for me in those days when I was “out there” without grants or any financial support but myself). I know, I should have taped the rehearsal – 20:20 hindsight is a beautifully clear vista! I did much later indirectly get him into a studio to record for The Atlanta Historical Society. They got him to record a small handful of songs (as well as extensive recordings by Rev. Pearly Brown, thanks to Jim Pettigrew [O&S # 44]) to be used in their exhibition “NOT JUST WHISTLIN’ DIXIE: an exhibition on music of all sorts in Atlanta – symphonies to rock & roll”. [Their quarterly journal had an issue devoted to this topic as well, concomitant with the exhibition.]
Buddy Moss was a superb musician (singer and guitarist) and an extremely troubled man, a fact that I figured out after-the-fact of my dealings with him. As a musician, he was well worth pursuing; as a friend or informant, he was not. And it wasn’t just me, or just White folks who had similar experiences. Many Blacks in Atlanta had had similar experiences with Buddy, being embraced and then shunned for some slight. It was Roy Dunn’s brother, Oscar, who recounted similar happenings with Buddy when he tried to take guitar lessons from him. Buddy was his own worst enemy, cliché though that may be. We all know that life as a poor, southern Black is not fun or fair, that it can be dangerous at the best of times, and prejudicial repression is still a fact of life. Some deal with this state of affairs in ways that are not self-destructive, some don’t. Buddy Moss did not and we are all the losers for it, including Buddy himself.
Peter B. Lowry
Published: BLUES & RHYTHM #128 – Apr 1998, p.16.
The Atlanta Historical Society recordings are as yet unreleased. George Mitchell and Roger Brown recorded Buddy earlier than my time (in the 60s, before going to Memphis) and most of that has come to light on a Fat Possum album (LP or CD) of Moss that is highly recommended to all. Plus, the old Biograph concert album (for which I wrote the liner notes; “J.J.” on second guitar is John Jackson) has seen the light of CD day with the addition of the sides he recorded for Columbia in the late 60s/early 70s with Jeff Espina (gtr or hca)… the sound quality on that is not as good as the concert tape, but it gives a sense of relative completeness.
His pre-war stuff has been assembled on a series of Document CD releases with variable good-to-poor sound, but is relatively complete. Bits and pieces are available on other blues collections. Both Moss and Josh White are poorly served for the collector compared to Blind Blake, or Blind Boy Fuller… even Blind Willie McTell has more “stuff” out there! The early sides w. The Georgia Cotton Pickers, or The Georgia Browns show his harmonica prowess along with Curley Weaver, and/or Barbecue Bob or Fred McMullen on guitars. Nice “country”/“down home” small group stuff. Initially, he was a good and cordial informant… wish he’d stayed that way, for all our benefit.
The last time I saw Buddy was at The National Folk Festival in the mid-to-late seventies (’78 if memory serves me correctly)… I have the photos to prove it! He was distantly cordial with me and played and sang his tush off, as usual, pleasing the multitude in attendance. This was after he had had a heart pacemaker installed… he died some years later, a forgotten and bitter man (there was an “interview” in BU near the end of its run that underscores this) – Val Wilmer was probably the last White interviewer to “get” something from Buddy (in Melody Maker?) that was meaningful. That festival is also when I first met and heard Turner and Marvin Foddrell (O&S # 48), who were equally as talented and didn’t have all Buddy’s obvious emotional baggage. They were a joy to deal with and record, which I did extensively. But I surely wish that Buddy had been just a tiny bit more cooperative – he was that damn good!