Reading Peter Cooper’s book on Spartanburg, SC (O&S # 10) got me to thinking about my experiences thereabouts and made me realize how much began to open up and “happen” after meeting Baby Tate so successfully. Once he realized that we could be counted upon, he did many things for the two of us over two years we had together before his death. Not the least would have been the “capture” of Peg Leg Sam, the finest harmonica player from the SE and one of the best ever on that instrument. Tate had mentioned Peg Pete (as he was known around Spartanburg and Union Counties – see what I said about names in O&S #12), but not where he could be located… he probably didn’t know himself, only meeting him in Spartanburg. We had been through town (in 1970) and had said when we’d be back again and were taken at face value. Tate knew that we’d want to hear this guy and so he went into action.
Sam was performing as part of a medicine show then and had some time off, so he paid a visit to his friend and mentor, Pink Anderson, in Spartanburg. Peg (as he was known to all, even his brothers, but was born Arthur Jackson) was at Pink’s place and Tate made sure that he was kept busy over the week-end until we got back – Pink sold corn liquor and beer out of his house, plus there were numerous card games always in progress. The most popular was Georgia Skin (see Peg Leg Howell, Lucile Bogan, Walter Beasley, or Memphis Minnie for references!), and Sam was an expert with the cards. So Sam was “kept” there until our return from Atlanta… I don’t think he objected much, as he was winning. When he was done, he came over to Tate’s house and we met one of life’s most unforgettable characters (to borrow a line from READER’S DIGEST!) and one of the best raconteurs I’ve ever met. He was, as he styled himself, “The ugliest Negro in the world.” There were some serious facial scars on one side from a gunshot (shotgun), plus a peg to replace a lower leg cut off by a train while hoboing in the 1920s. He never found an official prosthetic device to his liking, so he had something carved out of a 2×4 that strapped to his thigh and on which he could rest his knee-stump. None of this slowed him down in any way as he continued to hobo into the 70s, and his dancing abilities were phenomenal. He was the consummate entertainer/show-man – singer, dancer, comedian, and musician – plus something of a salesman to boot!
He worked with a medicine show run by Chief Thundercloud (a/k/a Leo Kahdot), a Potowatomi from the old Indian Territory (Oklahoma). Trained by Pink, Sam was able to handle all the roles needed in a show: straight man, Uncle Tom comic, singer, dancer, player, and seller. Needless to say, he was immediately recorded (and paid, I might add), for Tate’s estimation didn’t do him justice, high though that might have been. He did some stuff alone, some with Tate, even a bit with Pink, and one piece with his brother, Monroe, also on harp. And the music was marvelous, as my Trix album declared to the world upon its release, though meeting with thunderously underwhelming sales, I might add. Years later (1980), when working with Alan Lomax (O&S # 24) on a series of albums from the LofC recordings (finally to be issued by Rounder in its ALAN LOMAX COLLECTION series “Deep River of Song” sub-category: we assembled 20 albums), I played him some of the tapes of Sam. I think it was his version of “Fox Chase” that literally made Alan fall off of his stool, saying, “My God, he’s better than Sonny Boy Terry!” I couldn’t have agreed more.
At any rate, Peg Leg Sam rejoined Chief and the show and I didn’t see him again for a year or so. I always figured that Tate could contact him more easily than I and I was in regular contact with him. Then Tate died in 1972 (O&S # 11), Bastin settled in at Chapel Hill, and Kip Lornell flew down from Albany, NY (O&S # 43) in October to spend some time spending his NEH Federal Youth Grant doing some field-work. Kip located some people in Virginia the previous summer off his own bat around Petersburg. He wanted me to do some recording for him as I had the equipment and was going to be down there (more or less), anyway! We said “hi” to Bruce in his cubicle and headed South, ostensibly going to Macon, GA and Eddie Kirkland (O&S # 49, 50, 51), who had been up North that Spring. But Kip was then a novice harp player and rabidly wanted to look for Peg Leg Sam as a result of hearing some of my tapes. I was persuaded, for it wasn’t too far out of my way in heading for Macon (and I was getting sick of I-95!).
All I had in the way of directions was that he lived in a small town called Jonesville and he mentioned having a friend named Tom Black who worked for the Post Office (this was before the popularity of disgruntled postal workers). So off Kip and I went, heading south from Spartanburg, following the signs for Jonesville. Let me tell you, there’s not much of a “there” there (as Gertrude Stein once said), in Jonesville, SC. A market, an off-premises liquor store, some shuttered store-fronts, some empty lots, and a post office across the highway from all this. I went into the P.O. and asked the person behind the counter for Mr. Tom Black, and found that he’d just returned from his rounds and was right there! Sure, he knew where Peg lived, he delivered their mail and played cards there, but he didn’t think that he was home right then. Mr. Black (a White guy) gave me very good directions and we pulled into the Jackson family compound about ten minutes later. I’m not being facetious in using that word, for I know of no better descriptive. There was a cinder-block ranch house, plus a number of variable-function outbuildings on the property. And some animal pens. His brother, Bill, was there and told us that Peg was out with the show and was some place in North Carolina… something that sounded like “Pittsburgh”.
Consultation with the road atlas (the faithful Rand-McNally) gave us no Pittsburgh or the like, but there was a Pittsboro, NC just south of Chapel Hill. It was the only likely suspect, so off we hared back to Chapel Hill and Bastin’s cubicle – we burst in on him hammering away on his antique Royal typewriter to tell him the news. And immediately all three of us climbed into the van and headed south to Pittsboro. Another cross-roads affair for a town, but we found out that there was a carnival going on at the fairgrounds. Between the entrance gate and the carny itself was a pathway, and parked perpendicular to the walkway was a station wagon (estate wagon/UK). The tailgate was down and a plywood extension attached to create a small stage. There was an old beach umbrella festooned with Xmas lights and a funky car-battery-powered p.a. system, no more than a loud hailer/bull horn affair. We had achieved med show!
Approaching the vehicle, we were espied (and recognized) by Sam and had a grand reunion then and there, for it was early in the evening and their Friday show had not yet begun. We were much taken with the fact that there was a real, live medicine show about to take place. After getting their permission, I set up my two mics and recorded the whole night’s show… I did the same for the following night as well. The following afternoon the three of us came back and visited at length with Peg and Chief, interviewing them and just chatting. Bruce had gotten in touch with Prof. Daniel Patterson at Chapel Hill, head of the Folklore Department, to tell him of this momentous event just to the south. Dan was able to corral a video camera (an ungainly monster in the early 70s) in order that the show be taped on that second (and final) night. A couple of students, including Peter Bartis, and CeCe Conway, came down with the camera and a flood light – nobody had ever operated one of those monsters before, so it was seat-of-the-pants flying all the way through, with picture quality a bit suspect. But now there was a medicine show “in captivity” a couple of different ways! That Saturday night was the last showing of the season, so Sam invited Kip and I to meet him a few days later in Jonesville. Tune in next time!
Peter B. Lowry
Published: BLUES & RHYTHM
Chief went back to Oklahoma, but died that winter, so this was the final “organic’ med show, ever. One was put together for a film documentary (including Roy Acuff!), and an off-Broadway show also took place, but they were artificial re-creations and not the “real thing”.
Peg Leg Sam had a “new” career in his later years, going to folk festivals (whether or not he had been booked!) as far north as Canada (Mariposa). I got him on the Philadelphia Folk festival one summer, along with Tarheel Slim (O&S #4) and Big Chief Ellis (O&S #19); I think he also played the National Folk Festival at Wolf Trap Farm Park one other year. He was a big hit wherever he went, maybe not always for the right reasons (strange looking Black man bordering on minstrel fare), but taken up by his new public nonetheless. He even made The New York Times with a David Gahr photo, in a review of the Philly festival!
I do believe that it was kidney failure that took him out later on – I could have had a career just focusing on Peg Leg Sam… he was that good and deep an informant.