There’s a long list of musicians I was privileged to record in my decade of intense field-work, many for the first time in their lives. It is much easier to lay claim to an individual “first” than it is to a context, situation, or genre, yet there are two such that it seems I was the first to record. They are mentioned often in most histories of blues or jazz: The medicine show is one, and the after hours joint is the other. To the best of my knowledge, they had never been taped before my efforts on 1972 and 1973, so I rest my case… especially after this piece is done!
In the northern autumn of 1972, Bruce Bastin was beginning his folklore studies at U.N.C. – Chapel Hill. We had just finished our most aggressive record-collecting swing through the Southeast – including Buckley’s fabled store in Nashville. We also had visited many of our contacts or subjects from CRYING FOR THE CAROLINES, which had just recently been published (not to everybody’s satisfaction – see O&S #8!). Also that fall, Kip Lornell was to join me for about a month as he wanted me to record some of the people he had met in Virginia the previous year. Kip arrived at Raleigh/Durham airport and we headed down I-95 towards Georgia. At that time, he was a dabbler on the harmonica and he bugged me to swing through Jonesville, SC to see if we could find Peg Leg Sam. He had heard the tapes. I eventually gave in to this youthful badgering and we took a slight detour from the Interstate. Most of this has been recounted in O&S #16 and 17, but the upshot was that I was able to audio tape two nights of a medicine show, the first such complete documentation.
Traveling shows had once been a common phenomenon throughout the South, a stage in professional development for a performer that lay between the local community (house parties, juke joints, front porches, picnics, etc.) and the vaudeville stages such as The 81 Theater in Atlanta, or the Howard Theater in DC. The fabled T.O.B.A. circuit. Few were able to go beyond that level due to racism in the entertainment business being about as rampant as in the rest of the country before WW II. For the uninitiated, a med show consisted of segments of free entertainment interspersed with intense sales pitches, hopefully followed by direct sales to the assembled audience. Commercial radio and television are merely electronic med shows in a box!
The other unique “thing” that I was privileged to record was an after-hours piano place in Detroit, MI. It came about almost by accident, thanks to Barbara Rowe, the wife of British blues scribe and Detroit maven, Mike Rowe. There were a bunch of Detroit area musicians performing a concert in London around 1970/71. One of them was the wonderful pianist Boogie Woogie Red (Vernon Harrison). While Mike was busy with someone else (probably baby Boy Warren), Barbara chatted with Red. He happened to mention in passing a place in Detroit where the old-time piano players would come by during a week-end. Barbara told Mike of this and he pumped Red for details – he got a promise from Red to take him by the next time Mike was in Detroit!
That took place in 1972. Mike and Peter Bullock came to the US, stopped by where I then lived at my parents’, and the three of us took the Greyhound from NYC to Detroit. I had my Uher recorder, two mic stands in a canvas golf bag, a briefcase with two microphones and some tapes… plus a small suitcase! Traveling in style – and a bit heavily laden. There, we stayed with Bobo Jenkins, spending time at his Big Star recording studio listening to tapes and to a recording session. I think that was when Mike discovered that Bobo used to take photographs in Detroit clubs and still had stacks of 2 ½” x 2 ½” negatives. I got to meet Baby Boy Warren, among others, and we planned on going to the after hours place that week-end with Red.
Being orthodox devout cowards, we decided that Sunday would be the safest time for us three honkies to impinge upon an ongoing phenomenon without totally destroying it. It was located in the front room of a large two-story urban house, which served as a barber shop during the week. The proprietor, known as “Lamp” as a result of his height, cut hair there (he had a proper chair, too!), but on the week-ends he sold beer, whiskey, and wine illegally. A “blind pig”, if you will. The front room also had a piano as well as the barber’s chair for the use of anyone with that sort of talent – Lamp also learned enough from watching others over the years to become an adequate pianist himself! Red drove the three of us there under the shadow of the Edsel Ford Freeway, part of the road system that destroyed Hastings Street, a.o., in the heart of the Detroit ghetto.
That Sunday was a good choice, for we were not interfering with the usual Saturday Night Function: that might have precipitated some alcoholically fueled difficulties. I put a mic behind the upright piano and another in front for any vocals, a well as background noise. The first person to sit down at the piano was Sister Susie Wilson, a well-dressed mature woman on her way to or from church (I was never sure which!). She played a couple of church songs, getting the proceedings off to a blessed start! Over time, more people stopped by for a taste, and anyone who played, I recorded, beginning with Boogie Woogie Red himself. Besides Red, I was also able to record Chuck Smith, “Little Dickie Rogers”, Charlie Price (w. harp player J.B. Bolton), and Lamp himself. The next year I came by on my own (in spite of warnings to the contrary from my local distributor, Billie Thomas) with my van and dog. Once again, I recorded a number of folks – James Barnes, Emmett Lee Brooks, plus Price, and Lamp again. Once I decided that I had enough good stuff for an LP, I needed photos! So I contacted all who I had recorded that I intended on releasing by phone. I let them know that I would be at Lamp’s place on such and such a Sunday to take pictures… everyone showed up, except Red (who I already had photos of)! Nice.
The importance of such contextual recording is immense and unique. In all histories of Black music, as I’ve indicated, one reads of various house rent parties and after hours joints. They were a common venue in urban Black America from at least the 1920s, a place where local talent could expose themselves to their public and hear how they stacked up against the competition – local or visiting firemen. It has been written about, often second- or third-hand, but not physically documented on-the-spot… until my tapes. Did my/our presence alter the reality of it all? Probably. But I don’t think it did so in any meaningful fashion (I hope). The hours of tape that I collected are a useful and valuable document of an aspect of Black musical and social life in the northern cities that has now long disappeared. It was a miracle that I was able to capture any of this stuff at all – serendipity uber alles.
Peter B. Lowry
Published: BLUES & RHYTHM
Both are still unique documents of performance styles/venues that are now memories rather than ongoing fact – my friend Glenn Hinson got some med show performers together and they played in a NYC theatre! There is also a film on med shows out there that’s good… includes Roy Acuff; cannot remember the title, though.
George Paulus recorded two of the pianists for an LP on one of his labels – that’s about all that happened there. I suppose that the latter-day equivalent to house parties has been the DJ set-ups some years back that gave rise to hip hop. Now, I have not one inkling what goes on, if anything.
A recent (2015) gander at Google Street View shows two possibilities for Lamp’s place: One is the stretch of empty lots and general destruction; the second is a single house in immaculate condition with cyclone fencing surrounding and a car in the drive. I romantically wish that that is its fate, but my rational self accepts the chaos that is The Motor City.