The blues of the Piedmont was documented on commercial recordings for some thirty-five years, with the bulk of them by guitarists, often of great technical ability. Since we were often looking for guitarists, I figured that I should take along a couple of guitars as well as the recording equipment (not to mention my trusty Minox “spy” camera, all 16 mm of it). A former student of mine at State University College – New Paltz, NY, one John Franco, volunteered to go with me to NYC to brave the pawn shops on the West side around the bus terminal. I knew about as much about guitars then as I knew about recording – nothing, but I was a fast learner. John took me on a tour of eighth and Tenth Avenue pawn brokers and we ended up with two Goya steel-stringed guitars, one a 12-string, that were adequate and inexpensive. Packing all that, plus Ruby Chewsday (the wonder dog) into my Rover 200 TC took some doing, but Bastin and I finally hit the road in the summer of 1970. (That’s why I bought a van after that trip!) We were both in the teaching profession then and had our summers to ourselves – that’s why we traveled in the hottest, most humid time of year… we weren’t masochists, we had no alternative.
I wanted a guitar (or two) in case someone we located did not have a serviceable instrument available – I also took to carrying a few harmonicas around, too, but no pianos! This lead to yet another fillip to being on the road – stopping at pawn-shops!! It was still possible in the early seventies to find interesting stuff in the shops down South… for not too much money. I became well-known in places such as The Music Mart, Smyrna, GA or Abe’s Pawn Shop in Spartanburg, SC – in the latter worked Karl Stapleton, a watch repairman. He was also a musician and son of one of the Stapleton Brothers (Mitchell or Mason) and nephew to Roy Kingsmore of the same group. They had made a few records and broadcast, and had something to do with The Tobacco Tags on the radio. They also knew – and played with – Henry Johnson, who did not take up their invitation to go along to one of their recording sessions or radio broadcasts. Anyway, I was able to pick up interesting and/or useful for usually less than US$200 apiece. A few of the Nationals cost as much as twice that, but they were generally worth it, being something of a “marker” for Piedmont blues in the thirties thanks to Blind Boy Fuller.
One of the first guitars I picked up on my own was a wonderful Gibson SJ, a large flat-top round-hole acoustic Instrument. While Bastin and I were doing library research in Charlotte, NC, mainly city directories and death notices. We located the widow (second wife) of Julius Daniel (note on “s” on the end!) that way, although she proved to be not too helpful, not knowing his “sinful” days. I also went into a local pawn-shop near the library. Fortunately, the guy behind the counter knew even less about guitars than I did! (if possible!). By loosening the strings a bit, sticking my hand into the sound-hole and feeling around, all the while talking about the looseness of the bracing, I got the price down from $250 to $160! An Oscar-winning performance and I became the proud owner of a seemingly brand new guitar. My theory is that some kid got it as a gift for Xmas and traded “up” for some cheap electric… who knows. What I now know is that I still own a fantastic instrument – straight neck all the way in all dimensions, low action, and totally in tune with itself and the world. I cannot play to this day, but I can tune the sucker as good as you please having relative pitch, a useful ability that I accidentally possess. Everyone who has played that Gibson, from Pink Anderson to Robert Lockwood, has wanted to own it, it’s that good. I can point to the “ding” put in the face by Pink, the long scratch from Floyd Council. And to top it off, it is a highly recordable guitar, one of the best.
As I have already indicated, one of the characteristics of recorded SE blues is the national. Sort of a self-amplified acoustic guitar, they are louder than a standard wooden guitar, just the thing for the rhythm section of a dance band (in place of a banjo), the country juke, or street busking. They could be heard. I wanted to get one to take on the road, but initially had no luck. I was able to borrow one from an old childhood acquaintance (now sadly deceased), Eric/Carl Blackstead(1) one winter when I went South in December of 1970 over the Xmas holidays. It wasn’t until the institution of the Draft (conscription: UK) lottery during the Viet Nam War that I was able to get one for myself. Another of my former students, Frank, unfortunately had received a very low number – he did the only intelligent and sane thing, selling all of his worldly possessions and heading North to Canada. One of his worldly possessions was a 1939 National (dated by Bob Brozman in a face-to-face encounter) of unique tone and design and he offered it to me, knowing what I was doing. I gave him US$400 for it, a reasonably fair price back then, and I had my second “main” recording instrument to go along with the SJ. And people from Tarheel Slim to Homesick James found it lovely to play – both guitars can be heard on many of the albums that I released on Trix in the seventies.
Now not everyone I recorded used my guitars. Willie Trice was one who tended not to. I took his old National back North with me one winter – the elusive Bob Gear had it rebuilt and repainted for me (and Willie). That’s the main guitar on his sessions, plus an acoustic Gibson similar to mine that he purchased himself another winter. Eddie Kirkland just added my instruments to his arsenal of available sound possibilities, while Guitar Shorty had this huge Kay of his own that you can see in photos.
After that, I just couldn’t stop myself. And I found lots of cool stuff, too! A very old Gibson J-50 (like the one Pink owned), an electric National without sound-holes like Memphis Minnie’s was photographed within rough shape, a tri-cone Hawaiian guitar (played on record by Dan DelSanto, and in concert by Henry Johnson), a tri-cone “Spanish” National (on loan to John Cephas, and on the cover of his “Guitar Man” album [I think])… the list goes on. There were at one time over a dozen guitars… it’s good I was driving a van in those days!(2)
- (1) We met in the corridors of Atlantic Records offices – I was working on what became “The Blues Originals” series (O&S #15) and he was engineering the tapes and film from the Woodstock Festival!
- (2) I also picked up a couple of electric guitars, plus a couple of Fender Princeton amps… also for recording purposes. Pickings (no pun intended) were good in those days in the SE pawn-shops.
Peter B. Lowry
Published: BLUES & RHYTHM