There was more to Danny McLean’s involvement with blues field-work than Guitar Shorty, although that alone would have been a major “find” and the many photographs taken by Val Wilmer in the seventies are proof of that. There were people like Jack Jordan, Willie Johnson, and Elester Anderson whose paths he also crossed – the last-named may have come to his attention though Kip Lornell, but Danny was a major factor. Elester Anderson, a/k/a Les T, was a construction worker who lived in a trailer/mobile home in Tarboro, NC near Rocky Mount, and he was a good guitarist/singer/harmonicist. Les was representative of the bulk of the post-Fuller Piedmont journeyman musicians (including Roy Dunn, and Pernell Charity) that existed throughout the Southeast, from Virginia through to Georgia in the seventies. Besides the encouragement that he got from Danny, Kip, Bastin, and myself, Les had an unexpected source of support… his kids! Two of his sons played bass and drums in a local soul band that performed at local parties and dances. At one of their dances one Thanksgiving they prodded “the old man” into playing and singing some of his older blues style for the people between band sets. He was a bit rusty, but he was well received by his community – couple this with all the rest, he decided to try getting his guitar-playing into shape once again (Danny loaned him a guitar), not an easy task for one working construction!
I initially recorded Les T during my fabled 1972/1973 field trip (when Bastin was at UNC/Chapel Hill) and the sessions were promising… he needed work, but he had a wide-ranging collection of songs running the gamut from “Salty Dog” through to “Kiddio”! A typically broad-spectrum repertoire for his age in those years. He came to the Chapel Hill concerts on the second night as a spectator (with Danny), but was persuaded by Bruce to do a few tunes between the second and third sets (after Eddie Burns, before Eddie Kirkland). While a trifle nervous, he acquitted himself well… later I saw him at the after the house party after the Friday concert trading licks, et al, with David Evans. He was getting a lot of positive feed-back from all over the place! It sort of opened up the floodgates and Les went on a tear after that getting his stuff REALLY together.
The next recording sessions took place about nine months later with Les’ chops really up to the task: on a Saturday he taped eight tunes by himself and on Sunday twelve. But the special added attraction on Sunday was that his sons, John and Ernest, on bass and drums… the result being what one might imagine Blind Boy Fuller would be doing had he not died in 1941. My experience with Robert Lockwood’s band (O&S 39) prepared me to deal with multiple microphones, as well as a rhythm section. The results from my first big “trailer session” were great… they even did a fantastic version of “Shake, Rattle & Roll” with the guys chiming in on the chorus! A week later, Elester had a couple of friends, Alonzo Williams, and George Higgs, with him in the trailer. Guitars were passed around and some duets were taped – two guitars that dove-tail with each other is one of my favorite sounds (like Pink Anderson & Simmie Dooley, or Blind Willie McTell & Curley Weaver) and is one that I was able to record only sparingly in my decade… Baby Tate & McKinley Ellis being the first solid duo that I got on tape in my travels. There was one more session with Les by himself on late summer of 1974, so the song list was growing nicely.
I didn’t get back to Elester Anderson until my NEA-funded trip in 1979 (they gave me $7500 to spend over six months… I stretched that to almost a year)… in fact, he was my first recording session on that trip, done in his new house in Speed, NC. And his next-door neighbor wasn’t out of the Jerry McCain mold, but was none other than George Higgs! Very convenient. (George is still a fine guitarist/harmonicist/singer, and Tim Duffy has been recording him more recently for The Music Maker Relief Foundation, now based in Hillsborough, NC). The two of them had been busy in the intervening years and three long sessions were done, the first including his sons again – Les and one son even recorded a guitar duet version of an old raggy song “Further on Down the Road” (nothing to do with the similarly titled piece by Roy Dunn on his Trix LP); Les’ fingers cramped up and the kid took over the guitar lead. And so the tradition got passed along in a literal fashion! There were seventeen songs from the first session, nineteen from the next, and fourteen from the last. By now, I had an Elester Anderson LP in hand without a doubt (to be entitled “So Cold Up North” after a guitar piece of his), plus the unexpected bonus of a George Higgs album as well. Things were looking good. They each did solo stuff, or backed each other on either harmonica or guitar, resulting in a collection of songs going from really old stuff like “Down on the Farm” and “Reuben” to “Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well” and “Good Vegetables”. God, it was great to be able to get about and do such things as that – to say that I was fortunate would be an understatement.
But there was a down side to it all. I had only three more recording sessions left in me at that point in time: one by NC banjoist John Snipes, another by NC banjo/fiddle duo Joe & Odell Thompson, with my final one being John Cephas & Phil Wiggins’ first as a duo in 1980 (O&S 19). After that, time, energy, and money became in shorter supply and I stopped… a kind of multi-level burn-out, I suspect. My next big life event was “My Year With Alan” (O&S 24) at the Library of Congress, followed by my near decade in Philadelphia at The University of Pennsylvania. Les T died not long thereafter – some sort of cancer in his leg I was told either by George Higgs, or Danny McLean – he wasn’t the first person I’d recorded to “die on me” (that was Baby Tate [O&S 11]), but it was beginning to get to me because I took each death so personally. Not for me the stance of being the totally uninvolved outside observer that a social scientist was supposed to take in his or her work, I’m afraid. Many of these folks became friends to me (Tate, Lockwood, Tarheel Slim, Willie Trice, Eddie Kirkland… he being the sole survivor from my SE days) and the hurt built up over time.
Some may view my sideways maneuver into the Department of Folklore & Folklife at The University of Pennsylvania to not be much of a change at all, but it was for me. It distanced me in ways that I needed then, and it also got me involved with some great people in Philly. I humbly apologize to George Higgs, a.o. for not doing anything with his tapes then, but, as Riley B. King once sang, the thrill was gone and maybe George will understand (if I ever get re-united with my tapes again, I’d still like to find a way to issue that album, along with many others). I spent the better part of a decade in hard yakka out in the field (usually supported by myself, and traveling alone), running down leads and putting on the mileage along the southern Interstates. I purposely chose NOT to live in the SE so that I might be able to step back from it all after each arduous swing through “my” territory and recoup my energy and strength once again, to write, and work on LPs. After a while, even that degree of separation wasn’t enough and so I had to distance myself from it all in other ways. But, all in all, I was one lucky s.o.b. for over a decade, wasn’t I!
Peter B. Lowry
O&S #181 – Aug 2003, p.9