MIXED BAG: #4
1.) Blues music today is White folks’ music – the audience for it bleaching out as you read this and, as the old ‘uns die off, so are the performers. Today’s cliché concept of a blues performer has become a much different stereotype from that of the past: White, young (usually with long blonde hair), with guitar chops galore, singing in a strained manner to his House o’ Blues audience. As opposed to the past cliché of the poor, broken-down old Black man sitting on his poor, broken down old porch singing his little heart and soul out to the winds. I’ve taken referring to the excess of guitar technique as being infected with the SRV virus – or as Homesick James once said to me back in the seventies, “Pete, any damn fool can mash a string and holler!” How true. It was true back in the sixties (think Clapton, or Winter) as well – all those guys stealing from B.B., et al, stole the notes but neglected to learn when NOT to play. As with Miles Davis, knowing what notes to leave out is as important as the ones played… maybe even more so. The notes are relatively easy. Taste and dynamics are a much more difficult proposition to acquire.
2.) Surviving as a poor Black person has never been easy in the US at the best of times. Only a very few of the people that I dealt with during the seventies supported themselves by playing their music. At best, it was a week-end affair, while at worst it had become a memory… sometimes retrievable, more often not. Most did what they could to get by. Even those on disability (e.g. – Roy Dunn) had to scuffle to find other ways to make it in the great U.S. of A., for the governments, state or federal, have always been stingy. Guitar Shorty (John Henry Fortescue, late of NC) picked up occasional farm work, and played and sang in small country churches on some Sundays with his wife, Lena. Their situation was often pretty dire, exacerbated by their love of wine.
Tarheel Slim drove a school bus for private schools in the Bronx and Brooklyn, his Apollo Theatre days with Little Ann well behind him. Eddie Kirkland had, for all intents and purposes, quit music when I met him in 1971 and was working as a car mechanic and ran a small “motel”. Baby Tate worked long hours as a non-union mason and brick-layer, while Pink Anderson added to his Social Security (if he even had any) as a semi-bootlegger, selling beer and corn whisky from his house, especially when the liquor stores were closed. He also had a few card games going on in his back room and was something of a card sharp himself… it was Pink’s card game and corn whiskey that kept Peg Leg Sam in Spartanburg long enough for Tate to hook him up with us. It was Tate who once said to me, “If I had a dick as big as Pink’s, I’d never have to work a day in my life”. Being supported by a Black women (or more than one) has always been a factor in the lives of many bluesmen, since women had the greater access to more employment opportunities than men. This is not politically correct, but the truth often isn’t. It has always been “hard to be a nigger”, as the words of one of John A. Lomax’s favorite collected songs tells us… even though Blind Willie McTell wouldn’t sing it or talk about it!
3.) Back in the early to mid seventies I had the privilege of recording Robert Lockwood and the two albums that I produced got great press (save for a tin-eared person in BU… both LPs!) and they may have helped publicize Robert’s talent and availability as touring performing artist. One fall he and the band had a gig somewhere in New England (maybe NH) and another on Long Island (NY) about five days later. Since going back and forth to Cleveland made little sense, I suggested that they all spend the “down time” at my house in Ulster County, NY for the few days involved. I then owned a two-bedroom house on top a small hill surrounded by two acres of trees. It was a great place for me to come back to after trips and it was also quiet for any recording or mixing that I might want to do. So they all came by for that time – Robert and Annie, Maurice Reedus-el, George Cook, and there ever-faithful Gene Schwartz. Annie took over the kitchen, turning out delectables that I had never had so far North (not to mention spoiling my dog, Ruby Chewsday)! And Robert must have thought my hideaway was OK, as he told me before they left for Long Island, “Pete, you are one lucky nigger.” Higher praise from such a source is not possible. I was.
4.) In a piece on Fred McDowell in issue #40 of THE OXFORD AMERICAN, the music issue for 2001, writer Heather Heilman says that “Lomax, Strachwitz, and Waterman were part of a batallion of young white men obsessed with the country blues they had heard on old 78s and who scoured the back roads of the Deep South in order to find the old men who played the music. Thanks to them, several gifted artists who had labored in obscurity found recognition and an international audience, and their music was preserved for all of us.” It certainly wasn’t all White males, or even “Americans”, who did this essentially thankless work, who were possessed in some fashion and just DID it without much in the way of feedback or appreciation or support from the world at small, much less the world at large! Certainly my own efforts over the decade of “working” the SE were a failure when held up to her criteria – all I accomplished out of all that was to preserve some music that I thought was good and important.. Nobody got rich or famous from it. Also, where the hell were those “battalions” of field workers, anyway? I sure wasn’t tripping over mobs of people while out and about over a decade. In fact, it was quite lonely out there working in a near vacuum. But I kept at it for ten years until my “extra” money and time ran out and I turned to other things. No romantic rose-colored glasses here, mate… just the cold of reality.
5.) “You Can’t Catch Me” is, of course, the title of a great Chuck Berry recording and there hangs a tale, one generated into my memory banks as a result of an article in the July, 2001 issue of MOJO (#92). There is an article on John Lennon and his album ROCK & ROLL… how it came to be and in the form it took. Sometime in 1970 I received a telephone call from one Peter Herbert (of the law firm Orenstein, Arrow, Silverman and Parcher) in NYC. Mr. Herbert was calling on behalf of his client, Mr. Lennon, who was having some legal problems with a group known as Big Seven Music Corp., owned by the ever-savory music business identity Morris Levy*. The publisher (Levy and Big Seven) was claiming that Lennon’s song “Come Together” infringed upon their rights held in the form of Chuck Berry’s tune, the one I mentioned in my opening sentence, and Herbert was pursuing a defense for his client. He probably found about me via one of my contacts at Atlantic Records, since I was then lurking about their halls in pursuit of “The Blues Originals” series (O&S 15) of LP releases. We had a meeting in their NY offices where the problem was presented to me (as a budding ethnomusicologist) in greater detail and it was solely a musical one. Could I come up with other musical examples of the first four bars of “Come Together” that were also found in “You Can’t Catch Me”, examples that predated Chuck’s recording. This was an interesting challenge.
Going back to my lair in Ulster County with a copy of The Beatles record under my arm (I had Chuck’s work, needless to say!), I made a swing through my record collection to hear what I could hear. Needless to say, that four bars was not unique to either Mr. Berry or Mr. Lennon. My first superficial trawl came up with some field recordings of work songs recorded by the Lomaxes and issued on some L of C albums. Before I could dig any deeper, Mr. Herbert called me to tell me that the matter had been settled out-of-court. As he explained it to me, John Lennon was to record some of Chuck’s material on his next LP and Berry’s publisher would get the rights to a couple of songs by Yoko Ono… honest, I couldn’t make this sort of thing up, folks! So I never did get to appear in court and Lennon did his album. So ended my close encounter with fame and fortune! Ironically, a friend of mine, Scott Micansin, later worked as a cabinet-maker for John and Yoko at some of their apartments (flats: UK) in The Dakota on the western edge of central Park. He was going to take some copies of the Trix catalogue to give Lennon, but John was murdered before he could do that… and so it goes. Another near hit.
*see HIT MEN for more on the sainted Morris!
Peter B. Lowry