My first recording field trip took place in 1970 as Bruce Bastin and I collected material for what became his book, CRYING FOR THE CAROLINES, the first historical study of the blues traditions of the Southeast. Basically, it was the month of August and I recorded somewhere in the vicinity of 150 musical selections during that time. Those who were recorded in some depth were Baby Tate, McKinley Ellis, Peg Leg Sam, and Willie Trice, with brief appearances on mic by Richard Trice, Floyd Council and Rufus Jackson, Pink Anderson, Monroe Jackson, and Baby Brooks (w. Tate). In September after Bruce had returned to Sussex, I interviewed Tarheel Slim and Alec Seward in NYC, and later recorded Slim at my parents’ basement in Montclair, NJ during November. Over the Xmas holiday I took a quick run down South accompanied by my youngest sister, Susan (then known as Sudy), a competent photographer, plus her boyfriend, Brian. We recorded Tate in Spartanburg, SC and Eddie Kirkland in Macon, GA. I’m not one for half measures and so I jumped into this field recording thing with both feet.
My last major recording field trip began in January of 1979 in response to my receiving a grant from the National Endowment (NEA) for the Arts (Folklife Division, then under the aegis if Bess Lomax Hawes). Leaving home after the holidays, I proceeded into North Carolina where I recorded both George Higgs and Elester Anderson (O&S 42), then headed to Atlanta and a brief field session with Roy Dunn (O&S 12) and a short one with R.L. Lowe (a/k/a Robert “Steamboat” Fulton; O&S 6) in a studio. A trip to Plains, GA then netted my second and final session with Cecil Barfield (O&S 44). At that point, my girl friend at the time, Christine, flew down over the February school break from her job as a high school English teacher – the weather was generally wet and cold, and life on the road with me and my dogs was less than romantic! The only session that we did was with John Amica in Fort Valley, GA and it is of marginal performance quality and interest. Not a great Valentine’s experience for her at all.
After Christine’s departure, I got back into the groove, beginning with John Snipes outside of Chapel Hill, someone who I had previously recorded back in 1974 and 1975. John was a banjo player that Bastin and Cece Conway had come up with in 1972/73… Bruce had taken me for visits and so John knew me and we built up a relationship over time so that he knew what to do whenever I arrived! His banjo was a store-bought rim/body (no resonator) with a cat skin head, and a home-made neck that replaced the original that had broken many decades before. The neck was fretless and had a piece from an old Prince Albert Tobacco tin just south of the nut (the piece at the “top” of the neck over which the strings go north to the tuning pegs) for fretting purposes. He essentially played all his pieces out of first position, retuning for different keys and he could either “frail’ (play “clawhammer” style, down-strokes with the outside of the fingernails and up strokes with that of the thumb) or finger pick (the usual thumb and forefinger, as did almost all Piedmont blues guitarists). He lived with his wife way out in the country in a small 3-room wooden house behind a moderately grand farmhouse occupied by some White folks that I hardly ever saw.
Another of Bastin’s “finds” around Chapel Hill was Wilbert Atwater, a guitarist and singer with whom I had previously spent much time listening to him talk about his life. He worked as a farmer and knew the moon and star signs for proper planting, a.o. activities and was also a pulpwood logger – he lived and worked by himself and was somewhat reticent to record for me, being shy. Eventually he did chose to give me five songs which gave a brief glimpse into his repertoire that went from C&W to blues to ragtime pieces! Later that day I went to Cedar Grove, NC to record cousins Joe and Odell Thompson, some musicians that Kip Lornell had located years before.
Joe played the fiddle and Odell the banjo, and they once played for square dances held at their homes – both of them sang and Joe called the dance steps as well (1). They had been working themselves back into playing condition due to “our” encouragement, so much so that I was able to get eighteen selections from them including “Going Down the Road Feelin’ Bad”, “Old Joe Clark”, and “Ida Red”. I recorded them one more time on this trip in late March, getting another ten selections – the only “new” tune was a great version of “Sittin’ on Top of the World”. With the encouragement from us White folks as well as friends in their community, they kept playing and eventually began having square dances at their homes once more for the locals (2). This, in turn, led to them being invited to play at various festivals. Odell was sadly struck along the side of the road by a car and killed as he and Joe were making their way from the parking area to the site of Doc Watson’s “Merlefest” some years back. Events like that make me wonder sometimes if that which we do is positive for the people we deal with or not – they DID bring back to life something important for their own community, though, at least for a time and that has to count for something, I suppose. I had left my fiddle with Joe for future reference – didn’t happen, of course.
In early March I headed back North to once again meet with Elester and George, then I went west into Stuart, Virginia. That was the home of Turner and Marvin Foddrell, two guitar-picking brothers of great note (no pun intended). Marvin was good and Turner was fantastic! Their father had been a musician, playing guitar and banjo, and he taught them both well. Marvin was less the all-around musician of the two and was a good Fulleresque bluesman, while Turner played more out and about (with both Black and White musicians) and had the broader, and more original repertoire. Together they were something gorgeous to heart, two guitars that meshed perfectly… and did they swing! Additionally, Turner’s son, Lynn, joined into the fray, even recording an original guitar piece for me. I got back to Stuart one more time at the end of the month, calling ahead to Turner’s grocery store to set up an appropriate time for them to gather with me… I got another swag of good stuff, too! Actually, there’s enough good material there, all told, for an album each by each brother, plus a third of them both, with Lynn as well. A greatly talented musical family.
A lead from George Mitchell then took me to Pineview, GA to record one Charlie Brown (a/k/a “Bo’retha” [i.e. Aretha’s boy]), an interesting guitarist/singer with eclectic tastes. I then tracked down James Davis in Henderson, GA from a lead from Val Wilmer: Davis played electric slide guitar with a drummer and I heard him in an Elko, GA juke rocking the house DOWN! Imagine, if you will, a fife and drum band with James’ guitar taking the place of the fife, the drummer polyrhythmically playing variations on the “Bo Diddley” beat… Lomax would have loved it! His father had a drum “orchestra” that played for secular and religious functions back in the day, and this was his equivalent to his father’s music. I also went to see John Lee Zeigler and a neighbor who played spoons whose name escapes me now, but I forewent trying to record them. Zeigler’s wife had just died; I figured that this was not the right time, I paid my respects and moved on (3). To Manchester, GA to record one J.C. Rush who gave me five interesting and old songs (including “Jack O’ Diamonds”) and with whom I left my Gibson LG-1 “road” guitar in the hope that I’d get back to him. Didn’t happen, once again.
Through Atlanta once more (three tunes from Roy Dunn), heading home at last – I stopped in Charlotte, NC for one last shot. I had met Joyous Perrin earlier when Lockwood and his band had played The Double Door (I met them and crashed in their motel rooms) – she let me later stay in her spare room. Joy was the singer and bass guitarist playing co-leader of The Moore – Perrin Band, a good White soul group… Carolyn Moore was the other “co-” and played good guitar as well. The band worked backing traveling “singles” who came to town needing a backing band – that included the likes of Tracy Nelson and Etta James! Good band. Somewhere I have gig tapes. Anyhow, Joy had heard this guy at a local free festival in the center of the city, one James Putmon… apparently he just showed up and they let him play! He worked as a custodian/“sanitary engineer”/janitor at a local public high school (state high school: UK) and I was given his number. I was able to interview him at his home near a thruway overpass, but not record him (for obvious reasons!). Asking if I could record him sometime, we arranged to meet at the school where he worked one day after the students had gone home. With the permission of the high school principal, I recorded six great numbers in their gymnasium (!). After that and the last Higgs/Anderson and Foddrells sessions, I returned home in time for my birthday in early April. My last major field trip was over and my NEA money all spent… as was I. The Fat Lady had almost sung for the last time.
- (1) Joe Thompson can be heard on his relatively recent Rounder CD, while the two cousins can be heard together on a Black Banjo CD from Smithsonian/Folkways put together by Cece Conway to go with her recommended book on Black banjo playing. Also on it are John Snipes, and Dink Roberts, both of whom I also recorded.
- (2) When I worked with Alan Lomax (O&S 24), I told him about th dances and he later went down and filmed at their place for his “American Patchwork” series of videos.
- (3) Both George Mitchell (O&S# 44) and Tim Duffy (Music Maker Relief Foundation) recorded John Lee Zeigler before he died a few years ago. Highly recommended, early styled material.
Peter B. Lowry
Published: B&R 251 (Jul 2010), pp. 16-17. Edited.