On the other hand, Danny McLean had nothing to do with Pernell Charity being recorded… that was the result of a very young Kip Lornell’s initial venture into southern field-work. I had just returned from a trip in late summer of 1971 on which I had recorded Eddie Kirkland (O&S #49, 50, 51), Roy Dunn (O&S #12), Richard Trice, Baby Tate (O&S #11), and Willie Trice (O&S #9). I was exhausted and wanted nothing to do with anything, but Kip was persistent and energetic, wanting to know “how to do” that sort of thing. We talked a while and he then asked, “Where should I start?” Since neither Bruce nor I had done much in Virginia, I suggested that be his destination… free and clear, and the closest SE state there was to Albany, NY! And so off he went, full of vim and vigor, as I collapsed back at home. And he was successful (and/or lucky, for that is always a factor), for in the vicinity of Petersburg, VA he located a few older musicians, including Sam Jones and Pernell Charity, who had played together in the old days of house-parties. Sam had gone church, now only playing and singing sacred material with his family-based quartet. Pernell, according to Kip, could still do the older secular songs and was worth more attention. He then acquired an National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Federal Youth Grant to do some recording and, since I was planning on being South in 1972 with my equipment, I was depped as recordist-for-hire: unpaid category.
After a bunch of adventures and recording sessions over a couple of months going from Macon, GA to Rocky Mount, NC (O&S #16, 17, a.o.), the two of us headed up to Virginia to spend Kip’s grant money! We arrived in Waverly, VA late in October and went over to see Pernell. He lived in a slightly raised small wooden house, part of a cluster of similar structures that made up a dirt road African American community. There may have been some connection then, or in the past, between the houses and a nearby sawmill – company housing? I never did find out. Anyhow, Pernell was at home and had taken Kip’s request for material to heart. On our first day he recorded a dozen songs, ten the next one, another dozen the third, and four the last (whew!). Quite a haul. I later worked a deal with Kip to release the tapes on Trix (3309: “The Virginian”), because there was an album waiting to come out of all that material!
In the middle of all this, we stopped by the home of Sam Jones where I recorded a couple of tapes’ worth of guitar-accompanied quartet gospel singing with his family. Some good stuff there, I reckon, for a future anthology of rural sacred performances as there was the expected fervor there. Pernell, on the other hand, was a slightly wooden singer, but a good guitarist with quite a goodly repertoire. Many of his songs had become popular from recordings in the past, such as “Mean Ole Frisco” or “Black Rat Swing”, songs that I had gotten from many folks over my travels. His two biggest sources and influences, as with Carolina Slim (Ed Harris), were the expected Blind Boy Fuller (“Mamie” and “Shake Your Stuff”) and Lightnin’ Hopkins (“Fly the Kite” and “Coffee Blues”). Penell indicated that he’d gotten the Fuller songs from records, but claimed that Hopkins had traveled through the Petersburg area in the 50s on his way to New York City. If true, then he was en route to record for either Bobby Shad (SIW, et al) or possibly for Herald Records. Pernell Charity was a very good journeyman Piedmont blues performer, one with big ears and good playing technique. He was also able to adapt material from non-Piedmont sources to the style – the song “Blind Man” on his LP comes originally from one of B.B. King’s releases for the Biharis on RPM! Feeling that we had done well (as well as had Pernell and Sam!), Kip and I departed, leaving Pernell with a goodly bit of Kip’s grant money, plus some Trix 45s and LPs from me.
I was averaging close to 20,000 miles per annum on my vehicles on my trips, most of them driving back and forth on I-85 between Rocky Mount and Macon, with some side-trips onto “blue” highways to fight off boredom or frustration. I did go back to Waverly, VA to see Pernell once more on my own in the Spring of 1975. By then, I may even have had copies of his LP to drop off with him… whatever the case may have been, I was able to record him again. And again he was prolific, getting fourteen sides onto tape… maybe he thought that that was how it was done, what with those marathon sessions of a few years before with Kip! Or maybe Sam Hopkins had other influences!! There are a few songs duplicated from the 1972 recordings, but “new” stuff as well, some from unexpected sources.
Pernell had had plenty of time to listen to the Trix recordings that I had previously left with him and he obviously liked some of the songs (and maybe his community did as well). Among the songs he recorded for me this final time were “Going to the River, See Can I Look Across” (from Eddie Kirkland’s LP, 3301), “She Cooked Cornbread for Her Husband and Biscuits for her Back Door Man” (from Roy Dunn’s single, 4504), and “Someday Blues” (from Harmonica Sammy Davis’ single, 4505). So the tradition was at work as Trix Records contributed in some small way to the process of folkloric transmission and repertoire! Pernell’s location was relatively isolated and I’m sure that he didn’t get to hear much “new” music that appealed to him or to his community. Those three songs did resonate in some fashion for him, and so he took them on and adapted them to his style of performance. It DOES work!
That was the last time that I saw or heard Pernell Charity, although Kip did keep in touch with him while studying at The Blue Ridge Institute/Ferrum College in Ferrum, VA. We tried to get him on the bill at the festival at Chapel Hill in 1973, and later The National Folk Festival when it was being held at Wolf Trap Farm Park in Vienna, VA, but he wouldn’t go. He had his reasons, I guess, but he would have done well at such affairs. It was Kip who passed on the news to me that Pernell was sick with liver cancer, which soon killed him. He was one of those relatively few African American musicians that (White) folks such as you and I may serendipitously stumble upon from time to time. While not all of them can be exciting and original, they all are a small piece of the story of the music… we’ll never be able to see or hear all of the pieces of the mosaic, but each bit is interesting and exciting in its own way. Even journeymen or journeywomen can teach us something. Just look at Roy Dunn, for example. Pernell wasn’t the only performer that Kip put me in touch with over the years, though. Others included NC banjo and fiddle playing cousins Joe and Odell Thompson, as well as Turner and Marvin Foddrell, a couple of guitar-playing brothers from VA who I had first heard at one of the National festivals. They were on the bill with, of all people, my old friend Buddy Moss!! More on those folks later.
Peter B. Lowry
O&S #182 – Sep 2003, p.15