The Atlanta, Georgia area was a source on much information and music during my decade of work through the Southeast. Being able to speak with such people as Willie Mae Jackson (the sister of Robert and Charlie Hicks), Cora Mae Bryant (Curley Weaver’s daughter), or Lois Quillian (the widow of Rufus) was an honor, especially over time as they relaxed around such odd, “foreign” White folks as I, et al. Each contact and subsequent interview allowed me a small window into the rich musical and social past of the region. Folks such as Cora Mae, or Roy Dunn, were sources of leads galore as they had kept information and names in their heads as if waiting for an opportunity to pass on their knowledge when asked. I got to meet Blind Buddy Keith, a one-time local “guitar instructor”; Jonas Brown, former member of the regional string band known as “The Star Band” (along with Frank Edwards, and Leroy Dallas); or Son Foster, who had been a guitarist in Newton County and whose most requested tune in the teens had been “Atlanta Favorite Rag”. These and many more gave tremendously in their replies to queries from the strange hirsute gent “from New York”! All constituted threads in the fabric of the Black musical experience of the city, the region, the state, even the whole SE itself. It was not necessarily a fabric of one color, either, but one with many shades of blues, etc. that had one major pattern of performance style embedded within.
When you get lucky at this sort of thing, you come upon someone who could still play, some impressively (Herman Jordan), some not so impressively (“Dusty” Rhodes). Herman was a former cohort of Curley Weaver and was reluctant to show off his prowess. Usually located drunk by Cora Mae, he only once played a guitar in my vicinity… Cora Mae was right, though – he was good. Many were the times I tried to get him to record for me, but usually he’d just not show up after a time and place had been established. And the Buddy Moss saga has already been recounted (O&S# 8) Others, like Son Foster, had stopped playing decades before and were too old to want to pick it up again – the frustration of unheard music spoken of! (In her latter years, with her kids grown, Cora Mae Bryant performed as a singer [Music Maker Relief Foundation has two CDs] and was consciously keeping her father’s repertoire and legacy going.)
During his brief stay in jail (O&S 12), Roy Dunn/Calvin Speed obtained a name and address for a singer/guitarist named Earnest Scott… maybe from the man himself in the lock-up, I don’t remember. As I said, Roy was a vast fund of information, and after I bailed him out, he took it upon himself to locate the guy! Earnest was interviewed and loaned my “road guitar”, and old, battered, but repaired (and great sounding) Gibson LG-1. He was good. I made a date to record him in Conyers, GA at my favorite recording studio… my room at the Holiday Inn… courtesy of Roy. I would later meet him at his sister’s place, a small wood-frame house, one of a line of them almost in the southeastern quadrant of the city (Atlanta addresses were then identified by geographical quadrant as well as street names and numbers… I’m not sure if that’s the case now, but it was up until my last “run” in 1980). It was a part of a community of identical houses, probably once company housing, that were all painted grey and were strung out along a dirt road. This was in the center of Atlanta!
Claiming to have once been runnin’ buddies with Buddy Moss and Curley Weaver, Scott had certainly been influenced by them: he also claimed that Gene Autry taught him how to play the guitar in southeastern Georgia in the thirties! (Maybe a method book?) Anyhow, I’d get versions of “Ride to Your Funeral in a V-8 Ford” or “Tricks Ain’t Walkin’ No More”, plus the expected “Key to the Highway” that EVERYone seemed to have in their repertoire (almost as common as “John Henry”). But there were also old-time buck dance tunes and an occasional original song as well. After doing six sessions for me over a year’s time (1972/73), one of them where he was so drunk that his efforts were pathetic, he disappeared. His sister moved away and even Roy couldn’t trace him for me… another man done gone, well and truly. One additional session was “done” during that year by George Mitchell when he had Earnest on his radio show on 19/1/73.. George even played washtub bass on a few numbers. There’s an album in there somewhere!
That is how it often went – a brief appearance on my radar and then disappearance into the ghetto again. Earnest Scott was very good, but his abilities were not particularly valued by his immediate community any more and were possibly decried as “old fashioned”… the curse of death to vintage art forms in African America at all points in time (save the religious realm). Tastes change… the audience dies off or joins the church… alcohol and/or “getting in trouble” (and jail) take over the individual, or maybe the church does. Earnest was not the only musician in the SE to briefly wander across my movable stage: there were many others that I was able to “get” one or two times – harmonica player/singer Roosevelt May in NC; in Atlanta, singer/guitarist/harmonica player Clifford “Sam: Swanson was another.
I met Cliff through Frank Edwards (O&S 14), the marvelously unique guitarist/harmonica player/singer, who was one of my first major “finds” in Atlanta. Sam lived literally across the street from Frank and was something of a protégé if his… he had a hard day job and played mainly for his own enjoyment, I think. Frank took me over to meet him one afternoon in 1972 and I recorded him either on harp or guitar… there were also one or two harp duets with Frank in there as well. The following year I hooked up with Sam once again on his own to do some more recording. He was interesting, having a small but broad repertoire, going from sacred songs to “Kiddio” (again! Popular.). Frank later moved to his later home on Haas Street and I never saw Swanson again; I’m not sure whether or not I even made an attempt to locate him again in my later years. Once again, one of the millions of stories in the naked city, one of the many that I didn’t or wasn’t able to visit repeatedly over time. The whole process of being “discovered” (as us White folks often put it) is one of accident. Being recorded is an even more unlikely accident of being in the right place at the right time with the right attitude and the right abilities with the right receptors in place. Or to put it in a more simple fashion – pure dumb luck! And thus it has ever been.
One final Atlantan that I recorded was Charlie Rambo, a guitarist who had been a member of The Star Band, a string band with Frank Edwards, Leroy Dallas, and Georgia Slim (George Bedford?) as members who we can hear from individual recordings, as well as the unheard Hollis and Jonas Brown, Cliff Lee, and Ollie Griffin. The group included guitars, bass viol, fiddle, washboard, mandolin, and harmonica, with occasionally a brass or reed player… the cast was a movable feast. They played for dances in Atlanta, both Black and White, plus they did travel out-of-state into Tennessee. Hell, Frank used to play fiddle himself! Charlie not only played the guitar (he never sang), he built or modified commercial instruments to meet his taste. Often there were decorations glued onto them (similarly to Eddie Kirkland [O&S 49, 50, 51] today), and he had also added a seemingly redundant mandolin neck to a Gibson harp-guitar that he owned! Charlie Rambo played in many different tunings, often with a slide, and I taped many examples of his playing that would do very nicely on an anthology of Atlanta or Georgia musicians. Once a neighbor to Ruth Willis, he also made toys, picture frames, moving garden ornaments and sculptures – a true “folk” artist. I was not then a fully-fledged folklorist and had no idea what to “do” with him, how to get him a bigger audience beyond his street. I did hip George Mitchell to him, who went by occasionally. He ended up in a nursing home before I went to Penn and died there, and his other work got “lost” as a result. At least I have some B&W photos of his instruments and some of his other works (hopefully George has more), plus the tapes of his playing. And so it goes.
Peter B. Lowry
Published B&R #249 (May 2010); pp. 12-13. As the second part of the piece. Edited.