So, that’s the general skinny on what I have done directly vis-à-vis Black music, and folklore, over a few decades of my life, with a few digressions and obstacles along the way. The music has been a part of it all since the late 50s, though initially as a passive consumer/listener. This piece will be a more disjointed collection of thoughts than before with less direct chronology. All in all, I consider that which I have done to be commendable for one lone individual flying by the seat of his pants with minimal guidance into unknown territory – clichés galore! Seriously, it was a special and exciting time, and I happened to be the right person at the right time and at the right place, with the freedom to “do” whatever needed to be done. The death of Baby Tate certainly shocked both myself and Bastin in various ways; as I’ve indicated, I kept going for a decade before I had to slow down or REALLY go nuts from the stress and intensity involved. What needed to be fully done was, of course, impossible, but I tried to do it nonetheless until… I HAD to quit. A decade of that magnitude is quite sufficient; I never wanted to live in the South, needing to be able to get away from it all in between times to decompress and sort things out. I probably would have quit before that had I lived there. It worked for me, might not for others (e.g. – Dr. David Evans); I do not play, but can tune a guitar pretty accurately, having good relative pitch. Something that came in handy from time to time, and is an ability I didn’t realize that I had until I used it.
I carried a few guitars with me (mostly pawn shop finds) that I felt were “clean” and dependable for recording purposes with no extraneous noises that were easily played, and were liked by one and all! A big Gibson SJ (1970?), a 1939 National (dated for me by Bob Brozman here a few years ago), and a 1960s Gibson 335 electric were the main ones; I also carried a Fender Princeton (tweed covering), also good for up-close recording. I gathered many other guitars over the years for reasonable prices (O&S #36) – I may have to sell them to keep things going now, but I think that I’ll easily recoup my initial investments! Some really interesting ones, too, along with a half dozen Nationals of varying sorts – one is a HUGE arch-top wooden electric with NO F-holes and the pick-up mounted at the base of the neck! Also, a battered one similar to that in some Memphis Minnie photos! The seventies were still a time of relatively inexpensive hock shop buys and I was once again in the right place at the right time.
But, all in all, not bad for a WASP in his 30’s originally from NJ. It is always difficult to “work” in a foreign culture (it’s hard enough to do so in one’s own, when you think you know all about it!) and no matter how much I try to push my freckles together, I still be White! And not poor. And not southern. Generally, I found myself well-received by those I contacted – there were the expected brush-offs, of course, besides my “Bad Southern Hair Day” (O&S # 7, 8) with the illiterate deputy, and then Buddy Moss! Having gotten a copy of Julius Daniel’s death certificate, for example, who recorded for Victor in the late 20s, I tracked down his widow around Charlotte, NC. I called her (she was in the phone book!) and was told that I had to speak to her lawyer (!) first and HE would decide if I could talk to her… I already had her address. I did so, explaining my “mission” to him and finally getting the OK from him to speak with her. Mattie Daniel (note correct spelling… no final “s”) was his second wife and was a religious person, knowing (ostensibly) nothing about his prior life in “the world”: As a former blues performer who died of tertiary syphilis. She was singularly unhelpful and claimed to have no photographs (the one item in VERY short supply in all my years of work) – “you cannot win them all” being my rule-of-thumb motto in such circumstances.
I did contact Blind Gussie Nesbit, a guitarist/singer/ preacher in the same city who was quite friendly and forthcoming (recorded for Victor around 1930) between bouts of his going down to dig a cellar in his home! There were some who didn’t want to record – David Wylie in Atlanta, for one; recorded for Regal in 1949 – again, having done so at some time in their lives; there were some who wanted to, but no longer could (Pink, and Floyd). If there is a “god”, she or he has a warped sense of humor – all the great singers got throat cancer (Tarheel Slim, later on), the hot pickers had had strokes (Jack Jordan), and some had both (Floyd Council) happen. Others just had put it down permanently some time before “me” and were singularly uninterested in taking it up again, although most were willing to talk with me, often more than one time, too! For some it was religion that prevented them (Rich Trice), for others it was old age (“Snap” Hill) and knowing that they could no longer “cut” it.
As I’ve written, when showing a bit of knowledge of their time and music, a “real” degree of respect for them as individuals, most folks will be willing to talk about their lives. Oral history, uber alles, or something like that. The fact that some younger, White guy cared enough was probably remarkable to them and they had to overcome THAT aspect of things first; most went with it, possibly flattered by the attention – or reified by it! Some habits died hard or not at all – I was ALWAYS called “Mr. Pete” by Willie Trice in spite of our close relationship over the decade; Bastin was “Mr. Bruce”!
Being in the South, and often in rural areas, may have helped facilitate things; less of the “He ain’t here” through closed doors that others report from their canvassing in the urban North. Certainly, there were instances – as when we first went to Pink Anderson’s (O&S #10) house on a week-end with a police escort (!). Pink’s woman at that time, “Squeaky”, ran that number down on us, but she DID tell us where Baby Tate lived… probably as a diversion for the cops across the street (who probably knew of Pink’s bootlegging activities anyway)! Fortunately, Tate’s was only a few blocks away. Tate, of course, got us together with Pink a few days later, among the many things that he did to help us once he realized that we were for “real”. So, even most southern cities were less difficult than those up North – the bigger the city, the greater the difficulty; Atlanta tougher than Spartanburg. And one could not be judgmental about what one saw and/or heard.
Of course, those who we ALL had “discovered” or located over time were the proverbial iceberg tip because there HAD to be others that we didn’t hear about. Or couldn’t locate. Always an unrepresentative sample, but better than no sample at all. Any area had its “names” that were known locally as good musicians, and whether or not they recorded had nothing to do with anything like ability. Recording is an act of serendipity, an accident that had little to do with talent… one had to be in the right place at the right time in the right mood, and heard by the right person with the right connections with the right label to get a session. Some were manufactured – Blind Boy Fuller was taken up by J.B. Long, a White dry-goods store manager who wanted someone to replace Buddy Moss in his 78 inventory for sale to Blacks in his Family Dollar Store. He held contests to find talent: The Cauley Family, a White OTM group was one; there was a Black gospel group, Mitchell’s Christian Singers, as well (who later were on the bill for one of the “Spirituals to Swing” concerts produced by John Hammond)… they won his contests, secular ones on Sat, religious ones on Sun. He began this after being asked by a record company (OKeh) for a song about a train wreck in Lumberton, NC… there was none, so he got the Cauleys to record one he had written for him by Lake Howard, who recorded with the Cauleys. He also LIKED the music beyond just its commercial possibilities, which is more than can be said for some record men.
Fuller was his cash-cow (so to speak). If you get a hold of a copy of Godrich & Dixon (latest edition also w. H. Rye), you’ll notice that there are no unissued Fuller sides for ARC/Columbia (the Decca session was a contract breaker and quashed at the time). Long took Fuller, a.o. to record whenever he had a long enough vacation from his store – before leaving, he got them all to his house in Elon College, NC to work out their material in advance! So, what went down in the studio was well-rehearsed, with few alternative takes – Long was a serious and methodical person. And also a very personable one (we met him) who actually cared about the musicians. While he often is cited in composer credits, usually it’s because he actually helped in the writing of the song… unlike, say, the Biharis! Fuller’s death after selling a s**t load of records by ‘40/’41 (“Step It Up & Go” sold over 500,000 copies) resulted in Long getting Buddy Moss out of jail as a replacement for Fuller (!), circling it all back to where he’d started. Between the war, and changing tastes, Moss was sadly not successful again – wrong time/place/etc. Brownie & Sonny ended up in NYC in the Columbia studio with Moss with Long; the conditions of Buddy’s release were that he had to stay out of GA for a decade (w. Long, into whose custody he was released).
There were interesting producers along the way – Bobby Robinson being one of the important Black men in the game in NYC, who produced many a hit. King Curtis’ “Soul Twist”; Les Cooper’s “Wiggle Wobble”; Lee Dorsey’s “La La”; Elmore James “It Hurts Me Too”; the first Gladys Knight & the Pips release among the long list. He had Fire, Fury, Enjoy, Whirlin’ Disc, Red Robin, a.o. labels over the decades; his brother, Danny, had a few as well (Everlast, Fling) – both ran record shops in Harlem on 125th St. Then there was Herman Lubinsky of Savoy Records (O&S # 32, 34) – a Grade A putz if ever there was one (in John Broven’s latest book, Ahmet Ertegun refers to Herman as “pond scum”!). My attempted interview with him was stymied by his insistence on being paid, even after showing him a copy of BLUES UNLIMITED so that he could see that it wasn’t a slick operation… and wasn’t even from the US! His racism was thick and wide – he felt contempt for them all, even the gospel singers that he was making his money off of at that point in time. “They” were all drunks and junkies in his eyes, completely untrustworthy – granted Charlie Parker wasn’t a saint, but Johnny Otis, or Thurman Ruth??!! I felt like a shower after that meeting. It’s no surprise that many of all colors left his employ whenever another offer came up, like Ralph Bass, for instance, who had been the Savoy West Coast man-about-town. It worked well until Herman insisted that Ralph come East – disaster! When Syd Nathan of King Records offered him his own label (Federal), he jumped to Cincinnati in a New York minute! Without the continental divide it was impossible to work with him… this from Ralph himself.
I love the music and hate the business.
Peter B. Lowry