When Bruce (Bastin) and I began our “southeastern tours”, we had minimal idea what to do or how to do it, by and large – there was not really anything in the way of published guidelines – we just “did” it and hoped for the best! It was Gayle Dean Wardlow who recommended some things to help us along the way, an important one being the annual City Directories (usually kept in libraries) as a good place to begin delving. Good libraries would have back issues filed in the stacks and one could rummage through them to one’s heart’s content. This is how we “tracked” Willie Walker, Curley Weaver, Simmie Dooley, a.o. A dog-eared copy of the 2nd edition Godrich & Dixon then gave us names, dates, and locations for recording sessions only – no guaranty that the musicians were from there, though. Pink Anderson recorded in Atlanta, but came from Greenville, SC; Julius Daniel also recorded there, but came from Charlotte, NC; none of Blind Boy Fuller’s records were done in Durham, NC, and all of Blake’s were done in Chicago and Port Washington, WI!
As for vital statistics, this was before all that sort of information was put on the internet and so success tended to run from slim to none – we got lucky in Atlanta, and in the Greenville/Spartanburg, SC area, but often we were stone-walled elsewhere. Many of the bureaux would only give out information to next-of-kin, or other close relatives – certainly, neither Bastin nor I could “pass” in that category! That was mainly for death records – birth records being even more problematic, often being kept only in family bibles… “they got burned up in a fire” being a common fate for such relics. I cannot think of one who owned their land, or the house in which they lived, so deeds, a.o., were not possible… the whole process being fraught with difficulties, as we were (again, obviously) no relation to anyone we wanted to find out about! Today much of the whole process is right there on line, if you know what to look for (I’m still much of a Luddite). Let’s hear it for Eric LeBlanc, and Bob Eagle, just to name two who today are carrying the can.
Bastin’s second book makes mention of welfare records – this was from a friend of ours in NC who worked there and was able, over the years, to surreptitiously gather up a treasure trove of copies of Welfare Dept. paperwork regarding the likes of Blind Boy Fuller, Sonny Terry, or Rev. Gary Davis. That was an example of serendipity of the finest kind… the right person in the right position at the right time with the right interest and willing to take a chance with their job for us. It was interesting stuff, though, and Bruce uses it in his chapters on Durham, NC people in RED RIVER BLUES. That was rare. Interviews were the main source of information besides the directories – oral history at its most grass-roots!
Most male folks in the city directories were labeled as “laborers” in our experience; “domestic” didn’t mean just women working in the White folks’ yard, either! A very few were occasionally listed as “musician” – certainly logical in the case of Simmie Dooley (blind), a.o. (1), similarly afflicted; occasionally able-bodied folks were also so listed, but that was rare. Most blind were not listed differently to the sighted, so finding someone listed as a musician was telling and meaningful. The racial indicator ([c] for colored) was very helpful, to state the bleedin’ obvious!
The main factor was serendipity – pure dumb luck – as well as one “find” of a living person tending often to lead to others. Thurman Atkins, of the Carolina Cab Company was VERY helpful in the Durham area (Black cab companies being another location Wardlow recommended, as well as Black barber shops), leading us to the Trice brothers, as well as Floyd Council. [Yes, I’ve met BOTH Pink AND Floyd in my day!] Besides carrying cassette copies of anything remotely by SE artists (another Wardlow hint), we/I just winged it, following our noses or instincts. There was no field-work hand-book available for “working” in African-American communities – a few came later (much later), so that denizens of folklore programs may now do things a bit differently and less haphazardly. For most of the few of “us” doing ANYthing out there, it was mainly going from the old recordings and then trying to build something up from there. Some paper records and files had been located from some of the major commercial companies (usually by jazz collectors), but not as much as one might like; what survived MIGHT tell where someone had once lived back in the day. Royalties past the beginning of The Depression didn’t exist – once-off payments for sides cut were the norm. Earlier on, those such as Peg Leg Howell actually did receive regular royalties; later, not. I think Buddy Moss told us that he began at one-off payments of $15/side, and ended up getting $35/side before his career was halted in 1935 (O&S #8). That was true of White as well as Black artists – the “bird-in-the-hand” was preferred in those trying times of The Great Depression.
I must put out some dirty laundry here, though, folks. Too often the too few DOING anything have become way too proprietary about “their” stuff. I’ll not name any names for fear of embarrassing some, or the possibility of law-suits – surely the Rodney King line, “Why can’t we all get along” is appropriate here! Being “first” is really not as important as letting the world at large know what the hell they’re missing out on, and collating the data! It’s a spin-off from the record-collecting mentality best seen in the New York Blues Mafia shutting out Sam Charters when he was writing THE COUNTRY BLUES way back in the late 50s! They wouldn’t play certain records for him that he had not heard (like C. Patton) – R. Crumb has covered this attitude rather nicely in one of his comic strips. Surely collegiality and sharing are more useful and successful in spreading the word than hoarding – I’ve had a long series on NYC knocked back decades ago by a former editor of another journal because of this “me first” mentality. The end result was that I stopped working on the series and it was never published. Another academic refused to tell me some simple, basic information for my own edification only (and no other reason) rather than share with me. Years later my questions were answered, but what was gained except bad feelings.
Don’t get me wrong. Record collectors have “saved” much of great value (and I don’t mean just monetarily!) with the actual discs and any data that they have been able to gather over the decades (O&S #61). It may be my over-active imagination, but has the jazz world suffered from this sort of proprietarianism in the same way (not to mention cultural colonialism)? Maybe Howard Rye could answer to that question for me, since he’s more qualified than I in the jazz realm. It has been the “amateurs” who have done the hard yards regarding preserving the histories of Black musics over the decades and centuries, NOT the academics, by and large. Where would we be without folks like Paul Oliver (OK, an academic, but in a non-musical field), Robert Palmer, Sam Charters… the list goes on, the list goes on… . We’d be S.O.L., to borrow from Louis Armstrong. BUT the main “purpose’ should be disseminating our knowledge to whomever is interested and from that information making generalizations. History is for knowing, not hiding: with so few actually DOING anything, any other approach is self-defeating. End of sermon – do I hear an “Amen” to that?
(1) One of the directories listed Simmie as “Simeon Dooley”, another had Pink as “Pinkney Anderson” – Pink always said that that was his name… “just Pink”, so we’ll never know. Pinkney Anderson & Simeon Dooley sounds like a law firm, doesn’t it!
Peter B. Lowry