It’s interesting (and maybe amazing) what sends an individual in one direction and not another – often it’s not obvious. While George Mitchell and Roger Brown began their delving into the history of blues music and its older performers in Atlanta (influenced by Sam Charters’ book THE COUNTRY BLUES), most of their initial research efforts became oriented towards the South Central region of Memphis and the Mississippi Delta rather than on their GA doorstep. This went along with the general focus then of most of the record collecting fraternity, especially the “New York Blues mafia”! Of course, the Paramount label and its scarcity was of paramount interest to those sorts as well as the parallel addicts of old jazz! Much of this is the result of the record collectors’ focus on artists whose discs were rare over those that were successful. This caused many people who sold records in quantity to be at best touched upon briefly, at worst, ignored. Rare = Good, in the collectors’ equation.
People such as Blind Blake, Bumble Bee Slim, Buddy Moss, Peetie Wheatstraw, or Blind Boy Fuller being great examples of artists who sold well from the twenties and thirties (mainly to African Americans) who got scant attention from the likes of “us” back in the day. It was Garfield Akers, Willie Brown, Kid Bailey, Otto Virgial, a.o. who were chased after grails – folks who recorded very little and whose recordings were concomitantly found to be rare (i.e. – unsuccessful in their intended marketplace). This impact of the collectors’ mentality is the equivalent to trying to tell the story of the US automobile industry and using the Edsel as a prime suspect! In the eyes of many, popularity (usually indicated by the large numbers found while door-knocking, et al) with Black record buyers was regarded as somehow artistically suspect by many collectors. A kind of hidden racism in itself: “Our aesthetic is more valid and ‘real’ than theirs.” – a “we know better” attitude. Multiple aesthetics have been at work worldwide in the spread of this music originally recorded by African Americans for African Americans since such recording began in the US ca. 1920. That of the original audience may not “fit” well with that of the later “European” one is a given – Black vs White, if you will – each having quite different uses for and reactions to that product. Since W.E. (White Europeans) are the late-comers, our tastes are naturally vastly different from those of the original buyers.
As I have mentioned in previous pieces (O&S # 21, 22), my personal introduction to blues was somewhat second-hand, being an middle/upper class WASP from northern New Jersey. As a jazz aficionado, I was given copies of down beat, then a bi-weekly, by a friend/employee of my father and I assiduously read the articles and record reviews, using the latter as guides on what to buy. One issue had a review of a blues record by someone strangely named Big Bill Broonzy on the Columbia* label and they reviewed it very favorably. So I ordered it through our local store – it sold such things as radios, victrolas, later on televisions… and records. Listening to the LP piqued my curiosity concerning this “blues” stuff and I pursued that secondary musical interest over time and continue to do so into the present. Starting in 1964, I began writing about jazz and blues for many a small magazine, the best-known to blues heads being BLUES UNLIMITED in Sussex in the UK. Going “deeper’ into the music came about almost by accident in 1969 in New York City.
The beginnings for my becoming more immersed in the worlds of African American music took place during May and June of that year. A club in Greenwich Village, once known as jazz club The Dom, had started calling itself The Electric Circus mainly for rock acts and other currently trendy forms of popular artistic expression. They were one of the earliest establishments for the “psychedelic” light shows going along with the music that were becoming popular, a fact which gave it its new name. Oddly, they decided to book blues acts on every Wednesday for those two months (sans the light shows!). “The Electric Circus Presents ‘First Generation Blues’” read their ads in The Village Voice, then the primo weekly print medium for what was happening in the city artistically, politically, and socially**. It was the ads that attracted me.
A look at the ad from The Voice in May of that year is tantalizing:
Not all the advertised acts showed up, so there were some great substitutions instead. Missing for sure were The Atlanta Blues Band (or maybe that was Buddy Moss’ backing band – cannot remember), Rev. Robert Wilkins & Co., and the Ed Young Fife & Drum band: added were Larry Johnson, Johnny Shines, J.B. Hutto, and Jr. Wells w. Lefty Diz… this confirmed data from my published photos in BU and my aging memory!
A friend tells me that someone named Sean LaRoche did the booking for those shows and that “it was a logistical nightmare” – people would drop out at the last minute and substitutes had to be found. Probably that’s why (New Yorker) Larry Johnson ended up on one of the bills… he was handily locally available. The shows were also filmed by the people who did the Woodstock film – I ran into an old acquaintance there from elementary school who was part of that crew***. I do not know what happened to the footage; been trying to find out – all artists were filmed, save Booker White, who demanded extra money, which wasn’t forthcoming. He closed the May 28 show after they had taken down all their movie equipment, even playing his guitar behind his neck! Too bad.
The first night’s line-up is important for what happened later in my life. It was Muddy Waters and band (w. Otis Spann, Sammy Lawhorn, and a Luther Johnson), John Lee Hooker (solo), and Buddy Moss (possibly with band). It was the last listed who was the least expected and his presence was a main reason for my driving the hour and a half down from Ulster County to The Village and finding a parking place – he was a cipher to most of “us”. The brief meeting between us had a major impact on my life yet to come.
Things were pretty loose in NYC clubs back then regarding access and my mention of BLUES UNLIMITED and showing off copies of the magazine allowed me to talk with almost all of the performers I felt comfortable approaching. While in the “backstage” area, I chatted briefly with Moss, then got his ’phone number in Atlanta for future reference. Bruce Bastin was planning on coming to the States that summer as we had decided to go together in my car to chase after 78s – juke-box dealers were a good place to start for them.**** Georgia and the Carolinas were to be our main target and some success was had in those endeavors which had two different results. The obvious one is the gathering of 78s for Bastin to auction from his place in Sussex – the second was a bit unexpected and resulted in some continuing life interests for both of us.
One Sunday we found ourselves in Atlanta with nothing to do (dealers were closed for the week-end) and so I dug out Buddy’s telephone number, called him from a pay phone and was told to come on over. Getting his address, we checked the location on our map and drove to his home on Richardson St. near the Atlanta Falcons’ gridiron football/Atlanta Braves baseball stadium in the “Summerhill” district of the city. He was a total gentleman with us, very outgoing and helpful, putting up with our occasionally odd questions, often answering them before we asked! A battered copy of Godrich & Dixon was on the table and many items checked, then corrected or corroborated, and tales were told of musicians past. There was much we were ignorant of and he accepted that and educated us nicely. It was a great visit and we were made to feel very welcome – a state to sadly change later in time (see O&S #8).
One thing that also came up during our visit was tentative directions to where Buddy had last seen Richard and Willie Trice, as well as Floyd Council, up in North Carolina. We stopped thereabouts (Chapel Hill) on our way back to NJ and were successful in locating all three of them (O&S #9)! Once back at my parents’ place in Montclair, we quickly knocked out a series of six articles for BU entitled “Tricks Ain’t Workin’ No More” (No. 67-72: 1969/70), about the first serious look into the blues traditions and performers of the southeastern United States. Up to that point, there had been a occasional pieces on those artists from the SE who had transferred over to the White folk music market (e.g. – Brownie & Sonny, Josh White, Gary Davis) and little else in the blues and jazz literature existed on the music and musicians from that region. BU editor Simon Napier had done a series of articles a couple of years before entitled “Blind Boy Fuller, on Down” (No. 38-41: 1966/67). There was not a lot written on the region as so much of the focus was on the sainted and legendary Mississippi “Delta” artists at the expense of other regions and styles.
My point being, if I hadn’t met Buddy Moss in NYC at The Electric Circus in 1969, the course of my life (and Bastin’s) would probably have been vastly different from what it has been since then. I would have probably continued with my interest in jazz and blues, writing about the latter for BU as I had begun doing in 1964, but I may not have become the “expert” on one style of the music, the Piedmont blues that I became. That meeting in NYC between Buddy and I essentially opened up a whole new world for me (and all you out there, by proxy through us) that I pursued over a number of decades. It just goes to show you that “one never know, do one…” as the late Thos A. Waller has said! If there is a “god”, she has a warped sense of humor.
* Parenthetically, the album was from his latter-day “folk” period, recorded in France in the 50s originally for Vogue, and not a collection of “race” records from Columbia!
** Still a good on-line source today on line if you’re ever in the city.
*** one Eric/Carl “Kicker” Blackstead, who a year later loaned me his National to take South to record Baby Tate over the Xmas holidays, one of my first “solo” field trips. My sister (Susan) and her first-husband-to-be (Brian Bristol) accompanied me; she had a good camera, something I then lacked. (see O&S #70)
**** Many, when the change-over came into effect from 78 to 45 rpm discs in the juke boxes, took their stock of 78s and piled them in a back room and shut the door!
PETER B. LOWRY
(w. thanks to Bob Eagle, and Sherman Cole)
later: the club was located @ 23 St. Mark’s Place in Greenwich Village.
p.s. – Additionally, I also connected with Larry Johnson both there and at a gig at a Village church (Hacksaw Harney and Bill Williams were on that bill with Larry). That led to getting him up to the college in Ulster County where I taught for the Spring Weekend “do”. I was responsible for him being on the bill along with Baby Tate, and Eddie Kirkland (w. band) in 1972. Larry was taken with Tate – someone who actually knew Willie Walker! – and said he’d go South with me that summer to record with Tate in SC. That never happened as he had second thoughts about going back to that region – I should have taken them both to my apartment to tape then and there, but Tate was going north with Kip Lornell after his New Paltz show to play a coffee-house gig near Albany that night. I try not to get overtaken too often by memories of lost opportunities: They are a factor of life and I must be staunchly proud of what I DID accomplish in my decade “in the field”.
BLUES & RHYTHM: June 2012; #270 – pp 8-9. As “Travelling and Recording the Blues”