As with the prior Danny McLean-written pieces, this is yet another in a series of memorats by folks who helped me during my most active decade of field-work throughout the Southeastern US. While I mostly traveled solo in that time, from time to time I had human company along with my dogs!
I first met Peter B. Lowry (or Pete, as he was known then) when I was a boy, as our families summered near each other. Because he was a whopping ten years older than I, we didn’t really know each other until my late teen years, when I started to date his youngest sister, Susan. Despite my harboring the usual ulterior motives of a young man toward his sister, Peter came to like me and introduced me to the blues. I had been in a rock ‘n roll band since my early teens, and we played a lot of Rolling Stones and Chuck Berry songs, so I had some understanding of music, but not where the music we played originated. Peter taught me the backgrounds of their songs and made me realize that the Stones’ version of “Not Fade Away” was a pale imitation of the original Buddy Holly. That Chuck Berry was a brilliant entertainer, but his version of rock ‘n’ roll was essentially a louder, but cleaner, version of the blues, designed to accommodate the taste of less broad-minded, Anglo listeners, who had the money, after all.
In particular, he played recordings of musicians from the Carolinas and Georgia for me: Blind Boy Fuller; Blind Blake; Blind Willie McTell; and Reverend Gary Davis. Their songs suited someone whose origins as a musician were closer to folk and bluegrass than to rock, despite what my band tended to play. Slowly but surely, however, Peter also started to open my mind to the glories of the Delta blues, in particular the music of Elmore James and Robert Johnson. Before I knew it, I was ignoring his sister when I visited their family, so I could sit in the basement with him and listen to music. I was lucky that the two of them were very close: she didn’t begrudge me the time and even hung out, listening alongside us.
Fast forward to college and the year 1970. I had given up my band in favor of literature and determined to become a poet or at least a brilliant scholar of English literature. Yet I was still seeing Peter’s sister and still listening to blues music. I rationalized my two interests by explaining to friends that white people in England had recognized the genius of black American blues musicians long before white Americans had done so. Therefore it made sense for me to love 17th century English poetry and early 20th century African American music. At least it made sense to me.
Despite my seeming to sell out to more conventional pursuits, Peter did not give up on me and kept peppering me with more blues. I subscribed to BLUES UNLIMITED, bought every book I could get on the music and took a course in “Afro-American History” and another on “Afro-American Music.” These were pretty new developments at staid Yale University and a result of the youth movement of the 1960’s. Most white students didn’t take such courses very seriously, even those taking them officially. I relished being able to get credit for indulging in my avocation and became enthralled with the music and life of Bessie Smith, about whom I wrote a term paper.
But Peter B. Lowry kept moving the needle, at this point introducing me to the music of B.B. King, and eventually to the man himself. We heard him play numerous times at the Fillmore East in New York City, and Peter even managed to wangle passes back stage to enable me to meet the great man himself. Sipping cheap whiskey while B.B. warmed up on an acoustic guitar was an extraordinary experience for a white kid from the New Jersey suburbs, but there was more in store, thanks to Peter.
In the fall of my freshman year at Yale, Peter asked me if I would like to spend a week with him after Christmas touring the rural south, looking for old 78s and trying to reconnect with some of the musicians who had recorded in the ’40’s and ’50’s but then been lost when rock ‘n roll swept the airwaves and drowned out local and regional talent. As a lifelong collector of all kinds of things, I jumped at the opportunity to make the trip – also his sister was coming too!
We left New Jersey in late December in Peter’s Rover 2000 TC sedan. With the exception of a VW bug, my family had always driven American cars, so the Rover seemed like the most exotic sporty car I could ever have imagined. He waxed on about how safe it was, but all I cared about was the stick shift and English engineering. The definitional moment came when I slammed the car door shut as we were about to take off. Peter looked at me quite seriously and indicated that he wished to teach me how to close the door of an automobile as opposed to shutting the door of a car. Carefully, quietly but firmly, he closed the driver side door, and it clicked tight without any of the noise I had just caused. He turned to me and said, “Rover doors close, they do not shut.” Lesson learned.
We headed to North Carolina, sleeping our first night in a Holiday Inn outside of Chapel Hill. In fact, we spent every night in a Holiday Inn. Peter was generously underwriting the trip (otherwise I couldn’t have afforded to join him) so we stayed at Holiday Inns everywhere we went. To economize, we always shared a room (thank God Holiday Inn rooms had two double beds – I didn’t like him that much – and a roll-away for his sister!) We dined at such grand establishments as: McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Waffle House and for a splurge once in awhile, a southern burger chain the name of which now escapes me, but each one had a large statue of a very fat boy standing outside. [Shoney’s Big Boy; also excellent strawberry pie! – pbl] Typically, the biggest decision was: ketchup or no ketchup. Our cholesterol levels must have been off the charts, but who cared then? This was our gourmet tour of the Carolinas and Georgia [“If It Ain’t Fried, It Ain’t Food”, in the words of the fake C&W song from Donald E. Westlake! – pbl].
We rooted around some old warehouses outside Chapel Hill that stored 78’s and a few antique shops that sold them for 10 cents apiece. I was immensely proud to find two discs of Josh White’s. Peter wasn’t really interested, but they were my first finds, and I treasured them. I also found an Elmore James disc with a recording of “Dust My Broom” and the hottest young black lady sitting on a bar stool on the cover. I am not sure whether it was James’ name or the picture that first caught my eye, but the music sold me. [An LP album on the Crown discount label – see O&S #22 – pbl]
After Chapel Hill, the three of us headed for Spartanburg, South Carolina, where we were trying to find a man he called Baby Tate, who had made some recordings in the past but had long since dropped off the map, as far as music was concerned. Pete had an address that was a place to start. When we arrived, we knocked on the door of a ramshackle cottage and were met by a very suspicious black woman who wanted to know what we wanted. She said that she didn’t know any Baby Tate. If you can imagine it, here were two long-haired, bearded, white guys asking for a black man on the wrong side of town. Eventually, she did point us in the right direction, but only because Peter had learned a clever ruse. He would tell the person of whom he was asking information that Baby Tate had made some records for a company a few years back, that the company owed him money, and he had some money for him. All of a sudden information would flow.
So we found Baby Tate’s home, where I met a warm, outgoing man with a little dog, “Scooter.” I should have mentioned earlier that Peter had a black mutt named “Ruby Chewsday”, who traveled with us, and she and Scooter hit it off just fine. Tate now worked in construction as a mason, so we agreed to come back the next evening to have dinner with him. This was very exciting indeed, because it meant a night away from fast food. In fact, Tate took us down the street from his little house to the “Varsity Drive-In Restaurant”, where we picked up fried chicken, corn bread, sweet potatoes and some overcooked, non-descript vegetable that had once been green and leafy, but was now utterly impossible to identify [over-cooked collards? – pbl]. Throw in a little cheap bourbon and some beer, and we were in hog heaven. Scooter and Ruby waited patiently for scraps and were not disappointed.
When dinner was finished, Tate pulled out his guitar and started singing and playing. The music was mournful, funny, slow – then up tempo, off color and funny as hell all at once, and the more he drank the funnier it became. He enjoyed his liquor, and as the evening wore on, he would stop in between songs and stare down at Ruby, who eyed him with fascination, and declare, “Ruby, you’se a mess.” It was clear to her that Baby Tate was playing solely for her and that his comments were compliments on her beauty. In the background, Scooter trotted about, terribly excited to be having a dinner party with live music.
The next day, Peter proposed that we come back the next day to record Baby Tate for his nascent record label, “Trix.” As I recall, the name of the label came from a song about a hooker entitled, “Trix Ain’t Working/Walkin’ No More,” that Tate and many others had sung in the past. This was another example of his irreverence and joy at thumbing his nose at convention, characteristics that drove his upper-class WASP family crazy at times. Anyway, I guess they got down to business about dollars and cents, but that wasn’t part of my job. All I know is that we had a date to come back and make some serious music. And we did go back… it was December 30th, a year’s end session.
We bought dinner at the Varsity Drive-in Restaurant [great onion rings! – pbl] and then set up the recording studio right in Tate’s living room. He played guitar and harp, sang, and tapped out percussion on his old wooden floor with his big feet in construction boots. The house was none too sturdy, and at times I thought he would pound his foot right through the floor, but he knew what he was about. We got enough tracks to fill most of a conventional album and then some and left after a couple of days, planning to head further south to Macon, Georgia.
In Macon, we connected with Eddie Kirkland, about whom Peter has written a great deal. My recollections are of a friendly but slightly gruff man, who wore a black “do” rag and played the brashest guitar I had ever heard. This time we set our recording studio up in our Holiday Inn room. Eddie was in fine form, belting out blues that made even those cinder block walls rock, but he was intensely frustrated not to have a drummer. He had brought a younger friend to play second guitar for him [Fred Robinson – pbl], but the lack of percussion was driving him crazy. Finally, in desperation, Eddie looked at me and said “Hey you, white boy, why’n’t you hit on this box to keep time?” He pointed to a small, hard travel case in which Peter kept 5” reels of session tapes. So we emptied it, and I proceeded to make my recording debut on a piece called “Have You Seen That Lonesome Train”; Eddie on harp, Fred on guitar. I lived up to every conceivable stereotype of a white kid with no rhythm, but Eddie was understanding and put up with my pathetic pounding. Needless to say, despite the fact that Peter very kindly gave me credit in the album’s liner (“Brian Bristol, percussion”), I have not been deluged with requests to perform with anyone else since that memorable debut – but I remain ever hopeful.
As an aside, I should say that Peter, Susan and I had fun traveling together, even when we weren’t recording or rooting around old warehouses for 78s. I recall one memorable dinner outside Macon at the home of a blues collector whom Peter knew where we had a spectacular dinner of ham with red eye gravy, biscuits and collards with some kind of hot sauce. and either corn bread or grits. I shall never forget how good that meal was, nor how wonderful was the music we heard. I can’t recall the name of Pete’s friend [Jeff and Johnnie Lee Tarrer – pbl], but he gave me an album that he’d put together and had pressed which had cuts from early 78s from his collection. It was entitled “Some Cold Rainy Day”, and the music is ethereal. Anyway, that was the first time I had ever had collards. I was amazed that his wife and I were able to go out to the garden and cut a fresh green vegetable [Brussels sprouts? – pbl] while there was snow on the ground. Pretty remarkable for a New Jersey boy – and delicious.
The next morning we had to get up and get a move on, as we had a long drive ahead of us. For some reason, Susan was being recalcitrant, so Peter and I decided to fix her. We turned her at a ninety-degree angle to the long direction of her rollaway cot, rolled her into the middle of it and then pulled the ends up and did up the fastenings. She was now just like the proverbial baloney in the sandwich, and we proceeded to roll her out into the Holiday Inn’s parking lot. We closed the door behind us and left her shouting out to someone to rescue her, in between bouts of hysterical laughter. Eventually we relented and brought her back in, so that she could get ready to go. Pretty stupid stuff, but a lot of fun, and we weren’t even arrested. The rules about harassment were much looser in those days…. [And I was a typical big brother as well! – pbl].
Peter and I shared a number of other adventures in the Piedmont region of the south, but I’ll just touch on one more. In North Carolina, near Chapel Hill, we were invited about thirty miles into the country to attend an outdoor party at the home of a singer who had just lost both legs to diabetes [Willie Trice – pbl]. There were about thirty or forty people present, with Peter and me being the only whites in attendance. I have rarely felt so honored as to have been included in a large family gathering on a weekend afternoon with fabulous country food, beer and beautiful music played by this newly handicapped musician sitting on the porch above all of us. Despite not really knowing us, Peter’s reputation and his effort to get their brother/cousin/friend back in the music world and therefore with a new life post the trauma of losing his legs, made us family. Everyone sang, drank, danced and partied for hours. Sheer joy reigned supreme, and mostly because the music that came from his guitar was spectacular. That one small man with a guitar could make so much music and have it carry out of doors amazed me, but he did and it did.
I was also around when Peter recorded Tarheel Slim in his parent’s New Jersey basement in 1970 for the second time. I do recall that particular weekend well, however, as Slim played a piece called “No Time at All”, which I immediately loved. It became the title tune of his LP on Trix Records [and one side of his 45]. Later on, I came up to New Paltz, NY to the state college [university – UK] where Peter taught biology – he had managed to slip some blues performers onto the bill at the annual all-day Spring Concert in 1972. There Eddie Kirkland, Baby Tate, and Larry Johnson played to at least many hundreds of college kids (if not more)! As I recall, that was a very warm May day and some of us sat behind the stage and smoked reefers while we fooled around on the guitar!! Those were the days.
In later years, life became more complicated and I was unable to make more trips down south with Peter B., but I have never forgotten the ones we did make together. I am deeply grateful to him for introducing me and painstakingly educating me about the magic of the blues of the Piedmont region of the eastern United States, as well, for that matter, of all different styles and practitioners of the blues. The United States has benefited by his passion for a passing style of music as well as for his compulsion to bring to light great talent that had been forgotten or overlooked. Even more, his conviction that these musicians should be recognized as the standard bearers of one of the great native American musical traditions represents just one more example of justice the late twentieth century began to bring to some of it s most worthy but unrecognized citizens.
It was nice travelin’ with you, Pete.
Brian T. Bristol
New York, New York
February 1, 2013
Besides being my youngest sister’s boyfriend at the time (and later first husband) and all that, Brian is an important (but unacknowledged) link in the Piedmont chain of knowledge. It was his sterling verbal review of Frank Hovington’s performance at Yale (I believe that it was a rather mixed combination of John Fahey and Dr. Robert Farris Thompson who got Frank to open there for Dr. Ross.) His locational information, while never followed up by myself, was taken by Bruce Bastin and Dick Spottswood who went to Frederica, DE to see him. This eventuated in a large batch of recordings of Frank for the LofC, much of which came out on Bruce’s Flyright imprint and some of the same material on an album for Rounder Records. For this alone, we own Brian a debt of thanks. He was also a good traveling companion and side-kick. Thanks for that!
He and I have different memories of timing, etc. for our trip(s) – I have only one trip written down in my original recording session/master book, which includes recording both Baby Tate and Eddie Kirkland within days of each other after Xmas in very late Dec 1970. That is when both he and my sister came along with me as I remember things. I do remember a massive feed at Willie Trice’s place that I shared with Bruce Bastin one summer (ca. ’72) and do not remember Brian being with me more than that one time in 1970. As Brian has written in an e-mail to me:
There is one particular on which we disagree, however, and I think I may be right. I know that I was at that wonderful country fried chicken party with Willie Trice. It must have been in the summer, as no-one has an outdoor party in the winter, even in North Carolina, so I think you should chalk that one up to me. Other than that, your notes are far superior to my feeble memory. For me, most of it has become a series of impressionistic recollections of a great adventure that took place long ago. [21 Feb ‘13]
Memory is a funny, fallible thing!
Peter B. Lowry
Feb 14, 2013
To be published in BLUES & RHYTHM #290 (June 2014)