Misses 105 – Studio possibilities
We all tout our “hits”, and rightly so, for from them our knowledge and appreciation of the music grows. What we seldom mention is our many “misses” out of embarrassment or some such similar feeling. This is a series of pieces on mine – I make no apology for them, save being only one person in a world of the 70s where nobody seemed to give a damn! Money and time have to be rationed, and there came a time when I did not have much of either to spare; therefore not EVERYthing could be done, no matter how hard I wished it could have been.
Baby Tate was my first serious “informant” who became a friend before his death in 1972: that means that I had only two years of working with him. Much material was recorded by him “in the field” at his home in Spartanburg, SC… some 54 pieces, if my accounting is accurate… of material that he had accumulated over the past years, including most all the songs on the Bluesville album. Tate was the only person who I met who had had direct contact with the likes of Willie Walker (others were Gary Davis, and Josh White); all were met by him in his youth around Greenville/Spartanburg, SC, and Blind Blake (when Tate was a child in Elberton, GA) both of whom he was still in awe some forty years later! I (and Bruce) tried to get him to do songs he had heard Walker do, but he was too overshadowed by Willie’s abilities to attempt them. He described Walker as “playing in all the keys with all his fingers” and felt he could not do them justice. He was, though, willing to play Blake songs that he’d mainly learned from recordings, and played them well.
Early in 1972 Tate came North to Ulster County to appear on the bill for a Spring Weekend concert at SUNY-New Paltz – I also arranged for Larry Johnson to come up from NYC and Eddie Kirkland from Macon, GA (put him together with a band that I knew… the best I could do at that point in time, but it began his love affair with the Hudson River Valley!). Johnson was bowled over to meet someone who knew Willie Walker – he had heard his sole 78 while affiliated with Nick Perls’ Blue Goose record label. Larry persuaded Tate to play Walker’s tour-de-force “South Carolina Rag” with his seconding and it was brilliant (there are tapes to prove it!). Five songs by the two of them with Tate leading; he seconded Larry on some songs as well. Larry said that he’d go South with me so he could record with Tate.
Well, you might say, why not strike while the iron was hot?! The problem was that Baby Tate had to leave with Kip Lornell to play a coffee house gig in the Albany, NY area that evening. Maybe if I had pushed the matter more, but I was also involved with Eddie and was too preoccupied with taping the show. Of course, Larry had second thoughts about heading to “South America” (as Tarheel Slim called it) with me and my dog in a van with NY plates, so an idea missed. Could have been good, though.
Even so, when Bruce and I came by Tate’s place in ’72, he said he’d do some Walker tunes not issued, and that he had some new songs he’d worked up for us. Once again, I did not strike while the iron… you get the point! We headed off to Macon, GA saying that we’d be back in two weeks, and we were. Arriving at Tate’s house, nobody was there – we figured he was still at work. Unfortunately, his neighbor with the phone (who had fronted Tate to money to come North – I sent the appropriate the amount via Western Union.) came over to us in the van to tell us “they buried your friend the other day”. It was a shock to us both, never having a friend die so unexpectedly (stroke was the cause), nor so young (he was 56). This event is at least partially responsible for both myself and Bruce Bastin burrowing into the SE in the way that we did when we did. Certainly, I became possessed by the “I have to find as many as I can before they all die” mania that carried me for the rest of the decade and resulted in many folks being located and lots recorded, all to our benefit and knowledge.
But Baby Tate was the key to it all. He had located McKinley Ellis, Baby Brooks, and Peg Leg Sam for us and they all were successfully recorded to one extent or another. He also tried to get Pink Anderson in shape to record, but he failed in that case; much time was spent with Pink, though, and it was good time even without recording him. It is the occasional person like that who makes the work so wonderful to do – friends are hard to come by and I had probably more than the average bear. Besides Tate, there was Willie Trice, Tarheel Slim, John Cephas, and Eddie Kirkland; Homesick James, Big Chief Ellis, and Peg Leg Sam were in the running in the “friend” designation, too! I’d label all my other contacts over the decade mainly as informants or subjects.
My first recording effort was at a party on a Sunday (?) at Tate’s house – Peg Leg Sam was there, as were his brother, Monroe Jackson (no, not that one!), one of Tate’s neighbors, Wilbert who played washboard, and a few others who sang, including Providence Jacobs who had worked singing bass with The Dixie Hummingbirds in place of Willie Bobo. Of the folks that Tate introduced me to, Peg Leg Sam was recorded the most at 53 sides (I still use that designation!); “Kinney” Ellis did seven on a session with Tate; Baby Brooks did six – there were five wobbly attempts by Pink. Looking back, I wish that I had recorded Brooks and Ellis more – I tried to find the former a few times where he lived in old cotton company housing between Spartanburg and Greenville to no avail – he was never at home and nobody in his community knew where he was… or wasn’t saying. Ellis seemed to disappear off of Tate’s radar – I think he lived around Greenville rather than Spartanburg; that was the end of that.
Of course, Tate was indirectly responsible for getting me with Henry “Rufe” Johnson, through Peg Leg Sam. After Tate had passed, I looked up Sam late in ’72 who mentioned to us that he had knew a great guitarist in Union, SC who worked at the local hospital. He went with us to search one afternoon, first going by the hospital – the folks we met there were not helpful and seemed put off by Sam’s appearance. I mean a man with a home made peg leg and serious damage to one side of his face (from a shotgun blast)… what could be the problem? We eventually gave up and left the hospital to go to a local African American barbershop, a place of great social significance and a gathering point for a Black community in most small cities or towns.
Rufe showed up a bit after we did (I think) and we talked; handing him a battered Gibson LG-1 that I dubbed my “truck guitar” (it looked awful, but played and sounded pretty well) rather than risk any of the “recording” guitars that I carried. He picked it up and played the stink out of it and I knew then and there that we’d hooked a “keeper” galore. As time went on, that realization grew. Recording sessions ensued either at his house or Sam’s over the rest of the year (around 35 sides); he also took part in a couple of different concerts at UNC-Chapel Hill, one small, the other over three days.
Henry was a multi-instrumentalist who played guitar, Hawai’ian guitar, harmonica, piano, banjo (though I missed out on hearing that), and probably anything else from fiddle on down that had strings! He would put a harp in his mouth sticking out, play without a rack, and sing around the thing (like Frank Floyd)! I have some of that, plus some nice piano from the first (unissued) small concert in 1972 plus on regular and Hawai’ian guitar. I bought a banjo from my friend Dan Del Santo (O&S 2, 53) to use, but Rufe died of kidney failure in 1974 before I could get back to him with it. The price of being singularly spread thin. Would that I had done more – I think he would have been an important possibility for a folklorist’s career, but they were all so pretty thin on the ground. He and Sam played some gigs at The Endangered Species, a club in Carrboro, and tore it up… they were a great pair and it is sad that Henry died before he was more publicized.
Peg Leg Sam was a folklorists wet dream and could have been someone’s career in and of himself, what with his musical and verbal abilities. His favorite musical venue was street busking and I saw him draw crowds everywhere from across the street from the Post Office in Jonesville, SC to The Philadelphia Folk festival. Having recorded him in the last “organic” medicine show in ’72 with Chief Thundercloud (Leo Kahdot), the “medicine doctor”, and heard him toasting as well as recounting stories of his life as a hobo… one could have made a career out of all that! I chose to go for breadth rather than depth in my decade in the field, before I went to formal folklore school at The University of Pennsylvania. But one person cannot do it all, folks, but I did the best I could.
Peter B. Lowry