Misses 106 – the South
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.
In my decade of field-work I occasionally met or heard about any number of musicians, but it was not always possible to follow up on all of them in part or at all. Such musicians as Hillen Hutcherson whose name I still have in my address book was one. I think that Cora Mae Bryant was the source, but I’m not at all certain about that at this point. He lived in Woodbine, GA and played the 12-string guitar. That’s all I know about him. There was John Amica, a musician who once played at latter-day Fort Valley State College festivals – I met him, and eventually did one rough session with him, sort of. It was when my then-girlfriend came down over her Easter vacation and spent a week on-the-road with me, a combination that probably began the end of that relationship! Anyway, we dropped by his place in Fort Valley, GA and I sort of set up off the back of my van and tried to get him to play. He did, but it was quite uncontrolled: drink or some other problem, I do not know which; I did not stay around to determine. This was one of my last long trips and the burn-out was beginning to settle in. I have never listened to many of the last tapes I did since doing them, being mainly driven to accumulate quantity regardless. After that, I hadn’t the energy.
There is always a problem of who to do and how much effort they are worth expending. Bruce Bastin had met Wilbert Atwater while he was studying at UNC-Chapel Hill through another musician, Jamie Alston (I think). I caught Wilbert at home one day and recorded some six or so tunes… nicely done, too… yet I never got back to him. Of course, I should have gotten back more with Henry Johnson, but I was unaware of his health problems and he died before I could do more. Sometimes a person just was not “findable” again: Roosevelt “Baby” Brooks was one of those. Originally Bastin and I went to Taylors, SC with Tate and located his home – a bit of recording took place, but further efforts by me were ineffective. Singer/guitarist Earnest Scott in Atlanta was another – I did record him reasonably thoroughly, and George Mitchell got him on his radio show back in the day which was recorded, but I never located him again.
There was one great “find” that happened thanks to one Joyous Perrin in Charlotte, NC who played bass guitar and sang in The Moore/Perrin Band (her co-lead was guitarist Caroline Moore) at The Double Door, a local club of note. Lockwood played there, as did Eddie Kirkland back in the day, which is how I knew of it. Joy mentioned a guy who showed up at a free festival in the city center earlier that year and ended up on stage. She thought he was excellent. Later on, I was able to contact him and eventually did a six or seven song session in the gymnasium of the high school (Street Academy) where he worked as the janitor! The principal was so enthralled by the idea that he let us use that space after school was out one day. I had interviewed him before that and heard him play a bit, enough to convince me that he was worth the effort. He was even more than that! I tried to get together some more, but was again unable to do so. I passed on what information I had to Glenn Hinson when he was the practicing folklorist for the North Carolina state folk arts people (before we both went to Penn). He had no luck, either. It is and always has been nothing but serendipitous sheer dumb luck for someone to be recorded, folks! “They” were out there, but not always easy to find by “us” – nor willing.
In Georgia there was Herman Jordan, an old friend of Curley Weaver – his daughter, Cora Mae Bryant touted his abilities and there was a constant attempt to track him down. He generally eluded “capture” by anyone, including Cora Mae. One Sunday he showed up at her place, hardly sober, but I did get to hear him play. She was right that he was good – his singing a bit slurred – but the hide and seek continued until I got to the point of spending less time in Atlanta and more in other regions of the SE. Then I have a name in my address book – Charlie Jenkins; Byron, GA, with no more information/memory to pad that out. The blind preacher Gussie Nesbitt was located in the Charlotte area – we interrupted him digging a cellar under his home! Pictures were taken, but no further time was spent after an afternoon talking to him about local religious performers listed in Godrich/Dixon! Johnny Guthrie was a guitarist who had played with Buddy Moss – Bruce and I visited him, heard him play a bit, but he was not much interested and I never got back to him, either.
One of the big “misses” for me was guitarist and singer Frank Hovington from Frederica, DE. I came to know of him through my sister’s then-boyfriend/later first husband Brian Bristol*. He heard him at his residential college while a student at Yale University in New Haven, CT on a concert bill opening for Dr Ross! I’m not sure how they got in touch with him; possibly John Fahey was involved? [I believe that Robert Farris Thompson was the house-master then.] Brian (and my sister) had come South with me a week during the 1970 Xmas vacation (O&S 70) while I briefly recorded Eddie Kirkland, and Baby Tate. He was aware of my interest and passed on the information, but I never went into Delaware on any of my jaunts. Fortunately, I had given the general address to Bastin – he and Dick Spottswood finally located him and recorded him in some depth in 1975. Great material was issued first on Flyright, and later also released by Rounder. In 1980, Axel Küstner and Siggi Christmann tracked him down and also recorded him in their “Living Country Blues USA” series of albums for L+R Records (more recently issued on CD by Bellaphon). While I wasn’t directly involved in getting him of tape, I certainly (with Brian’s help) got the ball rolling!
While in Philadelphia at The University of Pennsylvania’s folklore PhD program, I met one Robert Young at a small, local festival – he was better known to “us” as Washboard Slim and was part of Brownie McGhee’s original recording band, along with harp player Jordan Webb. He was on many of the first sides with McGhee in 1941 for OKeh, a long session over a few days that included various permutations of Buddy Moss, Sonny Terry, and Bull City Red. Academia kept me from any field-work outside the program, so I only photographed him that day. There are tapes in Philly somewhere, though – maybe with the Philadelphia Folk Festival people. A second “miss” in Philadelphia for me was the banjoist Nate Thompson, brother/cousin to Joe & Odell Thompson. Glenn Hinson advised me that the festival people had tapes of him, though. I had hoped to add him to my small collection of Black banjos – Joe & Odell, John Snipes, and Dink Roberts – but missed him, too.
While I extensively recorded both Turner and Marvin Foddrell in Stuart, VA, I neglected to find out whether or not their father, Posey, was still among the living and whether he could still play. Or find out about other family members. As I’ve mentioned, I was very much on “speed dial” in those last couple years “out there” as my stamina declined and I became somewhat “dead” to what I was doing, just slogging ahead.
I know, many of you may regard my decade through romantically focused rose-colored glasses and be envious of the heaven-sent opportunities I had. Well and good; I cannot totally agree with that sort of thinking, for there is a down side or two. Averaging 20,000 miles a year driving my van through the South mainly all by myself was a tiring task, especially for one who’s not all that fond of driving. Things like that, plus the usually unsuccessful door-knocking in stinking hot summer weather (I began doing this stuff while still teaching and therefore used my summer vacations for chasing around) – trust me, Atlanta in August can be miserable (temperature and humidity both in the 90s)! Don’t forget having to deal with uncooperative, often officious, civil servants in the years before the internet’s scope for research. In many cases, since I was obviously NOT a relative (no matter how close I tried to get my freckles to gather together!) there were doors not opened to me and no alternative sources were available.
There were racial and regional attitudes towards a youngish, White and hairy guy from the North driving around with local n****rs – SOMEthing illegal HAD to be going on (see Oddenda & Such #7) there! I still remember the pick-up truck with a couple of White guys driving by a house where four of us (Bastin, Lornell, Danny McLean, and I) were talking with a former musician; then they drove by again; after the third drive-by, Danny suggested that we pack up and leave, post-haste. Seeing that they had the regulation shot gun on a rack in the back window, it seemed the practical thing to do. There were also occasional Black folks who were aggressive (besides Buddy Moss! See O&S #8), usually younger males, or middle-aged women, and who made the process less than enjoyable and possibly dangerous. Eddie Person, a pianist I met and recorded once in Atlanta (1973), worked in security. He was more than willing to give me a pistol for protection and thought I was a bit nuts not having one. I pointed out that my dogs would be a useful deterrent – if it all went pear-shaped, nothing much could have saved me anyhow, pistol or not!
But most people I met during that ten years “in the field” were at least polite, with some curious as to what I was interested in, and why; others were reasonably helpful, and a few were seriously helpful [Baby Tate, Thurman Atkins (of the Carolina Cab Company), Peg Leg Sam, Hazeline Umpstead (of the Atlanta vital statistics bureau), Cora Mae Bryant, not to mention the many of the “located” musicians who gave useful leads, beginning with the sainted Buddy Moss]. As I have stressed, if one approached with calm and respect, possessing some degree of knowledge of what you were after (cassettes of old recordings helped – Willie Walker’s two sides really won over Tate!) and an appreciation of their art, most folks were more than willing to take the time. The more interest one showed, the more one got back, both in the form of information, and possibly friendship. Social graces are important in this work.
Peter B. Lowry
* see O&S #70