3309: Pernell Charity – “The Virginian”
Original LP and CD re-release
The phonograph record has had an important effect in shaping the song repertoire of many blues musicians and this is especially true of those who reside in a community with no strong indigenous traditions. In an area such as that, it is the phonograph that supplies the main focus for obtaining material, aided by the musicians’ own imagination. Such is the case with Pernell Charity (born November 20, 1920) who has spent all of his life in the vicinity of Waverly, Va. (save for a six month stay in New York in 1947) – his idea of a trip to the city is to go to nearby Petersburg, eighteen miles up Route 460. It was the records of Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake, and Blind Lemon Jefferson that inspired Pernell take up the guitar. According to him, there were simply not very many musicians in the immediate Waverly area, and the center for any musical activity was Petersburg. Even then, Pernell remembers only a few people who performed in the streets and bars of that city. The premier local guitarist was one J.C. Jones who has not been seen the last eight years or so), but Petersburg also artists such as Irving Green and Charlie Jones (a/k/a “Georgia Slim”). These recollections are supported by former partner Sam Jones: before Sam turned to the church, this duo used to entertain at weekend frolics during the late 30s. Undoubtedly there was some blues playing going on, but the scarcity of musicians prevented wholesale interaction of musical ideas. Additionally, it would seem that people at the functions Pernell would play, might often request a tune that they had on a record, so it was important for him to be conversant with the popular material of the time. His renditions would be flavored by the man’s own personality and talent, of course. This might be in the form of word substitutions, verse revision, or adding his own lyrics to the song. In this way, Pernell has managed to create some quite personal interpretations of songs already familiar to the record-buying public of the time (and the collector). There are some compositions, though, that are done pretty much as learned from the originals. Another type of material is songs remembered from a few locals, or things he wrote himself . . . his repertoire is made up of copies, adaptations, and originals. The songs on this album include some from his major sources. Blind Boy Fuller was one of the strongest, and Pernell does many of his tunes . . . “Mamie” is my personal favorite (although Willie Trice remembers the song in Orange County, N.C., I am sure that Fuller’s record is the source for Pernell), and you get to hear it on this album. Another favorite is Lightnin’ Hopkins – here are such pieces as “Flying The Kite” and “Find Me A Home”. Once again he sticks closely (especially instrumentally, with those patented Hopkins licks) to the originals: it is not totally impossible, that he got them from Sam directly. Hopkins passed through the Waverly area one time while on the way to New York for a recording session, and Pernell claims to have met him then. In acknowledging these two men as primary influences, Pernell bears a resemblance to the mysterious Carolina Slim who recorded for some post-war labels in New York. Of those songs that Pernell has adapted, Memphis Minnie’s “Black Rat Swing” should be particularly noticed – he has an original choked string attack in his guitar that transforms this popular tune greatly. Big Boy Crudup’s “Dig Myself A Hole“ is lyrically the same, but the much more facile guitar is a strong contrast to Crudup’s rudimentary job. It is really Pernell’s own creations that hold the most interest for me, and the first one I heard was “Blind Lemon’s Blues”. The guitar lines are reminiscent of Texan Otis Harris and the lyrics certainly don’t come from any of Lemon‘s recordings that I am aware of. It is strange, because he claims that this came from a Jefferson record he heard a long time ago, but I can’t match it up! In comparison to my cassette recording of two years previous to this one, this is identical enough to lead one to believe that the song forms a stable part of the man’s repertoire and is not a spontaneous creation at that time. A few more tunes for which I can find no direct precedents are “Blind Man”, “Pig Meat Mama” (referring to a rather loose woman), and “War Blues”. These are songs which Pernell claims he wrote himself, and this seems to be true – “War Blues” evokes recordings by Sonny Boy Williamson and others at the start of W.W. II, but it’s merely one of a group of songs written at the time. The other original tunes reflect the mix of Fuller/Hopkins in some of the guitar work, but they are very much his own compositions. Pernell Charity is a very fine guitarist and a good singer, as well as being a strong interpreter – rather an eclectic blues guitarist worth hearing, don’t you think?
Kip Lornell (1975) contributing editor LIVING BLUES
Recorded in Waverly, VA: – 26 Oct, 1972 – 31 Oct, 1972 – 1 Nov, 1972 – 2 Nov, 1972 – 1 Jul, 1975
Back around 1970 I got a phone call from some high school kid in Albany, N.Y. after getting back from doing some major field-work – exhausted! He wanted to know all there was about doing blues research, especially as a White kid going into Black areas. A tall order, but we talked a bit and later on he went out and did it! He came up with some interesting people around Albany, too. A couple of years later, I acted as one of Kip Lornell’s advisors for an N.E.H. Youth Grant where he went to Virginia and did some poking around. Outside Petersburg, near the town of Waverly, Kip came up with some present and former blues artists. Pernell Charity was the one who was the most active musically in blues, and Kip wanted me to record him at length. Pernell was able to perform a large repertoire of older blues styles for us, and much recording was done. Kip and I spent some time in the fall of 1972 repeatedly recording Pernell using a variety of guitars, and even finding someone to “second” him. (Sadly, his name never got written into the session notes or Kip’s field notes.) All told, we taped some forty titles in the course of four recording sessions at Mr. Charity’s place outside Waverly. When we left him in ’72, I left him some Trix 45s and LPs that I had released (around 1973/4) as additional thanks for his efforts beyond the money Kip gave him from his grant. On a return trip in ’75 by myself, I stopped by to see Pernell and found that he had more songs for me to record. Included among them were (from the) two 45s that he liked (they may be used on a later release), showing once again that “tradition” still works in the modern world! I was not able to get to South for a while after that and had heard that Pernell was not in good health. A letter from Kip Lornell arrived one day that said that he had “finally got the chance to go by Waverly today to check on Pernell. He finally died on 4/12/79 in Waverly of liver cancer.” As the old song says, “another man done gone.” Here is a part of Pernell’s wonderful musical legacy for your listening pleasure.
Peter B. Lowry (1995) CD release Cottekill, NY
Pernell was, as has been mentioned, a “find” for Kip Lornell, who was still in high school at the time and based near Albany,NY. (There was some sort of high school independent study going on when he began his work in VA.) A quiet man, Pernell lived in what seemed to be company housing for a local saw mill – small cabins/houses (shacks?) in good condition on a dead-end dirt road. He took our interest in stride and took it seriously, recording a broad repertoire of material. I don’t remember how Kip located Pernell (and his former guitar partner around Petersburg, Sam Jones – by then “church” with a family quartet), but he was a worthy one. Most local musicians in whatever community they may have lived were copyists, playing songs learned from past recordings. Pernell was in that category as I found out in my last trip to his home. I had left copies of some of the Trix LPs and 45s with him, and he had adapted a few of the songs from them that appealed to him. Folklore in action! He was a great personal adapter of material and even came up with some original songs as well. Quite a fluent guitarist and a smooth singer, Pernell Charity was the goods. Unfortunately, efforts to expand his audience into the “folk” market failed, turning down appearances at the fabled Chapel Hill concerts, or the National Folk Festival in DC. Pernell seemed content to stay at home. At least we have the recordings that I made of him to show how good he was and regret that others were not able to be there as well. The fifteen pieces on this album were taken from four recording sessions at Pernell’s home in Waverly, VA during 1972. A further session was done in 1975. For more on Pernell Charity, see “Oddenda & Such” #43.
Peter B. Lowry (2012) Sydney