3315: HOMESICK JAMES – “Goin’ Back Home”
LP, CD & digital release
In the articles that have been written about Homesick James, here and especially abroad, much has been made of the uncertainty of has “true” name and actual age. What little that has been written about his music has had a singular focus: the slide. Slide guitar has been his trademark long before his association with his slide-playing cousin Elmore James and almost all of Homesick’s records on more than a dozen different labels have featured his pungent singing and electric slide work, backed by small blues combos. Only occasional album tracks demonstrated that his knowledge of guitar extended beyond slide into modern single-string blues and jazz-influenced phrasings.
It was 1938 when Homesick added a new element to his music: electricity! With his Sears/Roebuck guitar and tiny “shoebox” amp, James began to develop the distinctive guitar style for which he is famed, a style fitted to working with blues bands. But the side of Homesick James’ music which remained hidden from the public from 1938 until recently was his pre-electric country blues. Although Homesick’s club and concert performances were all electric, his old acoustic guitar was also in constant use – at home. Only friends who witnessed Homesick‘s tantalizing Iiving room jam-sessions knew the extent of his talents, but at last Homesick decided to let blues audiences in on the secret.
In 1972/73 he unexpectedly dropped by the WNIB radio studio in Chicago for a few impromptu on-the-air performances on Atomic Mama’s Wang-Dang-Dood|e Blues Show. With him usually were his “sister”, Lou Ella Smith, on a conga drum, and either harmonica player Snooky Pryor (who was just coming out of a 10-year retirement, thanks largely to Homesick’s encouragement) or guitarist Andrew McMahon (better-known for his electric bass playing). At Homesick‘s Near North Side apartment, these musicians and others, like Floyd Jones, Eddie Tavlor, and Ira Joiner, Jr., participated in acoustic jams. James‘ first acoustic gig since the 30s came at the 1974 University of Chicago Folk Festival with Floyd Jones accompanying. In Europe, where he had already won a large following from previous tours with various bands, he also began doing some acoustic sets. Today Chicago’s Lincoln Avenue club patrons can hear Homesick’s acoustic work (electric, too, on many nights) at Elsewhere or the Great American Coffeehouse. Homesick had not played regularly in Chicago clubs for several years prior to 1976; certainly his abilities as a solo performer helped re-establish him locally, even though any number of musicians are likely to accompany him at times. Playing alone has its advantage, Homesick says – he finds acoustic guitar easier to play than electric in the first place, and he doesn‘t have to worry about sidemen who can‘t fathom his self-taught, unorthodox tunings and timing. The acoustic country blues – as heard on this album – should be a major part of‘ Homesick’s act from now on.
“Nobody ever thought I would come up playin’ acoustic guitar like that,” the deceptively young-looking veteran says with a sly grin. ”I don‘t want nobody to say, ‘Well, Homesick ain’t playin’ no more. He’s done got so old he can’t even make it.’ That’s the reason I got back on the old style – to let somebody know I could play like I did. And really, I can play better now than when I was young, because I understand what I’m doing.”
Homesick’s acoustic performances often reveal the influences of such renowned blues artists as Blind Boy Fuller, Lonnie Johnson, Tommy McClennan, Brownie McGhee, Sleepy John Estes, Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, and Memphis Minnie. But Homesick admits that he was never successful as an imitator; from the beginning, when no one showed him the usual “correct” methods, he painstakingly developed his own idiosyncratic guitar patterns and tunings. In addition, he tends to freely improvise lyrics or incorporate verses from many a disparate source whenever he feels like it. And so Homesick sounds like . . . Homesick.
He does, however, give special credit to two rural Tennessee guitarists who helped shape his music in the early years: his mother, Cordellia Henderson Rivers, and a man named Tommy Johnson (not the one that recorded for Victor and Paramount). “The Tommy Johnson that taught Homesick how to play ain’t never made no record,” he explains. “And the fact about it, don’t nobody know who he is but me. He used to sing ‘Lonesome Ole Train‘, ‘Homesick Blues’, and ‘The Woman I Love,’ too – all those tunes that I did later. He was a little older than I was. I was 16 or 17 years old, and I would sit around and listen and play right along with him, and we used to travel from one place to another. That old man give me a head start with my guitar, I mean all way”. In addition, there was some time spent with his father, Plez Williamson Rivers, who played snare drum in the legendary Broadnax Fife and Drum Band . . . called a “walking band” (both parents may be seen in the liner photo). “Later I started hangin’ around with Fuller and all of ‘em . . . Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, his brother Stick, Peetie Wheatstraw, Big Walter Horton, John Estes, Yank Rachell …”
“Singin’ don’t even bother me ‘cause that come natural. I was born like that. My mother used to make me sing in the church . . . My mother never did want me to play blues, but I just went ahead on. She was a good guitar player and singer, too. But when l was growin’ up, six or seven year old, she quit and went to the church. I imagine she said, ‘I don‘t want my son to come up and catch me out here playin’ around these joints and singin’ the blues.’ But I knew what she was doin’”
Homesick‘s mother and father still live in Somerville, Tennessee; in fact, that’s where about half of this album was recorded, during a recent visit back home. James says the music here is the same kind he used to play in the rural South and in his early Chicago days.
“I used to play for picnics, ball games, fish fries and stuff, you know, everybody’d get around together drinkin’ and eatin’,” he says. “I used to play concerts, too. Peoples don’t really know what ‘concert’ means – what they call concert now is one thing, but durin’ my time concert was another thing. It was a thing with actors, dialogue, and maybe a guy would come up and tell jokes. Everybody sit and listen. And then a guy come out and play his guitar, everybody sit and listen, and then they gets up and dance. It would be in a big church, they had the school and the church all combined together. I played a lot of them places like that.”
“I just drifted around. I been a drifter all my life, up until late years. I moved to Chicago when I was 19 years old, in 1929. I ain’t never stayed a year on the South since ’29. I’d just go in there and come out . . . l was just playin’ around by myself in Chicago in these little small clubs. All up and down Madison Street, on State Street, up on Clark Street, anywhere I could, I’d play acoustic guitar up in there. I would sit in a place and they’d let me play, give me a dollar or two, and that’s the way I’d live. And shoot dice, play cards. I know a lot of old fellows, we used to play around together, play them acoustic guitars around here – John Henry Barbee and all of us. I hadn’t switched to no electric. But after everybody got so loud, well, you got to have somethin’ because you can’t hear yourself playin’. You could take acoustic guitar and get out in the country, you could hear a guitar 20 miles. But then all these tall buildings and things, cars runnin’, that kills the sound.”
“From ’38 all the way up, I played electric. I never did quit on acoustic, but I never let nobody hear me do it. I’d come home in the night and I know if I hooked my electric guitar up, it would disturb the people, and I’d just get out my acoustic . . . for real, I can play acoustic better than I can electric. Electric is just all that screamin’ and lead. It ain’t got no body or no soul to it. People think it do, but it really don’t. I done tried it.”
“The real thing is like this record I got for Trix playin’ by myself. That’s the way I started, and that‘s the way I’m plannin’ on endin’ it up.”
Jim O’Neal (1976) Co-editor LIVING BLUES
While Trix Records was owned by Muse Records (Joe Fields), they unfortunately did not release this particular album on CD, favoring more recent albums of him with a band. It was the only LP that was held back from Trix’s prior releases by me. Joe had taken on some tapes of Homesick with a band produced by Chris Millar and issued them on Trix – there were two more albums before selling and setting up Fedora Records for more blues material. Essentially this LP was held back for later release, which never took place on Trix. The sale of all of Muse’s masters (including Trix) to Joel Dorn’s 32 Jazz/Blues label restarted the reissue program – not all the Trix albums were released on 32 Blues, but this was one of the few!
This particular album was different from any of Homesick James’ past releases in being solo and acoustic. I (and Jim & Amy) had hoped that by exposing his abilities beyond “broom dusting” might open up a new performance outlet for him. Even Homesick seemed to think this a good possibility in his quotes in the LP liner notes. Sadly, this was not the case at the time of its initial release – both it and the Honeyboy Edwards album that I did (his first full-length LP – Trix 3319; “Done Some Travellin’”) got lost in the critical sauce somehow. Both albums came about because nobody in Chicago could be bothered with acoustic blues and Jim & Amy talked me into getting involved. (I was the “go to guy” for such recordings at that point!) I did three sessions with Homesick, two in Chicago, one in Somerville, TN. (Honeyboy got a total of four sessions over four years for his*.)
I feel that the LP that Homesick and I put together is the best thing he ever recorded (and not just because of my involvement!) and was disappointed and puzzled that nobody continued along that solo vein with him: I suppose that the “broom dusting” alternative was too easy. [p.s. – I am solely responsible for the title “Homesick’s Contribution to Jazz” – the Wes Montgomery and Lonnie Johnson licks and chords sound logically “jazz” and led me to that end point!] At least the album came out LP initially on Trix.
*As one might notice from any record I produced for Trix, I never did an album made up of one single session, but did at least three for any of the acoustic albums released, two minimum for the studio efforts. This gives a greater variety of songs, greater “sound” possibilities utilizing different guitars, and allowed the artist to relax and be creative. A few albums were harder to put together than others (e.g. – Roy Dunn); most were not. There often is additional material yet unreleased as a result of such a policy, but the intent then was to issue the best possible single LP back in the day. I think that I succeeded beautifully with this release.
The twelve pieces for on this album were taken from three recording sessions done over two years (1974-1975); the first two at Homesick’s apartment in Chicago, IL, and the final one at his parents’ place in Somerville, TN.
For more on Homesick James, see O&S #26.
Peter B. Lowry (2012) Sydney