Misses 108 – The South, etc.
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 about any “non-Delta” blues! Money and time had 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. Again, one person against the world!
My annual trips down South were sporadic and variable in length in my decade of travel – one year (1978) I did not go at all for reasons I no longer recollect without access to my papers in NJ: probably putting together LPs. Others were relatively brief jaunts, while a few were very long indeed (after I had stopped full-time teaching) only going North for Xmas so as not to interfere with the holiday plans of others and not for any religious or family reasons of my own. It was a time of great feelings of accomplishment coupled with times of despair that I had “missed out” on someone somewhere along the line. I was, unknown to myself at the time, indulging in the kind of thinking that is often termed by academics “cultural conservation”. “It” was all dying out and I had to catch as much musical lightning in a bottle as I could before “it” all vanished. Foolish me!
It’s a kind of romanticism with a capital “R” that has permeated the thoughts of various workers in the field from the git-go: Robert Winslow Gordon, John A. Lomax, George Pullen Jackson, Alan Lomax, Sam Charters (intentional), among others come to mind. As I now know, the only constant in life is change and there is no way that it can be stopped, and I realize now the beautiful futility of my efforts. It’ll happen no matter what I do or do not do and it all was unimportant in the grand scheme of things. I was merely catching hold of some still active random examples of a culture of which I was an outsider no matter what I did. (Pushing my freckles together didn’t help!) I was collecting a version of a culture that the creators themselves were discarding, because change is the norm, so musical tastes were changing, like it or not. Nothing I could do to alter that result. Life be’s like that, sometimes!
There were a few musicians in the Southeast I recorded in some (to me) satisfactory depth like Willie Trice, Baby Tate, Roy Dunn, Pernell Charity, Peg Leg Sam, Guitar Shorty, Eddie Kirkland, Turner Foddrell, Marvin Foddrell, Elester Anderson, George Higgs, John Snipes, Joe Thompson, Odell Thompson, Dink Roberts, a.o. Then there were those I “caught” reasonably well en passant, but insufficiently in depth in my opinion, especially with 20:20 hindsight! In GA, there were guitarists like Cecil Barfield (O&S #44), Earnest Scott (O&S #46), Mattie Russell (O&S #47: the only female I located), and pianist Eddie Lewis Person (O&S #47); in NC, guitarists like James Putmon (O&S #48)*, and Wilbert Atwater (O&S #48); in SC, guitarists McKinley Ellis**, Baby Brooks**, Henry Johnson (on banjo, piano, harmonica, a.o.), Baby Tate’s new material (including Willie Walker unrecorded numbers), Baby Tate & Larry Johnson session(s)***, more solo sides from John Cephas (O&S #19).
And then there were the complete misses already alluded to. Banjo player Nate Thompson (brother/cousin to Joe & Odell) who lived in Philadelphia [Glenn Hinson indicated back in the day that the Folk Festival crowd had recorded him]; Atlanta guitarist Johnny Guthrie, one of Buddy Moss’ last guitar “seconder”; Moss himself [god knows I tried****]; multi-instrumentalist Posey Foddrell [father to Marvin and Turner] in VA (I didn’t even know if he was still living then!) Eddie El [seconded Crudup for Delmark, and Honeyboy for Trix], or Ira Joiner, Jr. [friend of Homesick] in Chicago; Washboard Slim [Robert Young] of Brownie McGhee’s trio of 1940 with Jordan Webb – I photographed him at a local park’s festival in Philly, while I was told that others had interviewed him and so I didn’t feel obligated.
And that is how it all was beginning to feel to me – an obligation that I had been pursuing for a decade and over which I was burning out. I know that sounds impossible and preposterous to you, the jealous reader, but it’s not: really! So to speak, the bloom was falling off the rose big time and it was no longer fun. My final trip South was to record Cephas and Wiggins in DC in 1980… and that was that for that. Some time followed in the nation’s capitol with Alan Lomax (O&S #24), which was followed by some five great years in Philadelphia as a PhD student at The University of Pennsylvania’s Folklore Department. That Doctorate has since been sidelined by life and remains in ABD^ limbo – Master’s accomplished along the way. Here I sit in Oz, thinking back on my good and bad fortune and, it’s side effects… it was probably worth it on many levels, even when regarded as incomplete. But that’s an impossibility!
PETER B. LOWRY
Sydney – Feb 2016.
* I tried to find “Put” other times, but to no avail. I even sicced my friend Glenn Hinson from UNC-CH onto him, hoping that he’d locate him and get him on local NC festivals. No luck, though he tried hard.
** These were friends of Baby Tate – Ellis was a left-handed/standard strung guitarist and singer. Brooks was a cousin to Sam Brooks, Willie Walker’s “second” on the two 78 sides from 1930 – he would second Willie’s brother, Joe, in the day. He and Tate used to broadcast as “The Two Babies From Greenville” from a studio The Jack Tar/Poinsett Hotel! More can be found in Bruce Bastin’s books: Crying For the Carolines, or Red River Blues. The latter, more recent publication is still readily available and is still highly recommended.
*** This refers to 1972 when I got Tate and Larry on the bill for an all-day music festival at SUNY-New Paltz where I taught biology(!). Eddie Kirkland came North as well, and was part of it all with local musicians (but that’s another story!). Larry was blown away to meet someone who knew Willie Walker and said he’d go South with me that summer. It was too much, though, and he backed out. What I should have done is take them both to my apartment and record then-and-there. Problem was that Tate was going up to the Albany to do a coffee house gig arranged by Kip Lornell. Such is life in the “almost” lane!
**** see O&S #8 and #67. The last time I saw Buddy was at his house and there were a number of African Americans visiting. A few had taken “lessons” and the others just were hanging out. When I left after a fair bit of verbal abuse, one of them came along with me (Chicago Bob Nelson or Jerry Ricks) and asked seriously, “Why the hell do you put up with that shit?” My reply was always the same – he was that fucking good and I might get lucky. Didn’t happen, though I came close.
^ All But Dissertation.