ODDENDA & SUCH: #99

People and Places and Times: a folklorist’s partial tale.

            Most of my summers (later most of my full years) in the 70’s had me putting some 20,000 miles annually on my van in my mainly southeastern jaunts while recording much great music accompanied by my dog(s). A few years, I did less milage, and one (1978) is a total blank that I cannot for the life of me remember why that is so right now! One possibility is that I was preoccupied with creating LP releases for TRIX Records at that point in time (one of the most masochistic acts of my life, but worthy all the same!) or was otherwise occupied with Alan Lomax (O&S #24).

I started off my recording efforts slowly (being a novice!) in August of 1970 starting with guitarist Baby Tate (my first “field” informant) and his friends, taping some 120 selections in toto. I then had no further purpose in mind than “I was there, and so I should do that!” Besides Tate, there were guitarists McKinley Ellis, Pink Anderson, and Baby Brooks, plus harp maestro Peg Leg Sam, all in the Spartanburg, SC area. And so it began.

Then came the Trice brothers (Willie and Rich) outside of Durham, NC as well as a relatively unsuccessful attempt with guitarist Floyd Council in Sanford. Back in NJ, Tarheel Slim was briefly recorded for the first time in 1970 in my parents’ basement; Eddie Kirkland was also first recorded by me in Macon, GA over the Xmas holidays (as was Tate again). I was accompanied on that brief “holiday” trip in my Rover 2000 TC by my younger sister (who had a Nikkormat camera and knew how to use it!) and her then boyfriend [see O&S #70 for his take on it all!].

Tarheel Slim kicked off 1971 with another two sessions in NJ and Eddie did a couple more in Macon that summer, as did Tate, and Willie Trice respectively. A new name was added to my possibilities with a first session with Roy Dunn in Covington, GA at Cora Mae Bryant[1]’s suggestion. This year’s taping activities ended with me recording harmonica player Little Sam Davis in Poughkeepsie, NY with Dan DelSanto on guitar (O&S #2, 81, 98).

1972 was my first big-volume year that took it all up a few notches higher in quantity, with quality unchanged! started with Slim at a friend’s place in Brooklyn with Dan DelSanto once again on back-up guitar. I later got Tate, Larry Johnson, and Eddie up to New Paltz in Ulster County. NY to perform at the annual college’s Spring blow-out (they were all recorded by me, of course)! I put Eddie with members of Dan’s local band (The Arm Brothers) for the show, and I also took them into a recording studio outside Woodstock to begin a Kirkland band album… those sessions included Little Sam Davis playing harp on some songs, too!

In July, I travelled to Detroit with Mike Rowe to Detroit on the Greyhound[2] where I recorded copiously many pianists on a Sunday afternoon at a location that Mike had learned of from Boogie Woogie Red[3]. My having ceased teaching biology meant that I no longer had the fixed time restrictions of summer, so I meandered South once again partnered with W.J. B. Bastin (who had put his geography teaching job on hold). We were now travelling in a van I had done up to assist in basic field recording activities, as well as a place to store stuff and even to sleep. In Georgia I recorded a rehearsal by gtr/hca player Frank Edwards as well as another session with Roy Dunn, who was getting his chops back rather nicely!

Bruce was to begin a Master’s folklore program at Chapel Hill that autumn; I recorded Willie Trice again in NC a few times as well as a solo session with harp player Roosevelt May. There was also my first session with guitarist Elester Anderson (working on his chops!), thanks to Kip Lornell/Danny McLean location efforts. As if Detroit wasn’t important enough, the next high point for me that year was recording the last extant, organic medicine show of Peg Leg Sam and Chief Thundercloud in Pittsboro, NC. Sadly, the Indian died that winter and that was all she wrote on that topic, making the tapes rather unique. (There were some med show reconstructions that took place in later years, both off Broadway and on film.)

Repeat recording sessions were also done with Frank Edwards, Roy Dunn, and Willie Trice, plus “new” (to me) guitarists Earnest Scott, and Charlie Rambo, as well as washboard player “Popcorn” (Arthur Clover); all were recorded in GA, mostly in Atlanta. After the sudden death of Baby Tate early that summer, Peg Leg Sam introduced us to one Henry Johnson (a/k/a “Rufe”), a brilliant musical marvel from Union, SC. I recorded each together and as soloists. I also added the fabled Guitar Shorty of NC (read O&S #42, #63, #64 and the notes to Trix 3306 for more) to my quiver. Waverly/Petersburg,VA guitarist Pernell Charity sat for my equipment (see notes for Trix 3309 and also O&S #43) in some depth during the year, thanks to Kip Lornell’s introduction!

In November ‘72 Bastin and I put together our first big experiment with the help of the Folklore group at Chapel Hill – probably the first concert of African American secular folk music held at the college. It featured Peg Leg Sam, Henry Johnson, and Willie Trice to great acclaim, and I recorded it all (of course!). (More like that was to come in the future, soon enough!!) All three of these artists were additionally recorded in some depth that year, as was Pernell Charity,  GA guitarists Charlie Rambo, and Earnest Scott, and more Frank Edwards. There were “newbies” in pianist Tommy Lee Russell, sacred singer Sr. Susie Weaver Young, plus guitarists Clifford Lee Swanson, and Charlie Russell – all from the Atlanta vicinity.

1973 started off with a major bang with a solid week-end of follow-up African American music concerts at Chapel Hill (alluded to above) in March. On the bill for Day One (Thursday) were Roy Dunn, Tommy Lee Russell, Frank Edwards, and Guitar Shorty from the NC or GA. Henry Johnson from SC started off Day Two (Friday) as a solo performer, then Detroit-associated musicians pianist Boogie Woogie Red, guitarist Eddie Burns, and Macon GA’s Eddie Kirkland performed in a number of configurations. Guitarist Elester Anderson was together enough to be asked (coaxed, actually!) to be the intermission act! Saturday’s Day Three final show began with Peg Leg Sam, and Willie Trice, each on their own, then Tarheel Slim solo and with a rhythm section. The closer was J.B. Hutto (from Chicago, but he was born in SC) who brought the shows to a massively successful and energetic close. (Needless to say, I recorded all three shows as well!) What a way to start the year!!

Back to the van and more obvious field recordings in GA with Earnest Scott, Roy Dunn, guitarist Mattie Russell, her son Tommy Lee Russell again, as well as “Sam” Swanson, and in NC the usual Willie Trice, and Guitar Shorty. I ventured into the piano place in Detroit once again on my own that June to record more fine playing, mostly by different artists[4]. Then came my second “big” name in blues, guitarist Robert Lockwood, Jr. in the Cleveland, OH area. I recorded him first just with his bass player (Gene Schwartz) in Roger Brown’s living room in Hiram, OH followed a few days later by his full band in HIS living room in Cleveland’s Hough district … beautiful and varied music all around (Trix 3307). I also bought two sides, but unreleased, produced by Jackie Avery at Capricorn Recording Studios in Macon of Eddie Kirkland, while there, songs to add to my studio stuff for an interesting LP (Trix 3308).

Back into my SE-focussed bailiwick and Earnest Scott in Atlanta, as well as one Eddie Lewis Person, a fine pianist in that city located somehow for me by Roy Dunn. Elester Anderson had come good on guitar by then and he recorded for me both solo and with his kids’ band in Tarboro, NC. Willie Trice had become a NC “gimme” with his refurbished National and the Gibson he had bought for himself. Whenever I was in the area, he would come up with four to six new songs each time for me. Kip Lornell had located a banjo/guitar player named Dink Roberts and asked me to record him for him in NC. Les-T had a few friends over to his Tarboro trailer one afternoon, and I recorded them all – he and George Higgs, and Alonzo Williams passed around a guitar and sang… a nice ending to the year.

1974 was a year for my musical and geographical horizons to expand a bit to include Chicago on request from Jim and Amy, the founders and editors of LIVING BLUES. There I began recording Homesick James (O&S #26, 83 and Trix 3315) and Honeyboy Edwards (O&S#25, 83, Trix 3319), each on their own at their home. These two artists were taped a number of times in different settings over time which gave rise to their later varied Trix albums – a very good approach musically, I felt! Then back to my usual stomping grounds, the SE: Roy Dunn, Elester Anderson, and Willie Trice were taped some more, with banjoist John Snipes added to the collection, courtesy of Bruce Bastin! I finished the year with sessions by Tarheel Slim, and pianist Big Chief Ellis, both solo and together at my house in Ulster County using my four-track, multi-track ReVox to good effect and making me glad I’d bought that Steinway upright piano! A very good ending to a year of much-exhausting travel, a harbinger of the future.

The next year (’75) was also a busy one for me with two sessions in Chicago that ended with me taking Homesick “home” to his parents place in Somerville, TN (see previous references) en route to the SE from Chicago. The next Honeyboy Edwards session I did included Big Walter Horton on harmonica, a beautiful meeting of old friends in Bruce Iglauer’s basement/Alligator Records warehouse. I then left Chicago and went through TN (for Homesick) en route on to the SE and further sessions with Willie Trice, John Snipes, Shorty, and Pernell. A bit later I was at home again with Big Chief Ellis again at my piano, this time with Brownie McGhee added on Sunday’s recordings! December resulted in my finally doing studio sessions outside of Cleveland, OH with Lockwood and his full band, as well as my only attempted jazz date with his tenor player, Maurice Reedus (sadly unreleased).

1976 involved me meeting and recording John Cephas at Big Chief Ellis’ place in DC with interview… the results are worthy as a rare stand-alone session album possibility today! A great musical “find” thanks to Chief. Then some 20-track/2” reel studio sessions with Eddie Kirkland and a great Hudson Valley band (sadly also unreleased).

1977 sole trip took in a final Honeyboy Edwards session with Eddie El on second guitar in Chicago, which lead up to my blank year, 1978. (I may have been working for/with the sainted doyen of folklorists, Alan Lomax, at the LofC during that time.

1979 was essentially my last big field trip partially funded by the NEA and beginning with multiple recording sessions by George Higgs and/or Elester Anderson in Speed, NC. There were “new” artists (for me) in VA guitarists Marvin and Turner Foddrell from Stuart. I had heard them at Wolf Trap Farm Park at The National Folk festival the previous summer and was blown away by them and I added them to my “to do” list! Georgia produced a brief final Roy Dunn session in Atlanta, and more time with guitarist Cecil Barfield (a/k/a “William Robertson”) in Plains, GA, an artist my late friend, writer Jim Pettigrew had located (see O&S # 44, 93) earlier. More sessions by banjoist John Snipes in NC took place as well as one with guitarist Wilbert Atwater who Bastin had located a few years back near Chapel Hill. The final “new” artists for me were Joe (fiddle) and Odell (banjo) Thompson, cousins from Cedar Grove, NC and people that Kip Lornell had located earlier. Back again to Georgia where I located and recorded guitarists Charlie Brown (a/k/a “Bo’retha”), James Davis, J.C. Rush, Roy Dunn, and more Cecil. That left one James Putmon in Charlotte, NC (O&S #48) not in GA to record, a seriously fine guitarist and song writer who nobody could locate afterwards, not even Glenn Hinson! My year finally finished off with more Higgs and/or Anderson, Turner and/or Marvin Foddrell, Joe & Odell, and Snipes. That year’s efforts left me drained physically and exhausted emotionally with very little energy left for this sort of stuff, but with my grant money well-spent!

Save for one intentional wander to DC in 1980 to record John Cephas and Phil Wiggins for their first time as a duo, that was it for me and the road. I decided that I needed more “official” credentials as a “real” folklorist, having lost some gigs I might have usually gotten earlier. Thus, I began a degree program at The University of Pennsylvania’s Folklore & Folklife Department to that end. Academia seemed like a good idea at the time, and it was in many ways (in spite of Alan Lomax’s dimopinions on that topic in ‘79/’80!). Many great people/minds were met [including faculty members Kenny Goldstein, Henry Glassie, John F. Szwed, Ray Birdwhistell, Dell and Ginny Hymes, Roger Abrahams, Don Yoder, Gary Giddens, Morty Marks,  a.o.] all in one place, and too many good ideas to quickly soak up, think about and otherwise process! It was for me a good life-changing alteration and redirection to my life’s work and I met some important peers both on the faculty and within my fellow students that I try to keep in touch with as best I can today from here.

By that time, I was mentally and physically worn out from the travel, and the necessary intensity of focus during my past decade “in the field” – I never picked up that part of being a folklorist again[5]. Such is life, but I still consider myself a practicing folklorist in spite of it all… or because of it!

 

PETER B. LOWRY                                                                                                                             Sydney   (2018)

p.s. – in a later posting I’ll write about recordings that others did for me

 

[1] The daughter of Curley Weaver!

[2] I carried the Uher recorder, a case with tapes and two mics and carrying the two stands in a canvas golf bag of my grandfather’s! Field recording at its barest!!

[3] Read liner notes for Trix 3311 in this website.

[4] In 1974 I went back to Detroit a third time, but only to photograph – I could not “do” it all at the same time! – I’d assembled an LP idea and needed photos of the participants for its cover (Trix 3311). And all but Red showed up for my lens that day, and I already had some of him from elsewhere!

[5] Additionally, the folkloristic methods and methodology changed radically as time went on and I had “old” techniques and approaches and lacked the new machinated capabilities. How I wish that I had had the video/sound capabilities of today back then, but I was too soon or too late! Take your pick.

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