The work of others: occasionally taking advantage of…!


OK, first I must confess that I did not do ALL of the recordings that I have accumulated over time from my decade (+) spent in-the-field. This includes all my various Southeastern activities, including album releases. I also occasionally did recordings for others on-the-wing, and sometimes ending up with the tapes done for them later on as well. See, the main difficulty is that I was one solitary individual constantly and consistently “out there” in the SE (if one discounts my canine side-kicks) attempting to do the impossible. That was to record all the surviving African American secular musicians of the region who were still “available” in southeastern black communities who deserved preservation in the ‘70’s. This was an unobtainable and unsustainable end-point, but I sure as hell tried! There were, of course, many impediments to it being anywhere near the desired “compleat”, though, but I carried on as best I could for a decade.

An early impediment was that I had only the fabled summer vacation time-period of American schools available to me as long as I was teaching… that was true for the first couple of years I was “out there”. That limitation gave me a maximum two-month window in which to accomplish whatever I could in the SE in often hideously hot and humid summer weather. There were, fortunately, a couple of Piedmont artists I had access to outside of that specific southern region, their having migrated and settling up North[1] And there was even one non-Piedmont guy located in my Hudson Valley home-front region (the recently deceased Little Sam Davis). Once I stopped teaching, though,  I was able to stretch my southern jaunts over much longer time periods, but life does have a way of interfering with my plans. You know, family and other social obligations such as major holidays and the like got in the way for both myself and my informants!

There were not too many examples of others doing stuff for me, but they are a few worth lauding hereabouts! In April/May 1975 I left two of my microphones with a man named Bill Phillips – why I was not there is lost in the mists of time and senior moments! Bill is the person who dug up much data from NC files regarding Blind Boy Fuller, Sonny Terry, Gary Davis, a.o. He used the mics to record Willie Trice for me in that spring on his own “home” machine. Bill then gave me the 7” reels he recorded while I had been up North to use as I saw fit: the first has ten songs recorded at Willie’s mother’s place; the second is eleven songs done at a coffee house in Durham[2] that Bill had booked him into. There are songs on those tapes that Willie had not done for me and there are even four without titles in Bill’s coffee house play-list. This is not unexpected, as Willie was constantly and continually creating new material now that he had the music bit between his teeth again! I must confess that I have yet to listen to these tapes as the reels were too big to listen to on my Uher at the time in the field (5” reels only), and I had plenty of material for Willie’s LP without them when that task rolled around. They are now at UNC-Chapel Hill being digitized, and I look forward to a fine listening experience when the time comes! Thanks, Bill, wherever you are these days.

In May and June of 1976 there came two sessions done in Hyattsville, MD recorded by Joe Wilson (w. Dick Spottswood) for use on Big Chief Ellis’ proposed album for Trix Records. The first was Chief solo – four songs – and on the latter he had John Cephas in tow… four songs by Cephas w. Chief, and three by Chief w. Cephas. Without these additional recordings, “my” Ellis album would have been much less interesting or “full” (see Trix 3316). Thanks, Joe (and Dick).

Finally, in the winter of 1977, I loaned George Mitchell my full field rig (Uher and two mics, stands, and some tapes) so he could record Cecil Barfield, a musician located by my friend Jim Pettigrew while researching a magazine article[3]. George had a full-fledged “field recording” experience the first day with lots of interfering goings on with noisy kids and neighbors running in and out of Cecil’s house and the like. The following day was more organized and quiet, and George got nine songs from Cecil (who wanted then to be known then as William Robertson).[4] Mitchell gave me the original tapes he did of Cecil then and kept copies for himself… thanks, George. He also took one Earnest Scott, a fine Atlanta guitarist and singer I had located thanks to Roy Dunn, to his radio show on 19 Jan, 1973 and recorded it (George plays wash-tub bass on a tune or too!). I ended up with that tape! Thanks for that as well, George… such cooperation between those such as the two of us was often a rare occurrence at any point in time.

Otherwise, it was all done by me for my use as I saw fit. In the beginning (‘72/’73), I did a few brief sessions in Orange County for Bruce Bastin during his year at folklore school in Chapel Hill (including Wilbert Atwater). Also, some of “my” material has been released by Bruce on anthologies issued by his Flyright Records label, occasionally in limited edition LP pressings. There were also some recording sessions done later on for Kip Lornell in 1972 of Pernell Charity who he’d located on his first southern field trip out of his Albany, NY bailiwick the previous year in VA. I recorded Pernell at his instigation, and later Kip used a few tunes for issue by the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College in their LP series of VA music. Kip also personally “fed” me banjoist/guitarist Dink Roberts from Haw River, NC in 1973, and six years later led me to banjoist Odell Thompson and his cousin, Joe, a fiddler, in Cedar Grove, NC. All such “scouting” efforts were appreciated by moi and what we were able to preserve will stand any tests of time. Thanks, Kip.

Thank you, then, one and all – musicians, contacts, other informants and scholars, my legendary dogs “Ruby Chewsday” and “Asta Blue”, the occasional rare example of short-term human company (Susan, Kip, Wanda, Brian, Christine, Bruce). There was the generally kind reception (barring Buddy Moss and his pistol – see O&S #8) that I received throughout the southeastern states from all the people I met within the extant black communities I/we located. As I’ve constantly indicated, field-work was a stressful “job” that I felt driven to accomplish as broadly as possible. I was, in my mind by default, the only one who could “do” it properly and I had to work fast … more fool, me!

Of course, time has proven me correct in that there have been few (and far between) individuals who followed up on my leads. Many hours were spent driving to and fro in the SE on regional I-85 and the blue highways, knocking on doors in poor neighborhoods and wearing out soles of my shoes as doors were slammed on me![5] None of this could be construed as being the slightest bit romantic, folks; it was generally a hard and wearying slog, especially in the summertime. (Have you ever experienced Atlanta in August? Can I get an “Amen” from anyone out there?)

“Was the effort worth it?” he asks himself to this day. Looking back in time from my vantage point in Oz, I’d have to give a slightly qualified “yes” to that question. The material I gathered on those trips is wonderful, important and irreplaceable, and it created a slightly larger opening of the door into a long-fading tradition and its original community. The people themselves seemed to appreciate my interest, usually giving me a great deal of help and support. The lack of appreciation and understanding of this important music culture by other outsiders is depressing to me in part because it cannot be gathered again or followed up upon. It is all a necessary building block in our understanding of the African American secular music of its time and place. Not to be totally egotistical, without my decade’s efforts, we would know way less about it than we do now[6]. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time and doing the right thing – serendipity galore! The results I gathered musically are fine and I have to be content with that.


PETER B. LOWRY                                                                                                                                 Sydney (2018)


[1] Tarheel Slim [NY], Big Chief Ellis [DC], for example, and others that I only interviewed: Jimmy Spruill, Alec Seward, Larry Dale, Bobby Harris, Bobby Robinson, a.o. [NYC].

[2] The name of which escapes me now… it may be on the tape box at UNC. I’ll ask them.

[3] See O&S #44 and #93.

[4] This was his protective nom de disque for some time, including on an earlier LP issued by George Buck from other Mitchell tapes of Cecil on Buck’s own Southland label (SLP 5).

[5] “Nobody by that name live here”, “He gone”, nothing/silence, “Talk to my lawyer” (honest!)

[6]  For example, my field recordings enlarged the holdings of black music from that region at the LofC Folklife Archives. Copying them when I was there with Lomax blew their duplication budget out for that for the rest of the year I was told! I covered much ground that Lomax hadn’t and therefor expanded their holdings from the SE many times over.

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