ODDENDA & SUCH: #110

CHARLES HENRY TATE                                                                                                               notes #1

The first real informant that Bruce Bastin and I located in 1970 in the SE was known to one and all as Baby Tate, a guitarist, occasional harp player, and singer of note from South Carolina. We were really fortunate/lucky to run up on him first-off that early August, with not having too many doors slammed on us in the process beforehand! Doing active field work of the shoe leather kind back then was often fraught with understandably suspicious dismissals/denials when starting out and strong facial/portal closures were unavoidable in the main. In the internet times of the present, things and methodologies are different – but most of the prime suspects have long ago passed on, so person-to-person contacts and interviews with musicians are a thing of the past.

Bruce and I hit town (Spartanburg, SC) on a Saturday afternoon to find Pink Anderson and discovered that the public library was closed by then. This took away access to our usual first “hard” reference source, the local city directory. After much hunting and cogitating, we were reluctantly directed to the local police station… they had one, for sure, and were open for business! We were then looking for Pink Anderson’s address as a beginning – he was the best-known name we had at that time for the area. After speaking with the folks at the cop shop, they grudgingly let us examine their directory copy and we found Mr. Andersons information. BUT, they insisted on effectively giving us a police escort to Pink’s door, as suspicion of outlandish non-southern white guys being their middle name. Out-of-state strangers were naturally out-of-the-ordinary going to the black part of town. We followed the cruiser to Pink’s and knocked, to have the door barely opened by an older female (Pink’s girl-friend, Squeaky) who indicated there was nobody there by that name. We asked her about the whereabouts of Baby Tate, and she gladly gave us that information[1]!

We thanked the helpful(?) gendarmes for their assistance and toddled off to Tate’s – which was locked and seemed empty. A helpful neighbor from across the street spoke with us and figured we were OK, telling where to find him at that moment. And that’s how the two of us found ourselves in the parking lot of a local laundromat, looking for one Charles Henry Tate. It was Bruce who pulled him from under his wet wash and brought him to my van for an introduction and a natter. Bastin’s “Englishness” turned out to be useful: Tate had been in Sussex (of all places) during WW II and he felt that he had been well treated by the locals (as opposed to the situation in the States) and thought it amazing that someone from where he had once been had tracked him down. Two more things won him over: my cassette tape of the two issued Willie Walker songs recorded in 1930 for Columbia (“Betty & Dupree”/“South Carolina Rag”), along with Bruce and he singing (even with Bastin being singing impaired!) a rugby song together. For the detail mavens, it was, a couple of choruses of, I think, “Roll Me Over in the Clover” … what music?!?

Anyway, that did the trick and he took us seriously, and we later on gathered at his house. Tate was our first “find” and he opened up a whole region for us with his introductions and his memory – that is when the flood-gates opened and it all truly began for us in the SE. Not only was Baby Tate a fine person who was an interested participating member of the style of music that we were documenting, he actively took part in helping us locate other performers. There was a party one Saturday at his place as people (including us two) sat around, ate vegetables from his garden, drank moonshine, and did music. There was Wilbert[2] who played washboard; there was also Providence Jacobs (bass singer at times in The Dixie Hummingbirds), a.o. whose names are hidden in the dust. Through Tate, we eventually DID get to meet Pink Anderson, then not playing due to strokes; plus Roosevelt “Baby” Brooks, McKinley (“Kinney”) Ellis, and Peg Pete/Peg Leg Sam… more about him elsewhere. Tate’s knowledge of the history of the music of the area and its musicians was vast – and he even saw/heard Blake Blake playing in Elberton, GA while a kid (his birthplace). I managed to record him in some depth, solo or with Brooks, Ellis, or Sam in accompaniment – in all cases he was marvelous. A good singer and a fluid guitarist, he had a large repertoire of which I was able to record a respectable portion (never enough!).

With my own “Southern Journeys” taking place then during the summers, I was able to meet with Tate on a number of later occasions and do some more recording. We met up three years in a row – the last one (’72) was after I was able to bring him up to New Paltz, NY to play on the state college’s Spring Weekend concerts. I also got Larry Johnson from NYC and Eddie Kirkland from Macon, GA to appear as well. Larry was overawed to meet someone who actually knew and heard Willie Walker or Blind Blake play and sing in person before the early 30s. They played singly and as a duo and some fine music was heard by all.[3] I wanted to record them together, but Kip Lornell had already booked an unbreakable gig outside Albany, NY for Tate at a coffee house. Larry then said he’d come South with me that summer and record with Tate then. Unfortunately (and, sadly, understandably), he backed out… understandably in that it was 1972 and an outsider or two white guys traveling with a black man in SC would not have been a good look in the then-current rocky racial situation.

Bruce and I got there in ‘72, touched base to say “hello”, and continued off to Macon, GA, then the southernmost area that I “worked” at that point in time. Tate said he’d been writing new songs and working on some that he remembered Willie Walker doing that were never recorded – I liked the sound of that! About a week later we rolled up to Tate’s place to see that it was closed up tight again; the same helpful neighbor from across the street came over to my truck and told us that they had buried our friend yesterday. This was an impossibly indescribable and unbearable loss for both Bruce and I, the first we’d experienced first-hand; it’s not that death was not a part of our research, but for one so close and so (relatively speaking) young. It hit us both hard. And the repercussions reverberated for me for about a decade – I became “possessed” by the thought that I had to find EVERYbody who played before they all died off “on me”; it became personal. That led to some fine “collecting” work on my part over a decade and also for an eventual burn-out by 1980. But Tate was our main catalyst in a real sense and our first serious informant (folkloristically speaking!) “out there”…  and, also, he became a good friend in our short time together.

 

PETER B. LOWRY                                                                                                                                 Sydney (2019)

 

[1] You must understand that Pink typically and illegally sold whiskey and beer out of his house, as well as had gambling card and dice games happening in his back room. We were lucky to get anything at all from her. A police escort was not the way to arrive and did not bode well to the inhabitants!

[2] I don’t think we ever got his surname!

[3] I recorded them all (Tate, Larry, Eddie) and hope to release that music in the future, if the sound quality is OK… some wind noise on the microphones!

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