PIEDMONT SKETCHES OF AN ACCIDENTAL FOLKLORIST!
The real deal
Once again, I describe my self thusly… “accidental”. Initially, I was just “ridin’ along at the wheel, with no particular place to go” (C.Berry), following the directions of Bruce Bastin – he was on the trail of old 78’s and I was chauffeuring him. It was much more pleasant for him than taking the “Dog Bus” around the Southeast! That was the summer of 1969, I believe, and we did OK on our primary aim and ended up with a few large boxes-worth of discs as a result. Also, we did a tiny bit of what we now call “fieldwork” by interviewing a few older musicians on the way – thus were two careers quietly launched, sort of accidentally! We got back to my parent’s place in NJ, packed and shipped the records to the U.K. for auctioning. Then we decided that we could stand each other in pretty close quarters and might do it again, our teaching schedules permitting. (Bruce was teaching at big secondary school [geography] and I was teaching at university [biology]), We were now the go-to “experts” regarding that area by default, a sad state of affairs, really.
The following summer we got more serious about both finding records (occasionally we got there before Canned Heat did!) and in interviewing old musicians. What the hell, one could examine only so many 78’s, so we ought to SOMEthing else besides drive from Point A to Point B! This was the beginning, just to quickly fill in a few blanks… little did we know!
So, that summer of 1970 we got more serious about the research – but what to call it to distinguish it from, say, that from the so-called Delta, or Southwest/Texas. “East Coast” was too limiting, and “Southeast” too vague. The geographer in our midst rumbled on with his thoughts, but supposedly it was the biologist who came up with “Piedmont Blues” as a handle. It was just right and seems to have stuck! Not too big, not too small – just right. Now, I’m not easily convinced of that origin myth, but I’ve been told to “have a Bex and a lie-down”., and shut up! It’s decided… “Piedmont Blues” it is and evermore it shall be! It finally had a name that spread nicely and was used by one and all; of course, it was not used by those who thought that the sun shone out the “delta’s” rectum and all else was secondary in importance (at best).
OK, we’ve got a name – now let’s dig. 1970 was the real beginning of our change – I bought a tape recorder so that I could do something else besides drive the car and picked up a couple of cheap guitars just-in-case! I did a few sessions and that gave way to the next decade. But 1971 is when it began to take serious shape as a separate field of study for us by more than a couple of former (and still) record collectors. Bruce had decided to attend Chapel Hill on a Master’s program and I got serious about recording… becoming very serious, indeed
1972 was when it really kicked in… Detroit with Mike Rowe, 78’s at Buckley’s in Nashville (resulting eventually in a bent axle!), based in Chapel Hill (Bastin’s dorm room for record auctions!), the med show taping, first concert in the fall. 1973 took in a Spring set of concerts for three nights, and my second trip to Detroit (alone). Bruce was finished with his degree and I was let free!! The rest is history; I was let loose and kept it up for a decade of recording, still basically alone. The accidental folklorist was loose and very busy!
What you have in your hands is an incomplete microcosm of the macrocosm that I was able to record in that time – 1970-1980. Since many of the folk heard here have never been captured by us Whiteys in any meaningful fashion, this is a semi-sampler of what I was able to capture in that time. Granted, it’s not a full capture: there’s just too much for such a short collection to do complete justice to the topic; it’ll have to do, nonetheless! I will say that what there is here is predominately secular in nature (for that is what I was given, by and large, by my informants.). Lots of guitar-players and a few harp-blowers make up the bulk of here with a banjo or two throw in for good measure. A kind of self-censorship by the performers or one could say that I was subliminally asking for merely a part of their repertoire – a different kind of censorship! It’s too late to ask, now, so, here we are, I offer no special order.
James was an interesting fellow whose father was also a musician, a purveyor of “drum music” – there was no instrument in his band save drums! This band played for all sorts of festivities, sacred as well as secular, in their community in GA. James made one change in the band by adding a guitar, but it still was a percussion extravaganza. As a band, James played guitar and he had a number of different kit drummers playing variations on the “Bo Diddley” beat behind him. I, of course, had him play solo for me, mostly acoustic, with a spell on electric for variety, so that he wouldn’t be drowned out! James was recorded in Henderson, GA at home.
This was a referral by George Mitchell – he heard him as “Bo Reefer”, which conjures up myriad images, but was not to be! Actually, it was “Bo Reather” (boy-child of Aretha, his mother)! I rocked up with my equipment and recorded him at his place in Pineview, GA – this was one of the quick & dirty sessions on a girl-friend’s spring holiday; in the meet, set up, record seven selections, vein, and boogie on. Good, though!
Roy Sidney Dunn:
Also known as James Calvin Speed to his foster-mother and the folks in Atlanta, Roy was one of my early informants, introduced by Curley Weaver’s daughter. Good singer and decent guitarist, he was the main siphon to several of the performers in and around the city… as his LP was dubbed, he know’d them all. He was a true encyclopedia regarding Atlanta-area folk and was a vast source of information. This was recorded at the Covington, GA Holiday Inn early-on and is a tune that most knew from Fuller’s record
This may have been one of Roy’s referrals – Charlie was a guitarist in The Star Band, an all-star string band aggregation in and around Atlanta. He did not sing at all. Members included Frank Edwards, Jonas Brown, Leroy Dallas, Big Cliff Lee, Ollie Griffin, Hollis Brown, Georgia Slim, and for a number of years was in the other half of the duplex house shared by Ruth Willis! Rambo still lived there! He still had his guitars, played them, and also made wooden toys for the neighboring kids. And recording at home for me!
Waverly, Virginia was the location for Mr. Charity, found initially by Kip Lornell near Petersburg – he was one of several houses that seemed one to have been company housing of some sort. A fine guitarist and singer who knew Lightnin’ Hopkins as he passed through en route to New York and recording… probably for Herald. Pernell used to pair with one Sam Jones until Sam “got church “. A fine fingerpicker and singer, he is once again proof that there were lots of folks out there, if you only looked.
Here was a true star hidden in a web of poverty. He was first located by my friend and Georgian music journalist, Jim Pettigrew – then, Cecil didn’t want his photograph taken, nor to use his right name. For George Mitchell, he was “William Robinson” (and known locally as “Cecil Gant”). Then he was afraid a picture of him could be turned face-down on the table, and he would die. The name change was to fool the welfare, a similar problem as Bruce Bastin had with Frank Hovington in Delaware. What we have here is a strong singer and a good picker – he eventually loosened up for George and others!! And sounds a bit like Cecil Gant!
This was definitely one of Roy Dunn’s recommendation. (What could be better than someone you met in jail!) After a brief recording session in Conyers (the Holiday Inn, again), I ended up recording Earnest many times at his sister’s place in Atlanta. This was on an unpaved road and the houses looked again like older company housing – clean, but all the same. Scott was influenced by the many he met in town such as Weaver, Moss, McTell, etc. Decent singer and good finger-picker.
This was one I “caught” before he went church, unlike Glenn Hinson! I found him in Scotland Neck, NC in his car, after buying copies of a 45 by him earlier (“Greasy Greens”/ “Early In the Morning”) -interviewed and recorded in the same place. Mr. May was heavily influenced by SC’s Arthur Jackson (“Peg Leg Sam”) in his repertoire and style. A full-blown harp virtuoso in this version of W.C. Handy’s song.
Joe & Odell Thompson:
I was fortunate enough to tape some NC-based banjo players, partly through the efforts of Kip Lornell. These cousins had a second career thanks to the attention they received. Sadly, Odell was killed by a vehicle going to Doc Watson’s “Merle Fest” one year. But they got their chops together and Joe ended up mentoring the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
I was involved a few times with this NC musician, first when he lived in a mobile home in Tarboro, and then later when he had moved up to Speed, NC – there he lived in the house next to George Higgs, a rather fortuitous combnation! He had not played much when Danny McLean and Kip Lornell ran across him, but with their encouragement (and that of his sons!), he became once again a fine guitarist and harp man to boot.
Peg Leg Sam:
What can one say about genius? Harp virtuoso par excellence, singer with a vast repertoire, teller of both fine tales and corny jokes, dancer unmatched by any, and medicine show performer unmatched by any. If you don’t believe me, see the film “Born for Hard Luck” for this South Carolinian’s story!! It’s incredible. And he was one-of-a-kind, for sure: a half dozen folklorists could “do” facets of him, easily. He also influenced Baby Tate, Elester Anderson, Roosevelt May, and George Higgs on that instrument. Among many others
Here is a banjo-player found by Bruce Bastin outside of Chapel Hill while doing his Master’s degree – as you do! A fine claw-hammer player in the first position, he was a peach and later was taken around by Bill Phillips to schools as part of the new folk-arts program! A lovely player and a lovely man, his playing tended to be drop-thumb, claw-hammer with an occasional finger-picked number. I recorded him in his small-but-neat cabin behind some larger NC farm dwellings.
A fine harp and guitar player who was for a while part of a duo with Elester Anderson based in Speed, NC. The two of them were a great combination and only Anderson’s death from cancer broke them up. He was picked up later by locals, but the material he recorded with “Les-T” is among the best from the region and deserves to be heard in depth.
This is merely a smattering at best of the people that I recorded in my decade “in the field”, and of the unheard in the region, but it will give one a taste of it all. Hopefully this will pique one’s curiosity for more, not merely of the same, but the depth and breadth on the music and musicians that fascinated me completely. This is truly just Piedmont sketches of it – the best is yet to come! Come on along for the ride!
Peter B. Lowry Sydney (2020)
Looking forward to hear the recordings of these fine musicians.
Peter, you also should write a book about this all, please!