Chapel Hill’s first concert of black folk music? 1972
It sounds preposterous or awkward to read such a heading, but to the best of my knowledge there had never been a concert of African American secular folk music held at UNC – Chapel Hill before that date (November, 1972). That in spite of having an MA-degree-awarding folklore department with such “African Americanist” names as Howard W. Odum, or Guy Benton Johnson (then still living!) having been on the faculty at one time or another. In 1969 and 1970, Bruce Bastin and I had begun our initial delvings into the history of the black secular musical traditions in the “Piedmont” SE. We located many fine and interesting musicians (current and former), plus stumbling upon other useful informants in that time period. The two of us covered a fair bit of ground with now-old-fashioned shoe-leather research, and burned up a lot of gas (petrol: UK) beginning in 1969. We both continued to do so in subsequent summers (our “vacation” period, as we then both taught school in the Northern Hemisphere!). Eventually, Bruce decided to go for a Masters degree in folklore at Chapel Hill, beginning in September of 1972.
During his time as a student, he and I both noticed the lack of any indication of there ever having been presentations of black folk music at the university – a lack we felt should be rectified!1 (Fools rushed in!) So, we organized up a concert in a small hall on an evening in November with some of the musical “finds” we had recently located and who were still musically quite functional! Local guitarist and singer Willie Trice came from his mother’s home outside C.H. – he reluctantly decided that it was close enough to home to be safely wheeled onstage among friends. To fill out the program, we picked on two fantastic musicians from South Carolina, Jonesville’s Peg Leg Sam (a harmonica wizard and all-around master entertainer), and Union’s Henry “Rufe” Johnson (a guitar wizard and a beautiful singer, a.o.!).
It was a bit of a testing of the university’s waters for such an affair on the campus, if you will, and future, bigger plans were already churning about in our little brains should this effort succeed. But first, we had to pull this one-off off! Bruce acted as MC for the show (I was never a student at UNC, and so I tended to collect musicians and get them there on time). And the end result you can hear here!
Bruce first brought on stage Henry Johnson carrying my 1939 National guitar as the opener. First let me say that “Rufe” (as he was commonly known) was the finest guitar-playing musician we located in my decade spent on the road/in the field in the SE. He could also play the piano, harmonica, banjo, Hawai’ian guitar, and probably anything else with strings! He also had a marvellous singing voice for any sort of vernacular music – a once-in-a-lifetime “find” for me and Bruce, thanks to Peg Leg Sam (I’ll get back to him in a bit).
He sat down… and tore the roof off the sucker – the finest living black finger-picking guitarist from South Carolina at that time was wonderful. He was exceedingly well received by the audience who had no idea what they were in for at any moment during the whole evening! Fortunately, there happened to be a piano on stage and so I mic’ed that for a couple of pieces by Henry on that instrument as well. There were also examples showing off his Hawai’ian (or slide) guitar technique, using the back of a pocket knife… no harp this time around! This partial picture of Rufe’s multi-valent musical abilities and capacities impressed the academic natives no end with his eight pieces!! A little bit of this… a little bit of that, and all rockin’in rhythm – perfect.
Next up was Willie Trice in his wheelchair (he had lost both legs to adult onset diabetes and gangrene in the past couple of years) with his National guitar for a series of original songs well within the vast blues tradition of the region. His singing was strong and his playing was rock-solid and in the pocket rhythmically – yet another variant of finger-picked Piedmont blues from one of its sources. Not wanting to stress or tire him out, we kept his set to five varied and lengthy pieces – he was strong, indeed. I suspect that the loud and continuous applause that greeted each number was a new experience for Willie, used to playing house parties or tobacco warehouses in his past. This “local” was very much appreciated.
After an intermission break, Peg Leg Sam came on, a master harmonica player and all-around strong entertainer who both blew away the crowd and also probably puzzled them no end. Bruce warned the audience to hold on to their hats for the ride! Nothing ever fazed Sam, a long-time medicine-show performer and street busker – any crowd was fair game for him. Things got a bit wild after that, for Sam could work a crowd of ANY size at ANY location for all its worth. Most caught on to his accent (and jokes), and his harmonica manipulations raised their reactions to a high – he’d blow it with his nose, stick it in his mouth and sing around it, and work a song for all it was worth. He alternated songs with some humorous monologues as he would do on a medicine show stage or a street corner, often puzzling the audience a bit (it was a predominately white and academic college audience). His dance bits went over very well, though, creating a sense of amazement on the part of the audience!
The final set of the night began with Sam and Rufe playing together after a bit of med show styled “cross-fire” comedy material from the two of them. While Rufe was not a med show veteran per se, he took on the “second” role quite well, being familiar with it all – he was always an all-around professional. Musically, it was about as good as this sort of stuff gets – the two were a dynamite and dynamic duo, and would have travelled well in the folk/concert realm. Sadly, this was not to be in the future for half of the duo. But on this evening, the two of them were a truly climactic finale for the night! You can hear for yourself on this release!!
We did it, folks!
Henry “Rufe” Johnson – vo/gtr: born near Bogansville (Union County), SC on 2 October, 1908. He learned his various instruments from locals and a brother, including piano which he took up in 1933. He was friends with (and occasionally played with) members of The Stapleton Brothers, a successful white OTM recording group from Union County who tried to get him to go on a trip with them to NYC to make records, but he turned them down. Most of his musical life had been with gospel quartets until he got fed up with the politicking and backbiting that went on within their ranks as well. Nothing was sacred, it seemed. He basically had played all sorts of vernacular music in Union County by the time we met him in 1972, this meeting taking place through the auspices of Peg Leg Sam Jackson (who we initially met through Baby Tate! That’s another story.).
Rufe worked at the hospital in Union – this probably kept him alive long enough so that I could meet and record him. He’d collapsed a few times on the job in the past with heart troubles and was rushed into the nearby waiting ER. This meeting of ours was a few months after our friend, guitarist Baby Tate, had died. Peg Leg Sam introduced us to Henry at the local black barber shop in Union after just missing him at his job at the hospital. It didn’t take us long to appreciate that his instrumental abilities were massive and his singing voice angelic – with Sam, they made a great Piedmont pairing.
They had played local gigs (including radio sales advertisements for a used trailer [caravan – UK] dealer!), plus they later travelled often to Carrboro, NC to play at The Endangered Species, a small club that passed the hat among the students and faculty members in attendance (very lucratively for these two, I might add!). Henry died on 4 February, 1974 in Union County (his home turf) from kidney failure and that was the end of that fantastic combination; they were marvellous at all times.
Willie Trice – (vo/gtr): born in the Chapel Hill area on 10 February, 1908 into a musical family (including his mother, Lula Mae Couch) and he was playing guitar proficiently by 1928. His playing for parties, at tobacco warehouses (in season), and some in the street gave him great chops and song writing abilities. After time in Raleigh, he ended up in the Durham area, often playing with his younger brother, Richard (a/k/a “Little Boy Fuller”), or another local guitarist, John Dee Holeman.
One important musician that he met in Durham was Blind Boy Fuller. Willie was NOT one of the many Fuller acolytes that developed due to Fuller’s very successful recordings (unlike his brother – see above nom de disque), having become fully formed as a musician before that meeting took place. He and Rich went with Fuller to his one-off 1937 recording session for Decca in 1937: they were Willie’s only issued commercial sides up to that time – Richard recorded for Savoy in 1949.
Bruce and I tracked down Willie in 1969, thanks to the assistance of Thurman Atkins of the (black) Carolina Cab Company He also directed us to Floyd Council and Richard Trice as well, thanks to his network of cabbies tracking them down for us! I began seriously recording Willie in 1970/71 after he had lost both legs due to adult onset diabetes – it gave him something to do in his homebound state, and he produced many great and original sides for me. Willie was always a gentleman and a caring person the whole time I knew him, and one hell of a guitarist as well. He was an important part of my southern experiences who sadly died in late 1976. I still believe that he waited until I had made one last visit to see him before he departed us all.
Peg Leg Sam – vo/hca: b. Arthur Jackson near Jonesville in Union County, SC he was one of the finest harmonica players to ever come out of the Piedmont region, one who was noted by many other musicians in their travels. Brownie McGhee made mention of a one-legged harp player who played two at once, one with his mouth, and one with his nose. That could have only been Sam! An inveterate traveller, he lost his right leg near Raleigh while attempting to hobo a ride on a freight car. In spite of this loss, it did not slow him down one iota… he was truly a travelling man!
Sam started performing with medicine shows in the late 30’s as a straight man and a dancer – he always used his med show material to good advantage in later life! Introduced to me by Baby Tate on 1970, I recorded him at length from that year until 1972, originally with Tate and later with his friend, Rufe Johnson. Later on, he got involved with some of the North American folk music circuit, and was a big hit with those audiences (including Canada [Mariposa] and Philadelphia) until his death in Jonesville, SC 27 October, 1977. Sam was an unique musician, a one-of-a-kind entertainer, and one of the most unforgettable characters I’ve ever me (to steal a title from The Readers’ Digest!)! We’ll never see his like again, folks.
Nor any of the other above musicians… mortality always wins out.
These tapes were recorded by me on the evening of 8 November, 1972 at the concert given on the campus of UNC – Chapel Hill under the aegis of The Students’ Union and the Folklore Department. Sit back and enjoy it as if you were actually there on that momentous occasion! A famous first, yes, but there’d be more to come in 1973 as we figured the concert concept would fly on an even bigger scale with more and varied musicians!! That idea turned into a three-night “extravaganza” week-end early the following year that I also recorded, so… “watch this space”.
“The right place at the right time” (Dr..John)
PETER B. LOWRY recording producer/engineer practicing folklorist and teacher music journalist and still photographer
Sydney – 2018
 “… with the help of the Students’ Union at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) and folklore professor Daniel W. Patterson, I put on the first ever blues festival in the [white] South, predominately featuring bluesmen whom Pete Lowry and I had located.” [in 1973] – Bruce Bastin – RED RIVER BLUES, University of Illinois Press (1995) Urbana, IL, p. xi.
 Later recorded for The Music Maker Relief Foundation in Hillsborough, NC.