Various Artists SOUTH CAROLINA SKETCHES
South Carolina was the home to many great “folk” musicians, especially blues guitarists. Such notables as Gary Davis, Simmie Dooley, Josh White, and Willie Waker were denizens of that state for much or all of their life. It’s a state with a large cotton growing population with a parallel developing textile industry that took advantage of that which produced thread, cloth, and yarn and which produced many usually low-paying steady jobs. Those jobs tended to be grueling and dirty, but they were year-round and available to all poor folks, white or black, though still segregated. While cotton was initially the major crop for decades, that diminished by the 20th Century. Military bases later became one of the more common state “crops”, as well as some seaside tourism as well.
The state that kicked off the Civil War/War Between the States was very much a slave-holding economy (as were most southern states), with share-cropping later replacing that on an equivalent basis. There was not very much difference between the two. So, there were agricultural activities and added to that, the textile industry: Music was, as always, a part of the lives of all workers, white or black. Secular and religious musics were part of peoples’ lives; while a few made it into commercial recording situations, most did not and developed a local or regional repertoire and reputation.
The four above-mentioned blues guitarists recorded with different outcomes. Davis had the longest career as he ended up embedded in the folk circuit of the NE, as did Josh White. Davis became sort of an ikon to guitar players in all sorts of popular vernacular musics in his lifetime. Dooley recorded once (with Pink Anderson) for Columbia Records around 1930, and Walker did the same with Sam Brooks. Music was one of the few areas where a blind person could make a bit of a living. Simmie’s sighted partner (Pink Anderson) became better known and slightly successful for other than those records. He worked in travelling medicine shows for decades and recorded three LP albums for Prestige/Bluesville Records. Blind Willie Walker, on the other hand died young after his session (aged 30), but influenced almost all the budding guitar players in the Greenville/Spartanburg region. White became an early and successful black “folk” musician with an expanding white clientele, a darling of the political left.
One younger guitarist from Spartanburg was Charles Henry Tate, known as Baby Tate. He was initially located in Spartanburg by the inestimable Sam Charters in 1962, who recorded him for a Prestige Records’ Bluesville LP. He quickly became for us our first major informant in 1970 (as well as our friend). Tate introduced us to many other musicians who will also appear in this series. Roosevelt “Baby” Brooks (b. 2 June, 1902 in Greenville, SC), McKinley “Kinney” Ellis (b. 6 May, 1918 in Bluefield, WV), Pink Anderson (b. 12 Feb, 1900 in Laurens, SC), Wilbert (surname unknown), Providence Jacobs, and Peg Leg Sam (b. Arthur Jackson 28 Dec, 1911 near Jonesville, SC) were some we met over the two years that we knew him – Baby Tate died suddenly in 1972 of stroke, way too young at 52.
In a sense, this whole kit and kaboodle of my doing field recording (and masochistically) issuing stuff from them is a direct result of our meetings with Tate and his early death. A sense of great urgency came over me that drove me onward for a good ten years until I burned out from the intensity of it all. As mentioned, Tate was responsible for getting us together with a number of folks who still played. One was McKinley Ellis (known as “Kinney”), a guitarist Tate had played with much in the past. I was able to record half of a dozen songs from Ellis… Tate joined in on two. His selections are mainly not straight blues, but sacred songs and pop tunes – he was a southpaw and played guitar standardly strung and up-side-down! A good player and singer, I wish I had had time to track him down for more before Tate unexpectedly died in ’72.
Another of Tate’s “prey” for us was one Roosevelt Brooks (a/k/a “Baby” Brooks), another good guitarist who I was able to record only once. He and Tate worked over radio station WFBC-AM in the (Jack Tar) Poinset Hotel as “The Two Babies from Greenville” with washboard player “Chilly Wind” (Charlie Williams) in the thirties. He was a nephew to Sam Brooks, the “second” to Willie Walker – Baby Brooks often seconded Blind Joe Walker, Willie’s blind cousin. With Gary Davis about, there was certainly a lot of fine unsighted guitar-playing talent in the Greenville/Spartanburg area at one time!
The “biggest” name from this region of SC was Pink Anderson – his first name, along with that of NC’s Floyd Council, lives on to today as the designation of the UK rock band “Pink Floyd”! Pink Anderson was still around, selling moonshine, and holding gambling card games at his home in 1970. [see O&S #10] He, too, had had strokes (as had Floyd) and was not near his best playing, although he could still sing. As with Floyd, I attempted to record him, with middling results at best. The good news is that over time, he regained much of his dexterity and went on a tour with Roy Book Binder not long before his passing. I was at his show at The Folklore Centre in NYC (where I met Joanne Kelly) and Pink was able to “do” it rather well. Roy has tapes of some of the shows and I’d like to see them released, if possible.
One of the other greats that Tate introduced us to was the legendary Peg Leg Sam (Arthur Jackson), probably the finest Piedmont area harp player of all time. After I played a cut (“Fox Chase”) for the sainted Alan Lomax, he said, “My god, he’s better than Sonny Boy Terry!” Now Alan had exposure to both John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson as well as Sonny Terry, so that was, I felt, high praise, indeed! Here are a couple of his songs. For more information/background, go to my web site* and look under “Trix Notes” and read the liner notes for his LP, Trix 3302, “Medicine Show Man”. And there was a single duo cut with his brother, Monroe!
The death of Baby Tate shook up both Bruce and I at the time… losing not just an informant, but a friend hurt tremendously. We chased down Sam in 1972 as we heard he was “out” with Chief Thundercloud’s still-travelling medicine show. Sam’s brother, Bill, told us it was it was “Pittsbug in NC” (which turned out to be Pittsboro, NC) at a rural carnival. I recorded the two shows, the last of the season – and they turned out to be of the last “organically” done med shows ever. Chief Thundercloud (Leo Kahdot) went back home to Oklahoma (Pottawatomi country) where he died that winter.
Later on Peg took us to meet he who was the finest musical “find’ for me – Henry Johnson, known as “Rufe”. He was a superb singer and guitarist who also played harmonica, piano, banjo… and probably anything else with strings. For more on him, go to the web site* to the notes for Trix LP 3304 (“The Union County Flash!”) for more information.
PETER B. LOWRY Sydney (2020)