Archive for the ‘Music History’ Category

Born May 8th, 1911 near Hazlehurst, Miss.

Initially, Robert Johnson was a bit of a mystery to many researchers.  He travelled around a lot and went under many different names when he travelled and played.  Robert went by the names Dodds, Moore, James, Barstow and Spencer, among others.  Robert Johnsons’s grandparents were born into slavery.  His mother was married to a man named Charlie Dodds before he was born.  They owned their own land and house, but after his father injured a (white) man in a fight, he fled to Memphis and changed his last name to Spencer (hence one of Robert’s psuedonyms).  After Charlie fled, Roberts mom married another man name Noah Johnson, and had Robert.  In 1914 Robert and his mom moved to Memphis to be with Charlie Dodds, her 10 other children, Charlie Dodd’s mistress, and their 2 children.  THen his mom left them for 2 years, came back asked for Charlie’s permission to remarry, and she and Robert (then around 4 or 5 years old) moved back to Mississippi, to Commerce near Robinsonville (right by what is now the Tunica Casino resorts). 

Robert apparently got his first guitar in 1927, just a year after the first blues guitar record was ever released (Blind Lemon Jefferson, 1926).  He showed no interest in farming, and just wanted to play guitar. 

In 1929 Robert got married (he was 18, she was 16) to Virginia Travis.  On April 30th, 1930, she gave birth to a baby and they both died during labor.

Just a few months later, Son House and Willie Brown came to town.  Robert bugged Son House to teach him guitar.  Son tried, but felt that there was no hope in teaching Robert to play.  Robert was somewhat of a baothersome kid to Son and Willie, but they tolerated him.  Around 1930 or 1931 he decided to search for his real father, and went sounth to Hazlehurst, Miss.  He stayed in Hazlehurst for at least a year, maybe 18 months, and took guitar lessons from a man named Ike Zimmerman (you’l also see this spelled Zinnerman, and Zineman, etc., but the corect spelling according to family is Zimmerman).  In 1931, while in Hazlehurst, Robert got married again, this time to Calletta “Callie” Craft, a woman who already had 3 kids of her own.  As Robert Johnson travelled around, he had many short-term girlfriends.  The bluesman Robert Lockwood, Jr is said to be the child of Robert Johnson and one of these girlfriends (Virginia Smith).  Also, a man named Calude Johnson is reportedly his son as well, and through him there are grand children and great-grand children.  Robert Johnson happened to have had Virginia Smith as his girlfriend right before he met Callie Craft.

Jumping ahead a little bit here…  Robert Johnson died peniless.  In those days, some bluesmen were recorded and given a Pepsi and cab fare home, while the record company made tons of money (and still do to this day).  Decades later, Johnson was “rediscovered” by blues researchers going down south looking for the old bluesmen that made those 78 records back in the 30s and 40s (it was during a trip to Clarksdale to search for Robert Johnson that Muddy Waters was discovered and recorded for the first time).  In 1961, the album “Robert Johnson King of the Delta Blues Singers” was released on 33 with 17 of his singles on it.  Then artists such as Elmore James and Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones started covering Robert Johnson songs in the 60’s.  Suddenly his recordings were worth something.  Since most of those artists thought that there was no longer any copyright on these songs, royalties were never paid to anyone, and there was never any next of kin for him.  There was no estate or anything.  In 1973 Carrie Thompson, Robert’s half-sister filed as next of kin forming Robert Johnson’s Estate.  She was also the owner of the 2 famous photos of Robert, the one taken in a photo booth, and the one taken at the portrait studios on Beale Street in Memphis.  These photos reveal that Robert had a lazy eye, which comes into play much much later in this story.  She was now able to participate in royalties for Robert’s work.  In 1983, Carrie died and left her step-sister who was not related to Robert in anyway in charge of his and her estates.  This took until around 1989 for the courts to uphold and grant her rights to everything.  Then the net year, Columbia released “Robert Johnson The Complete Recordings” which surprisingly shot up the charts (I had a few friends that bought the box set that I would never have guessed had an interest in old acoustic blues).  Then the estate grew large, and the following year Claude Johnson came forward, claiming to be Robert Johnson’s illegitimate son.  His mother and childhood friends corroborated the story.  Also, once Eric Clapton was made aware that there was no an estate (around 1989) he and other musicians donated millions in back-royalties to the estate.

Supposedly within weeks of marrying, Robert moved to Clarksdale, Miss with Callie.  His constant touring around, never being home, forcing her to deal without him and with her children alone, and the general stress on their marriage seems to have taken its toll on her.  On time, Robert left her to go out on the road.  She died shortly afterwards.  During his time in Hazlehurst, playing with and learning from Ike Zimmerman, Robert’s guitar playing improved remarkably.  He was no longer some annoying kid with no potential on the guitar.  He was now, only a year or two later, playing as good or BETTER than Son House and Willie Brown!  Well, apparently he DID have some promise!  It is also worth noting now that when he was learning from Ike Zimmerman, Ike taught him to practice the guitar in cemetaries late at night.  This way there was no one around to complain about the constant practicing and there were no interruptions.  This sudden improvement in Robert’s playing was the seed of the selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads story.

Around 1933 Robert hooked up with fellow blues msuician Johnny Shines and they used to tour around the South, though Robert often just dissappeared for weeks at a time, sometimes in the middle of a gig.  Dave Honeyboy Edwards was another blues musician who toured around with Robert Johnson later on.  They met in Greenwood, Miss near some railroad tracks, somewhat near where Robert would soon die.  During his travels, Robert went to Chicago, Memphis, and all over the south.  Johnny Shines called Helena, Arkansas home whereas Robert called Clarksdale home during this time.  Johnny lived in Helena, Ark because during that time it could be dangerous for a travelling (read vagrant) black man, and things were far better (racially speaking) in Arkansas than they were in Mississippi.  It was around this time that Robert got involved with Estella Coleman, Robert Lockwood, Jrs mother.  Estella was 15 years older than Robert, and had already had Robert Lockwood, Jr. 

Around 1936 Robert Johnson went to H.C Spier’s store in Jackson, Miss.  H.C. Spier was a store owner and also a talent scout.  Spier sold blues records, and then turned talent scout in 1926 for companies such as Okeh, Victor, Columbia, Vocalion, Paramount, etc.  He even had a record cutting machine for printing demos right in his store.  He brought many great bluesmen to the major record labels before Robert Johnson walked in his store, such as Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson, Son House, Skip James, Willie Brown, and the Mississippi Sheiks.  Spier put Robert in touch with Ernie Oertle, who eventually recorded Robert in San Antonio, Texas on November 23, 1936 in room 414 at the Gunter Hotel.  Johnson played mostly facing the wall.  This was initially thought to be because he was shy.  However he played in juke joints, on street corners and in front of people with no problem before, and there were likely only a couple of people in the room when he recorded.  The more likely explanation is that he faced the wall for acoustics reasons.  It just sounded better in that room with him facing the wall.  He recorded 16 songs, along with alternate takes of these songs.  At that session he recorded “Kind Hearted Woman Blues,” “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” “Cross Roads Blues,” “Come On In My Kitchen,” and “Terraplane Blues.” 

In 1937 Robert went to Dallas, Tx. for his second recording session at a makeshift studio (also owned  by Brunswick Records) at 508 Park Avenue.  About 11 songs were recorded, all with alternate takes.  6 of his songs had been released around the country as race records by the time he died.  Terraplane Blues (from the San Antonio sessions) soon became a hit in the south, and it ended up being his most requested song.

In August of 1937, Robert had been playing at a dance near Greenwood.  Different accounts put this in different places.  The current Wiki entry for Robert Johnson states that this dance was about 15 miles from Greenwood.  However, the account by Dave “Honeyboy” Edwards, who was with him that night, puts it in a different location just outside of downtown Greenwood at a place called Three Forks, where 3 roads come together.  There are several 3 Forks in the area.  The one that Dave Edwards points out and takes John Hammond, Jr to in the film “The Search for Robert Johnson” is at the intersection of Hwy 49E and Hwy82/Rte7 in the north-west corner of that intersection, just west of Greenwood (located in the center of the map here).  As you can see from the map, its not 15 miles outside of Greenwood.  The tale goes that Robert drank from an open whiskey bottle that had been poisoned by someone at the dance (such as the bartender) because Robert had been flirting with his wife or girlfriend.  He suddenly fell ill that night, and eventually died 3 days later on August 16th.  While he was sick and dieing, he was taken to a neighborhood in Greenwood called “Baptist Town.”  Baptist Town is an area in Greenwood that lies north of Carrolton Ave and East of Short St.  Robert Johnson lived in Baptist Town for the last few months of his life.  Dave Honeyboy Edwards says that Robert died in a house on the North-west corner of Young and Pelican Street in Baptist Town.  Now there is no house there anymore, just an empty lot with a huge sign stating that Robert Johnson died there.  However, other reports state that he was in Baptist Town for a couple of days and then taken to the Star of the North plantation where he was to get medical attention, and died there.  The death certificate states that he died “outside Greenwood,” which supports the Star of the North plantation theory, and the fact that his body lies buried at Mt Zion Church not far from the Star of the North plantation also supports this theory.

Some have discounted the poison theory.  They say that a poinson would have likely killed him rather quickly and not over the course of 3 days after taking it.  There is a plausible theory that Robert actually had Marfan Syndrome.  This is a genetic illness whose outward symptoms include long thin fingers, a lanky body, eye problems, and can cause aortic dissection, which would explain his death and the accounts of him “on his hands and knees howling and barking like a dog” (which strichnyne poisioning would not cause).  The theories of syphillis have been discounted.

The location of Robert Johnson’s grave has also been the source of some mystery.  There are currently 3 gravde markers for Robert Johnson (in Quito, Morgan City, and just north of Greenville).  The Quito location:  This location is where a place called the Three Forks Store was located.  This was initially thought to be the Three Forks in the story about where he was poisoined.  It turns out that it was not.    This place was linked to Robert Johnson’s death by one of his girlfriends named Payne Chapel, M.B. Church as his final resting place.  There was no grave marker there, and she stated that Robert wouldn’t want flowers put on his grave because he was in Hell anyway (for playing Blues, I assume).  The book “Blues Travelling Holy Sites of the Delta Blues” states that the grave marker that is now there was purchased by a Georgia rockband called The Tombstones.  The Morgan City Location:  There is no place called 3 forks here, but there is a Mount Zion Missionary Baptist church here.  It was stated that Robert was buried at “Zion Church” on his death certificate.  An organization called “The Mount Zion Fund,” which erects tombstones on the graves of famous musicians (in addition to Robert Johnson, they have erected graves for Charley Patton, Memphis Minnie, and others – read about it here), erected the gravestone located here.  This is now known not to be the gravesite of Robert Johnson.  There is something cool about this grave though… since they did not know exactly where the grave was on the property, they placed the gravestone close to the road, inspired by the lyrics to Robert Johnson’s song “Me and the Devil Blues”:

“You may bury my body down by the highway side
So my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride”

The Greenwood location:  Just north of Greenwood there is a church called Little Zion Baptist Church on Money Rd.  This site was recently ID’ed by a Rosie Eskridge, who at the age of 22 had her husband dig Robert Johnson’s grave at this Church.  She belonged to this church until 2006 (when she died).  The grave marker there is approximate.  She remembers that while the grave was being dug, the casket sat in the shade under the big tree, so the hole was right near it.  Rosie knew who Robert Johnson was but was not a blues fan herself, doesn’t like talking about the grave, and never attempted to mae a dime off of knowing the location of the grave.  Therefore there is very little doubt to her story.  Here is a picture of the gravestone at this site (you can see the trunk of the big tree at the top of the pic, behind the gravestone):

 

The cross roads and the devil
Well, most everyone knows the story.  Robert was not a great guitar player.  He then went to the cross roads at midnight, where he stood in the middle of the road and started playing.  Soon someone walked up behind him, and tapped him on the shoulder.  He handed his guitar to the devil while never turning around to look at him desperately.  The devil took the guitar, tuned it up, and played a song and handed it back to Robert Johnson.  From then on Robert could play that song.  One variation of the myth says that he could now play any song by hearing it once, another said that he did this for every song he wanted to know.  Of course, this never happened.  Also there is no cross roads.  The myth comes from the HooDoo (not VooDoo) tradition.  There is no single cross roads.  It can be ANY cross roads.  But the tourists want to find the particular cross roads where Robert Johnson sold his soul.  In my research I probably found a dozen and actually visited a handful of them.  So where did the story come from?  Well before Robert Johnson, there was a blues singer named Tommy Johnson.  In fact, Robert used to tell people that he was “one of the Johnsons” or “one of the Johnson borthers” referring to himself, Tommy and Lonnie Johnson.  Well, Tommy Johnson used to tell the story of how he sold his soul to the devil at the cross roads.  He said that at midnight he’d go to a cross roads and try to play a song on his guitar.  A large dark figure would come up to him from behind and tap him on the shoulder.  He would pass his guitar to the dark figure who would tune it up, and teach him how to play the song.  So Tommy told this story with some embellishments (referring to the dark figure as the Devil, etc.).  Robert likely had heard the story and knew of the HooDoo tradition as well.  Well, when he came back to the Clarksdale and Robinsonville areas after being in Hazlehurst for 12–18 months everyone soon discovered that Robert was remarkably better than he was the last time they saw him.  Someone likely remarked that he must have sold his soul to the devil to suddenly be able to play like that.  Robert capitalized on that idea and ran with it every now and then.

The story had basically been forgotten to time.  However, in 1966 Son House told the story of Robert Selling his soul to the Devil at the Cross Roads to Pete Welding of Down Beat magazine, and the story was revived and soon became the legend that we all know today.

So where is the cross roads?  The old story says that they are at the intersection of Hwy 49 & 61.  In Clarksdale at 49 & 61 there is a sign (that looks a lot bigger in photos than i does in real life).  However, thats really at the intersection of N. State Street and 322, and not at 61 & 49.  Back in Robert Johnson’s day, 49 & 61 intersected right near where E. Tallahachie and 322 intersect (but this is no a 3 way T intersection).  Other stories put them in a few different places, like North of Clarksdale, between Clarksdale and Tunica.  Some writer once asked Son House for “the real location” of the corss roads.  Son obliged the question, and played along and gave the writer what he wanted.  An exclusive.  The REAL location of the corssroads.  Of course it wasn’t true.  He mentioned where 2 roads crossed in Rosedale.  Those 2 roads, however, form a T intersection.  They are not the crossroads.  To see other locations, check out my Blues Map!

Born in 1897 just outside of New Orleans, Minnie was singing on the streets by her early teens.  She may have played electric guitar as early as 1942.  She straddled the between country and city blues.  She died virtually forgotten in a Memphis nursing home in 1977.  Her show consisted of a mix of popular songs, Gershwin, etc. in addition to blues.  Blues players had to be well rounded enough to take requests.

 

She is, in many ways, the link between pre-War acoustic and post-War electric Chicago blues. She is probably best known today for “When the Levee Breaks” which she wrote with her second husband Kansas Joe.

She was one tough lady – could drink many men under the table and would spit tobacco all while wearing an elegant ball gown. This is probably what it took if you were going to play with the likes of Willie Brown who Minnie worked with down in Mississippi for about a year.

She was an incredible singer and one heck of a guitar player. Willie Moore reportedly called her a “Guitar King.” Minnie played in standard and Open D and Open G tunings. In the early 1930s she got into a cutting contest with Big Bill Broonzy and Minnie walked off with the prize – a bottle of whiskey.

She and Son House were two of the first to “discover” National Resonator guitars.  H.C. Spier used to tell a story of Minnie and Kansas Joe blowing into Jackson, Mississippi after a Chicago recording session. They showed up in a brand new convertible car with the first National Tricone anybody in those parts had ever seen.

By the early 1940s Minnie was working out of Chicago and took to playing a National wood body electric, working with either a drummer or bass and a drums – providing a roadmap for the Chicago blues players that would follow. Because she went electric, Minnie escaped the fate that befell most pre-War players of having to work as a janitor or freezing to death on a street corner. Minnie continued to play in front of audiences until disabled by a stroke.

The year was 1927 and Calvin Coolidge was president. In that year, the Mississippi river valley, and especially the state of Louisiana, suffered the greatest flood in its history.  Memphis Minnie McCoy (born Lizzie Douglas) would have lived through the devastation. Born June 3rd, 1897, in Algiers, Louisiana, at the age of 13 she had run away from home. In Memphis, Tennessee she played guitar in nightclubs. Her 1929 song, “When The Levee Breaks” (co-authored with husband Joe), was later recorded by Led Zeppelin and released in 1971.

In May of 1927, at Melville, Louisiana, the levee broke. Men, women, and children scrambled to unbroken sections of the levee.

All last night I sat on the levee and moaned.

The nation had been preoccupied with relative frivolity and had not especially noticed what was happening in the Mississippi Valley. Charles Lindberg’s trans-atlantic flight, for instance, consumed attention. Complained Herbert Hoover, “I sometimes wonder if the people of our country realize just what this calamity is. Do they know that before the flood recedes more than half a million Americans, men, women and children, will have seen their homes swallowed up in the deluge…”

When the levee breaks I’ll have no place to stay.

Economic pain was tremendous. Crops were destroyed and businesses were ruined. This was in 1927, two years before the stock market crash supposedly caused the Great Depression.

Don’t it make you feel bad
When you’re tryin’ to find your way home,
You don’t know which way to go?
If you’re goin’ down South
There ain’t no work to do,
If you’re goin’ North,
There’s Chicago.

Memphis Minnie did move to Chicago, in the 1930s. It was “the city that works,” “the city of the big shoulders.” There, she recorded nearly 200 records. In 1957, she returned to Memphis. Memphis Minnie McCoy passed away on August 6th, 1973.

The 1927 flood covered 15,000 square miles, an area larger than Belgium. It was “a national calamity. Nothing else since the Civil War [was] in its class… Millions of words have been written about the [1927] flood.”

Blind Willie McTell (May 5, 1898 – August 19, 1959)

 

Born William Samuel McTier (or McTear) in Thomson, Georgia, blind in one eye, McTell had lost his remaining vision by late childhood, but became an adept reader of Braille. He showed proficiency in music from an early age and learned to play the six-string guitar as soon as he could. His father left the family when McTell was still young, and when his mother died in the 1920s, he left his hometown and became a wandering busker. He began his recording career in 1927 for Victor Records in Atlanta.

 

In the years before World War II, he traveled and performed widely, recording for a number of labels under a different name for each one, including Blind Willie McTell (Victor and Decca), Blind Sammie (Columbia), Georgia Bill (Okeh), Hot Shot Willie (Victor), Blind Willie (Vocalion), Red Hot Willie Glaze (Bluebird), Barrelhouse Sammie (Atlantic) and Pig & Whistle Red (Regal).  Bridging the gap between the raw blues of the early part of the 20th Century and the more refined East Coast “Piedmont” sound, he took on the less common and more unwieldy 12-string guitar because of its volume. The style is well documented on John Lomax’s 1940 recordings of McTell for the Library of Congress, for which McTell earned ten dollars.

 

McTell is unusual, if not unique, among country bluesmen in his ability to play the guitar in both the ragtime style similar to Blind Blake, and bottleneck slide blues style.  His playing in both idioms is masterful, fluid and inventive; based on multiple recordings of the same song (for example, “Broke Down Engine”), he never played a song the same way twice. His style could almost be called “stream of consciousness,” as he would vary the bar pattern and sometimes even the rhythm and chord progression from verse to verse. McTell was also an excellent accompanist, and recorded many songs with his longtime musical companion, Curley Weaver; their recordings are some of the most outstanding examples of country blues guitar duets. See, for example, “It’s a Good Little Thing,” or “You Were Born to Die.”

In 1934, he married Ruthy Kate Williams (now better known as Kate McTell). She accompanied him on stage and on several recordings, before becoming a nurse in 1939. Most of their marriage from 1942 until his death was spent apart, with her living in Fort Gordon near Augusta, and him working around Atlanta.

Post-war, he recorded for Atlantic Records and Regal Records in 1949, but these recordings met with less commercial success than his previous works. He continued to perform around Atlanta, but his career was cut short by ill health, predominantly diabetes and alcoholism.

In 1956, an Atlanta record store manager, Edward Rhodes, discovered McTell playing in the street for quarters and enticed him into his store with a bottle of corn liquor, where he captured a few final performances on a tape recorder. These were released posthumously on Prestige/Bluesville Records as Blind Willie McTell’s Last Session.

McTell died in Milledgeville, Georgia, of a stroke in 1959.  He is buried in Thomson, Ga. and every year the Blind Willie McTell blues festival is helpd there.  In addition, Atlanta’s most prominant blues club, “Blind Willies” is named after him.

He was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1981.

McTell is best known to many folks today for songs like “Statesboro Blues” (Allman Brothers & Taj Mahal – who by the way gave himself a songwriting credit) and “Broke Down Engine Blues” (Johnny Winter). Statesboro is where McTell learned to play.  Jack White of The White Stripes considers McTell an influence (their 2000 album De Stijl was dedicated to him and featured a cover of his song “Your Southern Can Is Mine”), as did Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. Bob Dylan has paid tribute to McTell on at least four occasions: Firstly in his 1965 song “Highway 61 Revisited” in the second verse, which begins, “Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose,” referring to one of Blind Willie McTell’s many recording names; later in “Blind Willie McTell” (recorded in 1983 but released on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 in 1991); then with covers of McTell’s “Broke Down Engine” and “Delia” on his 1993 album World Gone Wrong. In his song “Po’Boy”, off the 2001 album Love & Theft, Dylan again paid homage to McTell by appropriating the line “had to go to Florida dodging them Georgia laws” directly from the latter’s “Kill It Kid”.

Like other seaboard Piedmont players, McTell’s music is lighter sounding than the Delta Blues and very danceable. Very ragtimey sounding with a touch of Appalachian ballads and string music thrown in. What distinguished McTell from crowd was his fast and clean style of playing.
McTell played the vaudeville and Medicine Show circuit, often with his wife Kate. McTell made his first recordings in 1927 and eventually recorded over 120 songs in 14 sessions. Beginning in 1931, McTell had Curley Weaver as his side man. Ya always knew when Curley was going to solo when you heard McTell shout “Kick it Six.” Even after Weaver struck out on his own, McTell would still yell that line and just leave the space where Weaver’s solo would have been.

McTell was one of the few bluesmen to continue playing and recording after World War II. His last session was in 1956.

James James “Curley” Weaver
1906 – 1962
Curley was born in Newton County and came to Atlanta in 1925 by railroad to join his boyhood friends Charlie and Robert Hicks. He first recorded in 1928, and performed and recorded extensively with Buddy Moss and Blind Willie McTell. Like Moss and McTell, Weaver was also a member of both the Georgia Cotton Pickers and the Georgia Browns. His daughter, Cora Mae Bryant, who performed his music in many blues scenes in Georgia until she passed away on Oct. 30th, 2008, also frequently accompanied him.

Charlie Hicks (aka ‘Laughing’ Charlie Lincoln) (1900-1963)

Charlie Lincoln was born Charlie Hicks in Walnut Grove, GA, in 1900. When he was young, his parents moved the family to Newton County. He and younger brother Robert (who later became known as BBQ Bob Hicks) first showed an interest in music. Their family wasn’t too musical, so they were soon taking guitar lessons from a woman named Savannah “Dip” Weaver. They instantly became friends with her young son James, better known as Curley, and often practiced together.  After a while, these three were often seen playing at local frolics and fish fries with a young harmonica wizard named Eddie Mapp, who had moved to the area about 1922. Charlie moved to Atlanta in 1923, the first of his circle of Newton County friends to do so. He married, settled down, and got steady work, first in a foundary, then a bakery, and finally at a paint factory. He only played music on the side, and one wonders if his wife had anything to do with that. Unlike his easy-going younger brother, Charlie Hicks did not make friends easily; he kept to himself, got moody at times, and was not like the laguhing character on some of his recordings. When he did play around Atlanta, he often worked with Robert, Curley, and Eddie (or some combination thereof) and rarely played with other musicians.

After his younger brother’s first hit, Charlie was brought into the studios with him to record for Columbia in 1927. He recorded with his brother as part of The Georgia Cotton Pickers and as a duet in addition to making his own records. Columbia released his records under the names “Charlie (or Charley) Lincoln” and “Laughing Charley”. No one could say why “Lincoln” was used, though it was the maiden name of Eddie Mapp’s mother. He recorded steadily over the next three years, though only three of his own records were released.

His brother’s death from pneumonia in 1931 hit him hard, coming two years after his mother’s and one year after his sister-in-law’s. His sister recalled that “he was just a different Charlie altogether”, and his life fell apart. His marriage broke up (his wife later dying of pneumonia as well), and after his father’s death in 1935, he became an alcoholic. By 1955 he had already attacked two or three persons with a knife. Then on Christmas Day, his trouble deepened. He was in a rough section of town and, according to him, tried to stop a man from beating his common-law wife. When the man threw a bottle, Charlie shot him. Eyewitnesses said that Charie shot the man for no apparent reason. He was found guilty and given twenty years. In prison, he continued to play his twelve-string, though he’d only play religious songs. Big Joe Williams recalled meeting a twelve-string player at the prison, but didn’t realize that he was “Charlie Lincoln”. Hicks’ parole was was turned down after seven years; soon after that, he died of a brain hemorrhage.

Eugene Moss ,”Buddy,” “Gene”
Jan 26, 1914, in Jewell, Georgia, October 19, 1984, in Atlanta, Georgia
played Harmonica, Guitar (and vocals)

Buddy Moss, born Eugene Moss, was born in 1914 in Jewell, Georgia. He was one of twelve children from a sharecropping family in Warren county. When he was four years old his family moved to Augusta, Georgia, where he taught himself how to play the harmonica in order to entertain people at parties. He spent the next ten years in Augusta until he picked up and moved to Atlanta where he met up with the likes of Barbecue Bob and Curley Weaver. They were impressed with Moss’s aptitude on the harmonica at such a young age, and Moss accompanied them with the Georgia Cotton Pickers in a recording session at the Campbell Hotel in Atlanta in December 1930. This was Moss’s first recording experience ever. Moss stayed busy for the next three years teaching himself how to play the guitar and in January 1933, Moss put out his own record through the American Recording Company in New York City.

Paul Oliver said, “His first titles revealed him as a competent guitarist with a swinging style that made effective use of bass string rhythms and of raising a note by ‘hammering on.’”  This first recording session consisted of eleven tunes, and by mid-September 1933 he was recording another twelve songs. This time, however, Curley Weaver and Blind Willie McTell were accompanying him. The summer of 1934 saw Moss outselling everyone in the industry and continued to do that when he teamed up with Josh White in 1935. Moss was arrested that year however for either murdering his wife or fighting to the death with one of his rivals, depending on which source you read. He was released from the Georgia prison system six years later due to good behavior and a good word from James Baxter Long, Blind Boy Fuller’s “manager.” This may have been due to the fact that Blind Boy Fuller was dying and Long needed another star.

Moss moved to Elon College, west of Burlington, North Carolina, where he worked and lived in Long’s home, working in the fields during the weekdays and in Long’s store on the weekends. When World War II commenced and the government banned the use of shellac used in 78 rpm discs, the industry collapsed. This created a huge decline in recorded blues during this period. Moss worked odd jobs through the rest of his life such as elevator conductor, truck driver, and tobacco farmer. In 1964, however, Moss visited Josh White at one of his concerts at Emory College (Emory University, or Oxford College of Emory University?). Moss was recognized by the academics there and asked to play in festivals such as the Newport Folk Festival in 1966 and the Atlanta Blues and Grass Roots Festival in 1976. Moss had had a hard life and did not wish to continue touring. Eugene Moss died October 19, 1984, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Blind Boy Fuller (born Fulton Allen) (July 10, 1907February 13, 1941) was an American blues guitarist and vocalist. He was one of the most popular of the recorded Piedmont blues artists with rural Black Americans.  He born in Wadesboro, North Carolina

 

He worked as a labourer, but began to lose his eyesight in his mid-teens. According to researcher Bruce Bastin:

 

“While he was living in Rockingham he began to have trouble with his eyes. He went to see a doctor in Charlotte who allegedly told him that he had ulcers behind his eyes, the original damage having been caused by some form of snow-blindness”.

 

However, there is an alternative story that he was blinded by an ex-girlfriend who threw chemicals in his face.

 

By 1928 he was completely blind, and turned to whatever employment he could find as a singer and entertainer, often playing in the streets. By studying the records of country blues players like Blind Blake and the “live” playing of Rev. Gary Davis, he became a formidable guitarist, and played on street corners and at house parties in Winston-Salem, Danville, and then Durham, North Carolina. In Durham, playing around the tobacco warehouses, he developed a local following which included guitarists Floyd Council and Richard Trice, as well as harmonica player Saunders Terrell, better known as Sonny Terry (eventually from the duo of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee) and washboard player/guitarist George Washington.

 

In 1935, Burlington record store manager and talent scout James Baxter Long discovered him and secured him a recording session with the American Recording Company (ARC). Allen, Davis and Washington recorded several tracks in New York City, including the traditional “Rag, Mama, Rag”. To promote the material, Long decided to rename Allen as “Blind Boy Fuller”, and also named Washington “Bull City Red”.

 

Over the next five years Fuller made over 120 sides, and his recordings appeared on several labels. His style of singing was rough and direct, and his lyrics explicit and uninhibited as he drew from every aspect of his experience as an underprivileged, blind Black person on the streets — pawnshops, jailhouses, sickness, death — with an honesty that lacked sentimentality. Although he was not sophisticated, his artistry as a folk singer lay in the honesty and integrity of his self-expression.

 

A decade younger than Blind Blake, he was not as accomplished on the guitar, but was a much more expressive singer.  His music sounded older and less urban, more directly linked to the country traditions.

 

In April 1936, Fuller recorded ten solo performances, and also recorded with guitarist Floyd Council. The following year, having auditioning for J. Mayo Williams, he recorded for the Decca label, but then reverted to ARC. Later in 1937, he made his first recordings with Sonny Terry. In 1938 Fuller, who was described as having a fiery temper, was imprisoned for shooting a pistol at his wife, wounding her in the leg, causing him to miss out on John Hammond’s “Spirituals to Swing” concert in NYC that year (which I believe is the same one that Robert Johnsons was scheduled to appear at before he died). While Fuller was eventually released, it was Sonny Terry who went in his stead, the beginning of a long “folk music” career. Fuller’s last two recording sessions took place in New York City during 1940.

Fuller underwent a suprapubic cystostomy in July 1940 (probably an outcome of excessive drinking) but continued to require medical treatment. He died at his home in Durham, North Carolina on February 13, 1941 at 5:00 PM of pyemia due to an infected bladder, GI tract and perineum, plus kidney failure.

He was so popular when he died that his protégé Brownie McGhee recorded “The Death of Blind Boy Fuller” for the Okeh label, and then reluctantly began a short lived career as Blind Boy Fuller No. 2 so that Columbia Records could cash in on his popularity.

Blind Boy Fuller’s final resting place is Grove Hill Cemetery, located on private property in Durham, North Carolina. State records indicate that this was once an official cemetery, and Fuller’s interment is recorded. The only remaining headstone is that of Mary Caston Langey.

Fuller’s repertoire included a number of popular double entendre “hokum” songs such as “I Want Some Of Your Pie”, “Truckin’ My Blues Away” (the origin of the phrase “keep on truckin’”), and “Get Your Yas Yas Out” (adapted as “Get Your Ya-Yas Out” for a later Rolling Stones album title), together with the autobiographical “Big House Bound” dedicated to his time spent in jail. Though much of his material was culled from traditional folk and blues numbers, he possessed a formidable finger-picking guitar style. He played a steel National resonator guitar. He was criticised by some as a derivative musician, but his ability to fuse together elements of other traditional and contemporary songs and reformulate them into his own performances, attracted a broad audience.

 

He was an expressive vocalist and a masterful guitar player, best remembered for his uptempo ragtime hits including “Step It Up and Go.” At the same time he was capable of deeper material, and his versions of “Lost Lover Blues”, “Rattlesnakin’ Daddy” and “Mamie” are as deep as most Delta blues. Because of his popularity, he may have been overexposed on records, yet most of his songs remained close to tradition and much of his repertoire and style is kept alive by other Piedmont artists to this day.

 

 

Born: August 6, 1900, Clarksdale, Mississippi
Died: December 30, 1952, Tunica, Mississippi

Little is known for certain of the man whom Robert Johnson called “my friend-boy, Willie Brown” (in his prophetic “Cross Road Blues”) and whom Johnson indicated should be notified in event of his death.

Willie Brown was an outstanding guitarist as well as vocalist who had an enormous influence on the origination and development of Delta blues.  Thats right, he was not Robert Johnson’s harmonica playing partner as suggested in the movie “Crossroads”!  Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, Brown did, play with such notables as Charley Patton, Son House, and Robert Johnson, but he played guitar not harmonica.  He was not known to be a self-promoting frontman, preferring to “second” (accompany) other musicians.  Brown can be heard with Charley Patton on the Paramount label sessions of 1930, playing “M & O Blues,” and “Future Blues.”   Apart from playing with Son House and Charlie Patton it has also been said that he played with artists such as Luke Thomson and Thomas “Clubfoot” Coles.  At least four other songs he recorded for Paramount have never been found.  “Rowdy Blues”, a 1929 song credited to Kid Bailey, is disputed to have Brown on backup, or Brown himself using the name of Kid Bailey.

David Evans has reconstructed the early biography of a Willie Brown living in Drew, Mississippi, until 1929. He was married by 1911 to a proficient guitarist named Josie Mills. He is recalled as singing and playing guitar with Charley Patton and others in the neighbourhood of Drew.  Informants with conflicting memories led Gayle Dean Wardlow and Steve Calt to conclude that this was a different Willie Brown.   Evans, however, rejects this, believing that the singing and guitar style of the 1931 recordings is clearly in the tradition of other performers from Drew such as Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson, Kid Bailey, Howling Wolf and artists recorded non-commercially.

Alan Lomax added further confusion in 1993, suggesting that the William Brown he recorded in Arkansas in 1942 was the same man as the Paramount artist.  The recording was for a joint project between Fisk University and the Library of Congress documenting the music of Coahoma County, Mississippi in 1941 and 1942.  Writing over fifty years later, Lomax forgot that he had actually recorded Willie the previous summer with Son House, Fiddlin’ Joe Martin and Leroy Williams.   Brown played second guitar on three performances by the whole band, and recorded one solo, “Make Me A Pallet On The Floor”.

The later biography is clear. Willie Brown, the Paramount artist, lived in Robinsonville, Mississippi from 1929 and moved to Lake Cormorant, Mississippi by 1935.   He performed occasionally with Charley Patton, and continually with Son House until his death. After this, House ceased performing until his “rediscovery” in 1964.  Sadly, Brown died before the blues revival of the 1960s, when many of his contemporaries were rediscovered by blues scholars.

Eddie James “Son” House, Jr. (March 21, 1902 (Lyon, Miss)– October 19, 1988 (Detroit, Mich.)) was an American blues singer and guitarist.

House pioneered an innovative style featuring strong, repetitive rhythms, often played with the aid of slide guitar, and his singing often incorporated elements of southern gospel and spiritual music.

He was an important influence on Muddy Waters and also on Robert Johnson, who would later take this style of music to new levels.
A seminal Delta blues figure, House remains influential today, with his music being covered by many.

The middle of seventeen brothers, House was born in Riverton, two miles from Clarksdale, Mississippi.  Around age seven or eight, he was brought by his mother to Tallulah, Louisiana after his parents separated.  The young Son House was determined to become a Baptist preacher, and at age 15 began his preaching career.  Despite the church’s firm stand against blues music and the sinful world which revolved around it, House became attracted to it.  He taught himself guitar in his mid 20s, after moving back to the Clarksdale area, inspired by the work of Willie Wilson.

He began playing alongside Charley Patton, Willie Brown, Robert Johnson, Fiddlin’ Joe Martin, and Leroy Williams, around Robinsonville, Mississippi and north to Memphis, Tennessee until 1942.

He played mostly at weekend parties held at sharecroppers houses.  He would sometimes preach at various churches, and then go out that night and play blues.  Back then the two were virtually mutually exclusive.

After killing a man, allegedly in self-defense, he spent time at Parchman Farm in 1928 and 1929.  The official story on the killing is that sometime around 1927 or 1928, he was playing in a juke joint when a man went on a shooting spree.  Son was wounded in the leg, and shot the man dead. He received a 15-year sentence at Parchman Farm prison.

Beacuse of his association with the already recorded Charley Patton, Son House was recorded for Paramount Records in 1930 and for Alan Lomax from the Library of Congress in 1941 and 1942.

In 1934 he married his wife, Evie, to whom he stayed married for his entire life.

In 1941 he was a tractor driver on the R.E.Neunlist plantation when he recorded for Lomax.  On Sept. 3, 1941, Lomax and John Work III recorded Son House, Willie Brown, Fiddlin’ Joe Martin, and Leroy Williams at the Clack Store (which was also a train station, and is now an empty, flat plot of land) in Robinsonville, Miss.  He recorded again in 1942, and then in 1943 he moved out of the delta to Rochester, New York, and into obscurity…  for the time being.

He faded from public view until the country blues revival in the 1960s when, after a long search of the Mississippi Delta region by Nick Perls, Dick Waterman and Phil Spiro, he was “re-discovered” in June 1964 in Rochester, New York where he had lived since 1943.  House had been retired from the music business for many years, working for the New York Central Railroad, and was completely unaware of the international revival of enthusiasm for his early recordings.

He subsequently toured extensively in the US and Europe and recorded for CBS records.   Like Mississippi John Hurt he was welcomed into the music scene of the 1960s and played at Newport Folk Festival in 1964, the New York Folk Festival in July 1965, and the October 1967 European tour of the American Folk Festival along with Skip James and Bukka White. In the summer of 1970, House toured Europe once again, including an appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival; a recording of his London concerts was released by Liberty Records.

Ill health plagued his later years and in 1974 he retired once again, and later moved to Detroit, Michigan, where he remained until his death from cancer of the larynx.  He was buried at the Mt. Hazel Cemetery. Members of the Detroit Blues Society raised money through benefit concerts to put a fitting monument on his grave. He had been married five times.

House’s innovative style featured strong, repetitive rhythms, often played with the aid of a bottleneck, coupled with singing that owed more than a nod to the hollers of the chain gangs.

The music of Son House, in contrast to that of, say, Blind Lemon Jefferson, was emphatically a dance music, meant to be heard in the noisy atmosphere of a barrelhouse or other dance hall.

It was House who, speaking to awe-struck young blues fans in the 1960s, spread the legend that Johnson had sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his musical powers.  He was also the one who, later on, changed the supposed location of the crossroads by giving some writers the “true” location of the “real” corssroads (which was also completely bunk).

It is difficult to describe the transformation that took place as this smiling, friendly man hunched over his guitar and launched himself, bodily it seemed, into his music.  The blues possessed him like a ‘lowdown shaking chill’ and the spellbound audience saw the very incarnation of the blues as, head thrown back, he hollered and groaned the disturbing lyrics and flailed the guitar, snapping the strings back against the fingerboard to accentuate the agonized rhythm. Son’s music is the centre of the blues experience and when he performs it is a corporeal thing, audience and singer become as one.

MUSIC

James “Son” House (1902-1988) may have been the most powerful of the Delta Bluesmen.

While not as flashy a guitarist as some of his peers such as Bukka White, or as well known proteges (Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters both were schooled by Son), Son’s playing had a fierce edge to it. His voice and lyrics are powerful.

Son first recorded three tunes for Paramount in Grafton Wisconsin in 1930; My Black Mama (1 & 2), Preachin’ The Blues (1 & 2), Dry Spell Blues (1 & 2) as well as an unreleased version of Walking Blues.  His good friend Willie Brown traveled to Grafton with him and recorded Future Blues at this same session.

The Paramount records didn’t do well (as a result they are some of the rarest Blues 78s).  Son didn’t record again until August of 1941, when Alan Lomax made some field recordings of Son and Willie with a small string band.

They recorded again for Lomax in July of ’42. Ensemble pieces like Levee Camp Blues and Government Fleet Blues offer a glimpse of Son and Willie together.  Solo performances like Shetland Pony Blues (hear the train in the background?) and The Jinx Blues (1&2) from these sessions are among Son’s best.   Son did not make another commercial record until the “blues revival” of the 1960s. His influence, however, would be felt through the recordings of Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Robert Nighthawk, and other successful blues artists.  Modern Son House disciple John Mooney has combined Son’s Delta style with power trio Rock and New Orleans R&B to carry Son’s tradition into the 21st Century…

There’s a lot to learn here, musically and otherwise. Four O’Clock Blues is reminscent of Tommy Johnson’s Cool Drink of Water , the first words of Camp Hollers hint at where Howlin’ Wolf might have got Killing Floor from.

Son played various National single cones ( Duolians and Style “O”s), playing slide with a piece of copper tube(?) on his third finger in “Spanish”(Open G – DGDGBD) tuning.  By using his third finger ,Son was able to damp behind the slide and use his pinky for fretting.
The copper tube adds a gritty sound, which works great with a Duolian, Steel bodied “O” (or a new Delphi).

Son’s lyrics reflect the stark life he lead. This is the Delta Blues.

Patton made his first recording in June 1929, cutting fourteen songs for the Paramount label, all issued on 78s. Such was the success of his initial session that he was invited four months later to Paramount‘s new studio in Grafton, Wisconsin, where he recorded twenty-eight additional tunes.

Howlin’ Wolf, who moved to Dockery in 1926, recalled seeing Patton on the town square in Drew, not far from Dockery Plantation. Patton’s hypnotic three-note songs also deeply influenced Clarksdale‘s John Lee Hooker, who recorded his own version of Patton’s “Pea Vine Blues.” Bukka White also cited a desire “to come to be a famous man, like Charley Patton,” and demonstrated a similar knack for playing dance songs for extended periods. Patton’s last recording session was in New York City in February 1934, two months before his death.

Patton befriended House, who began working as a musician around the Kirby Plantation. In 1930, Patton brought him, guitarist Willie Brown, and pianist Louise Johnson to Grafton, Wisconsin, for a recording session with Paramount Records. House’s influence on the Delta School of musicians can be judged from a handful of recordings made in Grafton. His song “Preachin’ The Blues Part I & II” was a six-minute biography of his life and served as inspiration for Robert Johnson’s “Preaching Blues” and “Walking Blues.” House’s powerful vocals and slashing slide guitar style established him as a giant of the Delta School but did not lead to commercial success. House continued playing with Willie Brown during the 1930s and developed a relationship with a young Robert Johnson after moving to Robinsonville, Mississippi. After Johnson had learned to play guitar, he began to gig with House and Brown, learning the older musicians’ licks.

Tommy Johnson, the Crossroads, and Robert Johnson.

You all know the Crossroads story. Robert Johnson goes to the crossroads and sells his soul to the devil to become the greatest guitar player in the world. Thanks to a lot of misinformation this myth abounds. Only the original myth wasn’t about Robert Johnson at all! It was about Tommy Johnson (a fact that the movie O Brother Where Art Thou amazingly got correct!).

A quick note before I go on: How to sell your soul at the Crossroads:
Go to the crossroads (and it really is ANY crossroads, not a specific one) and stand in the middle of the intersection at midnight and play your best guitar. Someone (the devil) will come up to you from behind as you play. He will tap you on the shoulder. Without looking you hand your guitar to him over your back. He plays a few notes on the guitar and then hands it back to you. Congrats, you have sold your soul to the devil. Oh, and you still aren’t great. You have to continue to practice, but you will excel at an unbelievable rate, blah blah blah.

Anyway, around 1911 or so at about 15 years old Tommy Johnson wasn’t a great guitar player at all. He left his home in Mississippi and traveled. In his travels he met Charlie Patton and Willie Brown, who tutored him on the guitar. When he finally went back to Miss. he was not only significantly better on the guitar thanks to the tutiledge of Charlie Patton, but he also no longer sang religious songs, but sang the Blues (aka The Devil’s Music). He also drank a lot too. All of this together made for a very different person than the boy who left Miss., and led to the rumors of him selling his soul to the devil for his new skills on the guitar, and the reason for him now playing “The Devils Music”. So that’s the Crossroads story.  The story of selling your soul to the devil for riches, etc. is an old Hoodoo tale and can be traced back all the way to Africa.

Robert Johnson: Born in Miss. and moved to Memphis when he was 3. He stayed there till he was about 18 or so, and met Charlie Patton and Willie Brown when they travelled there, as well as Blind Lemon Jefferson when he traveled to Memphis, and met him again in Texas when he (Johnson) traveled there too. They taught him music.  In 1930, Robert’s wife and baby died during childbirth.  It was a few months later when Son House and Willie Brown came to Robinsonville, where Johnson was living.  Robert followed Son House and Willie Brown around wanting to play with them, but he was really bad, and so they wouldn’t let him play with them.  They did give him lessons here and there every now and then.  In 1931 he moves back to Hazlehurst, MIss., reportedly to try to find his father.  In Hazlehurst he meets a guitar player named Ike Zimmerman (or Zinnerman, either spelling seems to be OK).  For about a year Ike gives Robert Lessons, and he practices night and day, all the time.  At night he hangs out in a local cemetary and plays in the graveyard so that he doesn’t disturb anyone else with his playing in the middle of the night.  He then returns to the Clarksdale and Robinsonville areas in 1993 a MUCH better musician.  This was surprising to everyone, to say the least, often mystifying.  How could a kid who was so aweful dissapear for a year and then come back and play BETTER than his former teachers?

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