Posts Tagged ‘Blues Artists’

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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Robert Hicks, better known as Barbecue Bob lived from September 11, 1902 till October 21, 1931.  His nickname came from the fact that he was a cook in a barbecue restaurant. One of the two extant photographs of Bob show him playing his guitar while wearing a full length white apron and cook’s hat.

He was born in Walnut Grove, Georgia (west of Atlanta, a little bit north of Covington and Oxford, Ga.).  He and his brother, Charlie Hicks, together with Curley Weaver, were taught how to play the guitar by Curley’s mother, Savannah “Dip” Weaver. Bob began playing the 6-string guitar but picked up the 12-string guitar after moving to Atlanta, Georgia in 1923-1924. He became one of the prominent performers of the newly developing early Atlanta (Pre-Piedmont) blues style.

In Atlanta, Hicks worked a variety of jobs, playing music on the side. While working at Tidwells’ Barbecue in a north Atlanta suburb (Buckhead for those familiar).  He would often play as well as cook for the patrons, who often then brought him to parties to play after work.   Hicks came to the attention of Columbia Records talent scout Dan Hornsby. Hornsby was on his way to make some recordings in New Orleans, and decided to record other artists that he found along the way.  Hornsby recorded him and decided to use Hicks’s job as a gimmick, having him pose in chef’s whites and hat for publicity photos and dubbing him “Barbecue Bob”. Bob and his “Barbecue Blues” became a hit and granered him future recordings.

During his short career he recorded 68 78-rpm sides. He recorded his first side, “Barbecue Blues”, in March 1927. The record quickly sold 15,000 copies and made him the best selling artist for Columbia up to that date. Despite this initial success, it was not until his second recording session, in New York during June 1927, that he firmly established himself on the race market. At this session he recorded “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues”, a song inspired by the flooding of the Mississippi at that time – the same floods that inspired Charley Patton’s “High Water Everywhere” at close to the same time. This song, as well as his other blues releases, gained considerable popularity, and his records sold much better than those of other local blues musicians.

The two part duet with crosstalk, “It Won’t Be Long Now” was recorded with his brother Charlie (a/k/a Charlie Lincoln, or Laughing Charlie) in Atlanta on 5 November 1927. In April 1928 Bob recorded two sides with the female vocalist Nellie Florence, whom he had known since childhood, and also produced “Mississippi Low Levee Blues”, a sequel to “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues”. In April 1930, he recorded “We Sure Got Hard Times Now”, which contains bleak references to the early effects of The Depression. Although Barbecue Bob remained predominantly a blues musician, he also recorded a few traditional and spiritual songs including “When the Saints Go Marching In”, “Poor Boy, Long Ways from Home” and “Jesus’ Blood Can Make Me Whole”.  It was Barbecue Bob that brought Charley Hicks, Buddy Moss, Curley Weaver, and Eddie Mapp to Columbia Records’ attention.

Barbecue Bob also recorded as a member of The Georgia Cotton Pickers in December 1930, a group that included guitarist Curley Weaver and harmonica player Buddy Moss. As a group they recorded a handful of sides including their own adaptation of Blind Blake’s “Diddie Wa Diddie” (recorded as “Diddle-Da-Diddle”) and the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Sitting on Top of the World” (recorded as “I’m On My Way Down Home”).  These were the last recordings that Bob recorded.  They were recorded in December of 1930.  The depression hit the record industry hard, blues and other race records in particular.

He died in Lithonia, Georgia, of a combination of tuberculosis and pneumonia brought on by influenza, at the age of 29, on October 21, 1931, just as his guitar playing was becoming more inventive and original. His recording of “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues”(about the 1927 flood) was apparently played at his graveside before burial.

Bob developed a “flailing” or “frailing” style of playing guitar more often associated with the traditional clawhammer banjo (as did his brother, and, initially, Curley Weaver). He used a bottleneck regularly on his 12-string guitar, playing in an elemental style that relied on an open Spanish tuning (open G) reminiscent of Charley Patton.  He had a strong voice that he embellished with growling and falsetto, and a percussive singing style.

Bob had some influence on Atlanta blues musicians such as the young Buddy Moss (who played harmonica with him on The Georgia Cotton Pickers recordings), but his way of playing was quickly overshadowed by the finger-picked Piedmont blues style that rose in popularity by the late 20s/early 30s as can be heard in the development of the recordings of Curley Weaver. Barbecue Bob’s “Motherless Child Blues” was recorded and performed on stage by Eric Clapton. Bob’s elder brother, Charley, also played blues and was recorded by Columbia under the name “Laughing” Charley Lincoln. However, he never received the same acclaim as his brother.

IF ANYONE CAN FIND AN ADDRESS for Tidwell’s Barbecue (circa 1926), I’d love to know.  I can run down to wherever that is and snap some pictures.  I can’t seem to find anything on Google!

More videos and songs to listen to