George Torey made three sides in Birmingham, 1937, which is about four months after [Robert] Johnson recorded in San Antonio. One of them was called "Delta Blues," never issued. He also had that term in there "the jinx" which is a Mississipi word, but I think he's an Alabama bluesman but somehow he's done learned some relics from a Mississippi type background.
On a caliber with Johnson himself?
Yeah. He's not as good as Johnson, maybe didn't have that tremendous power that Johnson's trying to show when he's singing Son House type songs, I would love for that guy to have made six or eight more sides, just to be able to see how far he went because the thing about Robert Johnson, a lot of people don't really notice, is about 1937, the second session, he's recording some stuff that's not that good. You know he's gone through his top line repetoire. and he's doing stuff that's more modern appeal, or a Peetie Wheatstraw sound that was mediocre for Johnson.
What other artists are you aware of in Georgia, Alabama, Florida that you think are close to being on a par with Patton or Johnson?
I think you're looking at the two guys. Blind Willie McTell from Georgia and Blind Blake. It's a wholely different style of playing, more of a rag type playing in Blake. He's to the East Coast or the Piedmont or the ragtime, he's the best. It'd be like Patton or Johnson. And McTell has a very wide repetoire. I don't like a lot of those non-blues songs McTell does. McTell, you know, one of the really great records I listen to in my collection is "B&O Blues" and "Savannah Mama." One side has got a bottleneck on a twelve string.
While this music arose throughout the South there was this incredible concentration of it in the Mississippi delta.
I think two reasons. Number one there was probably almost a million blacks living in Mississippi in the twenties and thirties. I don't know the exact percentage. I would say maybe four or five hundred thousand in the delta. On Saturdays you got no record, you got no radio, you got no Victrola, no TV, you gotta go back before that when people entertained each other. Like on Saturday afternoons or Saturday nights or picnics on Sunday, and these guys just grew up and learned they could play that guitar and adapted real quick. And there was nobody there to show them how to tune and the first ten, fifteen, twenty years of it they tuned to an open chord or tuned to their voice.
We was listening to a Tommy Johnson record last night and my friend remarked "Hey, he's really tuned down low." Tuned to his voice. Hayes McMullen would do that too. He used to play in what we call Spanish G and he'd go down three frets below Spanish G where the pitch would be key of E. He got a certain sound that way. There were so many people there in that one area and what're you gonna do for entertainment? So music becomes part of the entertainment, the guitar blues it just rose up, there was so many people there who wanted to hear music. You can look and say "well it's hard times" but I'm gonna tell you something that'll surprise a lot of people. There were white sharecroppers in the delta. Very few people realize that. More than five percent were poor white sharecroppers. And the white and the black just intermingled in their music.
Way back in `63 when I took Bernie Klatzko to the delta, we were going where we knew Charlie Patton had died, we found a little old mom and pop store there and he had a brother who played the fiddle. And sometimes Charlie Patton came in and they played together. It was a segregated society and the black man was second, but musically they could get along. It wasn't totally segregated in that sense. They crossed the boundaries and played with each other. But I think that's why, the concentration of a lot of black people, they needed some kind of entertainment. What's hard for people to see today what the situation was in 1910, 1920. There was no radio, no Victrolas, no television, no telephone. What'd you do for entertainment? You hired somebody to play a little house party on Saturday night where you could dance, maybe you sell food, you may sell a little booze, and later on some of the plantation owners put up money for what we call a juke house, a juke house is just a place where you go to dance, juke means to dance. So you would go in there to dance on Saturday night, and sell a little whiskey on Sunday. Remember in the twenties everything was dry in Mississippi even before prohibition came Mississippi was a dry state and you couldn't get liquor except bootleg whiskey or you went to Memphis to get some real bonded booze. I think that's what happened. It happened in the other states too. Somewhere around about 1900 to 1910 the black man finds the guitar, makes it his instrument.
When did the harmonica enter into it?
That's a good question. The harmonica was not that prevalent in Mississippi. You take away Sonny Boy Williamson, Rice Miller, very few people ever played harmonica. Now one of the neighbors of Robert Johnson told me, this lady, Elizabeth Moore, she said that Robert played the harmonica a little bit when he first started out. Tried to play the harmonica then he went to the guitar. and she knew him as a teenager.
Do you place credence in that report?
I talked to her a lot of times and interviewed her playing Robert Johnson records. Her husband, Willie Moore, he was a musician. He would seek out these guys. He found Son House. He heard about Charlie Patton, went to find Charlie Patton, tried to play with him. He played second behind him sometimes. And he got thrown in jail for a day with Robert Johnson, who called himself Robert Sax. for singing about the town constable in Robinsonville, so he sought out these people, it was his type of life, he liked blues music. But again, you got to realize what very few people know, the blues musicians were the low end of the black social ladder. Your minister, your undertakers were the highest. Then you come down to your other church people, then you get down to the blues guys who were "doing the devil's work," There were hardly any middle class blacks in those days. You had preachers though and you had the social structure. But the blues man was at the very bottom of the pole.
The concentration of blacks in the delta region was due to the fertile soil and the cotton economy?
Yeah, and what they did, the delta was created from millions and millions of years of the Mississippi overflowing, it had that good black soil, and planters opened the delta up. Now Vicksburg and Greenville, places on the river, were already open in the 1890s. But by early 1900 they started clearing a lot of the swamps in the delta. They started planting cotton. Well, this meant jobs in the delta. A lot of people moved out of the hill country where they made very little money if any, I remember Speir said you could make three or four times picking cotton in the delta what you could workin' in the hill country.
So they decided the way to really go and make some money was to move to the delta and sharecrop. Dockery's had about two hundred and fifty families at one time, that's how big Dockery's was. People lived next to each other in the shacks, but if you worked hard at Dockery's you could succeed, he was an honest man. Some of the plantation owners kept `em in almost slavery by not paying any wages or you owed money at the end of the year. But that wasn't true of all planters, you know people have got that image maybe of Mississippi, that it was a feudal system but there were good people in that system too. Johnny Cash's daddy made a living in the thirties and forties and mid fifties in Arkansas as a sharecropper. So a lot of people forget that there was ever a white man in the delta but it was the best place to go and work. If you was a black person you could go and make a little money. And you lived there, and you know, these people lived together so they played music together. An example of this is the Mississippi Sheiks. They had a white sound.
Walter Vinson sings lead and Lonnie Chatmon plays that violin behind him. It's white sounding music. But it'd never been that much recorded by black musicians when "Sitting On Top Of The World" came out in 1930. Even though the depression had started it was a big hit. Black people liked to hear that because they could dance to that sound. See what people are forgettin' is there was a country dance sound around before blues, pre-blues, in other words there was a string band sound, maybe an old black guy'd play a banjo, especially in the other states, or he'd play a guitar and a fiddle, which is what Henry Sims was doing. Henry Sims had a black string band. You don't even think about that when you think about the delta, you think about the bluesman with his guitar and a bottleneck.
Something else that very few people realize sometimes is the delta was not totally bottleneck players. Now the outstanding ones, yeah you take Patton, you take House, you take Johnson, Willie Brown didn't play bottleneck. Kid Bailey didn't, Garfield Akers didn't. A lot of these guys did not play the bottleneck. It's like the bottleneck player was able to go one step further though, he come across as being a good blues player and a bottleneck player. You know he had a double type of whammy they put on people. It was hard learnin' how to play that slide. So that's what you're lookin' at, the delta was prime cottonland. None of the musicians before World War II called it a slide, they called it "bottleneck" playing. In other states some musicians used a pocket knife in place of the bottleneck.
So there was this accumulation of blacks because of the economy and not only were there blacks who lived there but blacks from the hill country or even other states...
Especially 'round about 1900. Early 1900s, late 1890s they were clearing these swamps, there were bear, there were panther up there, and they killed a lot of both of them. And drained the swamps. They set the land up and they started planting cotton. So the blacks came in there `cause in the hill country they made very little money. They'd work for a white man in the hill country, but earned practically no money. H.C. Speir said a sharecropper might make a quarter a day in the hill country, but over in the delta a black man could make a dollar or more a day.
There was this concentration in the delta and it gave rise to what we call the delta blues simultaneously in Alabama and Georgia very similar forms were arising from the past influences, the pre-blues, the string bands. And was growing up across even into Florida?
A lot of people say the delta is where the blues began, that's not true. Because out in Texas, Blind Lemon was developing a Texas blues style on the guitar, Blind Blake was playing blues on the east coast, Florida, Georgia. What it is is the influence of the guitar coming in being made available to the black man. He adopted it as his instrument and so wherever he found a guitar he started learning how to play himself or maybe somebody before him could play three chords or four chords, you know, the chorus. Then they started fingerpicking. Nobody had any picks in those days. Nobody had any tuning devices to tune with, a lot of these guys tuned to their ear or their voices. Texas: Blind Lemon, Blind Blake over on the east coast. Now remember the blind man in those days, the only way he could make a living was to sing on the streets. Number one, he couldn't work. He couldn't see. No social security in the 1920s. There's no unemployment check. Churches might have helped a little bit. But you played on the streets and begged and put out your tin cup and that's the way you made a living, only way you made a little money, how else? if you were a blind man and couldn't do it.
And a blind person might have a more acute sense of sound and tend to be good at it?
I think so. What amazes me, I got a record by Blind Leroy Garnett on Paramount called "Chain 'Em Down," 1929, he's a Texas piano player. How in the heck that man could play the piano without seein', you know Ray Charles does it without seein', but he's so fast, he's so good, so fast too. How did a blind man learn how to play piano? What they did, if you lived around Atlanta you could buy a guitar in 1900, you lived around a big city they had a music store, Sears Roebuck store, you could order you a guitar from Sears Roebuck. You lived in Georgia you could go to Atlanta, one of the bigger towns, you could buy a guitar.
Were they mostly Stellas?
I saw something the other day that said Stella did not go into business until 1936, in a guitar magazine, I think they were in business in the early twenties and before. A Stella cost about $9.95, Speir said he sold a lot of Stellas at $9.95.
And the Nationals didn't come in until...
1928. The first bluesman to play a National probably was Tampa Red. Tampa Red was playin' one by late `28. Minnie and Joe got one after leaving Jackson and Memphis and goin' on to Chicago. They had wood guitars and after they made some recording money they bought two tri-cone style ones. And Johnny Temple said they brought `em back to Jackson (1930), first guitars like that anybody ever seen in the Jackson area (or anywhere in Mississippi for that matter.)
Their virtues were that they were practically indestructable and extremely loud?
Yeah. But the tri-cones weren't as loud as say the single cone Nationals. Later on in the thirties you got Blind Boy Fuller playin' one, you know. They were great blues guitars. There were not a lot of Nationals in the delta, they were wood guitars. Eventually Son House ends up with one which he probably found in Memphis in a pawn shop or something. I believe that the 1941 or `42 Library of Congress session he's playing a National, it sounds like it. But you see a National costs $32.50, the cheapest, that's a lot of money. And the next one is $42.50 and it went to $62.50 and a tri-cone sold for $125 to start. Only people to have money to buy a tri-cone were musicians like Tampa Red who had recording money to go out and buy a new tri-cone.
What was the role of the piano as this music began and developed. How did that enter in to it?
It actually is this, see, there was two types of sounds, you got your blues is what they label it and that was the Origin Jazz people, a long time ago, labeled it, country blues, that's the man out in the country who plays a guitar, lives on a plantation or a farm. In the city, a black guy plays a piano. In other words he could come in, there were a lot more pianos in those days. You go to a little club, they'd have a piano there. I only remember one musician who played a piano in the delta before World War II, that was Louise Johnson and she was around Clarksdale and she heard piano records and started playing piano. A long time ago they said she played like, they thought it was Cripple Clarence Lofton, which it was not. She was a piano player. She lived on the King Anderson plantation just out of Clarksdale. She went on to Memphis later on. Where you gonna find a piano in the delta? You gotta go someplace, bring it out on a flatbed truck and put it in a house. A sharecropper didn't have the money and there were no piano stores near in the Delta. However a plantation owner could easily afford to buy a piano and have it shipped in.
A friend of mine holds pretty strongly that a lot of the guitar blues, the later guitar blues, T-Bone, B. B. King, a lot of the runs in that music are adopted from piano runs.
Sounds very true. I think so. You could even argue the point that Blind Blake playing ragtime is playing what he heard on the ragtime piano music and putting it to the guitar. I think you can argue that point, very good.
Doing what later Ian Buchanan and Stefan Grossman and a lot of white pickers would do...
Trying to replicate those very difficult ragtime pieces.
In the very early years, like 1900 to 1920 when blues was developing in different places all over the south, was a different style of playing the guitar. Now once you got in Mississippi you got that what I call tremendous energy. It jumps out at you. It's emotional, it's driving. But one reason for that also is not because they were protesting against the white man. It was dance music. You could do the slow drag, play slow blues and dance to the drag, or you could do an uptempo shimmy-she-wobble. You gotta remember that, so very few of the blues in the delta, this was in the 1960s, they said "yeah, it's a protest against the white man." It wasn't. Remember you had white sharecroppers.
Almost 90% of Mississippi's population in 1920 were sharecroppers or farmers both black and white. But it wasn't so much a protest against the plantation boss, they realized he was boss, he could run their butts off, it was about their women, and about problems in everyday life. Drinkin', women, that's what the blues were about. Back in the sixties they were all arguin' "well that happened because of the social conditions," I don't buy that. Because there were poor whites up there too. That's one thing you don't ever hear anybody mention I bet, there were poor white sharecroppers in the delta. Nobody seems to be aware of it, or to realize the importance of it. But I think the blacks are the greatest musicians in the world, the guitar just....bam! It showed up in those early years and they began playin' it.
(Innocent bystander) I been listenin' to you. My daddy-in-law said that they left from here during the depression and would go to the delta to hoe and pick cotton.
Had to. Wasn't no money around here.
I.B. That's right.
You go up there and get money, moved out of the hill country, you could work all day for a quarter in the hill country but you could make real good money pickin' cotton in the fall in the Delta. All the great bluesmen at one time or another went to the delta because of the money there in the fall.
I.B. What about, you said the pianos was in the mansions, some of the blacks learned to play that little old harpsichord in the mansions.
You go to a town like New Orleans or Birmingham, there were pianos galore. They have those little old clubs and you come in on Saturday night you play in the clubs. I was tellin' him about the thing in those days there was a lot of mingling between black and white musicians. Jimmy Rogers is the best example of that. He was white and he ended up learning a lot of those blues on the railroad here.
From a social standpoint, see, here's the difference between the 1950s and 60s, in those days the average white man is saying "that's an old nigger blues, don't pay any attention to `em." I'll tell you, in high school I didn't listen to Muddy Waters but I listened to Jimmy Reed, so we were into black music. We always realized it was there. Now, see, the state of Mississippi has turned around and now they capitalize on it: "blues is our culture, blues came from Mississippi so come here and visit Mississippi." You sell your best point there, that's what they got to sell.
And better late than never.
They enhance it now, see, even the black ministers up in Clarksdale, they're part of a thing to make that Blues Museum go well because they realize it's part of their culture.
What came before the blues, that more or less created it, the music that Charlie Patton would have heard coming up?
String bands. He'd heard black string bands. He'd heard a black fiddler and probably a black guitar player. Before the blues they were playin' string music. This is very evident if you get up in the Carolinas in the mountains and places like that where you had black fiddlers playin' with white fiddle bands. The fiddle and banjo was the predominant instrument up there where the guitar is in Mississippi. He would have heard songs like "Stagger Lee," things like that. But the blues basically is a three line form, you know that twelve bars, but we'll play "Runnin' Wild" by Charlie Patton, recorded in 1929 but it's a 1900 song. What it is basically, Charlie's singin', the fiddle player's playin', it's like white music. Old Charlie was smart enough to have a different sound behind some of his records, he had played with Henry Sims, see, when they were much younger. He ran into Sims and he just took him up for the recording contract. That's what they heard. The earliest thing I know of is old Handy saying he heard the bottleneck at that depot in Tutwiler in 1903. I would have thought 1910 would have been more about the time because nineteen three, that delta's just really opened up about 1900, a lot of the inner lands where there's so much swamp. But I guess 1903. But you heard ballads...
In that clearance there was a lot of work. What about work songs?
Your cheapest labor was the Mexicans and Chinese.They and the poor black man cleared those swamps at the same time and that gave them the chance to hear each other pick the guitar. I can just see the Mexican guy playin' something late in the afternoon, the black guy sayin' "Well let me see that." Play a lick or two, then he sees it's a way to entertain people which makes him stand out in his community. Work songs or cottonfield hollers is probably where it started. Before that, maybe black string music. Or maybe church music. Nobody knows whether the blues came out of the church, that's one argument that I don't have an answer for. I'll be the first to say I don't know. Lomax back in the fifties was saying the beginnings were convict gangs chopping wood, so forth was where the blues began. .
It could at least have had a rhythmic, or a vocal or a lyrical influence. It may not have been responsible for the whole thing but there were areas it would have been, areas it would have tended to affect.
Well Speir was sayin', he was a kid up here in the hill country, he heard the blacks working in the fields and singing, he said "I knew it would go." So he got a chance to put some people on record, he went lookin' for black musicians, he said "I knew it would sell."
That's a very vital point.
Oh yeah. He liked the music, but he also realized it would sell. He said "late in the evening it would sound lonesome, it would sound like an old hoot-owl. They was singin' out in that field, you would hear `em singin'." What he said was they would sing in the fields while they chopped because it was easier to make the time go by a little better. But the black was not singin' so much about segregation in those days, that was the big argument in the sixties during the folk boom and the big civil rights days. "You're oppressing these people and they're oppressed and that's why they're singin' these blues." That's not my opinion. It may have had something to do with it, but the white sharecropper was oppressed also in the delta but you didn't have any great white blues singer that came out of the delta..
You've made the point that in those early days there was no radio, Victrolas, and that the artists that developed in that first generation therefore had an individuality, they weren't cross-influenced by a lot of other people except who they might happen to hear on the street corner...
They had a basic core approach to the guitar. Everybody, Bracey, Johnson, they'd all go to the delta in the fall during cotton pickin' time `cause there was a lot of money up there. So what they'd do, they'd play on the streets on a Saturday and say "we're gonna have a party out at such-and-so's house tonight" `cause there was a lot of money to be made in those days when the cotton came in in September and October. Speir said that was when records sold the best by the way, in the fall, September, October, November. Didn't sell anything in January and February. No one had any money. Then you get back in the springtime like March or April and you start plantin'.
What I told you, Charlie Patton was the first professional musician in the delta. People like David Evans are going to contend he was part of a tradition that was handed down. I don't buy that. Charlie Patton was an innovator, the first great delta bluesman. He was the individual who brought what he heard together and made it better. Robert Johnson takes what he heard from everybody in the twenties and makes it better in the thirties. Patton I think started out hearing like chords, strumming, then he developed a blues style from that.
Who are some of the other artists, they may not have been as powerful or popular as Patton, but who demonstrated that same kind of individuality?
There was a guy named Tee-Nincey Wade (Tee-Nincy was a southern slang for being extremely small in heighth) that played with Charlie, there was an old man named Dee Irvin that Booker Miller remembered. He said he used to throw his guitar over the back of his head and dance around and play, he said he could holler like Charlie. Miller said what they did in those days, and Hayes McMullen told me, if you go to that dance, you got an acoustic guitar they can't hear very well, the people there drink and dance so when the people there start drinkin' and dancin', he said you gotta holler so people can hear what you're sayin'. He said "A lot of times I just stopped playin', singin', and I just pat the side of the guitar hard and stomp my feet to keep a rhythm for the people to dance to." Blues were dance music, see, that's what a lot of people don't realize.
There were two type of blues, the street blues singer and the dance musician, the dance musician was like Patton, he plays uptempo, you can dance a fast dance to it. Your street musicians played more of a slow drag. Blind Lemon would be a street musician who didn't play a dance rhythm. Your Blind Blake played both a street and a dance rhythm. It was entertainment. That's what a lot of people don't realize. A lot of people have trouble with the concept there's no radio, no television, Victrola or nothing before 1920 in the black communities. About twenty five, twenty six, late twenties some were getting Victrolas in the delta. They'd buy `em in Greenwood or Clarksdale on weekends people would go to those houses to listen to the latest records. That's why records were so successful in the twenties. It was the only way you could get music.
Which blacks were able to afford a Victrola?
Common laborers probably didn't but some of the more affluent sharecroppers could.
A guy who brought in a good crop one year?
Right. I found `em in small towns. I didn't find a lot of Victrolas in the sixties on plantations. The main reason they had moved out of the plantations was because the tractors came in. The person who could really buy one was the black woman who worked as a white man's cook. What a lot of people don't realize, about ninety percent of the records were bought by women, not men.
That's still the case.
They bought the Victrola. It was money they made working for the white man.
Can you fit Leadbelly into this picture.
It's just another sound. It grew up locally there on the Texas/Louisiana border. But what's unusual about it is the twelve string gets in there. But see, this guy I was tellin' you about yesterday, Dad Nelson, he plays the twelve string before Leadbelly and he's from East Texas. He records in `26 or `27. Leadbelly don't record until 1935. But Leadbelly was playin' blues on a twelve string guitar in the twenties. The question becomes why the twelve string guitar in that part of the country. Now, down in Texas, in San Antonio the twelve string was played some. It's a big town I guess, where you could buy one. Otherwise, if you were a street musician, it obviously stood out more if you had a twelve string guitar, gave a more fuller sound. I'm sure it was bought for that reason. Over in Georgia, around Atlanta, all those guys played twelve strings. Barbecue Bob, McTell played a twelve string. It sounds like George Carter plays a twelve, all those guys played twelve strings.
Because Leadbelly ended up in a certain social environment in New York in the forties, or early fifties maybe, he was classed as a folksinger rather than a bluesman.
Folk music was big in the thirties and forties. Again, you got New Yorkers sayin' they don't understand the southern music. If you're going to sell him in New York City you called him a folk singer, not a bluesman.
No more or less so than Mance Lipscomb, this man was as much a part southern black music as Patton or McTell.
Both Mance and Leadbelly were bluesmen, but Leadbelly ended up in New York and became a folk legend while Mance was found in the 1960s. He had been playing his style of blues since the 1920s but he had never recorded. `til he was about sixtyfive. He played an older style. Those older styles developed in Texas too. Again, the reason they developed is because they weren't listening to the radio. Now when records come in it did influence `em. Like, for instance, Hayes McMullen used to tell me, he said "Mr. Wardlow, I sure did like that Blind Lemon. He had the best words." So he'd take it and play it with a delta rhythm on the guitar but sing the words. The words of Lemon. Lemon was tremendously popular in Mississippi and all through the delta. And his words, his songs, a Mississippi man takes `em, does a little uptempo version of them, wow! It's so much better!
As we touch on the question of New Yorkers and their take on this music, you occupy a pretty unique position as a Mississipian who has pursued this music very, very deeply as against a lot of people from either the northeast or even overseas that have come here to study this music...
Well, I was just a pioneer. I really am in a sense because...it kind of happened, evolved...here's the background, Paul Oliver was over here in 1959. He came to Memphis, that's where he photographed Bo Carter, come on down and was going to different places, so he was actually the first person to come and try to do a little research. The Charters book came out in `59, I read it in Jackson about `61 and I got to thinkin', well my God, if he can find things out about these Texas guys, I'll see what I can find out about the Mississippi guys. And it kind of evolved from that. And I started knocking on doors for black records, and just kind of naturally fell in to ask the questions. And I was doin' it, Joel, because, by damn, I wanted to show some of those son-of-a-bitches up east, that not all Mississipians were white redneck hicks.
I never hated blacks. I didn't associate with `em in high school, it was still segregated, but I never hated `em and I'd go around `em. Me and a friend of mine went to Jackson in 1960 to hear Jimmy Reed at Jackson State College We were the only two white people there. Sat down in the front row, and I went to talk to Jimmy before the show `cause I liked his music. I was tryin' to get him to listen to a song I had written that I wanted to get him to record. It was called "Cora Lee, Cora Lee" I didn't realize until years later that we intetgrated a black school, were the first white men in Mississippi to integrate a black school. And now, remember, James Meredith didn't go to Ole Miss until 1963.
Jimmy Reed was an incredibly seminal artist. He was certainly the guy that pulled me into it.
He crossed the boundaries from the black to the white.
How far back into Mississippi did Jimmy go?
He went to Chicago after World War II. Late forties, early fifties.
Would he have been active in Mississippi before he went to Chicago?
He probably played a little bit. I don't think he ever had a reputation,
Not like Muddy?
Old Muddy was not that famous in Mississippi before he went to Chicago and started the post war blues.
Not famous, but he was playing and listening...
Yeah. He was with Henry "Son" Sims' band, before he went to Chicago during World War II. Reed went up there in the late forties, went to work in the steel mills in Gary, Indiana, and developed his own little sound. What was unusual about him was the way he played the harmonica with the guitar, like what they did in the Carolinas. Harmonica and guitar together. Sonny Boy, Rice Miller, was the only real harmonica player in Mississippi of any stature, it was a guitar oriented place.
Not only as a native Mississipian, but as a journalist by trade, you brought two special and appropriate qualities to the research work you did.
Well, yeah, it really was. I seen a 1950s history of jazz, that death certificate on Bix Beiderbeck. I got to thinkin' one day, I worked around newspapers, I knew about city directories, and nobody at that time had ever used `em. So I went, in 1965, I went out there and put in with the health department Tommy Johnson, Charlie Patton, WIllie Brown, Robert Johnson, death certificates for `em. Gave an idea about when and where he might have died. They looked over a three year period. They found `em all except Robert's. Didn't find it. Willie Moore heard he was killed around Hernando up there, just out of the delta in the hill country.
Who was it who came up with the Johnson death certificate?
I did, the first time, three years later. See, after not finding one in Mississippi, I tried Texas `cause the Columbia notes said he may have been murdered right after recording in Texas. Found one on Robert Lee Johnson who was a white man. And tried Arkansas, nothing, Tennessee, nothing, then I went back and tried Mississippi again in late 1967 and they found it. But the reason they found it was two reasons. Blues writer Pete Welding had published an interview with Honeyboy Edwards, in a `downbeat.' Edwards said Robert was killed near Greenwood. Went right back and put in for it again with LeFlore County as the place of death, and there it was. They missed it three years earlier because I didn't have the right county. I gave the possible dates of death as 1937, 38, 39, let `em look in those three years and "bingo" they found it..
I published it in `71 in Blues Unlimited. Kept it for about two and a half years, we were trying to save it for that book see. I told Calt, I said "hey somebody's gonna break it, somebody's gonna find one and publish it. I just don't want to be scooped man." In the newspaper business you're taught, "don't get scooped by somebody else. You break the story before somebody else does."
But Mack McCormack found one about six months after I did. He found it independantly himself. But you know that was basically my claim to fame, most of the books say I found the death certificate, which is true, I did. But nothing was known about Johnson. See, the death certificate gave how old he was; everybody thought he was 18 or 19 or 20 when he was killed. He was at least 26, almost 27. Gave his mom and dad's name and his birthplace, Hazelhurst. I was the first person to publish the death certificate. First person to publish the contents of city directories. I went to Memphis, went through the city directories about 1970 and published an article about it in Blues Unlimited, about who was in the city directories in the 1920s and thirties. Then researchers began to pick up on this later on, especially death certificates. That's why you see a lot of death certificates in the 70s and 80s on these guys. They found out, hey, you can get a death certificate on `em.
A great deal of your published writing has been done in conjunction with Stephen Calt. Can you tell me a little bit about him and how that partnership came to be.
It's interesting, see, what it was, Nick Perls was in college, City University, he met Calt at City University or somewhere in New York City. And they somehow got on to the blues and they heard about Klatzko. So Perls went out and listened to some of the records, so he decided he wanted to come south and find some records. So him and Calt, they buddied up and they came south in the summer of `64, like August, same summer those civil rights workers was killed, right up here about 39 miles. Some of those people who did the murders came from Meridian. Klan was real strong in Meridian. When they got here I said "oh no, we're not goin' with no New York license plate" (laughs). See that summer, what happened was, this organization called SNCC, they were sending white college kids from the north into the delta and Mississippi to register voters. It was hot, a lot of tension. I took `em in my car, Mississippi license plates, and we went to Vicksburg and over into the Louisiana delta, and I kind of taught Perls how to canvas. But in our trips, see, Calt didn't want to be a record collector, he was more interested in the history of it. So we got to talking, and after he went back we just kind of hit it off more. We started corresponding. I said, "wanna write a book?" He said "we can write a book on Mississippi blues" He said "I'd like to write it with you." I said "All right, let's write one." So I started sending him information and he started working on the chapters.
You did more the field work and he did more the writing?
Yeah, I did 90% of the field work. I sent him tapes and let him transcribe them. I'd sit down with somebody and play a record, this guy Willie Moore talking about Patton or House, people he knew. I just sent the tapes up and he transcribed `em and started working on the chapters. Then he'd send me back a chapter and I'd say "all this is right, that's wrong." But basically I didn't want to write a book, I didn't have the patience, so it worked out real good. And he had a viewpoint, he wasn't coming from that very liberal viewpoint at that time with the blues because of the black man's hardship with the white man, things like that. He was more conservative in his viewpoint so I thought we made a good team because here's a New Yorker looking at blues from up there, and here I am, a Mississippian working with somebody in the East.
You had books coming out at that time, like by Leroi Jones, damning the white man and segregation and the blues which he claimed evolved because of the miserable suffering they went through, but they never mention, like I told you, that the white sharecropper lived under the same circumstances in the delta also. After the clearing of the delta, the Mexicans left and the Chinese stayed and opened little busineses and stores. And life was not easy out here at all even for the poor white man living in the hill country. He didn't have no money. He looked down upon the black man, kept him in "his place"...let me tell you something about the race relations, the poor white man who worked in a sawmill, that kinda job, the black guy was a threat to take his job, more than it was, say, in the delta. So he was always afraid of that, trying to "keep the nigger, down in his place."
That's what the real civil rights movement was about; it was economic. It wasn't so much about the fact they were "colored." The biggest problem in race relationships in Mississippi came down in places like McComb, that's south Mississippi, which was real Klannish, like the hill country. The Klan never functioned in the delta. The planters would not let it start. They run it out of the delta. They were not going to give their control over the black man, the sharecropper, to these guys who wore these white sheets. So the planters were very much against the Klan and they realized they needed the black man to make their living too. The clan was big here (Meridian), in the hill country, down in south Mississippi. I was not pro-Klan. I didn't want people killing people. I worked as a newspaperman, we were always pretty liberal in our viewpoints. .
The relationship between blues music and race relations is a very interesting question and I understand that the early music did not contain any text that was of a protest nature, it did contain commentary on the relationship between the black man and the white man because this was a crucial relationship in the delta.
But at the same time, what you'll hear a lot of times in the old old black..."captain's hold til my money comes" see, they always called the overseer of the plantation the captain. You hear a lot of old blacks singin' about the captain told me this and that. Ain't no doubt about it, he was the captain, you'd do what he said to do. But, all I have to say is, I didn't mean to get on it right now, relations are a hell of a lot better in Mississippi between black and white now than they are in Chicago or Detroit or New York City where the black man lives still in a segregated area. Or, the fact is, integrated housing is what they resent the blacks for in the north. They don't want to live next to the black man in the north.
Perls is gone, what was his significance in the blues revival?
See, Perls, he was a college kid in his twenties. And basically, what he did was, he started liking the blues. He heard Bernie Klatzko's collection first. 1963 Bernie came here and we went in the delta and did research on Patton that was published that following year in the Origin notes. Bernie had told Perls how we knocked on doors for records int he delta. Perls just decided he wanted to come south and doorknock for records. They knew I started out doorknockin'. Perls and Calt came down. We hunted records in Arkansas. About 1967 he started Yazoo, at first called Belzona by the way, and he turned around and changed the name to Yazoo after two or three issues.
Somebody else owned the name?
They went to Yazoo and did about fifty or sixty albums before he died in 1987. But Perls legacy became the fact that he put out these albums consistantly. He realized Whelan and Givens were so slow, Whelan was taking a year between albums , so he just came along..he was borrowing tapes from out of the Klatzko collection at that time. But he became the number one reissuer of the blues and he really helped blues music become popular, especially in Europe and England. Perls was an arrogant type. "I know it and you don't." He never wanted to admit that anyone else knew as much or more about Mississippi blues as he did.
His parents owned the Perls Gallery on Madison Avenue. He had money to bring to this pursuit so not only could he doorknock for records, but when you found one or Klatzko found one that you all knew was an awful rare thing, he was in a position to make substantial offers on some of these records.
What happened, he started out collecting. Later he bought the Klatzko-Whelan collection (Whelan had sold his country blues collection in the late seventies to Klatzko.) He had so many dupes. He already had an E- copy of "My Black Mama" by Son House he had turned up in New York but the Whelan-Klatzko collection contained an E+ copy that was found on Long Island by a jazz collector in the fifties. Whelan had reissued that song from that copy on a Mississippi blues anthology. Perls got blood sometimes. He got some great records from Don Kent for his Son House dupe. That Son House, I'd love to have had it too, but I didn't have anything really I was willing to trade. I fell out with Perls because in 1967 I sent some records to Bernie, not Perls, to carry to Perls to tape and he never paid me the money we agreed on. He's got money galore. At that time they were picturing me "that guy down south, he knows all about these blues singers and he won't tell us about it and that's criminal." That was his criticism in those days of my research.
Was Perls' thrust to acquire material for Yazoo or was he a collector seeking for completeness and quality...
He was a collector first. He actually liked the music. He did contribute a lot by doing the albums. That's where his legacy is.
In the Peavey Monitor interviews you talk about Speir being the pivotal figure in bringing the music to record. Wasn't Perls even more pivotal than Whelan, in that he was issuing more, in terms of popularizing this music to a broader audience in the sixties?
But he also did it to make money. You gotta remember that. It wasn't just out of the love of his heart. His family had a lot of money....He wanted to show his family he could make money and be successful too. But he was extremely difficult to try and trade records with.
But the net effect that it had, whatever his reason for doing it, is that it brought this music to a much wider audience.
I totally agree. He deserves every accolade. Without the Yazoo reissue program the blues would not be nearly as popular as it is today.
To where Van Ronks and Kweskins and a lot of white folkies, Dylan even, got opened up to these musical influences.
Definitely. Like the Johnson album came out in `61, got bought in England, in London, some of the Rolling Stones guys, but they were also buying, the Origins got into the specialty shops in London, so they were buying those Origins in the early sixties, they used to send them to me. They'd send me a copy when it come out. I'd just take names on the records, start looking for guys by those names if I thought they were from Mississippi. Whelan sent me a list one time, you know, and Klatzko, and they said "these guys we think are from Mississippi" but nobody knew anything about `em. Perls did that. Later on, see about 1985, him and Calt were always thick with each other. Basically because they started out together. Steve would write the liner notes for anything that Perls put out for a long long long long time. He didn't go with that romantic view of the singers themselves. He didn't try to build Johnson up. I just see it as factual. Johnson was another bluesman that come in Speir's store and he had more than two or three songs, he had enough songs to record. Yeah, he was good. But look at the guys he found, House or James, these guys. He worked with Johnson. Just another blues singer. Walkin' in the door tryin' to make a name for himself, make a record.
What happened see, with someone like Evans, see, what it was, man, probably it was jealousy. Here's Wardlow down in Mississippi finding these old bluesmen.I'm gonna find `em too, which was fine. I helped the man when he first got started. I gave him a copy of the Tommy Johnson death certificate. He used it in his masters thesis. And later on, that King Solomon Hill thing where he bombasted me, but I'm happy to say One Last Walk Up King Solomon Hill proved it was all right. A lot of jealousy going on in the sixties, trying to find these guys, trying to make a name for yourself. Like Perls, what Perls did in `64, he got together with those two guys and they come down to Robinsonville looking for old House, he was in Rochester. Drove all the way back to Rochester to find the guy. When I was up there looking for him they told me he'd gone to St. Louis by the way. I didn't have any money. In those days, Joel, I'd go out looking for records with three, four and five dollars. Enough money to get enough gas to go maybe a hundred miles and turn around. It was fun, exciting, a challenge. It was competitive.
You told me yesterday you met Henry Stuckey, Skip James' mentor...
Around about 1965 or `66, he was living in a miserable little shack just out of Bentonia with no screens on the windows or door.
How old a man was he?
He was probably in his sixties at that time. He was born about 1900, a little before Skippy. I think James was born in nineteen two or three. So Stuckey was in France in World War I, so he was at least 18 years old.
That's where he got the tuning from, the E-minor tuning. He heard it from some black soldiers in France. He said it came from somewhere , down in the Carribean, that's all he knew.
When he came back he made some songs in this tuning but never recorded.
He showed `em to James. They played together a lot during the twenties. Johnny Temple said he was really a fine guitarist, people didn't realize, almost as good as Skippy. But he also frailed the old pre-blues style, he didn't just pick the E-minor tuning. He'd also tuned in cross-G and natural.
And Jack Owens, who blues critics claim is a representative of that style today, he came into the game much later down the line.
That's what I heard. I don't know what year. He told me he learned from watching Skippy and learned the tuning from Skippy.
You didn't ask Stuckey whether he had dealt with Owens directly?
At that time no one even knew him. He was just another guy playing a guitar in Bentonia. David Evans found him, that's Evans' tribute. He found Owens and recorded him first.
Were there any other representatives of this tradition?
There was a guy called Cornelius Bright, `67 or `68, that Evans also recorded, who played the same style.
And that's it.
It's just an isolated style, just totally isolated. Right there in that little area. But you know, James was such a great guitar player. What his greatness is, is songs like "Special Rider," and "I'm So Glad," those kinda songs. He's so fast, and so clean when he's hittin' the notes. I never saw James, I never saw Hurt, I never saw House. Never saw `em perform. They did not perform in Mississippi. They went from Washington to Boston and New York and that area. They played in coffee houses at that time.
But you do have their original 78s in clean condition?
Yeah, a few. When we get through with this we'll go look at 'em. Mack McCormack has built himself up as a figure of mystery, almost to the extent that Robert Johnson, the subject of his studies, has.
I'd like to learn more about McCormack.
He's been very difficult to find. Never met McCormack, but in about 1967 I wrote Paul Oliver and said "I have found the guy, King Solomon Hill, his name is Joe Holmes and he's from around Minden, Louisiana. Also," I said, "Ramblin' Thomas. He was from that same area. Blind Lemon used to come in here." I said "Holmes is not a Texan as you all probably thought he was."
Oliver and McCormack wrote me back a letter abd said "Please save this, we'd like to use it in our Texas book." However there was never any Texas book published . Oliver and him split later on. McCormack wrote me back a letter and said "I found Art Laibly (the Paramount recording director) too, in Chicago." McCormack said Laibly didn't remember very much about his Paramount days. I told him I'd found Laibly. First I found Ishman Bracey who led me to H.C. Speir. Then from Speir I got the names like Laibly, (Paramount), Polk Brockman (Okeh) and Oberstein (who replaced Ralph Peer at Victor). Me and Calt started trying to find the recording directors in the sixties, also, to do a book on recording the blues.
He clearly has been out in the sticks, beating bushes, doing field work. He collects.
Yes, he collects, he has records. He wrote excellent notes on Henry Thomas for the Herwin label for Bernie Klatzko. He probably started research in Texas about the same time I was researchin' Mississippi. He might have got started a year before me or about the same time. Somewhere right in there about `60. Like blues started in the early twenties, right about 1960 is the year things began to really start moving into place.
And if he has reasons for not publishing his Johnson research, the story goes around that he knows who the murderer is but that makes him an accessory or accomplice...
That's his way of justifying why he does not want to publish stuff. Number one, he could have written and said "so and so was the alleged or suspected murderer." If the man, which he said he went to find in Flint, Michigan, he said, "I can't write that, it might be libelous." It's not libelous. It's according to how you write it. You can always show it to a lawyer, ask the lawyer how to word it. I suspect that man is pretty well dead by now, who reportedly poisoned Johnson.
The other person who got out and did serious field work on Johnson was Steve LaVere.
I used to go up and visit Steve. I'd go to Memphis and look for records or get away, go up there for the weekend. I probably stayed with him two or three times and at that time he was having a hard time of it trying to make a living, just carrying these different musicians to different colleges and things. And being a photographer. We talked about Johnson some, and I remember telling him, "Steve, look," I said, "Johnson come from right down here twenty, twenty five miles away, Robinsonville." I said "I haven't been able to turn up any relative or anything." I said "why don't you jump on the man." I said "I can't write on both Patton and Johnson." I said "I'm going to stick with Patton." He said "Johnson's the man. I already had an interest in him and been asking questions about him" At the same time it was also the fact that he realized the possibilities. It's true. He turned those two pictures into sixteen percent of retail.
Thinkin' back, he was more into the postwar guys at first. He was trying to do that in Memphis first. But Steve was out there hustling. People forget that. I say hustling, he was out there knockin' on doors, tryin' to find information. I think, like you said yesterday, people have forgotten, overlook the good things he did like finding Harmonica Frank Floyd who was a total unknown 'til he found him living in poverty near Memphis.
It's easy to knock on a door and say "you got any of them old records?" but you gotta have your tape recorder and be askin' "do you know any of these old guys?"
I'd go walk on the streets and just start talkin' to `em, say "did you ever hear of Willie Brown?" "Yeah, I remember over Sunflower County, yeah, I remember ol' Willie." I said "oh, good." So I'd go to the car and get my tape recorder. Little portable, sat down and tape him, get him to come sit in the car where he'd feel more comfortable. Here's a white man come askin' about somebody played music thirty years ago, who probably drank, gambled, or whatever, they's kind of surprised sometimes, a white man is askin' about these old blues singers, but after they realized I had an interest in it, they talked, they were proud to talk about it. `Cause these guys were the names in their community.
There were several controversies surrounding your work. One was about King Solomon Hill....
That was Evans . Evans was sayin' I fabricated that story, it was a fiasco, that Joe Holmes was not King Solomon Hill. He based it on the fact that he'd been around McComb and Magnolia, right in there where Joe Holmes grew up. He said "I didn't find out anything about anybody named King Solomon Hill. He didn't find anything about King Solomon Hill because his name was Joe Holmes, nobody knew he made a record as King Solomon Hill. If he'd a carried a record of King Solomon Hill and played it for the people he might have come up with a different result.
That was a technique you developed.
Yes. Just seemed like to me...who'd I first use that with? Bracey. Brought some of the Origin albums and played them to Bracey, some of him. Learned real quick you find out a hell of a lot more playin' a record for somebody, they remembered. Or records by different guys, plus a name...you're talkin' about thirty years ago...yeahhh. "I remember so and so. What'd he sing?" Start playin' the record. With the Moores I went up there and played all of Charlie Patton's repetoire and all of Robert Johnson's to get the idea, what was Johnson singin' at such and such a time. They were the most valuable informants of all because she was married to a man named Glen and Robert Johnson come over one night and sat down on the porch and took her husband's guitar and tried to learn the one song that he knew. And he sat there playin' it and so forth and he said "Mr. Moore, I'm gonna make some records some day. I'm goin' to New York and make records." He already knew what he wanted to do in life. He wanted to make records. That was his goal, and he did.
You co-wrote a piece with Mike Ledbitter on Elmore....
He was working from England, see, and he couldn't get to the sources over here. He asked me, he said "Can you help on Elmore? I think it's very important." So he interviewed people like Sonny Boy Williamson. A lot of his stuff. So I went to Canton, went through there, found a half-brother, interviewed him. That's primarily the person I found. And some things, Johnny Temple said. Elmore was living with Johnny Temple. When he went to Chicago and died he used to room, board and room with Johnny Temple. I wish I'd have found Elmore alive. But of course in those days I was just tryin' to do the prewar guys, there was so many of them nobody knew anything about. There was one or two things that turned out erroneous. One of them was about a wife named Brooks. I did not turn that up. I think the source for that was Sonny Boy Williamson, Rice Miller. He was in England `64, `65.
But yeah, it was the first basic information on Elmore, and you know, we're gonna do this source book, we're gonna come back, Ed Komara, we're gonna make some quick notes "since that time such and such has been found. Probably never a controversy. Miss McMurrey who owned Trumpet is emphatic that the story we reported about Elmore being too scared to record, and was recorded without his knowledge, to be totally eroneous. She told me recently that she signed Elmore to a contract the day before the recording of "Dust My Broom" was made. I believe that part of the Elmore James story came from Sonny Boy Williamson, who Mike Leadbetter interviewed in 1964 or '65 in England. I am happy to set the record straight. And any additional new information on Elmore will be updated for the proposed blues sourcebook
Some people know you as a researcher, some as a writer, some as a record collector. You're also getting quite along as a guitar collector, and probably a lot of people don't know you're also quite an excellent guitar player.
Very few people know that. But back in the 50s I started out collecting Roy Acuff records, I loved that dobro sound. I'd go see Roy as a teenager. When I'd go to juke box companies trying to find Roy's records I started picking up Vocalions, I'd pick up Bob Wills, those Texas swing bands. Come back and started listening to them, really liked the stuff. That kind of lead to the blues, because somewhere down the road, I went to a black home one time about 1959, I heard she might have some Roy Acuff records, she had Peetie Wheatstraw and Leroy Carr. I believe I brought home one Peetie and played it a little bit. Then I was down there in Jackson, job-hunting, and I read Charters' book. It just kind of evolved.
The guys in New York heard I had some Charlie Patton. That got their attention real quick. See, in those days nobody knew how many Charlie Patton records there were on Paramount. There were no Paramount files, nothing. The only way you knew a record existed was to find the first copy of it. I found the first copy of Elder J.J. Hadley, which is Patton under a different name. "Prayer of Death." It kinda worked the same way. I started knockin' on doors buying records I would ask about these guys. It became easy to do. If they got records maybe they knew somebody. It just kind of evolved into that you know. I was a collector first, a researcher second and a writer third. I would like to get more recognition as a blues writer. But normally it's like "blues researcher," not "blues writer." Oliver is the foremost blues writer. Known for it.
Charters and Lomax.
Yeah, blues writers. I'd like to be more of a blues writer.
You published your writings helter skelter, here there and elsewhere but one of these days you're looking to publish a collection of the best of them.
We're talking to a publisher about that, yeah. And LaVere said "hey you oughta do that. Get them things published."
People are aware now of Johnson's work, of Patton's body of work, but there are guys like Blind Joe Reynolds, Garfield Akers, that the broad public doesn't know much about. Who are your favorite ones?
Not so much favorite ones, it'd be favorite records. You know, besides Charlie, and, you know, Johnson's good, I never listened to Johnson that much, I was trying to get back farther, the twenties, the early thirties, but I think Blind Joe Reynolds made some terrific records, especially that Paramount "Outside Woman Blues" that Cream cut in 1967. He is great. Garfield Akers made four sides, two sides are masterpieces, Garfield was extremely good. This cat, George Torey also was an excellent bluesman.
Any other records? Garfield Akers. We'll have to...after we look in the safe deposit box I'll tell you. `Cause I have a Tommy Johnson Paramount I just got in a trade, just two known copies. We'll play that "Slidin' Delta." Fine! Johnson's best records on Paramount. They're so right.
There are numbers of records in your collection where you've got the only known copy.
One or two.
And a few where you've got one of only two or three known copies.
A lot more of those. I had the only copy of a Charlie Patton, "Some Summer Day," the last one, for about three years. Got it from John Steiner. Steiner'd had it since the forties. Steiner wouldn't let anybody see his collection. I just got to know him, kept working on it, you know. One time I took up a box of fifty Paramounts, Herwins, Paramount masters, so forth, of preachers, string bands, three Charlie Pattons. I got that Charlie Patton by giving him three other Charlie Pattons. In that box of records which he said he'd buy from me for dollars. I said, "look John, I don't want to do this. Look, I like Mississippi, I'm from Mississippi, swap you the entire box for the Patton record. What it is, you have to find where a man's greed is. When you trade, you gotta find out what he would like to have better. Steiner couldn't turn that down. I mean, he'd never find all those things. I said, "John, this is going to give you the most comprehensive collection of Paramounts in the world." And it did. He's got over three hundred Paramounts in his collection.
And in turn it gave you the most comprehesive collection of Patton in the world.
Yeah, I've got 19 out of 26 that were issued. I got two or three records out of the deal, one more hillbilly, and I got the Patton, that was the first copy that ever turned up. First time I got it he just taped it for me, wouldn't let me have it, went back nine months or a year later with that box of records. He went and got it. That was the first copy, but a copy turned up in Richmond, Virginia about a year ago. That killed the oneness, that would have been the cornerstone, number one. But, yeah, there's a couple there's one or two known copies. I got the only copy of "Heart Like Railroad Steel." Paramount 12953. There's two copies of "Elder Green/Green River Blues." (12972) There's only two copies of that "Jesus Is A Dyin' Bed Maker." (12986) Some of the Pattons have showed up a lot more. In the old days "Highwater Blues" (12909) was even quite hard to find. Then it showed up a lot.
But if Charlie was so popular, why do you think it is that some of these sides are that rare?
Depression. See, here's the other thing you didn't realize, Mississippi, the Paramount distributor was St. Louis Music. In 1930, about mid `30, May of `30 they closed down their operation in Memphis, no distributor for Mississippi. So the late Paramounts, `30, `31, `32 never got into Mississippi. They got into Georgia, They got into Texas, some were found, especially Virginia, because there was tobacco money. They earned pple money, pickin' apples and growin; tobacco. So the blacks that worked in those areas still had some money to buy records, 1930, `31 and `32 and they bought a few Paramounts. The only known copy of Son House's "Preachin' The Blues" (13013) was found in southern Virginia in the late fifties. There's never been another copy found anywhere.
Would I stand a chance of finding Paramounts in St. Louis?
You might have twenty years ago. See, what happens, is when people move, the neighborhood changes, the last Paramounts though, the few copies that were sold were bought in the cities, like Chicago, St. Louis and Memphis. Seventy five cents in 1932? That'd feed you for three or four days. You could buy a hot dog for ten cents. Seventy five cents for a record was a high price for any record. The bottom was 1932, Paramount went out of business in the summer of 1932.. But you know, it's those 13,000 Paramounts that really don't show up much. Nobody had enough money. Nobody at all could buy `em in Mississippi. There was no cotton money. Cotton got worthless in 1930. So you had to be someplace else where there was a little money like Virginia or Texas.
There are some records that are so rare they have never been found. But we know of them from discographical information.
Yeah, we think we got `em. There's probably twenty or thirty holes in the Paramount listing from 12900 up. Now remember, no Paramount files have ever been found. The only way we know what was in the series is when a record is found. In the 1960s nobody knew how many records Son House or Charlie Patton or Skip James had actually made. You had to find a copy.
What are some of the key things that are missing?
One Son House and one Willie Brown. The first Willie Brown, Paramount didn't think much of it `cause they issued a Son House first, "Dry Spell Blues," 12990, came out in October, 1930. They didn't issue Willie Brown `til 13090, a year later. `Cause they didn't think it'd sell any copies. Lo and behold it sold pretty good because of that "M&O Blues." They didn't buy it for "Future Blues" on the other side. They bought it because "M&O Blues" at the time had been a hit by Walter Davis. They didn't buy it because of Willie Brown. They bought it because they wanted to hear the "M&O Blues."
If someone turned up that missing Willie Brown (13099, "Kicking In My Sleep") can you imagine what it would be worth?
Five thousand, at least. There's a number of collectors who'd pay that price..
If I had that record right here in my hand....
I couldn't buy it. Pete could.
Would you trade me for all your spares?
Yeah. I'd sure consider it. You know how to find a man's greed don't you?
Here in the nineties now, when we have blues performers out there and we have a new generation of blues fans whose first exposure to this music is perhaps from white imitators or reproducers, who don't know about Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton, or Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters...
Most of the guys play in blues bands now know about B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, they may know Johnson's name, that CD sold so many copies.
And Eric Clapton. As someone with the kind of knowledge you possess about the pre-war blues is there anything you have to say to this new generation of blues fans?
Go back and see where it came from. Get back to the twenties and hear some of the good stuff. Listen to Johnson in the thirties first. And go on back to Skip James. "Hellhound On My Trail" is nothing but the melody of "Devil Got My Woman Blues." It just came from that. A lot of the Johnson songs were influenced by different people. Wheatstraw, Lonnie Johnson. Son House especially. It's just one step back to Son House. You hear "Crossroads Blues" or you hear "Preachin' The Blues" or things like that, go back one step and listen to House, that's where Johnson learned it from. I'd say, go on back and try to find where it came from. See, the other thing is, these guys played acoustic, these guys played acoustics in the twenties and thirties, but people are playing electrics today. So it's a lot harder for them to get back to the acoustic. They don't fingerpick. The guitar players today can't touch these guys before World War II that fingerpicked.
What is the value that a youngster today is going to benefit by going back and learning about these sources?
That's debatable too. I guess if he wants to know something about the history. Or if he wants to try to learn how to play something. If he's trying to play it. But there'll never be another Blind Blake, there'll never be another Charlie Patton or Son House or Robert Johnson.
H.C. Speir: Godfather of Delta Blues
An Interview With Gayle Dean Wardlow
The History of Paramount Part 5
And for those interested in his published writings, here is the Gayle Dean Wardlow Bibliography by Edward Komara
The November issue of Guitar Player magazine will contain new information about Robert Johnson's death and an investigation that was conducted by LeFlore County's registrar of records. By Gayle Dean Wardlow. Any Johnson fan will want to see the articles.