|Cecil Barfield||Lucy Mae Blues||The George Mitchell Collection Vol. 1-45|
|John Lee Ziegler||If I Lose Let Me Lose||Georgia Blues Today|
|Lonzie Thomas||Rabbit On A Log||Been Here All My Days|
|Jimmy Lee Harris||I Wanna Ramble||The George Mitchell Collection Vol. 1-45|
|J.W. Warren||Hoboing Into Hollywood||Life Ain’t Worth Livin’|
|James Davis||Old Country Rock #1||Been Here All My Days|
|Walter Brown & Joe Savage||Raise Em Up Higher||Living Country Blues USA Vol. 7|
|James Son Thomas||Catfish Blues||Living Country Blues USA Vol. 5|
|Archie Edwards||The Road Is Rough And Rocky||Living Country Blues USA Vol. 6|
|‘Bowling Green’ John Cephas & ‘Harmonica’ Phil Wiggins||Goin Down The Road Feelin Bad||Living Country Blues USA Vol. 1|
|Boyd Rivers||When The World Seems Cold||Living Country Blues USA Vol. 11|
|Cora Fluker||Look How This World Done Made A Change||Living Country Blues USA Vol. 9|
|Guitar Frank||Lonesome Road Blues||Living Country Blues USA Introduction|
|Flora Molton And The Truth Band||The Titanic||Living Country Blues USA Introduction|
|Sam ‘Stretch’ Shields||Bluebird||Living Country Blues USA Introduction|
|CeDell ‘Big G’ Davis||I Don’t Know Why||Living Country Blues USA Introduction|
|Guitar Slim||Lula’s Back In Town||Living Country Blues USA Introduction|
|Arzo Youngblood||Goin’ Up The Country||Living Country Blues USA Vol. 7|
|Boogie Bill Webb||Big Road Blues||Living Country Blues USA Introduction|
|Lottie Murrell||Spoonful||Living Country Blues USA Vol. 10|
|Sam Chatmon||Sittin’ On Top Of The World||Living Country Blues USA Introduction|
|Memphis Piano Red||Mr Freddy||Living Country Blues USAVol. 4|
|Joe Savage||Joe’s Prison Camp Holler||Living Country Blues USA Vol. 9|
|Charlie Sangster & Hammie Nixon||Moanin’ The Blues||Living Country Blues USA Vol. 4|
|Lonnie Pitchford||My Baby Walked Away||Living Country Blues USA Vol. 9|
|Walter Brown||Mississippi Moan||Living Country Blues USA Vol. 9|
Today’s program is the third and final of a series of programs that I’ve been thinking about for a while. I have always been fascinated by those recordings made in the field, often more intimate, raw and spontaneous than those made in the studio. Looming over all those who ventured in the field are the giants, John Lomax and his son Alan. Whatever you think of the Lomaxes’ themselves, and opinions are not always kind, the music they recorded across America between the 1930’s through the 1970’s is a remarkably deep reservoir of traditional music that has stood the test of time. There were many who followed in the Lomaxes’ footsteps; from the 1950’s through the 80’s there were folklorists, researchers and dedicated fans such as Harry Oster, David Evans, George Mitchell, Sam Charters,Chris Strachwitz , Mack McCormick, Bruce Jackson, Peter B. Lowry, Tary Owens, Art Rosenbaum, Pete Welding, Bengt Olsson, Gianni Marcucci, Glenn Hinson, Tim Duffy, Axel Küstner and Kip Lornell who actively sought out and recorded rural blues. Over the years we have featured and interviewed many of these men. There was tremendous work done during this period but I’ve always felt the era of truly great field recordings reached its end around 1980. That’s not an arbitrary year; 1980 was the year Axel Küstner and his friend Ziggy Christmann came to the States with the idea to document the remaining country blues tradition. With their station wagon and portable recording equipment they hit the road spending a couple of months documenting blues, gospel, field hollers and work songs throughout the South. The trip was the last great large-scale recording trips to survey southern blues and gospel. It was the end of the era in way, and while there was fieldwork done after, there were no more large-scale surveys, and in my opinion a precipitous drop in quality. Over the course of these shows we documented some of the last noteworthy field recordings captured roughly through the mid-70’s to 1980. Today’s show opens with a couple of sets of recordings by George Mitchell from the mid-70’s to early 80’s. The remaining show concludes our series with some superb performances from the Living Country Blues USA series of recordings captured by Axel Küstner and Ziggy Christmann in 1980.
From the early 1960’s to the early 1980’s George Mitchell roamed all over the south recording blues in small rural communities where the music still thrived. Mitchell did record some of the famous artists of the past like Buddy Moss, Furry Lewis, Will Shade, Sleepy Johns Estes and was the first to record artists who would achieve later fame such as R.L. Burnside, Jesse Mae Hemphill, Othar Turner and Precious Bryant. While the blues revival was picking up steam with newly re-discovered artists like Son House, Bukka White and Mississippi John Hurt hitting the circuit, Mitchell’s recordings were a sort of a parallel undercurrent to the more famous artists. What Mitchell recorded in the rural communities of Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi in the 1960’s was a still thriving, if largely undocumented, blues culture. Mitchell had the passion and drive to seek out these folks, and unlike some folklorists didn’t use the music to reinforce his own theories, he simply let the musicians speak for themselves and judging by the recordings they clearly responded to Mitchell’s sincerity (being a southerner probably didn’t hurt as well).
|Sam Chatmon, Axel Küstner, Ziggy Christmann,
filmed at Hollandale, Ms., Sun. Oct. 26, 1980 by Birney Imes of Columbus, Ms
I had Axel Küstner on the program last week for the first of a three-part series on recordings made in the 70’s, the bulk form that 1978 trip. Today we feature recordings from the The Living Country Blues USA series; there was one double album set as an introduction and then 12 volumes – 14 altogether. In addition there was and album by Guitar Slim/Memphis Piano Red on Ornament (Play It A Long Time, Daddy) and two more Living Country Blues albums that remain unissued. This was originally issued on the German L+R label between 1981 and 1983. They were finally issued on CD several years back. Some of the recordings were issued domestically in 1999 when Evidence Records distilled the project down to a 3-CD “greatest hits” package, simply titled Living Country Blues – An Anthology. In 1980 two young German blues enthusiasts, Axel Küstner and Siegfried Christmann, came to America with the idea to document the remaining country blues tradition. With their station wagon and portable recording equipment they hit the dusty road spending a couple of months documenting blues, gospel, field hollers and work songs throughout the South. As the notes proclaim: “Traveling 10,000 miles by car in 2 1/2 months, they used 180,000 feet of tape and took hundreds of photographs to document various aspects of Country Blues, as well as work songs, fife and drum band music, field hollers and rural Gospel music, performed by 35 artists, some of whom appear on record for the first time.”
If this project reminds you of the recording trips of John and Alan Lomax, that’s exactly what the duo had in mind. Where the Lomax’s had the Library of Congress to back them, Küstner and Christmann had the backing of Horst Lippmann who had just started the L+R label with Fritz Rau (the same duo who were responsible for the American Folk Blues Festivals). The project was called Living Country Blues as Alligator had just issued their acclaimed Living Chicago Blues series. The sound is exceptional, recorded with a ten-channel mixer and reel-to reel tape.
|Walter Brown and Joe Savage, photo by Axel Küstner|
If you think about it, it was a bold undertaking to embark on a trip like this in 1980 when one would imagine the country blues had largely died out as a vibrant part of rural black communities. After all George Mitchell and Pete Lowry, two of the most active field recorders, had called it quits by 1980, while others like David Evans, Kip Lornell, Gianni Marcucci, Bengt Olsson and Bruce Bastin had largely stopped going in the field after the 1970’s. George Mitchell wrote that “As late as 1969 a country bluesman who at least occasionally played could be located in most small towns of Georgia. In 1976, there are very few active blues musicians left in the state! In the short span of seven years, one of the worlds most vital and influential forms of music as it was originally performed has all but died out in Georgia, and probably in the rest of the South as well. Most bluesmen have either died or fallen into ill health accompanying old age, and the younger generation of rural blacks long ago turned their backs on the blues.” It was also, he noted, the Church who claimed many bluesmen as well as the lack of financial incentive to play the blues that was the musics’ death knell. Still Mitchell, Lowry and Lornell were recording many talented artists through the end of the 1970’s and into the early 1980’s. Seen from a historical perspective, Axel’s and Ziggy’s trip was the last great large-scale recording trips to survey southern blues and gospel, and the sad fact is that most of these performers have since passed on. Recordings of this type have been spotty and uneven since the 1980’s. Axel was kind enough to supply me with some personal reminiscences of the trip. I was particularly interested in Walter Brown and Joe Savage, because their emotionally intense performances made a big impression when I first heard them.
“I had met and in some case already recorded quite a few Blues musicians on my 1978 6 months trip to the US So I focused on the ones that I had already heard. These were John Cephas & Phil Wiggins, Flora Molton & The Truth Band and Archie Edwards in Washington, D.C.. Actually the three full length albums that were devoted to single artists were the ones from Washington, D.C.. All other albums in the series were compilations with various artists. Other artists that I had met in 1978 were James “Son” Thomas, Othar Turner, Napoleon Strickland, Stonewall Mays in Mississippi. In Tennessee there were Hammie Nixon, who had introduced me to Charlie Sangster and Walter Cooper in Brownsville, and the amazing Lattie Murrell, locally known as “The Wolf” of Somerville and pianist Memphis Piano Red. Since I went to the US in June 1980, three months before Ziggy Christmann was to arrive with the recording equipment, I was able to contact some more artists that I had not met two years before, but that I had heard about.
On Sept. 6, 1980 I was at the Mississippi Delta Blues Festival at Freedom Village in Greenville, Ms., where I was able to talk to Lonnie Pitchford , CeDell “Big G” Davis, Sam Chatmon and Eugene “Sonny Boy Nelson” Powell about recording them. On the way up to New York City to pick up Ziggy I stopped in Felton, Delaware (not considered “Blues territory”) to locate guitarist Frank Hovington, who I had heard on an album on the British Flyright label [Lonesome Road Blues], that was cut there in 1975 by researchers Bruce Bastin and Dick Spottswood. Mr. Hovington, however, was kind of reluctant to record again and it took quite a bit of convincing later on until he finally agreed to record for us, but only under the stipulation not to use his real name on the album. Harmonica player Sam “Stretch” Shields of Macon, Ms., I knew of by an article about him in the local newspaper. Once I had started traveling with Ziggy we also met another artists that I had not heard previously but knew of, the great guitarist/pianist James”Guitar Slim” Stephens (who also had an album on Flyright Records) [Greensboro Rounder] of Greensboro, NC. While passing thru there on our way to Mississippi we simply called him up and arranged a recording session the next day. We met him at a music store where he thought we could record him, but the people there were unfriendly and then it was my idea to try the local university and luckily they had a room with a piano that we could use. In Mississippi we were led to Cora Fluker in Marion (outside Meridian) by our friends Libby Rae and Bobby Ray Watson of Florence, Ms., who had located her while doing field work to find obscure musicians. It was David Evans who had told me that Boyd Rivers lived around Pickens,Ms..
I had seen Clyde Maxwell (along with James “Son” Thomas) in Jackson, Ms., on April 29, 1978 at a lecture that folklorist Bill Ferris gave there (where I also met Libby Rae Watson for the first time). I went to Camden, Ms., on Sat. Aug. 23, 1980 & met and photographed Clyde Maxwell there. I don’t recall where I had heard about another Blues man from Camden, named Belton Sutherland. I managed to talk to him briefly at a local juke joint and he told me that he had joined the church but that did not keep him from still playing the blues. I think I told both men that I might return to record them – Ziggy and me never did – something I regret to this day.
When I got deeper into the blues around 1971 I developed a fascination for acapella performances early on. The first unaccompanied hollers and worksongs I heard were from Leadbelly’s Last Sessions LP’s recorded for Folkways by Frederick Ramsey and I was totally blown away – something entirely different from the rock guitar overkill I had been used to hearing by Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton with Cream. I still think that just the pure human voice is the most emotional intense and powerful thing there is – be it black prisoners singing worksongs, the chant of a group of tribesmen from the rain forest of New Guinea, the protest songs of Appalachian coal miners like George Tucker and Nimrod Workman, or the group of some 30 blind men I heard chanting in Marrakech, Morocco 2 years ago, or the many acapella black Gospel groups (try Wash Dennis and Charley Simms singing “Lead Me To The Rock” rec. for the Library Of Congress in 1936 at Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi by John A. Lomax. I am the proud owner of the original 12 inch LofC 78rpm disc, which – you will not believe this – I found in 2013 in a Jazz 78s collection about 40 miles from where I live.)
I soon had the albums Negro Prison Songs which Alan Lomax had recorded in Parchman, Ms., in 1947 as well as some of the LP’s from his 1959 field trip that were issued on Atlantic and Prestige (actually the very first “Stereo” field recordings)., Negro Songs Of Protest recorded by Lawrence Gellert in the 1930s, Prison Worksongs rec. by Harry Oster at Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary in 1959 and the 3 LP’s that Bruce Jackson had recorded in the 1960s in Texas: JB Smith on Takoma [Ever Since I Have Been A Man Full Grown], Negro Folklore From Texas State Prisons on Elektra (never reissued on CD) and Wake Up Dead Man – Black Convict Work Songs From Texas Prisons. I should not forget to mention the powerful photographs taken by Danny Lyon of inmates of those same Texas prison farms (and also at the same time) that Bruce Jackson made his field recordings there, which I first saw in a German magazine in 1972 (The book by Danny Lyon with these photos is called Conversations With The Dead reprinted by Phaidon). In another book by Danny Lyon, Memories Of The Southern Civil Rights Movement (1992, University Of North Carolina Press), you can actually see a photo of a Civil Rights meeting in Mississippi in Nov. 1964 that shows Worth Long, who in 1978 worked with Alan Lomax on the documentary The Land Where The Blues Began. Robert Pete Williams can be heard on the Prison Worksongs album recorded at Angola Prison and when I recorded him here in Germany on Nov. 7, 1974 he played a “Levee Camp Blues” with his guitar and I asked him to sing an acapella version of that same song for me. Actually the very first recordings I ever made of blues singers were acapella versions of “Two White Horses” (actually BL Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”) sung to me backstage after the AFBF show by Robert Pete and Big Joe Williams at Bremen, West Germany, on March 15, 1972.
So it was one of my big ambitions to find artists who could still perform such material. Just a few weeks after I had left Mississippi there was the first Mississippi Delta Blues Festival in Oct. 1978 in Greenville, Ms., This featured mostly artists that had been filmed by Alan Lomax and Worth Long for the documentary The Land Where The Blues Began. The German blues fan Hans Pehl happened to see this festival and he wrote about it for a German Blues magazine. He mentioned that worksongs were performed by Walter and Joe. Libby Rae and Bobby Ray Watson, who I had befriended in Mississippi on that 1978 trip, had helped to organize that festival. When I was back in the US in 1980 they mentioned Walter Brown and Joe Savage and I was excited to meet these two men. I was at the Delta Blues Festival in Greenville on Sept. 6, 1980 and when the crowd left after the festival was over I saw an old black, man standing there all by himself and I wondered who he was (he kinda looked familiar but I do not recall whether Libby Rae and Bobby Ray had already shown me a photo of Brown and Savage at that point). Anyway, I walked up to him and simply asked. ‘Are you a blues singer?’ The man answered. ‘Yes, I’m Walter Brown.’ In total amazement I said: ‘You are the man I’m looking for.’ We drove him home that night (Louisiana Red, who had come down from Chicago with Sunnyland Slim’s band to perform at the festival, was also in the car). I got Walter Brown’s address (Theobald St.) and a phone number.
After Ziggy and me had recorded Sam Chatmon in Hollandale on Sun. Oct. 26, 1980 we stayed at a motel in Greenville that night and had called Walter Brown and set up a meeting for the next morning. The Sunday had been a day with bright sunshine, but that Monday morning, Oct. 27, there were dark clouds in the sky and it looked like it might rain – it was an altogether totally different atmosphere from the day before. When we told the lady at the motel where we were heading out to, she warned us not to go to that part of town! Walter Brown was renting 2 shabby rooms in the back of a building. We went to pick up Joe Savage but could not find him at home and Mr. Brown had no idea where we might find him. So we started the recording session with just Mr. Brown. We had absolutely no idea what to expect (we had not seen the Lomax movie). However, it turned out that we were extremely lucky that day and I still consider this date, Monday, Oct. 27, 1980 as probably the most important day of my blues field work. Walter Brown would sing songs he had learned in the levee camps, on the riverboats and during the time he was sentenced for murder at Parchman Farm.
With Walter Brown, we had the feeling that he was just waiting for somebody to come around so that he could express himself and get his songs documented. I remember that he told us that he had written a song that he had given to the popular blues singer/guitarist Little Milton with the high hopes that Milton would record this. The most outstanding songs, however, that Walter Brown performed for us were the ones that he created and improvised during the recording session. These dealt with episodes from his life – a life that he had led under the brutal conditions of extreme racism and violence. His “Mississippi Moan” is an absolute masterpiece and his outspoken recollection of being an African-American man in the segregated South of the 1930s. The frankness with which he describes his road trip thru Mississippi and Louisiana in 1938 (he was born in 1908) is probably without parallel in recorded blues. It is interesting to note that the only other recordings that openly deal with racism and its horrible violence, the effects of poverty and The Civil rights movement, are the ones that J.B. Lenoir made with Willie Dixon and Freddie Below in Chicago,Ill., in 1965 and 1966. Both of these sessions, that were issued on the albums Alabama Blues and Down In Mississippi, were financed by the German promoter/producer Horst Lippmann, who, along with his partner Fritz Rau, had started the American Folk Blues Festivals in Europe in 1962. Lippmann recalled that at that time no producer in the US would have had the courage to record such material. Without him funding our 1980 field trip, those recordings of Walter Brown and Joe Savage would have never happened!
The intensity of the solo recordings by Walter Brown were kinda enhanced by the fact that it was such a gloomy and cold day and he turned his gas stove on to heat up the room. At one point during the session a lady friend of his came around and they started arguing and Ziggy and me thought that we would have to end the session. Mr. Brown and Ziggy, however, decided to go back to see about Joe Savage. Luckily, he was at home and they brought him over. The effects of the fight he had gotten into the night before could still be seen. The physical involvement in his performances was just incredible and almost painful to watch – his face and arms would contort while he was singing. His songs were mostly learned from commercial blues records. The only recording we made of Walter Brown and Joe Savage singing together was the almost 7 minute prison worksong “Raise ‘Em Up Higher.” I took very few pictures while we made the recordings. We paid both men and then I took some more frames of them together outside and never saw them again after these incredible few hours.
I called Walter Brown a few times from Germany, but finally in 1982 the lady that would get him to her phone told me that he had passed away. In July 1991, Joe Savage and his brother David (who also had been incarcerated at Parchman Farrm) appeared in Washington, D.C. at the National Folklife Festival, along Robert Jr. Lockwood, Johnny Shines, Honeyboy Edwards, Henry Townsend and a few others, in a concert called Roots Of Rhythm And Blues – A tribute To The Robert Johnson Era which was issued on Columbia Records. In 1992 I finally tracked down David Savage in Greenville, Ms.. He told me that Joe was in hospital in Jackson, Ms. It was the same house where Joe lived in 1980. Just a few weeks later I got the tragic news that both men had burned to death. They had argued with a neighbor lady about a TV set and she had set their house on fire.
In Nov. 1980, at the end of our recording trip, I gave my friend , photographer Birney Imes of Columbus, Ms., a list of people we had met with the possible chance of him taking pictures. He went to see Lattie “The Wolf” Murrell up in Somerville,Tn, but as Birney recalls, ‘The Wolf” would hardly talk to him. Birney photographed Cora Fluker and also spent some time visiting Walter Brown and Joe Savage in Greenville, Ms.. A brilliant picture he took of both men appears in his book Partial To Home – Photographs by Birney Imes in the Smithsonian Series Photographers at Work (1994). In the book The Southern Journey of Alan Lomax by Tom Piazza (Norton / The Library Of Congress, 2013) there is a picture on p. 20, showing Alan Lomax with his camera at the 1979 Mississippi Delta Blues Festival in Greenville,Ms., The man behind Lomax on the right is Joe Savage. In 1998 I met Chicago sax player Eddie Shaw (ex Howlin’ Wolf band) in Holland. Mr. Shaw was originally from Greenville, Ms., and during our conversation he was of course surprised that I had met a local character like Joe Savage, Shaw telling me: ‘One time I saw Joe Savage fight 8 men all by himself.’ Just recently researcher T. DeWayne Moore of Oxford, Ms., sent me some newspaper articles from Greenville from the late 1940s up to the mid 1960s that reported on Mr. Savage’s brushes with the law. Obviously he was a really wild character and some of the stuff sounds almost straight out of a Hollywood movie!
After 38 years Ziggy and me are still proud of the fact that we managed to record Walter Brown and Joe Savage. Apart from Alan Lomax obviously no one in the US had any interest in documenting their performances. I feel extremely lucky to have met these two men and today, when I look at the 1978 footage of them from The Land Where The Blues Began I have an almost surreal feeling about watching it – I can say that I met them both but only for a few short hours in my life. I am very grateful to Alan Lomax that he included Walter Brown and Joe Savage in his documentary! In his 1993 book of the same title as the movie (Pantheon Books) Alan Lomax describes Walter Brown as “the scarred poet of the Greenville riverfront” and Joe Savage as “by far the youngest and most damaged of them” (a group of old timers of the levee camps he had filmed). By the way, I doubt that Mr. Lomax was familiar with our 1980 recordings of them.
A few more words about Walter Brown. In 1997 Rounder Records issued 2 CDs of recordings (Prison Songs) that Alan Lomax had made in Parchman Farm in 1947-1948. On Vol. 2 (Don’tcha Hear Poor Mother Calling) there is the song “Katy Left Memphis” by a solo singer with ax cutting. Things get a little confusing here: The booklet notes say “the performers on this volume are identified by their prison aliases” and this track is credited to Tangle Eye , whereas on the back of the CD it says Percy Wilson. I don’t know when Walter Brown did his time in Parchman Farm, but to me it sounds that it possibly could be him on this recording. In 2016, 36 years after we recorded him, Walter Brown’s song “Keep On Walkin’” (from Living Country Blues USA Vol. 2 – Blues On Highway 61) was used by the British DJ Call Super on his CD Fabric 92 of Techno/Ambience remixes – to me, definitely a bizarre footnote of blues history!
Since we were working with a limited budget for our field trip, out of which we had to pay our travel expenses, recording and photo material, plus the artists we recorded, we were confronted with the very difficult situation of deciding how much to pay to each artist. Of course, we were painfully aware that every artist deserved much more money than what we were able to pay. Archie Edwards told us: ‘We (himself, Flora Molton and her band and Cephas & Wiggins) go along with what you can do, because nobody ever offered us anything.’ They had the guarantee that our recordings of them would be issued on albums. Especially in Mississippi we were confronted with tough situations – some artists lived in very bad conditions. I will never forget recording Cora Fluker: she was under the impression that she would have to pay us for the recording session. When we actually paid her, she broke out in tears.
Son Thomas had a new electric guitar and told us: ‘The man who gave me this guitar told me not to record for anybody, but I do it for y’all because I need the money.’ Paying Walter Brown created a dangerous situation for him: he lived right around the corner from Nelson Street in Greenville, Ms, which back in the 1940s and 50s was for Greenville what Beale Street was in Memphis (immortalized in pianist Willie Love’s “Nelson Street Blues”, cut for Trumpet Records in 1951). In 1980 it was a run down and dangerous place. When heading over there after we recorded him, he told us that everybody would know now that he had money in his pockets since we had visited him and that he really would have to watch out in order not to get attacked and robbed. All these episodes still haunt Ziggy and me after 38 years!
At the end of our trip we stayed a few days with George and Cathy Mitchell in Atlanta. George had just finished an extensive field research project for the Columbus Museum of Columbus, Ga., called In Celebration Of A Legacy – The Traditional Arts Of The Lower Chattahoochee Valley, having located and recorded and photographed many fine black and white musicians in Georgia and Alabama. Today, it still makes Ziggy and me proud that this veteran field researcher was very impressed with our work of the previous 2 months, claiming that it would take him at least a year to record material of such quality. He offered us to go on a road trip with him to record the blues musicians from that area but sadly there was no way for us to do that. I’m sure we could have recorded at least 4 to 5 more exciting albums.”
Axel Küstner, August 2018