Monday, May 9, 2011

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Robert Johnson & Mississippi Blues Trail panel discussions

Several members of the Mississippi Blues Trail team are participating in panel discussions at the Robert Johnson Centennial Celebration in Greenwood and at the Chicago Blues Festival.

On Saturday, May 7, at 11:00 a.m. at Tallahatchie Tavern on Money Road in Greenwood  the Robert Johnson Life & Legacy Expert Panel will include Jim O'Neal, Scott Barretta, and Sylvester Oliver (all from the Mississippi Blues Trail editorial staff) along with Steve LaVere, Vasti Jackson, Scott Ainslie, and Judge Mike Mills (who presided over court proceedings in the Johnson estate case).

Panelists at the Mississippi Blues Trail discussion at the Chicago Blues Festival on Saturday, June 11 at 11:30 a.m. at the Mississippi Juke Joint stage will be Alex Thomas, Rip Daniels, Scott Barretta and Jim O'Neal. The festival will also present a Robert Johnson panel on Friday, June 10 at 11:30 a.m. at the same stage with O'Neal, members of the Johnson family, and others.

A line up of known blues experts moderated by Jim O’Neal, Research Director of the Mississippi Blues Trail, will engage all aspects of the blues world to discuss Johnson’s music and legacy. Panelists to include Scott Baretta and Steve LaVere.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

BILOXI BLUES -- Jelly Roll Morton and Main Street

The city of Biloxi joins the Mississippi Blues Trail on May 27, 2010, with the dedication of a “Biloxi Blues” marker on Main Street. Researching the history of blues, R&B, and jazz in towns like Biloxi has been the most eye-opening experience I’ve had while working with the Mississippi Blues Trail. Blues fans are familiar with the blues lore of Clarksdale, Indianola, Greenville, Greenwood, Jackson, and other towns in the Delta and central Mississippi, but blues scenes usually developed wherever there was African American community, and there have been more of those in Mississippi than anywhere else. The Mississippi-Alabama Gulf Coast scene is of special interest to me since I lived most of my pre-college years in Biloxi and Mobile and often visited relatives in Hattiesburg and Gulfport, unaware of the music that lay just “across the tracks.” There is much more history to investigate, but, for now, better late than never, here is a little bit of the Biloxi Blues story. This is an expanded version of the text that appears on the Mississippi Blues Trail marker.


The Mississippi Coast, long a destination for pleasure seekers, tourists, and gamblers, as well as maritime workers and armed services personnel, developed a flourishing nightlife during the segregation era. While most venues were reserved for whites, the small stretch of Main Street between the L&N Railroad and the Division Street intersection in Biloxi was one of several districts that catered to the African American trade. Especially during the boom years during and after World War II, dozens of clubs and cafes here rocked to the sounds of blues, jazz, and rhythm & blues.

Biloxi was strutting to the rhythms of cakewalk dances, vaudeville and minstrel show music, dance orchestras, and ragtime pianists by the late 1800s, before blues and jazz had fully emerged. Situated along the Gulf Coast performing circuit between the Florida panhandle and Houston, Biloxi was a stopping point for traveling bands and musical revues, and music here was particularly influenced by and intertwined with that of New Orleans. Crescent City jazz pioneers Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941) and Bill Johnson (c. 1874-1972) lived in Biloxi in the early 1900s before moving on to California, Chicago, and other distant locales. Morton's seminal recordings, compositions, and recollections form much of the basis of what we know about the early days of jazz and blues; he in fact promoted himself as the “Originator of Jazz.”

Morton’s name at birth in New Orleans was Ferdinand Lamothe. He sometimes stayed on a Biloxi strawberry farm owned by his godmother, Laura Hunter, who was reputed to be a voodoo practitioner in New Orleans, where she went by the name of Eulalie Hecaud. In Biloxi, c. 1907-08, Morton recalled, “I used to often frequent the Flat Top, which was nothin’ but a old honky tonk, where nothin’ but the blues were played. There was fellas around played the blues like Brocky Johnny, Skinny Head Pete . . . Old Florida Sam and Tricky Sam, and that bunch. Why, they just played just ordinary blues — the real lowdown blues, honky tonk blues.”

At the Flat Top, in the old Biloxi Electric Light Company building at Reynoir Street north of the railroad tracks, Morton used his skills as a pianist, pool player, and card shark to hustle customers, particularly workers who flocked to town from the turpentine camps in the woods north of town. Morton and other local African American musicians were also often hired for white social affairs and dances, and he played at the posh Great Southern Hotel in Gulfport (where a golf course built in 1908 earned it the title “home of golf in Mississippi”) and at parties for seafood magnate and theater owner W. K. M. Dukate. As he told Alan Lomax:

“Why I happened to be in this little bitty city of Biloxi, which was quite a prosperous little city — at the time — because it was a great summer resort. Had a lot of millionaires, they used to make kind of a headquarters during the winter season because the weather was fine. Fine oysters and fishing and so forth and so on. And golf and different things. Many times I have played for a lot of big parties and so forth, for the Dukates, the oysters and shrimp owners, and so forth and so on.”

Morton courted a Biloxi woman, Bessie Johnson, whose family lived on Delauney Street and later on Croesus Street, both just a few streets west of Main Street. At least three of her brothers, Bill, Robert, and Ollie (“Dink”), were musicians; Bill Johnson’s famous touring unit, the Creole Band (also known by various names including the Original Creole Orchestra and the New Orleans Creole Ragtime Band), introduced New Orleans’ ragtime, jazz, and blues to audiences all across the country. Bessie, who adopted the show business moniker of Anita Gonzales, was commonly known Morton’s wife, although they may have never legally married. Other early Biloxi musicians of note included brothers Romie and Lamar “Buck” Nelson, both acclaimed minstrel show performers; drummer Jimmy Bertrand, who played on many classic blues and jazz recording sessions in Chicago, and his uncle, Alphonse Farzan (or Ferzand); and William Tuncel’s Big Four String Band.

Biloxi prospered during World War II as the population surged with incoming workers to fill the new job market, joined by thousands of airmen stationed at Keesler Field. By 1943, seven thousand black troops were stationed at Keesler – about three times the town of Biloxi’s black population at the time. The Keesler airmen participated in the Biloxi scene both as audience members and musicians; Paul Gayten, a noted blues and R&B recording artist and producer in New Orleans and California, directed the black USO band during World War II, and singer-pianist Billy “The Kid” Emerson, who recorded for the legendary Sun label in Memphis, served at Keesler Air Force Base in the 1950s. In fact, both Gayten and Emerson got married in Biloxi. Main Street developed a concentration of entertainment venues that featured traveling national acts, New Orleans performers, and local bands, as well as jukeboxes and slot machines. African American MPs from Keesler patrolled the district to keep the peace. Among the many clubs on the street were the Little Apple, the Big Apple (later the Shalamar, among several other names), Paradise Garden, Club Delisa, Club Desire, Beck's Deck and Beck's Nest, the Blue Note, the Odd Fellows (G.U.O. of O.F.) Lodge, the Cocoanut Grove, and Jackson’s Casino; on nearby streets were the Rum Boogie and the “Black Elks” (I.B.P.O.E.W.) lodge. Blues/R&B producer-songwriter Sax Kari later operated a record store, Sax Music Service, at 726 Main Street, and rock ‘n’ roll star Bo Diddley’s brother, Rev. Kenneth Haynes, came to Biloxi to pastor at the Main Street Baptist Church (soul singer Lattimore Brown was a recent member of his congregation). Local musicians active in Biloxi clubs in later years include Charles Fairley, Cozy Corley, Skin Williams, and bands such as the Kings of Soul, Sounds of Soul, and Carl Gates and the Decks. While other performing venues, white and black, along the coast opened up to the sounds of rhythm & blues, Main Street’s once-vibrant business and social community began to fade out. By the 1980s only a few nightspots were still open (including the Little Apple, which stayed in business for more than forty years, the Blue Note, and Sachmo’s Lounge), and they too finally closed. Hurricanes and periodic civic campaigns to clean up illegal activities took their toll over the years, too. Local entertainment perked up again in the 1990s as legalized casinos and the Gulf Coast Blues and Heritage Festival brought a new wave of blues and southern soul stars to Biloxi.

The Mississippi Blues Trail is still seeking more historical information and photographs related to music on the Gulf Coast, and anyone who has material is invited to contact research director Jim O’Neal at or 816-931-0383. Future blues trail markers on the coast are planned for North Gulfport, Bay St. Louis, and Moss Point.

Research assistance and sources: Rip Daniels; Jamie Bounds, Biloxi Public Library; Lynn Abbott, Hogan Archive of New Orleans Jazz (Ragged But Right); Renee Hague and Sherry Owens, Pascagoula Public Library; Mark Coltrain, John D. Williams Library, University of Mississippi; Brenda Haskins; Lawrence Gushee (Pioneers of Jazz: The Story of the Creole Band);; Charles Fairley; Johnny Rawls; Cozy Corley; Odile Gayten; Billy Emerson; Sherry Bishop; Preston Lauterbach; Allan Hammons, Hammons & Associates; Biloxi city directories and census records; Biloxi Daily Herald articles; Alan Lomax’s Library of Congress interviews with Jelly Roll Morton.


In tribute to the Biloxi oyster trade, here is the label of Jelly Roll Morton's Vocalion recording, "The Pearls," courtesy Chuck Haddix, UMKC Marr Sound Archives:

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


[See previous posting, TALLYHO! $100 MISSISSIPPI BLUES TRAIL REWARD (Belzoni) for information on the blues trail marker being dedicated at the site of the old Turner’s Drug Store in Belzoni, Mississippi, in honor of the 1940s Sonny Boy Williamson broadcasts sponsored by Tallyho (or Talaho), a tonic marketed by Turner’s and the Easy Pay Store.]


Thanks to Mother Teretha Lee of Midnight, Mississippi, we have words to the Tallyho theme song as she remembered Sonny Boy Williamson singing it on the radio:

Tallyho, it sure is good, you can buy it anywhere in the neighborhood.
Go on the corner of Hayden Street, Mr. Turner Drug Store.
You ask to buy one, buy two. It’s good for you, it’s good for the children too.
Tallyho, it sure is good.
Take it in the morning, take it at night, Tallyho’ll make you feel just right.

A very similar jingle was used by B.B. King on WDIA in Memphis for another tonic called Pep-Ti-Kon:

Pep-Ti-Kon sure is good, Pep-Ti-Kon sure is good, Pep-Ti-Kon sure is good.
You can get it anywhere in your neighborhood.

B.B. has always said that he came up with the jingle on the spot at the request of WDIA (whose owners, John R. Pepper and Bert Ferguson, owned the company that made Pep-Ti-Kon). We don’t have precise dates of when the Tally-Ho and Pep-Ti-Kon songs were first sung on the radio, but the Tallyho show apparently did predate B.B.’s debut on WDIA, which came in late 1948 or early 1949. Turner’s books showed expenses for radio advertising in 1947 and 1948 on Yazoo City station WAZF and also on a Greenville station, according to the account Gayle Dean Wardlow reported from Turner’s pharmacist W.G. Bush in 1971.

B.B. may or may not have heard the Tallyho song – we’re trying to get the question to him – but he has recalled appearing on a Sonny Boy Williamson program on KWEM in West Memphis, prior to his WDIA stint. Sonny Boy’s KWEM sponsor was none other than Hadacol, and perhaps Sonny Boy had just revamped the Tallyho song into a Hadacol jingle.

(A number of blues and country songs were recorded about Hadacol, but we haven’t heard any that use the “sure is good” line from the Tallyho/Pep-Ti-Kon themes.)

The Hadacol story in itself is a fascinating and well-documented one. Louisiana Senator Dudley J. LeBlanc turned Hadacol into a multi-million dollar enterprise, complete with a traveling variety show which at times featured such major celebrities as Mickey Rooney, George Burns, and Hank Williams. The Hadacol empire, constantly challenged by the medical profession and the U.S. government, had a sensational run but finally collapsed in 1951. (For more, see the “Medicine Show Impresario” chapter of James Harvey Young’s book The Medical Messiahs: A Social History of Health Quackery in Twentieth-Century America.)

An episode of the Hadacol saga not documented until now, however, was its connection to Tallyho. Hollywood producer Larry Gordon, son of Easy Pay owner George Gordon, and O.J. Turner III, who mixed Tallyho in washtubs in the back of his father’s drug store, provided these details: George Gordon met Dudley LeBlanc when both were patients at the Ochsner Clinic in New Orleans, and from that meeting, Gordon was inspired to market his own tonic, under a formula licensed from LeBlanc. Turner’s mixed and bottled Tallyho, while Gordon provided the marketing expertise as well as a space in his store where Sonny Boy would set up and perform. Larry Gordon still remembers the novelty of LeBlanc coming to the Gordon home in Belzoni driven by a chauffeur. At times LeBlanc produced other brands of patent medicines, including Happy Day, Dixie Dew, and Kary-On; we haven’t figured out who came up with the name Tallyho but it’s worth noting that Hadacol first took hold among the cajun population of LeBlanc’s area of Louisiana, including the community of Bayou Goula – home to a well-known plantation called Tally-Ho. Everyone we’ve talked to has pronounced the name “Tallyho,” including Gayle Dean Wardlow, who conveyed the spelling as Talaho; O.J. Jr.'s son Jack, who threw away the last box of labels after he took over the drug store, insists that it was spelled Tallyho, unhyphenated. We had hoped to find some advertisements for the tonic in Delta newspapers of the era to check the spelling, but we haven’t seen any ads for it – the publicity may have been limited to local radio, and in view of the way Hadacol was being monitored by authorities, Tallyho may have been kept a bit under the official radar. Sales of Tallyho were starting to spread, but interstate commerce could have led to federal charges, and that may have been the reason production was shut down after a few years, according to the Turners.

We don’t know whether Pep-Ti-Kon had a direct connection to LeBlanc and Hadacol, or whether it was just another of the many local elixirs that sprang up in the wake of Hadacol’s success (including a concoction called Retonga marketed by another Belzoni drug store). But the owners of Pep-Ti-Kon and WDIA were John R. Pepper and Bert Ferguson, who had earlier been principals at Greenville’s first station, WJPR, which may have later been the Greenville outlet for the Tally-Ho show. WJPR’s first competitor in Greenville, WGVM, did not begin operations until December of 1948, but it aired a number of blues programs in its early years. And WGVM was started by David Segal, who had previously managed WROX in Clarksdale. WROX served as a secondary base in the mid/late 1940s for Sonny Boy Williamson’s “King Biscuit Time” broadcasts, which usually originated from KFFA in Helena.

So somehow, primarily through Sonny Boy, many of these threads are connected. If anyone can help unravel more of these mysteries, please let us know!

Special thanks to Doug and Leslie Turner and to Helen Sims of the Mississippi Delta Blues Society in Belzoni for their assistance and for all the work they have put into this marker project.

Thanks also to the Gordons and Turners for all the information they have contributed, to the librarians in Belzoni who let us peruse the crumbling issues of the Banner newspaper, and to Brenda Haskins who has used so many of her vacation days to go through old newspapers, microfilm, and city directories with me.

POSTSCRIPT: The Mississippi Blues Trail marker at Turner's Drug Store was dedicated on May 22, 2010. No one has turned up a Tallyho bottle yet -- we're still offering $100 for a bottle or label!

Jim O’Neal


The following article appeared in the May 5, 2010, edition of the Belzoni Banner. Some revisions have been made for this blog. I have also since been told by O.J. Turner Jr.'s son Jack that Tallyho, unhyphenated, is the correct spelling: he remembers throwing away the last box of labels after he took over his father's drug store. (See next post for more details on the Tallyho story.)


By Jim O’Neal
Research Director
Mississippi Blues Trail

Tally-Ho, a tonic once produced at Turner’s Drug Store, sold for a few dollars a bottle in the 1940s. Now, anyone who has an old bottle of it, or even the label from a bottle, is being offered a $100 prize in a contest sponsored by the Mississippi Blues Trail.

Why? Because Tally-Ho was the sponsor of a historic radio program featuring legendary blues singer and harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson, who lived in Belzoni at the time. Sometimes Williamson was joined by Belzoni guitarist Elmore James. Both men were elected to the Blues Hall of Fame on the first ballot ever circulated by the Memphis-based Blues Foundation. And the Mississippi Blues Trail is placing a historical marker at the old Turner’s Drug Store site on Hayden Street on May 15 in honor of the broadcasts, which boosted Williamson and James on their way to stardom before either man had started his recording career. Williamson later recorded such hits as “Eyesight to the Blind,” “Help Me,” and “Don’t Start Me Talking,” while James was known for “Dust My Broom,” “It Hurts Me Too,” and “The Sky Is Crying.”

In the 1940s and ‘50s, blues and country & western bands often played live on local radio stations across the South, advertising tonics, flour brands, and furniture stores. In 1948 WAZF in Yazoo City laid a direct telephone line to Belzoni and had a remote broadcasting studio built under the guidance of station engineer Don Flinspach and Belzoni merchant W.C. Warren of Delta Electric Co. Several hours of WAZF’s daily programming emanated from Belzoni, where local musician Bob Novak was hired as announcer. Sonny Boy Williamson came at 3:30 p.m., broadcasting live from the Easy Pay Store, singing blues and sometimes gospel songs, as well as a Tally-Ho theme song which began. “Tally-Ho sure is good, you can buy it anywhere in your neighborhood.” The Easy Pay also advertised its merchandise on the radio. Easy Pay owner George Gordon and O.J. Turner, Jr., of Turner’s were partners in the Tally-Ho venture, which was modeled after a popular tonic called Hadacol. Both tonics did a booming business at one time, and although they were advertised as vitamin supplements, the alcohol content of both offered consumers an extra “kick.” Older residents recall that Tally-Ho was popular both among whites and African Americans.

Parts of the Tally-Ho story have appeared in various blues history books, based on an interview that blues researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow conducted with Turner’s pharmacist W.G. Bush in the early 1970s. The tonic is usually spelled “Talaho” in these accounts. The Mississippi Blues Trail hopes to find an actual bottle to confirm the correct spelling. Other questions also remain, including the site of the radio studio that was constructed in Belzoni, and the call letters of the Greenville station that also broadcast from Belzoni. Some sources report that it was WGVM, while others cite WJPR. Anyone with a Tally-Ho bottle or label or information on the radio studio and stations, Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James, or other Belzoni blues musicians, including Robert Earl Holston and Boyd Gilmore, is invited to contact Helen Sims in Belzoni at 836-7761 or the Mississippi Blues Trail research department at (816) 931-0383, e-mail The blues trail is also looking for original photographs.

The marker at Turner’s will be the blues trail’s third in Belzoni. Pinetop Perkins and Denise LaSalle are featured on the first two. In addition to Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James, Turner’s, and Easy Pay, the new marker will also honor Belzoni educator Lonnie Haynes for his work in the 1950s as a blues drummer with James and Little Milton.

In addition, a 1939 photograph of a guitarist playing in front of Turner’s will be printed on the marker. (Hopefully someone in attendance can identify this unnamed musician.) In the future the blues trail hopes to honor some of Belzoni’s important venues for blues, including Jack Anderson’s cab stand, Jake’s Place, and the IBPOEW Elks Club.

The Mississippi Delta Blues Society, Mississippi Blues Trail, and the Turner family are sponsoring a full slate of events on May 15, including:

2:00 p.m.: Pinetop Perkins marker relocation dedication, 17150 Hwy. 49W, with music by band members who played with the late Belzoni bluesman Paul “Wine” Jones, plus Bill Abel and a blues jam with Old School Steve, W.H. Lowe, and the Willie Archer Blues Band.

4:00 p.m to 6:00 p.m.: DJ Frank spinning the blues at Hayden & Jackson in downtown Belzoni.

6:00 p.m.: Turner’s Drug Store marker dedication with music by Bentonia bluesman Jimmy “Duck” Holmes.

7:00 to 10:00 p.m. Benefit for the Mississippi Delta Blues Society hosted by Restaurant 107, Long’s Deli, and the O.J. Turner, Jr. family, with music by Jimmy “Duck” Holmes with Stan Street & the Hambone Band, at Restaurant 107 (107 East Jackson Street).

R.S.V.P. 615-473-5436 or

[See next posting for more details on the Tally-Ho/Talaho saga.]

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

On the blues trail in Tutwiler

Here’s a photo by Melanie Young of Living Blues from the November 25 Mississippi Blues Trail marker ceremony in Tutwiler, from left: Jerome Little (Tallahatchie County Board of Supervisors), Tutwiler Mayor Genether Miller-Spurlock, me, Robert Plant, former mayor Robert Grayson, and Mississippi State Senator David Jordan. All spoke at the event, with local officials taking pride in Tutwiler’s place in blues history and Senator Jordan reminding the local “Bible thumpers” of their connections to the blues. Former Tutwiler resident Panny Mayfield of the Clarksdale Press Register arranged for Plant’s participation in sponsoring the marker. His appearance was kept hush-hush so as not to overwhelm Tutwiler with hordes of Led Zeppelinites, so festivities remained pleasantly low-key. Many of the older residents in attendance had no idea who he was, in fact, although they did know the people pictured on the marker, including Tutwiler musicians Tom Dumas and Lee Kizart, as well as Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2, who is buried about two miles from town. Plant took time for interviews and conversations with media and fans. He recalled Sonny Boy’s stays in England, talked about his fascination with the Delta and with its blues artists, including Rube Lacy and Tommy McClennan, and mentioned that Led Zeppelin once had chances to purchase the Chess, Sun, and Vee-Jay labels – he and Jimmy Page wanted to do it, but the other band members weren’t interested. Local blues aficionado Johnny Jennings also had some interesting stories to tell about meeting Sonny Boy in Tutwiler. (More about that another time.)

Some culprits from the Mississippi Blues Trail staff sabotaged me that day (my birthday) by circulating 61 on 49 name tags and coronating me with a paper crown. My sister Julie published my “61 on 49” reference as a mystery quiz on Facebook, prompting a guess that I would be turning 61 in the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility on Highway 49. Now that is truly insulting. I would hope that if I ever achieve the necessary criminal credentials, I would at least have the honor of serving in the state penitentiary at Parchman, which is only a few miles down the road on 49.

Robert Plant said he was also 61. In honor of the first (and only) time I saw Led Zeppelin (at the Kinetic Playground in Chicago, Feb. 7, 1969), here is a photo of a John Bonham drumstick I picked up at that concert:

Jim O'Neal

Mississippi Blues Trail marker dedications 2006-2009


1- Charley Patton grave site (Holly Ridge) December 11, 2006

2- Nelson Street (Greenville) December 11, 2006

3- WGRM Radio (Greenwood) December 11, 2006

4- Riverside Hotel/Bessie Smith (Clarksdale) January 18, 2007

5 - Peavine Railroad (Boyle) February 7, 2007

6- Rosedale /Crossroads myth (Rosedale) February 7, 2007

7- Hwy. 10 & 61/Charlie Booker (Leland) March 29, 2007

8- Honeyboy Edwards (Shaw) April 13, 2007

9- Muddy Waters’ house (Stovall) April 13, 2007

10- Jimmie Rodgers & the Blues (Meridian) May 3, 2007

11- Robert Johnson grave site (Greenwood) May 16, 2007

12- Subway Lounge/Summers Hotel (Jackson) May 30, 2007

13- Son House (Clack/Robinsonville) June 18, 2007

14- Willie Dixon (Vicksburg) June 28, 2007

15- Hickory Street /Elmore James (Canton) July 17, 2007

16- Blue Front Cafe (Bentonia) August 21, 2007

17- Magic Sam (Grenada) August 28, 2007

18- Howlin’ Wolf (West Point) August 30, 2007

(Above: L.C. Cooke speaks at the
dedication of the marker for is brother
Sam in Clarksdale, August 7, 2009.
Photo by Jim O'Neal.)

19- Memphis Minnie (Walls) September 27, 2007

20- Columbus Mississippi Blues/Catfish Alley (Columbus) September 28, 2007

21- Rabbit Foot Minstrels (Port Gibson) October 9, 2007

22- Tommy Johnson (Crystal Springs) October 19, 2007

23- Bo Diddley (McComb) November 2, 2007

24- Broadcasting the Blues/American Blues Network (Gulfport) November 3, 2007

25- Trumpet Records (Jackson) November 17, 2007

26- Otis Rush (Philadelphia) December 6, 2007

27- Robert Nighthawk (Friars Point) December 13, 2007

28- Elvis and the Blues (Tupelo) January 8, 2008

29- Robert Johnson (Hazlehurst) January 31, 2008

30- James Cotton (Clayton, south of Tunica) February 13, 2008

31- Livin’ at Lula: Charley Patton, Bertha Lee, Sam Carr, Frank Frost (Lula) February 13, 2008

32- Mississippi John Hurt (Avalon) February 23, 2008

33- Red Tops (Vicksburg) March 28, 2008

34- Elks Lodge (Greenwood) March 28, 2008

35- Malaco Records (Jackson) April 8, 2008

36- Natchez Burning/Rhythm Club fire (Natchez) April 18, 2008

37- Birthplace of the Blues?/Charley Patton (Dockery) April 19, 2008

38- Pinetop Perkins (Belzoni) May 3, 2008

39- Hubert Sumlin (Pillow Plantation, Greenwood) May 6, 2008

40- Highway 61, northern end (Tunica) May 8, 2008

41- Hopson Plantation/Pinetop Perkins (Clarksdale) May 9, 2008

42- Alamo Theatre/Dorothy Moore (Jackson) May 22, 2008

43- Jimmy Reed (Dunleith) June 19, 2008

44- Big Walter Horton (Horn Lake) June 20, 2008

45- Hill Country Blues: R. L. Burnside & Jr. Kimbrough (Holly Springs) July 3, 2008

46- Black Prairie Blues: Harrington family (Houston Harrington, Eddy Clearwater & Carey Bell) and Willie King (Macon) August 19, 2008

47- Piney Woods School: Sweethearts of Rhythm, Blind Boys of Mississippi, Sam Myers (Piney Woods) August 29, 2008

48- B.B. King birthplace (Berclair) September 11, 2008

49- Church Street (Indianola) September 13, 2008

50- Freedom Village/DeltaBlues Festival (Greenville) September 17, 2008

51- Skip James (Bentonia) September 18, 2008

52- Arthur Crudup, T-Model Ford, Ruben Hughes (Forest) September 26, 2008

53- Joe & Charlie McCoy (Raymond) October 4, 2008

54- Harold “Hardface” Clanton (Tunica) October 8, 2008

55- Hattiesburg recordings/Roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll – Graves Brothers (Hattiesburg) October 18, 2008

56- Big Joe Williams (Crawford) November 3, 2008

57- Bobby Rush (Jackson) November 11, 2008

58- Muddy Waters birthplace (Rolling Fork) December 3, 2008

59- Sam Mosley/Bob Johnson, Billy Ball (New Albany) December 8, 2008

60- Shakerag/Tupelo blues (Tupelo) January 8, 2009

61- Rube Lacy (Pelahatchie) February 13, 2009 (10:00 a.m.)

62- Documenting the Blues: Living Blues, Blues Archive (Oxford) February 27, 2009 (11a.m.)

63- Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2 (Glendora) February 28, 2009 (11:30 a.m

64- Highway 61, southern end (Vicksburg) March 12, 2009

65- Club Desire (Canton) March 31, 2009 (2:00 p.m.)

66- Queen of Hearts/Johnnie Temple (Jackson) April 16, 2009 (4:00 p.m.)

67- Jack Owens (Bentonia) April 17, 2009 (10 a.m.)

68- Little Milton (Inverness) April 17, 2009 (4 p.m.)

69- 1927 flood & Big Bill Broonzy (Scott) April 21, 2009 (10 a.m.)

70- Charlie Musselwhite (Kosciusko) April 24, 2009 (3 p.m.)

71- Fred McDowell (Como) May 7, 2009 (2 p.m.)

72- Mississippi to Memphis (Memphis) May 8, 2009 (11:30 a.m.)

73- Denise LaSalle (Belzoni) May 9, 2009 (2 p.m.)

74- Beale Town Bound: Gus Cannon, Robert Wilkins, Jim Jackson (Hernando) May 27, 2009

75- Abbay & Leatherman Plantation/Robert Johnson (Tunica) May 28, 2009 (10:30 a.m.)

76- Son Thomas (Leland) June 5, 2009 (2 p.m.)

77- Mississippi to Chicago (Chicago) June 11, 2009 (2 p.m.)

78- Chrisman Street (Cleveland) June 22, 2009 (10:30 a.m.)

79- Po' Monkey’s/Juke Joints (Merigold) June 22, 2009 (2:30 p.m.)

80- Baptist Town (Greenwood) July 14, 2009 (10 a.m.)

81- Sam Cooke (Clarksdale) August 7, 2009 (2 p.m.)

82- Otha Turner (Como) August 29, 2009 (11 a.m.)

83- Papa Lightfoot & the Natchez Blues (Natchez) September 4, 2009 (7 p.m.)

84- Club Ebony (Indianola) September 7, 2009 (1:30 p.m.)

85- Charles Evers and the Blues (Fayette) September 23, 2009 (11 a.m.)

86- Sam Chatmon/Blue Front club area (Hollandale) October 2, 2009

87- Ace Records (Jackson) October 5, 2009 (3:30 p.m.)

88- Mississippi to Helena/King Biscuit Time (Helena, Arkansas) October 9, 2009 (2 p.m.)

89- Bukka White (Houston) October 16, 2009 (10 a.m.)

90- Aberdeen Mississippi Blues: Bukka White, Howlin’ Wolf, Albert King (Aberdeen) October 16 , 2009 (4. p.m.)

91- Gold Coast/’Cross the River (Brandon) October 22, 2009 (9 a.m.)

92- Elder Roma Wilson & Reverend Leon Pinson (New Albany) October 26, 2009

93- Summit Street (McComb) November 6, 2009

94- Woodville Blues: Scott Dunbar, Lester Young, William Grant Still (Woodville) November 18, 2009 (11 a.m.)

95- W.C. Handy Encounters the Blues/Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2 grave site (Tutwiler) November 25, 2009 (11:30 a.m.)

96- Harlem Inn (Winstonville) December 4, 2009 (1 p.m.)

97- Henry Townsend (Shelby) December 4, 2009 (2 p.m.)

98- Marcus Bottom/Vicksburg Blues (Vicksburg) December 9, 2009

Note: Although many markers are listed under the name of a single artist or site, several different artists are usually named on each marker. The Henry Townsend marker, for instance, also mentions the following singers and musicians who were born in or lived in Shelby: Erma Franklin, Choker Campbell, Hattie Littles, Gus "Jo Jo" Murray, Tenry Johns ("The King Kong Rocker"), Gerald Wilson, and Willie Kent.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

I'll be 61 on 49 -- Tutwiler on the Blues Trail

The 95th marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail is being unveiled on Wednesday, November 25, in beautiful downtown Tutwiler, Mississippi, in honor of W.C. Handy's encounter with the guitarist who introduced him to the sounds and lyrics of "Goin' Where the Southern Cross' the Dog." I'll be there for the ceremony, which begins at 11:30 a.m., along with Brenda, Dela and Louis. The 25th also happens to be the day I turn 61, and Tutwiler is on Highway 49, so that makes for some kind of crossroads numerology, I guess -- although I have never for a minute believed that any of the points where Highways 61 and 49 meet (or used to meet) could possibly be "THE" crossroads that Robert Johnson believers are always seeking, if there even is such a place.

Meanwhile, as Mississippi Blues Trail research continues to peel away layers of hidden history, even in such accepted and often documented scenarios as W.C. Handy's experiences in Tutwiler and Cleveland, Mississippi, we'll have some "new" (actually very old) details to reveal soon that may result in a rewriting of blues history at the turn of the century in Mississippi, thanks to leads from Handy scholar Elliott Hurwitt with the participation of David Evans and a network of sources across the South.

Jim O'Neal

Sunday, September 21, 2008

"The Natchez Burning"

On April 18, 2008 a marker was dedicated in Natchez commemorating the April 23, 1940 fire at the Rhythm Club, which took over 200 lives, including bandleader Walter Barnes and nine members of his dance orchestra. News of the tragedy reverberated throughout the country, especially among the African American community, and blues performers have recorded memorial songs such as “The Natchez Burning” and “The Mighty Fire” ever since. The ceremony was held at the Natchez Association for the Preservation of African-American Culture (NAPAC) Museum on Main Street.

Walter Barnes and his Sophisticated Swing Orchestra, Chicago, 1939. 
Back row, from left: Calvin Roberts, Preston Jackson, trombones; Oscar 
Brown, drums; Harry Walker, guitar. Front, from left: Ellis Whitlock, 
Frank Greer, Otis Williams, trumpets; John Reed, Lucius Wilson, 
James Cole, John Hartfield, saxes. Standing: Walter Barnes, clarinet. 
Roberts, Walker, Reed, Cole, and Barnes died in the Natchez fire; 
Brown survived, but vowed never to play music again. 

The other musicians in this photo were not with the band in Natchez. 
Neither  was singer Gatemouth Moore, despite stories he told in later 
years -- Down Beat magazine reported that Moore was in Memphis at 
the time. This photo came from the collection of Vicksburg drummer 
Walter Osborne, who carried on the dance band tradition with his 
group, the Red Tops. 

Photo courtesy Blues Archive, John D. Williams Library, 
University of Mississippi.

The blaze reportedly began when a discarded match or cigarette ignited the decorative Spanish moss that hung from the ceiling of the Rhythm Club (also called the Rhythm Night Club), a corrugated metal building on St. Catherine Street. Windows had been boarded shut, and when the flames erupted, hundreds of frantic patrons stormed the only door. Bandleader Walter Barnes was hailed as a hero for trying to calm the crowd while he and the band continued to play the song “Marie.” When the mass of bodies blocked the exit, victims suffocated or were burned or crushed to death.

Barnes, a Vicksburg native, had moved to Chicago in 1923 and recorded with his Royal Creolians band in 1928-29. He developed a successful career taking his dance music to small southern towns where big-time entertainers rarely performed. In keeping with the musical fashion of the era, by 1939 he had renamed his unit the Sophisticated Swing Orchestra. Barnes recruited musicians from several different states for his final tour. The impact of the holocaust hit home not just in Natchez and Chicago, but all the way from Texas to Ohio when the musicians’ bodies were sent home for funerals. Fellow bandleader Clarence “Bud” Scott, Jr., a guest of Barnes’s, also perished in the flames.

The Chicago Daily Defender, the nation’s leading African-American newspaper, covered the Natchez story extensively. Barnes had also been a columnist for the Defender, and the paper reported that more than 15,000 people attended his funeral. The first monument to the victims was dedicated on the Natchez Bluff on September 15, 1940, by the Natchez Civic and Social Clubs of Chicago and Natchez. A state historical marker was later erected at the former site of the Rhythm Club.

Few events in African-American history have been as memorialized as the Natchez fire of 1940. In addition to a monument, markers, museum exhibits, and annual local ceremonies in remembrance of the dead, the fire has inspired both prose and poetry, as well as songs by blues and gospel singers. Just weeks after the disaster, the Lewis Bronzeville Five, Leonard “Baby Doo” Caston, and Gene Gilmore recorded the first commemorative songs in Chicago. The most well-known song to address the topic, “The Natchez Burning,” was recorded in 1956 by Howlin’ Wolf.
Did you ever hear about the burnin’
That happened way down in Natchez Mississippi town?
The whole buildin’ got to burnin’,
There my baby laying on the ground.
“The Natchez Burning” – Howlin’ Wolf
Wolf's song led to versions by Natchez bluesmen Elmo Williams and Hezekiah Early, rock performer Captain Beefheart, and others. John Lee Hooker, blind ballad singer Charles Haffer of Clarksdale and Louisiana guitarist Robert Gilmore also sang about the tragedy on various recordings.

Much more can be written about the various songs dealing with the Natchez fire, but for now, we should point that some erroneous references have been cited at various web sites, including the never-to-be-trusted (but often useful as a starting point) Wikipedia. These songs, for instance, have been given as examples of songs about the fire, but I’ve listened to them and none of them has anything to do with Natchez, a fire, a departed loved one, or any sort of tragic disaster:

-“We The Cats Shall Hep You” – Cab Calloway
- “For You” – Slim Gaillard
- “You’re a Heavenly Thing” – Cleo Brown

A good discussion of songs inspired by the fire (and other events) can be found in Luigi Monge’s chapter, "Death by Fire: African American Popular Music on the Natchez Rhythm Club Fire," in the book Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From: Lyrics and History, edited By Robert Springer (University Press of Mississippi, 2006). The songs are:

- "Mississippi Fire Blues" and "Natchez Mississippi Blues" by Lewis Bronzeville Five, Bluebird B8445, Chicago, May 9, 1940.
- "The Death of Walter Barnes" by Baby Doo (Leonard Caston) and the flip side, "The Natchez Fire," by Gene Gilmore, Decca 7763, Chicago, June 4, 1940.
- "The Natchez [Theater] Fire Disaster," by Charles Haffer Jr., unissued Library of Congress track 6623-B-2, July 23, 1942.
- "The Natchez Burning," by Howlin' Wolf, Chicago, July 19, 1956, Chess 1744.
- "Wasn't That a Awful Day in Natchez?" by Robert Gilmore, prob. 1956 or 1957, Plaquemines Point, Louisiana, a track on the LP A Sampler of Louisiana Folksongs, Louisiana Folklore Society LFS-1.
- "Natchez Fire" ("Burnin'") by John Lee Hooker, Detroit, April 20, 1959, a track on Riverside LP 008.
- "Fire at Natchez (The Great Disaster of 1936)," by John Lee Hooker, March 9, 1961, Culver City, California, a track on Galaxy LP 201 and 8201.
- "The Mighty Fire" ("Great Fire of Natchez"), by John Lee Hooker, July 28, 1963, Newport, Rhode Island, a track on Vee-Jay LP 107.
- "The Natchez Burning," by Willie Wright, April 7, 1976, Sweet Home, Arkansas, a track on Rooster Blues LP R7605.
- "Ice Storm Blues, Parts One & Two," by Big Jack Johnson, 1994, Clarksdale, Rooster Blues cassette R-60C.
- "The Burning," by Little Whitt & Big Bo, February 1995, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a track on Vent Records CD VR 30009.
- "Natchez Fire," by Elmo Williams & Hezekiah Early, 1997, Waterproof, Louisiana, a track on Fat Possum CD 80313.

Monge mentions two recordings that were released on Rooster Blues Records during the time I [Jim O'Neal] co-owned the label. The first, a version of Wolf’s “The Natchez Burning” by Arkansas guitarist Willie Wright, was first released on the Rooster Blues LP Keep It To Yourself: Arkansas Blues, Vol.. 1 – Solo Performances, which is now available on CD (Stackhouse SRC-1910). This was recorded by Louis Guida in 1976 as part of a Bicentennial field recording project, and the title on the original tape was “Madison, Mississippi,” because that’s what Wright is singing, rather than “Natchez, Mississippi.” (Or it could just as well have been "Mattson, Mississippi.") I changed it on the album to “The Natchez Burning” because that’s what the song was, just with a different town name. (Monge transcribes this as “the messy Mississippi town.”)

The other recording, also inspired by Wolf’s Natchez song, with new lyrics sung to the same music, was Big Jack Johnson’s “Ice Storm Blues,” in which the Clarksdale ice storm of 1994 replaces the Natchez fire of 1940 as the topic of disaster (although on a much less deadly scale). This was a cassette-only release in the U.S. although it was issued in Japan on a P-Vine Special CD. It’s among a number of tracks recorded at the Stackhouse Recording Studio (R.I.P.) in Clarksdale that I hope to release on a Stackhouse CD and/or in whatever digital/electronic format is necessary in the coming day and age.

Another recording that transposes Wolf's song about the fire onto another event is "The Burning" by Alabama bluesmen Little Whitt and Big Bo, recorded for Vent Records in 1995: "Have you ever heard about the burning that happened way down in a Mississippi town? Well, those evil people there burned the schoolhouse down to the ground."

As for Wolf’s own recording, “The Natchez Burning,” although it was recorded July 19, 1956, in Chicago, Chess did not release it until November 1959 when it appeared as the “A” side of Chess single 1744. I don’t know the reasoning for this, other than it appears from perusing Wolf’s discography that he was not recording many sessions for Chess in 1959-60, and Chess started pulling some unissued tracks from past sessions to keep the singles flowing. I also thought maybe there was some sort of 20th anniversary memorial to the fire in Chicago in the spring of 1960 and that the single might have been released to coincide with that, but I have no evidence of that. The Defender did run an article about Walter Barnes on the 20th anniversary of his demise.

John Lee Hooker’s first song about the fire, “Natchez Fire," issued in England on Riverside LP 008, "Burning Hell," was recorded April 20, 1959, in Detroit, according to The Blues Discography 1943-1970. Some have presumed Hooker’s track was inspired by Wolf’s 1956 recording, but unless he heard a pre-release version of “The Natchez Burning” either at a Wolf performance or at Chess, Hooker must have come up with the theme on his own. He had also just done his first version of “Tupelo Blues” (about the 1936 Tupelo tornado – although he depicts the event as a flood) on Riverside (U.S.) LP 12-838, so perhaps the Hook was either inspired, or prompted by the producer, to come up with some topical disaster songs. Hooker, who recorded three versions of this song on various albums, also dated the Natchez fire at 1936, but then he gave conflicting years for his own birthdate, too. (We’ll try to sort that one out when we get to the Mississippi Blues Trail marker for Hooker.)

The Captain Beefheart version of "Natchez Burning" is a 43-second a cappella track from a 1972 radio show at WBCU in Boston, with Beefheart giving his best Wolf voice simulation. This was released on the Grow Fins boxed set of Beefheart rarities, which also includes a few other Wolf songs, and, following the disaster theme, a version of "Tupelo" (in a John Lee Hooker-ish voice, of course) and another blues that mentions a tornado. The British blues-rock band the Groundhogs also recorded "Natchez Burning."

Some other notes:

- Musicians who died in the fire
Walter Barnes, 33, leader, sax and clarinet, Chicago.
Juanita Avery, 20, vocalist, Dallas.
James Coles, sax, Huntington, W. Va.
John Henderson, sax, Augusta, Ga.
Jesse Washington, sax, Chicago.
John Reed, sax, Huntington, W. Va.
Clarence Porter, piano, Ft. Myers, Fla.
Harry Walker, guitar, Cincinnati.
Calvin Roberts, trombone, Cincinnati.
Paul Stott, trumpet, Indianapolis.
Bud Scott, visiting band leader. 
 - Musicians who survived the fire
Arthur Edwards, bass, Denver.
Oscar Brown, drums, Denver.
Jimmy Swift, bus driver, Chicago.
Walter Dillard, valet, Chicago.
- The Rhythm Club drew a paid Tuesday night attendance of 557 to dance to Walter Barnes's orchestra, according to Time magazine. The club's wooden interior burned, but the metal structure kept the deadly flames inside. New safety laws were enacted after the disaster of April 23, 1940.

- Tiny Bradshaw and his band were originally booked to play the Rhythm Club on April 23, but Bradshaw accepted an offer to play at the Apollo Theater in Harlem instead, and Barnes took the booking.

- The 1940 monument to the fire victims on the Natchez Bluff lists all the deceased band members cited in the Down Beat clipping except for John Henderson. James Coles is listed on the monument as James Cole. The Down Beat clipping was actually the same as one that first appeared in the Chicago Defender on May 4, 1940, except for the headline.

- All the news reports on the Barnes band cited their name as the Royal Creolians. Barnes had used this name when the band recorded in 1928-29 for Brunswick (which included a couple of covers of blues hits with vocals – “It’s Tight Like That” and “How Long How Long Blues,” in addition to dance instrumentals), and continued to use it in performance. However, the 1939 photo reproduced on the marker is identified as the “Walter Barnes Sophisticated Swing Orchestra,” reflecting the change in musical fashion from hot jazz to swing. News reports also often referred to Barnes “and his band from Chicago,” but as the list of band members showed, only Barnes and saxophonist Jesse Washington were from Chicago; both were originally from Vicksburg. Washington had also played with Ransom Knowling’s Aristocrats of Swing in Chicago, according to the April 15, 1939 Defender. Barnes had developed a routine of heading south for the winter every year and using Jacksonville, Florida, as a base for his tours of the southern states. Barnes was not a major recording artist; he cut only a few singles, and did not record after 1929 – but apparently he didn’t need to; in the tradition of many traveling show bands, dance orchestras, and territory bands, all he needed to do to attract and entertain crowds was to hire good musicians who could play the dance hits of the day.

- The Bud Scott who died in the fire was a saxophonist and bandleader from Natchez. He was booked to play a dance in Greenville with his 12-piece orchestra the following week. He was the son of Clarence “Bud” Scott, Sr., who led what must have been a very impressive string band – Little Brother Montgomery recalled that Scott, a Natchez mandolinist, had 14 violinists in the band. Scott Sr. raised his son in Chicago, according to the Defender, and Scott Jr. returned to Natchez, where he had been leading his own group for four years. These Scotts have been confused with the banjo player Arthur “Bud” Scott (c. 1890-1949), a prominent New Orleans jazzman who played with King Oliver, Kid Ory, and others, and who was also based in Chicago at one point, and later in California.

- Many histories written long after the fact have incorporated stories told by blues shouter (and later the Reverend) Arnold Dwight “Gatemouth” Moore that he was singing with the band, but survived because he was outside in the bus when the fire broke out. Moore had indeed sung with the band – in the 1930s – but he is not mentioned in any news accounts of the fire, including the short list of musicians who survived the fire, and in fact Down Beat placed him in Memphis, along with former band members Tommy Watkins (trumpet) and Edgar Brown (piano) in a May 15, 1940, article headlined “Ex-Barnes Men Happy They Left Before Tragedy.”

- There are many more articles about the fire, which was reported in Time, Variety, Down Beat, and other magazines in 1940, as well as in an Associated Press story that was carried by newspapers all across the country, and of course in all the African-American newspapers.

- An article in Time magazine gave the story the jive treatment, focusing on the sponsorship of the dance by the Moneywasters Social Club and concluding with a quote from the bartender whose wife died in the fire: “My old lady looked like a pickle when they brung her out. She burned like a pickle. Dead."

- Other publications carried such headlines as “212 Negroes Perish in Dance Hall Fire That Sweeps Structure in Mississippi” (Reno Evening Gazette, April 24, 1940) and “Cries of Burning Negroes Heard For Blocks” (Natchez Democrat, April 24, 1940). The Natchez paper later printed a long list of every person who had donated even 50 cents to the relief and rescue effort.

- Preston Lauterbach has a good piece on the Natchez fire and monument at the internet’s best web site for those who want to dig deeper (as in underground) into the historical and living traditions of blues and other roots music, Backroads of American Music.

Future markers in Natchez will address the 1940 Library of Congress recordings of Lucious Curtis and others in Natchez, the 1941-42 Library of Congress/Fisk University study that was proposed for Natchez but ended up being conducted in Coahoma County and the North Delta, and the many Natchez musicians who have played the blues, from Papa Lightfoot and Cat-Iron to Hezekiah & the Houserockers and Y.Z. Ealey. We’re also hopeful that our Oxford (Mississippi) research associate Tom Freeland will have some real biographical information soon on the mysterious Geeshie Wiley, who was reported to be from Natchez, but who had family ties in Oxford.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

"Hill Country Blues," Holly Springs

Hill Country musicians Kenny Brown, Duwayne Burnside,
Little Joe Ayers, David Kimbrough and Garry Burnside. 
Photo by Scott Barretta

On July 3, 2008 a marker honoring North Mississippi Hill Country musicians David "Junior" Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside was dedicated on the square in Holly Springs. Kimbrough, born in Hudsonville, and Burnside, born in rural north Lafayette County, spent most of their years in the vicinity of Holly Springs, where Kimbrough operated a juke joint in the '80s and early '90s. 

Video: Burnside being interviewed by Jim O'Neal and performing the Hill Country standard "Poor Black Mattie" for the documentary Blues Story.

Although both Kimbrough and Burnside began recording in the 1960s, they didn't gain broader recognition until the 1990s, when their CDs on the Oxford-based Fat Possum label caught fire with both blues and alternative music circles. Kimbrough's juke joint in Chulahoma, about ten miles southwest of Holly Springs in rural Marshall County, became a popular destination for blues pilgrims, while the distinctive, groove-oriented sound that characterized Burnside and Kimbrough's music was widely adopted.

From left: Kenny Brown, David Kimbrough, Duwayne Burnside and Cedric 
Burnside performing after the dedication. Photo by Scott Barretta 

Following Kimbrough's death in 1998 and Burnside's in 2005 their music has been carried on by many of their children and grandchildren. Duwayne Burnside and David Kimbrough have their own bands; drummer/vocalist Cedric Burnside tours and records with  Steve "Lightnin'" Malcolm as the Juke Joint Duo; Garry Burnside performs with Cody Dickinson's Hill Country Revue; Kinney Kimbrough works with the group Afrissippi; and Burnside's longtime guitarist and "adopted son" Kenny Brown  keeps a busy schedule both in the US and Europe, and has recently featured Junior Kimbrough's longtime bassist Little Joe Ayers in his show as a vocalist. In 2006 Brown founded the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic, held each July in Potts Camp, southeast of Holly Springs.

"Black Prairie Blues," Macon

Eddy Clearwater, Steve Bell and Willie King at the 
marker dedication. Photo by Scott Barretta

Despite scorching heat over 200 people showed up on August 19, 2008 for the unveiling of the marker in Macon. The topic, "Black Prairie Blues," acknowledges the oft overlooked traditions of this geographic region to the east of the hill regions, and celebrated musicians including Eddy Clearwater, who drove down from Illinois for the event, local hero Willie King, and the late harmonica great Carey Bell, who was represented by his harmonica-playing son Steve Bell, who lives in Kosciusko, MS. 

Unfortunately Carey's son Lurrie, an accomplished blues artist, was on tour and couldn't make it to the event. After the ceremony Willie King's band the Liberators performed, and King was later joined by Clearwater and Steve Bell, who was accompanied by Jackson-based guitarist Jesse Robinson, who often works with Bell.

At the unveiling Clearwater reunited with childhood friend 
O.C. Gilkey, who inspired him to take up the guitar. Photo by Scott Barretta

Steve Bell, Eddie Clearwater and Willie King performing after the marker unveiling
Bell, Clearwater and King performing together. Photo by Scott Barretta

Thursday, September 18, 2008

"Pinetop Perkins," Belzoni

Photo by Scott Barretta

On May 3, 2008 a marker was erected on Highway 49 about a mile north of Belzoni in honor of pianist Joe Willie "Pinetop" Perkins. He was born on July 13, 1913 on the nearby Honey Island plantation.  As a young man Perkins also played the guitar, but switched over to the piano after an angry woman cut the tendons in his arm. As a young man Perkins played around the Delta with guitarists including Robert Nighthawk and Earl Hooker, performed on the King Biscuit radio program over KFFA in Helena, Arkansas, and taught a young Ike Turner to play piano. 

Perkins later toured widely with artists including Earl Hooker and in 1969 he took over the piano spot in Muddy Waters' band following the death of Otis Spann. Over the last several decades he's enjoyed a successful solo career, and his many honors include a Grammy award in 2008. After the unveiling there was a "Pinetop Perkins Festival" in Belzoni, which featured artists including Bobby Rush and Pinetop himself, who played together with the band of Billy Gibson (pictured below).

Photo by Scott Barretta

On May 9 Perkins was on hand at Hopson for the dedication of the marker "Cotton Pickin' Blues," which acknowledges the role of cotton production in the blues. Hopson was the first place where a crop of cotton was planted and harvested using only mechanized implements, and one of the tractor drivers during this time was none other than Pinetop.  He also showed up for the unveiling of a marker saluting his good friend Hubert Sumlin in Greenwood.

Photo by Scott Barretta

Here's a video about Perkins put together by his label Telarc in tandem with the release of his newest CD "Pinetop Perkins and Friends." One of the artists featured here is B.B. King

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

"Piney Woods School"

On August 29, 2008 the 47th marker was unveiled at the Piney Woods School, which is located about 22 miles southeast of Jackson just off of Highway 49.  While many of the Blues Trail markers acknowledge individual musicians, others--such as this one--acknowledge the role played by labels, radio or other institutions in furthering the blues.  Music education has been central to the Piney Woods School's curriculum since its founding in 1909, and in the early '20s the school began sending out groups of students under the name of the "Cotton Blossom Singers" on fundraising tours.

One of these groups was a quartet of students who attended the Mississippi School for the Blind for African Americans at Piney Woods led by Archie Brownlee. After graduation, the group renamed themselves the Jackson Harmoneers, and took as a second vocalist the sighted Melvin Henderson (Hendrex), who was the father of soul/blues diva Dorothy Moore and keyboardist Melvin "Housecat" Hendrex, Jr. 

As the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi the group became one of the leading gospel groups in the country. Brownlee's vocal style--characterized by moans, screams and grunts--helped define the "hard gospel" quartet style, and was a major influence on soul artists including Wilson Pickett, James Brown, and Ray Charles. Here's a youtube version of one of their songs from the early '50s--just audio and pictures unfortunately, but listen to those voices!!

In 1937 Piney Woods established the all-female jazz orchestra the "International Sweethearts of Rhythm." Most of the members were African American, but the group earned the tag "international" due to the Mexican, Hawaiian and Chinese heritage of some of its members. The group became popular nationally, and in 1941 members decided to break ties with the school in order to get a bigger share of the money they were bringing in. The school replaced them on the road with the Sweethearts' understudies, the Swinging Rays of Rhythm. 

The International Sweethearts of Rhythm broke attendance records at major theaters, and toured Europe with the USO in 1945. In 1947 they made an extended "music video" that captured their unique and exciting stage show.

Bluesman Sam Myers (1936 - 2006), who was legally blind, attended Piney Woods beginning at age ten. While there he played the trumpet and drums in the school orchestra, toured with the glee club, and learned to play the harmonica by accompanying blues records he bought during visits to Jackson.  He also recalled traveling on the road as an assistant to the Swinging Rays of Rhythm.

Myers attended the Chicago Conservatory of Music after graduating from Piney Woods, and began playing blues professionally with artists including Elmore James, with whom he played both drums and harmonica. For many years Myers was based in Jackson, MS, and in the '80s he joined Dallas-based Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets. They subsequently became favorites on the blues circuit. Here's a clip of Myers with the band with "I'm Your Professor."

Monday, September 15, 2008

Doing research for the Mississippi Blues Trail

Writing texts and researching the history for the Mississippi Blues Trail markers is my main blues project these days. Scott Barretta of Living Blues and I, along with the rest of the editorial and design team (including Dr. Sylvester Oliver in Holly Springs, Chrissy Wilson of the Mississippi Department of Archives & History in Jackson, and Wanda Clark in Greenwood) are generating the text and photos for these historical markers – 52 so far, with about 80 more to do over the next three years.

This has turned into a much more intensive process than any of us imagined when we compiled the marker site list with the Mississippi Blues Commission. Rather than just repeat and rehash previous biographies and histories, we’re using the ever-increasing wealth of data available from online searches, genealogy databases, libraries, local community sources, musicians and their families, the BluEsoterica archives of interviews and subject files, and a super crew of international blues heads including Bob Eagle in Australia, Eric LeBlanc in Canada, and Howard Rye, Alan Balfour, Chris Smith and others in the U.K., as well as the collections at Delta Haze Corp. in Greenwood and the Blues Archive at the University of Mississippi’s John D. Williams Library. Collectors such as Richard Nevins of Shanachie and Yazoo Records, Paul Garon, Woody Sistrunk, and Ken Oilschlager have also provided images of record labels and other material. At the top of the back side of the Son House marker at the site of the old Clack Store in Tunica County, for example, is a photo of the only copy known in blues collectors' circles of Son House's "Preachin' the Blues."

The affiliation of this project with the state of Mississippi has opened up new streams of information from the source, as various local officials, tourism directors, historical societies, and chambers of commerce have aided in the search and put us in contact with musicians, relatives, and others involved in the blues (most recently, for example, a cousin of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup in Forest, Mississippi, who took it upon himself to compile Crudup’s family history). In the process of this, we’re finding out that a number of blues artists weren’t born when or where the previously published bios say, and histories are being revised and sometimes constructed virtually from scratch. We’re currently in the throes of unraveling the mangled and tangled tale of Otis Spann, self-proclaimed second lieutenant, medical college student, and pro football quarterback.

We’d like to turn the marker texts and graphics into a book with expanded comments about everything we DIDN’T get to on the markers - - - publishers, please contact us if you’re interested.

Jim O'Neal, September 2008