Music Maker Relief Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the true pioneers and forgotten heroes of the Blues gain recognition and meet their day-to-day needs. Our blog is dedicated to keeping the conversation about these artists alive & thriving.
A couple of weeks ago, Ironing Board Sam took to the stage with a bevy of elementary school students backing him up on ukeleles, glockenspiels and with their voices; a middle school jazz band was off to the side and Music Maker intern Raphael plucked along on bass. The stage was the middle of a gymnasium floor and the audience large groups of schoolkids and their parents. It was the culmination of Sam’s several months visiting with music classes as a part of the Jazz Foundation’s Agnis Varis Jazz in the Schools Program.
This evening, Sam is reprising this performance with a portion of the Ukelele orchestra on the lawn of the Historic Burwell School in Hillsborough, NC. So, it’s timely that our next piece from the collaborative effort with Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies is a piece about Sam:
“First time that I played washboard, I just won’t forget this…I was on stage had my thimbles on and two thimbles just popped off and just went out and that was just the funniest thing and I just had to…move right on, keep going.” – Tonya Locklear
In the mid to late 1800s, Creole musicians in southwest Louisiana started playing washboards. One of the reasons is that they could not afford the percussion instruments in stores. Today, many music genres in the United States feature this seemingly mundane household tool, the most prominent ones being Cajun, Zydeco and Jazz music.
But how did it find its way into blues music? One theory points to the geographic proximity between Louisiana, celebrated for its jazz and Creole music tradition, and the Mississippi Delta, the birthplace of blues. In any case, washboard became a staple in blues music by the 1930s. Many bluesmen played washboard, often among other instruments, and some of them recorded.
Robert Young, better known as Washboard Slim, pioneered washboard playing in the early twentieth century. Expanding the musical possibilities of the washboard, Slim added frying pans, a hubcap, pot lids, a cowbell, and an old rubber car horn to his washboard. The percussive instrument now added both rhythm and diverse colours to the music. As a musician, Slim accompanied many blues giants such as Big Bill Broonzy and Brownie McGhee. As an inventor, Slim began a tradition in adorning washboards with ordinary objects in blues music. His contribution to American music was so great that his original washboard sits now in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History/
Another successful washboard player was Robert Brown with a fitting stage name – Washboard Sam. Ten years younger than Slim, Sam was born in
Arkansas, a state adjacent to both Louisiana and Mississippi. Washboard likely found its way into his music through jug bands in Memphis, where he lived in the 1920s. Jug bands often played a mixture of Memphis blues, ragtime, and jazz music on home-made instruments. Interwoven are the traditions of jazz and blues, their use of the washboard, and the home of today’s largest folk music festivals, Louisiana. Sam brought these musical influences to Chicago, where he rose to fame in the late 1930s and 1940s. In one of Washboard Sam’s most famous songs, “Easy Riding Mama,” he sings while strumming on his washboard. Less elaborate than Slim’s, Sam’s washboard has one plate as its main attachment.
One living washboard bluesman is Chaz Leary, most well known in New Orleans, having starred in one of the city’s commercials and performed at various music festivals there. A fan says of Chaz, “If you have Chaz, who needs drums?” Continuing Slim’s tradition, Chaz adorned his washboard with two hotel call bells that serve as drums; a wooden frame and block beneath for rhythmic accents; and thimbles that sound as a snare drum over the ridges. Born in New York, far from the cities of blues and washboard music, Chaz benefited from easy access to records today. He mastered the washboard by listening to Jazz records: “You know the record Jazz at Massey Hall? The drum solo Max Roach does on ‘Salt Peanuts’? I used to be able to play that note for note.”
In the Locklear family, Tonya is the washboard player. Keeping with her background in classical piano, she again plays a percussive instrument. How did she come to the washboard? What can she bring to the blues family group? See the video below to find out!
As a sophomore and public policy major at Duke, I took my first documentary studies course last semester. I was immediately drawn to the medium’s potential for giving a voice to the marginalized and facilitating social change. In addition to learning the technical aspects of the craft, I found “Multimedia Documentary” appealing because I wished to engage with the community around me. Blues music intrigued me, as I had minimal exposure to traditional roots music. Furthermore, I identified strongly with the Music Maker Relief foundation’s mission. Through the class, I have come to embrace blues music and the musicians who sing from their heart. In the summer, I will build upon the skills I have acquired in this class in the Far East. I will continue my documentary filmmaking education by starting production on a documentary on the Chinese Civil War in my native Taiwan. Expressing their heritage and identities through blues music, Lakota John and his family have inspired me to do the same with my endeavor this summer and beyond.
Look for more work from the Center for Documentary Studies students in future posts!
For the past five months, Music Maker has partnered with Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies for a class in Multimedia Documentary. We mentioned the class in a previous blog post, but now we’re happy to start sharing some of the students’ work!
The students worked in groups of three or four to produce videos and ancillary materials about several local Music Maker artists – the pieces we saw focused on Ironing Board Sam, Ben Payton and Captain Luke. In addition to producing four videos, there is a series of ancillary material including stories of washboards, social clubs and family.
Students were eager to talk about their experiences working with the artists and learning the ins and outs of documenting such dynamic people. The group that worked with Ben Payton became big fans – so much so that they decided to treat him to a steak because of a story he had shared with them about knowing he’d made it when he could sit down with a fancy steak. Check out their final video above and let us know what you think!
From Left to Right: Major Handy, Dr. Burt, Pat Wilder, Ironing Board Sam, Albert White, Ardie Dean (not pictured: Nashid)
It has been just over a month since the Music Maker Blues Revue returned from Australia. The full experience is finally carving itself down to a cohesive memory.
As a primer, the Music Maker Blues Revue has performed at the Byron Bay Blues Festival in New South Wales, Australia, eight times. The Blues festival itself is remarkable; over a four-day weekend, more than 150,000 music fans tramp around a fairground with five tented stages all day to revel at some of the world’s greatest Roots, Blues, Soul and Rock performers. Along with the Blues Revue, this past year’s offerings included Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt, Paul Simon, Robert Plant, Carlos Santana, Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite and more.
Byron Bay Blues Festival has earned a reputation as being one of the world’s greatest music festivals. Seeing this as an opportunity, the festival now brings in select acts to tour the rest of Australia around the dates of the festival. One of these opportunities was generously bestowed upon the Music Maker Blues Revue. Our tour started us in the farthest reaches of Australia, deep in the bush. Known as the most remote major city in the world and the capital of Western Australia, Perth is built on mining wealth and it has the air of a thriving boom-town. It has a beautiful skyline and clean streets lined with boutiques and well appointed restaurants. We literally traveled more than halfway around the world to get there from our starting point. When we landed, it was 14 hours into the future.
We were all there, all except for Major Handy. I thought, ”Well, this shouldn’t be a problem.” We had another 24 hours before we were set to go on stage at the West Coast Roots and Blues Festival, our very first show of the tour and Major Handy’s first show with the Blues Revue, ever. I think I gave air travel too much credit.
How did it all turn out? Well, Major’s flight out of Lafayette, LA was delayed causing him to miss his connecting flight in Los Angeles. He ended up having to spend the night at an airport hotel and wait for the next day’s flight out. His new arrival time would get him to the venue just an hour before we were supposed to go on stage. Yes, Major had not played with the band yet, but Ardie had been preparing Nashid, Albert and himself, working on Major’s material over the phone and by CD. They had not all been in the same room together, but through the magic of technology they had been playing with Major regularly since January when the lineup was confirmed (and after we’d made sure everyone had active passports).
Forty-five minutes before we were supposed to go on, we were sitting in our dressing tent when the flap pulled back to reveal a travel weary Major carrying his luggage and a flight case with his accordion. In spite of the three days he had been in transit, he had a big smile on his face and hugs and salutations for everyone. Before he sat down, he reached into his bag to pull out a washboard and two bottle openers with the handles wrapped in duct tape and handed them straight to Pat Wilder. “Hey Pat, you ever played one of these?” Major demonstrated a few rhythms that Pat copied. “You’re a natural!” he exclaimed, “I need you to play it during my set.”
Pat replied, “Cool.”
I asked Major if he wanted to wash up before the show and we found a locker room with showers. Fifteen minutes later, he looked like a new man and we were backstage watching Dr. Burt open the show to a capacity crowd, probably 8,000 to 10,000 people.
Needless to say, each of their performances was a massive hit. When Nashid dropped the signature bass groove of Major Handy’s original “Zydeco Feeling,” the entire crowd was rocking. The whole group fell in and Pat played the washboard without missing a beat. It was a truly amazing start to our 10-day tour Down Under.
Next up… Melbourne, Justin and the miracle rehearsal.
Since Aaron, our Artist Services Coordinator, works directly with the artists we serve, my role means I most often don’t work with the artists as directly. I mainly work with supporters, and indirectly with artists to publicize their gigs, releases, etc. – which makes it so special when I am able to take some time and really get to know any of our artists, whom I normally only visit with at shows.
This past week, Music Maker artist Ben Payton and I were speakers at a Leadership Triangle event that introduced Leadership Triangle participants to the town of Hillsborough, where MMRF has its offices and where Ben is a new resident. Ben and I got there a bit too early (my fault) and so we had a chance to grab a cup of coffee and chat.
I asked Ben if he’d liked the movie the students at the Center for Documentary Studies had made about him (which we’ll be able to show you soon!) He said he had, and then chuckled and said, “they really liked my shoes! The whole movie is about my shoes. They were really good about making sure all performance shots highlighted my shoes. I think the whole film is about my shoes!” Ben is referring to his shoe collection, which is quite impressive. He explained in the film that, growing up, he went without proper shoes for a long time, so now they’re something he invests in.
That got us talking about style – Ben has a lot of great stories about style. He told me “Style can be dangerous. It can make a person so they’re not showing who they really are, because they’re following a style. Not being themselves. And style almost got me shot in Chicago!”
I had to ask him to repeat that last part. Style almost got him killed? Ben said, “When I was living in the Chicago, this one time, it was the 1970s, and I was dressed in style. I had a long, black leather coat, and a real nice hat a borrowed from my mother’s boyfriend. I was out walking with my friend, and I saw a man run across the street towards me, in a big hurry. He looked at me, and walked right up to me and said ‘man, I almost just shot you! You’re dressed just like the man that’s messin’ with my wife!’”
I laughed. We both said “whew!” And he told me, “After that, you know, I put my mother’s boyfriend’s hat back on the shelf. And I went to the pawn shop, and I sold that coat!”
I think Ben looks pretty stylish with his awesome shoes and his incredibly put-together outfits, but I’m glad that he’s dressing for himself. And that his clothes no longer put him in danger!
One hot summer day, I was on the porch of Ezelle’s drink house with Captain Luke listening to his wild stories about Guitar Gabriel. He trailed off of one particularly interesting tale, despite my pleas to continue. Then, to my surprise, he picked up my guitar and started to strum a strong country beat and sang a wonderful ode to his old mule.
I had heard Luke sing dozens of old blues and sentimental songs. He always had great interpretations of classics and a unique sense of timing. Until that point, I had never heard him perform a song that he had written. Luke had grown up on the farm, and his tune brought me back to the furrows of that South Carolina farm, walking barefoot behind his Uncle Jessie as they toiled in the brutally hot Southern summers. The song was joyful and it demonstrated a mastery of the folk song idiom. I always sensed the Captain was a great artist, and if he had only one song to write, he could not have done better.
In 1999 we had moved to an old tobacco farm in the nearby town of Pinnacle. We helped guitarist Cool John Ferguson relocate to a house down the street from us and we spent a couple years recording and rehearsing with many artists. Our first project was to make a record for Captain Luke. Upon my urging, Luke agreed to sing “Old Black Buck.” As Luke sang, Cool composed an intricate, lovely country guitar piece on the spot. I could not believe it! These two blues musicians created a tune as beautiful and timeless as any classic Southern folk melody.
Country musical traditions run deep in African-American culture. It is often ignored that before the advent of the blues, slaves played violins and banjos, and many of staples in a country fiddler’s repertoire are old minstrel tunes. Both Captain Luke and Cool John had enjoyed and performed country music their whole lives, so it should be no surprise that they have mastery of the folk idiom.
Since that session, Captain Luke has performed “Old Black Buck” every time he has taken the stage. Audiences are instantly enamored by his voice and the story of his old mule. He has received tremendous applause after each performance, ranging from venues like Lincoln Center in New York to stages throughout France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Spain.
Luke will often comment that his favorite people on this side of the pond were his fans in Argentina: in 2005 he was invited by the legendary guitar maestro Botafoga to tour this country. Luke performed on national radio, television and at concerts at soccer stadiums, schools and clubs through out the country. On the last nights we performed in the theatre district of Buenos Aires. These shows were sold out, and Botafoga’s band had charted arrangements to Luke’s idiosyncratic timing. When the band followed his voice with all its delays and turnarounds, Luke just smiled, chuckled and his deep baritone mined even greater depths. Luke had reached back to that summer day in Winston-Salem, when he had created a song that would be heard around the world. He considered himself lucky to join that song on its journey, meeting new friends and seeing places he never dreamed he would ever go.