Taj Mahal called me Saturday night and was excited as he had just learned that the legendary black jazz guitarist Charlie Christian’s father played the harp guitar. “What I would give to know what kind of music they played,” he said.
In 1997 I met photographer Mark Austin, who had bought a glass plate negative of a black man holding a harp guitar, taken in 1915 or so. Amazingly, with some research I identified the guitarist as a Todd Jones – his granddaughter Perlista contacted me after I published the photo. I learned of the black photographer who documented his community, and how after he passed away his photo plates were found and sold out of his abandoned house. That is how this photo of Todd Jones found its way to Mark Austin, and to me. We have a print of the photo hanging in the Music Maker offices, not only as a lovely piece of art but to remind us how easily it was for talented Roots musicians to be lost to history – and our job is to make sure that does not happen.
The other day an article came out telling the story of a fellow from Winston-Salem, NC who had found another photo plate showing Todd Jones’ brother Bernard holding the same harp guitar. (Big thanks to Margot for sending this to us – we miss you Margot!)
Check out this amazing link and site – scroll down to the bottom, and you will see the most amazing photo of a black string orchestra. There are four harp guitars, and so many banjos, mandolins, cellos, it is staggering!
Taj called me again this morning. “Tim I cannot believe it! Where is the music?! What were they playing? Tim we put this photo out there in 1998 and look what has come back!”
We are just on the beginning of our journey of understanding our own country’s history of black music, and as we celebrate our milestone of 20 years doing this work, we more than ever realize how important it is to keep going.