I generally resist being politically charged. I use my music to convey different pieces of the American Experience as I interpret them. You can talk to me about my politics in person if you might find it necessary. But… since I’m writing about Black History Month, I feel the use of the words “Black,” “History” and “Month” all together are pretty politically charged anyway – I figure the kid gloves are off. So here goes. (more…)
Leroy James, Willie James (Center), James Weston
After leaving New Orleans, we headed towards Willie James – our country’s greatest Juke Joint drummer. When he plays the drum, you hear the sweat, the beer, and the cigarettes of a lifetime playing the roughest back country juke joints in Mississippi.
It was a cold night when we arrived at Willie James’ home, and we all sat down in his living room, all the burners on the stove were on and the oven door was open, providing all the heat for their trailer. Willie was obviously in pain; he told us he had been under the trailer for the past two days trying to fix their busted water pipes. “My arthritis has really got me,” he said. We caught up with each other, talked of our travels in France and the many shows he did with his band-leader, Willie King. He had been Willie King’s drummer all his life and when King died, Willie James was put out of work – and has been since. Most of the old musicians he knew in the area either had jobs or had retired from playing, and weren’t able to give him any connections to more work.
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.
Music Maker Artist Willa Mae Buckner in her younger days – all that she taught us will not be forgotten
Black History Month is an annual observance in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom for remembrance of important people and events in the history of the African diaspora. For 20 years, Music Maker Relief Foundation has been working closely with over 300 of our nations finest African American folk musicians. Our mission often takes us to communities in America that live behind a veil of poverty and obscurity. As Guitar Gabriel told me often. “When I was a young boy, you could get lynched for looking at a white women’s knee. We have come so far since then, but we have a long way to go.”
Music Maker will celebrate this special month, with quotes and videos from our elders, reflecting on their experience. We are saddened by last year’s loss of Dr. Burt, a freedom fighter from Birmingham, Alabama who was a true believer in non violence. We hope to keep the memories of our Silent Strings with postings of their teachings.
Thanks so much for supporting Music Maker!
Tim, B and I traveled just under 2,000 miles throughout the South from January 13th – 17th, visiting Drink Small, David Bryant, Little Freddie King, Alabama Slim, Guitar Slim, Jr., Guitar Lightnin’ Lee, Willie James and Leyla McCalla.
Seeing eight artists in five days was thrilling. I work in varying capacities with each of these artists with rare opportunities to see them in person. I communicate with them mostly by phone and letter, whenever we need to talk about gigs, album production, setting up a webpage or sending emergency relief.
I have been traveling to New Orleans on a regular basis since my first visit in 1981. It is the northern tip of Caribbean and it is an enchanting magical city. In 1997 I was contacted by Little Freddie King to help him with some dentures, and over the years we helped him much more, especially after Hurricane Katrina.
Aaron, B and I rolled into the Crescent City late on our third night on the road. We met up with Guitar Lightnin Lee, Guitar Slim Jr, Alabama Slim and Little Freddie King (LFK) at Jack Dempsey’s, a Seafood restaurant that I have gone for years. I would often meet up with Fats Domino there, as it was his favorite place. LFK always orders fried catfish and takes a big plate home, bragging that it would feed him for three days.
Music Maker had worked with his mother Cora Mae Bryant for years. His grandfather, Curley Weaver, recorded in the 1930′s and was a Piedmont blues pioneer alongside the likes of Blind Willie McTell.
I had become quite close to David during his mom’s declining health; he stayed home and took care of her, and Music Maker sent monthly funds for her care. In the years since she passed, David would call a couple times a year and we would talk about old times.
We visited Drink Small today. I first met Drink in 1981 at Warren Wilson College. I used to tour with him in the early 1990s, with Guitar Gabriel. When Gabe died, I received a telegram from Drink giving me condolences. Cootie Stark, a blind bluesman and Music Maker artist, accompanied me on a visit to Drink’s home around that time. Drink introduced me to other blues artists like Albert Smith, whom we recorded. Throughout Music Maker’s 20 years, Drink and his wife Andrenna played New Years’ parties at our house in Pinnacle, visited our home in Hillsborough, and even were escorted by my brother from South Carolina to Montreal for a gig. We’ve become very close.
This spring when we were planning to visit artists with our week-long road trip, I decided we’d start with Drink. Today, coming in the door with Aaron and B, we found Drink laying far back on his couch, his eyes pointing to the ceiling.
“Tim I have had some hard times, am 82 and just got out from the hospital from surgery to my prostate. I have gone completely blind. I see only black.”
My favorite memory of being on tour with Boo Hanks was when he told me about the time he went to see Louis Jordan as a young man. I’ve known Boo since 2006 and in my mind he is a Virginia songster who has stayed in his community since he was born and played in an esoteric style of music that was born from isolation. Though I should’ve known better, this story turns that notion on its head.
When you are touring from place to place, you spend a lot of time in your vehicle passing the time through doing things like reading, listening to music and on the rare occasion, talking to each other. I lean toward listening to music as much as I can and I tend to go into burst of different genres, one of them being 40′s R&B, Doo-Wop and Rock ‘n’ Roll. As I was playing some of this music, the song “Saturday Night Fish Fry” by Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five came up. Boo mentioned that he had gotten to see him live.
Cootie Stark was an incredible Piedmont blues singer and guitarist whose repertoire harkened back to his youth, when he learned his music from the legendary Baby Tate. Cootie was the only fellow I have known that regularly traveled by Greyhound to visit me. When we did not have shows, Cootie would call me up to pick him up from the bus station in Durham. He loved staying with us; he enjoyed the meals, and most of all sitting in the studio and recording and listening to his music. . After over 50 years of playing street corners and having many disappointments in his musical career, he just loved to sit back and enjoy his life’s work.
From 1991-94, Guitar Gabriel, Captain Luke, Macavine Hayes and I would spends days, upon weeks, upon months and years when we were not doing a show, going from drink house to drink house. We’d visit friends and I was always on the lookout for musicians; I met many. These drink houses are just someone’s home – you go in and sit in the kitchen or living room, and people are hanging around. Some are sleeping, some are sharing some food – it’s kind of a local elderly community center. Each drink house has a personality, some are rough, some are open 24/7, others just in the afternoons with great food, some only all night. They would sell dollar shots of moonshine, vodka and beer for the most part.
Last night was a very special and exciting moment here in our Music Maker Grotto. Earlier in the afternoon our partner Tom Ciaburri stopped by the office. He had just come back from two weeks in Israel working on a film on reconciliation.
I wanted to do another tintype session and had been thinking of mirrors and how they could help bounce light off our flash units. Tom said he just gave a mirror to Ironing Board Sam, so we headed over to Sam’s apartment. When Sam answered the door, I noticed that his back door was closed and I asked why. Sam said that was his meditation space now and that it was filled with mirrors. He then brought out a very large mirror from his collection and lent it to us. Tom and I headed back to the studio and set up lights and mirrors for a couple hours. Aaron came down to mix chemicals and Tom took off. Later that night Aaron and I were well into a tintype session. In walked Sam, Tom Ciaburri and intern Thomas.