Blind Boy Paxton, Dom Flemons, and John Heneghan and Eden Brower of the East River String Band at the Chicago Blues Festival
I had a great time today at the Chicago blues festival seeing artists including Sharon Jones, Big Jack Johnson, and Oxford’s own Wiley and the Checkmates featuring soul veterans Harvey Scales and Ralph “Soul” Jackson. The most pleasant surprise of the day for me, though, was seeing Los Angeles’ Blind Boy Paxton, who’s just twenty years old and specializes in blues from the ’20s. He appeared on a special package show that gathered together Dom Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the East River String Band, a duo from the East Village. I picked up a copy of their LP “Some Cold Rainy Day,” whose cover was painted by R. Crumb just last year. If you look them up on youtube you can find some videos of them playing with Crumb.
Apparently Paxton was booked onto the show after Jim O’Neal discovered his myspace site and told Chicago Blues Festival director Barry Dolins about him. The musicians played in round robin style, though did all play together on a couple songs.
Here’s Blind Boy Paxton with “Ragged But Right”
And here’s Paxton together with Dom Flemons with Blind Blake’s “Southern Rag” — Paxton switches over to piano about halfway through.
Here’s Dom Flemons on his own with his take on Jim Jackson’s “Bye Bye Policeman”
And here’s the East River String Band doing Charley Jordan’s “Keep It Clean” with Dom guesting on bones
Greenville bluesman Mississippi Slim, known for his two-tone suits, dyed hair, and shoes of different colors, on WXVT’s Daybreak program with some typically bawdy soul-blues. Slim will be appearing at this weekend’s Highway 61 Blues Festival in Leland (see post below).
Willie King at Bettie's Place, photo by Bill Steber
My good friend Willie King, a bluesman and social activist, died in early March at age 65, and at his well-attended funeral in Aliceville, Alabama, his fans and fellow musicians promised they would help keep his legacy alive. One thing they wanted to ensure was the continuation of his annual Freedom Creek festival, which takes place on Friday and Saturday in the field behind his old trailer.
King often talked about the importance of creeks to older generations — a place where they washed clothes, bathed, gathered water for the production of moonshine, and were perhaps even baptized. He often spoke of a metaphorical “real baptizing” that could be achieved through music, and there was certainly a redemptive quality to King’s music. He epitomized to me the idea of blues being “secular spirituals,” serving an analogous role to standard religion in the sense that they helped a weary soul to find rest.
It was always wonderful to talk to Willie either in person or at home, but he appeared to be happiest when he was presiding over the Freedom Creek festival. The event gathered friends from across his home states of Mississippi and Alabama, and eventually fans from around the world who were introduced to his unique vision and powerful music through his recordings. It also allowed him the opportunity to showcase elders he admired, such as his local mentors Birmingham George and Jesse Daniel or personal heroes such as Hubert Sumlin, the longtime guitarist of Willie’s idol Howlin’ Wolf.
Willie was the most personally democratic person I ever met — his sometimes ragged way of dressing reflected his desire not to be seen by anyone as thinking he was “better” than them — and this quality was always reflected by the way he behaved on and off stage. He enjoyed watching others pleasure at “sitting in,” and he spent most of the festival walking around making sure that everyone was having a good time.
Willie’s presence will be sorely missed this weekend, but I hope that the fact that the festival has now been going on for many years will mean that the friendly and loose atmosphere will remain the same. I’m sure there’ll be many reminders about what Willie would have wanted, and I’m sure musicians will ensure that they’re at the top of their game in his honor.
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Willie King with Jerry "Boogie" McCain, who will be playing with King's band the Liberators on Saturday. Photo by Scott Barretta, Memphis, early 2000s
On Friday afternoon and evening the festival will feature young artists including the duo of Cedric Burnside and Lightnin’ Malcolm and the trio of Vanessia Young, who began leading her group Pure Blues Express as a high school student in Clarksdale. I ran into Vanessia recently at a Ben Payton performance in Jackson, where she’s been working since she graduated a couple years ago at Mississippi State. About five or six years ago I arranged an outdoor show for Willie on a school day at State, and when ran into Vanessia in the audience. I told Willie about her abilities, and sure enough he called her up on stage.
Also appearing are King’s former bandmate Willie Lee Halpert, who provided the distinctive backup vocals on Willie’s Freedom Creek CD, and Little Willie Farmer of Duck Hill, where Willie was a regular attendee of the Grassroots Blues Festival each July. Other performers Friday are Taylor Moore, Julius Conner, and Caleb Childs and the Old Memphis Kings.
In recent years the festival has been bringing in national acts from outside the area as headliners, and this year it’s Kenny Neal from Baton Rouge. Willie’s group the Liberators will play behind 80-year-old harmonica legend Jerry McCain, a lifelong resident of Gadsden, Alabama, who made his first recordings in the early ’50s for Trumpet Records in Jackson. Other scheduled artists on Saturday include Clarence “Bluesman” Davis, Rev. Little, Pat Moss, and Todd Johnson.
For more information and directions to the event, located about twenty miles east of Macon, visit www.willie-king.com
Once again here’s the documentary “The Real Baptizing,” made about Willie by Preston Lauterbach and Joe York, who is the executive producer of Highway 61.
On Saturday the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale on Saturday celebrates its 8th anniversary with a “North Mississippi Hill Country Revue.” Artists at the event will include the Rising Star Fife & Drum band, Como’s R.L. Boyce with vocalist Mary Ann “Action Jackson, R.L. Burnside’s son Joseph Burnside, and drummer/vocalist Calvin Jackson, who is the father of Cedric Burnisde.
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I just got word a couple of days ago about the Y’all Fest, which will be taking place this Saturday at the Seldom Seen Farm near Carrollton. It looks to be the work, at least partially, of Cecil Abels, who runs the Carroll County Market in downtown Carrolton. In addition to the events listed below on the poster, there’ll be more informal performances on the festival grounds on Friday night. Directions to the event are at the Market’s website.
The death of folk and blues singer Odetta (Gordon) at age 73 on Tuesday has received a lot of mainstream media coverage, reflecting the important role she played in the folk revival and the civil rights movement [the New York Times obit was accompanied by a twenty-minute video tribute/interview]. She had been hospitalized recently for kidney problems, and had hoped to recover in time to perform at Barack Obama’s inauguration. In 1963 she had performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the Martin Luther King-led March on Washington, where the photo below was taken.
A native of Birmingham, Odetta moved as child to L.A. and later became a folk singer while working in theater in San Francisco in the late ’40s and early ’50s. She studied guitar there with Rolf Cahn, the then-husband of established folk/blues singer Barbara Dane. She worked in San Francisco in small bohemian clubs including the hungry i and the Tin Angel, where she developed a large following, and recorded her first album (together with Larry Mohr) for Fantasy in 1954.
Although Odetta’s dramatic style was sometimes critiqued by folk purists when compared with more unschooled performers, she had a major influence on subsequent folk singers, including Bob Dylan, who said that after hearing one of her records, ”Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustic guitar.” In the recent documentary “No Direction Home” about Dylan featured several clips of Odetta, including this one.
Odetta remained popular on the folk circuit for the rest of her career, but wasn’t active as a recording artists in the ’80s or ’90s. In the last decade she recorded three widely acclaimed albums for the blues label M.C., two of which were Grammy-nominated. There’s a lot of current videos of her on Youtube, and I particularly liked this one from the Tavis Smiley show [link to that episode]
I got the word the other day that blues singer Mae Mercer had died. I can’t say I was too familiar with her work, and it appears as though the North Carolina-born performer had enjoyed her greatest popularity as a blues singer while working in Paris in the ’60s. Here is an obit from the L.A. Times, which also addresses her film career.
The following video is from the American Folk Blues Festival in Europe in 1964, and features Mercer performing together with Sonny Boy Williamson II.
Next Saturday soul legends Otis Clay and the Hi Rhythm Section perform at a special celebration of the music of the life of O.V. Wright, who possessed one of the finest voices in soul, as exemplified in hits including “That’s How Strong My Love Is” and “A Nickel and a Nail.”
The show is the end result of an effort in the deep soul enthusiast community – spearheaded by my friend Preston Lauterbach - to purchase a proper tombstone for Wright’s unmarked grave in Memphis. He died in 1980 at age 41. The dedication of that marker on Sunday at 2pm caps off a weekend of activities that includes a tours of the Stax Museum of American Soul and the nearby studio of producer Willie Mitchell, where Wright cut many of his records for Hi Records. For more information visit the elaborate website set up in Wright’s honor.
Tonight in Oxford Bobby Rush is performing at the new venue Rooster’s Blues House, and Del McCoury, who has the best band in bluegrass, is playing at the Lyric Theater, just off the square. Bobby just told me that he’ll start playing a bit after 8pm, but will continue until closing, around 12:45. I think that the opening act for Del McCoury is coming on at 9pm, so I imagine that Del will hit the stage at 10, and probably be done by midnight. See you at both gigs!
Bobby Rush, from the film “The Road to Memphis,” recorded at Larry’s Place in Nesbit, MS (I was there!)
Del McCoury Band cover the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Nashville Cats”
At 9am on August 29 the 47th Mississippi Blues Trail marker will be unveiled at the Piney Woods School, which is located about 22 miles southeast of Jackson just off of Highway 49. Music education has been central to the 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 the school 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 group 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.
International Sweethearts of Rhythm, medley of songs, 1947
click for more information
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. 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.”
We just got word last night of the death of Chicago-based harmonica player and vocalist Little Arthur Duncan. He suffered a stroke several months ago, and had been in a nursing home. Duncan, born in Indianola, MS in 1934, spent most of his years in the blues in the capacity of a tavern owner, often sitting in with groups he hired. In more recent years he’s been active on the blues circuit, and last year recorded his third CD, Live At Rosa’s Blues Lounge on the Delmark label, which was also issued as a DVD.
I had the privilege of visiting and interviewing Little Arthur–a wonderfully friendly and humble man–at his South Side apartment earlier this year while he was preparing a soul food feast for his own birthday bash at Rosa’s, which was a wonderful event. Below is a preview clip of Little Arthur at Rosa’s from the Delmark DVD. The band here features guitarist Rick Kreher, who was in Muddy Waters’ last band, guitarist Illinois Slim (on the big Gibson), bassist Michael Azzi, and drummer Twist Turner, who runs a studio in Chicago.
Phil Guy. Photo by James Fraher (from Guy's website)
We also received reports of the death yesterday of Phil Guy, Buddy’s younger brother and a strong artist in his own right, after a battle with cancer. Like Buddy, he was born and raised in Lettsworth, Louisiana (in 1940). Phil began playing blues in Baton Rouge with artists including Raful Neal, and in the late ’50s accompanied Buddy on his first recordings. He also recorded with Slim Harpo and Raful Neal. He joined Buddy’s band in the late ’60s, and worked with many of the city’s other leading artists. His own career took off in the ’80s, and he recorded for a variety of European labels.
For more information as well as video clips visit Guy’s website