Friday, May 8, 2009

All The Way To Memphis

The Mississippi Blues Trail officially crossed state lines today at the Rock 'n' Soul Museum at the Fed Ex Forum on Beale Street in Memphis. Local Fox 13 station covered the event with this news story.

photo courtesy Merete Eide

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Como's Mississippi Fred McDowell

Fred McDowell lived in Tennessee until he was nearly forty. But as proof that a man can accomplish a lot after his thirtieth birthday, McDowell moved to Mississippi, played the hell out of a blues slide guitar, and attracted the art form's most famous (some say notorious) talent scout to his front door.

Until then, Fred McDowell played guitar only for himself and his friends. He played old style blues. Delta blues. Mississippi blues. When Alan Lomax came back through the deep south in 1959 looking for bluesmen that other archivists had overlooked in previous visits, he was astonished to find Mississippi Fred McDowell living in Como and pumping gas.

McDowell had undeniable musical talent, but unlike decades worth of other delta blues musicians, McDowell stayed on the farm and did not drive north on Highway 61 to make records. At least not until Lomax coaxed him into a recording studio. Fred continued farming and playing for tips until Chris Strachwitz went looking for Fred in 1964 and recorded "Fred McDowell. Volume 1 and Volume 2" on Arhoolie. Things really took off after those recordings and McDowell became a sensation in the blues/folk revival of the early 1960's.

Music author Ted Gioia writes about McDowell in "Delta Blues", (see earlier post here) his recent history of the music:

"He moved to Memphis around the time he turned twenty-one, and finally settled in Como, Mississippi, in the early 1940's. But his music was infused with the free-spirited intensity of the Delta tradition, even if his geographical connections to that heart of the region are weak ones at best, and his name is usually one of the first mentioned by blues fans when the conversation turns to the subject of their favorite Delta guitarists."

McDowell's famous fans include Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and Grammy winner Bonnie Raitt. McDowell gave a young Raitt Delta slide guitar lessons. The Stones covered McDowell's "You Gotta Move" on their "Sticky Fingers" album.

On Thursday afternoon, Bonnie Raitt will return to Como to honor her friend and mentor as the state gives McDowell a plaque on the Mississippi Blues Trail.(read Jackson Clarion Ledger story here)

Rev. John Wilkins, Alex Thomas, Bonnie Raitt, Hubert Sumlin photo by Melanie Young

McDowell's musical success came late in life. He toured frequently but always came back home to Mississippi. Gioia writes about McDowell's final days:

"McDowell stopped touring in November of 1971, when stomach pains forced him to cancel his performances and seek medical treatment. Although he told many people that he suffered from an ulcer, the real diagnosis was stomach cancer, and despite surgery, doctors were unable to halt it's spread. He died on July 3, 1972 at the Baptist Hospital, and was buried -- not on Highway 61 -- but at the Hammond Hill Baptist Church, between Como and Senatobia, Mississippi. He was reportedly laid to rest wearing a silver lame' suit, given to him by the Rolling Stones. But the adulation fo the famous did little to prevent the guitarist's name being misspelled (McDewell) on the simple gravestone, an error that persisted many years before steps were taken to erect a more respectable tribute to one of Mississippi's greatest musical talents. On this new memorial, we find again that a lyric -- drawn from McDowell's best known composition -- served as a fitting epitaph.

You may be high,
You may be low.
You may be rich, child,
You may be poor.
But when the Lord gets ready,
You got to move.

Click to hear "You Gotta Move."

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Pontiac Blues

General Motors announced this past week that after the end of this year they no longer will produce Pontiacs. The muscular, gas-guzzling, V-8 vehicles have long been immortalized in songs, perhaps none better than by Glendora's Sonny Boy Williamson II.

"Pontiac Blues", Recorded August 5, 1951 on Farish Street at Trumpet Records in Jackson, Mississippi, was an homage to Trumpet Records owner Lillian McMurry's new Pontiac convertible. It was a chrome laden black Silver streak, that according to author Marc W. Ryan in his book Trumpet Records "embodied all the luxury and stylish mobility that he (Sonny Boy) craved."

Ryan goes on to tell us:

He would try to wheedle a ride in the sparkling beauty, but Lillian didn't often trust the freewheeling bluesman behind the wheel. "When I used to let him drive it," she recalled, "man, he really thought he was uptown. Sonny Boy still had a pride that a lot of musicians don't have." That pride was showing when, in keeping with the prevailing vogue of using flashy automobiles as lyrical themes, he proclaimed: "Mmmm, I found out what my baby likes. That's a while lotta lovin' and a straight-eight Pontiac.

If they play only one song at Pontiac's public funeral, they could do a whole lot worse than blaring out the harmonica sounds of Sonny Boy Williamson's fitting 1951 epitaph "Pontiac Blues"

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Pinetop Perkins has another date with Grammy

Tonight there's a great reason to watch the 51st annual Grammy Awards on CBS. "Pinetop Perkins and Friends" is one of five nominees for Best Traditional Blues Album.

Born in Belzoni in 1931, Pinetop is 95 years old. Should he win, he will be the oldest person to win a Grammy. George Burns also won the award at age 95. But George 95 years and one month old. Pinetop was born 95 years and seven months ago.

National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" recently wrote this about Pinetop's Grammy chances:
The Grammys are often contests for young talent, but this year, Perkins — the year's oldest Grammy nominee — is one to watch. It's not just a sentimental choice; on the album, Perkins collaborates with fellow blues veteran B.B. King on guitar.

You can read the full story here, and hear some music from Pinetop's Grammy nominated album.

Pinetop won a lifetime Grammy Award in 2005 and a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album last year.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Shake Rag

Today would have been Elvis Presley's 74th birthday, and much as his mother Gladys clings to a young Elvis in the photo above, hundreds of adoring Elvis fans are in Tupelo clinging to his memory and marking the occasion.

But that's not the only celebration going on today. Tupelo also gets it's second blues marker on the historical Mississippi blues trail. The first one was placed last year on this day at the Elvis Presley birthplace museum, noting Elvis' debt to and love for blues music. The second Tupelo marker also honors Elvis in a roundabout way. It's as 399 East Main St and commemorates the neighborhood of Shake Rag. Elvis and his family lived close to the segregated African American community for a very short time.

Elaine Dundy describes the community as a nice place to live in her biography "Elvis and Gladys."
"Living in Mulberry Alley and then moving to 1010 North Green Street, the Presleys were living on the edge of Tupelo's blacks section, Shakerag. This was a community of house servants, cooks, and nurses -- as well, if not better, off than the Presleys -- who worked for Tupelo's wealthier families. A self-contained, well-mannered community, they had their own stores and their own Sanctified Church, which was a tent with one side rolled up."
A submitted report in the Hatiesburg American gives a brief description of the musical history:
By the 1920s blues and jazz flowed freely from performers at Shake Rag restaurants, cafes, and house parties, and later from jukeboxes, while the sounds of gospel music filled the churches. The neighborhood was leveled and its residents relocated during an urban renewal project initiated in the late 1960s.
A far different, and far less flattering portrait is drawn from Albert Goldman's controversial biography of Elvis:

Though Elvis is always associated with Tupelo, he lived in the city less than three years. According to the Myth, those years were spent in a horrid black slum known by the pungently Dickensian name of Shakerag. Though the ordeal of living in a black slum is something every true fan is supposed to grieve over, at the same time -- by the paradox of felix culpa, the fortunate fall -- this descent to the depths is regarded as the source of Elvis's extraordinary mastery of the black musical idiom, to say nothing of all the jivey dance steps he cut. As always, the Myth is mistaken. Elvis did live in a slum, but it was not the notorious black slum in the northwest quarter of the city; it was on the east side of town on Commerce Street, where the shopping mall stands today. The family did not remain long at this address; they moved several times, their next house being in Mobile Alley a narrow lane that ran at right angles to the railroad tracks near the fairgrounds. Finally they wound up in the northeast quarter near the slaughterhouse on North Green Street. All of these neighborhoods were white, all were poor and ugly.
Goldman seems to take quite an interest in embarrassing Presley in his book, which was published after Presley's death. It was and remains roundly rejected by fans the world over as innaccurate. But there's no disputing that Presley and his family had hard times in Tupelo and left town under the threat of police action.

Goldman, of course, writes about how the Presleys left Tupelo:
In September 1948, the Presleys packed up their few belongings in a decrepit 1937 Plymouth and took off for Memphis. Elvis said in later years that they were broke and that Vernon was hoping to find a job in the big city. The move -- made abruptly after the school year had commenced and surrounded subsequently with a cloud of secrecy -- suggests some fresh misfortune was about to descend upon the family, which they averted by flight. The Tupelo police told the compilers of All About Elvis that Vernon Presley had been caught selling moonshine and was given two weeks to get out of town.
Despite what Goldman writes about Presley's ties to Tupelo being tenuous, Presley returned to Tupelo at the height of his new found fame in 1956 for his "Homecoming" concert then came back in 1957 for a second show. Both shows took place near his old house at the Fairgrounds. Elvis took more with him to Memphis than what he put in a box in the old Plymouth. He told a reporter for the Charlotte Observer in June, 1956, he took along a love of blues music.
"The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I'm doin' now, man, for more years than I know. They played it like that in the shanties and juke joints and nobody paid it no mind 'til I goose it up. I got it from them. Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now, and I said if I ever got to the place I could feel all old Arthur felt, I'd be a music man like nobody ever saw."
Most, if not all, Elvis fans know that his first single on Sun records of course was "That's All Right, Mama" an Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup song, something he learned to love in Tupelo.

(Click to hear Elvis Presley sing That's All Right Mama)