The Fire Down Below
The music that sounds from the compact disc which accompanies this book (twenty-five cuts, including songs and excerpts from oral interviews) is like a message in a bottle from a distant time. It is at first strange beyond words – music of a gone world. Charlie Patton’s rough howl is almost unintelligible, not entirely because of the poor recording quality, but also because of the abject pain of his expression. Patton sings from a depth of suffering and hardship that is nearly unimaginable to modern listeners. A similar experience greeted listeners even in the fifties, as they discovered the country blues music of the twenties (including Patton’s) collected in the Anthology of American Folk Music (compiled by Harry Smith, and reissued on compact disc last year by Smithsonian Folkways). The distance of this music from contemporary listeners, combined with the obscurity in which these players lived, gave rise to and sustains the fantastic legends that have been spun around them since. But such legends do not necessarily contribute to an appreciation of this music – rather, they can serve to intensify its remoteness and strangeness, making it only that much more inaccessible.
The object of the search in Gayle Dean Wardlow’s Chasin’ That Devil Music is not so much the music itself as the music’s mythology. That is not to say that Wardlow is not interested in the old Delta folk blues whose makers are his immediate subject; clearly he loves the stuff. But in the course of telling the strange tales that comprise this investigation, the author’s obsession with the music leads him to delve further, deeper, more minutely into the truth about its creators.
What, one might ask, does the truth have to do with the blues? And why would we ever want to know it, anyway? Don’t we cherish the legends that surround this music? Don’t we want to believe that Robert Johnson really sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads, in exchange for guitar-picking so wicked that listeners will swear there are two men playing? Don’t the connoisseurs love to describe Patton’s murder, or Washington “Bukka” White’s 1937 sessions, supposedly recorded while he was a hunted fugitive? If these tales are less than true, at least they are more colorful than the truth – and so should be left undisturbed, shrouded in the mists of legend.
Not so, says Wardlow, for whom legend is simply a clue to a new investigation. His unwritten assumption is that the lives of these artists should be a matter of historical record – that it is a matter of respect that we know and understand who they were, as real men and women. We certainly prefer the truth to fiction when it comes to other creative talents: we want to know whether the object of Shakespeare’s sonnets was a man or a woman; we want to know precisely which part of his ear Van Gogh actually sliced off; we want to know exactly what Beethoven could hear, in which year of his life. Why then should we prefer fiction over fact when it comes to the bluesmen, whose lives were clouded in obscurity, but whose musical and lyrical stylings so profoundly directed the course of twentieth-century American popular music?
Wardlow’s own life and quest are nearly as interesting as those of his subjects. His tale began in 1954 when, as a high school student in Meridian, Mississippi, he started collecting Roy Acuff records, assembling a nearly complete collection of the yo-yoing Opry star’s numerous 78-rpm recordings. Some titles Wardlow could only acquire from collectors more interested in old jazz and blues records. So Wardlow took up the practice (later adopted by many other collectors, and even satirized by cartoonist and collector R. Crumb) of door-to-door canvassing in African-American neighborhoods for old blues and jazz sides. In 1962, Wardlow even took a job as an exterminator, which allowed him to cruise around neighborhoods in Jackson, Mississippi, and smaller towns like Edwards (home of Charlie Patton) looking for old blues sides. He developed a knack for spotting the houses most likely to yield results. His secret? Flowerpots:
I had the best luck with older women who had flowerpots on the porch, so I learned to look for flowerpots and taught other collectors to look for the same. The pots indicated that someone had lived at one location a long time. Records were often in these homes, but they were thrown away when people moved.
Using the flowerpot method, Wardlow found several extremely rare records, including a Son House disc (“Dry Spell Blues,” on the old Paramount label) that was the only copy known to exist at that time.
Wardlow details the rarities he collected (eighteen Pattons, six of Skip James, one by Willie Brown, and the Son House), then adds the telling comment: “I have listened carefully to my records and have shared what I have learned over the years with others interested in country blues.” That understatement speaks volumes. We can’t doubt that he has listened carefully, for everything this man does is meticulously careful, and what unfolds from those early days of giddy infatuation is a most remarkable progression of investigation.
For it is a short step from collecting the records to wanting to make contact with the players. Undaunted by the knowledge that by the sixties most of these guys were long dead, Wardlow went in search of those who knew them. “The Immortal Charlie Patton,” an article co-authored by Wardlow and New York record collector Bernard Klatzko, describes in fascinating detail a 1963 journey through the tiny hamlets surrounding Greenville, Mississippi, looking for anyone and everyone who knew the mysterious Patton.
Patton was one of the seminal creators of the Delta Blues style, an innovator who influenced Son House, Robert Johnson, and many others. But his life had not been well documented. Only one photograph has ever been located, and his life and especially his death have been the subject of great speculation. What a sight these two white boys must have been, chasing around the dirt streets, back yards, and shacks of rural Mississippi, asking a lot of questions about people who had been dead for nearly thirty years. (So as not to be mistaken for freedom riders, the two left behind Klatzko’s car, with its New York plates, in favor of Wardlow’s Mississippi vehicle.)
But no one seemed to mind; in fact, they all seemed willing to share their memories of the legendary Patton. Among those interviewed by these two young fanatics were one of Patton’s wives, the cousin of another wife, Patton’s cousin and his nephew, people who had played with Patton, and others who’d merely listened. Absolutely intrepid, the two drove into the famous Dockery’s Farm plantation (Patton lived and worked there for several years) asking sharecroppers who had lived their whole lives there if they had known Patton – many had. Finally, in Cleveland, Mississippi, Wardlow and Klatzko located one Viola Cannon, Patton’s sister, who answered a number of questions. Thus our southern hero and his Yankee colleague were able to piece together Patton’s biography in some detail (including such intriguing details as Patton’s habit of eating fatty pork while he performed, in the belief that it would keep him sober).
Wardlow repeated this journey in search of information on several other bluesmen, including Tommy Johnson, Willie Brown, Son House, and Skip James. In the case of Ishmon Bracey, Wardlow actually caught up with the man himself, in Jackson, where Bracey submitted to a lengthy interview. By then Bracey had become an ordained minister, renounced the blues, and “steadfastly refused to even play the blues, except for one interlude when his wife was not able to listen.”
Wardlow also found H. C. Speir, a white man who owned a music store in Jackson. Speir played a key role in the Delta blues story. In his store, for five bucks (a tidy sum to a black man in rural Mississippi in the late twenties) aspiring musicians could record a song on an acetate disk. Speir’s recording service attracted a stream of the finest blues musicians of all time into his upstairs studio. More importantly, Speir was a record company talent scout with a golden ear. He discovered and delivered to Paramount and other labels such greats as Patton, James, Bracey, Blind Roosevelt Graves, Tommy Johnson, and many others. In Wardlow’s 1964 interview, Speir described sending these men to Milwaukee and elsewhere to make records. (Speir was also instrumental in the brief but influential recording career of Robert Johnson, whose two recording sessions in San Antonio and Dallas were the result of Speir’s intervention.)
Such sleuthing may not be unusual for biographers. But Wardlow was not a professional biographer, only a fanatical amateur; he did much of this work on the weekends from his paying jobs; he was researching the lives of people who were as obscure as they were influential; and he did this work as a white man traipsing through black neighborhoods, living rooms, and businesses as though to that culture born. His accomplishments were remarkable, and led to the rediscovery of some artists, the affirmation of their influence, the establishment of key chronological data, and the location of long-lost recordings, record company advertising, and other key artifacts.
Some researchers might have stopped there, but Wardlow was no ordinary researcher. Not content to rely on the tenuous and conflicting memories of old folks for incidents decades earlier, Wardlow began another phase of his restless search: the
location of primary source materials to substantiate the details of these lives. Wardlow made a simple discovery that had eluded other researchers: black folks have vital records, too. Even in Mississippi.
By obtaining the death certificate of Charlie Patton, Wardlow established the date of his death as April 28, 1934, rather than February of that year, as previously assumed. More importantly, Wardlow established from this and other evidence that Patton was not murdered (as legend would have it), but rather died of the most common killer of all, heart disease (thanks, we can assume, to either the pork fat, the drinking, or the combination thereof).
On the other hand, Bukka White’s murder rap was well documented, and the records show that in the fall of 1937 he was sentenced to the brutal Parchman Penitentiary for life. Yet at nearly the same time, he was in the studio recording sides for Vocalion, prompting the yarn that White was then actually a fugitive. Miraculously, White was out of jail by 1940. Through court documents and the defunct record companies, Wardlow pieced together a history less colorful but more compelling than the legend. White’s sessions just before prison (made before his conviction), as well as his early release, were the result of some string-pulling (based more on the musician’s commercial possibilities than the possibility that he had not actually killed anyone after all). Such liberties for a black man in the thirties must have been unusual – nowadays a governor would not dare release a convicted murderer, especially after only two years in prison. The episode speaks volumes about progress and regression.
So it goes, on and on, as Wardlow delves into birth and death records, thumbs through old city directories, peruses record company contracts, combs judicial records, queries the vital records agencies of several states (including Texas). Some of what he has found has been controversial. Witness the King Solomon Hill caper that opens and closes this narrative.
In 1967, Wardlow established, through oral interviews with residents around Sibley, Louisiana, that the man who recorded in the early thirties under the name King Solomon Hill was in fact one Joe Holmes. The following year, another writer, David Evans, called this conclusion a “fiasco,” and declared that King Solomon Hill was not a pseudonym. Wardlow’s investigation led him back to the Sibley area, where he located a fellow who claimed that the area was called King Solomon Hill many years before. It was not until 1986, however, that Wardlow was able to prove that there had been a place by that name extant at the time that “Gone Dead Train” was recorded. In a stroke of genius, Wardlow found a letter carrier who confirmed that he used to deliver letters to a place once known as King Solomon Hill (later renamed “Salt Works”), and that Joe Holmes had lived there. The confirmation of King Solomon Hill as a place name virtually ruled out the theory that this could be a person’s name, and the location of Holmes in the town provided strong evidence that Holmes was indeed Hill.
What is the nature of this music, that a researcher must go to such lengths to establish even the most basic biographical information? Not far above and behind this narrative lurks the menacing shadow of racism and, like many forms of violence, when it rears its head it is sudden, unexpected, and revolting. When talent scout H.C. Speir (who was white) drove the Delta Big Four singing group in his new 1930 car, “his wife complained that ‘the smell didn’t disappear for a month.'” What smell? The smell of working men, the smell of poverty? One does not doubt that what she meant was the smell of colored men riding in her new automobile.
The obscurity that becomes the driving dynamic in Wardlow’s quest is a by-product of the poverty in which these men lived. The recurring elements of this narrative are violence, alcoholism, ill health. Few of the principals of this tale survived their fifties: Charlie Patton died of heart disease at forty-seven; Roosevelt Graves, of heart failure at fifty-three; Robert Johnson died (possibly murdered) at the age of twenty-six (though the immortal voice on his records seems to be that of a man decades older). The prison farm, the plantation farm – take your pick, either way you’re working for the man, under atrocious conditions. The blues was not merely a rhetorical device. Wardlow’s narrative only hints at the sadness that underlies his story, of the injustice, the terrible conditions under which these people lived and worked, that drove them to seek out music, and that finally left their lives and their accomplishments shrouded in mystery. No wonder the path out of poverty through music loomed as such an appealing alternative. H.C. Speir paid his artists $50 per recording – very good money at the time, and much higher than the standard rate of pay.
A few made it. Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded regularly, and made enough money to have to carry a pearl-handled revolver for protection. Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton seem to have made enough to keep themselves from hard labor most of the time. But for most, their brief music careers were something to cherish in later years, recalled through mementos – like a 78-rpm record, still in the sleeve, to be looked at, touched, and remembered.
From this sparse and ephemeral set of artifacts, Wardlow was able to piece together a musical history richer and more fascinating than the patchwork of persistent, lurid legends. Wardlow’s understated achievement – the fruit of his considerable labors – is that he has given the country blues of the Mississippi Delta nothing more than what it deserves as one of the great American art forms: a meaningful context and chronology that should allow modern audiences to encounter this music on its own majestic terms.
Mark Smith is an Austin writer and blues aficionado who reviewed the Smithsonian Anthology of American Folk Music for the Observer, February 13, 1998.
This article is partially funded through a grant from the Austin Writers’ League, in cooperation with the Texas Commission on the Arts.