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Blues In the Night: Ricky Broussard

Posted by mcorcoran on April 17, 2016

by Michael Corcoran, AAS 2004

His eyes were darting, terrified, like an animal not yet used to a new cage. Ricky Broussard looked spooked as he waited to take the stage at the Hole In the Wall — a territory he once utterly owned — on June 7, 2002. He stiffly nodded and smiled at well-wishers. When he stepped up, strapped on his guitar and plugged it into his amp, it was with the gleeful anticipation of a dicey medical procedure. He looked around the club and saw the guy he used to buy cocaine from, the folks he used to drink with until the sun came up and more than a couple of fellas he’d battled in drunken bouts. Broussard took a deep breath and then got ready to play stone-cold sober for the first time in more than two decades.

“We used to fuss, we used to fight,” he sang, separating the lines with four curt guitar notes, then repeated the words as the crowd erupted. “We used to hoot and holler late into the night and let the shotgun blast/We’re plumb out of our minds/we’re twohootsblackcatgoing nowhere fast.”

Halfway through that first song, Broussard settled down and his band, Two Hoots and a Holler, played one of its best sets since its Black Cat Lounge heyday in the late ’80s/early ’90s. And when the crowd screamed and stomped for one more encore, Broussard and a friend from his support group back in Seguin were already in the car. The Austin music scene’s notorious symbol of unrealized potential, who never let something trifling like morning light break up a party, was heading home before last call.

“I’d played the Hole hundreds, maybe even thousands of times,” Broussard recalls of that gig, “but that was the first time I ever really felt the love from the people. It was like, everybody in the place was in my corner.”

It was really always like that, but Broussard had previously been too messed up, too insecure, too defensive to notice. The local music community fell in love with the ragin’ Cajun since he started coming here from Seguin as guitarist in the Surfin’ Cajuns in the early ’80s. Fronting his next band, Two Hoots and a Holler, Broussard dripped with star power. Such catchy, faintly exotic rock songs as “Blues in the Night,” “Step Fast” and “Middle of the Night” defined Monday nights at the Black Cat, where the crowds lined up hours before showtime and didn’t let up all night.

Local musicians, meanwhile, were awed by Broussard’s instinctive grace on the guitar; his single-string runs were songs within the songs. “When you looked into the crowd at those early Two Hoots shows, you’d see a couple dozen guitar players,” says musician Jesse Dayton. “A bunch of us would follow them from gig to gig because Ricky was doing something different than all the other roots or rockabilly bands in town. He wasn’t mimicking his idols; he had his own hybrid that was like Joe Strummer and Bobby Fuller rolled into one guy that you absolutely couldn’t take your eyes off.”

Managers, label owners, club bookers, other musicians were always there to slip a business card or scribbled phone number into Ricky’s hands. But for every person out to help Ricky’s career, there were 50 who just wanted to hang out with him after a gig. Fans passed packets of cocaine and methamphetamine to him through their handshakes, young women yanked him into spare bedrooms, bartenders looked the other way as Broussard loaded cases of beer into the van after a show.

“I got swept up in it, big time,” Broussard says. “The first time I saw people in the audience mouthing the lyrics to songs I wrote, that just blew me away. I was connecting, man, for the first time. It felt so good that I didn’t want the party to stop.”

He was the chosen one, blessed with so much talent, so much intensity. Everyone wanted a piece of Ricky Broussard before he got famous and moved away.

The singer/guitarist, meanwhile, was paralyzed with self-doubt and attendant substance abuse. “I kept wondering, ‘Am I the real deal or have I been able to fool everybody?’ ” He self-medicated with heroin, whiskey, crack cocaine, really anything he could get his hands on. In true self-destructive form, Broussard’s rage was often leveled at fawning supporters. One night, members of a University of Texas fraternity approached him to play a party for several thousands of dollars, and Broussard hurled obscenities at them and had to be restrained from fighting the whole group of them.

“I had 100 forms of fear running through my mind,” Broussard says. “I started questioning the motives of everyone who was close to me. When (bandmates) Vic and Chris would come to me and say, ‘We’re worried about you,’ I’d think, ‘Yeah, they’re worried about their gravy train going dry.’ I pushed everybody away.”

During the second South by Southwest Music Festival in March 1988, Two Hoots attracted the attention of Oakland-based Hightone Records, which had money to put into new bands after releasing a couple million-sellers by Robert Cray. “The label owner, Larry Sloven, came up to us after the set and said he really wanted to take us to lunch the next day,” Two Hoots bassist Vic Gerard recalls. “I picked a spot that was a couple blocks from one of Rick’s haunts, but he never showed up. Me and Sloven sat there for two hours and then he got up and said, ‘Well, if he can’t even meet me for lunch . . .’ ”

Even his favorite club owners struggled with the singer’s erratic behavior. In 1992, Broussard quit the Black Cat, a gig that was paying the group as much as $2,000 every Monday, after owner Paul Sessums made a crack about the singer’s masculinity when Broussard bowed out early one set after hurting his leg on one of his trademark leaps.

“One night they had a sold-out crowd at the Continental Club and Ricky played about four songs and then handed me his guitar,” says Dayton. ” ‘Here, finish for me, man. I gotta score,’ ” Broussard told Dayton, then disappeared out the back door. Broussard’s association with the Continental Club ended in 1993 when he got in a drunken fight with a popular local singer he had been seeing. The angry words turned to blows and things really got ugly. “I just snapped,” Broussard recalls.

The next afternoon, Broussard woke up with the worst kind of hangover, the kind when you piece together the events of the night before and go: “Oh, my God. Did I really do that?” Gerard called the singer at home on, appropriately, Jinx Street, with a solemn tone. Broussard was banned from the Continental, disowned by a family of club employees that he’d been very close to.

“I couldn’t face what I had done to (the singer),” Broussard says. He went right to the liquor store and, for the next few months, was drinking booze every waking moment. His wife, who’d put up with so much in three years of marriage and about seven years of being together before that, finally left him. Then, Gerard joined the Derailers and drummer Chris Staples got a job with Whole Foods. Two Hoots and a Holler, once Austin’s most promising band had hung it up after just one album, 1990’s “No Man’s Land” on France’s New Rose label, only to play occasional reunion gigs at friends’ weddings.

Addicted to heroin, going through withdrawals when he was sent to jail twice for DWI arrests, Broussard hit rock bottom. In 1996, the SIMS Foundation musicians assistance program stepped in and offered to send Broussard through rehab. He took them up on it but was back on the hard stuff a few weeks after his discharge. A second rehab stint a couple years later also failed to take hold, though Broussard says he was starting to learn the tools of recovery, of coping with his guilt.

“A lot of people knew the maverick, wild-eyed showman,” says Gerard, “because Rick did his best to mask the super-sensitive side. He feels things very deeply.”

The ninth of 10 children of a civil service worker at a San Antonio Air Force base, Broussard grew up idolizing his older brothers, two of whom were the only white members of soul band C.L. and the Teardrops. When drummer brother David, a Vietnam vet, died of a heroin overdose in 1979, it hit Ricky hard.

A year earlier he had a musical epiphany when he saw the Sex Pistols at Randy’s Rodeo in San Antonio. “There was a real division between the metalheads and the punks and the local rock stations had been badmouthing the Pistols,” Broussard says. “That’s when I said ‘I’m there.’ ” Galvanized by the Pistols’ swagger in the face of their musical primitiveness, Broussard dropped out of school in the ninth grade and put together the trailer park anarchist punk band 60 Inch Bazookas. But his guitar playing, heavily influenced by Duane Eddy instrumentals, was taking him in a different direction.

“I saw Gene Vincent and Sid Vicious as connected,” Broussard says. “The rage of rockabilly and punk came from the same place.” Vincent and Vicious were also linked through heavy use of drugs and alcohol. Broussard could identify with the demons and struggled with the idea that the only way to get sober was to hang up the Fender Telecaster.

In early 2002, facing a third DWI conviction, Broussard entered rehab in Fredericksburg and says he’s been clean and sober ever since. He’s back with Two Hoots and a Holler, who’ve just released a CD of covers called “Songs Our Vinyl Taught Us” on Freedom Records.

“That was a fun album to bash out,” Broussard says. “It was a way to get reacclimated to the studio and to have something to sell at the shows, but I’m really excited about the next studio album.”

Broussard, Gerard and Staples are currently mixing the album, with Jesse Dayton producing. “Rick Broussard’s Two Hoots and a Holler,” which mixes newly recorded old songs such as “Katy Ann” and Broussard’s amazing claiming of “Sukiyaki” with new material, will hit stores in January.

Austin Music Journal 2013

Austin Music Journal 2013

“Ricky’s really the same guy, with the same intensity,” says Dayton, adding that Broussard was the last guy he thought would get sober. “When he plays, there’s still a lot of anger there, but he’s figured out how to bottle it in more productive ways.” Dayton says Broussard’s new material, including the brand new “I Cried the Day Doug Sahm Died,” is as good as anything he’s ever written. “One thing that hasn’t changed is Rick’s commitment to not do a boring show,” Gerard says. “He still hates a crowd that just sits there politely.”

When you get sober, the days get longer. And with all this new time, Broussard not only plays with Two Hoots, but he does solo acoustic shows and performs occasionally with the Mersey Lords, a Beatlesque cover band that includes Fastball’s Tony Scalzo and songwriter Kevin Brown.

It was a spectacular Two Hoots set at SXSW 2003, in a tent in back of Opal Divine’s, that convinced Broussard to quit his construction job in Seguin and concentrate on making a living playing music. “Man, we were firing on all cylinders that night,” he says. “It was just like the old days, only I wasn’t sticking a needle in my arm afterward.”

The SXSW set, just a few days after the death of his idol Joe Strummer, concluded with Two Hoots covering the Clash’s “Career Opportunities,” a song of bleak prospects. At the end of the number, Broussard swung his guitar over his head and pounded the stage with it until it smashed into bits. Many in the crowd, longtime Broussard watchers, no doubt thought the violent burst signaled a return to past ways. Dayton, who stood near the side of the stage laughs when asked if the destruction was part of the show.

“That was just some Telecaster copy piece of crap guitar,” Dayton says. “That was just Ricky’s way of saying goodbye to Joe Strummer.” Dayton pauses, as an out-of-control Broussard reel seems to run through his head for a few seconds. “Now there was a time when, if Ricky smashed a guitar, you could be sure it was his most precious, cherished, best-sounding one.”

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A phone call for Mr. Amos Milburn

Posted by mcorcoran on March 23, 2016

It sometimes takes just one person to make the rest of us look bad.

Lola Anne Cullum was the African American talent scout in Houston who discovered both Amos Milburn and Lightnin’ Hopkins and signed them to a deal with Aladdin Records in Los Angeles. Milburn was the fantastic piano player and singer who profoundly influenced Fats Domino, right to the scrunched-down singing posture. Hopkins had a piano player named Wilson “Thunder” Smith and so Cullum dubbed him “Lightnin’.” Mrs. Cullum, married to a prosperous Third Ward dentist, was a major figure in Texas music from ’46 until about ’50 when competing with Don Robey soured her on the business. She died in 1970.

Amos_Milburn_Headshot.34980335

This front page story of the Houston Informer black newspaper dated June 19, 1948, is just another sad example of the treatment of blacks in the south during Jim Crow segregation. Cullum was trying to call a venue owner about an upcoming booking for Milburn, who was red-hot at the time with “Down the Road Apiece,” “Chicken Shack Boogie” and “Bewildered.”

We’ll let the newspaper article, sent to me by the great Texas music researcher Andrew Brown, tell the rest of the story:

 

CALLS PARTY “MR.,” OPERATOR STOPS LINE

Negroes Are Not Called Mr. – Says Phone Operator

Houston – A complaint that an operator for long distance service in Houston refused to complete a call and ordered her to release the line was made to the Southwestern Bell telephone company, June 14, by Mrs. Lola Ann Cullum, prominent wife of a local doctor.

Mrs. Cullum reported that when she asked the operator to contact her party she called him “Mr.,” and the person answering at the other end informed the operator here that he would have to go next door to get her party for her.

During the pause, while the person went in search of the party Mrs. Cullum had requested, and had addressed by the title of respect, “Mr.,” the operator here asked Mrs. Cullum if the party she wanted was a colored person.

Unaware of the operator’s motive for the question, Mrs. Cullum answered yes, and said she was shocked when the operator told her:

No Negro Is “Mr.”

“Why, you don’t call no colored people Mr. over long distance telephone. No Negroes are a Mr. over the telephone,” and after an exchange of words, ordered Mrs. Cullum to release the line.

Mrs. Cullum insisted on talking to the party who answered, and the long distance operator insisted on Mrs. Cullum releasing the line, stating she could not complete the call, Mrs. Cullum said.

Mrs. Cullum is the wife of Dr. S.J. Cullum, prominent dentist in the city. She and her husband live in their residence at 3238 Alabama [in the Third Ward], and Mrs. Cullum is a booking agent and manager of the popular recording artist Amos Milburn who is currently playing Texas towns.

She is licensed under James Petrillo, national music head (i.e., president of the National Federation of Musicians), and books under Silbia (illegible) Agency out of Hollywood, Calif.

It was an engagement for Mr. Milburn, who played West Columbia (Texas) Sunday night, that Mrs. Cullum placed the long distance call to a Mr. Patterson in West Columbia, about 3:15 p.m. Monday. (sic) The engagement was to be made for Houston this week.  Due to the hour or more delay after the operator refused to complete the call, Mrs. Cullum was not able to contact her party when the call was finally completed a few minutes after 4 p.m., she said. As a consequence, she had to substitute for the West Columbia engagement, she said.

Heads Investigate

Mrs. Cullum’s complaint was investigated by several supervisors at the telephone company, and each of them called her and talked to her about the incident, she said. One of the supervisors, apparently the one under whom the operator works, told Mrs. Cullum she understood after questioning the operator that Mrs. Cullum had ‘cancelled’ the call, Mrs. Cullum said.

Mrs. Cullum said she thinks that the supervisor understands, now, that because of the nature of the business with the party in West Columbia whom she tried to contact by long distance, “there simply would be no point in my canceling it.”

District Manager Scruggs, who investigated the complaint Tuesday, told an Informer reporter who contacted him by telephone that Mrs. Cullum had made the complaint that the reporter repeated to him.

Although a regrettable and unfortunate incident, Mr. Scruggs said he thinks the company, through the chief operator in that department, has assured Mrs. Cullum that the operator had certainly violated the policies of the company.

He pointed out that such incidents are widely isolated and happen hardly one time in a thousand. He regrets that the operator’s action has resulted in publicity which can probably lead to resentment.

 

 

 

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Maud Cuney-Hare, a former Austinite you need to know about

Posted by mcorcoran on March 21, 2016

by Michael Corcoran

In the spring of 1897, renowned Austin pianist Edmund Ludwig (originally of Heidelberg, Germany), arranged a dual recital at the Millett Opera House on Ninth Street with pianist Maud Cuney, the head of the music department for the Texas Institute of Dmaud_cuney_hare_webeaf, Dumb, Blind Colored Youth. But when Cuney discovered that opera house management required blacks to sit in the balcony, separated from whites, she urged Ludwig to cancel the contract and he did. With no venue available, the concert was held at the black blind school on Bull Creek Road. In attendance was an 8-year-old student named Arizona Dranes, who would go on to pioneer “the gospel beat,” with piano-driven recordings on OKeh Records in 1926.

Maud Cuney-Hare, her married name, left the Austin school after just two years and went on to an illustrious career herself, as a musician, folklorist and writer. Of light skin and European features (both her parents had white fathers and mulatto slave mothers), Maud could’ve passed as white, but didn’t, as her father taught her her to be proud of her ancestry. Cuney-Hare was briefly engaged to author and scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, whom she met when she was a student at the New England Conservatory fighting eviction from the dorm when it was discovered she had African blood. Du Bois was at Harvard and a member of the black students group that came to her defense. She stayed in the dorm. Though the romantic relationship didn’t last, they remained friends and Cuney-Hare wrote an arts and music column for the NAACP publication, The Crisis, that Du Bois edited.

As a musicologist, Cuney was one of the first to explore the African roots of American music, and published the first book of Creole songs in 1921. Her landmark 1936 book Negro Musicians and Their Music was, sadly, released months after she died of cancer at age 61. She lived most of her adult life in Boston, aside from her two years in Austin music teaching at the blind school and a short stint at the present Prairie View A&M.

Cuney-Hare 1910

Cuney-Hare 1910

She was also married, from 1902- 1906, to a doctor 20 years her senior, and the couple went to live in Chicago. The doctor insisted that they try to pass as Spanish American, and she maybe went along with it at first, but that’s not how she was raised. Her red blood ran dark.

Her grandfather Phillip Cuney was a white slave-owner who had a bunch of farmland outside Hempstead, TX that he called “Sunnyside Plantation.” In order to make slavery seem acceptable, some owners developed an ideology that they were providers to a people who couldn’t make it on their own. Cuney had eight children with his slave Adeline Stuart, and raised them as his own. He freed Maud’s father Norris Wright Cuney at age 13 and sent him to school in Pittsburgh. When Norris returned to Texas after the Civil War, he settled in Galveston where he organized black longshoremen into a union and was elected alderman. Eventually, he would be elected chairman of the Republican Party in Texas. His politican fight against the “Lily White Republicans” (they called themselves that) is chronicled by Maud Cuney-Hare in Norris Wright Cuney: A Tribune of the Black People, a biography she wrote in 1913. The information on Cuney-Hare’s time in Austin 1897-99 comes from that book.

Here’s an entry on Cuney-Hare in the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Rensaissance.

And through the beauty of this free and instant digital age, the very rare and out-of-print Negro Musicians and Their Music can be found here in its entirety.

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Henry Lebermann: Secret History of Austin Music #1

Posted by mcorcoran on March 21, 2016

When Henry Lebermann was 6 years old in 1879, his mother, Alice Marie, born and raised in the French Quarter of New Orleans, took him from their home in Galveston to visit her parents’ native Paris. What a glorious time it must have been in young Henry’s life, meeting relatives he didn’t know he had and discovering that there was so much more to the world than Texas.

Secret History of Austin Music: Henry Lebermann photoIn 1929, the family — from left, Lowell, Virginia, daughter Virginia, Henry and Jeanne — moved to 3110 Walling Drive, in the same North Campus neighborhood where John A. Lomax lived.

The next year, the boy was stricken with spinal meningitis, which left him completely blind. Without the ability to read music as he played, it seemed impossible that Henry would equal the musical accomplishments of his father, noted Galveston composer and music professor Heinrich August Lebermann. But Henry Lebermann, the grandfather of late Austin City Council veteran Lowell H. Lebermann Jr., in many ways surpassed the high standard set by his father.

As a music teacher and orchestra leader at the Texas School for the Blind from 1901 to 1938, Henry Lebermann had a positive influence on such students as Fred Lowery, “the King of the Whistlers” of the Big Band era; legendary sheriff Pat Garrett’s daughter Elizabeth Garrett, who would go on to write the state song of New Mexico; and country songwriter Leon Payne, who wrote “Lost Highway” for Hank Williams, among other classics.

But perhaps Lebermann’s most wide-reaching musical contribution was when he, assisted by his sighted wife, Virginia, transcribed scratchy field recordings for John A. Lomax, setting such standards as “Home on the Range,” “Git Along Lil Dogies” and “The Old Chisholm Trail” into sheet music for the first time. Those songs and 25 others transcribed by the couple were collected for posterity in the landmark 1910 Lomax songbook “Cowboys Songs and Other Frontier Ballads.”

Secret History of Austin Music: Henry Lebermann photoVirginia Leberman with daughters Virginia, left, and Jeanne outside the family home.

The longtime organist for the Central Christian Church at 12th and Guadalupe streets, Lebermann was a well-known Austin figure who was often seen walking to and from his home on East 23rd Street and the Texas School for the Blind at 45th Street and North Lamar Boulevard, more than three miles away. He’d meet his co-worker R.M. Perrenot at 30th and Guadalupe streets each morning, and the blind friends would walk together the rest of the way.

“Lowell Jr. was only about 2 when his grandfather Henry died and so had no clear personal memories of him,” said Lois Pattie, who was Lowell H. Lebermann Jr.’s personal assistant from 1982 until about five years ago. “But he always spoke of him with pride, particularly in relation to his having played the organ at the Paramount Theatre during the Depression.” Lowell H. Lebermann Jr., who passed away in July 2009, was instrumental in the efforts to restore the Paramount in the 1970s.

Before he was a teacher at the Texas School for the Blind, Henry Lebermann was a student there, enrolled in 1883 at age 10 and graduating in 1894. At that time, the school was located at the University of Texas “Little Campus” in what is now known as the Arno Nowotny Building next to the Erwin Center. The current location was built in 1917 on 73 donated acres.

During his time as a student, Lebermann benefited from the leadership of Superintendent Frank Rainey, who emphasized musical training as a way for the blind to make a living and appealed to the board to spend money on instruments.

Rainey also encouraged innovative instructional methods and was overjoyed when one of his young teachers, Elizabeth Sthreshley, invented a Braille typewriter called the punctograph in 1890. Four years later, she married noted Congress Avenue photographer George Townsend and would assist him in his work with new X-ray technology.

Disaster in Galveston

After graduation, Lebermann moved back to Galveston and then to nearby Alvin to become a farmer. Besides music, Lebermann had a lifelong passion for growing and tended a vibrantly colorful garden until his death from congestive heart failure at age 68 in 1941.

In 1900, a hurricane destroyed Galveston, killing Lebermann’s father and brother Lee. According to a 1937 Austin Statesman article, Henry Lebermann and another blind farmer spent seven days with water up to their waists, with no food, abandoned by their terrified hired hand.

With a heart heavy with grief, Lebermann went back to the place in Austin that had been his home, his musical training ground, for 11 years. But this time, he would be an educator and leader. Kristi Sprinkle, a historian of the school, found records that Lebermann gave a classical music recital at the school in January 1901 and lectured on the life and work of Chopin in March of that year.

The school orchestra he led was one of the finest in Austin and was hired in 1904 to play a concert at Central Christian Church welcoming new students to UT. There, a 33-year-old Lebermann met an 18-year-old church member named Virginia Carrington, whose father, Leonidas, owned the prosperous L.D. Carrington and Co. retail business on Congress Avenue.

Henry with Lowell, Sr.

Henry with Lowell, Sr.

After a year’s courtship, Henry and Virginia were married. Son Lowell was born in 1906, with daughters Virginia and Jeanne soon following. As the family grew, the Lebermanns moved out of a house at 902 Manor Road and into a bigger place at 906 E. 23rd St., where they lived for almost 20 years. Both houses were torn down when the university expanded east.

In 1929, the family moved to 3110 Walling Drive, in the same North Campus neighborhood where the Lomax family lived.

The subject of a 1994 master’s thesis by Baylor student Kelly Stott entitled “The Emerging Woman,” Virginia Leberman (1886-1968), who went with a one “n” spelling, was shown to be a progressive thinker and painter who spent summers at the Taos, N.M., artist community as early as the 1930s. She also co-owned the successful Christianson-Leberman Photography business at a time when female entrepreneurship was rare. Among the subjects she photographed were Eleanor Roosevelt and Will Rogers.

“We are perhaps more properly balanced than most married people,” Virginia Leberman told The Dallas Morning News in a 1925 profile of her husband with the headline “Blind Genius at State Capital.” “Each approves so entirely of the actions of the other that there is no friction in our home.”

Encouraged to follow her artistic and philosophical pursuits, Virginia Leberman was new age before the term was invented.

“This social grande dame was quite bohemian to her core,” Stott observed of Virginia’s fascination with the Pueblo Indians and their customs and beliefs.

When he accepted UT’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2000, Lowell Lebermann Jr., who was blinded after a shooting accident at age 12, credited his grandmother with expanding his cultural curiosity. “I’d go by the studio behind her house, and she’d be beating a tom-tom, breathing deeply and chanting,” he said. “How many grandmothers that you know do that sort of thing?”

In correspondence with Stott, Virginia Leberman’s friend Lady Bird Johnson recalled the night of a full moon in New Mexico, when Virginia asked their driver to pull over so they could get out and take in the view. “It was a high moment filled with respect for our surroundings and an experience that was a typical part of Virginia Leberman’s personality.”

Although it was prevalent in that era of raging anti-German sentiments during World War I to alter a name to sound less German, it’s not known if Virginia dropped the second “n” for her children’s surname as well for that reason. But Henry Lebermann kept the original spelling, perhaps in homage to his beloved father, as well as his first teacher at the School for the Blind, Edmund Ludwig of Heidelberg. Though his father, prominent Commerce doctor Lowell Sr., used just one “n,” Lowell Lebermann Jr. reverted to the original two “n” spelling after college and was “Lebermann” in 1971 when first elected to three consecutive terms on the City Council.

Successful students

In returning to the School for the Blind, Henry Lebermann may have hoped to have the same impact on his charges as Ludwig had on him. One such student was Fred Lowery, a native of Palestine in East Texas who was blinded at age 2 by scarlet fever. Lowery came to the school in 1917 at age 7 and took to the musical training with dreams of becoming a concert violinist.

In his autobiography, “Whistling In the Dark,” Lowery recalls a “long, fatherly talk” he had with Lebermann about the steep odds facing a blind classical musician. “Here at the Blind School we can make music together because we use a system designed for the sightless,” Lowery quotes Lebermann (blind musicians received their cues from the tapping of the leader’s baton). “Sighted musicians are trained in a different system. They play by sight, reading the score, watching the conductor. Their system and our system won’t mix.”

Although the reality check discouraged him, Lowery credited Lebermann with sending him on the path of being a big-band whistler. Having noticed Lowery whistling around school, Lebermann asked him to stay after band rehearsal one day. “I think we could use your whistle in the orchestra,” Lebermann said, astounding Lowery, who had never heard of such instrumentation. But Lebermann said he heard tones that suggested Lowery could mimic the sound of a piccolo, which the orchestra didn’t have. Lebermann craved a piccolo sound on the John Philip Sousa marches that were crowd favorites.

Lowery went on to a great career as a whistler, making his name in the 1930s with the Vincent Lopez Orchestra, whose arranger was a trombone player named Glenn Miller. Perhaps best known for whistling the theme to “Lassie” and his TV duets with Bing Crosby, Lowery was a virtuoso who perfected the double-note whistle and performed such complex material as “The William Tell Overture.” (Hear samples of Lowery’s whistling with this story at austin360.com/music.)

Entering the School for the Blind in 1923 was Leon Payne from the Northeast Texas town of Alba. Under the tutelage of Lebermann and other teachers, Payne (1917-1969) became proficient in guitar, keyboards, trombone and drums and joined Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys just three years after graduating.

As a solo artist, Payne had a No. 1 country hit in 1949 with “I Love You Because,” written for his wife, Myrtie, a former classmate at the School for the Blind he reconnected with and married in 1948. Payne is best known today as a songwriter, penning big hits for Hank Williams (“They’ll Never Take Her Love From Me”), Jim Reeves (“Blue Side of Lonesome”), Carl Smith (“You Are the One”) and many more. Elvis Presley recorded “I Love You Because” at one of his first sessions with Sun Records.

As a teacher, your students’ success becomes your own, in a way. But as a musician and scholar, Lebermann left his own legacy. Among his compositions were “Spring Song” and “The Blue Bonnet Song,” but his invaluable preservation work with John A. Lomax deserves special citation in this 100th anniversary year of “Cowboy Songs.”

Lomax first heard “Home on the Range” in 1908 from a black saloonkeeper in San Antonio who had been a camp cook on the Chisholm Trail for years. Lomax lugged an old Edison wax cylinder recording machine to record the barkeep. Lomax took the a capella recording to Lebermann, who, according to Lomax’s notes, “used earphones and played the record over and over again until he felt he had captured the music as the Negro saloon keeper had rendered it.” As Lebermann listened and played the piano, Virginia Leberman wrote the notes on sheet music.

“The original cylindrical record of the song has crumbled into dust, but the music that Henry Lebermann set down from the record I made still survives,” Lomax wrote.

According to Stott’s thesis, Virginia Leberman used to say that “a great mind is always humble and curious.” It was an adage lived out by her and her husband and passed on to their children and grandchildren.

Henry Lebermann was blind, but not before he saw Paris. In darkness he created his own “City of Light” in a town he loved. As a conductor of music and life he led in the most meaningful way — by example.

 

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Overheard at SXSW 1989

Posted by mcorcoran on March 8, 2016

sxsw89

 

1. “The registration line was insane. That’s 20 minutes of my life I won’t get back.”

2. “Do you know where Saturday’s day party is?”

3. “Austin learned its lesson from the Armadillo. No way they’re tearing down Liberty Lunch for an office building.”

4. “I’m in such a hurry I’m gonna have to grab lunch from a food trailer. Where’s the nearest construction site?”

5. “We can either see Mojo Nixon tonight for free or pay $30 to see him next year at the Erwin Center.”

6. “Let’s just take a cab to Salt Lick. How much could it be?”

7. “So, besides the Austin Music Awards, what else are you excited about this week?”

8. “They used to be a punk band, but now they play roots music. With punk energy.”

9. “There’s a line at the Gunbunnies. This $10 wristband is such a ripoff!”

10. “I’m not sure, but I think the Spin party is either in room 1703 or 1307.

11. “Holy shit, that’s Peter Zaremba!”

12. “SXSW is a good idea, but they’re going to need to rely on the revenue from the Austin Chronicle to survive.”

13. “One day this thing might be bigger than Aquafest. OK, I’m wasted.”

14. “If you’re cool you call it ‘Southby’.”

15. “I heard they were going to have a hip-hop act this year, but couldn’t find a corporate sponsor.”

16. “They need to get someone hip, with an opinion, to keynote.  Someone like Michelle Shocked.”

17. “OK, we’ve got this cool party space on SoCo. What should we do in the storefront? A gallery for outsider art? Really?”

18. “Let’s share a room at the San Jose. Not to save money, but to take turns standing guard.”

19. “Some guy just handed me a cassette. Hasn’t he heard of CDs?”

20. “It’s so great SXSW happens during Spring Break. No college kids in town!

21. “Having a festival for unsigned acts is cool, but I wish they had bigger names.”

 

 

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Janis Joplin’s Detonation Blues, Pt. 1

Posted by mcorcoran on March 5, 2016

      1. Waller Creek Boys with Janis Joplin 1962 - Waller Creek Boys with Janis Joplin 1962
Janis circa 1962

 by Michael Corcoran

 

 

 

 

 

 

To be a high school beatnik in 1960 in Port Arthur, Tex. is to set yourself up for a rough time. But Janis Joplin had made up her mind that she was going to live life her way, damn the small-minded. She discovered the blues at a time when blacks and whites couldn’t eat at the same restaurants in Texas. She read Kerouac and Ferlinghetti in a blue collar town that looked at non-required reading with suspicion. “Men liked to pick on Janis,” says Powell St. John, her former bandmate in the Waller Creek Boys.

“She Dares To Be Different” was the headline of the story written about Janis in 1962, when she was an autoharp-toting folk singer at the University of Texas in Austin. The “enviously unrestrained” 19-year-old filled jeans and went barefoot when other coeds wore dresses or skirts and blouses. But her standing out came at a steep price, with the unrelentless bullying scarring her, St. John said. “You’re better than them,” he told her, when she cried after a fraternity named her “Ugliest Man On Campus.” Then why are they winning?

Singing was her sanctuary. People loved to hear Janis belt out those old folk songs. She was born with a powerful voice that could take her where her instincts led, but didn’t really find out until she was about 16 and discovered 1920’s blues queen Bessie Smith. “Love oh love oh careless love,” Janis harmonized and then took the lead on “You’ve made me break a many true vow, then you set my very soul on fire.” Janis’s friends were knocked out. “You sing as good as that lady on the record!”

At that moment her life became about something bigger than P.A.

She displayed advanced intelligence early, skipping second grade, but Janis was a bored C student as a teenager. Her real education came through her small circle of fellow freaks, including Grant Lyons, a record collector nerd who turned her onto Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie. From there she found Odetta and Bessie and Big Mama Thornton and Jean Ritchie. Appalachian folklorist singer Ritchie had a repertoire of over 300 songs and Joplin set out to learn every one.

Waller Creek Boys: L-R St. John, Wiggins, Joplin

Waller Creek Boys: L-R St. John, Wiggins, Joplin  

 

“Whenever Lanny (banjoist Wiggins) and I would suggest a song, Janis would know two others just like it,” St. John said of the earliest get-togethers of Joplin’s first band. “She had done her homework.”

Listen to Janis with the Waller Creek Boys 1962 “Trouble In Mind”:

      2. \"Trouble In Mind\"

 

During Joplin’s Port Arthur years, there were frequent 30-mile trips to Vinton, LA, where you could drink at 18 (if they even checked ID). This is where Janis developed her din-knifing cackle. Janis and her friends would party to Jerry LaCroix and the Counts at Buster’s or Lou Ann’s, getting a crash course in soulful American music. A proximity to Louisiana and the Gulf Coast ensured that the Golden Triangle (Beaumont-Orange-Port Arthur) would have a steady supply of roots-reared musicians. But the folk scene was non-existent.

This is where Austin (always) comes in. After a secret overnight trip to the mythical liberal outpost, and finding a song-swap at “the Ghetto,” at 28th and  Nueces Street, still going at 4 a.m., Janis decided to enroll at UT. She had found her people in Texas. And the state capital had never seen, or heard, anything like Janis.

“I fell in love with her right away,” says St. John, who played harmonica in the Waller Creek Boys and asked Janis to join. They had a fling, but Janis had lots of them. Male and female. “She was a great singer,” he says. “She understood the finer points of getting a song across.” The Wallers started out singing at the Chuckwagon in the Student Union, then followed professor Bill C. Malone’s bluegrass outfit to Threadgill’s and made that joint on far North Lamar the place to be on Wednesdays. As Pat Sharpe wrote in that 1962 profile in the Daily Texan: “Janis sings with a certain spontaneity and gusto that cultivated voices sometimes find difficult to capture.”

Take another little piece

Love made Janis different, she was a junkie for it- giving and receiving. That’s why she stayed so close to her parents, even though they fought bitterly as she became a young woman. She knew their love was real, uninfluenced by who she had become.

“Dear Family,” starts a letter read aloud in the fine 2015 documentary Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue, by Amy Berg. “After you reach a certain level of talent- and quite a few have that talent- the deciding factor is ambition. Or as I see it, how much you really need. Need to be loved and need to be proud of yourself. I guess that’s what ambition is. It’s not a depraved quest for money. Maybe it’s for love.”

An outcast addicted to adulation, Janis challenged your love. Tried to push you away, then pulled you closer. When she was off the stage, which could be anywhere public to Janis, she was usually out of place. But she wasn’t going to hold back for anyone.

“She was in touch with her emotions and who she was in a way that no one I knew was in touch with,” David Getz, her former drummer in Big Brother and the Holding Company, said in Little Girl Blue. He choked back tears as he recalled Oct. 4, 1970 when he was told the singer died from a heroin overdose. “That’s the price you pay for doing that art on that level.”

Tina Turner and Janis Joplin 1969

Tina Turner and Janis Joplin 1969

Courage and insecurity were the oversized lenses through which Janis saw the world, at least from the last half of her 27 years. The rebel side came at about age 14, when Janis realized she’d never be one of the pretty girls, the popular girls at Thomas Jefferson High School. Before that, she’d lived a fairly idyllic life, according to all the bios. Her parents met in Amarillo in 1932 and relocated to Port Arthur in the early ‘40s when Seth Joplin got a job as an engineer for Texaco. She had a younger sister Laura and younger brother Michael.

Joplin did not look back fondly on her days growing up in the sulphur-smelling city of 66,600, whose slogan was “We Oil the World.” She built a tough exterior on her past.

Janis was “from good pioneer stock” she’d say, explaining her ability to handle drugs and alcohol. But she was easily pushed to the emotional breaking point. It was that mix of strength and vulnerability that came through in her singing. The first female rock star, her performances were spirit revivals, with pain and possession doing a cathartic dance. Until the punk explosion of the ‘70s, no white singer was so brilliantly unhappy. Who else could blow the doors off a concert hall, then write a letter to her parents, and then shoot up drugs?

The Janis Joplin tragic flameout story has been told, in several books and on the screen. We know about her substance abuse problems and we’ve seen her sensational breakout at Monterrey in ’67, as she donned gold lame’ and transformed into “Pearl.”

But nobody really talks about the show in Austin on March 13, 1966, when Janis Joplin stood next to her future. She came to the Methodist Student Center as a folk/blues singer and left with a soul full of rock n’ roll. Three months later, she was living in San Francisco as the lead singer of Big Brother and the Holding Company.

janisclip

That show in Austin, 50 years ago this week, was the only time Joplin shared the stage with the 13th Floor Elevators, who were two months from the national release of debut single “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” Also on the bill, organized by Tary Owens as a benefit for aging East Austin fiddler Teodar “Papa T” Jackson, were country blues icons Mance Lipscomb and Bill Neely, piano great Robert Shaw and Joplin’s former Waller Creek Boys St. John and Wiggins.

This was during a long sober period for Janis- who’d been bused home from San Francisco as an 88-lb speedfreak in May ’65- and she was wearing a black dress and high heels, with her hair in a bun. With the help of Austin American Statesman music columnist Jim Langdon, who called her “the best white blues singer in America,” Joplin had made her performance return to Austin the weekend before at the Eleventh Door. At the Papa T benefit, she accompanied herself on guitar and belted four blues songs- “Codine,” “I Ain’t Gonna Worry,” “Going Down to Brownsville” and “Turtle Blues”- to great response from the 400 or so who’d paid $1 per ticket. Then Janis watched Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators levitate the crowd.

Taking his vocal cues from Little Richard and Buddy Holly, Erickson was a shrieker, who also had a tender, melodic touch. The Elevators were the best rock band around, also coming from folk roots as the Lingsmen. It was Tary Owens, Janis’s former TJ High classmate, who introduced Roky to Tommy Hall and his band. With a jug-blowing guru, they had turned on to LSD (which was still legal at the time) and expanded the sounds in their head to become the first band called “psychedelic.”

St. John says, “Janis took a long, hard look at Roky. His energy.” There was even talk that she might join the Elevators as a “chick backup singer,” but after everyone came down that idea was ditched.

Janis played one more concert in town as a blues singer, with Shaw at the “Barrelhouse and Blues” show at the Texas Union Ballroom on May 5, 1966. But soon after, Chet Helms, whom she’d hitchhiked to S.F. with in 1963, beckoned her to return to the Bay Area. In the year since Greyhound had an intervention for Janis, Helms and his Family Dog company started booking the earliest hippie concerts in S. F. at the Avalon Ballroom. He had started managing a band he named Big Brother and the Holding Company and they wanted Joplin to be the singer. Anybody who’d ever heard Janis sing, and she’d been a bit of a coffeehouse star during her ’63-’65 years in the Bay Area, knew her voice was perfect for the new, free-form kind of rock and roll. She had, no doubt, been thinking the same thing when she watched Roky Erickson.

janis

But Janis was terrified of getting back into the drug scene of California. She had been doing well, going back to school at Lamar University to study anthropology. Doing her singing on weekends. Her family cursed Langdon for encouraging Janis to pursue a music career.

It didn’t take much arm-twisting, though. Janis was ready to enter the rock arena.

She told her family she was going to Austin for a few days, but on June 6, 1966, the day she officially joined Big Brother, she sent them a letter saying she was actually in S.F. “My old friend Chet is now ‘Mr. Big’ in San Francisco,” she wrote. “And the whole town has gone rock n’ roll.”

Janis Joplin became a big star, but three years after Monterrey, she was dead. Her last appearance in Austin was at a birthday party for Kenneth Threadgill at the Party Barn in Oak Hill in July 1970. She sang a song she’d just recorded called “Me and Bobby McGee” and another Kris Kristofferson song “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” An expected crowd of 500 grew to 5,000 when word got out that Janis was in town and had planned to attend.

Earlier in 1970, Joplin heard that Bessie Smith, her earliest inspiration, did not have a gravestone. Joplin paid for one, with the inscription reading, “The Greatest Blues Singer In the World Will Never Stop Singing.”

 

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80 years ago: Austin’s most important recording?

Posted by mcorcoran on February 1, 2016

soul_stirrers

The Soul Stirrers circa 1947. Rebert Harris is top right.

The Soul Stirrers are best known today as the Chicago gospel group that launched the career of Sam Cooke from 1951 until he crossed over to pop with “You Send Me” in 1957. But the group is actually from Trinity, Texas, by way of Houston. The Stirrers revolutionized gospel quartets by adding a fifth member- a second lead singer- which upped the intensity when the two leads traded verses while keeping the four-part harmony intact. Before the Soul Stirrers, gospel quartets were barbershop or jubilee groups doing old spirituals like “Down By the Riverside.” But the Stirrers came out to “wreck a house” with their hard gospel style and, in the process, influenced every quartet to follow.

Only Lubbock’s Buddy Holly and the Crickets, the model for the Beatles, and T-Bone Walker of Oak Cliff, who invented the language of electric blues guitar, are more influential Texas acts than the Soul Stirrers.

Gospel historians sometimes credit the Golden Gate Quartet as the precursors to the heightened emotionalism of quartets, but the Soul Stirrers actually recorded a year before those Norfolk heavyweights. And they made their recording debut in Austin, with John A. and his son Alan Lomax running the sessions for the Library of Congress. Billed The Five Soul Stirrers of Houston, the group recorded four songs on Feb. 12, 1936: “Lordy Lordy,” “John the Revelator,” “Standing At the Bedside of a Neighbor” and “How Did You Feel When You Came Out of the Wilderness.” These were all songs previously recorded by others, but no one did them with the thrust of the Stirrers, whose performance Alan Lomax called “the most incredible polyrhythmic music you’ve ever heard.”

Those Library of Congress recordings have been preserved in D.C., but never commercially released. But as a representation of what the five singers- E.R. Rundless, W.L. LeBeau, A.L. Johnson, S.R. Crain and O.W. Thomas- were doing onstage 200 nights a year, the recordings track a transformative moment in the evolution of spiritual sound. “No other recordings from that era are anywhere close in style,” wrote gospel historian Ray Funk, who pinpoints a Stirrers innovation as the harmony based around a higher tonal center- with “piercing falsetto” and a lighter bass- than the popular quartets from Birmingham Alabama.

soulstirrersloc

If I was to rank the 25 Most Significant Recordings in Austin History, the Soul Stirrers’ 1936 rendition of Blind Willie Johnson’s “John the Revelator” would rival Willie Nelson’s “Stardust” for the top spot. It’s unknown where the Soul Stirrers sang for the Lomax’s recording machine, but John Wheat of the Briscoe Center for American History says the likely location was the big house at 400 W. 34th Street where John Lomax lived with second wife Ruby Terrill and kept his recording equipment. That’s also the residence,

1935 Austin City directory

1935 Austin City directory

torn down in the early ‘70s, where Leadbelly stayed for a spell after his release from Louisiana’s Angola State Peniteniary in 1934.

A name missing from the 1936 Stirrer credits is Cooke’s mentor R.H. Harris, whom many consider the most influential male gospel singer of all time. There has been conflicting information about when Harris joined the Stirrers, with the singer claiming he was recruited from the glee club of Mary Allen College in Crockett in 1933. But historian Funk puts the year he became a Soul Stirrer at 1937, which is backed up by the session notes in 1936. Before his death in 2000 at age 84, Harris took credit for introducing the falsetto to gospel quartets, but Rundless was already using that high-pitched technique when the Lomaxes got it down on record. Harris has also been credited for introducing the dual (and “duel”) lead vocals to the quartet style, but the Stirrers were already doing that before he joined.

Harris replaced group leader Walter LeBeau, who dropped out of the hard-touring group to become a minister at the New Pleasant Baptist Church in Houston. There’s no question that Harris was an amazing singer, who took the gospel quartet to new soulful heights. And he did teach Sam Cooke how to slur and flip and stretch into a new way of singing. But a piece of gospel history has to be rewritten with this newfound information. The original Five Soul Stirrers of Houston were the originators, but R.H. Harris was Jesus’ favorite singer and he made them better.

Dust jacket of Feb. 12, 1936 recording.

Dust jacket of Feb. 12, 1936 recording.

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Hattie Burleson’s Dead Lover Blues

Posted by mcorcoran on January 15, 2016

A blues singer who recorded a few sides for Brunswick and owned the Green Parrot dancehall, Hattie Burleson was the queen of Deep Ellum in Dallas in the 1920’s. But was she also the Hattie Burleson who shot to death one of Dallas’ most prominent black citizens on Aug. 20, 1919? From here on they will be referred to as Hattie Singer and Hattie Slayress, though they were most likely the same person.

I came about this story yesterday at the Dallas Public Library where I went to do research on my upcoming book on 1920’s black gospel in Texas. The famous and fruitful recording sessions in Dallas in December 1927, conducted by Frank B. Walker of Columbia, drew two tracks, “Doggone My Good Luck Soul” and “Black Hand Blues,” by a singer named Hattie Hudson. There has been talk in musicology ciIMG_1707rcles that the singer sounds a lot like Hattie Burleson, whose protege Lillian Glinn of Hillsboro was also on the session. A pseudonym perhaps? Looking into that, I found clippings about the killing of Dallas Express editor and publisher William Elisha King.

According to the front page story with the banner headline, Burleson was driven to the house at 2818 Flora Street where King was recuperating from a streetcar fall. “The lady of the house” was preparing lunch while King and Burleson talked in the other room. “As their conversation became intensed, the woman drew a .38 calibre pistol from her handbag and shot Mr. King in the chest,” the Dallas Express reported. Hattie Slayress surrendered voluntarily to police. The paper reported that Burleson was King’s former secretary who owned a rooming house at 2516 Swiss Avenue (a block from the Express offices at 2600 Swiss).wekingpasses

Not only the founding publisher of the Southwest’s leading black newspaper, W.E. King was a noted lecturer on the issues of race and politics. Every issue of the Dallas Express contained a photo of “Hon. W.E. King” and an announcement of that week’s speaking itinerary. A son of former slaves from Mississippi, King was a schoolteacher for seven years before moving to Dallas in 1891 to edit the Western Star religious newpaper. The next year he started the Dallas Bee, then soon changed the name to the Dallas Express.

After reading of the shooting death of such a community leader, I figureburleson LPd there must’ve been two black Hattie Burlesons in Dallas because how would Hattie Slayress not be in jail while Hattie Singer was recording four sides for Brunswick in Oct. 1928 (including “Dead Lover Blues” and “Sadie’s Servant Room Blues,” backed by Don Albert on trumpet).

But according to a story in the Oct. 4, 1919 issue of the Dallas Express, Hattie Slayress was cleared of all charges. A girlfriend defending herself while confronting an unfaithful lover? We’ll never know.

If anyone knew, it was Mack McCormick, the famed Houston music historian who passed away in November at age 85. The Dallas Public Library file on W.E. King contains several pieces of correspondence with McCormick, an obsessively thorough researcher who notoriously sat on much of his material. Reprinted below is one letter to Mack, from 1974.

 

macletter

 

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Tribute to Blind Willie Johnson

Posted by mcorcoran on January 8, 2016

ALCD 4968

Coming from Alligator Records on Feb. 26, 2016.    Read more about the project here:

            

             Blind Willie Johnson: Revelations in the Dark
              by Michael Corcoran

Folks have been looking for Blind Willie Johnson since his “John The Revelator” jumped out of Harry Smith’s monumental Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952 like a Pentecostal preacher. “Well, who’s that writin’?,” Blind Willie called out in a fog-cutter bass, with his amen queen Willie B. Harris responding, “John The Revelator.” The repetition of those dissimilar, tent revival voices created a rhythm of dignified hardship, a struggle redeemed by faith. Thumb-picked guitar lines danced around the rough/smooth tension as the devil slid into the back pew.

This 1930 gospel recording about the Apostle who wrote the Book of Revelation was as lowdown dirty and hoppin’ as any blues or hillbilly number on Smith’s six-disc collection. Blind Willie didn’t even have to play any bottleneck guitar, which would become his signature on later reissues featuring “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” “Mother’s Children Have A Hard Time,” “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning,” “God Moves On The Water” and others.

Johnson’s initial popularity on Columbia’s 14000-D “race records” series was such that he was one of the only gospel blues artists whose 78s were reissued during the Depression (four sides on Vocalion in 1935). He recorded 18 months before the debut of the more celebrated Delta blues icon Charley Patton and perfected a slide guitar style with open D tuning that influenced everyone from Robert Johnson and Elmore James to Jimmy Page and Jack White. Vocally, you can be sure Patton understudy Chester Burnett took notice of Johnson’s wolf-like howl.

In just three years, Blind Willie Johnson produced a significant body of work that transports the listener from ancient Africa to modern times. And yet by the release of Harry Smith’s gateway drug, almost nothing was known of “the other Blind Willie” (not McTell) except that he recorded for Columbia Records from 1927 through1930. There were 30 tracks total, with ten each recorded in Dallas, New Orleans and Atlanta.

Just as the Book of Revelation was written on a scroll fastened by seven seals, Blind Willie’s story was one that begged to be unlocked. The first to try was 24-year-old Samuel Charters (1929-2015), who set out for Texas in 1953 to see what he could find about two bluesmen named Johnson, who made their first records there. But while the icy trail of Robert Johnson, who recorded in San Antonio in 1936 and Dallas the next year, made even hellhounds call it a day, Charters got lucky with the gospel Johnson. Sam and his wife Ann followed leads from Dallas to Beaumont, where they eventually met Blind Willie’s widow, Angeline Johnson.

The Charters-produced 1957 album Blind Willie Johnson: His Story (Folkways) reissued more of Johnson’s music, including “If I Had My Way, I’d Tear The Building Down,” which the Grateful Dead called “Samson And Delilah” when they recorded it on 1977’s Terrapin Station. Side one concentrated on Johnson’s biography, with spoken remembrances from people who knew Blind Willie, most prominently Angeline.

Rather than detail what was wrong in some of those eyewitness reports, let’s tell you what we now know to be certain about Blind Willie Johnson, who died in Beaumont at age 48 on September 18, 1945. The truth starts with a 1918 WWI draft registration card which popped up on ancestry.com around 2007. The card’s 21-year-old Willie Johnson lived in Houston’s Fourth Ward, in the red light district nicknamed “The Reservation,” which seemed strange for a gospel musician. But my research concludes that this Willie Johnson, blind, was, indeed, the Blind Willie Johnson who would bring a previously unheard intensity to music on six classics of gospel blues recorded on his first day ever in a studio.

We know draft card Willie is our guy because the 1935 Temple City Directory lists a “Willie Johnson, musician” living at the same 308 S. Fifth St. address as four other children of the man listed as his father in 1918. When Willie Johnson and Willie B. Harris had a daughter, Sam Faye, in 1931, he said he was born in Temple. His death certificate incorrectly lists his place of birth as Independence, Texas.

marriagelicensedock

Blind Willie’s parents were Dock Johnson and Mary King, married May 2, 1894 in Meridian, Texas, the town closest to the ranch where famed folklorist John A. Lomax grew up. The Johnsons moved about 50 miles south, to Bell County, before Willie Johnson was born in January 1897 in Pendleton. That year, Lomax was living in Austin, where he would graduate from the University of Texas in June. But the Lomax name would be forever connected to Blind Willie Johnson in 1977, when John’s son Alan Lomax selected Willie’s wordless symphony of loneliness, “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground,” to be placed on the Voyager I flying time capsule that is now 13 billion miles away. The otherworldly music of Blind Willie Johnson is on its way home.

A Haunting Masterpiece

Blind Willie sang in three distinctive voices: the gruff false bass, the soulful natural tenor and through his expressive slide guitar, which often finished verses for him. They were the father, the son and the Holy Ghost of his music. Johnson was a one-man Holy Trinity on “Dark Was The Night,” as his guitar preached and his congregation hummed in response.

“That record just scared the hell out of me,” Memphis record producer Jim Dickinson said in 2003. He first heard “Dark Was The Night” in 1960 as a freshman at Baylor University, with the hums and slurs from the library headphones haunting himwith a sadness and a strength he said he never really got over. More than 55 years later, his son Luther Dickinson is one of the artists on God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson,an album of covers by such admirers as Tom Waits, Sinead O’Connor, Lucinda Williams and many more. His father had told him about Blind Willie, of course, but Luther truly discovered the slide master when he delved into the roots of nascent North Mississippi bluesman Fred McDowell. “It’s so of the earth, but still sounds modern to my ear,” Luther Dickinson says of Johnson’s gospel blues.

“He’s one of only a handful of musicians who really feel like sacred music to me,” says guitarist Derek Trucks, who performs “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning” with Susan Tedeschi on God Don’t Never Change.

There are no words in Blind Willie’s “Dark Was The Night,” but there are lyrics to the Baptist hymn where it originated. It’s about the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was arrested and tormented on the night before the crucifixion. “Dark was the night and cold was the ground/On which the Lord was laid/His sweat like drops of blood ran down/In agony He prayed,” wrote Thomas Haweis in 1792.

It’s a song about the Passion and Blind Willie nailed it on the first take on December 3, 1927 in Dallas. It’s a one-of-a-kind recording that’s set a mood in several films, first in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 Italian classic The Gospel According To St. Matthew. Basing his soundtrack of Paris, Texas on “Dark,” Ry Cooder called it “the most soulful, transcendent piece in all of American music.”

You have to wonder what Columbia’s Frank B. Walker, who produced the Dallas sessions, might have been thinking when this fully-formed blind artist came in out of nowhere to lay down that pure, primal sound. Even though Walker had signed and produced blues superstar Bessie Smith in 1923, he probably wasn’t ready for Blind Willie’s wails and moans in that voice from the depths.

An overlooked record business giant, Walker also signed great hillbilly acts like Riley Puckett, Charlie Poole and Gid Tanner and organized 1928’s influential “Johnson City Sessions” in Tennessee. His title was A&R president, but he was really in the D&S business, with the discovery and signing of Hank Williams to MGM in 1947 putting Walker’s resume in bold.

The East Coast record men, who made frequent trips to Dallas, Memphis, New Orleans and Atlanta between 1927 and 1930, sometimes set up makeshift studios in hotels.  But because Walker and his engineer (“Freiberg” on label notes) were using the new Viva-Tonal! electrical recording process, those first sessions probably took place in the friendly confines of the Columbia Records complex, which covered three storefronts (2000- 2004) on North Lamar St. in Dallas’ West End.

Other acts who recorded at that first Dallas session, which went from December 2-6, 1927 were Washington Phillips (“Denomination Blues”), Lillian Glinn, backed by Willie Tyson on piano, mandolinist Coley Jones and the Dallas String Band, blues singers William McCoy, Hattie Hudson and Gertrude Perkins, plus Billiken Johnson, whose popular Deep Ellum act consisted of train impersonations (“Interurban Blues”) and other sound effects. Walker told Mike Seeger in 1962 that the acts auditioned in the morning, rehearsed in the afternoon and recorded in the evening.

Johnson was not the first gospel singer to play slide guitar on record. He was beaten to the studio by a year and a half by Pittsburgh preacher Edward W. Clayborn. For blues, you can go back to November 1923, when Louisville’s Sylvester Weaver was the first to record with slide guitar for OKeh. Those guys  were crafty and talented, but when Blind Willie started playing slide it’s like he invented the dunk. He paired gifts for improvisation and control, the melody and the rhythm, in a way that’s unsurpassed. “Anybody who’s ever played the bottleneck guitar with some degree of accomplishment is quoting Blind Willie to this day,” said Austin slide guitarist Steve James.

Johnson grew up one county over from Blind Lemon Jefferson and they often played on opposite street corners in Hearne, according to Adam Booker, the Brenham preacher interviewed by Charters in 1955. Yet Blind Willie sounds little like the first national star of country blues. They played in the same general genre, with religious vs. secular lyrics being the core difference, but had their own styles. Jefferson didn’t play the slide. And Johnson didn’t make the people dance like Blind Lemon did.

Together and apart, these two black, blind icons from Central Texas led the way in the country blues guitar field (religion optional). They taught, through example, Reverend Gary B. Davis and Mance Lipscomb, who each brought songs from the Blind Willie Johnson canon to the ‘60s folk revival.

Johnson & Johnson, Gospel And Blues

Jefferson and Johnson also inspired Robert Johnson, who laid out the blueprint for Chicago blues and its offspring in November 1936 at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio. Johnson’s debut session, on the 23rd, produced eight tracks for Vocalion Records, including “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Ramblin’ On My Mind,” “Come On In My Kitchen” and “Terraplane Blues.” There’s your Big Bang.

Though not as influential, you can put the artistic results of Blind Willie Johnson’s December 3, 1927 session in the same league of Best Studio Days Ever – and it was nine years earlier! Blind Willie Johnson’s six tracks included “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed” (covered by Bob Dylan as “In My Time Of Dying” in his 1962 debut LP), “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” (Led Zeppelin), “Mother’s Children Have A Hard Time” (Eric Clapton) and “If I Had My Way” (Peter, Paul & Mary’s debut LP).

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Even though his playing, always on a Stella guitar, inspired a host of Delta blues men, Blind Willie refused to sing the blues, that style of music preferred by collectors and historians. Unlike the “songsters” who mixed blues and gospel, Johnson sang only religious songs, which explains a big part of his relative obscurity. His raspy evangelical bark and dramatic guitar were designed to draw in milling, mulling masses on street corners, not to charm casual roots rock fans decades later.

But he had his time. When Willie Johnson was booked for the December 1928 sessions for Columbia, he had already sold an average of 15,000 copies of his first three 78s (at 75 cents each) and so he was treated with an earner’s respect. He had a car and driver and the label put him and Willie B. up at the Delmonico Hotel at 302 N. Central Avenue in Deep Ellum.

The couple proved to be vocal soulmates on four tracks recorded on December 5, 1928, including “Jesus Is Coming Soon” (about the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic) and “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning.” The Columbia recording logs also list two tracks, unnamed and unreleased, as being by “Blind Texas Marlin” and the speculation was that Blind Texas Marlin was Blind Willie Johnson, singing some blues on the side. We’ll never know. The notes and papers of Frank Buckley Walker disappeared, he said in the interview with Seeger. A big chunk of music history gone. Columbia lost or threw away the Blind Willie Johnson masters long ago and all his CD reissues were made by digitizing 78 RPM records loaned by collectors.

The search goes on, but what we still don’t know about Blind Willie Johnson could sink the Titanic. The mystery has made him more spirit than mortal, a folk hero.

The most legendary story about Blind Willie, which Angeline told to Charters in 1955, was that he was blinded by a stepmother who “throwed lye water in Willie’s face and put his eyes out.” Angeline said Willie’s mother had died when he was a boy and his father remarried.

Dock Johnson, indeed, took a new wife, Catherine Garrett, in June 1908. But in the 1911 Temple Directory, Dock Johnson was living with a wife named Mary, before going back to Catherine two years later.

That may have something to do with the blinding of Willie Johnson. The years match with the draft card if Willie became blind at age 13 (instead of 13 years earlier–there’s some ambiguity). That would be 1910, the census year Willie Johnson was not living in Temple with father Dock, Catherine and his brothers and sisters Wallace, Carl, Robert and Mary (who they called Jettie.) Did he stay with a relative? Did Dock break up with Catherine and go back to Willie’s mother because of the blinding, or the infidelity and the beating that, according to Angeline, led to it?

By 1915, everything seemed patched up, as Willie Johnson was listed as living with Dock and Catherine at 316 W. Avenue D in Temple, just 100 yards from the train depot. He wouldn’t stay long.

He was 18 and ready to make some money on the streets of Texas with a pocket knife, a tin cup and beat-up old guitar.pendletonrr

“Where the Cotton South Meets the Cattle West”

Temple is named after Bernard Temple, who was chief engineer of the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Railway when the town was formed in 1881 out of 200 acres of farmland the railroad had purchased. It became even more of a railroad town when the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railway (“the Katy”) laid tracks through Temple in 1882. The Santa Fe had 55 miles of track in Bell County and went up to Fort Worth and down to Galveston, while the Katy was the main route between Dallas and San Antonio. Ragtime king Scott Joplin, from Texarkana, lived circa 1895 in Temple, where he wrote and published his first sheet music pieces on a commission from the MK&T. The railroads made Temple an urban hub between Waco and Austin.

The town was also in cotton country, on the western border of the Black Waxy Prairie, so-nicknamed because of the dark and sticky soil. The crop was so identified with Bell County that the semi-pro baseball team of 1905-1907 was called the Temple Boll Weevils, after the infestation of the 1890s.

Mississippi has its Delta and in Texas the blues cradle was the basin lands between the Brazos and Trinity Rivers, east of Dallas and north of Houston. Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas (Big Sandy), Blind Lemon Jefferson (Wortham), Texas Alexander (Jewett), Lillian Glinn (Hillsboro), Lightnin’ Hopkins (Centerville), Frankie Lee Sims (Marshall) and Mance Lipscomb (Navasota) all came from that area, as did gospel acts The Soul Stirrers (Trinity), F.W. McGee (Hillsboro) and Wash Phillips (Simsboro).

The busy season for corner singers was when the cotton came in and the streets were full of folks ready to party. Such money-making opportunities took Johnson to Hearne, Marlin, Brenham and Navasota, as well as the big cities. Because he was blind, he rode the train at reduced fare, if he had to pay at all. “Play us that ‘Titanic’ song!” was probably enough to carry Blind Willie wherever he wanted to go.

Blind Willie’s first marriage took him to Houston in 1917, if later census numbers are correct. According to the 1930 census, the musician said he was married at age 20 and divorced. That’s approximately when the draft card said he was living in Houston, where there was plenty of work for a musician in the “anything goes” district where Johnson lived. Usually it was playing in whorehouses or medicine shows, but after the 1915 Panama Pacific Expo in San Francisco, Hawaiian steel guitar was all the rage, with the Victor label releasing 140 Hawaiian records in 1916 alone. It’s quite possible Blind Willie made money for a spell with his guitar in his lap, but his slide playing on record is more percussive, attacking, than the Island style.

Songster Mance Lipscomb (1895- 1976), who enjoyed a late-life discovery by the hippie/folk crowd thanks to music historian Mack McCormick and Arhoolie Records, recalled seeing Johnson play in front of Tex’s Radio Shop in Navasota, 90 miles northwest of Houston, as early as 1916. “He just had people from here to the highway. Jes’ hunnuds a people standing right on the streets,” Lipscomb said in his oral autobiography I Say Me For a Parable. “White and black. Old colored folks and young ones as well. Listenin’ at his voice.”  Lipscomb said Johnson walked with a stick and traveled with a darker-skinned blind man. That was most likely Madkin Butler.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
– The Book of Genesis

The dominant Texas preacher of the era was John L. “Sin Killer” Griffin, who toured all over the state and possessed, according to a Houston newspaper in 1911, a voice with the power of “thunder’s sullen roar.” But Blind Willie had a more direct model for his pulpit-shaking bellow in the singing preacher they called Blind Butler (1873- 1936). Madkin Butler showed the kid, 24 years his junior, how to make his voice heard above a crowd by flipping it inside out with authority. Butler was most likely the writer of “God Moves On The Water,” one of Blind Willie’s greatest recordings, which Waco folklorist Dorothy Scarborough published in 1919’s From A  Southern Porch folklore collection. Lipscomb recalled a night in Houston when he sang “Titanic,” as he called “God Moves,” with Ophelia Butler, who he was told by McCormick, was the widow of the man who wrote it.

A singer and fiddle player who was never recorded that we know of, Madkin Butler was also probably the “blind singer from Hearne” who taught John A. Lomax “Boll Weevil” in 1909. Willie B. Harris, who grew up in Franklin, next to Hearne, said Blind Butler was the most highly regarded singer in Robertson County.

Harris talked about the Butler/Johnson mentorship when she was interviewed in the ‘70s by Dallas artist and blues collector Dan Williams. “She told me they played music on the train together,” Williams recalled.

As many have done before and since, Williams trekked to Marlin to find out whatever he could about that mysterious, intense, Blind Willie Johnson. “I approached a group of elderly black people near the town square and one of them said he was related to Blind Willie’s ex-wife, the one who sang on his records, and I thought I was going to meet Angeline Johnson,” Williams recalled in 2003. “Nobody knew anything about a Willie B. Harris.”

After hearing Harris sing along to Blind Willie’s recording of “Church I’m Fully Saved Today,” from their final session in Atlanta on April 20, 1930, Williams was sure Harris was the duet partner. “She talked about meeting Blind Willie McTell in Atlanta and I did some research and found out that, sure enough, McTell recorded at the same sessions,” said Williams.

Charters inaccurately credited Angeline Johnson as the female background singer in his chapter on Blind Willie in 1959’s seminal The Country Blues, but made the correction, crediting Harris, in the liner notes for a 1993 CD reissue for Sony Legacy. Still, it’s possible that the more flamboyant Angeline was Willie’s unidentified backup singer at the sessions in New Orleans in December 1929 that produced the enduring “Let Your Light Shine On Me,” the first song Johnson recorded in standard guitar tuning. Columbia’s Walker set up a session in Dallas a week earlier, but Blind Willie chose to record in New Orleans, so he was probably living in the closer city of Beaumont as early as 1929, which is what Angeline had been saying.

When you add up all the dates and testimony, it’s very possible that Johnson was “married” to both Angeline in Beaumont and Willie B. in Marlin at the same time. There is no official record of those marriages, aside from newborn daughter Sam Faye listed as legitimate in Marlin in 1931, but couples “jumping the broom” together was a common matrimonial procedure for poor folks back then. Because of a December 2, 1932 entry in the San Antonio Register black newspaper, we do know Willie was married to a Mary Brown for a spell. Then, the 1937 Corpus Christi City Directory has Willie Johnson, musician, living there with wife Annie (as Angeline was known by some). That makes sense because of what McCormick said in 2003: “(Blind Willie) left memories in Corpus Christi during WWII when there was a fear about Nazi submarines prowling the Gulf of Mexico. Someone must have told him submarines often listened to radio stations to triangulate their position. He went on the air with new verses to one of his songs, probably ‘God Moves On The Water’ about the Titanic, offering grace to his audience, then followed with a dire warning to the crew of any listening U-boat with ‘Can’t Nobody Hide From God.’”

Blind Willie and Angeline moved to Beaumont for good in the early ‘40s, when the gospel singer found a fan in a circus band leader with a famous trumpet-playing son. “Harry James’ father Everett spoke very highly of Blind Willie Johnson,” said McCormick, who began his musicology career as a jazz fanatic. It’s not known if Johnson ever sat in with the Mighty Haag Circus Band led by Everett James, but the possibility is mind-blowing.

In the 1945 Beaumont City Directory Johnson is listed as a Reverend living at The House of Prayer at 1440 Forest. According to his death certificate later that year, Johnson died from malarial fever, with syphilis and blindness as contributing factors.

But Angeline Johnson painted an even bleaker picture of Willie Johnson’s final days. She told Charters that her husband died from pneumonia after sleeping on wet newspapers the night after a fire. His life could’ve been saved, she said, except he was refused service at the hospital because he was black and blind. But such a scenario was “highly unlikely…,” said McCormick, who had worked in a Houston emergency room in the Jim Crow era of legalized discrimination. “He would not have been turned away.”

The 1440 Forest Avenue house stood until 1970, when it was torn down to make room for I-10.

The “malarial fever” cause of death seemed strange for East Texas and led many to believe Angeline Johnson’s pneumonia story. But while spending 2010 researching the life of Blind Willie Johnson, recent University of Texas graduate Shane Ford came upon an interesting bit of medical information. In 1917, it was discovered that injecting malaria into patients with degenerative syphilis “could halt the progression of general paresis.” The fever could sometimes kill the syphilis bacteria. This practice was used in the ‘30s and ‘40s, until penicillin was mass-produced in the late ‘40s. The downside was that about 20% of those treated died from malarial fever.

Marlin And Marriages

Between his years in Temple and Beaumont, there was Marlin, perhaps the town most connected to Blind Willie this many years later. Wood Street brought the street corner gospel singer to the town 37 miles east of Temple. With its wooden sidewalks, prostitutes hanging out of windows and music coming out of every doorway, Wood Street of the ‘20s and ‘30s featured the most happening street scene in black Central Texas. Marlin’s a nothing town today, but during the first half of the 20th Century, after hot mineral water with reputed healing powers was discovered and bathhouses built, it was a destination with a booming economy. The New York Giants held spring training in Marlin from 1908 through 1918 and Conrad Hilton built the nine-story Falls Hotel there in 1929. There were plenty of jobs for black folks and on Saturday night, Wood Street was hopping.

Musicians played all up and down the street, according to a 94-year-old James Truesdale in 2010. “He could make that guitar talk to you,” the Lott native said of Blind Willie, describing a scene of people “falling out and hollerin’” to Johnson’s gospel music. Two blocks from the sin of Wood Street was the Falls Country Baptist Association, where Truesdale said Johnson and Butler often played in a makeshift venue called the Soul Station.

When she met her future husband, Willie B. Harris worked as a bathhouse attendant and belonged to the Power House Church of God In Christ. She told Williams that she and Blind Willie began performing together at the Pentecostal church. No doubt she’d dragged him with her with her, because Blind Willie has mainly been associated with the Baptist Church.

The last known venue of a Blind Willie Johnson concert still standing is the New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church in Shiner, Texas. Johnson came to Shiner from San Antonio in October 1933 to play the 100-capacity church for 10 cents a ticket. “Reserved seating for white people” it said in the newspaper. It’s conceivable Blind Willie had hundreds of shows like this after making his final recordings in April 1930. Playing music live was the only way he had to make a living since his recordings were “non-royalty,” according to Columbia session cards.

Also recently found is a clipping that describes the crowd at New York City’s Hippodrome becoming “deathlike” quiet while Blind Willie Johnson sang “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” circa 1938. In a 1940 interview with John A. Lomax, Blind Willie McTell said he and the other Blind Willie had been touring “from Maine to Mobile.” McTell paid homage to his old friend when he cut “Motherless Children” for Atlantic in 1949. That’s how long it took for word of Johnson’s death to reach many of those who knew him, one reason earlier biographies had him dying in ’49, not ’45.blindwilliejohnsonHEROES

There’s been only one photo found of Willie Johnson, wearing a suit and sitting at a piano with his guitar. His left pinkie appears to be straightened by a glass or steel cylinder, which is how Angeline’s brother, Brenham-raised blues guitarist L.C. Robinson, said Johnson played slide. “He used to come stay with us, two, three nights, and he’d sit there and play that guitar, religious songs,” Robinson told Living Blues in 1975 about his brother-in-law. “I was watching him with that bottle on there and started playing that way, too.”

But bluesman Thomas Shaw (1908-1977) told the magazine in 1972 that Blind Willie slid a pocketknife over the strings to play slide. “Willie lived in Temple and we’d go down there to play for the country dances and school openings and all and I’d stay with him,” said Shaw. “I learned that ‘Just Can’t Keep From Cryin’ from him but I learned to pick it ’cause I didn’t like the knife on it.”

Listening to Johnson fretting strings and playing rhythm along with his slide, it seems unlikely he played with a knife in the studio, but it could’ve been a cool street corner trick.

The Sounds Of Earth In Outer Space

Blind Willie’s songs were about the love of Jesus and the hope of salvation, with a touch of Old Testament vengeance. With his soul-tortured delivery, there’s a depth to the material not often heard in the records Brunswick, Columbia, Paramount and Victor put out in the “race records” decade ushered in by Mamie Smith’s sensational 1920 hit “Crazy Blues.”

But how many of those songs did he write? How many were adapted from public domain sources such as religious hymns and old “Negro spirituals”? It’s certainly a question to be determined once an estate for Blind Willie Johnson is finally established.

Precedents for “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” “Motherless Children,” “Soul Of A Man” and the topical songs “Jesus Is Coming” and “When The War Is On” haven’t been found, so they can be classified as original compositions. But the majority of Johnson’s 29 recorded songs (he cut “You’ll Need Somebody On Your Bond” twice) came from other sources.  According to Max Haymes’ “Roots of Blind Willie Johnson” research, the singer took three songs from the 1923 recordings of the Wiseman Sextette and covered T.E. Weems on “If I Had My Way,” Arizona Dranes on “Bye And Bye, I’m Going To See the King” and Blind Joe Taggart’s “Take Your Burden To The Lord.” But entertainment attorney William Krasilovsky said in 2003 that a Blind Willie estate could earn money by copyrighting his arrangements. “Does the work have distinctive fingerprints of originality that qualify for a new derivative copyright of public domain material?” he asked, reading from a copyright law book.

“Distinctive fingerprints” could be the title of a Blind Willie Johnson biography. In most cases, however, Johnson’s fingers left the slightest forensic evidence behind, which makes what they did with a guitar, under that powerful voice, all that matters. The music’s so supercharged with self-expression that the truth is right there for all to hear.

That’s why “Dark Was The Night” was chosen for the Golden Record aboard Voyager 1, which continues its journey to the galaxy’s back yard. The interstellar space probe left the solar system in 2012 and continues its mission to find intelligent life in other planetary systems.

Should aliens happen upon the spacecraft and, with the record player provided, listen to that eerie, moaning, steel-sliding memorial to the Crucifixion, they will know that we are a spiritual people, that we hurt and we heal, that we do indeed have souls that live long after we’re buried.

 

THANKS: To all the searchers, especially Sam and Ann Charters, Dan Williams, Jeffrey Gaskill, Michael Hall, D.N. Blakey, Mack McCormick, Shane Ford and Anna Obek, whose hours saved me days.

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Houston 1917: the Race War of Camp Logan

Posted by mcorcoran on December 25, 2015

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by Michael Corcoran

The gallows smelled of fresh-cut lumber. Thirteen nooses for the black soldiers who’d killed 15 white civilians in Houston. As the ropes were tightened around their necks, one of the condemned men started singing a Negro spiritual. The others fell in with shaky voices that got stronger. “I’m comin’ home,” they sang. “Lord, I’m coming home.” They’d be joining their four brothers of the 24th Infantry, who died in Houston on Aug. 23, 1917, during an incident that has been called a riot or a mutiny, but it was really a battle. The enemy was racism.

The 100-plus men who took rifles to the streets to avenge brutal cops were “Buffalo Soldiers,” a battalion whose service goes back to 1866, when the U.S. Congress added six all-black regiments to the U.S. Army.

Degradation and intimidation were the methods whites in power used to stay that way and Southern blacks of the era were expected to take all the slurs, all the humanity-stripping injustices and all the Jim Crow laws put in place to extend slavery of a different name.

Buffalo Soldiers circa 1917.

Buffalo Soldiers got their nickname from Native Americans.

But the men of the “Duece Four,” who had just got back from fighting under Gen. Jack Pershing in Mexico, had enough of that. They believed their sacrifices and contributions to the security of this country had earned them the right to be treated with equality, as described in the 14th Ammendment.

And so they snapped.

It was the U.S. Constitution vs. the “Southern way of life,” with battle lines drawn even before the arrival of the soldiers (who got their nickname from the Indians they fought because their tightly curled black hair resembled a bison’s mane.) In the midst of World War 1, the Army built an additional 32 training bases, including Camp Logan in Houston, about four miles west of the center of town. The 653 men of the 3rd Battalion of the 24th Infantry were assigned to guard the camp for seven weeks, while it was under construction.

The prospect of young black men, armed and in uniforms of authority, roaming the streets of Houston, terrified much of the white populace. They wanted their blacks to be docile. And guns were a white folks thing.

The Chamber of Commerce voiced those concerns to the Army, which said the black battalion was the only one available, but they were exemplary soldiers. Houstonians saw a potential racial powderkeg, but the Chamber finally relented “in the spirit of patriotism.” It didn’t hurt that the lucrative federal contract would pump $2 million a year into the local economy. “The colored soldiers will be treated all right,” the Chamber president announced, sounding less like a vow than a concession.

There had been trouble between the black troops and white citizens since the very first night. The soldiers headed out on the town and ended up at the city-sanctioned red light district called The Reservation. A large group of soldiers jumped on a streetcar to get back to the garrison before 11 p.m. curfew, but the driver stopped and ordered them off. There were so many soldiers that they overflowed to the “whites only” area. There was an altercation and the rumor in the white community, completely untrue, was that the “uppity” blacks had beaten the streetcar driver almost to death. They had actually just threatened him and removed the Jim Crow screens, which showed where blacks were allowed to sit.

Things weren’t much better on post, as white contractors bristled at having to show credentials to black guards. “We’re not taking orders from niggers,” was a common epithet, a black sergeant told investigators.

One day there was a fight between white and black civilian workers in the payroll line and the black guards watched their brothers pummel the whites before stepping in.

Steve_Popp_Buffalo_Soldier_Mutiny_Houston_1917To try and calm the overheated racial climate, Camp Logan officials tried to keep the soldiers on base by allowing black citizens of Houston to visit any day until 10:45 p.m. Women came by looking for husbands, preachers came in search of souls to save and black men visited to hear the tales of battle. Civic groups provided home-cooked meals and entertainment to the famous soldiers, who were heroes in the black community. Perhaps hearing the stories of life as a second-class citizen instilled in the proud soldiers the idea that they were to fight a greater battle for their own people.

After the deadly violence of 8/23/17, four weeks after the arrival of the uniformed undesirables, the Army assigned Col. G.O. Cress to investigate what may have caused the all-consuming rage. “The attitude of police and most white citizens in Houston is that a nigger is a nigger and his status is not effected by the uniform he wears,” Cress reported.

That was the gunpowder. The fuse would be lit when racial insults escalated into physical assaults by white police officers. The morning of Aug. 23, 1917, Houston’s longest day, a black private was pistol-whipped and arrested when he interfered with the police manhandling a black female. When Corporal Charles Baltimore, a provost patrolling the area, asked about the private’s arrest, he was beaten by police for being uppity and taken into jail.

When word got back to the camp that two black soldiers had been assaulted and arrested by cops, some called for a mutiny. “To hell with what’s going on in France,” one yelled, “we’ve got work to do here!” Another soldier vowed, “to shoot every white face I see,” but the focus was on the cops.

The black mob, armed with rifles, killed two police officers, including the one who arrested Baltimore, at the corner of Washington and Brunner Streets. They murdered three more cops at Wilson and San Felipe. They killed discriminately, shooting only at cars with white passengers and waving black drivers through. None of the four black soldiers were killed by whites, with three from friendly fire and one from suicide.

Sgt. Vida Henry, who had warned the white officers about the simmering rage, but then led his men into battle on the streets of Houston, shook the hands of each of the mutineers as they hurried back to Camp Logan. Then he went for a walk by the railroad tracks, put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

Civic leaders of Houston helped quell a mob uprising against the soldiers, whose base was built to withstand outside attacks. The next day, all the black soldiers, except those who’d been fingered as shooters by four informants, got on a train to take them back to New Mexico. One threw a piece of paper outside the window, which read: “Take Texas and go to hell. I don’t want to go there anymore in my life. Let’s go East and be treated like people.”

After the largest murder trial in American history, 19 black soldiers were executed, at three  separate hangings, and 63 received life sentences. The final death toll of the battle of Aug. 23, 1917 was 23 blacks and 15 whites.

World War I ended on Nov. 11, 1918. Camp Logan closed in 1919 at the site that is now Memorial Park.

Camp Logan, 1917.

Camp Logan, 1917.

Here’s a great 1973 paper, The Houston Mutiny and Riot of 1917 by Robert V. Haynes, which was a main source.

 

 

 

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