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Washington Phillips, a son of freed slaves, created sacred porch songs for the ages

Posted by mcorcoran on June 12, 2017

Wash Phillips circa 1950

by Michael Corcoran
The mystery of Washington Phillips begins the first time you hear his sweetly-sung Christian blues, bathed in a celestial haze of notes from an instrument that sounds like a child’s music box. For me that was in 1999, when Phillips’ mournful, moralistic “Mother’s Last Word To Her Daughter” on a knock-off compilation of 1920’s black church singers knocked me out. His music is a simple prayer, with the blessing in the asking, the singing, the playing. But his ethereal sound is also intricately developed to the point of being almost psychedelic. From what background did this completely original artist emerge fully formed?

His grandfather, also named Washington Phillips, was a slave, born in Kentucky in 1801 and most likely ”sold down the river” to a Texas landowner in the 1850s, along with his wife Ann and teenaged sons Austin, Houston and Tim. Not long after they were emancipated on “Juneteenth,” June 19, 1865, the Phillips men started buying farmland in the freedmen’s community of Simsboro, about 80 miles southeast of Dallas.

Both Tim and Houston Phillips had sons they named after their father, who lived to be 81. The oldest grandson, Tim’s boy “Little Wash,” was born in 1880 and went on to record for Columbia Records from 1927-29.

Houston’s son Washington Phillips, born in 1891, was a farmer who went crazy, was committed to the Texas State Hospital in Austin in 1930 and died there eight years later.

When the haunting spirituals of Washington Phillips were first made available on CD in 1991 with I Am Born To Preach the Gospel (Yazoo), the liner notes incorrectly based biographical information on the death certificate of the cousin who died in the state asylum at age 47. The Washington Phillips who recorded such distinctive gospel tunes as “Denomination Blues,” What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?” and “Paul and Silas In Jail” lived until 1954, when he died at age 74 after a fall down the stairs at the city hall in Teague, the nearest town to Simsboro.

I stumbled upon this case of mistaken identity in 2002 when I was a music critic for the Austin American Statesman and used the Austin death of the “wrong” Washington Phillips as a local connection that would justify a lengthy profile of an intriguing gospel obscurity.
Another bit of misinformation passed on was that Phillips backed himself on a dolceola, a rare “portable grand piano” produced only from 1903-1908 in Toledo, OH. What a weird tale this was, a preacher with a head full of voices playing heavenly tunes on a doomed miniature keyboard!

But the dolceola theory has also been discredited, once and for all, by a recently-discovered article which ran in the Teague Chronicle in November 1907. Under the headline “A Unique Instrument,” the brief detailed “a negro in town, named George Washington Phillips,” who played music from “a box about 2 X 3 feet, 6 inches deep, and which he has strung violin strings, something on the order of an autoharp…He uses both hands and plays all sorts of airs.” The 27-year-old Phillips called his homemade instrument a “Manzarene,” the article said. East Texas had never seen or heard anything like Washington Phillips, who dropped the “George” as his grandfather and cousin did. Sixty years after his death, the world still hasn’t heard anything like the 18 tracks this son of freed slaves recorded in Dallas on five December days from 1927-29.

Washington Phillips was the sixth of 11 children born to  Tim Phillips (b. Kentucky 1843) and Nancy Cooper Phillips (b. Tennessee 1848), who were married in 1867. The family lived on a farm in Simsboro whose ownership can be traced to Dr. James Wills, the great grand-uncle of Western swing king Bob Wills (born in nearby Kosse). According to Freestone County deed documents, James Wills sold “Abstract 217” in 1854 to H.M. Ewing, who sold it to James McMillan just before the Civil War.

In 1870, Tim and Houston went in together on 320 acres, purchased for $240 from neighbor McMillan, head of one of the last few white families in Simsboro. Their older brother Austin (b. 1838) and wife Drucilla bought their first parcel in 1867 and accumulated 203 acres over the next two decades. Land was freedom to the ex-slaves. Music was just something you sang and played to lighten the burden.

Prejudice has long been the social soot in the farming community of Freestone County, where slaves surpassed the number of whites, about 3,600 to 3,200, in 1860. From 1850 to 1860, the decade the Phillips family is believed to have relocated from Kentucky (because of place of birth information on the children), the slave population of Texas grew from 58,161 to 182,556, as white planters fled south and west to keep their slaves from deserting and joining the Union Army.

Kentucky was one of the northern slave states known for “stocking and raising” slaves for sale to the southern states after the transatlantic slave trade was discontinued in 1808, according to Michael Tadman’s seminal 1996 book Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders and Slaves in the Old South.

Wash’s family took the Phillips name from the plantation they worked on, according to an 85-year-old Earl Phillips, the grandson of Wash Phillips’ uncle Austin. Earl served as the family historian in 2002 when I interviewed him by phone from Denver, but like so many elderly witnesses from 13 years ago, he’s passed on since. Earl told me his great-grandfather Washington Phillips was owned by the men named Karner and Phillips, who founded Mexia’s Karner-Phillips department store. But I originally dismissed that info because Karner-Phillips wasn’t established until 1878. There were a few bits of Earl’s family history disputed by public records, so everything had to be independently verified.

Reading the 1860 Slave Schedules for Freestone County with my index finger, however, it shows that a John Karner owned slaves whose ages (names weren’t listed) roughly matched the elder Washington Phillips (60), his wife Ann (45), sons Houston (20) and Tim (17) and daughters Katy (12) and Susan (6). Patriarch Phillips was actually 59 and Houston 19, but it wasn’t uncommon for census takers of the time to round up ages, especially for African-Americans, who often didn’t know their own birthdays.

A native of Bavaria, Karner stowed away to the land of opportunity as a teenager and fought with Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto that brought Texas independence in 1836. Later, known as “Dutch John,” the Indian fighter, Karner was given land for his service and he also bought up parcels around his grant- 65 properties in all- in the 1850s. According to deed documents kept at the Freestone County clerk’s office in Fairfield, some of his dealings were with a man named Frank A. Phillips, who may have owned the plantation Earl Phillips told me about, but I was unable to find any other information to back that up. A 1860 county agricultural report said there were seven plantations of over 500 acres in Freestone County, where cotton was king and corn was queen, but didn’t name any of them.

When the Civil War broke out and Freestone County voted 585-3 to secede from the Union, Karner joined the Confederate Army. His slave quarters were empty soon after he came home in defeat. On June 19, 1865 in Galveston, Union Army General Gordon Granger read the order that proclaimed slaves were free men and women.

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”

Although Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in April 1865 ended the Civil War, it took awhile for the Union Army to come to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation.

“Juneteenth was always a big day for Wash Phillips,” said Doris Foreman Nealy, a retired nursing school instructor who grew up on a farm next to Phillips “He’d dig a pit and slaughter a hog and cook it all day.”

Juneteenth, the oldest statewide celebration commemorating the end of slavery, was sponsored in Simsboro by the Magnolia Burial Club and held in the grassy picnic area common to all three black churches: Hogie Primitive Baptist, Wesley Tabernacle A.M.E. and Mount Pleasant Trinity Baptist Church. Phillips was acquainted with the pulpits at all three and often led the preaching and singing, Nealy said..

That Phillips was well-versed in the varying beliefs and customs of different churches is evident in “Denomination Blues,” the song which forged a  bond with the counterculture crowd when it was discovered on a blues compilation in the 1960s and covered by Ry Cooder on 1972’s Into the Purple Valley. Coyly denouncing hypocrisy in organized religion, Phillips mocks six different black denominations before launching into the verse: “You can go to college, you can go to school/ But if you ain’t got Jesus, youse a educated fool.” On the second part of “Denomination,” Phillips hits harder, singing of preachers who “think they’re doing well” and that “all they want is your money and you can go to hell.”

Wash Phillips was a product of post-slavery black America, when blues and gospel music were next door to each other- like a liquor store and a church on many a ghetto street- and yet spiritually an ocean apart. Not only were blacks separate from whites, they were divided amongst each other as sinners and saints. Then once again in church, split between the mainstream Baptist and Methodist denominations and the screeching, pounding “holy rollers” of the Pentecostal sect.

But Phillips, an unordained “jack leg preacher,” wasn’t made for those categorical times. “He was just so different from everyone else,” said Nealy. As a younger man, Wash would roam Freestone County on Sundays to sing and testify at Pentecostal and African Methodist Episcopal services. The 1930 U.S. Census found him living in Dallas, occupation “Holiness minister.”  But later in his life he settled into his role as Rev. Wash Phillips at the Pleasant Hill Trinity Baptist Church, just down the road from his 87-acre farm. “He was an enlightened person,” his second cousin Earl Phillips said in 2002, recalling that the singing farmer/preacher smelled of linament oil and made herbal remedies that he sold from his mule cart, along with plums and ribbon cane syrup.  

I Am Born to Preach the Gospel and I Sure Do Love My Job

The lyrical distaste found in “Denomination Blues” and “The Church Needs Good Deacons” was perhaps born from too many Sundays waiting to be called to the pulpit while less-pious men with degrees spewed their pretentious babble. But his former neighbors said he didn’t carry the same bitterness about a promising musical career that didn’t happen. None of the half-dozen former Simsboro residents I interviewed were even aware that Wash Phillips had ever made a record. Nobody from back home knew that one of his songs “You Can’t Stop a Tattler” was covered by Linda Ronstadt on her platinum-selling 1976 LP Hasten Down the Wind. Royalties never rolled his way, because no one knew anything about this Washington Phillips, who could’ve come from anywhere.

When the Teague Chronicle ran an article about Phillips’ death on Sept. 20, 1954, there was mention of the mule cart, but not the musical career. They didn’t even get his name or age right, calling him Wash Williams, 77. But posterity holds Phillips in high regard.

Calling the music of Washington Phillips “the absolute height of rural originality,” musicologist Garry Harrison wrote in his fretlesszithers.com blog in 2005 that, “It would have been unusual enough if he had merely acquired and learned to play a fretless zither, an instrument with virtually no known performance tradition. But it appears that what (Phillips) did was to re-configure two fretless zithers, to expand the range of both the melody and accompaniment sections… and then to become a highly skilled player on his creation, producing other-worldly tones unlike those made by any other instrument.” While playing two zithers simultaneously, one hand for the chords and one hand for the melody, this self-made virtuoso also sang in a vulnerable, penetrating voice of faith.

From the Teague Chronicle 1907

Washington Phillips recorded 18 sides for Columbia in five sessions in Dallas, from Dec. 1927 to Dec. 1929. His first three ‘78s- all released in 1928- registered his best sales, topping off with 8,725 copies of the debut “Take Your Burden To the Lord and Leave It There” b/w “Lift Him Up That’s All.” But then came the Stock Market Crash in Sept. 1929 and suddenly food became a bigger priority than buying downhome gospel blues records at 75 cents per. Forty-seven when he made his first recordings, Phillips was washed-up by 50. By the time Sister Rosetta Tharpe changed “Denomination Blues” to “That’s All” and had a secular hit with it backed by Lucky Millinder’s orchestra in the early ‘40s (the first record on which she played electric guitar), Phillips had completely recessed into the country life.

But there’s too much talent and originality in Phillips’ music for it not to eventually find an audience and what Cooder revived continues to grow slowly. A swell in interest in the zither-playing preacher came when his song “Mother’s Last Word To Her Son” wove a spiritual thread through We Need To Talk About Kevin, the 2011 Tilda Swinton film about a school massacre. Covers of Phillips songs by the likes of Vince Gill, Mogwai, Phish, Ralph Stanley, Gillian Welch, Rodney Crowell and Mavis Staples continue to bring attention, while many more musicians are content to listen and be inspired by the true artist who created against all odds.

 

 

“Leave it there, oh leave it there,” he sang in that sweet tenor of the truth. “Take your burden to the lord and leave it there.” Sometimes it can be as simple as that, knowing when and where to let go. Sometimes 18 songs is the whole shot.

The three men named George Washington Phillips- the grandfather from Kentucky and his grandsons from Freestone County- are buried in the Cotton Gin Cemetery in the countryside six miles west of Teague. But several searches of the “colored” side could locate only two tombstones. That the Washington Phillips who was gospel’s great disappearing act would take his eternal rest in an unmarked grave seems about par for this course in music history.

The great musician didn’t die in the state asylum. And his instrument was not a dolceola. It never really mattered what he played- it doesn’t change the music he left behind. But it’s comforting to know, that the singer who has affected so few people so profoundly, didn’t live out his last few years in mental torment, but surrounded by the people who knew and respected him for who he was.

 

 

 

Posted in Austin-Zeitgeist, Music, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

RIP Roscoe: Death of a True Believer

Posted by mcorcoran on April 21, 2017

It’s fashionable to bitch about newcomers in Austin, even though we all came from somewhere else. But some transplants are more like reinforcements, letting us know through their unbridled enthusiasm that we live in a special place.

Ross Shoemaker, who everyone here called Roscoe, came down with the great Oklahoma migration of the ‘80s. At first he was known as “the guy who recorded The Shit Hits the Fans,” the legendarily awful/perfect, drunken Replacements set at the Bowery, where he worked in Oklahoma City. God, how Roscoe loved the ‘Mats! But after you ran into him a few times and hung out at a couple 3 a.m. living room parties, you knew him as the guy who loved ALL his music deeply and sincerely. He was the pure fan, not a snob. I would tell him the Replacements were way overrated and he would laugh and rattle off 26 song titles that told me it didn’t matter what I thought.

Roscoe, who got jobs at Waterloo Records and Liberty Lunch so he could be around music fulltime, died last night in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. He’d moved back to his home state at least 20 years ago. Got married, had a daughter, stayed in touch. At about 9 p.m. Wednesday, Ross was driving his Ford Focus when a Cadillac Escalade crossed into his lane and hit him head on. Cause of the accident is being investigated.

The word spread through Facebook Thursday morning like a Roscoe whoop at a True Believers show. The first things folks who knew him mentioned was that he was a great friend of music and a devoted father to teenaged daughter Sadie. To me he represented Austin in the ‘80s, when you toyed with excesses daily because that party was too good to end. All the bands we were getting tired of- Doctors’ Mob, Wild Seeds, True Believers, Poison 13, etc.- almost became new again in Roscoe’s pure and devout worship. “His love of music was contagious,” Max Crawford of Poi Dog Pondering posted on Facebook. Words that should be engraved somewhere meaningful.

Following Ross on Facebook was a human roller coaster ride. His bad days were painful, especially after he lost his job a couple years ago, but then he’d see a great band or run into an old friend and it would be the Roscoe of old. “Awesome” was his favorite word and it meant something when he said it.

I enjoyed a perfect day with Roscoe in June 2014 when I was sent to Tulsa for a story about the lawyer who represented the wife in a divorce that was settled for $1 billion. I couldn’t wait for the interview to be over because I was meeting Ross for lunch at Goldie’s, a hamburger joint recommended by former Tulsa musician Ron Flynt. We talked about a lot of things, but mostly about the highs and lows of being a single parent. We both married dumb, but conceived wisely. Roscoe’s ex was a newlywed or about to be, so she was always calling him to modify the custody situation, he said. “I always say ‘sure,’” Roscoe told me. “I’ll take every minute I can get with my daughter.” We had a lot in common, but not all of it good. I think Roscoe was 9 months sober at the time and went to meetings.

The best part of the day was when Roscoe proudly showed me around Tulsa, with its rich musical history. We went inside the famous Cain’s Ballroom, which would probably be a CVS right now if it was located in Austin, then drove to Leon Russell’s old church studio where so much great Leon, Tom Petty, Freddie King and J.J. Cale stuff was recorded. He took me to the Woody Guthrie Museum, which is worth a long drive in itself, then showed me Guthrie Green, a fantastic free live music venue bankrolled by a billionaire music lover. He showed me the small club where Alejandro Escovedo had played just a few days earlier and where Roscoe got to catch up with his old friend. He moved away, but never really left. Last stop was the intersection of Greenwood, Archer and Pine Streets, from where Tulsa’s GAP Band got their name. It was a great day to talk about the music we love, where some of it was made.

About two weeks ago, Roscoe proudly posted the list of Rolling Stone magazine’s “50 Greatest Live Records of All Time,” which ranked The Shit at No. 50. M’man produced one of the 50 greatest live records of all time! Then gave the tape to the band because that’s the kind of fan, the kind of man, he was.

If you can live a life like Ross Shoemaker did, so full of love and enthusiasm, you will have a great one. It will be a real life of ups and downs, deep sorrows and bursts of euphoria. A life that touches many.

“Alex Chilton” is a song about being a fan. I’m playing it for Roscoe now and it’s never sounded sadder. This is gonna take some time.

 

Posted in Austin, Austin-Zeitgeist, Music, Uncategorized | 16 Comments »

Mirth, Sins & Fire: 40 years of throwing my life away

Posted by mcorcoran on April 13, 2017

525 Cummins St. The former home of Sunbums and me.

525 Cummins St. The former home of Sunbums and me.

My mother was diagnosed with cancer my senior year of high school. She died at the end of freshman year of college and I never really went back, for a variety of reasons. But mainly I was using my license to go a little crazy.

In December 1974, an Islands sensation named Aerosmith- who were totally unknown on the Mainland except in Boston- opened for the Guess Who at the HIC Arena. The sold-out venue of 7,500 had about 1,000 left when Guess Who were done. Half the crowd left immediately after Aerosmith. Never seen an opening act blow a headliner off the stage like that, so I decided to write a review and send it in to Sunbums, Honolulu’s counterculture rag.

Photo by P.F. Bentley

Photo by P.F. Bentley

Within days I got a nice letter from the new Sunbums editor Kathryn Hellenbrand, saying that they already had the Aerosmith review covered, but she liked the other piece I had sent in as a sample of my non-musical writing. It was a first-person account of getting my ear lobe needled called “Preparing For Piercehood.” She set up a meeting, and the rest, as they say…

I don’t know what I would’ve done in 1975 without Sunbums. My dad remarried horribly and I was set out into the world. Kathy became my mentor and 525 Cummins Street, in the hideous Kaka’ako neighborhood of Honolulu, became my new home. I was sleeping in the back room of my job at the Ford Island Gym in Pearl Harbor, but if I wasn’t there, I was at Sunbums or reviewing concerts or down on Hotel Street, where the transvestite prostitutes were better looking than the girls.

Better known today as “Shanghai Kate,” Hellenbrand was 31 at the time, living with the tattoo artist Mike Malone, and they had bought Sailor Jerry’s famous tattoo shop at 1033 Smith Street. Having come from New York City, Kate and Mike were streetwise as hell, something I decidedly was not. They took in strays and I was ready to follow anyone. Boy, did I hit the lowlife highlife lottery!

When I arrived on the masthead of Sunbums in January 1975, it was pretty full of rock critics. Or folks pretending to be, so I mainly wrote “humor” pieces at first, but I exhibited a real flair for concert reviews, so after a few months I was the lead guy.

Now, while my mother was alive I had never smoked a joint, never gotten drunk, never shoplifted, never did anything illegal. I even waited until my 18th birthday to go to the porno shops, when there was nobody checking IDs.

But I was on my own at 19, basically orphaned, so I made up for lost time. The first time I got stoned was driving over the Pali Highway with Kate and her prostitute friend/ Sunbums associate editor, going to see Blazing Saddles. The three of us were howling uncontrollably to the point that the usher came to ask us to please keep it down.

I had never purchased drugs until the day of the Earth, Wind & Fire concert I was to review at the Waikiki Shell in June 1975- 40 years ago this week! I split a gram of coke with Kate and she pulled over at McDonald’s and I ran in for some coffee stirrers, which looked like plastic coke spoons back then. Just having drugs in my pocket made me high.

When I got to the Shell that night and went to pick up my ticket, it came with a backstage pass. Since Sunbums was owned by mid-level promoter JFL Concerts, I knew that backstage passes had varying levels of access. One of my jobs at JFL shows, even the ones I reviewed, was as gofer for the VIP area, so I saw how most of the folks sporting those passes couldn’t get in there, with the free booze and nice food spreads. So when I slapped on the sticker at EW&F I didn’t expect much. But I thought I would just keep walking backstage until someone said “that’s far enough,” and to my astonishment I was waved through all the way to the VIP. Now I could do that coke! So I went into the men’s room and found a stall and started dipping in that McDonald’s spoon and, basically, blowing white powder all over the bathroom floor. After a few minutes there was this big rush of people into the bathroom and I could hear the door lock behind them. They were black guys yelling at each other about getting high before the show. They were Earth, Wind & Fire!

Moffatcolumn

They settled their deal in about 10 minutes and after they left, I remember sitting there on the commode with my clothes on thinking “this is the life I want to be part of.” And I’ve never looked back.

Been some lean years. Been an intervention or two. Been times when I wished I’d had a job pounding nails or digging ditches- anything but this writing that won’t come. But I have to say it’s been a great life overall. I’m good at it and it pays the bills.

Anyway, all this came up again like bad Chinese, when I read all those posts from Bonnaroo, where by most accounts Earth, Wind & Fire were the hits of day one. (They’re coming to Austin July 23 on a double bill with Chicago). I found a recent nostalgia column written by Hawaii’s legendary promoter Tom Moffatt (unfortunately named “Uncle Tom’s Gabbin’”) that quoted from my June 1975 Earth Wind & Fire review and there seemed to be some juice in the 40th anniversary. Forty years of throwing my life away, the best way I know how.

Posted in Austin-Zeitgeist, Music, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

SXSW Stories #1: The Russians Ain’t Goin,’ the Russians Ain’t Goin’

Posted by mcorcoran on March 9, 2017

International housing: Marriage, MTV, half-hearted defections and Taco Bell!

Was that Russian band serious about wanting to defect after a SXSW showcase? Or did they just want to stay in Austin for free as long as they could?

It was in the early ‘90s, soon after implementation of SXSW’s international housing program, where bands from overseas are put up in local homes at no cost. The Russians (nobody can remember the name) were matched with someone who gave up their space and privacy for a few days in exchange for a pair of wristbands. So, SXSW ended on Sunday and by about Tuesday the hosts realized the Russians were in no hurry to leave. The distraught couple called SXSW, which sent over a van to pick up the group and take them to a cheap motel near Ben White. The reasoning was that the band would get sick and bored at the fleabag and start heading to Florida, where they could get a flight back to Moscow. “The only problem was that the motel had MTV, which they had never seen before,” says Roland Swenson of SXSW. “They just sat in their room watching MTV all day, happy as shit.”

After SXSW stopped paying for the room, the band would try to hang out all day at SXSW, having announced their intention to defect. But nobody really took them seriously.

The Russians were stranded because they had spent all their money buying a van in Florida that broke down in Austin. When SXSW suggested the band sell their van for bus tickets to Florida, that’s what finally got them on their way. “We heard they were really insulted because (another Russian visitor) told them only the lower class rides buses in the U.S.,” Swenson says. Whatever, it did the trick, as the group got their van fixed and headed out.

There have been far more positive stories about the international housing setup, like when Casis Elementary teacher Celeste Hackney hosted a Danish band and ended up marrying the sound man and moving to Copenhagen. And there’s the time computer engineer Mitch Gottlieb put up a broke, unknown British rock band, then toured Europe with them after the Darkness became huge.

The housing program is not for the picky or deluded. “Two guys are going to have to sleep together, so if you have some macho problem, either get over it or get a hotel room,” reads part of the form e-mail that goes to prospective ocean-crossing lodgers.

The hosts aren’t responsible for food or transportation, but most pick up the bands at the airport, feed them and cart them around town to music stores, thrift shops, barbecue joints and Western wear shops. It’s fun to show off the cool parts of Austin, but sometimes you have to adjust quickly, as one host learned when he tried to take a band from Iceland to his favorite Tex-Mex restaurant. “Taco Bell!” they chanted until he succumbed.

Although the bands are sometimes stars in their home country, they are almost always unknown in the United States. Some bands just don’t get it. “One year a band had sent emissaries to check out the house ahead of time, to make sure the mattresses were firm enough and the place was clean, that sort of stuff,” SXSW international housing director Marilyn Faust recalled in 2006. “The host family was hurt. The manager was saying, ‘Do you know who this band is? They’re big stars,’ and so I said, ‘Then they can afford to stay in a hotel.’ ”

About 90% of the overseas acts at SXSW do just that.

 

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Blind Willie Johnson: Revelations In the Dark

Posted by mcorcoran on January 25, 2017

painting by Olivia Wise

by Michael Corcoran

Bonus chapter of All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music (University of North Texas Press).

When Jack White of the White Stripes announced at Stubb’s Austin in June 2003, “It’s good to be in Texas, the home of Blind Willie Johnson,” you can be sure that few on hand had ever heard of the gospel blues singer/guitarist from Marlin, who pioneered a ferocity that still lives in modern rock.

The first songs Blind Willie recorded, on a single December day in Dallas in 1927, are more familiar. “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” was covered by Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton did “Motherless Children,” Bob Dylan turned Johnson’s “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed” into “In My Time of Dying” on his 1962 debut LP and “If I Had My Way I’d Tear the Building Down” has been appropriated by everyone from the Grateful Dead to the Staple Singers.

Johnson’s haunting masterpiece “Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground),” also recorded in that first session, was chosen by musicologist Alan Lomax for an album placed aboard the Voyager 1 in 1977 on its journey to the ends of the universe. 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 almost as much about Blind Willie Johnson as we do.

Beyond five recording dates from 1927-1930 that yielded 30 tracks—ten each in Dallas, New Orleans, and Atlanta—the rough-voiced singer has remained something of a biographical question mark. Just finding his death certificate corrected such misinformation as his dates of birth (1897, not 1902) and death (1945, not ’49).

But finding witnesses who knew Johnson was about as easy as interviewing folks who lived through World War I. Most were dead or too old to remember. Or, like Sam Faye Kelly, the only child of Blind Willie that we know of, they were too young to realize what was going on six, seven decades ago. “I remember him singing here in the kitchen and reciting from the Bible,” said Kelly, who was 72 when I interviewed her in 2003. Kelly, whose mother Willie B. Harris sang backup on Blind Willie’s later records, was back in Marlin, living in the falling-down house at 817 Hunter St. where she was most likely conceived. She passed away in 2005, without ever receiving a penny for her father’s songs and arrangements on albums that have sold many million copies. It’s almost as if her father didn’t exist.

Folks started looking for Blind Willie Johnson when 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. 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. In just three years, Blind Willie Johnson produced a significant body of work that transports the listener from ancient Africa to modern times. The mystery gives the music more pull.

Just as the Book of Revelation was written on a scroll fastened by seven seals, Blind Willie Johnson’s story was one that begged to be unlocked.

Blind Willie Johnson sculpture by Olivia Wise.

He 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, with Johnson a one-man Holy Trinity on the old “lining out” hymn “Dark Was the Night.” His guitar preached and his inner congregation hummed in response.

There are no words in Blind Willie’s version of “Dark,” but lyrics can be found 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. 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 (which also discovered Washington Phillips), 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 blues superstar Bessie Smith in 1923, he probably wasn’t ready for Blind Willie’s wails and moans in that voice from the depths. But that experience probably helped Walker 20 years later when he auditioned and signed Hank Williams to his MGM recording contract.

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 records 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 Duane Allman. Vocally, you can be sure Patton understudy Chester Burnett took notice of Johnson’s wolflike howl.

And yet by the release of Harry Smith’s gateway drug, Johnson had been known as “the other Blind Willie,” not McTell of “Statesboro Blues” fame. The first to try to expand our knowledge of the gospel blues guitar hero 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 was filled with Johnson’s biography, containing 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 Sept. 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, a block east of the red light district nicknamed “The Reservation.”

It seemed unlikely that this Willie Johnson, blind, was Blind Willie Johnson, who had always been identified with Dallas and the area between Temple and Waco. But we know draft card Willie is our guy because of two pieces of information. Shane Ford, who spent a year on the trail of Johnson for a 2014 book about the search, found a 1935 Temple city directory that lists a “Willie Johnson, musician” living at the same 308 S. Fifth St. address as four other children of the man he said was his father in 1918. There were probably dozens of Willie Johnsons in Texas who were musicians at the time, and probably more than a couple who were blind. But confirmation comes from the 1931 birth certificate of Sam Faye Johnson, found at the Falls County Clerk’s office. Father Willie Johnson, musician, said he was from Temple.

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.

This 1918 draft registration was undoubtedly gospel singer Blind Willie Johnson.

According to Angeline Johnson, Willie became blind at age seven when his stepmother threw lye in his face to avenge a beating from his father. Willie B. Harris told Dallas blues fan Dan Williams that her former husband lost his sight by looking at an eclipse of the sun through a piece of broken glass. Whatever the reason, Johnson’s blindness left him two options for survival: beggar or musician.

Johnson was not the first gospel singer to play slide guitar on record. He was beat to the studio by a year and a half by Pittsburgh preacher Edward W. Clayborn and Delta player Sam “Boll Weevil Jackson” Butler. For blues, you can go back to 1923, when Louisville’s Sylvester Weaver recorded “Guitar Rag” (covered by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys as “Steel Guitar Rag” in 1936) 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 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 blind 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/ 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, apart, these two black, blind icons from Central Texas led the way in the country blues guitar field (religion optional). They taught, through example, Rev. Gary B. Davis and Mance Lipscomb, who each brought songs from the BWJ canon to the ‘60s folk revival.

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. Besides Jefferson and Johnson came Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas (Big Sandy), Texas Alexander (Jewett), Lillian Glinn (Hillsboro), Lightnin’ Hopkins (Centerville), Frankie Lee Sims (Marshall) and Mance Lipscomb (Navasota), as did gospel acts the Soul Stirrers (Trinity), Pilgrim Tavelers (Cleveland), 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. His mentor Blind (Madkin) Butler of Hearne taught Willie “God Moves On the Water,” according to Mack McCormick, but it was the younger man who took it someplace out of this world.

We know he was wed to a woman named Mary Brown in San Antonio in 1932. A blurb in the Shiner News has Johnson playing the New Jerusalem Baptist Colored Church in Oct. 28, 1933 noting that there would be “reserved seats for white people.” He played the Hippodrome in NYC in 1938 according to a review. But there are few other traces left behind after his final recording session in April 1930.

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 “malarial fever” cause of death seemed strange for East Texas and led many to believe Angeline Johnson’s pneumonia story. But before penicillin became available to the public in the late ’40s, doctors sometimes treated degenerative syphilis with injections of malaria. The high body temperatures could sometimes kill the syphilis bacteria, but the downside was that many—as high as 25 percent—of those treated died from malarial fever.

This many years later, the cause of death is unimportant. What he did with a guitar and a blessed bellow is all that matters. The music’s so supercharged with self-expression that the truth is right there for all to hear.

That’s why Alan Lomax chose “Dark Was the Night” to represent the human spirit on 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 that record ever be played, beings billions and billions of miles away will know that the people of Earth are a spiritual people, that we hurt and we heal. They’ll know we have souls that live long after we’re buried.

 

Posted in Gospel, Music, Texas Music History | Leave a Comment »

Infamous rave review of the 3rd Oasis LP

Posted by mcorcoran on January 7, 2017

OASIS – `BE HERE NOW’ (Epic) * * * *

beherenow

Even when they were so unknown that they had to feud with Blur to get noticed, Manchester, England, band OASIS — led by a pair of uncouth party yobs named Gallagher — laid claim to the title of the best band on the planet. On their third album, “Be Here Now,” which hits stores today like a ton of neon molasses, the reasons why that’s a true boast have become clearer.

Quite simply, Liam Gallagher is an exceptionally instinctive and attractive singer with the power to, as Graham Parker once sang, “turn a cliche into a sensation.” Witness his treatment of “All Around the World,” with its feel-good lyrics and “Hey Jude”-like chorus, and you can also say he has the ability to turn a Coke commercial into a stirring anthem.

Meanwhile, older brother Noel Gallagher, the band’s songwriter and lead guitarist, is an awesome creature of melody with a supersonic guitar drive that, in conjunction with Paul Arthurs’ sheets of six-string rhythm and Paul McGuigan’s brazen bass lines, gives this pop band its edge. The songs have gotten a little slower and longer, with a more textured sound, but that doesn’t make them any less searing and exuberant.

Although there’s not much here that matches the melodic jolt of the band’s 1994 debut “Definitely Maybe” (“Columbia,” “Bring It on Down,” “Live Forever”) or “Some Might Say” and the title track of their second album “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory,” there’s also nothing as instantly skippable as “Shakermaker,” “Up in the Sky” or “She’s Electric” from the first two albums. “Be Here Now” is a pleasure-packed journey from the first cut to the last (not counting the pretentious string-laden outro).

Consistency is not a word you’d expect of a band whose songwriter seemingly loves his every burp, and in a way consistency also implies the backhanded compliment “maturity.” “Be Here Now” finds Oasis in a more satisfied mood befitting the Gallagher Brothers’ new marital states (24-year-old Liam to actress Patsy Kensit, 30-year-old Noel to longtime girlfriend Meg Matthews). To extend the Fab Four comparisons Oasis seems to thrive on — as evidenced by their use of Beatle titles in song lyrics (the latest: “Down the long and winding road … back home to you” from “My Big Mouth”) — this album is their “Rubber Soul.”

Lyrically, Noel sometimes sports a naive vision of brighter, better days ahead and leans toward the obvious (“Stand By Me,” “Don’t Go Away,” the “Get on the roller coaster/ The fair’s in town tonight” intro to “Fade In-Out”), but he writes melody lines that can elevate the simple sentiments into grandiose statements. Hearing Liam wrap himself around the stunningly gorgeous “Don’t Go Away,” for instance, is to erase every other song that has said the same thing. Then when the singer teeters between a whine and a wail on “My Big Mouth,” the album’s lone hard rocker, he gives it some much needed bite. And how’s this for a slice of autobiography: “Into my big mouth you could fly a plane/ Who’ll put on my shoes while they’re walking/ Slowly down the hall of fame?”

Besides being one of the most beloved of the newer bands, selling more than 4 million copies of “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory,” Oasis is also one of the most loathed. Their brash, beer-spilling attitude, mixed with the omnipresence of last year’s lighter-than-air hit “Wonderwall,” have made them the band that people love to hate. But Oasis generally gets tremendous respect from longtime rockhounds and people in the music industry. Plus, they receive the Johnny Depp seal of hip approval, as the music-crazed actor adds slide guitar to Fade In-Out.”

If you’ve been listening to rock music daily for decades or for only the past few years, you should be able to hear something special about Oasis. It’s pure pop music in the Beatles tradition, but it’s rougher and harder to reflect the changing times. The music of Oasis is as direct as a string of “yeah, yeah, yeahs,” but it’s also dense and evasive. It goes through walls, even with the front door open. It swaggers and it staggers, right back to loving arms.

Oasis is the last great true rock ‘n’ roll band (opposed to those grand bores like Smashing Pumpkins and U2), and their indelible link to the first great rock ‘n’ roll band symbolizes a full circle in the band era. After the Beatles caused hysteria in 1964, thousands and maybe millions of kids went on to start four-piece guitar bands, and the public developed an affinity for these musical teams through the ’90s. When Don Henley or Glenn Frey have released solo albums in recent years, for instance, these albums practically go straight to the cut-out bin. But when Henley and Frey call up fellow wash-ups Joe Walsh, Don Felder and Timothy B. Schmitt and call themselves the Eagles, they’re soon topping the charts and grossing millions per concert. Fans love bands.

If you watch MTV or listen to modern rock radio, however, doesn’t it seem easier to slip into Beavis and Butt-head-like mocking as bands have become increasingly vain and silly, while feigning aggression in their Fabian Cobain compositions? The current crop of rock bands has been sprayed by the pesticide of cynicism, selling their souls for one big hit as some twisted new sort of careerism. It’s no wonder that most of the hipper kids these days would rather listen to the electronic apocalypse harkened by the likes of Prodigy and Chemical Brothers.

Fifteen years ago, the same teen-agers looking for something harder, faster would discover Metallica or Anthrax. Nowadays, they’re cranking up studio nerds who can’t play “Louie Louie” on the guitar. It’s getting to be more about the sound than the process, and the idea of lovable lunkheads piling into a van and heading out to play music in the rock-in-a-box clubs of America is starting to seem ludicrous. One wonders how long before rock musicians are held in the low regard we now reserve for mimes.

Right here, right now, Oasis makes 95 percent of the other modern rock music being made sound like well-produced pablum. They’ve exposed all the tough poseurs by being real jerks, and they’ve brought personality, no matter how abrasive, back to a rock arena overrun with shave-headed politicians and leather-clad hawkers of sugar water. In the midst of so much personal chaos and turmoil, the brothers Gallagher have found order in their art and in turn have widened the gap between the fabulously mediocre and the truly gifted.

Oasis is a musical wolverine, eating as much as it can from a fresh kill. When they’re full and are ready to hang it up, they’ll urinate on the rest of the meat so no one else can eat it.

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Frank Murray (1950- 2016): the Dublin-Austin Connection

Posted by mcorcoran on January 2, 2017

Frank Murray, in white shirt, behind the Continental Club, SXSW 2007.

Frank Murray, in white shirt, behind the Continental Club with the Mighty Stef and others. SXSW 2007.

Pogues fans on this side of the Pond are often unaware that the Celtic roots/punk band was from England, not Ireland. But when Dubliner Frank Murray became their manager and got them signed to Stiff Records in 1984, they were held in the embrace of Irish music royalty. Murray worked with traditional Irish acts such as the Dubliners and Ewan McColl’s daughter Kirsty, and teamed them with the Pogues to create two of the band’s most memorable numbers: “The Irish Rover” and “Fairytale of New York.”

Murray’s best friend since teen years was Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy, and Frank began his remarkable music business career in the late ‘60s humping amps and driving vans for Lizzy predecessor Skid Row. When Thin Lizzy became Dublin’s first internationally-known rock band with Jailbreak (and smash hit “The Boys Are Back In Town”) in 1976, frank3Murray had a taste of the big time and wanted more. But he was not driven by the money and fame, though neither would be turned down. His fulfillment came from enabling his charges to reach the masses through their art. Frank Murray was the Great Connector.

“Frank loved good music,” one of his later clients, Stefan “the Mighty Stef” Murphy posted on Facebook after word spread Dec. 22 that Murray was dead of a heart attack at age 66.  “Being cool wasn’t enough. it had to be good.”

Cait O’Riordan, who left the Pogues in ’87 when she married Elvis Costello, posted on Twitter: “Please light a candle, say a little prayer for Frank Murray who left us today. RIP that wicked gleam in his eye, that kind heart.”

When not on the road with Lizzy in the ’70s, the level-headed Murray road-managed tours for Elton John and the Commodores. When ska/punk broke big, he handled the infamous 1979 2-Tone Tour and managed the very best band on it- the Specials. That all prepared him for his six years with the hard-drinking, hard-living Pogues, who would seem to have been the hardest band to handle, though Frank said UB40 was worse!

“Nobody I ever worked with was as charismatic, as knowledgeable or as truthful as Frank Murray,” wrote Murphy.  “God knows who I turn to now in moments of doubt.”

After he quit managing the Pogues in 1990, he took on the Frames, whose guitarist Glen Hansard soon got a role in The Commitments. Murray was a fixture on the Dublin film scene, co-founding the Maverick Film Festival, and helping former Frames bassist John Carney attain funds to make the 2007 film Once, which made Hansard a star.

Managing the Mighty Stef brought Frank to Austin in 2007, when he met Kay Gourley, a lifelong Austinite who showed him around town and eventually became his girlfriend. I had met Frank in 1988 when I was supposed to write a tour diary of the Pogues in the South (don’t bother Googling that story- I lasted only two nights). It was great to reconnect 20 years later and to get to

Frank, Kay and Frank's son Dara outside Ginny's

Frank, Kay and Frank’s son Dara outside Ginny’s

really know Frank Murray as a man deeply involved in the arts- film, painting, music, theater, dance, poetry. He was a facilitator of the first order. That was his great gift. The last time I had coffee with Frank- always at the Spiderhouse- he talked about ideas on how to better strengthen the musical bond between Ireland and Texas. I could name a Texas song, like “Streets of Laredo” and “The Old Chisholm Trail” and Frank could sing the Scotch-Irish song those tunes reworded.

Also, he was so proud of his children Shannon, Emmet, Darragh, Aran and Kay’s 16-year-old son Seamus, who Frank called his fifth.

“Frank was someone that I was friends with the second I met him,” said Joe Ely, speaking for multitudes. “He loved the Austin scene because it reminded him of Dublin, with all the little clubs and out-of-the-way places.”

Ely met Murray in the mid-‘80s while on tour in London. “He showed up with Shane MacGowan, who stayed backstage when we were onstage,” Ely recalled. “When the show was over, we found out he drank all the booze on the rider.”

After the Clash broke up, Murray helped get Ely’s good friend Joe Strummer back in the game with his new band the Mescaleros.

“It really does feel like the end of something,” Spider Stacy of the Pogues told Billboard. “He was brilliant. I loved him dearly.” Stacy and Murray reunited this past year when the New Orleans-based Stacy played the Continental Club with the Lost Bayou Ramblers.

“I had just seen Frank in Austin in July,” Ely said. “He was in great spirits and looked great. It was a real shock (Murray’s passing). I just sat down and cried.”

Posted Murphy: “Hope there is good music wherever you are Frank. I’ll keep singing my song and trying to make you proud.”

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Sister Bobbie Nelson’s Amazing Grace

Posted by mcorcoran on December 27, 2016

bobbiewillieShe had done whatever it took to raise three sons alone after their father died in an automobile accident in 1961. She demonstrated organs for Hammond, taught at J.R. Reed Music on Congress Avenue in Austin and at night played elegant solo piano at local lounges and restaurants.

But what Bobbie Nelson really hungered for, especially after her boys had grown up and moved out by the early 1970s, was to play again with her brother Willie. The pair had forged an undeniable musical bond since she was six and Willie was four and their grandparents showed them the chords to “The Great Speckled Bird.”

Then one day in early 1973, Bobbie got a call from Willie, summoning her to New York to play piano on his gospel album The Troublemaker. Willie had just signed a deal with Atlantic Records that gave him the creative control, including choice of session players, that had been denied him in Nashville.

So at age 42, empty-nester Bobbie Nelson took her very first airplane flight and embarked on a glorious musical journey that is still en route. Willie and “Sister Bobbie,” as she’s known in the extended Nelson family, have been musical partners since 1937 and continuously since ’73.

“There’s just no way to explain how lucky I am to have a good musician in the family,” Willie Nelson said in 2007 from the tour bus he shares with his sister. “Whenever I’ve needed a piano player, she’s been right there. Whenever our band plays, Sister Bobbie is the best musician on the stage.”

bobbie-and-willieWhile Brother Willie has become a major music icon, as instantly recognizable as anyone on the planet, Sister Bobbie has happily remained in the shadow, except for the one spotlight turn — usually “Down Yonder” from Red Headed Stranger — she gets at each Willie Nelson and the Family concert. “I’ve always been very shy,” said Bobbie. “I sang a little when we were kids, mostly in church. But Willie had such a beautiful voice. I’d always tell him, ‘you sing, Willie, and I’ll play the piano.’”

In 2007, Bobbie stepped out of the background with her first solo album, Audiobiography, and scheduled some rare interviews to promote it. “I’ve always expressed myself best through music,” she said at the Pedernales recording studio owned by her son Freddy Fletcher. She’s softspoken and gracious.

“The first time I ever played the piano, I thought, “I’ll never be lonely again,” she said, going back to 1937. In 2016- wow, that’s a lot of years in between- she and her brother played in front of 50,000 people at Austin City Limits Music Festival at Zilker Park. On the first day of 2017, she turned 85. Bobbie beams- with that electric smile of her brother- when she talks about the joy that music has brought into her life.

Not that there weren’t painfully trying times for the devout Christian. She lost two of her three sons, Michael to leukemia and Randy in a car crash, in a six-month period in 1989. “Me and my three boys grew up together, and we had so much fun … and then to lose two of your three babies, well, it’s something you never get over,” Bobbie said. “It taught me to never take life for granted.”

On their tour bus, Bobbie slides a keyboard from the bottom of an adjoining bunk and Willie pulls out a guitar whenever inspiration hits. Even after two and a half hours on stage, the brother and sister, whose combined ages hit 160 in 2012, will often play gospel standards or work out new songs on the Honeysuckle Rose IV bus as it hurtles through the deep darkness between gigs.

Bobbie Lee, born on the first day of 1931, and Willie Hugh, born April 30, 1933, were children of the Depression. Their biological parents were a pair of married teenagers who had recently moved from Arkansas to Abbott, a farming community about 70 miles south of Dallas. But Bobbie and Willie were raised by their paternal grandparents, whom they called Mama and Daddy.

Bobbie and Willie. Abbott High circa 1948.

Bobbie and Willie. Abbott High circa 1948.

“Daddy Nelson was the sweetest person I’ve ever known,” Bobbie said. “He had the most gorgeous tenor voice.” A proficient player of stringed instruments, Daddy Nelson taught four-year-old Willie how to play guitar, while Mama Nelson, who lived to be in her 90s, showed six-year-old Bobbie how to play piano. “It was just so amazing to us that I could play one part and Willie could play another and together we had a song. We’d look at each other and our eyes would light up.”

After Daddy Nelson died when Willie was seven and Bobbie was nine, the brother and sister took to tunes, both spiritual and secular, to soothe their sorrow. “Playing music made us realize that there was something bigger out there, something more than human life,” she said.

They played together for hours every day, and on Sundays they played and sang at the Abbott Methodist Church (which Willie bought in July 2006 when he heard prospective buyers had planned to move it to another town). Bobbie, who could read music, also played at other churches in the area. When she was 16, she met 21-year-old ex-GI Bud Fletcher at a revival at Vaughn Methodist Church, near Hillsboro. The couple married a few months later, while Bobbie was a senior at Abbott High. “I’d kiss my husband goodbye every morning then get on the school bus,” she recalled.

Seeing so much talent in his new bride and the brother she called “Hughtie,” Fletcher organized a Western swing dance band around them — Bud Fletcher and the Texans. A non-musician in the beginning, Fletcher took on the role of emcee, adding a Bob Willsian “Ah-HA” to hot solos, introducing band members and pumping up the crowd. He eventually learned to play bass fiddle and then the drums.

“Bud was one of those outgoing guys who could talk to anyone,” Bobbie said. “And he was a fabulous dancer.”

Bobbie became pregnant with Randy when she was 19; by age 23 she had three sons and was still playing in her husband’s band. But too many nights in a roadhouse were wearing Fletcher down. “Bud was a great person and we loved each other very much, but he was having a rough time,” she said. “That’s why, to this day, I hate alcohol. I’m so glad Willie doesn’t drink anymore.”

The young parents of three small boys also had very little money. In 1955, Bud’s parents went to court to get custody of Randy, Michael, and Freddy and won. “Bud’s father was the road commissioner of Hill County and had a lot of influence,” Bobbie said. “They tried to portray me as unfit because I played honky-tonk piano. It just broke my heart.” Bobbie said she had a nervous breakdown after losing her children.

“The Fletchers hated the Nelsons,” said Freddy Fletcher. “They looked down on musicians and blamed my mother for getting my father involved, when in reality it was his idea to start a band.”

After she gave up the nightlife, took bookkeeping courses, and got a job with the Hammond organ company in Fort Worth, Bobbie got her sons back after a year with their grandparents. She later divorced Fletcher and remarried, but that union ended in divorce after a few years, as did her third and final marriage in the late 1960s.

While Bobbie’s life revolved around her three sons, Willie had hit the jackpot as a Nashville songwriter. In 1961, three of his compositions were big country hits: “Hello Walls” by Faron Young, “Crazy” by Patsy Cline, and “Funny How Time Slips Away” by Billy Walker.

“I was just so proud of him,” Bobbie said. “People got tired of hearing me say ‘my brother Willie wrote that one’ whenever one of his songs came on the radio.”

bobbynelsonorgan-e1354483879769It was Bobbie, not Willie, who moved to Austin first. She came down from Fort Worth in 1965 to demonstrate a Hammond organ for the El Chico restaurant set to open at the spanking new Hancock Center. Impressed by her interpretations of such standards as “Stardust” and “Laura,” as well as her boogie-woogie and swing numbers, the owners offered Bobbie a job playing nightly. She later opened the Chariot Inn in North Austin and played regularly at the Lakeway Inn.

“When Willie called me to come to New York, I was ready,” Bobbie said. “I was always playing the piano, using music to survive, so I never got rusty.”

Although Willie and producer Arif Mardin had blocked out five days at Atlantic studio, Bobbie would be needed only the first day, when The Troublemaker was knocked out in ten hours. The next day, Willie was back with his band to record what would become Shotgun Willie. Bobbie had planned to do some shopping in the big city and then head home to Austin. “They must’ve missed me,” Bobbie said, “because when I stopped by the studio the next day, to say goodbye, Willie asked me to stick around and play the piano some more.” Willie’s records for Atlantic, including the now-classic Phases and Stages, didn’t sell, but they set up his breakthrough with Red-Headed Stranger on Columbia in 1975.

Willie said there’s an instinctive connection between him and his sister that he doesn’t feel with any other musician. “She knows what I’m going to do even before I do sometimes,” he said. Instinctive musical communication is big with him.

In 1976, Willie bought Bobbie an $85,000 Bösendorfer grand piano like the one she played on the Red Headed Stranger sessions in Garland. But when IRS agents seized Willie’s property in 1990 to help satisfy a $16.7 million tax lien, Bobbie’s piano was among the Pedernales studio contents auctioned off.

Friends of the Nelsons bought the Bösendorfer and gave it back to Bobbie. It’s the piano she plays so exquisitely on Audiobiography and all of Willie’s records.

The brother and sister have never had an argument, Bobbie said, even after she was awakened by police in Louisiana in September 2006 and charged, with Willie and three others, with possession of a pound and a half of marijuana and three ounces of psychedelic mushrooms. The prim and proper churchgoer doesn’t use drugs, but since they were found on the bus she was traveling in, Bobbie was cited with the others. “All I knew was that if Willie was going to jail, they’d have to take me to jail, too,” she said. But Willie and company were issued only misdemeanor citations and sent on their way.

In the mid-’70s, when Stranger hit and the parties and groupies got crazy, Bobbie didn’t ride with Willie and the band, but flew to gigs and stayed in hotels. But she’s traveled on the bus with Willie since 1983 and has learned to tolerate the ever-present illegal perfume.

Photo by Todd V. Wolfson, 2007.

Photo by Todd V. Wolfson, 2007.

“I think he smokes [marijuana] too much,” Bobbie said, “but that’s just because I’m worried about his health.” At Randalls Island in 2007, Bobbie suggested moving the interview from the back of the bus when Neil Young and all his rowdy friends came on board to do what you’re supposed to do on Willie’s bus.

“Sometimes I need a break,” she said, as Willie’s assistant David Anderson led us to an empty trailer about 50 yards away. Bobbie had heart surgery in 2007 and uses a pacemaker, but she has almost never missed a Family show since 1973. Playing with Willie, she said, “is the most wonderful therapy in the world. We are just so blessed to be still doing what we’re doing after all these years.” Bobbie said that sometimes when she’s away from her brother and his guitar Trigger for more than a couple weeks, she gets a cold and feels worn down.

In a small Texas town in the 1930s, a six-year-old girl and her four-year-old brother learned the power and magic of making music together. Nearly 80 years later, Bobbie Lee and Willie Hugh are still at it.

This is a chapter from All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music by Michael Corcoran.

Posted in Music, Texas Music History, Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

Souls On Fire: Gram and Emmy

Posted by mcorcoran on December 9, 2016

rs-168991-85217466His father committed suicide when he was 12. His mother drank herself to death on the day he graduated from high school. A trust fund junkie, Gram Parsons was doomed. He drank too much, stuck needles in his arms and seemed to be just passing through this life. His death at age 26 was shockingly young, but it did not seem too much before his time to those who knew a man who lived – and sang – as if he were prepared to die.

But before he succumbed to a morphine overdose in a motel in the California desert, the creatively restless Parsons packed in a lot of amazing music and spawned the country-rock genre at a time when the Eagles were just a football team out of Philadelphia and Linda Ronstadt was singing Peter, Paul and Mary songs.

You can argue over who created reggae or who was the first punk band or whether Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole pioneered the concept album, but there’s no question that Parsons was the first to play Nashville country music with a rock ‘n’ roll attitude. He wore the sequined Nudie suits favored by the classic country singers, but Parsons had his decorated with marijuana leaves, pills and naked women where the glittery cacti, wagon wheels and lariats usually went. He was the original cosmic cowboy, recording songs by Merle Haggard and George Jones with the International Submarine Band way back in 1966.emmylou1

Parsons, whose short time with the Byrds produced the classic “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” in 1968 and who formed the Flying Burrito Brothers the same year, has sold many more albums in death than in life. The latest reissue (2006), is a three-disc box set of “The Complete Reprise Sessions” ($34.98), which combines Parsons’ two solo albums, 1972’s “G.P.” and his masterpiece, 1973’s “Grievous Angel,” with a disc of alternate takes.

Despite all the tumult in his personal life, Parsons managed to find enough pockets of clarity to make a pair of albums that tap into the full range of emotions, from the mournful “In My Hour of Darkness” and “A Song for You” to the flat-out exuberant “Cash on the Barrelhead” and “Big Mouth Blues.”

As chronicled in the 2004 Parsons documentary “Fallen Angel,” the troubled troubadour found an angel to pull him through the recordings. The new old set could be called “The Emmylou Harris Sessions.” After Parsons was kicked out of the Flying Burrito Brothers because he chose hanging out with Keith Richards over touring with the Burritos, he got a solo deal with Reprise and set out to look for “a chick singer” to soften his nasally lead vocals. He found her in a club in the Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Georgetown – a shy, pretty songbird who would be the Tammy to his George.emmygram

If Harris, who had a live-in boyfriend, and the married Parsons ever had a fling, Harris is not saying, and she’s the only one who knows for sure. But they certainly made love with their harmonies, with the cashmere-smooth Harris caressing Parsons’ stark leads. Their “Love Hurts” is not as seamless and luxurious as the original version, but the Everly Brothers didn’t sound like they were looking into each other’s eyes when they sang it.

If only love could be so natural, so forgiving, so consistently magical. There was just so much musical chemistry between these two, who were sitting together on a motorcycle on the original cover of “Grievous Angel,” until Parsons’ jealous wife nixed it after his death.

But Harris remains tireless as the ambassador for Parsons’ legacy. This model of integrity and grace has not only kept alive such Parsons compositions as “Luxury Liner,” “Ooh Las Vegas” and “Still Feeling Blue,” but she cherishes that bit of soul Parsons left with her. Parsons and Harris were, and still are, an incredible love story.

“I never knew what kind of music was inside me,” Harris once told a reporter, “until I met him.”

Such musicians as Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy from Uncle Tupelo and Ryan Adams could say the same thing, although they met him only through his records. Parsons is also the spiritual sponsor to Steve Earle, Joe Ely, Rodney Crowell and many more singer-songwriters who believe that you separate laundry, not country, folk and rock. Even the Rolling Stones owe a debt to Parsons, who showed them the way to “Dead Flowers” and “Country Honk” and “Sweet Virginia.” And if not for his versions of Parsons’ “Hot Burrito No. 1” and “How Much I Lied,” Elvis Costello’s 1981 country foray “Almost Blue” would’ve been a bust.

Elvis Presley was Parsons’ main musical idol, so it was a thrill for him to make his last two albums with the King’s final backing band – including guitarist James Burton, piano player Glen D. Hardin, bassist Emory Gordy and drummer Ronnie Tutt. Careerwise, Parsons was on an upswing when he and a few friends went on a vacation near Joshua Tree National Park in California, after completing “Grievous Angel.” But drugs and alcohol got the best of him at the Joshua Tree Inn on Sept. 19, 1973.gramemmy2

His body was supposed to be flown to New Orleans, where his stepfather Bob Parsons lived. But Gram Parsons’ friend Phil Kaufman (a former cellmate of Charles Manson) persuaded airport handlers to give him the coffin for transport on a private flight. Kaufman instead drove the body back to Joshua Tree, poured five gallons of gas on it and lit a match, later saying that it had been Parsons’ wish to be cremated in the desert.

Kaufman, who was arrested for stealing the casket (but not the body), didn’t know what he was doing and the remains ended up just being badly charred. The morbid act may titillate casual observers, but it cheapens the legend for fans. When you listen to the records Parsons and Harris made together, you don’t think of a burning body, but souls on fire. The music is so alive.

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Reviews for “Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams”

Posted by mcorcoran on December 4, 2016

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New York Review of Books calls Manzarene Dreams “the authoritative new edition of Phillips’s music.”

Creative Loafing (Atlanta): This was the cover story by Chad Radford.“When Phillips died, a secret history of pre-war gospel blues was born; a mystery shrouded in speculation and mistaken identity. But through the legwork and dedication of semi-retired Texas music journalist Michael Corcoran and Atlanta’s Dust-to-Digital archival record label, nearly 90 years after his final recordings were made, Phillips’ story can be told.

CNN’s religion editor Daniel Burke on “Gospel Music’s Greatest Disappearing Act.”   “He was a Main Street mystic, one of those ageless figures who haunt small-town America like real-life Boo Radleys…  In the few photos of Phillips, he looks stern and a little sad, as if disappointed by our downward drift into sin. The people of Simsboro thought he would never die.”

TEXAS MONTHLY REVIEW

Texas Monthly review by Michael Hall

Michael Hoinski of Texas Monthly previewed the booksigning event in Teague on Jan. 28. He also included Arizona Dranes and Blind Willie Johnson in the Holy Trinity of 1920’s Texas gospel pioneers I’ve been researching for years.

Roots World’s Bruce Miller: “A stunning set that collects lore, scraps, and stories to paint the most complete picture we’re likely to get of the man responsible for music as striking as it is welcoming.”

Spectrum Culture magazine : “Through firsthand research and interviews, Corcoran presents for the first time a fully realized picture of one of pre-war music’s more mysterious figures. Featuring interviews with those who knew Phillips, along copies of an evidentiary paper trail that helped disprove a number of the previously held inaccuracies surrounding his life and work and a wealth of new information, Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams stands as the definitive statement on the man and his music.”

Radio New Zealand interview with Trevor Pagan. “Washington Phillips: Founding Father of American Gospel Music.”

D Magazine gets it. Dallas has an amazing history of recordings. Though I don’t think Blind Lemon Jefferson ever recorded in Dallas.

The Wire magazine:

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Pitchfork (8.5 rating): “Best New Reissue.” No other gospel musician has come as close to convincing me that Jesus’ love might not stress me out.

Amanda Petrusich in the New Yorker led the charge.

Wash Phillips circa 1950.

Wash Phillips circa 1950.

Here’s a review from Dusted magazine.

Black Grooves says: “This deep dive into Phillips’ gospel blues has unearthed gems that are sure to make more converts of artists and fans alike.”

Fretboard Journal has a podcast interview with the author and says of “Manzarene” book/CD “We can’t recommend it enough.”

The Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger raves.

Here’s a second review from The Wire:

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