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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 »

The House That Freddie King Built

Posted by mcorcoran on December 28, 2016

Photo by Scott Newton

Photo by Scott Newton

Sorry, the chapter on Freddie King in the upcoming book All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music was posted only one day, the 40th anniversary of Freddie’s death. The book, which features 41 other chapters on Texas music pioneers, will be in stores and online in late April via the University of North Texas Press.

Posted in Texas Music History | 2 Comments »

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 »

Townes Van Zandt: Poet.

Posted by mcorcoran on December 24, 2016

Photo by Ken Hoge

His young daughter, Katie Belle, came running in and said, “Daddy’s having a fight with his heart.” It wasn’t the first time, but this one was physical and cost Townes Van Zandt his life. The singer-songwriter, whose dark and illuminating lyrics walked with a self-destructive limp, died of a heart attack Jan. 1, 1997, at his home near Nashville.

The writer of such country hits as “Pancho and Lefty” (Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson) and “If I Needed You” (Emmylou Harris and Don Williams) was 52.

It wasn’t the infrequent radio songs, however, but a penetrating body of work that gave Van Zandt the reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter. Such early Van Zandt albums as 1968’s For the Sake of the Song and 1969’s Our Mother the Mountain inspired such Texas songsmiths as Guy Clark, Steve Earle, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Nanci Griffith, Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovett, and Lucinda Williams to go deeper. Van Zandt’s rhythm with nature gave his music a Native American feel, while his simple, sturdy melodies sang of a primitive sophistication. Above all, he was a poet.

Earle took his worship of Van Zandt public, allowing his assessment that “Townes Van Zandt is the best damn songwriter in the world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that’” to be stickered on the cover of Van Zandt’s 1987 LP At My Window. (It’s a quote that’s been paraphrased ad nauseum.) Naming his son Justin Townes after his mentor in 1982 almost guaranteed that Earle had fathered a songwriter.

And yet, Van Zandt’s oldest boy J.T. took to other pursuits, building boats and fly fishing, because he had seen what the life of a troubadour had done to his family.

The Fort Worth-raised, Houston-honed Van Zandt was a long, desolate stretch of highway. He was always on the road, even at home. Singing along to his songs would be like making love while a TV documentary on Hiroshima flickered in the background. Instead you drank along, as Van Zandt traipsed the gutter between life and death. He wrote of his own experiences — including alcoholism, depression, and the drifting life — in a way that almost made sadness seem like a sacrament.

He was too smart, too original, too honest to be anything but a cult hero. “I remember him saying to me that he was afraid people were only going to know who he was after he was dead,” Gilmore said on the day Townes died. Ironically, it was the same date as when Hank Williams was pronounced dead on New Year’s Day 44 years earlier.

New York Times writer Robert Palmer drew out the parallels between Townes and Hank in a June 7, 1987, article. “Both men live in their music, as if singing and writing and being human were the same thing and as natural as breathing,” Palmer wrote. He described the music of both Williams and Van Zandt as “the direct, untrammeled expression of a man’s soul.”

Photo by Scott Newton circa 1973.

Photo by Scott Newton

A common trait between the two songwriting beacons of different eras was an affinity for alcohol and drugs. Van Zandt’s battle with the bottle was ongoing, as he slipped in and out of sobriety — sometimes during the break between sets. But even as he slurred his words, Van Zandt was capable of compelling musical performances, with such richly down-and-out songs as “Marie,” “No Place to Fall,” and “Tecumseh Valley,” appropriately darkened by Van Zandt’s state. He shared a lot of himself onstage, and when he stepped off, the songwriting community was there to share what they could with him, whether it be a bed or a snort.

“The songs were always there,” said Griff Luneberg, manager of the Cactus Cafe, which hosted countless Van Zandt concerts. “No matter what shape Townes was in, he had the songs, and that’s what people came to hear.” Luneberg recalls Van Zandt’s final Austin show, at the Cactus on Oct. 12, 1996, as “pure magic.”

Although his career was on an upswing, as a newer generation of singer-songwriters, especially in Europe, acknowledged their debt, Van Zandt’s health had been unstable in his final years. At the time of his death, he was at home in the Nashville suburb of Smyrna recuperating from hip surgery. But his drinking was the cause for most concern.

“I had expected a call about Townes for years,” Jerry Jeff Walker said. “Today I got that call. It’s still very sad when it comes.” In 1972, Van Zandt called his album The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt (which contains his two biggest hits, “Pancho and Lefty” and “If I Needed You”) as preparation for the inevitable.

He was born John Townes Van Zandt in Fort Worth on March 7, 1944, to a prominent Texas family. His great-great grandfather Isaac Van Zandt, a former legislator with Sam Houston, is the namesake of Van Zandt County. His great grandfather on his mother’s side, John Townes Sr., founded the University of Texas Law School. Townes’s father, Harris, was a successful attorney who moved his young family from Houston to Fort Worth in 1941 and then to Midland in 1952, to handle his firm’s oil company clients.

Elvis Presley’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, had profound effect on a 12-year-old Townes, who pled for a guitar. His father held off a few months until he heard a country song by Bobby Helms that he liked. The deal was that Townes could have a guitar if he learned to play “Fraulein,” which he did and kept the song in his repertoire through the years. Though the young Van Zandt’s earliest musical heroes were Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ricky Nelson, and the Everly Brothers, he soon became under the spell of Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell, whom he heard on the radio when driving with his father to oilfields in West Texas.

The family relocated again, in 1958, to Boulder, Colorado, but Townes was shipped off to military prep school in Minnesota, where he rebelled with folk singing and glue-sniffing. Still, with his superior intelligence, Van Zandt graduated near the top of his class. But college, at the University of Colorado, was a wash-out, as Townes started drinking as soon as he woke up. He also discovered a new songwriting hero in Bob Dylan and learned to play “One Too Many Mornings” and “In My Time of Dying.”

According to A Deeper Blue: The Life and Music of Townes Van Zandt by Robert Earl Hardy, Van Zandt struggled at college by trying to balance what his family expected and what he wanted, which was to be a fulltime songwriter. A self-sufficient one. His family had given him a car, but he chose to hitchike across the country. When his family discovered that he had dropped out of college without telling them, they flew from Houston and just showed up at Townes’s apartment in Boulder, where they found him passed out after a night of hard-partying. They took Townes, who had just turned 20, back to Houston and had him admitted for psychiatric evaluation.

The report concluded that Van Zandt had an “obsessive-compulsive schizoid character with strong paranoid trends.” Electroshock and insulin coma therapy were prescribed to stem the onset of psychosis and Van Zandt underwent 40 treatments from April – June 1964, according to No Deeper Blue. Van Zandt said the procedure erased all his childhood memories. But his college credits transferred, to the University of Houston, where, to appease his parents, Van Zandt enrolled in the pre-law program in Jan. ’65. Van Zandt married his college girlfriend Fran on Aug. 25, 1965, the day before the marriage deferment for the draft would no longer apply to newlyweds. This was not a coincidence.

By that time, Van Zandt switched majors to folksinging after discovering the Jester Lounge on Westheimer Boulevard. He befriended another Jester hopeful, Guy Clark, and became greatly influenced by the blues musicians Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, and Josh White, who played the same circuit under the auspices of the Houston Folklore Society, organized by John A. Lomax Jr.

“There are only two types of music,” Van Zandt used to say, “the blues and ‘zip-a-dee-doo-dah.’” (Another quote trampled to death.)

Van Zandt wrote his first great songs inside the walk-in closet of the apartment he shared with Fran. “He would shut the door and stay in there for hours,” she told Hardy. “Waitin’ Around to Die” was one of the first. It’s a song where nothing good happens and then it ends. Live, Van Zandt would almost always follow it with a bad joke or a funny song, to break up the mood.

Houston songwriter Mickey Newbury, hot on the charts in 1968 with “Just Dropped in (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” for Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, was an early Townes fan and got him a publishing deal with former Sun Record engineer and Johnny Cash producer Jack Clement. They played “Tecumseh Valley” for Kevin Eggers, a New York businessman with an upstart label, Poppy Records, and that was all it took to get Van Zandt a record deal. Clement produced For the Sake of the Song at Owen Bradley’s famous Quonset Hut studio in the fall of ’68. Though the album stiffed and Van Zandt was unhappy that he had to change “whorin’” to “walkin’” on “Tecumseh Valley” (recut with original lyrics on the next LP), the title track would prove to be an enduring theme through the years.

I never interviewed TVZ, but we did have a conversation about his music once. I had to review one of his shows at Poor David’s Pub in Dallas in 1993 and I didn’t know all the songs so I called the number I had for Townes’s road manager the next day. Townes picked up. We went over some titles and I told him I was surprised he did a Bruce Springsteen cover, a car song, no less. “That’s not a car song,” he said. “Listen to it again.” So I played “Racing in the Streets” and realized that it’s really about how pursuing your passion with singlemindedness can steamroller everything else in your life. He was not much of a husband and even less of a family man, until later in life.

His son J.T. was born in 1969 and the next year Fran and Townes filed for divorce. He started using heroin and, of course, drank every day. Eggers was in charge, which, Clement told Hardy, added to the chaos. “He just never did what he said he was going to do,” Clement said. “I tried to like the guy [Eggers] and I think he probably had good intentions at some point, but he was basically a fuck-up.”

But Eggers allowed Van Zandt to lead the life of the wandering minstrel, which is all he really wanted. Townes did especialy well on the lucrative college circuit where, “the girls lined up like it was Elvis,” said bassist Rex Bell. He was a strikingly handsome songwriter who loved to lose his mind—what could possibly go wrong?

When Van Zandt was inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame in 2015, singer-songwriter Gillian Welch acknowleged a mentor who “seemed to exist in a world between worlds — between Texas and Tennessee, country and folk, the physical and the metaphysical.” But Townes was not for everybody. Nothing truly original is.

The songs are always there, providing some comfort in the sadness, and one in particular defines a life lived like none other. On “A Song For,” the lead-off track of his final studio album (1994’s No Deeper Blue), Van Zandt wrote his epitath:

“London to Dublin/ Australia to Perth/ I gazed at your sky/ I tasted your earth/ Sung out my heart/ For what it was worth/ Never again shall I ramble.”

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Reviews for “Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams”

Posted by mcorcoran on December 4, 2016

cloafing

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:

wire-washington-phillips

 

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:

wire2

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Signed copies of Washington Phillips book/CD $25

Posted by mcorcoran on October 13, 2016

cover

The box of books came today. I’ve been waiting two years for them. Gospel music’s great re-appearing act Washington Phillips taught me patience. His musical prowess on a homemade instrument was the subject of a newspaper article in the home paper in Teague in 1907. But it would be 20 years later until this self-made musical miracle first recorded, in Dallas. What’s two years?

But it did hurt because I knew that this 76-page hardcover book with remastered CD was the best thing I’ve ever put my name to. Most critics are out to discover the next big superstar, but I found a guy who’d died 60 years ago, who everyone is just starting to discover. I’ll never meet him. He’ll never let me down.

I first wrote about Phillips for the Austin American Statesman in 2002. I found out that musicologists had been crediting the wrong Washington Phillips all along. It was one of those stories you dream about, but instead of freeing an innocent man from prison, I was exhuming a forgotten artist. I still remember the moment when I knew for sure that it was a case of mistaken identity. It’s was a Monday night at about nine and I’d finally reached Virgil Keeton inwashphillipsaas Fairfield, TX. He was related to both men named Washington Phillips and he said the one who sang gospel songs at church while  plucking the strings on a harp-like instrument, died in the ‘50s from a fall down the stairs of the welfare office in Teague. The Washington Phillips written about in the liner notes of the Yazoo CD “I Am Born To Preach the Gospel” died on New Year’s Eve 1938 at the State Hospital, where he was admitted in 1930 with delusions and paranoia.

When Dust-To-Digital contacted me in Nov. 2013 and asked if I’d write extensive liner notes, 7,000 words or so, for a new Wash Phillips reissue, I said sure. I bid pretty low and asked to be paid primarily in books. And here they are. Official release date is Nov. 11, but I can sell my books now. They’ll be signed by me to whoever you say. I’ve ditched the Wash Phillips footprint idea after ruining a book, but I am going to stamp each package with the sole of Washington Phillips.

For a personalized copy of Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams, send a check for $30 ($40 Canadian) to me at P.O. Box 313 Smithville, TX 78957. Or send $31 to PayPal under my email address michaelcorcoran55@gmail.com. The price includes shipping, so if you’re not from the U.S. add more.

The money I make from the books will fund further research into the lives of Washington Phillips, Arizona Dranes and Blind Willie Johnson. Hopefully, TCU Press will put out Goin’ To See the King, my book about about 1920’s black gospel, in Spring 2018. I’ve done all the primary research on the Holy Trinity of black gospel pioneers in 1920s Texas, now I have to weave their stories together in the context of the times.

washauto57895906124004113_n

 

From Dust-to-Digital:

“We are excited to share this story in Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams, a new book by Corcoran accompanied by recordings made by Phillips between 1927-29. To ensure a superior listening experience, we tracked down the most pristine original copies of Phillips’ 78-rpm records, created high resolution transfers and had the audio expertly remastered for the best-sounding Phillips reissue to date. Hear the sublime, hypnotic and ethereal music of Washington Phillips in clarity like never before!”

wppricescan

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Blaze Foley: Killing of a Songwriter

Posted by mcorcoran on October 7, 2016

Blaze Foley by C.P. Vaughn

Blaze Foley by C.P. Vaughn

The years since his 1989 passing have been kind to Blaze Foley.

While he was alive, the singer-songwriter had released only a single and an LP that was never distributed aside from a box full of vinyl albums he would barter for beers and cab rides.

In recent years, the “derelict in duct tape shoes” of the 1998 Lucinda Williams’ song “Drunken Angel,” has vaulted to folk hero status. Merle Haggard and Lyle Lovett are among those who have recorded his compositions, plus he’s inspired four tribute albums and is the subject of two upcoming films.

His killing at age 39 continues to haunt an Austin music community that has suffered its share of cancer fatalities, drug overdoses, suicides and car wrecks, but has had little experience coping with the shooting death of one who writes songs.

All these years later, his friends and fans still question the jury’s verdict that acquitted Carey January of Foley’s murder by reason of self-defense. Saying he feared for his life, January admitted shooting Foley, a friend of his father, Concho January, with a .22-caliber rifle in the predawn hours of Feb. 1, 1989. When the defense portrayed the 6-foot-2, 280-pound Foley as a menacing bully, violently injecting himself into a family dispute, several of Foley’s supporters walked out of the courtroom in disgust. That was not the Blaze Foley they knew.

An ice storm blew into Austin the day of Foley’s funeral. At the jam-packed service, guitarist Mickey White passed out the lyrics to “If I Could Only Fly,” Foley’s trademark song, and as the ragtag congregation sang those words about wanting to soar above human limitations, the song grew spiritual wings. Without the money for a police escort, the funeral procession got smaller with each red light and almost everyone got lost. Cars did doughnuts on the ice and packs of autos tore down South Austin streets in all directions. Many of the mourners didn’t make it to the burial at Live Oak Cemetery.

Someone at the grave site busted out a roll of duct tape, Foley’s favorite fashion accessory, and folks started adorning the casket. Some of his friends made duct tape armbands or placed pieces over their hearts. Kimmie Rhodes started singing an old gospel song when the body was lowered and the tears nearly froze before they hit the ground.

“The whole day was so chaotic, yet so beautiful,” guitarist Gurf Morlix recalled in 2004. “It was exactly the way Blaze would’ve wanted it.”

They always talk about his eyes, how he could fix a glance on you and make you feel either two feet tall or like a million bucks. Those who knew him well — a number that seems to grow every year — use words like compassionate, honest and courageous to describe a lumbering giant whose songs could make hard men cry. But his friends also remember Foley as belligerent, abrasive, highly opinionated and drunk more often than not.

There were two Blaze Foleys, and if you didn’t know both of them you didn’t know either.

Songwriter Mandy Mercier, who Foley lived with from 1980 to 1982, knew both Blazes. While Mercier worked temp office jobs to pay the bills, Foley would stay home with a pack of fellow ne’er-do-wells who passed around guitars and bottles of hooch. Folks would ask Mercier and her roommate Lucinda Williams — who shared a soft spot for self-destructive rogues — what they saw in such men. “They had something that we wanted,” Mercier said. “Creative conviction. They would explore difficult subjects, but they could walk the walk.”

There was a hobo camp near the railroad tracks behind Spellman’s, the former folkie haven on West Fifth Street, and Foley would tell Mercier that if she had any guts, she’d quit her job and live there and write songs all day.

During the times he was without a girlfriend or a friendly couch, he’d sleep wherever — and whenever — he could. Though he preferred flopping on top of pool tables (or below them during hours of operation), he’d sometimes sleep in dumpsters on cold nights. “See that ‘BFI’?” he’d say, pointing to the logo of the waste removal company seen on dumpsters. “That stands for ‘Blaze Foley’s Inside.’”

Foley lived on the edge because that’s where the best stories drift off to. “There’s a scene in the movie Salvador where one of the characters is telling a wartime photographer that the key is to get close enough to the subject to get the truth, but not too close or you’ll get killed,” said Mercier. “That’s how Blaze wrote songs, from the front lines of experience.”

Foley was fearless, all his former associates agree. “Blaze had no doubts about his immortality. He thought he was bulletproof,” said songwriter Carlene (Jones) Neuenschwander, living in Colorado in 2004. “I guess that proved to be his undoing.”

blazeaffidavit

Common sense told Blaze Foley to keep out of a father-and-son relationship that he saw as abusive. After all, Blaze’s friend Tony “Di Roadie” Scarano gave statements to police that they had heard Carey January, a 39-year-old black male known as J.J., threaten to kill Foley if he didn’t stop coming around the house at 706 W. Mary St. in South Austin. But then, common sense didn’t pull much weight with this wild-eyed maverick, who delighted in newspaper headlines like “Blaze Destroys Warehouse.” He was 100-percent songwriter and nothing cool rhymes with logic.

Foley had met 66-year-old Concho January in June ’88. The singer was living two blocks away, on the old man’s route to David’s Food Store, and one afternoon Blaze and a half dozen other songwriters were picking on the porch when Concho stood to listen for a few moments before heading on for a bottle of Thunderbird wine. On the way back, Foley waved the elderly black man inside the gate.

After about an hour Carey showed up and started yelling at Concho to get home. “Blaze didn’t like the way J.J. was talking to the old man,” says Neuenschwander, one of the pickers. Foley started dropping in on Concho and the two became drinking buddies. If Foley could borrow a car, he’d take Concho on errands, including cashing his Social Security check the first of the month. Stories about “my old pal, Concho” started creeping into Foley’s between-song chatter.

“That was just like Blaze to latch on to some poor, old, lonely man who’d been through some rough times,” says musician Lost John Casner.

The teeth-baring acrimony grew between Foley and Carey January, an ex-con who had spent four years in prison for a 1975 charge of heroin delivery. It escalated into violence on Aug. 9, 1988.

Police received a disturbance call at 706 W. Mary St. that afternoon and found Foley and a neighbor sitting on the steps holding ax handles with black electrical tape for grips. Carey was across the street, yelling to the cops that those men beat him with the clubs. Foley admitted hitting Carey across the back and on the head, but said he was just defending Concho from the latest beating at the hands of his son. The police report described Foley as “very intoxicated.”

Foley pleaded nolo contendre to unlawful possession of a weapon and received 180-days probation and a court order to attend at least two Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a week.

Friends say that the singer managed to stay sober for a couple weeks at a time but then would fall off the wagon hard, going on drinking binges.

Foley seemed to have been on a tear the last night of his life. Early in the evening, he was 86-ed from the Austin Outhouse when he got in the face of a regular who had used an anti-Arab slur while watching the 6 o’clock news.

The next stop was the Hole In the Wall, which had recently lifted a longtime Blaze ban at the behest of Timbuk 3, who were at the height of their “Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades” phase. The duo of Pat MacDonald and Barbara K didn’t forget that Foley was their first Austin friend and supporter. It didn’t take long for Blaze, who always seemed to be ranting about something, to be shown the door at the Hole.

He ended up at the South Austin home of fellow hard-living songwriter Jubal Clark, then borrowed a friend’s Suburban, without permission, to drop in on Concho at about 5 in the morning. The old man had a lady friend over and the three drank cheap wine until Carey emerged from his bedroom and a single gunshot broke up the party. Foley was shot at about 5:30 a.m. He was pronounced dead at Brackenridge at 8:14 a.m.

“I got home from a gig late one night and there was a phone message from Lucinda (Williams),” Morlix recalled. “She said there was something she had to tell me but that she’d call me back in the morning. I just sat down and cried. I knew it was Blaze. I knew something bad had happened.”

Defendant Carey January talked about Foley’s eyes when he took the stand in September 1989 to claim that he shot the songwriter out of fear for his life. “He was coming at me,” January testified. “I could see fire in his eyes. … I had seen that look before, when he hit me with the ax handle.”

When police arrived at 706 Mary St. minutes after the shooting, Foley was outside, lying face down on the ground, clutching a blue notebook. When they asked him what happened, Carey January said, “I don’t know.” Foley, still conscious but bleeding badly, was able to answer. “He shot me.” Who? the officer asked. “The guy you’re talking to,” said Foley.

Concho January told police that Carey killed Foley without provocation, as the songwriter was sitting in a bedside chair, showing the old man a book of his drawings.

Twelve days after the killing, someone set Concho’s house on fire while he slept. Though the arsonist was never found, the police report noted that Concho was a state’s witness against Carey, who was in jail. But Concho, who died in 1994 at age 71, was not intimidated. He testified at the trial that Carey shot Foley in cold blood. The elder January, whom defense attorneys dismissed as “an old fool” and “the world’s most reliable drunk,” proved to be ineffective.

“You don’t choose your eyewitnesses. That’s the risk of every prosecution,” says attorney Kent Anschutz, who still pains over losing the case when he was assistant district attorney. “But I have to tell you that my heart sank when Concho got up on the stand and couldn’t even point out his son right in front of him.”

The jury deliberated just over two hours before finding Carey January not guilty of first-degree murder by reason of self-defense.

ss-blazefoley

The release party for the essential Live At the Austin Outhouse cassette, recorded a month before Foley died and featuring such signature Blaze tunes as “Clay Pigeons,” “Small Town Hero,” “If I Could Only Fly” and “Election Day,” was intended to be a benefit for a local organization for the homeless. Instead, proceeds went to cover the balance due on Foley’s funeral costs.

It seemed, at the time, that the cassette would be the last anyone heard of Blaze Foley, but friends, including singer-songwriters Rich Minus, Calvin Russell and Pat Mears, have done much to keep Foley’s songs alive, recording three albums of Blaze covers and one album of odes to the songwriter. Live At the Austin Outhouse, released on CD in 2000, has become a cult favorite, especially in Europe.

It doesn’t hurt that the songwriter’s biggest fan was country music’s greatest living legend (until 2016). “Merle Haggard’s obsessed,” said Mercier, who like several former Foley associates had been summoned to Haggard’s bus. “He wanted to know about Blaze’s life experiences. I told him that Blaze had had polio as a child, so one leg was shorter than the other and he’d sorta drag his foot when he walked. Merle was so moved by that image.”

Haggard wanted to hear all the old Blaze stories, like the time Foley lay in Guadalupe Street to prove his love for Mercier and indeed stopped traffic — including the cop car that took him away. “See how much I love you,” he shouted to Mercier as he was led away in handcuffs.

Michael David Fuller, who was born in Malvern, Arkansas and raised in Marfa and San Antonio, performed his first set as “Blaze Foley” in 1977 at an Austin dance club behind the Hole In the Wall that booked singer-songwriters during happy hour. “He was hilarious and his songs were great,” says Morlix, one of six audience members. “He’d pull stuff out of his bag and give a little show-and-tell presentation between songs.”

For the next three years Foley and Morlix were inseparable, moving to Houston and inhaling the fragrant Montrose folk scene, where Shake Russell, John Vandiver, Nanci Griffith and Townes Van Zandt were regulars.

Foley had started writing songs in Georgia in 1975, where he billed himself “Dep’ty Dawg” and tried not to sound too much like his model John Prine. But he truly came into his own in Houston. “There were better singers, better songwriters, but no one was more committed to his songs than Blaze,” Morlix said.

It was inevitable that he and Van Zandt would become hard-drinking runnin’ buddies. “Blaze idolized Townes — not only his songs, but his lifestyle. He started drinking vodka, Townes’ drink,” said Morlix. “Sometimes it got out of hand.”

Of Foley, whom he immortalized with 1994’s “Blaze’s Blues,” Van Zandt used to say, “Blaze has only gone crazy once. Decided to stay.”

Van Zandt, who passed away the first day of 1997, credited Foley with inspiring “Marie,” his bleak masterpiece. “Blaze was real interested in the dispossessed,” Van Zandt told KUT radio’s Larry Monroe in 1991. “I thought a lot about Blaze when I wrote ‘Marie’ because he had so much to do with turning me on to that problem.”

Morlix recalled that whenever Foley raged — and it was often — the subject was almost always some sort of injustice, real or perceived. But sometimes his unwillingness to back down from any confrontation was just plain scary. Once in Los Angeles, when Foley was talking to a topless dancer outside on her break, her jealous boyfriend pulled a gun and said to get lost. “Blaze said, ‘Just go ahead and shoot me,’” said Morlix, a stunned witness. “I’d bet Blaze said the same thing to the guy who shot him in Austin.”

At the 35th reunion of the old L.C. Anderson High School class of ’68 in 2003, one former student brought framed certificates to the Hilton gathering. But, then, perhaps Carey January felt he had a lot more to prove than his classmates, who passed around wallet-sized photos and business cards.

“We were all so happy to see J.J.,” said fellow alumnus William Ward. “Everybody knew about that problem he had with the shooting, so it was so good to know that he had turned his life around.” Ward said he spent a long time talking to January about how life is just a series of choices and all you have to do is make the right ones.

“How did you get my number?” asked a 54-year-old January in 2004. He has lived for 10 years in Los Angeles, where he says he is an outreach specialist. He says he’s received several citations, including one from then-Gov. Gray Davis commending his efforts to get health insurance for the underprivileged. He strongly declined to comment on any aspect of the Foley murder case.

“It was 15 years ago,” he said. “I was acquitted. I’ve moved on with my life. I’m not O.J. Simpson. I don’t want any publicity.”

Sometimes in death you get what you deserved in life. Foley always wanted to be considered a great writer, not just a good one, mentioned alongside his heroes Prine, Haggard and Van Zandt. In 2005, Prine covered Foley’s “Clay Pigeons,” to make the circle complete.

All these years after his final entry in the blue notebook he clutched outside 706 W. Mary St. on Feb. 1. 1989, Blaze Foley’s legacy is as rich as he could’ve hoped for. Like the homemade trinkets and little Goodwill toys he would slide into the hands of friends, his songs are the humble, well-worn gifts he left behind.

This is a chapter from All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music (UNT Press) by Michael Corcoran. The book contains 42 profiles of Texas music pioneers and legends, including Stevie Ray Vaughan, King Curtis, Ella Mae Morse, Townes Van Zandt, Billy Joe Shaver, DJ Screw, Guy Clark, Janis Joplin and Gatemouth Brown.

Posted in Music, Texas Music History | Tagged: | 19 Comments »

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

 

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 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”:

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.”

Janis Joplin is one of 42 music pioneers profiled in “All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music” (University of North Texas Press)

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Blind Willie Johnson: Revelations In the Dark

Posted by mcorcoran on January 8, 2016


              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.

blindwilliejohnson2This 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.

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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.blindwilliedark

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.

bwjsigningOther 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).

 

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.

bwjsanantonoWhen 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.

Church in Shiner, TX where BWJ performed.

Church in Shiner, TX where BWJ performed.

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.

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 Spacebwjad1

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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Blues bassist Sarah Brown, descendant of famous slave owners

Posted by mcorcoran on April 20, 2015

Sarah Brown. Photo by Todd V. Wolfson.

Sarah Brown. Photo by Todd V. Wolfson.

You’ve seen Sarah Brown on-stage if you ever went to Antone’s in the ’80s or early ’90s. She was the house bass player when Antone’s was a blues club, period, and so she backed everyone from Big Joe Turner and Sunnyland Slim to Buddy Guy and Albert Collins and Otis Rush. For almost 30 years, Brown has been one of Austin’s most valuable – and visible – side musicians. But something only her closest friends knew until recently is that Brown, in her early sixties, is a descendant of John Augustine Washington, the youngest brother of George Washington. Although Brown is a blood relative of our first president, George Washington, she’s not a direct descendant, as George and Martha Washington had no children. Nor did John Augustine’s son Bushrod Washington, who inherited Mount Vernon and became a Supreme Court justice.

“Being a blues musician, it just wasn’t relevant to me to be a Washington,” said Brown, a Michigan native who has lived in Austin since 1982. The Washingtons she was committed to follow in the tradition of were Dinah and Walter “Wolfman” Washington, not America’s first family. “Our grandmother told us that we must amount to something in our own right because whatever blue blood we had was thin,” Brown said. George Washington is her great-great-great-great-great-great-uncle.

She knew her ancestors had slaves – it’s well-known that the father of our country owned human property – and she had a problem with that, but “it just wasn’t something that I thought about too much,” she said. The African Americans she worked with were heroes and legends; why dwell on an ugly past?

But in January 2011, her family’s legacy as slaveholders came to visit her in books and papers that she helped her cousin Tom Washington prepare for auction. When Brown’s uncle Nathaniel Washington Jr. died in 2007, his will stated that the family’s artifacts, including a piece of George Washington’s original coffin and papers that go back to 1662, were to be sold at auction with the proceeds to be divided between Brown, her sister and nine cousins.

A rare book auction in New York City in 2011 drew $31,000 for a pair of Revolutionary War-era books that had belonged to the Washington family. A memorabilia auction in Dallas was expected to attract much more money, with estimates in the six figures for surveying tools George Washington owned at age 16.

fukunaga

Glenn Fukunaga

Brown received the books and papers because friend and fellow Austin bassist Glenn Fukunaga is one of the country’s top experts in the restoration of old books. As the material sat there on Brown’s dining room table, awaiting appraisal and repair, Brown started reading. She found family papers in which slaves, with dollar value attached, were listed as assets alongside livestock, farm tools and furniture. She read about slaves being bought and sold by family members, some of whom fought on the side of the Confederacy in the Civil War.

“It was all very disturbing,” she said. “The more I read, the more it made me wonder if some of the people I’ve been playing with all these years are descendants of slaves once owned by my family.”

One of the most telling books was a record of the Fifth Virginia Convention, held in Williamsburg, Va., in May 1776, just two months before the Declaration of Independence was signed. An early version of the U.S. Bill of Rights was adopted at the convention, a galvanizing moment in the American Revolution.

“I’d read in one part (of the book) that all men are created equal, but then there were many pages that told of plantation owners seeking restitution for slaves who had been jailed and killed when they tried to escape to the British side,” Brown said.

George Washington, who inherited 10 slaves from his father as an 11-year-old, was conflicted about slavery, according to the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography “Washington: A Life” by Ron Chernow. Even as he came to believe that human bondage ran against the principles on which the new nation was founded, he kept slaves until he died in 1799. His will, however, provided that all 124 of the black people – and a few white people – he owned be set free after the death of wife Martha. He also provided pensions for the older slaves.

The more Brown has found out about her famous family, the more she wants to know, especially since she’s found evidence, though inconclusive, that one or more of her ancestors fathered children with their slaves. “I may have African American cousins I don’t know about,” said Brown, who has spent many late nights searching sites such as www.afrigeneas.com and comingtothetable.org, which serve as a connection for the descendants of slaves and slaveowners.

An intriguing letter from abolitionist Urbain Barbier to Bushrod Washington, George’s nephew, led Brown to “Sarah Johnson’s Mount Vernon” by Scott Casper. She’s also been in communication with the author through email. “It’s a great, close-in look at slavery through the history of slaves and free African Americans who worked at Mount Vernon, from General Washington’s day through the 1980s,” said Brown. Her research, which she hopes will be the basis for a book about her family and her life interacting with blues royalty, has also turned up some brighter moments. Last month, Brown found a letter from Laurence Washington dated Aug. 27, 1816, that detailed a decision to free slaves owned by him and wife Mary. “We are both decidedly of the opinion that God of nature made them as free as ourselves,” the letter said, “and they are held in bondage by ruffian force and savage violence.” Freeing their slaves “was an act that could no longer be postponed.”

Brown said “it really made my day” to find that letter. “There’s such a fissure in this country between slavery and democracy,” said Brown. “It runs like a fault line from the American Revolution to modern times. People are still suffering from its effects.”

Before poring over the auction materials, Brown’s knowledge of her family’s history centered on the Washingtons who moved from West Virginia to Washington state around 1905 to homestead.

Brown’s mother, Glenora Washington Brown, told Sarah stories of her lawyer father, Sarah’s grandfather, Nathaniel, who drowned in the Columbia River in 1926 trying to save his brother and sister, who also drowned after being swept downstream in a powerful current.

Brown was born in Chicago, but moved at age 6 to Ann Arbor, Mich., where her father, Deming Brown, taught Russian literature at the University of Michigan. Her first instrument was the cello, but then the Beatles played “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964, and Brown switched to electric bass. “I took the backward route in discovering the blues,” she said. “From the Beatles I found out about Chuck Berry and from there I found Chess Records and the world of the blues.” In her early 20s Brown moved to Boston, which had a vibrant blues scene. She often played the Speakeasy in Cambridge and backed her “first blues genius” in Big Walter Horton.

Needing a change of scenery after a bad breakup, Brown moved to Austin and got a gig playing bass for the Leroi Brothers, whose drummer Mike Buck she knew from the Fabulous Thunderbirds.

It was as the bassist in the Antone’s house band that Brown built her reputation and made her gender a nonissue. “If anyone had a problem with me being a female bass player, I didn’t hear any of it,” she said. “Sometimes, they’d come to the club and look at me a little strange when I put on my bass, but it’s really all about the music. If you could play, you were cool.”

Along with guitarists Denny Freeman and Derek O’Brien, drummer George Rains, guitarist/organist Mel Brown and sax player Kaz Kazanoff, Sarah Brown backed almost every blues great of note during the ’80s and early ’90s at Antone’s glorious location at 2915 Guadalupe St.

“What’s central to my life is the music created by slaves,” she said, underlining why her new research project has become almost an obsession. Blues grew out of the so-called Negro spirituals, or slave songs, sung in the sweltering fields of the South. In singing about troubles and hardships, often to a call-and-response cadence, the days became more bearable. The music soothed the souls.

Some of those slaves had children who had children who had children who made guitars out of cigar boxes and screen door wires, then grew up to create the music that inspired rock ‘n’ roll.

And many have, no doubt, been backed by an Austin woman, a descendant of exalted American Revolutionaries, who has walked those bass lines from the South to Chicago and back.

 

Seven generations from George Washington

Sarah Brown’s lineage:

Sarah’s mother Glenora (b. 1917) was the daughter of Nathaniel Willis Washington (b. 1881). His father, Bushrod Corbin Washington (b. 1839) moved his family from Charles Town, WV to Washington state in 1905. Bushrod’s father was Thomas Washington (b. 1812), whose father was also named Bushrod Corbin Washington (b. 1790). That Bushrod was the son of Corbin Washington (b. 1764), whose father was George Washington’s youngest brother, John Augustine Washington (b. 1736).

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