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80 years ago: Austin’s most important recording?

Posted by mcorcoran on February 1, 2016

soul_stirrers

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

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

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

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

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

soulstirrersloc

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

1935 Austin City directory

1935 Austin City directory

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

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

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

Dust jacket of Feb. 12, 1936 recording.

Dust jacket of Feb. 12, 1936 recording.

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Hattie Burleson’s Dead Lover Blues

Posted by mcorcoran on January 15, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

macletter

 

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Tribute to Blind Willie Johnson

Posted by mcorcoran on January 8, 2016

ALCD 4968

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

            

             Blind Willie Johnson: Revelations in the Dark
              by Michael Corcoran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

marriagelicensedock

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

A Haunting Masterpiece

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johnson was not the first gospel singer to play slide guitar on record. He was beaten to the studio by a year and a half by Pittsburgh preacher Edward W. Clayborn and Delta player Sam “Boll Weevil Jackson” Butler. 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).

bwjcrop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where the Cotton South Meets the Cattle West”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marlin And Marriages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sounds Of Earth In Outer Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Houston 1917: the Race War of Camp Logan

Posted by mcorcoran on December 25, 2015

lossy-page1-1024px-Largest_Murder_Trial_in_the_History_of_the_United_States._Scene_during_Court_Martial_of_64_members_._._._-_NARA_-_533485.tif

by Michael Corcoran

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

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

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

Buffalo Soldiers circa 1917.

Buffalo Soldiers got their nickname from Native Americans.

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

And so they snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Camp Logan, 1917.

Camp Logan, 1917.

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

 

 

 

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SLAVERY 2045

Posted by mcorcoran on December 14, 2015

After the 2023 discovery in Zimbabwe of mineral water that converts fat cells to penis girth, “the Dark Continent” became the richest on earth. Since the hot springs ($3.59 a gallon) were found everywhere, the wealth trickled down to all citizens of Africa.
But the infiltration of Western programming and marketing, hoping to cash in on this new upward demographic, ended up dumbing down the culture. Africa in 2045 was like a 2 Live Crew reality show.
The black millionaires needed slaves to do all the work they didn’t want to, so they sent their private jets to the U.S.A. for free labor. They hooked up with C9 Presents, a concert promoter owned by 9 Caucasians, and ran the VIP section of Appomattox Rox, one of several summer fests C9 held on former Civil War battlefields. VIP wristband wearers thought they were going into a trailer for free massages and Torchy’s Tacos, but instead they were put on buses to the airport. Next stop: Africa.
While the black slave masters sat in big recliners and played Madden during the 24-hour flight, the new slaves had to sit in coach, with barely enough room for their knees. To pass time on that miserable journey they sang slow, a capella versions of songs by Maroon 5, the reunited group of Adam Levine (R- Calif.) .
After they landed in Kenya, the slaves were auctioned off as accountants, baseball coaches, Whole Food cashiers and other jobs designated for whites.

Tomorrow: Slave uprising. “They changed the WiFi passwords!”

That’s one idea for a slavery-themed TV show, here’s another:

“Hogan’s Heroes meets 12 Years a Slave.” Instead of a German POW camp, this comedy farce takes place on a plantation in Mississippi circa 1855. The “massas” don’t know it but their slaves are operating an underground railroad right through the plantation. In the house, when the white people are around, the black cooks and maids are docile. But when it’s just them, they turn into street girls, talkin’ ’bout how bad they want to smack those white bitches around. Door opens to a white woman and they’re right back to the slave stereotypes. Same thing with the men. The blacks are running the show and the proud white idiots don’t realize it.

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Wilco ’96: So Misunderstood

Posted by mcorcoran on October 31, 2015

CHICAGO — Jeff Tweedy emerges from the wings strummimg an electric guitar and the jam-packed crowd at Lounge Ax erupts, but there is a slight problem. A CD of Beck’s Odelay is still playing in the background, so Tweedy straightens all the way up and tries to catch the eye of his wife Sue Miller, who co-owns the beloved rock-in-a-box club. Finally, she sees that the band is ready to start, so she cuts the canned music and just like that, the best album of 1996 seques into the music of the second-best record of the year, Wilco’s Being There. Symmetry smiles.mgid_uma_video_mtv.com_69283

“Music is my savior,” the elfin-faced Tweedy sings on “Sunken Treasure,” the leadoff song on this first date of the current U.S. tour. “I was saved by rock ‘n’ roll.” He then moves his guitar around to his back, grabs the microphone and seizes on the steady rhythm. “I was maimed by rock ‘n’ roll/ I was tamed by rock ‘n’ roll/ I was named by rock ‘n’ roll/ Not the same since rock ‘n’ roll.” Then the peaceful, easy song, the hinge on which the new double disc swings, dissolves into a dissonant lather, with bassist John Stirratt bounding across the stage with a monstrous series of thuds while Tweedy flails away on his guitar, whipping his head up and down like the memory of a thousand teen-age concerts.

The crowd is momentarily stunned by such primal aggression from this band of happy groovers, who are among the leading lights of the so-called alternative country or “twangcore” movement. But when the members get back in place and break into “The Long Cut,” from Tweedy’s days with the Uncle Tupelo band, the jovial mood returns and suddenly it is 1993 again. Before the breakup. Before the marriage. Before the baby. Wilco will play a few more Uncle Tupelo songs, and all heaven will break loose amongst the college-age crowd. But it is the new songs, running the gamut from drippy piano numbers to folky shuffles to lush ’60s pop and rockers that put the hammer down, that will define the tenor of the show.

“A lot of this record is about trying to stay interested in music, while so many bigger things are going on,” the 29-year-old Tweedy would say in an interview the next day, before the second sold-out show at Lounge Ax. “The birth of my child (10 months ago) was so humbling. When I held Spencer for the first time I realized that my real life, not some surreal rock ‘n’ roll existence, had just begun.”wilco-1997-05-10-c-cover

On such songs as “Misunderstood,” “Monday,” “Sunken Treasure” and “Someday Soon,” Tweedy re-explores his connection with rock ‘n’ roll and uses it as a metaphor for other relationships in his life. When he sings “I am so out of tune” on “Sunken,” he pauses before saying “with you.” On “Someone Else’s Song,” he equates a creative drought with a listless romance. “The Lonely 1” (which Tweedy swears is not about Replacements-ex Paul Westerberg), finds our protagonist joining thousands of others in worship.

Uncle Tupelo rise and fall

The album Being There is the story of a struggle of priorities within a man who’s always leaned on music to give him direction in life. In the echo of his favorite songs by Husker Du, the Replacements, Mott the Hoople and Velvet Underground, among many more, Tweedy found meaning that resonated. He read all the rock rags, worked in a record store and started a band with Jay Farrar and Mike Heidorn, his friends since junior high in the St. Louis suburb of Belleville, Ill.

Tweedy and Farrar burned with too much ambition to ever be satisfied with indistinction, however. But such talent and drive between two frontmen was apparently more than the band could support, and Uncle Tupelo broke up in June of ’94.

“The roles changed over time,” manager Tony Margherita said, referring to Tweedy’s emergence as an equal to Farrar, who was clearly the point man in the early years. “There was an ongoing debate over the direction of the band and I was constantly being drawn in to referee. Then one day Jay quit to do his own thing (forming Son Volt). And that turned out to be a great thing for everybody.”

The other members of Uncle Tupelo — drummer Ken Coomer, multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston and Stirratt — stuck with Tweedy and called themselves Wilco. Brian Henneman of the Bottle Rockets played guitar on the first album “A.M.,” then Jay Bennett was hired to play guitar just before the band embarked on its first tour, which kicked off in style with a scintillating performance at Liberty Lunch during South by Southwest ’95. “That was a big one,” Tweedy said about the Austin showcase. “I didn’t know if anyone cared about this new band because, you know, it wasn’t as if Uncle Tupelo had been some majorly successful band. And then after our set, the record label people were acting like we won the Super Bowl. It was like this big shot of confidence right at the beginning.”

Wilco returns to Liberty Lunch on Tuesday. Son Volt plays the club on Nov. 13. Partly because of the successes on Wilco and Sun Volt, but also because of an influential music magazine and a Web site both named after “No Depression,” Uncle Tupelo is more popular now than they were they were together.

The music of the first three Tupelo albums holds no magical place for Tweedy, however: “I think those are pretty good albums, but it’s kind of painful to hear us trying to figure out what we wanted to be,” he said. “Jay was always pushing for us to get more and more sincere, more and more pure, but I thought that early on we were trying a little hard to be authentic.” It was Farrar who spearheaded the band’s foray into coal-miner songs, while Tweedy, the mophead to Farrar’s mope, has grown in affinity for Faces-like lovable loser anthems like “Monday” and “Dreamer in My Dreams” from the new album.beingthere

Tweedy’s idea to name the new album Being There, after the film about a childlike gardener who is considered and economic genius when his simple components are elevated as grand metaphors, stems partly from his rejection of the Uncle Tupelo mythology. “How did rock ‘n’ roll become so important?” he said. “We’re a band that simply does what we do, and yet there are all these interpretations and analysis. `Being There’ (the film) is based on a misunderstanding that keeps getting more and more ridiculous, and I think that rock ‘n’ roll is a little like that.” In one scene, the Sellers character mentions a room upstairs and people think he’s talking about heaven. When Tweedy sang “Passenger Side” (on A.M.) about a guy deciding that he’d rather take the wheel than be driven around, the lyrics were said to describe his coming out as a bandleader. But Tweedy said the song was inspired by his decision to quit drinking alcohol almost six years ago.

As for the determination to make Being There a double CD (though at $17.98 it’s priced like a single disc), Tweedy said that was partly because he thinks it’s a little unfair to expect people to listen to one CD for 70 minutes. “One of the things I always loved about vinyl records was that each side had its own personality — its own spirit,” he said. “I like to think of these two discs as side one and side two: separate, yet together.”

Where’s the sound man?

Woody Allen has said that 80 percent of life is just showing up, and when that life revolves around rock ‘n’ roll you can make that 90 percent. The four official members of Wilco, plus pedal steel player Bob Egan (on loan from Freakwater) have all shown up at Lounge Ax on the afternoon of their first show of the tour, but nowhere to be found is Stan, the house sound man. According to club owner Miller, Stan knew he was supposed to be there at 2 p.m., and as the idle time crawls from 2 to 3 to 4 p.m., the nearly 20-year veteran of the nightclub business gets in an increasingly foul mood. Miller is a cherished character of the music biz because, like Mary Richards, she has the ability to turn the world on with her smile. This afternoon, however, she’s Lou Grant grumpy.

The mood picks up immensely, however, when manager Margherita shows up with the hot-off-the-press issue of Rolling Stone containing a four-star lead review of Being There. Moments later, Jeff’s brother Steve and mother Jo arrive with five freshly bought copies of the vinyl version of “Being There,” which came out a week before the CD. “Gather round lads,” Tweedy jokes Spinal Tap style, `Smell the Glove’ is here.”

Jo Tweedy is so proud of her son’s accomplishments that she’s turned Jeff’s old bedroom into an archive room, with boxes full of clippings, numerous copies of albums, demos, photos and press releases. She has every Uncle Tupelo and Wilco T-shirt, as well as the dress a teen-age, and by the end of the night it was practically torn to shreds,” Mrs. Tweedy said. “It came with a bonnet, but Jeff didn’t wear that.”

“All my sons are completely different,” she said. “The oldest is I guess what you’d call a redneck. He works with the railroad. Steven, the middle one, is a yuppie stockbroker. And Jeff is, well…,” she said, extending her arm in introduction as her son played his guitar in the distance.

In the early years, Mrs. Tweedy used to rent the venues, take the money and even help load up after the show, but these days she spends a lot of her time keeping up with her son’s career. When he’s on the road, she scours America On Line’s “No Depression” file, which sees heavy posting after each Wilco or Son Volt show. “If I want to know what shirt Jeff was wearing or what he said to someone after the show, I just go on line,” she said.

Sue Miller in 1990.

The mad Webbers are not exactly appreciated by the band, however. After sound check, the members headed over to an Italian restaurant about 100 yards up Lincoln Avenue from Lounge Ax, where the conversation opened with recounting some of the things they’ve either read or heard about themselves via the Internet. “These days, if I’m talking to someone after a show and they’re asking a bunch of questions, I ask them if they know about the ‘No Depression’ file,” Bennett said. “If they do, I watch what I say. Or sometimes I don’t say anything because I’ve seen how things can get twisted on the Internet.”

“People believe what they want to believe,” Tweedy added. “I recently did an interview with No Depression magazine, and I told the guy how me and Jay used to buy albums by the Stray Cats and we went to St. Louis to see INXS, but none of that was in the article. There are some people who want to think that me and Jay were listening to Woody Guthrie records in the seventh grade, but we were just regular geeky rock fans.”

The last song of the first show of the tour begins like the first song ended, in a stomp of noise. “Misunderstood” is a song about why kids turn to rock ‘n’ roll or at least why this 29-year-old kid did so many years ago. “Back in your old neighborhood/ Cigarettes taste so good/ But you’re so misunderstood/ So misunderstood.” Later, in the lonely strum of a guitar is a verse lifted from “Amphetamine,” a Peter Laughner song: “Take the guitar player for a ride/ He ain’t never been satisfied/ He thinks he owes some kind of debt/ It’ll be years before he gets over it.” Tweedy didn’t write that, but for him to choose those words over all the rock music that has filled his life attests to a personal connection.

Being There is about being a fan amidst all the phoniness and jealousies and misunderstandings that engulf this crazy thing called “rock.” It’s about falling in love again with playing music. It’s about taking a long look at what you’ve become and giving the mirror a wink before heading off to the stage you deserve.

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Alleged Rodney Reed victim speaks out about 1995 rape

Posted by mcorcoran on September 27, 2015

Vivian Harbottle 2015.

Vivian Harbottle recent photo.

“After he raped me, he had this look in his eyes like he wanted to kill me,” says Vivian Harbottle. “I begged him for my life. I told him that I had three kids… He just kept staring at me. I was crying ‘please don’t kill me’ and then he finally left.”

A DNA match would tell Harbottle, a year and a half later (May 1997), that the man who sexually assaulted her near the railroad tracks in Bastrop was Rodney Reed, who is currently on death row for the rape and murder of Stacey Stites. The 19-year-old HEB cashier was killed April 23, 1996, six months after the Harbottle assault.

“I’m no angel,” says Harbottle, 56, who has had three DWI convictions and an assault charge after a bar fight. “But that man raped me.” She says she decided to do her first interview about the October 1995 incident because “no one is speaking up for the victims. No one is saying what a dirtbag Reed is. Everything is getting twisted around.”

Reed supporters celebrated a stay of execution by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in February, just ten days before his March 5 date with the lethal injection in Huntsville. Amid much controversy, claims of Reed’s innocence, and charges of racism, the CCA is reviewing the case. Reed’s defense team points to Stites’ ex-boyfriend, former Giddings police officer Jimmy Fennell, as the likely perpetrator, after Fennell pled guilty in 2008 of sexually assaulting a woman in custody while on duty in Georgetown.

But Harbottle says there’s no doubt in her mind that Reed is guilty. Six months after the Stites murder he was involved in another kipnapping and attempted sexual assault, but that victim escaped. “I don’t feel so bad for me,” she says. “I feel really bad for Stacey. If we were able to pin (the Harbottle rape) on Reed, she might still be alive.”

Harbottle was intoxicated the night she was raped, she admits. After a night of partying at Ray’s Place on Chestnut Street, where she used to work as a bartender, Harbottle started walking to her stepson’s house via the railroad tracks behind the bar. “Reed just came out of nowhere,” she says. They sat on the tracks and talked for a few minutes, she said, but when she got up to leave Reed threw her to the ground and raped her. “He had his hand over my mouth and then the train went by with the horn blowing,” she said. “No one could hear me scream.” The incident occurred about 100 yards from Reed’s house, but the case went cold when Harbottle couldn’t identify her attacker. She walked back to Ray’s and called police that night in ’95, but “it was dark and I was drunk,” she says. Police were able to draw a DNA sample, however, which matched when Reed turned himself in for a petty drug charge in April ’97 and submitted DNA. That’s also how he became a suspect in the rape/murder of Stites.

It’s been 20 years and “everybody keeps telling me to move on, to forget the past,” she says, “but how can I when (the Reed case) is in the news all the time.” Harbottle says she’s been harassed by Reed supporters and had to report one to the police so he would stop coming by her restaurant (the short-lived In Cahoots in Bastrop) and grilling her about her testimony. She was called by the prosecutors during the sentencing phase of Reed’s trial. Four other former Reed rape victims also testified. “I’ve been called a liar and a whore,” she says. “I’ve had to stay off the Internet because it’s just too upsetting.”

Recognizing her name from the trial transcripts, I approached Harbottle after seeing her comments on the first Reed story published on michaelcorcoran.net. “Well,” she said on a phone message in return, “I guess I’m finally ready to talk about what happened to me.”

Reed was not charged in the rape of Harbottle, she said, because he was convicted of the greater charge of murder. There is no statute of limitations in Texas for rape. Reed’s DNA was also found in a 12-year-old girl who was raped by an intruder.

Here’s my first post about the Rodney Reed case.

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How To Talk To Rock Stars #1: Metallica

Posted by mcorcoran on September 8, 2015

gerard08092015_2by Michael Corcoran

I don’t like action movies or superheroes or any of that stuff. I’ve got enough fantasy in my real life, so when I pay money to be entertained, I like reality.

One of my big fantasies when I was starting out was that I would become friends with my musical heroes through interviewing them. It didn’t work out that way. Elvis Costello basically hung up on me. Bruce Springsteen canceled further aftershow visits from journos on his “Tom Joad” tour after I super-ghermed him backstage at the Austin Music Hall. I’m a total dork around nobodies, so you can imagine when I’m trying hard to impress with my knowledge and sense-of-humor. I may have inspired the “dropped call” button that celebrities seem to have on their phones.

But the one time I actually felt like a brother for awhile was when I went to Hollywood to interview Metallica for a Creem magazine cover story. Tell you the truth, I didn’t know much about Metallica. Never really a metalhead, though the tapes I crammed on during the plane ride were pretty damn good.

I didn’t really have anything to wear to the interview, just the clothes I had put on in Austin, so I went to a mall and bought a cool $65 shirt from the Guess store. Now, I had some time to kill before the interview, which was to take place at the studio where Metallica’s “black album,” was being recorded. So I visited my friend Susan Levy at MCA for a bit. The label had just put out the first Bell Biv Devoe album and Susan gave me a t-shirt, which I put on in the bathroom. It had all this colorful hip hop graffiti. My plan was to drive to Lankershim Boulevard, then change into my $65 shirt after I found a place to park. But, damn I pulled into the parking lot and there was Lars, pacing around. The drummer saw me and came over. “You the writer from Creem?”

OK, so we’re going with the ironic ghetto boy band attire. To hang out with Metallica. But maybe being interviewed by someone not wearing a black death metal t-shirt was a nice change of pace. I had a nice conversation with the group. They put me in a room with big speakers and played “Enter Sandman” and the other new recordings and I didn’t really know what to think. But those guys were so starved for approval that I just gave it to them. And it made for an enjoyable three hours. It was one of the best features I wrote during that time. And “Sandman” made them huge. Who knew?

The shirt I wore to my Metallica interview.

The shirt I wore to my Metallica interview.

So about three or four years later, I’m in Las Vegas at the opening show of the 1994 Lollapalooza tour (Smashing Pumpkins, Beastie Boys, Nick Cave, Tribe Called Quest, etc.) Hanging out sorta backstage with all the other critics. Every once in awhile they’d bring out one of the acts for a presser and, for some reason, there was Kirk Hammett of Metallica, talking to Perry Farrell. He looked over at where I was standing and said “Hey, Bell Biv Devoe!” Oh, yeah, man, that funky t-shirt, huh? I ran into him at a Chinese restaurant in Chicago and we talked then, too.

That’s how you make friends with your heroes. You do your job with the commitment that they give to theirs. And just be original, godammit. Nothing you say is gonna impress them. Knowing that takes the pressure off.

 

 

 

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“Superfly Me 2004”: Eating every meal in East Austin for a month

Posted by mcorcoran on August 26, 2015

galloways

Photo by Peter Yang, design by Mike Sutter AAS 2004

Whenever it’s time for lunch or dinner, my mind starts to drive. If I’m at the office, my mental route is east, down either Cesar Chavez Street, with all its great Azul to Arkie’s variety, or East Seventh Street, which could be the best avenue for the appetite in Austin. Surveying the dining options starts the pleasure process. If I’m at home near Martin Luther King Jr. and Airport boulevards when hunger hijacks my attention, my mind moseys south to East 12th Street, where the consistent La Morenita Mexican restaurant and the aptly named Maxine’s Soul Kitchen provide good options across the street from each other.

Sometimes my mind can motor as fast as the camera from Run Lola Run and it spends a lot of time tearing down Chicon Street, from East 12th to Cesar Chavez: Galloway Sandwich Shop, Nubian Queen Lola’s, TJ’s Seafood, La Michoacana and Mr. Natural are fave grubberies on that glorious culinary corridor.

Before I moved to my new ‘hood two years ago, I had no idea there were so many great funky joints to eat east of Interstate 35. When I lived in Hyde Park, east side cuisine meant Sam’s BBQ and El Azteca. It was eenie meenie miney mo, barbecue or Mexico.

But I’ve always been a follower of the “eat where you live” philosophy, and after two years of chancing dives and diners, of turning my cholesterol into mo’lesterol, I’ve discovered that a person could be content eating exclusively on the east side. Then, a few months ago, a documentary called “Super Size Me,” in which the protagonist ate every meal at McDonald’s for a month, caused a stir and got me thinking. What if I did an article about eating every meal in East Austin for a month? I even had a working title: “Superfly Me.” My editor looked at me like I was a brave soul, going to great sacrifice for the sake of a story. But, in reality, when he gave the OK, it was like assigning me to report on the backstage scene of a gentlemen’s club. Sometimes this can be a really good job (and sometimes you’ve got to write about what’s going on with the Austin Music Network).

A side order of quirks

Southern cooking, Cajun cuisine, barbecue, hamburgers and Mexican are the Big Five of comfort food, and there are excellent examples of each in East Austin. I haven’t been able to find good pizza, and Asian restaurants are about as prevalent as Pat Boone songs booming out of car trunks, but there’s plenty of everything else here.

The subject of “Super Size Me” gains a lot of weight and suffers other health problems after his month at Mickey D’s. After spending all of July eating my way across East Austin, I felt a different sort of change, more mental than physical. Even as I’d gained a few pounds (if you want to know what you’ll weigh after eating at Maxine’s, just step on a scale holding your plate of food), I had a little more swagger in my step. When genuine love and care and a lifetime of experience are passed on through food preparation, eating out can be spiritual.

But sometimes you get a bad piece of meat.

During my monthlong “challenge,” I had some of the best meals of my life, but also some of the worst. Sometimes on different days at the same restaurant. The maverick diner has to take chances.

I sought out the joints that had some character, that were as far away from America’s food-court mentality as you could get. The east side has its own way of doing things, that’s for sure, and at first I was slightly irritated by some of the quirkiness I’d encountered. Jonesing for a hoagie one afternoon, for instance, I went to the Galloway Sandwich Shop and discovered that it’s not a sandwich shop at all, but a cafeteria-style home cooking joint. The first time I went to La Michoacana, meanwhile, I stood at the food counter for several minutes and no one took my order. Finally, one cook pointed to the line at the grocery checkout and said something in Spanish that probably translates to: “You gotta pay first, Mr. Clueless.”

Another thing that takes some getting used to is that every restaurant east of the freeway seems to have a 19-inch TV with bad reception, tuned to Jerry Springer or Oprah or Judge Whoever.

I used to feel a little uncomfortable about being the only white person at a soul food joint, but after July I’ve come to understand that nobody cares what race you are when they’re looking down on a plate of smothered pork chops. Besides, it’s like when comedian Chris Rock is ragging on white people in his routine, then throws in an aside that present Caucasians are excluded. “You cool,” he says to the whites in the audience. “You paid money to see me.”

East-side stories

Lola's House of Love

Great Cajun soul food at 12th and Rosewood.

Food is generally only as flavorful as the person who cooked it. “Soul food” is more than a down-home marketing term; the best meals tell a story, like when you’ve had some of Nubian Queen Lola’s crawfish etouffee, you know she’s from Louisiana and that she cooked side by side with her mother since she was old enough to stir a wooden spoon. But that’s only part of Lola Stephens’ story.

She moved to Austin from Lake Charles, La., in 1980, soon after graduating from high school. Austin was supposed to be a brief stopover on Lola’s journey to Hollywood stardom, but when she got a job here as a cashier she never made it any farther west. In the late ’80s, Stephens was unemployed and homeless for two years. But she got back up on her feet and now raises four daughters, three adopted from a friend.

Lola Stephens

Early this year, Stephens saw a “For Rent” sign on the former location of Nanny’s, a much-missed home-cooking joint at the corner of Rosewood Avenue and Chicon Street, and she said the Lord came to her and said, “That’s your place.” Stephens had no money, but scraped together $500 from friends, relatives and kind-hearted strangers, to pay a month’s rent. She painted the place purple and yellow, Mardi Gras colors, and hung beads from the ceiling. On the board outside she scrawled spiritual messages, but she still didn’t have the equipment to open. “There was this white man who would drive by and he asked me why I wasn’t open yet,” Stephens says. When she said she needed money for pots, pans, a cooler and other essentials, he took her shopping and spent more than $1,000. Nubian Queen Lola’s opened six months ago.

TJs

TJ’s Seafood used to be at E. 7th and Chicon. Photo by Peter Yang.

Assisted by her daughters, ranging in age from 11 to 17, Stephens works 18-hour days to keep her dream alive, sometimes catching a nap on a cot in a back closet. Then, on Sunday, the only day her restaurant is closed, she feeds the homeless out of her back door. True story.

TJ’s Seafood, a Vietnamese-owned restaurant at East Seventh and Chicon streets that caters to African Americans, is another curious joint. It opened in 1992 at a former location of Gaylord’s Hamburgers, whose decor has barely been touched. The reason the seafood is relatively cheap ($6.95 for a 12-piece jumbo shrimp dinner) is because there’s no middle man: Co-owner Jennifer Tranh’s mother owns a shrimp boat in Port Arthur and supplies the 10 seafood restaurants all over Texas and Oklahoma that are operated by her 12 children. The Tranh family harvested shrimp in Vietnam before they fled Communist rule in 1975. Knowing these sorts of details almost makes up for TJ’s soggy French fries and the tasteless side salad that a picky hamster would send back.

More slices of heaven

* Maxine’s Soul Kitchen, 2931 E. 12th St. (220-3650). Maxine Carlock and her husband, LaVern, bought the old Soul Kitchen about a year ago, and they’re still messing around with the menu. Beef tips and rice, Salisbury steak and hamhocks are perennials, but Maxine has been known to whip up an oxtail stew or pepper steak if someone asks. After working in the food service industry for 30 years, cooking mainly at nursing homes, this is Maxine’s first restaurant and if a recent visit, which found Longhorn football legends Johnny “Lam” Jones and Donnie Little humming in approval, is any indication, she’s scored a touchdown.

* Taco Sabrosa, 5100 E. Seventh St. (385-8898). The cleanest-looking taqueria in town, with a spacious courtyard and very reasonable prices, this place has, quite literally, a lunchwagon soul. The old coach that used to sit at the corner of Shady Lane has been built into the kitchen, which serves up a mouth-exploding al pastor taco called the Gringas. This is one of the few good Mexican restaurants on the east side open late on weekdays and at all on Sundays.

* Tony’s Southern Comfort, 1201 E. Sixth St. (320-8801). Not spectacular, but consistently good, the opening of this down-home eatery about a year and a half ago signaled an east side re-vittle-ization. Best chicken-fried steak east of the Broken Spoke.

* Gene’s, 1209 E. 11th St.(477-6600). Along with Ben’s Longbranch BBQ, this is the top spot where West eats East. Most of the Cajun dishes are just so-so, but the shrimp po’ boys are tops. (Clothing tip: Wear a bright shirt to Gene’s to make sure you’re not invisible to the wait staff, which I have been a couple of times.)

* La Michoacana, 1917 E. Seventh St. (473-8487). This place is so real, so plucked out of Mexico, that I’ve been there a couple dozen times for fajita tacos and I’ve never heard a single customer or employee speak English. Even the confusing parking lot screams Nuevo Laredo.

* Mr. Catfish, 1075 Springdale Road, (927-6666). Known for serving the best fried shrimp in town, this place also serves up some stellar sides of gumbo, red beans and rice and homemade hushpuppies.

* Los Comales, 2136 E. Seventh St. 480-9358. In the mood for cheap, flavorful flame-broiled steaks in a classic south-of-the-border setting? This place won’t let you down.

* Mi Madre’s, 2201 Manor Road (322-9721). Although it’s officially considered East Austin, I don’t think of Manor Road that way. It’s uptown. But I decided to extend the boundaries for the story because I wasn’t about to go a month without those perfect, plump breakfast tacos from here.

There goes the Pulitzer

All right, here we go. Confession time. Although I vowed to eat every July meal in East Austin, I had to give myself a couple of exemptions. On July 5, after a day of tubing in San Marcos, I ate with family at Rivendell, a Hobbit-themed health food restaurant in S.M. They were hungry; I was hungry; we were 30 miles from East Austin and besides, it was a federal holiday. Lapse No. 2 was also unavoidable at the time. I had three 10-year-old kids in my charge for a day and I couldn’t think of a place in the neighborhood that they, all eaters of only things yellow, would enjoy. This was before I knew about Mr. Catfish, so I took them to Dave & Buster’s.

OK, I admit it. I broke my vow, not once, but twice.

Jim Romenesko’s media news Web site oughta be all over this scandal. (“Journalist Betrays Public Trust By Eating At Hobbit-Themed Restaurant.”) This project, which began so well-intentioned, may end in disgrace, but if it makes any difference, I’m still eating every meal on the east side.

I’ve learned to savor the flavor, to embrace the pace of Austin’s eastern time zone. All the little quirks spice up the experience, I’ve found. Or, more to the point, once you’ve sat down to a plate of Maxine’s beef tips and rice or gnawed around the bone in Nubian Queen Lola’s pork chop sandwich, Bennigan’s just ain’t gonna cut it.

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Johnny Degollado, the Austin Accordionista

Posted by mcorcoran on June 16, 2015

Johnny-Degollado photo by Bob Zink

Story originally published in the Austin American Statesman in 2002.

It is 1954, and 19-year-old accordionist Johnny Degollado, “El Montopolis Kid,” is on the road with a conjunto group that plays the migrant worker circuit, hitting the Texas towns where the populations double during picking season. At a quick-stop grocery in Littlefield, near Lubbock, Degollado notices an attractive cashier. Her name is Antonia. They make clumsy small talk as he pays for his sodas, and he asks for her mailing address so he can send postcards.

“Antonia,” Degollado keeps repeating, as he walks back to the band’s station wagon. What a pretty name. Antonia Degollado; better yet. He writes her a love letter and a long-distance romance blossoms. Six years later a wedding date is set.

That first meeting is recalled on “La Cajera” (“The Cashier”), the title track to Degollado’s new album, which comes out next week. But why record the ode to love at first sight so many years later? This is a love story with an intermission of more than 30 years. After a disagreement about how much time Degollado would spend out on the road, among other things, the 1960 wedding never took place and the couple broke up.

“She was a girlfriend I had at one time/ That I can not forget, even for a moment,” the lyrics to “La Cajera” translate into English.

“I guess we were too young to get married, but throughout the years I thought of her often,” Degollado says. “When we’d come to Shiner, where most of her family lived, I’d ask about her.” He just wanted to say he was sorry for the way things turned out between them.

He got the chance in 1992, when “Toni,” as most people know Antonia, showed up at one of his shows at Mexic-Arte on Congress Avenue. “My daughter was coming through Austin on her way to San Antonio, where we lived, and she bought the Austin paper,” says Antonia. “There was a big picture of Johnny, and I wondered if that was my Johnny, my first boyfriend Johnny.” After deciding that it was, Antonia, a divorced mother of four at the time, and her sister Alicia decided to go to Austin, “just to see the show, nothing else. I figured that Johnny was married and I didn’t want to interfere.”

Degollado had been married, twice, and was the father of six kids, but he was single in ’92. Against her sister’s wishes, Alicia approached Degollado and asked if he remembered an old girlfriend named Toni.

“My eyes lit up,” says J.D., as he’s known now.

“Well, she’s sitting over there,” Alicia said.

When the former lovers talked that night at Mexic-Arte, it was as if the decades had been hours. They started seeing each other again right away, then after a few months J.D. said, “Let’s get married for real this time.”

The couple will be celebrating their 10th anniversary Sept. 19. La Cajera, which ends in a celebration of finally finding a treasure, is J.D.’s gift to Toni.

The album also contains a tribute to Degollado’s mentor, Camilo Cantu, the accordion great who gave up performing in 1963 and was never recorded. Cantu, who died in 1998 at age 90, usually didn’t title his songs, which were all instrumentals. But whenever he played Janie’s Place on East Seventh Street, a bar owned by his first wife, a drunken patron would call out a request for a certain song by singing its melody (badly). Hence “La Calle Siete” had a name, so Cantu wouldn’t have to hear his song butchered. Degollado reprises “La Calle Siete” using the same “sordita” tuning that Cantu perfected to give his accordion a fuller sound.

Camilo Cantu on accordion 1940s.

Camilo Cantu on accordion 1940s.

“He was up there with all the greats — Narciso Martinez, Valerio Longoria, Don Santiago Jimenez,” Degollado says. “They called him ‘El Azote de Austin,’ ‘the Scourge From Austin,’ because he’d go to towns and blow everybody away. But Mr. Cantu didn’t care about recognition.” When Cantu was inducted into the Conjunto Hall of Fame in 1987, he sent Degollado, Austin’s most prominent figure in the conjunto scene, to pick up the award.

Cantu also gave Degollado permission to take songwriting credit for songs Cantu had written. “He told me that if I hadn’t recorded those songs, no one would ever know they existed. He just passed them on to me and said, ‘They’re your songs now.’ ”

But taking credit for songs he didn’t write doesn’t sit well with some. “When J.D. recorded ‘La Lupita,’ one of Camilo Cantu’s greatest compositions, and I saw the name ‘Johnny Degollado’ listed as the writer, I went to J.D. and said, ‘That’s not right,’ ” says local conjunto historian and photographer Daniel Schaefer. “But he said that’s the way the old man wanted it.” Cantu, who was alive at the time “La Lupita” was a regional hit, didn’t voice an objection, Degollado says.

The two had an almost father-son relationship, especially after Cantu took on Degollado as an apprentice in his accordion repairing and tuning practice. “He was as talented in repairing accordions as he was in playing them,” Degollado says.

It was a 1942 performance by Cantu at the old La Polkita joint in Del Valle that inspired a 7-year-old Degollado to learn the accordion. “I just stood there, watching Mr. Cantu’s fingers move and that big sound from the accordion,” J.D. says. “I was hooked.”

Degollado still has his first squeezebox, a two-row button Hohner accordion his father paid $40 for in 1945. It sits in a display case in the backyard shed where Degollado works repairing and retuning accordions. This was the job Cantu had passed on to him. “It was important to him to keep the craft alive,” says Degollado, who also refinishes antique furniture in the shed. “He told me that just as he had passed the torch to me, I had to pass the torch when the time came.”

Degollado, 68, has recently started teaching the trade to 18-year-old A.J. Castillo, who plays in his father’s conjunto group Rumores. About 75 percent of the business is fine-tuning new accordions by filing the reeds to change tunings and level vibrations. “If there’s no one to fix the accordions, then people will stop playing them, and without the accordion, there’s no more conjunto,” Degollado says.

Known as “musica nortena” in Mexico, conjunto has thrived in the region from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, to San Antonio since the turn of the century when Hispanic button accordion players (inspired by polkas from Czech and German immigrants) teamed with bajo sexto guitarists to create a new sound. Conjunto enjoyed a creative surge in the 1930s when Narciso Martinez, from the Rio Grande Valley, practically abandoned the left-hand chord and bass buttons and instead concentrated on flashy, cat-quick runs on the treble and melody buttons controlled by his right hand. With the bajo sexto holding down the bass lines, the Martinez style would be adopted by almost all conjunto accordionists, except the irascible Cantu, who continued to play the buttons on both sides of the accordion and scoffed at those who didn’t.

In 1947, Valerio Longoria of San Antonio added trap drums and vocals to this previously all-instrumental music, creating the precursor to contemporary Tejano music.

As a teenager who performed often on Austin’s KTXN radio, Degollado picked up the nickname “El Montopolis Kid,” after the East Austin neighborhood where he still lives. He also found a musical running buddy for life, bajo sexto player Vicente Alonzo, who has anchored Degollado’s conjunto band for more than 45 years. During the 1950s heyday of conjunto, they’d play five or six nights a week.

But in the ’60s, conjunto started getting a bad rap as poor people’s music and was rivaled in popularity by a new, more sophisticated, accordion-free style called “orquesta” or “musica decente,” decent music. Such still-popular acts as Little Joe y la Familia and Ruben Ramos come from the orchestra tradition.

“There was definitely a division. Folks who liked the orchestras hated conjunto,” J.D. says. “And if you were a conjunto fan, you didn’t like the orchestras.” But when orchestras started playing and recording several Degollado compositions, including “Un Cielo” and “De Ti Estoy Enamorado,” his group was able to cross over somewhat. A prolific songwriter, J.D. has penned more than 100 songs in his career, not counting the ones Cantu taught him.

A favorite subject is his first love, the one he practically left at the altar to hit the conjunto circuit. Once, in San Antonio in the ’70s, Toni heard a song on the radio called “El Pintor” about a young couple breaking up and regretting it later, and she thought about her Johnny. When the announcer said the song was by Johnny Degollado, Toni almost fell over.

“Even after we broke up in 1960, I kept writing songs about Toni,” J.D. says. “Whenever I’d write a sad song I’d think about how things didn’t work out. If I wanted a happy song, I’d think about us dancing together.”

In a couple of weeks they’ll be dancing the dance that once seemed an impossibility — their 10th anniversary waltz. And if there’s any justice, the song playing will be one composed by Camilo Cantu. Indeed, in the familiar feel of conjunto, long known as “Mexican wedding music,” love and tradition twirl together like smitten dancers, like young and old hearts that pump the same blood, like the accordion and the bajo sexto.

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