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Posts Tagged ‘Blind Willie Johnson’

Blind Willie Johnson chapter cut from new “All Over the Map”

Posted by mcorcoran on July 5, 2017

painting by Olivia Wise

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- 10 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’?” B. 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.

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 first 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 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 he said was his father in 1918. When Sam Faye was born in 1931, the birth certificate said father Willie was born in Temple. He was actually born at home in Pendleton, just a few miles north of Temple.

Blind Willie’s parents were Dock Johnson and Mary King, married May 2, 1894 in Meridian, Tex., 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.

According to Angeline Johnson, Willie became blind at age 7 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.

 

Blind Willie and Wash Phillips

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, 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%- 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. We do indeed have souls that live long after we’re buried.

 

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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.

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.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.

Posted in Gospel, Texas Music History | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Happy 100th Birthday Alan Lomax, Austin’s Gift To the Music World

Posted by mcorcoran on January 22, 2015

John Lomax’s oldest daughter Shirley writes about Alan’s boyhood in Austin.
This letter from Shirley Lomax was sent to Nat Hentoff of the New Yorker for a 1959 article which, it turned out, was never published. Hentoff had asked Shirley to describe Alan’s upbringing in Austin. I found it at the Briscoe Center for American History at UT.

 

Lomaxcover

“You can’t kill off a culture until you kill the last person who cares about it” – Alan Lomax.

On March 31, 1934, folklorist John A. Lomax and Ruby Terrill, the dean of women students at UT, announced their engagement to be married. But just two days later, John and his 19-year-old son Alan Lomax were on the road from Austin, collecting songs at the Clemmons Prison Farm outside Brazoria and the state penitentiaries at Huntsville and Richmond, according to John Szwed’s biography Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World (2010). “My father figured that the sinners were probably in prison, so that’s where we went to find their stories,” Alan Lomax said in 1991. Domestic bliss could wait.

maplouisiana

The Lomaxes hit the trail and kept going. In June 1934, father and son would make their first foray to the Cajun and Creole regions of south central Louisiana. Aside from some records made in the 1920s by Leo Soileau and Amede Ardoin, the French-speaking black and white people of rural Louisiana were barely known outside the state. Alan knew a little French and father John was busy writing his memoirs, so this was really Alan’s project and he hooked up with an LSU grad student whose masters thesis was on Louisiana French folk songs for guidance and introductions. The Lomaxes wandered through New Iberia (where they stayed with the owner of McIlhenny’s Tabasco), Kaplan, Indian Bayou, Morse, Crowley, Delcambre and other French-speaking towns, recording old songs by both black and white singers. Alan Lomax was most-excited by the jure’ style they found in Jennings, which sounded African in origin. The polyrhythms of Jure’ would evolve into the infectious zydeco beat which emerged in the 1950s.

1935 Austin city directory.

1935 Austin city directory.

The summer of ’34 in Louisiana was a major juncture in Alan Lomax’s life, as he wrote that he “had my first glass of wine, my first shrimp creole, my first full-blown love affair and made my first independent field recordings.” For part of the sojourn he was joined by his girlfriend Becky Machanofsky, a Russian-born Jewish social worker- and avowed Communist- he met in Austin. Becky urged Alan to break free from his father, “an old man who wants to make money to marry and intellectualized old maid” and move with her to Brooklyn. They soon split up.

An incredible cache of French Creole and Cajun music, collected by the Lomaxes in 1934, can be found here. The jure’ music is from Jefferson Davis Parish.

ALAN LOMAX SITS BLIND WILLIE NEXT TO BEETHOVEN ON A WONDROUS VOYAGE

In 1977, astronomer Carl Sagan was chosen by NASA to head a team to select contents of a record to be placed on the unmanned Voyager I spacecraft, which was designed to explore Jupiter and Saturn, but now, nearly 38 years later, has traveled further from Earth than any other man-made object. The idea behind the two-hour disc, to be played back at 16 2/3 RPM with a stylus and cartridge provided, was to preserve “presents from a small, distant world” to any extraterrestrials who could conceivably happen upon the spaceship. And you thought Dark Side of the Moon was trippy.

President Jimmy Carter provided an introduction to the record as, “A token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.” This two-hour, multimedia presentation of life on Earth was encoded onto a disc coated with copper and gold for protection, which gave it the nickname The Golden Record.

Cover of The Golden Record, currently scuttling through empty space.

Cover of The Golden Record, currently hurtling through empty space.

The selections from Sagan’s team were initially drawn solely from Western classical music, so Sagan enlisted the help of ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, who had just compiled an anthology of world music, consisting of 700 pieces that illustrated the full gamut of human musical expression. Lomax and his team of folklorists operated under the banner of “cultural equity,” the idea that music made on a Texas chain gang or a Spanish fishing village is as valid as that of the world’s great symphonies. “Our job is to represent all the submerged cultures in the world,” Lomax told interviewer Charles Kuralt in 1991. “We give an avenue for those people to tell their side of the story.” Alan Lomax, inspired by his father John, spent six decades trying to restore the balance that wealth and privilege had taken away.

There was a bit of head-butting when Lomax was brought aboard and chucked DeBussy in favor of Peruvians and their panpipes and Chuck Berry playing rock n’ roll. In Murmurs of Earth, a book recounting the Voyager project, Sagan wrote that Lomax was “a persistent and vigorous advocate for including ethnic music even at the expense of Western classical music. He brought pieces so compelling and beautiful that we gave in to his suggestions more often than I would have thought possible.” In the end, Lomax was responsible for 15 of the 27 musical recordings on Voyager 1, including Blind Willie Johnson’s moaning “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” which accomplishes the rare feat of being eerie and emotional at the same time. Lomax said he included that guitar-sliding Crucifixion song as the best embodiment of loneliness. Space aliens from the future will no doubt relate better to the blind, guitar evangelist from Marlin, Texas than to Beethoven, who follows Blind Willie to close out The Golden Record.

bwjcrop

 

Lomax selections on The Golden Record:

* Senegal percussion
* Pygmy girls initiation song from Zaire
* Aborigine songs “Morning Star” and “Devil Bird”
* “El Cascabel” by Mariachi Mexico
* “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry
* A men’s house song from New Guinea
* “Tchakrulo” from the Soviet Union
* Peruvian panpipes and drums
* Azerbaijan bagpipes recorded by Radio Moscow
* “Melancholy Blues” by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven
* Bulgarian folk song “Iziel je Delyo Hagdutin” by Vulya Balkanska
* Navajo Indians night chant
* Solomon Islands panpipes
* Peruvian wedding song
* “Dark Was the Night” by Blind Willie Johnson

The Voyager moved past Pluto in 1990, but will be on the move at least another 40,000 years before it reaches another planetary system. “The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space,” Sagan wrote. “But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”

We’re counting down to the centennial birthday of Austin musicologist Alan Lomax on Jan. 31. “I’ve always been with the Woodys, in whatever language it was,” he told interviewer Charles Kuralt in 1991, in reference to Woody Guthrie. “I’ve always been with those people who were exploring and pushing the edge of their own culture and making something happen…They have a sense of form and innovate inside of it.”

Further Reading: Here’s my story on Blind Willie Johnson from 2003.

 

STIRRING THE SOUL OF GOSPEL 1936

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 like religious barbershop quartets 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, 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 Stirrrs of Houston were the originators, but R.H. Harris was Jesus’ favorite singer and he made them better.

FURTHER READING: Here’s my Sept. 2000 obit on Rebert H. Harris for the Dallas Observer.

 

The Lomax family were Austin’s greatest gift to the music world. Here’s the first part of a series that leads up to Alan Lomax’s 100th birthday on Jan. 31.

 

 

The Gant Family Singers 1936. Mother Maggie at left, Ether on guitar. Standing Foy, Glida and Ella.

The Gant Family Singers 1936. Mother Maggie at left, Ether on guitar. Standing Foy, Glida and Ella.

It sure seemed quiet for 10 a.m. on a weekday, when John A. Lomax, who recorded folk songs for the Library of Congress, knocked on the front door of a six-room shanty on the northern bank of the Colorado River, not far from Deep Eddy Pool. Maggie Gant answered, in her bedclothes. The children were still asleep, the mother of eight whispered.

“Last night we all got to singing and dancing. We didn’t go to bed until 2 in the morning,” she told Lomax, which he recalled in Our Singing Country, his 1941 book with son Alan that contained four songs collected from the Gants.

“The singing kept us so happy,” Maggie Gant told Lomax, “we couldn’t go to sleep.”

It was 1934, during the depths of the Depression, but the Gant family of dispossessed sharecroppers was rich in music.

John Lomax, a former University of Texas administrator, and his 19-year-old son Alan made more than 40 primitive recordings of the Gant family, whose vast repertoire ranged from jailhouse ballads and play ditties to cowboy songs and minstrel tunes.

The most prominent of those, in retrospect, was “When First Unto This Country a Stranger I Came,” which Joan Baez and Bob Dylan sang live and Jerry Garcia and David Grisman recorded in 1993. They all learned it from the 1960s folkies the New Lost City Ramblers, who heard it from the Gants.

Mike Seeger (Pete’s half-brother) of the Ramblers and his sister Peggy knew the song growing up, as their mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, transcribed and archived the songs the Lomaxes recorded for the Library of Congress in the 1930s.

If Maggie Gant and her 17-year-old daughter, Foy, hadn’t sung the tragic song about a jilted lover-turned-horse thief into the Lomaxes’ acetate phonograph disk recorder, it almost certainly would’ve been lost forever.

“Folk songs can be easily preserved,” Alan Lomax wrote in The American Girl magazine (October 1940).  “You, and all Americans can find them right in your own back yards. Somewhere in your neighborhood there may be an old man, or woman- or perhaps a young one- who can sing you hundreds of love ballads and work songs. Your own grandmother may remember some.”

“I grew up in Austin, Texas knowing many of these tunes, for my father, John A. Lomax, is what is called a ‘folk song specialist,’ a rather frightening title which masks a job which is pure adventure.”

Alan Lomax, who lived the first 10 years of his life at the family home at 910 W. 26th St. (torn down for a fraternity house years ago), wrote that he didn’t take to his father’s folk song obsession until the summer of 1933, when he was preparing to transfer from Harvard back to the University of Texas. An 18-year-old Alan accompanied his father on a song collecting trip that changed his life forever. Father and son traveled the U.S., from the fishing villages of New England to the California coast, lugging 300 pounds of portable recording equipment and cutting records by prisoners on chain gangs, cowboys of West Texas, Kentucky coalminers, Vermont woodsmen, auto factory workers and the like.

“My father and I don’t burst in like college professors in search of quaintness,” Alan Lomax wrote in 1940. “We make friends. We live in the neighborhood. And before we even go to a place, we find out about the kind of work in that section so we can talk about it. Only then do we go out and ask for songs.”

They had an easy job getting acquainted with the Gants, whom they met through Alan’s UT classmate John Henry Faulk, who had been doing song collecting on his own. But young Faulk didn’t have the clout of the Library of Congress, which had hired John Lomax in ’33 as head curator of its Archive of American Folk Songs.

1935 Austin city directory. 3203 Riverside View was near Lake Austin Blvd., behind where Brackenridge Apts are now.

1935 Austin city directory. 3203 Riverside View was near Lake Austin Blvd., behind where Brackenridge Apts are now.

With the Gant family of singers, led by mother Maggie (father George wasn’t very musical), the Lomaxes found a treasure that didn’t require more than a 10-minute drive. By 1934, a widowed John Lomax married UT’s Dean of Women Students Ruby Terrill and the family lived at her big house at 400 E. 34th St.

In a note in the Lomax family papers, archived at UT’s Center for American History, John Lomax wrote, “The Gant family in Austin, Texas has a repertoire of about two hundred genuine folk-songs. We only had just begun the job of recording these tunes when we left town.”

The Lomaxes recorded only a fraction of the Gants’ material before they took off to manage and tour with their great discovery Leadbelly, yet it’s a body of work that puts the Gants as “among the most important informants on traditional music that no one’s ever heard of,” said Minnesota musician/folklorist Lyle Lofgren.

The family’s list of songs passed down was “astoundingly broad,” Lofgren said. “It included many rare versions of archaic British ballads, the sort you might expect to find, if you were lucky, in some remote holler of the Appalachians, but probably not in Austin.”

The Gants were Mormons and, according to a family genealogy which Foy Gant Kent registered with the Mormon church before she died in Houston in 2008 at age 90, Maggie Gant’s maternal grandmother, Lavinia “Lucy” Brown, was born in Wales. “The Land of Song” has a rich ballad tradition.

Maggie’s mother, Sarah Reeves, was born and raised in the Tennessee mountains but moved to Texas before Maggie was born in the East Texas town of Lone Oak in 1893. Lavinia Brown, the Welsh wellspring from which the songs most likely came, died in Grayson County, about 60 miles north of Dallas, in 1899.

The Gant family’s path to Austin can be charted according to where the children were born, starting with oldest son Nephi in the Northeast Texas town of Mineola in 1913. The next four — Ether, Foy, Adoniron and Ella — were born just a few miles south of Mineola, when the family lived in Kelsey, the largest Mormon colony in the state. Georgia came next in Altus, Okla., in 1925, and the youngest, Trovesta Mae, was born in 1929 in the Texas Panhandle town of Shamrock, from which the family moved to Austin after a severe drought dried up farm work.

George, Maggie and the kids arrived in Austin in 1933 looking for work and, according to John Lomax, went on relief at times.

Nephi and half-sister Glida Koch started families and lived together in a house at 1115 E. Third St. The rest of the family lived in the riverside shack where the Library of Congress recordings were made, about a half-mile west of Deep Eddy Pool.

In her 2008 memoir Sing It Pretty, Alan’s younger sister Bess Lomax Hawes, who was 12 when she met the Gants, recalled that the family’s house on the river was constantly being flooded. “But that old river never could stop the flow of their extraordinary repertory of Anglo-American balladry and folksong.”

Foy Gant, far right, sang lead on several songs. She kept her family’s genealogy and submitted it to the Mormon church records.

The Lomax family background — patriarch John got his master’s degree in the arts from Harvard University — was different from the Gants’, but they had the Great Depression in common.

Although he made his mark as a folklorist with his 1910 anthology Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, John Lomax had moved on to other pursuits and was working for a bank in Dallas during the 1929 stock market crash, which left him unemployed. Even worse, his wife Bess died in 1931, leaving him with two school-age children to raise.

Oldest son John Jr. encouraged his father, then 65, to get back into “ballad hunting,” a passion born from the cowboy songs Lomax heard growing up on a ranch in Bosque County, about 40 miles northwest of Waco. The Library of Congress, created in 1928, agreed to foot the bill for the “second act” Lomax expeditions. With Alan, a polished writer with a scholarly approach, at his side, the father and son proved to be quite formidable, with an unquenchable passion for discovery.

The LoC provided the Lomaxes with a bulky recording machine, which fit into the family’s Ford after the back seats were removed. Superior to the old wax cylinder recorders, the new machine cut grooves onto a disk as the songs were sung, giving the singers all the reward they wanted when Lomax played back the record they’d just made. On one session Alan wrote about later, the Lomaxes recorded a 75-year-old black prison preacher named “Sin Killer” Griffin. When they played the record back, tears welled up in Griffin’s eyes. “People have been telling me I was a good preacher for nigh onto 60 years,” he said. “But I didn’t know I was that good.” In some prisons, the execution chambers were converted into recording studios because of the sound-proof walls.

It was in one of those prisons the Lomaxes discovered Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, who taught the world “Goodnight Irene” and “The Midnight Special.” But Leadbelly’s most important composition was the one he wrote about Louisiana governor O.K. Allen, which the Lomaxes recorded and delivered to the state capitol building. “If I had you, Guv’ner Allen/ Like you got me/ I’d wake up in the mornin’/ Let you out on reprieve,” Leadbelly sang. The Governor was so charmed he released Ledbetter from the penitentiary and the singer joined John and Alan on the road. The Lomaxes set Leadbelly up with some high-falutin’ gigs on the East Coast and he became a sensation and settled in New York City. When he brought up his girl Martha from Louisiana to marry, John A. Lomax gave the bride away and Alan was best man.

Leadbelly

Leadbelly

The Gants recorded only for the Lomaxes, in four sessions from 1934-36. When World War II hit, acetate previously used for field recordings was restricted to the war effort, and the Gant family split time between Houston, where there were jobs in the Ship Channel, and San Angelo, where the parents moved with their three youngest. Maggie and the kids never recorded together again after 1936. The Gants’ last public performance is believed to have at the State’s Centennial Celebration in Dallas that same year.

The family just may have lost the joy in performing after tragedy struck on Feb. 1, 1936. Oldest boy Nephi, 22, was murdered after a fight at Ollie’s Place at the corner of East Fourth and Waller streets.

(Read Alan Lomax’s never-before-published story on the incident here. From the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Used courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity.)

Lomax wrote that Nephi, who had two hungry babies at home, had gone to the beer joint to try to borrow money from a bartender friend or “maybe he could pick up a few nickels singing … because he was the best singer in the family.”

At Ollie’s, Nephi was challenged to fight by a man who’d just gotten out of prison 24 hours earlier and was “already crazy drunk and looking for trouble.” Nephi got the best of 21-year-old Howard Armstrong, who went out to his car, got a gun and shot Nephi in the head through the glass door. Sporting a black eye, Armstrong turned himself in to police the next day and claimed self-defense. But the jury deliberated less than an hour before convicting Armstrong and sentencing him to 30 years in prison.

At Nephi’s funeral, Alan Lomax noted that the family “cried so much that their eyes and cheeks were red with salt burn.” Calling the Gants “a lovin’ bunch of poor people,” Lomax wrote of the incredible pain they surely felt at losing a brother, a son.

“They knew what it was like to be hungry and cold and not have a place to call home; but they’d been strong under all this suffering and sorrow because they loved each other so much.”

FURTHER READING: Austin couple the Lebermanns help John Lomax save “Home On the Range”

This series commemorates the incredible cultural contributions of the Lomax family, leading up to the 100th birthday of Alan Lomax (who passed away in 2002) on Jan. 31. Portions of the Gant family story were originally published in the Austin American Statesman in 2010.

 

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