Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas night, St Louis, 1895.

114 years ago on this night, Henry Crump and Billy Lyons were at Curtis' Morgan Street bar in St Louis when Lee Shelton arrived around 10 o'clock and joined the two men standing in the barroom. It was a cold night and the rains that had flooded the rivers downstate had let up. Blanketed by clouds, the quarter moon was low on the western horizon.

Tom Scott and Frank Boyd were tending bar that night and the place was nearly full with a crowd of about twenty five men. A life size photo of Jake Kilrain and a framed woodcut of General Grant were hung side by side on the wall.

Shelton was thirty years old, Lyons a year older and both were regulars at the bar, dropping in just about every day. Barkeeper Scott had known "Stag" Shelton since he was a boy.
Some patrons said there was an argument and some said they were just playing, but Shelton drew a .44 Smith and Wesson. When Lyons reached for his knife, he was shot and killed.

This was one of eight violent assaults that Christmas night in the city of St Louis resulting in at least seven deaths. There are no songs about those other six or their murderers.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Book review by K. Curtis Lyle.

There was an anxiety in the Devil At The Confluence Headquarters these past few weeks. We had been informed that K. Curtis Lyle was reviewing the book for the St Louis American newspaper.

The award-winning culture critic, Lyle was a founding member of the Watts Writers Workshop in 1966 in Los Angeles, California. He came to St. Louis in 1969 to help establish the African-American Studies Program at Washington University, where he was poet-in-residence. He has recorded records with the late Julius Hemphill, performed widely as a poet and has been anthologized in collections of jazz poetry. His books include: Drunk on God & From Out Of Nowhere, Nailed Seraphim and Electric Church.

It wasn't the job-interview, blind-date, rabbit test kinda anxiety because honestly, everyone who has replied after getting their copy has been enthusiastically happy and many have ordered more copies. It's just that we were really excited and honored that Curtis would give his thoughts on our project.

The review came out on the streets in the Christmas Eve issue of the St Louis American. 
Mr. Lyle digs the book.
In his hip and scholarly style he analyzes the methodology of the book and nails the larger purpose of the project. He gets it and tells it - the reason we did this book and the meaning of what this book represents.
Here are some excerpts:

"Each personage – from producer to club owner to blues giant to scene characters – is investigated, analyzed, probed in depth, placed in correct chronological and intellectual order. We are clearly told who did what when and what apparent difference it made – what effect it had on the history and social development of the music."

"Along the way, Belford challenges many items of conventional wisdom about the music with historical research and good common sense. Just as St. Louis has unfairly been relegated as a backwaters of the blues, however, a locally published book by a St. Louis author is not likely to garner the international attention it deserves. But if Belford’s research and reasoning could get anything approaching the play of Ken Burns’ documentaries or Wynton Marsalis’ pronouncements, the cultural discourse about American music would be shifted onto more solid and factual ground."

A more insightful review could not have been wished for. 
Thank you Mr. Lyle. 
And that second quote reveals our aspirations for 2010.

Happy holidays,
Devil At The Confluence.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Devil At The Confluence reviewed by Bob Koester.

Devil At The Confluence reviewed by Bob Koester in the latest issue of Jazz Record Mart's newsletter, Rhythm And News.

Devil At The Confluence by Kevin Belford.

We all know the story of W.C. Handy picking up at least some of his most successful song from a guy on the levee. St. Louis artist Kevin Belford just authored and published the definitive book on blues in St. Louis prior to World War II.

After an enlightening forward by Paul Garon (author of the book on Peetie Wheatstraw), Kevin begins with a view of St. Louis before the turn of the old century, including the ragtime era, Frankie & Johnny, Staggerlee, etc. and carries his history forward to include Little Milton.

It’s loaded with original art by Belford and extensive research from the surviving artists and a gleaning of blues magazine articles and books. It shows that St. Louis had infinitely more importance in blues history than one W.C. Handy song.

But of course you want to know the contents. I could not think of any St. Louis blues artists of that era that are not covered in this book.

In fact, I learned that many singers I had listened to were, in fact St. Louisans. Some very talented but unrecorded people such as the late Bennie Smith and (still living) Silver Cloud were also from St. Louis.

I like Belford’s approach - he doesn’t try to build a wall between blues and jazz. There are lots of references to St. Louis jazzmen such as Charles Creath, Dewey Jackson, Singleton Palmer and both Miles Davis’s (one a 20’s pianist).

Amid Belford’s splendid art, are photos of record labels and memorabilia providing richness to the St. Louis’ blues story. Kevin’s art has graced several Delmark albums: Biddle Street Barrelhousin’ (#739), the entire 50th Aniversary box set and it’s jazz and blues components, Cowboy Roy Brown (#790), and Barrelhouse Buck McFarland (#788) the last two which he also wrote the liner notes. Get this book. $39.95
- Bob Koester

Visit the store on the web:

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The research behind the book

  When I began researching the St Louis blues music I found that most of the city's pre-war musicians were not included in the many books and discussions of the music. I also found that the few St Louis artists who were mentioned in blues writings were often described as Mississippi or delta area musicians. This was often done to give the artist some "blues credibility" since the blues are often mistaken as a solely Southern type of music. But I was amazed when I found Henry Townsend described as a delta artist, (Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen, Henry Townsend, and "Townsend is one of the few living pre-war acoustic delta blues artists." )

  Henry was born in Shelby, Mississippi and carried by his father as an infant to Cairo, Illinois. Living there with his family until his young teens, he ran away from home to St Louis, Missouri and remained in St Louis the rest of his life. It was in St Louis that Henry saw Lonnie Johnson performing the blues at the Booker Washington Theater. Johnson on stage in a nice suit and playing his smooth sophisticated blues on guitar was what made Henry want to be a musician. Henry learned guitar and picked up the music from other musicians in St Louis, eventually becoming one of the more popular accompanists in the city. But, other than spending a few months in Chicago in the 1930s, Henry lived in St Louis for  all of his life.

  Finding this kind of distortion in the biographies of St Louis musicians made me suspicious of the rest of the information available for the blues of St Louis. I decided to test all the available facts that I could find concerning the music and artists of the city against primary source information such as interviews, city records, census, etc..

  Nearly all of the information in Devil At The Confluence on the hundreds of names that I found who had recorded from St Louis in the pre-war blues period is new and unpublished information.

  Recently I received an email from a music library cataloger at a large University. He was entering the information from the Devil At The Confluence CD included with the book into the library catalog and found discrepancies with the information in the book on Mary Johnson and the official information for her in the Library of Congress records. He listed the birth and death dates and the maiden name of "Smith" and the brief biographical details that are on record for Mary Johnson (".. two 'authority records,' part of an electronic database maintained at the Library of Congress; catalogers use the database to store and retrieve standardized 'headings' for people, corporate bodies, and titles of works") and asked me about my sources that I used to assign my birth and death dates and maiden name since it differs from the database.

  I replied that, in researching the information on the blues musicians of St Louis, I used a variety of sources and compiled them as best that I could. The sources that are quoted in his email were considered by me along with information about those sources and new information that I discovered. 

  Generally, the "official" recorded details of Mary Johnson's life were gathered by Paul Oliver when he contacted Bob Koester and visited St Louis sometime prior to 1960. Oliver had, I believe, only one interview session with Mary and her mother Emma. Koester and the St Louis Jazz Club had a meeting where Mary performed in 1955 and she was interviewed by Charlie O'Brien and Koester and possibly other members of the Jazz Club - although no notes or recordings of those interviews could be found. I believe that the information gathered from O'Brien and club members was passed on to others including possibly Sheldon Harris and Guido Van Rijn. I assume this type of informal discussion is how the published Mary Johnson facts came to be recognized, because the details of Mary Johnson's life are not well footnoted and the authors of the published books had only Oliver, Koester or O'Brien's verbal accounts to go by. Later books and websites mostly only re-wrote the scant details that were published by Paul Oliver.

  After Koester moved to Chicago, O'Brien gathered information for Van Rijn and they corresponded by mail. Additionally, Sam Charters of Folkways Records recorded Mary and Henry Brown in St Louis in 1961 and Mr. Charters often interviewed his subjects.

  The liner notes to Agram Records' "Mary Johnson - I Can't Take It" (Guido Van Rijn, Amsterdam, c 1988) states that: "Mary told Paul Oliver in 1960 that her mother Emma, was born in Eden Station, MS." and "Emma married a man named Smith and they had a daughter, Mary in 1905 near Jackson MS." (sourced by Van Rijn to: Oliver, Paul; "Interview with Emma Williams", St Louis, Aug 25, 1960. Van Rijn claims access to Oliver's notes from 1960 containing information that Oliver had not used in his book, "Conversation With The Blues" although the interview notes are not published.)

  And the book, "Blues Who's Who," contains the following information: "...born Mary Smith, an only child." No death date given. (Harris, Sheldon; BLUES WHO'S WHO, p. 288, Arlington House, NY, 1979.)

  These details are published without verifiable sources and I know of no confirmation of this information. Also, I disregarded unsourced web posted information. 

  My new research includes the following:

  From the Gould's City Directories (Missouri History Museum Library & Research Center and St Louis County Library Headquarters branch, Special Collections Department):
In 1960, there is a listing for: JOHNSON, Mary, Mrs, (r) 1311A Biddle.
From 1961 to 1970 Mary and Emma lived on Carr Ave.
From 1971 to 1980 Mary lived alone on Carr, and the last listing for Mary was in 1983.

  I was not able to find a birth, death or marriage certificate for Mary Johnson because I was told that in order to acquire these documents that I needed to prove a relationship to the individual at the City of St Louis Recorder of Deeds, Vital Records department.

  In the Greenwood Cemetery records that I had discovered and deposited at Western Historical Manuscripts at UMSL, I found two burials but I could not verify that these were the Mary Johnson and Emma Williams in question:

MARY JOHNSON d. 7/20/1983

EMMA WILLIAMS d.11/17/69

  The web-based Social Security Death Index lists one St Louis Mary Johnson in 1983 and two in 1984:

MARY JOHNSON 29 Mar 1898 Jul 1983 63115 (Saint Louis, MO)

MARY JOHNSON 31 Oct 1901 Apr 1984 63133 (Saint Louis, MO)

MARY JOHNSON 21 Aug 1889 Dec 1984 63121 (Saint Louis, MO)

  And the only Emma Williams listed from 1968 - 1974 is:

EMMA WILLIAMS 18 May 1880 Dec 1969 63106 (Saint Louis, MO)

  These details seem to indicate that:

  Emma Williams and a man named Smith had a daughter named Mary. (Whether Emma had the surname Smith at any time is not clear. The instances of the surname Williams for Mary Johnson seem to be from writer's assumptions that Emma's last name must be Mary's maiden name.)

  The reported birthdates include; 1900, c 1900, and 1905. (The 1905 birth date is apparently sourced from Van Rijn via Oliver's unpublished notes.)

  The reported birth locations vary; "Yazoo City," "near Yazoo City," "Yazoo County," "Eden Station, MS.,"  and "near Jackson, MS."

  Emma and Mary were in St Louis.

  Recording artist Lonnie Johnson married Mary (likely Smith) and she became Mary Johnson (around 1925.)

  Koester and O'Brien found Mary Johnson, former wife of Lonnie Johnson, in St Louis in the mid 1950s.

  Mary Johnson and Emma Williams lived together in St Louis in the 1960s.

  Emma Williams is not listed in the Gould's City directories with Mary Johnson after 1970.

  Reported death dates for Mary Johnson are "alive in 1970" and "1970?".

  Mary Johnson is not listed in the Gould's City directories after 1983.

  The Gould's directories are certainly the listings for the Mary (ending in 1983) and Emma (ending in 1969) in question.
  The Social Security Index identifies a Mary Johnson in St Louis and in a probable Zip Code who died in 1983, and an Emma Williams who died in 1969.
  And the Greenwood Cemetery records both contain a Mary Johnson who died in 1983 and an Emma Williams who died in 1969.

  I strongly feel that these records are for Mary Johnson and her mother, but I have no concrete verification (Health Department birth or death documents,) so my conclusion was that an approximate and likely date of birth would be 1900 (1898 - 1905, accounting for the various reports even though I strongly believe that her birth was 1898) and a death date of 1983. 

  This is the type of research that went into the making of Devil At The Confluence. I hope to donate my research files to a number of universities so that this information can be available for researchers and writers. I believe that when the facts for the rest of the hundreds of St Louis Pre-war blues musicians are established and recorded in the Library of Congress database, that it will be obvious that the city of St. Louis was a dominant force in the creation of American popular music and culture. This new information of such a large number of Pre-war artists from St Louis, likely the most of any one area of the United States, compels us to rethink the traditional theory of the story of American music.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Booksignings, recent press and reader's comments.


Thursday, December 3, 7pm, Subterranean Books signing with Kevin Belford for Devil at the Confluence @ Subterranean, 6275 Delmar, U. City, free.

Sunday, December 6, 2009, 1-3 pm
Kevin Belford, Jeff Fister and Dr. John Oldani at the "Book Jamboree" at the St. Louis Genealogical Society in Sunnen Industrial Park, #4 Sunnen Drive, St. Louis, MO 63143.
St. Louis area history and locally-themed books, local authors, free and open to the public.

What others are saying about Devil at the Confluence: 

"The best examples of the music's unvarnished power."
- USAtoday

"Making the case that St. Louis brought together a mix of country and city musicians, resulting in significant contributions to the genre."

"Provides a serious challenge to the long-held theory that the blues developed from a single point of origin."
- Terry Perkins, St Louis Post-Dispatch.

"Belford illustrated and wrote his book by scouring old record collections and newspaper clippings, scrutinizing past city maps and talking to just about anyone who knew about the local blues."
- Los Angeles Times.

"Packed with fascinating facts, cool artifacts, secret backstories, and gorgeous art."
- Adsaint

"Likely to surprise even so-called experts."
- The St. Louis Beacon.

"The untold history of the founding musicians of the St. Louis blues movement and an abundance of historical information."
- The Webster Kirkwood Times.

Rick Merry - I love the book !!!

Peter Cohen - Folks this is an awesome book, perfectly detailed and illustrated.

Vinnie Valenza - This book is a treasure! Everybody in this town and beyond need to read this book!

Devil At The Confluence is available at all major bookstores, Borders, Barnes & Noble and through Amazon. Signed copies can be requested by emailing devilattheconfluence (at)