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Confluence on the hundreds of names that I found who had recorded from St Louis in the pre-war blues period is new and unpublished information.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

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