Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Peetie Wheatstraw

There is nothing known about the early life of William Bunch, the man known as Peetie Wheatstraw on records from the 1930s, yet there are many biographies of Peetie Wheatstraw that state that Bunch left Arkansas and wandered the South developing his musical style. It is more likely that he came to St. Louis and decided to become a musician when he heard the many other talents in the city. This would seem more accurate since Wheatstraw was both a piano and guitar player, a very common ambidexterity in pre-war St. Louis musicians.

"Big Joe knew everybody. You know he lived in St. Louis for a long time. He knowed Blind Darby, he knowed JD Short, Jelly Jaw. At the time when I was there Yank Rachell was there working in a chicken house. And Yank would play on the weekends. And that's where I met Peetie Wheatstraw. We used to go into East St. Louis and he lived in East St. Louis in the red-light district."
  Honeyboy Edwards, recorded for the Library of Congress by Alan Lomax, 1942.
(David "Honey Boy" Edwards: Delta Bluesman, 1994, Available from Earwig Records, CD 4922.)

Wheatstraw was one of the biggest stars in the early blues. His popularity is hard to calculate, but he was one of few musicians in the pre-war period to record through the depression. He is the only bluesman to use the association with the devil as his professional persona, even though the deal-with-the-devil myth is most often associated with Tommy Johnson and Robert Johnson. The two unrelated Johnson's did not make any such claims. In both cases, someone else said that they had sold their soul to the devil, and in both cases the rumor began after their deaths – and many years after Peetie Wheatstraw had created the legend in St. Louis.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Elvis Costello on the Blues.

"They used to just get on with things, didn't they? 
They had the blues then. 
They understood the idea of the blues."

"There are about five things to write songs about: 
I'm leaving you. You're leaving me. I want you. You don't want me. 
I believe in something. 
Five subjects, and twelve notes. 
For all that, we musicians do pretty well."

Elvis Costello,
Esquire Magazine, 2003.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Big Joe Williams

Between when he was born in 1903 and when he died in 1982, Big Joe with his big G-tuned nine-string guitar became one of the most famous legends of the early blues. He has often been characterized as the stereotypical peripatetic bluesman although that description is somewhat deceptive. That may infer that he was relying on luck or chance opportunities in his wandering to play his music but that would not be accurate. It doesn't account for the man's knack for the deal, his clever talent scouting for recording partners and his many social and business connections that made his recording career spread across the globe and across half a century.

In 1934 he was in St. Louis and made his first recordings and his now famous song "Baby Please Don't Go" for Bluebird Records.

Big Joe Williams' album for Delmark in 1958, Piney Woods Blues, (Delmark DD-602, http://www.delmark.com) was recorded in part at the home of St. Louis dobro and lap steel guitar master Bob Briedenbach. He recalled as a young boy coming home from the store with his mother and finding his older brother Paul, St Louis folk and bluegrass legend John Hartford and Bob Koester of Delmark recording the very large Joe Williams who was sitting on the family couch with guitar and whiskey bottle. 
The album was awarded in the National Blues Hall of Fame in 2008.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Paul Garon

"Paul Garon is an author, writer and editor noted for his meditations on surrealist works and also a noted scholar on blues as a musical and cultural movement," so says Wikipedia about the writer of the foreword in DEVIL AT THE CONFLUENCE. 

So how cool is that? Paul Garon, respected authority on the blues AND surrealism was considerate enough to read through my rough manuscript and offer much helpful advice and then write a very smart intro for the book. I am grateful. And I am embarrassed because I waited almost too long to get up the courage to ask him. Then he came down with the flu the week we were going to press but still made the deadline, so add "unselfish" and "gracious" to the list of exceptional qualities for Mr. Garon.

At the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America website, (http://www.abaa.org/books/abaa/news_fly?code=47) he describes his introduction to the blues and searching for books about the blues:
"There were two I could find: Samuel Charters' The Country Blues (Rinehart, 1959) and Paul Oliver's Blues Fell This Morning (Cassell/Horizon, 1960/1961). I was already accumulating books by Kerouac, Burroughs, Corso and other writers of the Beat era, and gathering books on blues seemed only natural."

He soon became a contributing writer to English blues magazines and in 1970 he helped start Living Blues, the United States' first blues magazine. In 1971 his first book, The Devil's Son-in-Law; The Story of Peetie Wheatstraw and his Songs, was published and, in 1975, his book, Blues and the Poetic Spirit was published. 

In Blues and the Poetic Spirit, Garon discusses the attitude of earlier generations which had only slight curiosity concerning works of primitive art, "It was the Cubist painters – above all, Picasso and Braque – who were the first in Western civilization to recognize the imaginative power of many of these works..." and so: "It is thus only appropriate that the surrealists should also be among the first to champion the singularly exalting imaginative qualities of another realm of primitivism – the blues."

Paul Garon is one of few authors who understands that music and art are both creative expressions of man and thus very similar in their developments. Many blues music scholars and writers regard the music as a separate process and product, independent and isolated from the cultural factors that affected and helped shape all of the arts like painting, sculpture, dance and literature. And that is the flaw of most blues histories. Garon's writings benefit from his contextual understanding of art and 20th century popular culture at the time when the blues came about. That perspective was the catalyst for my approach to St. Louis' blues history – the traditional story of American blues music is inaccurate without context.
Paul and Beth Garon own and operate Beasley Books (http://www.beasleybooks.com) in Chicago, a bookstore of rare first editions and collectible books on subjects such as African American studies, labor history, psychiatry / psychoanalysis and one of the largest stocks in the US of scarce and out of print books on jazz and blues. Some of the store's best books are on display at Chicago Rare Book Center, in Evanston, Illinois.

And other books by Garon include:
What's the Use of Walking if There's A Freight Train Going Your Way? Black Hoboes and Their songs, with Gene Tomko;
The Forecast Is Hot: Tracts & Other Collective Declarations of the Surrealist Movement in the United States 1966-1976, with Franklin Rosemont and Penelope Rosemont;
Rana Mozelle: Surrealist Texts and
The Charles H. Kerr Company Archives 1885-1985: A Century of Socialist and Labor Publishing.