Kevin Belford on “Devil at the Confluence”
By Dana Smith from (the now defunct) Creative Saint Louis, from 06/21/10.
Recently I caught up with Kevin Belford and asked him a few questions about his fascinating book, “Devil at the Confluence”.
Your book could be called a crucial missing piece of the Saint Louis music puzzle. Any guesses why it’s been missing for so long?
From the start I found that the understanding of American blues music has, by definition, disregarded Saint Louis’ artists. In the scholarly definition, the blues are regressive music from southern isolated areas. Scholars and musicologists overlooked the blues music from here because the city is not southern and the music was too creative, progressive and too influential to be included in their limited definition of blues.
But, actually, blues music was one of the first widely-popular American music forms along with marching bands, ragtime and jazz. “Devil At The Confluence" contains the names of hundreds of national stars and superstars from Saint Louis in the pre-war period when march music became ragtime and developed into jazz and blues and later those evolved into rock and roll. Most of these Saint Louis artists have no biography or mention in pfrevious blues literature. They were virtually forgotten even though their records were some of the best selling songs in the 1920s and ’30s. But they weren’t from the Delta and they weren’t rustic, old-fashioned songs like what those later blues researchers were looking for.
I think Saint Louisans know this about the local music in our lifetimes as well. The arts of the Confluence city have always been a creative merging of styles and taking the best of what came before to create the new. A legacy from the turn of the century of great music in all fashions that continues to this day and is enjoyed every night in the city – whether the music industry, the press or academia outside of the area appreciate it or not.
Professionally you’re an artist and illustrator and the book features many interesting images created by you but how did you end up writing the book as well? Some of the images will be on display at the Royale, which ones?
Commemorating the Saint Louis legends with my artwork was what I had set out to do. Finding that there is a lack of published information about the city’s artists and the realization of the importance of the information that I found, compelled me to make the book. So the art and design was really only about a tenth of the time that went into this project.
Also, I realized that what I found to be true of the music history of Saint Louis is also true of the rest of the arts of the city. Credit is lacking for much of the city’s cultural progress in so many great aspects like theatre, poetry and literature, dance, architecture and much more. Hopefully this effort will prompt those investigations.
After reading the book, you get a clearer picture of all the important musicians and singers who were vital to the development of not only the Blues but also Ragtime and even Jazz who were creating music in Saint Louis. Can you mention some of these forgotten artists who made critical contributions to Popular Music?
The superstar artists from Saint Louis like Lonnie Johnson, Big Joe Williams, Victoria Spivey and Walter Davis are often listed in the old books on the blues as being from the Delta, Texas or Mississippi when in fact, they all lived and recorded in St Louis and each had family here. There are nearly 200 names of Saint Louis artists in “Devil At The Confluence” and perhaps half or more have made significant contributions to the blues and American music. From the songs, “Frankie and Johnny” and “Staggerlee” to the genesis of songs like “Everyday I Have The Blues” by Aaron Sparks, and “Mr. Carl’s Blues (Dust My Broom)” by Carl Rafferty, St Louis’ artists have contributed some of the most well-known and important aspects of the genre and most of the music authorities never realized or acknowledged this. Yet.
You’ve spent a lot of time on this book and now it’s out and getting a good response. Any new books or projects in the works?
I have maybe a dozen projects going on that aren’t a part of the Saint Louis history like a children’s book that will be out this fall from Lee & Low Publishing. But I really would like to make sure that this new information and history of the city does not remain within the pages of my book. There are the foundations of stories in “Devil At The Confluence” that could be expanded upon by others for perhaps dozens of other books. This legacy of great art and history of creative talent is the sort of thing other cities have built their entire tourism and commerce industries upon. The book credits musicians from our past who never got the credit they deserved. The now-discovered cultural heritage can assist the city, it’s venues and the current artists. And most importantly, this can encourage future generations of talent to know that they are a part of a long and great Saint Louis legacy.