Will Shade Tribute
January 27, 2008 • Chicago, Illinois
May 3, 2008 • Memphis, Tennessee
Aug 1, 2009 • Memphis, Tennessee
Arlo Leach writes: This is a composite of three separate telephone interviews with people who met Will Shade and other jug band musicians in the 1960's. Complete transcripts of each interview are available from the links below. You can also read a plain-text version of this page.
Donald Hill (DH) and David Mangurian (DM): Don and Dave traveled from their college in California to Memphis in June 1961. Their recordings were bootlegged on Will Shade & Gus Cannon 1961 and Memphis Sessions 1956-1961 and are now part of the Tennessee Collections in the Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Don's told his story in more detail in his unpublished memoir, and I tried not to repeat its material here. Don and Dave are now retired from careers as an anthropology professor and journalist, respectively. (transcript)
Roger Brown (RB): Along with his friend George Mitchell, Roger traveled from his home in Atlanta to Memphis in December 1961 and June 1962. Their recordings were released commercially on Beale Street Mess-Around, Tennessee Recordings and the George Mitchell Collection. Roger's story was told in more detail in Matthew Ismail's book Blues Discovery, and I tried not to repeat its material here. Roger is now retired from a career as a German professor. (transcript)
Charlie Musselwhite (CM): Charlie was a resident of Memphis and spent time with Will Shade intermittently from 1962 until Will's death in 1966. One recording he made jamming with Will was released on his album Charlie Musselwhite Deluxe Edition. Charlie is still active as a multiple Blues Music Award and Grammy Award winning harmonica player. (transcript)
AL: What was your goal in visiting these musicians?
RB: Our goal was simply discovery. When it became clear to us on the liner notes of the Willie Borum album that there was a chance to witness some of these guys live, we just jumped at it. We loved this stuff. Remember, this was all pre Godrich and Dixon, and there was very little out there. So when you got that Country Blues, that Charters LP you know, that really got things rolling.
DM: That book made a big impression on us. We both read it before we took our trip. It was like the Bible. Because Charters had done it, we could do it.
DH: Yeah. And Lomax had done it. His father had gone to Parchman Farm, so, why can't we go to Parchman Farm and record the prisoners? How much fun would that be? (laughing)
AL: I heard an interview with Sam Charters where he said that was his intentional goal was to inspire other people to go and do it, 'cause he couldn't do all the fieldwork himself. So he succeeded.
CM: I still think that book he wrote, Country Blues, was really a great read, and I still recommend it to people. I heard blues on the radio, and I heard street singers in downtown Memphis, guys on the corner playing for tips. I had 78s of the Memphis Jug Band. But at that time, I didn't know any of this was important to anybody but me, so I didn't know what to talk about, what to ask, I didn't know much of the history of blues. There was nothing to read about blues, until Country Blues came out. There might be a little bit in a book on jazz, or something. Not like today, you know, you got blues magazines and blues societies and blues DVDs, everything you can think of, but there wasn't much back then.
DM: We had no idea that some of the recordings that we did would end up as records. And that wasn't our purpose. Our purpose was you couldn't buy this stuff in those days. So we went around the country recording this stuff, and it was a fun trip, we had a great time, then we took this stuff home and, you know, played it for ourselves.
DH: We loved it, you know, and these were tapes for us. I played it for my family, and they loved the stories and stuff that were on there. Like that barber from Mississippi [Wade Walton], he was really a good raconteur, and he told all kinds of stories.
AL: How hard was it to find the musicians you were looking for? I know for Roger it was pretty easy. You knew enough to start on Beale Street.
RB: Fourth and Beale, yep, that was in the liner notes. Charters indicated that Shade lived in a run-down tenement off of Beale. He may have said near Fourth and Beale, and it was just chance, because Handy Park was there, you know. So we just parked right there at Handy Park. We were prepared to search that whole first day, so if you had told us that ten minutes after we started we'd be hearing "Kansas City Blues," with Shade and Burse, we probably would have shipped you to Milledgeville, which is the Georgia state mental hospital.
4th and Beale (courtesy of Roger Brown)
DM: In 1959 I took a canoe trip with a friend across the country, from Denver to Memphis, and stopped in Memphis and we had a layover before we went on to New Orleans. And I, in my free time, looked up Will Shade. We found him, and probably talked, and I must have kept the address. Then in 1961, we went to Mississippi to drive Wade Walton to New York City for a recording session. He wasn't ready to leave yet, so that's when we looked up Will Shade again. We spent two days with him, recording.
DH: I think Dave probably got that address from somewhere. Or he might have asked around, who knows. I mean it's pretty easy, we figured he's probably still playing in the streets occasionally.
DM: And Memphis was a lot smaller city in those days.
CM: I met George Mitchell [Roger's companion on their trips] in Chicago, and one day he was in Memphis and he took me over to Will Shade's apartment. And that was that.
AL: Roger and George were based in Atlanta and Dave and Don in California, but Charlie, you had the advantage of being local. How often did you visit?
CM: Well, the years 62 to 63, I was back and forth between Memphis and Chicago. I'd go up to Chicago, then I'd come back, and I worked in a paper factory for a while on one of my returns. And I'd go over like once a week, or several times a week. I remember I got my hands on a car, for $99. I had an old Lincoln, a 1950 Lincoln. And I could drive down to Beale Street and park in the alley next to Will's place and go right up the stairs.
AL: It seems like everybody that did field work in that area went to see Will Shade. Why do you think he was the focus of so much of that? Was he just easier to find?
RB: Well, he was the entrepreneur of the Memphis Jug Band. If you're going to Memphis, you'd look up Will Shade before anybody else, because he founded the Memphis Jug Band, and he was one of the last two or three survivors. He and Charlie were the only ones left, and you certainly didn't want to deal with just Charlie. Will was a lot more sensible than Charlie!
AL: Can you describe his living situation?
DM: It was a tenement near Beale Street, and I think we recorded on the second floor. It was in a room that contained a few chairs and little other furniture, so I don't know if it was Will Shade's living room, or what. It was just a run-down tenement, like in those days where really poor people lived.
DH: I remember that room as being just very bare, you know, and then I remember this sort of hallway, I think it was on the second floor. I think it goes back to the 1880s or earlier, because there was an outdoor oven or something, and it looked like there had formerly been like slave quarters outside that building. You run into that in the Caribbean, too, barracks yards and stuff, where slaves, and then sort of like indentured labor used to live, and I'm sure they still have buildings like that in the urban South. And that might have been one of them. One of the pictures either Dave took or I took has little kids playing, and one of the kids is eating from a box of Argo starch, which poor people would eat ... it would be filling.
RB: It was grinding poverty. I think that's the way Charters expressed it. They had raw fish on some rack on the floor. I mean, they weren't eating well. When we went over there for a party, we went out and bought a whole bunch of hamburgers from some place. I mean, good stuff. And so everybody was gorging themselves that night. But we wondered how many meals they even had a day.
CM: Will liked to sit in a chair right by the window. His apartment was on the second floor, and from that window he could see down into the alley, and everybody passing back and forth, and he'd talk to people, or tell them to come on up if you've got a bottle. (laughing)
CM: The building itself was in the middle of this block. You had Beale Street on one end, and I think Hernando and then Fourth on the other sides of the block, and I don't know what was on the South side, but ... Beale to the North, Fourth to the East, and Hernando on the West. And there were alleys that went into the block, and so there was sort of like a block within a block. You'd go down an alley, and you'd come to other alleys, and there were more buildings inside the block that didn't face any of the streets. So this building that Will lived in was like that. And it was just a really old, wooden thing, covered with some kind of asbestos shingles. And you'd walk upstairs, he was on the top floor, in the back ... that would be the South-West corner. There was one bathroom at the end of the hall. He had two rooms. The one main room that he mostly was in, and then the other room, you could go through a door from that back room into the bathroom. (laughing) Or you could go in from the hall. And there was a bed in that second room, too. I always wondered why they didn't rent that room to somebody to make some money. It was just an empty room with a bed in it. He had a pot-belly, cast-iron stove. And the best hamburger I ever had in my life, I still remember, he would cook on top of that cast-iron, wood fire, pot-belly stove. He'd cook hamburgers, and man, I've never had a better hamburger. The flavor ... I don't know what he did to season it, but it was just perfect.
CM: I brought him a little electric fan one time, 'cause he had no way to keep cool. And it would get so hot in the summer, really humid, and that fan was a big help. He would often get a pot with a handle on it, fill it with water and ice cubes, and we'd just pass it around, like it was a big dipper. We'd just drink ice water out of that pot. And I remember there was a trunk, a big steamer trunk or something. I remember one time Abe McNeil, the blind guy, was there, and he sat down on the trunk, and his wife said, "Abe, you know, you're sitting on the trunk," and he just jumped up! Like it's bad luck to sit on a trunk. I don't know what was in that trunk. I wish I had thought to ask. Maybe there was all kinds of photos, and all kinds of memorabilia from his life, I don't have any idea.
CM: He was real fun to be around, and welcoming. He loved to have company, and have visitors over and we'd always be having a jam session or something, sooner or later. And a lot of drinking. There was always an occasion to have a drink. (laughing) And his favorite drink was Golden Harvest sherry wine. So I'd always bring that with me, and would often go out to get more.
CM: But it was real sad after Jennie Mae died. He used to always say, he'd point over to her. She would lay up in bed, smoking cigarettes and drinking all day, and he'd sit in his chair by the window, and he'd point over to her and say, "Once she goes, I'll be right behind her." Like, he knew that she would die first. He was going to stay around to take care of her. So she did die, and he moved from that apartment, across Fourth Street to another, smaller place, and there was a lady everybody called Yalluh taking care of him over there. And I guess she wasn't taking care of him too good, 'cause he had fell down and his arm was up against a gas stove, and it gave him a really bad burn on his arm. He didn't have the strength to get away from it, and he just lay there, and it burned and burned and burned.
AL: Wow. Was it hard to go into an environment like that, and see that poverty? You were crossing a lot of boundaries there, race and culture and class....
RB: Nothing to it, no. Good heavens, we came from Atlanta, we were used to blacks, we were used to rough neighborhoods. If you rode the trolley from the part of Atlanta we lived in, downtown, you went down Forest Avenue, the so-called Fourth Ward, where the harp player Eddie Mapp was murdered, you saw all kinds of unemployed men loitering around. No, that was nothing. And remember, we were excited. We were on the track! Whiskey [the man they found at a pharmacy who offered to take them to Shade] rapped on that door and said, "Son Brimmer, somebody to see you." And he stuck that big paw out, "Shade's my name." Couldn't have been more gracious.
DM: But if we were looking today in lower income black areas for musicians, it would be a really tough thing to do. Whereas when we were doing it, a white person could walk into a black place and there was no resentment at the time. People were leery, but you could ask enough questions and eventually they'd point you in the right direction.
CM: Yeah, there wasn't any problem at all. I just fit right in. I knew how to drink like everybody else. (laughing)
RB: The only time I was really frightened was by Gus Cannon's landlord's dog, the most vicious dog I've ever encountered in my life. He wanted to sink his teeth into my white flesh so bad!
AL: Were the attitudes different between the jug band musicians in Memphis, and other blues musicians you visited on other trips?
RB: You know, you got personality. A guy like Buddy Moss is moody, right? And most of the time Buddy was jovial and gracious, but not always. Robert Lockwood, if you tried to quiz him, you couldn't get anything out of him. But if you hung around him, all kinds of tidbits would dribble out, little by little, you know? When you least expected them. But by and large, they always appreciated your interest in their music. Maybe we gave off better vibes than some white guys. I say that because, I don't know if you've read the book on Blind Willie McTell by Michael Gray. He runs down Curley Weaver's daughter, he said she was nasty to him. Well, I called her once and she was gracious! I have a Southern accent, he has a British accent, you know ... he must have really put her off, because she was as sweet as she could be when I talked to her.
DM: When we recorded Wade Walton in Clarksdale, in 58, he said, "Come back at night and we can talk and record," so we did, and he had to pull down the shades of the barber shop, so the police who patrolled that area could not see in, 'cause if they saw a couple of white people inside a black guy's barber shop, they would have come in and told him not to do that.
AL: It seems like people really wanted to be on those recordings. Was it just fun for them? You were probably giving them some wine but not much else. Were they just excited to be included?
DH: The main ones, I think they liked doing it. You know, this is doing a lot of psychologizing, but I think they realized that they were pretty famous musicians at one time, and made a living at it, and now their music was definitely out of favor, particularly in the black community. My wife is black and her whole family just wouldn't even listen. Well, with the exception of one cousin who was a jazz musician. So the only people that really liked it were mostly young, white men. And they were more than happy to play for them. And they usually wanted something to drink. I think that was the deal. But they just liked being recognized. I think that was true about the white country musicians that we recorded, too. They just liked it. Some of them would complain and carp a little bit, thinking they were going to make some money. We ran into that occasionally, but not often.
DM: It's like anything. If they go to you, Arlo, and say, "Hey, I understand you have a jug band, can I talk to you about it," you're delighted. These guys really just dropped off the map, maybe they were playing jobs for other black people, but, you know, a couple of white kids show up interested in their music, and they're thrilled.
AL: Roger had a unique opportunity to see Will Shade and Charlie Burse, the two core members of the Memphis Jug Band, playing a gig. What was that like?
RB: The gig at Peabody? I'd say we were there maybe a half hour. We gave them a ride over, and we watched them for a few minutes down there, and then some white guy came up and invited them to play for a little party in his room. And so they went up there, and then Will's leg started bothering him, so they left early.
AL: They were busking in the lobby. Were people stopping and paying attention, or just passing by?
RB: Passing by. The music there was unexceptional. I guess you could say they were playing down to their audience. Charlie Burse was singing something about "Hi yo silver! Hi yo silver!" You know how boisterous Burse could be. He was just playing whatever, whatever he thought. You know, that wasn't a blues session for them. That was just tips, from white folks.
AL: Did their voices and their instruments carry over a crowd?
RB: Oh, loud and clear. It was a busy lobby, and I think there may have been some kind of a fountain or something there where you threw coins in or something, but you could hear them loud and clear. Charlie Burse could sing over anybody. Shade was just plucking the bass, but Charlie was being the showman. I'll never forget how Charlie Burse looked duckwalking as he was playing his tenor guitar in that lobby.
AL: Duckwalking, wow! I also read a quote in a Greil Marcus book saying that Elvis got his leg shake from watching Charlie Burse. He quotes someone on Beale Street, a promoter in a club, saying that Elvis learned how to shake his leg from watching Charlie Burse.
RB: I wouldn't be surprised. They did tell us that Elvis had come down to them looking for musical tips. That I think is a fact to take down.
CM: I got Earl Bell and Laura Dukes one little gig at a little coffee place on Highland Avenue one time, called the Ohso. And they only played for tips. I think occasionally somebody would know how to get ahold of Will Shade. They would get occasional things, but rarely. Guys like Willie B., he had a day job, and Earl Bell had a day job. I'm not aware that there was much they could do anymore. All the clubs on Beale Street were having people like B.B. King, big bands and stuff. These guys were considered old time, over the hill, they weren't on the radio. People hardly knew anything about them.
The Peabody Hotel lobby (courtesy of Arlo Leach)
AL: Did you talk to them about the gigs they were doing back in their prime?
DH: I don't think we asked Will Shade. But with all the other musicians that we recorded, especially the guitarists and singers and banjo players, they would play picnics, and they would play for white and black groups. Most of them preferred to play for white groups, because they got more money. So my sense is that they were just continuing to do that. I know James Campbell, who I recorded in Nashville, he played at picnics, street fairs, and in Mississippi they'd play for pickup ball games, and stuff like that. So I think they probably did play. And I know Laura Dukes continued playing, right on through the blues revival.
RB: There must have been a lot of street corner jug band playing in the '30s, and I don't know what else, but parties, probably in those gambling joints, Pee Wee's and places like that, must have been some playing going on. You can just let your imagination roll. A better informant on that would have been Dick Allen, but Dick Allen's no longer with us.
AL: At the time you knew them, did they still play for themselves, just for fun?
CM: We played in his apartment, whether it was just he and I and Jennie Mae, or some neighbors, or some other friends that stopped by. There were musicians who came by all the time. It wasn't unusual at all, you just expected it. And that's where I met a whole lot of people, like Earl Bell, and Willie B., and Red Roby [Milton Roby], Son Smith, Little Bit [Laura Dukes], Johnny Moment, a guy who called himself Harmonica Joe, later I found out his real name was Coy Love. And people were always just dropping by. They'd kind of pay their respects, see how Will was doing, bring a bottle ... always brought a bottle. And if Will started singing, "Golden Harvest sherry wine, Golden Harvest sherry wine, Golden Harvest sherry..." you'd know that it's time to go get another bottle. (laughing)
RB: Neighbors drifted in. One young guy thought he could play spoons. Obviously he couldn't do it very well, but at least the guy was trying. Yeah, people dropped in there because there was music going on!
DM: I think Will Shade had a day job, and we only recorded at night. It was two days, and it was a little chaotic, because other people came by, including this woman named Mary Mitchell, who had a really bad voice, but insisted on singing a couple of songs with everybody else. I think it was the second night we were there, everybody was drinking a lot, and then this woman, I guess was really drunk, and I followed her back into her kitchen, and she was boiling water and she somehow spilled it on herself.
AL: Why do you think Will Shade and his cohorts played jug band music instead of just sticking with straight blues? In other words, what do you think that the jug band elements gave them as performers?
CM: I guess it made him famous, and that was his ticket. (laughing) He probably did real well with it, and he liked it, and was proud of it. He wrote a lot of the tunes, and performed them, and that was part of his life. And I'm not sure, other than Gus Cannon, and Jed Davenport, how many actual jug bands there were around Memphis. And I don't know if there was room for more than a few. (laughing) Only so many gigs to go around.
RB: That combination of homemade and legitimate instruments is a very appealing sound. I'm assuming it was in the air, or they were exposed to it from those Ohio River groups. They must have cut quite a scene on a street corner in Memphis. I think that commercially, you're better off that way than sitting there as a lonesome guy with a guitar, or playing a harp solo. Look how many string bands there were!
DH: I think jug band music is what put them on the map. The first jug bands were in Louisville, and they heard those records, and they got the records and thought they could do a jug band. And then I think that went out of style. But it's like any rock musicians, these old rock musicians, like the Rolling Stones, they still play what they've always played. And I think picnics and different street performances and so on just kept them going. Other musicians evolved, like Broonzy evolved. I think Memphis Minnie, had she not had a stroke, her music could have very easily fit into rhythm and blues. But, for the Memphis Jug Band, their style was gone. But the old people, both white and black, would have been in that generation, too, so they might have hired them.
DM: When a musician learns to play a certain kind of music ... my dad played music out of the 20s on piano, and he played it on piano, the same music, until he died. Never learned other music. That's sort of how it is.
DH: Dave, do you remember Doctor Edmond Souchon? He was a white Creole from New Orleans. He was like the musical go-to guy for both white and black music in New Orleans. He had a string band that basically played ragtime stuff, up through the 50s, until they started dying. I think that's true about that whole generation of blues people. Some of them continued to play, like James Campbell continued to play in Nashville, and others like Mississippi John Hurt continued to play for picnics and stuff, and then they get "discovered," and then they just pick up and play for the blues revival. Even Big Bill Broonzy, who had been in the Carnegie Hall concerts by John Hammond, he was a janitor at Northwestern University, and then he started recording again. So I don't think that was any different with those Memphis people.
AL: So, these performers basically stuck with the genre of music that they first were known for, but do you have any sense of what other music they were listening to? Were they listening to more contemporary stuff on the radio, or listening to records at all?
DH: I think Wade Walton, whatever contemporary was going on, he had in his jukebox ... Elvis, and people like Lightning Hopkins. I know James Campbell not only listened to, but played, a lot of country music. And that guy that Dave studied under, Roy Brown in St. Louis, he listened to a lot of country music, but it was mostly older country music he liked, like Jimmie Rogers and Hank Williams.
DM: But Wade had a barber shop, and he had a jukebox in it, and that's the only time I ever heard anybody playing records. A lot of these really down and out musicians, they didn't have money to buy radios. And you didn't have little transistor radios, you had to buy big ones in those days.
RB: Will Shade mentions radio in that last recording, right? "Went home, turned on my radio, danced along 'til I broke in my floor"? He probably had one then, but he didn't have one when I visited. He didn't have any kind of amenities that I could see.
CM: I don't remember a radio or even a record player. I had a little portable record player that I brought over one time, and I played him his jug band 78s, and he loved that.
AL: Speaking of records, Will seemed to really remember all of his old songs, and he could tell you when they were recorded and who played on them.
RB: Yes. He did that with us. He was a pro, there's no doubt about that. He lived it. He did a hell of a job, "Gettin' their numbers right," you know? I just scribbled down notes, because these were just names of titles and names of individuals, you know. They mentioned a lot of performers, and they mentioned a lot of titles. We were only aware of about three of them: "Stealin'," "Sun Brimmer's Blues," "K.C. Moan." I know that he remembered Tee Wee Blackman fondly, and most of those titles, but I just barely scribbled them down in my left-handed scrawl. I've got them somewhere, but now you've got Godrich and Dixon.
CM: And Will Shade was an entertainer, you know, he had to know not only blues, but the popular tunes of the day. A good example, one that comes to mind, anyhow, is Gitfiddle Jim, who was Kokomo Arnold. He put out a tune called "Paddlin' Madeline," which was a pop hit tune of the day. It wasn't a blues at all, but when he did it, he bluesed it up. (laughing) And even, you know, much later, a guy like John Lee Hooker, recorded "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." (laughing) I remember talking with Louis Myers and Dave Myers, you know, they had backed up Little Walter, and Louis was talking about all the tunes him and Dave would do together that had no relation to blues. They were all just the pop tunes of the day. And stuff for Bar Mitzvahs, and all that stuff. (laughing) The all-occasion band, you know, you wanted to be able to perform ... you wanted to get that money in any way they can get it. You wanted to be prepared.
AL: Will played guitar for at least one gospel session, with the Memphis Sanctified Singers. Do you know anything about that? Did he have much of a gospel interest, or do you think that was a one-off?
CM: I would say a one-off. I never heard him talk about that session, or gospel music at all.
RB: One thing that always annoyed me with Sam Charters, at some point in his writing he called Will Shade "a limited musician." Which I thought was a gratuitous insult to a quite advanced musician. The other one that I think is kind of a myth that got out there somehow -- these things repeat themselves -- is that the Cannon's Jug Stompers was superior to the Memphis Jug Band. Well, I love the Cannon's Jug Stompers, and I love Noah Lewis. I wouldn't say Noah Lewis was better on the harp than Will Shade, they had different styles! Just as Jed Davenport had a different style. They all complemented each other. But they had twice the output of the Cannon's Jug Stompers! And there wasn't much chaff in there, it was mostly wheat!
AL: A lot of diversity of styles, too.
RB: Yeah! Take a song like "Ambulance Man." Where the hell that came from I will never know. I wish I'd asked him. That's not the normal fare. No, I can't say enough about his musicianship. And of course, harmonica wasn't his only instrument. It was his first instrument, but it wasn't his only one. I like his guitar playing. It's simple, but it's effective. So it pissed me off every time I read "limited musician." Man, he could play. And you know, "Stingy Woman" was obviously one of his favorites. He loved to get up in those high, piercing notes, and he sat there and played "Stingy Woman" again and again and again. He just had that one little C harp in the apartment, for all I ever knew. But boy, he could play that "Stingy Woman." He could play them all, but that was obviously one of his favorites.
DH: I've talked with some people in the last 20, 30 years when I've gotten back into this stuff, you know, people like Sherwin Dunner and Rich Nevins and Crumb, and my sense is that they look at Will Shade as a kind of a pedestrian person, as opposed to somebody like Gus Cannon, who's more unique or something. But I think Will Shade really was the main one, you know? He really could do it all, and he was always there. It seemed like he was keeping the whole thing together. Sort of like Big Bill Broonzy was, on another level; he was able to constantly go through these different phases and just keep it going. He might not have been the world's greatest guitarist, but, the same with Will Shade, he was plenty good enough. He didn't throw his instruments away or anything like that, and they worked pretty good and he played pretty well. He had a good voice and everything.
DM: When I went through the logs we made, Will Shade played guitar, jug, washboard and harmonica.
CM: He also had that oil can tub bass. He claimed he invented it. (laughing) When I knew him, he didn't always have a guitar or harmonica. I remember giving him a guitar, and then next time I saw him, he'd pawned it. And he'd ask me to buy him harmonicas. And it was hard, I didn't really have any money, either.
CM: I remember something that might be worth noting. He tried to talk me into buying an organ. And he said he could play it, and that would make a great background for a band. You know, he was trying to get something going. (laughing) He thought if I would buy an organ, he could play it and then back me up.
AL: Wow. He wanted to have it moved up to his apartment or something?
CM: I don't know. It might be like the dog that caught the car, you know? (laughing)
AL: Well, another thing I admire about him is that he found so many other interesting singers and interesting musicians and brought them together, so when you listen to all the Memphis Jug Band recordings, you have Charlie Nickerson and Jab Jones and all these different people and styles that he brought all together. He's kind of a recruiter and a talent finder as well.
DH: The sense I get is that Will Shade was the real organizer of our session, that he got Gus to come in, and he tried to get Furry Lewis and they couldn't locate him, and he got Laura Dukes. But the real leader of the session, the person who led the songs, and who backed whoever was singing lead, quite adeptly, was Will Shade. I definitely was impressed by that. Will Shade was a real entrepreneur in a way, in making those Memphis recordings. He was kind of like the leader of the street musicians.
Will Shade and Gus Cannon (courtesy of Roger Brown)
DH: And these guys weren't considered musicians, technically. People looked down on them. I know Will Shade, he says this in our very brief interview, he really looked up to W.C. Handy. Which is kind of interesting because most of the people like me that follow this stuff really look up to Will Shade, but don't like W.C. Handy. This is not me, personally, because I like W.C. Handy. He was a schooled musician who knew music from the training point of view, but also had a great appreciation for street music as well.
AL: I've read excerpts of letters Will wrote, and he's not very literate. But Charters and other people have talked about him writing out his lyrics for copyright purposes. Do you think he really could have done that?
RB: He could squeak through that, but he was barely literate, and that's sad. How'd he spell "guarantee"? "Ganty" or something like that. I'll give you another example along those lines. Little Brother Montgomery wrote letters to Karl Gert zur Heide, and he later saw him writing, and it was like trying to chisel, as if he was chiseling one letter after another. When he saw what a struggle that was for him to make a letter, he realized how much effort he'd put into writing him all those letters.
AL: At the same time, Will's interviews contain lots of witty stories and clever wordplay. Can you share some examples of that?
CM: One he told often, I don't know what would tip him to throw this out there, but he'd always say, "Yeah, like the blind man walking by the fish market, saying, 'Good morning, ladies! Good morning, ladies!'" He would say that and just laugh. (laughing)
RB: Will's leg got to bothering him, and Laura Dukes offered to massage it. He said, "You'd have to rub me all over," with that lascivious grin on his face ... that was Shade.
CM: Then there was the Dirty Dozens, he'd play that from time to time, and that was pretty funny, and raunchy.
DH: I had thought that that was the first obscene recording of the Dirty Dozens, when we recorded him in 61. Now I've got Jelly Roll Morton's CDs that Lomax did in 39 or 1940, and he does pretty much the same Dirty Dozens, with all the cuss words in it.
AL: (laughing) I've heard your recording of him doing that, it's pretty raw! Your memoir quotes him introducing a song by saying, "Well, ladies and gentlemules...." He seemed to have a lot of little quips like that.
DH: He did that trick on Dave, and Dave fell right into it. Dave asked the meaning of "double E, double R..." and Will asked how he would spell it. After Dave spelled it, Will said, "Well how come you can't spell it double E, double R, double E, double N-O-G? Don't that sound like Tennessee? Which sound better, that or that?" It's kind of like minstrel stuff.
CM: It was all part of being an entertainer.
RB: I tell you ... I think it came up because of the verse, "I got something at home, make you let me alone." Shade went over in the corner and pulled out a weapon, I mean, it was some kind of farm implement. It was the most grotesque looking thing I've ever seen. And he held it out in front of him ... it was long, and the end of it was sharp, and he was out of shape ... he had a belly, and he wasn't well. But he held that thing out in front of him as if he was threatening, waved it a little bit, big grin on his face, and said, "This is what I got at home, that will make you let me alone." (laughing) I guess if a prowler came in there, he could have defended Jennie Mae with that thing. That's the kind of guy ... he was a jovial, lovable guy, and I loved him dearly.
CM: He had a great sense of humor, and he loved to kid, and joke around, and laugh. He really enjoyed himself as much as he could.
RB: We spent a wonderful evening over at Willie Borum's house, when Borum played a lot. And I remember one verse he sang: "Her leg up in the air, she began to shout / Go easy on me, daddy, but please don't take it out." We also dropped the needle on his Prestige Bluesville album, and when we dropped it on "The Stuff Is Here," that uptempo harp number, Shade looked askance at him and said, "You naughty boy," and Borum laughed heartily, because he knew he stole that harp part from Shade.
Will Shade and Willie Borum (courtesy of Roger Brown)
AL: Charlie, you have a recording, it's the bonus track on one of your albums, of you and Will playing "Newport News." I think you're playing the guitar, and you're tuning it, and while you're tuning it, he's just teasing you nonstop. (transcript)
CM: Yeah, I'm glad that got released so that people could hear it. This is the first time I think anybody's ever mentioned it to me, that they'd listened to it. (laughing)
AL: Let's go back to the "double E, double R, double E..."
CM: Double-X Y Z.
AL: Yeah. What -does- that mean?
CM: I don't know. There's several instances in blues where there's stuff like that, and it's just nonsense. I don't know what purpose it served, if there ever was any, but as far as I'm concerned, it's just nonsense. It's just another way of being entertaining. Furry Lewis sang that same verse, too. It's a popular verse, I don't know why. It's like, there was a place in Binghampton, part of Memphis, called Leven Row. I knew a girl over there I liked. She lived in Leven Row. And people want to know what Leven Row is, well, it was eleven shotgun houses in a row.
AL: Sometimes I wonder if the singers even knew what stuff meant.
RB: There's a famous stanza by Willie McTell on the "Broke Down Engine." "Can I get down snake level and..." blank blank blank blank blank blank blank "...tip light across your floor." He rolls that off his tongue very fast. Well, Buddy Moss did a version of "Broke Down Engine," and he did the same verse, and I asked him, and he said, "Well, he beat me on that one." He sang it himself, but unintelligibly.
AL: Here's another one. In "Newport News," Will says, "She's got a man on her man, got a kid man on her...."
CM: Dog-gone kid.
AL: "Kid man on her dog-gone kid"? Does that just mean she has multiple lovers?
CM: Yeah, it's like a pile of 'em. That's what I think it means.
AL: Is "kid man" ... is there a specific meaning to that?
CM: It's just a young man.
RB: Hey, I want to hear if we transcribed the same way. What do you think Shade's saying in the chorus of that "Jump and Jive" song?
AL: I thought it was "get up now and send me John."
RB: My take on that is "get up, Nell, send me Joan." It's a whorehouse song, he's bored with Nell, he wants something from Joan! I think that's the only way it makes sense. But boy, Shade knew more songs ... original stuff, huh? I've listened to it many times and I respect it. I respect him for putting that out.
AL: Dave and Don, you recorded that song, too. Do you have any thoughts on that?
DH: That's a tricky thing, doing lyrics. I'm forever discovering lyrics that I've been singing for 50 years, and discover that I heard it wrong.
RB: I used to tell my students, "You know why you kids have so much trouble with these blues lyrics? You got Yankee ears!" I used to ride the trolley downtown with all those housemaids, jabbering a mile a minute. When you've done that, you can understand black speech with no sweat. Here's another: at the end of one of those songs, they're frolicking, and one of them shouts, "Get off of that, too sweet!" Did you understand that?
AL: In Dick Allen's interview with Will Shade, he says he had a dog named Tout de Suite.
RB: No, his cat! Too Sweet was a cat. I knew about it from our first trip to Memphis, when they were laughing about that recording.
AL: I always thought it was "tout de suite," like "get on outta there immediately."
RB: Oh, no. Good heavens, I'm sure they didn't know a word of French. That's how mistakes get into books. I could see how you could conclude that. No, it's "too sweet." Guaranteed!
AL: Jennie Mae Clayton, Will's wife, seemed to have quite a personality, and mixed it up with the guys when they were jamming at your parties, right?
RB: Oh, yeah. Oh, she was with it. "I got the next verse," you know. You read the one about, "Why I like my long, tall man so well, every time he loves me, makes my belly swell." I'll never forget that, from a 70-year old. She was an old gal, and she liked bumming Luckys [Lucky Strike cigarettes] from us all the time. One lung or not!
AL: There's another verse she sings, on the George Mitchell recordings: "Son Brimmer, it ain't no use, I try to love you, but you ain't got no juice."
RB: "Ain't got no more juice," yeah. That was our very last visit, and both of them were dead within, gosh, she was dead very shortly after that, and he not far behind. You could tell, they had deteriorated from when we saw them. That was only a year or two from when we last saw them, but they had deteriorated a lot by that time. Pitiful.
RB: Another thing that they told us ... since this was pre Godrich and Dixon, we didn't even know that Hattie Hart existed. We knew that they had the title "Ambulance Man," and Jennie Mae wailed "Ambulance Man," so we assumed that when the jug band recorded "Ambulance Man," it was Jennie Mae. But of course it wasn't, it was Hattie Hart.
AL: I read somewhere, I can't remember where, but somebody described Jennie Mae Clayton as having been the most beautiful woman in Memphis in the 30s.
RB: Well, Furry Lewis was sweet on her. She wasn't attractive when we saw her, but she was 70 and beat up and one lung. She might have been a looker when Shade bumped into her on that street, but I couldn't tell you. I've never heard that.
AL: Did you ever hear anything about them having kids?
RB: Never. That's something, isn't it? You don't hear of many blues songs ... I think Paul Oliver spilled a little ink over that ... about how childbearing or anything is rarely mentioned.
CM: They seemed to really be in love, and really cared for each other, and had a good relationship. I rarely saw her joining in the music. She either didn't have the energy to, or just wasn't interested. She just liked to lay there and listen and make comments, and she was quite entertained just to watch the show from the bed. (laughing)
AL: How about Charlie Burse? In 1963, he had been playing with Will for 35 years.
RB: Charlie was the most irrepressible person I've ever met, and temperamental. He and Shade were decrepit physically, but boy, they erupted when they played. That was a contrast that struck me immediately. The way they cut loose on that "Kansas City Blues." You hear how it starts ... you hear Shade say, "Don't say 'look out,' you just hit it!" And then that Charlie Burse shriek in the middle of that thing. Man. That's better than the 1927 rendition of "Kansas City Blues," when they were young, is it not?
AL: They did so many versions of that song, it was clearly one of their favorites. You collected the story of Burse recording with the Memphis Jug Band, and they had to put pillows around the legs of his stool because he kept kicking the legs while he played and ruining the recordings.
RB: Yeah, we got that straight from Shade. Kicking the stool legs. Yeah, that's from us.
AL: I read somewhere that Charlie Burse had a wife named Birdie. Did you meet her?
RB: We met his wife. We went over to pick him up and his wife was very stern, she told him not to come back empty-handed. We didn't have a lot of money to be tipping them with ... we bought them a little Golden Harvest sherry. But I'm sure she was disappointed that night. She was no nonsense, and she wasn't terribly friendly to us that night. But he was raring to go.
AL: Irrepressible, like you said.
RB: Yeah, he was irrepressible. Oh, God.
AL: Furry Lewis was over to Will's house for Roger and George's recordings, and played a couple duets with Will. Were they friends?
CM: I wouldn't say so. I only remember Furry coming by once, and then he got in a fistfight. (laughing) There had been a grudge between the two of them. I guess they both were after Jennie Mae, and she went with Will Shade instead of Furry Lewis, and they'd been enemies ever since. It's kind of hazy now why Furry got over there, but I remember they got in a fight, and they were rolling around on the floor. They were both too old and too drunk to hurt each other. But it just looked so ridiculous, these elderly gentlemen of the blues, rolling on the floor. (laughing)
Will Shade and Furry Lewis (courtesy of Roger Brown)
RB: There's one thing I don't buy, and it's always puzzled me. Furry Lewis will tell you, "That was my jug band, me and Son Brimmer, the Memphis Jug Band." I have no indication that he ever played with them. He certainly never recorded with them. He may have jammed with them, occasionally. But Furry Lewis was different, you know. People heard about him because he acquired some fame from those Folkways recordings. I'll put it this way: there was a Vice President at UNH, about eight years ago, who had spent some time in Memphis. And he told me, "I'm a Furry Lewis fan." So somehow he was exposed to Furry, late in the game. And something came up on YouTube, he was doing "Casey Jones," I think it was, and I forwarded that to him, and he said, "Brings back memories."
RB: I took my first wife over to see Furry once, you know what they were eating early in the morning? Chitlins. Have you ever smelled chitlins? We told them we'd already eaten. I didn't want any part of that. I wondered about Furry's diet. You know, he drank. I said, "What would you like?" "I just drink." I always bought these guys Mill Farm bourbon, because it's the cheapest kind. But Furry lived to a ripe old age.
CM: Furry lived in a bunch of places. When I first met him, he lived at Church Place. It's not there anymore. Where the Hampton Inn is, underneath that is where Church Place was. It was a little street that ran off of the street that runs on the West side of Handy Park. From his front door you could see Handy Park. That was where I first met him, in an apartment on the ground floor. Then he moved to a building that was next to Will Shade's place, inside that block I described earlier. He lived on the other side of that alley. And then Furry moved out to a house off of Jackson in North Memphis. That was the last place I saw him. And I guess things were getting better for him, 'cause compared to his other places, this was a really nice house.
CM: He had a day job. Actually, it was a night job. He would sweep Beale Street. He was a street sweeper. He had one of those push brooms, and he had this can that was suspended between these two large wheels, that would roll along real easy, and it had a trough kind of thing on the street, and you'd sweep into that, and then you'd push the lever, and it would go up and dump it into the can. And I would go with him, when he would sweep up Beale Street. And it would be two, three in the morning or something. And there wouldn't be anybody out on the street at that time of night. All the lights would be on, and we'd just be out there going down the street, sweeping up loose paper and stuff. He loved his job. He said it was easy, and he liked it, and he got paid well. It was right near where he lived, and he didn't have to have a car, or ride a bus to get to work.
AL: Wow. That's a strange irony, him out there, not only being a street sweeper, but on Beale Street.
CM: Yeah. (laughing) I'm sure he played up and down Beale Street, with people, back in the day, when it was really happening. He said he once played with W.C. Handy. I don't know if he meant the whole orchestra, or what, but I remember him telling me he could play with anybody, anywhere, if he knew what key they were in.
AL: There are some videos of Furry in the 60s, where he's playing the guitar with his arm, and spinning it around. Even at that age, he was a very dynamic performer, a showman.
CM: Oh, yeah. He would do all that stuff around the house, too. For laughs, you know. And he was really fit, mentally and physically, too. He did have one false leg, but that didn't seem to slow him down any.
AL: Gus Cannon was another rival who joined in some of the recording sessions.
DH: Gus Cannon came in twice, once each day, to do a few numbers, and at the end of one of his sessions he played a couple of strokes on the banjo, "boom boom," and then said, "I'm gone." And he got up an left! (laughing) I thought Gus Cannon was the oldest person in the history of the world when I saw him (laughing), and I thought he was way past his prime. And over the years I've listened to those recordings, and he's just great on there! I don't know what I was thinking. I guess when you're 18 or 20 years old, everybody over 30 is old. Now I'm older than Gus Cannon was when we recorded him.
RB: Nobody was hanging around Gus. Gus was a loner. He lived in a different place every time I went, practically. One place was way across town, in an upscale white neighborhood, older homes, stately homes. They had a little apartment off to the side of the house, and he was renting there and he wasn't there that day. We met the family and talked to them, and the guy said, "He's very talented when he's sober." So we knew he was a drinker. The next time was way the hell across town again, but in a distinctly black neighborhood, and that time he couldn't find his pants. But then the next night, we finally got him with pants.
DH: I think Gus Cannon was a gardener. I think me mowed lawns or something like that.
AL: From the brief stories I've heard, it seems like Will Shade and his gang were kind of a clique that Gus Cannon didn't interact with much, and they seemed a little condescending toward him. Was that your impression?
RB: I doubt that they were contemptuous of Gus Cannon in his prime. It's just that, at that stage of the game, he was probably fifteen or twenty years older than they were, and drunk. Will played a scale on the harmonica so Gus could tune the banjo. And he kept getting it wrong, and Shade said, "You've lost your ear." "No I ain't!" And he said, "I can't tune the harp!" (laughing) But no, that was just the stage he was in then, and the stage they were in. I'm sure they knew ... I mean, you can't knock Gus's banjo playing or singing in the early days of the Cannons. But when we got to Gus, he was showing his age more than Shade and Burse.
DM: Gus Cannon didn't stick around, he'd walk in and then leave. I don't know whether he was not friendly with Will Shade or whether he just was not interested in recording free or something. But if they'd been real pals, then I'm sure that he would have stayed, don't you think, Don?
DH: Yeah, and I think they did have their different groups. And I think Gus Cannon's buddy was Furry Lewis, but I'm not sure.
CM: Yeah. Furry took me over to Gus's one time. There were some railroad tracks, and there was a chair by the railroad tracks, and Gus Cannon pointed at the chair and said he liked to sit there in the afternoons. He said he called it Old Man's Corner. And there was a store there, a little neighborhood store, and I remember Gus and Furry and I bought a bottle in there, and we sat out there next to the store and drank it, and got pretty high. (laughing) I don't remember the conversation, except we were all doing a lot of laughing.
AL: What was it like talking to Gus? He was quite a bit older by that time, than the others.
CM: He was pretty spry, though. He seemed real fit, physically and mentally. And he was real nice, real gentle. I also saw him in Chicago one time. He was playing in Old Town, at a folk club or something, and I stopped by to see him, and we had a nice visit. He got in a little on that folk boom, to make some gigs.
Gus Cannon (courtesy of Roger Brown)
AL: Some of you met Memphis Minnie briefly, right?
DH: Memphis Minnie was more legit, more commercial, you know. And I think they were totally separate from Memphis Minnie, although Will knew where Memphis Minnie's address was, so he kind of knew where everybody was. We went out to see her and Son Joe. I realize that memories can really be false. But I remember Son Joe coming to the door, and escorting us back in to see Memphis Minnie. She was a very, very nice lady. Dave wrote a notice for Jazz Journal in England, and that may have more detail in it.
DM: We have different recollections, but she was sick, and I thought she had opened the door for us. Don says she didn't, that she was in bed ... I trust his memory. The only thing I can really remember is that we asked her for pictures, and she gave us a number of pictures of herself, and I found a place that enlarged the pictures for me, and then I went back and gave the pictures back.
DH: And we got them to autograph them. And I sold mine to Paul Garon, who wrote a book on Memphis Minnie, with his wife.
DM: I threw mine away.
DH: (laughing) Well, that's the way it goes.
CM: One time Furry took me to Memphis Minnie's place, and she was there on the front porch in a chair asleep. We didn't want to wake her up, and we thought we'd come back later, but I never got back. So I didn't really meet her. I saw her (laughing). I wish I'd gone back, but it just slipped through my fingers.
AL: Abe McNeil was a friend who wasn't featured on your recordings, but played or talked in the background. Who was he?
RB: He was a learner at that point, that's what he was hanging around Shade for. He was not accomplished on the guitar, and one time he sang something, "Wine Headed Man" or something, he says, "I ain't gonna drink no more whiskey, I ain't gonna drink no beer or wine," and he didn't drop his pitch at the end of the line, and Shade corrected that. He's the one you hear making stray comments, say on Furry's "Pera Lee Blues." He probably interjects about 10 times in that song. Effectively, I thought. Added some spirit. He was a colorful, interesting fellow. He had a cane, and dark glasses, kind of dapper looking, and with it, you know? He loved the music, you could tell, that's why he made all these interjections. One he liked to play that I liked was, "I'm going back to Jackson, dear old Jackson, Tennessee, 'cause life around here got the jinx on me." That's one of the first things Sonny Boy Williamson put out. The tune is the same as "Trouble In Mind." He picked that up from Sonny Boy Williamson, obviously.
CM: I saw people all the time playing on the street. I remember seeing people downtown, on Main Street, and also down on Beale Street. Abe McNeil played there, and his wife would be leading him around.
Abe McNeil (courtesy of Roger Brown)
AL: Laura Dukes played with the jug band all the way back in 1934, and she was still there for your recordings.
RB: Laura Dukes hung out, but she was a friend, and she just played a little ukulele. I didn't get the impression that she was an accomplished musician. She played simple ukulele. But she was a very nice little person, and seemed to be sort of educated, better educated than they were.
DM: She was on almost all the sessions that Shade recorded for us, and so my hunch would be that if Will did any jobs, then they went together, don't you think, Don?
DH: Yeah, I think so. She played banjo uke. There was a woman folklorist in Memphis that I met, and Laura Dukes was her main source whenever she needed somebody to play at some affair. I can't remember whether Laura Dukes was still alive in 1995 when I was there. She may have been. She was younger than the others.
AL: Some of the field recordings have a Catherine or Cat Porter, and then I think on other times they're listed as Catherine Young, for the same song. Is that the same person?
RB: That's probably just a mistake on the Young thing. This was just a neighbor, she was down the hall from Shade. She was probably a laborer, and probably worked at a dry cleaner or something, who knows, but who had a nice voice, and liked to sing with Shade.
CM: I first met her at Furry's house. She claimed to be Furry's daughter, but I don't think that was true. People would say things like that often when it was just they were close. So, I met her at Furry's, and she also was hanging around at Will Shade's house a lot, and she would often sing. I thought she was a really good singer, but I don't know that she ever had any kind of a professional career in singing. (laughing) You might be interested to know ... she was a ... you might call her a girlfriend.
AL: Oh -- of you, you mean?
CM: Yeah. We had a lot of fun together, I'll put it that way. (laughing)
AL: Oh, nice. Okay! And Bo Carter lived right in the same building as Will, right?
CM: Bo Carter lived downstairs, next to that alley, in another building closer to Fourth Street.
RB: It was not in the same building, it was a separate house right off to the side of the alley. If you were walking toward Shade's building, you'd look over to the left a little bit, and there's a single house, just one story. His son-in-law was a little scary because he hated Shade.
AL: Some of you went to Brownsville after Memphis to meet Sleepy John Estes, is that right?
RB: While he was saying goodbye, Shade just off-handedly said, "Sleepy John Estes still living up in Brownsville." "WHAT?" When you're a 15- or 16-year old, and you drop the needle on "Special Agent" in Atlanta, Georgia, you hear that wailing voice, and you know it's in the 20s, you naturally assume the guy is dead. And then to be at his house an hour later, and ask him how old he is, and he says 58. And he was an old 58! But in very good form that day. We wasted so much tape at a drunken jam session with Gus, that we only had 15 minutes left when we unexpectedly met Estes. If we'd saved an hour! One hour less of that drunken babble! Well, that's the breaks. The good news is we did get him.
AL: What about Shakey Walter Horton? He claims to have played on some Memphis Jug Band recordings, but I don't think that's correct.
RB: I met Shakey Walter Horton. He claimed, mendaciously, that he in fact was playing on that Memphis Jug Band thing in Chicago, when he was ten years old. I said, "Who influenced you?" "No, I influenced them." He was drunk and just all braggadocio. But I don't know how they ever made that mistake, or where that got started.
AL: Don and Dave spent some time with Big Joe Williams.
DH: Yeah, I thought he was loony tunes. Actually, he wasn't. He was just a hustler, you know. I mean, he did what he had to do to keep in the music. Dave also interviewed him, and heard a story you hear over and over again, that basically these guys, Southern blacks, would play music to stay out of trouble ... to stay out of jail, or be a convict laborer or something. There's a huge literature on that now, that this sort of slavery continued well into the 60s and early 70s, and these guys could stay away from it by being entertainers. And it didn't keep them totally away ... I think Williams had spent some time in Parchman, or in labor camps, turpentine camps, levy camps, stuff like that.
AL: And Charlie, you knew Sam Charters, in fact he produced your first album. How did that come about?
CM: While I was living in Chicago, and I was living in the basement of the Jazz Record Mart, which at that time was at 7 West Grand Avenue, Big Joe lived down there, too. We had cots in the basement. (laughing) So when Sam came through town, he'd always stop by to see Bob Koester, and hang out. He knew that I knew where everybody was playing, and he would ask me to take him out to hear different people, and so he heard me playing with Walter Horton, and that's where he got the idea to include me in that series, Chicago, the Blues, Today! So we were familiar with each other, and then Elektra came out with a Paul Butterfield album, and then Sam asked me if I wanted to make an album, and I said, "Yeah, sure, I'll make an album, I don't know." (laughing) Nothing else going on! (laughing)
CM: He could be difficult. I remember one time ... I don't remember the whole conversation, but he told me that Otis Spann always recorded with an electric piano. Or was it the other way around ... anyhow, he insisted that Spann never recorded except one way, and I knew that was wrong, and he wouldn't listen to me at all about it. (laughing) And it became a kind of an argument about Spann. I mean, I knew Spann, and I saw him all the time. And he's the one telling me how Spann plays, and how he records. (laughing) It was ridiculous. But he could be real opinionated. Other times, he was a lot of fun. We'd go around to the blues clubs and stuff. And I had to hand it to him, he was pretty fearless. I took him to some real rough places, and he didn't cower. (laughing)
AL: You have all mentioned that you wished you had more knowledge and experience when you met these people, so you could get more out of your time with them.
CM: I wish I had known better questions to ask, you know? I'd just let Will talk, 'cause I didn't know what to ask. I didn't know to ask him about who your influences were, things like that. I was just like 18, I just wasn't mature enough to know ... I should have been, but I wasn't. (laughing) I'd like to know more about, you know, what he thought about things. But at that age, at that time, I just didn't think of it, all the things I should have asked. And so I just let him talk. I remember him telling me one time, they were on the road going somewhere, and they hit a pig, and killed it, and they took that pig along with them, and they butchered it and cooked it up somewhere later down the road. He'd tell me stories and stuff, and I loved all of it, but I didn't know what to ask. (laughing)
RB: You know, we were teenagers. Abe McNeil played something he called the "Limousine Blues." And it was really "Terraplane Blues," by Robert Johnson. And I said, "Did you know Robert Johnson did that one, but it was Terraplane --" "Oh, Robert Johnson's a personal friend of mine!" And said where they were friends, and blah blah blah. But I asked yes or no questions. When we took our tapes back to this great jazz player we knew in Atlanta, he said, "You don't want to ask them yes or no questions, you want to ask them a question to get them to give you some information in the answer." I asked him what kind of guy Robert Johnson was, "Did he like wine, women and song," or something like that. It's embarrassing to remind myself of it. Well his answer was, "Naturally he did." Not a good question, because the answer was obvious.
DH: When I was in school, one of the things I had to do was interview people in their homes, and I'd go in and talk to them for a little while, and then I'd write down everything I could think of, including descriptions of the room and everything. I wish we had done stuff like that. We'd have a nice rich description of what was in the room.
RB: But you ought to thank your lucky stars that we got as much as we did. Fred Ramsay was in Macon, Georgia once, in a hotel, and he heard down in the alley, this great guitar, and he threw on his clothes and ran down there and the guy was gone. The talent that was missed!
DH: If I had life to live over again, I would go to barber shops around the country, and record in the barber shops. Not necessarily music, just the talk. And Dave, with another friend, went around the country and filmed in supermarkets.
DH: I recorded these street musicians, James Campbell's group, on the street in Nashville. I play that back on my tape recorder, I play that for different people, and they say, "All you hear is the buses going by." But we digitized that, and when you play it back on a good system, it's fantastic! It more than captures the music, it captures the era. Because they parked themselves right outside, I think, the Hermitage Hotel, which was a really fancy, then-segregated, white hotel. So these black musicians are outside this hotel. And these mostly white people are walking by and listening to these street musicians, and they're throwing coins in the hat, and you can hear the coin drop in the hat, you can hear the buses going by ... it's not just the music. So that turns out now to be one of my favorite tapes. I love that thing. You play that on a good system, and you're out there on the street. And you can also hear the segregation, because they say, "Yes sir, thank you so much, sir," stuff like that, for the money that people are dropping into the hat. And, "Well, what song do you want to hear?" "Oh, I'd like to hear the Saints." "Oh yeah, we can play that, yes sir." Stuff like that. It's really cool.
DH: Chuck Berry was the last thing that I really listened to, but I didn't think it was as good as the stuff from the 20s. I know nothing about the whole rise of the music industry from the era of Sun Records and B.B. King being a disk jockey there, and Stax and all that stuff coming forward ... Rufus Thomas ... I'm just ignorant of all that. In fact, I'm also ignorant of the blues revival, which if we were a few years younger, we would have been right in the middle of. People say, "Somebody from Led Zeppelin died," and I don't know who these people are. I like the blues, and Caribbean music, and that's what I know.
RB: I've got all kinds of eclectic friends that do a little blues on the side ... no thank you. I've heard the real thing too many times. I didn't have to work back from the Who or the Yardbirds, or Cream or any of those. If I've heard them at all, I've heard them by accident. I heard one of them doing Skip James, "I'm So Glad," when I was a grad student, and I said, "My God, they butchered that song!" I heard Clapton himself interviewed on Fresh Air in the 80s, and he said, "When I met Sonny Boy Williamson ... Sonny Boy said, 'Those British boys, they want to play blues so bad, and they play it so bad.'"
AL: Charlie, your first album came out right around the time Will died. How interested was he in your music career? Did you talk about it?
CM: He was always interested, and real proud. It was like he considered me to be an extension of him, sort of. I mean, his student, or ... what he had taught me was serving me, and that served him, and he was glad to see me making my way in music. The last time I saw him, he asked me to play for him, and I played some harmonica, and he was going, "Oh, boy, you'se playing uptown, now, you got up there with them Chicago boys, you really got that Chicago sound, now, you about to bust my head," and all this kind of talk.
AL: A couple of you mentioned that the musicians were actually a little possessive of your attention, right?
CM: A thing that would happen a lot ... I would want to meet everybody, I would want to hear everybody and meet everybody, but Furry and Will Shade, they would do the same thing, they would say, "Don't be going over there," you know, "You gonna get in trouble over there, you stay right here." (laughing) The fear was if they introduced me to other people, I would spend time with those people, instead of with them. They wanted me to stay there. So unless they came by, I couldn't get him to introduce me to other people.
RB: I asked Furry Lewis about T.C. Johnson, and he said, "Oh, he been gone from here many moons, many moons. He been gone many moons." And I thought, okay, why would he say that to me? Probably because he knew I'd buy him some more bourbon, and if I got a hold of T.C. Johnson, I might buy it for him instead. So I went right down to Beale Street, and bumped into Robert Burse, and I asked him about T.C. Johnson. "He come down here every day. He come down here every day. Yonder he come now!" He points, "Yonder he come now!" And sure enough, with his blue suit, and dragging a leg behind him, he probably had a stroke, and so I accosted him, took a picture of him and asked him about his career.
DM: Another recollection I have, which I've never forgotten, is that when we recorded in 61 -- remember, this is pre Civil Rights Movement days -- Will kept calling me "mister." And I said to him finally, "Call me Dave." And so he said, "Okay, Mister Dave."
AL: Was that a little joke, or is that just how he wanted to do it?
DM: No! He was just used to calling white people "mister."
RB: Of course, "Mr. Brown," it was always "mister." We were Mr. Brown and Mr. Mitchell, they were Will and Charlie. You probably don't realize just how ugly that racism was down there. I remember the first time we wrote him a letter, I addressed the envelope just "Will Shade." My father saw that, and he said, "You put 'Mister' on there." (laughing)
CM: I had the same problem. I'd say this to Will and Furry and anybody else that called me Mister Charlie or Mister Charles. I'd plead with them to stop using "mister" with me. I'd tell them we're friends and I don't need this "mister" stuff. And whoever I was talking to, they'd stop calling me Mister Charles for only a few minutes and then they'd go right back to Mister Charles or Mister Charlie. I also remember how amused they'd be at me talking to them about not using "mister" to address me. They seemed to act like, "Okay, just to please you, but you don't get it," or something like that. They seemed more comfortable using "mister" no matter how I told them how I felt about it. Well, I'm glad I amused them. (laughing)
DH: The only one who could get away from that was Wade Walton. We had gotten so close to him that he was like a big brother to us. And so when we were talking with him, in his shop, he treated us like his kid brothers, and used our first names. But when we went out in public with him, he'd give that "mister" routine. It's really interesting. I worked in the Caribbean for quite a while, and they use that same terminology. They would call me, "Mister Don," and my wife would be "Miss Blanche," and we couldn't get them to do otherwise.
DH: I worked for Bob Koester, when he was at Seymour's Record Mart. I remember this guy came into his store, this would have been summer, probably August 1960. And he was playing that game, that "Mister Bob" game, but he was playing it so obsequiously that it just drove Koester insane, and he threw the guy out of the store. "Don't pull that kind of shit on me," you know, "get out of here." Koester was a real character, and had his own issues, but racism was definitely not one of them (laughing), and he really didn't like this guy trying to kiss up to him. Especially in Chicago, where it's not as necessary as it would have been in Mississippi.
AL: Speaking of Mississippi, Don wrote in his book about getting arrested while trying to do fieldwork down there.
DM: The reason, probably, we got thrown in jail that time was because the freedom buses were going down to Mississippi, and they thought we were agitators. We just wanted to record some of the field songs. We went to Parchman Farm, and we got in the farms, and I thought, "Let's go to the chaplain's house ... he'd be a nice guy, and he can arrange it." Well, we had no idea that the chaplain was as racist as everybody else. And so we went up and he was very uncooperative, so we went back to the administration building, and when we got there, I think it was the deputy warden walked in with a big pistol in a holster, and told us to get the hell out, especially Wade, who was the black guy. And Wade had to ride back to Clarksdale in the back seat.
DM: Now, my take on it was that he had already become involved in the NAACP. And I think that he wanted to take a couple of white kids down there, knowing that something was going to happen, and we'd see racism. And that was exactly what happened.
DH: Yes, I agree with that. Wade told me as such, in one of my meetings with him, subsequently. And he wanted to show us where Emmett Till's body had been found. So, yeah, it was really very scary times. Coming from sort of upper middle class, privileged backgrounds, where we could basically do whatever we wanted to do, and we were encouraged to be very outspoken and everything, I thought it was kind of a lark, you know? (laughing) But I was smart enough when we were arrested, I had a picture in my wallet of my then girlfriend, who's black, and when we were in the jail they told us to take out our wallets, and I found her picture there, and I was smart enough to tear it up and eat it, before they found out. (laughing) 'Cause I think I would have been dead meat if those bastards had found that.
DM: California wasn't segregated, at least officially, and so we grew up and went to college, and we just thought that's the way things were. Then you drive to the South, and it was a big eye-opener for me. You'd see a fountain some place, and it would say, "Colored please use cups."
DH: In the spring of 1959, I had gone to Fisk for a semester, and that's where I met Blanche. So then, driving back to California, there were four of us, three white guys and one black guy. Leaving Nashville, we thought, we'll stop in Memphis and get something to eat. We thought we could get away with going to a drive-in, which they had a lot of in those days. And we got kicked out of there by the police, and they chased us down the highway, and I made some turns and got rid of them, so then we tried again in Oklahoma to eat, and I went in first, and (laughing) we came across this roadside restaurant thing, the kind of place that would say EAT out front, and the sign there said, "No Negroes, No Indians." We had to have one of the whites go in and get sandwiches, and come out and eat in the car. We weren't able to eat inside until we got to some place like Blythe, California, wherever Route 66 enters California. So now we're in California, and we go into this restaurant, they let us sit down and eat, but everybody's glaring at us, you know, like we had the plague or something, so that was the only place we went inside to eat.
DM: We went to a diner sort of place, in the black side of town [in Clarksdale, MS], and it was the looniest thing I'd ever seen. There was an entrance for blacks, and there was an entrance for whites, and there were separate counters. But the staff, in the middle, between the counters, would serve the people, they'd serve the blacks and they'd serve the whites. Everybody ate the same food off of the same plates. It was idiotic, but that's the way it was.
DH: And my memory is that they had two jukeboxes, one on either side, with mostly blues and rhythm and blues and country. When you play the jukebox, you obviously could have heard it on both sides. It would have been really great to hang out in that restaurant for a while. Later, I went with these two other guys from school back to see Wade, and I took them to that restaurant, and those guys thought it was the nuttiest thing that they ever saw, and one of them went in the wrong side, and they had booted him out and he had to go around to the other side. (laughing)
AL: Do you think our country is less racist today, or differently racist?
DH: Differently racist. I think if you're middle class, you're fairly well off. My grandson, who looks like he could be Hispanic, or Arab, gets stopped by the police a lot. My son, who would be classified as black, gets stopped by the police all the time, just for little picky things, and this is upstate New York. This one black professor, when she first came in, they pulled her over and she argued a little bit and they took her to jail. It's still around. But it's better, there's more flexibility, there's more types of jobs, especially if you have education. And there's more pockets here and there, certain places in California, New York City, and college towns, where it's pretty well no problem. I talk to black students that I have in class, and more of them than not tell me they've never had any racial problems whatsoever.
AL: One more question: there's a new museum for the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis, and they're looking for artifacts that they can display, to represent the Memphis Jug Band. If you have anything you would be interested in donating, I can connect you with them. But no pressure.
DH: I have his jug.
AL: You what?
DH: No, no. (laughing)
DM: I have his washboard, man, I have his washboard. Remember when we brought it back on top of our car?
DM: But then I threw it away, so that's gone.
DM: I'm joking, Arlo, I'm joking.
AL: Yeah. That would be cool.
DM: But we didn't know enough to even get his autograph.