Sat 6 Sep 2008
|Pete Lowry & Tarheel Slim 1970's, photos by Valerie Wilmer|
I suppose it sounds rather romantic spending your time roaming around the south with a tape recorder recording blues but for all the rewards and exciting discoveries it's a stressful enterprise, not to mention a precarious way to make a living. These days hardly anyone one does it anymore and the sad fact is that blues has largely disappeared as integral part of African-American rural communities; most of the old timers have passed on and few of the younger generation are interested in blues, particularly traditional blues. Much has been written about John and Alan Lomax who scoured the south and beyond making landmark recordings for the Library of Congress from the 1930's through the 1960's. Less well known are those that followed in the Lomax's footsteps; there was folklorists and researchers such as David Evans, Sam Charters, Gayle Dean Wardlow, Art Rosenbaum, Bruce Bastin, Bengt Olsson, Dick Spottswood, Kip Lornell, Glenn Hinson, Tim Duffy, Siegfried A. Christmann and Axel Küstner. Some were hunting for the famous names who made records in the 1920’s and 1930’s, others were seeking to fill in biographical blanks regarding some of the older musicians coveted by collectors and then there were those who were seeking to document the blues tradition as it still existed in rural communities, men like George Mitchell and Peter B. Lowry. This was a very different undertaking than 1960's blues revival which sought out and put back on the circuit such legendary artists of the past as Son House, Skip James, Bukka White and Mississippi John Hurt. As Lowry told me "the 'collector's mentality' is behind so much of the research done on various forms of 'roots' music, even jazz to an extent. …It was those who made the rarest recordings who got the attention." And as Mitchell lamented, "Too many people went to Mississippi."
Belying the fact that he was born on April Fool's Day and signs off his e-mails with "may the farce be with you", Peter B. Lowry is an extremely fastidious, dedicated blues scholar. Lowry did not go to Mississippi, did not discover long lost bluesmen from the 1920's but in his voluminous research, writing and recording has charted his own path, becoming perhaps the most renowned expert on the blues of the Southeast and is credited with coining the term Piedmont Blues. Between 1969 and 1980 he amassed hundreds of photographs, thousands of selections of recordings, music and interviews in his travels through Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia. It would take more time and space than I have to relate all of Lowry's research and writing – the man's Curriculum Vita is twenty-six pages! – instead focusing on the primary outlet for his recordings, his Trix label.
As for the nature of field recording itself it's worthwhile to quote Bruce Bastin, author of the classic Red River Blues and running mate of Lowry's, on some of his experiences: "Armchair research can never replace the infectious pleasure of personal contact, or indeed the streetwise experiences of fieldwork at the very edges of existence. …Talk to Bengt Olsson about his times in Tennessee and Alabama. Talk to Pete Lowry about his (sadly unsuccessful) endeavors to record Buddy Moss… Talk also to us about our meeting with rednecks in Edgecomb County, North Carolina…or with Newton County, Georgia, police for 'consorting with blacks'… " On the other hand were plenty of positive experiences: "How do you replace memories of hearing Guitar Shorty perform at Chapel Hill's Endangered Species bar, packed with professors and 'kitty money'… Or watching a genuinely excited Buddy Moss play a stunning 'Chesterfield' on his battered guitar one hot August afternoon at his home? Or seeing Henry Johnson play slide guitar flat across his lap, Hawaiian style, at home and some time later stroll into Chapel Hill's TV station with a petrified Elester Anderson, casually watch a quartet finish playing Mozart and pack up, then settle down to back Elester (whom he'd never met before) on 'Red River Blues'… Or of tracing Floyd Council via the local cab company's switchboard? Or meeting the truly larger-than-life character Peg Leg Sam?"
Peg Leg Sam, from the film Born For Hard Luck
It's useful to provide some background on Lowry's activities just prior to setting up Trix. Most of what follows is extracted from my correspondence with Lowry in response to questions I posed and by its nature is highly condensed. "I had not attempted field recording prior to 1970… Bastin and I hooked up in 1969 to look for 78's using my car as our transport in the SE (successfully)…and went back the next year. I figured that I should do more than just drive the car, so I purchased a tape recorder (Uher 4200, 1/2 track stereo, 5" reels). A series of pieces for Blues Unlimited came out of the '69 trip. …Bruce and I were focused in 1970 on collecting material for a book, as he had been asked to do one in the Studio Vista series off of our BU series of articles, resulting in Crying for the Carolines [the basis for Red River Blues]. We WORKED for a solid month, doing library research (city directories were helpful, especially when there were back issues – in the old days, there was (c) after a name for 'colored', so that helped eliminate similar names. Then, vital statistics also were not so closed to non-family members – folks who helped us in the early years had to stop [legally] later on). Next-of-kin were often still findable. Those research tools were suggested by Gayle Dean Wardlow. We started with a copy of Godrich & Dixon and known names, likely 'home' locations of those who had made recordings pre-war, and worked from there. …There was NOBODY 'working' the SE when we attacked it, for Mitchell had wandered off to the sainted MS stuff, where the little work being done was being done. We broke 'new' ground, if you will, in part encouraged by BU editor Simon Napier. …Most of the info Bruce used for his books came from my/our work…"
Lowry set up the Trix Records label in 1972 starting with a series of 45's with LP's being released by 1973. It lasted about a decade as an active label dealing mainly with Piedmont blues artists from the Southeastern states with seventeen albums in its catalog at the time of their sale to Joe Fields of Muse Records. Trix issued albums by the following artists: Eddie Kirkland, Peg Leg Sam, Frank Edwards, Henry Johnson, Willie Trice, Guitar Shorty (John Henry Fortescue), Robert Jr. Lockwood, Pernell Charity, Tarheel Slim, Roy Dunn, Homesick James, Big Chief Ellis, Honeyboy Edwards and the anthology Detroit After Hours, a collection of Detroit piano players. "I spent an interesting decade", Lowry wrote, "burned myself out, and haven't really been back since 1980. Sales of TRIX LPs were disappointing, but, master of timing, I started up when the second-to-last blues boom was drying up and quit before the most recent one took off! I am proud of each and every release…" 1978 was the last year Trix releases were assembled; Lowry didn't go out in the field in 1978 although he did capture quite a number of recordings in 1979 and one lengthy session in 1980. Lowry wrote that "there have been no more recording sessions since this date. This single session was done during my final southeastern trip during the summer of 1980."
|Baby Tate, photo by Pete Lowry|
I've written extensively (as well as devoting a show with interview) to the recordings of George Mitchell who started recording several years prior to Lowry and ending roughly around the same time. On Oct. 12th I will be devoting an entire show to the Trix catalog and, like Mitchell, there will certainly be a sequel as two hours is not enough time to do justice to Lowry's recordings. Mitchell has written, and related to me, that by around 1976 he noted a sharp decline in blues in rural communities. This is somewhat at odds with the fact that Lowry recorded fairly extensively during this period. Also in 1980 two Germans, Siegfried A. Christmann and Axel Küstner, came to the States to embark on a recording trip through the south which resulted in fourteen LP's under the title Living Country Blues (just issued on CD and distilled into a domestic 3-CD set back in 1999 on the Evidence label). While it may be impossible to quantify, the fact is there was quite a bit of quality blues players to be found and quite a number of them in the Southeast region as Lowry optimistically stated in a 1973 article written by Valerie Wilmer: "'I never really believed all that stuff about the blues being dead,'" he said, 'As with other celebrities who said 'my death has been greatly exaggerated', so the blues. I think it's been submerged beneath the overlay of modern black pop music, but hell-you go down through Georgia and the Carolinas and there's still country-suppers. Peg Leg Sam still goes around busking in the streets, blowing his harp and collecting quarters and dollars.'" In addition to the seventeen issued Trix albums there is sufficient material for another 40 to 50 CD's. Some of Lowry's recordings have appeared on the Flyright label including tracks on Another Man Done Gone and The Last Medicine Show which includes spoken monologue and musical performances of Peg Leg Sam working the last active medicine show with Chief Thundercloud. There's also a wonderful film called Born For Hard Luck which features some fine performances of Sam including some footage working the same medicine show. In March 1973 Lowry recorded the entire three day Fine Arts Festival, University Of North Carolina, Chapel Hill which resulted in the Flyright albums Carolina Country Blues and Blues Come To Chapel Hill (the concert featured Guitar Shorty, Willy Trice, Henry Johnson, Elester Anderson, Eddie Kirkland, Tarheel Slim amongst others).
The same Valerie Wilmer article also goes on to explain how Lowry operated in the field: "Lowry will be back from his third field trip in 12 months at the end of the year. He does all his traveling by Volkswagen bus, accompanied by a faithful hound and no less than eight guitars. One such trip lasted five months and netted enough material for 20 albums, all of which he will be processing himself. 'I said, 'Christ, I've got an awful lot of stuff here-there's no sense in farting around with other people, I'll do it myself.' The guitars are needed because often the people he encounters have not played for a while or else their existing instrument may be in bad shape, rattling or buzzing. 'I've always tried to keep a clean sound on my recordings unlike most of the so-called field work'… I'm not just an out-and-out field recorder, nor do I use a studio as such. I usually say that the best sound-quality stuff I do is sort of in a Holiday Inn recording studio in whatever town I happen to be staying. You know, if it's not too cool where they're living or something, we go back to the hotel room.'"
|Tarheel Slim, photo by Pete Lowry|
A portion of the Trix catalog are recordings in the Piedmont style as Lowry explains in the same article: "This slightly ragtime-based kind of guitar is what a lot of white people are playing and listening to," he explained. "I'm trying to hook on to that because it is the essence of the Piedmont style." Still, there's a fair bit of diversity to be found including some piano blues (Lowry didn't find many piano players or female performers for that matter) including a self titled Big Chief Ellis album and Detroit After Hours – Vol. 1 (the result of extensive taping he did at an after-hours piano joint in Detroit), the Mississippi-by-way-of-Chicago blues of Honeyboy Edwards, the sophisticated jazzy blues of Robert Jr. Lockwood (Does 12 and Contrasts remain probably his best recordings) and a pair of fine records by Eddie Kirkland with his mix of John Lee Hooker styled blues and a more contemporary approach. The other Trix albums are a mix of great discoveries like Roy Dunn, Guitar Shorty (the album Carolina Slide Guitar came out in 1971, two years before he recorded for Trix), Henry Johnson, Peg Leg Sam, Pernell Charity all whom had never recorded before and those that had made commercial records like Tarheel Slim, Frank Edwards, Willie Trice and Homesick James. Many of the artists who had albums released were recorded extensively by Lowry and in most cases there is enough material in the can for follow-up records. In fact Lowry's unreleased recordings far exceed the released recordings. Lowry was gracious enough to send me his master recording list, a year by year breakdown of his recording activities. Among those whose recordings went unreleased are artists who should be familiar to collectors such as Richard Trice, Pink Anderson, John Cephas, Phil Wiggins, Cecil Barfield, Marvin and Turner Foddrell, John Snipes, Dink Roberts. Other names include Elester Anderson, Charlie Rambo, Earnest Scott, Clifford Lee "Sam" Swanson and George Higgs (who has since made recordings for Music Maker) among many others. Among Lowry's regrets "is that I never got my one jazz album out before Maurice Reedus died…" Reedus was Robert Jr. Lockwood's great, long time sax player heard to good effect on Lockwood's two Trix records. Reedus' record was mixed and mastered and titled Get Outta Town, Man (Trix 3318). Baby Tate was another artist close to Lowry's heart who he recorded extensively but only issued one 45. Again from the Valerie Wilmer article: "Baby Tate was one of his closest musician friends and his untimely death last year grieved Lowry considerably. 'My plan last Summer was to really record him in depth,' he explained. ' He was just an incredible person and a wonderful person to deal with. I can't say I'm satisfied with what I've got on tape because I know he could do three times more and a lot better. But just having been around him and dealt with him and lived with him, there's a degree of satisfaction.'"
As Lowry stated in the same article: "…I know I'm not going to get rich. I'll be lucky if I break even, but I've met an awful lot of good people, a lot of good musicians, and dammit-they should be heard. It's that simple." The Trix label is a testament to these amazing musicians and to one man's passion and dedication to get this music out to the wider world. Fortunately the entire Trix catalog has been issued on CD which include the original liner notes plus some follow-up information about the artists. Sadly the majority of the artists have since passed on. As for the vast amount of unreleased recordings, Lowry says that "to date, nobody has evidenced any interest in my stuff – I'm not surprised." On our Trix program on October 12th, in addition to the released material, I'll also be featuring some of these unreleased recordings which Lowry was gracious enough to send me.