Sun 6 Nov 2011
|Big Joe Williams||Down In The Bottom||Back To The Roots|
|Big Joe Williams||Jump Baby Jump||Back To The Roots|
|Bill Logan & Big Joe Williams||What You Gon' Do Sinner?||Back To The Roots|
|George Henry Bussey||Blues Around My Bad||The George Mitchell Collection Volumes 1-45|
|Honeyboy Edwards||Highway 61||Ramblin' On My Mind|
|Memphis Piano Red||The Train Is Coming||Living Country Blues USA: Introduction|
|Flora Molton||What's The Matter Now||Living Country Blues USA Vol. 3|
|Archie Edwards||I Called My Baby Long Distance||Living Country Blues USA Vol. 6|
|Frank Hovington||Lonesome Road Blues||Living Country Blues USA: Introduction|
|Son Thomas||Catfish Blues||Living Country Blues USA Vol. 5|
|Walter Brown||Mississippi Moan||Living Country Blues USA Vol. 9|
|Eugene Powell||Pony Blues||Unissued|
|Albert Macon & Robert Thomas||Someday Baby||Unissued|
|Boyd Rivers||Church House Rock||Unissued|
|Irene Scruggs||Itching Heel Blues||Blind Blake: All The Published Sides|
On today's program we spend time with Axel Küstner who's been documenting the blues in the south since the early 70's through his field recordings and remarkable photography. From the 70's through the 2000's Axel documented the vanishing rural southern blues scene. Among the artists he documented and spent time with were bluesmen such as Big Joe Williams, Eugene Powell, Son Thomas, Jack Owens, J.W. Warren, Other Turner, Lattie Murell, Memphis Piano Red, Boogie Bill Webb among many others. We'll be playing many of these artists and more, a number of unissued sides as well as chatting with Axel throughout the show who has some terrific stories to tell. I'll be doing a sequel with Axel down the road – due to time constraints we didn't get to some planned sides by Lattie Murrell, Dan Pickett, J.W. Warren, some unissued material among a few others.
Axel discovered the blues in 1970 at the age of fourteen. Two years later he started meeting blues greats like Big Joe Williams and Robert Pete Williams while they were touring Germany. Axel first came to the States in 1972, came over again in 1978, 1980 and made 24 trips to the States between 1990 and 2005. The first artists he recorded was K.C. Douglas who he recorded in 1972. During these trips he hung out, recorded and photographed many great traditional bluesmen. A self-taught photographer, he has also produced a number of blues albums. He recorded Big Joe Williams in 1973 and 1978, resulting the album Back to the Roots (also issued as Watergate Blues). Additional recordings appeared on No More Whiskey on the Evidence label. In 1980, along with his friend Ziggy Chrismann, he was back in the States with the idea to document the remaining country blues tradition. With their station wagon and portable recording equipment they hit the road spending a couple of months documenting blues, gospel, field hollers and work songs throughout the South. In this he was following in the footsteps of men he admired like Harry Oster, George Mitchell and Pete Lowry. The result of the trip was Living Country Blues USA, a fourteen volume series issued on the L&R label. The trip was one of the last great large-scale recording trips to survey southern blues and gospel, and the sad fact is that most of these performers have since passed on. A prodigious photographer, Axel has amassed 30,000 black and white photos, some of which have appeared in print, on album covers and exhibitions.
We spin some sides by Big Joe Williams , someone who Axel had a close connection with. On the track "Jump, Baby, Jump!" you can Axel blowing harp. He met Big Joe during the 1972 American Blues Festival in Berlin. During that meeting he made some recordings of Joe and and fellow tour member Robert Pete Williams. He recorded Joe again in Crawford, Mississippi in 1978 and 1980.
Axel wanted to find time to play a few things that inspired him when he began documenting blues. The field recording recordings of George Mitchell, David Evans, Harry Oster and his friend, the late Bengt Olsson were major inspirations. From the early 1960’s to the early 1980’s George Mitchell roamed all over the south recording blues in small rural communities where the music still thrived. Many of these recordings have appeared on specialist labels like Southland, Revival, Flyright, Arhoolie and Rounder but are long out of print now. Bengt Olsson first came to the United States in 1964, first to Chicago and then to Memphis were he made some recordings. Olsson was back in 1971, where he made recordings in Memphis and Alabama. Olsson recorded several talented artists including Lum Guffin (his album Walking Victrola was issued on Flyright), Lattie Murrell and Perry Tillis among others (Axel spent time with the later two artists as well). Some of Olsson's recordings appear on the CD On The Road – Country Blues 1969-1974.
Axel's crowning achievement is the remarkable recordings he made with his friend Siegfried Christmann in 1980. Issued as the Living Country Blues USA series, these remarkable recordings were first issued across 12 LP's plus one double set on the German L+R label between 1980 and 1981.The seed for these recordings came during 1978 when Axel spent six months in the States. He pitched idea to Horst Lippman, who founded L+R label in 1979, and modestly funded the project. With their station wagon and portable recording equipment the duo hit the dusty road spending a couple of months documenting blues, gospel, field hollers and work songs throughout the South. As the notes proclaim: "Traveling 10,000 miles by car in 2 1/2 months, they used 180,000 feet of tape and took hundreds of photographs to document various aspects of Country Blues, as well as work songs, fife and drum band music, field hollers and rural Gospel music, performed by 35 artists, some of whom appear on record for the first time." From October 1st through November 30th the duo rolled through Washington, DC, Maryland, Delaware, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Virginia, New Orleans and of course Mississippi. The series was finally issued on CD a few years back (two additional albums of material were compiled but never issued).
After the 1980 trip Axel didn't get back to the States again until 1990. He made up for lost time making 24 trips to the States between 1990 and 2005, doing some recording but mostly focusing on photography. Axel was kind enough to send me a number of unissued field recordings he made in 1990 and 1991 which we feature on today's program. Among the artists he recorded during this period were Cecil Barfield, Eugene Powell, Jack Owens, Boyd Rivers and others. Axel informed me that the Boyd Rivers material will be seeing the light of day on a collection on Mississippi records. We were planning to spin a track by the great Alabama bluesman J.W. Warren who Axel recorded in 2001. Warren was one of the few who had memories of the mysterious Dan Pickett. Axel recorded a batch of fine songs by this under recorded bluesman just two years before he passed.
Speaking about Dan Pickett, Axel plays a key part in the unraveling of Pickett's life story. Pickett did one recording session for the Philadelphia-based Gotham label in 1949. His real name was James Founty who was born in Pike County, Alabama on August 31, 1907. Five singles were issued by the label while the rest of the titles weren't unearthed until four decades later. Details of his background, however, remained hazy for decades.
In a 1987 Blues & Rhythm Magazine article, Chris Smith wrote: "If Founty had started early in life he might still be alive, and even still be playing. Let's hope he can be found." Axel paid particular attention and actually went to Alabama in 1993 to see what he could dig up. He fended up finding Founty's surviving family. He obtained the only known photograph that shows Founty and some information on his life. Künster published a two page teaser about the trip in Juke Blues where he wrote: "Until the whole story is published in Juke Blues, I'll just tell you this much: [Founty was] a classic rambler in the best blues tradition…" Künster wrote that over fifteen years ago and still no full article has been written. In 2010 John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote an article on Pickett for The Oxford American that published the Pickett photo, transcribed an interview with Künster and provided a bit more information on Pickett's life. Unfortunately we didn't have time to talk and play sides by Picket but next time Axel's on the show we will definitely go into depth about this fascinating tale.
We close the show today with Irene Scruggs and Blind Blake performing "Itching Heel." Axel recently got an opportunity to meet Scuggs' daughter, 91 year old Baby Scruggs. Scruggs was a former dancer who has memories of being in the studio with her mother and Blind Blake. By the '40s, Irene Scruggs had joined the population of expatriate black performers living abroad, residing first in Paris with her daughter. Later she moved to Germany, where she died.