Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Council Spur Blues - Robert Curtis Smith, RIP

I've been wanting to write something about the great, if obscure, bluesman Robert Curtis Smith. Now it seems as though this post must serve as a memorial. Smith was not famous enough for his passing to be noted in the press, but word has reached the blues community through his family that he died in Chicago in November. Smith deserves to be remembered by the world at large, if for no other reason than because he recorded one of the best blues albums of the LP era.

R.C. Smith was an elusive figure. He was born in or around Cruger, Mississippi, at the edge of the Delta region, around 1930. For the first 38 years or so of his life he seemed to alternate between attempting to survive the poverty and oppression of life in Mississippi and attempting to escape it. He left the Delta for Chicago and Texas at various times, but apparently found little relief, since he always returned to Mississippi. In an early-1960's interview with Paul Oliver, he described the conditions in which black sharecroppers found themselves in Mississippi:

You work from the time right sun-up until sundown. Other words in choppin' (cotton)
it's three dollars a day, and it's hard to make enough money to practically do anything, because, during the week you got to live and you go to the store and take up a little groceries to carry you that week but when you paid off you owe almost half of that. So there ain't anything you can do with the little change you has got, but stay here, because you can't leave here unless you do leave walkin'.

It would be nice to report that Smith's fortunes changed when he walked into Wade Walton's barbershop in Clarksdale on the day in 1960 when Paul Oliver and Chris Strachwitz were there, searching for unknown and long-lost blues musicians. Oliver and Strachwitz recognized his talent right away, and Smith made several recordings in 1960 and 1961, including one of the most remarkable blues albums ever. Clarksdale Blues: The Blues of Robert Curtis Smith was released on the Bluesville subsidiary of Prestige records; it made absolutely no impact and sunk without a trace, never to be reissued. But for those of us lucky enough to have a copy, it's a treasure.

Smith's music shows an awareness of the blues tradition; he "covers" songs by Memphis Minnie and Big Bill Broonzy, as well as the traditional "Catfish Blues." But the really striking songs are his originals. Their power comes largely from his melodic gift (not every bluesman can create memorable, beautiful melodies) and the structures of his songs - most are based on the standard 12-bar blues pattern, but are altered or extended in very interesting and original ways. One song, "Council Spur Blues," describes conditions on Roy Flowers' plantation in great detail, mentioning Flowers and his overseer, Mr. Walker, by name. This was a brave gesture for a black man in Mississippi in 1961.

Smith finally escaped Mississippi around 1968, spending the rest of his life in Chicago. He played the blues up north for awhile, and even auditioned for a spot in Willie Dixon's band. At some point, he had the religious conversion experience he later recounted in "Lye Water Conversion" on the album From Mississippi to Chicago, and only performed gospel music after that. Most people in the blues community knew nothing of all this for years; it seemed as if this talented musician had just disappeared from the face of the earth. For a long time Jim O'Neal, owner of the Rooster Blues record label, had a picture of Smith posted in his Stackhouse record store in Clarksdale; the caption read, "Do you know this man?"

Eventually Wade Walton became aware of Smith's whereabouts; this led to his appearance at the 1997 Sunflower River Blues Festival in Clarksdale, where I was lucky enough to hear him. It was clear that this was Smith's first performance ever in a concert setting; he was uncomfortable and unsure of what to do or say on stage. But the music (all gospel songs, of course) was passionate and powerful, and over all too soon.

And now there won't be any more music by this remarkable musician. But you can still hear his recordings, if you can find them. A comprehensive discography of Smith's records has been put together by Stefan Wirz, and can be found here. It looks like a lot of records, but most of the issues are drawn from the same few recording sessions. The most easily available CD featuring Smith is I Have to Paint My Face: Mississippi Blues 1960, an anthology on the Arhoolie label; Smith's four solo selections are excellent, and there's a fun example of Wade Walton's infectious, rhythmic playing of his razor and strop to Smith's guitar accompaniment. From Mississippi to Chicago, mentioned above, features several of Smith's later gospel songs and is still in print. Clarksdale Blues, his masterpiece, is long out of print and very difficult to find, but for those who know their way around the internet, can be found for download.

I'm glad I got to hear R.C. Smith perform that afternoon in Clarksdale. So long to a talented man who overcame a lot.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Revisiting Ma and Fletcher

(I apologize in advance for the appearance/layout of this post. I tried to insert the photos in such a way that would look good on the screen, but found that I have very little control over how it may end up looking on any individual computer screen. On the plus side, you can click on any photo for a larger view.)

Yesterday I headed south again, armed with a camera this time, to revisit the Ma Rainey house and grave that I stumbled on by chance last month. (See my November 10 post.) The door of the Rainey house was locked when I tried it, but the woman working there had seen me walk up, so she let me in after determining that I was there to visit the museum, not for any nefarious purpose. She obviously had been trained in Rainey lore, but in some way she didn't seem to "get" it - a lot of the things she said were close to being right, not not quite. I would have preferred to be left alone to wander around by myself, but that didn't seem to be an option.

The house, as pictures attest, was in pretty bad shape a few years back, but it's been restored nicely. Much of Ma's original furniture is intact, including the piano, which has been stripped of the green paint that someone applied at some point. There are some Paramount records on display that made me drool. Otherwise, the displays were pretty generic, providing information about Rainey and the blues. But for me, the whole point was just being in Ma Rainey's house.

One of my assumption in my previous Rainey post was wrong, I think. Ma had such a large house built not so that she could take in boarders, but so that her parents (and sister, I think) could live with her. I was fascinated to see that she had her father's name inscribed in the concrete before the door.

I was also wrong in assuming that the Pridgetts buried on either side of Ma Rainey in Porterdale Cemetery were sisters. Edna, her mother, is on one side, and I think that (based on the dates) that Edna's sister is buried on the other side.

While in the cemetery I took also took pictures of an interesting-shaped tombstone, and the stone marking the grave of Jenny, Kizzie's baby, that I wrote about in that earlier post. Notice that Jenny's stone is marble, and professionally carved. Many, if not most, of the monuments in Porterdale cemetery are concrete, and are much rougher (and cheaper) in appearance. Who paid for the the stone over Jenny's grave? Was Kizzie the maid of a privileged daughter? Could Jenny's father have been the slavemaster?

After paying my respects at Porterdale, I headed 60 miles further south, to the little town of Cuthbert, Georgia. Cuthbert was the birthplace of the great Fletcher Henderson, who practically invented the big band swing style. Henderson spent most of his life in New York or on the road, but he's buried in his hometown. While Ma Rainey was buried in a segregated cemetery, Henderson's grave is in the town's main, mostly white, graveyard. I don't think this had anything to do with his fame as a musician; it was probably due to the respect in which his father was held. Fletcher Henderson, Sr. was principal of the African-American school in Cuthbert for decades.

I last visited Cuthbert and Fletcher's grave about 15 years ago. At that time, there was nothing at the gravesite to indicate that a brilliant and widely influential musician was buried there. Since that time, Chet Kruly, who played with Henderson's band in the late 1940's, sponsored a marker which at least mentions that Henderson had a band.

I'm glad I got to pay my respects to these two great Georgia musicians.