Sunday, 8 September 2013

FROM NEW ORLEANS TO NIAGARA FALLS

I'm giving a short series of talks in the US again this year, from late September to early October; the last two events both feature Blind Willie McTell and take place on adjacent days, way down yonder in New Orleans and way up by the Canadian border in New York State. The former, Bob Dylan, Willie McTell and the Blues, is at Tulane University at 5pm on October 7; the latter, Searching For Blind Willie McTell, is at 7.30pm on October 8 at Daemen College, Amherst NY. Here's the poster for this one, designed in-house:

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

BLIND WILLIE'S ORIGINAL GRAVESTONE

I'm delighted to learn, thanks to Mr. Jim Stagg, bass guitarist of the rather good band Cooper Black, that Blind Willie's original gravestone is back in McDuffie County - if not in Happy Valley then at least in Thomson GA - in very good condition and in the care of the Thomson Museum, as you see here (c/o Jim's wife, whose name I'm sorry I don't know):
As you will know, he wasn't called Eddie - that was the name of the cousin who commissioned the stone - and he wasn't born in 1898 but in 1903, quite probably on May 5th.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Eubie Blake died 30 years ago today, claiming to be 100. Not quite. But he could make any number of other claims. Here he is at a genuine 93 years of age and glorious:

Saturday, 10 November 2012

DEATH OF IDA COX, 45 YEARS AGO TODAY

Ida Cox, born 1896, was one of the "classic" pre-war blues singers, and one whose records Blind Willie McTell attended to. She died this day in 1967. Here's her 'Graveyard Dream Blues' from 1923:


Thursday, 20 September 2012

CURLEY WEAVER 50 YEARS DEAD

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Blind Willie's friend and musical partner Curley James Weaver. Here's a favourite performance of mine, by the two of them, recorded for Regal Records in May 1950:

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

JOHN EDWARDS, FRIEND OF THE BLUES

Three days ago, John Edwards would have turned 80. He only made it to 28, yet without him we might never have heard the invaluable test pressings of the 1933 recordings by Blind Willie McTell, Curley Weaver and Buddy Moss (recorded the year after Edwards was born). Here's the story:

John Edwards grew up to be an Australian amateur botanist, map maker, hiker, banjo-player, guitarist and collector of early American folk and hillbilly music. Born July 22, 1932, he died in a car crash on Christmas Eve twenty-eight years later, but his will left his collections of records and his papers for the “furtherance of serious study, recognition, appreciation and preservation of genuine Country or Hillbilly music...” Did he intend that to cover the country blues? I hope so.

A major country-music record collector from Los Angeles, Gene Earle, with whom Edwards had long been in correspondence, was his executor, and he got together with several of the key academic folklorists with whom Edwards had also corresponded, to make all this happen. The John Edwards Memorial Foundation, the JEMF, duly incorporated in 1962 “to promote the study and dissemination of knowledge about American folk music of the 1920s-1940s”, was established within the Folklore and Mythology Center at UCLA.

At the end of June 1975 the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington DC awarded them a grant of $16,000 to help expand the JEMF’s program of reissuing old recordings, which they had already launched. In a nice touch, the grant letter from the NEA was from a woman called Nancy Hanks - which is the name of a famous, almost mythologised train from 19th Century Georgia. (This train was in turn named after a racehorse, and the horse named after Abraham Lincoln’s mother.) The Executive Secretary at the JEMF who received the letter, Norm Cohen, was himself working on a book about the railroad in American folksong at the time.

One of the albums the JEMF wanted to put out was indeed a collection of those unreleased test-pressings from the 1933 recordings made in New York by Curley Weaver, Buddy Moss and Blind Willie McTell. These test pressings had been saved all through the intervening four decades by the recording sessions’ original producer, Art Satherley, the man who had first come to the States to look for cowboys and indians.

Known latterly as Uncle Art Satherley, he had now donated his unique surviving copies of twenty-three unreleased tracks from the 1933 sessions, among other items, to the JEMF, thanks to a veteran country songwriter and singer from Oklahoma, Johnny Bond, who had kept in touch with Uncle Art all along but was also in touch with Ken Griffis at the JEMF. Bond had been a 1930s radio star, co-written a couple of songs with Ernest Tubb and with Gene Autry, and appeared in the cowboy films Saga of Death Valley, Kansas City Kitty, Duel in the Sun, Gallant Bess, Cowboy Commandos, Six Lessons and TV Ranch Party. In Johnny Bond, Art Satherley had at last found a cowboy of sorts.

The folklorists David Evans and Bruce Bastin got involved in the project of turning some of these test pressings into an LP, eventually to be called Atlanta Blues 1933. (A mildly confusing title, given that the recordings had been made in New York City, and that most people are agreed that there was no such thing as an Atlanta blues style.)

The intention, as with others in the JEMF series, was to press just 1,000 copies of this album: a rather small number, granted the huge amount of work and travel that was to go into providing its sleevenotes, though this too conformed to their policy for the series. Norm Cohen had written in 1971: “We have in mind fairly limited productions…but with particular stress on careful and extensive annotation in the form of elaborate insert brochures.” Material was to be “chosen not only for entertainment value, but also on the basis of historical, sociological, folkloristic and musicological importance.”

The result, JEMF-106, was issued in LA in 1979, and certainly was important.



Thanks to Stefan Wirz's amazing website & database for these two photographs

Monday, 11 June 2012

THE TRUE MURDER CASE BEHIND WILLIE'S DELIA

This story was researched and written by John Garst, veteran blues enthusiast and long-term academic chemist at the University of Georgia in Athens GA. It has come to my attention  -  12 years later!  -  thanks to a prolonged current discussion of the songs 'Delia' and 'McKinley' on a pre-war blues e-mail discussion group, where it has been re-posted by the writer Elijah Wald. I'm assuming that Mr Garst won't mind my re-circulating it here:

The Ballad of Delia Green and Moses "Cooney" Houston*

Dug up by John Garst

June 10, 2000

When I told [fellow music researcher] John Cowley I had found Ella Speed, he said, "Well, go find
Delia. You live in Georgia, and Robert W. Gordon wrote a letter saying that Delia was killed in Savannah. His papers are lost, so we don't have his interviews with Delia's mother or the detective who investigated the
case, but this ought to be enough information for you to find it."

So it was. I got around to looking seriously for it after lunch today, and within two hours I had it.

Delia Green, age 14, was shot and killed by Moses "Coony" Houston, age 16, in the Yamacraw section of Savannah (characterized for me by a local historian as "poor, black, and violent") at about 11:30 pm on Christmas Eve, 1900. She died early Christmas morning in her bed at her home. She had been receiving Coony's attentions for several months, but when Coony claimed her as "his girl" she denied it. This enraged Coony, who shot her without saying another word.

June 14, 2000

The information at the trail, evidently, was that Delia Green died in the afternoon of Christmas day, not at an early morning hour as reported in an earlier article, and that Coony was 15 years old, not 16. Delia is
consistently reported to have been 14.

All accounts, from the very beginning, emphasize how calm, cool, deliberate, and polite Coony was. He maintained that the shooting was an accident, but there were at least three witnesses against his testimony.
He appeared in court wearing short pants (on the advice of his lawyer, I suspect). The jury asked the judge for a clarification at one point, "What would be the sentence for a murder conviction with a recommendation of mercy?" The judge replied that the law specified life imprisonment. Shortly thereafter the jury returned with that verdict and the judge sentenced Coony to "life." He replied, "Thank you, sir."

When asked how he liked the verdict and sentence he said that he didn't like them at all but that he would have to stand them.

It appears that the shooting occurred at the home of people named West. Mr. West had asked Coony to pick up and deliver to him a pistol that West had in a repair shop. Coony duly did so. The pistol was on the
table (I suppose that they were sitting around a table) under a napkin. That is the pistol used by Coony to shoot Delia.

Delia and Coony had been "more or less intimate" (newspaper) for several months and Coony said something to the effect that he would or wouldn't let her do this or that. Delia reacted with strong words to the effect that he had no control over her whatever. Then he shot her.

June 20

This morning I obtained the clemency file for Mose Houston. (In newspapers, he is "Moses." In court and prison records he is sometimes "Moses" but more often "Mose." In the latter records he is usually "Cooney" but rarely "Coonie." In the newspaper he is "Coony.") The file contains a "Brief of Testimony" that appears to be close to a verbatim transcript of Cooney's trial.

Newspapers estimated his age at 14-16. He claimed to be 14, so apparently he wasn't much older than Delia Green. The most precise time of the shooting given in the record is "about 11:20 pm" Christmas Eve night, 1900. Like the first newspaper reports, but not like those surrounding the trial, Delia's time of death is given as early Christmas morning, about 4 a.m. The testimony is conflicting - somebody was lying or had a poor memory, most likely both, it seems to me. Some say that there was a crowd in the house, drinking and carousing. Others say there was a small group, no drinking, everyone was sober, and the main activity was playing "Rock of Ages" on the organ while the group sang.

Cooney and Delia argued earlier in the evening. About 3 minutes before the shooting, Cooney was said to have been cursing and was told to leave. He promised to behave and was allowed to stay.

The conversation before Cooney was told leave went something like this:

Cooney: "My little wife is mad with me tonight. She does not hear me. She is not saying anything to me. (To Delia:) "You don't know how I love you."

This was followed by mutual cursing.

Delia: "You son of a bitch. You have been going with me for four months. You know I am a lady."

Cooney: "That is a damn lie. You know I have had you as many times as I have fingers and toes."

Delia: "You lie!"

This is when Cooney was warned. Cooney was said to have been "full," but not from drinking at the scene.

A few minutes went by and Cooney started out the door. As he approached the door, he pulled out a pistol and shot Delia in the stomach (left groin, according to newspapers).

Cooney left the premises but was chased and caught by Willie West, whose house was the scene of the killing. West turned him over to patrolman J. T. Williams, who testified that Cooney told him that he shot Delia - they had a little row and were cursing one another. He shot her because she called him a son of a bitch. He shot her and he would do it again.

Cooney made a statement at the trial, presumably unsworn. (This is allowed in Georgia - there was no direct or cross examination.) He described going to the West's house at about 7 pm, looking for but not finding Delia. Willie West sent him out to get his pistol from the gunsmith. He brought it back and put it under a napkin. Everybody there was "full" and they sent him out for beer and whiskey. When he got back, he and another boy had a little "fun." "...he got hold of the pistol and in fun we struggled for it. I told him what are you doing with that pistol, and I got it and it went off and struck Delia."

A witness named S. Thomas started to testify for the defense. He said, "I am familiar with the character of the house in which Willie West and his sister and wife stay." This evidence was objected to and he was not
allowed to proceed with it. Raiford Falligant, Cooney's attorney, later represented the situation as follows: "That upon Christmas Eve night about 11 oclock in the year 1900, when he was only a boy 14 years of age, he got into bad company in a rough house and got to drinking and tusseling with another boy over a pistol which went off and hit and killed a girl in the house where all of the parties were drinking."

Willie Mills testified that he witnessed the shooting. He supported Cooney's statement, but Willie Glover testified that Willie Mills was not at the scene of the shooting.

Cooney served 12 1/2 years, the last several years at a facility in Commerce, GA. He was granted a parole in October, 1913, by Governor John M. Slaton (the same governor who eventually commuted the death sentence of Leo Frank, for killing "Little Mary Phagan," to life imprisonment, after which Frank was lynched - Governor Slaton knew that the commutation would bring his political career to an end, which it did. This story has been told recently in the musical "Parade," by Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown, and everyone knows the ballad, "Little Mary Phagan," by Blind Andrew Jenkins, as I recall.)

In 1917, The Prison Commission of Georgia recommended to the governor that Cooney be pardoned. The file did not contain the governor's action.


© John Garst