The Carter Family’s “Single Girl, Married Girl”

Hard is the fortune of all womankind
They’re always controlled, they’re always confined
Controlled by their parents until they are wives
Then slaves to their husbands the rest of their lives

“The Wagoner’s Lad,” traditional song collected and published in 1916.

Originally labeled as “mountain music” or “hillbilly music,” the rural music of the 1920s was a very far cry from the multi-billion-dollar international industry that we now call “country music.” In its original sense, country music, i.e. music made by people from rural areas, was what the cajuns call “la vraie chose, chère.” It was the music of life, warts and all, some of it coming across oceans of time from the British Isles, some of it coming from the local cotton mill, mine or tavern.

Commercial recordings of country music began in 1922 with such artists as Uncle Dave Macon and Vernon Dalhart traveling to New York City to record in the studios of the major record labels. For more information about Uncle Dave Macon and his music, click here.

Ralph Peer

Ralph Peer

With the advent of electrical recordings in 1925, equipment became much more sophisticated and much more portable. In 1927, producer Ralph Peer (1892-1960) of the Victor Talking Machine Company took a two-month trip through the southern Appalachian cities of Savannah, Georgia, Charlotte, North Carolina and Bristol, Tennessee to record different styles of country music played by artists who would have been unable to travel to New York. At the time, personal contact among musicians was the main connection that had allowed old songs to be kept alive, The music was played and sung from grandparents to parents and from parents to children.

The Victor Talking Machine Company Victrola, 1922

Victrola publicity by the Victor Talking Machine Company, 1922

Peer recognized the potential of mountain music, as even residents of Appalachia who didn’t have electricity often owned hand-cranked Victrolas or other phonographs. Coupled with the advent of more powerful radio stations which brought country music into homes all across Appalachia, the orthophonic recording technology made it possible for people to listen to music whenever they liked.

Peer set up his recording facility and, through radio and newspaper ads, invited musicians to come to Bristol and get paid to record their music. The recordings that followed, often described as the “big bang” of country music, led to the discovery of two of the greatest talents of this era, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. For more information about Jimmie Rodgers and his music, click here.

The Carter Family in 1927

The Carter Family came from Virginia and was comprised of A.P. (Alvin Pleasant) Carter (1891-1960), his wife Sara Carter (1898-1979) and Sara’s cousin and sister-in-law Maybelle Carter (1909-1978) who was married to A.P.’s brother Ezra “Eck” Carter (1898-1975). Throughout the group’s career, Sara Carter sang lead vocals and played rhythm guitar or autoharp, while Maybelle sang harmony and played lead guitar. On some songs A.P. did not perform at all; on others he sang harmony and background vocals and occasionally sang lead.

Maybelle’s distinctive guitar style became a hallmark of the group, and her “Carter Scratch,” as it came to be known, has become one of the most widely copied styles of guitar playing. It was a way of playing both lead and rhythm, making the guitar a lead instrument and inspiring countless musicians after her. Case in point, when I was 13 and learning to play the guitar, the first song I learned to play was the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower” which featured Maybelle’s artistry. Every kid learning the guitar at that time learned “Wildwood Flower,” one of the most didactic pieces ever written.

Lesley Riddle

An African-American guitar player called Lesley Riddle taught Maybell how to simultaneously play melody and rhythm. Riddle accompanied A.P. Carter on several of his “song-catching” trips he made in order to collect songs to play and record after the Bristol Sessions.

“Single Girl, Married Girl” was the Carter Family’s second 78-rpm record for the Victor Records label, recorded on August 2, 1927. This version was later included in Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, the blueprint for the 1960s folk revival. Notably, the song does not feature A.P. Carter, but is instead a solo by Sara Carter playing autoharp accompanied by her cousin Maybelle playing lead on a cheap Stella guitar.

Flappers (Single Girls)

Flappers (Single Girl)

The lyrics to “Single Girl, Married Girl” not only describe the deterioration of Sara and A.P.’s marriage, which ended in divorce in 1936, but they are also a stark comparison of the fates of married women and single girls in the 1920s. At that time, married women dedicated their whole life to taking care of the family. Single girls, often called “Flappers,” smoked, drank, wore their skirts short and their hair even shorter. Married women would have children, do laundry, make meals and feed the children, clean the house, and, in Sara’s particular case, chop firewood and plow fields. A. P. was gone from his home in the aptly named Poor Valley for extended periods, trying to sell cuttings from fruit trees and traveling extensively in many isolated communities throughout Central Appalachia with his friend Lesley Riddle, collecting songs from various singers and musicians that would eventually make their way into the repertoire of the Carter Family.

Married Girl

Even after gaining voting rights in 1920 (only white men could vote in the U.S. prior to 1920), women were not on equal footing with men in virtually all areas of life. Married women were expected to devote themselves to running the household, raising children and to acquiesce to their husbands’ judgment. At the beginning of the decade, most Appalachian women lived in rural areas without electricity. They had to keep food fresh without a refrigerator, iron with an iron that had to be reheated constantly, cook on a woodstove, go to an outside well for water, and always visit an outhouse instead of a bathroom. Rural electrification did not reach many rural Appalachian homes until the 1940s. Most Americans believed that women should not work outside the home if their husbands held jobs. If women did work, employers had the right to fire women after they married or had children, a practice that still plagues non-unionized women to this day. Single, divorced or widowed women also faced many challenges. Male co-signers, for example, were required for unmarried women to make any credit application.

Although divorce was more attainable in the 1920s than it had been in previous decades, it still carried a heavy stigma. There were few legal resources or options for women who were stuck in abusive relationships. One of my childhood friend’s entire family suffered greatly at the hands of an abusive father. His mother pled the Catholic church to grant her a divorce but she was ignored. Divorce was only allowed in situations where there was adultery, although exceptions were made in cases of bigamy or impotence. In cases of divorce, women had to prove that they were of sound mind if they wished to gain custody of their children. Divorced women were universally viewed as failures, too weak and unfit to be mothers.

Sara Carter married Coy Bayes, A. P.’s first cousin, and moved to California in 1943. The original Carter group disbanded in the late 1940s. Maybelle began performing with her daughters Helen, June and Amita as The Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle (the act was renamed The Carter Family during the 1960s).

La famille Carter avec chet Atkins, 1949

The Carter Family with chet Atkins, 1949

In 1949, guitarist Chet Atkins (1924-2001) left his Knoxville, Tennessee job to join up with the Carters. Their work soon attracted attention from the Grand Ole Opry, although Atkins was originally banned from all of their shows. Opry performers thought, and rightly so, that Alkins was too good a guitarist and would make everyone else look and sound foolish. They eventually relented and Atkins became a member of the Opry in the 1950s. Atkins began working on recording sessions and he is widely credited with creating the “Nashville Sound” which, for all its popularity, sank country music to the level of pop songs from the 1960s onward.

Speaking of the Piedmont singer-songwriter Dorsey Dixon (1897-1968), historian Dr. Patrick Huber said that he “possessed a rare gift for expressing complicated … social messages in an ordinary plainspoken language that is all the more poignant for its simplicity.” The same could be said of Sara Carter. In the context of early twentieth century American culture, “Single Girl, Married Girl” is not only one of the bravest songs ever recorded and a shining tribute to Sara Carter’s great ingenuity, it is also one of the most profound vehicles for social change to come out of American roots music.

Roba Stanley in 1924

“Single Girl, Married Girl” bears some similarities to Roba Stanley’s “Single Life”, recorded in 1925 when she was just 14 years old. Both songs, rooted in Appalachian folk culture, harshly indict marriage and motherhood for its suppression of women’s personal and social mobility. The appeal of roots music to a wider audience beyond those with immediate Appalachian connections is also evident in the immediate commercial success of “Single Girl, Married Girl” After their initial Carter Family recordings were released, Sara was surprised to see that “Single Girl, Married Girl” was the best-selling song when her first royalty payment arrived.

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo

Single Girl, Married Girl

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Joe Callicott’s “France chance”

Joe Callicott

Joe Callicott

It’s difficult to accept that a great bluesman like Joe Callicott lived his entire life in almost total obscurity. His date of birth is unknown, as was his age when he died in 1969. He was born and lived his whole life in the small town of Nesbit, Mississippi. Most likely illiterate, he gave no known interviews in his lifetime, wrote no letters or postcards. He married a woman and stayed with her for 52 years, until his death. He worked at the same workplace for 38 years.

Jim Jackson

Jim Jackson

Joe Callicott met up with Garfield Akers (circa 1902-1959), of whom even less is known, in the 1920’s and they became lifelong friends and partners, taking turns to play lead and second guitar as they sang at house parties, fish fries and various social events. In 1929, Callicott first appeared on four 78 rpm discs, playing second guitar to Akers. The pair were taken to Memphis by Jim Jackson (1876-1933), already a recording star and a Hernando resident and neighbour of Callicott. In 1930, Callicott also recorded two tracks with Jim Jackson.

Garfield Akers also toured with Frank Stokes on the Doc Watts Medicine Show and was active on the south Memphis circuit throughout the 1930s. No photographs of Akers are known to exist. He lived in Hernando, Mississippi, the community which also gave us several great bluesmen like Jim Jackson, George “Mojo” Buford, Frank Stokes and Robert Wilkins. For more about Frank Stokes and his music, click here. For more about Robert Wilkins and his music, click here.

Joe Calicott worked for PEMCO Aviation, a firm that specialized in passenger and freight services, for 38 years. He was an uneducated man and his work was likely handling freight, possibly in a custodial or janitorial capacity. His wages were certainly slight as Joe and his wife Sue Parrish Callicott (no data available) lived in abject poverty in a shack that a dog would think twice before entering. They had one son, Jeff.

Sue et Joe à la maison

Sue and Joe Callicott at home


Callicott almost completely gave up the guitar in 1959, the year Garfield Akers died, but picked it up again in the mid-1960s for his own personal enjoyment. In 1967, blues documentarian George Mitchell sought out Callicott and recorded eleven tracks with the then slowed down but still magnificent musician. These tracks would later surface in the 2003 album “Ain’t A Gonna Lie To You” Just before he died, in 1969, Callicott mentored Kenny Brown (b. 1953), a then 12-year-old white boy who skipped school to learn guitar from this unassuming master who lived just down the street. Kenny Brown went on to have a successful recording career, both as a guitarist and an artist.

Kenny Brown et la tombe de Joe Callicott

Kenny Brown at the grave of Joe Callicott

Joe Callicott is buried in the Mount Olive Baptist Church Cemetery in Nesbit, Mississippi. On April 29, 1995, a memorial headstone was placed on his grave by the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, an organization that memorializes the contributions of numerous musicians from the Mississippi Delta interred in rural cemeteries without grave markers. This final tribute to Joe Callicott was supported by Kenny Brown and financed by Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records and John Fogerty, of the Creedence Clearwater Revival rock band. Callicott’s original marker, an ordinary paving stone which simply read “JOE”, was subsequently donated by his family to the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi. At the ceremony the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund presented Callicott’s wife Sue with a check from Arhoolie Records for the royalties earned from a CD reissue of Callicott’s recorded works.

I have chosen to play Callicott’s “France Chance”, a raunchy blues that’s odd in many ways. The title comes from a rhyming scheme used in the lyrics. The structure is also odd since Callicott starts singing on the IV chord, while the singing for almost every blues song ever written starts on the I chord. Some of the lyrics can be cryptic. “Fair brown” is a term of endearment, i.e. fair brown-skinned woman. “Brand new stream” refers to an Airstream trailer, a high-end stainless steel marvel that looks like a bullet! The best blues lyrics are those that are equally plain and profound, perfectly evoked by Callicott’s brilliant :

I kmow my doggie when I hear him bark
I know my baby when I feel in the dark

It doesn’t get any better than that.

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar, persussion

France Chance

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“The Heart of Saturday Night” by Tom Waits

For all the compasses in the world, there’s only one direction, and time is its only measure. 

Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Tom Waits

Tom Waits

In 1974, at the start of his long and very successful career, Tom Waits released a sentimental and nostalgic song called “The Heart of Saturday Night.” It enclosed the early 1970s in a time capsule and immortalized that era when I became a young man, living in a small eastern Ontario rural francophone village.

Back then, my time was measured in weeks. Not hours or days, months or years, just a seemingly endless succession of weeks. I worked five days a week, more than 70% of my allotted time on this earth, trying to acquire the legal tender that would allow me to function in our capitalist society. It took a lot out of you, driving to and from Ottawa, fighting traffic, rushing through meals and trying to catch enough sleep to get you to the weekend, where time was finally your own.

L'Église Très-Sainte-Trinité de Rockland

The Très-Sainte-Trinité church in Rockland

Sundays back then were different than they are now. Most businesses were closed and everything was silent and hushed in town. Families spent time together, at church or around a dining room table and a good family meal. The
“quiet revolution” had not completely obliterated our religious values and people had not yet become the bland consumers they are now. You read a book, went for walks, called up a friend, and prepared for the hard week that forever loomed on the horizon.

But there was always Saturday, a day that stood apart from all the other days of the week. If you had a girl, you took her out. If you didn’t, you went to the places where girls congregated, invariably some kind of dance hall. For me, it was the second floor of the Clarence Creek Arena, where a disc jockey played the wonderful R&B music coming out of Stax Records in Memphis, with artists like Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MGs, Wilson Pickett, Albert King, The Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas and his fabulous daughter Carla Thomas.

La Légion

The Legion

In Rockland, bands from Ottawa occasionally came down to play in the main room of the Legion Hall. Local kids developed their own venues, hangouts like La Chandelle in the basement of the church, which also featured bands from Ottawa.. Across the street from the church, an old building that had served as City Hall, clerk’s office and municipal
La Bastille, avec l'ancien aréna à droite

La Bastille, with the old arena at the right

prison had also been transformed into a youth haven called La Bastille. In the east end of town, La Ste-Famille, a former elementary school building, became a thriving cultural center providing artistic activities for young and old. My fondest memory of this period is seeing the whole town come together to produce my first album – we went to Montreal to record it, had 1,000 vinyl copies printed in Ottawa and the album cover was designed at La Ste-Famille. People cut and silkscreened burlap and the ladies of the town volunteered their evenings to operate sewing machines that produced the burlap bags in which my first album was sold. It was a community project. I was so proud of my town and its wonderful people.
La Ste-Famille

La Ste-Famille


Rockland had character back then and was not the dormitory town for civil servants it has now become. There were small town attractions, like the Cartier theater run by the Béland family. The theatre showed two different films each week, one Monday to Thursday and one on the weekend, in addition to the upcoming attractions, serials and, of course, cartoons. There was also the billiard room run by the St-Jacques family. Like Lafleur’s neighbouring haberdashery, a second-generation store, the pool hall had tall tin ceilings and magnificent hardwood walls and floors, with a fragrance like no other.
Le Castel

Le Castel

When he was a teenager, my father used to go see silent movies that were screened in the back of the main room at St-Jacques, especially when they had a Charlie Chaplin movie, his favourite. On the main street at the height of l’Escale, our secondary school, there was Le Castel restaurant, which was always filled with hungry students. The benches around the walls each had a coin-operated juke box with the latest hits.

I played in a few rock groups, first with my good friends Martin Cunningham, Pierre Lafleur and Roch Tassé – we called ourselves The Ravens. To read more about The Ravens and to hear us play The Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time,” click here. I then played with my brother Bob and my good friend Tom Butterworth in a group called The Trend. Later on, Tom and I joined a group with local singer André “Gus” Gosselin. There was also a popular group called The Elusive Butterflies (in the fashion of the day) which featured local guitarist Denis Bergeron and singer Don Boudria, who later became the Member of Parliament for Glengarry-Prescott-Russell in Jean Chrétien’s government. I also learned a lot just by watching two elite guitarists from Rockland, Denis Tessier and Gaëtan “Pete” Danis. Pete went on to play for the popular country singers Bob and Marie King and Pierre Lafleur and I followed Pete wherever he played, mostly in the hotels of Buckingham (Qc) and Bourget (Ont).

Alrick Huebener

Alrick Huebener


All the places I have mentioned are gone now, although La Ste-Famille still holds on as the Clatrence-Rockland Museum. The town’s population has tripled but there are no more attractions, no more sanctuaries for young people. Now, Tom Waits’ “The Heart of Saturday Night” is indeed elusive, and more than a little nostalgic. I play the piece with Alrick Huebener, a superb bassist from Ottawa who has often helped me out with my recordings. I should also mention the assistance of Gilles Chartrand, the tireless curator of the Clarence-Rockland Museum, for the old pictures of our village.

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar
Alrick Huebener – upright bass

The Heart of Saturday Night

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“Downtown Blues” by The Beale Street Sheiks

I learned about the city of Memphis, Tennessee, at a very young age. Chuck Berry’s classic “Memphis, Tennessee” (1959) was one of the many songs I loved as a boy. Starting in the1960s, the R&B music coming out of Stax Records in Memphis was a major influence in my development as a musician. Elvis Presley, a country boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, made Memphis his home and also the home of his mansion, Graceland. The name Memphis is primarily of Greek origin that means “established and beautiful.” Memphis was a hub for travelling minstrel and medicine shows after the Civil War and became the melting pot of early blues, country music, folk songs, jigs and vaudeville, from which much of modern American popular music emerged.

By 1926-1927, the record companies, having found rich harvests of old-time music in Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia, began to look further afield in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee. Hungry for more, both the Victor and Okeh record companies dispatched recording crews to the city where it made the most sense to assemble musicians from those territories: Memphis.

Many of these musicians worked in complete obscurity. Communications between any area and the rest of the country were rare, if not nonexistent. Had the record companies not discovered these musicians, the vibrant musical landscape of America that emerged in the “roaring twenties” might not have materialized at all.

Out of Memphis’ community of artists came the jug bands, which were, to me, one of the greatest artistic achievements of the 20th century. People in jug bands were dirt poor but talented, imaginative and driven. Because they played on the cheapest guitars, harmonicas, banjos and fiddles they could find, many of their other instruments were household items or other “instruments” they put together themselves. Above all else, it was the odd sounds of these instruments that set the jug bands apart. With an empty jug, they blew across the opening to produce deep, almost atonal resonances. They attached 2 or 3 strings to a broomstick connected to an empty cigar box which acted as a resonator and played away on their makeshift “guitar” that way. Broomsticks were also fixed to a wash tub equipped with a string that could be plucked like an upright bass. While they were in the laundry room, they grabbed a washboard and played crazy rhythms on it using a bottle opener. They created strange melodies by blowing through silk paper draped over the teeth of a comb. The music they made was captivating, joyful and uptempo. Nothing was beyond them.

Frank Stokes

Frank Stokes

Many of the greatest pioneers of the early commercial recordings of “roots” music have been overlooked, cheated, or allowed to slip into obscurity over the decades. Such is the case with Frank Stokes, the powerfully voiced bluesman who is now considered the father of the Memphis blues guitar style and whose important legacy is only now being fully appreciated. Frank Stokes (1878-1955) was born in Shelby County, Tennessee. Accounts as to his exact date of birth vary. Orphaned as a child, Stokes was raised by his stepfather in Tutwiler, Mississippi. He learned to play the guitar as a youth and later moved to Hernando, Mississippi, home to a community of musicians like Jim Jackson (1890-1937), who ran the Red Rose Minstrels, a traveling medicine show; Dan Sane (1896-1956), who would form half of The Beale Street Sheiks with Stokes; Gus Cannon (1883-1979) who formed Cannon’s Jug Stompers with Elijah Avery (no data available) and Noah Lewis (1890-1961); Will Shade (1898-1966) who led the Memphis Jug Band; and Robert Wilkins (1896-1987), a renowned gospel singer. To learn more about Robert Wilkins and to hear me play his song “That’s No Way To Get Along,” click here.

Canon's Jug Stompers

Canon’s Jug Stompers

By the turn of the century, Frank Stokes was working as a blacksmith, traveling the 25 miles to Memphis on weekends to sing and play the guitar with Dan Sane, with whom he formed a long-term musical partnership. Together, they busked on the streets and in Church’s Park (now W. C. Handy Park) on Beale Street in Memphis. Their eclectic repertoire included parlor songs, rags, minstrel tunes, country blues standards, and popular songs of the era. Unlike the stereotype of the world-weary and downtrodden bluesman who sings melancholy songs of heartbreak and loss, Frank Stokes created music that was lively and fun, often even funny. It was party music that transcended the barriers of race and class and demanded that you get up and dance.

In 1917, Stokes joined the Doc Watts Medicine Show as a blackface comedian, singer and dancer. The Medicine Show allowed Stokes to collaborate with many white musicians, including roots music legend Jimmy Rodgers. Rodgers went on to perform some of Stokes’ songs while Stokes’ own “The Yodeling Fiddle Blues” is believed to be a tribute to Rodgers.

Tiring of a life on the road, Stokes moved to Oakville, Tennessee around 1920 and returned to his life as a blacksmith and musician. He teamed back up with Dan Sane and the two became a popular fixture at local fish fries, bars, picnics, and house parties. In the mid-1920s, the duo joined Jack Kelly’s Jug Busters, which allowed them to play at white country clubs, parties, and dances. Soon after, Stokes and Sane returned to Beale Street where they began performing as the Beale Street Sheiks. By then, the Rudolph Valentino silent movie “The Sheik” and the hit song “The Sheik of Araby” had filtered into everyday American parlance and the word “sheik” became synonymous to “ladies man.” I suspect that the pronunciation of sheik (i.e. shake) also had something to do with it – the “Beale Street Shakes” is a mighty powerful name for a band.

Les Beale Street Sheiks

The Beale Street Sheiks


In August of 1927, Stokes and Sane brought their raucous party music off of the streets and into the studio, recording the first Beale Street Sheiks album for Paramount Records. One reviewer wrote “The fluid guitar interplay between Stokes and Sane, combined with a propulsive beat, witty lyrics, and Stokes’ superb voice, make their recordings irresistible.”

In February of 1928, the Sheiks recorded several tracks for Victor Records at the Memphis Auditorium, a session that also included blues great Furry Lewis. Later recordings for Victor and Paramount were sometimes issued under Frank Stokes’ name, although Dan Sane played on them and the lineup was the same as The Beale Street Sheiks. This was a common ploy of the record companies at that time, creating a number of “different” artists simply by changing names. I’m not bound by these promotional tactics and I identify all of Sane and Stokes’ songs under the name of The Beale Street Sheiks. “Downtown Blues” is a classic example of the irresistible dance music Frank Stokes composed. Moreover, in 1928, no one sang like he did but, in the post-war era, more and more R&B and Rock singers clearly sounded like Stokes, demonstrating his great influence on our contemporary music.

Frank Stokes’ body of work makes him one of the most recorded Memphis artists of the era. His last recordings, made in 1929, featured fiddler Will Batts (1904-1954) and are among the most wildly original pieces ever recorded. Unfortunately, Stokes’ creative peak occurred during a period when the record-buying public’s interest in blues-based music had begun to wane.

Bukka White

Bukka White

Although his recording career had ended, Stokes remained a very popular live performer. He continued to wow audiences with his expert guitar playing and powerful voice throughout the 1930s and 40s, where he performed as a member of medicine shows, the Ringling Brothers Circus, and other travelling acts. In the 1940s, Stokes moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi, another centre of traditional blues, and would occasionally play shows with fellow blues great Bukka White (1906-1977). In 1955, Frank Stokes died of a stroke in Memphis, the city whose musical legacy he had helped to define.

Le monument de Frank Stokes

Frank Stokes’ headstone

While Frank Stokes has largely fallen into obscurity in the years following his death, the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, a group devoted to restoring and dedicating new headstones for blues musicians of the early 20th century, constructed a headstone in his honour at New Park Cemetery, in Memphis.

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar, mandolin, foot

Downtown Blues

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Uncle Dave Macon’s “Morning Blues”

I heard “Morning Blues” for the first time on a Jim Kweskin Jug Band record in the late 1960s. They were a magnificent band, a portal to so many great songs of the past and they really brought them all to life. “Morning Blues” originated with a man known as Uncle Dave Macon who, from an early age, was exposed to the wild and wonderful world of entertainment and embraced it all his life.

Dave Macon à 16 ans

A 16-year-old Dave Macon

David Harrison Macon (1870-1952) was a born entertainer. He came from Warren County, Tennessee. but when he was 13 years old, his family moved to Nashville to run the Old Broadway Hotel. The hotel was frequented by musicians, circus acts and actors traveling along the vaudeville circuits, an intoxicating allure for any young man.

In 1885, he learned to play the banjo from a circus comedian. The following year, Macon’s father was murdered outside the Old Broadway Hotel. His widowed mother sold the hotel and the family moved to Readyville, Tennessee, where she ran a stagecoach inn. Macon began entertaining passengers at the rest stop, playing his banjo on a homemade stage.

In 1889, Macon married Matilda Richardson and moved to a farm near Kittrell, Tennessee, where they raised six sons. Around 1900, Macon opened a freight line called The Macon Midway Mule and Mitchell Wagon Transportation Company. The Mitchell Wagon is often referred to as one of the oldest wagons in America, the roots of which begin in 1834. As Macon drove his mules, hauling freight and produce, he would entertain people by singing and playing the banjo at various stops along the way. Unfortunately, the advent of the automobile soon put an end to all mule-based businesses.

L'oncle Dave Macon

Uncle Dave Macon

Uncle Dave Macon gained regional fame as a vaudeville performer in the early 1920s. Although Macon had long performed as an amateur and was well known for his showmanship, his first professional performance was at a local school in 1921, when he was 51 years old. Macon was a master of musical sleight of hand and his showmanship was a staple of his performances. He would flip his banjo in the air in the midst of picking and singing and catch it without a break in the music. With his banjo planted on the floor, Macon would strum the instrument with his
DeFord Bailey

DeFord Bailey

Derby hat while dancing around the banjo. Uncle Dave was also good friends with harmonica player DeFord Bailey (1899-1982), the first black man to appear on the Grand Ole Opry. Macon and Bailey played and traveled together in the South when a white man and a black man couldn’t easily travel together because of the Jim Crow laws. In 1923, Macon began a tour of the south-eastern United States, joined by fiddler Sid Harkreader (1898-1988). He and Harkreader made their first recordings for Vocalion in New York City, yielding eighteen songs. In early 1927, Macon formed a band called the Fruit Jar Drinkers with three other musicians. The Fruit Jar Drinkers recorded for the first time in 1927 and the group’s repertoire
L'oncle Dave avec Sam McGee au Grand Ole Opry

Uncle Dave with Sam McGee at the Grand Ole Opry

was mainly traditional songs and fiddle numbers. However, they occasionally recorded religious songs, for which Uncle Dave would alter the group’s name to the Dixie Sacred Singers. In late 1925, Macon met guitarist Sam McGee (1894-1975), who was to become Macon’s regular recording and performance partner. Macon is backed by McGee for their superb 1928 recording of “Morning Blues.” My arrangement includes a verse (No corn in the crib, etc.) taken from the Depression-era song “Eleven Cent Cotton, Forty Cent Meat” which Uncle Dave often played during his shows.

Uncle Dave Macon’s recordings are the ultimate bridge between 19th-century American folk and vaudeville music and the phonograph and radio-based music of the early 20th century. He became the first star of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry in the latter half of the 1920s and continued to perform until he died in 1952 at the age of 81. He was inducted posthumously into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1966. Although he was never considered a great banjo player, music historians have identified at least 19 different picking styles from his records.

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar, mandolin

Morning Blues

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Mississippi John Hurt’s “If You Don’t Want Me Baby”

John Hurt

John Hurt

John Smith Hurt’s life (1893-1966) was like many others in rural Mississippi at the turn of the last century. He lived in Avalon, a flyspeck town on the Delta’s edge too tiny to show up on modern maps. He became a farmhand and sharecropper, like many others. If he set himself apart in any way it was by learning the guitar at the age of nine. Andres Segovia once said, speaking of the great classical guitarist John Williams : “God has laid a finger on his brow.” I believe that God then moved on to Avalon, Mississippi.

Growing up, John Hurt played for dances and parties, singing to his magnificent fingerpicking style, which sprang from a common source that produced both blues and country music. He was a link to a long ago past that still echoed in his playing : not blues, not country and yet both. His song “If You Don’t Want Me Baby” which I play here is a classic example of that genre. It’s lyrics are also so endearing, full of intimacy and longing. A simple sentence like “I tried so hard to do my father’s will” clearly states, without actually saying so, that the dutiful son did not succeed.

His music made Hurt popular with white and black Mississippians alike. In 1923, he met a white fiddler named Willie (William Thomas) Narmour (1889-1961) and they became a popular local attraction. In 1928, when Narmour won a fiddling contest and a chance to record for Okeh Records, he recommended John Hurt to his producers. After an audition, Hurt recorded two sessions, in New York City and in Memphis, which yielded 20 sides, only a few of which were ever released. The songs were issued under the name Mississippi John Hurt. Hurt never cared for the Mississippi label, which white producers believed would bestow authenticity on the performer, in much the same way as the designation “Blind” was believed to add respect and admiration to the artist. Sales of John Hurt’s records were poor during the Great Depression and Okeh Records went out of business in 1935, although it was revived a number of times in later years. John Hurt went back to the obscurity of his ordinary life in Avalon, Mississippi.

In 1952, a few of John Hurt’s early recordings were included in Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, which generated considerable interest among many folk enthusiasts in New York City. Ten years later, a full blown folk revival took over and many artists of the past resurfaced and enjoyed tremendous popularity during their later years.

John Hurt à Newport 1965

John Hurt at Newport 1965

Armed with the sole clue that Hurt had left about his life : a reference to “Avalon, my home town,” on a song called “Avalon Blues,” two white musicologists went to Mississippi in search of its author. They fully expected to find that he had died. With much difficulty, they located the village of Avalon and John Hurt’s cabin. Then 69, Hurt was astonished that anyone was looking for him. He didn’t trust white people in suits, always bad news back then, and had no inclination to leave his home town. Eventually, the musicologists encouraged him to move to Washington, D.C. and perform for a broader audience. His performance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival caused his star to rise with the folk revival purists of that time. A creased and tiny man with wide and joyful eyes, Hurt was ushered onto the national stage to universal acclaim. However, by then he was a senior citizen with just three more years to live. He performed extensively at colleges, concert halls, and coffeehouses and appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He also recorded three albums for Vanguard Records and much of his repertoire was also recorded for the Library of Congress. If the man from Avalon had any idea how important he was, he never let on. John Smith Hurt returned to his home in Avalon in the autumn of 1966 and died of cardiac arrest on November 2nd of that year.

Many guitarists who came of age in the 1960s and many others that followed were touched by the magic of John Hurt’s music and his warm personality. I was one of them but learning Mississippi John’s fingerpicking style also gave me a great deal of self worth that was otherwise lacking in my life. I owe him so much.

Le musée Mississippi John Hurt

The Mississippi John Hurt Museum

In 2003, John Hurt’s grand-daughter, Mary Frances Hurt Wright, having not visited Mississippi in quite some time, was suddenly taken with the need to revisit her grandfather’s home. As she stood there, contemplating the forces that had brought her back home, the man who currently owned the land that her grandfather’s house sat on remarked that “God had told him” that Mary would be there that day. He gave Mary the house. With $5,000 donated to her by a local Carrollton banker who remembered “Daddy John” playing guitar for his mother, Mary had the house moved to a two acre plot of land just up the road, restoring the house as a museum and a beacon to musicians and fans alike. Many of these fans travel to Avalon every year for the Mississippi John Hurt Music Festival.

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar, percussion (foot)

If You Don’t Want Me Baby

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Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell”

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

Throughout his career, Bob Dylan has been a very prolific songwriter. The writing of songs often occurs at a much earlier date than the studio recordings and the songs have to be stored for later access. The lyrics aren’t a problem – Dylan usually writes them down on a sheet of paper. The music is quite another thing and very few artists have the knowledge required to actually write out the sheet music for a song. The easiest way is simply to record it, even if it’s just with one instrument, and any arrangements can be worked out later during the formal recording.

“Blind Willie McTell” was first recorded in 1983 in a rough demo version with Dylan singing and playing piano, accompanied only by Mark Knopfler on guitar.. It is a singular irony that this song, whose stature has grown steadily and which is sure to be remembered as one of Dylan’s most perfect creations, never appeared on a studio album. It was removed from the “Infidels” album (1983) for unclear reasons and the original demo version surfaced in 1991 on the third disc of Dylan’s so-called “bootleg series.” The Band, long-time associates of Dylan, started performing the song during their live concerts and Dylan himself followed suit. All these live versions are played at a generally uptempo pace. My arrangement is played as a funereal dirge out of respect for the song’s musical antecedent, “St. James Infirmary.”

Yank Rachell et Sleepy John Estes

Yank Rachell and Sleepy John Estes

Playing “Blind Willie McTell” also gives me the opportunity to play some blues mandolin, not a common choice of instrument when looking at the genre. James “Yank” Rachell (1903-1997) created the vocabulary of the blues mandolin during his long association with Sleepy John Estes (1899-1977). In the 1970s and later years, the blues mandolin was raised to an art form by the magnificent work of Ry Cooder.

Blind Willie McTell

Blind Willie McTell

William Samuel McTier (1898-1959) not only recorded as Blind Willie McTell but under several other names – at the time, record companies thought that a known artist using a different name made him a “new” artist and the public always wanted something new. The artist himself, particularly any black artist, had no say in this policy. Black artists were viewed and treated as the company’s “property.” Consequently, McTell also recorded as Blind Sammie (for Columbia Records), Georgia Bill (for Okeh Records), Hot Shot Willie (for Victor Records), Blind Willie (for the Vocalion and Bluebird labels), Barrelhouse Sammie (for Atlantic Records), and Pig & Whistle Red (for Regal Records). “Pig & Whistle” referred to a chain of barbecue restaurants in Atlanta and McTell often played for tips in the parking lot of the local Pig & Whistle.

Born in Thomson, Georgia, McTell was blind in one eye at birth and lost any remaining sight while still a child. He came from a musical family and learned the guitar from his mother, eventually becoming fluent in the Piedmont and ragtime fingerpicking styles. Unlike his contemporaries, he used a 12-string guitar exclusively so he could be heard through the city noises. He is best remembered for the classic “Statesboro Blues,” which launched the career of both Taj Mahal and The Alman Brothers Band. Except for a couple of excursions to record up north, McTell rarely left his native Georgia. In his last years, McTell was a preacher at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Atlanta and he died in 1959 of a stroke brought on by diabetes and alcoholism. He never had the chance to be “rediscovered” during the folk and blues revival of the 1960s.

As for the lyrics, Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell” is a palette of cryptic images, suggesting the Deep South of the 19th century, the Civil War and the horrors of post-war Reconstruction, a policy whereby Abraham Lincoln attempted to bring the southern states back into the Union. Following Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson became president and he and the Southern Democrats adamantly opposed any attempts at civil rights for freed slaves, thereby negating much of what Lincoln had tried to achieve.

L'hôtel St. James

The St. James Hotel

The lyrics of “Blind Willie McTell” establish New Orleans as the book ends of the song. The city is mentioned in the first verse and the last verse makes a reference to the St. James Hotel, a well-known New Orleans landmark. This also forms a link with “St. James Infirmary,” an American folk song of anonymous origin on which Dylan’s song is based. The song “St. James Infirmary” is also frequently associated with Louis Armstrong, New Orleans’ most famous son.

Dylan started out singing the song with a first verse reference to Jerusalem. Over the years, this changed to “New Jerusalem,” a biblical reference to the Jewish mystical understanding of heaven. The “Blind Willie McTell” lyrics offer up many stark images, like those that refer to the American Indian (First Nations) Wars and the slave trade. The reference to “taking down the tents” conjures up the traveling medicine shows that Blind Willie McTell played in as a youth. These shows went from town to town, offering free entertainment while peddling fraudulent and often harmful patent remedies. The reference to plantations burning evokes General William Sherman’s Civil War sweep through Georgia and the Carolinas. “Sherman’s March,” as it came to be known, was the world’s first experiment in total warfare. Its aim was to break the morale of the citizens and their will to resist by destroying roads, railways, factories, mills, barns, and thousands of acres of cotton and other crops.

In my arrangement of Dylan’s song, I play a 12-string guitar to honour Blind Willie McTell and his instrument of choice. Alrick’s eloquent bass solo towards the end of the song is a two-verse rendition of the “St. James Infirmary” melody.

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic 12-string guitar, mandolin
Alrick Huebener – upright bass

Blind Willie McTell

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Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'”

I was lucky to be born into my family, at that time and in this part of the world. Unbelievably lucky. My brother Bob and a lot of our friends growing up feel exactly the same way. We all had perfect childhoods. If there was a downside for me, it’s that I was sheltered and completely ill-equipped emotionally for the brutal realities of the world outside my Prescott and Russell paradise.

Those brutal realities started piling up with the death of my brother Gabriel, everyone’s favourite, in 1959. Then I heard of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The world was on high alert – even my sleepy little village of Rockland started testing the big screeching alarm that was on top of the post office at that time. I had barely started high school when Kennedy was assassinated. And then, our neighbours to the south went completely crazy. The white ruling class declared all-out war on the black population.

In fact, this war had been going on for centuries but it was the increase in media coverage, especially television, that brought the horrors of the fire bombings of churches and the lynching of black men and women into our northern living rooms. I understood none of this because I didn’t grow up with prejudice and racism. My mother and father were way too busy keeping a household of nine people afloat to even think of such nonsense. When I was five, my brother Gabriel introduced me to his world of music, populated by black and white artists alike. My brother didn’t care – he loved them all. He was as crazy about Chuck Berry as he was about Jerry Lee Lewis. For every Elvis Presley record he had, there was an Ivory Joe Hunter record in his collection. For every record by the Everly Brothers or Buddy Holly, there were records by Little Richard, The Coasters or Fats Domino. I loved my brother and I grew up loving everything he loved. Consequently, my heroes have always been black and white. They still are.

By 1964, all the talk was about the Freedom Summer project, a voter registration drive aimed at increasing the number of registered black voters in Mississippi. Mississippi was chosen as the site of the project due to its historically low levels of African American voter registration; in 1962 less than 7 % of the state’s eligible black voters were registered to vote. Over 700 mostly white volunteers joined African Americans to fight against voter intimidation and discrimination at the polls. The movement was organized by civil rights coalitions like the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). Freedom Summer volunteers were met with violent resistance from the Ku Klux Klan and members of state and local law enforcement. News coverage of beatings, false arrests and even murder drew international attention to the civil rights movement. The South remained segregated, especially when it came to the polls, where African Americans faced violence and intimidation when they attempted to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Poll taxes and literacy tests designed to silence black voters were common. Without access to the polls, political change in favor of civil rights was slow to non-existent.

Goodman, Chaney et Schwerner

Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner

Among the first wave of volunteers to arrive in June 1964 were two white students from New York, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, a local black man. The three disappeared after visiting Philadelphia, Mississippi, where they were investigating the burning of a church. It later came to be known that they had been arrested by Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, a Klan member, ostensibly for speeding.
Le barrage de terre

The earthen dam

They were held in jail until after nightfall, while Price organized a lynch mob of his fellow Klansmen. When the three were released, they drove into an ambush where Goodman and Schwerner were shot at point-blank range. Chaney was chased, beaten mercilessly, and shot three times. Six weeks later, the bodies of the missing volunteers were recovered, buried in an earthen dam. On December 4, the FBI arrested 19 suspects, all of them freed on a technicality. So started a three-year battle to bring them to justice. In October 1967, the men, including the Klan’s Imperial Wizard Samuel Bowers, who had allegedly ordered the murders, went on trial and seven were ultimately convicted of federal crimes related to the murders. All were sentenced from 3 to10 years, but none served more than six years. This marked the first time since the abolition of slavery after the Civil War, nearly 100 years, that white men had been convicted of civil rights violations against blacks in Mississippi.

Many of Mississippi’s white residents deeply resented the Freedom Summer activists and any attempt to change the status quo of segregation. Locals routinely harassed volunteers. Their presence in local black communities led to drive-by shootings and the bombing of the homes that hosted the activists. 37 churches were burned or bombed. State and local governments used arrests, arson, beatings, evictions, firing, murder, spying, and other forms of intimidation and harassment to oppose the project and prevent blacks from registering to vote or achieve social equality.

Witnessing all this from afar, I became a very unhappy 14-year old. People in my town kept to themselves and there was no one to talk to. Like many dejected young people of this era, I turned for inspiration and hope to the brilliant singer-songwriter who had recently taken North America by storm, Bob Dylan. Dylan was smart enough to know that the barriers built by hatred and bigotry would last all of our lifetimes and beyond. He sang that the answer was blowing in the wind. He saw that the civil rights movement and the folk music revival were closely allied and he wrote a song that he believed would be an anthem for change, called “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” The song lyrics contained biblical references and were structured like some 18th and 19th century English, Irish and Scottish ballads like “A-Hunting We Will Go” or “Come All Ye Tender Hearted Maidens.” Less than a month after Dylan recorded the song, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. The song gave its name to Dylan’s next album, released in 1964 amid the fury of the very changes it predicted. Dylan sings the song accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar. My arrangement for “The Times They Are A-Changin’” is much more involved and depends greatly on the talents of my friends Alrick Huebener on upright bass and Roch Tassé on drums.

Alrick Huebener

Alrick Huebener

Looking back to 1964 now, it is very interesting to note that the southern States of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, the hot spots of segregation and the prevention of housing, education and other services for people of colour, were all under the control of Democrats, today’s darlings. That year, on the floor of the U. S. Senate, Democrats held the longest filibuster in U. S. history, 75 days, all of them trying to prevent the passing of the Civil Rights Act.
Roch Tassé

Roch Tassé

The Democratic governors and officials of state and local governments were some of the most evil men of the 20th century. And yet, Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, the man who fought to end slavery at the cost of his own life, was a Republican, today’s monsters. The truth is that evil men don’t care about political affiliations. Democrat, Republican, Conservative or Liberal are meaningless labels to them. Evil men depend on cloaks that hide their nature from you and me. Evil men will lay wreaths on the mass graves of indigenous children or on a memorial for the victims of the holocaust. They will read from prepared statements and repeat that their thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims, always using those exact words, even though their thoughts are most definitely elsewhere and, of course, they never pray.

We must all remember the words of Edmund Burke (1729-1797), an Irish politician who said “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar, electric 12-string guitar, MIDI guitar (piano, organ)
Alrick Huebener – upright bass
Roch Tassé – drums

The Times They Are A-Changin’

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Muddy Waters’ “I’m Ready”

Muddy Waters

Muddy Waters

When Muddy Waters came to Chicago in 1943, musicians looking for a bit of money would set up all along the Maxwell Street Market. The Market had stores of all kinds, dry goods, fresh produce, meat and fish, textiles and garments, jewellers and barbers, pharmacies, pawn shops, the back rooms of these stores devoted to card games and dice. Muddy met guitarist Jimmy Rogers there and they became fast friends, both being from the Delta, both raised by their grandmothers. Rogers introduced Muddy to Little Walter, a young fireball who wore the scars of many knife fights on his face. Muddy said that Little Walter “could think twice to your once” and took the blues harp into uncharted territory. They formed a band with Baby Face Leroy on drums and played clubs like the Zanzibar, the Chicken Shack, the Purple Cat, Silvio’s and the Du Drop Inn. The clubs were very violent, recalls Rogers. “Some guy would get mad with his old lady and they’d fight. Somebody would get cut or get shot.”

Muddy Waters Blues Band circa 1954

Muddy Waters Blues Band circa 1954

When drummer “Elgin” Edmonds joined the band with pianist Otis Spann, Muddy had a real blues band on his hands. The photo on the right shows Muddy, Henry Armstrong, a sign painter who helped the band make posters, Otis Spann at the piano, Henry “Pot” Strong on harp, drummer Elgin Edmonds in the background and Jimmy Rogers on guitar. Henry Strong was nicknamed “Pot” because of his fondness for reefer. Sometime after this photo was taken, Jimmy Rogers gave Pot a ride home. Muddy had gone on before and was already there. A scuffle broke out between Pot, a ladies man, and his jealous wife Juanita, who stabbed him through the lung. Muddy found Pot bleeding on the lobby’s marble floor, wrapped him up in a quilt and drove him to the hospital but Pot died on the way. He was 25 years old.

It was at this time that blues music, previously rural, became urban. The electric instruments, and especially the drums, conquered the unruly crowds and the solid beat sent everybody to the dance floor. The blues was now dance music and its popularity skyrocketed.

Harmonica player Willie Foster recalls visiting Muddy’s apartment and Willie Dixon answered the door. Muddy was shaving in the bathroom and stuck his head out, asking Foster “Are you ready?” to which Foster replied “Ready as anybody can be.” Muddy and Willie Dixon looked at each other and the song “I’m Ready” was written in a few days. A little later on, pianist Sunnyland Slim introduced Muddy to the Chess brothers. On the first of September 1954, they cut their first session at the new Chess studios, yielding the hit “I’m Ready.” The recording features Little Walter on chromatic harmonica, Otis Spann on piano, Willie Dixon on bass, Fred Below on drums, Jimmy Rogers on guitar, with Muddy signing. The song hit number 4 on Billboard’s charts.

In an article titled “Pop Music Rides R&B Tidal Wave,” Billboard wrote that rhythm and blues was no longer restricted to a black audience. Used juke box records were being snapped up by white neighborhood kids, in particular records by Muddy Waters, Ruth Brown and Willie Mabon. The popularity of the blues was crossing over to white audiences. Down in Memphis, record producer Sam Philips started Sun Studios and the talent he recorded was stellar : Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Howlin’ Wolf and, of course, Elvis Presley. A disc jockey named Alan Freed (1921-1965) came to the forefront of the “crossover” music he played on the radio, calling it “rock and roll,” a phrase originally used in Billboard magazine as early as 1946. By the time I was five, I had a front-row seat to this new music, thanks to my talented and generous brother Gabriel. He patiently introduced me to the music of his time. It was by listening to this music that my obscure world solifified into something clear and so real.

Richard Séguin – voice, electric guitars
Alrick Huebener – electric bass
Roch Tassé – drums

I’m Ready

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“Rollin’ Stone” by Muddy Waters

Muddy en 1950

Muddy in 1950

In February of 1950, one month after I was born, Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield, 1913-1983) stepped into a Chicago studio to record his composition called “Rollin’ Stone.” The recording was odd because it featured Muddy singing and playing an electric guitar, nothing else. It marked the start of the transition from acoustic rural blues to electric urban blues, now universally known as Chicago Blues. The song spoke of rootlessness, independence and post-war angst. Like existentialist thinkers, bluesmen of the 20th century explored issues related to the meaning, purpose, and value of human existence.

Muddy was born in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, and his parents never married and never lived together, as was common in the South at that time. Raised by his grandmother, she named him “Muddy” because he frequently carried the Mississippi River mud into the house as a boy. The “Waters” part was added on later by some friends. His grandmother saw that he was raised in the Baptist tradition, singing spirituals, an important part of Muddy’s development as a singer. Big for his age, he started working on a plantation when he was eight years old. He picked cotton, beans, corn, plowed behind a mule and, on good days, drove a truck. As a result, Muddy was illiterate all his life, the kind of forced illiteracy that was the fate of most black men and women in the South at the turn of the 20th century.

Muddy worked at Stovall’s plantation, which was, by most accounts, one of the better places to work in Mississippi although the surrounding region knew its share of lynchings. Stovall’s was 4,000 acres, no running water or electricity and they paid their employees in scrip or tokens, exchangeable for goods sold only at the company store. The same belittling practice was adopted by the Edwards lumber mill during the early days of Rockland, my home town.

Stovall’s was a regular stop for many musicians and Muddy remembers learning how to play the guitar by watching Son House, Charley Patton and the Mississippi Sheiks, a local string band. By the time he was seventeen, Muddy was a fixture at Stovall’s plantation, as a bootlegger and as their most popular musician.

In August of 1941, Muddy got word that a white man was looking for him. This was never good news and he immediately thought that they had come to arrest him for selling whiskey. When he met the white man, Muddy, like any southern black man who knew his place, said “Yassuh?” to which the white man replied “Hey, hey, don’t yassuh me. I want to hear you play guitar.” This white man was Alan Lomax (1915-2002), who was scouring the South to record songs and interviews for the Archive of American Folk Song, of which he was the director, at the Library of Congress in Washington. But Alan Lomax was no “ordinary” white racist. At one point, he asked Muddy for a drink of water and drank out of the same cup Muddy used. Nobody had ever heard of anything like that in the segregated South.

Muddy avec Son Sims

Muddy with Son Sims in 1941

Lomax hooked up his portable recording equipment, ran a microphone into the house and recorded Muddy, occasionally backed by other plantation musicians like Son Sims, a fiddler who had played with many bluesmen, including the great Charley Patton. Lomax came back in 1942 and recorded some additional songs and both sessions were released in 1966 on an album entitled “Down On Stovall’s Plantation.”

Down On Stovall's Plantation

Down On Stovall’s Plantation

That record became a mainstay of my collection as a young man. The sound of Muddy on those recordings reveals an able guitarist and certainly one of the most powerful, moving singers I’ve ever heard. Also, consider some of the lyrics to Muddy’s “Country Blues No. 1”: on fate and its inevitabilities, he wrote “Brooks run into the ocean/ and the ocean runs into the sea.” On the drudgery of daily life on the plantation, he wrote “Minutes seem like hours/ and the hours seem like days.” Plain, natural country poetry.

Muddy thought his recordings were something of a modern miracle and wanted to record more songs but he realized he would have to go up north to do so and for that, he needed money. He began to do odd jobs, playing blues all night for 50 cents and a sandwich, even trapping furs, like my father did when our family was young. When cotton was not in season, Muddy moved around to other harvests, rambling all the time. It was a dangerous business. At the time, the police arrested all blacks travelling alone and charged them with vagrancy. These men ended up as free labour on penal farms – this is how southern highways were built. It was during this period of restlessness and constant motion that Muddy wrote “Rollin’ Stone” and indeed, he gathered no moss.

After a brief and unsuccessful stint in St. Louis, Muddy finally moved to Chicago in 1943. New York and Los Angeles were also popular destinations for southern black men searching for their place in a world where they had previously been chattel. By the end of the forties, the average annual wage for blacks in Chicago was $1,919. In Mississippi, it was $439. Muddy started working in a paper factory and a glass factory, driving a delivery truck. At night, he played the South Side clubs but it was still the jazz era and nobody wanted to hear blues singers. In fact, no one could hear Muddy and his acoustic guitar in a room full of dancing, liquor, arguments and fights. Musicians often played behind a curtain of chicken wire to protect themselves from flying beer bottles. The solution came with technology and the newly developed electric guitar. Muddy soon added bass, drums, piano and harmonica and his band, one of the best ever assembled, could now be heard above the shouting, yelling and ruckus of any crowd.

The 1942-1944 musicians’ union strike with the record companies over royalty payments had three major consequences: the rise of small independent record companies, the decline of the Big Bands and the rise of the vocalists. This made it possible for several creative artists to forge the exciting new sounds of rhythm ‘n blues (R&B) and it also opened the door for singers like Muddy Waters.

The Chess brothers, Leonard (1917-1969) and Phil (1921-2016), who were to play an integral part in the recording and distribution of past-war blues, were Jewish immigrants from Poland who settled in Chicago. The brothers started the Macomba Club and bought an interest in Aristocrat Records, a struggling venture. Aristocrat became Chess Records in 1950 and Chess started to record the new electric blues becoming more and more popular in clubs all over the South Side. Nobody knew anything about the electric guitar or how to record it but it was a period of beautiful experimentation and surging popularity. Every porter, Pullman conductor, beauty salon and barbershop was selling records. Simultaneously and silently, events convened like clouds on the horizon and the perfect storm that was to be Rock ‘n Roll loomed inevitably.

Muddy’s 1950 recording of “Rollin’ Stone” for Chess is loosely based on “Catfish Blues,” an old song they’d been singing for years in the Delta, but it never sounded like this. If I had to choose a single song as the embodiment of post-war blues, it would be “Rollin’ Stone.” The song gave its name to the influential sociopolitical magazine “Rolling Stone” and, of course, the name of the rock group The Rolling Stones. The song also provided a well of dissonant tonalities that Jimi Hendrix visited often during his career. A year later, Muddy recorded the song with added instrumentation and released it as “Still a Fool.” My arrangement of “Rollin’ Stone” borrows from both recordings.

Richard Séguin – voice and electric guitar

Rollin’ Stone

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