Thursday, September 18, 2008
My Secret Blues Life
I was born on an Air Force base in Texas in 1943, my father a young Captain from Illinois. But my mother came from a Southcentral Georgia farm family named Spivey, and all through the later Forties and early Fifties we routinely paid visits to the Spivey tobacco farm (in Mystic, a 300-person village outside Ocilla and somewhat farther from Fitzgerald).
My playmates were young black children mostly, and one summer visit I even worked in the tobacco barn, the only white boy there. Race wasn't an issue I knew anything about, but visiting local sharecropper farms with my Uncle Henry (who was an area Farm Administration bureaucrat of some sort), and listening to the older white guys talk, I later realized I was seeing and hearing white paternalism, and mild racism, in action. If I was hearing any Black Music then, it's missing from my memories.
The Spivey family had in earlier days moved from further north in the state, where Spivey forebears had been plantation folk owning over a hundred slaves (or so I was told); and years later I wondered if somehow I was slavery-connected to the Classic Blues singer Victoria Spivey, but I've never done any research to answer the question.
Meanwhile, as an AF family, we kept on the move--Oklahoma, Texas again, then a few years in New York and Virginia. I remember riding the New York Central railroad a couple of times in those years, treated with kindly attention by black porters, one of whom I swear looked like Son House as he appeared when rediscovered later--he'd been a porter working out of Rochester for many years by then. In Virginia, my Southern belle mom experienced some years of migraine headaches that laid her low and left us kids routinely in the care of a big black woman named Rhoda, our part-time maid who soon became much more.
Then we moved to Montgomery, Alabama; the year was 1955-56... which means I soon saw firsthand the results of the Bus Boycott and the rise of Martin Luther King, Jr. I remember my parents actually giving rides to the black people walking along the roads; and for years afterwards I imagined they were displaying their liberal attitude, but I suppose it's more likely they were just helping maids and gardeners and other domestic workers get to their day jobs.
Seventh grade in Montgomery was a shock to me, chubby and awkward and socially inept--and astonished by all the blatant racial remarks I'd hear every day from poor-white and upper-crust adolescents both. Boys planning to pile into a car and go "nig'-knocking." Slurs against black women. Special vituperation reserved for King and the others "interfering in our local business."
But the regional radio was amazing! Elvis and the Memphis Sun guys got air play, and more importantly so did Fats Domino, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and all those numerically named black rhythm groups. I was getting my first taste of versions of Blues music as well as seeing harsh aspects of black life and black/white relations. (I started buying records seriously then, adding to the Harry Belafonte 45 set I'd bought back in Virginia.)
Then we were shipped overseas for two years, to Izmir (old Smyrna), Turkey, where I unknowingly heard--drifting from doorways and open windows--the outcast Aegean Greek equivalent of the Blues, that haunting Piraeus-to-Smyrna music known as rembetika. Meanwhile, the local PX did bring in a few 45s and albums by Domino and the Burnette Trio and then Bo Diddley and Johnny and Joe, not to mention Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly. Yet by the time we got back to the States, the first rush of rock 'n' roll was already over, and the softer pop guys had started their ascension, along with the Kingston Trio and other folk.
It was the latter that interested me most, even though I soon began hearing too the music coming out of Detroit and Chicago, meaning Motown and a bit of Southside Blues. The nearby AF base teen club played popular r&b discs, and I danced with young black women at some teen functions--had a minor crush on one, as I kept denying the racial reality of America. (I don't know what happened to Gwen later, but her younger brother went on to a solid career as Jazz pianist and Music Dept. college prof.)
I went off to Chicago for college in 1960, but still wasn't hip or brave enough to go investigating the area Blues clubs in their heyday. I did catch a concert by Ray Charles and his amazing revue (sing it, Margie!) in a strange warehouse-like venue, but the one album that galvanized me most was this weird-sounding debut LP by a kid named Bob Dylan. I loved "Song to Woody" and enjoyed some other numbers, but was most intrigued by Dylan's covers of songs by Blind Lemon Jefferson (who?) and Bukka White. I immediately wanted to know more about the original performances and singers. (Dylan's music, of course, ranged far and wide during the ensuing decades, yet he never forgot the Blues; his Blind Willie McTell song is one of the great works of 20th Century music of any kind.)
About then, Columbia issued its first albums resurrecting the Blues of Robert Johnson and Leroy Carr... and I was a goner. Suddenly it was all Blues all of the time. Back in Seattle for the second half of college, I went regularly to thrift and junk stores and obscure Central Area disc shops in search of 78s and 45s (eventually sold the small collection I amassed to Bob the Bear Hite, lead singer for Canned Heat). And I started buying every Blues album I could find, especially the mesmerizing reissues of then-still-obscure older Bluesmen, on OJL, RBF, and then Arhoolie Records (thank God for Chris Strachwitz!), followed by Belzona (soon renamed Yazoo). I was in heaven for a while; it was actually possible in those days to keep up with all the Blues LPs being issued.
One of my favorite early buys, though, was a Vanguard set, Blues at Newport 1963, with Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Mississippi John Hurt, and others, including a young white guy named John Hammond (son of the famous a&r man and artist discoverer with the same name). Hearing young John's amazing reworkings of Robert Johnson and Chuck Berry--some said slavish copying, but I disagreed--cheered on by the great black elders on stage, convinced me that a white boy could play and sing the Blues. (And he was soon followed on record by Koerner, Ray and Glover, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Rolling Stones, and other creditable white players.)
This revelation encouraged me to dig even deeper into what I could learn about the Blues. So I subscribed to England's wonderful collector mag Blues Unlimited, kept an eager eye out for Blues articles in DownBeat, scoured bookstores for histories by Paul Oliver and Samuel Charters and eventually others, and also attended what in retrospect were unique, and luckily captured on videotape: the mid-Sixties performances by John Hurt, Son House, Bukka White, Furry Lewis, Lightnin' Hopkins, and maybe Skip James too (I missed that one), brought out to Seattle by the Folklore Society.
I also started writing rock criticism, both locally and for newly minted Rolling Stone and then other rival publications. Among my proudest moments at Stone were key reviews of Clifton Chenier, the Memphis Swamp Jam set celebrating some of the rediscovered elders, and a major Chess Records reissue program. I also covered some interesting events for the magazine that brought me into direct contact with Bo Diddley, Albert Collins, John Mayall, Ike and Tina Turner, John Hammond, and one or two other Blues performers. An amazing couple of hours was me as "fly on the wall," backstage at a festival listening to Bo, Collins, Ike, and some of their band guys shoot the shit, talkin' smack and doin' the dozens on each other!
At the same time I had decided by 1967 that I was going to write a screenplay about Robert Johnson (somebody should, was my thinking); and I spent a couple of years researching, writing, re-writing, and finally copyrighting my fictionalization of his then-obscure life, which I titled Hellhound on My Trail. By 1970 it was beginning to circulate in Hollywood and elsewhere. A couple of agents took it on briefly, and then some fledgling producers tried their hand, but urban Blaxploitation pictures were what the studios wanted, and my script was definitely a mix of the film Sounder and some genre not yet filmed, call it maybe (excuse the pun) Blues noir.
On my own I tried to get copies to Eric Clapton and the Stones (via Jerry Wexler as I recall), but I never heard anything back. I did succeed in reaching Taj Mahal's management but not Taj himself; he told me much later that he'd never seen it. And I mailed a copy to actor-director Ossie Davis, who sent back a nice note saying he liked it and would agree to direct the picture if I could get a production going. Nothing along those lines materialized, but I did see the last portion of Hellhound published in Boston magazine Fusion.
In the late Sixties I was also writing educational films, a couple of them with race-conscious content and titles like Black Thumb and The 220 Blues; and I wrote lengthy treatments for proposed films called Betty and Dupree (more Blues) and The Arletha Jones Show (meant to be a television comedy series featuring a black pop star). But by the mid-Seventies I'd mostly become a writer-producer in marketing and advertising, and the inventive radio/TV work we did for Rainier Beer allowed me to write affectionate and successful pastiches of Blues and r&b numbers and also actually record an ale commercial with Bo Diddley. But my Hellhound screenplay languished on the shelves of Hollywood studios or wherever, and I basically forgot about it.
Over the next two decades, though, every five years or so some producer would discover a copy, call me up to praise it and ask my permission to try to get something going, and I always just said, "Okay, fine." Obviously, no movie got made. But I never stopped loving that down-child, uplifting music and I kept buying hundreds of Blues and r&b albums, new and old, and seeing the odd concert or club date by B.B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, the Meters, Taj Mahal, Gatemouth Brown, the Neville Brothers, and whoever else came to Seattle.
Around 1986 I remember telephoning Columbia Records' John Hammond (famous father, this time) in New York to ask what had become of the long-promised box set offering the complete Robert Johnson on record; he said there were hurdles and delays caused by conflicting financial and copyright interests, but it would appear some year soon... and when it did emerge at last, in 1990, the set went on to become a hugely successful bestseller, making Johnson a modern music hero all over again. I kept hoping for action on Hellhound too, but still nothing happened. So more years passed...
... And they just keep accelerating. I love that rich music as much as ever, even if Chicago-derived Blues by white artists has become something of a cliche. I play scores of Blues and related records and CDs weekly if not daily. And from the early Seventies on I added the Caribbean version, reggae, to that on-going, soundtrack-for-life mix. In fact I program Blues and reggae at home so much, one daughter recently commented that I must have been born a black person in some previous incarnation.
Could be, I suppose... or maybe it's just the South Georgia Spivey blood--luckily, in my case, resulting in an admiration for African-American music and culture (meaning artists Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, writer Ralph Ellison and those of the Harlem Renaissance, and a host of other black figures) rather than a Southern white racist antipathy.
I'm nearing 66 now, and that screenplay has been a well-kept secret for almost 40 years. Time to let it be known. That's why I've posted it now at http://robertjohnsonhellhound.blogspot.com (use the connecting button down at the bottom of this page), in its warts-and-all entirety, for anyone curious to read.
My secret's out.