Friday, August 14, 2015

Back To The Delta

(We've discussed the blues of the Mississippi Delta many times over the last 5+ years.  This week, FBF presents a special encore post from 2009, less than a year before the blog was born and back in the days when Friday Blues Fix was a weekly email that went out on Friday mornings to a group of co-workers/blues lovers.  Check out this "edited and expanded version" of my April 7, 2009 email post.)

Let’s go to the Mississippi Delta today, shall we?  Today, we’ll hear some local musicians that may have slipped through the cracks, especially for newcomers to the blues.    

First up is the legendary Otha Turner.  Turner was a part-time musician and a full-time farmer.  He specialized in playing fifes that he made himself from river cane.  Fife players were once proficient in the Delta, but Turner was one of the last ones when he passed on in 2003.  He was also famous for his Labor Day picnics when he would slaughter and cook a goat in an iron kettle for his friends while entertaining family with his band, the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band.  Eventually, it grew from family gathering to include fans from all over the world.  Turner died in 2003 at the age of 94. His daughter Bernice, who had been living in a nursing home for some time suffering from cancer, died that same day. She was 48. Funeral services were held for Otha and Bernice and a procession leading to the cemetery was led by Turner’s band, with 13 year-old Sharde' Thomas, Otha's granddaughter, at its head playing the fife taught to her by her grandfather.  Turner played many traditional tunes with his band.  This is one of them…..”Granny, Will Your Dog Bite?”  Not the usual blues sounds you hear at FBF, but blues nonetheless.

Next up is R.L. Boyce, who got his start in Turner’s band, playing the bass drum.  Boyce is also a guitarist and has weekly house parties of his own in Como, MS on Sundays.  The documentary M for Mississippi captured one of these parties on film, which should be essential viewing for blues fans.  It was not only filmed but the music was recorded for a soundtrack.  The recording engineer, Bill Abel, worked out of the back of a Volvo station wagon, with sound equipment where his back seat used to be.  He did all this during a thunderstorm with wires of all kinds coming from the house to the Volvo outside.  The interview with Boyce was also classic, riddled with multiple interruptions ranging from barking dogs to drunken party goers….all captured on film.  Check out the documentary sometime at  Here’s Boyce with "Hill Country Stomp."

More traditional fare is coming up, with Terry “Harmonica” Bean.  Bean is a relative youngster in the blues, in his mid 50’s.  He plays guitar and harmonica and sings.  He started out as a stud athlete in high school, working on a baseball scholarship, but suffered a career-ending injury.  He took up the blues and now tours throughout the state and the country.  He was also recorded for M for Mississippi, at the Ground Zero Blues Club, singing “I’m A Bluesman.”  Bean once was only a harmonica player, but learned to play the guitar after his band stood him up a couple of times.

Speaking of one-man bands, here’s the aforementioned Bill Abel, from Belzoni, MS.  Abel was that poor guy recording the R.L. Boyce house party in the rain.  He’s also a noted painter and musician who makes and plays guitars made out of cigar boxes and anything else he can find.  Very cool.  He recently released his own disc, called One-Man Band, and played all the instruments on it with no overdubs at all.  Check him out on one of his homemade guitars.

When Corey Harris decided to record his Mississippi To Mali disc, he was going to use Othar Turner, but Turner passed away the week before recording was to begin.  Harris decided to use Turner’s band with his granddaughter, Sharde' Thomas, in her grandfather’s place.  Here’s one of their tracks from the disc, “Back Atcha,” with Harris joining the band on guitar.  Mississippi To Mali took Harris from the Mississippi Delta to Africa and he used both Mississippians (Turner’s band along with Bobby Rush and Sam Carr) and Africa (Ali Farka Toure and his band).  Ms. Thomas can presently be heard with the North Mississippi Allatars, both live and in the studio.....she did this song with the Allstars on their recent World Boogie Is Coming album.

Here’s Harris, with accompaniment from Rush and Carr, singing an old Tommy Johnson classic, “Big Road Blues," also on Mississippi To Mali. Tommy Johnson was from Crystal Springs, and the character in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou is loosely based on him.  Johnson had several big hits on the blues circuit in the 30’s, including this song and “Canned Heat Blues,” which inspired the name of the blues/rock band.  Harris is one of the few modern country blues artists these days, but has begun to dabble more and more in world music, notably reggae, to the point where his last few releases have been placed the blues in more of secondary role.

Finally, here’s some Delta Blues from a different perspective.  Several years ago, I met a drummer from Denmark on the Blues Access message board who was trying to find some  information on the great Fred Below.  Turned out that he was in a band that was releasing a disc in America and needed someone to check their English, so he asked me to do it.  I ended up getting a "Thank You in the acknowledgements on their CD.  Their band was called Lightin’ Moe and the Peace Disturbers and they played really good traditional blues.  Five years later, the drummer, named Tim Lothar Petersen, decided to teach himself how to play guitar and embarked on a solo career playing Mississippi Delta blues in Europe.  He sent me a copy of his first solo disc and it was incredible how fast he was able to learn to not only play guitar, but sing (he had never done either in public before 2006).  He was selected as Danish Blues Musician of the Year for 2008 and enjoys a big following now in Europe.  He sent me a copy of his next disc, 2008's In It For The Ride, and it had a great song originally done by Delta blues legend Charley Patton, called “Shake It And Break It.”  Here's a terrific live version with Peter Nande and Mik Schack providing support.  I'm hopeful that Tim will sit down for Ten Questions in the near future.  

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