Friday, May 20, 2022

In Case You Missed Him - Richard "Hacksaw" Harney

Richard "Hacksaw" Harney

A while back, I was re-reading an interview of Robert Lockwood, Jr. in Living Blues magazine from 1995.  It was a most comprehensive interview, with Lockwood covering a lot of ground about his life from his beginnings to his sixty-plus years of playing and recording music.  Of course, he talked at length about Robert Johnson, who took up with Lockwood's mother for an extended period of time, returning time and time again to see her.  Lockwood said that Johnson "didn't chase no women; women chased him," but his mother didn't chase Johnson, which probably made her more intriguing to him.  Lockwood said Johnson would leave for a few months, but always came back and brought her money and he "treated her like a queen."

Lockwood also learned a lot of guitar from Johnson, who was notoriously secretive about his guitar playing, often turning his back when he played with other guitarists, which was rare.  Although Lockwood rarely played in Johnson's style for many years, preferring his brand of loose, swinging jazz-inflected blues, he learned a lot of the older man's music (mainly, he admitted, because Johnson was living in the house with his mother) and in the interview, he also cited who he felt were some of Johnson's biggest musical influences....Son House, Willie Brown, and "Hacksaw" Harney.

You can be forgiven if you've never heard of "Hacksaw Harney," but he was well-known in the Mississippi Delta of the 30's and 40's.  In the LB interview, Lockwood says...

"Really, I think that's where Robert (Johnson) got a lot of his ideas from.  I think that Hacksaw was a big influence with Robert.  He just played the guitar very well.  He played the guitar very, very well.  And what he was doin' was the same type of thing Robert does......I would have to say that Robert and Hacksaw probably played together, but I never heard it.  He was the only somebody who could compete with Robert."

I read this interview when it first came out, but I had forgotten about "Hacksaw" Harney, other than the name.  I didn't know anything else about him.  When I started revisiting Johnson's music at the end of last year, I began listening to Lockwood, House, Johnny Shines, Skip James, and others who either influenced or were influenced by Johnson.  I also began re-reading some old interviews that I'd not seen in many years and that was where "Hacksaw" Harney's name resurfaced and so I decided to dig a little bit deeper into this mysterious artist's background.

Richard Harney was born on July 16, 1902 in Money, MS.  His father, a church deacon, wanted his children to play secular music, but did not allow them to practice in the family home, which led Richard to begin playing on street corners in Greenville, accompanied by his brother Joe.  He also worked as a sharecropper, and eventually played bass with a jazz band in Cincinnati in the 20's.  He also worked as a repairman and a piano tuner.

His nickname's origin is a source of dispute, but blues piano master Pinetop Perkins said it came from his ability to manufacture replacement parts for pianos, using a hacksaw and whatever materials he could find for the fix.  It would naturally make sense, that he was an excellent piano player as well, but he was more highly regarded for his skills as a guitar player.

Harney returned to the Delta and formed a guitar duo with his brother Maylon.  They performed as Pet and Can, their family nicknames (Richard's nickname, Can, came from his love for candy as a kid), and recorded eight sides, two were released with singer/accordion player Walter "Pat" Rhodes and two with singer Pearl Dickson.  


Sadly, Pet and Can's career was cut short after Maylon was murdered in a juke joint.  The loss of his brother seriously curtailed his musical career because he was extremely shy and also suffered from a speech impediment, which sometime led his audience to ridicule him when he tried to sing.  However, his guitar playing rendered them speechless most of the time and he made many a guitarist look like a novice.  In his autobiography, Honeyboy Edwards stated that Tommy McClennan got the song "Crosscut Saw" from Harney.

While Harney admired many of the traditional blues guitarists of his day, his own style was closer to the Piedmont style popular in Georgia and North and South Carolina......probably only Mississippi John Hurt comes close to Harney's playing style as far as Delta artists go.  He claimed that he tried to learn to play both guitar parts after his brother's death, No doubt this, along with his time as a jazz musician gave his guitar work a delicate intricacy that was unusual for the Delta musicians.  In turn, he influenced many of the Delta artists who heard him play, including Johnson.  Although he didn't record in Harney's style, it's quite possible that Johnson had incorporated some of Harney's style into his music in the couple of years before his untimely death.

Due to his shyness and his speech impediment, Harney made a living as a piano tuner/repairer in Clarksdale and Jackson until he was rediscovered in 1969.  He was sought out by researchers in the 60's due to accolades paid to him by his contemporaries, including Big Joe Williams, which finally led Adelphi Records to attempt to track him down, traveling from Chicago to Jackson and back to Memphis, where Harney was finally located.  At the time of his rediscovery, Harney claimed to have not played the guitar, or even owned one, for twenty years.  Adelphi recorded Harney on a couple of field recordings in 1971 and he started playing workshops and festival.  He made his own album in February of 1972 (Sweet Man) and it's hard to believe that he had ever set his guitar down...his playing is marvelous throughout and he even sings a couple of songs.







In 1972, Harney suffered a minor stroke, but was still able to tour with Houston Stackhouse in 1972 and 1973.  Unfortunately, Harney also contracted stomach cancer and passed away on Christmas Day in 1973 at 71 years old.  He was buried in an unmarked grave at the Hinds County Paupers Cemetery near Raymond, MS.  Through a charitable donation, the non-profit organization Killer Blues designed a grave marker for Harney, which was placed in April, 2012.

If you want to hear more, Harney's album is fairly easy to find online.  It's not your conventional Delta blues music, but it's very compelling music from a master guitarist.  It was most surprising the first time I heard him and I wish he'd been able to record and perform more.  If things had gone a little differently for him, his name would be mentioned with the other Delta blues legends.

Friday, April 15, 2022

Blues Legends - Johnny Shines


One of the first blues artists I actually saw perform was Johnny Shines.  I was just beginning to listen to the blues in the mid 80's, but it was pretty hard for me to find a lot of information about most artists during that time.  There weren't many recordings available, most record store blues sections took up maybe one row and it was mostly B.B. King and Bobby "Blue" Bland (not slamming those guys by any means, but there were among the few that recorded for major labels) and a few, but not many, from Alligator Records.  The only place I ever saw blues artists on TV were on PBS, which ran a few music programs on the weekends like Austin City Limits or the Lonesome Pine specials.  During Black History Month in February of '87, the Mississippi PBS stations ran several blues programs and that year, I happened to find a show that featured Delta blues artists, a documentary of one of the Delta Blues Festivals from the late 70's  .  One of the artists featured was Johnny Shines.

I was pretty uneducated on blues musicians other than the few I'd heard at the time (King, Bland, John Lee Hooker, a little Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells), so hearing Shines gave me quite a jolt.  The combination of his energetic, intense slide guitar and his equally energetic and intense vocals was just mesmerizing to me.  I only got to hear one song of his, though, and I wanted to hear more.  Over the next few years, I was able to catch a song or two on several compilation albums or anthologies, and each time I was duly impressed with him.

Over the past couple of years, I've really gotten into Shines' music, thanks to finding several of his albums at the Little Big Store, my favorite used record store.  Apparently, someone in the area was also a Shines fan and sold several Shines albums to the store.  Over the last fifteen months or so, I've been gradually harvesting them at the store, plus picking up a few albums on Amazon along the way, so they have been a regular part of my evening listening as I wind down from the day.

When I first discovered Shines, I had no idea of his connection to Robert Johnson.  In fact, I actually heard Shines before I heard Johnson, by just a few weeks.  Shines met Johnson in 1934 and became a traveling companion, accompanying Johnson around the Southern region, hitting all the juke joints and eventually traveling to Chicago, New York, Texas, Kentucky, Indiana, and as far north as Windsor, Ontario, where they appeared on a radio program.  The two were a team until 1937, when they went their separate ways in Arkansas, never to see each other again (Johnson was murdered in 1938).

In the early 40's, Shines moved to Chicago, continuing to play professionally for several years, effortlessly converting to electric blues in the process.  He even recorded a few tracks for Columbia Records that were not released at the time, before working a variety of jobs, including construction work.  In the early 50's, he recorded for J.O.B. (considered some of his finest work) and Chess (as "Shoeshine Johnny"), but continued to work outside of the music.  Shines didn't like playing the clubs and taverns in Chicago, which probably helped to limit his success, but also spared him the grind of life in the music business with one-night stands, late hours, and some of the dangers involved with playing the clubs.
  


For seven years (1958 through 1965), he didn't play music at all, though he did purchase a camera and took pictures in various clubs of the musicians, fans, and capturing the general atmosphere of the scene, selling the pictures as souvenirs to the patrons.  He was able to keep in touch with the musicians and the local folks in attendance, so he never really "left" the blues.....he just didn't play them for a few years.

In 1965, he was "rediscovered" by Mike Rowe, an English blues enthusiast.  Though he was right there to be seen by anyone interested, no one was really sure what had happened to him.  Some thought he had died, while others thought he was driving a truck.  Rowe found out where he was via one of the other Chicago blues men, maybe Sunnyland Slim, who gave Rowe his address.  Rowe wrote Shines a letter, but Shines didn't answer it "because I wasn't interested," he stated in Peter Guralnick's Feel Like Going Home.  Rowe eventually made the trip to Chicago and ended up at Shines' house.

Just a couple of weeks later, Sam Charters of Vanguard Records actually got Shines back into the studio, where he recorded several songs for Charters' Chicago!  The Blues!  Today! anthology.  Shines contributed seven tracks to Volume 3 of the series, playing with Big Walter Horton (whose harmonica work on the entire set is just phenomenal), Floyd Jones on bass, and Frank Kirkland on drums.  All of the tracks were excellent, even the track with the band backing Horton and "Memphis" Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica, but the standout track to me was Shines' version of Robert Johnson's "Terraplane Blues," which Shines dubbed "Dynaflow Blues," which pays tribute to his mentor, but also takes the track to a new level with Shines' slashing slide guitar.

 


Soon afterward, Shines cut several albums for Pete Welding's Testament label, all of which should be heard by anyone who enjoys vintage Chicago blues.  Volume One of the Masters of Modern Blues series features Shines with Horton, Otis Spann, bassist Lee Jackson, and drummer Fred Below.  Shines teams with Horton, Spann, and Below (plus Luther Allison on several tracks) on the excellent Johnny Shines with Big Walter Horton release, while Standing at the Crossroads is a strong solo acoustic country blues effort that pays tribute to Johnson but shows that Shines was himself a force to be reckoned with in the country blues genre.  Each of these are excellent, but I'm a bit partial to the Shines/Horton/Allison collaboration.....some really good, raw, electric Chicago blues.  He also recorded Last Night's Dream, with Horton, Willie Dixon, Otis Spann, and drummer Clifton James on Blue Horizon.  It included several new original songs and it was as good as the Testament recordings.


This flurry of activity really rejuvenated Shines' career and reintroduced him to a host of new blues fans.  Shines went on tour, first with Horton and later with Dixon and the Chicago All-Stars.  Eventually, Shines began touring with his own band and was doing pretty well until his daughter unexpectedly passed away in 1969.  Shines was not enamoured with the prospect of raising his grandchildren in the city, so he relocated the entire family to Holt, Alabama, near Tuscaloosa.

He continued to recorded throughout the 70's, recording for Biograph, Advent, Rounder, and Tomato Records.  All of these recordings are worthwhile.  The Biograph highlights have been collected into Traditional Delta Blues, which includes his versions of several Johnson songs, including one that Johnson reportedly taught him, but never recorded himself ("Tell Me Mama").  The Advent set was later released on Hightone and, later, Shout! Factory, and mixes in a few R&B tracks....good, but not essential.  The Tomato set, Too Wet To Plow, is a very interesting set and teams Shines with Sugar Blue on harp and the inimitable Louisiana Red, which makes you wish the two had collaborated more often.  Shines also toured and recorded with Robert Lockwood, Jr. frequently during the decade, and he continued to perform at various festivals and locally in Holt and Tuscaloosa. 

In 1980, Shines suffered a stroke, which really affected his guitar playing, but left his mighty voice pretty much intact.  He continued to tour in America and overseas, teaming with Kent DuChaine the last couple of years of his life.  He also made one final recording, with DuChaine and producer Johnny Nicholas on guitar, and harmonica pioneer Snooky Pryor, Back To The Country on Blind Pig.  That album earned Shines a Handy Award.  Sadly, Shines passed away in April of 1992, so he wasn't there to receive the award.  His health had been deteriorating for some time.

Shines built a very respectible career after returning to the spotlight in the late 60's, crafting a powerful body of work.  Sadly, he was often talked to and about more for his association with Robert Johnson than his own formidable musical talents, which had to have frustrated him quite a bit, but he soldiered on and his catalog is most impressive.  If you are not familiar with Johnny Shines' story and his music, I can't recommend him highly enough.  You can't go wrong with any of his recordings.  

 

Friday, February 25, 2022

Robert Johnson - Part One





I'm a late arrival to the whole podcast thing, only really paying attention over the past year and a half.  I have searched for a few good podcasts about the blues and recently stumbled onto one that any fan of the blues would probably enjoy, Last Fair Deal:  The Robert Johnson Podcast.  It's hosted by Preston Lauterbach and Elijah Wald.  Both have written extensively about the blues and especially about Robert Johnson.  Lauterbach collaborated with Johnson's half-sister, Annye E. Anderson, on her book Brother Robert - Growing Up With Robert Johnson, and Wald wrote Escaping The Delta:  Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, so one could say that they were pretty familiar with the subject of this podcast.

There have only been four or five episodes so far (it began airing in August of 2021), but all of them have been excellent.  Ms. Anderson was interviewed in the initial episode and she provided some good information about Johnson that only a family member could relate (and also promised a future book with even more information in the near future).  Others highlighted so far have been Larry Cohn, the producer of the Robert Johnson box set from the early 90's, as well as other excellent historical reissues, Living Blues founder Jim O'Neal, who shared a couple of interviews with musicians who knew Johnson, including a most interesting take on what really killed Johnson, and musician Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxson.  All of the episodes so far have been very informative and enlightening.

The first episode that I heard was an interview with my favorite music author, Peter Guralnick, who wrote the essay Searching For Robert Johnson in the early/mid 80's, publishing it in book form in the late 80's.  Guralnick, Lauterbach, and Wald talked for about 45 minutes about Johnson's history, the additional information that has come to light since Guralnick published his essay, and Guralnick's relationship with Mack McCormick, one of two researchers (the other was Steve LaVere) who collected, and jealously guarded, much of Johnson's known history.  Both men have died and much of their research remains under wraps.

During the discussion, Guralnick mentioned that he had updated and re-published Searching For Robert Johnson, adding relevant information recently revealed as well as some other information, including a superb discography and bibliography to help fans dig deeper into Johnson and his influences.  The new edition of the book is available in digital form only right now and can be found at Amazon.  I picked it up before Christmas and read it in one sitting.  It's been a while since I read the original and Guralnick fills in a few blanks here and there, but the original essay is well worth reading if you've never read it.

Since I started listening to Last Fair Deal, I've managed to fill in a few gaps in my Robert Johnson listening, both of him and some of his influences.  I thought I'd list a few in case anyone out there might be interested in hearing more.  Johnson basically took from those musicians he enjoyed and added his own brand of blues to the mix, not unlike future music pioneers of other genres like Elvis Presley or Miles Davis or Jimi Hendrix, who combined other styles and genres into their music.  What made him stand out among blues artists, then and now, was his unique guitar playing and his vocals, which, with their vulnerable, almost haunted quality, were quite different from many of his contemporaries.

Here are some recommended recordings from Johnson and from a few of his influences......

Robert Johnson - The Complete Recordings:  The Centennial Collection (Sony Music Entertainment):  Like most blues fans, I had the Johnson box set when it was released in 1990.  I also had the separate King of the Delta Blues Singers albums released in the 60's that I bought while I was in college back in the 80's.  The sound on The Complete Recordings (released in 2011) is superior to the other sets and the playing order is improved over the box set, which listed alternate tracks immediately following the released version, which tends to get monotonous for the regular listeners.  It's really splitting hairs as far as the sound goes, so either collection deserves a spot on blues fans' shelf.



Influences

The Roots of Robert Johnson
(Yazoo Records):  This covers just about every major influence on Johnson's music.....including Skip James, Charley Patton, the Mississippi Sheiks, Son House, Kokomo Arnold, Lonnie Johnson, Leroy Carr, and Scrapper Blackwell.  As you listen to a lot of these songs, you will figure out where some of the later blues standards came from, such as Blackwell's "Kokomo Blues" from 1928, the origin of the standard "Sweet Home Chicago."  There are actually two versions of this album on Yazoo, one has 14 songs and the later version has 23 (with 11 from the first edition).






Charley Patton - Founder of the Delta Blues and King of the Delta Blues (both Yazoo Records):  Now Patton and Johnson don't really sound that much alike.....Patton was a rougher, coarser, rawer listen than Johnson was......in fact, you definitely hear more of a Patton influence in Howlin' Wolf's music, but Patton influenced just about every Delta blues artist during his career with either his vocals, his percussive guitar playing, or his showmanship.  Granted, it's a bit harder to listen to Patton's music because it is rougher (the poor sound quality of his surviving recordings doesn't help either.....Patton recorded for Paramount, whose production methods and materials were of less-than-stellar quality), but listener's patience will be rewarded with some great music.  I don't really have a preference as to which set is best.....both have lots of good music.  




Masters of the Delta Blues
(Yazoo Records):  Subtitled The Friends of Charlie Patton, this is a historic set that includes tracks recorded at an awesome 1931 recording session that included recordings from Patton, Son House (some of his best work), and the seldom-recorded, but highly influential Willie Brown.  There are also sides from Tommy Johnson and Bukka White included.  These will give you a good idea of the music that surrounded and influenced Johnson as he traveled the Mississippi Delta.  Yazoo has several excellent Mississippi blues collections with similar music from different artists, but this is a great place to start listening and actually may be all you need.......the Son House tracks are just phenomenal in their drive and intensity.




Son House - Delta Blues:  The Library of Congress Sessions, 1941-1942 (Biograph Records) and The Original Delta Blues (Sony Music Entertainment):  House was probably the most direct Delta influence on Johnson, so Alan Lomax made these early 40's recordings of House while researching Johnson's music.  These recordings capture House's intensity as well as those 1931 recordings.  House was also a huge influence on Muddy Waters' music.  The Original Delta Blues are recordings from the 1960's, after House's "rediscovery."  House had to basically be retaught how to play his music (by Canned Heat's Alan Wilson, who guests on a couple of the tracks), but he was a quick study and the only reason these tracks aren't more revered is because the earlier recordings are hard to top. 




Richard "Hacksaw" Harney - Sweet Man (Adelphi Records):  Harney was a later influence on Johnson, apparently.  I plan to write more about him in a separate post, but Harney was considered by many to be the gold standard on guitar playing back in Johnson's time.  His style was quite different from the traditional Delta blues sound, but according to Robert Lockwood, Jr., Johnson traveled with Harney and played with him in the latter couple of years of his life.  His playing is actually closer to Mississippi John Hurt's, and goes more in a Piedmont direction, to be honest.  Who knows......had Johnson lived, he might have incorporated some of Harney's sound into his own playing.  Harney's career in music was short-lived for a number of reasons and, hopefully, I will be able to elaborate more in the near future about him.




Skip James - The Complete Early Recordings (Yazoo Records):  I wrote about James many years ago on this blog.  The first time I ever heard him just blew me away.....I feel like Johnson was influenced by his high-pitched haunting vocals more than anything, although James' "Devil Got My Woman" might have influenced some of Johnson's own work, plus Johnson did adopt James' "22-20 Blues" as "32-20 Blues."  James' music can be an acquired taste as well, especially these earlier recordings (which were done in 1931, not 1930 as indicated on the album cover), also from Paramount.  Check out his Vanguard recordings of the 60's and then revisit these if you want. Skip James wasn't in a class by himself as far as Delta bluesmen went, but it sure didn't take long to call roll.





Leroy Carr - Hurry Down Sunshine:  The Essential Recordings of Leroy Carr (Indigo Records):  Carr, with guitarist Scrapper Blackwell, was one of the most popular blues artists of his time and his sound (with Blackwell's guitar) really influenced Johnson and countless other rural blues musicians with his warm, mannered vocal delivery and his musical arrangements, the predecessor to what is now called "urban" blues.  Many of his songs are considered standards today.  Other more "urban" blues artists, like Lonnie Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy influenced Johnson's playing, but Carr and Blackwell were probably the most influential.  As mentioned above, Blackwell recorded "Kokomo Blues" in 1928, which was transformed into "Old Kokomo Blues" by Kokomo Arnold in 1934, and transformed by Johnson into "Sweet Home Chicago" a few years later.  




In a future post, we'll look at some of Johnson's contemporaries and followers, so please stay tuned.