Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Squabbles...

Like any extended family, not everyone got along. The major friction in the group lay between Furry Lewis and Bukka White. These two had known each other for years and lived just a few blocks apart. Their paths had crossed professionally and socially countless times and they had been booked on selected dates together before the Caravan was organized.

After one of these dates, the two were at an airline ticket counter somewhere in Colorado preparing to fly home to Memphis. Furry recounted the following story to me. Furry kept his wallet in his hip pocket, wrapped in a thick rubber band. Evidently he had to open it at the counter for some reason. After his business was transacted, he left. Bukka was in back of him, next in line. A few feet from the counter, Furry realized that he had left the wallet and returned for it. According to Furry, when he got his wallet back there was $100 missing.

Ever since that day, Furry had 'a problem' with Bukka. Whether there was any truth to the story, I find hard to believe. Bukka may have been many things, but he was not a thief. Cataracts had laid claim to Furry's eyesight and a mis-count was entirely possible. The true source of the problem lay more in the realm of professional jealousy and Furry's covetousness of the spot light than any overt larceny.

One afternoon on the bus the rancor came to a head. Furry was sitting about two seats in front of Bukka. Evidently, there were some words exchanged between the tow of them. All of a sudden I heard someone shout my name. “You better get back here quick!”

I turned and headed up the aisle. There was Furry, standing by his seat with his back to me. His broad-brimmed fedora was on his heard and his cane in his left hand. In his right hand was a knife. I rushed up to him and asked what the hell was going on. Furry turned to me and said, “I ain't gonna say a word to that motherfucker, I'm just gonna cut his goddam head off!”

Bukka was smiling. “You just a silly old man” he said to Furry. I took Furry by the shoulder and asked him to sit down. He did so immediately. “Nobody gonna talk to me like that sombitch does” he said. I asked him to pocket the knife. He did so, slowly. Silence. Finally, Hammy Nixon, sitting across the aisle broke the ice. “No place here for that kinda shit. 'Sides, I hear Bukka be jealous of you cause you so good lookin'” everyone laughed. Including Furry. Bukka stared out the window.


Later, I would talk to Bukka to find out what was going on. He said he had told Furry that he thought it wasn't such a good idea that he (Furry) bother other performers while they were on stage. Furry had a bad habit of suddenly appearing from the wings sometimes during someone else's performance. He would wave his hat in the air and do a little dance. Audiences generally went nuts. That was all Furry needed. Any encouragement from an audience would cause him to run a routine into the ground.

I and others had discussions with him about this in the past. He always countered that he was “just trying to help the show.” Try as we might to explain the situation to him, he was like a bottle rocket backstage. Unpredictable. But fortunately not very fast. Eventually, someone from Joe Willie's band was assigned “Furry duty” during the show so that incidents could be kept to a minimum.

By far the most frequent victim of Furry's attention-grabbing was Memphis Ma Rainey (Lily Mae Glover). Ma's performance was theatrical and florid and always got a great response. Furry, however, had no respect for her, either as a person or as a performer. “She just an ol' barrelhouse woman. Never cut no records. Made more money on her back than standing on a stage...” After a show one night when Furry had (again) interrupted her performance with his 'hat dance' she let him have it. Back in the dressing room, she threatened to “knock you on your goddam ass if you ever try that again!” And she was more than capable of following through. In her younger days, both before and after traveling with the original Ma Rainey, she would occasionally supplement her income rolling drunks on Beale Street. A sweet person at heart – but more about her in a later post.

The squabbles. Rock stars or country Blues performers, everyone had an ego. It came with the territory.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Day In The Life -

The Caravan was, in many respects, a party on wheels. It consisted of a group of co-conspirators who both enjoyed each others' company (for the most part) and shared a commonality of experience unique to a very small group - i.e. they were American Blues singers.

The day would begin with breakfast, usually a hearty affair heavy on the fried side of the menu. This would occur anytime between 5:00 and 9:00 AM depending on when we had a 'bus call'. The 'bus call' was a previously agreed upon time signaling the departure of the bus for the next gig. This call was inviolate and could not be missed. With very few exceptions, it was never a problem - most of the Caravan members were early risers regardless of when they got to bed the night before.

After check out and settled on the bus, the Caravan fell into a routine. Each member sat in their respective seat in the lounge of the bus (by the second date, each had claimed a favorite) and entertained each other as the miles rolled past.

One of the favorite pastimes was to play "the dozens" a rhyming put-down game where one member tried to top the other with a well-aimed jibe or an answer back in kind.  The origin of the name of this game was something I wondered about over the years. Anyone I asked, including members of the Caravan, had no idea.  The response to a casual insult was many times a curt "don't do me no dozens..." It wasn't until years later that I would learn where the term originated.

In the antebellum South, when slaves became old or enfeebled or otherwise damaged (they were chattel), they were put in groups of 12 and sold as a lot at auction. Being 'in the dozens' was a situation to be avoided at all costs and carried with it a sense of shame. In modern day, it had been softened to indicate mere discomfort at being "one-upped" by someone else. The king of dozens was, as mentioned earlier, Sleepy John Estes, the poet of the Blues.

At about 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon the call would go up to stop at a 'chicken store' to get some lunch. Simultaneously there would be a request to stop at the 'whiskey store' for fortification against the chill of the coming evening. The party had begun.

On reaching the gig, out first stop was the hotel. Check in was always an experience, both from the reaction of the desk staff, to the process of getting everyone sorted out and into their respective rooms. Red and Furry were 'roomies' as were the drummer and bass player from Joe Willie's band. Old partners for years, John and Hammy bunked together as did Stack and Joe Willie.  Bukka and Clarence Nelson (Joe Willie's guitar player)  had single rooms, as they desired.

After everyone was in their respective rooms, I would go over to the venue, Sound and lighting had to be checked out to be sure contract rider demands for production were met. I would also meet with the producer to see if there was any last minute press that had to be done (this was in pre-cell phone days when none of this could accomplished en route, as it can today). Soon it was time for a sound check. This would require the presence of Joe Willie's rhythm section - Joe Willie and Stackhouse, who were 'stars', didn't have to involve themselves with these details. Drums were set and mic'ed, lighting cues were discussed, the band would run through a couple of tunes to set levels and any last minute details were attended to. All this was usually finished about an hour before "doors" (when doors were opened and ticket holders where let into the house). As the auditorium filled, I went back to the hotel to round up performers and head back to the venue. We usually arrived about ten or fifteen minutes before show time.

Some promoters felt this was a bit too close for comfort but they never had cause for concern. The Caravan never missed a curtain time. If we were supposed to hit at 8:00, we hit at 8:00.

The 'opener' for the Caravan was always Piano Red. He took great pleasure in his constant reminders to the rest of the group that it we he who had the hardest job of the lot. He also suggested that any enthusiastic response that the rest of the Caravan might receive was due largely to the warm carpet that his performance spread for them. He was, more often than not, at least partly correct. Bukka White followed next, then Furry Lewis. No one wanted to follow furry.

After Furry's set we generally had an intermission and then opened back up with Sleepy John Estes and Hammy Nixon. They were followed, in many instances, by Ma Rainey (Lilly Mae Glover) backed by Joe Willie's band. Joe Willie and Stackhouse joined the band next and at the end of their set, went into 'The Saints' and were joined on stage by everyone in the Caravan.

After the show, it was party time in earnest. Backstage was usually clogged with people, a great many with guitars in hand, asking questions about everything from tuning techniques to the brand of whiskey preferred by respective performers. It was at this time that I had to be on my guard as well-intentioned youngsters badgered the performers with questions. The problem came when a few would try to cut one or two of the performers from the pack (usually Furry and/or Bukka) and spirit them away to some house or apartment for an after-hours songfest. Both performers were always game for an adventure of this sort but I had learned from experience that this meant trouble.

Though probably well intentioned, the hosts of these clandestine get-a-ways, did not have the best interests of the performers at heart. Fueled by copious amounts of booze and God knows what else, these get-togethers had the potential for real havoc. We didn't need any trouble, "a thousand miles away from home, standing in the rain..."

After the backstage shenanigans, we went back to the hotel and usually gather in one anther's rooms. The guitar would get passed from hand to hand, the bottle of Jack Daniels would slowly drain and by 1:00 or 1:30 AM, it was lights out.

The next morning we got up and did it all over again.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Rolling Through The Night -

Sometimes, when contiguous dates couldn't be routed, we were forced to make a 'hop' of several hundred miles to the next engagement. These were largely done overnight so that arrival would put us in at least six or seven hours before showtime. Generally, these overnight adventures were the exception. But we were not the Rolling Stones. We couldn't pick and choose which dates we would play. We took what we were given and made the best of it.

On nights such as these we would leave directly after the show and rack up a couple hundred miles before stopping for a late snack. Of course 'Snack' was a total misnomer for what happened at the hands of the Caravan members in a diner. These guys could eat.

One night we played Marion, Il, a town situated in the southern part of the state. The following night we were playing Charlottesville, VA, some 800 miles away. Leaving Marion at about 11:00, we eventually pulled into a truck stop in northern Kentucky called the Cross Keys. It was close to 1:00 AM. The establishment lay at the branch of Interstates 24 and 64. Ten miles before we arrived, the CB in the bus crackled with female voices promising all manner of delights. Each lady had a 'handle' descriptive of the services provided and  were actively soliciting congress with truckers inbound to the Cross Keys. Interest level on the bus increased with each mile.

The Cross Keys was huge. It held about four acres of 18 wheelers - parked one after the other. The whole scene was illuminated by mercury vapor lamps perched high atop poles scattered about. The air was gray with diesel exhaust. And hopping from cab to cab were the hookers.

We pulled up to the front and walked single file into the restaurant potion of the complex. Heads, covered in Peterbuilt, Mack and Freightliner hats, turned as we made our way. Conversation stopped. For a moment, I felt like we were from Mars and had just made landing on some strange, bizarre planet. Slowly, we settled into booths and tables. Conversation resumed, heads turned back to coffee, biscuits and gravy or whatever. A waitress approached, "What kin ah gitcha, hon...?" she said to Furry, sitting at the head of a table.

We ate. And ate. We drank coffee. We paid the check. We left.

Walking back to the bus, past the hookers flitting from cab to cab, I was about to board when one of the ladies hopped down from a cab-over-Pete parked next to us. As the driver closed the door, I noticed what was written on its side, "Sawyer Transport". And underneath, in italic script, "Truckin' For Jesus."

Stomachs full and back on the bus, we high-balled out of the Cross Keys, disappearing into the eastbound darkness. Our next stop would be somewhere past the Smokey Mountains in the first rays of dawn.

The post-show adrenalin had pretty much dissipated and the hearty fare began to have a sedative effect. By twos and threes, the members ambled off to their respective bunks and fell asleep. Aside from myself, Furry and Red were the last two left conscious in the forward lounge. Furry was the first to drop and announced that he's like to stretch out. I helped him back to his bunk. Red sat slumped in a Captain's Chair, his great stomach taut against his T-shirt. Coe College it read. He wore it everywhere. With his hat still on his head, he closed his eyes and snoozed quietly. It was 2:40 AM.

I climbed into the jump seat above and behind the driver. Looking down, I could see the soft green glow of the instrument lights and ahead, through the broad front window of the Silver Eagle, our headlights pushed down the Interstate. I asked the driver how he was doing. "Just fine..." Did he ever get tired on these long overnight runs? "Nope. Driving is what I do."


The radio was tuned to KAAY out of Little Rock or, alternatively, to KDKA, the nation's first commercial radio station, out of Pittsburgh. These were the days of Clear Channel AM radio and the two megawatt giants came in like a local station. As a young man in Minneapolis, driving my father home form work on winter nights, we would listen to KDKA's National News at 5:00 PM. And in the mid '50's, XERF, nominally out of Del Rio, TX (but really out of Ciudad Cohilla, Mexico) would blast 100,000 watts of Rock 'n Roll to eager young ears in the Heartland.

Music played from the radio. The driver and I listened in silence.

After a time, I slid out of the jump seat and stood in the stairwell leaning hands-on-chin against the Silver Eagle's broad, padded dashboard. Half a moon shown in the southern sky and the dark fields rolled on, reflected in a faint silver luminescence. America passed under my feet. Mile after mile. Vast, didn't come close. Years later at various times, I would tell newly arrived British musicians, as they made ready to embark on a first US tour, "Gentleman, you are about to have a new appreciation of the word 'distance.'"

The music from the radio played not just in our ears that night. It played in the ears of the thousands who listened, busy with business that kept them up as the hours passed. It was a tie that bound all; familiar, comfortable, entertaining. The music spoke to some, stirred memories or emotions in others, and assured the rest that they were not alone. American music, sailing through the night air.

And here they were - a bus-load of dinosaurs. Country Bluesmen, the last living relics and purveyors of one of America's greatest musical traditions. Shining the light, declining the bushel. On their way to the next gig, just 800 miles down the road.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Alcohol & Violence - "...knowing that most things break"

                                  "For soon amid the silver loneliness
                                   Of night he lifted up his voice and sang,
                                   Secure, with only two moons listening,
                                   Until the whole harmonious landscape rang --"

Alcohol and violence were a constant in the lives of virtually every member of the Caravan. It was not unique to them, it was a byproduct of one other constant, poverty. If your life circumstances are shitty, alcohol provides an escape from those circumstances. Not that all poor people drink - or drink to excess. Far from it. Problem is, when some people drink, shit happens. And usually it's not the shit that people want. Believe me, I know. 'Nuff said.

Booze and music have always been co-ingredients in a roaring good time.  Musicians have had a firm grasp on the power of the interplay between those two elements as well as an appreciation for the transformative escape provided by both. From the old song lyric, "If the river was whiskey and I was a diving duck, I'd dive to the bottom and never would come up" to the modern song title, "There Stands The Glass" - it's the same lick. Alcohol takes us someplace else. Away from where we are. Music does the same. Together, they can be a veritable magic carpet. But sometimes that carpet lands on the wrong side of the wall.

Bukka White was the only member of the Caravan to have served time in a State Penitentiary. None of the members, however, were unfamiliar with jails or the police. Bukka's crime was manslaughter and he would lager confide that his visit to Parchman wasn't his only experience behind bars. He had spent time also in the Shelby County Jail in Memphis for a similar crime. He never gave a definitive figure on the number of men he had killed. It was at least two, possibly more. He claimed that each incident was in self defense and that he 'hated to do it.' Was he, or his victim, sober when these things happened? Probably not.

John 'Piano Red' Williams also had brushes with the law. While he never admitted to having been arrested, his conversation was rife with recollections of violent encounters. I remember one exchange in particular, sitting with Red at the dining room table in my house in Minneapolis, where red was engaged in one of his winding stories of stream-of-consciousness descriptions of incidents experienced during his 80 or so years.

At this telling he described an encounter with a 'devilish rascal' who had crossed him (hummm, was anyone having a drink?). Their exchange escalated into a full -blown confrontation, forcing Red to pick up an axe handle. At this point in the story, he asked if I knew how to 'han'el' someone through the use of such a weapon.

"Ah, no..."

Pleasant and friendly, Red continued in his innocent-sounding, high-pitched voice. "Well, first you him in the one arm. Him sharp, comin' down at a angle. You break they arm. Then you him on the other side, and break they other arm." Red paused, making sure that his lesson was getting through, perhaps expecting a question. "Then you take the axe han'el," he continued, in the same sweet voice, "and you hits 'em in they haid."

Joe Willie Wilkins, a pacific and gentle soul, told me of a call he got from Muddy Waters in the late '50's informing him that he (Muddy) was was sending his guitar player at the time, Pat Hare, back to Memphis. The instructions were that Joe was to arrange for Pat to 'lay low' for a while and not return to Chicago until he was sent for by Muddy. Pat had recorded for Sun Records in its early years and released a side ominously titled "I'm Gonna Murder My Baby" (re-released on Rhino in 1990). A few years later, in a jealous drunken rage he killed a woman in Chicago and was under investigation for the crime, prompting the call from Muddy. Joe related that this was not the first time such a thing had happened to Pat Hare.

Hare's name was familiar to me as I remember reading an account of his crimes in the local paper years after his Memphis visit.  Auburn 'Pat' Hare killed a woman in Minneapolis under similar circumstances. He also killed a policeman sent to investigate. Hare was roaring drunk at the time. Joe Willie allowed as Pat, sober, was a quiet and unassuming guy. Drunk, he was a homicidal maniac.

Auburn 'Pat' Hare died in Minnesota's Stillwater State Penitentiary in 1980. Had alcohol not taken him there, who knows where or when he would have died.

Whiskey and fried chicken fueled the Caravan in its years on the road. From management to performers, Jack and Jim were constant companions. Looking back through the haze, it's a wonder nothing more serious occurred than a pulled knife and some threatening words (both courtesy of Furry, but more of that later).

No injuries, no cops, no blood.
With a nod to E. A. & Mr. Flood...