A posting in a discussion of Sleepy John Estes, Hammie Nixon and John Henry Barbee elsewhere prompted memories of this. From letters page Jazz Journal, January 1965.
One of the questions which the recent interest in country blues has evoked regards the effect which rediscovery has upon the older and long retired singers. In various functions, including that of road manager to last year's Blues and Gospel Caravan in England, I have had occasion to know and talk to numerous blues singers That concerts and club engagements increase their incomes is certainly true, and the thrill of performing for thousands of appreciative white people is certainly an experience which most of the singers will treasure above almost anything else in their lives After we had listened to a relatively obscure rediscovery talk earnestly about how much money he was going to make and all the hit records his manager had promised him, a friend of mine and I for the first time began to consider the possibility that the disappointment which will eventually come when the craze dies down might out weigh the benefits.
I hope this is untrue, but it is nevertheless interesting to consider, and leads in to the unhappy news which I may or may not be the first to convey to you.
I was in London in October when the Folk Blues Festival was in town and I saw the show at Croydon. I agree with Mr. Stewart-Baxter's review, excepting his ecstasy. over the performance of John Henry Barbee. He certainly played the guitar far better than one would expect of someone who seemed as decrepit as he, but he was out of his depth next to artists such as Lightnin' and Sleepy John. I returned to the US soon thereafter and when boarding the airplane at London Airport, I saw Mr. Barbee among the passengers. We chatted on the way back and I saw that he got safely to his connecting flight in New York. He was full of optimism about coming back to Europe soon and he planned to buy a car with the money he had made on this trip. He was disappointed because a back ailment had kept him out the last few days of the tour. Soon after my return, I heard that his back ailment was in actuality, cancer.
Last weekend, while in Chicago, I hailed a cab on South Michigan. I opened one door as the other door was simultaneously seized by Clifton James, the drummer. We were surprised by the coincidence, and agreed to share the ride since we were both headed south. In the cab he related this story, which was substantiated later by Don Kent and Muddy Waters. John Henry did buy a car. A week later he ran over a man and killed him. (It was the first car he had ever owned, I believe.) Thrown in jail and unable to post bond, or contact his benefactors, he died of cancer in jail.
Which is best? For him to have lived out his life in peace, not bothered by fame, travel and money? Or to have his brief fling at glory and then be led by his 'fortune' into a series of events which brought about his death?
Let those of the Anglo-Saxon intelligentsia who take such an interest in the music of the Negro people of America never forget the responsibility they have for the changes they have wrought in those lives. Never toy lightly with the life of anyone else. To thrust success on someone suddenly after years of failure is easily as traumatic as the sudden failure of a long time success.
50 Central Park West,
New York, U.S.A.