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Lightnin' Hopkins couldn't play without his sunglasses. But the reason for that is Lightnin' Hopkins was extremely cross-eyed. He wasn't tryin' to be cool - Jerry Ricks, Port Townsend 97

Author Topic: Quills, Reeds and Things  (Read 2128 times)

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Offline Bunker Hill

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Quills, Reeds and Things
« on: March 23, 2006, 12:07:08 PM »
Here's yet a further early Tony Russell exploration into a topic that decades ago would provoke country blues fans into great debate; these Tony attempted to "rationalise" in print, in this case, via the pages of Jazz & Blues Magazine (Aug/Sep 1971). Oh yes, Bradley Sweet was a nom-de-plume of whom? I forget:

Quills, Reeds and Things
Tony Russell

A vintage recording which it is fair to call unique is Big Boy Cleveland's 'Quill blues' (Ge 6108; Historical ASC-5829-22, Roots RL-334). According to Godrich and Dixon, drawing upon Gennett files, this is a "quill (syrinx) solo", which is not too helpful. Mack McCormick contends that what we hear is actually a fife, of the sort played by Ed Young (on Lomax's '59 recordings) or Napoleon Strickland (see Arhoolie 1041). And indeed if you compare Cleveland's music with those men's, and make some allowance for the different recording techniques of 1927 and three decades or more later, there's much to be said for McCormick's suggestion.

Which being so, can we discover where Cleveland came from? Young and Strickland, remember, are North Mississippians, and it's in their area - Tate and Panola counties - that a firm tradition of fife-playing has long been existing. It would be neat ff Cleveland could be shown to be an early-recorded representative of that same tradition. His name sounds a little pseudonymous. His accent on his only issued vocal performance - 'Goin' to leave you blues' (Ge 6108, Historical ASC-5892-22, Yazoo L-1002), with guitar - tells me nothing. His guitar-playing - rather unformed steeling, somewhat in the manner of Furry Lewis - suggested Memphis to the compilers of the Yazoo reissue. Well, OK, let's go along with that for the moment.

About four days before Cleveland's short session, Gennett also recorded a band of musicians whose records they issued under several colourful pseudonyms. The members were Papa Harvey Hull, Long Cleve Reed and one Wilson. (The two sessions were perhaps closer than the rather vague Gennett files suggest, and could even have been on succeeding days. l am taking it that they both happened in Chicago.) What these men played were fascinating examples of early blues, vocal duets with two guitars. "Hull and Reed's ballad-style", wrote Bradley Sweet in the sleevenote to Yazoo L-1001, "seems to place them just south of Memphis". Now that's really pinpointing it - and just on the style, too! (For no one knows anything certain about this group.) I go along with Sweet, though, partly because the lead singer's accent fits, partly because he also sings - in 'Don't you leave me here' (Ge 6106; Origin OJL-8) - that "it's fifteen miles, sweet lovin' babe, [from] Memphis to my home". (Or, as Yazoo's note-writer would perhaps submit, "it's fifteen miles, Sweet' Lovin' babe...) True, the singer doesn't say it's fifteen miles south, and he does preface his geographical clue with another, wholly confusing one: "Can you tell me how far [from] Jackson to McComb?" (Which he also sings in Two little tommie blues' [Ge 6122; Yazoo L1009] ) And then again, you might argue from the repeated "Alabama bound" stanza in 'Don't you leave me here' and the "Mobile line" reference in 'France blues' (Ge 6106; Origin OJL-2) that the band was Alabamian.

But let's take the south-of-Memphis hypothesis. What is south of Memphis? Well, the Mississippi border, and, pretty soon after that, Tate and Panola counties. Hull, Reed and Wilson play what can be postulated as the root style from which grew the two-guitar approach of Frank Stokes and Dan Sane, or Garfield Akers and Joe Calicott; and Stokes was from Senatobia, in Tate county, while Akers and Calicott worked round the neighbouring De Soto county. The songs which Hull-Reed-Wilson deliver are by and large traditional Mississippi ones, or at least contain familiar elements: riverboat stanzas, a version of 'Slidin' Delta', and so on. The undiscovered Black Patti 8030 by Long "Cleve" Reed and the Down-home Boys has for one of its titles 'Original Stack O' Lee blues'.

Now, how do we link all this with our fife-player? Look at that :Black Patti credit again: Long "Cleve" Reed. A tall man, you may say; a man living in the Tate-Panola area, hearing every day the sound of the cane fife. Perhaps picking up on the instrument himself. Perhaps hanging on in Chicago for a few days, to record his playing on it. Perhaps, in fact, "Big Boy Cleveland"?

Offline Johnm

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Re: Quills, Reeds and Things
« Reply #1 on: March 28, 2006, 03:03:41 PM »
Thanks for posting this piece, Bunker Hill.  It has been a number of years since I have listened to "Quill Blues", and I can't get at it until tomorrow, but it is a real baffler to try to imagine why a piece played on a fife, as has been suggested, would be called "Quill Blues".  It's hard to believe the player himself would call a piece by the name of an instrument it did not feature. 

I found Tony Russell's imaginings of possibility really entertaining, though I do not agree that Long Cleve Reed and Papa Harvey Hull's duet style was an ur-version of what Frank Stokes and Dan Sane did.  Hull and Reed both finger-pick on their song's accompaniments, while in the Stokes/Sane set-up the division of labor had Stokes finger-picking and Sane flat-picking in a very different approach to orchestrating the parts and playing time.  Moreover, since the Reed/Hull and Stokes/Sane duos were contemporaneous, it's hard to see how the second duo's musical style and approach could derive from that of the first duo.

I do not know who wrote under the nom de plume Brad Sweet, but I always assumed it was Stephen Calt, since Sweet's prose style reads just like Calt's and it appeared on a Yazoo release.  If not Calt, Don Kent might be a good bet.
All best,
Johnm
« Last Edit: March 29, 2006, 11:52:36 AM by Johnm »

Offline Parlor Picker

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Re: Quills, Reeds and Things
« Reply #2 on: March 29, 2006, 01:49:45 AM »
Yet more fascinating stuff from your archive, Alan.  I tend to agree with John's comments here.

Oh and about that pseudonym, it's an anagram of Berty D. Weasel....
"I ain't good looking, teeth don't shine like pearls,
So glad good looks don't take you through this world."
Barbecue Bob

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