Sunday, June 08, 2008

Road Trip - Natchez Burning and the King of Swamp Blues

By Bubba "The Unreal" McCoy

“Harmonica is an oral tradition.” This was a phrase often used by virtuoso harmonica player Gary Primich. Other players who met him were quick to find out that he lived up to his side of that tradition. So it was with this spirit that my wife Stephanie and I set out on a journey. For me it was to satisfy my craving for the knowledge that can only be handed down through that oral tradition and, for Stephanie, a chance to take in some sunny hot weather for a change.

Due to construction of the machine, most of the techniques used in playing the harmonica happen behind the teeth and gums of the player and unseen by the listener. In early days, much like magicians, the top players would only share the "tricks" they had picked up with the closest and most respected of peers. That is unless you happened to have a jug of corn whiskey. Then with luck you might be able to get a lesson that wasn’t full of intentional deception to throw off new rivals. Muddy Waters even said, “You got something you don't want other people to know, keep it in your pocket”. This is how it has remained. Only recently have masterclass camps formed, providing a proper meeting place for instructors and students. Still there are only a handful of instructional books for harmonica. Few of which manage to convey these techniques due to the difficulty in describing what you can’t see. While rows of books delving into each style and individual guitar player can be found at your local music store, there is scarce supply of harmonica related material for a reason.

Our trip began in Austin, Texas, music Mecca and former home to my favorite player Gary Primich. After paying our respects to his legacy by attending a former frequent gig “The Sinners Brunch at Jo’s Hot Coffee” (1300 South Congress) where on Sundays Tina Rose and Will Pipkin play host to guest appearances from local Austin heavies. The show was fantastic. Featuring Phoebe Hunt, a young Austin fiddle player “an sanger” as she would say. This young woman can play and sing with the best of them. While watching her you get the sense that you are in on something at the ground floor. You can expect to hear more about Phoebe Hunt in the future.

Arriving in Baton Rouge, Louisianna we were greeted by a swollen Mississippi River that was threatening to flood the city. From downtown Baton Rouge you could look UP to see the ships masts as they passed down the massive river. Our stay was short. With many businesses closed and the real possibility of a flood, we decided to move on.

While planning a trip to the delta you get the feeling that your computer is something of a time machine that allows you to get someplace remote. Like searching for an eddy in our virtual driven world that’s rushing like the Mississippi river, you know you’re onto something when the current or, in this case the web sites, stop flowing. In this day and age where even the bluesmen have cell phones and lap-tops, it seems amazing when we find a place that has not been changed forever, washed away by the flood of the World Wide Web. It’s still coming to them. Like radio forever changed regional music. The internet and it’s incredible shrinking powers will do the same. Where isolation gave birth to unique artists like John Hurt, Son House, Skip James, and Robert Johnson. Radio gave birth to a million Stevie Ray Wannabes and B.B. King impersonators. To find the music and heritage undisturbed and in its natural environment will continue to get more and more rare. It’s only a fact. Not one to be forlorn, just a fact as mighty as the Mississippi itself. Our internet research prior to leaving, left us with just enough information to lead us to where the flow slows. Almost to a complete stop. Once you have been dropped in Natchez, Mississippi with no place to stay on a hot Tuesday in May, it’s all up to the spirits that surround you. As we were about to find out the spirits were already with us.

Natchez, Mississippi is landmark in the Blues. Not only is it located along the blues Highway 61 and the Mississippi River. It’s also the subject of many songs. Most notably “Natchez Burning” by Howlin’ Wolf. A song about the true story of a fire inside a juke joint called “The Rhythm Club” that killed more than 200 people. Lending credence to the significance of the event, it should be noted that Wolf didn’t write the song until 1954, some 14 years after the tragedy. Today two markers commemorate the loss. One listing the names of each victim can be found near the rivers edge just west of town and the other, a “Blues Trail” marker is in front of the Natchez Museum of African American History. Natchez was also the home town to blues greats “Papa" George Lightfoot, Hound Dog Taylor and Jimmy Anderson. If you were like me, you may not have heard of Jimmy Anderson until now.



Jimmy Lee Anderson, a contemporary of fellow Excello label recording stars Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester, Lightnin’ Slim and “Papa" George Lightfoot was a founding father of the “Swamp Hop” sound and was often billed as “The King Of Swamp Blues”. His band “Jimmy Anderson and the Joy Jumpers” played regional juke joints and clubs in and around Mississippi and Louisiana after moving base to Baton Rouge. In 1962 the group recorded their first song “I Wanna Boogie” for Excello Records. However, by 1964 after disputes over unpaid royalties Jimmy left the music profession behind, playing only on occasion with local acts.

Seven years later he returned to Natchez where he became a School District Crossing Guard manning the towns’ busiest intersection. Though embittered by the royalty’s dispute in which Jimmy claims to have received “Not one royalty check,” his interest in music never faded. After his stint as a crossing guard Jimmy began what was to be his second career in the music business this one as a disc jockey. Starting with country station WNAT he is considered to be the nation's first black country western disc jockey. Working two shifts, he went on-air in the afternoons as Jimmy Anderson spinning country records then returning in the evening as Soulman Lee in the evening playing the blues. The two names, along with a voice alteration that would have made Mel Blanc and Rich Little blush, avoided any objections the predominantly white audience may have had. Now, thanks to Stephanie and her hours of slow drifting on the back waters of the internet, we knew that as recent as 2007 Jimmy was alive and living in Natchez. Although he had suffered a stroke many years ago, Jimmy was rumored to be playing again!

When the currents pushed us into this eddy we found ourselves parking at random in front of two shops. Starving and craving soul food, Stephanie and I both gravitated towards Breaud’s Restaurant but we’re struck by the cool antiques in the store next door. Ignoring the calls of the Shrimp Po’ Boys, Muffalattas and Fried Green Tomatoes we headed in to take a quick look around.

When we stepped into Different Accents we were welcomed by the same XM radio broadcast of Bill Wax’s “Bluesville”, which had been our sound track all the way from Austin. When I asked about live music we were directed to the owner Edward Killeleas. Edward is a blues fan. Edward is a cool guy. Edward is about to hook me up. “Ya’ll are blues fans? (looking down at my Flame Job leather shoes) Shoes like that, you must play." “Harmonica” I replied with a laugh. “You ever hear of Jimmy Anderson?” asked Stephanie. “Sure!” He replied with amazement. “Jimmy lives right across the street from me. Ya’ll wanna meet him? I can go over and see if he’s up for visitors. I’m sure he’d like to meet you. Ya’ll can stay in the apartment upstairs tonight and I can take you on over to Jimmy’s when you’re ready.” BANG! Just like that we were set for the night.

Upstairs we unpacked our bags in the most fantastic bed & breakfast you could ever ask for. The room, filled with antiques from around the world, has it’s own kitchen, bath room, living room and bedroom. All of this overlooking Breaud’s inviting patio dinning area which was still calling our names. First, we needed to go visit with Jimmy Anderson! (For more info on Edwards Killeleas fantastic Bed & Breakfast go to http://www.locustalley.com/ )

We arrived at Jimmy’s house around two in the afternoon. His home is a row house with a wide front porch and a low pitched roof. The house was purchased by his mother after being condemned in a flood, and later resold by the government. The house was bought in both her and Jimmy’s’ names due to the passing of his father and the legal requirement of a male co-owner for a woman to purchase a house at the time.

Edward knocked at the door and spoke up as to make sure that Jimmy could hear we were there to see him. “C’mon in” Jimmy said as he wheeled towards us in his electric wheel chair. As we stepped into his house my eyes took a moment to adjust from the intense sunlight of the outdoors to the rich golden hue of the low incandescent lit room. I stepped inside and reached to shake Jimmy’s outstretched left hand. Edward introduced Stephanie and me to Jimmy and then headed back to his shop.

We spent close to three hours with Jimmy as our host. I had only intended to see him for a moment, maybe buy a CD if he had one. I didn’t want to take up his time or wear him out. It was clear that we had interrupted his daily viewing of “Leave it to Beaver” followed by “The Beverly Hillbillies,” and this I didn’t take lightly. He showed us around his home. His most prized possessions proudly displayed on the walls. First to grab our attention was the large billboard sign reading “King Of Swamp Blues," then the pristine 45 rpm record of “Elmo James – Catfish Blues”. Jimmy would stop briefly, telling us about each person in the photos. There was Muhammad Ali, Dr. King and JFK, there was a young Jesse Jackson and of course pictures of Jimmy’s band. There was a beaten photo of Jimmy and his best friend as toddlers. Right next to it was a photo of the same two friends some twenty years later. The pictures, once placed on the wall, have remained in the same spot for close to 40 years now. With each photo was a story, and in the center of it all was “Lily”. “Who’s this?” I asked of the striking woman in the photo. “That’s Lily . . . she was my wife.” he said with a noticeable gleam in his eye “She’s passed now."

Jimmy Anderson & the Joy Jumpers

We shifted from the photos to music. We talked about his recordings, and band mates, his influences and his approach to song writing. We talked about his travels to Europe in the '90s with the “Mojo Blues Band” and his days as a crossing guard for which he is rightly proud. We talked about his work as a country DJ and how local widows would send the "country" DJ home cooked meals, unaware that they were being delivered to a person of color. He even did his "country radio" voice for me. An impersonation of a "white guy" that blew my mind. We laughed loud and talked about what all bluesmen talk about. We talked about good lookin’ women, mean women and scorned women. We talked about clubs and juke joints, and about friends and sonofabitches.


I shared music from our i-Pod we had loaded with our favorites. He seemed to particularly enjoy William Clarke and Primich noting that Gary could “...play my style." He shared his collection of music with us as well. His eclectic tastes didn’t stop at the blues. We listened to everything from blues on 45's to country on LP’s and early Prince on 8-tracks. All the while “Leave It To Beaver” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” were competing to be heard in the background. When the conversation moved from other artists to Jimmy, he produced a compilation CD of 24 recordings featuring him on harmonica and vocals. We listened to his version of “King Bee”, the Joy Jumpers first recording of “I Wanna Boogie” and the thoroughly modern for its time original song “Going Crazy Over TV." I bought a copy of the CD which he then signed for me left handed, overcoming and defying the debilitating stroke with sheer determination. Then we got down to business and played some harmonica for each other.


Bubba McCoy and Jimmy Anderson

He was a 1st position master. A style of playing (think Jimmy Reed) that is often ignored by run of the mill players, but when done right, it stamps the player with blues authenticity and Jimmy Anderson was the real deal. That’s when it happened. He shared some of his "tricks" with me (NO I’m nots gonna tell you here). We ran though some of his favorite licks. First him - then me, with Jimmy adding a few “how come” and “that’s when you want to” tips along the way. It was short. Jimmy told me he “can’t keep his wind as much” and had recently switched to playing into an Astatic (bullet type) of microphone to help with volume and sustain. He asked me to play a bit more for him and I did. It made me feel good to see him diggin’ it, rockin’ in his chair and tapping his good foot as I played. Those few hours, with a combined actual playing time of five or ten minutes, is one of the best harmonica lessons I will ever have.

It’s true. It’s an oral tradition. It can’t be done any other way. I was wrong though when I said it was due to the machine and how it’s played, because it’s not in the licks or the blistering runs and amplified tone. It’s somewhere else. Maybe one day I’ll be able to pass it along. If you have a jug of corn I’d probably give it a try, but I told you how that works out. Also If I’m watching “The Beaver” or “Jethro” come back later.

One last note. You can now find Jimmy Anderson at www.myspace.com/soulmanlee . His site is managed by some friends of his from Europe. Marcus Frazier, Benjamin Daussy and Vincent Joos deserve a tremendous thank you from us here in the USA who haven’t taken the time to preserve and treasure our own history. Vincent Joos, a French transplant to Mississippi is currently teaching his native language to students in Natchez. He stopped by for a moment while we were visiting Jimmy. You could tell that he has an altruistic care for Jimmy Anderson and his legacy. Please stop by Jimmy’s site and give him the praise he deserves. And send in for a CD while you’re there. Now THAT’S the way to pay honor to the “King Of Swamp Blues.”!

See you on down the road –Bubba McCoy.

A native of Eugene, OR, Bubba "The Unreal" McCoy has been active on the Seattle blues scene for about nine years, most recently with the Broomdust Blues Band.

6 comments:

Ricky Bush said...

Hey Bubba--

Neat story! That's pretty typical that Europeans are looking after Jimmy's interest instead of those within his own city or state taking up the cause. I didn't know much about Jimmy before your post, but I'll check him out (and your website, also). Anyway--

See ya--
Rick

-Zab- said...

Great story Bubba, I'm glad you posted it. It's a human interest story with heart...Just what blues is all about. To know the author is just that much better.

See you at the club!
-Zab-

Leslie said...

What a wonderful piece of writing. I didn't want it to end!
It must have been hard to leave, eh?

Leslie

edward said...

Great Article!! Thanks Bubba for sharing Jimmy Anderson's story in your Blues letter .. There are locals helping Jimmy's interest here in Natchez! I am one of them. But my hat is off to the Europeans for the true rediscovery of Jimmy Anderson in my town! just a note Marcus Frazier mentioned at the end of the article is a Natchezian and is a photograppher for the Natchez Democrat. It was great meeting you and Stephanie and taking you to Jimmy's home.. he has the article and is very appreciative of his recognition and contribution to swamp blues! Thanks again EK

Mark D said...

Great article! Thanks Bubba!

Mark D said...

Great article! Thanks Bubba!