Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Blues Symposium in Oxford


(Originally posted March 4, 2005)

Blues scholars and fans gather every February for the Living Blues symposium at Ole Miss, where scholars like Sam Charters and Paul Garon discuss the history of the music, while fans, as well as scholars, can hear some real downhome blues and gospel, too.

The Campbell Brothers opened the musical proceedings last weekend at Second Baptist Church in Oxford with a sacred steel concert. Brothers Darick and Chuck Campbell play lap steel guitars, while another brother, Phil, plays the guitar, and Phil's son, Carlton, plays drums. Their cousin, Denise Brown, is the vocalist, and Malcolm Kirby plays bass.

The Campbells, who belong to an African American Holiness-Pente costal church in Rochester, N.Y., are exciting musicians who bring their audience to their feet with the fervor of their steel guitars, one on the left and another on the right. The steel guitars seem to sing along with Ms. Brown, who shouts out her songs, clapping her hands and praising the Lord. The drummer belts out a beat that keeps the devil away. The audience moves with the music until it reaches an emotional peak that slows down only when "Amazing Grace" is performed near the end of the concert.

Precious Bryant from Georgia played a brief set at a club in Oxford Square, while Chick Willis followed her for a couple of hours, walking through the crowd with his guitar, to the delight of the audience. B.B. King was last year's star attraction, and last weekend it was the great country blues singer David Honeyboy Edwards, who is almost 90 years old.

He's a living blues encyclopedia, born in Mississippi but now living in Chicago who has known almost all of the great bluesmen of the last 70 years. Honeyboy showed up on campus Saturday afternoon for a discussion with Jim OÕNeal, one of the founding editors of Living Blues magazine. Walking into the room where several panel discussions were held over the weekend, Honeyboy looked sharp in a new overcoat and hat. He's a little hard of hearing, but his mind is sharp. He recalled events that happened more than half a century ago.

"We played in Stuttgart, Arkansas," he said at one point in the discussion with O'Neal. Honeyboy talked about the night Robert Johnson was poisoned in a juke joint near Greenwood, Miss., where they were both performing in the summer of 1938. A jealous husband supposedly had put poison in JohnsonÕs whiskey for messing with the man's wife. '

Honeyboy, who was then 23, watched Johnson die a slow death in a nearby rooming house. Johnson was 27. After his talk with O'Neal, Honeyboy signed copies of his autobiography, "The World Don't Owe Me Nothing: The Life and Times of Delta Bluesman Honeyboy Edwards" (Chicago Review Press).

We complimented him on his terrific memory, and he said, "I remember things that happened when I was five years old," he told us.

"I remember when the census taker came to our house with a book under his arm." That must have been in 1920, and you can read about it in Honeyboy's book. Last month, Honeyboy played at Lincoln Center in New York. Last Saturday night, he played for an hour at a juke joint north of Oxford, where the bartender offered us moonshine from under the counter.

We declined, although we weren't afraid of getting poisoned. Honeyboy sang "All Your Love" and "That's All Right" and other country blues classics while a young black man stood up in front of him and danced to the music. The crowd was about evenly divided between whites and blacks. The white fans had come out to the juke joint to hear Honeyboy, but most of the black folks had never heard of him and had come to hear a younger musician named Duwayne Burnside, the son of bluesman L.R. Burnside, who had a stroke recently and canÕt play anymore.

Jim O'Neal, who was at the club, told us, "I was interested in seeing the reaction of people in a place like that, which I thought was pretty good compared to what I've seen sometimes when old-timers perform in a black venue."

Of course, it was a pretty mixed venue Saturday night. There was no reason any of the black crowd would have known who (Honeyboy) was. He's a legend among country blues aficionados today, but he never had anything resembling a hit record in the black community, and, in fact, barely recorded for that market at all.

"Duwayne Burnside and his band had some sound problems, but they were good, playing in a funky Albert King style, "O 'Neal said.

After the show, in the middle of a rainy night, Honeyboy's manager drove the old trouper back to Chicago. They must have made it back sometime next afternoon


Post a Comment

<< Home