|sidemeat||Liner Notes (deutsch)||Liner Notes (englisch)|
JAMES SON THOMAS
WILBURT LEE RELIFORD
I realize how passionately curious I was at that time, wanting to learn as much as possible about a culture that eventually would remain alien, regardless of my desires. Each of the chosen tunes is a record of intimate moments, and of timely stumbles. Listening to them now brings back their stories intertwined with mine, echoes of playing "behind the main voice." Still, I sense myself dancing, and slow breathing, and trying to fold myself into felt space.
In the recordings with Etta Baker and James Son Thomas I can easily hear the confidence that comes from having a personal relationship that carried us beyond playing music. All these selections are based on many remembered performances that never made it on record. Their sounds and rhythms should explain best, but by no means exclusively, the title of this document, "sidemeat" .
The rest of the cuts are musical outtakes from oral history interviews I conducted in Mississippi during 1987-90. They are recorded moments of chance: I can still remember the grounding sensation I felt when playing behind Johnny Woods, the on-edge tickle with Frank Davis and Wilburt Lee, and the breathing space around Junior Kimbrough's notes.
The tunes are accompanied by excerpts from notes I took in the time surrounding
the recordings thus making "sidemeat" a listening journal as well. I hope you
will enjoy the flavors of remembered presence in sound and word.
Wale Liniger, 2007
The long fingers of her left hand move effortlessly along the strings - like the silent shadows of a low-flying flock of birds racing across the ground, they barely seem to touch the neck of the guitar. Yet notes spray and tumble from the frets. As her fingers dance their extraordinary flights of fancy, the sounds are brought to life by the thumb and index of her right hand, her picking hand. They tell stories of joy at the end of the tunnel of sorrow, they remember long days of hard work and short nights filled with laughter of the heart, they mimic the gliding feet in a slow drag and the thrilling taps of the buck dance. Her songs have traveled through many generations, but there is no weariness in their message as they thrive on the rediscovery of memories. One moment Etta's guitar rocks like a bucking pony at the races, and the next moment melodic drops fall like dew in the early morning sun. I have never heard, much less seen, such fluid strings of sound-pearls pieced together to form a mosaic of southern life.
I have been awake for a while, listening out into the night garden where Etta's steady raking speaks of her daily silent commune with peace and balance. It is almost as if weeding and straightening out have to be done in darkness, so as not to disturb growth and beauty once the sun ignites the colors of life. It is also during this part of the day where she gathers renewed strength from visiting memories: the bark of the wild cherry tree tells her about her uncle who used to roam the mountains and creek beds in search of healing plants; the ginger root will help us fight a bad cold, aches and pains; and the turnips are best when seasoned with sidemeat, hot peppers, and brown sugar - that's the way people lived up on Johns River.
Smell and sound of frying sidemeat reach me before daylight. I have not heard Etta come in the house, she moves with incredible lightness. The steel door of the wood stove creaks ever so slightly, and I find myself in my childhood. We used to have a small stove in the kitchen, and I remember my mother starting the fire on cold mornings. My job was to make sure we had enough kindling and wood. Etta's kitchen embraces me with a symphony of golden brown biscuits, steamed rice, sizzling country ham and sidemeat, spiced stewed apples, fried eggs, and the thick blackness of freshly brewed coffee. The first rays of the rising sun slowly move down the refrigerator door. Etta pours the coffee, bows her head and says grace. And from afar I hear the first silky call of a mourning dove.
"Boogie" and "Careless Love" were both recorded in Etta's living room during
such a visit. They belonged to the ritual, they are testimonies of joy and
celebration, qualities that Etta Baker valued most in her life. "Madison Stomp"
and "John Henry" [both previously released on Wale Liniger's CD BETTER DAY] are
studio recordings, the only ones we ever made. They followed a day of visiting,
feasting, and playing music. "Madison Stomp" is named after Etta Baker's father,
Boone Madison Reid, himself an accomplished musician and Etta's lifelong
inspiration for music and lived wisdom. Etta was primed to dance through this
piece on her trusted old Gibson electric guitar, and that's exactly what she
did. Etta and I both had an affinity for "John Henry" as the song seemed to anchor
the beginning of our friendship: upon our first meeting in 1984 we had visited
the legendary tunnel on the C&O line in Talcott, West Virginia. Etta remembered
her uncle who had taught her this slide guitar piece many years ago, and as a
harmonica player I was reminded of my desire to get a handle on this
quintessential American song. During my last visit with Etta a couple of weeks
before she passed away (2006), she proclaimed once again that I believe this one
is the best.
Etta and I both had an affinity for "John Henry" as the song seemed to anchor the beginning of our friendship: upon our first meeting in 1984 we had visited the legendary tunnel on the C&O line in Talcott, West Virginia. Etta remembered her uncle who had taught her this slide guitar piece many years ago, and as a harmonica player I was reminded of my desire to get a handle on this quintessential American song. During my last visit with Etta a couple of weeks before she passed away (2006), she proclaimed once again that I believe this one is the best.
JAMES SON THOMAS
Son's bony shoulders shake to the rhythms of a viciously deep cough triggered by greedy drags on his Pall Mall cigarette. The bluish smoke crawls up his face, its tentacles first dancing along the sharply edged lines which form a broad triangle from his mouth to his nose, before they almost get lost in the grid between his eyes - lines written by deep thoughts about phantoms, both real and imagined. A slightly cocked straw hat sits on his high forehead, its creases sharp and pointed. I detect his eyes in the brim's shadow. A pair of dark pupils swim in yellowish white, eyes seemingly impossible to fathom. When he finally steps out from behind the smoky haze I see a thin tall man, gaunt and stooped as if carrying a heavy burden, fighting for balance. His long fingers feel cold and hard; the hand is narrow and offers no response to my handshake. And so we meet.
During our partnership James Son Thomas introduces me to his concept of Mississippi, a place where my logic and reasoning do not seem to work. Quite often his answer to one of my questions would be simple, almost like a mantra: you're not overseas anymore, you're in Mississippi, you do what the man tells you. Son knows how to navigate the murky waters of shallow talk, he senses hidden sink holes, life has taught him what to remember and what to forget. His keen sense of history and ancient rituals, formulated anew in every song, helps him live in the present with his sights on the past. The future seems a place shrouded in hope, faith and trust; a very private place. The Delta is his home, he is not going any further, and I am left to figure things out over time and through observation.
We are what we remember. Son chooses to let me see more than I have bargained
for. The bits and pieces of his innermost self reveal a truth I am barely able
to handle, yet it lays at the core of his blues. Son's deep studies, as he calls
the silent moments in which he ponders existential challenges, are preoccupied
with guilt. Guilt about not having been there when his mother died, guilt about
believing in God while still playing the blues. In his heart he carries a heavy
The blues requires more than ardent indulgence in its crafted voice. It demands constant attention to unseen undulating forces and silent pauses, failure and control over seductive urges, reconciliation of the past with the present, hope, and surrender to a moral principle.
Son's blues clings to the past, following the dictum that the truth lies in the experience. Through his selection of songs and stories he is able to shape the past he chooses to reveal. However, he knows that the blues carries him to a world that is his, and only his. It greatly amuses him that he can lose me with a song.
"Train I Ride" and "Big Boss Man" were both recorded in the Rooster Blues Studio
in Clarksdale, Mississippi [released as BOTTOMLANDS on cassette R 961000 in
1990]. Over the years Son Thomas had told me many times that if I wanted to make
any money in Mississippi I would have to play "Big Boss Man," a piece enjoyed by
blacks & whites alike. Being such a favorite could have to do with its
contagious beat and/or its telling lyrics. After all, back in the days, how else
could a black man tell a white man "you ain't so big, you're just tall that's
all" if not in song? This particular version is very precious to me because it
was the only time Son Thomas let me have a harmonica solo in any song! His
spoken encouragement let me hear you now, did come as a surprise. It was the
only time he allowed me to explore this sort of space. During all my years of playing with Son Thomas (1985-1993) we played "Lonesome
Day" only this one time (during a 1987 recording session for GATEWAY TO THE
DELTA, at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi). I distinctly remember
that when Son Thomas started his guitar intro I was about to tell him that we
had just recorded "Sugar Mama," a song with an almost identical guitar
introduction. Fortunately I realized that the song was going a different way and
from then on it was wide open. Based on my experiences with Son I consider this
a made up song as he put it all together for just that moment alone. Years ago I
had thought all blues songs were put together like that, but I had been wrong.
During all my years of playing with Son Thomas (1985-1993) we played "Lonesome Day" only this one time (during a 1987 recording session for GATEWAY TO THE DELTA, at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi). I distinctly remember that when Son Thomas started his guitar intro I was about to tell him that we had just recorded "Sugar Mama," a song with an almost identical guitar introduction. Fortunately I realized that the song was going a different way and from then on it was wide open. Based on my experiences with Son I consider this a made up song as he put it all together for just that moment alone. Years ago I had thought all blues songs were put together like that, but I had been wrong.
WILBURT LEE RELIFORD
A thin spiral of smoke rises slowly from the cinder block house into the bleak day. I see Wilburt's hulking figure standing in the open door. Once I step across the threshold it feels as if I were entering a haunted, and haunting world. The dull color of the concrete bricks and the darkness inside the house are stifling, intimidating. The air is soaked with the smell of beans and fatback, simmering neck bones bubble on the wood stove. His world appears to be full of grayscales. He doesn't need any light as his blindness creates a scenery of its own. There are no pictures on the walls which could explain and answer all my unasked questions. He keeps his house clean but the roaches grin at the visitor from their perches. Wilburt's booming voice fills the emptiness in his eyes, a voice that compliments his strong, square body. Bare feet shuffle across the cement floor, his huge hands slide along the walls for guidance. He started losing his eyesight in 1937 when he was 13 years old. God is our friend but our eyesight is our friend too. There is a thick fog between me and daylight all the time. I can tell daylight from dark. Anything as big as daylight I can see. He wonders if there were any colored people in Switzerland.
Usually Wilburt's doors are locked, shutting out a world that his mind considers increasingly violent. He listens to a small battery operated radio which not only brings the occasional R&B tune to his attention but also broadcasts the latest news about murders in Memphis and the spin about a possible American involvement in the Persian Gulf. War and mayhem, all of it saturated with static interference. He seems haunted by violent images from his past as well: Wilburt tells me that he had seen a lynching in New Albany and a dead body floating in the Tallahatchie river in 1932, and that his wife was shot by her first husband. Still, we enjoy each other's company, no matter how bad the news on the radio.
When Wilburt got into his harmonica with now here's a record used to be gold, t'was way back in those years ago, followed by "Mattie Mae," we could have ended up anywhere. I had no clue what he was going to play but I had a sense of his rhythm. Listening to that particular moment in his kitchen I not only hear my struggle to stay with him through the song, but above all how my ideas of blues music interfered with the moment.
I had met Johnny one time before. At the 1985 Blues & Gospel festival in Holly Springs, Mississippi I had found myself backing up two harmonica players: Johnny Woods and Wilburt Lee Reliford, a cousin of Junior Kimbrough. After some initial confusion they both finally had settled on the same key, but finding a common tune had been another matter.
The dirt road to Johnny's house is riddled with holes, abused by heavy trucks. A hostile road. I pass the old gravel pit. Finally, I see the house on the left side. Rain drips from the battered tin roof, some of the windows are broken. Johnny opens the door. He is wearing an old coat and two pairs of pants to keep the cold at bay. I have seen and smelled poverty before, but the scene in the obscure darkness behind Johnny chokes my enthusiasm about meeting the blues legend Johnny Woods whose musical work with Mississippi Fred McDowell had cast a long shadow.
The insides of an armchair have spilled out onto a floor dotted with newspapers, rags, diapers, empty cans and bottles. The one-room space shows the brutality of abandonment, but there is life. Johnny's wife Verlina sits on a sagging colorless mattress, wrapped in dirty sheets and burlap sacks, her blind eyes wide open. Several grandchildren are crawling all over the cracked wooden floor, staying as close as possible to the heater which also serves as a cooking stove. The space is intimidating. I feel ashamed to witness such nakedness, such unguarded intimacy. Playing a few tunes with Johnny gives me the chance to fix my eyes on my guitar, an opportunity to escape. After what seems an eternity I leave the radiating heat, the smell of urine and the silence of empty eyes, the noiselessly crawling children, Johnny's wide open harp licks and his silent plea for a drink that would stop his shaking and teeth grinding. I still hear Verlina's claim that she used to sing the blues, none of that new stuff, but I used to do that low down stuff, you know. I was raised in the blues.
All three tracks with Johnny Woods are outtakes from an interview conducted in
1987. I always insisted that the interviewees were sober, and so this meeting
took place rather early in the morning. I am sure that the narrative and the
music could have been more lively with a little nip here and there, but I don't
think Johnny's vocals and harp suffered through this abstinence. Listening to
those tracks brings back the core of the occasion: I could hardy believe that I
was playing with Johnny Woods! "Long Haired Doney" caught me by surprise and I found myself at a loss of
musical ideas. Rapping the guitar was the only thing I could think of at the
moment. In hindsight however, my intentions not to interfere with Johnny paid
off. Listening to "Rollin' & Tumblin'" still lets me feel the ground shake. At the end of his stirring version of "Death Bells" I had asked him if he ever
had written any songs. His answer was to the point. I been blowin' it a long
time but I made it up. I ain't got told for nothin', it's just whatever is in
your mind, 'cause I can't write and I can't read none. I never will learn
nothing about this reading song… I heard a lot of people say 'I wrote me a song
and I plays'. I never wrote me a song. Only song I wrote, I wrote in my mind.
"Long Haired Doney" caught me by surprise and I found myself at a loss of musical ideas. Rapping the guitar was the only thing I could think of at the moment. In hindsight however, my intentions not to interfere with Johnny paid off. Listening to "Rollin' & Tumblin'" still lets me feel the ground shake.
At the end of his stirring version of "Death Bells" I had asked him if he ever had written any songs. His answer was to the point. I been blowin' it a long time but I made it up. I ain't got told for nothin', it's just whatever is in your mind, 'cause I can't write and I can't read none. I never will learn nothing about this reading song… I heard a lot of people say 'I wrote me a song and I plays'. I never wrote me a song. Only song I wrote, I wrote in my mind.
Indianola. Slowly the crop duster circles over highway 82, its wide wings almost vertically aligned, then the "yellow jacket" swoops down behind a small wooded area and appears in the far distance, just a few feet above the ground. The pickup trucks outside the small breakfast place in Indianola are splattered with mud. When I enter the restaurant the conversation dies down, eyes stare and scrutinize, boots shuffle, cigarettes and cigars aim at me. Then the slow monotonous mumble through locked jaws resumes. Now I know what some of the older black people mean when they say that they won't be going to some places 'cause it don't feel right. The first question the young waitress asks me is: Are you from up north? They sure don't waste any time, no sir.
Frank Davis lives a few miles down the road in Moorehead, "where the Southern Crosses the Dog." Due to sugar, as some older folks call diabetes, Frank is losing his eyesight and his legs but he remains a quick-witted man. Obviously this bundle of energy has been waiting for me as he doesn't want to chat long, instead he gets right down to playing his harp. For the next two hours we exchange tunes and laughs. Ever so often Frank leans over to me from his wheelchair and whispers you know, I used to play a lot of blues. But my wife Ruby [nodding towards the kitchen] doesn't like it no more. Whenever I gets a chance to slip away I do it. Tomorrow would be a good day; my wife is going to a funeral. I'll be here. And so Frank gave up singing the classic blues tunes. Instead he blows spirituals splattered with blues riffs whilst Ruby is shuffling in and out of the kitchen feeding their grandchildren pancakes, sausage and fried sidemeat.
When Frank invited me to accompany him with the words this piece here what I wanna play first, you play on the box…. I went to the belly and I didn't go to stay, my soul got happy and I stayed all day, I never expected a spiritual piece, stripped of all lyrics and pushed ahead by Frank's exuberant breath. I was hanging on for life, rapping that one guitar chord over and over, never knowing what would cross his mind next. I was relieved when he finally started to slow down; but he wouldn't quit that easily and went right back to blowing his harp. Somehow we made it to his final explanation. You got that. Went to the belly, I didn't go to stay, my soul got happy and I stayed all day. And I fall down on my knees, ask the Lord to help me if He please…. Fall down on my bended knees, went to the belly and I didn't go to stay and I asked Him to give me a helping hand. And then I asked Him again to come on and shake my hand….I didn't sing though but that's the way it goes. I guess Frank "got happy" as any churchgoer would attest after listening to his joyous ride in the "belly of the whale" [based on the biblical story of Jonah and the Whale].
A dreary Sunday, the streets are slick. The red dirt road leading up to Junior's house is muddy, and slow. Junior's Sunday afternoon practice sessions fill the small living room in his house and the crowd spills out in the yard, a weekly ritual of time and place where visitors are looking for a drink and some fun.
Quite a few people, many still wearing their church suits and dresses, are sitting on their cars, smoking, drinking and laughing. Inside, Junior is playing his music that doesn't seem to have either a beginning or an end. He has moved closer to the microphone which is plugged into his guitar amplifier, a cigarette dangling from the left side of his mouth. Most of the time I can't understand the words that punctuate his moaning and the amp's overdriven distortion, a fact that doesn't seem to deter the crowd from interacting with the lone voice. Junior's music has accompanied these folks for many years, they know his songs by heart.
I recognize some people from my earlier visits: the skinny older woman clutching her purse, sprawled on the couch, sound asleep; the tall old gray-bearded man, mimicking playing a harmonica by flailing his hands wildly, dancing, spinning and finally collapsing in a chair; Sam has just secured some more whiskey in Junior's kitchen and he seems happy to pass it around; and there's Jewel who will be cleaning white folks' houses again tomorrow, but right now she is feeling good. In the kitchen I find R.L. Burnside and Cotton Howell playing cards. And the beat goes on.
Junior Kimbrough's infectious music goes to feet and hips as all blues music
actually should. Most of the time when I played with Junior he had a drummer and
bass player, if not a second guitar player. This version of "Too Late" is
stripped down to vocals, guitar and harmonica, but in this duo setup I felt at
ease to explore the rhythm and breathing space around Junior's fluid notes.