Lost Music Found:
The Fieldstones played Southeast Urban Blues and
Made a Great Record You've Probably Never Heard (Of)
by G E LightThe traditional history of the blues runs something like this. The Blues grew up in the dusty southeast fields of Mississippi and Alabama developing out of field hollers, other work songs, and an African American musical tradition stretching back to the griots, or traditional singers of the West African coast. In the 1920's and '30's, a peculiarly secular form of this music, in Mississippi especially, became known as the blues, to distinguish it from both gospel and the New Orleans urban phenomenon of jazz. Blues really took off on a national level when first Alan Lomax made joint Library of Congress/Works Progress Administration field recordings and then the clarion call of the Great Migration moved a generation of bluesmen from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago, where they plugged in their instruments and rocked the house.
All this is true enough for many of the genre's major recording artists like McKinley Morganfield who becomes Muddy Watters and Chester Burnett AKA Howlin' Wolf. But the accepted history does not account for the myriad artists that left the rural Southeast but stopped moving north at Memphis that liminal urban/country zone where the Mississippi Delta supposedly begins in the duck-infested foyer of the Peabody Hotel. The problems with this traditional history are twofold. First, it provides an overly simplistic picture of complex actualities. Often it lends itself to dichotomies like the authentic country blues of the Delta versus the electrified urban blues of Northern cities like Chicago. Such stereotypes have been the special burden of southerners--black and white alike--since before famed Southern historian C. Vann Woodward was knee high to a rutabaga. Second, anything that does not fit neatly into the story has a tendency to disappear. Thus the concept of a Southeast urban blues (in places like Atlanta, Memphis, and Birmingham) being created in concert with the Chicago sound simply does not compute in spite of plenty and obvious evidence to the contrary. Remember that Riley B. "B(lues) B(oy)" King moved from Indianola to Memphis in 1946 and stayed there for 10 months woodshedding with and learning from his cousin Bukka White. He moves back north to Memphis in 1948 and started playing live on the legendary WDIA, whence the ever shortening nicknames: Beale Street Blues Boy, Blues Boy, B.B. In 1949, he cut his first records and by 1951 had his first national hit covering Lowell Fulson's "Three O'clock Blues". Great Northern Migration indeed!
In The History of the Blues, Francis Davis saw fit to challenge these very shibboleths, specifically the direct connection of the Blues to the African tradition: "In the absence of recorded evidence, we can't even trace the blues back to slavery, much less Africa.". Even more grating in Davis' eyes is the false reliance on the rural to urban transformation brought on by the Great Migration:When Muddy Watters boarded that train in 1943, the Delta that Charley Patton had known no longer existed. And when Watters plugged his guitar into an amplifier in Chicago a few years later the transformation of the blues from a rural folk idiom to an urban popular music had already been under way for several decades.Instead, Davis uncovers a lesser known and earlier migration "from the plantations to nearby small towns," which he sees as central to the blues' development from a transcendentalist and unrecorded mythology to a modern urban phenomenon (whether or not it was electrified). I will further tweak this new account of the blues by focusing on one particular eddy of the great migratory patterns that evolve along the Mississippi River, that of black migration from the country to Southern cities and specifically the migration out of Mississippi to Memphis. As Joshua Wald says in River of Song,Memphis, the regional metropolis, is far less distinct from its rural surroundings than Minneapolis, St. Louis, or New Orleans. Much of its population retains strong country roots, and its musical history has been made less by locals than by folks from the surrounding small towns who came into the city to record and sell their music.This migration helped produce the underground Memphis blues scene that eventually birthed The Fieldstones, about whom more in a second. The anecdotal evidence of said migration also suggests that there was a nascent urban blues scene in the southeast that developed right along with the electric Chicago sound, but it was an urban blues left out of the textbooks due to the vagaries of economic, social, and cultural factors.
Of course, African Americans (especially southerners) long have been well aware of the Southeast urban blues phenomenon in its more funky vein as they continue to buy Jackson, MS-based Malaco Records ("30 years of making black music for black people") compilations like Juke Joint Saturday Night featuring such black radio and jukebox stalwarts as Bobby "Blue" Bland, Clarence Carter, King Floyd, Denise Lasalle, Latimore, Ollie Nightingale, the oleaginous Bobby Rush with his jheri curl and giant panties shtick, Johnny Taylor, Joe Tex, Rufus Thomas, and Artie White. But such soul blues will not really be our concern here; we're going to go in search of authentic Southeast urban blues as I myself did several years ago.
It was a crisp clear Mississippi morn in February 2000 when the mail brought news that would change my life. Opening the box, I noticed the welcome format of a KZSU-Stanford 90.1 FM Winter program guide. This particular program guide, from the station where I had DJ'ed for a decade during my graduate school training, is annually my favorite because it brings some of the most eclectic year-end best lists from the station's knowledgeable DJs. This issue was no different. Here's what caught my eye most, "a best of the Millennium list":
click on graphic to see the full listing
Smitty Ray Barlow, KZSU blues, soul and funk DJ, had struck again. Recently, I had been filling out my blues CD collection and on other authority had picked up the likes of # 3 Memphis Minnie, 1934-42, # 9 Junior Wells, Blues Hit Big Town, and # 8 R.L. Burnside, Too Bad Jim. But what about this number 4, which Barlow deemed "The greatest record ever made? In the virtual lingo of Amazon.com, Barlow rates as a 'Very Helpful Reviewer.' Sure, he used hyperbolic shorthand in plugging the record but that's what these kind of lists are about. You have 5 seconds to convince a skimmer to read on. I headed to my trusty G3 PowerMac with the curiously antiquated 17" pedestal display fondly nicknamed Big Blue and two keystrokes later, I was at CDNow ordering The Fieldstones. A few weeks later, the hoped for cardboard packaging arrived. I was intrigued by the unexpected cover photo of the band, looking not at all like a typical blues band. The five members sit or stand arrayed in a nondescript setting of blue plush carpet and molded pine wood paneling on the walls. Is this a juke joint? Probably not as it's far too clean. A recording studio? The wood walls would hardly seem to be a necessary or even particularly useful purchase. Perhaps a church hall? While many would be surprised by a non-singing female member of a blues band, let alone a bass player, I at least knew that Memphis was uniquely famous for its tradition of female blues musicians dating back to Memphis Minnie and beyond. What of the band displayed before me? At first glance, we have a motley crew of two guitarists (one crouched and feral in full-on gunslinger mode dressed like one black hep cat, the other fresh off the factory floor looking for all the world like a rhythm man without a care), the female bassist sitting demurely in a brown pants suit, towering, over the proceedings front and center in a mid-'70's mack daddy vested suit with silk pocket handkerchief and chartreuse brougham the superfly vocalist, all backed by smiling white leisure-suited drummer.
Opening the CD booklet, I found my first impressions only partially right. The natty guitarist, Willie Roy Sanders, is actually the second lead but also a primary vocalist who "has one of the most powerful singing voices in the blues today." The dressed down lead guitarist, Wordie Perkins, is known for his high clear treble register guitar lines. Lois Brown, the bassist, ended up in Memphis because she married a traveling Memphis musician whom she subsequently divorced. She produces a "soft and full" sound. The towering presence isn't a vocalist at all, but rather the band's mysterious organist, Bobby Carnes, who fills in the sound gaps but who rarely solos. Finally, the drummer, Joe Hicks, is also the primary vocalist on the more soulful tunes as well as composer of the band's signature tune, "The Fieldstones."
With this newfound knowledge, I was finally ready to give the disc a spin. After one listen, I was amazed. So, I listened all the way through the CD two more times. I continued to be stunned. No this wasn't "the greatest record ever made," but surely it was "a great record I had never heard of" to my embarrassment, as a longtime blues enthusiast, a sometime blues DJ, and especially now that I lived less than 200 miles from the original Peabody ducks and that purported Northernmost point of the Mississippi Delta.
Going back over my notebook from that era, I pieced together my first response to Memphis Blues Today! I really haven't altered my tune sense. I will describe the three most significant characteristics, which define its overall quality: its casually arrogant brilliance, its instant familiarity (at least to me), and its variety. From the downbeat of the first track of Memphis Blues Today! I realize I'm in the hands of masters, a group of musicians who have been playing together for so long they've grown beyond a typically tight band to become some kind of organic consciousness. Typically, band call-out songs naming each member and their instrument are rather dreary affairs at the end of live shows featuring bloated and posturing solos. Opening Memphis Blues Today! with "The Fieldstones", on the other hand, is a joyous call to join the fray, as the masters of Southeast urban Blues lay down one perfect funky lick after another after another. That's what I mean by "casually arrogant brilliance." They may never have gotten discovered by some major label A&R type, but they don't care because they know they can play and they proceed to do so in a gloriously effortless manner. Each tasteful solos drives the song toward its inevitable conclusion. This casual brilliance is particularly clear on "Sweet Home Chicago" when 1:34 into the song Joe Hicks sings "All right let's go the Windy City y'all" and lead guitarist Wordie Perkins instantly starts mimicing Hubert Sumlin's screaming Windy City licks.
It's in such instantly familiar guitar sounds that the band first spoke to me. Having steeped myself in late 1960's and early 1970's soul and funk (the records of ATCO, Stax/Volt, Muscle Shoals, TAMLA-Motown, Gamble and Huff), I found the two dueling guitars strangely comforting in a way more hardscrabble traditional blues fans looking for a solo frontman and a single guitar sound might not. But this after all is a great Blues group not a star and his band. The closest band that comes to mind would be The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and it's no surprise they cover some of the same classic material. Finally the variety of the recording is astonishing. There are two distinct lead vocalists (Hicks and Sanders), two distinct guitar lead styles (Perkins and Sanders), and the unique bass playing of Lois Brown that channels Jimmy Reed's guitar sound while still providing a heavy solid bass line. Finally, you have representations of almost every blues style from early traditional Delta Blues to canonical standards from the likes of Little Milton, Clarence Carter, Lightnin' Hopkins, and Albert King to the electric Chicago sound and on to their own original dance riff creations harkening back to their endless gigs at Willie's.
This recording was so strong that I had to wonder how had I never heard of this group before. After all, I had been DJing since 1985 and was actively involved in talking about and teaching and thinking about popular culture for 10 years during my PhD work at Stanford and then for the four more I had been a tenure-track Assistant Professor of English at Mississippi State University.
The back of the CD tells a complex story of origin. In 1983 something called High Water Recording Company made this disc. It was reissued by the Oakland, CA-based blues label HMG/HighTone Records in 1997. Curiouser and curiouser. Why did it take two plus years for this CD to travel the 70 miles or so south to Palo Alto, KZSU and Smitty Ray? KZSU after all has arguably the largest record library on the West Coast if not of any radio station in the US and since the late 1980's has been assiduously adding hundreds of CDs weekly to its Zookeeper online library (http://zookeeper.stanford.edu/).
The liner notes/booklet clarified matters. "High Water Recording company is a division of the University of Memphis. This recording was produced in cooperation with university programs in Commercial Music and ethnomusicology (Regional Studies)." Now, several years later, I know the CD's producer Dr. David Evans, who most recently won a Grammy for his essay/liner notes to the Charley Patton box set Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues. A major figure in the attempt to record Southern Blues before it dies off; he was recently the whipping boy for Jay McInerney's New Yorker piece on the Oxford-based Fat Possum label, due to his supposed desire to control these artist's pocketbooks. This about a man who actively sought out unrecorded blues talent and used the state funded, non-commercial auspices of a University to produce these recordings as opposed to Matthew Johnson, who's trying to make a buck and move his localized label to L.A. like some kind of latter day Berry Gordy. But then, didn't Jay's only good novel feature a magazine fact checker who did too much coke, skipped the fact checking, caused a major lawsuit, and got shit-canned?
Evans' involvement with The Fieldstones began in 1980, when he first encountered them on a Saturday night at their regular gig at Willie's Lounge on McLemore Avenue at Third. By 1981, Evans had cut two 45s with the band, and in 1983, he released a vinyl 12" LP called Memphis Blues Today! The reissued CD combines the LP and 45 tracks and attempted one last time to bring well deserved and lasting fame to The Fieldstones. That task is as yet unfulfilled. While the sketchy promotion of non-major label blues CD's could provide a partial answer to this lack of attention. I believe there is a more troubling and pandemic explanation. A group like The Fieldstones gets so easily overlooked as a recording artist because they fit neither the White master narrative tradition of Northern urban Blues nor the residual African American tradition of Soul blues. Somehow they're doubly inauthentic. Except, of course, that you couldn't get a more authentic blues band if you designed one with AUTOCAD software.
But to be fair there are hidden pockets of Fieldstones' fans everywhere, now more readily found across the web through search engines like Google. For example I discovered that Blues Bytes' Bill Mitchell rates the album "truly an unknown gem [which] belongs in any serious blues fan's collection." In The WFMU OLD BIN, Michael Shelley raves: "While driving across the USA in 1993, I saw this band in Memphis, Tennessee. They were amazing. The bar only sold 40 oz. Beers. A sign by the door said 'No guns.' They played all night. I danced with strangers... When I returned home, I almost shit when I found this in the library." Locally Wayne Kelly, chief maestro of "The Juke" Sunday Blues programming on WMSV, 91.1 FM Mississippi State, MS calls the album "a real masterpiece. The sound is as raw as it is polished and as country as it is urban - much as you might think of Muddy Waters' early electrified performances but the style is all its own." The sole dissenting opinion, an anonymous reviewer on theiceberg.com, misses the point entirely: "Their enjoyable live performance talents do not always stand up to exposure on albums. However, their music does reflect the Memphis State University's need to release material illustrative of academic research." Then I realized he was just quoting the Virgin Encyclopedia of Popular Music. Only Colin Larkin and his minion spawn could so misconstrue the wellsprings of Southern cultural productions at their finest.
Perhaps most telling about the greatness of the band and the CD is the utter organic appropriateness of the band's name to the music they play and the attitude they represent: Fieldstones indeed! According to the 4th edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, a 'fieldstone' is "A stone occurring naturally in fields, often used as a building material." My Fieldstones are of the rural earth and yet used to build urban things, in this case a modern Memphis blues vocabulary. A certain kind of Blues fan always speaks reverentially about the search for authentic music. The Fieldstones' music like its namesake could not be more authentic. Fieldstones are natural, unpolished, and unprocessed, and these particular Fieldstones have been rough hewn from the fertile Delta topsoil. So it's time they get their due. According to famed Marxist historian Christopher Hill: "We may be too conditioned by the way up the world has been for the last three hundred years to be fair to those in the seventeenth century who saw other possibilities. But we should try." Similarly we should try to re-tell the missing tales of the blues and other American musics from Greil Marcus' "old, weird America" by investigating these very "other possibilities." What really bothers me is thinking about all the other "Fieldstones" lying fallow in the fertile blues ground simply because they too did not fulfill some preconceived notion of what properly can be called the blues.
Since I headed off to college in the fall of 1981, I have continually sought Hill's "other possibilities" and been aided by a crucial and ever expanding network of friends, acquaintances, and Net sources who have shared music with me. I have been privileged to share Memphis Blues Today! with many of them. Most famously, I tipped the local blues guru Wayne Kelly to the album: "G. E. Light lent me Memphis Blues Today! because I'm part of a handful of diehards who broadcast a weekly blues how on WMSV in Starkville, MS, and because I flunked the 'Have you ever heard of these guys quiz?'" Since Wayne has caught me up on a decade's worth of new blues not to mention some key recordings of classic bluesman like Guitar Slim's Sufferin' Mind and The Essential Otis Rush: The Complete Cobra Recordings, my debt remains outstanding. Like many of us music types, Smitty Ray, my fellow Fieldstones enthusiast, has friends with whom he shares music and vice versa: "They've [these shared recordings] given so much pleasure to my life that it would be an act of evil not to share them. This, of course, makes me appear very cool and knowledgeable in the eyes of others, who, hopefully, pass them on with similar results. I owe much of this easily-gotten cachet to these friends. One of those friends is George Hemphill." Hemphill introduced him to artists like R.L. Burnside on Fat Possum and Jessie Mae Hemphill (no relation) on HMG. Her albums "came across to me as being if not exactly more honest than the Fat Possum stuff, then as a different kind of honest. Its HMG label was a new one on me and so, off I went to the record store looking for more. That search, of course, led him inevitably to the Fieldstones. And started the process which lead to this article.
The moral of this story is that with a little help from our friends we can change the world. We can rewrite the inadequate musical histories of our favorite genres and artists. Specifically, I'd like to see a more inclusive and complex history of the Blues that has space for a band like the Fieldstones and a masterpiece like Memphis Blues Today! The story began with Smitty Ray leading me to the album. Now its only fitting he end this narrative by telling you how he found the recording himself. Here's the rest of the story as Smitty Ray tells it:I eventually found the earlier recordings of Burnside and Kimbrough and bands like The Bluesbusters and The Fieldstones. The Stones hit me in much the same way that "Too Bad Jim" did-a visceral reminder of the best club bands, or to be more precise, the best bands in a club that I could remember. Or imagine. They were supremely tight and funky, and those two guitars made me think of both Stax-flavored rhythm and blues and the juju music of King Sunny Ade. It may not actually be there, but, like all those smoky, boozy joints in my memory, it might be. This hit me as a smart, modern blues coming from the source: small black nightclubs in Memphis. And like those other two records, it moved me back to the increasingly rare times in my life when I've been in the presence of powerful, sweaty, intimate performances.I concur and conclude as Joe Hooks himself concludes the album: "[We are] of the Fieldstones, [cuz they] plays nothin' but the blues"!
"Blues Today"? Hell, fifteen years after it was recorded, its still hipper, and I hate to use this term, but goddammit, you know what I'm talking about, bluesier than anything out there. Ain't that sad?
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