Blues Like Showers of Rain—Notes on the Speakers and Performers in the Film

Blues Like Showers of Rain—Notes on the Speakers and Performers in the Film

Adapted by Daniel W. Patterson from Conversation with the Blues (New York: Horizon Press, 1965) to show the nature of Paul Oliver’s first encounters with the musicians. Much additional information has since been learned about them. A quick source for additional biographical facts, discographies, filmographies, and photographs of the musicians is “Wirz’ American Music,” a German website.  Data on over half of the performers below can be found there. Searches for specific musicians on the AllMusic website will turn up lengthy accounts for many of them.

Brewer, James
Cage, James “Butch”
Cannon, Gus
Carter, Bo (Armenter Chatmon)
Davis, Walter
Gray, Blind Arvella (Walter Dixon)
Hopkins, Sam “Lightnin”
Johnson, James “Stump”
Johnson, Alonzo “Lonnie”
Lenoir, J. B.
Lockwood, Robert Junior
Love, Charles
Montgomery, Eurreal “Little Brother”
Oden, James “St. Louis Jimmy”
Pickens, Edwin “Buster”
Price, Sam
Smith, Robert Curtis
Spann, Otis
“Speckled Red” (Rufus Perryman)
“Sunnyland Slim” (Albert Luandrew)
Thomas, Willie B.
Townsend, Henry
Walton, Wade

Brewer, James (1920?-1988)
            Paul Oliver wrote that he first heard James Brewer when he was playing with a gospel group “led by a fiercely exhorting” preacher on the broken sidewalk of South Sangamon Street in Chicago. Brewer held an electric guitar. Owners of buildings fronting streets near Maxwell rented out the use of electric cables to street musicians like him for a dollar a day. This was “a short step” from the home where Brewer and his wife lived. On another day Oliver recorded him playing there with Blind Arvella Gray. Brewer had been almost totally blind from childhood but declared, “My mother didn't name me Blind, she named me Jim.” He had spunk and enough sight to travel and busk on streets in St. Louis and other places. In the ‘60s he also performed at colleges and on television and recordings. Oliver called him an “excellent guitarist” and wrote, “he is fascinated by instruments and is content with the life of a street singer.” Brewer was born in Mississippi, and died in Chicago. (Conversation, p. 177)

Cage, James “Butch” (1894-1973)
            Collector Harry Oster directed Oliver to Butch Cage in Zachary, Louisiana, where Oliver  recorded an all-day session of country music, with “some rough, thrilling music.” He said at least “half the children” and “a fair proportion” of the entire population attended at one time or another. “Missing a few front teeth,” Oliver wrote, Butch Cage “talks with a blurred, hollow enunciation” but he “sings adequately and plays wild exciting fiddle music in a raw country tradition, holding the instrument against his chest.” He also played a good blues guitar “in the Mississippi ‘juking’ style” of Franklin County, where he grew up.  (Conversation, p. 178)

Cannon, Gus (1883-1979)
            A veteran medicine-show performer from Red Banks, Mississippi, Cannon had made solo recordings as Banjo Joe for Paramount and jug-band numbers with Cannon’s Jug Stompers. Samuel Charters had recorded him in 1956 and written of him in The Country Blues (1959), the first scholarly study of country blues. But a “few days before we found him,” Paul Oliver wrote, Gus Cannon was “digging a sewer in Memphis.” He was “a spirited old man with bird-like features and movements” and fingers “still fairly nimble” as he picked the banjo, and he was “happy to recall the routines that he would use on the improvised show pitches.” In the ‘60s Cannon gained some income from royalties and concert appearances. (Conversation, p. 178)

Carter, Bo (1893-1964)
            “Sharing a corner in the bare, shot-gun building on South 4th Street” in Chicago, “where Will Shade lived, was an ailing, blind, light-skinned man whom the occupants knew only as Old. Man.”. “By a lucky hunch,” Paul Oliver wrote, “I guessed he might be Bo Carter and the sick man brightened to hear his name.” He had been born in Bolton, Mississippi, and christened Armenter Chatmon. When he and Oliver met, “he could hardly hold down the strings of his heavy steel guitar with its worn finger board. But he slowly mastered it and in a broken voice, that mocked the clear and lively singing on his scores of recordings under his own name and with the Mississippi Sheiks, he recalled incidents from his varied life and some of the songs that had made him one of the most famous of blues singers.” (Conversation, p. 179)

Davis, Walter (1912-1964)
            Still the broadly-smiling man who beamed contentedly from the Bluebird catalogues,” Paul Oliver said, Walter Davis was working at the Albany Hotel, St. Louis, when Oliver found him. He “operated the switchboard and the reception desk.” Davis spoke with “a warmer and more expressive voice than many of his recordings would suggest, a quality that must have aided him in his preaching.” He had made his first blues recording in 1930, but a small stroke had “caused him to lose complete control of his left hand and ended his career as a blues pianist.” He died four years after Oliver met him. (Conversation, pp. 180-181)

Gray, Blind Arvella (1906-1980)
            “We got off the street-car,” Paul Oliver wrote, “at Halsted and Maxwell within ear-shot of Blind Gray’s stentorian voice and thundering steel guitar. With his white stick tapping a sewer-vent for orientation and a tin cup pinned to his suit he was singing and playing a fierce blues.” He was born Walter Dixon in Somerville, Texas. After moving north, he lost his sight and two fingers of his left hand. Oliver wrote, “For thirty years a street singer, Blind Gray is a tough and powerful man who has come to terms with the sudden tragedy of his blindness” and “lived under conditions of almost unbelievable hardship and violence. With John Steiner we recorded him at the old building at 4403 South State Street, now destroyed, where he was living on the top floor.” Oliver called him “a proud man who refuses a helping arm to guide him to the bus terminal or street corners where he plays. As we left his home he felt the light bulbs to see if the lights were on and strode unhesitatingly into the street.” (Conversation, pp. 180-181)

Hopkins, Sam Lightnin (1912-1982)
            Born in Centerville, Texas, Oliver wrote, he had “only become widely known outside Texas” in the decade before the two met. Oliver called him a worthy successor of Texas Alexander and Blind Lemon Jefferson and “one of the most poetic and inventive of blues singers.” He played “fine arpeggio guitar—sometimes fiercely extrovert,” and “sometimes introspectively.” Oliver heard him playing in both moods, and described him as bearing “the scars of past scrapes, of the chain gang shackles and of the stabbing that put him in hospital on the eve of being drafted.” As “King of the Third Ward,” Oliver wrote, “he holds court on the porch of his home near West Dallas Street, surrounded by friends and other bluesmen. With Mack McCormick we joined Lightnin, Luke Long Gone Miles, Williams, and Spider Kilpatrick there in many hours of conversation.” (Conversation, p. 183)

Johnson, James “Stump” (1902-1969)
            “Short and stocky,” Johnson was called “Stump” on many of his recordings, although he made many under pseudonyms. All of his performances, Oliver said, “were distinguished by his simple but effective piano playing.” Eventually, he opened a shoe-shine stand in his hometown, St. Louis. When they met, he told Paul Oliver, “Now I’m at the city of St Louis hall in the tax collection department and I’m also a policeman . . . I thought I was cute when I was young and wasn’t working then; I had a lot of girl friends and I knowed nothin’ about work, and I didn’t ever thought I would ever have to work. And when I was recordin’ I was getting hold of so much money, gamblin’ and playin’ the races and what-not—but it’s altogether different now!” (Conversation, pp. 184-185)

Johnson, Alonzo “Lonnie” (1899-1970)
            Paul Oliver called New Orleans-born Johnson “one of the most celebrated, most widely admired and extensively recorded of blues singers.” He says that as a child Johnson “worked in a lumber yard but after learning to play the violin, joined his father’s band in 1914. He came to England with a small stock company in 1917—and returned to England thirty-five years later. His family of twelve was decimated by an epidemic in 1922. After that he said, “I got to ramblin’—usually people get that way. I couldn’t keep my feet still so I just started travelling.” In St. Louis he “spent several years with Charlie Creath’s band,” later working both as a solo singer and as a member of small bands. “When we met him in Chicago he was enjoying a brief break from working as a janitor at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel in Philadelphia. He was the oldest member of the 1963 American Folk Blues Festival but was still able to demonstrate his remarkable command of the guitar.” (Conversation, p. 185)

Lenoir, J. B. (1929-1967)
            Born the son a Mississippi farmer, J. B. learned blues very early and worked on farms and the railroad and after moving to Chicago in his teens, in meat-packing. He recorded for the Chess, Decca, Parrot, and other labels, sometimes with Sunnyland Slim, Joe Montgomery, and other Chicago musicians. Paul Oliver wrote that “J. B. gets his inspiration ‘like through a dream as I be sittin’ down, or while I be sleepin’” and “talks with warm Mississippi accents and sings in a surprisingly high voice, accompanying himself with rapid arpeggios on boogie guitar. He has a fondness for Zebra-striped, yellow velvet or similarly bright jackets and wears a small ear-ring.” Oliver says he “took time and trouble to introduce us to a number of blues singers in Chicago.” (Conversation, pp. 186-187)

Lockwood, Robert Junior (1915-2006)
            Born in Arkansas, Lockwood was the stepson of the great bluesman, Robert Johnson. Oliver described Robert Junior as “a quiet round-faced man, very much absorbed in his playing and widely respected by blues singers in Chicago where he now lives.” He reported that Robert Junior and other bluesmen described his stepfather Robert Johnson as a “restless, widely influential, youthful artist who precipitated modern trends in blues rather than the culmination of the old styles.” Oliver thought Lockwood himself “a strong, taut singer” who deserved wider recognition. (Conversation, pp. 187-188)

Love, Charles (1885- ?  )
            This ragtime-jazz musician played trumpet with bands in Placquemine, Louisiana (where he was born), New Orleans, Vera Cruz, Shreveport, and elsewhere, and made recordings in 1949 and 1960. When Oliver visited him, he lived in Algiers, across the Mississippi from New Orleans and “reminisced at length on working in tent shows and minstrel troupes and expressed the ragtime player’s distrust of the blues.” (Conversation, p. 188)

Montgomery, Eurreal “Little Brother” (1906-1985)
            Born in Kentwood, Louisiana, “Little Brother” learned to “play piano at the age of four or five” and when he was eleven “ran away to play piano at barrelhouses in various parts of Louisiana” and later played or toured with bands in many places, including Chicago, where Paul Oliver met him. Oliver wrote, “At his home on South Wabash, in a blues milieu, his immense reputation as a blues pianist amongst other blues singers was self-evident.” (Conversation, p. 190-191)

Oden, James “St. Louis Jimmy” (1903-1977)
            Oden was born in Nashville but went to St. Louis at the age of fourteen. He told Oliver, “You know it’s hard to come up by yourself when you only eight year old but I had to because my daddy died when I was just a kid see, and I don’t hardly remember my mother.” He was living in a “yellow-walled cellar beneath Muddy Watters’s house.”  Oden worked in a barber shop and had come into contact with many blues singers and learned to play piano. But he devoted himself to singing and composing the blues, especially after an automobile crash caused him to stop traveling. Oliver called him “one of the most original composers of blues.”  (Conversation, p. 192)

Pickens, Edwin “Buster” (1916-1964)
            Paul Oliver described Buster Pickens, a Texas barrelhouse and saw-mill pianist, as “small, compact and tough,” a musician whose world had been “one of railroad routes.” Pickens relayed advice given him by an older pianist, “Look son, whatever you do, when you play in them places, I don’t care whether it’s the middle of July or August, you get you a coat and put it on before you go out in the air.” Oliver said that “The heat of the barrelhouses, the chill rides on ‘the blinds’ and ‘the rods’ of the ‘rattlers’ took a heavy toll amongst the juke players of the Texas Piney Woods. In songs that Oliver recorded with the help of Mack McCormick and Chris Strachwitz, Pickens described in his blues experiences like “hoboeing a ride.” He is said to have died when a cousin shot him after an argument in a bar. (Conversation, p. 193)

Price, Sam (1908-1992)
            Born Texas, Sam Price began his career as a dancer in Dallas but had a long career as a blues and jazz pianist in Kansas City, Chicago, Detroit, and then New York. He even toured many times in France, but also became a “local politician in Harlem,’ where Oliver says, “he proved an excellent host to us at his home and offices and an informative guide in Harlem.” Price, he says, “was house pianist on scores of Decca blues records in the ‘thirties which were enriched by his fine blues and boogie piano.”  (Conversation, p. 194-195)

Smith, Robert Curtis (1930-2010)
            Oliver wrote a terse entry for this bluesman, opening with Smith’s own words explaining how he tries to support his wife and family of nine children during the winter: “‘Maybe there’ll be some little job but mostly there ain’t nothing to do but hunt.’ He lives in a one-room shack with his family in brutal conditions. A sharecropper, tractor-driver, farm-hand, he is burdened by the blues in its stark, unromantic realism. He plays guitar in a natural, easy Mississippi style and sings movingly in a warm, soft voice on Arhoolie F 1005. He is resigned to a life of penury, of gruelling toil interspersed with periods of wasteful inactivity and as in the past, probably jail without trial.” (Conversation, p. 196)

Spann, Otis (1930?-1970)
            Mississippi-born Spann was the pianist in Muddy Waters’s band and his half brother. Oliver says, “He talks with a slight lisp, sits three-quarters-on to the piano and rolls out boogie and blues with a strength that recalls Big Maceo.” He began playing at the age of eight and worked in Mississippi until the age of fifteen, but after the death of his mother he moved to Chicago. There he “worked as a plasterer and his contact with many blues pianists there rapidly matured his playing. He accompanied Bo Diddley, but “when Muddy Waters established his band became a mainstay of the group, winning many admirers on European tours.” (Conversation, p. 196-197)

"Speckled Red" (1892-1973) (Rufus Perryman)
           An albino, Speckled Red was raised in Georgia, where his father was a field hand making forty cents a day. He was soon, Oliver wrote, fending for himself and “went to Detroit, learned to play the piano, hoboed South to Memphis and spent an adventurous life as an itinerant near-blind barrel-house pianist for more than thirty years. He came to Europe in 1960 and returned to settle quietly at his home on Newberry Terrace, St. Louis, where we visited him. (Conversation, p. 193)

Sunnyland Slim” (c.1906-1995) (Albert Luandrew)
            Raised in Mississippi, Sunnyland Slim moved to Memphis, Tennessee, and eventually to Chicago, where he remained till his death. Oliver met him there “at Muddy Water’s home, at Jump Jackson’s and at the Buckingham Club,” where he was playing with a group that included Robert Lockwood and Eugene Pierson on guitars.” Oliver wrote, “A tall and powerful man, Sunnyland Slim has a voice of great volume and a boogie-blues piano style that is in keeping.” (Conversation, p. 189)

Thomas, Willie B. (1912-1977)
            Louisiana-born Willie B. Thomas was badly injured as a youngster in an accident said to have stunted his growth. Oliver reports that he “started life as a gleaner of cane on the Bellemont Plantation where his family were sharecroppers. Later he became a water-boy for a construction gang and when we met him at Butch Cage’s house in Zachary he was a factory janitor. Willie played kazoo with Butch Cage for ten years before commencing to play guitar in 1939. A few years later he started to preach after seeing a vision. Though a limited guitarist he is an impassioned and eloquent speaker, pouring forth a stream of ideas as he warms to his subject.” Oliver says his wife plays drums, “holding the sticks by the thin end to add weight to her beat,” joining Willie and Butch in some recordings. (Conversation, pp. 198-199)

Townsend, Henry (1909-2006)
            Born in Mississippi, he was carried by his parents to Cairo, Illinois, as a child and then to St. Louis, where he remained the rest of his life. He worked as a debt collector. Oliver visited him in “his sparsely furnished, rather dark apartment,” and Townsend “talked seriously about aspects of the blues.” He was still playing on weekends in clubs in St. Louis. “I don’t go in for it exclusive but I can never let the guitar go, it’s just a part of me and if I have to play for myself then I go to it. But I manage to play some every week-ends, and still have a pretty good demand, but the job I have kinda holds me down.” Oliver said that “his deep voice today contrasts with the high vocal on his earliest records” in the late 1920s. Over the years he recorded with Sonny Boy Williamson, Walter Davis, and Roosevelt Sykes. (Conversation, p. 200)

Walton, Wade (1923-2000)
            From a share-cropping family in Mississippi, Walton was determined from childhood to be a barber. After qualifying, he moved to Clarksdale and became the “proprietor of the Big Six barber shop on 4th Street,” which became “the traditional centre for blues singers” in the community. His wife was a prominent church member and above a peanut stand there hangs a sign reading “Mississippi QUARTETT UNION Head Quarter & Booking Office,” with posters about visiting groups. Oliver calls Wade Walton an “intelligent, witty man” with seemingly inexhaustible energy. He often worked from 8 a.m. to midnight, “his actions as rhythmic as his Barber Shop Rhythm played with a razor and strop” on an Arhoolie album. Walton also, Oliver wrote, “plays guitar and harmonica, sings, dances, tells tall tales and enjoys a well-earned local reputation.” (Conversation, p. 201)