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March 2023
Vol. 22, No. 6
32nd Annual San Diego Music Awards

Recordially, Lou Curtiss

Sam Chatmon

by Lou CurtissSeptember 2012

Sam Chatmon

The Mississippi Shieks, The Mississippi Sheiks: Bo Carter, Walter Vincent, Lonnie Chatmon

It was the summer of 1965 and I was back in the South. (The previous two summers I’d spent in McComb and Jackson, Mississippi as a freedom teacher with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, preparing people to pass literacy tests for voting.) This time around it was the other side of my then dual personality in play (the side that collects and listens to old records); myself and a couple of record collecting buddies were poking around every town and hamlet in the Delta and the South (down around where I’d been the previous summers), looking around places I’d thought about during previous trips but was unable to check out, looking for old records and in general talking to old timers about the way it was back in the ‘20s and ‘30s. We stopped in a small place called Hollendale because we thought we might find Bo Carter or maybe Walter Vincent of the Mississippi Sheiks. We wound up at the door of a man named Eugene Powell who told us that Bo had recently died in Memphis but that his brother Sam Chatmon, who had also been in the Mississippi Sheiks had gone up to Memphis to bring Bo’s body home. Mr. Powell said that Sam would be back in a few days. Well, we were kind of down about that. I wanted to wait and meet Sam, but my buddies had places to be and records to find, so we moved on (not even realizing that the Eugene Powell we had talked to had also played a lot of music with the Chatmons and was at their Bluebird recording session where he recorded with the Sheiks as well as solo as Sonny Boy Nelson and with his wife who called herself Mississippi Matilda). I thought I’d blown my only chance of ever meeting Sam Chatmon.

You can imagine that in the spring of the following year, how surprised I was to get a phone call from record collector Ken Swerilas telling me that he had invited Sam Chatmon to come out and that he’d be staying here in San Diego through the fall. He asked whether I knew of any places where Sam could play. I immediately suggested the Heritage coffeehouse in Mission Beach and that is where I met Sam for the first time when he auditioned for Bill Nunn. Shortly after that we took Sam up to LA to play at the Ash Grove for Ed Pearl and before the end of that summer Sam had played at several Southern California spots that included regular monthly gigs at the Heritage, Sid’s Blue Beat up in Newport Beach, and other places. This began a regular trip to San Diego in late spring to late fall trip every year. By 1969 Sam was coming out early enough that we could include him in the program at the San Diego State Folk Festivals and he became a regular from 1969 to 1982. Lots of special memories of Sam at those festivals. I’ve been poking through the tapes from those years and all the great music on the digital project we’ve been working on. Of special interest was a workshop on folk medicine, which Sam did with sea island singer Bessie Jones,” Sam’s contributions to the Tall Tales workshops, and always his great songs and ways of pickin’ the guitar. Pretty early on I arranged for Nick Perls to have Sam record for his Blue Goose label; John Fahey came down and he and I recorded Sam in Ken Swerila’s living room. In the next couple of years Sam would record again with a couple of Canadian guys for the Flying Fish label as Sam Chatmon and his Barbeque Boys and also a reuniting of Sam with Mississippi Sheik bandmate Walter Vincent occurred in 1972 when they appeared along with Carl Martin and Ted Bogan as the New Mississippi Sheiks at the University of Chicago Folk Festival. An LP record on the Rounder label came out of that. Sam also recorded an album for Albatross, recorded in Hollendale, Mississippi by two Italian collectors, and came out on that Italian label in 1976. Sam also has material on Germany’s Belaphon records, California’s Advent label (The San Diego Blues Jam LP, which was reissued on CD on Testament), some real early stuff recorded by Chris Strachwitz in Mississippi and issued on various Arhoolie collections, and a final all-Sam LP on Rounder called Sam Chatmon’s Advice (recorded again at the home of Ken Swerilas by Mark Wilson and yours truly). Material for another LP, which teamed up Sam with the great old time mandolin player Kenny Hall, appeared at the San Diego State Folk Festival as the California Sheiks, was recorded for a supposed second LP on Blue Goose by Nick Perls but it was never issued.

Sam continued to come out our way throughout the ‘70s and along the way also managed to play most of the big music festivals, including the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1976 and the National Folk Festival at Wolf Trap Farm, the big Canadian Festivals in Winnipeg and Toronto, and the River City Blues Festival in Memphis. (He was also a part of the Memphis Blues Caravan, which included Furry Lewis, Sleepy John Estes, Bukka White and others who toured all around the country.) Although he was invited, Sam never got to Europe because he wouldn’t fly. In fact, he took the bus, train, or car everywhere he went. As busy as he was Sam would always make it out to San Diego for a time every year and those monthly gigs became concerts at my store (Folk Arts Rare Records) and after that at Orangos natural food restaurant where I did concerts for awhile. Tomcat (Courtney) would drive Sam out to the Texas Tea House in Ocean Beach where his double entendre blues lyrics got him quite a following. Tapes made at these Folk Arts gigs were compiled into a CD that came out a few years ago on England’s Flyright label as a final part of the Sam Chatmon recorded Legacy.

All those years that Sam would come out here to play, his bus fare would be sent to him by San Diego State. For some reason the Cultural Arts Board at SDSU decided he could pay his own fare and no one told me; they just called Sam and told him. When I hadn’t heard from Sam and the festival was about a week off, I called him and Sam told me what happened. I offered to send him travel money but he’d already accepted a gig at the Tennessee World’s Fair; Alan Lomax was coming down to his home in Hollendale to do a series of films called Confessions of the Noble Old, which became a part of his Patchwork series on PBS. I never saw or heard from Sam again except that Christmas I got my yearly box of pecans from Sam’s pecan trees and I sent Sam some coffee (a blend he liked and couldn’t get at home).

Sam died in 1983. One of the most unforgettable people I’ve ever known.

Lou Curtiss

For a 15-year period, starting in about 1968, I had a lot of opportunity to sit and talk with Sam Chatmon about his early life and recording career as a prime member of one of the great Mississippi blues families. I’ve been working on compiling all the tapes into an oral history told by Sam himself about his own story.

I was born in 1899 at a little place between Jackson and Vicksburg called “Bolden” at a man’s place called John Gaddess. There were so many of us in the family then. My daddy had three wives and my mother had the least children of any of them, which was 13. Daddy said he had 60 children with the three wives, but that ain’t counting Charlie Patton and all of them on the outside. Papa died in 1934 when he was 109 years old. My grandmother lived to be a 125. She said she’d come from the place where they caught the slaves on the Niger River. She said they’d put molasses out and catch them and herd them into a boat. My Daddy was a fiddler in slavery time, too, and when we kids messed up they’d tell us how it was in them days. I remember once going out and playing music at night and the next morning brother Bert asked me how much I made. I complained that I didn’t make nothing but a dollar and a half. Daddy would say, “Well you ought to be happy. I had to play every night and didn’t get nothing but a whipping.” They had long troughs just like the ones used to feed hogs and they would give you corn bread with as much rat fertilizer in the meal as corn, They’d put that old black bread in those troughs for the little children and make them eat out of there just like hogs. They’d grease their mouths every Sunday with a meatskin on a string. My Daddy would always try to linger behind and try to get that meatskin, because it’d be the only meat he could ever get.

Every morning before they left the house, [the slaves would] have to come up to the master with a strap and let her whup them. Then she’d say, “You all be good children. Go on now and get your breakfast.” And they’d line up at that trough.

My father would play music with old Milton Bracy, just two fiddles and no other instruments. He didn’t play no music like we played but just those old breakdowns like “Old Grey Mule,” Chicken in the Breadpan Kickin’ up Dough,” Hen Laid the Eggs,” and all them things.

Can’t get the saddle on the old gray mule
Can’t get the saddle on the old gray mule
Whoa! Whoa!
Can’t get the saddle on the old gray mule

[My father] had whiskers down to his waist and sometimes he’d have to tie them to the side with a cord to hold them off the fiddle. He didn’t play too much by the time that I was around but if my brother Lonnie wanted Daddy to play, he’d just start fiddling one of his pieces. Then Daddy would say, “Boy, that ain’t no way to play it. Bring that violin here and let me show you how.” Those old square dance tunes took a bow arm to play but these blues and things takes a pull. Lonnie had learned to play the fiddle by reading the music. He was the only brother that could read. When the white folks wanted us to play something, they’d buy the sheet music in Jackson and give it to us. Then Lonnie would tell us all our parts and it was like we’d knowed it all our lives.

Music was just a giving thing in our family. I got it from watching my brothers. It’s just like driving a car. You sit next to somebody and watch what they do and you can do the same thing with a little practice. If you ain’t got nerve to try it, you can still make a little stab. My brothers and sisters all played; my Daddy and Mama too. My cousins the McCoys (Joe and Charlie) played. We all played so many pieces, I could be here many hours just listing them. “Ants in Your Pants,” “Corrina Corrina,” Alberta,” “Sheiks of Araby” — all different kinds of music. I started playing guitar myself when I was four years old. Even before I started to play, I remember my older half-brother Ferdinand and Charlie Patton singing about the first blues I heard, something about “going down to the river” and “if the blues don’t leave me, I’ll rock on away and drown.” The first tune I learned to pick was “Make Me a Pallet Down on Your Floor.” Me and Lonnie put that out on a record later as “If You Don’t Want Me. You Don’t Have to Dog Me Around,” and people would think it was a new tune that I’d just written. I’d sing a verse and then holler, “Oh, step on it,” and Lonnie would get out with that fiddle just like he’d been doing it for years.

When I was seven I started playing bass violin with my brother Lonnie — “bull fiddle” they called it then. I had to carry a box along so I could reach it. I didn’t see no banjos until I was 18 in Memphis. I played the tenor banjo, tuning it like the first four strings on a guitar. All us nine brothers played together. Lonnie and Eggar would play the violins; Harry would play the guitar, piano, or violin; Willie and Bert played guitars; Bo would play guitar or banjo and sometimes fiddle; and brother Laurie beat the drums. I’d usually play bass violin for them and sometimes guitar or banjo.

Walter Vincent joined us in 1921. They called him Walter Jacobs on the records but old man Vincent was his daddy. He used to be a number one blues player before he went to playing behind Lonnie and his violin. After he got to playing with the violin, he lost all the lick he had. Drumming a guitar like that sure ain’t picking.

We used to play in the white folks’ houses or halls. Sometimes we’d play for a white man at a dance for three hours at six dollars per musician and then work 15 hours in the field for the same man for 50 cents the next day. When we put on a dance for our own people, we’d rent the hall for two dollars and charge two bits at the door to get in. But mostly we’d work at the white folk’s dances.

The only other band around was the Carter Brothers and Henry Reed. Lonnie sometimes played with them because he didn’t like to farm. The rest of us brothers planted a crop every year and when we were working our crops, Lonnie would go over to Raymond and play with the Carter Brothers. I don’t know of any other bands around there. We were the main band people would call. I never did see or hear about any white musicians in our area.

We used to play all the time at Cooper’s Wells and Brown’s Wells, where the healing waters were. That’s right near the county seat of Hiche County. Even after I moved to Hollendale in 1928, I’d leave all the time to play for those people. They usually didn’t have much more than 35 couples there; that’d be about all you’d have. We used to play square dance music, too, but that all died out. The last time we played together, shortly before Lonnie and Harry died, they had a hall built over the back of the Sunflower River below Hollendale. They’d pass around whiskey in molasses buckets. We never called the dances — a white man in a long dress coat and a fancy cane would do that. I always liked the blues, fox trots, and one-steps the best, because on a square dance you’d never get a chance to change chords. Sometimes those tunes would last for a whole hour and just when you thought it was over, someone would call, “Promenade to the bar,” treat all the women folks to a drink, and we’d have to start back in again.

In 1928 I went to Atlanta to record for a guy named Brock. He’d come out to our place and found us and asked me, and Bo, Lonnie and Walter to go. He didn’t want no bass fiddle so I played guitar. We’d all come from Bolden, Mississippi, so we called ourselves the Mississippi Sheiks. Even though he wasn’t asked, my older half brother Ferdinand came along with us and when we got there we also found that Joe and Charlie McCoy were also at the same session. They gave me 20 dollars and Lonnie, Bo, and Walter got 30 each because they did some back up for other artists as well as our own sides. My brother Ferdinand made some sides with Bo and Charlie McCoy doing the backup. When they came out they came out, they came under the name Alec Johnson. I never knew why. That’s the session that, as the Sheiks, we did “Sittin’ on Top of the World” and “Stop And Listen.” Bo changed his name from Chatmon to Carter so he could record separate from us, because this Brock had him under contract. Walter changed his name about then for some recording to Walter Jacobs. It was at that time in Atlanta that I took up playing backup guitar for Charlie McCoy’s mandolin. I didn’t record with him then but we played together off and on for the next five years or so. I never changed my name either except at my birth. I was named “Vivian” but I changed it to “Sam,” because that was a girl’s name and I didn’t want to be named after no woman.

The next time I recorded was in Jackson, Mississippi, near home, and all of us brothers were there: Bo, Lonnie, Harry, Seth, Edgar, Willie, Bert, and Walter Vincent. Charlie and Joe McCoy were there with Memphis Minnie. We recorded as the Mississippi Sheiks, as Chatmon’s Mississippi Hotfooters,” Charlie McCoy and I made some sides as the Mississippi Mudsteppers, and my brother Edgar did his only vocals ever on two solo sides (which came out under the name Leroy Carter — Leroy Carr was awful popular then and the record company thought they could fool someone). It always seemed like Bo, Walter, and Lonnie got all the credit; I got some and Harry got some. The rest of the brothers Willie (who could play guitar as well as Bo), Seth, Bert, and Edgar sort of got pushed off to the side. I don’t know whose fault that was. Other orchestras got recorded and I never understood why someone didn’t record all of us together. We were awful good. All the folks we played for wanted us back again and again.

I didn’t go back again to record again until 1936 when Lonnie and I did a session as “the Chatmon Brothers for the Bluebird people in San Antonio, Texas, and it was shortly after that session that Lonnie and Harry died and Charlie McCoy went up to Chicago. Charlie had arranged for me to come up to Chicago and record with him for a man named Williams. There was some question about money that came up, and this Williams tried to blackmail us because we didn’t belong to a Union. So I told him I ain’t got nothing to do with you.

In the year 1937 I lost three brothers and two sisters and after that the band didn’t play together although I kept picking the guitar some. I kept farming until 1950. I rented that land and worked until I quit with my own team and all.

Then I went to work as a night watchman and bought me a house and a half acre. I didn’t play much music until 1965 when Ken Swerilas came by and asked me to come out to San Diego. So I came out West and wound up getting a whole new chance to play at colleges and coffeehouses and a whole new chance to make records.”

Sam had a second career starting on the West Coast where he would come out to San Diego in the spring for the San Diego Folk Festival and stay out here for six months of each year playing concerts up and down the West Coast. This led to new recordings for Blue Goose, Flying Fish, Rounder, a couple of European labels, and a special spot in Alan Lomax’s American Patchwork video series. Sam was one of the most remarkable people it ever became my good fortune to know. I miss him a lot.

Lou Curtiss

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