Steven Salter created Killer Blues in 1995 after spending time helping out Billie Thomas at Tant Enterprises, a distributor of Folk, Blues, and independent labels in Montague, Michigan. Soon Billie invited Steve to assist him at festivals selling Jazz, Folk, and Blues CDs. “It wasn’t long before I decided to branch off on my own and service a niche market focusing on Blues only.”

It was a fateful road trip to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1997 that the Killer Blues Headstone Project was born. On his way Steve decided to stop at a couple of cemeteries in Chicago. He was greatly shocked to find many Blues artists didn’t have markers on their graves. Steve immediately began working to place headstones. In 2009, The Killer Blues Headstone Project became non-profit. He has placed over 120 headstones including: Mississippi John Hurt, Washboard Sam (Robert Brown), Grant Green, Roosevelt Sykes, Eddie King, Luther Tucker, and William “PA’ Rainey.

Steven Salter Photo credit Leslie Salter

Brant Buckley:

How did you get the idea to provide headstones for Blues artists with unmarked graves?

Steven Salter:

It started with a road trip in 1997. I made the decision to take a road trip to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. I live in Western Michigan and I did research on Blues locations that I wanted to check out on my way down. A number of them were in Chicago area cemeteries. These were artists I never saw live so I thought I would stop by and pay my respects. The very first one I went to was Muddy Waters’ grave. When I arrived I found a flat one foot by two foot stone on the ground and I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t believe that someone so huge had a marker that was so small. I went on to another cemetery where Howlin’ Wolf was buried and he had a fairly substantial one. I thought this is more like it. Howlin’ Wolf is my all-time favorite Blues artist. I then went to where Otis Spann was buried. I went to the cemetery office and received a location card. I went to the area and looked and looked and couldn’t find anything. I went back to the office because I couldn’t find the stone. They told me he didn’t have one. I couldn’t believe someone like Otis Spann who had such a huge impact on Blues didn’t have a marker. I went to the festival and it bothered me. In 1998 I wrote a letter to Blues Review Magazine and said, ‘Otis is in an unmarked grave, this is terrible, let’s do something.’ People from all over the world saw it and the magazine started a fund. They took care of getting the marker. In 1999 a marker was placed for him. That’s how it started.

How many more unmarked graves are out there? Is it endless?

I am working on a list right now of about forty people. I know where they are buried and I know they don’t have a marker. I have an equal size list of people I am trying to find. First you have to find the grave site to know whether or not there is a marker. I have at least forty there. When doing research if there is a name that I haven’t come across before I do a little more research, I see if I can find where they are. Whenever I find family I love that very much. On average the artists have been gone for twenty years before we get to them. Some have been gone longer so we cannot find family. We always would love to find family. I am working with a family right now on a stone. As to how many more are out there, I don’t have a clue. I’m sure there are plenty.

Who’s your favorite artist you have created a headstone for?

That would be the very first one the headstone project provided: Big Maceo Merriweather. He was a huge influence on Otis Spann. He’s the very first one and he’s buried in Michigan where I’m from. I searched his location for four years before I found him. It took me two years of working with the cemetery to get the stone. That was my first one and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I have since become very adept at doing this.

Where are the gravestones created and do you place the gravestones at the grave site?

Throughout the years the gravestones have come from a number of places. When I was first doing this I didn’t know what I was doing and I would use the cemetery because they were always more than happy to sell you a stone. They sold them at an inflated price. Currently I use a company called West Memorials out of Memphis Tennessee. They give us great prices as we are a non-profit. They support us in that measure. There’s a unique story behind every single stone.

Who are your favorite Blues artists in general?

My favorite Blues artists are the Pre-War guys. The term now is inner war years. Charlie Patton, Son House, and the acoustic guys. Also, Sonny Boy Williamson number one. The very early ones are my go to favorites. I like them all.

Killer Blues Garage Photo: Steven Salter

Can you talk about the Killer Blues garage and the painting outside?

That started as a vision in my head. I saw a photo of a West Virginia general store with people sitting on a porch and I thought I would love to have a painting of Blues guys sitting on that porch. I looked around and tried to find an artist that could do that for me and low and behold an artist lived right behind my house. I asked her if she could paint the photo for me. I gave her the original photo of the general store and I gave her photos of all the Blues musicians I wanted on that porch. She actually painted it. The original is a two foot by three foot acrylic and it hangs in my living room. I took that to my local place and they blew it up for me on vinyl. The one that’s up now is the second copy. The first copy we put up in 2008 and it faded to black and white. I had the photo on a disk and had another one printed out. They last about five years. We offer a poster board copy. The painting is called “Blues in Me” and you can purchase it.

Where do you see your organization going in the next 5-10 years?

I want to find as many people with unmarked graves and I want to take of them. I am hoping that we can find many more that need to be found and acknowledged. I have a database of over sixteen hundred Blues musicians that we have documented where they are buried and whether or not they have markers. At some point I would like to run out of people that need markers. I don’t think I will. We are also working on a booklet. It’s a guide to Blues musicians buried in the Chicago area. I know Chicago is a tourist center and a lot of people go there for Blues history. This will give them a source to pay their respects. One other thing I’d like to add is there are five people in the organization besides myself and no one receives any compensation for what we do. This is a labor of love. It is my way of giving back for all the joy I’ve received from listening to the music. It’s a way to honor and acknowledge the artists that created it. It is my hope the project will inspire others to find ways to give back and make this world a better place.

Killer Blues Headstone Project

Purchase The Blues in Me and more

*Feature image courtesy of Steven Salter

Renowned Blues artist and Grammy winner John Hammond was inducted into The Blues Hall Of Fame in 2011. With a career coming up on 60 years, he has played with John Lee Hooker, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Tom Waits, Duane Allman, The Band, J.J. Cale, Dr. John, Mike Bloomfield, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Charlie Musselwhite. He’s the only person to have Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix in his band at the same time. His 1963 album John Hammond was one of the first Blues albums made by a white artist. He provided the soundtrack to the 1970 movie Little Big Man starring Dustin Hoffman. In 1991 he hosted the documentary The Search For Robert Johnson.

Born November 13, 1942, in New York City, he’s the son of the famous Columbia Records talent scout John Hammond Sr. What most people don’t know is that Hammond didn’t grow up with his father. His parents split when he was young, and he would see his father several times a year. He first began playing guitar while attending a private high school, particularly fascinated with slide guitar technique. He saw his idol, Jimmy Reed, perform at New York’s Apollo Theater, and he’s never been the same since. After attending Antioch College in Ohio on a scholarship for a year, he left to pursue a career as a Blues musician.

In 1962 with the folk revival starting to heat up, Hammond attracted a following in the coffeehouse circuit, performing in the tradition of the classic country blues singers he loved so much. By the time he was just 20 years old, he had been interviewed for the New York Times before one of his East Coast festival performances. He was a certified national act. When Hammond was living in the Village in 1966, a young Jimi Hendrix came through town looking for work. Hammond offered to put a band together for the guitarist and got the group work at the Cafe Au Go Go. At that point coffeehouses were falling out of favor and bars and electric guitars were leaning towards folk-rock. Hendrix was approached there by Chas Chandler who took him to England to record. Hammond recalls telling the young Hendrix to take Chandler up on his offer.

Hammond continued his work with electric Blues ensembles, recording with people like Band guitarist Robbie Robertson (and other members of The Band when they were still known as Levon and The Hawks), Duane Allman, Dr. John, harmonica wiz Charlie Musselwhite, Michael Bloomfield, and David Bromberg. “John Hammond is a master,” adds T Bone Burnett. “He is a virtuoso. A conjurer… A modernist… John is in a very small circle of men with a guitar and a harmonica. Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf, Bob Dylan. The guitar is an orchestra. He’s sending messages. Storytelling. All mystery. Protection. The language goes out through the night.”

Brant Buckley:

How and why do you think Blues music touched your soul?

John Hammond:

Blues is an honest look at real life. It has to do with passion, emotion, and the gamut of the human condition. It’s put in a way that is easily related as music is simple yet deep. It’s hard to put into just one capsule. It’s passionate music.

What are you currently working on?

Right now I’ve had a lot of shows cancelled due to the lockdown. I am semi-retired. I have done a lot of gigs and this is my fifty eighth year of performing. There are very few clubs I haven’t played. I’ve played in every state and all over the world. I am enjoying being picky choosy about where I am going to play. My wife and I are writing a memoir that we hope to get done by this year.

In your own words how would you describe your Blues style? What makes you unique?

I’ve always felt that the solo artist can be the most effective and have the biggest impact on an audience if you can pull it off by yourself. It’s so intense. I’ve always prided myself on playing solo and pulling it off. It’s like photography. The black and white photo is the most intense and boils it down to the basics. I’ve worked all these years as a solo acoustic artist. I don’t plug in into the microphone. It’s just me. This is my point of view and direction. My energy is focused on a style that is old time yet timeless.

If you had to choose from of all the artists you have played and performed with who is your favorite?

That’s very hard as I’ve worked with so many talented artists. When I started out the guys who created the genre were rediscovered: Son House, Bukka White, and Mississippi John Hurt. I could go on and on. These guys were phenomenal. I worked with younger contemporary artists who’d step right up. It would be very hard to pick one.

Can you talk about Hendrix and Clapton sitting in with you at The Gaslight Cafe in NYC?

I knew Jimi in New York when he was hanging out in the Village trying to get a gig. We had gigs together and then he went to England and became a huge star. I met Eric Clapton during my first tour in England in sixty five. When he came to New York with Cream in sixty seven he was hanging out in New York and had my number. He called me up and wanted to come to my gig. Hendrix was also in New York. I knew both of them and they both came down and wanted to sit in. I had a little trio with Charles Otis and Lee Collins. They both sat in and I was surrounded by royalty.

What did you learn from hanging around Bob Dylan and you introduced him to The Band?

Bob and I were friends when he first came to New York. He was a Blues fan but he was also an amazing performer. He was a Woody Guthrie fanatic. He had all these talking Blues he did but he was also a Blues fan. He and I hung out a lot and at one time we were very good friends. He came to my recording sessions and I went to his. That’s how I introduced him to The Band who I met up in Toronto. Their first recordings were with me. It was on the ‘So Many Roads’ album for Vanguard.

What’s your recording process like? How do you know when you have a take?

Sometimes you just know instantly that was it and it’s not going to get any better than that. Other times you do it two or three times and you listen back and realize this one has more that I was aiming for and this one has less. You go into record with an idea of what sound you want for each song. Each song has its own life and you go with whichever take you think is more on the ball.

Do you have a favorite cover song?

I have so many songs it would really be tough to pick one. I have some of my own songs that I’ve done in the last five years. I am not a songwriter as such. I have always felt that I can bring any song I choose to life. I have been inspired by Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Willie McTell, and Blind Boy Fuller. The whole gamut is kind of a wide range.

Anything else you want to accomplish?

I have done a lot. It’s not like I am done or anything. I have become very choosy about the gigs I play. I have a lot to reflect on. My wife and I are compiling a memoir. That’s a lot of fun. I have been to a lot of places, met a lot of people, and have made a lot of records. I have some great stories.

John Hammond

*Photos provided by Paul Babin

Ted Estersohn Photo: Bob Sapovits

Everybody pays lip service to the blues influence, and “unplugged” is a marketing ploy. Ted Estersohn has been playing down home blues for more than 50 years. While holding on to his deep blue roots, he has also developed a unique jazz guitar style; playing bass, rhythm, and lead simultaneously. He has played with Washboard Slim (Robert Young), Son House, Bonnie Raitt, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Mance Lipscomb, Rosalie Sorrels, and John Jackson. Ted ran WXPN’s Folk department while in college.

Brant Buckley:

How did you get into Blues and who are your favorite artists?

Ted Estersohn:

I grew up in the 50’s with ‘The Weavers at Carnegie Hall.’ I can’t remember not knowing Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Josh White, and Led Belly. When the folk revival hit, I was primed as I studied with Jerry Ricks when I was thirteen. He was great friends with Mississippi John Hurt and Doc Watson. That was the core of my syllabus and gave me the opportunity to meet people. I also really like Mississippi Fred McDowell.

Who have you studied and played with?

I was in a peculiar situation during the “Great Folk Scare of the 60’s” in that I was studying with Jerry Ricks. When I met people, I already knew something about their playing style and repertoire. I could meet Brownie McGhee or Fred McDowell and just hang without needing to go, “Hey man, how’d you do that.” I took a lesson from Reverend Gary Davis at his sister in laws house in north Philly when he was in town for a gig. He was a teacher and I paid a fee. He would repeat parts until you had it down. He would sit down and talk about spelling your chords. That’s the way he phrased it. Fred McDowell is still a major inspiration. He wasn’t a teacher. It wasn’t in his personality. He only said two things to me about my playing. The first time I mustered up the nerve to play in front of him he told me to keep my thumb moving. The last the time I performed with him he said a lot of people can play but you have to get your own words. That was the only overt instruction I received from him. He is as influential on my playing as anybody.

Is it true that you have unreleased Mississippi Fred McDowell recordings?

Yes. I have a deal to have them released. I do not have a time table on it. Easy Eye Sound is Dan Auerbach’s company. He is from The Black Keys and he is working on a series of releases consisting of the best live unreleased tapes of traditional artists that Dick Waterman worked with at Avalon Productions. Artists include: Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Robert Pete Williams, Skip James, and Mississippi Fred McDowell. The Fred McDowell tapes were recorded at World Control Studios which was a coffeehouse that I lived at and helped run in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1970 and 1971. In May of 1971 I backed Fred for three nights which consisted of six sets. Saturday afternoon we took him out to The Swarthmore Folk Festival and he was on a bill with Happy and Artie Traum when they had a five piece band. My teacher Jerry Ricks played with Fred that Saturday afternoon. On Saturday night we went to a club called Buck Dancers Choice and celebrated Reverend Gary Davis’s 75th birthday. Taj
Mahal, John Davis, Danny Starobin, and Fred were jamming. I was nineteen years old and beat. I was getting run ragged by old men. Gary Davis and his wife were sitting on the side of the stage politely listening and left when they were tired.

Playing guitar with Fred was a real trip because he did so many solo guitar genius things where he would speed up and change the dynamic on the fly. He would do those little two bar vamps but he would do them twice or he would do them five times. I managed to stay with him. I have heard other concert tapes from England where it sounds to me like he’s trying not to throw the lads off. He was playing with bass and drums. When I listen back when I played with him he sounds a whole lot freer. He trusts me to stay with him and go where he’s going. There were other things from World Control Studios where I tried to be the hot lead guitarist and I find those very embarrassing. I studied his playing for six years before playing with him and I just tried to stay with him. If he went high, I went low. If he went low, I went high. I stayed with him but behind him. I am really proud of that. It went really well.

What was it like playing with Son House?

Ted at Buddy’s Corner. Photo: Catherine Jacobs

I played with him privately at Dick Waterman’s apartment. It was a very weird experience. Son had a drinking problem. Dick asked me to pick him up at the airport and stay with him. Dick managed Son, John Hurt, Bonnie Raitt, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Fred McDowell, and on and on. Dick was on the road with Robert Pete Williams and the following day they were going to swing through to pick up Son and go to Pittsburgh. I brought my guitar thinking it was my time to learn something from Son House. He just wasn’t in the mood. Later in the night out of frustration I picked up the guitar and started playing his stuff and he started singing along. It was as much of a spiritual experience as it was a musical one but I did play with Son House.

Can you talk about running the Folk Department for WXPN?

I entered college as a seventeen year old freshman as I had been listening to them since I was in high school. I joined the station as my buddy Hoyle Osborne ran the Folk Department. This was in the late 60’s. He dropped out of school and I became the head of the Folk Music Department until my sophomore year when I dropped out of school. I supervised between thirty five to forty hours a week during the afternoon and shorter evening time slots. I was not on air for all the shows. We played Bluegrass, Old Time Country, and Blues. Shows were divided by category. It was great as there was a huge recorded library to trip around in and find other cool things that I didn’t know about or only knew by legend. We also went out and recorded. We did live shows with Doc Watson and Dave Van Ronk. I taped Muddy Waters at the old Electric Factory.

Unfortunately, the station has lost track of these old tapes and interest in them. I believe I could track them down if given motivation. I tried to get WXPN interested in their old tape library because I am one of a few people who knows what’s on the tapes. It was not in their possession and for a while I knew where it was. I offered to try and fundraise fees if they would provide their facilities to me to digitize and annotate the recordings. They were not interested. The last keeper of them was talking about donating them to the Library of Congress which is a good place for them.

Here’s a good WXPN story and the tape is probably off in limbo somewhere. I once went on air with Buddy Guy at WXPN. I brought my acoustic guitar and he played it and we talked. I am a lousy interviewer and the music parts were much better. A.C. Reed was there and said he was going to give me a little bit of his brother Jimmy. A.C. Reed was a Blues saxophonist who played with Buddy until 1977. Buddy starts playing the guitar and A.C. started singing his best Jimmy Reed imitation, “You got me running, You Got Me Hiding”. This was a running gag. He was not related but it was really funny as he could do a great Jimmy Reed imitation.

Ted Estersohn and Washboard Slim Photo: John Reynolds

Can you talk about Washboard Slim and his washboard drum you donated to the Smithsonian?

I had heard about him in the 60’s but I didn’t meet him until the early 80’s. I started playing with a band called The Wild Bohemians which is still going strong and we do Mardi Gras in Philadelphia. We just did our thirty sixth Mardi Gras which I believe is the official count. At the beginning, we had two brilliant folk percussionists: Washboard Slim aka Robert Young and Horace “Spoons” Williams. Slim had this amazing washboard. He bolted two washboards together and put a plank down what you would think of as the side and sat on it. He could play with two hands and attached frying pans, pot lids, a cowbell, and a woodblock. He had a stove bolt in one hand and thimbles on his fingers on the other hand. He had a set of roto toms and other stuff on the side. Throughout the 1980’s, when he was in his eighties, we would play Mardi Gras gigs and other gigs as a duo. We played elementary schools, city parks, and bars. Slim is not to be confused with Washboard Sam who was also on the scene and was Big Bill Broonzy’s brother in law. Washboard Slim recorded with Brownie McGhee. He was recording with Brownie McGhee before Sonny Terry. He’s on the first Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee record. In the eighties I was the favorite guitarist of Brownie McGhee’s favorite washboard player. I am proud of that one.

When he died his brother in law gave me his washboard. I had it for about seventeen years until I finally found a curator named Gary Sturm from the Smithsonian. It sat in my closet and now it sits in the Smithsonian’s closet but at least it is secure. I delivered it to the Smithsonian and I swear to God I left it on a table next to the 1683 Ole Bul Stradivarius Violin.

(Slim’s washboard)

What else do you want to accomplish?

My new trip is my banjo. For the first time in my life I have a five string banjo. I have a Vega Tubaphone Tenor Banjo from 1926. I had a five string neck made for it. Throughout my teens and twenties there was always a five string banjo around the house, but I never owned one. I also have a banjo mandolin. Right now I am catching up on learning Scruggs picking. I was sort of competent with old time banjo but never learned Bluegrass banjo. That is my current excitement. I have creeping arthritis in both of my hands and I need something new to excite me that is less stressful than playing full chords on a guitar. So far it’s working.

Greg Guy is a recipient of the 2014 Chicago Blues Hall of Fame as an Honorary Master of Blues, and his guitar playing is greatly influenced by Prince — aside from being the son of the Living Legend Buddy Guy. One of Chicago’s own Sons of the Blues, Greg Guy has been playing music most of his life, as it’s in his DNA. He started playing his guitar publicly on the Buddy Guy’s Legends stage in 2009 during his father’s January Residency shows. With prior attempts he built the courage to join his father. He has toured the world with his father in the following places: São Paulo, Brazil, California, Texas, Arizona, Michigan, Missouri, Indiana, Utah, Colorado, and Louisiana.

Greg Guy at 2018 Buddy Guy’s January Residency shows at Buddy Guy’s Legends. Photo Credit: John “Nunu” Zomot

In 2019, Greg played with Kenny “Beedy-Eyes” Smith at the Chicago Blues Fest and
stacked up recording credits with chart-topping Irish traditional musician Sharon Shannon on “Sacred Earth”; Dave Weld and The Imperial Flames on “Slip Into A Dream”; Chris Wragg and Greg Copeland’s “Deep In The Blood”; and the critically acclaimed new release “Drop The Hammer,” by another of Chicago’s Sons of the Blues, the great Kenny Smith. Greg ventured on his own building musical relationships overseas in Rome and London, taking his guitar playing to new heights. Currently, Greg Guy and The Robert Fetzer Band can be found at Chicago local blues venues collaborating together in the tradition of “Keeping the Blues Alive.” Greg Guy is proving to audiences everywhere he’s one of the hottest young guitar-slinging blues artists on set today, and rightful heir to the greatest name in blues music.

Brant Buckley:

It sounds like Prince was the reason you picked up the guitar: How did you find your way into Blues?

Greg Guy:

Well actually it was my dad. The story goes when I was young I just knew him as my dad. I didn’t know he was this Buddy Guy guy. He played the guitar and I really liked guitar. My dad gave me one and it sat around and collected dust. Prince was always an influence. My dad told me to check out Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, and many other guitar players. At the time I thought Prince was the main guitar player. As time went on, I started checking out other guitar players. If what my dad was listening to when he was young still sounded good, I realized I had to play music like that. It’s music that will be around forever.

Who are your favorite Blues artists?

There are so many. I like Kingfish and Jamiah Rogers. They are the next generation. There are many guys who play extremely well and you do not hear much about them. I wonder why these players aren’t mentioned around the Blues circuit. There is a guy named Tony Palmer who is electrifying. Carlos Johnson is another. All of these players are amazing and I learn from them all. The list goes on and on with me as far as guitar players.

What are you currently working on with Jimmy Burns?

Jimmy and I just started about a week ago and I am currently in the studio. I put a track together that I could see him singing to in a real soulful bluesy old school kind of way. I could hear his voice on the track. I play with him at Buddy Guy’s Legends and I realized he would be perfect for the song. Jimmy Burns is one of my favorites.

How do you approach electric guitar playing and how would you describe your style?

I like Stratocasters and Telecasters. When I play, I never play the same thing twice. Every time I hit the stage I present something new on the guitar no matter who I am with or where I am playing. People notice I have a style. I listen and play with my heart and soul. I open up and let my fingers do the walking so to speak. I also like the acoustic guitar and alternative music. I am always listening. When I get onstage I never approach someone and say let’s play this song in F, A, or D. I get onstage and ask them what key they are playing in. They tell me the key and I play as if I am at home coming up with ideas. One time I thought I was in trouble when I played with my dad. He told me he needed to talk with me. I was biting my nails. We get in the car and he told me, “Whatever it is you are doing on the guitar don’t stop because people like it.” Now I keep going and don’t stop.

You also write songs? What’s your songwriting process?

I have been writing songs for a while. I just didn’t know what category to put them in. I didn’t know if they were considered Alternative, Blues, Pop, or Jazz. I take all of the styles of music and create. It’s like a pot of gumbo you put the shrimp and sauce in and it all tastes good.

How would you describe the current Chicago Blues Scene?

It’s fine and cool. It’s not a bad place. We have several locations here. We have my dad’s place, Buddy Guy’s Legends, Kingston Mines, and B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted. All of these places have great Blues. Hit or miss you may not always have a great show but these places are fun to go to and hear up and coming artists and different styles of music.

Greg Guy and Buddy Guy in Lettsworth, Louisiana Christmas Day, 2019 Same location as Buddy Guy’s ‘Blues is Alive and Well’ album cover (Mistaken as his home but it was the only local store for miles when Buddy was a child) Photo Credit: Vicky Guy

 

What’s your greatest musical moment?

It had to be with my dad, Charlie Musselwhite, and Jimmie Vaughan in California. It was a great experience to be onstage with those guys. I would have given myself a fifty-fifty shot meeting those guys without my dad. Being my dad’s son, I had a ten percent boost. My dad put me onstage with them and he doesn’t care who he puts me onstage with. He calls me up and tells me to just play what you play.

Musically where do you want to be in: 5 years? 10 years?

I would like to start my own album project and I would like write all of the songs. I would like to get some vocal lessons. Also, I would like to work with artists that have not been heard. I would love to work with Tony Palmer and present him a track. Hopefully in ten to twenty years I would like to be producing, writing, and helping many different artists; even Alternative and Rock music. I’ve produced Rock, R&B, and Jazz. I would like to hire a piano player to work with.

The Blues is Alive and Well like my dad said. I am going to be part of The Blues with my contributions. I have a different style as I can shift from Muddy Waters to the new sound. These younger kids are playing the older stuff, but they are speeding it up and creating their own riffs. It’s not going anywhere. When my dad was four or five he was listening to Slim Harpo. When I heard it I didn’t think the guy could have been around when my dad was young because it sounded so good. The younger generations are playing the same things. The Blues isn’t going anywhere.

Greg Guy on Facebook

*Feature image Vicky Guy 2019 Chicago Blues Festival

Folklorist and performer Joan Fenton earned her Master’s degree in folklore from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1981. She records and interviews southern roots artists from North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Louisiana. Artists include: Reverend Gary Davis, Willie Trice, Pink Anderson, and Guitar Shorty. Fenton’s folklore thesis fieldwork on Howard Cotten, recorded between 1976 and 1978, is represented through his songs, anecdotes, and tales about fishing and hunting. Documentation of field recordings include transcription notes from interviews and notes compiled from audio material. She is the owner of several stores in Charlottesville, Virginia that feature traditional and contemporary handcrafts.

Brant Buckley:

You have a master’s degree in Folklore from University Of North Carolina. Can you go into depth about what you studied and learned?

Joan Fenton

I first went to the University of Pennsylvania and I took Folklore classes there. While in Philadelphia I met Jerry Ricks and Jesse Graves. I used to do the blues radio show on WXPN. When I went to Chapel Hill there was a really small department with two professors. One’s specialty was shaker music and the other was pottery and jugs. Essentially, I was allowed to do anything that I wanted which was really neat. My interest was obviously blues. I had a grant to record blues musicians through the folklore department. I recorded several musicians and had a radio series program that consisted of five radio shows for WUSC. They first went on air in 1976. I used to do a radio show there.

Prior to that I was at Penn because I became interested in blues and I studied with Reverend Gary Davis who lived in New York in the summer of 1971. I studied with him and after he died, I did a documentary on him in New York. Somehow while researching Gary I met Bruce Bastian who is from England and was studying at Chapel Hill. He was doing field work and locating blues musicians. He is the one who located Willie Trice plus many other musicians. I had a friend from high school who had a VHS recorder. At that point nobody had a recorder and you couldn’t record live music on film. Your options were super 8 film. Bruce asked me to come down over spring break. I went with three friends and Bruce took us to different people he wanted to have recorded and we recorded them. We filmed Willie Trice, Guitar Shorty, Pink Anderson, and several other musicians. That was my first experience. I was from New York City and had gone to school in Philadelphia. This was my first experience in the south, my first experience seeing blues musicians in their home environment, and really getting a whole sense of the culture. After I graduated, I lived in West Virginia and I went to UNC for graduate school.

Can you talk about creating Blues Week at the Augusta Heritage Workshop in Elkins,
West Virginia?

In the mid 70’s I lived in Hinton, West Virginia. I went to the Augusta Heritage Workshop and took a class on guitar making. I asked them about doing a blues class. At the time they weren’t interested. In 1983 I received a call and they were interested in doing a blues program. I agreed to do it and at the time I was living in Traverse City and I was planning to move back to West Virginia. Margaret Lever was the director and she wanted to hire Sparky Rucker because she knew him. I wanted to hire John Jackson. Also, we needed a harmonica player and I didn’t know anybody. John suggested we hire Phil Wiggins. The first staff consisted of Sparky, John, Phil, and myself. We had about fifteen students and the funny part is that Sparky was stuck in customs and John Jackson was also late. The first day I taught beginner, intermediate, and advanced guitar classes. The next year we had twenty five students and I added a piano class. It kept growing. We were the first blues music camp that I am aware of in the country. People were doing old time and fiddle camps but there were no blues camps.

When I moved to West Virginia in 1974 I received a second grant to record traditional music in West Virginia. I was doing radio shows for West Virginia Public Radio and I did field work. I recorded blues and old time musicians. Because I played blues, every white musician that I met would play me a few blues tunes that they knew. I produced a record for Rounder Records of an old time fiddler player named Oscar Wright and his son Eugene. At the time Oscar was eighty years old. On the album they do instruments: an Ida Cox tune and a Bessie Smith tune. There is so much crossover music but it’s not always documented. Also, I recorded two little old ladies. They were so cute. They played “Hesitation Blues” on banjo and they were giggling the whole time. They were hysterical because it’s a dirty song. The blues program has been in existence since 1983. I have been the director most of the time. I have also been fired twice but they keep asking me back. When they asked me back I really wanted to do it with Phil Wiggins. For the last five years, he and I have been co-directors.

How does Blues from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia differ from Blues in other parts of the country?

The Virginia sound is the Piedmont sound and it is very melodic. There’s an alternating bass but a lot of melody is picked. When you get into North Carolina you have a heavy influence from Blind Boy Fuller. You don’t hear him as much as you go north, but there is still an alternating beat with picked melodies. When you get into South Carolina you have a stronger ragtime piano influence on guitar. So it is even more melodic with some counterpoint. What you don’t get with any of those styles that you get in Mississippi are heavy thumping bass drones. You don’t get a sense of that beat hanging in there without the alternating sound. If you look at the southeast music is more integrated. You have a lot more white musicians playing with black musicians and vice versa. A lot of black musicians played in string bands and played for both black and white audiences. In Mississippi the setting may not be as integrated.

Can you talk about video documenting Willie Trice? Did you film and or record anyone else?

Willie was a diabetic and had both of his legs amputated. He was in his sixties when I met him and he lived with his mother who was ninety and took care of him. I know that Bruce tried to have Social Services give him artificial limbs but they wouldn’t do it because he was not of working age.

The most interesting time was recording Pink Anderson. I have the only known video of him which I allowed Stephan Grossman to release on one of his tapes that he put out. That was amazing. Pink Anderson’s house was a little house in the middle of nowhere in South Carolina. While we were there I came to realize he was a bootlegger. He was selling liquor out of the back of his house. People were coming and going from his home. At the time, a lot of the counties in North Carolina and South Carolina were dry. You couldn’t buy liquor. The law didn’t really go after anyone and they sold liquor out of their homes. Once the laws changed and the counties were no longer dry, they shot everybody down. Pink had no money and he was living on dog food. He was so poor. He figured there was more nutrition in dog food than anything else. I think we documented around five or six people. They were all people that Bruce Bastin had taken us to see.

Bruce worked on a film with Peg Leg Sam. It’s an amazing movie that runs for about an hour. Peg Leg Sam had his leg run over by a train and he had a peg leg. He played harmonica and sang. He had a huge scar down his face. He looked like he could be the meanest man but he was nice. He would play on the medicine shows. He would be the entertainment and the chief would sell the medicine which was really alcohol to the audience that gathered in Pittsboro, North Carolina which is twenty minutes outside of Chapel Hill. Fairs were segregated. There were white fairs and black fairs. During the last year of the segregated fair, they filmed Peg at the medicine show. It’s an amazing film to watch. There is a film called Folk Strings that Tom Davenport filmed. Bruce was also involved. Tom Davenport did a lot of traditional film work. My collection is o.k. but what Tom has done is phenomenal.

We also filmed Guitar Shorty. His house was papered with newspaper to keep the wind out. It was a little one or two room house. He was a sharecropper and so poor. When you talk about poverty you have no idea until you have seen rural poverty. The positive is that you have the ability to grow food. I remember some people who had one light bulb in the ceiling and they would turn it off when they left the room. It’s a whole other world that you are unfamiliar with. It’s a piece of American history that nobody ever talks about because all you hear are headlines. There is so much more to it. There are positives and there are negatives. When I first moved to North Carolina I remember someone saying don’t go to that gas station because that guy is the head of a local chapter of the klan. I am from New York and I didn’t think it really existed. Other times you see white and black people playing music together because they like each other’s music. There are a lot of different things happening.

There’s a white musician named Dan Tate who lived in Fancy Gap, Virginia. He lived in a two-room house and if you opened the fridge you’d find a six pack of coke and that was it. He was as poor as a church mouse. He had been recorded by Alan Lomax. He had a song called “The Dreadful Wind and Rain.” Bob Dylan stole the melody from the song and never gave the guy credit. Dan never received a cent. Dick Waterman, who lived in Philadelphia while I was there, made sure to go after everything he could to get royalties for blues musicians. He made sure Gary Davis and Fred McDowell received royalties. It made a huge difference in their lives. Gary Davis had a house that he owned in Queens because he received royalties from some of this songs. So many people ripped off the songs.

You also have retail stores in Virginia. Can you talk about them?

I started off selling antique quilts. I than started selling new quilts and American hand crafts. It has evolved over the years. Now I sell mostly women’s clothing. I really like supporting handcraft artisans. I appreciate the work and promote the work of others. I have a website called Linen Woman.

Anything else you want to accomplish?

I think I want to go back to playing more. At this stage I am trying to slow down my work and play more music. Before I went into business, the only jobs I had were performing and teaching guitar. I would like to go back to playing more music and working more on piano, which I really enjoy playing. I really like doing hand crafts as well. I have been doing this for thirty nine years so I don’t support myself as a musician. I do music on the side.

Augusta Heritage Center

Linen Woman

*All photos Augusta Heritage Workshop Elkins, West Virginia

Dan Wolf, co-owner of Chicago Fret Works, has worked on thousands of guitars over the last 22 years in Chicago alongside partner Steve Baker. Players, collectors, and enthusiasts from around the country have turned to Dan for their most challenging and difficult guitar repairs. He began learning his craft in 1996 at Red Wing Technical College (Now Minnesota State College- Southeast Technical) in Red Wing Minnesota. Dan has worked guitars from the following artists: Wilco, Dwight Yoakam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins, and Dave Specter.

L-R Steve Baker, Dwight Yoakam, Dan Wolf

Brant Buckley:

How long have you been fixing guitars and how did you get into musical instrument restoration?

Dan Wolf:

It started with going to Red Wing Technical College. Believe it or not it’s a guitar building college. Guitar building schools are much more popular nowadays. It’s an accredited college where you learn how to build guitars. I went there for a couple of years after high school. I had a great time there. I was thinking I was going to be doing it for fun and perhaps afterwards go to a university and get a college degree and try to make my mom happy. It was the first time I was ever really good in a classroom. You learn how to build guitars which is a completely different world than repairing guitars. It just kind of morphed into repair work. I lived in Quebec City for a few months trying to build guitars with a builder by being an apprentice. It didn’t really work out and I missed living in Chicago and I moved back. My roommate at the time talked me into going into Guitar Center and seeing if they needed a repairman. I was thrown into the world of guitar repair and learning on the fly. It seems like twenty years have flown by.

When did you open Chicago Fret Works?

Steve Baker and I opened up the shop in early 2008. We both worked at another shop in town. I worked there for close to eleven years and Steve worked for six years. We became friends outside of the shop and became comfortable enough discussing the possibility of opening up our own shop. We just jumped off the cliff. It was crazy, scary, and exciting. We did it and haven’t looked back.

What’s the coolest guitar that has come through the store?

We do work for Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. He has an enormous vintage guitar collection. Steve and I really like vintage stuff from the 60’s and 70’s. If instruments from the 50’s come in that aren’t in terrible shape, that’s extra fun. We are lucky to work on a lot of guitars through Wilco and other customers. They keep us busy with a heaping supply of cool guitars to work on including a 1952 Les Paul Goldtop. These guitars are close to being museum pieces because of their rarity and significance in the electric guitar world. A lot of old Gibsons and Martins from the 50’s and 60’s have come in. Those are our favorite guitars. It’s funny the old vintage guitars are the most fun, coolest, and happen to be the easiest to work on because they’re designed to be taken apart to some degree. Especially the acoustic stuff. Modern guitars aren’t designed to be taken apart as much as the vintage stuff because they are almost disposable. Like everything else in the world, they used to make them better. As a repair tech whenever I see a case that I know has a vintage guitar in it, I get pretty excited because I know it’s going to be fun and it’s also going to be easy to work on. People who built these guitars had in mind they would be repaired in the future.

What’s the hardest part when dealing with fixing vintage instruments?

The hardest part about fixing vintage instruments is making sure you keep them as original as possible. Originality is a huge thing that is drilled into our heads when we are learning how to do this stuff. It’s a big no no to do certain things like refinishing vintage guitars or replacing unnecessary parts. It sounds easy enough but when something needs to get repaired it becomes tricky to make sure everything stays as original as possible.

How many guitars do you work on each day? What’s a typical day look like?

I would guess we complete anywhere between 10-20 guitars a day. My typical day revolves around managing my employees and making sure business gets taken care of. Along with my business partner Steve we share the duties. I take on the majority of teaching employees how to do certain things and they are all at different levels and they all do different types of jobs. I make sure things run smoothly. Every single day some surprise comes up and it’s not always a fun surprise. Steve and I either have to put out a fire or react to something that unexpectedly happened. We like to talk to customers and get to know them and their needs. I do have my own projects that I am working on that are the more difficult ones we do. I always have three to four really difficult projects going on. I try and split the time with everything else I mentioned.

If there is one guitar (artist’s guitar) you could work on which one would you choose and why?

We get that all the time and I always never know what to say. Wilco is a friend of the shop and we also like their music. We are ecstatic that we get to work on their guitars. If you were to tell me ten years ago I was going to be working on so many of Wilco’s instruments, I would be really psyched. We don’t take it for granted. I don’t think my favorite artists will ever make it in the shop. I am a big fan of Frank Black, Stephen Malkmus and A.C. Newman of The New Pornographers. If these guys came in the shop I would be pretty damn excited to work on their guitars.

What else do you want to accomplish?

I am pretty focused on my employees becoming really good at this. Teaching these guys how to do this work is my motivation right now. Money isn’t and shouldn’t be a big motivator in this line of work. I want to continue teaching my employees to be the best guitar tech they can be. That is really important to me. It is really rewarding work that you can’t get in other fields: finishing products, seeing a happy customer get a guitar back that they had sentimental attachment to, and working with your hands. All of the people who do this kind of work are artists whether they know it or not. Refinishing a guitar to make it look like it is from the 50’s and 60’s and recreating everything is an art form. You need to be into art to enjoy this job.

Chicago Fret Works

*Photos by Steve Baker

Jesse Graves aka Michael Floyd is known for his allegiance to the blues heritage. He did not contemporize the music, but played songs as they were written in the 1920s and 30s. In the 1970s he started his own record label to promote blues music of his early heroes and to provide royalties to the families of the original artists. Unfortunately, the company folded after only one album.

Jesse opened or played for such notables as: Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Taj Mahal (at the Academy of Music), Bonnie Raitt, Doc Watson, Eric Burden and War, Rosalie Sorrels, Tom Waits, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Little Feat, and the J. Geils Band.

Graves’ 1972 album consists of Jesse covering Robert Johnson, Son House, Rev. Gary Davis, Bukka White (B.B. Kings Cousin) and Skip James. Jesse also throws in a few originals. His “Dust My Broom” cover was played on radio stations up and down the eastern seaboard in the 1970s.

Brant Buckley:

Sounds like you are working on new material?

Jesse Graves:

I write because it helps me with my mind. I am writing lyrics and I have completed three new songs. They are all originals. I live in a small town in South Dakota and I have made a lot of friends. I sometimes walk the streets looking for inspiration. Once I finish all of the 8 to 9 new songs I am working on, I am going to record them. I am a little hesitant as I got burnt on my 1972 ‘Gazebo’ Album and I never received any royalties. To get my guitar skills back in shape I have been relearning Gary Davis’s “Death Don’t Have No Mercy”, “Hesitation Blues”, and Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil”. All three of them have good picking exercises in them. I suffer from arthritis so sometimes it is harder than other times.

In the past, incorrect information was written about you regarding your teachers and you
stopped giving interviews. Please explain.

First of all Son House wasn’t in the Mississippi Delta. He was in Rochester New York. I never studied with him or Fred McDowell. I listened to a lot of records. I met Son House which was one of the highlights of my life with his manager Dick Waterman. I spent time with Gary Davis
and his wife in Harlem towards the end of his life. I met Mississippi John Hurt in the 60s at a club in Philadelphia. I learned to play his song “Candy Man”. I was a great opening act. Never a headliner. Always a bridesmaid never a bride. I learned by watching these guys play and I would pick up what I could from them. I went to the Delta to record Robert Pete Williams for my record label called Gazebo, but I ran out of money and couldn’t put it out. I stopped giving interviews after a reporter claimed I studied with Robert Johnson which was totally false. These writers were embellishing and misconstruing and that’s when I stopped giving interviews.

I opened for Bonnie, John Hammond, Dave Van Ronk. Dr. John, Hot Tuna, and Little Feat. Dick Waterman managed Bonnie at the time. He introduced me to Son House. He was always one of my heroes. Son was very reserved when I met him but he shook my hand and was a nice guy. When you meet your idols you are in awe. Later I opened shows for Muddy Waters, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Arthur Big Boy Crudup, and John Lee Hooker. These were acts that had been doing it for many years. It really was an eye opener for me.

Can you talk about your first and only album you released?

I put that album out in 1972. It consisted of a lot of standard tunes and covers with the hopes that it would get more people interested in the artists. In the 50s and 60s Blues mainly had a cult following. I started Gazebo records with the sole purpose of putting out different Blues artists’ albums but I ran out of money. I never got a dime from my album. When we recorded my album, we just turned on the tape recorders in my living room and played. It was me, John Davis, Teddy Estersohn, and Gordon Reeves. We just played and played. We took that and put it out. We pressed 2,000 copies. I had a distributor in Philadelphia and Washington. When I was young, I didn’t sign any contracts with them. They put the album out but I never received anything for it and that’s why I ran out of money. After the record came out, I started getting airplay on college radio stations and MMR in Philadelphia. Michael Tearson was the disc jockey on MMR and he played it. Gene Shay of the Folk program played some of the tracks too. In addition to the full length album, I released 100 copies of “Dust My Broom” and an original song called “Jookin”. The A side was “Dust My Broom” and the B side was “Jookin” an instrumental single I wrote. From what I understand both are being sold on Ebay and I don’t get any royalties.

Can you talk about recording Robert Pete Williams?

That also was in 1972. I rode down to the Mississippi Delta to Rosedale, Louisiana and recorded Robert Pete Williams on a tape recorder in his house. I brought the tape back but never released it because I didn’t have any money. I also did a few other recordings but they were lost in a house fire a couple years ago. I really wish I had the money at the time to put the Robert Pete Williams recordings out because he really did a hell of a job when he laid down the tracks. Many years later Joan Fenton, who also played Blues, wanted me to donate them to the Library of Congress. In the back of my mind I wish I had the mindset to put it out. The Robert Pete songs I recorded were all originals and that’s what made them so great.

What was it like opening for John Lee Hooker?

When I opened for John Lee Hooker, I was still drinking and he was sober. He wouldn’t even shake my hand because I was drunk. Let me say this: my music playing cost me my marriages, my sanity, and my sobriety. Back in the 70s and 80s there were a whole lot of drugs going around and I fell victim to it. Now I sit in my living room and play my guitar for me.

How does Native American spirituality play a part in your music?

Every time I picked up a guitar and played professionally, I always dedicated it to the Great Mystery. I grew up reading books just like I grew up listening to records. I read books about Native American affairs. I am not Native American physically, but I believe in their way of life.

*Photos: Brant Buckley

Grammy and Emmy nominated, Platinum Award winning Native American Flute Music Recording Artist, author and activist John Two-Hawks has spent his life looking intensely into the deep ways of spirit, wisdom, healing and connection. With his music and his words, he has reached into a hurting world, sharing the healing power of love, compassion and humility. The enchanting music of Two-Hawks soars with breathtaking symphonic sounds in one moment, and then soothes the spirit with the powerful organic voice of a lone Native flute in the next. A master virtuoso of the Native American Flute, John is also an extraordinary vocalist, musician and composer.

John Two-Hawks photo by Richard Quick

Brant Buckley:

When and why did you start playing the flute? Who were your teachers? When/Where did the native flute first originate?

John Two-Hawks:

I have been performing with the Native flute for over 25 years. I began sharing it as part of my educational programs at schools and universities. Over time, more and more people began to ask me to perform with it, which ultimately led to where I am today. I always say that I didn’t go looking for the Native flute, it found me. No one taught me, I just picked it up and I could play. It came naturally. Neither have I ever had a teacher for any of the dozens of other instruments I play and compose with. Music has always been like a second language for me, and I have understood it from the time I was a small boy. My Lakota name is Siyotanka (she-oh-tahn-ka), which translates to ‘big/great flute.’ Thus it seems I was destined to share the song and story of this ancient instrument from the start.

The origins of the Native flute as I have learned through Lakota oral history go thousands of years back in a time before memory. I share a detailed telling of the origin story as I have heard it in my book ‘To Make a Voice – Native Flute Lessons & Wisdom,’ but I will sum it up for this interview like this; The instrument known by Lakota people as hokagapi (to make a voice) – and now known by all as the Native American flute – was born of a broken heart, and of love. It began as a courting instrument for boys to serenade the girls they had eyes for. It evolved into an item used by certain medicine people for healing. And today has become a musical voice for peace, healing, love and a return to ancestral wisdom.

Could you talk about the old way and how your culture shapes your music? What are you trying to express in your music to others?

As a Lakota person who also carries Anishinabe and Celtic-Irish lineage, my approach to music composition is multifaceted. At its center, my music is anchored in the root of those old Indigenous ways. And yet, it reaches out from that traditional root to a place of contemporary expression as well, and is imbued with musicality that honors the totality of my own ethnic diversity and celebrates the same in our world.

Each of my albums (27 to date) have a unique purpose and story. No two are the same, conceptually or musically. And yet, the overarching theme of all the music I create is a singular vision: to mend the sacred hoop. A great healing is needed, individually, nationally and globally. We must rid ourselves of the cancers of hate, greed and fundamentalism. These social diseases divide human beings, creating destructive enmity between cultures and nations, and they threaten the very future of all life on this planet. My music, and the message contained within, is my effort to use the gifts Tunkasila (grandfather) gave me to reach into a chaotic world with a song of peace and healing, with the hope that one day we will finally learn to live in harmony with each other, and in balance with the sacred web of life on Maka Ina (Mother Earth).

How do you compose? Flute first? Singing? Drums? Please Explain. How far back do some of the native songs go that you play?

Since I was very young, musical compositions have just sort of revealed themselves to me in natural ways. The wind rustling through the leaves of a tree, the tones of a distant plane, and the cadence of my own footfalls on the stairs are just a few examples of the stimuli that often become compositions that begin to play over and over in my psyche until I actually ‘birth’ them into audible existence. So, when I enter the studio, I usually have a great deal of what I want to record already composed in my head. I usually begin with the instrument(s) that will provide the foundation and framework for the composition, which can be percussion, piano or strings. All these are performed with the composition of the Native flute in mind, so that the flute is already ‘living’ in the music before it is even recorded. The flutes are always recorded last (unless of course the song is solo flute). Although my music is composed and arranged with traditional approaches, elements and sensibilities, my songs are all original compositions.

What’s your greatest musical moment and what’s your worst?

I will begin with the worst moment and finish with the greatest. One of my worst musical moments was when, in the middle of a concert I got the vocal harmony to one of my songs stuck in my head, and sang the entire song that way! The stage terror from that caused me to also forget all but one verse, which I sang over and over. Add to that, a digital effects anomaly in the sound booth that made it sound like there was a spaceship landing on the theater, and the humiliation was complete! Interestingly, at the ‘Meet & Greet’ afterward, folks told me they loved that song.

I would have to say I have two greatest musical moments. The first is performing for an audience of 12,000 beautiful souls with Nightwish at the Hartwall Arena in Helsinki, Finland. As a performer, that moment on stage for an audience like that is unrivaled. The second greatest musical moment for me was performing and recording the music for the Emmy winning HBO film, ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee‘ at the Eastwood Sound Stage at Warner Brothers Studios. It was both a humbling honor, and an amazing experience!

What are your future goals?

I am currently doing classes and book readings/signings for my current book, ‘Hidden Medicine – Surviving, Healing and Rising From the Ashes of Abuse.’ I have plans to start on a new book about the deeply complex experiences of Native people with ‘mixed’ ancestry in the near future. As for activism, I am always working for causes close to my heart, which include Indigenous human/civil rights and social justice, and environmental issues. Always, everything I do is infused with a vision for a better world for our future generations, and the mending of the sacred hoop.

John Two-Hawks

*Feature image Melanie Myhre Photography

Charles Brown (Downtown Charlie Brown) was born and raised in Morristown, NJ. While in high school Charlie participated in 3 Varsity sports (basketball, soccer, and baseball) receiving All State honors in basketball and baseball. He was also a member of “The Elusions,” an R&B band, where he played trumpet and added vocals on occasion. Like many blues and R&B artists he sang in the church choir. After graduating from Morristown High School, Charlie attended Lehigh University where he played basketball and graduated with a degree in economics and marketing. He scored enough points to be inducted into the Lehigh Athletic Hall of Fame.

In 1989 Charlie moved to Leawood, Kansas (Kansas City suburb) where he met Roy Searcy, a jazz and blues piano player who became his blues piano mentor. In 1994 Charlie moved to Aurora, Illinois working for AT&T. He spent some time honing his music skills at the Old Time School of Folk Music and formed the “Downtown Charlie Brown Blues Band.” The band plays weekly throughout Chicagoland and Indiana, including Buddy Guy’s Legends in downtown Chicago. Charlie focuses on classic blues; primarily Delta and Chicago styles. He plays keys, slide guitar (primarily resonator), sings, and manages the “Downtown Charlie Brown Blues Band.” In addition, he fronts the band with Dee Dee Hardy. He also performs as a duo with Harry Binford and a trio with both Dee Dee and Harry. He has opened for KoKo Taylor, Eddie Clearwater, Lil’ Ed, and a host of other blue greats. On occasion, Buddy Guy has graced the stage during his band’s performances at Legends.

Charlie’s musical influences include: Muddy Waters, Pinetop Perkins, Robert Johnson, and Mississippi Fred McDowell. Charlie is school teacher during the day and a musician at night. He’s either playing a gig at Legends in Chicago, The Uptown, or Johnny’s Blitz in Westmont, Illinois, (Muddy’s last home) or hosting an open mic at Miss Kitty’s in Naperville.

Brant Buckley:

Who are your favorite Blues artists and why?

Downtown Charlie Brown:

My top three artists are Muddy Waters, Pinetop Perkins, and Robert Johnson. In terms of artists around today it’s Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton. Muddy Waters brought Delta blues to Chicago. Chicago blues can be defined by what he did. I love playing slide guitar and I love Robert Johnson. I am trying to learn all of Robert Johnson’s songs. I have about 18 of them down. He recorded 29 songs. My goal is to learn everything he recorded. I like Pinetop because I started out primarily as a Honky Tonk piano player. Buddy is the king of the blues and he keeps it alive. Every time I have seen an Eric Clapton concert, he pays homage and gives credit to all the guys who came before him. On the big screens he may have Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters up, depending on what song he is playing.

Can you talk about your band Downtown Charlie Brown Blues Band?

We have five people: Reggie Harrington on bass, Harry Binford on guitar, Glover Washington on drums, Cliff Williams subbing on drums or bass when needed, Dee Dee Harding on vocals, and I’m on keys, guitar and vocals. Dee Dee and I usually split vocal duties during our set, and we perform a few songs together. When we started out we played blues, R&B, and some Rock N Roll. As we started getting different gigs, I would cater to particular audiences. I’m from the east coast and I grew up on R&B, but blues is where my heart is. I was talking to Vino Louden, Koko Taylor’s bandleader, one day in Aurora after a blues fest and he said, “Nobody does Charlie Brown better than Charlie Brown.” At that point I decided to focus on blues. That is when blues became my primary focus. I do still play Rock and Roll; and R&B at times. When I play guitar, Delta blues is my primary focus. We play as a full band, duo, or trio. With the band we play both Delta blues and Chicago blues, Rock and Roll, with a little R&B. As a trio it’s Delta and Chicago Blues. As a duo Harry and I focus on the Mississippi Delta throughout the set.

You are one of the few Delta guitar players in the Chicago area: How did this come to be and why?

I have had a blues band for over twenty years called “Downtown Charlie Brown Blues Band” and Harry Binford is the main guitar player in my band. About two years ago we started talking about playing as a trio. Pay for blues musicians isn’t that great and it’s tough when you have a five piece band. Sometimes it’s easier to get a gig when you have 2 to 3 people. We started learning Delta music and it’s something that I have always wanted to do. Harry bought a resonator and I went out and bought one. We started getting together once a week to learn and practice. Donna Herula, who is an excellent slide player, in the style of Bonnie Raitt, started giving me lessons. She’s an excellent teacher and also plays at Buddy Guy’s Legends. She showed me the licks, I practiced, and I went out and played. I still use Donna as a resource regularly.

How has your sports background helped you play in a band?

I think being well rounded and doing a lot helps you so you don’t get in a rut and get bored. When you play sports you are never going to win every game. It’s impossible. All of the ups and downs that you face in athletics makes them easier to face in life. Even in music you may get a gig and it may get canceled. You may try to get booked at a certain place and you don’t get the gig for whatever reason. It helps you with all of the ups and downs that you will face within music and helps you focus on what your real goal is.

Does your piano playing show up in your guitar playing? Has one inspired the other?

My piano playing definitely has inspired my guitar playing. Within piano, I already knew all of the chords and scales. Picking up the guitar was about learning the technique more than anything else. I already knew all of the blues theory. It was a pretty quick transition from piano to the guitar. I’m not a virtuoso on the guitar but when it comes to blues, I can hold my own.

You have Howlin’ Wolf power when you sing: Did you work on your voice or is it natural?

I think it’s a combination. Like a lot of African Americans I sang in the church choir as a kid. As I got older I started listening to Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. I can’t do what they do but I try and keep their tradition. Part of my sound comes from just how I sing but, I do listen to them and I try to preserve the traditional style; especially since I am from the North East and not Mississippi, styles may be different.

Musically, what else do you want to accomplish?

I take my plans and goals day by day and they also change and migrate. I enjoy playing and I am getting close to the age where I can retire from teaching school full-time. I teach business classes. I am migrating to making music full-time and teaching part time. I am on the website for The Blues Foundation’s Blues in School. I want to start doing Blues in School. I love talking about the history of Delta Blues and where the songs come from. It’s interesting when you look at Robert Johnson. He was a womanizer and was married by age nineteen. His wife died in child birth and he wrote “Love in Vain.” Thomas Dorsey, that father of Gospel who has Chicago roots, went through the same situation. His wife died in child birth. He didn’t play for a long time and wrote “Precious Lord.” Robert Johnson went the total blues route and Thomas Dorsey went the Gospel route. It is very interesting to see what these guys did. Muddy Waters’ early stuff was just like Robert Johnson. I find it very fascinating and I love to talk about it when I am playing. Blues in School seems like a good fit for me. I want to continue to perform, teach school part time, teach the blues, and keep the blues alive. That’s my main goal.

Downtown Charlie Brown

*All photos © Joel Turner

Tom Marker‘s Blues credentials have been well established in Chicago throughout his 35-year career hosting the popular “Blues Breakers” program on WXRT. Marker has been a presence on the air in Chicago since the mid-70s on stations including WJKL-FM (“The Fox”) and WLUP-FM (“The Loop”) as well as WXRT. Marker is also well known to Chicago Blues fans as the primary emcee at the Chicago Blues Festival.

Tom Marker at a tribute to Otis Rush. Photo: Franky Bruneel

With “Blues Time with Tom Marker” on WDCB, Marker and his fans delve into the best of the Blues – past, present and future – deeper than ever before. Each week’s show, airing from 7pm to 9pm, kicks off WDCB’s 10 hour all night Saturday Blues extravaganza, running until Sunday morning at 5am.

In 1999, Marker was presented with “Keeping the Blues Alive” award by The Blues Foundation in Memphis Tennessee.

Brant Buckley:

What does Chicago Blues mean to you?

Tom Marker:

It doesn’t mean quite as much as my wife, kids and granddaughters, but music means a lot to me and the Blues is my favorite music. I’ve been involved in the Blues for so long that it is a big part of my identity, both public and private. I love the Blues scene in Chicago where so many of my friends are working artists, club owners, employees, record label people, producers, and agents. It really is a great community.

Can you talk about the preparation that goes into your Blues shows?

I almost always start by putting down the names of artists who have new releases that I think should be played that week, artists who have engagements in Chicago in the coming week that should be mentioned, and artists with birthdays coming up. I then plug in the songs and albums, write some notes, and fill in the rest of the time with songs and artists that haven’t been played in a while or songs that come to my mind.

I would like to think that my radio programs are completely unique as far as Blues radio programs go. It’s unlike any other Blues program in any other city. The shows that I do are really for the Chicago Blues community: the fans, the performers and the scene in general. While the programs are first and foremost for entertainment, I’m always aware of my responsibility to support the scene with my programs. I like to think that I help the artists become better known. I want the audience to know when an artist, especially a local artist, has a new album or a special appearance. I want to encourage listeners to support the Blues by allowing them to know who is doing what and where by sharing my enthusiasm for many local events. I want my programs to reflect what’s happening here in Chicago right now.

I have an intro that I use for my WDCB program where I explain the basic theory of what I am doing. I tell the audience I play Blues from near and far, but mostly from right here. I play Blues that is old and new but a lot from right now. When I first started doing Blues radio shows, I was inspired by “Living Blues” Magazine and the “Living Chicago Blues” series of albums that came out on Alligator Records in 1978. Those two things helped me to see the Blues not as historical music but music of the present. It’s not music from some other place but music from Chicago. Back in the early days, field workers were singing songs that related to their conditions and the Blues has carried that tradition forward to the present. There is plenty of social commentary in Blues today that doesn’t take the view of the landowners and bosses. The Blues is about present life and that’s reflected in my programs. The Blues I play is something you can use right now. You can go out and see it, purchase recordings, and listen to it as it will relate to your life right now. Chicago Blues is a current living thing that’s different from any other place in the world. A Blues program from Chicago is by definition a different animal; closely connected to its place and time.

How has radio changed since you started?

I started a long time ago and there have been a lot of changes. I first started in the Chicago market in 1975. First, a lot of people think that radio leads people’s tastes, that songs are popular because they are on the radio. From my vantage point, it is really just the opposite, especially in the present. The commercial radio stations these days mostly follow the listener’s tastes. They play what they already know the listeners will like. It’s different than the past. For example, when I went into radio in the seventies there was this huge expansion of radio channels in America because of the new popularity and availability of FM radio. There were suddenly three to four times as many radio stations in each city that people were listening to. Some of these stations really helped widen the scope of what listeners could expect from radio. Listeners at some of these stations were really open to hearing new things; listening to something the DJ had just discovered and wanted to share. Young people were given a chance to program stations for their peers and radio stations. In some cases the stations were being run by people who were involved not because they were radio people but because they were music people. That was when stations like WXRT first appeared. In the early days of my work at WJKL in Elgin, and WXRT, we would sometimes play Ella FitzGerald, the Marshall Tucker Band, and the Ramones in the same hour. The Blues fit right in. Some of what we were playing in those days is now referred to as Classic Rock. A lot of it didn’t sound much different than the Blues. Bands like the Rolling Stones, The Allman Brothers Band, and Led Zeppelin were just a small step from the Blues. Plus, WXRT always had a strong sense of place so being in Chicago made sense to play Blues.

Radio listeners have changed over the years compared to forty years ago and that’s part of why radio has changed. People listening to the radio now are the grandchildren of listeners in the seventies. They have different tastes and they want different things. The kind of music they listen to is different and it’s not nearly as closely related to Blues. Commercial radio stations in this century are generally owned by large broadcast companies. The stations that used to be programmed by radio people and music people are generally operated by business grads and the music is picked by researchers. Listener supported public radio stations are programmed entirely differently. It’s very interesting for me to have a foot in both worlds. Whether commercial or listener supported, radio is not as big a part of youth culture that it was when my career was beginning or the teenage culture of the late fifties and sixties.

Do you think there’s hope for a Blues crossover song to make the Billboard Hot 100?

I can’t say no because anything can happen. Every once in a while there is someone that just breaks out and is really popular. Blues is not what the popular music stations are currently looking for, but it could happen. I can’t really predict that it will, but I wouldn’t give up hope. The radio stations are really following the people’s choices. If somebody was really popular it could happen.

Do you have a favorite Chicago Blues club?

No. If I decide to go out and see live Blues in Chicago I usually choose a show based on who is performing. Certain artists are at career points where they have a good draw and are guaranteed to play larger rooms. I love to see Blues at S.P.A.C.E. in Evanston and City Winery in the West Loop. Buddy Guy’s Legends is of the size that they can draw some of the larger acts and they are a real Blues club. Rosa’s Lounge is a favorite of mine and I believe in their slogan: Chicago’s Friendliest Blues Lounge. B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted is tiny and wonderful. Kingston Mines, also on N. Halsted, draws a younger crowd that likes to dance and they are open super late. The Odyssey East on S. Torrance at 99th St. is friendly and inviting and presents some good Blues. I love the tiny Taylor Street Tap with its very friendly neighborhood vibe and small bands in a very intimate setting. There are a number of other venues that sometimes book Blues and my favorite of these is FitzGerald’s Nightclub on Roosevelt Road in Berwyn. That’s where we present our WDCB Bluesday Tuesday shows with live broadcasts on the first Tuesday of each month. Being a weeknight we are able to offer “weekend” level bands a low cover charge and people love that the bands begin so early, 7pm.

How long have you been an emcee at The Chicago Blues Festival?

I began to M.C. acts at Blues Fest in the eighties. WXRT has been a long time sponsor of the fest so at the beginning I was “assigned” to intro some bands. I think it was decided at some point by the fest producers that it would be easiest to just have me M.C. all of the evenings and I was good with that. Over the years, I have become more involved with the fest and I continue to be the M.C. for the Pritzker Pavilion stage each night. I’m commonly seen as M.C. for the “Buddy Shows” at Buddy Guy’s Legends every January. I think I had so much fun doing that that it made other people want to do it too. So the fun is now shared, but I still intro Buddy for at least a couple of those shows. I’m also called on to M.C. other festivals, benefits, and shows around town.

What else do you want to accomplish?

My career is starting to wind down. I am looking to work less in the future, not more. I am really happy with the way things are going now. I would like to point out that I worked full time for 33 1/3 years at WXRT. Now at WXRT, I only do what I like best, my Sunday night Blues Breakers show. I love being the host of “Blues Time with Tom Marker” every Saturday evening on WDCB. They are very supportive of the Blues there. The hosting and producing of the monthly WDCB Bluesday Tuesday shows and broadcast is also a great gig and is a lot of fun. That’s three jobs. Plus, there are various other shows and committees I find myself involved in so that’s enough.

Tom Marker on WXRT

Blues Time on WDCB

*Feature image Janet Mami Takayama