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Birthing the Blues

- by Linn Barnes

Birthing the Blues

-Linn Barnes 

The way to figure out what any group is doing is by watching them when they’re not paying attention to your watching them.  Simple.  It figures the next question would be something like, and where might that be?  Well, at the beach, if you were sixteen or seventeen, that would be the cocktail party, the cocktail party of the late 50s, that unique gathering of loosened up adults who under normal circumstances would shy away from certain subjects, like sex, state of any x’s or y’s marriage, religion, politics and certainly anything to do with race and race relations.  This was a world where colored people were not much more than an abstraction, and certainly nothing that could in any way have anything to do with your life, except perhaps the maid or entertainers like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, etc…  Kids, young people, are more open to assaulting the taboos and at that point me and my guitar playing pals were moving on from the commercial style of folk music, the Kingston Trio and the like, to something a lot more profound and frankly intimidating, even dangerous, to the parental order:  The blues.  Me, Johnny Kerkam, Toby Thompson, Cotton Havell, Jake Mills and Randy Mason and others were all blues nuts.  Why?  Well, it’s not hard to understand.  The black players we all admired were really great guitar players and singers, impassioned guitar players and singers. We had given up listening to or imitating the commercial stuff in favor of literally the darker side of things.  The blues songs were dangerous and unusual with titles like, ‘Please See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’, ‘Hootchie Kootchie Man’, ‘I’m a Back Door Man’, ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’, ‘Cocaine Blues’, ‘You Got To Bottle Up And Go’, ‘Keep on Truckin’ Mama’, stuff like that.  They’re  were no more ‘I Gave My Love A Cherry’, or, ‘The Fox’ type tunes in sight.  Furthermore, the more we played this music and the better we got at it, the more curious and drawn into black culture we became.  Now, this  was alright with the parental minions, but where could it go, they must have been asking themselves, although I really don’t think any of them thought very much about it at all.  Blues was, in a word, about as hip a form of guitar playing and singing you could ever find, anywhere.  And we were eating it up, practicing like crazy, competing with each other and, miracle of miracles, it was a great way to impress the girls, which probably was at the heart of the matter.  Isn’t it always?

Well, at one of these cocktail parties, while exercising my developing tradecraft, I overheard something that really fired me up.  A small group of adults were quietly talking about how they would sneak their cabin cruisers up on a negro resort on the of back of Indian River Inlet bay behind Bethany, called Rosedale, anchor off shore and listen to some of the most incredible music they had ever heard.  I mean, they described going with many friends, in many boats, bringing tons of drink, food, the works. Oh, it was a grand and safe party from a grand and safe perch to observe the ‘natives’ at play…I guess it was a little like ‘going up to Harlem’ back in the 20s and 30s.  Great names were there, but they apparently had no idea what they were hearing, just that it was very good, and, perhaps, even better, very outlandish and daring.  If they had tried to go ashore, things might not have gone well for  them.  They almost certainly would not have been welcomed by a society of people they had not welcomed for hundreds of years.  At least they seemed to know that.  I began to seriously think about this mysterious place they were describing.  Wasn’t there a line in an old blues, ‘going down to Rosedale, where I can have some fun.. drink white lightnin’, gamble, ‘till my baby come..’ Well, once I had told the guitar gang about this fortuitous glimmer of intel, we all became determined to find a way to get to this mythical place. 

There was this other guy, a real character, about as wild and free spirited as they get.  His name was Billy Farnsworth and he and his family lived on the same street as Ned and Nancy Chaucer.  His family, like the Chaucer’s, were also very wealthy, and they, like the Chaucer’s, were ‘old money’, the charm of being charmed by it long gotten used to and now pretty much ignored.  Billy  was not a guitar player, but he liked all of us who worked at it, and he recognized that by hanging around with us he could cash in on the girl thing we were attracting with this risky new music we were playing.  He understood correctly that he could be part of this new thing called ‘hip’.  And, Billy was really a very cool and funny character who managed to keep us fairly drunk on his ‘BF Specials’, a nasty devil of a drink he conjured up which was three parts rum to one part vodka, maybe more, and a dash of lemonade to sooth your conscience, all of which he would make by the gallon and bring to the beach, beach parties, house parties, he always seemed to have  a stash of the stuff.  And, he was funny as hell, with apparently not a care in the world.  The Farnsworth place was one of the great houses at the beach.  They had a large yard to manage and, it seems now, many automobiles to tend to.  They also had a full time chauffeur, grounds keeper, butler, I guess, who managed the whole deal for them.  This was very old school, but nobody gave it a second thought.  It just was.  This man’s name was Parker, just Parker.  I never heard anybody refer to him any other way.  Anyway, Parker was an elegant black man, obviously educated and very well spoken, who took a shinning to all the young white kids, and, especially we guitar players, we blues buffs.  He was friendly and often drew us into discussions about this music we were playing so enthusiastically.  We noticed right away that he had a tremendous amount of information about the players we were trying to imitate and the songs themselves.  So, Parker became  a kind of mentor to all of us.  It took a long time for him to finally let us know that at one time he had been a major figure in the production and management of important black entertainers and that to this day he was highly respected in the black music world.  This man was simply amazing, and, of course, the Farnsworth's, mom and dad,  had not the faintest glimmer of an idea who he really was, which I think was just fine with him.  But, he recognized and perhaps was amused that we young white kids had a real interest in black music and, therefore, black culture, which in 1959, was just about unheard of…  When we finally got up the nerve to ask him about Rosedale, he was very straightforward and forth coming explaining to all of us what an amazing place for black people it was.  He told us it was part of a network of black clubs and resorts jokingly referred to as the ‘Chitlin Circuit’, and that some of the greatest names in music often played there.  People like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Sam Cooke, and many other luminaries among the black and white audiences.  He told us many of the younger black performers on the national stage also came to Rosedale, but for some reason he refused to identify them, and he did so with an obviously sly grin, which we were unable to decipher at the time.  But he did very carefully explain why Rosedale existed, and that, of course, was the pervasive segregation of the races throughout the country.  He embarrassed all of us with his clear articulation of a social problem so profoundly ugly and sad that our parents never even brought the subject up.  Our parents were not racists per se, at least most of them weren’t, but they were more than a little guilty of ducking the issue, thinking, I suppose,  that it would somehow take care of itself.  Progress was being made, my father would often say, referring to the Brown vs Board of Education decision of 1954.  When I countered with how could lynching still be occurring in the south, and that southern prisons were no better than Nazi concentration camps, things tended to get ugly, not because he disagreed with me, but because he felt the same way, and just couldn’t see any quick solution.  He would usually say something like ‘well, it will take time…’.   Parker, and most of the intellectual black world had other ideas, and they were on the way, he frequently hinted to us…  Change was indeed in the air and a lot of it had to do with popular culture, and, especially, music.  The roots of change were intimately bound up in the changes in attitudes brought in part by popular music.  Things were in flux in the white world.  The beatniks were beginning to be taken seriously, and it looked like music, especially the blues, was going to have a profound effect at many levels of popular white music and culture.  For example, it was finally becoming common knowledge that Elvis Presley had found fame and fortune playing black music.  Parker was able to  hint  obliquely at many of these ideas without alarming anyone, but the seeds were sown in our bunch, and, I think he was enormously influential on my own education about the tragic state of race relations in the United States. 

One day in August of ’59 Neddie Chaucer and I were hanging out at Billy Farnsworth’s place.  We were clowning around as usual, more or less on our way to the beach to meet our pal, Patty Noble, a really cute and fun girl about a year younger than me and Neddie.  Everyone was in love with Patty at various degrees, but pretty much to no avail, except maybe for Johnny Kerkam, who we all suspected she really loved, but all the girls, it seemed, were in love with Johnny.  Johnny, apart from being an incredible athlete, was a great guitar and harmonica player in the tradition of Sonny Terry, the great black blues harp player.  He was also a great singer and showman and knew an incredible batch of songs, really weird and little known stuff.  He was a couple of years older than me, Neddie and Toby, but we were all on the same blues boat.  Anyway, Parker was working on one of the cars in the garage, when he came over to chat with us for a minute, as he always did.  But, then he proposed something that stopped us in our tracks.  He said he knew of a great musician who was coming to Rosedale that coming weekend, and, would we like to go as his guests?  He wouldn’t tell us who the musician was, but assured us we would know who he was, and we would not be disappointed.  I think we collectively said something like ‘wow’ and ‘yes’ and ‘thank you Parker’, all bundled up together… Saturday was two days away, and all we had to do was convince our parents that this adventure under the ‘protection’ of Parker was safe and sane.  Surprisingly, our parents thought it was a ‘grand’ idea, but with the usual warnings attached.  Parker told us to put together a group of our friends we thought would enjoy some really great music and fun in a very different world.  He told us he would drive and we would take the limousine, and that he had already cleared everything with Billy’s dad.  Well, we raced up to the beach and told Patty, who was wildly up for it.  Next we told Neddie’s sister Nancy and her friend Joannie Heron, a really sharp girl and friend to all of us and another of our guitar gang, Cotton Havell.  I called Toby Thompson and Johnny Kerkam and told them about it and they all jumped at the chance.  We all did, and we couldn’t believe our luck and Parker’s incredible generosity. 

Of course, Saturday took forever getting there, but finally we were on our way, about a forty-five minute drive inland and back down to the bay and the Rosedale resort.  Billy had a jug of BF specials and we were all getting oiled but, but cautiously, and, carefully watched by Parker, who was all of a sudden a very different man, totally in control of us and the situation in general.  We arrived at Rosedale at about four in the afternoon.  Things were in full swing on a beautiful sunny day and everyone seemed intent on the entertainment that was scheduled, although nobody would tell any of us who it was.  Parker had been busy…  He introduced us to several people we all assumed were the management and things were going very well.  Parker then took us into the concert hall and we were shown to a backstage area and nearly fell flat on our faces.  Sitting at a piano  warming up was none other than Ray Charles, the great Ray Charles.  Parker introduced all of us and we meekly shook hands with him and tried to overcome the shock of being in his basically royal presence.  Ray got up from the piano and asked us if we could give him a hand.  We all said sure, anything.  He said some of his regular crew were off chasing the ladies and certainly far into the booze and he needed some help getting the piano out on the stage, and would we give him a hand.  Well, I can’t tell you how fast we shouted out a ringing something like god, yes, but was probably more of a yes, sir, Mr Charles.  Parker was all grins and we all took up positions on the grand piano and wrestled it out onto the stage.  The hall was beginning to fill up and many of the patrons, all black, not a white face among them, laughed at what they saw and gave us all a rousing and friendly cheer.  Once we had the piano in place we fled backstage again, while Ray was getting tuned up for the show.  Pretty soon the hall was jammed and Ray’s lead man took him out to the piano and the wildly applauding full house.  Without a nod or a blink, he broke into ‘Tell me What I Say’, and things went crazy.  Never had I imagined the full impact of huge talent and stardom.  It was magic, hypnotic and surreal.  Ray Charles, in front of his own people, kicked out all the jams and practically levitated the entire building.  The audience was deafening when he finished and dead quiet on the slower and introspective numbers.  God, what a showman.  I think for all of us, players and non players, things were forever changed.  To describe it as a religious experience is close but really not good enough.  This was a man doing exactly what he was born to do for an enormous group of people born to see and hear him do just that.

The concert was amazing and after a while many people were out of their seats and dancing anyplace they could.  Some of the young black guys came over to us and asked ‘our’ girls to dance, which was all very polite, fun and not in the least bit threatening.  It was really fun, the whole deal, but, by the end of the show everybody was pretty near plastered, and Parker decided, quite correctly, I’m sure, to pull the plug, load us all up in the limo and head back to Bethany.  It had been a day like no other, one I will never forget and always cherish.  The whole experience actually gave me a new, powerful and optimistic vision for the future of race relations in very troubled times.  As for the blues and black music…