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Sonny Boy Photo
Christmastime was lonely time for bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson II (Alex "Rice Miller), "King of the Harmonica". This year, 33 years after his passing, would be, to the pleasant surprise of the children of Glendora Mississippi, his hometown, no exception. Sonny Boy wrote two Christmas songs: "Sonny Boy's Christmas Blues" on Trumpet, one of his very saddest, ("unless you come home to me, I'll be drunk all day Christmas Day") and "Santa Claus" on Checker ("searching through "my baby's dresser drawers" looking for my "Santa Claus" [presents])-- which is where the police caught him! Only Sonny Boy could get into that much trouble at Christmas! This Christmas, Glendora's children's gift would be a legacy of hope, courtesy of Sonny Boy's most ardent fans.
Glendora, Mississippi 1998
The simple facts are that, on December 5, 1998, Sonny Boy Williamson II's 86th birthday, over a dozen of the finest blues harp players in the New World converged on Glendora MS for a two-day Teach-In. Over 100 grade school children from Sonny Boy's hometown attended. The elite blues harp faculty conducted a harp Master Class each night Friday, at B. B. King's in Memphis, Tennessee; Saturday at the Sonny Boy Blues Hall in Helena, Arkansas; and Sunday at Huey's in Memphis.
The Story in Human Terms
The real story behind this unique event has taken on a whole life of its own. Last May, while researching my definitive biography of Sonny Boy Williamson II, I visited his hometown of Glendora, Mississippi. Glendora is a mostly African-American town of 400 people sitting on the banks of the Tallahatchie River in the middle of the eastern Mississippi delta. It has 97% unemployment and 93% of its proud citizens live more than 50% below the poverty level.
Glendora's history defined the "hard times Mississippi" that Stevie Wonder wrote about in "Living For the City." In 1955, local storekeepers, J. W. "Big" Milam & Roy Bryant, were acquitted (and then bragged to Look Magazine) of committing the lynching and mutilation of 14 year-old Emmett Till for allegedly whistling at Bryant's wife, Carolyn, who ran a store in downtown Glendora. Till's defiant mother insisted on an open-casket funeral and an historic Chicago Defender photo showed the world what these men had done to her son. The result was the beginning of the modern civil rights movement in Mississippi.
Today, Glendora is a "little village" of 167 children and their grandparents, with few citizens between the ages of 16 and 60. It is a refuge for former Mississippians in Chicago help their children escape the gangs and drugs that are taking so many of that city's young lives. The children are safer being raised by grandparents in rural Mississippi than in Chicago.
Glendora citizens, however, are proud people. When I visited to interview the mayor, Johnny B. Thomas (Sonny Boy's grandnephew) in May, I was touched by their warm hospitality and enthusiasm to know more about their most famous citizen. When Mayor Thomas invited me to return in August to dedicate the Sonny Boy Williamson Library and Community Center, I accepted enthusiastically and brought along videotape of Sonny Boy, himself, in concert in Europe. With 17 of Sonny Boy's relatives in the humble Center, I watched the light in the eyes of the children, some seeing their first blues harp player, the charismatic Sonny Boy Williamson. The idea of getting a case of "French harps" for them and a teacher seemed a project well worth exploring.
The Birth of The Blues Teach-In
I posted my report on the Center dedication on Blues-L, the Internet blues discussion group. Maggie Mortenson, a roots music publicist from New Orleans, who organized this whole event over the Internet, picked up on the idea, contacted Mayor Thomas and made it happen.
Exactly four months to the day later, The Glendora Harp Summit was a reality greater and more moving than anyone expected. Lee Oskar, Hohner, Hering and the Southern Music Network donated a total of 210 harmonicas to make it happen. The Unbelievable Faculty: The Cast of Characters The cast of blues harp teachers and performers Maggie lined up was phenomenal: Paul deLay, the big man whose sound astounded even the pros; Sugar Blue (who can forget his riff on the Rolling Stone's "Miss You" and his exciting stage performances?); Arthur Williams, St. Louis blues harp legend who played with Sonny Boy in 1962, was the uncredited harp on Frank Frost's Jewel album and was a surprise hit on Saturday night; Charlie Sayles, Boston-raised and DC-based blues man who first heard Sonny Boy on a "Yahdbuds," (as only a Boston Southie could pronounce Yardbirds) album which changed his life; Ron Pierce, an Atlanta-based harper whose story of playing SBW's guitar brought tears to his eyes; Ed Galvin, Leesburg Virginia harper; Steve Cheseborough, Living Blues staffer; Jumpin' Johnny Sansone, whose current album is New Orleans "album of the year" in Offbeat Magazine; Sunpie Barnes, who brought his accordion with him; Rockin' Jake Jacobs, more New Orleans harp; John Thaden, Little Rock harper; Mark Sallings, leader of the Famous Unknowns, formerly B. B. King's Club's house band, who had driven 150 miles overnight to be there; Blind Mississippi Morris, who talked of meeting Sonny Boy; Walter Lay, a harper from Kentucky; John Ruskey, with The Delta Blues Education Project; the phenomenal Billy Gibson, whose amazing junkyardmen supplied the backup band at both B. B. King's and in Helena; and Pete Peterson, chromatic harpist who played back in the '40s with both Borah Minovich and the Harmonica Rascals and Jerry Murad's Harmonicats and showed the kids a few tricks at B. B. King's;.
Many organizations assisted in many ways and they are also listed on www.southernmusic.net/summit.htm where you will also find broadcasts of an audio documentary of the weekend.
Venezuelans Manuel Sanchez and Alfredo Barranca flew in from Venezuela. Alfredo had the courage to follow Paul deLay on stage at B. B. King's. The curious local crowd wondered "Venice? Venezuela?" and, after listening to him play a few bars, went right on dancing.
Watch for Arthur Williams' coming album (he almost stole the show in Helena). Don't miss Billy Gibson's junkyardmen's "scrapheap full of blues" album on Inside Memphis Records (1-800-713-2150). Billy is an amazing harper who impressed all who played with him. His hard working band, featuring guitarist Jesse Hoggard, kicked ass all weekend. Charlie Sayles, whose subtle and expressive acoustic style sounds closest to the Sonny Boy himself, also has a new album in the works.
It Was The Children's Show All Along
The real stars of the weekend, however, were the children of Glendora and vicinity. Portland, Oregon harp master Paul deLay reported "I didn't know what to expect...the kids were really, really bright." Fully 110 showed up (the schools had only announced the Teach-In the day before) and 87 stuck with the full Saturday and Sunday program to graduate.
I don't think that any of the participants anticipated how much they would be touched emotionally by the experience. Many of the teachers had never experienced the Mississippi delta one-on-one. After all, the blues began at nearby Dockery Plantation. Under the spell of the delta Mojo, you can begin to understand the frustration and oppression that birthed the blues. You also begin experience the delta's warm, proud, humble and generous people. These were "country" children in the finest sense: polite, well behaved, and hungry to learn something new to play on their brand new harps.
The children, at first simply entranced by the fact that "Harmonicas make noise," as John Thaden's wife put it so well, soon found their attention transfixed by learning to find the human-like voice of their new harps. In fact, the less involved children were often quieted down, not by the teacher, but by the more serious children.
One first grade girl would sing "Jingle Bells" slowly as her neighbor searched for the notes (skipping past the need to read music as only children can). Another class learned the intricacies of tongue blocking to take a bite of four holes and only play one. Still another learned to play basic rhythms. Yet another learning that each hole had two notes, one played by blowing out and one by drawing in. They soon acquired the vocabulary of sounds that makes up blues harp.
By the end of Saturday, the lonesome sounds of the blues harp could be heard throughout the one-story brick Black Bayou schoolhouse. By Sunday, the Teach-in began to take on the sounds of a party. Jumpin' Johnny Sansone had his class outside on the grass, slyly bribing those who could figure out how to bend notes with his latest cassettes. Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes, had his tribe of young harpers dancing in a nearby field playing along with him and his accordion and, soon, Johnny's guitar. Soon they were "doin' church", singing "Hush hush, somebody's calling my name."
A Legacy of Hope
The graduation on Sunday left the children of Glendora with a feeling of hope, knowing that someone outside of their hometown cared very much about them. In fact, in a Millennium time warp, the 19th century delta could use the six 21st century computers and a satellite uplink donated to the Center to chat with their new mentors as the year progresses. It is hoped that this can become an annual event.
Organizer Maggie Mortenson summed it up well from her side, "I am extraordinarily proud. When it was all over and I'd slept for two days, I began to think it was the single most gratifying project I've ever worked on. I've worked a lot of events, and never have I had artists call me up afterwards, thanking me for allowing them to participate. They all had a ball, and I was so, so amazed that out of 5 events in 3 days there wasn't a single ugly incident or bad vibe. A truly unique experience."
Meanwhile, over in Oxford MS, lawyer Tom Freeland was collecting gifts from blues and harp fans around the world. Tom appealed to many that they comb their CD collections for excess and send or sell the CDs for the benefit of the kids in Glendora. Many are responding. Gifts can be sent to: The Sonny Boy Center, 132 Main Street, Glenora, Mississippi 38929. This will, no doubt, be a fine Christmas in Glendora. Sonny Boy would be pleased. Will there be a Harp Summit 1999 in Glendora? Keep up with the continuing story of The Glendora Harp Summit Teach-In by watching www.sonnyboy.com, the only major website dedicated to the legacy of Sonny Boy Williamson II.
Hairy Larry blogs music and more at the Delta Boogie Tumblr