Hawkeye Herman's Tale Feathers - Tale Feathers

Tale Feathers by Michael "Hawkeye" Herman

Tale Feathers
by Michael "Hawkeye" Herman

We were standing in line to purchase tickets for a concert that was going to begin in ten minutes and looked like it was going to sell out. The year was 1969 in Berkeley, CA. The large concert hall was not the best place to hear acoustic country blues, but this promised to be a special night. My ladyfriend and I were starting to get anxious about getting in to the show. Lots of advance ticket holders were showing up and being ushered to their seats. The line we were in was moving much too slow. "If I'd only bought tickets in advance, I wouldn't be waiting like this. If I'd only had the money in advance, we would already be inside." Finally, we got to the ticket window. The woman selling tickets said what I didn't want to hear, "Sorry, we're sold out!" Pause. My heart sank. "But if you don't mind sitting on the side of the stage, you can purchase tickets. "Two, please!" was my immediate response. An usher took a group of about ten or twelve of us latecomers and led us up on the stage about fifteen feet from the solitary chair and two microphones that marked center stage. We folded our coats to sit on, and settled in for a night of music with Bukka White, Mance Lipscomb, Son House, and Lightin' Hopkins. I will try to describe the evening's events. Many moments are crystal clear, many have slipped my memory. I am open to correction from others who may have been present at the concert.

Booker T. Washington "Bukka" White took the stage wearing a natty iridescent grey business suit, shiny black shoes, dark shirt, a large circular charm around his neck, and a dark grey woven straw hat. He appeared to be no more that 5'7", was squat, bulldogish in stature, soft jowls in his cheeks, had definitely been hit on the button in his brief days as a boxer, and had thick fleshy hands. He seemed in good health, robust in his approximately 65 years, slightly tipsy, but ready to play. The music that came out of him and his metal-bodied National guitar was driving and hypnotic. He sat with his legs spread wide, tapping his toes with the beat, keeping a steady alternating bass with his thumb, while his fingers and the slide on his little finger played unique musical figures against the rhythm. He obviously enjoyed performing, smiled and clowned a bit with the audience, and every now and then would throw in some guitar "trick," like strumming in a wide figure-eight up and down the neck, tapping his fingers on the face of the instrument, playing over the top of the neck with the slide, or playing with the guitar behind his head. His voice was clear, high, and slightly nasal sounding. He was not a growler, but could really moan when he wanted to. That night he played Bukka's Jitterbug Swing, Sleepy Man Blues, Poor Boy A Long Way From Home, Shake'em On Down, and Sic 'em Dogs Blues, among others. The audience loved it!

Mance Lipscomb stood about 5'8'', was of slender wiry build, 75 years old, and dressed simply in grey cotton work pants, white shirt with sleeves rolled up, and dark crushed fedora. His face was angular with deep lines and hollow cheeks. His hands were not particularly large or graceful, and like the rest of him, showed the wear of years of hard work. He played a Harmony Sovereign guitar. He sat erect and played in a single bass note style (monotonic) with his thumb, while performing a wide variety of syncopated licks and runs with his index, and infrequently, second finger. He was truly a songster, and played blues as well as other styles. He seemed to enjoy playing for the people. He didn't go in for windy introductions, but did show some humor. He cranked out one song after another in the same manner that he must have approached life/work as a sharecropper in Texas - plowing one long clean row at a time, from sun to sun, with an attitude toward hard work as "a job to be done," with the briefest of breaks at the end for a sip of water, and on to the next row/song. His voice did not have a lot of range, but was warm, resonant, and easy to listen to. Some of the songs he played that night were: Sugar Babe It's All Over Now, Black Gal, 'Bout a Spoonful, Rock Me All Night Long, and Jack O' Diamonds Is A Hard Card To Play. Mance certainly looked his age, but when he got behind his guitar, look out! He had lots of songs, and lots of stamina. He was just getting warmed up when his set was over. He was an amazing artist whose warmth, honesty, and variety of tunes kept everyone listening and tapping their feet.

Eddie "Son" House walked slowly to center stage. The National guitar was already leaning against the chair. A bit above average height, dark and thin, he had long arms, but not particularly large hands with fleshy fingers. He sported a thin mustache, close cropped hair balding on top, with grey along the sides. He had a high, deeply lined forehead that gave him the appearance of squinting. He wore dark trousers, black dress shoes, a white shirt, and black string tie. He moved very slowly, but gracefully on his 68 year old frame. When he got to the spotlit chair he did not sit down. He stood there and began to clap out a beat with his hands. As the audience fell stone silent, he began to sing the words to the gospel song, John the Revelator, followed by the work/party song, Grinning In Your Face. Whoa, this old guy stopped everything cold with the first two tunes. I mean, the way he slowly made it on stage, then leaned into these two songs with an intensity that betrayed his fragile appearance, riveting everyone in the hall. Thunderous applause for both of these a capella songs. He grinned and nodded, turned and picked up the guitar, sat down, reached in his shirt pocket and pulled out a metal slide, which he slipped on the third finger of his left hand. His voice was rough, weak at times, but he sang, hooted, and growled his way through his songs with an animated intensity that must have been really something when he was at his full power to shout, stomp, and possibly breathe fire, thirty years previous. His guitar playing in open tunings, was sparse but tasty, with driving rhythmic slashes, mostly at the twelfth fret with the slide. His voice and guitar played back and forth to each other, weaving in and out. He did not play steady time in the bass strings, but created a forceful, simply repeated fabric, a riff oriented sound that grew stronger as he bore down into each song. He did not say much. His set seemed short, but it was worth it to see him at all. I think he did Pearline, Preachin' Blues, Death Letter Blues, John the Revelator, and Grinning In Your Face. He smiled warmly at the audience, waved, and slowly walked off the stage to wild applause.

Sam "Lightin'" Hopkins was the headline and closing act. He came on stage carrying his Gibson guitar, wearing a gold brocade type dinner jacket, dress shirt, dark shoes, dark slacks, dark tie, and dark glasses. He was of average height, 5'9" or so, medium build, well kept hands, with a nice smile and gold- capped teeth. He did not wear a hat this evening, and his hair was "konked" close. He looked a bit younger than his age of 57. His voice was deep, resonant, and expressive. His guitar playing leaned heavily on fast paced boogie bottom and slow triplet blues. He played quick- fingered runs on the up-tempo songs, and notes that oozed out of his guitar on the slow ones. His poetry and guitar playing were masterfully crafted and linked. He was feeling happy and had obviously been drinking. Then he started to get a bit sloppy. The audience grew uneasy. He tried to cajole the people back with light banter in between songs. It wasn't working. He made reference to what a good job President Nixon was doing, and got a round of cat-calls from the always political Berkeley audience. Retreating, he responded, "Well, whatever you say..." He introduced the song, Louise Blues, as "one of his favorites," and played the song with deep, heart felt emotion. He got a nice round of applause. He lit a cigarette, took a long drag, and then said, "Here's one of my favorite songs," and proceeded to play the same song, all the way through, again! Either he was too lit to realize it, or, more likely, he was getting even. He played on, a bit less light-hearted and more intense. He sang a number of his classic songs and the audience was back on his side. Besides the two Louise Blues, I think he did Mister Charlie, Mojo Hand, Tom Moore's Blues, Rock Me Baby, and You've Got to Watch Yourself. The audience gave him a great round of applause, and all the artists a standing ovation. The show, a little more that two hours in length, was over.

The satisfied audience was filing out, talking about the great blues show they had just witnessed. It occurred to me that since we were already on the stage, and since there was no heavy security, why not slip back-stage and see what was going on? So, we did. A few people were milling about while Bukka White sat in a folding chair, the guitar in his lap, an open bottle on the long table in front of him. He was getting very drunk, talking to nobody in particular, and was singing and playing for his own self. My friend and I sat on the table opposite him as everyone else drifted away. He played, on and on. For one reason or another, Lightin' didn't like Bukka, and was not afraid to show it. Lightin' was being Lightin', and had taken over the only real dressing room. It seems that he held respect for Son's age and reputation, and was old time Texas pals with Mance, so he "allowed" them to share the "green room" and a bottle. Bukka, locked out of the party, took his frustration out in the most immediate way he knew. He sat down in the outer area, drank from his own pint bottle, and played out his blues. We watched and listened intently, consoling and encouraging him. Everyone else had left, and Bukka was still playing and drinking hard. This was no time to be asking questions about how to play this or that on the guitar. I noticed his easy, fluid approach as he worked his way around the neck with the slide and his fingers. Such a delicate touch from such meaty hands. I was trying to enjoy, and absorb, as much as I could. I had been listening and trying to play blues guitar for a number of years, so I was ready for this. We sat there for a long time listening to Bukka. Finally, when we could barely understand his now heavily slurred speech, we quietly bid him good night, and slipped away. As we left him alone, he launched into another song.

I stayed up into the wee hours of morning running my fingers and slide softly over the neck of my guitar searching for the sounds I had heard from Bukka, Mance, Son, and Lightin' that evening. I still do.