Hawkeye Herman's Tale Feathers - Remembrances-T-Bone Walker and Sam Chatmon

Tale Feathers by Michael "Hawkeye" Herman

T-Bone Walker and Sam Chatmon
by Michael "Hawkeye" Herman

It was a sunny and clear afternoon in the spring of 1970. I was sitting with my guitar in my lap in Sproul Plaza of the University of California at Berkeley campus. I often came here to play music for the lunchtime college crowd. This was one of my favorite spots to perform on the street in the San Francisco Bay area. The atmosphere there has always been bazaar/bizarre, and street artists of all kinds have found appreciative audiences in, and around, the campus area.

I had a special reason for being on the Berkeley campus on this day. Yes, I had brought my guitar along, but not to perform. The Berkeley Blues Festival was taking place and many well- and lesser-known blues artists would be performing and doing workshops here. Maybe I'd get a chance to pick up a few pointers.

T-Bone Walker had done a noon performance, backed by the Luther Allison Band. The brief show was super. T-Bone was mesmerizing. His larger than life stage presence betrayed his diminutive 5'5", or so, frame. He was dressed to the nines in an iridescent green suit with thin yellow stripes running through it and fancy dress shoes dyed green to match. He played the jumbo f-hole Gibson guitar with that classic "T-Bone sound" that so many have tried to duplicate. I noticed that when taking a solo he held the guitar flat out in front of him, the back parallel to the ground. It was great to see and hear this legendary master of modern blues. The music filled the open plaza area, and the crowd loved it. After his set, I found myself accompanying T-Bone while he took a tour of the campus, along with members of his large entourage, for the next hour or so. Then, needing a quiet place to sit down with my guitar, think about the music I had heard, and do some woodshedding, I picked a sunny spot where I could have a bit of privacy. I sat with my eyes closed, soaking up the sun, unconsciously running my fingers over the strings of my acoustic guitar, singing to myself. I was gone to the world for some time.

When I opened my eyes I beheld an elderly black man looking down at me smiling a broad, knowing smile. He was about 5'7", light skinned, wiry in stature, and had a very long white beard. He was wearing highly polished brown shoes, khaki work pants, a flannel shirt, and a wool cap with a brim. There was a twinkle in his eye that gave him a very youthful expression, but I would have guessed that he was in his seventies. I had been a country blues fanatic for some time, and I recognized him immediately. It was Sam Chatmon, a member of the famous Mississippi Sheiks of the early 30's, former accompanist for Texas Alexander, and the brother of the legendary Bo Carter. He was here to do a performance at the Blues Festival.

"Uh, hello Mr. Chapman," I managed in my state of surprise. "Call me Sam," he responded immediately. "Gettin' some blues down, huh. Soundin' pretty good" he said, still smiling. I nodded sheepishly. "Well, you played for me, how about I play for you?" I offered him my guitar, but he said he had a guitar inside the student union building, and would I care to follow him to where he'd left it. I was on my feet in an instant, and followed him into the nearby building.

We walked into the student lounge. Students sat on couches and lounge chairs studying and chatting quietly. I followed Sam over to a corner of the room where he pulled out a guitar case from behind a couch. He opened the case and took out a small bodied Gibson acoustic guitar with a dark finish, round sound-hole, and raised pick-guard. I think it was some type of old "L" model Gibson. We sat down on the couch and Sam quickly checked the tuning of the instrument.

We were both oblivious to the college scene that surrounded us. "Here's one that was real popular a long while back," he said as he hit a first position C chord. He then launched into a version of the song, In the Jailhouse Now . I watched and listened with intensity. He played this song much in the style that was popularized by the Blue Yodeler, Jimmie Rodgers, who had a huge hit with the song more than 40 years previous. It was played in a medium country two-beat style; alternating bass notes with chords, and using single note runs between the chord changes. His playing and vocal style were both very smooth and strong, especially at his age. He obviously liked the tune, and chuckled to himself at the humorous aspects of the lyrics. When he finished the song I told him how much I enjoyed it, and asked if the song wasn't more country than blues. "Well, ain't much difference 'tween country and blues to me. I played for all kinds of folks in my time, and I played all kinds of music, but it all comes out blues to me. Wanna hear another one?" He needn't have asked, but I enthusiastically told him I'd listen as long as he wanted to play.

"I always liked those nasty ones," he said with a grin. He launched into a shuffle rhythm in E, and proceeded to sing about ten hilarious verses to the song Stoop Down, Baby. We were both laughing and enjoying the song so much that we hadn't noticed that a crowd was developing around the couch we were sitting on. When Sam finished, there was applause from those gathered around. We both became aware that we were not alone. "Well, I guess I could do at least one more, " he said with a wink. He then sang one of his original songs, What's the Name of That Thing, and followed it with another original tune, Don't Sell It, Give It Away.

At this point, one of the Berkeley Blues Festival officials showed up and told Sam he had been looking for him, and that they had to be somewhere to finalize the program for the evening concert. Sam looked at the guy with a time worn expression of patience and said, "Just hold your horses a minute, I'm playin' for my friend here." Without waiting for an answer, Sam began to sing another one of his original songs, Brown Skin Women Blues. Slow and moody, the song rolled out of him and his guitar like a river of emotional remembrances.

When he finished the song, he looked at me and said he was sorry, but he had to go take care of some business with the aforementioned festival official. He put his guitar back in its case. I thanked him profusely for taking the time to play for me. He smiled that smile. "Well, like I said, you played for me, least I could do. Keep it up, son." We shook hands, and he went off with the guy who had come looking for him. I was on cloud nine, and rising. What a day this had been for an aspiring blues musician.

Over the years, I have been lucky enough to meet and learn from many wonderful blues players, but none was kinder or more encouraging than the great Sam Chatmon.

bio. on Sam Chatmon

Sam Chatmon was born on January 10, 1897, in Bolton Mississippi. He was one of eleven children. His father had been a slave and was a popular fiddler in the Hinds County area of Mississippi. His mother played guitar. From an early age, Sam played in the family string band for square dances, barbecue busts, fish fries, picnics, and white dances, in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Illinois. Sam played guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass, and harmonica. In 1930, he recorded as an accompanist for Texas Alexander. In the early 30's he played and recorded with the Mississippi Sheiks. He worked outside music from the early 1940's to the early 1960's. He returned to the music scene in the early 1960's, and was in demand as a performer at blues/folk festivals, in clubs, and in concert until his death in 1983.