Plate Full of Blues

Robert Johnson 

I can never seem to get enough of Robert Johnson. Either his music or the story of his life.  So, hats off to Bruce M. Conforth & Gayle Dean Wardlow for writing "Up Jumped the Devil" The Real Life of Robert Johnson.

Through painstaking research and interviews the two authors have uncovered and cleared up questions about RJ's life, death, marriages, music and recordings.  I finished this book with a deeper understanding of the man and the musician.  His struggles, disappointments, loses, choices and his demons are brought too light.  Uncovered is the myth of the deal with the Devil at the crossroads.  His lust for wandering, women and alcohol that all eventually led to his early demise is written as a search for truth and with deep appreciation for one of music's most important figures.

I've read many books over the years about the blues and several about Mr. Johnson.  I couldn't wait to finish this read and uncover the truth.  I was left with a sadness for the man and his untimely death/murder and the loss to the world and to the world of music.  Who knows, what might have been if he had lived?  Would he have given us more great music, become the father that he wanted to be and, enjoy the celebrity that he has become?

We can only speculate, but given what he left us, (listen to "The complete recordings of Robert Johnson") I'd like to believe it would have been worth a deal with Devil!  Just kidding



"Don't die the death of Ella Speed" 

I recently started working on a song from Mance Lipscomb's repertoire, a little number called "Ella Speed."  It's a classic blues song with a familiar blues theme about murder, and in this case the murder of a prostitute, named Ella Speed.  In my never ending research into the origin and background of songs, I discovered the story that follows; 

Ella Speed was the 28 year old wife of Willie Speed and a mother of two children.  Ella was a prostitute referred to as an "octoroon" (a person who is one-eighth black by descent) by her "landlady" and sent to Louis "Bull" Martin, a 28 year old bachelor of Italian descent who worked as a bartender at the Dryades Street Market in New Orleans.

Ella and Louis quickly formed a "special relationship" - in fact it appeared Louis became obsessed  with her.  When he discovered that Ella had special relationships with other men he was enraged.  Miss Lou Prout, Ella's "landlady at the time asked Ella to leave because of Louis' frequent threats and behavior.

On August  14th, 1894 Louis had severely beaten an "old colored man" named Sam Johnson at the Dryades Street Market.  He was awaiting trial for his heinous crime, when on the morning of Sept 3rd at about 9:30 a.m. he shot Ella Speed with a Harrington and Richardson 0.38 caliber pistol in her upstairs room in the house kept by Miss Pauline Jones at 137 Customhouse Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans.  Ella died shortly afterwards, sprawled on the floor near the door to her room.

An unsuccessful manhunt for Louis was mounted, who turned himself into the authorities the next morning.  At his trial, Louis claimed the shooting was an accident.  He was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 20years hard labor at the state penitentiary by Judge John H. Ferguson.  By 1901, Louis was back at his old bartender's job.

for more reading about the death of Ella Speed go to;





Reverend Gary Davis 

Reverend (Blind) Gary Davis (born Gary D. Davis, April 30, 1896 – died May 5, 1972) was a gospel and blues singer and masterful  acoustic guitarist.  He was a beloved mentor to many folk and blues legends including Dave Van Ronk, Roy Book Binder, Stefan Grossman, Ernie Hawkins, Rory Block, David Bromberg and Woody Mann to name a few.  His finger picking style was a major influence on other regional musicians of his time, most notably Blind Boy Fuller, a prime exponent of the Piedmont guitar style in the 1930s.  

Davis produced a polyphonic style of playing on six and twelve string guitar with the use of his thumb and index finger of his picking hand.  His repertoire was comprised of military marches, country instrumentals, Piedmont blues guitar style songs, church hymns, Gospel songs, popular tunes and original compositions.  "Sally Where'd You Get Your Liquor From", "She's Funny That Way" and "Hesitation Blues are a few of my personal favorites.

Born in Laurens County, South Carolina, he was the only child of eight born to his mother that survived to adulthood. Poorly treated by his mother, his father placed him in the care of his paternal grandmother.  His father was later shot and killed when Gary was 10 years old. His blindness, from early childhood from what he described as "sore eyes" did not seem to impede his ability to play.  

At 18, Davis applied and was granted a scholarship at the South Carolina Institution for the Education for the Deaf and Blind at Cedar Springs, Spartanburg, where he learned to read Braille. In the early 1920s he busked and played in a string band in Greenville.  Sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s, Davis migrated to "Bull City" alternate name for Durham, North Carolina, a major center of black culture. There he collaborated with a number of other artists in the Piedmont blues scene, including Blind Boy Fuller and Bull City Red.  In 1935, Davis, Fuller, and Red were introduced to the American Record Company by a local supporter and store keeper, J.B. Long. The subsequent recording sessions marked the real beginning of Davis's career. Following his ordination to a Baptist minister in 1937, Davis began to prefer inspirational gospel music but would play Gospel-Blues like "Death Don't Have No Mercy" and Samson and Delilah."

Davis married Annie Bell Wright in 1937, a deeply spiritual woman who was devoted to him until his death.  By the 1940s, the blues scene in Durham began to decline, so Davis  and Annie Bell moved to Mamaroneck, New York.  Later that year they would relocate to 169th Street in Harlem, where he became a minister of the Missionary Baptist Connection Church.  His busking and preaching on the streets of New York earned him the appellation "Harlem Street Singer."

His guitar lessons and those who studied with him are legendary.  A single lesson could last all day and into the night.  Roy Book Binder who studied with Davis and became his driver to and from gigs for a period of time, recalls that lessons could last all day, include a meal or two and cost as little as five dollars.  During the folk and blues revival of the 1960s, Davis toured Europe and played several folk festivals including the Cambridge and Newport Folk Festivals.

In 1968, Davis bought a house in Jamaica, Queens and continued to perform in the New York and New Jersey area.  On May 5th, 1972, he suffered a heart attack on the way to a gig and died at William Kessler Memorial Hospital in Hammonton, New Jersey and was buried in Rockville Cemetery in Lynnbrook, New York.

His widow Anne survived Davis by twenty five years, living to 101.  She remained active in the church, took in boarders and kept in touch with some of Davis' former pupils.

A partial discography includes: "Blues & Ragtime"  "Live at Newport"  "Little More Faith"  "Say No to the Devil"  "Pure Religion & Bad Company"  "Harlem Street Singer"


This blog will share the stories and history of the blues and it's pioneers from the 1920s-1940's and sometimes other stuff!