Alligator debut by famed acoustic duo in the tradition of the finger-picked Piedmont style blues guitar and harmonica teams. Rich, gentle, melodic. "A pure unadulterated country blues gem"--JAZZ TIMES
Produced by Joe Wilson
Recorded and mixed by Pete Reiniger at The Hot Spot, Hyattsville, MD except Screaming And Crying, No Ice In My Bourbon, Hard Liquor and Twelve Gates To The City recorded by Bruce Loughry at Bias Studio, Springfield, VA.
Digital editing and premastering by David Glasser at Air Show, Springfield, VA.
Mastered by Jay O'Rourke at Monster Disc, Chicago, IL.
Photos: Rick Reinhart
Design: Matt Minde
Many thanks to: Dr. Barry Lee Pearson and Wesley Niswander. Special thanks to Peter Reiniger for knowing how to record acoustic music the easy way.
FOR CONCERT APPEARANCES:
P.O. Box 680006
Charlotte, NC 28216
Telephone (704) 399-2210
Fax (704) 399-2261
Joe Wilson, National Council For The Traditional Arts
1320 Fenwick Lane, Suite 200
Silver Spring, MD 20910
Telephone (301) 565-0654
Fax (301) 565-0472
The blues are a paradox; sad stories that make you feel good. John and Phil are also a paradox; brilliant performers in the oldest blues style but with concepts as modern as tomorrow. Reared in urban places, they're committed to their country roots. Working class in experience and attitude, they have a knowledge of the blues that surpasses that of many blues scholars.
They met nineteen years ago in a blues workshop at a Smithsonian festival while performing in the bands of blues veterans. John was with Wilbert "Big Chief" Ellis' Houserockers; Phil was a member of Flora Molton's Truth Band. Phil recalls that blues legend Johnny Shines introduced them and watched their first jam session.
Always a bluesman, John had also been a professional gospel singer, carpenter and Atlantic fisherman before joining Chief's band. Phil's work in Flora's Truth Band had been preceded by some rigorous training in Mother Scott's Washington, D.C. bar band. A grand lady of the blues, Scott had started her career a half century earlier as a teenybopper runaway to the Southern black vaudeville circuits. Since teaming up full time ten years ago, John and Phil have taken their special brand of blues to the world -- multiple tours of five continents, concerts in most major cities in the USA. They are an important part of what is happening to the blues as the millennium ends.
Their music is not easy to pigeonhole. It draws upon the acoustic and highly melodic Piedmont blues style which in turn derives from the now-disappeared black string bands that dominated Tidewater black music for over two centuries. But it is also a music totally in touch with the times, with fire and zest -- and a social conscience as well. John's stage portrayal of a blind bluesman in the Kennedy Center production, Blind Man Blues, drew rave reviews three years ago. Phil was a member of the cast of Matewon, a prize-winning Hollywood film. Both performed in the Kennedy Center stage production of Chewing the Blues and in the documentary films Blues Country and Houseparty. They've had leading roles in four critically acclaimed national touring showcases: Masters of the Steel String Guitar, Juke Joints and Jubilee, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Echoes of Africa. Many of John and Phil's concert appearances also involve blues workshops, school programs and artist-in-residence work. A part of every summer is reserved for teaching. John has won a National Heritage Fellowship award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Sometimes called a "living treasure" award, this is the highest honor our nation offers a traditional artist.
A book-length biography of his life has been written by blues historian Dr. Barry Lee Pearson (Virginia Piedmont Blues: The Lives and Art of Two Virginia Bluesmen, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990).
A founder of the Washington, D.C. Blues Society, John is an eloquent spokesman for the blues who has testified before Congressional committees. He is a member of the Board and of the Executive Committee of the National Council for the Traditional Arts.
Phil spends much of his off-the-road time opposing the plague of drugs that has decimated the community where he was reared inWashington, D.C. His tools are a harmonica and a quick smile as he teaches alternatives on the corners and in the prisons. "Sometimes you win," he says. "It feels real good."
-- Joe Wilson
Executive Director, National Council For The Traditional Arts
JOHN'S COMMENTS ON THE SONGS:
1. ACTION MAN
That began as a floating joke about this agitated dude we met on tour; a guy obsessed with his immediate needs. Joe Wilson and me made jokes about him and the song eventually made itself. Phil's brother, Skip Wiggins, is on bass.
2. MAN WITHOUT A FUTURE
Jackie Torrance wrote the words and I came up with the melody. Jackie is a storyteller, maybe the best storyteller that ever was. Phil and me work with her often in a theater show called Bluestory that has been very successful in theaters around the country. Jackie is good with lyrics; any song that mentions the psychic hotline is an up-to-date song.
3. SCREAMING AND CRYING
That's our arrangement of a Blind Boy Fuller song. The guys I learned guitar from in Caroline County, Virginia liked him a lot. He was a hero to a generation of Tidewater blues players, as important there as Robert Johnson was in the Delta. Darryl Davis is on piano, Don Rouse on clarinet, Gil Carter on percussion and Jeff Hopper on bass. They're from the D.C. area, guys we've jammed with at parties.
4. NO ICE IN MY BOURBON
Phil wrote that. It is his take on how life should be lived; no shortcuts, no imitations, nothing watered down. Phil goes for the full, unadulterated experience.
5. THE BLUES WILL DO YOUR HEART GOOD
Look at Phil's thinking about the blues and how they help people get through the tough times. Skip is on bass and is singing with us.
6. CAROLINE IN THE MORNING
That honors my home, Caroline County, Virginia, in the Tidewater north of Richmond. My great grandparents were slaves there and I spent my summers there with my grandparents when I was young. All my family was from there and I moved there as soon as I could. Sometimes I play my big Taylor guitar early in the morning. After five or six weeks in large cities here or in Europe it feels so good to wake up to the morning calm in Caroline County.
7. BACKWATER BLUES
That's our arrangement of a standard by Chattanooga's finest, Bessie Smith, mother of the blues. Phil played with Mother Scott's group and she did that one. She'd ran off from home and joined the Rabbit Foot Minstrels when she was 13 and Bessie Smith was in that group. So we got it from a blues lady who got it from Bessie. Eddie Pennington is playing a resonator guitar built by Mac McCullough. Eddie is a finger picker from Muhlenberg County, Kentucky where Merle Travis and Mose Rager were also reared. Must be the water...
8. GOING TO THE RIVER
That's a pop song I learned while I was growing up. You can hear a reflection of a time in it; the time when solo blues guys were being replaced with R&B bands and the roadhouse sound. I'm getting that serious guitar help from Eddie Pennington.
9. COOL DOWN
Phil wrote that and sings lead. It is his plea to the kids killing other kids in our urban communities. His D.C.community has been especially hard hit. Phil never shrinks from asking people to be good to each other. He taught harmonica in D.C.'s Lorton Prison for several years, until our performance schedule made it impossible.
10. SPECIAL RIDER
That's an old song, and my version is based on a Skip James arrangement. Skip was from the Delta, but a singular person, mysterious and very special in his sound. That's Djimo Kouyate playing kora, an African instrument that is a harp with a big gourd sound box. Djimo is from Senegal and works with Phil and me, the Georgia Sea Island Singers and tap dancer LaVaughn Robinson in an NCTA tour called Echoes of Africa. We could play with Djimo instantly; the music is different but it connects.
11. HARD LIQUOR
That one was inspired by Scrapper Blackwell. He was a stalwart with a dynamic presentation on vocal and guitar. His songs speak to all of us who know the blues from living them.
12. NINE POUND HAMMER
That's an old work song from railroad construction crews. You've got to be in top shape to swing a nine pound sledgehammer all day. The railroad crews were black, but the first recordings of that song are hillbilly. Charlie Bowman did it and then Merle Travis changed the words and did a guitar arrangement. Eddie and me are doing the Travis arrangement; we grew up admiring his style.
13. RIGHT OF WAY BLUES
I worked that out from a Blind Lemon Jefferson song. He was the first influential male singer in the blues; early bluesmen everywhere heard him and learned from him. He defined a lot of good songs; the best lyrics are from Blind Lemon. I'm using Mac McCullough's resonator guitar.
14. TWELVE GATES TO THE CITY
Reverend Gary Davis was a blind man who sat on the streets of Harlem and told about his visions of heaven in song. That's one of his best. He was originally from the Piedmont area and a great player of Piedmont guitar.