Behind Discovering Elvie

Since my last post on “The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie” by John Jeremiah Sullivan in The New York Times Magazine, several posts providing background have come out. Most of the good ones have been on the blog The 6th Floor: Eavesdropping on the Times Magazine. Under Cover: In Pursuit of an Unearthly Record by Jeannie Choi tells the tale of the quest by 78 record collector Christopher King of Long Gone Sound for the actual 78 featured in the magazine piece. Caitlin Rose Love, featured in the magazine piece as well as being one of its reporters, posted On Geeshie Wiley’s Trail on the as yet unsuccessful attempt to learn more about Geeshie Wiley. Finally, Rachel Nolan reported on Sullivan’s back story in Behind the Cover Story: John Jeremiah Sullivan on the Search for Geeshie and Elvie.

The Story Behind John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Times Magazine Cover Story by Matthew Kassel at the New York Observer raises the questions about how Love secretly copied blogged Robert “Mack” McCormick‘s notes. That question of stealing does not interest me. The assertion that the magazine piece was edited to 14,000 words from an original 35,000 does interest me. I would like to read the even longer form.

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Michael M. on April 18th 2014 in General, Music, Recorded

Geeshie and Elvie

The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie” by John Jeremiah Sullivan in The New York Times Magazine is a piece of wonder. It tells the detective story of uncovering the lost identities of pre-war musicians Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley. It has fantastic multimedia, weaving text with photography, sound and video. I cannot recall any piece doing so nearly as well. It all centers around my current home of Houston, Texas!

Some familiar names figure prominently. Blogged Robert “Mack” McCormick is a 78 record collector and music historian living in a Houston suburb. Previously mentioned Amanda Petrusich was interviewed as chronicler and fan of that world, and mentioned Greil Marcus has research credit.

I knew a little, very little, about Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas from the music compilation Mississippi BluesRare Cuts 1926-1941. Despite the compilation’s title, Elvie Thomas turns out to have been L. V. Thomas of Houston, Texas! The Blues Trail identifies them as Mississippians, in apparent conflict with McCormick’s research. While I would like to claim them as fellow Mississippians, I am happy to know the truth. McCormick has held detailed knowledge of the truth for years, but his research had not made public until now.

The work also revived my interest in finding more about local music here in Houston. H and I have found just a few old-time or country blues musicians here. Now there is a prominent article about Houston’s role in some great recordings and their history. I made a few inquiries about music here with people involved in the article, and I hope they bear some fruit.

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Michael M. on April 13th 2014 in General, Music, Recorded

Voting in McComb

A Divide on Voting Rights in a Town Where Blood Spilled” in The New York Times addresses the current questions of the Voting Rights Act through the lens of my hometown. I have blogged several times about McComb. In particular, this one documents a profile of violence and reconciliation in McComb in the 1960s, and this later one was on the Statement of Principles.

Some finer points of the coverage aroused my interest. It points to an editorial that ran in the local newspaper, the Enterprise-Journal, “Jim Hood doesn’t trust us.” In the 1960s, the newspaper was a force, although a slow one, for justice, and it drew the ire of the more bigoted people in the area. As blogged before, Wayne Dowdy, interviewed as county attorney and former congressman who supported renewal of the Voting Rights Act, lost to Trent Lott, blogged one other time, in 1988 when they vied for one of Mississippi’s senate seats. The section on neighboring Amite County profiles older white men sitting in the Liberty Drug Store. That coffee club has met for a long time, probably decades.

Redistricting is crooked all over. Mississippi and neighboring states are more pronounced examples of a widespread problem. Oversight of voting ought to be broader than it is.

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Michael M. on March 3rd 2013 in General

C, that’s the way to begin.

Just as nobody knows you better than your mother, nobody knows me better than my mother. I have been known to love me some chicken, as multiple posts attest. This one is a favorite. Earlier this week, the CD Cluck Old Hen: A Barnyard Serenade 1926-1940 from Old Hat Records arrived in the mail. I had not ordered it. Looking inside, I found that it was a surprise gift. My mother ordered it for me after reading “Collection of songs uses chickens as theme” by Scott Barretta in the Clarion-Ledger. Barretta is the main force behind Highway 61 Radio, a show on Mississippi Public Broadcasting and many Mississippi musical heritage projects.

Old Hat Records is a wonderful label, and I previously blogged about Good for What Ails You. Given the 24 tracks, I am not the only one with such an affection for the magical bird. I can only fault the omission of “Old Hen Cackle” by Coleman and Harper, also known as Two Poor Boys. Grab it from the Internet Archive. In Old Hat’s defense, the label had already put out the recording on Down in the Basement: Joe Bussard’s Treasure Trove of Vintage 78s from the collection of blogged Joe Bussard. In researching it, I found this video on YouTube of Hubby Jenkins with the favorite Carolina Chocolate Drops just tearing it up.

This American Life had several Poultry Slam episodes in the past, the most recent in 2011. I will contact the show about this marvelous collection.

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Michael M. on February 23rd 2013 in General, Music, Recorded

Folk School Fiddle Contest 2012

The favorite Folk School held its second annual Fiddle Contest this past Sunday afternoon in Strauss Park at Grand Center. I never had entered a contest before. I did not expect to make this one. It fell on a work day last year, and this year, I had been on home call every other night for the two weeks prior. Work ended with plenty of time to go, though. I thought of a few favorite tunes to play, and H and I headed over.

The Root Diggers, a local old-time band, opened the afternoon. They played a good set to get everybody in the right frame of mind. I spent the time looking for an accompanist.  I asked blogged friend  Ryan Spearman to back me up. To my delight, he asked the same of me. We learned how to back up one another’s tunes just in time. Local musicians Geoff Seitz, Marc Rennard and Gary Hunt judged the contest, and banjoist Dave Landreth served as master of ceremonies.

I did not win, but I still had a good afternoon. I decided on a Mississippi themed program. I just could not play my first tune, “Possum on a Rail,” how I wanted. I felt bad while messing up the first tune because I knew that I had two more to go. My next one, “Tombigbee Waltz,” went a bit better. On the last tune, “Sullivan’s Hollow,” I tried to let it flow, and it was good fun. I backed up Ryan a few contestants later, and he won second place.

KDHX posted these photographs from the contest. The set is on Flickr, too. Here I am fiddling with Ryan on guitar, and here I am on guitar backing up Ryan. The Folk School has this album on Facebook. Friend Bob Clark posted this album on Facebook, too. It probably is only viewable if you have the right Facebook friendship. He is fond of the slogans, “Old-time music: More fun than it looks!” and “Old-time music: Better than it sounds!” I promise that I was having more fun that it appears.

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Michael M. on September 12th 2012 in General, Live, Music

The Hodges Brothers, Jesse James’ Women, and the Nations Brothers

The journey to Clifftop renewed my interest in old-time music, and a recent search reminded me of this post on Bogue Chitto Flingding, an old album by the Hodges Brothers. Arhoolie has re-released the album Bogue Chitto Flingding on CD. I await the arrival of my copy. Watermelon Hangin’ on the Vine is available on eBay. The band had slipped my mind for several years. I decided to repeat my search for more information on the band.

The band played old-time and bluegrass, as I knew. To my surprise, they had recorded some rockabilly, too. The blog boppingbopping has this post about their rockabilly singles. The German, but not the English, Wikipedia has this entry on them. Several of their singles have been posted to YouTube, including “Honey Talk,” “My Heart Fell at Her Feet” and “It Won’t Be Long” on Trumpet Records in Jackson, Mississippi and “I’m Gonna Rock Some Too.” It lists Mississippi Records, Box 101, Osyka, Miss. on its label. They recorded many of their tracks at WAPF, the radio station that was still standard morning listening in my home when I was growing up.

I also stumbled across Sippiana Succotash. The blog is dedicated to memories from Brookhaven, Mississippi, the next big town north of my hometown. This blog post Bogue Chitto’s Own Recording Artists — Or Should We Say Ruth’s? pins their origins to the community of Ruth, Mississippi. Sippiana Succotash also has this post on the McGraw Family, a string band about whom little is known. That same blog had this post about Jesse James’ Women. It was filmed in Silver Creek, Mississippi. The whole thing is available on YouTube although it is not a memorable movie.

My YouTube search also led me to this video of coach Mike Hodges of Bogue Chitto on guitar. I do not know the relationship between him and the Hodges Brothers, but I am sure that there is one. Pointing to more connections, the video was posted by nations1992. The Nations Brothers are another string band I like. As far as I can find, the Nations Brothers were the only Mississippi Piney Woods string band recorded in the early era of electric recording. This blog post on Old Time Party reproduces an article about the Nations Brothers from Old Time Music magazine written and published by blogged Tony Russell. The article reports that the Nations Brothers stopped playing music and went on to lives as prominent civic figures in Brookhaven.

The blog Old Time Party is a great find. It has a wealth of information on old-time music that will take me a long time to read. The information includes multiple posts mentioning Mississippi. Old Time Magazine also published “10 Days in Mississippi” (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4), also written by publisher Tony Russell himself. I have searched for the article for years.

This Dock Boggs and John Hurt post on Old Time Party is also excellent. It recounts a double bill concert given by them soon after their rediscoveries that featured Hurt clogging to Boggs at the show’s end. I blogged a while back about when Dock Boggs and beloved Mississippi John Hurt stayed with Mike Seeger. I suspect that it was for that concert. In that post, I mentioned W. E. Myers as a link between Boggs and Hurt. The post points to very similar lyrics in Hurt’s “Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me” and the last stanza of Boggs’ “Old Rub Alcohol Blues,” both penned by Myers. These small links are treasures.

I will watch Old Time Party closely from now on.

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Michael M. on August 11th 2012 in General, Movies, Music, Recorded

Clifftop and Kentucky 2012

My vacation finally worked for Clifftop, the Appalachian String Band Music Festival (here on Facebook). It is held yearly at Camp Washington-Carver. H and I had discussed whether to go right until the day before. I am glad we decided to go.

By the time we arrived in West Virginia, it was near sunset. We did not want to reach Clifftop and then have to set up camp in the dark. An overnight stay in Charleston, West Virginia let us rest. We tried to go to Charleston Town Center to eat. Navigating and parking were confusing, and the clock ran out. Instead, we found Pies and Pints. It turned out to be a nice spot with good pizza.

We made it to Clifftop early on the first official day. The serious attendees start arriving the weekend before, but it was not an option for us. The campgrounds were packed when we arrived, and many people have fairly elaborate camps. We found a clear shady spot for our little tent. A few folks put together a program, A Medicine Show @ Clifftop, based on Good for What Ails You, a compilation of music from the medicine shows. The blog Old Time Party has this post on the collection. I caught one of the organizers wearing a Pink Anderson t-shirt a few days later standing in line for food. I said that I had watched a documentary on blogged Peg Leg Sam, a running partner of Anderson. I regret not catching his name as he had great knowledge of music in South Carolina. H and I bounced in and out of that session. I was lucky enough to catch three times blogged Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas‘ “Railroadin’ Some” featuring one fellow on quills and guitar.

In part, I was on a mission for Mississippi music. I met blogged Harry Bolick. I found his interview on the Mississippi Arts Hour on Mississippi Public Broadcasting. Bolick told me that the twice blogged 1939 recordings of Mississippi folk music were based on previous work in 1936. He is planning to release a book on Mississippi fiddle tunes. I look forward to it. I briefly met Jack Magee. I got to meet some Mississippi and Louisiana old-time players.

The festival has a culture that is extremely strange and open in many ways. We saw the strange bowed dulcimer. I figured it out when listening to Harry Bolick’s interview. NPR personality Paul Brown won the senior division fiddling contest. He also made and gave away drinks at the release for a book about old-time accompaniment, Old-Time Backup Guitar: Learn from the Masters. This post on Old Time Party has more about the book. An old friend from CSHL messaged me, and we got to meet for the final night band competition. The charging station for cell phones and batteries was behind the maintenance shed. Hundreds of dollars of electronics, not to mention thousands of dollars in instruments, were left in the open.

First time attendance was hard, though. In old-time sessions, fiddlers lead. We were new to the festival. Instead, we spent much of our time playing together and listening to the many jams. I hope to return and to increase my own playing next time.

My friend from CSHL spends a good amount of time in West Virginia with his girlfriend who lives there. We asked for recommendations on what to do on our way back. We were not up for whitewater rafting, but we found other good spots. We visited the New River Gorge Bridge, an engineering marvel, and then drove over it into Fayetteville. We had breakfast at Cathedral Cafe were everyone appeared young and adventurous. Then we stopped at the Mystery Hole, a spot modeled on old roadside tourist traps billed as a gravity anomaly. It was worth the stop.

We spent some time in Lexington, Kentucky. I got to see the campus of UK. We had supper at Willie’s Locally Known and saw a bluegrass jam session featuring quite a few original songs. We had a fine breakfast the next day at Josie’s.

Our trip back through Kentucky was leisurely. We drove through the horse country around Lexington. It was beautiful. Partly in line with the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, we visited distilleries, Woodford Reserve and Buffalo Trace. The Woodford Reserve tour cost a little money, but it was the best. We saw every segment of the manufacturing process except bottling. The crowd at Buffalo Trace was younger and loud, but the tour was still enjoyable. One fellow pouring samples at Buffalo Trace saw my t-shirt with favorite Mississippi John Hurt. He told me that he saw Hurt play in New York in the 1960s.

We headed on to Louisville. I thought a musical diversion would be fun, and we found Guitar Emporium. I had fun testing out some excellent old Martins. We walked around the neighborhood, evidently called the Highlands. There were some great shops including the Leatherhead. It had terrific boots. Barbecue dinner at Mark’s Feed Store topped off a good evening in the area. The next day we visited Jim Beam, impressive for its enormous scale.

The trip took us to places we had never been. I do not know when I will be able to return to Clifftop although I hope to become a regular. Many people go year after year. They see old friends and visit over tunes. Becoming one of them would be a good investment of time.

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Michael M. on August 11th 2012 in General, Live, Music

Shout Lulu Shout released

Friday night the favorite Lulus threw their release party for their new album Shout Lulu Shout. You can buy it at their store, and it will be available via electronic outlets soon. Retro 101 / Cherry Bomb Vintage on Cherokee Antique Row hosted the party along with their neighbors the St. Louis Curio Shoppe. They drew a great crowd filled with friends, and the party was a blast.

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Michael M. on July 8th 2012 in General, Live, Music

Missouri fiddling on HEC

Several friends posted Toe-Tappin’ Fiddling….Missouri Style on Facebook. The short video profiles the Missouri Fiddlers and Country Music Association Fiddle Contest at Stovall’s Grove. It is playing on the Higher Education Channel as part of the series It’s a St. Louis Thing. The video features many of the friends I have made through playing music. I missed the contest, and I have not been to Stovall’s Grove yet. I must remedy both.

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Michael M. on July 8th 2012 in General, Music

The compass of medicine

A friend posted “To Isaiah” on Facebook. The article comes from the commencement speech that Dr. Donald Berwick, former head of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and new fellow at the Center for American Progress, gave at Harvard Medical School. It combines anecdote and advocacy.

There is a way to get our bearings. When you’re in a fog, get a compass. I have one—and you do too. We got our compass the day we decided to be healers. Our compass is a question, and it will point us true north: How will it help the patient?

In my application to medical school, I wrote about my polestar. Too often, we couch the matter in ridiculous business terms. We ask “How will it change management?” instead of asking “How will it help the patient?” This financial question often rings out when someone suggests a test whose utility is unclear. It substitutes a business question for a moral question. I commit myself to asking moral questions when financial ones might suffice.

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Michael M. on June 29th 2012 in General

Friends helping friends move to New Orleans

I blogged twice about Brad Rhines, a friend from high school, the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science. Both posts mentioned his writing for the NOLA Defender. Catch him as an extra in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, currently in movie theaters. You can see him in this trailer on YouTube at about 0:43 as the bearded man in a top hat standing in the audience at the edge of the stage. Also see the embedded version below. He is not my only high school friend who writes for a New Orleans periodical. Jarvis DeBerry writes for the Times-Picayune, even after the recent staff cuts. Jarvis’ piece “When friends weigh a move to New Orleans” discusses their correspondence several years ago prior to Brad’s move with his wife Julie, a friend of mine from the Mississippi Governor’s School, and what advice each as to offer for folks contemplating that move now. While I will not move to New Orleans soon, I have a fascination with it, and I appreciate both of their perspectives.

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Michael M. on June 25th 2012 in General, Movies

Chord analysis site

I analyzed the chords of 1300 popular songs for patterns. This is what I found. is a post on the blog for Hooktheory. I found it via Waxy Links. The authors analyzed chord progressions to find which keys and chords are common. While I was slightly surprised that some keys were not represented more often, the basic results are what any musician would predict. It is interesting, though, that the conclusions came from data analysis rather than music pedagogy.

The site includes analyses of many popular songs. For instance, look at the one for “Wonderwall” by Oasis. It includes a piano roll charting of the song that can be synchronized with a video or played and transposed as an instrumental. The tool is amazing, and the potential is great.

I expect the recording industry to kill the site and the business. The Copyright page has guidelines regarding fair use. While I think the arguments there are sound, I expect the site to face great difficulties. Even if they are correct, the cost of presenting them might be prohibitive.

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Michael M. on June 17th 2012 in General, Music

Circus Flora 2012 and nearby fun

The Wizard, this year’s production at Circus Flora, is excellent. H and I finally headed to Grand Center to see it last night. I think about going every year, but my only other post was in 2005. Last year I was working nights. I have no excuse for the other years. Merlin and King Arthur are the themes behind the show. As with the last time I went, the Flying Wallendas were a favorite. The wire act was exciting. The Riders of the Ring with trick horse riding were great, too. Other subtle parts make it a special experience. Everything was live, including the music.

Before the show, we visited a few nearby spots. Grand Center is becoming the center of community media. KETC television has been there for years, and KWMU radio just moved there. Renovation of the building for KDHX appeared well underway. The Pulitzer‘s In the Still Epiphany is a diverse drawing on the foundation’s collection. Dooley’s Beef-n-Brew House was a good stop, but not great.  Nearby Locust Street has been reborn as Midtown Alley. It is great to see the life coming back into the old automobile row. The fliers at Plush advertised several upcoming concerts and one event I would like to see. They include Lucero, New Years Rulin’s – A Tribute to Woody Guthrie in Photos and Music and Josh Ritter with Bhi Bhiman as the opener. I will try to visit next week’s St. Lou Fringe if work allows.

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Michael M. on June 17th 2012 in General, Live, Music

The last fife

Blues Travelers” in The New York Times was fun reading. The article covers a visit to the picnic started by three times blogged Othar Turner, the last Mississippi hill country picnic one surviving. This thread on the Mudcat Cafe has some fine remembrances. I never went to the picnic. I did see him at the Double Decker Festival before he died. I did not know what I was seeing at the time. I hope the picnic lives a little longer.

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Michael M. on June 2nd 2012 in General, Music

44th most musical city

This post on Music Machinery poses the question of the most musical city in the country. Saint Louis comes in at number 44 on the whole list. I found it via Waxy Links. It seems about right.

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Michael M. on June 2nd 2012 in General, Music

My profile of the Carolina Chocolate Drops in the NOLA Defender for Jazz Fest

I have been a fan of the Carolina Chocolate Drops for a few years. They are playing Jazz Fest this year. Although I cannot go, my friend Brad Rhines invited me to write a preview for the NOLA Defender, an online publication in New Orleans. It is now up as part of A Handful of JazzFest: 5 Acts to Watch on April 28, 2012. Brad’s piece on favorite Bobby Rush is also part of the preview. I wish I could attend Jazz Fest. Have a look!

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Michael M. on April 28th 2012 in General, Music

Physics friend makes PhD Comics

Dark Matters appeared recently PHD Comics. The star is Daniel Whiteson. He is an associate professor at UC Irvine and a scientist at CERN. Long ago, we shared a major in college.

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Michael M. on April 28th 2012 in General

Horrible disease story

I recently started following the MetaFilter blog Best Of MetaFilter. The Problem with Trusting a Prognosis links to this interview and book excerpt “The Chief Complaint: Dr. Otis Brawley” in Atlanta Magazine. The MetaFilter discussion has some good comments. Boing Boing posted it before then. Brawley is Chief Medical and Scientific Officer and Executive Vice President of the American Cancer Society and a professor at Emory. The excerpt is a harrowing account of breast cancer from his book How We Do Harm: A Doctor Breaks Ranks About Being Sick in America. Barnes-Jewish Hospital holds a position similar to Grady in Atlanta. I have seen not seen an automastectomy at BJH, but I have seen advanced cancer diagnosed for the first time including a fungating tumor and widely metastatic breast cancer. It ought to be better.

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Michael M. on April 26th 2012 in General

Winning Earth Day Again

H and I teamed with Doug Foehner to form the Trash Tones for this year’s Green Strum Band Scramble at St. Louis Earth Day. The rain and wind were intermittent enough to let the event happen. I blogged last year about winning the band scramble. The blogged Green Strum Project, headed by blogged friend Ryan Spearman and Kelly Wells, had a tent again this year with JR Scott and a crew of others. Kelly promoted the event on local station KTVI in this segment. H built a bow for the fiddle that we made last year, and I built a cigar box instrument somewhere between a guitar and a mandolin. Doug played a bucket slide guitar. We won against the Chlorphyllians and the Trash Truck Revival with our song “Solar, Wind and Waves.” Our prize was tickets to LouFest!

“Solar, Wind and Waves” by the Trash Tones


Solar, wind and waves,
They'll be here all our days.
Renewable, reusable,
They don't make no waste.
Instrumental over chorus chords

Verse 1:
Nuclear, petroleum, natural gas and coal,
They're powering our cars and homes,
But crushing all our souls.


Instrumental over chorus chords

Verse 2:
We can't go through out lives just digging up the past.
We must make it better now
If this world's going to last.


Instrumental over chorus chords

Update April 23, 2012: This video on YouTube is up!

Update April 30, 2012: This message of thanks from St. Louis Earth Day links to the video above and to this post with the lyrics and chords.


Michael M. on April 22nd 2012 in General, Live, Mine, Music, Recorded

Singing together

The Atlantic has “How Communal Singing Disappeared From American Life” at the end of March. A friend pointed to it through the page on Facebook of the beloved Folk School. It makes the argument that public singing has declined and that it ought to return. The article refers to the Get America Singing… Again! songbooks. They appear to have a good collection of songs. Rise Up Singing is preferred one among friends. The article reminded me of “Shared Song, Communal Memory” from The New York Times a few years ago. They share many points. Sing more.

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Michael M. on April 19th 2012 in General, Music

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States.