A few months ago, I learned that the webmaster of the blues blog The Delta Blues, Jason Rewald, lives in the Tampa area. As I am always looking for the opportunity to talk about the blues with some like-minded fans, I met with Jason and followed up our meeting with some emailed questions about the blues, Tampa’s place in blues history, and a show he is putting on this Fall.
How long have you been writing about the blues?
Not too long actually. I have been a long time listener, but never really much of a writer, or scholar of any kind. This whole “project” started when I was planning a trip to the Delta with a few guys who live on the East Coast of Florida. I decided the easiest way to plan the trip, while sharing it with the world, would be to write about it. At the time, it made sense. I was also able to educate those guys on the historic spots we were going to see. That, in turn, led me into researching the blues and writing about it.
What got you into blues research?
Like I mentioned, it started with planning a trip. From there, it turned into more of a personal journey to have questions answered. After reading a few blues books, I started to learn just how easy it is to do this kind of thing, and I was quite amazed more researchers are not diligent in what they do. From there, I decided I wanted to do blues research more so I could disprove others research than to prove something myself. The blues is such an oral history, and has always been regarded as such. I mean, just because some guy in the Delta says he knew Robert Johnson and he lived “right over there” – to me, that was never enough. Show me the proof. Show me a Census Record. Once I started getting good feedback and support from the blues community, I knew I was onto something. Once I started getting challenged on my research, I knew I was being taken seriously.
You have done some great work researching blues roots and the scene in Tampa. How important is Tampa in blues history?
Well I appreciate it! Tampa is far more important in blues history than most people – especially other scholars – give it credit for. Since Tampa was a stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit, a lot of great played here in Tampa. But there is more than that. For instance, Ray Charles recorded his first album here. The dance “The Twist” was invented on Central Ave here in Tampa. The song “A Tisket a Tasket” by Ella Fitzgerald was actually written in the lobby of the Jackson House, a boarding house for African Americans that still stands today by the train station downtown. It is also rumored Martin Luther King Jr. roamed those halls. The history here is rich. Everyone always thinks of Ybor, but the truth is, there is more to Tampa history than Ybor. Then there’s Tampa Red. I mean, he was the absolute Epicenter of the blues scene in Chicago back in the early days – and he learned his chops in Tampa. I mean, he was known as “The Guitar Wizard” and he learned here in Tampa. That has to stand for something, right?
How do you find the information you write about? What about here in Tampa?
I find my information in a variety of ways. Usually a good place to start is challenging or supporting other people’s research. I usually read a book, or an article, and see gaps missing – I try to fill in those gaps. With more and more agencies placing their databases online, it gets easier to search for documents and evidence to support your research. Sometimes though, it does require travel. Some smaller towns still have documents on file in court houses, and you have to pay a visit to check them out. But for the most part, you can find a lot of things online. Not to mention, sometimes all the research has been done by 5 other researchers, they just all found different pieces of the puzzle, and never spoke to each other about it. I simply come along and put the puzzle together.
As far as here in Tampa, it all started with research into Tampa Red. I knew he was from Tampa, but I wanted to know from WHERE in Tampa. I wanted addresses. This led me looking into African American communities, because of segregation back then. I in turn found out about The Scrub, the ghetto in Tampa where a lot of the African Americans lived. This term got me interested – I knew things had to be in close proximity, because of the lack of travel, and again, the segregation. So I started looking around the area of The Scrub. After a few calls to local libraries and visiting USF, I learned about Central Ave, the main African American business district back in the 30’s. From there, it was all downhill. I found interviews, documents, old maps, and more about this historic area. I feel that history like this should not be just forgotten … someone has to help keep those memories alive. Actually, The Scrub – or where it was – is right by the 275 and I-4 interchange. There are still historic buildings and churches from that time thriving in that area.
(Ed note: for more information on the “lost” African American culture in Tampa, check out this link.)
You are doing a benefit show for Willie Brown. Who was Willie Brown and how did you locate his resting site?
Willie Brown. He was …. the man! So, he was a guitarist back in the heyday of the blues. He was born in 1900 in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He is buried in an unmarked grave in Tunica County, Mississippi. Most people know him from the song “Crossroads”, where Robert Johnson – or Eric Clapton, depending on who you listen to – belts out the line “You can run, you can run. Tell my friend-boy Willie Brown.” Willie was actually a sideman to a lot of blues greats. He played with Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, and even Son House. Willie recorded a few of his own sides, but only three copies are known to exist today. Anyway, he was a mentor, friend, and sideman for most of the great pre-war Delta bluesmen. He was actually playing with Son House quite a bit. When Willie died, Son House laid his guitar down, and refused to play. Of course, he was talked back into it during the blues revival of the 60’s. But Willie was that influential. And just to be clear to any fans out there – Willie Brown is NOT Kid Bailey. I get that question a lot! So I am planning a benefit show to get Willie a headstone. It’s long overdue. All the money raised – every cent – will go towards the purchase of a grave marker for him.
I cannot take credit for finding his resting place, though I did do a bit or research on it. Most people don’t realize that researching people with a common name – like Robert Johnson, or Willie Brown – is pretty hard to do. I mean, there are a lot of Willie Browns out there! As far as finding the grave, it started with the research of Gayle Dean Wardlow. Gayle was able to track down Willie Moore, who was a long time friend of Willie Brown’s. The two met in 1916, so it is safe to say they knew each other well. In interviews, Moore said he was aware of Brown’s hospitalization for alcoholism, as well as the burial. Moore confirmed this burial to have been in The Good Shepherd Church. Moore and Brown were even both drafted into the Army together – but peace was declared before they were sent overseas. Moore even used to sing while Brown played guitar. They were close.
Of course, interviews are never enough for me, so I went digging further. After finding his death certificate, it says he was buried in “Good Shepherd” in Prichard, Mississippi. There you have it. Now there is an interview, and a document verifying his burial location. To make matters even clearer, I was looking into the listed funeral home that is on the death certificate. I was able (through another acquaintance) to reach out to a man who lives in that area. Another blues fan. Turns out he had talked with the funeral home (now under a different name) and was working on getting the location of the exact plot Willie Brown was buried in. Though that information is hard to come by – funeral home records are private records after all – it does also confirm the cemetery as The Good Shepherd.
Why here, why now for a benefit show?
Well, the here part is easy. I live here! I have a family, and the challenge of organizing an event far from home is … overwhelming. So I figured Tampa has a rich blues history, and has a lot of blues talent in the area. Not to mention, a lot of the blues talent in the area has played in the Delta. I mean, it’s all blues, right? Willie Brown is such a huge influence on blues, most blues players at least know of him. As far as the why now part … well, if not now, when? The truth of the matter is, a headstone is long overdue for Willie Brown. He was an iconic figure in blues music, and essentially, American history. It’s time he gets some recognition.
Can you tell us a bit about the show? Who will be performing?
Sure! The show is scheduled for September 26th, which is a Sunday. It’s at Rick’s on the River, a really cool venue here in town. It will start at 4pm – nice and early. It will go until about 9pm or so. We are going to have a raffle with amazing prizes, as well as an auction for a really nice guitar. Of course, we will pass a donation bucket around too. Really we need to raise $2100 to get Willie his headstone. I should also mention this is a free show! No cover!
The lineup is amazing, and I cannot thank the sponsors and the bands enough for all their help, and willingness to do this event. The lineup includes Sean Chambers, The Backwater Blues Band, Lee Pons, Eddie Wright, and Special Guest Damon Fowler. It will be an amazing show. Every one of those guys can play the blues. I mean PLAY the blues. And a free show to boot?
I hope a lot of people are able to come out for this worthy cause. Everyone is welcome!