Thursday, October 18, 2007

Memphis October 2007

For the next two weeks I worked with a small contingent from the WA community choir Band of Angels, who asked me to take them on a tour of Black churches. (
Marianne and I both sang with the choir during the tour - I also got to direct them from time to time, as director Rosie Johnstone had her hands full with her son young Wyndham (who had his first birthday on tour in Chicago).
In Memphis we visited New Philadelphia MBC for their choir rehearsal - which doesn’t seem to be going so well that night - I guess it’s encouraging to know that choirs everywhere have similar issues and vagaries, and that a musical culture to which we look as a model is not immune to musical or organisational problems.
We went down to Helena, Arkansas for an afternoon of the Arkansas Blus Festival, which is OK if you like white guys noodling on electric guitars and mouth-harps. I found most of it pretty tedious (ie. reminds me of my own guitar-noodling), worthy at best, but not especially funky, except for a Black guitarist Li'l Dave Thompson ( who had a kick-ass band, and a young blue-suited busker who had a good groove.

Street guitarist, Arkansas Blues Festival

Barbecue,Helena, Arkansas

Hallelujah hair and fried oreos, Helena, Arkansas

Back in Memphis I met up with my good friend music historian Doug Seroff (Birmingham Boys, The Human Orchestra, Out Of Sight, Ragged But Right,producer of the wonderful Gospel Harmonettes of Demopolis recording - and his daughter Jole for a traditional breakfast (pancakes, grits, hash-browns etc.) at the Arcade Restaurant - we just griped about the decline of the a cappella quartet and acknowledged our own trajectory into curmudgeonlyness, nothing too deep.
A few days later I hooked up with another ring of music historians: Robert Gordon ( Can’t Be Satisfied - The Life and Times of Muddy Waters; It Came From Memphis;, Bruce Nemerov (co-author with Gordon of Lost Delta Found; engineer of the Gospel Harmonettes of Demopolis recording) and my former professor David Evans (Big Road Blues - at Quetzal (best coffee in Memphis, Aboriginal art on the wall). These guys have produced an immense body of great work(books, CDs, films) about blues, gospel and American roots music, and it was a pleasure to spend time with them.
I also met up with Australian chums now living in the USA: Ruth Sandy, currently studying theology in Memphis and the only white in the Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church choir (, and my longtime buddy the gorgeous singer/songwriter Audrey Auld Mezera, now living in Nashville (

Stirling Singers, Bethlehem BC program

The Band of Angels were part of a Saturday evening program organised by my good friend Mae Barnes and held at Bethlehem MBC, October 6. Among the other groups were two great mixed quartets: the Sensational Clouds of Joy and the Stirling Singers. This was a really sweet program, typical of programs in the South - not showy, but humble and generous. The groups don’t have websites and you don’t see this stuff on YouTube.
Something was familiar about one of the Stirlings and it turned out to be Virgie Stirling, a lady I hadn’t seen for 15 years. Virgie and Mae were singing together in the Heavenly Travellers when I studied in Memphis in 1991, and I remembered fondly Virgie’s soulful version of Talk To The Man Upstairs. (In fact there’s a photo of her and Mae on the cover of my Move On Up book.) Then another lady I remembered well turned up to sing solo, the remarkable female baritone Louise Jefferson, who had also sung with the Heavenly Travellers. 13 children and 5 heart-surgeries haven’t slowed her down. To meet up with these ladies again was a treat, I tell you.
The program was wonderful, though as is the case these days, quartets will inevitably get well-intentioned (and sometimes skillful) but generally annoying help from any instrumentalists in the room. Unless a group specifically requests the musicians to “hold the music”, the drummer, organist etc. will ‘help them out’. And typically the instruments are louder than the group. (And due to the traditional layout of the older churches which has the choir in choir stalls beyond the alter, the only place to put the drums is on the floor down the front, where they always drown out the choir).
Sunday was a church marathon, starting with Bethlehem at 11, where again the Australians were asked to sing. After the service, we were given lunch in the church basement, a nice opportunity at last to talk to Mae and the other church folk. Virgie and Louise turned up after their own church services to see us again and I had a sublime moment or two harmonising over the plates of fried chicken and greens with Virgie and her husband on Talk To The Man Upstairs, and You Got to Move. After Bethlehem, we returned to New Philadelphia MBC for a get-together with the choir (Pastor Chester Berryhill, who claimed to not sing, really whipped it out on Just A Closer Walk With Thee), then it was off to MT Vernon BC ( to sing on their evening service, broadcast live. A big church with a showy band(these guys could play anything, and frequently did just that - nary a tune got by unscathed by their virtuoso grand-standing), their pastor is the genial Dr James Nettors, a close friend of Martin Luther King, who had been with Dr King when he was assassinated. There to sing two songs, we were asked for two encores. Even though there’s only 13 of us, we’re making a good sound.
Thanks to Mae Barnes, Pastor Chester Berryhill, Kym Nettors for your help.

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