Joan Fenton- The Queen of Blues Folklore

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Folklorist and performer Joan Fenton earned her Master’s degree in folklore from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1981. She records and interviews southern roots artists from North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Louisiana. Artists include: Reverend Gary Davis, Willie Trice, Pink Anderson, and Guitar Shorty. Fenton’s folklore thesis fieldwork on Howard Cotten, recorded between 1976 and 1978, is represented through his songs, anecdotes, and tales about fishing and hunting. Documentation of field recordings include transcription notes from interviews and notes compiled from audio material. She is the owner of several stores in Charlottesville, Virginia that feature traditional and contemporary handcrafts.

Brant Buckley:

You have a master’s degree in Folklore from University Of North Carolina. Can you go into depth about what you studied and learned?

Joan Fenton

I first went to the University of Pennsylvania and I took Folklore classes there. While in Philadelphia I met Jerry Ricks and Jesse Graves. I used to do the blues radio show on WXPN. When I went to Chapel Hill there was a really small department with two professors. One’s specialty was shaker music and the other was pottery and jugs. Essentially, I was allowed to do anything that I wanted which was really neat. My interest was obviously blues. I had a grant to record blues musicians through the folklore department. I recorded several musicians and had a radio series program that consisted of five radio shows for WUSC. They first went on air in 1976. I used to do a radio show there.

Prior to that I was at Penn because I became interested in blues and I studied with Reverend Gary Davis who lived in New York in the summer of 1971. I studied with him and after he died, I did a documentary on him in New York. Somehow while researching Gary I met Bruce Bastian who is from England and was studying at Chapel Hill. He was doing field work and locating blues musicians. He is the one who located Willie Trice plus many other musicians. I had a friend from high school who had a VHS recorder. At that point nobody had a recorder and you couldn’t record live music on film. Your options were super 8 film. Bruce asked me to come down over spring break. I went with three friends and Bruce took us to different people he wanted to have recorded and we recorded them. We filmed Willie Trice, Guitar Shorty, Pink Anderson, and several other musicians. That was my first experience. I was from New York City and had gone to school in Philadelphia. This was my first experience in the south, my first experience seeing blues musicians in their home environment, and really getting a whole sense of the culture. After I graduated, I lived in West Virginia and I went to UNC for graduate school.

Can you talk about creating Blues Week at the Augusta Heritage Workshop in Elkins,
West Virginia?

In the mid 70’s I lived in Hinton, West Virginia. I went to the Augusta Heritage Workshop and took a class on guitar making. I asked them about doing a blues class. At the time they weren’t interested. In 1983 I received a call and they were interested in doing a blues program. I agreed to do it and at the time I was living in Traverse City and I was planning to move back to West Virginia. Margaret Lever was the director and she wanted to hire Sparky Rucker because she knew him. I wanted to hire John Jackson. Also, we needed a harmonica player and I didn’t know anybody. John suggested we hire Phil Wiggins. The first staff consisted of Sparky, John, Phil, and myself. We had about fifteen students and the funny part is that Sparky was stuck in customs and John Jackson was also late. The first day I taught beginner, intermediate, and advanced guitar classes. The next year we had twenty five students and I added a piano class. It kept growing. We were the first blues music camp that I am aware of in the country. People were doing old time and fiddle camps but there were no blues camps.

When I moved to West Virginia in 1974 I received a second grant to record traditional music in West Virginia. I was doing radio shows for West Virginia Public Radio and I did field work. I recorded blues and old time musicians. Because I played blues, every white musician that I met would play me a few blues tunes that they knew. I produced a record for Rounder Records of an old time fiddler player named Oscar Wright and his son Eugene. At the time Oscar was eighty years old. On the album they do instruments: an Ida Cox tune and a Bessie Smith tune. There is so much crossover music but it’s not always documented. Also, I recorded two little old ladies. They were so cute. They played “Hesitation Blues” on banjo and they were giggling the whole time. They were hysterical because it’s a dirty song. The blues program has been in existence since 1983. I have been the director most of the time. I have also been fired twice but they keep asking me back. When they asked me back I really wanted to do it with Phil Wiggins. For the last five years, he and I have been co-directors.

How does Blues from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia differ from Blues in other parts of the country?

The Virginia sound is the Piedmont sound and it is very melodic. There’s an alternating bass but a lot of melody is picked. When you get into North Carolina you have a heavy influence from Blind Boy Fuller. You don’t hear him as much as you go north, but there is still an alternating beat with picked melodies. When you get into South Carolina you have a stronger ragtime piano influence on guitar. So it is even more melodic with some counterpoint. What you don’t get with any of those styles that you get in Mississippi are heavy thumping bass drones. You don’t get a sense of that beat hanging in there without the alternating sound. If you look at the southeast music is more integrated. You have a lot more white musicians playing with black musicians and vice versa. A lot of black musicians played in string bands and played for both black and white audiences. In Mississippi the setting may not be as integrated.

Can you talk about video documenting Willie Trice? Did you film and or record anyone else?

Willie was a diabetic and had both of his legs amputated. He was in his sixties when I met him and he lived with his mother who was ninety and took care of him. I know that Bruce tried to have Social Services give him artificial limbs but they wouldn’t do it because he was not of working age.

The most interesting time was recording Pink Anderson. I have the only known video of him which I allowed Stephan Grossman to release on one of his tapes that he put out. That was amazing. Pink Anderson’s house was a little house in the middle of nowhere in South Carolina. While we were there I came to realize he was a bootlegger. He was selling liquor out of the back of his house. People were coming and going from his home. At the time, a lot of the counties in North Carolina and South Carolina were dry. You couldn’t buy liquor. The law didn’t really go after anyone and they sold liquor out of their homes. Once the laws changed and the counties were no longer dry, they shot everybody down. Pink had no money and he was living on dog food. He was so poor. He figured there was more nutrition in dog food than anything else. I think we documented around five or six people. They were all people that Bruce Bastin had taken us to see.

Bruce worked on a film with Peg Leg Sam. It’s an amazing movie that runs for about an hour. Peg Leg Sam had his leg run over by a train and he had a peg leg. He played harmonica and sang. He had a huge scar down his face. He looked like he could be the meanest man but he was nice. He would play on the medicine shows. He would be the entertainment and the chief would sell the medicine which was really alcohol to the audience that gathered in Pittsboro, North Carolina which is twenty minutes outside of Chapel Hill. Fairs were segregated. There were white fairs and black fairs. During the last year of the segregated fair, they filmed Peg at the medicine show. It’s an amazing film to watch. There is a film called Folk Strings that Tom Davenport filmed. Bruce was also involved. Tom Davenport did a lot of traditional film work. My collection is o.k. but what Tom has done is phenomenal.

We also filmed Guitar Shorty. His house was papered with newspaper to keep the wind out. It was a little one or two room house. He was a sharecropper and so poor. When you talk about poverty you have no idea until you have seen rural poverty. The positive is that you have the ability to grow food. I remember some people who had one light bulb in the ceiling and they would turn it off when they left the room. It’s a whole other world that you are unfamiliar with. It’s a piece of American history that nobody ever talks about because all you hear are headlines. There is so much more to it. There are positives and there are negatives. When I first moved to North Carolina I remember someone saying don’t go to that gas station because that guy is the head of a local chapter of the klan. I am from New York and I didn’t think it really existed. Other times you see white and black people playing music together because they like each other’s music. There are a lot of different things happening.

There’s a white musician named Dan Tate who lived in Fancy Gap, Virginia. He lived in a two-room house and if you opened the fridge you’d find a six pack of coke and that was it. He was as poor as a church mouse. He had been recorded by Alan Lomax. He had a song called “The Dreadful Wind and Rain.” Bob Dylan stole the melody from the song and never gave the guy credit. Dan never received a cent. Dick Waterman, who lived in Philadelphia while I was there, made sure to go after everything he could to get royalties for blues musicians. He made sure Gary Davis and Fred McDowell received royalties. It made a huge difference in their lives. Gary Davis had a house that he owned in Queens because he received royalties from some of this songs. So many people ripped off the songs.

You also have retail stores in Virginia. Can you talk about them?

I started off selling antique quilts. I than started selling new quilts and American hand crafts. It has evolved over the years. Now I sell mostly women’s clothing. I really like supporting handcraft artisans. I appreciate the work and promote the work of others. I have a website called Linen Woman.

Anything else you want to accomplish?

I think I want to go back to playing more. At this stage I am trying to slow down my work and play more music. Before I went into business, the only jobs I had were performing and teaching guitar. I would like to go back to playing more music and working more on piano, which I really enjoy playing. I really like doing hand crafts as well. I have been doing this for thirty nine years so I don’t support myself as a musician. I do music on the side.

Augusta Heritage Center

Linen Woman

*All photos Augusta Heritage Workshop Elkins, West Virginia


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