I wrote in a previous post about the youthful blues enthusiast Roger Brown’s discovery of a photograph of the bluesman Laughing Charley Lincoln in the later 1960s — obtained by convincing an Atlanta police detective to give him the mug shot of Charley Hicks on file at the police station off Decatur Street. This was not the first time Roger had sought information on these nearly-forgotten musicians, however. Roger and his high school buddy, George Mitchell, had visited Will Shade, Charlie Burse, Gus Cannon, Furry Lewis, and Bo Carter in Memphis in 1962, and they had found Sleepy John Estes in the country near Brownsville not long after.
After these remarkable experiences, Roger and George had also sought out information on the whereabouts of the Atlanta bluesman Blind Willie McTell, whose fabulous recordings of the 1920s and 30s, such as “Statesboro Blues,” “Travelin’ Blues,” and “Broke-down Engine,” are among the treasures of the recorded blues canon.
And the boys came close to what they hoped would be a lead on McTell when they found the bluesman Peg Leg Howell, who lived in the Summerhill section of Atlanta. As I put it in Blues Discovery: Reaching Across the Divide:
“In the Fall of 1962, Roger and George were freshmen at Emory University in Atlanta, but George had not stopped his blues activities at all. The fall of their freshman years the two of them were taking part in a fraternity rummage sale in Decatur, selling old clothes to poorer black people. The sale was set up in a vacant lot, and the patrons were blacks who were buying used clothes, not the middle classes, obviously. As they sold the clothes, the ever-alert George asked some of the people what they knew about local blues singers, and he was referred to a couple of guys Roger thinks were named Willie Roccomo and Clyde Upshaw, though he is unsure now.
“They went and spoke to Roccomo and Upshaw about singers who might still be around, and they told George that Peg Leg Howell, who had recorded a number of sessions from 1926 to 1930, was still alive. There was, again, the eighteen year-old’s disbelief that a person already mature in the 1920s could still live in the 1960s. With this information, however, Roger and George, with their friend Jack Boozer, went down to Decatur Street in the heart of the black section of the city and walked into an old Decatur Street institution, Shorty’s Barber Shop.
“When they went in, there were a couple of guys being served and a couple more waiting. One guy was having his hair straightened, another just a cut. They asked if anyone knew a musician named Peg Leg Howell, and a couple of them, a little guy and a big guy, immediately became animated, saying that they knew who he was. They had a discussion between each other — he’s over there on such-and-such a street by so-and-so’s house, right? — and they seemed to be thinking of a couple of different people. One of them finally said: ‘No, no — Peg, you know, Peg!’ and they seemed to come to an agreement.
“The two men led Roger and George over in Roger’s car, finally turning down an alley and coming to a shabby one-story house in the thick of the slums. They walked up and knocked on the door, and a thin, faint voice said to come in. They walked in to the dark and dirty house, and there sat Peg Leg Howell on a wheelchair, legless and looking mighty old. They’d been warned that he had no legs, but the general poverty and signs of ill health were over-whelming.”
Roger and George managed to spend time talking to Peg about his career and even to record an album of him playing and singing; and during their second meeting, Roger and George asked Peg if he had known Blind Willie McTell back in the old days – it never occurring to these young men that McTell could still be alive.
As they talked to Peg, a young guitarist from the neighborhood asked them, “That Blind Willie; did he play a 12 string guitar?”
“Yes,” they said.
The young man shook his head confidently. “He ain’t dead.”
The boys sat straight up when they heard that. “He’s not?!”
“He wasn’t the last time I saw him.”
“When was that?”
The young man considered. “Two years ago.”
And thus began a wild ride up a variety of blind alleys. Among other things, Roger and George discovered that McTell had frequented the Blue Lantern on Ponce de Leon Ave. in the late 1950s, about two miles from Roger’s house in Druid Hills; had they not been barely out of childhood then, he and George might have found McTell playing there for tips. The Blue Lantern also wasn’t far from a restaurant called the Pig & Whistle, where John Lomax had had found McTell playing in 1940 and recorded the fabulous Library of Congress sessions in Lomax’s hotel room.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before Roger and George discovered that McTell had been dead since 1959. They’d missed him – but only just. As Roger recently told me, “Our uncanny luck running down Shade and Burse and later Estes was more the exception than the rule.” They missed more musicians than they found. “Don’t get me wrong: I’ll never underestimate the blessing of our proximity to Buddy Moss and Robert Lockwood,” and Roger only wishes he had been born a few years earlier . . .
(Based on a phone interview with Roger Brown, 12/10/2011)