Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Much of the music calling itself blues nowadays doesn’t deserve the title, says D.C. area singer/guitarist Memphis Gold.
He promises that his new CD will school folks on what the blues really are.
Entitled “Pickin’ In High Cotton,” the CD is Memphis Gold’s fourth. It presents traditional stories of what gives people the blues, using traditional musical forms to tell those stories. And it carries a lesson to heavy metal guitar heroes who think they are playing the blues without knowing what the term really means.
“Anybody whose young, they never had no blues,“ says Memphis, who at the age of five began chopping wood, picking cotton, and carting coal around the city that would later provide him with the name he now performs under.
“So I’m sort of telling some stories within it about how I had to work hard in cotton fields. And if you’re going to really be blue, then you’ve got to know something about being blue. It ain’t no joke.
Tales of hard work and hard times—much from Memphis’ own past— provide the subject matter for “Pickin’ In High Cotton,” which is scheduled for a June release. In “Homeless Blues,” he talks about the 18 months he spent homeless on the streets of Washington.
But he will pay his respects to a personal hero with a song about abolitionist John Brown, hanged in 1859 for trying to start a slave revolt by taking over a federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia.
“What I’m doing is writing a song basically about that day that John Brown went to take over the armory,” he says. “I’m kind of sympathizing with John Brown, I want to glorify the job that he did for blacks in Harper’s Ferry.”
Memphis says he decided to do the John Brown song after performing at a festival in Harpers Ferry dedicating property once owned by the abolitionist. A friend of Memphis’ now owns the tract.
Nine of the album’s twelve songs have been written, he says, adding that there is some acoustic work. “I want to let them know I can play acoustic,” he says.
Several harmonica players join Memphis for the album, including Charlie Sayles, Jay Summerhour, Phil Williams, and Robert Lighthouse. “Each of these guys has different sounds,” he says. “I kind of write songs that would fit their personalities.”
Memphis, who has turned to other bass players in previous albums, will hold the bottom down himself in “Pickin’ In High Cotton.”
“A lot of times I feel more comfortable playing the bass behind myself because the guys want to overplay,” he says.
Born Chester Chandler in Memphis, Tennessee, Memphis was introduced to the guitar at the age of four by his father, a musician who played the bass fiddle and piano in church. By the time he was eight years old, young Chester was playing for pocket change on Beale Street.
While growing up, Chester was able to learn from well-seasoned and well-renowned musicians.
“A lot of the people I played with, they were born in the 1800’s,” he recalls. In fact, I had an uncle who was born in 1895, so I was singing along with people like that, the old folks.”
Among those he crossed paths with was the legendary Delta picker and gospel player the Reverend Robert “Tim” Wilkins.
“He and my father used to sit down and play together, my father was a musician, and on Sunday my training was through them, watching those two guys,” Memphis recalls.
Among other things, they taught him how to follow a song’s changes on his guitar. “If someone started a song off I could slide down the E-string and find the key,” he explains. “I wouldn’t exactly know what key I was in but I would know the sound. I heard the sound of their voice and I knew that was where I was supposed to be playing at, I knew where to distinguish where they were on the fret board.”
The title of one of Memphis’ albums, The Prodigal Son, was inspired by the title of a cover that The Rolling Stones did of a Wilkins song.
But he did not mean it as a tribute to the Rolling Stones’ version.
“They made millions of dollars off of that song, and they have yet to give his granddaughter props,” he says. “Or royalties. I’m just making a statement to them that I’m the real prodigal son, I played with him as a boy and he’s the one who taught me.”
Memphis joined the Navy in 1973, during the Vietnam era, and remained on active duty until 1981. He spent the first part of his stint on a boat outside of Vietnam. He is proud of his service: he remained in the reserves until 1985 and has since done USO tours around the world. Still, he recalls his experience as one that sometimes gave him the blues because of the way blacks were treated.
“You could feel the tension. You figure, I was on a ship of 300 and there were only forty of us (blacks),” he recalls. “And it was that way throughout the Navy.”
Moreover, blacks were generally only allowed the most unpleasant jobs. They could either be a steward who shined shoes for the officers, a boatswain mate who chipped paint all day or, like Memphis, a boilerman “in the bowels of the ship with all of the engines and the boilers, smokin’ hot.”
He arrived in Washington during the early 90’s¸where he was homeless for about 18 months. But his fortunes changed after he used money earned through landscaping and yard work to buy a guitar from a pawn shop.
After playing regularly at a D.C. area club, he became a full-time musician to tour with singer/guitarist Deborah Coleman. He formed his own band in the mid-1990’s, producing his first CD in 1998.
In February, 1996, he rescued 11 children after a train wreck in Silver Spring, Maryland. He was honored for his efforts.
In 2008, he fell 35 feet from a tree, breaking his back in three places. Doctors told him it was doubtful that he would ever walk again. Still, he continued to play shows and from his hospital bed wrote songs for his third album, 2009’s Gator Gon ‘Bitechu.