St. Louis Blues
Henry Townsend kicks off the Atlanta History Center's Nothin' But the Blues series
The Atlanta History Center's annual "Nothin' But the Blues" series returns this week with Thursday and Friday shows highlighted by 91-year-old St. Louis blues musician Henry Townsend.
Titled "I've Got the St. Louis Blues," this week's shows also feature the Washington D.C.-based acoustic guitar/harmonica duo Cephas & Wiggins, as well as Robert Lee Nelson (better known locally as Chicago Bob) & the BBQ Boys, comprised of bassist Roger Gregory, pianist Bob Page and guitarist Mike Lorenz. Tommy Bankhead, a St. Louis-based musician who had been scheduled to appear, recently passed away.
Townsend, still able of body and mind despite his years, is a link to another era. He learned to play guitar as a teen in St. Louis, inspired by his accordionist father and his father's fellow bandmates.
"When my father and his associates worked together — he had an associate who played guitar — I liked what I heard," Townsend recalls, in a phone interview from his St. Louis home. This was before the time of commercial recordings, however, so young Townsend learned where he could. "I had one guitar player that was taking an interest in me, but he was a mean character and got himself in a lot of trouble, so I lost that aid. But I kept at it."
Townsend would later learn piano as well, thanks to pianist Roosevelt "Honeydripper" Sykes, who went on to acclaim as a performer of often lascivious boogie woogie and swing material. For Townsend's performance at the History Center, he says he'll probably play more piano than guitar.
While Townsend recorded at regular intervals over the years, he's currently enjoying an unprecedented level of musical recognition and acclaim. His biography, A Blues Life, was published in 1999. He had a couple of new CD releases last year (St. Louis Blues Ace on the Swingmaster label and Henry's Worried Blues on Catfish) as well as a reissue, on the Genes label, of his 1969 album Cairo Blues. In addition, Townsend recently performed in New York as part of an ultimate summit of blues elder statesmen — Robert Lockwood Jr., David "Honeyboy" Edwards, "Homesick James" Williamson and Townsend — and the foursome has more dates planned.
Still, at age 91, Townsend doesn't travel frequently — about once a month, he says — preferring to stay close to home in St. Louis. It's a city that's always been important to music, he says, and one that continues to be supportive of local performers and venues. "It always has been a place for musicians," Townsend says. "[We played] at house parties, speakeasies and honky tonks. St. Louis was the gate to all the cities — Chicago, New York. ... All the renowned musicians migrating from the South had a spell here, even if it was only months. It's continued to be that way."
Today, Townsend says, the city is "infested with good musicians, and the majority of them are making a livelihood here." It's also a kinder town for musicians than, say, Chicago, he explains, where musicians will "cut one another's throat" — that is, slash their performance fee — in order to get a gig.
Townsend's performance launches the third year of blues shows at the Atlanta History Center, and the first time that the series has expanded from one to two nights per month. The shows offer an appealing alternative to blues fans who for whatever reason (parenthood, or an aversion to late-night hours or cigarette smoke) are not willing or able to see blues acts in a club setting.
The musical lineup for the series is arranged by True Blues Productions and Blind Willie's. Upcoming shows include "Tonight at the Gaslight" on March 1-2 — a tribute to the New York City folk/blues coffeehouse scene, featuring Dave Van Ronk, Josh White Jr. and Katy Moffat.
The April 5-6 shows, titled "Wild Women Sing the Blues," feature Maria Muldaur and Detroit blues vocalist Alberta Adams. Muldaur, perhaps still best known for her early '70s hit "Midnight at the Oasis" has moved into a more sparse, acoustic, country blues vein.
The sleeper program of the series, however, might be "Swinging the Blues," May 3-4, which will feature 85-year-old pianist Jay McShann. McShann was a seminal force in the swing/jump blues scene that emerged in Kansas City in the 1940s. His "Confessin' the Blues" was an enormous hit and was later recorded by Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones and many others. Saxman Joe Houston and pianist Mitch Woods also appear.
For more information on the "Nothin' But the Blues" series, call 404-814-4000 or visit www.atlhist.org.