I’m not really sure how it happened. Wednesday rtb, violaleeblue, and I were emailing each other and talking about various shows or music and rtb mentioned that the next evening Dom Flemons and Eli “Paperboy” Reed were performing at the Greenwich House Music School. I liked both artists a lot and it was only $15 so, why not?
I’d done several sound gigs at both Greenwich House and the Music School on Barrow Street in the West Village. The Music School auditorium is intimate and perfect for an acoustic program. Surprisingly the show was not sold out and we easily got tickets. Upstairs Flemons and Reed were walking around and talking with audience members. Flemons was drinking some of the sparkling rosé available for free (they also had coffee) and Reed was drinking from a small bottle in a brown paper bag. The bottle was more blues than the rosé being offered, which I thought should have been pink Champale if we’re going with a blues vibe. Both musicians sat and smiled for violaleeblue when she snapped a photo of them.
Reading the program I saw that they were performing as a duet, which was even more exciting. This was the inaugural concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Café au Go Go, which used to be in the Village. The other concerts continue this week with artists like Tony Trischka and David Amram.
Lined up on stage were all the instruments – harmonicas, quills, bones, acoustic guitars, banjo, jug, and piano. Flemons and Reed were joyful while teaching us about mostly forgotten blues and gospel artists or showing us a new side of a familiar artist. We learned that there are two Sonny Boy Williamsons and they played a song from each. (The second is the one people are more familiar with – he was post WWII and a better lyricist.) Josh White sang gospel as the Singing Christian and this year would have been his 100th birthday – I had no idea White was so old when I first heard him. Other blues singers sang gospel under other names. And when Flemons was introducing one song, Reed asked him to not announce the title so we could have a surprise during the song but in his excitement Flemons announced the song anyway. And they played the blues song that was the first blues standard – “How Long Blues.”
While Flemons took his blues lessons in North Carolina and Reed’s were in the Mississippi Delta, one thing they were both told was that after you sat and learned from the masters you had to make the blues your own. This was something they both accomplished while still singing in voices that if you closed your eyes you were listening for the scratches on the old vinyl.
On stage with his band, Reed does not stay still. This night he was (barely) able to contain himself in his chair and when singing his voice rose up and filled the room. Flemons danced once in a small space among the instruments but mostly he danced in his seat with the handclapping and bones shaking. For the gospel songs, Flemons had us clap along and for the last song we got to sing with the duo.
This was their first performance together. Rehearsals had happened the day before. Both artists have huge collections of blues albums and could teach a college course. They met in England and always wanted to perform together. I’m so happy they did and I hope this was the first of many performances.
He Calls That Religion – Mississippi Sheiks
Future Blues – Willie Brown
One Dollar Bill, Two Dollar Bill – (missed original songwriter but Flemons changed the lyrics)
While the Blood Runs Warm in Your Veins – Josh White
Polly Put Your Kettle On – Sonny Boy Williamson (the first)
Big Fat Mama Blues – Tommy Johnson
Right Around the Corner – Houston Stackhouse
Keep Your yes Ma’am Clean – Bob Coleman
Charming Betsy – Henry Thomas
How Long, How Long Blues – Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell
Baby Please Loan Me Your Heart – Papa Charlie Jackson (where we didn’t get the surprise)
Search Me Lord – Brother Joe May (Thunderbolt of the Midwest)
T For Texas (Blue Yodel No. 1) – Jimmie Rodgers
Mighty Long Time – Sonny Boy Williamson (the second)
My Money Never Runs Out – Gus Cameron
Dig a Little Deeper – Fairfield Four
Do Lord Remember Me – (slave song/Negro spiritual)
By Carene Lydia Lopez