For Eleanor Ellis, her musical career was what happened while she was doing what she liked to do. Fortuitously, what she likes to do – creating, recreating, preserving and performing basic American blues – is also what she believes in. And what she does well. Ellis grew up in Louisiana near New Orleans, a region where the music, like the food, is spicy and multicultural. As a youngster Ellis soon got her ears around the blues blasting out from local radio stations. The bent notes, the growling, wailing inflections and the mixture of irony and humor that ran through the lyrics entranced Ellis, moving her to ask her parents for a guitar. But it wasn’t until she was older, living in New Orleans and working at Tulane University cataloging vintage recordings at the Jazz Archive, that she began to take seriously the instrument she would later call her “second voice.”
During this time Ellis was exploring several forms of the roots music which had always attracted her. A bluegrass jam session led to musical collaboration with “Delta Rambler” Hazel Schlueter and Ellis later wound up playing stand-up bass in two bluegrass bands, the Green Valley Cutups and Bill Malone’s Hill Country Ramblers. At solo gigs in the French Quarter and small uptown coffeehouses she played a mix of blues, old-time and country, with a few obscure contemporary songs thrown in. This led to her first taste of street musicianship in the Big Easy, and the music people she bumped into at Mardi Gras became lifelong friends and encouraged her to further develop her talents.
Ellis might have stayed close to home, but fate decreed that she visit the Washington DC area in 1976 when the Hill Country Ramblers got a couple of gigs there. She decided to stay, drawn to the depth and breadth of musical expression pouring out of the mid-Atlantic scene. Ellis became a permanent transplant to Maryland and was able to make a primary livelihood of music (with a few other gigs thrown in), a not inconsiderable feat. By this time she had begun to concentrate on blues and was meeting some of the musical elders who were to become her role models and, ultimately, her friends. On her way to a festival during the early 1980’s, Ellis chauffeured the incomparable Flora Molton, a street singer/guitarist immersed in gospel with attitude who had been a fixture on the D.C. scene for decades. Molton asked Ellis to become her accompanist, and Ellis threw herself into the job with the same zeal and thoroughness that characterizes all of her endeavors. She began to back Molton on guitar, as well as continuing to play her own sets. In 1987 they were joined by the legendary Piedmont Blues musician Archie Edwards for an extensive tour of Europe.
In the mid-80’s, Ellis took up video production. This fascination, which she attacked with the conviction that typifies all her work, led her down yet another road. Ellis wanted to create for a wider audience the gritty, exuberant ambiance of an authentic blues houseparty. That became the impetus for the widely acclaimed documentary she edited and produced, Blues Houseparty, which was released in 1989 to rave reviews and featured Piedmont blues artists including John Jackson, Archie Edwards, John Cephas, Phil Wiggins, Flora Molton and John Dee Holeman.
As an individual performer, Ellis has developed a distinctive and personal approach to the music, and has played at festivals and clubs throughout the United States, in Canada and in Europe. According to one reviewer, “More than copying one artist or another, Ellis distills the elements of the originals and transmits them, intact, in her own expressive way.” She credits her musical reach to such greats as Memphis Minnie, Skip James and other early recording artists, as well as to the influence of the blues players she has personally known.
She has also worked to continue the legacy, to pass it on and teach it to others. She is a founding member of the DC Blues Society and the Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation, which won a 2005 Keeping the Blues Alive award from the Blues Foundation in Memphis. She has documented the music through written articles for magazines such as Blues Revue, Living Blues, and Sing Out, and in recent years has traveled through the South to visit and record various traditional blues artists. This CD is a sample of her musical journey so far, and a tribute to the blues tradition that has taken her there
– BARBARA BAMBERGER SCOTT
ELEANOR ELLIS: ABOUT THE SONGS
Nobody learns music, or anything else, all by themselves. We all have other people to thank, not just for the musical notes they give us, but for the friendship and the good times and the inspiration. There is always the unheard music behind the music, and the untold stories behind the story:
1. Take Me Back Baby
This is my adaptation of an Archie Edwards version of a John Hurt song, and a lot of verses go back further than that, to Blind Lemon Jefferson’s Corina Blues. Archie Edwards was a cab driver, a barber, and a blues musician who was born in Virginia in 1918 and grew up playing the music of his family and friends and popular blues records of the time. He later moved to Washington D.C. and in 1959 he opened his barbershop, the Alpha Tonsorial Parlor. On Saturday afternoons he would put down the scissors and bring out the guitars, and people would wander in, as Archie put it, to “drink a few beers, play a little music, and tell a few lies.” Archie met John Hurt, one of his musical idols, when Hurt was living in DC in the 1960's. They became friends, and Archie learned this song from him. It was one of my favorites, and I used to ask Archie to play it for me when a bunch of us were hanging around his barbershop on Saturday afternoons. After Archie passed away in 1998, I learned to play it myself.
2. Diving Duck
The basic arrangement of this Sleepy John Estes song comes from Ron Gordon, and it has always been big hit with the Archie barbershop crew. Thanks to a temporary moment of confusion on the part of N.J. Warren, it’s also sometimes
known as The Drunk Fish. Neal Johnson recorded this version at the barbershop one afternoon, and it features the incredible bones playing of Richard “Mr. Bones” Thomas, who was a vital part of the barbershop until his death in 2002. He is still very much a part of what we do and who we are.
3. Cypress Grove
This isn’t played in Skip James’s open minor tuning, but is my adaptation in dropped D, and I did a little something different on the guitar behind each verse. The biggest trouble I had with singing this was finding a way to identify with the line “to love somebody I never can control.” I thought, why would I want to do that? I thought about changing the words a bit . Then I thought of some very out of control people I have known, and I could get behind the words and do the song.
4. 61 Highway
If you take this road through the Mississippi Delta and make a turn at Leland onto 82W, you end up in Greenville where blues musician Eugene Powell used to live. I first visited him in 1992 with my German friend Axel Kustner. Eugene was in his 80's then, and he could remember almost everything that had ever happened to him or to anybody else he’d ever known. He could tell stories all night long and transport you back to the early days of the century, when parts of the Delta were still forest and swamp and you could still come across bear tracks and hear panthers call out in the night. Eugene was also a fine musician, and I had a great time playing music with him in between stories.
5. Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone
From a recording by Mance Lipscomb. I’ve loved his music for years.
6. Big Road Blues
In the backyard of friends is the remnant of an old country lane. It’s just a fragment, just a suggestion, but if you stand there for a while and look at it just right you can almost feel yourself drifting back into time...“down that sunny road and gone. ”
7. In My Girlish Days
Sometimes people ask me if I wrote this song. No, it was Memphis Minnie. My girlish days weren’t quite this adventurous.
8. The Panic is On
A humorous look at hard times. The details are a bit dated, but the situation and the sentiments are timeless.
9. Sun’s Gonna Shine One Day
Written by Flora Molton, who sang what she called “spiritual and truth music” on the streets of Washington DC until her death at age 82 in 1990. Both Phil Wiggins and I played with Flora, though at different times, and here we team up to do one of her songs. It was written during the Vietnam war, and was originally called Sun’s Gonna Shine in Vietnam One Day. I played with Flora in the 1980’s, and at that time I thought the song was really good but dated - after all, Vietnam had been over for quite a while. Unfortunately, I was wrong. Songs like this will always be relevant somewhere in the world. The guitar accompaniment in open G was arranged by the late Ed Morris, Flora’s first music partner, and I do my best to emulate him.
10. Texas Easy Street Blues
Henry Thomas is magical. Some people call him “pre-blues” which basically means that his songs go back a real long way.
11. Leavin’ Trunk
Something about the playing and singing of Son House inspired my approach to this song, although the original version comes from Sleepy John Estes. Mike Baytop plays the bones, which he learned from Mr. Bones at Archie’s barbershop.
12. Me and My Chauffeur
Another Memphis Minnie song. Neil Harpe and I have been doing this as a duet for a long time, and I’m glad we were able to do it together on this CD.
13. Kansas City
This song is the indirect result of one of Candy and Gail’s famous parties on Buckhorn Road in North Carolina. I videotaped a lot that day, although at the time people weren’t particularly enthusiastic about having a camera stuck in their face while they were trying to party. Lightnin’ Wells was there and I taped him doing this song, which is where I got the basis for the version I do.
14. Goin’ Away Blues
A great Lottie Kimbrough song. Who can resist lyrics like “I got Cadillac ways, super ideas - I don’t know what brought me here. Must have been that new canned
city beer ...”
15. Special Rider
When I was living in Somerville Mass, Al Wilson (who was a friend of my neighbor, and was later in the group Canned Heat) showed me how to play this open G guitar part. For some reason I remembered it, although I never thought of singing it, or any of Skip James’s songs, until many years later.
16. Richmond Blues
Julius Daniels and Bull City Red recorded this song, but the best known version is Blind Boy Fuller’s, and in certain places down south it’s a ready-made jamming song. The first time I went to Georgia to visit Precious and Tony Bryant we played this song together and she and I traded off verses. The same thing happened whenever I went to see J. W. Warren, a fine musician and singer who lived in Alabama but unfortunately wasn’t as well known as he should have been because he didn’t like to travel much, not even to Birmingham.
17. Mississippi Blues
John Jackson showed me the basics of this song, although I couldn’t sing it until I put the original melody out of my head and twisted the tune around a little. John was always generous and willing to pass on his musical knowledge, and it’s a joy to look back on those visits, just sitting around his house and talking and playing music. I especially remember John’s granddaughter Neecie, who was a tiny little girl at the time, sitting at his feet and singing along note for note with his intricate guitar runs. I also remember Cora Lee’s jokes and food, and James’s amazing demonstration of taxidermic skill on display in the basement.
18. What’s the Matter with the Mill
This is a good last song to do at a gig, because everybody
gets to sing or shout out “done broke down” and they can all leave feeling rowdy.
– ELEANOR ELLIS