Blues artists Michael Baytop and Rick Franklin are a Washington, D.C. based duo who share an appreciation for Memphis legends Frank Stokes and Dan Sane and the acoustic guitar duet tradition. This CD was conceived as a tribute to Stokes and Sane, and as a sample of the types of guitar based music they and other street singers would have played in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. It also showcases Baytop and Franklin’s own musical voices and the particular circumstances in which they developed their blues perspectives.
Both Baytop and Franklin were born in the Washington, D.C. area and were initially exposed to rhythm and blues in their homes as children. Baytop’s father played harmonica and tried to interest his son in that instrument to no avail. Later in life, however, inspired by Archie Edwards, Michael learned both guitar and harmonica. He also learned to play the bones from one of Edwards’ barbershop buddies, a percussionist known as “Mr. Bones.” Since Mr. Bones passed away, Baytop has been carrying on this relatively obscure tradition with links to the minstrel show era and African percussion tradition. He also carried on other lessons learned in Archie Edwards’ barbershop through his leadership in the Archie Edwards Blues Foundation which has kept the barbershop as a memorial to Edwards and the musicians of his generation while providing a place for younger musicians to gather and play in a community of like-minded blues performers.
Rick Franklin honed his skills in the same regional musical matrix. Following a brief flirtation with electric blues, he turned to classical lessons where a fellow student turned him on to Blind Blake and Reverend Gary Davis. As Rick put it, “From there it’s just been finger-picking blues.” He has worked for a number of years with the trio Franklin, Harpe and Usilton, two guitars and percussion specializing in Hokum, jug band material, and good time blues. He has also planned and performed in educational programs with Archie Edwards and John Jackson. Today he plays with various artists, working diverse venues including farmers markets, where he keeps the street musician tradition going.
Baytop and Franklin exemplify a regional commitment to finger-picking blues which they inherited from artists such as John Cephas, Warner Williams, the late Archie Edwards and John Jackson. These artists were part of a generation of acoustic blues players who brought their music to the region from its earlier roots in Virginia and the Carolinas. This brand of blues and good time dance music retained strong ties to the songster based orientation of Stokes, Sane, and other street singers of an earlier era. Along with their shared music pedigree, both men inherited a philosophical commitment shared by Edwards, Cephas and Jackson that placed a premium on keeping the musical memory of earlier artists alive as part of an ongoing chain of tradition. As Baytop explains, “As Archie [Edwards] always said, it’s like running a relay race…you carry it as far as you can, and then you pass the baton off.”
Both have been guided by this charge, passing the music along through example and by more overt teaching. While they both obviously enjoy playing, it’s important, as Rick reminds us, to put the music and its traditions in context so listeners bear in mind where it came from: “Keeping the music alive is always a goal. The tradition of a lot of this music was not so much in concert halls or folk festivals, but on the streets, and in people’s homes at private parties.” Their vision of blues as cultural heritage also provides an everyman’s view of history, to balance the educational focus on great men and women. As Baytop explains, “I always thought about what my grandfather would think. What were the kind of things he would think about, or the guys that would come down the street, the regular guys. And I found that in the blues, especially in the stories, blues told great stories.”
Frank Stokes [1888-1955] was born in the south Memphis suburb of Whitehaven, Tennessee. Learning guitar as a youngster, he plied his musical wares in nearby Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee working with medicine shows or playing country jooks and picnics in the company of such artists as Jim Jackson, John Estes, Gus Cannon, Willie Brown, Son House, Charlie Patton, and his Memphis partners Dan Sane, Jack Kelly, and Will Batts. A fixture of the Memphis music scene, he was a blacksmith as well as a street musician and is considered one of the founding fathers of Memphis blues and, quite possibly, the best among many outstanding Memphis blues artists. Blues, however, was only a part of his diverse repertoire. Like his Delta counterpart, Charlie Patton, he was a “songster,” whose repertoire spanned the 19th and 20th centuries, encompassing pop tunes, minstrel showpieces, and ragtime dance tunes. As a medicine show veteran and a street musician, he needed variety to satisfy various audiences who would also request the best known songs of the day.
Fortunately for blues history, he recorded over forty songs for the Paramount and Victor labels from 1927 to 1928. Nineteen of these were guitar duets with his partner, Dan Sane. Recording together as The Beale Street Sheiks, the duo’s recordings testify to their musical prowess and diversity. These sides probably include their signature songs and most requested material as well as the songs the record companies thought had the best chance to sell. But they only represent a portion of what they would have performed on the streets, playing Church Park, working parties and picnics, or serenading the white folks at the Peabody Hotel. Moreover, they only span two years out of a career that lasted up to the 1950’s.
Stokes’ partner Dan Sane, or Sain, was born in Hernando, Mississippi some ten miles south of Whitehaven. Depending on economics and opportunity, the two guitarists also worked with the South Memphis Jug Band which included Jack Kelly and violinist Will Batts, and were part of an ever changing aggregation of jug bands and street musicians that made Memphis their home. Part of the first urban migration, these musicians included John Estes, Memphis Minnie, Joe McCoy, and other major recording artists from Mississippi and Tennessee drawn to the opportunities in Memphis.
Although a tribute to Stokes and Sane, and the Memphis music community of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, it also draws on the work of other similar musical aggregations that ranged beyond Memphis to Chicago. The goal was to reach beyond what Stokes and Sane recorded to what they might have heard -- the soundscape that provided a contextual backdrop for their musical output. As Rick puts it, “What these guys recorded wasn’t necessarily what they played all the time. What they recorded never really showed how much material they had. So what we try to do is include songs they might have played as well as what they recorded; to put the two together to show what the musicians of that period were doing.”
Blues has always been a vehicle for grassroots history and a site for memory, bringing the past into the present day. As the proverb goes, “You don’t know where you are going if you don’t know where you have been.” As many blues artists will tell you, blues are about real life, or as one artist put it, “Somebody has lived that life.” And, as Baytop explains, this also holds true of the Memphis artists: “These guys were real…John Estes, Hammie Nixon, Frank Stokes, Bukka White. I mean, they were real and their music was real. It wasn’t fantasy, and it wasn’t ‘fun and blues time.’ It was raw. It was what they were, who they were. It’s a way of looking at something. You get a chance to look into who they were.” It opens a window on the Memphis street scene and the musical range of that era. But more than that, it is a contemporary example of finger-picking excellence. While paying tribute to other guitar heroes, it is music for today, a potent and danceable alternative to electric blues rock. Searching for Frank tells two related stories: One rooted in a commitment to keeping the music of a past era in the public eye; the other, a contemporary representation of the Washington, D.C. area’s 21st century blues tradition.