Thursday, October 04, 2007

At last a recording from Eleanor Ellis

Born near New Orleans, Eleanor Ellis heard the blues blasting out of the radio, but it was when working at the Tulane University Jazz Archive that she began to take seriously playing music. She played a variety of music there including bluegrass, old-time and country. A few years later she settled in the Washington DC area where she continues to reside today and her focus was directed on the blues as she became acquainted with some of the area’s musical elders who became her role model and friends. She first chauffeured Flora Molton, the DC area street singer and later started playing with her. Then in 1987 she toured Europe with Flora and local Piedmont legend Archie Edwards. Later she got into video production and produced the marvelous video Blues Houseparty, filmed at John Jackson’s home and featuring Jackson, his wife Cora, Archie Edwards, John Cephas, Phil Wiggins, Flora Molton, Larry Wise, and John Dee Holeman. During this time she was amongst those who founded the DC Blues Society, and after Archie Edwards passed away, helped found the Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Society.

Throughout this time she has performed, often with others such as when she accompanied Flora or participated in performances given by members of the Archie Edwards Barbershop folk. Recently a CD of her with William Lee Ellis and Andy Cohen was issued that is available on She recorded a CD that she only sold at performances and finally has a new CD by herself on Patuxent Records, Comin’ a Time that hopefully will let folk outside of DC know about this musical treasure. The 18 songs are pretty varied in their source and contain few songs that should be overly familiar. Thankfully there are no Robert Johnson covers although there are several renditions of Memphis Minnie songs along with a couple each from Skip James and John Estes and songs associated with Tommy Johnson, Henry Thomas, Bull City Red and Lottie Kimbrough. She is joined by a number of musical friends including guitarists Neil Harpe and Mike Baytop, pianist Judy Luis-Watson and harmonica players Jay Summerour, Phil Wiggins and Pearl Bailes.

The disc opens with a John Hurt song that was filtered through Hurt’s disciple, Archie Edwards, Take Me Back Baby, which Eleanor adds her own touch to the pensive lyric along with her gently rolling guitar. Sleepy John Estes' Diving Duck was recorded at Archie Edwards’ Barbershop with Mike Baytop on harp and the late Richard Thomas on bones with a driving accompaniment behind Eleanor’s emphatic vocal. Ellis makes no effort to emulate Skip James’ ethereal style for Cypress Grove or Special Rider, as she delivers these songs in a sober fashion. Judy Luis-Watson adds a touch of barrelhouse flavor for 61 Highway, a song that suggests the toughness of Memhis Minnie that is evident also on Ellis’ strong interpretations of Minnie’s In My Girlish Days, Me and My Chauffeur, and What’s The Matter With the Mill, where Neil Harpe joins her for a delightful vocal duet. Harpe also does a duet with her on The Panic Is On, with its still timely and critical observations on things going. Sun’s Gonna Shine One Day, one of Flora Molton’s truth songs is updated from its Vietnam war era origins to a timeless message of things getting better some day with Phil Wiggins adding his sympathetic harmonica accompaniment. Another favorite track is her rendition of Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues, one of the true blues hits of the late twenties and early thirties. Eleanor is a marvelous singer and guitarist who delivers the performances in a natural manner that contrsts with the sometimes studied approach of some celebrated acoustic blues performers. This release was many years in the making and well worth the wait, and can be obtained from Patuxent Records at

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