Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Memphis Gold's Story Part 1

Charles Solomon, Memphis Gold, unknown, Charlie Sayles
at Whitlow's on Wilson in Arlington Virginia Feb 1998
In August 2009, Joe Kessler and I had a chance to interview Chester Chandler, the blues performer known as Memphis Gold for the Dutch publication Block. This interview was translated into Dutch for publication, but we have felt it would be helpful to have the interview in English. Joe transcribed it and left our questions out. I was hoping I would have the full transcript, but apparently I was only sent what was sent to Block. There was substantial material on Elder Smith and Memphis' experiences in Church as a youth that is not in this transcript. This is the first of several parts that will be running the next few days. I should point out that interviews with Memphis Gold have appeared in Jefferson Blues, Blues & Rhythm and Living Blues.

I should note that Memphis has a new CD available on Stackhouse, Pickin’ High Cotton. Ordinarily I would recview this CD but since my photo graces the cover, it would be inappropriate. Anyway, now Memphis Gold tells his story. This full Engish interview is copyright Joe Kessler and Ron Weinstock

Memphis Gold at  3
Photo © Memphis Gold

I was born March 4th 1955 and I was the 8th son of 14 kids, the 13th youngest of 14 kids - I have a sister younger than I am. Sometimes they see her as more mature than me because she’s all sanctified and all that. She carries herself a lot more mature than I do, you know what I’m saying? She’s never really left Memphis; she’s just kind of steadily been married, raising kids. And I’ve always been on the wild, I’m the only one I’m kind of like the prodigal son.

Well my parents—my father, he’s from Tennessee and his mother’s name was Mary Freeman, and her mother’s name was Rachel Lee and her mother’s name was Harriet Hemming and her mother’s name was Sally Hemming. And, it is so ironic that I’m here in Virginia. I think there are about 3,000 sons out in Tennessee, and I’m the only one here in Virginia.

She’s the Sally Hemming from the Thomas Jefferson stories. Harriet left Monticello with her brother Beverly around 1822. She met one of Robert H. Lee’s Mulatto… They went to Jackson Tennessee as a free people, given thirty dollars and a buggy. I don’t know why they chose to go south to Tennessee. He was on the board of and a founder of a little Methodist college, Lane College. They were educated. His name was Robert H. Lee and they had a daughter Rachel Lee. She married a Freeman. Then my grandmother Mary Freeman (daughter of Rachel Lee) married Dan Chandler. This is my father’s mother and father.

Now on the other hand, my mother was from Mississippi. They met each other when she was a maid or servant and he was a tree surgeon. They met one day when he was working at a lady’s house (where my mother worked). They got married. My mother was in Memphis at the time though she originally was from Mississippi – Stovall’s Plantation. Muddy Waters was there when she was there. She used to see him and when I started playing, she used to tell me stories about seeing Muddy Waters and hearing Muddy Waters. Also the Normans lived nearby too, Robert Balfour who married into the Norman family – they all know each other. They were all bluesy musicians, especially Dan Norman who could play the Muddy Waters stuff. She used to see Muddy on the Plantation, in house parties, juke joints and around Clarksdale. Muddy was a little older than her. He was born around 1917 and she was born 1924. She used to see John Lee Hooker in town too. She was a young girl or teenager when she used to go out and see them. She may have been a young teenager, but girls were going out early then and even getting married early at 14, 15, 16…

When she married my father, she already knew about the Church of God in Christ. My grandfather, a Chandler, was one of the founders of the church along with C. H. Mason and R. E. Hart. My grandfather was in Bells Tennessee in the early 1900’s – 1920, about 60 miles from Memphis. They were Methodists first before they became Pentecostal.

One guy who used to work for a German Kaiser was Charles H. Mason. He was a preacher that went from town to town, backpacking. My grandfather was already established in his church when Mason asked the name. My grandfather said “The Church of God in Christ.” He had taken that name from Humbolt, TN and Bells TN to Memphis. Mason had access to a lot of money because of the German Kaiser. My father, who was a tree surgeon, cleaned all the land off for the mason temple. They hired him and my brothers to clean all the land off.

My family has been tree surgeons for generations, going back to when they were slaves. They logged and built cabins. The house my father grew up in was a replica of (one of) Robert E. Lee’s house – made like an H (shape) with a long foyer going across with two columns. You could tell the influence of the houses. When I went to Robert E. Lee’s house, it was the same exact thing, so I could tell they (my family) built a replica of it.

My grandfather was a sharecropper. He had a lot of people working for him and around that time, I don’t know how he did it, he acquired 600 acres of land. When I went through the archives in Washington DC, there was a guy named John Chandler, a white guy, and some kind of way my grandmother inherited the land. My grandfather came in and they took over 600 acres in Bells Tennessee.

It was right on the Tenn. River. My father said his family they left for Memphis when there was a big flood that flooded out the cotton fields. That was around 1920. He (my father) worked for the Memphis Light, Gas and Water Company from 1920-1930 as a tree surgeon on the tree trucks. My father and his siblings all moved to Memphis; they walked off and left 600 acres of land. They just left it and later they lost it.

My mother grew up really, really poor. She said it was hard for her in Mississippi, picking cotton all the time. Even when I was five years old, I remember getting into what they called a cotton bus going down to Mississippi to pick cotton. I was a little boy watching the old men playing checkers while the women were out in the fields picking cotton and going up and down the rows. If you couldn’t pick 300 pounds of cotton, you didn’t really make any money. My aunts and uncles would always try to get at least 300 pounds in a day – that’s a lot of cotton – to make some money.

They were singing all kinds of stuff in the fields. The old guys were called field hollerers. They weren’t really singers. And that’s what I consider myself. I’m not really a singer. Sings “Ohhhh Somebody”

I had an uncle, I could sit on the back of the tractor with him and there was the exhaust pipe that would come up. He would sing by the sounds of the exhaust pipe, different phrases. I remember picking cotton; I am probably one of the last of the cotton pickers before they brought in the machinery. After working all week, the people in Memphis used to go back to Mississippi on Saturdays just to make money (because) there weren’t that many jobs in the city. My mother and aunties used to go back to Northern Mississippi, Olive Branch or Clarksdale and all down 61 there would be a lot of farms. I could tell it was hard for the farmers because there were no more slaves. Everyone had left for the city so they were scraping hard and knew they had to pay people at least two or three dollars a day I expect but the money went a long way back then, especially down south.

I used to see mules. That is how the ice man used to come by and the rag man too. The milk man was on horses. I grew up really, really fast because I was around a lot of old people.

They were singing
Swing Low Sweet Chariot and old slave songs. I can still hear them singing Jesus on the Mainline, tell him what you want. He sings “Glory Glory Hallelujah, since I lay my burden down.” ]They weren’t singing old blues songs or popular songs, they were singing about god and how to get from under oppression. They knew Muddy Waters and knew he went up north, but they were singing what it took to help make it through the day. They were hard workers. I would do my little share. The old guys would sit in the shade drinking moonshine and playing checkers on big checkerboards – chewing tobacco and talking crap.

Going back, I remember (Sister) Rosetta Tharpe with my father on bass and Arizona Danes singing solos. She was a great soloist. Arizona Dranes singing and playing piano solos.

My dad told me he took me to a parade one time and he knew I was going to play music because I was keeping time to the rhythm. So my earliest music was those drumbeats. Then I made my own little guitars and then got a mandolin, they called it a mando-leen. 

(To be continued)

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