Got those Old Dominion blues

Got those Old Dominion blues
March 7, 2010

etting the blues is a universal experience. Playing the blues is not.
Like barbecue (with which it is often identified), blues music tends to vary slightly by region. Those variations include East Coast Blues, Chicago Blues, Texas Blues, Mississippi Delta Blues and Piedmont Blues.
“It depends on a lot of things,” said Gregg Kimball, a historian with the Library of Virginia, “such as what other kinds of music might have been around to serve as an influence.”
In the case of Virginia, a lot. Piedmont blues musicians in the late-19th and early to mid-20th centuries drew not only from traditional 12-bar blues, but also from old-time and country music. What emerged is something that might be called, “blues lite,” at least in comparison to the heavier sounds from the Delta.
“It’s bouncier than Delta blues,” said Kimball, who has brought the traveling exhibit, “Old Dominion Songsters: Traditional Blues in Virginia” to the Lynchburg Museum at the Old Court House, “and you’re liable to hear a banjo or a slide guitar mixed in.”
One of the artists featured in the show (which opened this weekend and consists of 20 large informational panels augmented by various blues relics) is Lynchburg’s Luke Jordan, a familiar downtown figure in the 1920s. Kevin Cleary, who runs a video store in Madison Heights, is perhaps the recognized expert on Jordan.
“Luke didn’t just play the blues,” Cleary said in a 2001 interview. “He was what they called a ‘songster.’ He could play anything you wanted.”
And he could play it in the backseat of your car. According to legend, courting couples used to pick up Jordan on Fifth Street, supply him with (appropriately enough) a fifth of liquor, and Luke would pick and sing from the back seat during a ride to the Peaks of Otter or some other popular destination.
At some point, a local businessman heard Jordan playing on the street for coins and got him a recording session with Victor Records. Out of that came “Pick Poor Robin Clean,” Jordan’s signature recorded tune.
The Piedmont blues style made popular by John Jackson and John Cephus (also included in the exhibit) is difficult to play well, Kimball pointed out.
“The thumb of the right hand goes back and forth in a kind of syncopated rhythm,” he said. “With some of the great players, it actually sounds like two guitars playing at once. You hear echoes.”
The best way for Kimball to explain that is hands-on — literally. An accomplished guitar player, he can not only describe the blues to his audiences, but demonstrate. Kimball, harmonica player Rick Manson and vocalist Sheryl Warner made up their blues trio Cheryl Warner & the Southside Homewreckers, which performed at the exhibit opening on Saturday.
“He has his intellectual side and his talented side,” Lynchburg Museum director Doug Harvey said of Kimball, a longtime acquaintance.
“This project got started back around ‘04,” Kimball said, “when Jan Ramsey of the James River Blues Society and I started trying to get some historic markers placed around the state honoring some of the old Virginia blues players.”
One of the first markers that went up (at the corner of Jefferson and Horseford streets in downtown Lynchburg) honored Luke Jordan, and the recognition campaign began to take on a life of its own.
“We developed a brochure, and then started gathering information to put together this exhibit,” Kimball said.
As he’d suspected, this was easier said than done. Luke Jordan was an early example.
“Like a lot of these guys, he sort of operated on the fringes of society,” said Kimball of Jordan. “The rather grainy photo we have of him is the only one anyone’s ever been able to find.”
“This exhibit is sort of like stone soup,” Harvey said, “a little bit of everything. (Lynchburg attorney) Hal Devening found an old banjo in a barn and contributed it. Jan Ramsey loaned us a bunch of things, and I rummaged around in some closets and came up with some old 78 blues recordings.”
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