A Time For Everything

Have you ever had days when you’ve had dozens of pressing items that need attention, yet somehow you just can’t seem to concentrate, no matter how hard you try?  Your mind just seems to drift.  Today is one of those days for me. My mind is scattered and my thoughts are thrown in a million different directions.  Is it a bad case of spring fever or is it the beginning of something less temporary?

Spring is upon us, along with that annual feeling of “new” and “fresh” that comes with it.  It’s a time of year when everything feels hopeful, especially after coming out of the dark days of winter.  This winter was harsh – not in terms of the weather but in what my spirit endured.  Things seem to come in cycles – the ups and downs of life – careers, finances, relationships – the wins – the losses.  All the stuff that goes into a life well lived.

Today my mind is drifting back to memories of those magical, lazy days that seem to be burned indelibly into memory – a rainy day conversation at a plantation in Mississippi, a long walk through Central Park with a friend on an unhurried autumn day, an afternoon on the beach, lingering long after the crowds had gone, to watch the last glint of light on the water – and so many other memories of life’s “quiet moments”.

These are the days that make up a life well lived.  It’s days like today, when I take time to remember that,  there is indeed a time for everything.  Maybe today is a day I just needed to enjoy the day itself , and welcome the spring – and the hope that comes with it.

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We’ve Lost a Blues Legend – Pinetop Perkins July 7, 1913 – March 21, 2011

Yesterday, legendary bluesman Pinetop Perkins died. Pinetop was 97 years old. He was one of the greatest boogie-woogie piano players ever to strike those keys. I could go on and list all of his awards and accolades because Pinetop has received some of  music’s highest distinctions. He recently received a Grammy, making him the oldest Grammy winner on record bumping George Burns. He had previously been awarded a lifetime achievement Grammy.

But rather than go on and list more of Pinetops achievements, which can be quickly googled, I’d like to share some personal experiences I had with Pinetop over the years. I first met Pinetop and his manager Pat Morgan in 2001 when I was shooting my Delta Bluesmen Project. It was my very first multimedia project where I was shooting still environmental portraits of blues musicians, images and b-roll video of the Mississippi Delta region and interviews of legendary blues musicians from this part of America. I had no idea what I was taking on by myself – I just had this crazy idea that I needed to document these men before they died and I had no time to waste since the youngest was in his 70’s. So, I just decided to do it with the unstoppable enthusiasm of a kid.

When I first contacted Pinetop’s manager Pat to set up an on camera interview with Pine, she quite firmly rejected my request. Pat was very protective of Pinetop and never wanted to overload him with interviews and fan requests and she had already granted an interview to another filmmaker, so I was out of luck. But I was persistent and Pat finally said that I should come to Pinetop’s homecoming party at Hopson’s Plantation in Clarksdale, MS and get what I could catch of Pinetop there. The day of the homecoming, I was allowed to put a lav on Pinetop to get better audio of his interactions with people throughout the day. One reason Pat thought the homecoming would be a good opportunity for me was because Ike Turner was going to be there. Pinetop had taught Ike to play piano during the 1940’s when they were both working at Hopson’s Plantation and this was going to be a true homecoming.

I put the wireless on Pinetop and kind of forgot about it as the day went on. I was roving around the plantation getting great b-roll and then went into the commissary where there was a big music jam going on. I had taken my earphones off outside, but quickly put them back on to protect my hearing in this incredibly loud environment. I dialed the audio way down on the camera mic but Pinetop’s wireless was still loud and clear. All a sudden I heard Pine and Pat talking about giving Ike a little tour and showing him Pinetop’s old sharecropper shack. I glanced around the commissary looking for them and couldn’t see them – I could just hear them. So, I raced outside, camera in hand just in time to see Pat, Pinetop, Ike Turner and a couple of other people walking across the grounds of the plantation headed toward Pinetop’s shack, just as the sun was setting. I caught up to the group and managed to get some great b- roll and audio of this historic moment. With camera running, I followed them inside the shack where Pinetop naturally sat down at the piano and started to play with Ike chiming in. I was in b-roll heaven and just hoping I was getting it right in camera.

After that little tour was over Pat came up to me and told me that she had worked with a lot of photographers and filmmakers over the years but had never seen instincts like mine. She said she was blown away when I just showed up out of nowhere to film this mini event. Then she told me that if I could come by the next morning, I could get an interview with Pinetop. I did come back the next day and spent a memorable morning with Pinetop on the porch of his old shack. I will never forget that morning – the quiet and the warmth of the place and the man and the moment. You can see some of that footage in this 7 minute sample of my film. The still images and video component of that project is still being exhibited around the country.

I’ve stayed in touch with Pat and Pinetop over the years. In 2005 when Pinetop was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Grammy, the producers used some of my interview footage of Pine in his tribute film. I was there with Pinetop and Pat and a whole lot of rock legends like Jerry Lee Lewis, Ike Turner and Jimmi Page. Another memory etched in my mind.

The last time I saw Pinetop was at the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival (aka King Biscuit) in 2009. We were driving somewhere with Pat and she noticed that we had a small army blanket in our car and asked to borrow it for Pinetop that evening. It was a chilly October evening and she didn’t want Pinetop (95 years old then) to get cold that evening as he waited in the wings to go on stage. That night when I was shooting from the photo pit I saw Pinetop sitting just off stage with my army blanket wrapped around him and his customary cigarette hanging out of his mouth. I thought for a second, “I hope he doesn’t burn a hole in my blanket” and then I quickly thought that I wouldn’t mind if he did. In fact if he did burn a hole, I’d be reminded of him every time I saw it. The blanket was returned unscarred – but I still think of Pinetop every time I see that blanket in the back of my car.

I’ll miss you Pinetop. But I sure am glad I got to know you. We’ll always have your music and the wonderful memories you gave us all.

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Sam Carr (1926-2009) Legendary Blues Drummer

I received some bad news today that Sam Carr died.  Sam was a legendary blues drummer – he was also one of the sweetest people that I came to know.  I interviewed and photographed Sam in 2001 at his home in Lula, Mississippi – the heart of the Mississippi Delta.

I was working on my first really ambitious documentary after getting into video the year before.  It was a personal Sam Carr, Lula, MSproject that had I tried to get funding for but then 9/11 happened and money dried up over night.  But for me this was a story that I needed to tell and now because these musicians were in their 70’s and 80’s.  I wanted to tell the story of these musicians apart from their music.  I was interested in their cultural stories – about the area they grew up in. the Delta and how that gave birth to their music – the blues.

My first trip to Mississippi was on a shoestring budget with my heart in the right place and open to whatever I may find.  My husband, my 14 year old daughter and I hit to road for the Mississippi Delta the summer of 2001. To be honest I didn’t have much in the way of a planned itinerary.  I had tried to line up interviews with some of the musicians but the cultural divide between us made it difficult to pin down a schedule.  So I was open to letting serendipity happen and it did.

I had spoken with Sam Carr and his wife Doris who had been with Sam since she was 13 years old until she passed away last year.  Sam was very cordial and kind and was quite willing to be interviewed.  I had pinned him down with a date in a vague sort of way and we all – my husband, my daughter and I – showed up at the proper time.  It was a typical August day in the South – hot and humid.  So we sat on a bunch of mismatched chairs underneath a big old shade tree.  Sam literally talked for hours and I was drawn into his stories about his childhood, his father, Robert Nighthawk a legendary guitarist who didn’t raise Sam, his music, his regrets and his life now during his older years. At times it was difficult to understand him because of his dialect but I listened carefully and his words made permanent marks on my soul.  We talked until evening and it will be an afternoon that I will never forget.

Sam’s words became a big part of my film.  That first interview also convinced me that these stories needed to be told – and by the musicians themselves.  I went on to photograph and interview – Little Milton and Robert Lockwood Jr. – who have also left this earth since my interviews.  We still have Pinetop Perkins – 96 years old, Big Jack Johnson, who played with Sam in the band Jelly Roll Kings, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and Magic Slim. The outcome of my efforts was  a 26 minute film and a still photographic essay about The Delta Blues Musicians that has become a traveling multimedia exhibition.  View the trailor.

I heard this sad news from Pinetop’s manager who I’ve become friends with over the years.  She told me that Sam died quietly with his family and friends around.  She also told me that his family was grateful that I had captured Sam and his stories that day.  And she told me that his epitaph may be “I lived a rich man’s life in a poor man’s shoes” – the last thing that Sam told me that glorious August day.

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