Wichitan musician/writer Pat O'Connor talks about Kansas 'Outlaw' blues scene, Charles Plymell, and his books

"Blues lyrics are a folkloric story in a form borrowed from European folk music. The African American treatment of this form became the blues and the inherent moan mirrored the anguish of modern times when technology threatened extinction rather than neighboring tribes or natural catastrophe."

Patrick J. O'Connor:

Blues from 37° 41′ 20″ N97° 20′ 10″ W

Native Wichitan, Patrick O'Connor is owner and publisher of Rowfant Press. Among other grants he has received are the Folk Arts Apprenticeship Grant Patrick O'Connor (Blues) Kansas Historical Society and National Endowment for the Arts 1996-1997 and the Sound Meter Grant Program, American Motorcyclist Association 2014. O’Connor’s involvement in many projects, over many years, includes many music and art projects for Wichita and throughout the state. In 2014, he organized the James Mechem Remembrance, hosted by KAC D5 member Diane Wahto. His performances are as varied as his projects. They include being the pianist for several local and are theater productions. Also, he was the guitarist on Outlaw Blues CD by Tony Moffeit, blues poet, and receiving a National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship. He accompanied Moffeit at the Poetry Rendezvous, Great Bend, 2003-04. O’Connor belongs to the Associate Royal Photographic Society, Royal Historical Society, Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Poetic Genius Society, President Kansas Folklore Society, Wichita Irish Cultural Association; and Directory of Writers: Poets & Writers. He has also been involved with Wichita schools and arts education and has many academic publications.                            Photo © by Phil Scalia

Pat O'Connor was taught to play piano by a nun in first grade at St. Joseph’s School. He has been playing blues piano since the late 1960s and has performed in many of the city’s finest dives. O’Connor studied blues under one of the region’s best harp and guitar men, the late Harmonica Chuck, in a program sponsored by the Kansas Historical Society in 1998. Director of "The Tradition of Blues in Wichita: African Americans Tell Their Stories" and Kansas African American Museum and Kansas State Interpretive Traveling Exhibit (1996-1997). In 1999 received the Keeping the Blues Alive award. Patrick J. O’Connor has taught courses on the blues at Wichita State University and at Friends UniversityHe is the perfect author for Wichita Blues: Discovery, a book with 15 photos that takes a serious look at the blues and the Wichita musicians who contributed to this jazz form. O’Connor examines the early African American neighborhood of Wichita, the club scene and the blues music that drew people in and made them coalesce into a community. Much of the rest of the book consists of transcripts of interviews with Wichita blues legends Glonquez Brown, Erick Robinson and Harmonica Chuck, Berry Harris and Henry Cole. The face value of this book is a study of blues music in Wichita. But a deeper value is the face of the African American community in Wichita. The study of the music of this ethnic group is as great a contribution to Wichita and Kansas literature as the music itself. He’s also write a lot articles about the blues scene and Wichita’s community. Pat worked like session musician on Bill Garrison's CD (2000). Also, shared the stage with poet Tony Moffeit, and had a role pianist and actor (Terry) in The Blues Brothers at Cabaret Old Town in Wichita.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in the Blues and how has changed your life?
As a teen in the 1960s I heard Koerner, Ray and Glover, Leadbelly, and other blues tied to the folk revival. I wanted in. I already played piano and bought a guitar to learn bottleneck. The blues focused my efforts at self-expression.

What were the reasons that you started the Blues/Jazz/Folk researches? How do you describe your sound?

My degree is an MA in Communications. For my Final Project, I wrote a survey on blues, differentiating urban and rural. I also went into the studio and recorded musical examples to bolster the text. Later, I decided to write about my interests for academic publication. These are blues and the underground—beats and hippies. My sound?...Primitive; upbeat...

"So much good advice—when you are young, keep your ears open. Skip James sang “The old people taught me, Lord, what I never did know.” A lot of bad advice too. Develop your spirit to tell the difference." (Pat O'Connor, Photo © by Phil Scalia)

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

Muff Winwood, A&R at Island Records.  1971. I played a blues demo for him. After a couple of songs, He asked “Is it all like this?” When I said yes, he told me I was five years too late. Nobody was buying blues. Harmonica Chuck (1935-1998), African American bluesman from Oklahoma. 1993. Interviewed him about Wichita blues for a study and later apprenticed myself to him in a program sponsored by the Kansas Historical Society. I learned a lot from Chuck.

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the “Blues” mean to you? 

Old blues lyrics (1920s and ‘30s) were fun to learn and seemed close to what was going on in the 1960s. We looked back a lot in that decade. The blues is an African-American treatment of British and Irish folk music.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past?

Artistry of story-telling.  A blues song is not a vehicle for electric guitar virtuosity, using the verses as a “break” between solos!

What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Like Willie Brown says, “Can’t tell my future, can’t tell my past.”  I don’t worry about it, and hope is a thing you cultivate to keep you producing.

How started the thought of Outlaw Blues Society?

Thank you for asking me to take part and congratulations on your Ambassadorial Appointment with the Blues Hall of Fame. Not too often I get to converse with an ambassador…

The Outlaw Blues Society came into being in answer to the general decay of blues performance, in blues society sponsored events and in clubs; also the lack of study of history in many blues societies. The societies have become live-music societies. We hope to do our part by studying original blues and the historical significance within their creation.  Another important tenet: low volume! Why be a slave to technology? Just because they have 4000 watt amps, why punish the audience? 40 watts used to do the trick in the 1950s.

"Blues is a retrogressive music."

What characterize society’s philosophy and mission?

Membership is open to all (unless there is serious opposition within the ranks), and there is no Board of Directors. Members control the Society. We have local meetings every month or so, and non-members can attend. We play blues and talk about the old masters; and we trace the history of blues in our community.

You had pretty interesting Blues articles and an e-book about the Wichita Blues. Where did you get that idea?

In my reading, I saw that blues was taught in schools. I designed a course on the blues for Wichita State University in the Anthropology department (undergraduate) and relished showing off the little-played music of Son House, Charlie Patton, Big Maceo and others.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues music and culture? What is the best advice has given you?

From the recordings and from my interviews to some extent. I didn’t have a chance to talk to the heavy hitters in blues music. There is some universality in themes but I never was in the big time arenas.

So much good advice—when you are young, keep your ears open. Skip James sang “The old people taught me, Lord, what I never did know.” A lot of bad advice too.  Develop your spirit to tell the difference.

Which was the best and the worst moment of your research and your interviews with local musicians?

Best times were when I bridged the gap between being a nosy white guy and the understanding that people really cared about their lives and performance styles. Worst was seeing the poverty and bad health many of them suffered. (Photo: Pat & Harmonica Chuck)

"The Outlaw Blues Society came into being in answer to the general decay of blues performance, in blues society sponsored events and in clubs; also the lack of study of history in many blues societies. The societies have become live-music societies."

Are there any memories of all these GREAT BLUESMEN which you’d like to share with us?

In 1998, I took part in the Master Artist Program of the Kansas Historical Society, essentially apprenticing myself to Harmonica Chuck and getting a grant for him to receive $50 per 18 lessons. I backed him up on stage on electric piano during this time and recorded all of the sessions for the Society. Chuck is in the book; one of two practitioners of rural blues out of the 19 interviewed.

Which memory from recording performances of blues musicians from Wichita's scene makes you smile?

The last recording I did was of Albert Tucker, setting up the session in his home over the phone. When I showed up, he was surprised to see that I was white. He was also a rural bluesman.

What is the “feeling” you miss most nowadays from the old days of Blues and what experiences in life make someone a Bluesman?

You can’t go back. Thankfully electronic recording came into being. You can’t write blues notation! The blues created bluesmen and women in the guise of very modern treatment of real old songs. The themes were modern, if the music was dated. It is basic and fulfilled a need in the African American populations. Later, whites realized that it was the sum essence of rock. Not jazz. Blues and jazz I look at as opposites. You don’t start in blues and graduate to jazz! You might go through blues exercises and then move into what you were always after--jazz. Blues is folk music; jazz is urban music.

Are there any memories from the legendary Moody's Skidrow Beanery which you’d like to share with us?

I only went there a few times when I was 16-17. My buddies from high school who played in a rock band (the Outcasts) opened for Allen Ginsberg when he read there in 1966. Name had been changed to The Vortex). I sensed there was another world that you couldn’t see on TV. Found it the next year at the Blackout Tavern in Wichita.

"You can’t go back. Thankfully electronic recording came into being. You can’t write blues notation! The blues created bluesmen and women in the guise of very modern treatment of real old songs. The themes were modern, if the music was dated. It is basic and fulfilled a need in the African American populations." (Photo: Moody's Skidrow Beanery jug band & Lewis Cowdrey)

Make an account of the Blues -and especial in Wichita- nowadays. Do you know why Wichita is connected to the Blues / Jazz culture?

I can’t say. I live here and am too close to it. The same with the New Poetry associated with the time of the Beats. People say Wichita had an influence. I know Charles Plymell put the spotlight on Wichita. The spotlight followed him around! He came close to being arrested here one night in the 1960s for carrying a water pistol. Then 30 years later, the Governor gave him an award.

How import was the role of The Wichita Vortex Group and local Beat cats in Blues and Jazz scene?

Beats were into jazz--maybe urban blues occasionally--but jazz. It fit their anomie.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?

The blues is still being explored. It is a little over 100. I don’t see it being here forever.

Why did you think that the Blues Poetry continues to generate such a devoted following?

If you have a good track behind you and keep the message simple, people will respond.

How do you describe WICHITA BLUES traditional and what characterize Wichita’s blues philosophy?

The book I did answers that question. Oklahoma migration to the aircraft plants and other employment opportunities in Wichita gave the city a lot of performers.

What's the legacy of Blues in world culture and civilization?

Bringing once again the music of African Americans into the mainstream culture--making Elvis famous!

"The blues is an African-American treatment of British and Irish folk music."

Of all the people you’ve meet, who do you admire the most? What is the best advice ever gave you?

Working musicians are some of the best. You can read them like a book. They have to play to get through life.

What’s the difference between a good blues musician and a bluesman, who lives the experience through blues?

Dazzling guitar technique is extremely off-putting to me A real blues musician tells a story. A lot of blues these days has lyrics that serve only to separate the guitar solos. Listen to the early blues greats. Some of them were terrific on their instruments but the songs told a story.

When we talk about blues, we usually refer to memories and moments of the past. Apart from the old cats of blues, do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

Perceptions of the audience determines if a song is “real blues.”  There is nothing worse than telling younger fans that they lived too late. Blues is a retrogressive music. You either try to recreate a specific song or a style. This is evolving into something the future can use--”Future Blues” by Willie Brown comes to mind.  It is worth listening to.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Robert Johnson dies of old age!

Do you believe that there is “misuse”, that there is a trend to misappropriate the name of blues?

Commercialization in music is rampant--has been from the beginning. People are smart enough to find the right musician to listen to--unless they aren’t, and then it doesn’t matter.

"Beats were into jazz--maybe urban blues occasionally--but jazz. It fit their anomie." (Photo: Cover of Wichita Vortex Sutra, by Allen Ginsberg & The Last Of Moccasins, by Charles Plymell)

A meeting point for people of all ages who are wild at heart, and favorite among hipsters, Wichita is ahead of its time as it embraces. Why this city was a Mecca of avant-garde people?

I think for this answer, a careful study of the literature of those from the city, and about the city, should be studied. Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra” is a good starting place. Also Charles Plymell’s Last of the Moccasins, which is my particular favorite. Living here, I can only guess.  In the 20th century, you could make money here but it was culturally devoid. The hollow dream. That’s how my ancestors came: chance of a job.

We hope to add to the change that is taking place in things to do here—the Outlaw Blues Society is a comforting entity that helps the members and helps the blues musicians. This is a concept we would like to see spread around the world in members starting chapters. Musicians are the last to get paid!

What is the legacy of Wichita Blues?

Legacy is the power of blues—no matter the talent. As long as you are sincere and fairly adept, Wichita will listen. Blues resonates here because of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s: migration, hard times, sick earth.

What touched (emotionally) you from the local blues scene and circuits?

Everyone I interviewed (19 in all) had a compelling story. They were story-tellers who used music. And Wichita saw great national talent when the trains ran through town because it was 150-200 miles from any major city.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

San Francisco summer of 1967 (I was there at that time but want to go back).

"Legacy is the power of blues—no matter the talent."

What is the impact of Blues and Jazz on literature, and to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Another good query. Many of the African Americans I interviewed remarked on and took part in the equalizing aspect of music. They performed, it was good and added to the conviviality, and they were accepted. There will always be cultural differences—that is what makes the world! Different approaches to day-to-day living. Each culture has something to add. Without the civilization of Ancient Greece, we would still be in mud huts. Blues lyrics are a folkloric story in a form borrowed from European folk music. The African American treatment of this form became the blues and the inherent moan mirrored the anguish of modern times when technology threatened extinction rather than neighboring tribes or natural catastrophe.

How you would spend a day with the Devil in Wichita’s Juke Joint?

I like the books of Sam Charters. I would not associate with the Devil. And I don’t buy into the mythology of the Devil aiding blues players. I think the use of this came from the condemnation of blues by the church.

What would you ask Alan Lomax?

I would ask Alan Lomax “Why did you sit on information all those years that other researchers were looking for and that could have furthered understanding of the blues?” But he did some good, too. His father John was sued by Leadbelly over the two taking 2/3rds royalty for Leadbelly’s songs. Of course, who did Leadbelly get them from?  It made John Lomax look a little shady.

What would you say to Memphis Minnie? What advice would you give to Leadbelly?

I would say to her “Don’t put that thing on me!” Leadbelly--don’t lose your temper.

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