Robert Curtis Smith – Clarksdale Blues
Mark and I stumbled upon this record a few weeks ago, and both instantly fell in love with it. The songs and the singer sound like a cross between Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt. Intriguing, no? Mark bought the record, and I wrote down the title so that I could research it from home. Unfortunately, I could not find any information on it. Not even so much as a picture of the album cover exists anywhere on the Internet. So, I had Mark digitize it for me (thanks, Mark!) and we photographed the cover and side-A label. I’ve also taken the time to transcribe the back cover of the album, which contains some biographical information about the artist. Be forewarned, the album has not been digitally cleaned, so it contains some hisses and pops. I don’t think it detracts from the listening experience, but you’ll be the judge, I guess…
“Robert Curtis Smith is a hard working farm laborer in upper Mississippi. He supports a wife and eight children by driving a tractor ($3 a day top) during the farming season, by hunting rabbits in the winter. He has a borrowed guitar with which he sings of women he has loved, lost, discarded, or found worthy of erotic praise.
Unlike most of the young men of his generation, he reflects the softer style — if not always the songs — of the older blues. It is a style that bends the voice to the subtle punch of rhythmic shading of the round-hole acoustical box, and a tradition that stands in a 1:1 relationship with the facts of country life, though not revealing those facts so much as assuming they are common experience between the singer and his audience. The songs are mostly women blues but they leave the listener aware of broader discontent.
Smith is a dismally underprivileged working man who was born, raised and helplessly lives yet in the Yazoo basin country of Mississippi. Only 31 years old at the time this album was recorded, Smith’s musical growth was somewhat apart from the era of the great Delta bluesmen which produced such intense personalities as Charlie Patton, Tommy McClennan, Muddy Waters, and Robert Johnson. By the time Smith began playing in 1948, the first great blast of the electric guitar was being heard in the rhythm-and-blues boom. THe older Mississippi players had died, one off, or stopped playing to seek grace with the Baptist Church. Most of the younger men were clustered around 40-watt amplifiers on Chicago’s South Side.
But from a brother-in-law who taught him fundamentals, and from a few players who were still around, Smith absorbed such key pieces as Catfish Blues and I’m Going Away. Where personal contact left off, a cache of phonograph records brought him songs, including See My Chauffeur he derives from Memphis Minnie’s famous record. Though his personal inventiveness and grasp of life is strongly felt, Smith is not one of the individualistic giants. Rather he exemplifies the broad traditional base from which they spring, and which takes its substance from the countless singers who both borrow and contribute, unreflectively seeking personal pleasure in a music which is essentially a community pastime.
While his contemporaries have switched to the amplified guitar, the cost of such devices places them beyond SMith’s means. His annual earnings range far below Mississippi’s incredibly low per capita income of $1173per year. He is frankly proud that only one of his children have died, and it is with something akin to genius that he manages to support his family with the conditions that prevail. The status quo in his world is to sap the strength and exploit the weakness of Negroes. It is a far more vicious crime than the occasional lynching since the end result is the massive weakening of a strong people. Ideas of inferiority are fed to him hand-in-hand with conditions that patently are inferior. Badly deprived of constitutional prvilege and the minimum wage, and lacking the know-how to correct his situation, Smith’s way of life is astonishingly out of step with modern times. Ironically, just as few Americans really grasp the way in which such a struggle is conducted. Smith’s telling of it is laced with giggles of disbelief at those who are surprised at the status quo in the Yazoo basin.
With asort of suicidal fervor this stronghold of the Old South clutches its ancient tradition of bondage to the worn soil. Over half Mississippi’s people still earn their living from the land. A few earn it very well with Federal price supports bucking up the farm economy. But most earn it so poorly that tools such as Lynch Law are still needed to quell their discontent. Mississippi claims four of the five lynchings that occurred within the past decade. Two of these, the community murders of Emmett Till, an arrogant 14-year year boy, and George W. Lee, a 51-year old prospective voter, occured only a few miles from SMith’s home. WIth such demonstrations occurring from time to time, in Mississippi employer-employee relationships take on a special tone.
Commenting on one aspect of this in Blues Fell This Morning, Paul Oliver writes, ‘A local plantation owner who requires temporary labour goes bail for the prisoners in the jail who are then indebted to him for this sum and must pay it in their labour at a rate fixed by himself. Many Negroes in Mississippi where this has been especially prevalent have found themselves unwittingly forced into crop-lein slavery.”
Not only may the country jail be used as a hiring hall but as in the case of a land owner named Roy FLowers who Smith describes as ‘rich man, but he don’t pay nothing,’ it may also be used to settle disputes. ‘He don’t argue with you. He’s got other arrangements for that. Anytime anything goes wrong he dislike, why he’ll go and have you picked up and held for so long — Till you decide that you’ll try, then he’ll get you out.’ Flowers’ property south of Clarksdale includes a magnificent home whose balconies are fringed with wrought iron, and a manicured plot of ground in which a giant white marble tomb already marked ‘Flowers’ stands as a premature monument to himself. Flowers’ waiting tomb is a constant source of humor and anticipation to those who live along the Sunflower River.
…Smith has tried twice to leave Mississippi. One attempt took him to Chicago and a brief confused time with relatives in an industrial town where jobs for the unskilled are scarce and waiting for them impossible while his family went without aid. Another effort took him to Texas on a rumor of work that turned out false. Sadly lacking in even such bare knowledge as how to seek jobs in an unfamiliar place, Smith returned to Mississippi, walking the last 80 miles of the way home, his strongest memory of Texas being the jack rabbits which had sustained him there.
A few years later a chance meeting with Chris Strachwitz of the Big 6 Barber Shop in Clarksdale led to this album and Smith’s voice and guitar being heard beyond his circle of neighbors. For those new listeners who can not by any stretch of the imagination put themselves in the position of having to feed eight children from Mississippi’s diminishing rabbit population, it is important to bear in mind Smith’s plight is only part of the story. There is sadness which the story teller wears as a mask that can never be peeled away, but behind that mask is the warm chuckle of a joyous spirit, a voice that sings not only Council Spur Blues but exuberantly shifts into I Feel So Good. Unlike many a more fortunate blues singer, there is little self-pity in this man even as he looks forward to next winter’s cold and hunger. There is instead a dogged will to find moments of good.
Notes by Mack McCormick
Produced by Kenneth S. Goldstein and Chris Strachwitz”
Robert Curtis Smith
MediaFire Download Link
01. Put Your Arms Around Me
03. Rock Me Mamma
04. Council Spur Blues
05. I Feel So Good
06. I’m Going Away
07. Ain’t That Loving You, Baby
08. Get A Real Young Woman
09. See My Chauffer
10. Sunflower River Blues
11. Katy Mae
12. Goody, Goody
13. Can You Remember Me
14. I Hate To Leave You With Tears In My Eyes
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