North Richmond musicians work to keep the city’s historic blues scene alive
This story aired in the May 22, 2023 episode of Crosscurrents.
I hear a lot of times people say, well you want to keep the blues alive. There's nothing wrong with the blues. Blues is not dead.DeJeana Burkes
I’m in a quiet North Richmond neighborhood, approaching a wood-paneled building called the Men and Women of Valor Center.
From the sidewalk, I get a hint of what’s going on inside, and then I open the door, and I follow the rhythmic guitar into the main hall.
There’s about 50 chairs set up like a church service- but most of them are empty. people are dancing on the carpeted floor, swinging their hips to a full band accompanying tonight’s jam session singers.
And folks like Reggie Rolls and Lady E are eager to talk to me about what this music means to them.
“Everything is derived from the Blues,” Reggie tells me. “If you listen to some of these rappers, a lot of the songs they rap on, it’s the basics. It’s blues. My baby loves me. You know, it feels like someone reaches inside of you and pulls something out. I love it, I love it.”
Lady E says, “Let me tell you something. The Blues is my roots. That’s it. That’s fully explanatory. It’s my roots. When I was a little girl we could go inside of the nightclubs. We could party with the old folks.”
This neighborhood is no stranger to live blues. And the North and Greater Richmond Blues Foundation throws events like this one to remind the town of its legacy.
“Actually this venue was the old playboy club in the blues scene,” DeJeana Burkes, founder of the Blues Foundation, tells me.
“When you’ve got Burkes, it works.”
She’s dabbled in all sorts of work, from owning a travel cruise business to selling cosmetics to advocating for survivors of domestic violence. On the side, she sang the blues.
Then in 2020, she got a call.
“Jimmy McCracklin's daughter reached out to me, she’s seen me do festivals and things like that.”
Jimmy was a world renowned blues singer who spent most of his career in North Richmond, and he was about to celebrate his 100th birthday. But DeJeana learned that not many people knew about him or his city’s history. She saw a need, and an opportunity.
“So that was my idea, to try to bring the history that I had heard so much about Richmond, to the forefront because I felt like we were being treated like a stepchild.”
She says, “you hear about Oakland's Blues scene, you hear about Hayward, Russell City's blue scene, you hear about San Francisco, but you didn't hear anything about Richmond. And Richmond was one of the biggest ones.”
So she started the Blues Foundation. She throws events like tonight’s jam session to remember the scene and its roots- to let newcomers find their way in, and meet pros who’ve been playing the Blues for decades.
One of those pros is Henry Oden. He's lived in Richmond all his life. He’s also a world-renowned bassist, and one of the last surviving Blues musicians from Richmond’s golden years.
Henry recounts that “at one time, going through the neighborhoods in Richmond you could hear music, you could hear guitar players playing in their houses. You could hear the piano playing from people’s homes. You could hear people singing in their houses.”
He says that Black workers from the South and Midwest brought the blues to Richmond.
“Richmond was like a fish hook. Fish hook is always at the end of a line, huh? It was the end of the line for Pullman Porters,” the men who worked on sleeper trains that ran across the U.S.
From the late 1800s through World War II, almost all pullman porters were Black men, originally from the South.
“And when they came to Richmond,” Henry tells me, “they looked around and saw the Black community that was here and then they said, oh, here's land, here's opportunity.”
The porters shared job opportunities from Richmond’s shipyard and factories with friends and family. That brought an influx of African Americans from across the U.S., but mostly from Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Louisiana.
He says that when “they brought themselves, they brought their culture. When they brought their culture, they brought their music.”
What developed was a style called the West Coast Blues. If Chicago blues grew out of Mississippi, the music here had roots in Texas country blues.
Henry says you can hear it in the music.
“Here's an example.” He shares a song he wrote and played called Uncle Joe.
Richmond musicians often dumped the harmonica, and added loud instruments, like electric guitar, strong piano, and saxophone. The music had a “draggy” beat and a raw sound, an energy that came from Texas and Louisiana Black musical traditions.
Blues clubs were all over Richmond.
“I feel like an archaeologist because I can show you where all the relics are,” Henry says as he reminisces about his old neighborhood.
Right next to the train tracks in North Richmond “you would've found Tappers Inn, you would've found the home of High Tide Harris.”
And around the corner, “There's the medical center now, but that's where Minnie Lou’s was.”
One block up, on Grove Street, you would have found the Brown Derby and the Lone Star.
“There was the Manhattan Club that sat on the corner of Second and Barrett.”
The was also the Slick Chick, Little Ricky’s and last but not least, “the Velvet Hammer. That's where I first saw Little Joe Blue, you know, opened up the door and looked in-
-and Henry and his friends got kicked out of the club.
“We were sixteen,” he laughs, “and had no business. But hey, we wanted to hear the blues.”
The scene was huge but it wasn’t easy to get a foot in the door.
“Richmond had this notorious rep that if you came to the jam session and didn’t play well, that somebody might meet you outside and take your instrument, and give it to somebody who could play.”
Henry had to prove himself. When he was sixteen, he went to his first jam session. the other musicians just laughed.
“They counted off a tune that was so fast I could hardly keep up, but I kept up,” he remembers. “From that they said, well, hey. Obviously he can play. And so they were nice to me thereafter. And the guy who had been on the scene as the bass player, I took his place.”
More than 50 years later at tonight’s jam session, Danielle Wansley tells me she got her start drumming with Blues singer Margie Turner almost the exact same way.
She tells me that during one jam session, in 2012, “the director liked what I was doing, and he just had fired his other drummer. And my uncle called me and was like you busy on Monday nights? I was like nope, let’s do it.”
She’s been playing with them ever since. But these days her story is more of an anomaly than the norm. All of the clubs from Richmond’s blues district closed down, and there are a few theories about what exactly happened to cause the Blues scene to diminish so much.
The sixties were a time of upheaval– Richmond saw an increase in unemployment rates and drugs introduced into the community. Local businesses lost their customer base as richer families moved out into nearby suburbs, and entire blocks closed for “Urban Renewal” projects. Most of them never reopened, including Blues district clubs.
And new forms of music seemed to match the energy and politics of the time. R&B was huge, then Soul. For young people, Blues started to sound like their parents and grandparents’ music.
DeJeana Burkes of the Blues Foundation puts some of the blame on disco.
“I heard disco caused a lot of problems for a lot of musicians,” she laughs.
Clubs could just hire DJs, not a whole band. She says some musicians in Richmond ran them out of town, “and disco just had its little window and then [claps] bye.”
She says an even bigger hit to Blues in North Richmond was cultural appropriation.
“This is Roots music. It was started by African Americans down in the South, the migrant workers,” but she says look at Blues festivals today, and most of the headliners are White, not Black.
“So for Black people, a lot of times in the venues where we should be able to play, we're not invited because the older white boys with the money, they can buy three and four guitarists. They get these gigs and they set up the events. For African Americans, I think a lot of 'em have looked at, well the Blues is dead because number one, don't nobody want to hear that old music. But yet still they're not understanding that somebody else took it over and is using it in the way that they want to.”
The Foundation wants to reclaim Richmond blues, for future generations.
DeJeana’s ultimate goal “is to have a cultural center that focuses on that history of Richmond.”
On a personal level, the Foundation’s work gives DeJeana hope for the future.
“When I worked in domestic violence,” she shares, “I dealt with so much mess, so much upheaval, so much hatred, so much sadness. And now I don't have to do that. I look to see people smile and be happy, and then take it out into the community to give to the other people.”
For musician Henry Oden, the blues embodies both sadness, and joy. And that’s why it continues to matter.
“Blues is more than just the music,” he says with a smile. “Blues is a feeling and it's an emotion. And as long as we have that emotion and that feeling and that disparity and that condition, there's going to be blues, everyday on Sunday.”
He says the music will be interpreted differently, but it will always be here.
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