Guest Columns


Celebrating the life of ‘Pinetop’ Perkins, and blues music from Mississippi’s Delta

I was hoping to get a few more Civil War columns into The Colorado Statesman before breaking the news to Jody that I want to double up as a Mississippi Delta/Chicago blues columnist/ critic/commentator.

Although I have a backlog of relevant and (hopefully) interesting “Civil War Then and Now” topics in the pipeline for future columns, this week I’m thinking about music, because we lost one of our great Mississippi Delta Blues musicians, pianist “Pinetop” Perkins.

Pinetop passed away on Monday, March 21, at the age of 97. So at some point in the very near future, please find and enjoy his timeless rendition of “Pinetop’s Boogie-Woogie” or any number of other classic blues tunes he recorded over the years. Enjoy this indigenous and uniquely American music form, which is not only magnificent in its own right but also (obviously) the recognized progenitor of Rock and Roll.

Pinetop was born as Joe Willie Perkins in Belzoni, Mississippi, on July 13, 1913. He acquired the moniker “Pinetop” in the early 1950s, stemming from his definitive live and recorded versions of the song “Pinetop’s Boogie-Woogie.” The original song was actually written by another “Pinetop” — a gifted bluesman and a father of the “Boogie Woogie” piano style named Clarence “Pinetop” Smith (1904-1929). Sadly, Smith was killed at the age of 25 (March 15, 1929) by a “stray” bullet during a fight in a Chicago dancehall, leaving behind only 11 recorded songs.

“Pinetop” Perkins
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Perkins started his blues career playing primarily the guitar. However, that instrument left Pinetop’s repertoire in the mid 1940s at a juke joint in Helena, Arkansas. Legend has it that a jealous (or otherwise annoyed) chorus girl pulled out her knife and slashed the tendons in Perkins’ left arm, after which he concentrated on piano.

In my opinion, music is humankind’s common language, about universal themes and rhythms, which are connected to one another throughout the time/history and place/geography around the world. For example, the blues originated as an African American music form in the post-Civil War Deep South, soon migrating north along with significant portions of the population, to Chicago, St. Louis, New York, and other cities. Looking backward from the turn of the 18th to 19th centuries, the blues is firmly rooted in the spiritual and workday music of America’s 4 million slaves. Looking forward to the present and beyond, it’s equally clear that the blues is part of the bedrock of many different types of world music.

In this vein, “Pinetop” Perkins, like so many other great musicians from the blues, jazz, and rock communities, not only leaves behind his own great music to enjoy, but also a wealth of connections, friendships, and interrelationships to other musicians and their music. Thus, a celebration of Perkins’ life and career leads us not only to more obscure colleagues like “Pinetop” Smith, but to other immortal blues musicians, such as Muddy Waters, Earl Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Nighthawk, Sonny Boy Williamson, Hubert Sumlin, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, to name just a few.

While “Pinetop” was certainly a special musician who will be greatly missed by blues fans throughout the world, we should also acknowledge that part of his allure in recent years stemmed from the fact that he was “the guy who’s still alive.” In other words, because of his longevity, he kept a sense of connection back to other blues greats, who likewise provided threads back to their own predecessors.

Perhaps because the blues as a distinct music genre is only slightly older than “Pinetop” himself, it’s easy to work backwards and find oneself entranced by the earlier music of Charlie Patton, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Son House, Robert Johnson, and of course, all those “blind guys” (Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Joe Taggart, Blind Roosevelt Graves, and the still spry/still performing Blind Boys of Alabama).

At various points over the course of his career, Perkins recorded in the studios of well known blues producers like the Chess Brothers and Sam Phillips, and on labels such as Alligator, Arhoolie, Rounder, and Blind Pig. While he enjoyed recognition within the industry for his piano-playing abilities, his career didn’t actually kick into high gear until he was recruited in the 1960s by Muddy Waters, as a replacement for Otis Spann.

Likewise, in researching Clarence “Pinetop” Smith, I discovered that he played with some of my favorite early 19th century blues musicians, such as Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Meade “Lux” Lewis, and Albert Ammons. Indeed, because so many blues musicians collaborated with one another for both live performances and recording sessions, it’s hard not to quickly get swallowed into the mainstream currents of this genre from the records of just about any individual artist.

Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Animals, Led Zeppelin, and many other British rockers of the late 1950s and early 1960s figured out the treasure trove of music and talent available to them through America’s accomplished Bluesmen, such as Muddy, Otis Rush, Howlin’ Wolf, Son House, Buddy Guy, and others.

In America, Elvis, along with a few of his contemporaries, such as Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis, were also taking advantage of this rich genre which had previously only rarely “crossed over” from “race records” to more “mainstream” radio play. And of course, the key “crossover” from “race records” to broader appeal was Chess recording artist Chuck Berry.

So, as I attempt to locate my Civil War column by following my own breadcrumbs back through the topics of British and American rock and roll, the blues, and the passing of “Pinetop” Perkins this week, it dawns on me that this very American and very durable, popular, and influential music form is yet another direct descendant of America’s Original Sin of Slavery. Which seems to me to be an optimistic indicator of the possibility of redemption and capacity of a nation to improve itself over time.

Patrick Teegarden, we now know, is an aficionado of the blues in addition to being a Civil War buff. For the record, his references for this column included Bill Dahl’s overview of “Pinetop” Perkins’ music career in The All Music Guide to The Blues (3rd Edition, 2003), Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, by Elijah Wald (Amistad Paperback Edition, 2005), and “my own, absurdly large, personal blues collection.”