Blues Heroes | CeDell Davies

Fat Possom just has to be the best name for a record label ever.

They’re an American independent record label based in Oxford, Mississippi. They started out by recording relatively unknown blues artists from the North Mississippi region: their most famous being R.L. Burnside.

My personal favourite artist recorded by Fat Possum is CeDell Davies. I first heard his music when I was researching one of his fellow Possum artists Asie Payton.

The first song I heard from CeDell was the first one on this playlist:

CeDell Davies playlist on Spotify

My immediate thought was:

“Whoa, that’s a cool sound! Is that slide guitar, or something else?”

I hadn’t heard anything like it, so I had to know more.

When I looked up the biography details of CeDell Davies, I discovered why his guitar sound was so unique.

I also uncovered an incredible life story.

Cedell Davis with butter knife slide guitar

Born Ellis CeDell Davies in 1926, Arsansas. His mother was known as a faith healer and his father ran a Juke Joint. CeDell showed his musical roots from a very young age in the form of a Diddley Bow (a one-stringed instrument made by nailing a wire to a wall).

Pretty soon he was learning guitar and harmonica, and sneaking off to listen to the music being played in Juke Joints.

Age 10 years, he was unlucky enough to contract Polio. He was left partially paralysed and unable to walk without crutches. Worse yet, he could no longer use his right hand. His solution to this was to turn his guitar upside-down and play with his left hand instead.

He swiped one of his mother’s silver knives and started to use it as a slide:

“Almost anything you could do with your hands, I could do with a knife.”

He told David Ramsey in the Oxford American magazine:

“It’s all in the way that you handle it. Drag, slide, push it up and down.”

In the documentary Blues Back Home (watch clip below) he describes his life as a musician playing all around Helena (a Mississippi river port), including street corners, when he wasn’t lucky enough to have a gig in a Juke Joint or a Honky Tonk.

“Bobby and I used to go around to the clubs, and if they were crowded, the owners would say they didn’t need no band. So we’d offer to play four or five numbers for free, and the owners would say O.K. …

After we’d gotten everyone out onto the dance floor, we’d just stop right in the middle of the scene, take down our stuff and be moving out the door. And the people would say, ‘Isn’t there gonna be no band?’ And then they’d start leaving. Then the owner would stop us and ask what we’d charge to play…and that’s how we’d get the job.

Soon he was appearing on the famous live blues radio show King Biscuit Time with Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Nighthawk, another slide guitarist.

Cedell DavisIn 1957 he was badly injured during a gun brawl in an East St Louis bar. His leg suffered multiple fractures and this time he was left dependent on a wheelchair.

“Whether I could walk or not, I had to find my place in this world, and I found it.”

He continued to play in St. Louis until he was invited to play a regular gig at the Jack Rabbit, Pine Bluff in Arkansas.

He came to the national and international blues arena after Robert Palmer became his admirer.

Palmer described him thus:

“A virtuoso with the table knife. The scraping of the knife along the strings of his bright yellow electric guitar makes a kind of metallic gnashing sound that conspires with his patched-together guitar amplifier and his utterly original playing technique to produce some of the grittiest music imaginable.”

His very first gig in New York City was attended by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and he continued to collect many other guitarist admirers during his lifetime.

CeDell Davies was married twice and had two children, as well as helping to raise stepchildren. He died age 91 from a heart attack on Wedesday, 27th October 2017.

His style of blues evolved into an earthy, urban gritty blues that I will never tire of listening to.

In his words:

“I play blues the way it is. It tells it all.”

 

DJ Tips Part Two | Collect and Select

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, they’ll forget what you did, but they’ll never forget the way you made them feel.”

– Maya Angelou

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Octoblues festival in Germany holds a special place in my heart as a warm and inclusive blues event, and I love that I’m a regular part of it.

This year Katrin and Jered’s vision for the event was to create a journey through the history of blues dance and music. As part of that I was given a chance to teach a class on DJing. It’s one of my favourite topics but I don’t get to talk about it too often. I wasn’t sure how much of an audience there would be, but I was excited to find out!

About twenty people gathered in the café bar with me on Sunday afternoon. I had a cup of tea and shared my thoughts on how to collect, organise and play a personal and authentic collection of music.

I wasn’t sure how it was coming across, but was happy to have lots of questions, so I thought it went well.

Later that evening someone told me they really enjoyed my talk, because I was clearly serious about music, DJing and teaching! That made me laugh!

When a complete stranger takes some time to say something like that, it means a lot, and I’m still smiling in recollection.

Here are my notes from the session. I hope you find them interesting.

How to collect and select music so you build an authentic collection (and you be a better DJ)

1 Collect

As a DJ you need to have a wide range of music that you know really well, and then to be able to find the right song for the right time.

This starts with building an honest and authentic collection.

What do I mean by ‘honest and authentic’?

It needs to be music you connect to. It needs to resonate with you. Ideally your dancers, too, but it all starts with you.

vintage-cassette_1012-260Your collection doesn’t have to be huge to start with. You can grow it steadily over time. Initially, think of your music collection as your mix-tape. It might be small but it’s your starting point.

What songs do you want to listen to over and over?

Spotify is a great tool to try out new music as it allows you to explore and discover using your existing music as a starting point, which is interesting.

Something I love less is that because it’s ‘free’ it can be tempting to ‘over collect’ and not be selective enough. There is always more to discover which makes it harder to ‘commit’. Your taste and style will evolve and change over time, for sure, but you should still have a core collection of awesome music.

Spotify is where I go to listen to songs I gather from a wide range of places – friends, other DJs, music I’ve picked up from films and bars or coffee shops. I put them all into a list of new music.

2 Connect

If I hear something and it ‘hits’ me straight away, I want to buy it, but I wait until I’ve heard it a few times to really make sure.

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Kids dancing on the streets of New York – Helen Levitt

I only buy music that makes me want to dance!

I want the songs I play to have a tangible, physical effect on my body. I would also consider what movement does this bring out in me? Short, quick steps? Longer gliding ones?

Dance teachers build great collections of music to help their students to learn different styles of dance and ways of moving. My primary goal in building my music collection is different.

The most important thing for me is how the music makes me feel. Blues can make me feel happy as well as sorrowful, sensual or wishful and many different nuances in between.

So if I can’t connect with a song on an emotional level, in some way, I’m unlikely to want to play it.

3 Organise

My music is organised inside of iTunes in lots of different playlists, which I use as folders. (iTunes calls them playlists, but I don’t use them in that way.)

Some broad sub-headings are based on genre:

Classic Chicago, Vaudeville, New Orleans jazz, Funk, Gospel, Latin…

Other sub-headings are based on mood:

Power, gentle, happy, beautiful, sexy, hip, cool…

I also have sub-headings by instrument:

Smooth piano, relaxed sax, strings, banjo, clarinet…

c4d9aae5a952324af33b98fef6b0107a--nina-simone-black-artI also have sub-headings for favourite artists, including:

Etta James

John Lee Hooker

Nina Simone

Otis Redding

Al Green

 

4 Listen

Keep all your music in one master playlist and listen to it on ‘shuffle’ as much as you can.  This will help you become really familiar with it.

Listen for what happens when you listen to a song follow the previous one.

Is it a smooth transition?

Or not?

Is it too similar?

Or too different?

Most importantly, does it work?

5 Practice

Find a song you love. Find a song that follows it well. Find another.

Practice keeping one element of the music the same while you change something else.

Here’s an example of a ‘band-break’ set that I played at Berlin Blues Explosion last year. The band playing was the Rag-time Millionaires. You can watch them playing at the start of this music highlights video:

For the band-break I decided that all the songs I played would include piano, and mainly female vocal. I wanted to keep something the same as the band (piano and maybe guitar and bass) and introduce something different (female vocal).

You can listen along here. (Spotify)

Small transitions in style help to keep the dancers on the floor and help to create atmosphere. 

6 Reflect

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Some notes from my DJ journal that I wrote a couple of years ago

Any time spent on self-reflection is incredibly worthwhile. It gives us a chance to acknowledge what went well as well as note something that could be adjusted or improved for another time.

I save all my sets in a folder grouped by year and by the event name. I listen back to every set after I play. I find it useful to think back through the decisions I made. I listen especially to the transitions I made and consider whether I feel they worked well or could have been better.

At weekend events, I also take my DJ journal and make notes after each set. If I’m organising the DJ schedule at the weekend I make notes on that too.

Final thoughts

Reading back through these notes I realise how much I’ve learned from conversations with other DJs I respect and admire.

Annette Kuhnle spent so much time with me when I first started out, and helped me understand the importance of transitions between songs.

Jered Morin generously shared the system and structure of his music files when he barely knew me. He’s always there to listen and offer encouragement when I needed to debrief.

Dan Repsch’s DJ workshop at Livin’ the Blues 2014 helped me think about the moods and feelings of songs. That completely changed the way I play.

Every time I hear another DJ I am inspired by something they play or the way they play it.

I hope this short piece has given you some ideas, wherever you are on your DJ journey, and I’d love to hear your thoughts!

 

Inner workings of a DJ mind | Talking with John Joven about MezzJelly ’17

It might be September but I’m still feeling the glow from my amazing trip to New York for MezzJelly Blues in July. 

Mezzjelly

An offer I couldn’t refuse

When Jered Morin first asked me if I wanted to DJ in New York, I kinda thought he was kidding. But Jered never lies, so naturally, I needed to know more.

I turned out that he and Brooke Filsinger were taking MezzJelly Blues to NYC, and I was invited to be on the team. I checked the dates and when I saw I was free I basically said ‘Yes!’ without really knowing how I was going to manage it.

I’m currently the breadwinner for my family, and I work freelance, so my time is money. DJ-ing might seem glamorous, but it never pays any of my ‘real’ bills. It does give me a little ‘pocket money’ for my never-ending music wish-list and anything left over I spend on the fun I have on my weekends away.  

Anyway… budgetary issues notwithstanding, a gig is a gig, and it’s not every day I get asked to fly to the US to DJ, so I knew that come hell or high water, I would do whatever it took to get myself there.

No Pressure

I nearly had a heart attack when I saw the DJ intro on the MezzJelly Blues website:

DJS YOU LOVE

We have a method at MezzJelly: we engage a small crew of dedicated DJs we all love and trust…and we turn them loose. No holds-barred, no restrictions, just Blues around the clock

Wow, I’d never heard DJing described like that before. I hoped I was up for the challenge.

The Real Deal

Fast-forward 6 months and I could scarcely believe it when I made it through customs and was actually there for real.

One immediate roadblock was that the ATM didn’t like my UK bank cards and the Foreign Exchange would only change cash. Luckily I had enough UK currency to pay for my cab ride into Manhattan ($75!) and there I was, on a DJ gig in New York.

Living the dream

Blues DJ Tracy Karkut-Law.jpg

Friday night at MezzJelly – the first time I ever DJed over Airplay!

There are so many things I could say about my experiences of this trip, and at least a couple I want to come back to in future DJ posts, but for now, I just want to say that I was truly HONOURED to be part of such an incredible team of DJs.

  • John Krieger-Joven (New York)
  • Loreto Agdinaoay Jr. (Ohio)
  • Rayned Wiles (Washington)
  • Miguel Angel Cruz (Barcelona)

I hadn’t met any of them before. They might have been slightly surprised to see a tall, blonde, middle-aged English woman on their team, but if they were they didn’t show it.

Call me nerdy, but I L-O-V-E hearing other DJs, especially as this was my first time in the U.S.!

I couldn’t wait to hear what they threw down!

I loved all the music I heard, and had so many lovely dances. One nice thing was that I wasn’t playing on Saturday night so I got a whole night off! (That doesn’t happen so often on a weekend when I’m DJing.)

But one of the nicest things was Sunday night. It was all about the competition finals, with John Krieger Joven DJing to start the party as well as for the comp.

If there was one set from the weekend that I wanted to put in my pocket and take home with me it was this one.

I told him at the time how much I loved the music he chose to play.

It was seriously groovy!

I was chatting to Jered about it later and this is what he had to say about it:

Joven KILLED the party on Sunday (in the BEST american way) — I don’t think anyone could have played better music in that time slot than what he played.

Back in London, I couldn’t get his music out of my mind.

I messaged him to ask for some of the song details as I wanted to write a blog post about my experience at MezzJelly, but I didn’t realise that he would give me so much material in his reply!

It’s rare for me to be able to actually ‘see’ inside another DJ’s mind, and this allows me to do exactly that.

It’s fascinating to see John’s thought processes in black and white and to apply them to the music he selected for our enjoyment.

John has been kind enough to allow me to reprint our conversation here.

Plus here’s his killer playlist for your listening and dancing pleasure on Spotify:

John Krieger-Joven | MezzJelly ’17 | Sunday Night


A big ask

Dear John,

I hope you’re well.

It was so good to meet you for the first time this weekend.

I’m going to write a blog post on MezzJelly – my first US festival from a European DJ perspective. One part I wanted to write about especially was your Sunday night set (after the comp) which I loved!

Could you tell me a bit more about your thoughts when planning the music – it was so groovy!

And, if you don’t mind, share some of the song details with me? I’ll send you the post before publicising so you can suggest any amends if you like.

Xx


A generous reply

Dear Tracy,

My goal for my Sunday night set was to be rhythmically interesting.

Alma Smith

Alma Smith

I began my set with the Alma Smith song because it’s traditional and its rhythm is familiar. It’s an easy song for the people just walking into the room to begin their night of dancing. It’s also long enough so that the room can fill up some more for the meat of the beginning of my set. The high-level dancers would be there early for the switch comp.

The next three songs are walking songs: “Never Make A Move Too Soon,” and “Keep It To Myself,” both have a lot of ass and attitude that makes me want to pimp around the room and use a pendular pulse.

Odetta’s “Yonder Come The Blues,” is a ballroomin’ song and makes me want to bring my center of movement up from my pelvis to my chest, and then I walk a different way.

“Crosscut Saw” has a Latin rhythm that dancers can also walk to.

“A Fool’s Goodbye” contrasts the previous four songs and slows things down.

Corey Dennison

“A Fool’s Goodbye” – Corey Dennison

The contest can naturally begin after that.

“A Fool’s Goodbye,” would be a good ending to the first half of the set because its simpler rhythm is a contrast from previous four songs.

The connection between Guy King’s and Elmore James’ song is in their energy level and use of horns.

King’s voice has a tone that is very much like that of a saxophone. I feel like those sounds have an effect, not like a slap in one’s face, but of a caress down one’s cheek.

I don’t remember exactly what I started with after the contest, but I think it might have been the second Junior Wells song. “We’re Ready” has a Latin rhythm and I thought that would get people’s attention right after sitting down for a while, and the song also literally tells the dancers that they’re ready.

Junior Wells

Junior Wells

Another place where I could have begun the second half of my set after the contest is with Guy King’s “Hey Now” because it has a strong beginning that would transition well from a break in the dancing to get people moving.

The next song, “Uptown Sop” is a song that I LOVE to dance to because there are so many things in the music with which I could play. I wasn’t worried about the length because I knew the crowd could handle it; the anticipation of where the song would go would keep their interest.

Following it with my favorite version of Ray Charles’ “Night Time Is The Right Time” gives the dancers something familiar to keep them on the floor.

On a side note, I think the musicians were totally stoned when playing that song because they were so deep into the pocket (compare it with the studio version and you’ll know what I mean).

When I dance to “Uptown Sop,” my movement comes from my chest. In contrast, this version of “Night Time Is The Right Time,” makes me want to dance from my hips and pelvis. You can feel those changes in how the music makes you want to move throughout the set.

The Gene Harris, Ray Charles, and Kim Massie songs all have piano as the main instrument, but Massie’s song is just her voice and the piano. Harris’s song has a jazzy rhythm, Charles’s song has a triplet over a shuffle, Massie’s song has a Latin feel (which also keeps the movement in the lower part of the body).

Massie, The Suffers, and Aretha’s songs are soulful/straight up soul. The latter two bands are large and have distinctive instrumentation – soulful horns, bongos, and organ. Aretha is singing a blues song soulfully.

This is was the last song of my set and I wanted it to end with higher energy that the dancers could take into the main room that had gotten going after it was finished being set up.

Aretha Franklin by Jim Marshall

Aretha Franklin by Jim Marshall

Listening to this set again to answer your questions has made me love this set even more. I wanted to take the dancers on a rhythmic journey.

John Krieger-JovenI chose songs that could be danced to in different ways depending on what one responded to in the music. But also I was telling them what and how to dance.

I chose these songs organically. Sometimes I knew exactly what to play next, sometimes I want to hear from a specific artist but I had to find a song of theirs that fit, or I wanted to continue or change a feeling.

It’s only in hindsight that I hear/see more of the ways the songs in the set fit together. If you don’t mind, I would like to repost this letter in a DJ group as a way to share my processes to my song selections and how the songs in a set can connect with each other depending on the purpose and context.

Best,

John


Parting Thoughts

Hi, John,

My heart is overflowing with joy on reading this. I’m honoured that you took the time to explain your thought processes in so much detail for me.

Thank you!

Xx


I hope you all enjoyed reading this (and listening to the music) as much as I did. It’s a wonderful insight into the workings of a DJ’s mind. Crafting a DJ set is a little like cooking; you want to include different flavours and textures, but you don’t want one to overpower the other.

Thank you again, John! I hope we meet again soon, and the cocktails are on me!

Here’s one more song he played but that couldn’t be added to the Spotify setlist of John at MezzJelly ’17:

DJ Tips Part One | The Journey

“Your job starts in the record store, not on the decks. Your worth as a DJ begins and ends with what’s on your shelves and in your bag. For every hour on the deck, a good DJ spends days, months and years picking out tunes and learning about music.”

– Frank Broughton and Bill Brewster

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My first DJ set was less of a set and more of a playlist and I was absolutely terrified. Lucky for me it got people dancing with a smile on their face and sent me home with one too.

From that day I knew I was on a journey. I wasn’t entirely sure of my destination but that didn’t matter. I set off without a map but trusted the universe to send me guides and sign-posts whenever I needed them.

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