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


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.


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


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!


Blues heroes | Junior Wells

“As a boy I was listening to Sonny Williamson records and I would close my eyes and visualize myself playing the harp.”

– Junior Wells

jr wells002

Photo by Brett Littlehales

One of the best-loved harp players in Chicago blues was Junior Wells. He took inspiration from the top living harmonica players and brought a passion and fire that was all his own.

Born and raised in West Memphis Arkansas, Wells learned from local blues hero Junior Parker. He was a skillful harmonica player by the time he was seven.

Continue reading

Early Piedmont Blues | Blind Blake

Guest post by Stefano Ronchi

cordiallyyoursOne man and his guitar

Arthur “Blind” Blake, born in Jacksonville in 1896, is known as one of the best artists in Piedmont blues history, if not the greatest.

Also known as the man with the ‘piano-sounding guitar’ Blake is also regarded as the unrivalled master of ragtime blues finger picking guitar.

His complex and intricate finger picking style has influenced countless others.

Continue reading