You're lucky you're not from where Frank Floyd was from. I'm not talking about Toccopola in Lafayette County, Mississippi, where he was born, in the fall of 1908. I'm not talking about the backwoods of Arkansas, where he grew up before heading out on his own as a sapling boy, in 1922, to make his nightly homes in roadside ditches throughout the South. I'm talking about somewhere beyond place and time. I'm talking about nowhere. I'm talking about where the shades of the dead do their danse macabre and pass their jars of jake and meths to the living who have been drawn into the realm of those shades. You're lucky you're not from there. You're lucky that Harmonica Frank Floyd-current age: deceased-can take you there, can let you come and leave there at will. But you're lucky you're not from there.
About forty-five years before Floyd was born, Charles Dickens wrote a novel called Our Mutual Friend, in which one of its characters, the poor old widow Betty Higden, comments of the foundling, Sloppy, whom she has adopted: "You mightn't think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices." By 1922, the year that young Floyd set out from Arkansas, T.S. Eliot had finished his draft of The Waste Land. Above the first lines of this poem, he set the words: HE DO THE POLICE IN DIFFERENT VOICES. After Ezra Pound edited, rewrote, and made greatness of Eliot's poem, these words would not appear. Yet how evocative they remain of the interweaving of elusive and obscure voices that is the realm of shades of The Waste Land.
And how these words evoke the realm of shades that is where Frank Floyd and other music-makers of his day were from: that lost and occult realm of influences from the mysterious dark age that preceded the phonograph. The 1920's, when Frank Floyd, hobo and wanderer, became an entertainer in the world of tent-shows and carnivals, were the years when the unknown voices of the past flourished anew through the phonograph.
There was no knowing the sources of this flourishing. In "Blue Yodel No. 9," recorded in 1930, Jimmie Rodgers sang: "You'll find my name on the tail of my shirt / I'm a Tennessee hustler, I don't have to work." It was a couplet that Rodgers had doubtless gleaned during his own medicine-show days. This boastful allusion to the flaunted sartorial mark of the Chinese-laundered streetcorner sheik had appeared, in variations, in Furry Lewis's 1928 "Kassie Jones," in Julius Daniels's 1927 "Richmond Blues," and was to be found in the 1925 book The Negro and His Songs, by Howard W. Odum and Guy B. Johnson. Attempting to trace the lines further back, though they suggest an origin in minstrelsy, we become lost in the realm of the shades. The couplet would be heard in Harmonica Frank Floyd's "Rockin' Chair Daddy," released by Sun Records in the summer of 1954.
After the few records that Harmonica Frank released, he himself became something of a lost legend, and it was not for some years that he was rediscovered.
David Less, one of the eminent figures involved in the rich musical heritage of Memphis, brought new light and new life to Harmonica Frank's faded career. The recordings here presented are an emanation of that new light and life.
From a letter to David in Memphis from Frank in Columbus, Ohio, hand-penned in April of 1979:
DEAR DAVID LESS
EVERYTHING SOUNDS OK BUT JUST A FEW DETAILS TO FILL FIRST I WILL HAFT TO HAVE MY MONEY FOR PERFORMING IN CASH ONLY NO CHECKS ASEPTED AFTER IM ALL THRU PLAYING AND NO UNION FEES AS IM NOT IN NO UNION AND TRANPATION TO AND FROM WHERE I STAY TO WHER I PLAY AT
IF ALL THIS IS AGREED UPON LET ME NO SOON PLEASE I WILL TRY TO CALL YOU SOON ALSO SOME ONE TO MEET ME AT THE BUS STATION WHEN I COME DOWN AND A PLACE TO STAY AT DOWN THERE
SO LET ME NO
FRANK FLOYD THE KING OF HARPS
February 29, 1980:
DAVIED HOW OR YOU FINE I HOPE AS FOR ME OK YES IM LOOKING FOROED FOR THE GOOD CARP FISH FRY AS I REALLY LOVE CARP FISH I REALLY HOPE YOU GET THE RECKORD ALBUM OUT BY THE TIME IM DOWN THERE SO I CAN START TO ADVERTISE THEM IN PLACES I GO THEY WAS WANTING ME TO COME TO GERMANY IN BERLIN TO PLAY BUT IM SCARED OF AIRPLAINS [...]
April 11, 1980:
DEAR DAVID I HAVE FORGOT WHAT DAY IS THE DAY FOR ME TO LEAVE HERE TO GET DOWN THER AT THE TIME YOU OR TO MEET ME AT THE BUS STATION WRITE AND TELL ME WHEN AND TIME I LEAVE HERE TO NO BUS TICKET HAS COME YET BUT THERE IS TIME YET LEFT
April 14, 1981:
DEAR DAVE JUST WANTED TO INFORM YOU I DO NOT HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH THE MUSICIAN UNION I WILL NOT PAY THEM NO MONEY AT ALL I WILL ONLY PLAY FOR THE SEVEN HUNDRED AND FIFTY DOLLARS YOU PROMES ME IN CASH I WILL NOT GIVE THEM A PENNY IS THIS CLEAR LET ME NO BY RETURN MAIL IF I HAFT TO GAVE TO THEM I WONT COME AND PLAY AT ALL ANSWER REAL SOON AND LET ME NO THANKS IF I DO PLAY SEND TICKET [...]
April 23, 1982:
DEAR MR DAVID LESS PLEASE DONT SEND NO BUS TICKET TO ME THIS TIME AS I WILL HAVE THE MONEY TO BUY A TICKET WITH THEN THEY WONT HAFT TO TAK OUT BUS FAIR [...]
Harmonica Frank Floyd died in 1984. May the jar of jake be received from him those among us who have our names on the tails of our shirts.
Another letter, this one to me, from the great James Luther Dickinson, he who can make the bottomlands rumble in rhythm:
Hear you're writing liner notes for the MerLess Harmonica Frank CD. Great! I co-produced it with David Less years ago (with dollars from NEA). When interviewers ask me my "favorite" victim, I always say Harmonica Frank. A true original American beauty. Once again, you do God's work.
One of my pet theories is that Frank invented effing, or at least introduced it to Nashville (via Clement or Justis?). Also, I think Sam Phillips exposed at least Elvis and Cash to Frank's songs and style.
When I met and recorded Frank he was living on a diet of bananas, rice, and navy beans (all white food) and was full of new recharged energy after years of sickness. He told me for thirty-five years of his life he never spent two nights in the same place. He stated that fact with great visible pride. I promised to give the royalties from the records to hoboes-guess the homeless will have to do.
Squeeze it easy,
I myself have nothing more to say. So just pass the jake, and the victuals of white.
Check out the artist's website:
1. Rocking Chair Daddy
2. Intro: No Grand Opera
3. Swamp Root
4. Married Man's Blues
5. Moonshiner's Daughter
7. What Are You Squawkin About
8. Howlin' Tomcat
9. Deep Elum Blues
10. Sitting On Top of the World
11. Step It Up & Go
12. From Memphis To New Orleans
13. The Great Medical Menagerist
14. It Ain't Gonna Rain No Mo
15. Without My Teeth
16. Sweet Farm Girl
17. You Don't Know My Mind