The Story Behind the Photos
Part 4: Life in the Blues Lane
After the Eddy Street photo session was finally done, Wolf suggested we go “get a beer.”
On the way to the bar, I found a very broken record in the gutter (Aaron Neville’s “Tell It Like It Is”) and took a shot of Wolf’s hand holding it, clearly showing his guitar-calloused fingers.
We walked about a block and a half to a bar called “The Barrel House,” located on Fillmore Street, in the pre-gentrified, pre-“Redevelopment” (read: "de-blacked") Fillmore District. I felt totally “in” to be hanging out with Wolf, like old pals already, and so proud to have sensed I'd succeeded in my photo-mission that day.
Next, we sat at the great old long (probably shipped around the horn back in the day) U-shaped bar, and Wolf ordered two beers. About a half hour after that, as we talked about many things while also recuperating from a very high-energy intense photo-shoot, a number of very frightened-looking folks suddenly began coming into the bar very quickly and moving to the far back, all pressing against the wall and looking apprehensively at the door. So, I began to also stare at the door, figuring maybe there was some fight going on outside. Wolf didn’t seem to notice, he was so calm and centered, I could feel it.
Then… this tense, pissed-off and up-tight looking young black guy came storming into the bar, carrying a gun, ( a genuine German Luger) and found the only empty seat in the place, next to the only “white guy” at the bar, guess who? The seat to MY right! The timeframe here, as you may recall, was just a few months after Martin Luther King had been assassinated, as well as RFK.
He placed his gun (It was a very now-valuable LUGER!) onto the bar in front of him and said, “Nobody’s moving!”
The place got very quiet.
I had a moment’s thought to grab that gun (a very SHORT moment) and then a moment’s thought about NOT (a longer moment) and both moments seemed an eternity, or more like threatened one I wasn’t ready for … Not "cowardice" as the biography so oddly phrased it, remember the times! Right after MLK and other assassinations and a rising tide of long-overdue expressions of grievance. Already uniquely steeped in black history as a trained Alinsky organizer then, courtesy of Dept of Justice funding for my National Civil Rights Act Training Institute film projects and highly conscious of resentment borne of Diaspora and slavery (with some of my own, in fact yet) I saw no good outcome grabbing that piece if having to get nasty there. I thus was in an unhappy place between bewilderment, fatalism, and trying not to listen to any internalized parent-tape saying, ”See what you get for hanging out in places like that with people like that” … Then, Wolf just leaned down to me and calmly and quietly said, “C’mon man, let’s get outa here.”
I said, “lead the way” (I didn't want Wolf behind me to take a bullet, and figured I had nothing to lose, but oh, maybe my life? So... Wolf got off his stool and I did mine, and we calmly and slowly (well, me just slowly) walked out together… with no problems, though all the while I was almost hearing that shot I was expecting!) And, then, before we even fully got out to the door, much less out of it… Wolf started discussing something about the photos!
I said, “Uhmm Wolf, uhhh can we wait to talk about this when we’re out of range? I can’t think about it now.” He said, “Oh, yeah, OK,” and was even a bit amused by that. Although I just was just trying to NOT feel a “new hole” in my backside.
As we walked down the street, Wolf did mentioned to me in some detail how, just the night before, he’d gone to a corner store to buy some liquor and had accidentally slightly bumped into someone (or vice versa) and that the guy became very upset and belligerent, pressing a .38 hard against Wolf’s belly. Wolf said he had to ask him pleadingly, “Please don’t shoot me!” He then commented on how aggressive and violent so many people were these days.
So, now... it felt BETTER than great to be alive and walking down that sidewalk with Wolf!
I found out much later from a future gf who was from that part of town that The Barrel House had a very notorious reputation. She incredulously asked, upon hearing this story, “What were you doin’ in THAT place?"
Wolf and I corresponded after that. I was a bit longer than expected in getting my proofs to him, but Wolf was good about it, though I’m sure we both wanted him to get them sooner, especially as I was so far from him at that point, and having financial and roommate troubles - the building's acid heads were inviting speed freaks, transients and pimps in for parties, my '57 Rambler Wagon I'd gotten at a lien sale engine had blown up, my place was robbed when I was out for the day, and that bank work was making me insane… they measured sideburns as part of their dress-code control. Ah, some OTHER sides of the ‘60s! But, finally, I got it all done - as much as possible myself - using rented public darkroom facilities.
Then, I sent him all the proof sheets of the shots I’d taken, and a few special prints of others to distribute as gifts to the subjects in them. From the three photos he selected in one of his replies, I made 200 copies of the one he wanted to be his booking promo photo and 1000 (500 each, two sets) fully photo-backed business cards! Then I sent them all to his Chicago home.
Then, the next time Wolf was in town, also staying at the same hotel but in a better room, I went there because he'd invited me back so that he could teach me blues harp! I wanted to learn, and had already been trying to, on my own, for a while then, and had some harps, and knew just a bit by then - although as a rock musician and “child prodigy” classically trained percussionist as well as limited-chops but very “into it” boogie-woogie piano player, I was very comfortable with the music.
That day, I recorded 2 small reel to reel tapes on which he told me about his early life, some of his up to the moment life, and I recorded his harp lessons to me and... we made two fresh unique original songs, just us, with me playing nightstand drums. Wolf told me he’d played certain things so that I could practice with them and copy them until I got them down, somewhat as he said he’d done - which, except for that amazing (unduplicatable) ‘Wolf tone” and a few of his chops, I eventually did. (will put up the songs where later played harp and wrote songs for Mike Wilhelm.
When Wolf laid down harp licks for me to study… me playing “drums” on the nightstand (not intentionally or that loudly, but joyously for sure)apparently some tenants quite upset with the sounds transferring to their rooms, and the super refused to let me into his place (where Hubert was relaxing that day) to interview and photograph Hubert Sumlim as planned.
Seems the super had been awakened by my “drumming” and was saying some pretty angry things from inside his place and would not tell Hubert, who I could hear inside playing his electric guitar acoustically, that I was at the door. I regret not being able to interview Hubert candidly or get photos of him, as we had planned to do that. Hubert candidly, as I had expecting as we planned to.
By the way, I later had one “official” harp lesson from Paul Oscher, then one from Sonny Terry, who taught me the first harp song he’d ever learned, from his grandfather, a “Canned Heat-like" very early falsetto-sung proto blues.
I also did two tapes of interviews, beyond the tape of music, and in Wolf’s own words, he told me how and why he’d run away from his uncle, out of fear of severe or maybe fatal punishment after he’d killed a prize stud hog that his uncle had just paid a lot of money for
When Wolf was feeding it, the pig rushed him (they can be very dangerous in such ways) running between his legs and knocking him into the muck, getting the greasy slop Wolf had been ordered to carry while wearing his Sunday best, which included on this occasion his first pair of long pants, which he paid for by having worked (beyond his other harshly-imposed chores) six weeks in the forest cutting railroad ties for 50 cents a day.
He’d been about to court his girlfriend and take her to church. The pig ruined his clothes, and Wolf then hit the pig over the head with the bucket, causing that stud boar to leave before he came, so to speak. This matter is depicted in great detail including this story in his own words in the Pantheon Press biography, and helps bring the book to fast life in Chapter one.