Nathaniel Barnes

Duration: 1hr: 3Mins
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Uncorrected Transcript

Interview with: Nathaniel Barnes
Interviewed by: Louis J. Marchiafava
Date: January 28, 1992
Archive Number: OH 472

LM:     00:10  Today’s date is January 28, 1992.  This is Louis Marchiafava, who will be interviewing Mr. Nathaniel “Bill” Barnes for the Houston Public Library in the Archives Department.  Mr. Barnes, I want to thank you for being here today—

NB:     Yes, sir.  Thank you.

LM:     —to participate in this program.  A copy of your tape will be placed in the Jazz Archive that we have.  It’s a special component that we put together a few years ago, and we conduct interviews with various musicians and record their memories of their activities and their work.

NB:     Uh-hunh (affirmative).

LM:     And researchers will have an opportunity to use it in the future, to listen to it.  They’ll never be able to take the tapes out, but they will be able to listen to it and take notes here in the Research Center.  And so we’d like to welcome you here.

NB:     Thank you.

LM:     If at any time during the interview you would like a recess, just give me a sign, and we’ll turn the machine off.

NB:     All right.  That would be fine.

LM:     Let’s get some basic information first.  If you’ll just give me your full name, your birth date, and where you born, that will give us a start.

NB:     I was born in D’Lo, Mississippi in Simpson County, 1910, 26th of September.

LM:     1910.

NB:     01:58  1910.

LM:     Tell me something about your early years.  What occupied most of your time as a child?

NB:     Well, working on the farm and singing.  I organized a quartet in 1929.  The name of them was the Vistula Four, singing spirituals.  Working on the farm, picking cotton, chopping cotton, pulling corn.

LM:     How old were you when doing these activities?

NB:     Back in 1923 I started to work on the farm with my daddy, and his name was Joe Barnes.

LM:     And your mother’s name?

NB:     Leila Traxler Barnes.  From then up until 1934 I worked with my daddy on the farm.  And he lost his farm, and in 1934 I moved on to Murray Farm out from Crockett, 25 miles on the river.  And I worked there ‘til 1939.  Then I came to Houston.

LM:     Let’s go back.  We’re skipping a lot of years here.  I don’t want to leave out too much.  Were you active in the church when you were young?

NB:     Yes, sir.

LM:     Which church did you belong to in Mississippi?

NB:     Well, no.  I was a year and six months old when my daddy came to Texas.

LM:     Oh, all right.

NB:     And then I started to play in the Holiness Church, guitar.  Called it the Church of God and Christ.

LM:     Where was that located?

NB:     That was located in Vistula, right off from the Murray Farm, 25 miles from Crockett, 16 miles from Lovelady, 15 miles from Trinity, 9 miles from Weldon, Texas.

LM:     05:03  What led to your father moving to Texas?

NB:     He said that 1910 was the year that the boll weevils came through Mississippi and just ate the crop up.  So he left Mississippi and moved on the Murray Farm on Mississippi Hill.  We left Mississippi in 1911 and came to Texas on the Murray Farm.  They called it the Mississippi Hill.

LM:     How did it get that name?

NB:     Practically all the people that was on that farm was from Mississippi.  Old man George Murray went back to Mississippi and brought us all over here to Texas.

LM:     All right.  Mr. Murray was from Mississippi originally?

NB:     He was, he was.

LM:     And actually what he did then was there was a small migration from Mississippi to Texas.

NB:     That’s right.  Yes, sir.

LM:     How many people actually moved?

NB:     Oh, Lord, let me see.  I guess it was about 600 people, something like that.

LM:     He moved the whole town.

NB:     Yes, sir.  Uh-hunh (affirmative).

cue point

LM:     I see.  When did you first become introduced to music and how?

NB:     06:42  My daddy taught me to play music when I was 10 years old.  And from that I played in the Holiness Church and then I played on the Murray Farm called Low Bottom, 25 miles from Crockett, with Lightnin’ Hopkins, Coon Spiller, and Dennis Gainus.  We were the musicians for those old country dances on the Murray Farm.

LM:     Was your father—obviously he had some experience and exposure to music himself.

NB:     He did.  When he was in Mississippi, he told me he played in a little band.  And he had a little guitar experience, and he was the drummer.  But he taught me guitar.

LM:     How did he put together the band?  Do you have any recollection of details about the band?

NB:     The band that he played in?

LM:     Uh-hunh (affirmative).

NB:     No, sir.  I don’t know.  He just told me that he played in a band, he was the drummer, and he played a little guitar.

LM:     This was still while he was farming.

NB:     That was when he was in Mississippi.  But when he came to Texas, he didn’t play any music; he just taught me.

LM:     I see.  But he continued in farm work?

NB:     Yes, sir.

LM:     Okay.  So your background in music then began with your father.

NB:     That’s right.  Yes, sir.

LM:     How would you characterize the music?

NB:     08:48  I took it to be a great thing simply because I loved it and I like to play it and I enjoy it.  Music is a great thing, and music consoles the soul.

LM:     How would you describe the type of music you played?

NB:     I’d describe it as a gift, and I’d describe it as something that I learned from other musicians.  And the type of music that I play, I play blues, spirituals, some rock and roll, and I can play some jazz.  I play piano, guitar, organ, and keyboard.

LM:     There are lots of questions here.  How did you learn to play all these instruments?

NB:     By watching other people and patterning after them.  I heard Blind Lemon Jefferson on a recording, Blind Blake, Barbeque Bob, Texas Alexander, and I’d play the record and take my guitar and copy after it.

LM:     You play strictly by ear.

NB:     I can play by ear or by notes.

LM:     You read notes too?

NB:     I can, I can.

LM:     How did you happen to meet all these individuals?

NB:     I didn’t meet all the musicians.

LM:     Oh, you heard their music.

NB:     I heard it on the recording.  I met Lightnin’ Hopkins from Crockett and, let’s see.  Hold it there.  Let me think.  Lightnin’ Hopkins, Dennis Gainus, and Wright Holmes. I believe that’s it.

LM:     I need to get a time context here.  You moved to Murray Hill with your family.

NB:     Murray Farm.

LM:     12:05  Murray Farm, I’m sorry.  And how long did you stay there?

NB:     From 1911 to 1927.  Then my daddy tried to buy a farm and he lost that.  Then he tried to buy another one and he lost that.  And then I moved to the Murray Farm.

LM:     Okay, all right.  These efforts then at owning a farm were in Mississippi before he came to Texas.

NB:     No.  He didn’t own no farm.

LM:     He tried to.  He wanted to—

NB:     No.  He worked as a sharecropper.

LM:     Oh, okay.

NB:     He didn’t try to buy any land ‘til he came to Texas.

cue point

LM:     So, all right.  You lived at Murray Farm from 1911 to 1927.

NB:     ’27.

LM:     And those were during your youthful years.

NB:     Sure.

LM:     And it was during that time, if I’m understanding you correctly, that you gained your interest in music and you actually began playing.

NB:     Yes, sir.  Uh-hunh (affirmative), uh-hunh (affirmative).

LM:     13:25  Where did you move after 1927?  Where did you move to?

NB:     To a place they call the town of Spring, out from Weldon, Texas.

LM:     And what led to that move?

NB:     He lost the farm in ’27, then we moved from there 9 miles to Weldon, Texas, stayed there one year—’28—then we moved back to Vistula in 1929, and he bought that place, lost it in ’34.  We stayed from ’29 through ’34.  The drought came, and we didn’t make no crop, so the bank foreclosed him out.  Then I moved on the Murray Farm.

LM:     Okay.  All this time you worked with your father.

NB:     Uh-hunh (affirmative), uh-hunh (affirmative).

LM:     And continued to acquire your experience in music.

NB:     Uh-hunh (affirmative).  After he lost his farm, he got to be a boss on the Murray Farm, so he and I worked together there.

LM:     Was there any particular type of music that you emphasized more?

NB:     The type of music that I liked more was spirituals.  I majored in spirituals.  I could play blues, any kind of blues, the same way, but I cared more for spirituals than I did blues.  But I can play both of them about the same.

LM:     Did you acquire any formal education in music?

NB:     No, sir.

LM:     Everything was through experience.

NB:     Through experience and what I’d see other people play.  I’ve taken three music lessons from Quinn out there in Third Ward.

LM:     16:15  I’m sorry, from who?

NB:     From Quinn.

LM:     Quinn.

NB:     Quinn.  I saw that the way he was teaching me would break me back too far, so I laid it down and just went from what I’d see other people do and my own experience.

LM:     How long did you continue working with your father?

NB:     From 1923 ‘til 1934.

LM:     What happened after 1934?

NB:     The drought came, he lost the farm, all his mules, and so he went to the Murray Farm.

LM:     You went back to Murray Farm or to Houston?

NB:     I came to Houston in 1939.  In ’39 I left the Murray Farm.  I stayed on the Murray Farm six years, and after that I came to Houston.

LM:     All right.  What were your plans when you came to Houston?  What did you plan on doing?

NB:     I didn’t have any plans.  I didn’t know anything but pick cotton, pull corn, bale hay, and plow.

LM:     And play music.

NB:     And play music.  So I came to Houston, and I stayed in Houston three months, and I made $0.15.  So I got a job for Henry Robert Pence(??) 18:07  He was building FHA homes, and I went to work for him for $1.20 a day.  And I worked for him up until 1941.  The war broke out, then I left him and I went to work at the San Jacinto Ordnance.

LM:     18:37  At the San Jacinto—

NB:     San Jacinto Ordnance.  I worked there 1941.  I left there and went to El Paso.

LM:     For work?

NB:     For work, working on a defense job.  I left there and went to El Paso driving truck for Sunset Motor Line.

LM:     How long did you stay in El Paso?

NB:     I just stayed a year.  I came back to Houston in ’43.

LM:     Now, was your father deceased by this time?

NB:     Oh, no, sir.  My father—  Hold it just a minute.

cue point 

LM:     Okay, sir.  So then you came back to Houston.

NB:     From El Paso in ’42.  Yes, ’42.  I drove truck for Sunset Motor Line here in Houston up on Washington Avenue.  I left there and went to work for Peden Iron and Steel Company.  And the war broke out, they laid us off, and then I went to San Jacinto Ordnance, left there, went to El Paso.  I went to Amarillo.

LM:     Not El Paso.

NB:     Not El Paso.  Left there, went to El Paso in ’42, came back to Houston in ’43, went to work for Sunset Motor Line, left there and—  Hold it.  At the freight station.

LM:     For the Santa Fe Railroad?

NB:     SP.

LM:     Southern Pacific.

NB:     21:17  Southern Pacific.  Uh-hunh (affirmative).  And I left there and went back to Henry Robert Pence(??)  21:33  and commenced to hauling antique furniture out of—  (pause)

LM:     That’s all right.  Don’t worry about that.

NB:     Hold it.  Hauling antique furniture out of Boston, Massachusetts, for Henry Robert Pence(??)  21:54  Hold it.

LM:     Okay.  So Houston, though, throughout all these various jobs you held remained your hometown.

NB:     It did, it did.

LM:     Okay.  You also during this time maintained your interest in music.

NB:     I did, I did.  And singing.

LM:     And singing.

NB:     I organized the Silver Gates.

LM:     How did that come about?

NB:     I was working at Brown Shipyard, and at the launching of the boats they had a program that they put on.  So I organized the Silver Gates, and every time they launched a boat, we’d be on the program and we’d go down there and sing.

LM:     Go down where now?  Where are we talking about?

NB:     To Brown Shipyard.

LM:     Okay.

NB:     Right here in Houston.

LM:     22:56  And the boats were what?  Pleasure boats?

NB:     No.  The boats were the war destroyers and all like that.  I worked on the Texas.

LM:     I was just trying to figure out.  You mentioned you played music exactly where now?  For the clubs?

NB:     Uh-hunh (affirmative), at Brown Shipyard.

LM:     In Brown Shipyard?

NB:     Yes.

LM:     Okay.

NB:     Uh-hunh (affirmative), uh-hunh (affirmative), uh-hunh (affirmative).

LM:     Who made up the group of singers?

NB:     I did.

LM:     Who else sang with you?

NB:     James Littleton, Ed Matthews, and my cousin T. Traxler was in the organizing of it but he quit.  Dave Powell and LeVar Talton.

LM:     Was this a spiritual group?

NB:     Yes, sir.  Uh-hunh (affirmative).

LM:     Do you remember any of the particular clubs you played in?

NB:     Oh, let’s see.  The Lily White, the Silver Spur, the Big Wheel.

LM:     24:28  But these were located in the same area?

NB:     In Houston.

LM:     Okay.  All around Houston.

NB:     In Houston.  I played in Lake Charles with Clifton Shapiro or something like that.

LM:     What was the name?

NB:     Chenier—Zydeco in Lake Charles.

LM:     You were obviously playing for money here.  This was a professional—

NB:     It was.  Yes, sir, uh-hunh (affirmative), a little money.  It wasn’t very much.  It was something like a dollar an hour, and you’d play from 9:00 to 2:00, and you’d make about $9.00.  They’d give you a dollar an hour, and as many as you had in your group, that’s all they’d make—$9.00 apiece.

LM:     These were mostly black clubs?

NB:     It was.  Uh-hunh (affirmative).  I played at a white club in Trinity, Texas.

cue point

LM:     How were you received?  How did the people treat you?

NB:     Just lovely, just lovely.  They treated me nice, gave me all I wanted to eat, all I wanted to drink, and money.

LM:     Well, that’s the important item.  (both laugh)

NB:     That’s right.

LM:     I’d like to go back and at least talk more about your meeting with Lightnin’ Hopkins.  How did that come about?

NB:     26:26  In 1930.

LM:     Oh, it occurred that early?

NB:     In 1933 I met Lightnin’ Hopkins on the Rucker Farm 25 miles from Crockett.  Lightnin’ was kind of a teenager then, and I helped him tune his guitar.  His brother AB, he got killed, and that’s how I met Lightnin’ Hopkins.

LM:     Did you maintain a friendship with him over the years?

NB:     I did, I did.  After so long after I came to Houston, Lightnin’ dropped out of sight.  I think he got in a little trouble, and he was down here on the Bradley on the Moore Brothers Farm.  He stayed there and then he served his time out.  Then he came to Houston.  We’d meet up in Third Ward on West Gray at a little old shotgun house, and there’s where we’d play and I’d learn from him and he’d show me.  On the Murray Farm on the Low Bottom back in ’34, we played for the dances there.  Every Saturday night they’d have dances, and me and Lightnin’ and Coon Spiller was the guitar player.

LM:     What was the name again?

NB:     Coon Spiller.

LM:     Spiller?

NB:     Spiller, uh-hunh (affirmative).

LM:     Did you have a long-term relationship with him in terms of your music?  Did y’all play later on together?

NB:     Uh-hunh (affirmative).  Lightnin’ Hopkins?

LM:     Through how many years?

NB:     Oh, let’s see.  Off and on from 1933 up until 1942 and ’43.  See, he left and went overseas and stayed four years.  And when he came back, then I’d be with him in Arcola, Texas.  He played out there every Saturday night.

LM:     29:21  What instruments were you playing at this time primarily?

NB:     Guitar.

LM:     Guitar.  Okay.  And singing?

NB:     And singing.

LM:     What other groups or well-known musicians did you play with?

NB:     OJ Williams, Roger, and Paul.

LM:     Of all these people who you met and exchanged ideas and so on with, did anybody have a particular influence on your style of music?

NB:     Everybody that I talked with said they liked it, said we were good.  I’m not bragging.  I think it was good.

LM:     Were you influenced by any other musicians—your style of music?

cue point

LM:    30:36  Okay, side two.  I believe I was asking you if anyone had a significant impact on your style of music.  Did you learn from somebody else?  Did you develop your own style individually, or did you use other styles as well?

NB:     I used my style and then I’d use other people’s style.  I’d take what I learned from them and build it with mine, and that’s how I made my music.  OJ and I had a band.  We had three guitars:  a second guitar, a lead guitar, and a bass and a drummer.

LM:     When did you go into spirituals full-time?

NB:     In 1943.

LM:     31:51  And you played strictly spirituals after that?

NB:     Spirituals and blues.

LM:     And blues.

NB:     Uh-hunh (affirmative).  I’d play on the street in Beaumont, Houston, Crockett, Trinity, and Arizona.

LM:     What is the knife blade slide style?  I’ve never heard of it before.

NB:     You haven’t?

LM:     No.

NB:     It’s the style of a steel guitar.  In other words, you slide it on the bars and you note it.  You play it this way.  You lay the guitar across your lap, and you use this hand.  You’ve seen the steel guitar.

LM:     Yes, I have.

NB:     Well, it’s the same way.

LM:     Oh.

NB:     Uh-hunh (affirmative).  (both laugh)

LM:     Who taught you the style?

NB:     My daddy, Joe Barnes.  He showed me, see, and I’d build it.  See, that’s the way I started to play in music.  A musician—there ain’t two musicians that play alike.  But you watch the other man and add what you learn from him to what you know, and that makes an outstanding piece of music.

LM:     Did you compose any songs?

NB:     Uh-hunh (affirmative).  “What’s Wrong, Baby?”

LM:     34:00  I’m sorry, what was that?

NB:     “What’s wrong, baby?  Baby, what’s wrong?  You keep on singing that money song.”  I styled that as a soldier waiting on his pension.  “I ain’t got no money; I’ll soon have some.  Just as soon as my bonus come.  What’s wrong, baby?”  I styled “Louise.”  “Louise, please come back to me.  Louise is the sweetest gal I know.  She called me to walk from Dallas down to the Gulf of Mexico.  She got hair like Mary, her teeth shine like pearl, she take a notion to love you, man, it’s out of the world.  Louise.”  And “Easy Street.”  “Easy Street, Easy Street, me and my baby live on East Street.  A nickel worth of flour and a quarter worth of lard, the old folks said, ‘Children, the time is hard.’  Easy Street.  I cut the kindling, she made the fire, I toted the water from the boggy bayou.  Me and my baby, we live on Easy Street.”

LM:     (chuckles)  That’s very good.

NB:     “See See Rider.”  “See See Rider, see what you done, you called me to love you, now your man done come.  See See Rider.”

LM:     Where did you get the ideas for your songs?

NB:     It’s just like anything else.  It pops in your head.  It just comes to you, and then you sit and listen.  And the style that you want to arrange it in, if you like it, you put in that style and play it and sing.

LM:     Did you write music, or did you have it all just in your head?

NB:     It’s mostly in my head.  I can’t write music, but I can write poems and make it rhyme.  See, in singing the rhyme—what I mean about the rhyme is like “nickel with the flour, dime with the lard, the old folks saying, ‘Children, the time is hard.’”  That’s the way you fix it.

cue point

LM:     37:07  How did you learn how to do this?

NB:     Just sit down—

LM:     Picked it up.

NB:     —and pick it up and keep putting it together and make it rhyme.

LM:     Did you work with anyone else in composing these songs?

NB:     I have.  Me, myself, and Coon Spiller, and Lightnin’ Hopkins.  Coon Spiller taught Lightnin’ and me “Short Haired Woman.”  Lightnin’ Hopkins composed it, and then I jumped back and said, “I don’t want your woman, Lightnin’, because her hair ain’t no longer mine.  She ain’t good for nothing, keep you buyin’ wigs all the time.  Short haired woman.”  So you know, them kind of things by getting together and swapping words and taking from and adding to, and we were contesting against each other to see who could beat singing and playing the guitar.  There was another one about, “I ain’t going to give you no more of my cherry ball.  I’m going to save my cherries until next fall.”  (both chuckle)

LM:     Throughout your career, did you perform on the radio at all, or did you record any records?

NB:     Sure.  Let’s see.  We sang on KTRH from 1943 up until—well, ’43, ’44 we sang on KTRH at the Rice Hotel.  On a Saturday night we’d sing with Dickie McBrown’s Band.  We made an album up there of, “Going down through the field to the shuckin’ of the corn.  I won’t be back ‘til I hear the dinner horn.  Wee-o, wee-o, wee-o, going down the field to the shuckin’ of the corn.  I won’t be back ‘til I hear the music playing.  Yink-a-bink, yink-a-bink, yink-a-bink bing.  See there what you done?  Oh, what?  Broke that double G string.  Old MacDonald had a farm, E-I-E-I-O.  On that farm he had some girls, E-I-E-I-O.  Gimme, gimme here and gimme, gimme there, gimme, gimme, gimme everywhere.  Old MacDonald had some roosters, with a cock-cock here and a cock-cock there, everywhere a cock-a-doodle, cock-a—”  You know, just that kind of junk.

LM:     You had a regular time that you played on the radio?  I mean, was it a regular program that you appeared on every week?

NB:     Sure, every week.  Dickie McBrown Band.  Every Thursday night at 10:15, we’d sing at KTRH at the Rice Hotel.  “Little girl, I love you, crazy about you.  Little girl, I love you.  I love you in the springtime, I love you in the fall.  Little girl, I love you the best of all.  The other night I had a dream.  ‘What did you dream?’  I dreamed I saw a big, fat coon behind that garden wall.  Little girl, I love you, crazy about you.  Love you in the springtime, love you in the fall.”

LM:     42:09  Did you play in any clubs where there were dance bands at all?  Did you participate in any dance bands, or was this solely music that you listened to?

NB:     I was kind of like Lightnin’ Hopkins in a way.  Lightnin’ was kind of a one-man outfit for a while.  He’d use hard blow drum beaters.  And I said OJ and I had a band, and I never played with a band no more than with Cliff Chenier.

LM:     Now, he was the one you mentioned earlier in Lake Charles.

NB:     Lake Charles.  Uh-hunh (affirmative).

LM:     Did you continue during this period to travel outside of Houston to play?

NB:     Oh, I did.  I went to Lake Charles, Beaumont, Port Arthur, Arizona, Tucson, Austin.

(unidentified female speaker)  That was between jobs.

NB:     Uh-hunh (affirmative).

cue point

LM:     One question I just want to go back to for a minute.  I forgot a follow-up on it.  You mentioned a recording.  Was it under a label?  Who did you record it for?

NB:     I recorded for Ted Nable(??) —we did.  Radio City heard it, and they wanted an album of it.  We made it up there, and Dickie McBrown, we was on his band.  They left and went to Los Angeles, and I don’t know what happened, but something happened that we didn’t get a hold of the album.  I don’t know whether it’s still up there or what.  After so long, I left the Silver Gates and I never heard any more about it.

LM:     45:12  This is a matter of interest.  Are any of those other singers in the group still alive?

NB:     One.  James Littleton.

LM:     Do you ever see him?

NB:     Hardly ever.  I talk to him.  I talked to him yesterday and tried to get him to come up here with me, but he’s sick and he said he just couldn’t make it.  The man that was our instructor, Ira Lee, he’s still living, but the rest of them is dead.

LM:     All right.  You mentioned that you played in Austin.

NB:     Uh-hunh (affirmative).

LM:     Do the names Tary Owens and John Lomax Jr. ring a bell?

NB:     They do.

LM:     Can you tell me something about your professional relationship with them?

NB:     I was in Austin.  I had a kind of nervous condition, and they sent me to Austin, and there I met Tary Owens.  And he come up and pick me up and take me to his house, and he’d make tapes and I’d play the guitar.  We just had a wonderful time.  I’d tell toasters.

LM:     I’m sorry, you did what?

NB:     Toasters, like if you had a party.  Something like, “The bullfrog drinks his straight whiskey and the toad frog makes him a toddy.  You can get me a brown-skinned gal because I ain’t got nobody.”  All different things like that.

LM:     You learned that there?  That was the first time you began doing that?

NB:     No.  I’ve been telling toasters ever since back in my teenage.

LM:     47:30  How did you pick it up?

NB:     A fellow by the name of Dan Bailey, he was great at it, and that’s how I learned it—through him.

LM:     And you just continued with it?

NB:     Uh-hunh (affirmative), uh-hunh (affirmative).

LM:     Did you recite it or was it sung?

NB:     No, it’s something like recited.

LM:     Okay.  Did you incorporate this as part of your act, part of your performance?

NB:     I did.  Uh-hunh (affirmative).  Like we’d have a party and we’d start telling toasters, see who could—

LM:     I see.  Mack McCormick, do you remember him?

NB:     I do.  Back in 1965, they came to our house—my sister’s house out there in Fifth Ward.  Myself and Wright Holmes—they’d tape us.  And Wright Holmes would play the guitar and I’d play the guitar, and they made tapes of us, taking our picture, and they wanted us to go overseas but I was sick.  Then Mr. McCormick, I think, he’d come over and pick me up at night, and we’d go to the Sterling Building down there on Texas and Fannin, and that’s where I made records.

cue point

LM:     All right.  So you recorded more than one record then.

NB:     Oh, I did.  I recorded “Jack O’ Diamonds,” “See See Rider,” and—  Hold it there.  And “Standing on Cadell Street one day, one dime was all I had.”

LM:     Did the records sell very widely?

NB:     I don’t know.  I had him to cut them out because see, I was a spiritual singer.  And he called me and told me my records would be out.  That was blues.  I figured it would ruin my singing spiritual career if he’d bring them out, so I told him just forget it.  And “See See Rider,” a white man got it—excuse me for saying white man.

LM:     51:15  (chuckles)  That’s all right.

NB:     And he sent it overseas, and last time I heard from him, “See See Rider” has sold over a million copies.

LM:     Did you get any financial reimbursement for any of this?

NB:     No, simply because I didn’t sign a contract.

LM:     This is a common situation that I hear from musicians.

NB:     What’s that?

LM:     Their music is sold abroad, and the musician does not get any return on the music that’s sold.

NB:     Well, it was my fault.  He told me.  He called me and said, “Your record will be out.”  And he said, “I ain’t going to guarantee you how much money will be in it,” so I told him just forget it.  I didn’t want it to come out.

LM:     But it came out anyway.

NB:     It did, it did.

LM:     And so you didn’t get any kind of financial reward.

NB:     No.  I didn’t have it copyrighted.

LM:     So they stole your music.

NB:     No.  I gave it away.

LM:     52:30  That’s another way of looking at it.

NB:     Well, he didn’t steal nothing from me.  I told him to.  I told him to cancel it.

LM:     You’re generous, let’s put it that way.  One thing that I’m unclear of, and you can perhaps just give me an overview.  We talked about the ‘30s and the ‘40s, and I know pretty well what happened in the 1940s, but what was going on later?  The recordings that you’re talking about, did this occur in the ‘50s and ‘60s?  Tell me about those years.  Give me an overview of what you were doing during that period.

NB:     This first recording—let’s see.  It was ’63.

LM:     That was your first recording?

NB:     No.  The first recording was at KTRH with Dickie McBrown’s Band.  In ’63, that’s when Lomax and McCummings were pulling up from our spiritual record.  I wouldn’t let him bring the blues out.  Is that what you’re asking me?  Ask me that over again.

LM:     Generally, what I was trying to do is just to get some idea of the progression of your career through the ‘50s and ‘60s.  We talked about the ‘30s and ‘40s in some detail, but I’m uncertain as to what you were doing in the 1950s.

NB:     Oh, ‘50s.  All right.  In 1950 I went to Tucson, Arizona, and I went to work for McKenzie Furniture Company, driving truck.  I had a night spot called the Dew Drop Inn.

LM:     In Tucson?

NB:     In Tucson.

LM:     Okay, so you were singing there too.

NB:     55:14  Oh, yeah.  I was Guitar Papa there.  I had a band.

LM:     In Tucson.

NB:     In Tucson.

LM:     How long did you work in Tucson with the band?

NB:     From 1951 until 1953.

LM:     Okay.  And you came back to Houston after that?

NB:     I came back to Houston in ’53.  I had taken sick out there, and my mother came and got me, and I came back to Houston.  But from 1950 to 1953, I was driving truck for McKenzie Furniture Company, and I had a night spot called the Dew Drop Inn.

LM:     So you were pretty busy.

NB:     Pretty busy.

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LM:     How long were you ill?

NB:     Not long.  I came—

LM:     You came back here in ’53.

NB:     Because of that, I had a lady running the place, and she didn’t turn in any income tax, and I had to get rid of the place, sell my car, and then I had taken sick.  I had to go to the hospital.

LM:     I see.

NB:     Uh-hunh (affirmative).  My mother came and got me, and I came to Houston.  Now, in the ‘40s, Henry Robert Pence(??), I worked there, I worked for San Jacinto Ordnance, I drove truck for Sunset.

LM:     57:54  Yeah.  We have that pretty well recorded.  What about the mid and late ‘50s, say, from ’55 on?  You played music here in Houston?

NB:     ’55?

LM:     Uh-hunh (affirmative).

NB:     Uh-hunh (affirmative).

LM:     Okay.  You had a club, or did you just play around?

NB:     I had a band.

LM:     You had a band.

NB:     Uh-hunh (affirmative).  OJ Williams and the Sons.

LM:     After you lost your club in Tucson, did you ever have one again?  Did you ever open one?

NB:     No, sir, never did.

LM:     Did you continue playing with your band in the ‘60s?

NB:     In the ‘60s?

LM:     Uh-hunh (affirmative).

NB:     Oh, yeah.  I played with OJ Williams and the Sons in the ‘60s.

LM:     It was mentioned earlier you were also working tuning guitars and teaching music.

NB:     Yeah.  I taught Nemar Williams, I taught a boy by the name of Roger Rogers, I taught a man by the name of Lyles.  I taught music—guitar.

(female speaker)  And two more.

NB:     Who?

(female speaker)  I can’t think of their names.

NB:     I can’t either no more.  I can’t think.  Oh.

(female speaker)  They were preachers, one in Fourth Ward.

LM:     These were preachers that you were teaching?

NB:     Preachers.  And Roger, he plays spirituals and blues.

LM:     Did you live in the Fourth Ward?  Fifth Ward?

NB:     Fifth Ward.

LM:     Did you by any chance know Arnett Cobb?

NB:     Net Cob?

LM:     Arnett Cobb.

NB:     Cobb, Cobb, Cobb.

LM:     He played tenor sax.

NB:     No, I didn’t.  The only Cobb that I know was Leroy Cobb.  He played guitar.  But he died at an early age.

LM:     How long did you actively play with your band?  When did you stop, I should ask?

NB:     Stop with the band?

LM:     Uh-hunh (affirmative).

NB:     Been a little bit more than a year.

LM:     1:00:55  You mean you’ve been playing with a band all up until a year ago?

NB:     Sure, uh-hunh (affirmative).  OJ Williams and the Sons.  He died and I haven’t played anymore with a band, but I played on the streets by myself. 

(female speaker)  At Ben Taub and—

NB:     Oh, yeah.  Ben Taub, at the bus station, and all these senior citizen places.

LM:     Okay, so you entertain the senior citizens.

NB:     Uh-hunh (affirmative).

LM:     That’s nice.  That’s really nice.  And you get to do what you want besides.

NB:     Yeah.

LM:     Are there any areas of your life that I haven’t really gotten to that you’d like to talk about?

NB:     Well—

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LM:    01:02:01  Side three.  As I was saying, are there any particular areas of your life that we haven’t really discussed that you think should be covered in this interview?  I have just an outline here, so I’m not really familiar with all the aspects of your music or highlights of your life in terms of your music.  So before we close off, I thought I’d give you an opportunity to discuss some things that we haven’t touched on.

NB:     Well, let’s see.  At the time now, I can’t hardly think of any.  If you could ask me more, probably it would come back to me.

LM:     01:03:10  Do you still play primarily on the guitar?

NB:     I do, I do.  I play it out there.

LM:     You mentioned to me that you played the piano before, and then I didn’t hear you talk about it any longer.

NB:     I can play piano better than I can guitar, and I play organ and keyboard.

LM:     How did you pick up playing the organ?

NB:     Back in 1918—wasn’t it?—my daddy bought a little pump organ.

(female speaker) Pedal organ.

NB:     A pedal organ.  He had to stand me up on a soda water crate so I could reach the keys.  That’s how I started back in 1918.  Was it ’18?  No, it wasn’t.  1920, uh-hunh (affirmative), ’20.

LM:     Did you continue playing the organ until later years?

NB:     Oh, I played the organ.  I play it now.  I play it at church.

LM:     Do you play in church now?

NB:     I do.

LM:     Which church do you play at?

NB:     All of them.  You just name them.  I’ve played and sung in nearly every church in Houston.

LM:     You’re still going strong.

NB:     Well, that’s right.  Uh-hunh (affirmative).  And before I got ill, I started on a Sunday, Sunday night, Wednesday and Thursdays playing.

LM:      01:05:05  You mentioned before that you met Milt Larkin when he goes around entertaining in the various senior homes, and you said you do some of the same things.  Have you ever worked with him in doing these programs?

NB:     No, simply because his style of music is a little off—

LM:     I understand the difference, yeah, but—

NB:     He played jazz.

LM:     You’re right.

NB:     So I can play it, but I never have played it with no one else.  It’s all practically the same type of music, but jazz music has a kind of an off beat.  I never played with a jazz band.

LM:     It’s not really what you like to do.

NB:     What’s that?

LM:     Jazz.  You prefer the blues and spirituals.

NB:     Blues and spirituals.  My favorite music is Western.

LM:     Really?

NB:     It is.

LM:     How did that come about?

NB:     I heard “Big Boss Man.”  (singing voice)  “Big boss man, won’t you hear me when I call.  Big boss man, won’t you hear me when I call.  You ain’t so big, you just tall, that’s all.  Big boss man—“  I heard Chuck Berry playing that, so I played it.

LM:     01:07:09  It sounds like some of your music is almost of a folk style.

NB:     Well, it is, it is.  It’s folk style.

LM:     Especially the toasts, some of your poems.

NB:     Yeah, the toasts.  “Look like a raccoon living on Easy Street.  Then the times got tight and he couldn’t eat.  His landlady put him out one night.  He packed his suitcase and soon headed out of sight.  He went down to Galveston to a swell club room.  He bummed three nickel shots on the dice, won $3,000 and a few extra change.  Strolls on back to the landlady’s door.  She said, ‘Hey, Mr. Raccoon, won’t you room with me some more?’  He said, ‘No, landlady.  You put me out a few nights ago.  I’m going to room in Detroit with my brother Henry Ford.  I’ll be living on Easy Street and boarding with Mr. Good Time.”  (both chuckle)

LM:     When you recite these, do you usually play music with it?

NB:     I never have tried it with music.  I could do it.

LM:     I’m sure you could.

NB:     Oh, yeah.  I could do the time.  That is in a 2/4 beat.  It’s very easy.

LM:     Okay.  I’ve just about run out of questions.  I don’t have anything more really that I can intelligently ask you except to say that I appreciate you and your family coming down and talking with me today.  This interview will be added to our music collection.

NB:     I appreciate this, and I’ve enjoyed it.  Anything else you want to ask me, just pop the question.

LM:     Well, I’ve run out of questions now.  Perhaps we can have another session some time.  I’ll tell you what, do you have any of your records that you recorded that we could record the music and keep it with your interview?

NB:     I might.

LM:     01:09:28  That would really be nice to have, together with the interview.

NB:     Mr. Owens had one.  I’ll call him.  I don’t have one now.  I’ll call him and tell him to bring it with him when he comes.  Our drummer had some, but as long as that has been is according to how he’s taken care of them.  If he didn’t take care of them, you know quite naturally they warp.  I know Mr. Owens had one.  I gave it to him.

LM:     Perhaps we can do that at some point because it would be nice to preserve it on tape.  Thank you very much, sir.  I appreciate it.

NB:     Thank you.

LM:     It’s been a pleasure.  I’ve enjoyed it.

NB:     And your name, sir?

LM:     Louis Marchiafava.

NB:     Mr. Marchiafava, are you a doctor?

LM:     Not an MD.  I don’t get paid that much.  (laughs)

NB:     No.

LM:     In history.  I’m a historian.

NB:     Historical, uh-hunh (affirmative).

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01:10:43 to 01:11:48  (Nathaniel Barnes playing piano and singing “Louise.”)

LM:     Play one more piece for us, sir.

NB:     One more?

01:11:58 to 01:14:15  (Nathaniel Barnes playing piano and singing BB King song “Sweet Little Angel.”)

NB:     Thank you, thank you.

(female speaker)  Do you know what I wish you would play?

NB:     Hmm?

(female speaker)  “If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again”

01:14:29 to 01:16:50  (Nathaniel Barnes playing piano and singing “If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again.”)

(female speaker)  Well, that’s all right.