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The Real McCoys

A tribute to prewar bluesmen Joe and Charlie McCoy will help buy headstones for their unmarked south-side graves.

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In Restvale Cemetery in the southwest suburban village of Alsip, a tree with two gnarled trunks juts from the ground in a stark Y. In its shadow, in two unmarked graves about 20 yards apart, lie blues musicians Joe and Charlie McCoy, brothers who died in Chicago 60 years ago.

Blues fans around the world know Restvale because so many beloved artists are buried there—Muddy Waters, Big Walter Horton, Valerie Wellington, J.B. Hutto, Hound Dog Taylor, and Jimmy Rogers, to name a few. But even the most devoted might overlook the McCoys, and not just because they have no tombstones.

They were active from the 1920s to the early '40s, Joe primarily as a guitarist and Charlie as a mandolinist, and during that time they were major figures in prewar African-American popular music, helping link rural and vernacular styles to more cosmopolitan genres. The music they played combined the good-timey sounds of 1920s southern string bands and jug bands (which themselves had absorbed traditional folk and blues) with contemporary pop and early jazz from New Orleans and Chicago. The jug-band style matured in cities like Louisville and Memphis, then evolved and spread as the Great Migration brought musicians and their audiences north to the industrial midwest. And it remained influential, albeit in increasingly urbane hybrid forms, until the eve of the postwar blues and R&B explosion of the late 40s. But today it's all but forgotten. The rambunctious pop-tinged music the McCoys often played sounds trite to audiences who think of "real" blues as a deep dark cry of the soul. It resists romanticization and makes poor fodder for authenticity fetishists, and that's doomed it—and the McCoys—to obscurity.

Musician and self-employed Web developer Arlo Leach, who moved from Chicago to Portland, Oregon, last year, became enamored of the McCoys while teaching a class on jug bands at the Old Town School in the early 2000s. (It had started out as a class on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, but once he saw how much fun everyone had building and playing a washtub bass, he changed tack.) One day local bluesman Eric Noden subbed for him and brought in "Oh! Red," a tune by the McCoys' late-30s group, the Harlem Hamfats. The students loved it, and Leach caught the bug too. He was captivated by the McCoys' blend of raucous irreverence, blues emotion, and citified sophistication, and soon he became a committed advocate of the whole genre. "A lot of people don't have a lot of respect for it, because it's kind of seen as novelty music," he says. But jug bands, the McCoys in particular, were much more than that. "There's a lot of variety that you don't find in some of the more typical blues artists. They did straight-up blues, they did ragtime stuff, and they did things that didn't really fit into a category. Just by following those guys' careers, you can get a sampling of most of the styles of prewar black music."

A visit to Restvale shortly before he left town for Portland drove home for Leach how poorly the McCoys and the swinging blues style they helped popularize had been treated by history, and he resolved to do something about it. "It just really touched me," he remembers, "that Joe and Charlie were both buried, not right next to each other but like 20 feet away. I knew that they'd played together throughout their whole career, and to me it was just really sweet that they were both buried together as well."

In 2008 Leach had organized a benefit to buy a headstone for another overlooked musician—Will Shade, leader of the Memphis Jug Band, who'd died in 1966 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Tennessee's Shelby County Cemetery. A concert at the Old Town School raised more than $1,000, enough for a headstone as well as a brass plaque shaped like a musical note for the "walk of fame" on Beale Street. "We went out to the cemetery in the morning," Leach says, "and played a little bit there and did a toast and had some cheap wine, and went to the Center for Southern Folklore and had lunch and a big jam session."

Leach decided to try something similar for the McCoy brothers. Two headstones instead of one would be tougher to pull off, and to complicate matters further, he was moving, but his friends at the Old Town School helped him put together a benefit concert this weekend for the McCoys. "It was kind of a personal challenge, because I did it once, but maybe it was a fluke," he says. "I need about $2,000 profit. The total budget of the show is like $10,000; I need to make a profit on top of that. Basically I need to sell out the show."

In 1930 or even 1940, the McCoys could easily have sold out a show at a hall the size of the Old Town School. Born near Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1900s, they began playing together as children. Charlie recorded the first known version of the folk standard "Corrine, Corrina" in late 1928 with Bo Chatmon (aka Bo Carter), and it came out the following year on Brunswick. The McCoys appeared together on disc for the first time in 1930, while living in Memphis and playing in Jed Davenport's Beale Street Jug Band. "Save Me Some," from that session, gives you a fair idea of the flavor of such music at the time: a pumping rhythm from two strummed guitars and a mandolin, a bass line puffed out on the jug, and Davenport's squawking, squalling harmonica on top. The singers' voices blend smoothly, but the mood is wild: a woman (possibly an uncredited Lizzie Douglas, aka Memphis Minnie) shouts "Yeah! Uh-huh!" to punctuate tall tales of reckless drinking ("Up to my lips and down to my toes / That's the way quarts and gallons goes") and some bold racial signifying ("Liquor shelf looks really thin / Steal it from the white folks now and then"). In the late 20s and early 30s Joe, aka Kansas Joe, also became Memphis Minnie's accompanist and possibly one of her husbands—most modern blues fans, if they know him at all, know him from this connection.

By 1936 the McCoys had left Davenport's band and moved to Chicago. They knew plenty of musicians in town from traveling here for recording sessions, and in short order they were leading the Harlem Hamfats. The instrumentation was more sophisticated now, with New Orleans-style trumpet and gaily dancing clarinet out front and a string bass strutting where the jug man used to blow, but the feel wasn't all that different. Though the Catfish Row juke joint had been reinvented as a Bronzeville speakeasy, the atmosphere was still about illicit good times.

The McCoys left their mark on a wide range of artists. Louis Jordan's jump-and-jive blues style, which came into its own in the late 30s, owes a clear debt to the Hamfats' rough humor and polished musicianship. Western-swing bandleader Bob Wills covered Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie's 1930 cut "What's the Matter With the Mill" in 1936, and Muddy Waters remade it as "Can't Get No Grindin'" in 1972. Peggy Lee and Benny Goodman had a national hit with 1942's "Why Don't You Do Right?," based on a 1941 Lil Green version of a Joe McCoy song the Hamfats had recorded in 1936 as "Weed Smoker's Dream." (Jessica Rabbit sang it in 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit.) And Led Zeppelin resurrected "When the Levee Breaks," another tune by Memphis Minnie and Joe McCoy, in 1971. Jug-band music also influenced the entire blues genre known as hokum, a good-humored mix of slick musicianship and silly double entendres ("Let Me Play With Your Poodle," "It's Tight Like That"). Pioneered by Tampa Red and Georgia Tom Dorsey in the late 20s, by the early 30s it was the dominant Chicago blues style.

But influence doesn't always translate into fame and fortune, and after the Hamfats broke up the McCoys' careers faltered, though they soldiered on in groups with names like Big Joe & His Washboard Band and Big Joe & His Rhythm. When Joe died on January 28, 1950, his death certificate listed his occupation as "laborer." His brother died six months later, on July 26. In a 1975 interview with Jim O'Neal of Living Blues magazine, pianist Memphis Slim, who'd known the McCoys, became uncharacteristically bitter when the subject turned to Joe's death. "Joe wrote this song," he said, "'Why Don't You Do Right?,' and Irving Berlin presented this song at the Chicago Theater, with Peggy Lee and all that thing. And at this particular time, Joe McCoy was laying in state at the Metropolitan Funeral Home, and we had to beg money to bury him. Boy, I'll never forget that. I thought that was a damn shame."

Leach will be back in town for the fruits of his efforts this Sunday at the Old Town School, where the lineup for the McCoys benefit includes the Second Fiddles, a New York group with a repertoire rooted in the jug-band music, hokum, and Hamfats-style swinging blues, as well as local musicians like washboardist and singer Rick "Cookin'" Sherry, the Northside Southpaws, the Barehand Jugband, and the Hump Night Thumpers. That afternoon there will be workshops on body percussion (often called "patting juba") and the McCoys' guitar and mandolin styles. There'll also be a free 2 PM walking tour of Restvale led by Steve Salter of Killer Blues (reserve a spot at mccoybrotherstribute.com and meet at the cemetery office at 11700 S. Laramie in Alsip).

One of the headliners of Sunday's benefit, Sule Greg Wilson, is a student of the music of the African diaspora—in 2005 he cofounded Sankofa Strings, a revivalist string band that became the Carolina Chocolate Drops—and he hopes the event will be understood as more than a tribute to two fallen bluesmen. "The McCoy brothers, with their mix of hot New Orleans and southern string music, are the direct ancestors of rock 'n' roll," he says. "Because that is what string-band and jug-band music is: the real music that became blues and jazz. It did not go straight from 1784 field hollers to 1920s blues, as every textbook in the world states. No. It was the string bands that fostered the music that became the source of modern African-American pop—and world pop, for that matter."   

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