How We Helped:Music Maker and Robert Thomas joined forces in 1995. As part of the Music Maker family, Robert has received sustenance grants, been given a guitar, and recorded an unissued CD. He is also featured on the Music Maker compilation CD Songs from the Roots of America II.
More About Robert
February 24, 1995, Field Notes by Denise Duffy:
We are back on the road by 3:00pm. We decide we will check in on the other guys in the area on the rebound, and beeline for Alabama. A pit stop for dinner, groceries and bottled water is mandatory before heading to Robert Thomas’s place in the backwoods – no electricity, no telephone, and no running water. I love this place!!! It’s the closest thing to Africa I’ve experienced since we’ve been back. Millions of stars, cocks crowing in the trees – hell they even burn the bush like Africans, serpentine ribbons of fire skirting the road. The smoke hangs thick over the scattered patches of black-water swamp. As we pull in the last rays of the late winter’s sun still grip the bare clapboard walls of Robert Thomas’ birthplace, a windowless, one -room sharecropper’s shack. There is no one home but the one-eyed blue-tick hound. The light is luscious and Tim shoots some film. We prepare the van and ourselves for the coming night and head down to George Daniel’s place a few miles away to see if he knows where Robert is. George is a player himself and he may just have the rankest electric sound in the South. His amp is a living hell, but he is a great singer and harmonica player when we can get him to unplug. Sure enough, George leads us over to Robert’s new girlfriend’s house. Directions from Columbus, GA. – head out on 80 west to Society Hill just before the turn off to Robert’s house (road 79 on left) take a right onto Road 91, then a quick right onto a dirt road go 2-3 miles until you hit rt. 80 again continue across and go another 1 1/2 to 2 miles then take a right go another 1 1/2 to 2 miles and veer to the right at the fork in front of the white house. Go another mile or so. Claudia’s house is a brick house on the right, with a wire fence in front – just after the house with the crazy painted tire fence in front.
We set up and roll some tape, but the guys aren’t focused and were not sure if we’re getting any usable cuts. ‘Round midnight we knock off and go back to Robert’s place to crash. It’s gotten very cold since the sun went down. Robert builds a fire and invites us to warm ourselves before turning in. The fire throws a dim flickering light over the bare, boarded walls. Patched with cardboard cartons and embellished with wildlife sketches torn from the pages of magazines, our host explains the house is about 100 years old and white people used to live here. It is crowded inside with what remains. Robert proudly shows us his new boots in the corner. They look out of place. Little new has ever come into these walls, nothing has ever left. Warm and tired we creep back to the van and nod off.
Morning comes early in eastern Alabama. By 6:00 am Robert is chopping wood for the morning fire – rather loudly and close to the van on purpose. It’s time to get going. The frost is thick on the windows and Tim and I are stiff from getting cold in the night. We go with Robert to deliver a load of wood. He makes arrangements to use a friend’s ‘club’ to record in. He has an errand to run and instructs us go to set up. He promises to follow in a few minutes. We are directed down twisting dirt roads, carved deep into the sandy earth by the rains of many winters. The edges are soft and wet; I imagine them to be quick sand. The van is wide and I am nervous. It is not quite spring in Alabama and the woods are still dense. Vines are stripped but many and the naked brush is thick enough to tangle a hiker’s ankles. It must be magical in June when the jungle is in bloom. Humble and homemade houses are sparsely scattered along our route. There are also what appear to be campsites alongside of the road. A fire pit, some old folding chairs, a ragged sofa and a trash pile evidence of some sort of domicile but were the inhabitants homeless or vacationing? Landowners or squatters? I don’t ask, I’m afraid of embarrassing Robert or myself.
People build and decorate to their own tastes here and utilize what is readily available. A long fence made of used tires half-buried and brightly painted frames a lawn and walkway. I note it in my files it will serve as a good landmark on future trips. What a lot of heavy work it must have been to make. I think of the picture pretty New England towns I was surrounded by growing up and how the town historical (hysterical) council would condemn such a fence, socially ostracizing it’s creator for time immemorial. Folks here would balk at the idea of someone else imposing an aesthetic on them. They make no distinction between ‘folk art’ and ‘fine art’; the need to qualify and label is absent altogether. I was raised to qualify, note that when I mentioned today’s recording site above I put the word club in quotes – implying that this space was not a real club – but some sort of facsimile. To Robert and the locals a place where people meet to hear music, dance and buy drinks is a nightclub. Was I to hear this description I would agree, but I’m here now. The walls are bare cinder blocks, the floor cold cement, a much too tall plywood bar and large refrigerator, gray folding chairs and long tables the sort they use in a church basement. It’s damp and chilly. Robert’s friend has kindly built a fire in a small, potbelly stove. He’s got to use small chucks of wood as the stove was made for coal. We are not introduced and he remains silent except for the scraping of the trowel he uses to tend the fire. Another man Robert introduces as his girlfriend’s brother has come to observe the session. They proudly reminisce that he was also a guitar player at one time, but he hung it up years ago. He tries to fret a guitar but his nails are too long.
Robert begins to play. He plays the blues simply with no tricks but with great joy. His bold smile is for everyone, his speech is uncomplicated and void of cliche and cynicism; he is a naturally charming man who seems much younger than his 65 years.
Robert doesn’t write his own songs but plays blues standards or the music of his deceased partner, Albert Macon. But his voice is his own and his primitive guitar style brings you back to the early decades of this century. He lays down several tunes back to back. He’s fine but most takes are ruined. The girlfriend’s brother keeps opening his mouth in an effort to make small talk with the silent fire keeper. Tim is less annoyed than I would expect. Neither of us say anything to the guy; he is completely aware of the result of these actions. The same thing happened the last time we tried to record Robert, different friend but those cuts were ruined just the same. We attribute it to jealousy of people having interest in Robert but I’m not sure of that. I often misinterpret these people. Finally, the blabbermouth leaves. The subsequent cuts are ruined by the fire-render banging around in the stove. Tim and I trade glances and wonder if he knows the sound is damaging. It’s his club and he’s gone to such effort to keep us warm in it, we don’t have the heart to say anything. Before we leave I feel compelled to give the guy 20 bucks.
By noon or one o’clock we pack it up and say our good-byes to Robert. We head north to Opelika, hoping to find Eddie Eiland, a slide guitar player we missed on our last trip. The journey is only 25-30 miles, but by the time we get there we both feel lousy. Sleeping in the van last night, the cold and damp really got to our bones. We concede to being the wimpy, hothouse flowers we were raised to be, check in to the Super 8 and run a hot bath. Tim tries to ring up Eddie but he isn’t in. Nap time. We finally catch Eddie at home in the early evening but he says he can’t see us tonight or tomorrow. We manage to find a half-decent fish house for dinner and call it a day.