Paul Booth chats with Alice Pierotti…

This entire Blues series, my mission has been to educate. I’ve also made every musician aware of this mission. They have shared their music and loves of The Blues to complete the series mission. I thank them all. This week we have Alice Pierotti whom I met through Olga (last week’s Blues Monday). Her interview needs no introduction, because on this one I’ll let “the (love) of music do the talking”.

Paul Booth: What do you do for The Blues? Where? 

Alice Pierotti: I’m the public librarian in a blues town – Como, Miss. Population 1,200.

PB: How long have you worked with The Blues?

AP: I started the librarian job August 2009 – the week Como got the Mississippi Blues Trail marker for fife and drum player Otha Turner so I had to jump feet first into the blues.  I grew up in Panola county but spent half my life in an idealic little mountain town in Colorado.

PB: Do you have 2-3 Blues artists you feel every American should hear or know? (son house to Olga). No right answer.

AP: Hell yeah I do.  Hill country blues artists don’t get the acclaim delta blues musicians do and that’s usually just a lack of education and access for the blues listener.  Most of the high producing hill country artists never made it big as commercial artists so you have to dig a little deeper as a listener.  The hill country sound is more communal (instead of one guy and a guitar think several musicians playing together with an emphasis on drums, slides and a driving rhythm).  Dancing encouraged.

The Gravel Springs community (that straddles Panola and Tate county) was and still is a wellspring of creativity and many hill country artists either came from there or are connected to the people there.  Sid Hemphill, the grandfather of hill country blues, raised a musical family including daughters Rosa Lee Hill, Sidney Hemphill Carter, Virgie Lee Hemphill and granddaughter Jessie Mae Hemphill.  Sid’s longtime bandmate, Lucius Smith, was a good banjo player and lead the band after Sid died.  Sid was blind and made all his own instruments – fifes, quills, drums, stringed instruments.

At one time there were many fife and drum bands in the hill country – The Young Brothers (Ed and Lonnie and son Cag), Como Fife and Drum Corps (Napoleon Strickland) and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band (Otha Turner) – but everybody pretty much played with everybody else.  Fife and drum bands were used to call up the picnics – large community gatherings held most summer weekends.  In an age before phones were common, you’d locate the picnic by listening for the drums.  To me, it’s interesting to compare the sound different players could get on the fife – it’s such a difficult instrument to play and physically demanding. There’s only one person from this area still playing fife, Otha’s granddaughter Sharde Thomas, who now leads Rising Star.  Additionally, Sharde has played drums with a Luther Dickinson led group, The Wandering, and done solo work.

PB: What are you working on with the Alan Lomax project? Please tell us a little about who Alan Lomax is? 

AP: We’ve got a huge celebration on the horizon: All Our Friends Hill Country Blues Celebration, Oct 5-12.  It’s a chance to educate our community and visitors about our hill country music heroes.  Children-centered programming will have us making instruments, listening to plenty of music and making our own.  The weeklong celebration culminates in the Association for Cultural Equity repatriating music, photography and video recorded by Alan Lomax in Tate county in 1959 and the reveal of another Mississippi Blues Trail marker in Como – this time for Napoleon Strickland.

What’s really special about this celebration is we’ll have a chance to welcome to our community again two of the foremost folklorists who did field recordings in the 50s and 60s in Panola and Tate counties:  Alan Lomax (whose Association for Cultural Equity will repatriate materials to the Senatobia Public Library) and George Mitchell (whose new book, Mississippi Hill Country Blues 1967, was published this summer).  Lomax in 59 and Mitchell in 67 recorded the artists whose work we still celebrate today.  I wasn’t around in 59 or 67 but I can still have an elevated experience with the music and the hill country artists from that time because of the collaboration between artist and folklorist.  When I listen to a Lomax porch recording of Bob and Miles Pratcher or look at a fife and drum picnic shot Mitchell took of Napoleon Strickland, I become part of the miracle of music.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a celebration without some good hill country music.  So, the celebration will feature many current hill country artists.  Even an 11 year old drummer who plays at Hunter’s Chapel Church, Terrence Bowden, whose kin folk was recorded with Fred McDowell on the gospel album Amazing Grace.  We’ll be hearing fife and drum – we’re going to be firing on all cylinders.

PB: Do you play any instruments?

AP: I dabble on the drums. Play a kit mostly.

PB: Who are your top five favorite Blues musicians or Albums?

AP: I gotta root for the home team: Fred McDowell, Napoleon Strickland, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Otha Turner and Mose Allison from adjacent Tallahatchie county who blends blues and jazz. Some new albums from hill country artists include a Daptone release Get An Understanding, The Como Mamas, You Can’t Hurry God, Rev. John Wilkins, and Ain’t the Man’s Alright, R.L. Boyce.

PB: What is your mission, purpose or calling…I mean, what legacy do you want to contribute to THE BLUES: AMERICA’S MUSIC.

AP: My business card says Alice Pierotti – library, arts, community.  That pretty much sums it up.

Interview by Paul Booth

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