Bénédicte Mackengele / Wikipedia

 

I have long been obsessed with the cosmic conundrum of being a part of Life itself—but then, dealing with the constant stream of loss of the more endearing, “cozy,” comforting aspects thereof. For me, the camera (as long as film was a viable medium, which for now seems moot)—represented a liquid pool, into which I could drink deep, and entrap enduring images at their mist graphically memorable. Such as it was with the “Bluesmen,” whom having befriended while volunteering my basic services in the long ago Smithsonian Folklife festivals of the mid-1970s; not only allowed me to document them in all their quirky ways, but taught me some smoking hot licks that proved the basis of my own guitar repertory!

Musically I’d been inculcated on the piano at my dear Mom’s knee, not to mention the days I spent as a high school kid haunting my friend Bobby’s record collection, which he’s culled – along with a prized red Ephiphone electric—from trips to Chicago and hangin’ with the legendary singer ‘Magic Sam.’ I recreated the acolyte experience of my own, by following roots musicians during their tour of DC as participants in the Festival. Needless to say, my most memorable mentors were certainly Professor Longhair from New Orleans, the Creole accordionist Clifton Chenier, and Chicago folks Jimmy “Fast Fingers” Dawkins, and Lefty Dizz and Vince Chappelle, Koko Taylor’s sidemen who ultimately invited me to ‘bunk up’ with them in “sweet home” Chicago.

Framing this gleaming picture of musical Nirvana for a starry-eyed “ice boy “ just barely in his twenties, was my reverential “grasshopper’ worship of two genuine and gifted Mississippi “griots”, Houston Stackhouse and Robert Junior Lockwood who bore the indelible distinction of having run with the mighty Robert Johnson himself. These infinitely patient gentlemen put up with my nosy and nasal questioning, and Stackhouse ultimately yielded up one of my most iconic portraits. Ergo, the quality exchange of my obtaining the ancient “Blues wisdom”, and some amazing insight as revealed thru the lens of my 195 Polaroid bellows camera was well balanced by these players’ seemingly endless patience with my young ‘hothead’ self.

As I toted notions and sodas for these ‘wise folk’ (one off-site errand involved traveling in some Southern participants’ long black Cadillac to buy them some Ace “Process combs” from an unfriendly drug store), I felt any chill condescension thaw fast . Mistrust was replaced with the exchange of family tales, and then in turn I’d happily escort some of my new friends around to my native capital’s more hidden treasure spots. Eventually, I helped the restless visitors find local stages where they were able to jam after hours, places long forgotten now: Cousin Nick’s and the Childe Harold. Truly, in a sense, after my protracted experience living among these marvelous and unique individuals who clearly had much more to offer than just entertainers in the folk fest—it was very clear that I would never jump off the ongoing Carnival wagon that is the wondrous traveling circus that is the Blues!

This is an autobiographical story, which appeared originally in EYEMAZING Magazine (Summer 2012), in slightly different form, under the title “The Blues Men Chronicler.”

“To hold in a photograph what is precious, the delicate nature of what is passing, led Chris“Sky”Shaw to document the great Mississippi blues men who, like the old buildings falling down around him, he witnessed being lost to us, at an alarming pace. [He] knew instinctively not to interfere with the camera’s ability to see clearly, and in return the profound nature of these men and women was captured with the same great beauty, at the heart of his architectural work.”–Joseph Mills, photographer