African-American Harp Guitarists, Revisited

Exactly one year ago, I published the special article Black Harp Guitar Players in honor of Black History Month.  This February I am again celebrating the topic with some recent new additions.

Most of you are by now familiar with this famous Dyer player image, right? . . . . . . . . . .

Wrong!  None of you has ever seen this photograph until now.  This is not Todd Jones, the waiter at the Homestead Hotel c.1921, but his brother, Bernard Jones.

What are the odds?!  Good, I suppose, that the original “photo op” took place (read on), but slim to none that both images would turn up.  Like the photograph of Todd Jones, which was found in the form of an original glass negative, so too was this one of Bernard – though in a different decade in a different flea market in a different state.

Here’s the remarkable story, now incorporated into the permanent article:

Some forty years ago, back in the mid-1970’s, a gentleman named Larry Black acquired some glass negatives from a co-worker who had brought them back from a flea market in Winston-Salem, NC.  It wasn’t until last year, however, that Larry finally had prints made – in order to show them to the experts at the Antiques Roadshow.  He relates that all but one of several appraisers (including name redacted, who “was impressed, but not ecstatic, and left to take care of some other business”) thought that the harp guitar player was Robert Johnson (I had heard the same thing earlier about the Todd Jones photo).  Thinking thus, the appraisers were very anxious for Larry to consign the glass negative to them.  Luckily for us, Larry passed on the offer, and subsequently donated beautiful scans of all the images to (with expenses covered by The Harp Guitar Foundation, so all you donors can take pride in this project).

Shortly after his Roadshow visit, Larry learned of my article and the well-known image of Todd Jones, and was prompted to write.  His first email to me (sans image) was quite curious: “The photo I have is identical right down to the light colored, bent, upside down v-shaped piece of grass by Todd’s right foot. That piece of grass or straw is by the foot of my gentleman, also. But it is definitely a different man, and I think it was taken on the same day.”!

Amazingly, Larry was right.  It wasn’t Todd, but Todd’s brother Bernard – posing in the exact same spot with the same Dyer Style 7 harp guitar.  All of the vegetation in the shot (including that telltale piece of bent straw) indicates that the photos were surely taken one right after another.

One Dyer harp guitar, two brothers: Todd (left) and Bernard (right) Jones, c.1921

We (Perlista Henry and I) were able to identify this second gentleman from comparison with her other group photo, below (Todd and Bernard both hold guitars).

Perlista (whose importance in this investigation is explained in my article) received from Larry all eight scanned negatives also, in order to try to identify other faces – as it is likely that these were all taken by the same African-American photographer, in the same area.  You can see these photos and read her comments in the article.

Other new additions to the article:

Last year a wonderful series of three photos of a Gibson harp guitar player sold for almost $200 on eBay, despite being in very poor condition (No, I stopped somewhat short of that, but was able to capture the low res scans and clean them up a bit).  The “one-man band” horn attachment is particularly noteworthy.

And finally, I created a separate Public and Members version of my stand-alone article on James Reese Europe.  This was originally private only, due to the cost and contractual agreement for the key image of the orchestra.

Sadly, the level of interest in this piece (a somewhat time-consuming research project spread over several years) was uninspiring to say the least (it garnered no new members/donations, and surprisingly few existing members asked for the password).  I really think it’s a story that warrants more visibility, ergo my decision to make it full access (the Members version includes links to larger images; P.S: there is a new 2014 password).

Please enjoy and spread the word!…and thanks again for the donations that help make collecting, researching, presenting and archiving this rare material possible.

  1. Kevin Doherty Says:

    Gregg, Thanks so much for this…really interesting! The horn…Im thinking is likely a kazoo. I have one on my harmonica rack for 1 man band stuff.

  2. mykel Says:

    love harp guitar,article was very fascinating thanks

  3. Timothy Duffy Says:

    Dear Gregg,

    Thanks so much for your website. Taj Mahal and I have been talking a great deal about African American Harp guitarists. He tells me Charlie Christian’s father played one. We would both die to hear what they were playing. Rumbling a bass line and playing dance music.

    Here is his last email about reading your blog

    “What I wouldn’t give to hear these musicians playing live and recorded by those great mikes you have!

    Mark needs to get Le Croix de Blues for finding those glass negatives and developing them! Beyond words!

    Thanks for sharing,this site goes everywhere! All great photos and info! Outstanding!!!”

    His point about Mark Austin should be noted. He is the photographer that found this photo. He shoots himself as he had not enough money to buy all the boxes of plates. Plus it was Music Maker that found Perlista and reunited her with this photo.

    Not a big deal, but as you are writing history it would be cool to note Mark Austin and MMRF for their parts in this incredible story.

    Mark still has the glass plate. I will tell him all this news and get some photos to you of the actual plate.

    All the best

    TIm Duffy
    President of Music Maker Relief Foundation
    Manager of Carolina Chocolate Drops, Leyla McCalla, Etta Baker Estate, Dom Flemons

  4. Gregg Says:

    Thanks all. And thanks for writing, Tim – How great that Taj (may I call him that?) is reading my blog! Reading the rest of your note, however, I want to make sure you two (and other blog readers out there) are making it to the actual article that this blog is just a short intro to:
    Or perhaps you just missed it – yes, in the article I mention your site (with a link) and Mark Austin, regarding that part of this ongoing story (BTW, how interesting that both Mark and Larry Black’s friend each found their particular Jones negatives in the ’70s). Also Perlista’s trail to me (as you say, all part of this “story of discovery”).
    The Charlie Christian’s father lead is fantastic – would love provenance on that one! I would also urge Taj, et al to peruse the many other unknown harp guitar players in the article in case any other faces might be recognized (or other clues unearthed).
    Finally, while the Jones brothers and other AA images in the article are fascinating, there typically isn’t a lot of information to go along with them (we don’t know, for example, if Todd/Bernard were just local guitarists borrowing a harp guitar of someone passing through). On the other hand, I found the story of James Reese Europe (his link closes the main article) to be even more interesting (he seemed also to be an important, largely-forgotten person, worth sharing with a new audience), with plenty of provenance and biographical material – and it even ends up with 27 harp guitarists!

  5. Paul Jenter Says:

    Being Canadian I had never heard of them before but it was a fastinating story that everybody should know!

  6. Gregg Says:

    P.S: Here’s my original introductory blog about the topic (and the timing) from a year ago.
    And my introduction to the amazing and ground-breaking Jim Europe.

  7. Stephen Bennett Says:

    Absolutely fascinating how more stuff keeps turning up, isn’t it! Charlie Christian’s dad played one? Wow. Bravo once again, Gregg!

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