Deep South Piano: The Story of Little Brother Montgomery by Karl Gert zur Heide
This book is based primarily on the recollections of Eurreal ‘Little Brother’ Montgomery. Sometimes these are presented as exact quotes and sometimes they are summed up by Karl Gert zur Heide. Additional information is contributed by statements from other musicians and further research done by the author.
The format of most of the book is unusual in that the chapters are centered around the various locations where Montgomery traveled and played. The last section is titled “Who’s Who” and is an annotated listing of all the artists talked about by Montgomery. This provides biographical details about each that might have been clumsy to try to fit into the main part of the text.
This book is pretty much unequaled in telling us about blues pianists that we might not have known about otherwise. While this is fascinating, it is also sad to reflect upon the fact that there were so many that we will never get to hear. Still, as a result we have a much more complete picture of the vastness of the community of pianists and other blues musicians. We learn that the recordings we enjoy from the era merely scratch the surface of those that played the blues. Fortunately zur Heide not only interviewed some of these lesser-known pianists but also made home recordings of a number of them, some of which would have otherwise gone unrecorded. A review of those recordings can be found here: Deep South Piano CD Box Set
Of all the pianists mentioned in the book, Montgomery has the highest praise for Cooney Vaughn: “I thought he was the greatest of anybody at the time, which he was.” Today the only opportunity we have to hear Cooney Vaughn’s playing is the Mississippi Jook Band’s four sides. But Montgomery kept another one of his pieces alive by recording Vaughn’s Trembling Blues, even if the resemblance to Vaughn’s playing in the Mississippi Jook Band’s recordings is not very obvious. Montgomery did the same for an older, deceased pianist named Loomis Gibson when he recorded Loomis Gibson Blues, renamed Crescent City Blues.
Montgomery has been commonly praised as having a good memory and, even better, not embellishing or fabricating his recollections. Still, there are occasional inaccuracies, including a death date for Hersal Thomas of 1928 which should be 1926. More pertinent is giving credit to originators of pieces. Montgomery indicates that he, Lee Green, and Roosevelt Sykes together wrote 44 Blues (aka Vicksburg Blues): “It’s a blues we just steady made up.” But in another place the author cites Roosevelt Sykes stating that Lee Green learned the 44 Blues from another pianist before even meeting Montgomery: “Friday was one of the first to play The Forty-Fours. I didn’t meet him, but Lee Green talked about him and showed me, ‘Friday played it this way.’” The truth, as always, probably lies somewhere in the middle.
The closest parallel to Deep South Piano is A Blues Life: Henry Townsend as told to Bill Greensmith. Although Montgomery and Townsend both played blues during the same era, there is little overlap in their recollections about other blues players. Since St. Louis is sort of the center of gravity in the blues world, being situated between the southern states and Chicago, it is curious that Montgomery seems to have not played there.
Inaccuracies in dates and other information are partly due to Deep South Piano’s age, published in 1970. Despite that, it is one of the most valuable resources in print for blues piano and is highly recommended, if you can find a reasonably-priced copy.