Smart with a Guitar

By  |  March 8, 2017

Floyd Council’s heart gave out on May 9, 1976: bad cholesterol and, in the end, kidney failure. He was sixty-four. He’s buried outside my hometown of Sanford, North Carolina. If you take Lower Moncure Road east beyond the 421 overpass, you’ll see a few identical grey trailers, a low brick ranch-style house, and a tobacco field, and then the road curves left and the trees close in again. A church used to stand here, and in the long grass between the shoulder and the pines some gravestones are peeking up through the green. Not much remains of the cemetery, and nothing of the chapel, White Oak AME Zion, abandoned for years and finally torn down in 2014. Broke and a widower, Council was buried here without a marker. And now that the grass has grown long and trees have sprouted up, the blues guitarist’s grave is lost.

Council was born in Chapel Hill on September 2, 1911, but he spent the bulk of his life in Sanford. Though he was an active player in the prewar heyday of the country blues, by the time he was in his fifties he was a veteran long-haul trucker and hadn't recorded a song in almost thirty years. Then, in 1965, Syd Barrett, the frontman of a London rock group called The Tea Set, pulled a Blind Boy Fuller album called Country Blues: 1935-1940 out of his record collection. He was struck by two names in the text on its sleeve: Pinkney “Pink” Anderson and an obscure guitarist, Floyd Council, who played with Fuller on several tracks. The Tea Set became Pink Floyd, and Council became a footnote.

That’s how I stumbled on him—I’m not a blues nut, and might easily have missed him even if I was, but I do occasionally dip into my hometown’s history. Preparing to make a joke about the percentage of Sanford’s few celebrities who are listed on Wikipedia as either professional wrestlers or NASCAR drivers (71.4% if you count the Hardy Boyz, who share a single page, as two people), I noticed an unfamiliar name, a blues musician. Long before he was thus immortalized, Council was on the ground floor in the development of a new music, which Benjamin Hedin writes about in the Oxford American’s latest Southern Music Issue:

A blues evolved alongside tobacco farming, known as “Piedmont blues,” in reference to the rolling foothills that stretch from Virginia through the Carolinas and down into Georgia, between the Appalachians and the Atlantic coastal plain. It was played in the curing barns at night, while the fires roasted the tobacco leaves until they had the right hue and texture, and in warehouses during auction season. A musician like Blind Boy Fuller—who with Blind Blake and others helped popularize the strain in the 1920s and ’30s—could earn more during auction month than from working in a factory the rest of the year.

In his teens, Council lived in Chapel Hill, working menial jobs and busking for UNC students on the side. On the streets, he didn’t play the blues. He would have performed big band, ragtime, gospel, and swing numbers—songs the white college students at UNC would pay a dime to hear. The blues he played on weekends, when he went to Durham—to the juke joints on the road from Chapel Hill, to parties, and, for the real money, to the warehouses. Farmers brought their crops on Friday, the dried tobacco leaves carefully knotted and arranged on pallets for auction, and stayed the weekend there, sleeping on their piles. When their lot came up, they were paid in cash. In the evenings, the buyers gone and the farmers’ pockets newly fat, salesmen, prostitutes, bootleggers, hustlers, and musicians would sweep in. It was said you could make more playing two nights at a warehouse than from a week’s work in the factories, and the factories paid well.

In part because those factories paid so well, Durham was home to one of the first entirely self-sufficient black communities in the country, Hayti. (W.E.B. Du Bois called it “perhaps more striking than . . . any similar group in the nation.”) Musicians didn’t have to rely on the money of whites on the street or tobacco farmers in a warehouse; they had a community that could support them, good-paying gigs at the house parties of Hayti and the five or six juke joints that dotted the county beyond at any given time. While playing a party at a joint one weekend in 1930, Council met Willie Trice, who, with his brother Rich, introduced him more widely to the blues scene in Durham. And it was through Willie Trice that Council probably met Blind Boy Fuller, perhaps the central figure of the Piedmont blues. 

In 1937, Council joined Fuller on three recording trips to New York, at the invitation of a white entrepreneur named James Baxter Long, the manager of the United Dollar Store on West Club Boulevard in Durham, who sidelined as a talent scout for the American Record Corporation. They spent four days there in early February, then returned in September and again in December. And that was it—Council’s career as a recording artist spanned eleven months. Between the three sessions he recorded twenty-seven tracks, including eight of his own. That’s all we’ll ever hear of him.

 

By 1940, Floyd and his wife, Annabelle, were renting a small house on Roberson Street in Carrboro for $10 a month. Floyd worked as a janitor at a local school and Annabelle as a maid. That year, they reported to the census a combined income of about $650 annually, which would be $11,000 today. Floyd was still playing the warehouses. Thanks to his modest extra income from gigs, his kids May and George were able to go to school instead of working. (Floyd and Annabelle both left after sixth grade.)

After the 1940 census, Annabelle disappears from the record. She may have died, or left. Or Floyd may have left her. In any case, in November of that year he had another child, John Council, with another woman, Pearl Farrington, who was around ten years Floyd’s junior. The two were soon married, and they remained together for the rest of their lives, and had three more children. By 1948 they had moved to Sanford, renting a little house on Oakdale Street from one of the landlords who kept cheap, tin-roofed places for working-class black families.

Floyd Council drove his truck on four- or five-day stints across the country, and he was only home on weekends. In the meantime, the traditional blues idioms were dying out, giving way to early r&b and vocal harmony. When he wasn’t on the road, Floyd would entertain guests, friends, or acquaintances who’d bring young guitarists by. They’d challenge him, say they could out-play him, but they always lost, and Floyd would joke about giving them some songs to learn before they left.

In the late 1960s, Floyd had a stroke that left him unable to sing and only barely able to play. As his health continued to deteriorate, Pearl took a job in a poultry plant to make ends meet. On August 20, 1970, she was rushed to the hospital after suffering a heart attack and was pronounced dead on arrival. She was forty-eight. Later that year, the blues historian and folklorist Peter Lowry went to interview Floyd. He was, Lowry told me, “living by himself in a somewhat rough home.” Still not fully recovered from the stroke, “his playing was rudimentary.” Lowry recorded Council and a friend, Rufus Jackson, who played harmonica and sang, performing three songs, which, Lowry concluded, were of “academic interest only.”

Bruce Bastin, a historian and producer who might be the foremost expert on the Piedmont blues, visited Council around the same time and said that he was “very ill, and living in extremely poor conditions.” He was in such bad shape, Bastin said, that “it wasn’t possible to discuss his playing days.” Unable to work, Council moved in with his daughter Mary not long after Bastin’s visit. In 1973, his son James, twenty-four, was murdered in Greensboro—shot in the chest. Council lived three more years, and in May of 1976 he was buried next to Pearl out at White Oak AME.

 

Floyd Council Jr. greeted me in his driveway, next to his red truck. He is his father’s last remaining child. Ethnomusicologist Kip Lornell took a photograph of the senior Council around 1970, and Floyd Jr. looks just like it. I tried to imagine him with a mustache like his father had.

He had agreed to meet me, after some hesitation, because I was “a Sanford man,” though he had almost nothing of his father’s anymore, just the memories, and an old walking stick. A few years ago, someone brought him a CD with Floyd Council’s music on it, which Floyd Jr. listens to from time to time. He plays guitar himself, but mostly gospel, with his church. “People say, well you know, your daddy played, and that’s where you got it from, but I don’t know about that. It’s something that I like, so I play.” Floyd Jr. was a truck driver, too, though he’s retired now.

Council’s true stature is unknown, and probably undervalued. The full scope of his repertoire, like so many others’ from that age, is a mystery. Only six of his solo tracks survive, recorded during the first New York trip when he was twenty-six (the other two, recorded during the September trip, were never released and are lost). It’s hard to say whether they provide any true measure of his talent. On the first sides—“Runaway Man Blues,” “I Don’t Want No Hungry Woman,” and “I’m Grievin’ And I’m Worryin’”—Council sounds a little tense. His voice is high and tight, almost uncomfortable. On the other half, recorded a few days later—“Working Man Blues,” “Lookin’ For My Baby,” and “Poor and Ain’t Got a Dime”—he sounds much more relaxed. The vowels flow longer and smooth, his vibrato’s a little less pinched. Throughout, and on his work accompanying Blind Boy Fuller, Council’s guitar work is fluid and fun, with that ragtime jangle characteristic of the Piedmont style.  “I knew my daddy,” Floyd Jr. told me. “He was smart with a guitar.”

Five years ago, a local musician named Bullfrog McGhee spearheaded the Floyd Council Memorial Project, an effort to find and mark the musician’s resting place. Though Floyd was buried in an unmarked grave, when Pearl was interned the family had stuck a small metal marker into the ground. So if he could find Pearl, McGhee reasoned, he could find Floyd. Fund-raising online, the group only came up with a couple hundred dollars, nowhere near enough to clear and search the graveyard. Some volunteers spent a few days tearing out brush, panning around with metal detectors to no avail. Floyd Jr. tried to help; he thought he could recall where the grave was, roughly, with relation to the road, but the landscape had changed too much. They cleared an acre and a half before McGhee got sick, and while he was laid up recovering they lost momentum. The effort was abandoned. “They said they were gonna come back,” Floyd Jr. told me, “but I didn’t hear no more from it.”

I knew as soon as I got out of the car I wouldn’t find it. There was no drama, no grand search to be made—just a thick coat of leaves on the ground and underbrush and the half-light beneath the trees. A task made immediately absurd just by setting eyes on it. But Floyd Council is there, somewhere, an unmarked grave among unmarked graves. A testament to how much we’ve lost, and to how long and deep a footnote can run.


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Ed Winstead is a senior editor of Guernica. His work has appeared in BOMBInterviewLiterary HubGuernica, and elsewhere.