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Arts & Culture
Thu March 1, 2012
By George Olsen
New Bern, NC – Mike "Lightnin'" Wells is old school enough when he takes you through his history as a working musician, he does it not on a tablet computer or any computer for that matter but in a scrapbook.
"It's my musical scrapbooks. When I was a kid I played in my little band when I was like 13 (which one is you?) It's before I played the guitar. My first instrument was the harmonica. (The Unknowns) The Unknowns, and we were too."
But perhaps it's not too surprising Lightnin' is old school in his keeping of memories because he's old school in his music as well. He doesn't write his own material but mines a deep tradition of old time music.
"I would say I'm pretty much a traditional musician. I'm doing music from white and black cultures but I'm kind of broadening that too doing pop music from the 1920s. It's all old music though and it all fits together for me. It's American music."
Lightnin' didn't start out in the old-time vein. The music of that first band The Unknowns was made after the British Invasion of the 60s had hit. And that was about the time the next musical trend started to get popular attention.
"I was starting to play guitar at the tail end of the folk revival in the 60s when the folk singers were playing the Newport Folk Festival and places like that, probably thru early Dylan and I was playing some of that stuff, and it was like who did Dylan listen to? Woody Guthrie, I got into him when I was pretty young. Who did Woody listen to? He hung out with Sonny Terry and Leadbelly. I got into them. It was a kind of moving backwards thing."
A lot of the modern musicians at those 1960's Newport Folk Festivals used the opportunity to introduce audiences to old time Delta and Piedmont blues performers like Mississippi John Hurt. Lightnin' got to listening to them, and eventually learned his first piedmont blues song an old 78 by the Durham blues player Blind Boy Fuller "Lookin' for my Woman." Some 40-odd years later Lightnin' now says he has "hundreds and hundreds" of songs in his head, many of them learned at the hands of the people who sustained traditions like the Piedmont blues such as Johnston County's Algia Mae Hinton.
"I'll stop by and see her and I'll play guitar and she'll sing from her chair but her big showpiece was the buckdance. She had taps on her shoes and she'd play the guitar and buckdance at the same time then she'd raise her guitar and play it behind her head while she buckdanced. That always got the crowd going. That was her show stopper."
He also had the chance to learn from and perform with a man he calls his "blues daddy" the Beaufort blues man Big Boy Henry who passed away in 2004 at the age of 83. Lightnin' says Big Boy's less-than-structured performance style gave him a lot of confidence, declaring "I played with Big Boy Henry, I can play with anybody."
"I remember we played at Lincoln Center, outdoors in Damrusch Park behind it, which is a highly coveted gig. So we're onstage with Big Boy who's always fly by the seat of your pants playing with him. You didn't know what you'd do. He'd change beats or something and you just had to watch the old man and change when he'd change which a lot of other people who played with him had a problem with. We're onstage up there and I'd say what do you want to do next, Big Boy? He'd say play a slow one in e or a, it doesn't matter, so you start playing and he'd start making a blues song up out of his head which always ended up pretty well."
Going through Lightnin's scrapbook you'll see a lot of legendary blues performers many right here in North Carolina including Durham's John Dee Holeman and Tarboro's George Higgs a piedmont performer Lightnin' refers to as one of the "last of the last." But even with those original practitioners dying off and Lightnin' performing traditional music for multiple decades, he's always been able to find something new to help sustain his interest.
"Floyd Council recorded with Blind Boy Fuller in the 30s and he did 8 songs on his own so we learned those songs. That's the latest thing. I learned 3 Floyd Council songs. I thought this would be easy, he's like a poor man's Blind Boy Fuller. Started getting into the songs and said wait a minute now these are a little harder than I thought. He's a pretty good guitar player."
You go through Lightnin's discography and you won't find any self-penned tunes not from a lack of interest in writing but in a belief there's always something new out there. That belief is backed-up by his discoveries of old-time performers like Floyd Council which enables him to add to those "hundreds and hundreds of songs" already firmly implanted in his head.
"I've got an English degree and I like to write but I just never went down that way of writing my own music. There's such a depth of material out there I just felt somebody needs to do this and that's what I do."
Lightnin' Wells resides in Fountain. His most recent recorded work is the "Pink and Mr. Floyd" collaboration with Tad Walters and Bullfrog Willard McGhee which includes the aforementioned music of Floyd Council. Lightnin' will be in New Bern Friday March 2nd along with Durham's Jon Shain for an evening of Piedmont blues presented by Tryon Palace and the Down East Folk Arts Society. The show takes place at Cullman Performance Hall at the North Carolina History Center, part of the Tryon Palace Complex in New Bern. I'm George Olsen.