Monday, January 26, 2009

High Water Records

When in "High Water Everywhere," Charley Patton sings “the water was rising, up to my front door,” you know the end is near. It seems fitting then, that as the end approached for the blues, the last generation of great performers would record for a label with the same name.

The High Water Recording Company was founded by David Evans in 1979, as part of Memphis State University’s College of Communication and Fine Arts. Original funding came from the NEA. Such factoids make High Water sound like one more exercise in academic blues-ology, producing more fodder for the folkways archives, destined to be alphabetized by German collectors. However, thanks to Evans’ grasp of his local scene, and his embrace of the good old commercial impulse and its ultimate format, the 45, the records he produced transcend more traditional field recordings made by Alan Lomax, Chris Strachwiz, and Evans himself on earlier outings.

Initially the NEA gave High Water enough money for four singles, with the aim of preserving some of the region’s rich musical/cultural thing-a-ma-ling. Evans would capture the last utterances of Big Joe Williams, Sam Chatmon, and others from that older, already well-known generation. Or so the NEA thought.

But Evans wanted to model High Water after what Sam Phillips originally did at Sun Records by making the first records by a younger generation previously unknown beyond their own home turf. Evans even began numbering the High Water catalog by picking up where Sun had left off with their last single. The first of these was “Going Down” b/w “Cotton Fields” and “Boss Man” (HW 408), by one of Ike Turner’s original sidemen, sax honker Raymond Hill and his wife Lillie. Also in that original set of four was Jessie Mae Hemphill’s set of hypnotic Senatobia blues “Jessie’s Boogie” b/w “Standing in My Doorway Crying” (HW 409), R.L. Burnside’s backwoods soul “Bad Luck City” b/w more traditional hill blues “Jumper Hanging Out on the Line” (HW 410), and Rainie Burnette’s droning “Coal Black Mattie” b/w “Hungry Spell” (HW 411).

With these and subsequent High Water releases, Evans hoped to help the blues reenter the stream of popular music, at least regionally. And the format, 45s, helped keep ‘em funky, affordable, ready-made for radio play and jukeboxes. These records represented the latest thing by their performers, and some even held their own on local radio, thanks to the support of area dj’s, Rufus Thomas, the world’s oldest teenager, among them. (Ironically, Thomas was one of many black artists dropped by Sam Phillips once he had Elvis in his stable.)

High Water’s next two singles, (HW 412 & 413) released in ’81, by Memphis favorites the Fieldstones, were also some of its most successful. During this period harp-meister and Bobby Bland-styled singer, Little Applewhite cut a couple of singles which also did fairly well on Memphis and Chicago stations.

Besides releasing some of the earliest records by R.L. Burnside, Jr. Kimbrough, and Jessie Mae Hemphill (granddaughter of the great pre-war musician Sid Hemphill, one of Lomax’s big field discoveries), High Water breathed new life into the career of harp-blower and jug-band master Hammie Nixon, former sideman to Sleepy John Estes, whose “It’s a Good Place to Go” b/w “Bottle Up and Go” (HW 416) stands out as one of the best records in their catalog.

Eventually High Water got into long players, and released fewer 45s. One of the last was the Harmonizers doing the great gospel numbers “I’ll Be Satisfied” b/w “Trampin’.” Here and there High Water got a few unlucky breaks. Hammie Nixon passed. Overseas licensing deals fell through. By '89 Evans threw in the towell (although High Tone records has since reissued much of the High Water catalog). And maybe it was a wise move. By then High Water had achieved Evans' goal of exposing these hitherto obscure artists to a wider audience. Jessie Mae got her Handy Award before she passed. R.L. and Junior Kimbrough made it over to Fat Possum Records and enjoyed several years of noteriety before they passed. Time ain’t no friend of the blues.

The Junior Kimbrough video was made by Little Ruby Pictures, the same folks who brought you the film "Wayne County Ramblin'." For more info go to


tomato sandwich bacon said...

I still play the Hammie Nixon 45 at 33 because it sounds so warped. And great.

Bob Pomeroy said...

would that make it 'screwed' hammie?

Anonymous said...

Great. Been wanting to hear this stuff for a while.

Bob Pomeroy said...

I think these singles are still pretty easy to track down, if you're lookin.