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Cootie Profile

Cootie Stark and Little Pink Anderson - Mark Austin

"I took a lot of abusing off of people in this life," says Cootie Stark, sitting in the passenger seat of a station wagon that is taking him back to the Woodland Homes public housing projects in Greenville, South Carolina. "I been through the hassles, man. And a whole lot of phony talk, you know. Phony talk. But I kept on, and I got to that smooth road. You ain't gonna get there if you think getting to the smooth road is easy. That's in life. Something is better out there for you. Sometimes when we get disgusted, we have to just try to hold on." Cootie's smooth road is still fraught with surface scars. He is a poor, blind, 71-year-old man who draws disability checks and lives alone in a ghetto apartment. Or else he's a forgotten hero of the blues, a direct link to Piedmont acoustic legends Pink Anderson, Simmie Dooley and Baby Tate, an artist of international stature and unquestionable importance. It all depends on who you ask. It all depends on who you believe. Cootie Stark appears in none of the accepted blues historians' books. Five years ago, he was unknown, undocumented, unheard. But lately a renegade musicologist/entrepreneur named Tim Duffy has taken Cootie to Europe. Cootie also appeared in an ad which ran in Rolling Stone magazine. And a CD is in the works that may make the historians look like phony talkers. "I'm happy about all that, man," Stark says as the car stops in front of his apartment. "I ain't never had it before, so it makes me happy. There's a lot of people still living that want to hear this, and they ain't got it on the radio. It should have been 45 years ago, but more likely I'm better now than I was in my 20s. More likely I'm better."

Cootie Stark was born James Miller, but most everyone in Anderson County, South Carolina called him Johnny. Some of them called him Cootie, though he can't remember exactly why. He worked in the cotton fields with his sharecropper parents and dreamed of playing music for a living. Visits to an aunt in Greenville when Cootie was 12 presented him with the Piedmont blues influences that root his guitar style today. "Greenville had good talent back then," he said. "Baby Tate used to play on the street there, and that's how I come to know him. Then I got a guitar when I was 14, and I learned songs from my Uncle Chump and a bunch of songs from Baby Tate." Cootie was encouraged to keep playing, in part because his near-total blindness was considered an impediment to ever working a straight job or gaining an education. "There was a man came to my momma's house when I was a teenager," Stark says. "He talked to Momma about me coming to the Spartanburg school for blind people. I wanted to go, by she didn't let me. Back in those days she thought they might be mean to me. That's the reason why." Three years after picking up the instrument, Cootie Miller was playing street corners in Greenville and square dances in the outlying counties. He began what he calls his "traveling years" after turning 20, performing on the streets of Asheville, Knoxville, Greensboro, Columbia and other Southern cities and playing with elder musicians who would one day be recognized as blues legends: Pink Anderson, Simmie Dooley, Peg Leg Sam and Josh White (Cootie knew White as "John White"). But while Tate, Anderson, Dooley, Sam and White each recorded music that still endures, Cootie remained in unrecorded obscurity, moving from town to town, playing for whatever he could get. "People would talk about, 'Oh, he got a good gift,' but all they knew was to give me a drink of liquor or a nickel or a dime or two," he says. "They didn't have the learning to really help me." The details of Miller's next 40 years are nebulous, a hazy continuum of struggle and song. If there were few missed opportunities it is because there were few opportunities of any sort. Rock and roll obliterated the way Americans thought about music. Then the 60s folk boom brought first generation blues artists like White, Anderson, Rev. Gary Davis and Lightnin' Hopkins briefly into the national spotlight, though music scholars declined to bestow much significance on second generation players who extended and honored the idiom's traditions. Miller married twice and saw one union broken by death, the other by divorce. He moved back to Greenville in the 1980s, settling into Woodland Homes with little hope of ever finding an audience. "By then, the real Piedmont blues was pretty much gone," he says. "All them guys was dead and gone, and I wasn't making no headway."

While Cootie's prospects were declining, Tim Duffy was piling Winston-Salem bluesmen into his van and driving them to the cheese lines. "When I didn't have money to help these people, I gave what I had, which was time and transportation at first," Duffy says. "On check day I'd fill up my van with Guitar Gabriel, Macavine Hayes, Mr. Q, Willa Mae Buckner and other artists. We'd go to the pawn shop to cash their checks. Then we'd go to the grocery store, go to the cheese line, go to the cigarette store." Duffy is a blues anarchist of sorts, a folklore scholar who fully believed the poverty-stricken compendium of unknowns in his van were the equals of Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, or BB King. "Guitar Gabriel was as good as anybody. He was the most eloquent poet of the blues from the East coast. Muddy Waters wasn't any better or more important than Gabe. And Macavine, he plays some of the most unadulterated, pure blues I've ever heard. He's a very important artist. Do you validate these artists by record sales? How many great artists never got recorded? Who's setting the criteria here?" In the early 1990s, Duffy began recording and assisting Guitar Gabriel. When producer and audio pioneer Mark Levinson heard those tapes, he set Duffy up with recording equipment and industry contacts. "Mark came up with the name Music Maker Relief Foundation in 1994," Duffy says. "And he put up the money for a compilation CD of these artists, and we started working to do something no one has ever done before."

That something was a Peter Pan approach to the blues, with Duffy and wife Denise distributing money from donors directly to artists who needed better instruments, needed help obtaining bookings or simply needed to pay a power bill. "It's payback time," says Duffy, who now makes his living as a salaried music producer. "Every major pop star is using blues licks, and it had to come from somewhere. There were a great many people that spawned this music that has turned into billions of dollars for the recording industry people, for Elektra, Sony and Atlantic. Most of these great musicians live for $4,000 a year, and they're the purveyors of this music, this culture. It's time to write them a royalty check. If we can't get it from the record companies, let's start an organization, raise the money and pay them what is owed." It was in the spring of 1997, about a year after Guitar Gabriel's death, that Duffy traveled to South Carolina and saw Cootie Miller play electric guitar and sing Fats Domino songs. "I realized by the way he was playing the guitar that there was something more here than a Fats Domino copycat," Duffy says. "I started asking Cootie, 'Do you know any older songs?' He said, 'Oh, you like those old songs? I had an uncle named Uncle Chump and I knew this guy named Baby Tate. He taught me thousands of songs. You want to hear some of those?'" By the time of that meeting, Duffy's Music Maker organization was on solid footing. Levinson had connected the foundation to a number of top-level music industry executives, Duffy had produced two compilation CDs and a full-length disc on Guitar Gabriel, and donations from corporations and individuals brought the Music Maker bank account to previously unthinkable levels. In 1997, Duffy expanded his recipient base to nearly 50 performers and gave away $100,000. "A lot of people told me, 'You should put that money back in an endowment and keep it growing,' Duffy says. "But the need was so great, and how is that money going to help these people in ten years, when they're dead? These artists are in their 70s and 80s now." Within months of hooking up with Duffy, Cootie had a new acoustic guitar, a new stage name (Stark was the last name of Miller's stepfather) and a promising career. The biggest obstacle in the early part of the Cootie Stark/Tim Duffy alliance was convincing Cootie that getting paid good money for playing music didn't mean he would lose his disability check. A former duo partner told him he couldn't make more than $100 on a gig without repercussions. "This guy had him living in fear," Duffy says. "I was going to pay him $1000 once and he was scared. He really wanted the $1000, but the guy had convinced him that he would lose his check. I had to do some research and bring a social worker down to see Cootie and get it all straight and clear. Cootie didn't think he was allowed to have a bank account, either, but now he's got that." "Yeah, I told Timmy about the situation I was in with the governor," Stark remembers. "He checked on it for me, and then he said, 'If that's all you're scared about, you don't have to worry.' That's when we went to New York and I started out with him, and we've been going around together ever since." Duffy's notion that most traditional blues clubs provide a poor way to turn a buck or garner attention means that his artists are more likely to play Carnegie Hall or the Newport Rhythm and Blues Festival than to appear on small stages. And, whether playing European shows, American festival gigs or a toney jewelry store in the Hamptons, Stark has been universally well-received in his first year as an international blues figure. His abrasive, percussive guitar style melds with a vocal arsenal that ranges from a rough-hewn gospel shout to a tight, pretty vibrato, and his concerts are glorious time warps, direct links to a South long since gone. "Cootie has taught me stuff I'd never had any idea about," Duffy says. "He knows all these songs from all these rural musicians. It makes you realize that Pink Anderson and Baby Tate were just the tip of an iceberg of a world we don't know anything about. And just because most of the people in that world were never recorded, that doesn't make them any less great. Put Cootie on a stage in Europe singing songs like 'Sandy Land' or 'Jigroo' and people go nuts. They've never seen or heard anything like him, because he's the real thing." This spring, Duffy continued to find heretofore unheard of avenues to promote Cootie Stark, Thomas "Guitar" Gable, Willa Mae "Snake Lady" Buckner, Beverly "Guitar" Watkins and other elderly artists he considers to be of monumental importance. This time, he found a corporate ally, who featured Music Maker's musicians in an insert ad in Rolling Stone. "We're talking about three and a half million inserts with nine photographs of unknown blues musicians and a paragraph telling the world who they are," Duffy says. "This is the biggest piece of loose literature ever produced on country blues. We've gone right around the Blues Nazis, the people who are supposed to decide what is and what isn't important. This ad is not even talking to a blues audience. It's talking to mainstream music lovers, and there's a lot more of them than of historians and musicologists." More people will see Cootie's face in the ad than have read the books of accepted blues scholars Bruce Bastin or Samuel Charters. On the heels of the ad, Duffy has secured a record deal for Cootie on Cello Records. Stark's debut CD will be distributed through Warner Brothers and carried in record stores throughout the world. "They say the older you get, the more fun you gonna have, and I believe them now," Stark says. "I just wish I'd had some of this a long time ago. I've had a lot of wasted time, a lot of time gone. But that was just an old, bumpy road."
- Peter Cooper, The Oxford American, May 1998

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