Buddy Moss

Buddy Moss

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Many thanks to Troy Staggs for his kind consent and permission to reprint/republish this article.

Buddy Moss

Eugene "Buddy" Moss (January 16, 1914 – October 19, 1984) was, in the estimation of many blues scholars, one of the two most influential East Coast blues guitarists to record in the period between Blind Blake's final sessions in 1932 and Blind Boy Fuller's debut in 1935 (the other being Josh White). A younger contemporary of Blind Willie McTell, Curley Weaver and Barbecue Bob, Moss was part of a coterie of Atlanta bluesmen, and among the few of his era whose careers were reinvigorated by the blues revival of the 1960s and 1970s. A guitarist of uncommon skill and dexterity with a strong voice, he began as a musical disciple of Blake and may well have influenced on the later Piedmont-style guitarist Fuller. Moss's career was halted in 1935 by a six-year jail term and then by the Second World War, but he lived long enough to be rediscovered in the 1960s, when he revealed that his talent had been preserved through the years. He was reputed to have been cantankerous and mistrusting of others.

In later years, Moss credited his friend and bandmate Barbecue Bob with being a major influence on his playing. Scholars also contend that Blind Blake was a major force in his development, as both share certain mannerisms and inflections. It has also been suggested by Alan Balfour and others that Moss may have been an influence on Blind Boy Fuller, although they never met and Moss's recording career ended before Fuller's began – Moss's first recordings display some inflections and nuances that Fuller did not put down on record until some years later.

Moss was one of 12 children born to a sharecropper in Jewell, Georgia, in Warren County, midway between Atlanta and Augusta. There is some disagreement about the year of his birth, some sources indicating 1906 and many others of more recent vintage claiming 1914. He began teaching himself the harmonica at a very early age, and he played at local parties around Augusta, where the family moved when he was four and remained for the next 10 years. By 1928, he was busking around the streets of Atlanta. "Nobody was my influence," he told Robert Springer of his harmonica playing, in a 1975 interview. "I just kept hearing people, so I listen and I listen, and listen, and it finally come to me."

By the time he arrived in Atlanta, he was good enough to be noticed by Curley Weaver and Robert "Barbecue Bob" Hicks, who began working with the younger Moss. It was Weaver and Barbecue Bob who secured his first recording date, when he was 16, as a member of their group, the Georgia Cotton Pickers, on December 7, 1930, at the Campbell Hotel in Atlanta, cutting four songs for Columbia: "I'm on My Way Down Home," "Diddle-Da-Diddle," "She Looks So Good," and "She's Comin' Back Some Cold Rainy Day." The group that day consisted of Barbecue Bob and Weaver on guitars and Moss on harmonica. Moss did not record anything more for the next three years.

By 1933, Moss had taught himself the guitar, at which he became so proficient that he was a genuine peer and rival of Weaver. He frequently played with Barbecue Bob until Bob's death of pneumonia on October 21, 1931. Moss found a new partner and associate in the Atlanta blues legend Blind Willie McTell, performing with him at parties in the Atlanta area.

In January 1933, he made his debut as a recording artist in his own right for the American Record Company (ARC) in New York City, accompanied by Fred McMullen and Curley Weaver, cutting three songs, "Bye Bye Mama," "Daddy Don't Care," and "Red River Blues." Another eight songs followed over the next three days, and all 11 were released, more than were released for McMullen or Weaver at those same sessions.

The debut sessions also featured Moss returning to the mouth harp, as a member of the Georgia Browns – Moss, Weaver, McMullen and the singer Ruth Willis – for six songs done at the same sessions. But it was his guitar playing that would make his name over the next five years.

Moss's records were released simultaneously on various budget labels associated with ARC and were so successful that in mid-September 1933 he was back in New York City along with Weaver and McTell. Moss cut another dozen songs for the company, this time accompanied by Weaver; he also accompanied Weaver and McTell on their numbers.

These records sold well enough that he was back in New York City in the summer of 1934, this time as a solo guitarist and singer, to record more than a dozen tracks. At this point, Moss's records were outselling those of his colleagues Weaver and McTell and were widely heard in the southern and border states. His "Oh Lordy Mama" from these sessions became well known as "Hey Lawdy Mama", a song interpreted by various artists. This body of recordings also best represents the bridge that Moss provided between Blind Blake and Blind Boy Fuller – his solo version of "Some Lonesome Day" and also "Dough Rollin' Papa," from 1934, advanced ideas in playing and singing that Fuller picked up and adapted to his own style, while the lingering influence of Blake can be heard in "Insane Blues".

By August 1935, Moss's fee per song fee doubled, from $5 to $10 (at a time when many were surviving on less than that per week), and when he wasn't recording, he was playing around Atlanta alongside McTell and Weaver. When Moss returned to the studio in the summer of 1935, it was with a new partner, Josh White (Joshua Daniel White, "The Singing Christian"). They recorded 15 songs in August 1935. It seemed as though Moss was destined to outshine his one-time mentors Weaver and McTell, when personal and legal disaster struck.

In an incident that has never been fully recounted or explained, Moss was arrested and tried for the shooting murder of his wife and was convicted and sentenced to a long prison term. (The photograph above was taken of Moss at the prison where he was incarcerated.) With the death of Fuller in 1941, his manager, J.B. Long, made efforts to secure Moss's release as a replacement for Fuller. By the combination of Moss's own good behavior as a prisoner, the bribery of two parole boards, and the entreaties of two outside sponsors (Long and Columbia Records) willing to assure his compliance with parole, Moss was released from prison in the custody of Long, on the condition that he was to stay out of the state of Georgia for a decade. While working at Elon College for Long under the parole agreement, Moss met a group of other blues musicians under Long's management, including Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

In October 1941, Moss, Terry and McGhee went to New York City to cut a group of sides for Okeh Records/Columbia, including 13 numbers by Moss featuring his two new colleagues. Only three of the songs were ever released, and then events conspired to cut short Moss's recording comeback. With the entry of the United States into World War II in December of that year, the government began rationing shellac, which was used in making 78-rpm records, in 1942; barely enough was allocated to the recording industry to keep it functioning, and record companies were forced to curtail recordings by all but the most commercially viable artists. Also in 1942, the musicians' union placed a ban on recording by its members. Furthermore, the popularity of acoustic country blues, even of the caliber that Moss played, seemed to be waning, further reducing record companies' interest in recording it.

Moss continued performing in the area around Richmond, Virginia, and Durham, North Carolina, during the mid-1940s. He performed again with Weaver in Atlanta during the early 1950s, but music was no longer his profession or his means of making a living. His decade-long ban from Georgia is probably why he missed out on recording for Regal Records in Atlanta in 1949; the likes of Weaver, McTell, and Frank Edwards were recorded then. He went to work on a tobacco farm, drove trucks, and worked as an elevator operator, among other jobs, over the next 20-odd years.

Although he still occasionally played in the area around Atlanta, Moss was largely forgotten. Despite the fact that reference sources even then referred to him as one of the most influential bluesmen of the 1930s, he was overlooked by the blues revival. In a sense, he was cheated by the fact that his recording career had been so short – 1933 to 1935 – and had never recovered from the interruption in his work while he was in prison. His difficult character made it difficult for many, black and white, to deal with him.

In 1964, Moss chanced to hear that his old partner Josh White was giving a concert at Emory University in Atlanta. Moss visited White backstage at the concert, and the fans hanging around the established legend White discovered another blues legend in their midst. Moss was persuaded to resume performing in a series of concerts before college audiences, notably under the auspices of the Atlanta Folk Music Society and the Folklore Society of Greater Washington. He also had new recording sessions for the Columbia label in Nashville, but none of the material was issued during his lifetime.

A concert in Washington, D.C., on June 10, 1966, was recorded, and portions of it were later released by Biograph Records. Moss performed at the Newport Folk Festival in 1969 and appeared at such unusual venues as Electric Circus, in New York, in the same year. During the 1970s, he performed at the John Henry Memorial Concert in West Virginia for two consecutive years. He also performed at the Atlanta Blues Festival and the Atlanta Grass Roots Music Festival in 1976, and later at the National Folk Festival, held at Wolf Trap Farm Park in Vienna, Virginia.

Moss died in Atlanta on October 19, 1984, once again largely forgotten by the public. In the years since, his music has been available from Biograph Records, which reissued the 1966 performance, and from Document Records, which has released virtually every side that he released between 1930 and 1941. Some tried to persuade him to record again, but his difficult personality made that impossible, in spite of his immense talent and importance. As a result, his reputation has once again grown, although he is still not nearly as well known among blues enthusiasts as Blind Willie McTell or Blind Boy Fuller.

---Troy Staggs


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