Dorothea’s dustbowl migrants and Tom McGuinness on Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup

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Migrant Mother the photograph of itinerant pea-picker Florence Thompson and her children taken in California in 1936 that catapulted Dorothea Lange to international fame

A couple of weeks ago I found myself at London’s Barbican viewing The Politics of Seeing – an exhibition of superb and often troubling photographs by pioneering American photographer Dorothea Lange.

Across the gallery, admiring Lange’s iconic studies of Oklahoma dustbowl migrants in California in the 1930s, was a man who I was fairly convinced was Manfred Mann and Blues Band guitarist Tom McGuinness. I wasn’t sure though and short of wandering over and asking, I couldn’t figure out a way of finding out. 

It’s not as though Tom is a mega-celebrity. His impeccable musical credentials and fascinating network of connections has always veered towards the esoteric. He may have started out playing in the same band as Eric Clapton but rock star material he ain’t. Consequently no one else was taking a blind bit of notice of him. 

Trying not to behave like a complete dick, I contrived to move closer and eventually found myself alongside Mr McGuinness who was by this time deep in conversation with another much younger man about the shocking inequality faced by poor black people in America, then and now.

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Tom McGuinness

That’s when I heard him say: “For a time in the early 70s I had a guy living in my house in London. His name was Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup…” The story continued but by now Tom had moved out of earshot.

It didn’t matter. That was all the confirmation I needed. I knew that Crudup was an American Mississippi Delta blues singer, songwriter and guitarist. I also knew that late in his career he visited London and recorded a brilliant album called Roebuck Man. It was named after a pub in the Tottenham Court Road and the players on it included Tom McGuinness and other like-minded musicians

Among the many songs that Arthur Crudup had written during his  long  career was That’s All Right Mama which, in the 1950s, became the hit single that launched Elvis Presley’s career. Presley would later pay tribute saying that his one overriding ambition had always been “to be as good as Arthur Crudup”

Unfortunately the Mississippi bluesman’s undoubted talent had brought few financial rewards. Crudup, who had been born into exactly the kind of travelling migrant farming family that was photographed by Dorothea Lange, was forced to work as a bootlegger to put food on the table.

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Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup in London in 1970

Eventually, after a career in which he was routinely ripped off by the sharks of the music business, he found a blues promoter prepared to campaign for his unpaid royalties.

It was reckoned he was due at least $60,000 dollars. By 1971 he was attracting new interest and had managed to recoup around 10,000 of those missing dollars. But it was too little too late. His health was failing and within three years Arthur Crudup was dead. He was 68.

Footnote: I knew I vaguely remembered hearing a story about Crudup’s stay in London and guess what? I found it in Blues: The British Collection, an indispensable guide to the British Blues and R&B scene penned back in the 1980s by original Fleetwood Mac bass player Bob Brunning. In case you’re wondering, Bob played on a handful of tracks during the early recording sessions for their eponymous debut album before being replaced by John McVie. Bob sadly died a few years ago but was a stalwart supporter of the blues playing in Savoy Brown and his own bands while simultaneously holding down a challenging day job as a schoolteacher, eventually becoming a headmaster.

Anyhow I digress. Taking my well-battered copy of Blues: The British Collection off the shelf for the first time in years, I scoured the index for Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup and there he was. In a chapter devoted to British musicians working with visiting American bluesmen (and they were almost exclusively men) I found Tom McGuinness talking about his houseguest who, perennially short of money, stayed with him to save on hotel bills. And there was the story that Tom must have been telling at the Barbican. An incident that rammed home to him just how impoverished the life of this brilliant, talented man was. It seems that Crudup had thrown his stage suit into his case without really examining it and when he came to unpack realised that it had been eaten by rats. Quite an eye-opener for a London boy whose idea of being poor was probably having to find a shilling for the meter and eat beans on toast rather too often. You can imagine. Tom had probably had the odd moth take a nibble at his shirt. But, Oh man, those blues guys had rats to contend with.

Footnote 2: I should have known that including the words Big Boy in the headline would attract some dubious attention. Sure enough a sex-crazed algorithm  found my piece and within days there was a photograph of a large bottomed young woman holding a camera. and inviting me to view a variety of ‘racygirls’ sites. Fortunately I’m not so deluded, or desperate, to imagine that in the real world girls, decades younger than me, would be remotely interested. And I’m certainly not interested in them.

Author: Jeremy Miles

Writer, journalist, photographer, arts and theatre publicist and occasional art historian.

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