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On a Saturday afternoon, Richard “Mr. Bones” Thomas gets up from his plastic yellow chair inside a former barbershop in Northeast D.C. and clucks out 16th-note-laden rhythms with unfailing precision on two pairs of aged cattle rib bones jammed between the fingers on each hand.
A ring of players encircles him: lawyers and retired truck drivers with acoustic guitars and harmonicas, blacks and whites trading harmony lines, young women in call-and-response with old mensome approaching 30, others well into their 70s. Inside the circle, Mr. Bones looks like a windmill draped in plaid. He’s wearing a red-and-blue flannel shirt and swings his arms as he dances, keeping perfect rhythm with his fingers snapping the bones.
Taped to the tile wall, a placemat-sized photograph of local Piedmont-style blues legend Archie Edwards looks out over the musicians below, as if to show his authoritative approval. On the opposite wall hangs a signed black-and-white photograph of the immortal Southern bluesman Mississippi John Hurt, who was Edwards’ friend and mentor.
Edwards owned this barbershop in the 2000 block of Bunker Hill Road NEproperly the Alpha Tonsorial Barbershop, better known as Archie’swhere he cut hair for 40 years. He also presided over an intimate court of musicians who gathered each week to tell stories, teach songs, and play solo tunes.
Before Edwards died of cancer last June at the age of 79, he was one of the few remaining original players of Piedmont blues. He played music festivals locally and nationally, toured Europe, recorded two albums, and appears on a handful of collections.
Within the blues form, the Piedmont blues, an East Coast acoustic variety that developed in Virginia, West Virginia, and the Carolinas, distinguishes itself in the players’ plucking out a song’s bass line while simultaneously fingering the melody. Compared with the deep, disconsolate Delta blues, Piedmont bluesdrawing from both black blues and white country rootsis light-hearted and optimistic. Whereas a Delta crooner might bemoan the death of his dog through song, a Piedmont singer would say, “Hell, now I don’t have to feed it no more.” The folks who gathered each week to play and talk at Archie’s Barbershop shared such inveterate optimism with the proprietor.
One of Edwards’ dying wishes was that the guitar licks he liked to trade and the stories he liked to tell be kept alive. His friends also wanted to keep his shop open as a permanent monument to his artistry. But when Edwards died, it looked ominously as if the shop would slip into the past, too.
“For the first couple of months after Archie died, a group of us were paying rent out of our own pockets,” recalls Mike Baytop, Edwards’ hand-picked musical protégé. “When I first started telling people that I wanted to incorporate to keep the place open, they said, ‘How you gonna have a barbershop without Archie?’ But I knew he was therehe left a piece of himself,” Baytop adds. “So I ignored those people.”
Mr. Bones likes to say that you can go into a house where someone has died and it feels empty. But to Baytop, Bones, and the rest of Edwards’ former entourage, Archie’s Barbershop didn’t feel that way.
Baytop, along with the small nucleus of musicians who had been congregating with Edwards at the shop since the mid-’80s, established the Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation last September. At a jam session in August, Edwards’ surviving musical kin had talked of incorporating to solicit money for rent, monthly bills, and renovation supplies. Later that afternoon, Jeff Glassie, a lawyer who was learning to play the harmonica, walked through the barbershop door. Not long afterward, the firm that Glassie works for, Jenner & Block, helped Edwards’ old crew do the paperwork that gave them nonprofit, tax-exempt status.
“I’m not a church guy,” says Baytop, now the foundation’s president. “But the way things have been happening, it’s almost like there’s another hand in here doing something.” When the foundation needs money, he says, it gets moneysomehow. Every evening, Baytop says, he worries how he’s going to keep the foundation running. But providence has been kind so far.
The foundation gets funds mainly from individual contributors, but Baytop wants to pursue grants and corporate sponsorship. “We’ll put a big Exxon sign in the back,” Baytop says with a laugh. “If people want to give, that’s good, but Archie never charged for anything.”
Edwards worked, variously, as a security guard, a cabdriver, a barber, and a musician, but he was also a philanthropist. He paid home visits to disabled children and elderly locals to cut hair. He performed at old-age homes and in Barry Lee Pearson’s folklore classes at the University of Maryland. At the barbershop, Edwards welcomed anyone with an interest in blues, sensible manners, and a clean mouth. “Everybody liked him, but he didn’t take any stuff,” 76-year-old guitarist Theorian O’Neal recalls. “He was the boss, and when you were in here you played by his rules.”
Since Edwards’ death, his followers have given the shop a face lift, cleaning, painting, tearing down one shaky wall, patching up another. The yellow plastic chair that Mr. Bones occupies is one of a set brought from the bowling alley that 73-year-old harmonica player Napoleon Brundage frequents; they replaced the old steel chairs, whose splitting, brown-plastic seat cushions and clumsy arms made strumming difficult.
But the chairs were brought in mainly to accommodate the growing crowd of musicians coming to the Saturday jams. Since the sessions of the Archie era, turnout has increased fourfold. “Archie was someone that was always around, and people thought he would always be here and the shop would always be open,” says Doug Grabill, a novice guitar player who comes every Saturday. “When Archie passed away, they realized what a good thing it was and felt that missing in their lives.”
In February, Resa Gibbs began a Saturday ritual of driving to the shop from her Virginia Beach home, three hours away. She heard about the weekend jams from two barbershop regulars at a weeklong blues camp in West Virginia. “I’m pretty new to the blues,” says Gibbs, a 36-year-old physical therapist, “but it’s my heritage, so I figured I ought to know a little bit about it.”
Saturday finds a score of players plucking guitars, and blowing harmonicas. But Baytop, a 50-year-old employee of the Library of Congressand a singer, guitarist, and harmonica playerclearly serves as the captain. He came to Edwards’ shop 13 years ago as a mere aficionado and became Edwards’ protégé after trading a six-pack of beer for an initial lesson. Baytop runs the barbershop as a living museum and memorial
to Edwards. “We don’t want a museum where there are artifacts that say, ‘You can’t touch this,’” says Baytop. “This place is a living testimony
to his life.”
The shop houses a few photographsbesides the signed John Hurt photo, a picture of Edwards and singer-guitarist Eleanor Ellis, now the foundation’s secretary, along with local religious street singer Flora Molton, in France during the European tour, and a small magazine cutout of Skip James. But the most interesting relics here are the ones who breathe.
Edwards’ friend N.J. Warren can’t quite remember the first time he set foot in the barbershop. He crumples his face behind a pair of wide, sporty sunglasses and puts down his guitar. “Jesus Christ, I don’t know,” he says poignantly. “It was sometime in the ’70s.” Warren still calls out tunes amidst the ranks of much younger players, while Joe Watson, another old friend of Edwards’, sticks to solo renditions of “I Can Do Bad by Myself” in open G tuning, his trademark song.
Along with O’Neal, Watson, Warren, and Mr. Bones rank as the shop’s senior playersall over 70, all Edwards’ former friends and musical partners. “They’re kind of like the elders,” says 42-year-old guitarist-singer M. Dion Thompson, a Baltimore Sun writer who began bringing his National guitar to the Saturday jams three years ago after working on a story about Edwards. “This place is their clubhouse.”
O’Neal is a tall, slender man topped in a bright green Kelly Tires cap. He was a childhood companion of Edwards’, and today he is the only player in the shop toting an electric guitar. Listening to the circle of players from his corner seat, the retired truck driver says he’s been coming to the barbershop every Saturday for nearly 15 years, “whether I needed a haircut or not.”
O’Neal would rather play spontaneous duets and occasional solo instrumentals than squeeze into the shop’s central ring. He regards the barbershop as a kind of schoolhouse; recently he agreed to teach Grabill to play guitar. “A lot of people like to learn music, and this is a very ideal place for them to come and pick up something,” he said. “I’m 76, and I pick up on something every time I come through here.” A trio of players huddles in a corner exchanging particular slide riffs or melody lines, another group figures out the chord changes to a song on cassette dubbed from a whining record, and a guitarist-singer pair harmonizes out front while shuffling through the back seat of a car in search of a lyric sheet.
The barbershop, over time, became a commons for conversationboth musical and otherwiseand Baytop says he wants to include even more people from the local community. A fundraiser last November and a pair of harmonica and guitar workshops in March brought a few dozen first-timers into the shop. (A guitar workshop on the songs of Mississippi John Hurt is scheduled for this Saturday, April 24.) Occasionally, a band of musicians ventures outside the shop doors to play a festival, a club, or classroom.
“When we go into schools we don’t say, ‘Throw away your Mary J. Blige,’” Baytop says. “‘But understand that the music you listen to now came from the blues.’” CP