Biscuits for Your Outside Man: Food and the Piedmont Blues Tradition

Algia Mae
Algia Mae Hinton. Photo by Ally–Jane Grossan

The song “Biscuits for Your Outside Man” has a simple premise: only please the man who treats you right. Cook cornbread—the cheap, everyday bread—for your husband, and biscuits—decadent and fluffy—made with expensive, refined white flour and rich buttermilk, for your man on the side, the one who makes you happy.

That song, by Piedmont blues legend Algia Mae Hinton, is the title track on a new food-themed compilation released by the Music Maker Relief Foundation. Food and music are a natural pair.

Both are required for sustenance, and both represent, to varying degrees, the pursuit of pleasure. The compilation, 17 blues songs about everything from cherry pie to greasy greens, was compiled by the Music Maker group, which has been working for the past 22 years to preserve the Piedmont blues sound and assist the people creating it.

Piedmont blues is the formal name for the blues tradition that grew up around the Carolinas, a melodic style that involves rapid fingerpicking, often recalling ragtime piano in rhythm and style. The Piedmont region stretches from New Jersey all the way down to Alabama, cutting a wide swath just east of the Appalachian mountains and west of the Atlantic Coastal Plain. The landscape is mostly flat, with soil prime for growing crops like corn and tobacco. Huge plantations occupied the area for most of the 18th and 19th centuries and, after abolition, many former slaves stayed in the area, claiming small portions of the arable land as their own or working as sharecroppers. The roots of Piedmont blues can be traced to the songs they sang in the fields.

Music Maker is not the first organization to try and preserve this tradition. Archivists like Alan Lomax worked to record the American folk tradition, and many later scholars followed suit, taking field recorders to the backwoods drink houses throughout the South and recording the somber and powerful sounds. The archives of Lomax and others like him are priceless, but there is scrutiny surrounding this type of work; some view it as exploitative. Archivists and scholars are often more focused on the preservation of the music than the daily life and well-being of the person making it.

Pick-up truck with Music Maker Stickers
The Music Maker pick-up truck parked outside their offices. Photo by Ally–Jane Grossan

That’s why the Music Maker Relief Foundation is important. It’s a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of these aging musicians by not only providing basic human needs, but also giving them a chance to be heard, whether it’s performing on a local stage (or, in some cases, an international one), or the chance to produce a record.

In the early 1990s, Music Maker founder Tim Duffy became obsessed with Guitar Gabriel, a blues legend who was presumed by many to be dead. It was a tip from Slim Stevens, a musician he had befriended through his fieldwork, who told Duffy, “You’ve got to find Guitar Gabriel, I think he’s still in Winston-Salem. He’s the best of the best.” Duffy found work as a substitute teacher in middle schools around Winston-Salem, and would always ask his students if they had heard of Guitar Gabe. One child told him, “No, he died in a house fire, he burned right up.” But then one day a young woman told him, “He’s my neighbor. I know where he lives. I’ll even draw you a map.” When Duffy finally found Guitar Gabriel, he was in dire straits, wanting nothing to do with the music business. “He had strictures in his throat and couldn’t really eat solid food. I had a friend who worked at Ensure (the nutritional formula) who sent me a case of the stuff to give to him. Then we bought him shoes and clothes,” says Duffy. “Guitar Gabe was ready to work, so we started booking him gigs.”

Denise Duffy says, “We’re meeting most of these musicians in their 60s and 70s, so their stories run pretty deep.” There’s Ironing Board Sam, an early fixture on Night Train, who Tim Duffy met when Sam was “getting evicted from a horrible trailer” in Rock Hill, South Carolina. “He was completely broke and we got him an apartment, we got him clothes, we got him a used Cadillac, got him new glasses, new teeth and high blood pressure medication.”

Every artist the Foundation has worked with over the past 20 years—most of them the last remaining practitioners of Piedmont blues—is given whatever medical attention they may require. Help often comes in the form of purchasing heating oil, or paying electric bills. But Tim and Denise Duffy aren’t just writing checks. The small staff at Music Maker is constantly driving across the South to check in on their musicians, sit with them for hours and play music with them. One musician, Boo Hanks, who sadly passed away earlier this year, was a tobacco farmer who played a unique style of Piedmont blues strictly within his community. He met Tim Duffy at the age of 79 through a chance encounter, and Music Maker was able to get him on stages at Lincoln Center and the Newport Folk Festival. “For the last 10 years of his life, from age 79 to 89, he got his dream,” Tim Duffy says.

Denise Duffy describes a Blues Festival in Paris where several Music Maker artists were invited as guests. “It was amazing to see these people who had lived their lives as second-class citizens get a standing ovation from 2,000 people.” Most of the musicians the Foundation works with are close to 80 years old, and not all of them can travel. Drink Small is blind, Algia Mae Hinton can’t walk on her own, and John Dee Holeman is hard of hearing. But put a guitar in their hands, and their eyes light up, an immediate vigor returning. Even at 80, there’s a career for these musicians: John Dee Holeman was getting ready to play a festival the morning I met with him, and because Music Maker is also a record label, their songs get a second life on compilations like Biscuits.

Because both are tied to the pursuit of pleasure, food and music go hand in hand. The blues were built to document the pleasures and heartbreaks of the everyday and, in the communities of the rural South, food was a pleasure worth singing about. (So was sex.)

When I visit the Duffys in Hillsborough, North Carolina, to meet some of the musicians they work with, they insist I try Carolina-style barbeque, so a trip to Allen and Son is arranged. It’s a single story, standalone structure. The atmosphere inside is hot and smoky, and the fatty shredded pork, in its warm vinegar bath, melts in your mouth. It’s coupled with a blindingly sweet tea with a high concentration of sugar. I’ve always tended towards the smoky beef briskets of Texas-style barbeque, but after almost a week in the Carolinas, I’ve become a convert to the traditional vinegary pulled pork style.

To get to the heart of the connection between food and the blues in the Piedmont region, I met with Bill Smith, the chef at Chapel Hill favorite Crook’s Corner, who wrote the liner notes for Biscuits for Your Outside Man. Smith has been cooking and making music in the area for years, and was one of the original owners of local venue Cat’s Cradle. “This is a huge music town,” he says. “That’s probably what’s kept me here, certainly more than food. We have everything here from experimental electronic composers to blues to rock’n’roll. There are all these studios and production companies and record labels tucked away, down dirt roads. People come here for that reason.” Because he’s lived and worked in both the food and music communities of this region for most of his life, Smith sees many parallels: “Both can be creative,” he says. “Everybody loves music of some kind, and everybody likes food. Maybe that’s it. The people involved in both are just naturals.”

Smith says he, “always thought the blues were like great poetry. The language they use to tell stories is just beautiful.” He mentions famous Piedmont blues musicians like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, but he, “didn’t know about these other people. They are fabulous. Just amazing.” I asked him to walk me through some of the songs on the album to get a better understanding of the dishes.

On the subject of barbeque, Smith says, “Traditionally, you roast a whole pig, and then it’s either chopped or pulled. It’s cooked enough that you can take it apart with your fingers. In modern places, they just use the shoulders and don’t even use wood anymore. That starts fights, too. My preference is wood-cooked with vinegar.” His enthusiasm is echoed by the sentiment of Drink Small’s “Living in a Barbeque World”: I eat barbeque every day of my life/ and I’m gonna eat till the day I die.

On the album’s third song, Captain Luke’s throaty voice sings: “Plants and greens grow out in the fields and woods/ looks something like collard greens, turnip greens, even greasy greens.” Captain Luke passed away last year, but his voice is so confrontational on this song, it’s almost as if he’s in the room with you. “’Poke Salad Annie’ is pretty famous,” Smith tells me. Later, I find a version that Elvis Presley sang called “Polk Salad Annie,” but the song was originally recorded by Tony Joe White in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in 1969. It’s startling to hear Captain Luke’s bluesy version next to the uptempo rock renditions on YouTube, most of them by white artists. The reason there’s so much variance in the spelling of blues songs is because the titles and lyrics were rarely written down.

Smith says that pokeweed, “is a plant that’s actually very pretty. It grows really tall, but you can only eat it when it’s little. It becomes poisonous as it gets older. I don’t think it’s drop-dead poisonous, but it’ll make you sick. It’s similar to a deadly nightshade. Poke salad is not a salad like you’re thinking—you boil it like collards. You have to scald it and pour the first water off and then cook it a second time in clean water. It’s like manioc leaves—it’s poison until you cook it clean.”

Of “Shortnin’ Bread,” he says, “It’s hotwater cornbread, I think: lard, cornmeal and hot water. There’s no leavening or anything in it. I’ve always assumed that’s what it was.”

Of course, “All of these are sexual euphemisms—like cookie jar and cherry pie. The blues uses them often,” which makes it all the more interesting that the blues found tremendous appeal amongst religious white Southerners. “People like to think of themselves as naughty without getting into trouble,” Smith says. “This is a good way to do it. It was particularly titillating to white people who weren’t supposed to listen to this kind of music anyway. This record is so much about people describing their lives—which is why I think it’s like true poetry. They weren’t trying to entertain, necessarily. They were just telling things they way they saw them.”

 

Drink Small

The morning after my barbeque revelation, we drive almost three hours to Columbia, South Carolina, to the modest but warm home of Drink Small. Within five minutes of meeting me, he’s written a song about me called “Long Tall Ally,” because I’m 5’8’’ and almost hit my head on the doorway on my way in. Small is well past 80 years old, and every word he speaks is braised in a hearty southern accent. He’s recently gone blind, but that doesn’t stop him from entering a trance-like state as he picks out aching chords on the steel guitar.

Drink Small
Drink Small with his guitar. Photo by Ally–Jane Grossan

Small’s early career as a gospel guitarist took him all over the south before he began making secular music in the late 1950s. He was known as the Blues Doctor. “There’s a lot of people who can play really well, but they have nothing to say,” he says. “But I’m different. You have to play for people. You can’t be your own audience.” The Music Maker foundation has sent Drink Small all over the world, playing blues festivals in Finland, Germany, and even an unforgettable night at the Apollo.

Small’s recording career spans decades, and he’s become known for dirty blues songs like “Tittie Man” and “Baby, Leave Your Panties Home,” but he is actually deeply religious.There’s a lot of stuff that’s undiscovered that should have been heard, but it didn’t have any outlet, he says. “’Living in a Barbeque World’ could be a hit if somebody could hear it, because everybody loves barbeque. I love barbeque. All Americans eat barbeque. We’re living in a barbeque world. It’s got a great hook, it should have been a hit.”

Small’s opinions about barbeque run deep. “There was a man down in my hometown. His name was John Holme. He used to cook some of the best barbeque in the entire world. He cooked it so nice you could chew the bone. He was the best barbeque man I had ever seen in my life. I’m writing a song about him right now, ‘John Holme, the Barbeque Man’. He was the best barbeque man I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been a lot of places.”

Drink Small
Drink Small’s kitchen in Columbia, South Carolina. Photo by Ally–Jane Grossan

Drink Small’s stories are told like limericks, winding lyrically through anecdotes and experiences and often ending in a mischievous rhyming couplet. “I can cook for myself, but I can’t cook for anybody else,” he says. When I ask him about the kinds of food he’s cooked for himself, he says, “We used to put black eyed peas in with pig feet and collard greens and whatever else I wanted. Chicken backs were cheap, you could get five pounds at the store for not much money. Chicken backs, chicken necks, chicken gizzards, chicken hearts, you can put whatever you want in there. You can smell it six blocks away.” He gives me a recipe for cornbread: “I’d take two pounds of meal, one pound [of] self-rising flour, put lard in the bottom, homemade lard, the kind you make yourself. Mix that all up, sprinkle a little meal on the bottom of the pot. You cover it and heat it up and then when it’s ready run a knife around the edge and dump it and it will come right out.” Trust me, it rhymes when Drink tells it.

There is a sense of sadness, of having been forgotten and wronged, that hovers around Drink, whether it’s by the music industry, by the government, or by racism, institutional or otherwise. In South Carolina, there’s a chain called Maurice’s Piggy Park. Drink tells me a story about how the owner Maurice Bessinger, “took the recipe from a black man and made money off of it.” The owner was “not exactly a slave owner, but that kind of person.” Bessinger was a notoriously staunch segregationist, and his obituary mentions his penchant for flying confederate flags at his restaurants.

Drink Small
Piggy Park. Photo by Aaron Greenhood

I ask Small if he’s happy. “I am happy,” he says. “I’ll tell you why. So many young people die before their parents. As a blues and gospel singer, I’m on another level. The Lord tells me don’t worry about the devil, move to another level. ‘Cause he’s gonna be here forever. I call this a ‘Drinkism.’” Our two-hour conversation is peppered with these kinds of one-liners which he delivers, then waits a beat for the room to laugh. “My name’s Drink, and when you hear me talk I make you think,” he says. He’s not kidding.

“Drinkism is my own philosophy, inspired by Confucius,” he says. “The formula for a Drinkism is some of his knowledge, and some of his wisdom. Add a little bit of rhythm, and that will make a Drinkism.” Small is writing his own version of Webster’s dictionary called “The Drinkster,” but instead of definitions, it contains aphorisms, like, “I ain’t given myself no credit. But if you ever met me, you’d never forget it. So that makes me incredible and unforgettable. I got a big head and not enough head to hold it.” Another choice bit of Drinkist wisdom: “It’s never too late to do right but always too soon to do wrong.”

Eventually, he picks up the steel guitar that’s sitting nearby and starts playing. His strumming is loud and fast, and the song is a jangling wordless ballad. Suddenly, he’s no longer an old man. He’s no longer slumped on the couch, he’s leaning back, looking upwards, smiling, recalling his night at the Apollo.

 

John Dee Holeman

The next morning is warm and buggy. My intention was to visit John Dee Holman, whose unique, body-slapping beats turn up in the Biscuits song “Hambone.” In reality, I spent most of my time talking to his firecracker of a wife, Joan. The home they share is clean and bright, and I have to ask a few times to turn down the television so I can make out John Dee’s whisper. There are a few hard-boiled eggs on the counter, as well as a few roasted sweet potatoes. I ask if he ever cooks and Joan yells from the other room, “He doesn’t know how to cook! Why would you ask him?” For years, Joan ran a drink house where musicians like John Dee would play for the rowdy crowd.

When I ask him about “Hambone,” he tells me, “it’s not a song, it’s just a body slap. You put words to it, and it’s like a rap.” He moves his arms and hands rapidly between his chest and thighs, creating the beat. I ask him what a hambone is, but he keeps slapping his hands against his chest and legs. The rhythm is the hambone.

John Dee
John Dee Holeman. Photo by Ally–Jane Grossan

“I used to tap dance,” he says. “I did the same beat with my feet as my hands, but now my hips are too sticky. Algia Mae and I used to go around. We can’t dance anymore because she’s had a stroke and I’ve had a couple of strokes. Her son does it now.” There’s evidence of this on YouTube.

The next half hour is filled with a rapid volley between John Dee and Joan, who compete to answer my questions. Joan usually wins. When I ask John Dee about his childhood he says, “Everything we ate, we raised,” to which Joan adds, “Me too!” John Dee continues, “We grew corn, tobacco.” Joan corrects, “No honey, you didn’t eat tobacco. We grew corn, tomatoes, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, collards, turnips. Everything you can find in the grocery store now, we raised.” She thinks for a moment, then continues. “My mother would preserve things in fruit jars to eat during the winter. Do you know you can can a cabbage? I saw a lady do it in a big barrel. You had to pressure cook them for three hours. For breakfast we had fried biscuits, fried fat, back meat. Sometimes we had pinto beans.” John Dee pipes up, “We had hogs too, that’s where that fat back meat came from.” “Let me show you,” says Joan.

Joan and John Dee
Joan holding a cabbage. Photo by Aaron Greenhood

Joan and John Dee
John Dee Holeman and Joan outside their home. Photo by Aaron Greenhood

Hambone
Hambone. Photo by Ally–Jane Grossan

She takes me out back to her extra refrigerators and freezers. Frozen stews and gumbos pack the freezers to the gills. In the refrigerator, next to the lemonade and Heineken, is a huge slab of dried pork. It’s sitting there on the shelf, uncovered. It looks like a jowl, marbled with gristle and long black hairs sticking out: a literal hambone.

 

Algia Mae

Algia Mae
Algia Mae Hinton on her front porch. Photo by Aaron Greenhood

I went to visit Algia Mae Hinton on Mother’s Day, which is fitting because Hinton is considered the mother of “buck dancing,” a derivation of tap dancing. Hinton was famous for a tricky maneuver in which she plays her guitar behind her head while dancing. The Hinton family compound has three separate buildings, plus a few garages and trailers. The structures sit back from the road a few hundred feet. There are three generations living together on this piece of land. Some of it is landscaped; other parts are craggy and sparse.

On Sunday morning, I find one of Hinton’s sons, Willie Earl, sitting outside on a screened-in porch in front of the largest structure. She is still getting ready in the main house, so we wait while Willie Earl offers a tour of his establishment. Tim Duffy told me about the “juke joint behind Algia Mae’s house,” but I’m not prepared for what I find inside. Its walls are painted a bright primary blue, the tables covered in sticky gingham tablecloths, and a disco ball and strobe light compete to make patterns on the walls. “Private establishments” like this one were where so much of this blues heritage was born. Instead of a few stools on a stage, there’s now a DJ booth and piles of CDs. But the purpose and mission—of bringing the community together to eat, hear music and dance —remain the same. There’s a pool table in the back room, and behind the bar area a sink is filled with defrosting chicken for that evening’s cookout.

Algia Mae
The juke joint behind Algia Mae’s house. Photo by Aaron Greenhood

Hinton is ebullient in a pink dress and sings along to her record when we play it for her as a way of jogging her memory. John Dee and Algia Mae used to date, and the mention of his name brings a smile to her face. I can’t help but wonder if he was the recipient of cornbread or biscuits. She is bashful, putting her hand to her mouth as she speaks. It’s hard to hear her, but every time I mention “Cornbread For Your Husband,” she bursts into song: “Cook cornbread for your husband and biscuits for your outside man/ if you don’t love me baby/ I’ll go home by myself.” She’s happy to see us, to have another opportunity to perform. And though she either doesn’t understand my questions or doesn’t want to answer them, her warm and penetrating stare tells me all I need to know: she is happy. Her life may have been hard, but she still finds joy in performing, surrounded by her family.

I went to North Carolina expecting to have long conversations about the different ways to roast a pig. I wanted this story to be about the culinary lives of legendary blues musicians. I wanted to know what sauces Drink likes on his barbeque. I had visions of showing up at Algia Mae’s with buttermilk and flour and having her show me how to make biscuits. But it was clear from my first conversation with her that the real story isn’t about Algia Mae’s cornbread recipe, it’s about Algia Mae herself: the way her eyes light up when you play “Biscuits for Your Outside Man” to her, and the way she beams when you ask her to perform. The way she no longer looks like an old woman in a wheelchair when she has an audience, but like a star.

Ally-Jane Grossan

%d bloggers like this: