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The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress presents

The Homegrown 2011 Concert Series
Traditional Ethnic and Regional Music and Dance that's "Homegrown" in Communities Across the US

May 25, 2011 Event Flyer

Ben Payton and the Thundering Harps
from Mississippi

Ben Payton flyer

The blues is deeply rooted in the Mississippi Delta, but early performers from the area were also influenced by multiple musical traditions from outside the region. The music of Ben Payton and the Thundering Harps, likewise, draws from pre-World-War-II Delta blues traditions as well as country blues, folk and gospel styles from across the South. The group's musical breadth largely reflects Payton's own musical curiosity and the diversity of his musical experiences.

Ben Wiley Payton was born on January 5, 1948, to Philip and Mary Virginia Payton in Coila (pronounced co-why-la), Mississippi, a small community in the hill country of Carroll County, just east of the Mississippi Delta. The third of five children, Payton worked in cotton fields when he was not in school. His father was a gravel-truck driver and was killed in a truck explosion in 1954, just before Payton's sixth birthday. Following his father's death, the family settled in the Delta town of Itta Bena, where his mother worked as a cook in local restaurants and private homes.

Payton's early musical influences include his pianist grandmother, Mabel Johnson, and his uncle Wiley, who played guitar and sang in gospel quartets. Payton's mother and father also played guitar casually at family gatherings, and he credits the narrative style of his performance to his mother's storytelling skills. "My mother, she was a great storyteller," says Payton. "She could tell a story, I mean have you scared to go to bed … and I guess that is in my music now. Even with lyrics, if I run into an old song and the lyrics aren't saying too much, I have to doctor them for it to fit me, so that I can express it to the audience. To make it tell a story, because that is just in me, the storytelling part. That is just in me."

Payton was given a toy guitar as a young boy living in the Delta, but it was not until his family moved to Chicago in April, 1964, that he became immersed in music. At seventeen he began working as a bassist and backup vocalist in a soul band, which practiced on the porches of their homes in the south side of Chicago, in the neighborhood of Forty-Fifth and Michigan. After the band was fired from a gig, Payton committed himself to improving his guitar skills. He began taking private guitar lessons with retired DuSable High School music instructor John House, and later continued to teach himself through instructional books and practice.

Payton was in a variety of bands throughout the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, playing contemporary soul music in small clubs and at private parties. He worked regularly with groups including Bobby Rush and Joe Evans and the Supersonics, and was a member of house bands that backed many prominent artists at such clubs as Peyton Place. During this time Payton began to seriously study sounds and chords, and ultimately found his musical direction during a seven-month-long stay in Tangier, Morocco in 1970, where he performed in a review featuring famed jazz pianist Randy Weston. "We would go to the medina [old city center], and they had the little groups there, and that is what drove me to the acoustic sound," says Payton. "Because they didn't have any electric instruments, they had the little finger drums, violinists, a lute player and sometimes a flute, but the sound was so natural and so sweet and so big.... So I began to listen to that and I studied that every day. That is where you'd find me at, up in the medina listening to them. And so when I came back here, then I had a concept of what I wanted to do."

Payton recalls that, when he returned to Chicago, DJs were taking over the club scene, but he nevertheless found work playing with groups including the Wolf Gang, the late Howlin' Wolf 's backing band, in which he substituted for Hubert Sumlin, who was ill. In 1977 Payton became interested in acoustic blues music after hearing Robert Johnson recordings for the first time. Around this time he married and started a family, and, although he stopped performing in clubs, he continued to play guitar and sing at home and in church. Through listening to public radio programs Payton explored various musical genres, including blues, and continued to study the sounds and styles he had been exposed to in Morocco.

In 2002 Payton returned to music and his home state of Mississippi. Over the past decade, Payton has developed a distinctive guitar style influenced by pre-World War II blues, which also displays an innovative and artistic technique all his own. His 2006 debut album, Diggin' Up Old Country Blues, exhibits his varied musical interests. Payton is currently working on a new CD that will focus more specifically on his distinctive style of interpreting traditional acoustic blues.

Payton is committed to presenting the blues in an artistic and creative manner. "Because they are blues they don't have to be just juke-joint music," he says. "They can be done creatively."

Mary Margaret Miller
Heritage Director, Mississippi Arts Commission

American Folklife Center Logo The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to "preserve and present American Folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit our web site.


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