The Drawings of Hilda Daniel
These drawings were inspired by the music, stories and photos I’d seen of the subjects in them. They were all made with charcoal, graphite, chalk, eraser and masking tape on paper. I used eraser almost as much as charcoal and graphite, and the masking tape used in service of sharp edges, flatness, and graphic effect added an element of chance – which was often a total joy. There was a point in working on each of these when likeness was achieved – verisimilitude, though, was not something I was going for, ever (it always felt empty, exhaustive, enervating, sinkingly depressing when it was just likeness). I find there can be far more pathos in a bulge or curve or a movement or sound or the voluptuous blackness of a charcoal line. In this way, the drawings usually didn’t feel right until they looked “wrong” (as portraits, right as drawings). Working on these was intensely arduous but intuitive and completely immersive in an uncanny way that, when completed (and despite my being covered in charcoal dust), often made them seem more like alchemy than the result of hard work (I think this is an experience familiar to most creative people).
Willie Mae Thornton – Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton was a rhythm and blues singer. She taught herself to play the drums and harmonica when she was a young girl. She and her sisters sang with her mother in church, where her father was a preacher. Hound Dog, later made famous by Elvis, was written for her and she recorded it in 1952, with her friend Johnny Otis on drums. Her rendition is definitely worth seeking out. Ball N’ Chain, written and recorded by Willie Mae, was later made famous by Janis Joplin. Willie Mae often dressed in men’s clothes and her performances often subverted the traditional roles of women in the blues industry. She died at age 57 in Los Angeles in 1984, going from 350 to 95 pounds, suffering complications exacerbated by alcohol abuse. She was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1984, Ball and Chain into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Willie Mae Rock Camp for girls ages 8 to 18 was named after her.
Willard Mayes (Pete’s brother) – Willard was the brother of Pete Mayes (here pictured behind Willard), and a blues guitarist and singer. Willard and Pete were raised in Double Bayou, Texas, a town with a dance hall (something significant in the young lives of so many musicians of the era). The brothers likely taught themselves to play. There was little information I could find about Willard, but he has a credit as the bass player on one of his brother’s recordings.
Gladys Presley and the Infant – Gladys Love Smith eloped with Vernon Presley in 1933. She was Elvis Presley’s mother. Here she is pictured with the infant Elvis (it is perhaps too macabre to say I sometimes think of the infant in this picture also as Jesse Garon Presley, stillborn 35 minutes before Elvis – I find it haunted in that way….) At the time of her pregnancy with Elvis, Gladys was earning $2 a day at the Tupelo Garment Company. Elvis and Gladys had a very close relationship and she remained at the center of his life. She died at age 46.
Vernon Presley – Vernon Elvis Presley was Elvis Presley’s father. He eloped and married Gladys Love Smith, Elvis’s mother, when he was 17. Vernon was a deacon in the Assembly of God Church in East Tupelo and worked at various odd jobs. He has described his life with Gladys and Elvis as close and happy, despite their struggles with poverty – “There were times we had nothing to eat but corn bread and water. But we always had compassion for people”. He remarried after Gladys’s death, to Davada Stanley with whom he had three stepsons, who Elvis always considered brothers, and not stepbrothers.
Martha Promise – Martha Promise was the wife and widow of Huddy Ledbetter (Lead Belly) and known to be the inspiration of some of his songs. In a Life magazine feature about Lead Belly, Martha is identified in a photo as his manager. She performed with Huddy at his final concert in 1949 at the University of Texas at Austin.
Ike Zinnerman – [Ike Zimmerman] taught Robert Johnson to play guitar, and harmonica. He was born in Grady Alabama, spent his early life as a farmer, and eventually moved to The Quarters, a small area in Beauregard, MS by a crossroads and the Beauregard Cemetery. As a boy, Ike played in juke joints in surrounding towns. He taught many people to play – many of them women, one remembered as being as good as Robert Johnson. He met Robert Johnson at a store. His family took Robert into their home, where Robert learned from ike. They often practiced in the Beuregard Cemetery. Ike later gave up the blues – but not the guitar – and became a pastor in Compton, California. His children remember some of the songs later attributed to Robert Johnson, being played by their father in their home before Robert ever came to stay.
Big Maceo – Maceo Meriweather, born Major Meriweather in 1905, was a self-taught blues pianist and singer. His song, Worried Life Blues was later recorded by Chuck Berry, and among the first to be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. He made over 30 recordings and is considered one of the most influential blues pianists of the 1940s. In 1946, Maceo suffered a stroke which left him partially paralyzed. He died in 1953. In 2008 an event was organized to honor Meriweather and raise funds for a headstone for Maceo’s grave.
Clifton Chenier – Clifton Chenier is a Creole French-speaking musician from Opelousas, Lousiana. He is known as the King of Zydeco (a highly infectious (joyously danceable) mix of Cajun and Creole, R&B, Jazz and Blues music (it is one of my favorite forms of rock and roll). He is also credited with redesigning the tin washboard, a staple of zydeco bands, into a more easily playable vest frottoir. “What I did was to put a little rock’n’roll into the zydeco to mix it up a bit. You see, people been playing zydeco for a long time, old style, like French music. But I was the first one to put the pep to it.” Chenier toured extensively throughout his lifetime, until his death (brought on by diabetes and kidney related illness).
A.P. Carter – Born Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter in Poor Valley, Virginia, AP was an American musician and, along with his wife Sara Dougherty, a founding member of The Carter Family. AP suffered from physical tremors as a child (which his mother attributed to nearly being struck by lightning during pregnancy), but was an active violin player and singer in church choir. AP expected to live as a farmer (like his family); he also worked on the railroad, and traveled the country selling trees (when he met Sara). He is known for collecting folk songs, particularly Appalachian ones, during these travels. Despite being among the very first to have made recordings of “country music”, The Carter Family’s seminal influence in the form, being posthumously inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and Country Music Hall of Fame, and his image appearing on a postage stamp in 1993, he died in relative obscurity.
Gid Tanner – James Gideon Tanner was a fiddle player. Along with his band, The Skillet Lickers, he was an early country music star, making some of its earliest recordings. He learned to play the fiddle at age 14 and was known as one of the finest musicians in Georgia. Gid worked as a chicken farmer for most of his life. He stopped making records in the 1930’s but continued performing. His grandson and great-grandson continue to play in the Skillet Lickers; they host an open jam session on Friday nights in a refurbished chicken house on the family farm in Dacula, Georgia.
Otis Spann – Otis Spann was a blues pianist. He began playing piano at age 7. His father, Friday Ford, was a pianist, and his mother a blues guitarist who played with Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie, among others. Otis replaced Big Maceo Meriweather as Muddy Waters’ pianist. He had recordings in his own right, working with other greats such as Howling Wolf, and worked as a session pianist. He died of liver cancer in 1970. He was buried in an unmarked grave until a fundraiser in 1999 raised money for a headstone. This drawing was inspired by a very moving account by Peter Guralnik of his visit with Otis just before his death, in which he recounted that the walls in Otis’s room was covered with dog pictures.
Information on these subjects was gleaned and paraphrased from verbal histories, books and internet sites (including Wikipedia, Elvis.Wiki, biography.com, coldbacon.com, aaregistry.org, tdblues.com and as very beautifully related by Peter Guralnik in Lost Highway and other publications, among others). No copyright infringement is intended; absolute gratitude for sharing the history is. While I was familiar with the music of most of these people when I made these drawings during the 1990’s, information on these people at the time was much scarcer – the obscure seemed much more obscure. In researching them again today at Editor’s request for some additional bio information, I find so much more information is available, and that those that seemed to be living in relative obscurity are now written about very differently, their influence and life’s work perhaps finally given its due.
Hilda Daniel is a multi-media artist based in New York City. Her work has been exhibited in New York, London, Berlin, Oslo, Marseille, Dublin and other cities in Europe, the US, Canada, Mexico – including the Anthology Film Archive, NYC, the Oslo Screen Festival, and most recently in the MoMA’s curated SoundCloud site for its exhibition on John Cage’s 4’33” and in Kinokophonography at Lincoln Center’s Bruno Walter Auditorium. Her work has also been written about in The New York Times, Performance Art Journal, New Art Examiner, artnet.com and other publications.