King Snake Records, back-porch jams, memories of the chitlin’ circuit
How the small Central Florida city played a pivotal role in keeping blues music alive in the Sunshine State
Published: June 4, 2014
Some people associate blues music with the Mississippi Delta. Some people’s minds drift to Memphis, Tenn. Some think of John Hurt, Blind Lemon Jefferson, or even Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi dressed up as the Blues Brothers on a mission. But when Maurice Fields II thinks about the blues, he doesn’t think of any of those things – instead, he thinks about growing up in the 1960s in the Goldsboro district of Sanford.
“As a kid, we would run up and down the railroad tracks and see these old guys playing on the back porch,” Fields says. “Most of them didn’t have as many teeth in their heads as strings on the guitar.”
Fields, 54, was born and raised in Sanford, a sleepy Central Florida city whose downtown looks and feels like an easy blues riff, with First Street serving as a more modest version of Beale Street.
In the 1880s, his family, many of whom were farmers and railroad workers, settled in the city, which at that time was known as an agricultural town famous for its citrus (and later, celery). Modern history has not been kind to Sanford, which earned a national reputation as the location of the 2012 shooting of 16-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. But for those who’ve lived here, and for whom the city is in their bones and blood, Sanford is more than the sum of that tragic crime. It’s also a city with a rich history and musical tradition that once made it a vital part of the chitlin’ circuit, an unofficial network of clubs and venues, particularly along the East Coast, throughout parts of the Midwest and in the South, that were known to welcome African-American performers through the segregated 1960s. The chitlin’ circuit, named for the Southern soul delicacy of stewed pig intestines, was for the black community what the borscht belt was for Jewish performers.
Fields, who co-owned a blues club in the 1970s and has traveled up and down the coast playing as a guitarist in a bunch of bands, says his love of music was nurtured by Sanford’s old bluesmen. He says he and his friends would see old-timers jam on guitar while others played along on pots and pans. That sound was part of the fabric of the town in the 1960s, he says.
Fields recalls meeting a “little old black gentleman” named David Butler while riding a motorcycle down the street in Sanford one day. Butler noticed that Fields had a guitar strapped on the back of his motorcycle and asked if he played the blues. Fields said yes and returned the question.
“He reached down in his sock and pulled out the most dangerous-looking harmonica I have ever seen,” he says. “It was rusted, but he began to whoop on it. He was a one-man band with just that.”
Particularly in the heart of the community of Goldsboro, once an independent African-American city that was annexed by Sanford in 1911, a musical community flourished. Along 13th Street, Fields recalls, bars and clubs hosted all kinds of talent.
“[The chitlin’ circuit] was an undefined network of juke joints and clubs, mostly throughout the South and sometimes making its way up to the north,” Fields says. “[It] was made of itinerant musicians that would travel by either cars or old, renovated school buses.”
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