Connecting with history

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Tinsely Ellis knows the significance of Rochester when it comes to his genre of music–he is not only a blues musician, he’s a blues historian.

Ellis becomes animated when discussing one of the pioneers of blues music, Edward James “Son” House. Songs by the delta Mississippi singer rose to prominence in the 1930s and recorded for preservation in the library of congress.

Tinsley Ellis

“Without Son House, there would be no Rolling Stones, no Muddy Waters, no Robert Johnson,” says Ellis. “But, instead of going to Chicago (like other artists), he stayed in Mississippi and just faded into obscurity. He basically disappeared.”

Years later, after being inspired by his old recordings, a group of blues enthusiasts and musicians searched and rediscovered House working as a train porter in Rochester. The group convinced him to pick up music again, even bought House a guitar, and brought him to the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, resurrecting an artistic legend.

“So going to the Rochester area, playing ‘Death Letter Blues’, what a coincidence that is,” Ellis remarks. “It really connects to the history there.”

“Death Letter Blues,” originally written by House, is one of the songs featured in Ellis’ latest album, “Naked Truth.” Although it has been covered many times in the past, in Ellis’ hands it becomes a raucous, toe-tapping boost of a tune emboldened all the more by a fiery vocal quality and driving slide guitar.

The effect is perhaps even more impressive given the record is a solo acoustic endeavor. Instead of fronting a full band, all the percussion and additional instrumentation is Ellis himself stomping his feet or banging on the guitar.

“It is just me, tapping my foot, beating on the guitar and hollering away. And it is a very naked feeling, a very exposed feeling,” Ellis says of the album title.

“I don’t know what people from another planet, if they came down, what they would think of me. If they observed me stomping around and all, they might think I need to be locked up somewhere,” the musician laughs.

The album is a true mixture, featuring both favorite standards and original songs, but with a certain folk sensibility to them. The opening track, “Devil in the Room” shares the energy and raucousness of “Death Letter Blues” while “Hoochie Mama” feels more like a classical structured blues tune.

In addition, some songs are purely instrumental, giving Ellis a chance to show off his musicianship. On the breezy and winding “Silver Mountain” or the repetitive slow build of “The Sailor’s Grave On The Prairie”, his fingers bending strings give as much emotion as vocals would.

Rochesterians will have a chance to hear those songs live next Wednesday at the Fanatic Pub, as part of Ellis’ “Naked Truth” tour across the country.

The tour has gone well so far, with Ellis enjoying the flexibility and creativity of being on the road. Although he will play the entire new album, he also loves throwing in some of his favorite other songs occasionally.

From being a teenager watching “The Ed Sullivan Show,”  to being handed a broken guitar string (which he still owns) from BB King at a performance, to over 30 years on the music scene, Ellis still finds excitement in touring and performance.

“When my parents rented me my first acoustic guitar, I’m sure they were hoping it was a passing fad or something. But 60 years later, 60 years exactly, I’m still playing,” he says. “You can’t keep a good blues song down.”

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

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