- Mike Stewart—also known as Backwards Sam Firk—sang, picked, collected and transmitted the music he loved.
Mike Stewart was a bluesman, mostly playing in the style of the '30s he adored. He recorded several albums for Joe Bussard, the Maryland record collector who ran the Fonotone label. He collaborated with John Fahey. And, with Bussard and Fahey, he sought out mysterious country blues and rural musicians, encouraging them and recording and releasing their music while learning to emulate their sounds and nuances. Fahey adopted the pseudonym Blind Joe Death, a mysterious blues guitarist, early in his career and framed his first album as a split with Death. Similarly, Mike, whose initials were M.A.S., took the name Backwards Sam Firk.
No one knows exactly where Mike's insatiable thirst for the blues came from, not even his only son, Jesse. J.T., as his friends call him, pins it on Mike's mother Jean, who always loved piano jazz. But it was in Maryland where Mike met two guys as crazy about old records as he was. Those men—Bussard and Tom Hoskins, also known as Dr. Fang—would be Mike's partners on adventures across the country into hollers and rabbit-holes (they would often simply knock on doors) looking for old 78s and the makers of the noise pressed deep into their grooves.
Mike Stewart died of a heart attack on Oct. 11, at age 64. A North Carolina native, he had moved to Mill Spring, a small town 45 miles southeast of Asheville, in 1991 after stops in Chicago and New York. He is survived by his wife Kathy, his son J.T., his daughter Carolina and a vast record collecting and dealing business, Green River Records, headquartered in Mill Spring.
By most accounts, Mike was an encyclopedia of music, with interests ranging from the blues he chased around the countryside to African guitar music later in life. When J.T. was growing up in a small town in New York, the radio station at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., was playing electronic-based music, and Mike loved it, as J.T. recalls. J.T. now works as the electronic music producer $tinkworx, and he's released work on a dozen labels around the world since 1999. As unlikely as it may seem, the link between father and son's music is strong. They even worked together in Mike's record business, and J.T. has now taken it over. After all, J.T. reckons his electronic leanings and his dad's acoustic preferences aren't as disparate as they may seem:
To me, country blues to Detroit techno is not as much a stretch as it seems on the surface, even though techno music is inherently urban. City blues tends to be flashy and melodramatic, so the analogy with country blues, a real understated sadness and beauty, it really makes sense to me. When I heard Detroit techno, I could recognize all this subtle feeling going into it, a real haunting melancholy in a lot of it, and a bit more virtuoso composition and playing, where every little detail seemed to impart some important feeling to the track.
As far as my dad specifically encouraging the electronic and urban music I produce, the first record he bought me was Kurtis Blow's "A.J. Scratch." He was an absolutely die-hard Public Enemy fan as soon as he heard "911" for the first time. During the '80s, [WRPI, the college station where they lived in New York] played stuff like Public Enemy, Negativland, early Chicago house, rap, industrial. Anything really out-there at the time, they seemed to play it, and my dad was nuts about it.
But Mike's legacy remains in the roots. He and his colleagues unearthed rich, vibrant, soulful music and made it available to the public, rather than seal it away in collectors' vaults. J.T. thinks his dad's relationship to these men was unique, humbly different from the hustler trying to cop a little fame for himself. Mike sought out these musicians because he cared for their craft, and he wanted it to last.
One 78 in particular, by Mississippi John Hurt, spurred he and Fang to track Hurt down. Fang usually gets all the credit for it, as he was the one who actually came to legally own Hurt's recordings, but they did it together. Hurt's song "Avalon Blues" gave them the clue that he was from a town called Avalon, but no such town could be found on any map. My dad just so happened to also really love maps, and eventually got hold of an atlas from the 1880's, and Avalon, Miss., was marked on it. So they drove out there, and Avalon consisted of a gas station and a few country roads. They stopped at the gas station and very skeptically asked the attendant if he had heard of a man named John Hurt, and immediately he replied something like, 'Oh sure, John. He lives right down that road over there..."
So they drive down the road, and Hurt is in the middle of tending the fields in his tractor, and Fang and my dad hail him all excitedly. So Hurt comes up to them and says something like, 'Don't take me away, I ain't done nothing mean to nobody,' thinking these two white guys must be FBI or police or something. Then the rest was history, they got Hurt to re-record his old songs and start touring, etc. And that's how my dad ended up playing with all those guys, just tracking them down, usually just showing up at their houses with guitar in hand.
Mike played his own music, too, releasing records on Fonotone and Adelphi labels. He played with Eric Clapton at one point. His passions ventured into what would later be called, benignly, world music, and he developed a penchant for African guitar music. "He even tried to teach himself other languages so he could better understand the music," remembers J.T. "I have notes of his where he is trying to translate Sanskrit, and I think he had roughly figured it out." Mike started a tape label, WayHi, to release his rare international finds. The music made him high, he said, and it sounded high. Mike found a kinship with the artist and comic satirist Robert Crumb. "[Mike] got an enormous kick out of him," says J.T. "Something about Crumb's eccentricities really agreed with my dad." Crumb designed the logo for the label. Next year, J.T. will be relaunching the WayHi label on CD and online formats, with special-edition vinyl issues as an acknowledgement to his father.
Such a line of transmission and tribute is a fitting legacy to Mike, who, according to J.T., learned a lot from the bluesmen he cherished. Mike lived in Chicago for a time on the brink of homelessness. J.T. says Mike never had anything nice to say about the city, but he met some fellow blues and 78 fanatics there, as well as Chicago bluesmen like Tampa Red and Johnny Shines. "He acquired a lot of wisdom from those old blues guys though," explains J.T., "and from living a rough life." He knew what anonymity and suffering were like, so he didn't coddle the older musicians he cared for. He became friends with many, and some became devoted to him.
Like the time Henry Townsend drove from St. Louis to our house upstate unannounced, my dad woke up in the morning, and to his surprise, Henry was sleeping on our couch. My dad said, 'Henry! What are you doing here!?' and Henry said, 'Just wanted to see you!'
Of all the old bluesmen my dad met, Henry was the one he became truly good friends with and learned the most from. I am named after Henry. My middle name is Townsend, Jesse Townsend Stewart. Henry actually recorded one record as Jesse Townsend, which was his brother's name. Henry played with virtually everybody, from Robert Johnson to Walter Davis. He died last year at the age of 97.
There's a similiar spirit and soul in J.T.'s own electronic music, which is built for movement. However backwards it may seem, J.T.'s music channels the same physicality his father experienced from the blues, the dance music of another day. "That was my dad too, he breathed it. It didn't matter what kind of music," says J.T. "If it was something really outstanding, he would just start gasping and swearing and boogieing around the room, shaking his head in disbelief."