In 1965 Detroit’s Ron Harwood was 17 years old and an avid student and researcher of folk and blues, part of the revival movement that had its epicenter in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square and celebrated the music and its heritage annually at the Newport Folk Festival, where he was already running blues guitar workshops. In July of that year he read an article in Record Research by Washington Square’s Den Mother, Victoria Spivey, where she wrote that her old friend Sippie Wallace, one of the great Classic Blues singers of the 1920’s, was alive and well and living in Detroit. Ron started calling every “B. Wallace” in the phone book to find her. Eventually he did, and started visiting her at her house. As they talked she came to realize he was not just some wide-eyed kid but that he actually knew something about her and her music. She began to trust him.
Those early encounters led to a 22 year relationship during which Sippie again became a star, toured the world, and befriended many of the day’s great musicians, with Ron serving as her personal manager. (Ron preferred to be called her “confidant.” Sippie thought of “Ronnie” as her son.) In 1981 she was nominated for a Grammy and won a W.C. Handy Award for an album recorded with Bonnie Raitt. She continued to perform until she died, on her birthday, November 1st 1986. She had just turned 88 years old and no one who heard her play piano thinks it was a divine accident.
Ron has been compiling Sippie’s story since the day he met her. He conducted formal interviews, a few on tape and others via telephone as he frantically scribbled in a spiral notebook. Over their 22 years together she would constantly tell stories and he would dutifully write down what he could remember in the notebook or on whatever pieces of paper were handy. Over the years Ron also enlisted the aid of many of the world’s most renowned blues researchers, folklorists, and historians.
In 2005 Ron enticed music industry and radio veteran John Penney to join him as a Director of his non-profit American Music Research Foundation, dedicated to the documentation, preservation, and promotion of indigenous American Music. A year later he asked John to join him as a researcher and co-author of his long envisioned book documenting the story of Sippie and her family. “Think ‘Roots’ with music,” Ron said.
Since that time John has dedicated himself to researching and writing about the history of Sippie and her family, from the Arkansas contraband camp where Sippie’s mother was born in 1865 through Ron’s rediscovery of Sippie in Detroit a century later. Ron meanwhile focused on his personal journey with Sippie, whose impact on his life, and his perspective on life and music, cannot be overstated.
As we approach the endgame and anticipate publication, we have created this website not only to share some of our work but more importantly in hopes you will share with us. We seek stories, anecdotes, and artifacts that will give us additional perspective on what Sippie meant to you, and what it meant to be an African American seeking freedom through music.