Rev. Louis Overstreet Interview
In the summer of 1960 Chris Strachwitz came across a gospel musician and his four sons preaching on the streets of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Listen as Mr. Strachwitz describes meeting and recording Rev. Louis Overstreet and then listen to the interview he recorded with Rev. Overstreet in 1962.
Chris Strachwitz remembers Rev. Overstreet
- Chris remembers Rev. Louis Overstreet 00:00
Interviewee: Chris Strachwitz
Interviewer: Tom Diamant
Date: June 8th, 2020
Location: On the telephone in San Rafael, CA (Strachwitz) and El Cerrito, CA (Diamant)
Rev. Louis Overstreet Interview
- Rev. Louis Overstreet Interview 00:00
Interviewee: Rev. Louis Overstreet
Interviewer: Chris Strachwitz
Date: Dec 16th, 1962
Location: Phoenix, AZ
This is an interview originally recorded for research purposes. It is presented here in its raw state, unedited except to remove some irrelevant sections and blank spaces. All rights to the interview are reserved by the Arhoolie Foundation. Please do not use anything from this website without permission. email@example.com
See below photo gallery for transcripts of both interviews
Chris Strachwitz (CS):
This is in regard to Reverend Louis Overstreet, whom I apparently first encountered, on street in North of Baton Rouge, an area they call Scotlandville. And that was a result of my, I guess, looking for people who might be in touch with blues singers. So I went to the local radio station in Baton Rouge, where a Black disc jockey apparently welcomed me and he actually took me around, and took me to that part of town. Because he said, “Well, if there’s any blues happening, it’ll be in this area, you see.” And I forgot exactly who he was, but apparently I had been listening to him on the radio. And there he was, set up just like you will see in those pictures, outside of a beer joint, and he was plugged in, inside the place. And I was very much impressed by this man because he was absolutely, totally sincere.
And I thought he had a really good voice and he played a interesting guitar, and he had these four sons of his, it was quite a sight. And who would answer him, would act as the congregation. But I have no idea what I could do with him yet, that time I was strictly into blues or jazz.
Of course, I knew that there was an interest in gospel music, especially guitar players, because I was familiar with Blind Willie Johnson and so forth. But anyway, at the time, I was taken by him but I didn’t really pursue it. I think I also recorded a little bit with Harry Oster, we met Butch Cage and Willie Thomas. And anyway, so that stuck in my mind and the next year, I believe in ’61, I must have gone through there again, maybe it was ’62 when I finally met him.
Apparently I came through that same area, and I asked at one or two beer joints. I thought it was the same one that he had been in front of, or maybe it was the second one that I walked into, and asked the proprietor, “Do you remember this man who was preaching the gospel?” I didn’t even know his name at the time. And then she told me, that his name was Reverend Overstreet and he had left the area, and had been on his way to California. But she heard that he may have stopped in Phoenix, Arizona.
So, on my way back to California that year, when I finally met him, it was this way. I looked for the Black section, African-American section of Phoenix, which was South of the river, as I remember. And when people were still pumping gas for you, you pulled up to a service station and this young Black man, he was filling my gas tank and I asked him, “Have you by any chance seen a preacher who has four boys, and who sings?” And he says, “Oh yeah, he’s got a church right around the corner.” I mean, it was just absolutely incredible.
So I went there, and indeed it was a typical, very small, storefront type church. Almost a shack like building, as you can see in the photos, typical of many of the facilities that this kind of thing was happening in. And I guess I must have talked to him, and asked him if I could come back and maybe record him, and spend some time at his church with him. And he was very welcoming and so that’s what I did later that year, in the December of that year, whatever it was. I think Tom, you remember, it was ’62? Yeah, I think-
Tom Diamant (TD):
It says recording were done in December 14th through 16th, 1962.
Correct. So you see, I was on my way back to Berkeley from a trip doing… I guess I was no longer… That’s right, I was no longer teaching by that time, I think I started in ’59 to ’62, that’s right. During that summer, I think is when I was let go, I forgot. Anyway, this is all… So I told him, I would love to spend some time there, I was totally enamored by the whole thing. The small congregation that’s very much like a Holiness church, although the church was called Church of God in Christ, which is of course a major Black denomination. Which is however, musically, very similar to the Holiness churches like later, our encountered the Church of God, where the electric steel guitar was the main instrument.
And so I went back that December, from Berkeley, and drove down to Phoenix, and I think in this second photo, you will see my van. That’s right, I already had a Volkswagen van by that time, and I’m not sure if it had the Arhoolie painted on it or not, because this was six… Yeah, it probably did. Yeah it possibly did
You had a Volkswagen van that had the Arhoolie guitar logo painted on it?
Yeah. Correct. I think you can see it in some photos near Mance Lipscomb, in Navasota, gotten off the singer. And I think there is that van in the background, if I’m not mistaken. And I actually slept in it, during that trip, when I went to Atlanta. I remember finding an area of Atlanta, Georgia, where it seems to be fairly quiet and sort of the rich area. And I parked it there and I slept there that night, although the bugs were just incessant, they would always creep through the air holes. And I had a sleeping bag with me, and because I didn’t have much money to speak of, somehow gas was fairly cheap and I saved all my money I could, during my year of teaching. Well, I think I got $7,000 per year in payment for my services, I forgot exactly.
But anyway, so I think it took me… I think I stayed a week in Phoenix, to make those recordings, because he was not that easy to catch. Maybe it was just a few days, I really don’t know. You’d have to look in the log book, maybe it’ll tell you something more, but because he was usually very short sermons, he was not like Reverend C.L. Franklin, who could make a whole long sermon on one of his Chess recordings, that was by Von Battle, in Detroit, in recording.
He did one on the subject, “You are nothing but a tadpole until you’re born again,” on just that subject, he was able to do this. Reverend Overstreet was much, much shorter, and he would sort of blow his intensity very quickly, so I’ll put it that way. But he was just an amazing guy, who apparently had God tell him how to play the guitar and to get a guitar, and go out and preach the gospel.
You’ll probably find some of those interviews, where he talks about it. I do remember talking to him, at length, about it, how he got to play the guitar. And I think he even talks to me about what kind of work he did before he became a minister, and this was all brand new to me. I was really not that familiar with the whole Black church syndrome and so forth, which is so different from anything I was used to. In the village where I grew up, where it’s basically Protestants and Catholics, and that was it. And they were all very stoic, and again, they were telling me very little music they did, or organs. Anyway, I better not get off the track, and so when I met Bruce Bratton, I had met him already in the ’50s, he was one of the people I got to know besides Justin Pope, and then of course, Wayne Pope.
And there was a whole bunch of people who were into skiffle music and jazz, and so on, you see. And apparently, Bruce Bratton had met this German filmmaker, Dietrich Wawzyn who had approached him, whether he knew somebody in California that might take him around to do a jazz film. And my good friend, Bruce Bratton, who still lives in Santa Cruz, he told him, “Yeah, you ought to get in touch with this guy, Chris Strachwitz, he’s been down South for a couple of years now, and he might be able to help you.”
And so he did that, and when of course, the Wawzyns found out that I spoke German too, that made the whole thing more possible. And so in ’63, when they hired me to accompany them on their trip, to what is now called… I think we called it the video, Down-Home Music 63, if I’m not mistaken. But he had originally produced little short films of what he called jazz, and the one on gospel music, and one on whatever else there was, in blues.
And that was my first experience really, of assisting anyone who was making films. And of course it wasn’t just that, I was also responsible for doing the sound, during pretty much the whole trip, with the Wawzyns. And so when we started out in Los Angeles… I mean, we actually started in the Bay Area, where we filmed some things, and then we went to Los Angeles to do some sea thing. And I started driving towards Tucson, I told him we should really meet in Tucson so that… They were also very much intrigued by the whole Black music scene, especially with very basic stuff. Oh yeah, in the Bay Area, we had already filmed his Highness, Louis H. Narcisse of the Mount Zion Spiritual Temple, in Oakland. And he was totally enamored by that man, who I believe also belonged to the Church of God in Christ.
I’m not sure, but it’s called the Mount Zion Spiritual Temple. Anyway, this gets me into all of this and so we started, as far as I’m concerned, on a lengthy trip across the South. Our first stop was really in Phoenix, and there they filmed Reverend Overstreet, at his church, with some of the nice footage of them doing the holiness dance, as I used to call it, when people get carried away and the spirit get them. And then, we also went to film him that Sunday, when Reverend Overstreet told us that he was going to Tucson. He always goes, on Sunday mornings, to Tucson to preach in the streets, and there again, he went into the most downtrodden area of Tucson, which again, you will see the photos. Those are , the photos I took of him and his four boys in Tucson, in a slum area of that part of town. Anyway, so that is really what took me there.
You got him booked at the Monterey Folk Festival?
Oh yeah. You see, I had met… What’s his name? I had known Ralph Gleason, of course, who was very much involved with all that sort of thing. And there was a man who was in charge of that, and he was interested in presenting some elements of blues and so forth, and related Black music. And when I told him, “We could probably bring out Reverend Overstreet from Arizona,” he got really excited about it. I wish I could think of his name right now but, he was in charge of the Monterey Jazz Festival, in the beginnings.
And they actually paid for him to come out here, and it was almost a tragedy because he almost didn’t make it, that is Reverend Overstreet and his boys, because they had no idea that Highway 1, which they decided was a nice way to drive… I mean, it was a way to get up to the Bay Area, to Monterey, from Los Angeles, would take them forever. Instead of the larger Highway 101. And so they took Highway 1, which is a windiest road, if you ever traveled on it, especially from Carmel, southwards, all the way to… Oh God, anyway.
But they said the Lord sent them and they made it possible, and they arrived just in time to make their appearance at the Monterey Jazz Festival. And I think right that after that, we had them booked in the Cabal. And there again, Rolf Cohn, who was in charge, he was intrigued by the key that Reverend Overstreet played. And I think he told me, “Chris, that’s an F sharp or something, he likes to play in.” We asked him later on, how did he come to that? He said, “That’s the one that the Lord told me how to play in.” It was just absolutely amazing and Rolph..
How did he go over at the Folk Festival?
Well, I really don’t remember. I think he went over quite well because nobody had ever heard anything quite like it, and he did do a similar preaching, I think, on one of the numbers on the recordings I made. He said, “Didn’t he say, and we will ask you for a blessing of Phoenix? And I’m blessing the people who are visiting me,” and something like that. He would improvise things and I think they went over quite well, although I don’t know if it got any reviews at all, I’m not sure.
I’m curious if you got a sense of how he felt about, first of all, in Phoenix, there’s this guy driving up in a Volkswagen van, and wanting to record him. I mean, did you get a sense that he’d think that was weird? Or how did he feel about it?
Then later you went to his home and all that.
I think, they all ascribed these things to a blessing. Because, you see, their whole purpose is really to bring the gospel to as many people as possible. And it didn’t really matter if they’re Black and White, even at his church there in Phoenix. One day I was there and there was a White preacher actually, in the church, they were perfectly accepting of him because he was very much in the similar type of vein, he was also a Holiness preacher.
I think he absolutely… And people in general, were really nice to White people, especially since they knew about how even, many of the smaller record companies were recording this music, and were obviously in a way helping to publicize their religions, and their music, and singing and so forth. That was already widely recorded and widely spread.
I’ll never forget when the Wawzyns asked Reverend Overstreet, what he would like for his participation. They paid him something and then he was totally enamored by their 45 player, that they had in their Mercedes. And so they were happy to give that to him, although I have a feeling that never really worked because, in a bouncy car, a 45. Was invented before cassettes were invented. And it was a very brief, I think, existence of 45 players in cars. But you see, gospel music had been recorded widely ever since the ’20s, along with other Black music. And I think they were aware of the fact that, this is one way to reach a larger audience.
So let me ask you about these specific pictures. There’s the one that he is in front of the church, I guess, that’s his church that he’s standing in front of-
… With the four boys. And then the drum that’s directly in front of him, did he play that? With a foot pedal or?
Yeah. Yes. He played that with his foot pedal, correct. And of course, the young boys played other various rhythm instruments, washboard, and the tambourine, and the… I forgot what else. He was a one man band, and I think he started out… That’s right, I interviewed him about that, he started off in singing with quartets, but he said he could never depend on the other members of the quartet, who were just out to have a good time. And so he created his family, and the Lord blessed him with having four boys who… That’s exactly what he told me, that he had these boys who started singing with him. It’s just really, really remarkable, the whole thing.
And then the later pictures, where he’s out in the street, was that then in Tucson?
Yes, that was in Tucson. Mm-hmm (affirmative). He apparently went down there every Sunday, but all the rest of the time, they had small services on the weekdays, even in the evenings, because almost all his… You will see the audience is not big in his church, that they actually have a choir there, where the boys joined in. And there’s a choir master in front, you see him on some of the pictures and it’s very serious. And also from him, I saw the way he learned all his songs, and I believe they went to a… There was an annual convention of the Church of God in Christ, I believe in Memphis or in Nashville, I think it was in Memphis. And he told me that, that’s where they learn all their songs from each other.
Anything else that comes to mind or?
It was just one of those things where, I mean, some people will say it was lady luck who showed me that way, some people say, “Well, you have an amazing angel who watches over you and guides you in the right direction.” I don’t know what to say about all that, but somehow I’ve met all these people by coincidence, or by having known somebody else who took me there. And people were all so forthcoming and, I don’t think you can ever do anything quite like that again, although who knows? The American culture was so amazingly diverse.
Anyway, I just loved every minute of it and meeting these people, but it’s only in my older days now, that I realized that this vernacular music simply never sit still for one minute, it constantly evolves. But that’s why I was so amazed at how much tradition was carried on, especially during those early days, and even before records. Of course, records perpetuated certain sounds, because they all figured, “Well, if this guy makes a hit, I better sound like that.” And that unfortunately has carried totally to the present, it’s a never changing world.