West of Charles Street

West of Charles Street: Big Daddy Stallings and a society of blues in Baltimore

Charles “Big Daddy” Stallings plays the blues. Photo credit: Jennifer Bishop

Today is the birthday of the great blues and ragtime guitarist William Samuel McTier, believed to have been born this day in 1898.

The world knows him as Blind Willie McTell and it’s possible more people are familiar with the Bob Dylan song honoring Willie than the Georgia native’s own music.

“Them charcoal gypsy maidens, can strut their feathers well

But nobody can sing the blues like blind Willie McTell…”

“When I first heard Blind Willie, I thought I was listening to two guitarists,” said Westminster blues musician Chris James, 44, of McTell’s “Piedmont” style. “There’s a lot of bounce to it.”

Adept on guitar, mandolin and banjo, James is a longtime member of the Baltimore Blues Society, which is strutting its feathers in celebration of the organization’s 35th anniversary, established in Crabtown in March of 1986.

West of Charles Street: A church changes; a sister’s service remains

Sister Pat Dowling stands in front of St. Martin’s Church at Fulton and Fayette street, slated to become affordable housing. Photo credit: Jennifer Bishop

Back when Richard Nixon was telling a skeptical nation, “I am not a crook,” Patricia Ann Dowling was a rookie in the hospitality business. Right out of University of Massachusetts, Amherst and into the Holiday Inn corporation, managing a front office and keeping the books.

Cheers to Baltimore’s Irish Heritage: West of Charles Street

The Irish Railroad Museum in Baltimore. Credit: Jennifer Bishop for Baltimore Fishbowl

To the truly Irish — whether in America, the old country or the global diaspora of Eire — St. Patrick’s Day is about something quite different than you may find tonight in Fells Point.

“A very traditional affair in Ireland,” said the muralist Patrick John Harnett, 49, who immigrated to Baltimore from County Limerick in 2011. “Religion, heritage and family.”

Of course there is a toast or two at the local pub — a day when children are allowed to run in and out of saloons with little admonishment — but few abide Root Boy Slim’s encouragement to “Boogie ’til You Puke.”

In West Baltimore, a food desert and also a hope desert

Pastor Duane Valdon Simmons, who said he has preached 6,000 sermons since he was a boy. Credit: Macon Street Books

Good food — the stuff that isn’t shot through with salt and sugar and starch and sold in plastic — trickles through the West Baltimore food desert at Pennsylvania Avenue and Cumberland Street.

Hot meals are served several times a week from the kitchen of Simmons Memorial Baptist Church, and hundreds more arrive each weekend with volunteers from Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a Roman Catholic Church in Ellicott City.

Hope, however, is another thing altogether, difficult to find outside of the Gospels preached by Pastor Duane V. Simmons, Narcotics Anonymous meetings held in the church hall and a kind word from the staff.

Along the 2400 block of Pennsylvania Avenue in 21217 — where parishioners have heard shots ring out during Sunday morning services, a body on the sidewalk outside the church doors — hope is even more difficult to secure.

“This community represents extreme marginalization, it’s the bottom,” said Simmons, 60, said to have been “preaching prodigy” while growing up on Oswego Avenue near Druid Hill Park. “This neighborhood isn’t just a food desert; it’s a hope desert.”

“But even when we don’t have hope,” he said.  “We have resilience.”