ON A downtown corner, Flora Molton settles into her folding chair. Her right foot tests a tambourine dropped over a battered cymbal. A brace around her neck steadies a microphone with a cord that trails to a tiny speaker. Her acoustic guitar is time-worn, down to five steely strings.
With a sun-warped copy of her one and only record propped up nearby, Molton slips into primeval guitar. The open tuning and metallic whine of the tube sliding over the strings is more rhythmic accent than melody. Her voice moans elementally.
Molton's blues are not "the devil's music" of tradition, but "holy blues," songs about human joys and sorrows and, always, about faith in the Lord. She calls it "spiritual truth music," and she'll be moving it out to Takoma Park tomorrow for the Sisterfire Festival.
As Molton sings, passersby mostly keep walking. Some stop for a moment to listen. Kids seem especially entranced, a never-seen-anything-like-it glaze coming over their eyes. Others drop coins, sometimes dollars, into the battered Danish Butter Cookies tin attached to the neck of her guitar. Every once in a while, a car or van jams on the brakes, and someone dashes out and wordlessly drops in some money. With every gift, Molton punctuates her songs with, "God bless you."
At 75, Flora Molton is a fascinating anachronism, a classic blues singer whose style of bottleneck guitar and intensely emotional style have not changed in the 40 years she has been singing on the streets of Washington. Her gut-simple blues harks back even further to the country style of the '20s. The only real change is the microphone. It helps her voice, which is still strong, to compete with the beat of the street.
"I've learned to live with the noise," she says. "I just make my noise, too."
Born in Louisa County, Virginia, in 1908, Molton came to Washington in 1937 to live with her brother, a minister at the Florida Avenue Baptist Church (her father also had been a minister). She had congenital eye problems, and when she was only eight she had cataracts removed. As a result, her eyesight has always been poor, limiting her job opportunities.
At first Molton played accordion like her father, but eventually took up guitar.
"I just took it up in a rush," she says. "One day I was playing in C natural and a man told me why don't I play in 'vastepol' open tuning . I ask him what's that, so he tuned it and ever since then I been playing in vastepol."
Early influences included Sippie Wallace, Ida Cox and Ma Rainey.
"When I was quite young I used to listen to Bessie Smith and all them," she says. "I used to sing the blues too. I would walk a mile just to hear a new blues. But now I am a gospel singer, I am a missionary."
She preaches regularly at a church in Baltimore, "and I preach places around here, too."
Molton began playing on the streets of Washington in 1942, and though she has taken breaks for tours and festivals, can still be found downtown on most sunny days. One of her favorite corners is 12th and F streets NW, in front of Woodward and Lothrop. The showcase window behind her has reflected dozens of changes in style and taste. Molton and her music seem timeless.
In 1981, when the Rolling Stones played the Capital Centre, Molton was hired by the promoters for backstage pre-concert entertainment. According to several eyewitness reports, she made a tremendous impression on the Stones.
"Yes, I went and entertained them," she says proudly. "Had my picture taken with one boy's arms around my neck. I sure would like to get that picture."
She did get free tickets to the show, and says, "I sure did enjoy it."
Her only album was recorded for a small West German label whose owner heard Molton at a festival in New Orleans. Some stores around town carry it -- it's called "Living Country Blues USA: Original Field Recordings Vol. 3." There were some singles on her own label, including "Sun Will Shine In Vietnam One Day," but they are long-gone collector's items.
She adjusts her microphone, settles down again and dips into her holy blues. At song's end, she blows a few bars on a harmonica clenched in her left hand. Between songs, her right hand sweeps up the coins in the cookie tin. The gesture will be repeated, like the songs, like the blessings, 40 years on the corner and not counting.