In the early 1960s, as a child, I would accompany my parents on errands in downtown Washington, D.C. A lasting part of these memories is the sight and sound of an older woman singing and playing slide guitar on Seventh Street NW. Her name was Flora Molton, and she was a familiar presence downtown for decades.
To my ear, the sound of her slide guitar harkened back to another era and place. It was a sound I associated more closely with rural blues and country music, but her lyrics were based on spiritual and religious themes. Her song structure did not always follow a standard harmonic blues progression. A close listening made it clear her guitar harmonies were in the service of her singing and the song’s primary message.
I would observe Molton’s performances many times over the following decades. I even had the opportunity to play with her in her home in the late 1970s. I remember how her vocal phrases could lead me to hear and play cadential chords and harmonies that initially sounded dissonant with her guitar playing. Although I never performed in public with Molton, the experience stayed with me as a reminder that her unique songs required and deserved deeper listening.
The Street Singer
Born Flora Rollins in 1908, Molton eventually migrated from rural Louisa County, Virginia, seeking better prospects and living conditions. Her father was a Baptist minister who played accordion, and her mother played the organ. Her father supported the family through his ministry and coal mining in West Virginia.
Molton was born with a visual impairment that left her mostly blind. At eight years old, she had cataract surgery that improved her sight, although she required large-print materials to read. This disability did not hinder her from ultimately pursuing a calling to share her spirituality and wisdom with others. At seventeen, she took up preaching and became a member of the Holiness Church a few years later. In her youth, she absorbed both sacred and secular music in her community.
She arrived in the nation’s capital in 1937, joining her brother Rev. Robert L. Rollins, who was recently installed as minister at the Florida Avenue Baptist Church. In an effort to support her two children, Molton completed a number of training programs for the visually impaired, but she found little in the way of suitable long-term jobs.
Around 1943, Molton picked up the guitar. Soon she started street performing to raise income and share her music and spiritual message. She performed what she described as “spiritual and truth music,” accompanying herself on guitar. She played finger-style guitar using a thumb and finger pick along with a slide to fret the chords and melodic lines. She also used her foot to keep time with tambourine. Molton favored resonator guitars tuned to open D, often called Vestopol tuning. She usually had a container wired to the headstock of her guitar for donations. Always resourceful and inventive, Molton included assorted mounts for harmonica and a microphone when she began using a portable amplifier.
Throughout the years, Molton played on the streets of D.C. as the city experienced major changes. When she started performing, electric streetcars ran through downtown. The harsh sounds of the wheels and linkages squealing and banging likely drowned out her songs as they passed. In 1962, the city’s transit system transitioning from streetcars to buses that belched diesel exhaust and fumes.
Molton arrived in D.C. when the city was racially segregated with neighborhoods controlled by racial covenants. Many stores and restaurants denied African Americans entry and service. Early on in the 1950s, she was driven off the street by police but always returned determined to continue playing. She witnessed changes in the city’s demographics with the “white flight” to the suburbs and the successful legal challenges lifting some real estate covenants and other practices restricting home sales to African Americans. And by the mid-1960s, she was no longer the target of negative attention from police.
Seated on her stool or chair, she started first at the corner of Seventh and F Streets NW near the old U.S. Patent Office Building and Hecht’s department store in downtown D.C. It was a busy intersection with plenty of pedestrians. When the Metro subway construction began in 1969, she moved up to Eleventh Street near one of the other major department stores, Woodward & Lothrop. She established herself as a downtown regular, recognized and befriended by many citizens who proffered donations. There she could be heard over the surrounding noises from traffic and construction.
Molton remained active and sustained herself through busking. Her distinct singing voice and guitar playing resounded regularly throughout the seasons. No matter the weather, she carried on with open-finger gloves in the winter to protect her hands as she played. She continued to perform on the street as the city changed around her. She was not deterred easily and returned to her performing ministry after the rioting following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. By the 1970s, she had a vendor permit that she displayed for all to see.
The Folk Revival
Consistently welcoming and open to social interaction, Molton met Ed Morris, a white guitarist from the Virginia suburbs who admired her playing, in 1963. Morris began accompanying Molton at her home. With his help, she began performing at venues catering to the folk revival, such as Ontario Place Coffee House in the Adams Morgan neighborhood. Their partnership resulted in performances at similar venues and festivals such as the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1967.
She continued holding rehearsals at her home with Morris and later other musicians who were drawn to her style of music. Always seeking to enhance her income, she established Molton’s Records and released at least two 45 rpm singles of her music in 1970. On those releases, Morris is accompanying on guitar with unlisted musicians backing on piano and drums. Molton carried her records with her for sale when playing at her regular street location.
As a young teen in the late 1960s and early 1970s, musician (and future NEA National Heritage Fellow) Phil Wiggins encountered Molton playing on the street. He recalled hearing her when he escorted his sister into downtown from Northern Virginia where his family lived at the time. They stopped to speak with Molton and bring her refreshments. A few years later, while in high school, Wiggins was introduced as a harmonica player to Morris and reacquainted with Molton, beginning a friendship and musical partnership.
“I seem to be drawn to things, to experiences, and to people that felt like home to me,” Wiggins describes of his attraction to Molton and other senior blues musicians such as Mother Scott and Chief Ellis . “Those people really welcomed me and accepted me like family. And Flora was the same way—she’s just very open-hearted, open-minded, generous person that accepted me, that welcomed me.”
Wiggins put in time practicing with Molton and Morris, developing a cohesive sound based on her repertoire. Depending on the song, Morris sometimes played the guitar as Molton sang. On other songs, Wiggins accompanied Molton’s singing and slide guitar playing with his harmonica. Wiggins recalls these experiences as important in his musical development.
“She didn’t really make chord changes so much as much as implied chord changes,” he remembers. “So the main way to keep track of where she was musically and rhythmically was to follow her voice. Her rhythm was real strong on the guitar, but the main way to follow the structure, if there was any, of her songs, was to follow her voice. And I am really grateful for that experience because it taught me to be great listener.”
At the Smithsonian Folklife Festival
Due to her long history and renown as a street singer, Molton was invited to participate in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival multiple times, sharing her early country style of gospel and blues music in a variety of programs. She first performed at the 1970 Festival and returned through 1976 as part of the African Diaspora program series curated by Bernice Johnson Reagon and Rosie Lee Hooks.
Molton also performed during the Festival’s Metropolitan Washington music program in 1987. That year, Pearl Williams-Jones, an authority and performer of gospel music and associate professor of music at the University of the District of Columbia, wrote the program book article “Washington, D.C./ Gospel Music City U.S.A.: State of the Art.” She mentions two participating gospel street performers from D.C.: vocalist Bill Hines and Flora Molton.
“Hines’ and Molton’s music remind us of the transition and transformation that has taken place in gospel music and gospel singing in Washington over the past fifty years,” she wrote. Molton maintained her style of performance and retained a sound that harkened back to her early years and rural upbringing.
Molton kept working in a variety of contexts with several musicians after Morris’ passing in the early 1980s. She was featured on local public broadcast television programs in 1974 and 1981. She continued playing with Wiggins on harmonica and also worked with Larry Wise on harmonica and Eleanor Ellis on guitar. Molton met Ellis when Ellis offered a ride to Molton and Wise from D.C. to the Oxon Hill Farm blues festival in Maryland, where they performed separately. Afterward, Molton invited Ellis to accompany her on guitar for other performances. Ellis learned the guitar parts, taking on a similar role that Morris has served.
Always active, Flora’s reputation spread well beyond the D.C. area. In the 1980s, she was recorded at her home for the German L&R label; the songs were included in their multi-volume compilation Living Country Blues. In 1985, she participated in Roadwork’s Sisterfire Festival and was included on a festival compilation recording. She produced a recording, with support from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, featuring herself and the Truth Band, consisting of Wise, Bernice Johnson Reagon, and others.
In 1987, she toured in Germany, Belgium, France and England, accompanied by Ellis and along with country blues musician Archie Edwards. It was Molton’s only tour in Europe. Ellis recalled that Molton was very pleased to be able to visit Europe and perform at festivals there. While in France, Molton and Ellis were recorded by Radio France, resulting in a release on the French Ocora label.
A Legacy Left
In the words of Phil Wiggins, Molton “was nobody’s victim.” Ever resourceful, she regularly traveled to Baltimore to attend Sunday services. She acquired a car, although unable to drive due to her impaired vision, and enlisted others to drive so she could be mobile and assist others with their transportation needs.
After an extended illness, Flora Molton passed away on May 31, 1990, but her legacy is still felt in D.C. and the wider music world. She is featured in the documentary Blues Houseparty, produced by Eleanor Ellis, and stars in the documentary short Spirit and Truth by Edward Tim Lewis.Although she did not play the blues, she was a founding member of the DC Blues Society; she enjoyed the music and community and understood the social and sonic underpinnings her “spiritual and truth music” shared with that secular style.
Molton was a part of the downtown D.C. soundscape for more than forty years. Now she is memorialized in a public artwork series that repurposes old cast iron fire and police call boxes. A bas-relief of her image created by artist Charles Bergen is inside a call box at Thirteenth and G streets NW for all who pass by to see. In a sense, her presence downtown continues.
Over the years of witnessing her street performing, it was clear to me that Molton was a welcoming, humble, and special presence. Her performing reminded people that civility was the responsibility of everyone. I witnessed a wide array of responses to Molton’s music from the public—ranging from indifference to respectful offerings of donations, to warm personal engagement with casual acquaintances and close friends. Her music created a sonic space that allowed people, for just a moment, to turn down the noise of traffic and listen.
Mark Puryear is a musician, ethnomusicologist, and curator. For the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, he curated the 2011 Rhythm and Blues: Tell It Like It Is program as well as the Freedom Sounds event that celebrated the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He was nominated for a Grammy for producing the Smithsonian Folkways album Fannie Lou Hamer: Songs My Mother Taught Me.