Longtime Syracuse blues singer Roosevelt Dean died
in his home on Midland Avenue Saturday after a long battle with cancer.
He was 65.
Dean was inducted into the Syracuse Area Music Awards Hall of Fame in
May 2008 for his deep blues voice and guitar work. He grew up in Phoenix
City, Ala., but moved to Syracuse in 1962.
Dean had battled cancer since 2001. He continued to perform live
regularly in Syracuse and record CDs.
passing of the celebrated Roosevelt Dean brought back vivid memories of
an interview six years ago. I was working with Stan Walker - a fine
photographer who also died a year ago from cancer - on a series about
Central New Yorkers who had survived Jim Crow rules at a time when
segregation was the law.
Dean, the celebrated bluesman, told a particularly horrific story about
an incident that contributed to the way he played guitar, to that day.
At the time, I used another one of his quotes as the cutline to Stan's
photo - a quote that has particular resonance right now.
Roosevelt Dean held up the little finger on his left hand. It is crooked
and deformed, but it can grip. It allows Dean to play his blues guitar
Dean grew up in Alabama, in the years of legal segregation. He almost
lost the finger when he was about 7. He was holding a piece of wood
while his cousin swung a hatchet. The hatchet hit Dean's finger, nearly
severing it. His aunt, Eddie Nelson, carried him to his grandmother's
house, and the two women took Dean to a white doctor in town.
"We went in the back door, and we went into the room where they kept the
brooms and buckets and the mops, " Dean recalled. "You couldn't go into
the doctor's office if you were black. The doctor comes out and says,
"What's going on with him, girl?' He says, "It ain't going to work to
try and save that finger, let me get the scissors and just cut it off."
"My grandmother says, "No, you save that finger, ' and this man grabbed
the needle and the thread, and he grabbed my finger and started sewing.
I'm screaming, water is coming out of my eyes. If it's a white child, he
would have gone in the front door and they would have given him a shot
in the hand to kill the pain and then sewed it up all pretty. They would
have tried to stop that kid from crying.
"My grandmother took it for as long as she could before she said, "Give
me back that baby, ' and the doctor says, "If it starts to smell, bring
it back, and I'll cut it off.' "
For months, every day, Dean's aunt covered the wound with axle grease.
"That finger is still on my hand, my left hand, my guitar-playing hand,
" said Dean, 59.
He spoke from the living room of the Rose Avenue house where Eddie
Nelson has lived for 53 years, the house where she settled after leaving
Alabama, the house that somehow remained standing after much of the area
was cleared for urban renewal.
"You look back on those days, " Nelson said, "and you wonder how you
Quote: "Some people don't like to talk about (segregation), because it
was a bitter nut. Talking about it leaves a bitter taste. Anything you
tried to do, there was always something standing in your way." -