Legendary storyteller James "Sparky" Rucker talks about his life in folk blues paths with his mentors

My “dream” for the world is one of PEACE. I’ve devoted my life to that cause. It IS worth saving. My “nightmare” is that corporate greed will succeed in destroying it!

James "Sparky" Rucker: Once upon the time...

James "Sparky" Rucker grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee and began playing guitar at age eleven. He also played trumpet in the Junior High marching band and sang in church, school, and community choirs throughout his childhood. Sparky's raucous guitar and singing styles are a direct result of his having performed in many doo-wop, soul, and rock bands.

Sparky has been involved with the civil rights movement since the 1950s. He participated in workshops at the Highlander Center with many prominent people in the movement, such as Rosa Parks, Myles Horton, and Bernice Reagon. During the 1960s, he served as Vice President of the Black Student Union at the University of Tennessee. As an activist, he worked with the Poor People's Campaign and several civil rights organizations. He marched shoulder-to-shoulder with SNCC Freedom Singers Matthew and Marshall Jones and played freedom songs at rallies, marches, and sit-ins alongside other folksingers such as Guy Carawan and Pete Seeger. His support for others knew no color boundaries. 

After graduating from University of Tennessee, Sparky taught school in Chattanooga before becoming a full-time folksinger. Although he no longer works as a formal schoolteacher, he and his wife Rhonda now reach thousands of children each year as they travel across the country and give educational performances in schools and colleges.

During Sparky's career as a folksinger and social activist, he has been on the boards of Sing Out! magazine, the John Henry Memorial Foundation, and the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project (SFCRP). He also toured throughout the South with the SFCRP for several years with such luminaries as John D. Loudermilk, Johnny Shines and more.

Sparky's early blues mentors include Rev. Pearly Brown (who taught Duane Allman how to play bottleneck-style guitar), Buddy Moss, and Johnny Shines. He also picked up pointers from Babe Stovall, Big Joe Williams, John Jackson, Robert Jr. Lockwood, and many others. The legendary "Blues Queen" Victoria Spivey pushed his career in the 1970s when Sparky joined the Spivey recording family. Sparky and Rhonda Rucker’s new CD, Let Freedom Ring, is a testament to the ongoing struggle for liberty in the United States. Sparky & Rhonda Rucker were given the MLK Art Award from the Dr. Martin Luther King Commemorative Commission in Knoxville, Tennessee in January 2013. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

Since 60s – what has changed towards the best – for our civilization and culture and what has gone wrong?

James: The 60’s gave the younger generation a sense of power in their political convictions giving our civilization and culture a chance to survive.  A LOT of this was a result of the Vietnam War and the “draft” which threatened to take young people putting them in harm’s way to die on the rubber plantations of Michelin Tire Company.  This fear mobilized a lot of American young people to fight back against the military industrial complex of which President Eisenhower warned the world against in the latter part of his presidency.  Unfortunately this fervor died down when the war ended, and only the truly committed continued in this struggle.

What was the relation between music & activism? Can these two confront the “prison” of spirit and mind?

James: Music played an intricate part of this struggle.  In fact, it was this struggle which took me away from playing rhythm and blues and hard rock, and changed me into a “folk singer” who also played the country blues.  During the 60’s I met Rev. Pearly Brown, who taught me the bottle-neck style of playing the guitar, and Babe Stovall, who taught me other rudimentary blues styles and tunes.  I later met and performed with John Shines, Buddy Moss, Hamie Nixon, Yank Rachel, Peg Leg Sam, etc.  (Photo by Shawn Poynter)

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?

James: The Blues is like “poor folks’ psychiatrists.”

How has the blues and folk changed your life? 

James: It helped to free up my mind and spirit, giving me both a vocation and a career.

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

James: The most interesting period in my life is ALWAYS the period in which I am presently living!

What experiences in your life make you a good songwriter?

James: The fact that I am politically aware and that I am a good storyteller!

Do you know why the blues is connected to the avant-garde & what characterize the philosophy of blues?

James: Both Blues and Jazz are the manifestations of a people who have been downtrodden and who are using that experience as an artistic expression, which is what the avant-garde is all about.

The Blues is like “poor folks’ psychiatrists.” It helped to free up my mind and spirit, giving me both a vocation and a career. Photo by Pete Heywood

Are there any memories from Pete Seeger which you’d like to share with us?

James: This is a copy of a letter I wrote to Pete Seeger on his 88th birthday:

Birthday Greeting to Pete Seeger from Sparky, Rhonda, and Jamey Rucker

Pete, 

We just saw a recent newspaper that stated that you were celebrating your 88th birthday … and we wanted to send along a birthday wish for many more!!! 

I, [Sparky] also wanted to share a few memories with you … as we just saw and performed with mutual friends Guy & Candie Carawan in San Diego.  Guy is celebrating his 80th birthday this year.

About that memory … many years ago … I don’t know exactly WHEN, but it was in the 1960’s and I was still in high school in my hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee.  I had been visiting the Highlander Center which was THEN situated on Riverside Drive in Knoxville as an interim place between their Folk School at Monteagle and their present location in New Market, TN … anyway I frequented Highlander as a child and would often go down to talk with Myles Horton who had become quite a good friend. I was also a friend of his daughter, Charis.  One day he told me that the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project music tour was coming through town and that the musicians would all be staying at Highlander … and that if I wanted to come back later that night I’d have a chance to meet them.  That night I waited with eager anticipation for the musicians to arrive as the night grew later and later, but FINALLY they came dragging in full of exhaustion … everybody eager to get to bed.  There was Anne Romaine [who became a VERY good friend], Rev. Pearly Brown [who was to become one of my mentors], Bernice Reagon [who also was to become a very close friend], and PETE SEEGER!!!  I was very disappointed that I wouldn’t get to hear any music as everyone was exhausted, but … low and behold … Pete Seeger got out his long-necked banjo and played a very beautiful slow rendition of “Barbara Allen.”  I was transfixed!!!

Even though I later became a Board Member of SFCRP and did many tours with most of the musicians from that first night [and got to be friends with ALL of them] … I NEVER forgot that wonderful night.  It’s PROBABLY why I became a Folk Singer!

I just wanted to share that with you and to say “THANKS!”

Give our love to Toshi and we hope you have many more wonderful birthdays.

Sincerely,

James “Sparky” Rucker

Rhonda H. Rucker

Jamey Rucker

                         Larry Johnson, John Shines, and James Sparky Rucker at Mariposa Festival

And from John D. Loudermilk and Johnny Shines which you’d like to share with us?

James: John D. Loudermilk and I were part of a tour for the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project.  He was just recently married and chose to travel with his new wife, and therefore drove his own Cadillac, as opposed to riding in the van with the rest of us.  It was a tour which also was composed of Rev. Brown, Alice Gerrard, Hazel Dickens, Anne Romaine, Steve Young [of “Seven Bridges Road” fame].  We toured all over the South including East Texas, where we had some “Interesting” harassment from Southern Bigots [because of the racially mixed group].  John Loudermilk was into “investigating spiritual happenings” ie “ghost-busting.”  He would say things to me about seeing aura’s around my body as I performed.  An interesting man and a good performer.

John Shines was a wonderful man, a good friend, as well as a “mentor.”   He would slyly teach me how to play some of Robert Johnson’s songs.  He would say, “That’s the WRONG way to play that song!”  Instead he would just say, “try it THIS way!”  He and I were on the Board of Directors of the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project and shared MANY stages.  The LAST time was at the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville shortly after his stroke.  He and I and Robert Jr. Lockwood would share the concert stage and since he was having trouble with the feeling in his right hand [because of the stroke] he would ask Robert and I to “cover” for him, but by the end of the week he had gained strength in his hand and he would say, “Let ME take a break in the song.”  GOOD memories!!!

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from Victoria Spivey, Rev. Pearly Brown, and Buddy Moss?

James: I met Victoria Spivey in Brattleboro, Vermont at the Chesea House festival.  She was a wonderful woman.  A favorite memory was when she invited me into her home in Brooklyn, NY to record for her record label.  That’s was where the famous photo of her sitting on my lap was taken by Lenny Kunstadt.  Lenny later introduced me to Horst Lippmann, which led to my doing two tours with the American Folk Blues Festival in Europe in 1983 & 1985, as well as a solo tour for L+R in 1986. 

(Victoria Spivey and James "Sparky" Rucker at her home in Brooklyn, NY to record for her label. Photo by Lenny Kunstadt )

Rev. Brown and I did many tours together and I hired him to play many festivals and workshops, which I organized.  He would always say, “You’re my DEACON ain’t you?”  I still have the piece of copper pipe he gave me when he FIRST taught me some bottle-neck licks!

Buddy Moss and I played some in and around Atlanta where he lived.  He also came to the first John Henry Festival, which I was the co-director of in West, Virginia.  He was very “bitter” about having to move when the city of Atlanta forced him to vacate his home to make way for the new interstate.

Do you know why the metal-bodied guitar and slide is connected to the Blues? What are the secrets of?

James: The National Steel Bodied guitar was very GOOD for playing on street corners and with bands as it could very easily be heard!  I used to own one…Number 135.

What is your DREAM and what is your nightmare for the world? 

James: My “dream” for the world is one of PEACE.  I’ve devoted my life to that cause.  It IS worth saving.  My “nightmare” is that corporate greed will succeed in destroying it!

What are you miss most nowadays from the 50s – 60s era?

James: Our innocence!

Which memory from Babe Stovall, Big Joe Williams and John Jackson makes you smile?

James: John Jackson…SO MANY MEMORIES!!!  His storytelling!  How he LOVED my bottleneck playing!  His wonderful accent! Teaching with him at many music camps…playing many festivals with him…. sharing a bottle of Southern Comfort with him at the National Folk Festival.  So Many Memories!!!

(Photo: Nat Reese, Sparky, and John Jackson at Augusta Heritage Blues Week)

Babe Stovall…BEST Memories are … playing at the 1972 Folk Festival of the Smokies with Babe, touring with Babe for the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project … AND playing on the streets of New Orleans with Babe, Lucinda Williams, and my good friend Papa Duck Mickelson.

Big Joe Williams…best memory is wondering HOW he had managed to bring a pistol with him to the John Henry Festival [since we had, flown him to West, VA for the concerts]…then taking him BACK to the airport and him saying that he “needed a wheelchair to get him to the plane”… and then it DAWNED on me … THAT was how he had gotten that pistol through the metal detector!!!

What are some of the most memorable tales with the late Robert Jr. Lockwood?

James: Robert Jr. Lockwood…. A wonderful man.  Playing together at the 1982 World’s Fair.  ALSO when we played together in Atlanta for the History Center with Super Chicken.  After doing my set with Rhonda he slyly leaned over and whispered to me, “You were skating…and letting HER do all of the work!”

When we talk about blues, we usually refer to memories and moments of the past. Apart from the old cats of blues, do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

James: YES, as evidenced by The Carolina Chocolate Drops and Blind Boy Paxton!

Do you believe that there is “misuse”, that there is a trend to misappropriate the name of blues?

James: YES!  In fact some folks think that EVERYTHING I PLAY is the BLUES, whether it be an old Appalachian folksong, or an old Slave Spiritual…EVERYTHING!

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

James: LEARN from YOUR ELDERS!!!

(James "Sparky" Rucker and Rhonda Hicks Rucker. Photo by Roy Constible)

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