"The blues is a musical mirror reflecting our lives back at us."
Steve Gardner: Muddy Waters Roots
Mississippi Roots and Bluesman Rambling Steve Gardner, based in Tokyo, Japan, plays original, acoustic roots and country blues music; finger picking and slide on National Reso-phonic guitars, with harmonica, banjo, washboard and a variety of handmade instruments. He combines his music and storytelling into a musical journey through the history of American music from the early 1800’s up to the 1950’s. He touches on some of the important lives, times, events and people that helped shape American music through its many forms from broadsides and ballads, spirituals, blues, folk, jazz, rock’n roll and beyond. With more than seven CDs of traditional and original music, Rambling Steve Gardner plays and tours solo and with the JERICHO ROAD SHOW in the Southeastern United States, Austria and Germany as well as his home base of Japan, where many of his tours have been sponsored by the Cultural Affairs section of the United States Department of State.
Growing up in Mississippi, Rambling Steve Gardner heard, learned from and played with many of the legendary blues greats from: Sam Chatmon of the Mississippi Sheiks, Booby Barnes, James “Son” Thomas, all in the Mississippi Delta; to Jessie Mae Hemphill the “She Wolf” of the Mississippi Hill Country, granddaughter of Sid Hemphill and mentor to Bonnie Rait; down to Central Mississippi Blues Man and longtime friend, Jack Owens from Bentonia, protege of Skip James. He has also opened shows and/or played shows with Kim Wilson and The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Mojo Buford of the Muddy Waters Band, Big Jay McNeely, Shemekia Copeland, Gate Mouth Brown, Washboard Chaz, Jimmy and Eddie Burns, Jimmy Dawkins, Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Harmonica Shaw, Howard Tate, Ben E. King, Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones. In the U.S. he plays and records with Washboard Chaz, of Play For Change along with Bill Steber of the Jake Leg Stompers.
Photos by Steve Gardner Archive / All rights reserved
What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?
Some of my favorite down home quotes and sayings are: “Don’t start me to talking I’ll tell everything I know.” “Don't eat the fruit without praising the tree.” “You spend your whole life living and learning and then you die and forget it all...ain't that a shame!” “Everybody needs a chance to be told to SIT DOWN!” “If life is like a bottle of good whiskey, a rare and precious thing, then drink it up and don't waste a drop of it. And then shake the bottle real good before you let it go! Shake it, real good!” “Because EVERYBODY gets the blues some time.”
To me the “blues” is a musical mirror reflecting our lives back at us. Not all good, bad or in-between. The blues is the hole in your shoe and the warm place in your heart. The blues isn’t a color, it is all of the colors, all the sounds, all of the flavors, all of the smells and all of the feelings that let us know every minute of every day that we are alive. The blues tells it all but makes us use our imagination to hear it clearly. The blues is the music of the beating heart, the story seen by blind men sung into the deaf ear of the legless dancer. The blues is the dirt under our feet that will cover us over one day when we stop rambling. The blues is a song of pain from living too long coupled with the wink and crooked smile of knowing that it wasn’t all bad. The blues are as universal as they are individual, like the lines on our faces and on our hands our blues set us apart while bringing us together. Some blues we share with the whole world. We record it. Maybe even send it on rockets into outer space. Some blues we dare not share even with our own selves; we keep those blues locked down deep inside our souls. But shared or not all of these are “THE BLUES”.
Learning how to share the blues opened up a whole new world for me. A new way to be in the world expressing myself though music and stories. But of course the more you know the more you understand how little that your really don’t know. Just like Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge the blues will open your eyes but can be a heavy load which must be carried up a steep and treacherous path filled with stones. The blues may take you to a place where your enemies over take you, leaving you so that you never have a bird to whistle or one to sing. But then again, you might.
The blues is not a play thing to be taken lightly. Some blues lines have flowed out like blood for generations, moaned and sung low; a rumbling from deep down heard only on dark, moonless nights when the wind howls and it seems that the hell hounds run free upon the earth. Other blues can be in between or light and happy. Tunes that are just hummed from time to time; tunes that seem to dash about with no direction like dragon flies after mosquitos. These tunes are for the back yard, the front porch, the kitchen or even a good day in the field. These are the tunes you might sing to your lover on the brightest and hottest days of summer because the blues is night and day with all of the seasons rolled up into one. Songs of hope, hopelessness, happiness, the highest high and the lowest low.
Playing for many years, traveling and exchanging thoughts on the matter of “What is the Blues” with older and wiser blues players, no one seems to agree on much other than that you have to live, really live, to even get close to the blues. “The Blues.” I guess thats why the blues just grabs us by the heart and pulls us in when we hear it being done right.
You can’t shake that beat. That beat is right inside each and every one of us. I think that is why the blues is so hard to play. Anyone can play “A Blues.” But “THE BLUES” is a lot bigger and tougher than any shuﬄe or boogie and it will never, ever be held back by only 12 bars. “The Blues” is a way of life, of living life. The Blues is never satisfied. Some might say that the Blues is kneeling in prayer while holding hands with the Devil. And they might be right. But no matter what you say about “The Blues”, it is like all things. You have to work at it to be good at it. No amount of talk about selling your soul to the devil is going to help you unless you practice and work at it.
In the early 1990’s Mr. B.B. King was doing his Mississippi homecoming tour and I got to spend some time with him over two weeks of the tour while he was playing shows in central Mississippi and his adopted home town if Indianola. I got to watch the great man up close while he was out doing his shows on his own time for his hometown friends, family and local fans. (I even got to play on stage at couple of the shows but well after Mr. King had returned to his tour bus.) Anyway one of the many things that I noticed that made Mr. King so great, adored by an uncountable number of life-time loyal fans from around the world, was how he showed his appreciation to those who were gathered for his shows. All the shows, large or small. Taking the stage Mr. King’s band would kick oﬀ a number while he would usually spend the opening 10-15 minutes of his show letting the band vamp as he walked from one end of the stage to the other, shaking hands and “recognizing” people out in the crowd. He would call out to them by name to the crowd’s delight. He would point out as many musicians as he could see, saying something like, “Everyone how about a hand for my friend and one for the best guitar players ever, Little Bill! And if you need a good used car, he’s your man.” He loved children and always made time for them. And even when “heckled” I never saw him loose his cool. Then after the show, no matter how hot or tired, he would spend as much time as it took, greeting folks and signing autographs, swapping stories and posing for pictures. He gave of his time before shows too, in ceremonies that had him putting his feet and hands in concrete for memorials, singing with grade schoolers and lunching with the mayor and all of the local community church leaders as well as doing interviews for local media. Mr. King never really stopped. He always seemed to be in motion. He worked at being THE KING a title as well as a name that he deserves especially when you consider that he plays as many as 300 live shows a year, every year!
What I took away from that experience is that a part of Mr. King’s philosophy was that the audience doesn’t always come out to a show to see you; the audience comes out for YOU TO SEE THEM! Take that to the bank and never for one minute forget it. It is true! I figure that if it works for Mr. B.B. King it will sure work for you and me! But you have to love what you do. You have to love it enough to share it. You have to put in the eﬀort. You have to really care for those folks that you are playing for. You have to love what you are doing enough to share your time as well as your music. You may never know whose life you might touch, have a hand in changing or saving.
I used to play in a little club in Tokyo the last Friday night of the month for about 11 years. This young mother used to bring her two sons down into that smoky den to catch our early acoustic set. (We played from 9PM until 4AM) From the stage I watched those boys grow-up from elementary schoolers to early high school. I really didn’t know much about them except that they really seemed to like the music. On those Friday nights I always tried to look out for them sitting up at the bar sipping coca-cola with their mom.
In 2011, more than 10 years since I had stopped playing that club I was having a concert in a local 200 seat hall to raise money for earthquake relief projects shortly after the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan 3/11/2011. Anyway as the show got started I looked out into the crowd and right out on the front row was that small family, the same Mother, now with hair of gray with her two grown-up sons, sitting there enjoying the show just like way back when. It was really great to see them all again after all that time so on the break between sets we talked some and they told me that they had both become musicians of a sort playing Mississippi Delta Blues, rag time and jug band music on the street and in little clubs around their town. One of the boys played the washboard while the other played a National Reso-phonic Style-O guitar like mine! The mom added that about the time that she started bringing the boys around to the club their dad had passed away and that my music and live shows were about the only thing that her boys would show any interest in. She told me, “Your music kept me from loosing my mind. It kept our small family together. We came tonight to say thank you, to you and to donate to help others.”
Yes I choked up on hearing that. And it reminded me again of how powerful “The Blues” really is, because after all, “If life is like a bottle of good whiskey, a rare and precious thing, then drink it up and don't waste a drop of it. And then shake the bottle real good before you let it go! Shake it, real good!”
How do you describe Steve Gardner sound and songbook? Which is the moment that you change your life most?
I think that the best description of me and my music is that it is “the real deal”. I always try to be my best self on my worst day, with one foot pointed back at where I came from and one foot pointed ahead. I don’t like, write or perform what I call “blame songs”, mainly because I try to accept responsibility when something goes wrong if it is my fault. I try to dig in as deep as I can and consider where a tune came from, how it has changed and what it means to me and those for whom I might play it.
I have always liked history. I think that it is real important to know of what it is (the facts) that you are singing about especially if you are doing an old song (authors and dates published) or even writing tunes that include old song phrases. Some tunes like that I wrote and published on my JERICHO CD in about 2009: “Been On The Job Too Long”, “Wind Storm Blues” and “Come On In”. These tunes were my take on U.S. Presidential politics, hurricane Katrina and the story of a homeless Vietnam War Veteran. These tunes all needed the facts, the history and the story.
I like to be described as a story teller. Hearing good stories and telling them are my great delights. Growing up I had the chance as a boy to sit with the men folk and listen to their stories and jokes. On Sundays after dinner, out camping or at the deer camp where the men gathered round to tell tall tales about “the ones that got away”. I was all grown before I realized that most of the stories they told were not about hunting “deer” but hunting “dear”!
One fellow told about his fishing buddy who went fishing more than anybody that he had ever met. Almost every Saturday and Sunday. But he didn’t ever bring back many fish except for this one time when this fellow came back home with a big mess of fish. It seemed that he wanted to surprise his wife since he never brought too much home. While they were cleaning the fish the husband was bragging to his wife about how he caught them, he said to his wife, “I guess that I was just lucky this time. Every time I opened my fishing tackle box and snapped on a bait those hungry fish would hit it! Every time! I got so many in the boat I had to start throwing them back. But Honey there is just one thing? I appreciate how you packed my travel bag this past fishing trip but I dug all though that bag and I couldn’t find my underwear. Next time you have to be more careful.” His wife just smiled and said, “Well Honey, every time you opened up your fishing tackle box I just don’t know how you missed seeing them. I put your underwear right on top!”
My Daddy, my Granddaddy and Uncle used to tell stories like that. And every blues man that I have ever met worth a damn was an over flowing faucet of stories! I think that wanting to be a part of those stories, listening to and wanting to make those guitars ring surely had a hand in changing my life and putting me out on this path. It has always been hard enough to be myself, so I haven’t ever really wanted to “be” anyone else. I been lucky enough to have the chance to try a lot of things but no matter what I was doing I have always wanted to be in the middle of a good song and a good story. I hope that when I am long gone and there’s nothing left of me but my music maybe folks might remember me and say, “He was the real deal and he sure could tell a good story.”
What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?
What I really miss the most, especially when I get back home to Mississippi, are the friends that I made along the way early on, as well as my loved ones, who have already passed away. I would sure like to sit with all of them again, as myself now, to really thank them for sharing their time, their talent, their hip flask of gin or whiskey, plates of fried fish, their songs and guitar licks, their strong words or just a mouthful of frank, friendly advice that was always wedged in between the shot guns, the tall tales and the music. I would like to tell each and everyone from my Dad, Big Steve who played the kitchen knives, on down the line that my life forever was changed because of the time and talent they shared with me.
As I get back down south a few times a year to tour or just visit I sure miss seeing folks gathered up out in someone’s front yard, sitting on lawn chairs or up on the porch, pickin’ guitars while waiting on the catfish to fry or the BBQ to get ready.
My grandmother used to have a fish fry nearly every week in the summers when I was growing up in central Mississippi. Sometimes someone would stop by with a guitar or the neighbor girl would come over with her accordion to play as we turned the crank on the ice cream maker. Folks usually didn’t stay late on those nights she squeezed the accordion. I remember that my granddaddy said to me that the squeaky gate on his horse trailer sounded better than that accordion. I thought so too. But let me tell you, when those guitars were ringing out, just being a part of it all, I didn’t want it to ever stop. I was determined to master one of those six stringed beast someday. I am still wrestling with it but I think that I am getting the hang of it.
You know another thing is, folks don’t dance much now like they used to. My folks, Big Steve and Miz Sally, danced and went out dancing regularly until my sister and I got into middle school. They mostly did square dancing or two stepping. We grew up watching the latest dance crazes on TV. The twist. The jerk. The swim. My grandmother would chase us out of the house with her broom if we got to trying to “dance” like the folks on TV. I can almost hear her now, yelling, “Stop all of that horse play in my house. I’m not going to have any chicken struttin’ up in here. Take that outside.”
These days folks go out to “see” music rather than to listen to it. A long time back going out was special. You dressed up for it. We had to get dressed to go to church of course but also to go to town, to the barber shop or out to eat if we were real lucky. That meant shined shoes, “Sunday” pants and maybe even a bow tie! And of course slicked down hair. Most of the musicians that I saw and met when I was coming along sure dressed up. It was a matter of respect and ritual. The old guys that I used to hang with, all sharp dressers, would often remind me with a scolding when I showed up a little too casual, “Man it’s a show. Give ‘em something to look at. You know that nobody out there wants to pay a dollar to see you up on that stage dressed like you just come in here from working on your car. Don’t you come back up in here lookin’ like a grease monkey again.”
When I am on stage these days I am reminded of those times as I look out across the crowd at a festival or even regular club shows. As I stretch my eye out to the edge of the crowd it seems that our world is covered in a kind of spandex, one size fits all jogging outfit, with everyone wearing white rubber shoes. We are in the age of the ultra-casual I guess. What would my sharp dressed friends have thought about that? I imagine that pistols might have been involved as they sought to rectify the situation. (Photo by Euphus Ruth)
In Mississippi since casino gambling was legalized some years back it has just about put all of the little local jukes out of business. Those small, local joints just can’t compete with the lure of the casino’s bright lights and “free” drinks all served up in a plush, air conditioned room with free entertainment, cheap food and the chance to lose your money without losing your life.
I always had so much fun when I could make time to stop by some local hot spot like Smitty’s Red Top to catch a set with the likes Frank Frost and the Jelly roll Kings; maybe sit in with Booba Barnes over at his Playboy Club or just hang out at one of the many local places in between.
I remember one night sitting in on harp up in Sunflower County with a bunch of local players who had gotten together to do a gig with some of the members of ZZ Hill’s band after ZZ passed on. We were playing up in a squat concrete block building that was known as THE BOAR’S NEST. It was a hot night and the place had been packed from early on. Big gin fans were blasting the hot air around and keeping the mosquitoes down but that was about all. Most of the dancers had forsaken their shoes and were barefoot out on the slick concrete floor. Men’s shirt collars were well open and most of the beer had been sold early on. It had been a great night. A mix of all ages had gathered from near and far, everyone enjoying some really good, down home blues, played by their many of their favorite local musicians.
Well at about 4 AM, with everyone tired, drunk or both, the drummer, Mr A.J. who had leaned back too hard on the window frame, fell through the screen, lost his footing, slipped of the drum stool and got up mad. He shouted that he wasn’t hitting another lick as he waved his drum sticks in the air and kicked over his drum stool. With that, we called it a night because we would have had a fight on our hands otherwise. But no sooner had the guitar player stepped away from the mic after he had thanked everyone some old woman of about 78 or so, her shoes still of, Sunday hat stuck onto the back of her head, shot up out of the crowd to the front, cracked a beer bottle onto the edge of the nearest table and just stood there holding the jagged edge and pointing it at the guitar player shouting, “I done paid my two dollars to come up in here and I ain’t near ‘bout ready to go home. So y’all better get to playin’ right now!”
Here we were, seven grown men, cornered by one old woman holding a broken beer bottle who wanted to hear one more tune. I had the least amount of gear to pack up that night and since I was the skinniest one in the band, they all figured that I would be a hard target for her to cut. The guitar player said, “Steve step up to that stand mic and play that harp for her while we try to get packed up.” So I did.
No one called the police. Someone called her daughter to come and get her. Every now and then that old woman would close her eyes and sway to the music that I was playing. After a little while her daughter, who was none too happy, came down to the club, with curlers in her hair and a grime look pasted on her face. She didn’t say much, she just grabbed her mama by the arm and took her out of te club. The old woman looked satisfied as she put down her broken bottle but was still complaining as she was leaving that she hadn’t gotten her full two dollars’ worth yet and that she wasn’t going to pay the full price the next time we played there! We could hear her still shouting as the car cranked up and pulled away from the club. We all laughed and figured that she must have really been a handful when she was young.
These days we have so much music everywhere; pouring from loud speakers in cars, stores, on the street, from the TV or from those wires that seem to be stuck into the sides of all of those walking heads around us. Those heads which are glued to their phones. Or is those phones which seemed to be glues to those heads? I am not sure that we really “listen” to music since we “hear” it all of the time. Photo by Robert Moreau
Folks go to concerts where an enormous volume of sound is blasted out at them. Events where the only way to see the musicians perform is to watch them on the big screens placed all around and the band is likely to be playing “along” with something that was recorded earlier if they are plugged in and playing at all, as in the case with the American Super Bowl half time entertainment. I haven’t run into anyone in a long while that would break a bottle and say, “Play more” but I sure would like to. (These day they might break a bottle and say “STOP NOW!”)
I miss local radio. AM radio. Hometown radio. That’s the kind of radio that once would go out to events in a station wagon and set up a mic to introduce and interview local folks, broadcast church services on Sundays as well as play fresh cuts from local bands right alongside of the Bill Board Top 100. Local radio brought you local news and told you as well as took you there, LIVE. The blues needs radio. This music needs more outlets and support than just the internet. Youngsters need the chance to hear and SEE music being played in a friendly, live environment. They need to experience the blues, to feel it deep, not loud. Not hundreds of notes but hundreds of stories. Otherwise this great music with its deep heritage will most likely l fade away. The blues in the schools is a start but it is not a finish. The blues is a “real, live art form” that must be lived and experienced not just observed.
I was sitting with the talented artist and blues man Mr James “Son” Thomas one hot afternoon in the front room of his house in Leland, Mississippi. He lit a cigarette and turned to me, looking me straight in the eye and said, “You know Steve, a lot of folks think that blues is easy to play. But you know what? They are wrong. You got to live a whole lot before you can get up on the blues.” From that day so long ago I never forgot Mr. “Son”‘s lesson that the blues is all about the story. Not just your story but the telling of the story. The instruments, the guitar or harmonica or whatever are there to make comments, but if you haven’t got a story to tell then no matter how well or how loud or how long you can “choke” the neck of the guitar to make it sound like a cat with his tail caught under a rocking chair, you aren’t doing a thing except giving everyone close by an ear ache. The only thing that you are doing is letting those who know, know, that you, don’t know.
Mr. Jack Owens and Ms. Jessie Mae Hemphill both told me in one way or another to “be myself” when it came to playing. They would say things like, “Well Steve, you ain’t me and I ain’t you so what’s all the fuss about. Play it your way.” I think as a young player you have to find a way into the music. It is natural to try to copy a style or play a tune by tabs but you have to try to be your best self on your worst day. We aren’t machines, yet. You have to find your path and remember to thank those who passed along that path way before you did as you make those old songs and old stories your own as you tell them in your own way.
But it is not easy to find your way in the world or the world of music unless you know where you are coming from and have some idea of where you want to go. You don’t get anything for free. You have to work for it. You have to study and I don’t mean just your instrument. A good player is a student of history and human nature.
If you study up and gain a good understanding of the times, social and political conditions and circumstances then this knowledge will help you better tell the story when you are covering old tunes or building the foundation for new tunes that you might be writing. The more that you know, the better a player you will be. You will have depth and width. These days with youtube and remastered CD collections there is little to no excuse for not knowing about the tunes that you are covering or departing from. Find out. Dig deep. Don’t be that guy that Sonny Boy Williamson ll was talking about when he said, “Yes sir, they want to play the blues so bad...and they do too.”
Why did you think that the Southern culture and music continues to generate such a devoted following in Japan?
In my opinion the American South and Japan are very much alike. The American South was defeated and occupied after losing against the Federal troops in the American Civil war; a war fought on its on soil, just like Japan after WWll. Both areas have strict codes of behavior, manors and use a vertical paternal structure for their social interactions. (Yes Sir. Yes Ma’am. Brother, Sister, Uncle, Aunt and so on.) When visiting one always brings a gift of some kind such as a pie or a cake. Both are very guilt motivated. You are moved to do things because you have to rather than want to. Both have an exaggerated since of pride coupled with guilt and inferiority that is designed to keep everyone in their place. (The struggle in the American South by poor white and blacks alike against all of this structure resulted in spirituals, as code talk, the blues, the civil rights movement, the KKK and on the brighter good side, southern hospitality.) Of course it is important to note that in both cultures when someone is being overly polite to you they are most likely mad as hell at you.
Both groups worship their ancestors, like and seek out a since of “real” and “authentic” while living in the past with a foot planted grudgingly in the future. Both groups feel that they are “special” and therefore whatever they create is “special”. That goes for music and the music makers as well. Jealousy kills more folks in the American South than fried food. A countless number of musicians have been killed because of their careless behavior around another man’s woman or another woman’s man! It is said that the late great Robert Johnson met his death by poison at the hands of just such a jealous husband who didn’t appreciate that feeling of “specialness” and attention being paid to his wide by the young musician.
After its defeat in WWll Japanese set aside a great deal of their own traditional music and sought to find out about western music. The emphasis was on rebuilding and musicians weren’t considered builders. So to make money Japanese musicians and the curious took American music as their own. (This behavior is not unlike the Japanese chess game SHOGI in which captured pieces on opposite teams are not “killed” of like in western chess, but change side after they are captured.)
What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from US to Japan (and from old days of Mississippi to todays)?
Occupation forces blasted American music and culture out over military radio; imported records, movies and television followed close behind introducing new dances, fades, fashions, life styles and foods. USO shows brought musicians over and after the 1964 Tokyo Olympics the doors opened even wider to musical artist of all kinds from the west as the Japanese wanted to know, have and hear everything. Everyone from John Lee Hooker, Johnny Shines and the Beatles passed through Japan. The Japanese loved America and couldn’t get enough of cowboys, hamburgers and loud electric guitars or big fat acoustic ones; James Dean and Marilyn Monroe on the movie screens with Muddy Waters or even Elmore James sharing the juke boxes with Frank Sinatra, Lois Armstrong and Elvis.
The Japanese study the American south in school. Most know where to find the Mississippi River on maps, have read at least one Mark twain story and are planing a trip to New Orleans someday. Most notions of the American south are an image of cotton fields created by the movie “Gone With The Wind” combined with a dark crossroads where one can still sell a soul to the devil at a discount price while on the way to juke joints where all you need is a pig foot and a bottle of beer to get your mojo working. There are live houses and Japanese Blues bands everywhere you turn. The lyrics my not be too plain but the message is loud and clear-”Everybody gets the blues some time....”
What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from your travels in Japan? Photo: Rambling Steve Gardner & Japanese musician Hisa Nakase
Well I tell you, I love to laugh and out here in Japan when I am on tour most anything can happen to bring on a good laugh. I was playing some shows in west Japan on night when an older fellow walked up to the stage at my show with a small brown bag which he presented it to me and said, “I heard on the news that all Americans like this, so I bought it for you.” I thanked the man, played another set, packed up and opened the bag on returning to my hotel to find a gift wrapped bottle of ketchup!
A couple of months back I was playing a small festival, not too far from Tokyo but out in the country all the same. After letting go on my take of “Oh Glory How Happy I Am”, a tune popularized by Rev. Gary Davis, a woman came up to me on the break and said, “I am not sure what that song was about but it touched my heart...and I just love the way that your guitar sounds like a tractor.” (I play National Reso-phonic single and tricones.) I really got a kick out of that. Other times folks, mostly kids want to touch my guitars. I have a one of a kind hand painted Tricone with Southern cotton fields and cotton bolls decorating it. But if you have never seen cotton before you might be like an elderly woman who came up to me at a show where I was promoting American culture for the U.S. Dept. of State. She hesitated and shyly asked, “Mr. Steve why do you have white mice painted on your guitar?” I took a closer look and sure enough the screws on the cover plate looked just like eyes and the cotton bolls looked like mice.
Of course I have tons of stories about playing up in the earthquake recovery zone of Tohoku, Japan. I joined a tour with Jett Edwards of Believers today right after we played a huge fundraiser put on by the American Dept of State and the Tokyo American Club. We flew my friend and plying partner Bill Stebeer in from Nashville for the tour too. We headed out into the earthquake “no man’s land” with two buses packed with musicians, dancers, food and supplies along with folks to cook and serve, a sound crew and film crew. Planing what we might do, Bill Steber told us that he had brought along about 75 or 80 kazoos, so we decided to work up a jug band tune using the kazoos as part of a sing along/play along. Well most of the crowd were elderly women who had lost pretty much everything. They sure needed some cheering up. The show was out of doors on a vacant lot and the crowd was gathered round sitting in lawn chairs and wearing heavy coats with blankets across their legs as it was pretty cold that day. Everyone was losing up and they loved to join in by clapping. We had dancers and everyone who was hungry was fed.
We passed out the kazoos and kicked of the tune. As we watched, the crowd struggled to play them with some just giving up, throwing their kazoos toward the trash piles while shouting at the stage, “Broken! Broken! Broken!” Hahaha we nearly died laughing when we realized the problem. They didn’t know how to HUM. They were just blowing through the kazoos. We stopped the tune and they all laughed too when we explained it and had a great time kazooing away their blues after that.
But maybe the most heartwarming request that I have ever played was in the spring of last year. The Japanese wife of a good friend of mine was in hospital with cancer that had made a turn for the worse. She asked if I would play for her so her husband sent for me.
I was out on a short tour at the time along with my friend Chaz (Washboard Chaz) Leary, who plays with many groups but was touring with me and my group The JERICHO ROAD SHOW along with the TIN MEN. After we played the Yokohama Jug Band festival together we headed back to Tokyo where we went up to the hospital guitar, harmonica and washboard at the ready. Well there were protest from the moment that we walked onto the cancer ward. We explained that we just brought our instruments to “show what they looked like” so that everyone could save face then. (We didn’t say that we wouldn’t play.)
After a little while they wheeled my friend’s wife out of her room and into the lobby. She was swollen and had all sorts of the tubes stuck in her; you could tell that she was in pain, but when she saw us there she lit right up with such a smile as you have never seen. We talked some and then Chaz and I did a soft version of “This Train Is Bound For Glory”. We were all crying by the end, of course, even the staff who came over to stop us, but kindly waited until we finished the song. The head nurse said to me, “We are so glad that you only showed your instruments. It is against the rules to play here”. That broke the serious mood, the tears dried up and we all broke out laughing- So loud in fact that they then asked us to leave. But they smiled and waved as the elevator doors closed.
My friend’s wife died less than a week after that. I played for her memorial service at her request. I have played a lot of gigs, live shows and sessions since starting down this long road so many years ago but I will not soon forget playing in that hospital. Life, so fragile, so precious. Breaking the “rules” to play a simple tune, which turned out to be a dying woman’s last request re-reminded me yet again of how much music can and does make a difference in our lives. In a warmer light the tired old slogan takes new strength, “No Music. No Life.”
You are also known of your work as photographer. What characterize your philosophy on the art of image?
I could never really draw or “stay in the lines” as a kid growing up in the 1950’s. I’m a lefty you know and the teachers just didn’t know how to work with that. I discovered photography in my late teens, about the same time that I was really giving the harmonica a good workout. (My cousin took back his Sears Silvertone Acoustic that I had been “beating on” since about age nine. I guess that it was just as well that he took it back as the strings were about a mile of the neck of that old wooden acoustic guitar and I imagine that I had not strung it back up correctly. For sure I was tuned to sounds that only dogs can hear on a dark night, because most every time I cut loose to beating on that box, the house dogs around out back door would get beside themselves barking. I took it that they enjoyed it and wanted to sing along so it usually took my daddy coming down the hall with some “outside” work for me to do to get me to stop.
At any rate, photography coupled with music became a great passport for me to cross social barriers and have an excuse to enter into so many places when I was young and running the road. I met and made friends with folks who changed my life forever, life time friends, many closer than my blood relatives. Folks who shared their skills and passions with me for music and life, who helped me to see, look, listen and hear!
I strived to “make” photographs rather than “take” them. Showing folks how I saw them. Showing them that they were interesting and important. Respecting them. Even in my student days I tried to never showed up at someone’s home without some groceries, tobacco, guitar strings or prints form the last visit. Folks who would say “NO PICTURES!” would melt when their grand babies would crawl up into their laps. They would say, “OK. You can take a picture of my grand baby.” After I had been around awhile if I showed up and didn’t take any pictures they would often ask, “Are you alright? Is something wrong? Let’s feed the chickens or saddle the mule and you can take some pictures then it will be all right”
They were right too. After a few pictures it was all right. We would eat a little something begin to enjoy ourselves, start sharing tall tales and the music wouldn’t be long in getting started; and it might not stop until the sun began to break through the pale morning sky.
In my mind the images and the music are in-separable. Music has color and tone while the images have a sound that can be heard and understood in almost any language. A great song paints a picture for us just like a great photograph plays a great song.
Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?
That is such a difficult question and I am really tired of typing! (hahaha) Really I need to get out the door into the here and now as I have a rehearsal across town coming up in 45 minutes. So I guess that if I could go back I would like to be on hand in 1941 in at the Lake Cormarant, Mississippi site when Son House, Charlie Patton and Big were gathered up along with a whole lot of other cats to record. Or catch Robert Johnson on on that San Antonio recording session with Don Law 11/23/1936. My mind is scratchy and reels like an old 78rpm spinning on a Victrola.
I try to look forward everyday that I can. They tell me that’s the future. But I try to live every day that I can right here. They tell me that is the present. And I take my strength form those who came before me. Those who smoothed the way. Those who stood beside me and pushed me along and have now gone on. They tell me that’s the past. That’s history. And as we live on we become the past. I want to leave behind a history, a memory, that what I did while I was here counted for something. And when my time is up and I am called home, I want to go knowing that I took time to help out when I could because “Death Don’t Have No Mercy In This Land.”
Are there any memories from Sam Chatmon, and Jack Owens which you’d like to share with us?
SAM CHATMON - The first time that I ever saw the legendary Sam Chatmon, of Mississippi Sheiks fame play, tobacco smoke was so thick in the hotel ball room that if you didn’t know better you might have thought that the whole place was burning up. Sam was playing for a political fundraiser of some kind in Jackson, Mississippi, the state capitol. The party was a standing room only affair, over-run with groups of slinky women sporting big hair who clung like kudzu to the arms of big-bellied men with extremely narrow minds. As whiskey flowed, the political candidates worked the crowded room with the skill and enthusiasm of circus performers…contorting, slinking and bending to grab and shake as many hands as possible. With no “fat lady” to sing, Sam Chatmon was brought onto the stage to do the job.
He sat down with his old Gibson guitar and leaned toward the microphone smiling as he opened with his story about the time that he played the San Francisco blues festival and used his money from the event to buy a car. Sam said that he wanted to try his hand at being a taxi driver before he came back home to Mississippi. “Yeah, I tried to run a taxi out in California, but I couldn’t think of what to name my taxi… I drove over to where all the other taxis hung out but it looked like they had taken up all the names…then about that time I saw a good lookin’ woman walk by smokin’ a cigarette and I said to myself, ‘Yeah, that’s it, I’ll name my taxi the ASH TRAY TAXI’. So, if you’re a cigarette smokin’ woman, throw your butts over in here!”
Sam brought the house down with that story and song. It wasn’t long before the people who could still stand, were up dancing and screaming. By the time he ended the show an hour or so later most were singing along with him, especially on his most famous piece, “Sitting On Top of the World”.
Sam Chatmon was born in 1897 in Bolton, Mississippi and had about eleven brothers and around twelve half brothers, the most famous was delta blues man Charley Patton, known as the true “king” of the Delta Blues and Sam’s brother, guitarist Bo Carter. Sam’s father, a former slave, formed the boys into a family string band that became known as the Mississippi Sheiks after their first recording session. The Sheiks were popular in both the white and black communities throughout central Mississippi especially the Bolton to Vicksburg route that included Raymond and Edwards, all small towns mentioned in song by the Sheiks or Charley Patton.
Sam told me that he and his brothers all “traded off” on guitar, mandolin, harmonica and banjo with some of the other brothers working the fiddle, jug or bass. The family band traveled widely and recorded nearly 80 sides for various labels during the 1930’s. The great depression, health troubles and finally world war pushed most of the brothers back onto the farms or planted them deep in their graves. Photo: Sam Chatmon
Sam moved from central Mississippi up to the little delta town of Hollandale. He worked as a tractor driver until he moved into town and took a job as a night watchman at the cotton compress warehouse. He cut three LP’s after he was “re-discovered” in the 1960’s and was featured in a film or two.
Sam toured the South and traveled as far north as Canada- but always by bus never by air. He told me, “I’m not worried to fly and have the airplane go down if it’s my time to go…but what if it’s the man that’s drivin’ the airplane’s time to go…what can you do? That airplane will fall from the sky and that man will just take you with him. No sir. No airplane for me…I’ll ride the dog (Gray Hound Bus) any day…I figure that(on the bus) I stand a better chance of making it on out till its MY time to go.”
At his small house in Hollandale, Sam and I used to sit out in his yard under the shade trees or in his front room on the sofas and chairs that his lady kept covered in plastic- removed only when visitors came calling. After a snack of catfish or watermelon, Sam would let me blow the harp while he picked some of the old time tunes that he and his brothers played so long ago. He told me, “Steve, everybody needs a chance to be told to sit down…after a while as my harmonica wasn’t suiting him he would stop playing and look over at me and grin…OK…SIT DOWN… and listen for a while now.” That was some of the best advice that I have ever gotten, especially concerning music. It changed my life.
For any willing to listen, Sam offered up his advice, like great barbecue, it was always hot- and spicy enough to hit the spot. Sam would lean back, look you over and say things like, “Learn how to do things for yourself… Don’t wait on anybody to do for you if you have your health…save your money if you can…make a nest egg… but have a good time too. And don’t let anybody take away what you have inside…that’s who you are…and if you have a good woman… you better tell her that she’s good some time if you plan on keeping her….”
Growing up light skinned in a huge mixed up family with a former slave for a father; being part American Indian and white too, Sam had little patience for racism and the trappings of segregation and Jim Crow or Uncle Tom. He made fun of these false chains and those connected with them whenever the mood struck. Singing renditions of, “Should I paint my face?” or “You’re gonna look like a monkey when you get old…” or one of his favorites, “Stoop Down Baby”, which he sang at the Mississippi State Governor’s mansion, in Jackson, for a reception put on by the First Lady.
Sam Chatmon died in 1983 at the age of 86. He sang the blues that were the life that he lived. He left us the last verse of his most famous song, “Sitting On Top Of The World” to remember him by- When I’m dead and in my grave,
There’ll be no more women for me to crave.
Now I’m gone, you don’t have to worry,
I left you sittin’ on top of the world.
Rambling With The Blues
Boom! Boom! Boom! With every shot the armadillo jumped and dodged as it ran for its life through the yard. It seemed to fly past the junk cars and rain barrel as the smoke and bullets chased it back to the safety of its hiding place in the woodpile beside the house. Jack kept firing his pistol and shouting, “You better run! ‘Cause I’m gonna git you!” At ninety-two, Jack Owens still moved like a cat, played the blues better than any man half his age and didn’t take any sass- at least not from any “low down” armadillo.
Jack put down his pistol while I picked up what was left of our last bottle of “Hog-Mouth” gin, Jacks favorite, before it all leaked out across the rough porch onto Jack’s guitar; still laying where it fell when he knocked it over trying for a better shot at the armadillo. Jack took a “taste of gin” then gulped down a mouthful of orange soda and passed the bottles back to me. Sitting back down on the porch, Jack flashed me a gold-toothed smile and waved his hand at the woodpile. “He was lucky, but not as lucky as me! I’ve been shot at but nobody’s ever hit me. I’ve shot five men too. Didn't kill a one of them and never been a day in jail for any of it. No sir. And wouldn’t you know it, three of them fellows that I shot, got to be pretty good friends of mine. Especially after they got patched up and that gal we all was after moved away from here. I hear she’s spemdin’ some rail road man’s money down in Jackson now.”
Before Jack started shooting at the armadillo on that hot August night a few years ago, we had been drinking gin and giving the guitar and harmonica a good workout on two of Jack’s favorite tunes “Cherry Ball” and “Devil Got My Woman”.
Jack and I would get together on hot summer afternoons to drink gin and pick a few blues tunes out under the shade trees at his house outside Bentonia, a small community up 49 high way, not too far from where I grew up in North Central Mississippi; Jack shouting, “the cat did it!” after every tune until the gin was gone and us with it. No matter how long we played or how hot the day, Jack could always play “just one more”. To his way of looking at things, if the sun hadn’t come up it was too early to stop playing and go home.
Between sips of gin and a taste of the blues Jack Owens told me his stories and tall tales. He told me that he was born about 1904 or 1906 and was raised between his two grandmothers, one of which was an American Indian and the other the daughter of freed slaves. Jack told me that he had farmed and toted a pistol since he could crawl and learned guitar and whiskey making from his uncles as soon as he could walk. Jack claimed country musician Buck Owens as a cousin, who supposedly learned guitar with him from the same whiskey making uncles before he moved away from Mississippi.
Jack was recorded several times by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress and had discs out on labels in the US and Europe. He won a Handy Blues Award or two, was in a Levi’s jeans commercial for MTV. He toured Europe and played festivals all over the world after he got over his fear of flying in an airplane. Jack was a farmer; a tractor-driver and a bootlegger-who ran his own juke house and sold the best whiskey in the county. Jack Owens was one of the last Bentonia blues men who still played cross note guitar, in the style made famous by his friend and fellow Bentonian, Skip James. Photo: Jack Owens
Jack cooked for himself and lived alone in a fairly new four room wood house that was heated by a wood-burning stove in the front room. He said that ever since he had been kicked in the head by a mule he had lost count of the number of times that he had been married. But he always grinned that he was still on the lookout for a good woman.
Jack’s music took him around the world and back again. He out lived most of his friends and family. Jack Owens died in his sleep at the age of ninety-four with a bottle of gin on his bed-side table, a shot gun under his bed and his pistol under his pillow.
Which memory from James Son Thomas, R. L. Burnside and Jessie Mae Hemphill makes you smile?
JESSIE MAE HEMPHILL -- THE SHE WOLF OF THE BLUES
The late model Lincoln with the leopard spotted interior fishtailed off the gravel road and skidded to a stop in the front yard of the singlewide trailer. The driver’s side window dropped down and into the darkness Jessie Mae Hemphill hollered out, “I’m home…if you are up in my house you better start running now!” Sparks spewed yellow like a Roman candle as the .38- pistol in her hand “barked” three times at the moon. A yard dog whined as it tucked its tail and ran under the porch. Then all was quiet except for the jangle of keys and empty .38 cartridges hitting the deck as Jessie Mae reloaded her smoking pistol.
Climbing out of the car we gathered up the fried chicken, fish and cold drinks that we had bought for our dinner down at the Sardis truck stop and made our way inside Jessie Mae’s trailer. No one ran out the back door as we went in. She told me all about how someone had broken her door in and stolen one of her good guitars along with one of her favorite stage outfits while she was on tour in France. “ Now I shoot first and ask questions later…I ain’t got time for that…stealing…people done forgotten how to act…if I don’t git ‘em, God will.”
In Jessie Mae’s kitchen we sat down at the table, poured our drinks into jelly glasses and put the fish and chicken on plates. Jessie Mae said the blessing and put some food down for her inside dog, a fuzzy little brown yappy thing that had puppies under her trailer a few months back. We ate and laughed about how fast someone could run when they think that they are being shot at. We both had been shot at as kids by one angry joker or another who thought that all children needed a little rock salt in their back side, delivered from the barrel of a shot gun to make them grow up right.
Grabbing a piece of fish she told me, “Yeah, times have changed now, but I can take care of myself! I been playin’ the guitar and shootin’ guns Steve since I was about nine years old. My mama carried a gun all the time she was out or kept it loaded under her pillow on her bed. I used it too but I cleaned it so she wouldn’t know. One time when I was just a girl and I had started likin’ this older boy of about 18 as my boyfriend I saw him walkin’ with another girl and kissin’ her right by my house. That made me so mad. I took my mama’s pistol and shot at that boy five times. I was tryin’ to git them both. They were so scared. They were duckin’ and divin’ all over the yard. He ran off and left his hat and the girl he was with broke the heel of her shoe off in the ground when she ran away. That gun was heavy so most of the bullets went into a bank of dirt down the hill from the way they ran. I know it scared them ‘cause I didn’t see that boy no more for a long, long time. By then I didn’t want him to be my boyfriend.”
Jessie Mae grew up in the hill country of north Mississippi around Como and Senatobia where she was born October 13, 1933. She was raised by her blind granddaddy Sid Hemphill. She was his eyes and his helper carrying his musical instruments, leading him from place to place. Sid Hemphill played everything from fifes and pan flutes to banjos, fiddles and guitars, more than fourteen musical instruments in all, most home made. He was one of the best and most respected musicians of the Mississippi hill country. He was recorded by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress collection and is included on the SOUTHERN JOURNY vol. 3 CD.
Jessie Mae got her musical start playing bass drum and snare drum at picnics in their family fife and drum band, singing in church and by watching her Aunt Rosa Lee Hill, a fine guitar player and singer in her on right. “I loved my granddaddy and my Aunt Rose. I learned by watching them until I finally got my own guitar. A lady who lived near us bought one for her daughter but that girl didn’t take to it…so I got it and just started playin’ it like my Auntie…I played the tambourine too, sometimes tapping it with my foot while I played the guitar. That’s my style.”
Women blues guitarist and singers were pretty rare during the late 30’s and 40’s and even 50’s when Jessie Mae was growing in the deep blues traditions passed on to her by her granddaddy and aunt. For one thing it just wasn’t socially acceptable for a woman to travel alone or play guitar on the stage alone in jukes and clubs. The roads were rough and the times could be dangerous for both blacks and whites.
Jessie Mae played whenever she got the chance and was a regular at clubs on Beale Street in Memphis. As she modeled one of her favorite cowboy hats for me she batted her eyes and said, “Ain’t I the prettiest thing you’ve ever seen? I was some good lookin’ when I played in Memphis. B.B. King was crazy about me baby! And all those other men too! That’s when I started calling myself The She Wolf.”
In 1967 and 1973 Jessie Mae was recorded in Como by some blues researchers but the recordings were never released. But one of them, David Evans, returned again in 1979 and those field recordings led to Jessie Mae’s sessions for High Water records and her first album, She Wolf released in France. She began to tour and won W.C. Handy awards for best traditional female blues artist in 1987 and 1988. Feelin’ Good was Jessie Mae’s first American full- length album released in 1990, which won a W.C. Handy for best acoustic album. She was also featured in the movie DEEP BLUES and the French documentary, Me and My Guitar, Jessie Mae Hemphill.
In 1993, just as Jessie Mae was gaining the praise and recognition that she so deserved, she suffered a stroke, which paralyzed her left side preventing her from playing the guitar. Jessie Mae continues to sing but mostly spirituals now. Her friends from around the world have done their best to help.
Bonny Raitt and the Music Maker Foundation both send checks from time to time.
A CD and DVD were recorded at Sherman Cooper’s farm in Como with Jessie Mae and scores of musicians and fans in 2003 and released 2004. (I am proud to say that I was there too, hitting the guitar and blowing some harp for Jessie Mae.) It was called, Dare You To Do It Again. The project was produced by The Jessie Mae Hemphill foundation . The funds from sales of the CD/DVD help Jessie Mae with the high price of food, housing, medical and other bills that she is facing in this toughest of times in her life.
Jessie Mae is confined to a wheel chair now and is sometimes down but far from being beaten. She still packs her pistol too. When I stopped by to see her a while back I noticed that her pistol was on her bible, her clock radio was in pieces on the floor of her bed room and that her old Gibson electric had a hole all the was through it. She laughed that great Jessie Mae She Wolf laugh of hers and said, “Well Steve I couldn’t get that clock radio to stop botherin’ me and that guitar never would stay in tune anyway! So I just shot ‘em.”
I wasn’t sure that was the whole story but as I pulled my old guitar out of the case I was extra careful to get it into tune before we started singing. I didn’t know how many bullets she had left in that pistol of hers, and I wasn’t anxious to find out anytime soon either.
Don’t let the wheel chair fool you; this She Wolf can still bite and will dare you to do it again.
The September sun was high and hot, the day dry as a Baptist preacher’s liquor cabinet. Cotton pickers and soybean combines labored through ripe fields up and down the Mississippi Delta, great rooster tails of dust billowing like brown tornados in the air behind them, their drivers sweating and their engines moaning loud enough to be heard miles away. Trailers and tractors of every description choked the narrow delta highways in every direction pulling covered loads to gins and rail cars.
But just off of highway 306 in Tate County Mississippi, known as the “Hill Country”, less than two hours north of the hot, dry fields of the delta, it was like the calm before the storm. A light breeze cooled the afternoon as R. L. Burnside, one of the best and maybe the last old time hill country blues men, sat sprawled out in a beat-up over stuffed chair, in the shade of his front porch. A handful of his grand and great grand children sat around him on the porch or took turns climbing over him to sit in his lap, when they weren’t squealing and chasing each other around the tall grass in the yard- dodging wrecked cars, engine blocks, tires, piles of beer cans and bottles along with broken lawn furniture scattered about under the shade trees.
I stopped in front of the house and got out of the truck as Mr. R.L. hollered out his trademark greeting of, “Well! Well! Well!” Without missing a beat he chided, “If you ain’t got no whiskey and tomato juice with you…just sit your ass back in that truck and don’t come back here without some…” He smiled and we laughed as I pulled two quart bottles of Canadian Club Whiskey and six bottles of V-8 juice out of a brown paper bag. Mr. R. L. grabbed a bottle of each and opened them sending their tops flying into the yard as he spilled whiskey and V-8 juice into his 32-ounce plastic stadium cup. Then like a magician he made the mixture disappear. He mixed and drank another before he spoke. “You know I’ve slowed. I just don’t drink like I used to.” I was afraid to ask him how he “used” to drink since he had just killed more than half a bottle of whiskey at one go.
He swatted some of his grand kids back as he stood and led the way into the house. He unlocked the door to his room and we ducked in before any had a chance to follow. Once the door was locked again he pointed to a heavy metal box on his dresser. It was wrapped in a log chain and locked with two pad locks. After a bit of confusion he finally found the right keys to get the chain and box unlocked. He grinned at me as he opened the high security fireproof door stuck in his hand and offered me a piece of the homemade chocolate cake that was on a plate inside!
We sipped our whiskey drinks and munched down the cake while the kids beat on the door screaming out their threats and demanding to be let inside too. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about. Man around here between my twelve kids and all of their kids and their kid’s kids-and the neighbors-this cake wouldn’t stand a chance. Everything gets eaten up, drunk up, broken up, burnt up or shut up. Like the man said, the ‘Up’s got me!’ I’m not lying. Man they burned up my last house and then shot my dog, Buck, doing one of them drive by shootings. This ain’t no Detroit or Chicago, man this is Tate County, Mississippi. You gota be careful, it’s rough all over.” Photo: R.L. Burnside
Rough all over is right. R.L. Burnside, born Rural in November of 1926, knew exactly what he was talking about. He moved back to Mississippi from Chicago in the early 1950’s just before his father, two brothers and two uncles were murdered there in the space of one year. Not long after that R. L. was convicted of murder and did some time for shooting a man that he said was trying to run him off a place where he was share cropping at the time. “ He came at me in my house. That was it. I didn’t mean to kill nobody. I just meant to shoot that son-of-a-bitch in the head… It was between him and the Lord, him dying. Times like that it’s down to him or me.”
“Living. Hard living. That’s the blues to me. I lived hard all my life. Mostly I farmed or share cropped but I’ve been playing guitar since I was in my late teens and learned some from Fred McDowell, Rainy Burnett and those Lightin’ Hopkins or John Lee Hooker records. I recorded for Arhoolie records in about 1967. That record got me to touring some. And I am proud to say that only my two oldest boys had to pick cotton. My other kids have done better than that. I wouldn’t care if a mule ran away with the world, ‘cause I ain’t interested in no cotton. As my boys got on up we made a family band and they started backing me up…I made Canada, Europe, Australia and even Japan.” (R.L. Burnside played the first Shinjuku Park Tower Blues Festival in 1993.)
In the early 90’s R.L. was featured in the blues film documentary, DEEP BLUES based on author Robert Palmer’s book by the same title. It was Palmer who produced R. L.’s album Too Bad Jim the Fat Possum label where he went on to record more than ten more albums. R. L.’s music was remixed and repackaged into a successful hip-hop, punk, trance crowd acceptability, especially his COME ON IN cd, which also landed him radio air play along with a debut of the single, LET MY BABY RIDE, on MTV.
“I didn’t know whether I liked them messing with the blues like that…but after I heard that people where buying that record (more than 50,000 copies)…Well. Well. Well. I liked it pretty good! I love to play for the people…as long as they are enjoying it, hell I am too! Ain’t that the blues? That’s what I’m trying to carry on here playing with my grandson Cedric (Burnside) on the drums and (Kenny) Brown my adopted son on the other guitar.”
The mosquitoes were out and the whiskey was gone; the hour was late, the cake was safely locked away, it was time now for me to wave goodbye and go back home. One way or another we all have to find our way back home. R. L. found his.
On Thursday September 1 as a light rain fell and lightening traced broken lines across the gray Mississippi sky, R. L. Burnside died of heart failure at the St. Francis hospital in Memphis. He was 78.
R. L. once sang, “I wish I was in heaven sitting down”. But I imagine that if he finds any whiskey up there and has any say about it, he’ll have them all up and dancing in no time at all. But he sure will be missed down here…Well. Well. Well.
JAMES “SON” THOMAS -- BLUESMAN, FOLK ARTIST GRAVE DIGGER
The sun was taking cover in a cotton field at the end of the day as dull, gray mosquito fog fought its way off the back of the farm sprayer that was snaking its way through the narrow streets of Leland, Mississippi, the mid-delta town that Blues man James “Son” Thomas called home. Son picked up his guitar and we ran for it as the mosquito fogger rolled closer to Son’s house. “We better bottle it up and go. That spray don’t do nothin’ except make them mosquitoes mad and want to bite you more.”
After he got a cigarette going we laughed and swatted after the mosquitoes that had followed us into his narrow shot gun house-that’s a house built with the rooms all lined up in a row, the kind where you could open the front door and shoot a shot gun straight through it and the bullets would pass through every room and out through the kitchen. Now Son was spraying his own mosquito spray and complaining, “Man, listen. These delta mosquitoes are so big that they can pick up the cow and ring the bell for the calf….”
We sat in his bed room and ate cold fried chicken left over from our trip out to the Leland cemetery where earlier that day he had pointed out many of the graves that he and his uncle had dug some years earlier. Son raised his ten children by digging graves with his uncle, playing blue at fish fries, house parties and small jukes and later by selling his folk art. I chewed on a cold chicken leg and battled with the mosquitoes while he picked the guitar and told me some of his stories.
“Yeah man, I remember one summer it was scalding hot and there came a drought after all the crops were laid by. Nobody had any work and nobody was dying so that meant that we didn’t have any work or money. We sat by for maybe three weeks watching the heat and sun crack open the ground and bake it hard as concrete just wishin’ that somebody would die-not one us you understand, just somebody whose time it was, ‘cause we needed the money. It wasn’t long in that heat before a whole heap of ‘em started dropping off, both black and white, on every end of the county. We started workin’ then!
You know in those days a lot of folks would keep the body at home on ice before they buried them waiting for all of their kin to get back home for the service. Well in that kind of heat it took a heap of ice to keep a body fresh.”
“Mornings I would take off one way and my uncle he would take off another and then we would meet back in the middle. Well with the ground so hard we got behind. I mean we dug on those graves all day and sometimes into the night, though I don’t much like diggin’ in a dark cemetery at night. It was some kind of rough.”
“Early one Saturday I was on my way to the other end of the county to cover over some graves at a little country church when I got stopped by a Highway Patrolman for speeding. The patrolman told me that he was going to give me a ticket. I told him that he just as well give me two because I would be coming back down this road just as fast-I had to get back for a big funeral here in Leland at the white cemetery. He looked at me kinda hard. I told him I covered graves and that in this weather you got to move fast before the bodies swell so that they jump up out of the coffins and scare the family and the preacher. He never smiled but he put that ticket book back in his pocket and said, ‘Go ahead on then!’ So I stomped down on it”. Photo: James "Son" Thomas
Son told me that he and his uncle got fifteen dollars for every grave that they dug, and that they dug them by hand with picks and shovels-four feet wide by seven feet long by six feet deep. “One time though this white man died and his family burned him up and put him in a can. They stopped by my house to ask me if I would dig the grave for them. I told them it would still cost fifteen dollars. I dug his grave with a post-hole digger. That wasn’t too bad.”
“When I was a boy I lived with my grandmother and used make trucks or animals and skulls with corn for teeth. I used the Yazoo clay that was easy to dig out of the riverbank near her house. One time I put one up in my granddaddy’s room so that he would see it when he went to light the lamp. He was scared of ghost. When he saw that skull it scared him so bad he made me get up that night and take it out of the house. It made me mad so I decided to do something to get him back for doing me that way. I tied a string onto his bedsprings and ran it through a crack in the floor to my room- the old house where we lived was full of cracks and holes. Anyway, when he got into the bed I started pulling that string and shook him. He raised his voice at my grandmother to stop shaking the bed. He made such a fuss that grandmamma got out of the bed to show him that it wasn’t her. I shook him real hard then. Man, he jumped up and said, ‘I know what it is. You bringing these white folks clothes up in here and some of them are dead, now they all comin’ back at us. Old woman I’m packin’ up and leavin’ you here by yourself.’ And he did too. He wouldn’t come back to that place. We all moved after that.
“I learned some guitar from my uncle. He would teach me for free but charge me to play on his guitar. I had to wait until he got away from the house to play and hope that I wouldn’t bust a string. I finally scrapped up a little money and ordered my own box out of the Sears and Roebuck cataloge. I got good enough to play house parties and fish frys for a dollar a night and then started hitting the jukes every chance I could get. I used to see Elmo’ James when he played down in Yazoo City with Sonny Boy Williamson. Elmo’ had a bad hart. After he got to know me a little he would let me spell him on the guitar when he got tired. Oh man, Sonny Boy didn’t like none of that. He would get to fussin’ about not wanting to play with me, call me names and just walk out of the place. Elmo’ didn’t care one way or the other. If it was his gig he would point me toward his guitar, grab his lady and holler, ‘Blow boy, blow!’ That’s when I started working real hard on my bottleneck style.”
Son Thomas was featured in five or six blues films and made a handful of recording between his “discovery” in the late sixties and his death in 1993. He toured Europe with his music and his folk art was shown in galleries from New York to Paris. He met First Lady Nancy Reagan in Washington, D.C. at a gallery that was featuring his art. Son proudly displayed a snap shot of the two of them on a front room shelf with some of his best natural clay skulls made with real human teeth.
Gallery shows and European tours were not enough to pay the devil to lift Son Thomas out harms way and hard times. He was accidentally shot then stabbed by his wife around 1981. Shortly after he was nearly burned up by a faulty gas heater that badly burned his fretting hand. Just as things were picking up in 1991 Son had surgery for a brain tumor.
“Yeah, the doctor sawed off the top of my head and fixed me up some how. I lost some feeling in places but I’m all right now. I’ve been paying that doctor on time…a little every month when I have it. I went down to check on how much more I owed and they told me that that doctor had gotten high powered and moved away from here. I reckon that if he needs anymore of my money he can let me know.”
James “Son” Thomas died of a stroke in 1993. He was only 66 years old when his spirit floated away on the ethers that he told me, “ settle down on a body…bringing music and songs…dreams… taking spirits away to another world…far away from this one filled with graves, pain and sickness.”
“Give me beef steak when I’m hungry, Whiskey when I’m dry…
A pretty woman while I’m livin’ And heaven when I die…”
Beef Steak Blues, James Son Thomas
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