Friday, August 4, 2023

Black Prairie Blues

A couple of years ago, I started tracking down some information about the blues that originated on the eastern side of Mississippi.  I had gone up toward West Point with the intention of checking out the Howlin' Wolf Museum, along with the statue near the middle of town next to the Blues Marker.  Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get in the museum that weekend, so I planned to revisit it in the future since my daughter and her husband reside in Tupelo.

I posted about my visit up that way and got some feedback from a few people, who took the time to enlighten me on just how much great blues music came from northeastern Mississippi and northwestern Alabama.  I am still in the process of digging into this huge source of music that I had previously took for granted and I hope to, in a future post, provide more information for those unfamiliar.....I just don't want to do it until I feel like I've got it covered pretty well.

In the meantime, my birthday was a couple of months ago, and we decided to visit my daughter and son-in-law in Tupelo.  While we were going that way, I decided to see about visiting the museum as we passed by.  Since I tried to visit previously, the museum has moved to a larger building and is now called the Black Prairie Blues Museum.  I was able to get on Facebook, track down the contact information for the museum, and get in touch with Jeremy Klutts, who oversees the museum.  

The museum is a work in progress, the contents are mostly upstairs while the lower floor is used for events and occasional performances.  There's a stage and room for a couple of hundred in the audience.  There's also art on display from art students at nearby Mississippi State University that captures the spirit of the blues.


Since the museum was formerly centered around Howlin' Wolf, the bulk of items in the museum focuses on the Wolf......lots of photos, album cover displays and a few guitars donated by Hubert Sumlin and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, among others.  There were a few pictures of other artists interspersed.....Willie King, Big Joe Williams, etc.. as I said, it's a work in progress, the museum and the building, but when it is finished it will be a nice stop for blues fans in the area.  In the meantime, you can contact them at their Facebook page if you're traveling through and they will be glad to give you a tour.

There's a lot more blues history in the Black Prairie region than one would imagine.  In addition to the Howlin' Wolf Blues Marker and statue at West Point, there's also a marker in Crawford to the south for Big Joe Williams, which we posted about previously, and a marker in Macon (several miles south of Crawford) recognizing the Black Prairie Blues.  In addition to Wolf, Williams, and Willie King, this region was the home of Bukka White, Albert King, Lucille Bogan, Jesse Fortune, and the Houston Harrington family.  Harrington was a fiddler from the Macon area who migrated to Chicago, eventually setting up a recording studio and a record label (Atomic-H) and steering his family, which included Eddy Clearwater, Carey Bell, Lurrie Bell, and Steve Bell, to careers in the blues.

Howlin' Wolf statue in West Point, MS

Black Prairie Blues marker in Macon, MS

And that's just a taste of what originated in this area of Mississippi and Alabama (we haven't even made it to Alabama yet).  We will dig deeper into the artists from the Black Prairie Blues region in the near future, so keep checking back with us!

Friday, April 21, 2023

Big Joe Williams - Nine-String Guitar Master


A while back, I picked up a collection of Big Joe Williams' early recordings from 1945 - 1961 on Jasmine Records.  I had previously owned some of his recordings on Arhoolie not long after I started listening to the blues (on cassette) and even though I really enjoyed those sides, I had not ever revisited his work, other than the occasional appearance on an anthology set here and particular reason for that, just never got around to it.  

Over the years, I've read stories about him.  I liked Dick Waterman's reminiscences in his book Between Midnight and Day:  The Last Unpublished Blues Archive (which I highly recommend for the stories and Waterman's accompanying pictures), but what really got my attention was Mike Bloomfield's book Me and Big Joe, which recounted some of the late guitarist's harrowing adventures with the blues legend.  From that point, I decided to backtrack and learn a little more about Williams and it's an interesting story.

Williams was born in 1903 near Crawford, MS, which is located about halfway between Meridian and Tupelo on the eastern side of the state (also birthplace of NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice and former NBA player Clarence Weatherspoon).  He started playing as a youth on street corners, bars, alleys, work camps, etc.......ending up with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels revue and actually recording with the Birmingham Jug Band in 1930.  He ended up in St. Louis a few years later, where he recorded with Bluebird Records, as a front man and backing others such as Sonny Boy Williamson I and Robert Nighthawk.  It was while he was with Bluebird that he recorded "Baby, Please Don't Go" and "Crawlin' Kingsnake," both of which have become blues standards and have been recorded by hundreds of other acts in blues and rock.  Williams recorded frequently over the next five decades for a variety of labels....Vocalion, Okeh, Paramount, Prestige, Delmark, Arhoolie, and others.  

He played a nine-string guitar of his own design, and had a highly percussive style of playing similar to other pre-war Delta guitarists, beating on the box, neck, popping the strings and really giving his playing a distinctive style.  Blues historian Barry Lee Peterson witnessed Williams performing one night and described his electric model of the nine-string as being played through "a small ramshackle amp with a pie plate nailed to it and a beer can dangling against that.  When he played, everything rattled but Big Joe himself.  The total effect of this incredible apparatus produced the most buzzing, sizzling, African-sounding music I have ever heard."  As great and unique as he was as a guitarist, he was an equally talented songwriter and vocalist.  Based on Bloomfield's book and other descriptions, he could be rather cantankerous as well, but there's no question he was a well-respected bluesman throughout his career.

Williams eventually returned to the area where he was born, where he passed away in late 1982.  He was buried in a private cemetery near Crawford.  He had a headstone which was paid for by friends and fellow musicians collected at Antone's in Austin.  The Mt Zion Memorial Fund eventually got the headstone erected in October of 1994.  One of his last nine-string guitars can be viewed at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale.

Although I was aware that Williams was born in Crawford.....while working about twenty-five years ago, I had to stop in the Crawford City Hall and noticed a picture of him on the wall...... I don't guess it ever occurred to me that he might have been buried in the area.  Granted, I only got into visiting grave sites in the past few years, but I finally realized that he was buried nearby, only about 80 miles from where I live between Crawford and Starkville.

A few weekends ago, I ended up with some time on my hands and thought, what the heck, I'll just see if I can find Big Joe Williams' grave, so I punched in the coordinates and was soon on my way.  It was a fairly pleasant drive....I was familiar with most, but not all of it.  There's a nice lake (Bluff Lake) located about ten miles from the gravesite on the Noxubee Wildlife Refuge.  When I got to the location, Williams' headstone was easy to find.  In fact, it was the only headstone visible.  I was told that there are other graves at the site, but I didn't see any other headstones.  It really looked like a pasture with one solitary headstone present.

The town of Crawford is a few miles to the east, just off US 45 Alternate.  There's not much there these days, but there is a Mississippi Blues Trail marker near the Town Hall which is dedicated to Williams.  Crawford is a few miles south of West Point (birthplace of Howlin' Wolf) and a little over an hour south of Tupelo (birthplace of Elvis Presley).

However, I opted to go south that day because about ten miles south of Crawford, where US 45 Alternate and US 45 meet, is the town of Brooksville, home of the Ole Country Bakery, which is worth a stop if you're hungry for breakfast or lunch.  People drive from all around in Mississippi and Alabama to sample their delicious pastries, pies, loaf bread, sweet bread, sandwiches, soups, and salads.  Whenever I work in the area, I'm going to make a stop there, and I did that day as well.  You can't miss it if you're driving through Brooksville....just look for a wood-frame building with a lot of cars and trucks parked around it.

If you are in the area and you are a blues fan, it's worth the trip to visit Big Joe Williams' final resting place.  It's not hard to get there at all, the roads are good, and there are some other cool places to visit while you're in the area.  Meanwhile, here are a couple of great albums to get started with Williams.

The Original Ramblin' Bluesman 1945-1961 (Jasmine Records):  This 2 CD set includes tracks Williams recorded for the Chicago, Columbia, Bullet, Trumpet, Specialty, Vee Jay, and Folkways labels, plus previously unissued tracks for Cobra Records and eight songs never heard before on CD that Williams recorded with pianist Erwin Helfer in Chicago that were released as 2 EPs by Collector Records in London.  Not a bad track in the bunch.

Shake Your Boogie (Arhoolie Records):  This CD collects two great 60's albums Williams recorded for the label.  Charlie Musselwhite plays harmonica on some of the tracks.  Combined with the above set, this could be all the Big Joe Williams you might need for your collection, but I do encourage you to check out his 60's recordings for Testament and Delmark because they're just as strong.  All of his recordings are worth a listen.

Friday, January 13, 2023

In Memoriam: 2022 Blues Deaths

Friday Blues Fix pays tribute to those blues people who passed away in 2022.  It seems like we lost a lot of folks this year, not just in the blues, but with the blues, there are so many older artists who are still performing and making vital music at what might be considered an advanced age by some, so in a way it could be expected.  That doesn't mean we have to like it one bit, though.  It's sad to see artists you've followed for so long pass away. 

These are all the names I was able to come up with that passed away this year.  If you know of any others, please let me know in the comments and I will add them to this list as we go.

Classie Ray Ballou, Jr. (67) – blues/zydeco bass player (Boozoo Chavis)

Howard Grimes (80) drummer (Stax Records, Hi Records)

Sam Lay (86) drummer (Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, James Cotton, Bob Dylan, Paul Butterfield, etc…)

Milton Hopkins (88) – guitarist (Grady Gaines, Bobby Bland, B.B. King, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, etc…..)

Elijah Newsome (83) – Greenwood, MS bluesman

Charles K. “Guitar Charlie” Rickard (75) – Greenville, MS guitarist (Booba Barnes, Lil’ Dave Thompson, T-Model Ford)

Charles Lee “Delta Blues Hogg” Hayes (79) – Wisconsin bluesman

Jimmy Johnson (93) – Chicago bluesman

Syl Johnson (85) – Chicago blues and soul man

David “Guitar Shorty” Kearney (82) – blues guitarist

Barbara Morrison (72) – jazz/blues singer

Dennis Walker (79) – songwriter/producer/bass player

Millage Gilbert (83) – Kansas City bluesman

Kris Schnebelen (41) – drummer (Trampled Under Foot)

Classie Ballou, Sr. (84) – blues/zydeco guitarist

Pete Lowry (81) – blues scholar/writer/educator, founder of Trix Records)

Grana Louise Smith (69) – Chicago blues singer

Red Kelly, The Soul Detective (67) – blues/soul researcher (

Greg “Slim Lively” Johnson (60) – Cascade Blues Association president, I.B.C. and BMA M.C.

Richard Molina (72) – guitarist/bandleader

Deborah McCrary (67) – singer (McCrary Sisters)

Lola Gulley (57) – Atlanta’s “Queen of the Blues”

Terry Delafose (60) – zydeco bass player drummer (John Delafose and the Eunice Playboys, Geno Delafose and French Rocking Boogie)

Bobby O’Jay (68) – WDIA DJ

Paul Garon (80) – Blues author/scholar, co-founder of Living Blues magazine

David “Chainsaw” Dupont (66) – Chicago blues guitarist

Sonny Sitgraves (84) – drummer (Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Johnny Littlejohn)

James “Chicken Scratch” Johnson (82) – guitarist (Slim Harpo)

Grandpa Elliot Small (77) – New Orleans singer/harmonica player

Walter "Wolfman" Washington (79) - New Orleans blues and soul singer/guitarist

Paul T. Kwami (70) – Fisk Jubilee Singers member/director

Andy Story (78) – New York bluesman

Jim Davis (71) - New York tenor sax player (Brad Vickers, Paul Oscher, Steve Lucky, Gas House Gorillas)

Hardrick Rivers (65) – Louisiana sax player

Harpdog Brown (59) – Canadian harmonica player/singer

Doug Jay (58) – Harp Player (Doug Jay and the Blue Jays)

Jim Stewart (92) – Co-founder of Stax Records

Christine McVie (79) – English singer/keyboardist (Chicken Shack/Fleetwood Mac)

Marty Sammon (45) – Chicago keyboardist (Buddy Guy)

Kim Simmonds (75) – guitarist/vocalist (Savoy Brown)

Willie J Campbell (65) – bass player (James Harman, Fabulous Thunderbirds, Mannish Boys)

Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson (83) – Chicago singer/guitarist