Me and Big Joe Williams by Michael Bloomfield


Me and Big Joe Williams, Written by Mike Bloomfield, Illustrated by R. Crumb     1980<p>I met Joe Lee Williams in the early Sixties in a Chicago nightclub called the Blind Pig. He was a short and stout heavy-chested man, and he was old even then. He wore cowboy boots and cowboy hat and pleated pants pulled way up high, almost to his armpits. Just visible above the pants was a clean white shirt, and a tiny blue bow tie dotted his bullish neck. He played a nine-string Silvertone guitar, and to keep others from copying his style he’d put it up in a very strange tuning. I was familiar with all stringed instruments, and I think eventually I worked that guitar every way possible, but I never learned to play it real well, and to this day don’t know the tuning he used.Big Joe, as he was often called, had been a well-known artist in the Thirties and Forties, and wrote one of the real standards in the blues field, Baby Please Don’t Go, a song later cut by, among others, Mose Allison and Muddy Waters. At the time I met Joe Lee I was trying to meet as many blues artists as were alive in America, because music was the field I most wanted to pursue, and blues was the music I most wanted to learn. So between sets that night I talked with Joe, or at least I tried to. He lacked teeth and had a thick pineywoods accent, and at first I found him nearly indecipherable. I had to ask him to repeat himself over and over, but he didn’t seem to mind, and after a while I caught on somewhat to his speech. He told me Crawford, Mississippi, was his birthplace, and that since the early Thirties he’d done nothing but hobo around the country with his guitar. Now, most bluesmen I’d met had two jobs - they’d play and sing nighttimes, but during the day they kept up a straight gig of one kind or another. But Joe never did that - he played and traveled, and that was it.Joe and I got along well that night, and as he packed his guitar away after his last set he invited me to visit him sometime. He was living in the basement of a record store on Chicago’s Near North Side. And I dropped in to see him often. The store specialized in blues and was run by a very odd guy named Kaercher. Along with the store he owned a record company, and though I was never sure he knew a good record from a bad one, he was straight with the musicians he recorded and had a real reverence for their art and skill. But Joe and he would have many fights, sometimes dues to Kaercher’s obtuse nature. And at other times to Joe’s drinking. Joe would get a few beers or a little hard liquor in him (peppermint Schnapps and Gordon’s gin were his choices) and suddenly you wouldn’t be dealing with a normal man - he couldn’t talk coherently and nothing would make sense to him. Behind larger amounts of alcohol he could get physically violent. But as nasty as he could be when he was drunk, that’s how compassionate and big-hearted he could be when he was sober, and often his ways were a real Southern gentleman’s. His Manner could be touching - very sweet, gallant, courtly.As I got to know Joe better we became more and more friendly, and soon he began to carry me to see old friends of his. I’d say, “Listen, Joe, d’you know where Tampa Red’s living?” And Joe’d say “ Sure I know where Tampa’s at - I’ll take you by right now.” And we’d go. Tampa Red was a singer whose career had begun in the Twenties and who’d become popular in the Thirties and Forties. I knew his records well. He’d had a big hit called Tight Like That, and he recorded with a man who is now the king of gospel publishing, Thomas G. Dorsey. But Tampa, by the time I met him, was just a frail, wizened little man whose hands shook uncontrollably. He had an expensive old Gibson in a case beneath his bed, but all he could do was show it to us - his hands wouldn’t let him play.Another singer Joe took me to see was Kokomo Arnold, who had also recorded in the Thirties and Forties. His big hit was Kokomo Blues, a song about the bright city, that seven-light city, that sweet old Kokomo. He told me I was the first one to ask about his music since the early Fifties when some people from a jazz magazine in Belgium had come to see him. But the next time I saw him was in a hospital, where I’d gone to visit him with Charlie Musselwhite. Kokomo’d had to have much of his insides cut out, and he was just a shadow of the man I’d seen with Joe. Joe also carried me to see Tommy McClennan, who recorded for RCA Victor in the Forties. We visited him in Cook Count Hospital, where he was dying of TB. He was just a skeleton, but his eyes were hot like coals burning at you. And his music was like that, too - it had a savage, searing sound. He was a fierce man.And there was Jazz Gillum, who was just about the craziest man I’d ever met. Joe took me to see him on a very uncomfortable summer day, with both the temperature and humidity up in the nineties - the kind of day when doing nothing makes you sweat; when dirt forms up under your fingernails for no reason at all. We drove out to the West Side and stopped in front of a tiny frame house, just a shanty, really. When we walked into the place I thought I’d hit Hell City - as hot as it was outside, it was insufferably worse within. All the windows were shut down tight. Clad in a huge brown overcoat and sweating profusely, Gillum stood beside a woodstove, stoking a raging fire. He was extremely paranoid. He’d written the very successful Key To The Highway and had never gotten the publishing money for it, and was afraid I’d come to steal his other tunes. We didn’t stay long enough to change his mind.Eventually I sat in so many bars and met so many singers that the south and west sides of Chicago ceased to be new territory for me. Joe, from his travels, knew blues singers from all over the country, and when he suggested that we make some field trips I was quick to agree. The first jaunt we took was to Milwaukee so I could sit in with Sonny Boy Williamson. Now, this Sonny Boy thing can be confusing. The original Sonny Boy’s name was John Lee Williamson. He was a big star for Bluebird Records and recorded many songs the Joe liked to sing, such as Decoration Day Blues, I Can Hear My Black Name Ringing, and Katie Mae. The second Sonny Boy Williamson’s name was Rice Miller. He was much older man than the original Sonny Boy, and had been recording even longer, but he didn’t become famous until after the original Sonny Boy dies - stabbed by a woman in his Chicago doorway.It was this second Sonny Boy, Rice Miller, that we went to Milwaukee to see. We found him at a funky lounge in the black section of town. He was an old man - God only knows just how old he was. He had a baleful stare and a sour mouth, and he’d check you out with cold, squinty eyes that said you were just so much dust from the road. He sat at a table among the customers with his harmonicas and mike and old hotel towel, and to start off a song he’d spit blood into the towel and then blow a little harp. He wouldn’t tell the band what song or key or anything, and they’d just stagger in behind him. He didn’t care if they were there or not - he’d just tap his feet and play along by himself. I wasn’t real crazy about approaching him to play, but I did, and he asked me if I knew Help Me, which was a hit at the time. I said “Yeah, I believe it’s like Green Onions,” and he said, “That’s right, go ahead and play.” So I sat in with him, and the people seemed to like us.Big Joe was getting drunk at a table with some older, heavy-set black women. After Sonny Boy’s last set he came up to me and said, “Michael, there’s some real fine leg sittin’ here.” Now, besides being of advanced years, these women had a combined weight of several tons, and didn’t fit my idea of good leg at all. But as an inducement to stick around and maybe go home with one or two of these women, Joe said, “These ladies have their womanhoods way up high on their bellies.” Considering their weight, I could see how that might be true, but I told him, “Joe, I don’t believe this is something I want to get into - I think we’d best head back to Chicago.” Joe got pretty irascible at this, but finally agreed to go, and we made it on home all right.“Drive me down to Gary,” Joe said one day, “and I’ll carry you to see Lightnin’ Hopkins - him an’ me is old, old friends.” So Joe and I and Charlie Musselwhite and Roy Ruby, who later for a time played bass with Steve Miller, climbed into Roy’s car and headed east to Indiana. Actually, we had to go out beyond Gary, into the countryside, where eventually we came to a barbeque pit, or roadhouse. This kind of place was also known as a barrelhouse or chock house, and seems to have pretty much disappeared from the North, and maybe from the South too. The roadhouse was run by an older black couple and consisted of a barbeque pit in front and a large bare room in back. This back room was heated only by body heat - when there were enough people in the room, the place got warm. And that night it was hot.Joe had gotten himself a center seat and was buying drinks and ordering people around when the opening act, J.B. Lenoir and his Big Band, came on. J.B. was a short man in a zebra-striped coat that hung down low behind him. He had straight hair, but it wasn’t up in a high process, it was slicked down flat against his head. He looked like a seal. The band backing him featured three horn players of such advanced stages of age and inebriation that they had to lean against one another to avoid collapse. J.B. played guitar and sang through a microphone on a rack around his neck. He has a high, almost feminine voice, and was a fine singer. He danced through the crowd as he played and sang, and Joe sat nodding his approval - he liked J.B. quite a bit.Then old Lightning came on, and he was as sly and slick and devilish as a man could be. He had a real high conk on his head and wore black, wraparound shades. He had only a drummer behind him, and when the blue lights hit that conk - man, that was all she wrote.When the set ended Joe went over to Lightning to say hello, but before he could get a word out Lightning said, “What are you doing down here? I’m the star of this show, you know.” “I know you the star, “ Joe replied, “and we don’t mean no trouble. I carried these white boys here down to see you, and I just wanted to pay some respects.” So Lightning mellowed and bought Joe a drink, but that was a mistake, because Joe didn’t need it. Sure enough, Joe got raspy and quarreled with Lightning, and we were turned out of the place. When we got to the car, Charlie hustled into the back seat and pretended to fall asleep. I rode shotgun and feigned sleep, too. Roy was driving and Joe was between us, trying to direct Roy where to carry him. Joe was hard enough to understand sober, but drunk, you had no chance at all - it was just syllabic noise.What Joe had a penchant for doing when he was drunk was to look up distant relatives of his, sisters-in-law or whatever, and see if their husbands were working a nightshift so he could screw their women. So he had us driving through all the ghetto areas of Gary, Hammond, and East Chicago, ranting and roaring at Roy, who was unable to understand a word of what Joe was saying - it might as well have been Tagalog. And Roy would look over and say, “ Michael! I know you’re not asleep - you’ve gotta tell me how to get home!” And when I wouldn’t respond he’d turn to Charlie and say, “ Charlie, god dammit, wake up! You gotta show us how to get out of here!” But Charlie’d just lie low, too. Joe’s eyes were tiny, squinchy red slits, and we weren’t about to go up against that grousing, cursing, indecipherable angryness. If Joe wasn’t ready to return to Chicago, that was it - we weren’t going. Not that night, anyway. Finally, as dawn broke over the smokestacks and rail yards and cracking-towers of northern Indiana, Joe grumblingly directed Roy home.In early July Joe took it into his head to visit some of his people down in St. Louis. The owner of the record store, Kaercher, thought it was a fine idea. “Yeah, Joe,” he said, “you go down there and be a talent scout. Take a tape recorder along and say you represent my company. Record some people, see what kind of deal we can make, and bring back some tapes.” Well, I’d begun to have doubts and trepidations about taking these field trips with Joe, because once outside Chicago my friends and I were pretty much at his mercy, and you could get into some strange situations with the guy. But St. Louis was new territory for me, and I knew there were supposed to be some famous old bluesmen living down there, so I said OK. I called up another pal of mine, George Mitchell, and asked him to join us. George was a college student, originally from Atlanta, and had worked at the record store. He wore those Kingston Trio-type button-down shirts and had a real neat Ivy League haircut. He really dug blues, and while in his teens had gotten to know many artists in the South. He got along well with older black people, and especially well with Joe, so I thought he’d be an ideal guy to have along.The drive to St. Louis was real nice. Wonderful, in fact. Joe talked to George and me about things from thirty years ago as though they’d happened that morning. He reminisced about Robert Johnson and Willie McTell and Blind Boy Fuller; he told how Sunnyland Slim had helped Muddy Waters get a record contract; he explained how Big Bill had gotten rich. Being with Joe was being with a history of the blues-you could see him as a legend. He couldn’t read or write a word of English, but he had America memorized. From forty years of hiking roads and riding rails he was wise to every highway and byway and roadbed in the country, and wise to every city and county and township that they led to. Joe was part of a rare and vanished breed- he was a wanderer and a hobo and a blues singer, and he was an awesome man.It was nightfall when we got to St. Louis, and it was hot - lord, was it hot. The first place we stopped was the home of Joe’s sister, or sister-in-law, or step-sister, or something. When we walked in, there were little kids sleeping on every available surface, so we all went into the kitchen and sat down. “Now you know I play the guitar,” Joe said to his relatives, “and this boy Michael do too, so we’ll play some while we visit.” He brought out his guitar, and with it a bottle of Schnapps. I took George aside and said, “Man, we better not let this guy start drinking. It’s a long weekend, and if he stars in now, his brain’s will fly right out the window - we’ll have a lunatic on our hands the whole time!” But Joe was set on drinking, and when he said, “Michael, why don’t you have a little taste?” I went ahead and put some down. I figured if Joe was going to get drunk and crazy, I was going to get drunk and crazy right along with him. So I drank as much gin and Schnapps and beer and wine as I could get in me that night, and I sat with Joe and played the blues. And man, I got sick. For the first time in my life I got king-hill, shit-faced, tore-up drunk. I puked in the hall, I puked on the sofa and puked on the wall. I was just rolling in puke - I was sick, sick, sick.I woke up on a bed the next morning to find Joe standing over me. He had stayed up all night drinking and he was more than just drunk - he was on a bender. His nostrils were flared and his eyes were red and runny. A barbeque-fork was in his hand and on it was pig nose, and hot grease from the nose was dripping on my chest. He opened his mouth and his Schnapps breath hit me in a wave. “Snoots, snoots!” he shouted, “I promised you barbeque, an’ fine snoots is what we got!” My head was throbbing and my stomach was still queasy, and when I looked up and saw this horribly fat and greasy pig nose and inch from my face, I lurched out of the bed and threw up again. Joe began to curse me, “Man, you done puked all the damn night and into the morinin’ an’ now you pukin’ up again! Can’t you hold that stomach down?!” I slunk out of the house with George, who wasn’t feeling on top of the world himself, to try to find something to settle my stomach. Joe stood roaring at us as we left: “Where you think you is, you think you home in Chicago now, an’ those niggers out there’ll kill ya!” But my head and stomach were already killing me, so I took my chances on the street. And it was the funkiest street I’d ever seen. I thought I’d seen funk when I’d gone out to Jazz Gillum’s in Chicago, with the sealed house and roaring fire - but this section of St. Louis we were in made Gillum’s shanty look like a penthouse on the Gold Coast. But we found a drugstore with no trouble and got some aspirin and bicarbonate and Coca-Cola, and they seemd to help a little, but they sure didn’t help a lot.When George and I got back to the house, Joe was on the porch with his relatives and their friends, strumming his guitar. And he was crazy. Every woman who came by he clawed at, and every man who passed by he argued with. If there was a woman in the street he’d shout, “Say, sweet mama-c’mon over sweet mama, sit a while on daddy’s knee!” And she’s look around and see a seventy-year-old, three hundred pound man yelling at her, and she’d get a funny look on her face and keep walking, maybe a little faster than before. Finally I said, “Joe, I thought we came down here to do some scouting and find us some singers. Let’s go out and do it!” But Joe just said, “Now don’t you rush me - these are my people and I wants to spend a while with them!”But his people got vexed out by his rowdy behavior, and an older woman, a church woman, finally came down on him. “You can’t act this way around here,” she said. “Just where do you think you are? You nothing but a crazy animal what ought to be in a cage! Why don’t you up an’ leave an’ let us right folks be?!”We piled in the car and drove aimlessly about the city under that scorching July sun. A thermometer on a downtown bank building read 107 degrees, but I believe the inside of the car was twice that, and the fumes from Joe’s breath we so thick I thought George’s cigarette might blow us up. My head was still pulsing and my stomach was pitching again, and finally I said, “ Joe, let’s stop somewhere - the heat and this car are getting me.” So Joe guided us across the Mississippi River to a nightclub in East St. Louis. It was still daytime, and no one was performing, but the bar was pouring and there were a few guys sitting at the tables playing cards. Joe drank beer and George and I watched these fellows play games with names like “Tonk,” “Coon Cat,” “Pitty Pat.” And balefully, malevolently, they watched us watch them. “Joe,” I said, “I think these guys might like to see us die - maybe we should go someplace else, while we can.” So we got in the car again, and I suggested to Joe that we find a tourist area called Gaslight Square, where I’d heard a fine player named Old Mr. Gibson hung out. But Joe started ranting again. “Don’t you be telling’ me where to go! Just who carryin’ who?” “Well, I said, “it’s my car, and George has been doing the driving -” “I don’t give a care who been driving! This is my city an’ I’m doin’ the carryin’ an’ we gonna be with my people in my part of town!”And he got madder and madder and reached into his pocket and brought out a little penknife with a blade no more than an inch long. I started to laugh - it looked like a toy. But he suddenly reached over and popped it right into the palm of my hand. I leaped out of the car, howling. “Now you did it, you fat old sonofabitch!” You cut me - I’m bleeding! I’m going to the police and have your ass in jail!” But I don’t believe Joe heard me- he’d passed out. He just lay there in a mess, sweating and snoring. “George,” I said, “let’s find the county hospital - I’ve gotta get fixed up.”At the hospital the put some butterfly stitches in my palm and wrapped me up. I left the emergency room and walked across a steaming asphalt parking lot toward the car, and from forty feet away I could smell drunken, sweaty, seventy-year-old blues singer. I got in and Joe seemed to regain his senses, what ones he had left, anyway. I showed him my bandaged hand and he claimed not to remember a thing. He behaved as though nothing happened. “Listen, you boys,” he said, “ now we goin’ to find the best blues singer of them all - the finest I ever knew, yes sir!”He directed George to a place that didn’t even have front steps - they’d all just rotted away. We walked around behind the building to try the rear stairs, and in the back yard was a mountainous collection of refuse - every kind of filth imaginable was back there. There were old molding mattresses, shredded and stained with the springs sticking out, there were pieces of cars that had rusted and reddened from years of exposure, and I don’t thing the garbage from the tenants had ever been collected - I believe they’d been throwing it in the yard ever since the apartment was built, and from the looks of the building, that had been a long time ago.We started up the rickety stairs to the second floor. George struggled with Kaercher’s big tape recorder while I lugged Joe’s ancient amplifier, which, judging from its weight, must have been sheathed in lead. I was soaked with sweat, my head was pounding and my cut hand was throbbing, my stomach felt sour and the stench of eons-old garbage tore at my nostrils, and as we approached that second-floor landing I didn’t care, I really did not care at all, just how great a blues singer was up there waiting for us.A middle-aged barefoot brown woman in a loose-fitting housedress let us into the apartment, which was stifling. We dropped our gear in the kitchen and followed her to the front room, and the first thing I saw in there, seated on a couch, was a twelve or thirteen-year-old girl who weighed at least 400 pounds. She was dressed in flour sacking, and you could tell by the shape of her face that she was an idiot. I don’t mean a person with no sense, I mean a complete retardate. She was mumbling and drooling, and her face was smeared with grease. On a table in front of her was a plate of rib bones, and beside the plate was a jar of mayonnaise that looked like zinc ointment left too long in the sun. What the girl would do was take a bone and dip it in the mayonaise, then run it back and forth through a gap in her teeth to get the meat off.As sick as I felt, and as bad as my hand hurt, this was it. I mean, things had been funky before, but daddy, this was freak city. “Joe, “ I said, “Let’s not stay here. I’m not feeling well at all - I think we’d better go.” “Shut up!” he yelled, “I don’t want to hear nothing’ about it! I’m the talent scout here, I’m the boss, an’ you people are working’ for me! Now get in there an’ set us up our machine.”So George brought the tape recorder in from the kitchen, and as he was threading a new tape through it a bedroom door opened, and in hobbled this legendary blues singer that Joe had been touting. He appeared to have been sleeping, or passed out, and he looked as though he’d been lying in there with all his weight on his face. Joe introduced him only as Jimmy. He was old and toothless and looked only slightly less demented than the girl in the flour-sacking. From under the couch he dragged out a scratched and stained violin with only two strings on it. “Now you really goin’ to hear something’ ,” said Joe, pulling out a fresh pint of Schnapps. I asked for the bottle. I had heard that more drink could sometimes cure a hangover, and besides, I thought if I could get down enough down me I might go numb, and at that point, numbing out seemed like just the way to go. I took a big swig of Schnapps and gagged. Joe snatched the bottle away and commanded George to turn the recorder on.Jimmy picked up his bow and began sawing off strange tonalities in no particular key and mumbling incomprehensible lyrics. My stomach started rolling again and I was sure I was going to be sick. I asked the woman of the house where the toilet was, and she led me to a door at the end of a hallway. I opened the door and found not a toilet, but a closet. There was nothing in the closet but a few sheets of newspaper and a hole - hole, about two feet in diameter, in the floor. I turned and looked at the woman. “Our daughter have a little trouble with her weight,” she said. “she too big, don’t you know. The regular seat in the bathroom, it ain’t right for her, so we done fix up this here place.” I tried to stammer out a question, but the woman just waved at the hole. “Don’t worry none,” she said, “no one livin’ down ‘neath us now. Ain’t been no one for months.” she walked away and I got down on my knees and got sick with no trouble at all. But I faced away from the hole. There was just no way I could look down that thing.When my business in the closet was finished I went back to the living room and took George aside. “George,” I said, “this is about enough. We’ve got to go back to Chicago, now.” He agreed right away, so I asked Joe to pack up. His eyes popped. “What you mean we goin’? You know I’m doin’ the carryin’ here!” Joe, I don’t care who’s doing the carrying - George and I are going back.” “You don’t like my people!” “I like your people just fine, Joe, but it’s just not my scene, I’m sorry -” “Yeah, you is sorry, all right! Well, you go on back to Chicago! Go on an’ go wherever you wants - I’m stayin’ here!”I looked at George. He was fidgeting with the car keys. Joe pulled on his Schnapps and glowered at us over the top of the bottle. “Joe, look,” I asked, “do you want us to drop you somewhere before we leave?” He thought for a moment. “Yeah,” he finally said, “you carry me over to East St. Louis, where my cousin live.”So George and I crossed over an old iron bridge into Illinois and Joe directed us to the outskirts of town, where we drove down a narrow dirt road full of potholes. We stopped in front of a ramshackle frame house set well back off the road and Joe, carrying an old battered suitcase, got out. George pulled Joe’s amp from the back seat while I handed him his guitar, and the three of us stood there in the road, Joe looking sullen. “Well, see you back in Chicago,” I said apologetically. “Take care, Joe,” said George. Joe just grunted something and George and I got back in the car and drove away.<br />A hundred yards or so down the road I turned around and looked back. Joe was still there in the road, fumbling with his suitcase and equipment. He was an image from the lyrics of a blues song, or from the cover of a record jacket - Joe with his suitcase and guitar, looking down a hot dusty road, alone. “George,” I said, “we can’t just go off like this - it’s like we’re abandoning him or something. We gotta turn around.” and we did. Because, for better or for worse, here was a man of stature. There was a great pride in this man, a great strength in this man. And there was poetry. He was a poet of the highways, and in the words of his songs he could sing to you his life. And to hear him talk about Robert Johnson or Son House or Charlie Patton, to hear life distilled from fifty years of thumbing rides and riding rails and playing joints - to hear of levees and work gangs and tent shows; of madames and whores, pimps and rounders, gamblers, bootleggers, and roustabouts; of circuit-preachers and medicine-show men - well, it was something. Because to know this man was to know the story of black America, and maybe to know the story of black America is to know America itself.He didn’t look at us as we pulled up beside him in the road. “come on, Joe,” I said, “come on back to Chicago with us.” “No,” he replied, ‘I want to stay some while longer. You boys go on back to your peoples - you don’t belong here.” And he was right. I had thought I could be part of his culture and live out on the street with him, but I couldn’t. I was a stranger in a strange land, and it was nobody’s fault but my own. So George and I wheeled around and drove away again, and this time when I looked back, Joe was gone.Back in Chicago I avoided the record store for as long as I could. But staying away finally got to be worse than any sort of confrontation, so one day I took the subway downtown and headed for the shop. Joe was in the basement, sitting there in old serge trousers and a lime-green shirt with spangles all down the front. The spangles looked like the little things you see on sugar cookies as Christmastime. He had a bottle of beer in one hand and on the floor beside him sat a six-pack. I stopped a few feet away from him. “Joe,” I said, my voice tentative, “it’s good to see you. How’ve you been?” “Michael, I been all right,” he said. He reached into the six-pack for a beer and offered it to me. “Have yourself a taste and sit awhile.” I took the beer and pulled an old metal chair over and sat down, facing him. He picked up his guitar and played riffs from a couple of songs, then he held it out to me. I shook my head. “I don’t want to play, Joe, I’d rather watch you.” He lifted an eyebrow at me, then went back to playing. And he played hard. He bent over the guitar and really worked it, pulling off notes all up and down the neck, making those nine strings ring. When he finished he was sweating. He set the guitar on the floor, up against his leg, and took out another beer. He uncapped it, then pulled a large blue bandana from a hip pocket and began to mop his face. “Ooh,” he said from behind his kerchief, “ooh-eee.”I reached for the guitar. I had it on my lap and worked it around in my hands, feeling the smoothness of the wood, the metal sharpness of the strings. Joe gave his brow a final swipe and stuffed the cloth into a breast pocket. A funny look was on his face. It was a shy look, but at the same time it was a sly look, too. “Well, Michael,” he said, “we really had ourselves a time in St. Louis, didn’t we?” I bent a note or two, high up on the neck. “We sure did, Joe. Not a doubt about it.” I ran a couple of arpeggios and handed the guitar back to him. But he didn’t take it. “that sound good, Michael,” he said, and gave his head an affirmative little nod. “You play on some.”And I did. There was no way I couldn’t. Joe’s world wasn’t my world, but his music was. It was my life; it would be my life. So playing on was all I could do, and I did it the best I was able. And the music I played, I knew where it came from; and there was not any way I’d forget. 

Me and Big Joe Williams, Written by Mike Bloomfield, Illustrated by R. Crumb 1980

I met Joe Lee Williams in the early Sixties in a Chicago nightclub called the Blind Pig. He was a short and stout heavy-chested man, and he was old even then. He wore cowboy boots and cowboy hat and pleated pants pulled way up high, almost to his armpits. Just visible above the pants was a clean white shirt, and a tiny blue bow tie dotted his bullish neck. He played a nine-string Silvertone guitar, and to keep others from copying his style he’d put it up in a very strange tuning. I was familiar with all stringed instruments, and I think eventually I worked that guitar every way possible, but I never learned to play it real well, and to this day don’t know the tuning he used.

Big Joe, as he was often called, had been a well-known artist in the Thirties and Forties, and wrote one of the real standards in the blues field, Baby Please Don’t Go, a song later cut by, among others, Mose Allison and Muddy Waters. At the time I met Joe Lee I was trying to meet as many blues artists as were alive in America, because music was the field I most wanted to pursue, and blues was the music I most wanted to learn. So between sets that night I talked with Joe, or at least I tried to. He lacked teeth and had a thick pineywoods accent, and at first I found him nearly indecipherable. I had to ask him to repeat himself over and over, but he didn’t seem to mind, and after a while I caught on somewhat to his speech. He told me Crawford, Mississippi, was his birthplace, and that since the early Thirties he’d done nothing but hobo around the country with his guitar. Now, most bluesmen I’d met had two jobs - they’d play and sing nighttimes, but during the day they kept up a straight gig of one kind or another. But Joe never did that - he played and traveled, and that was it.

Joe and I got along well that night, and as he packed his guitar away after his last set he invited me to visit him sometime. He was living in the basement of a record store on Chicago’s Near North Side. And I dropped in to see him often. The store specialized in blues and was run by a very odd guy named Kaercher. Along with the store he owned a record company, and though I was never sure he knew a good record from a bad one, he was straight with the musicians he recorded and had a real reverence for their art and skill. But Joe and he would have many fights, sometimes dues to Kaercher’s obtuse nature. And at other times to Joe’s drinking. Joe would get a few beers or a little hard liquor in him (peppermint Schnapps and Gordon’s gin were his choices) and suddenly you wouldn’t be dealing with a normal man - he couldn’t talk coherently and nothing would make sense to him. Behind larger amounts of alcohol he could get physically violent. But as nasty as he could be when he was drunk, that’s how compassionate and big-hearted he could be when he was sober, and often his ways were a real Southern gentleman’s. His Manner could be touching - very sweet, gallant, courtly.

As I got to know Joe better we became more and more friendly, and soon he began to carry me to see old friends of his. I’d say, “Listen, Joe, d’you know where Tampa Red’s living?” And Joe’d say “ Sure I know where Tampa’s at - I’ll take you by right now.” And we’d go. Tampa Red was a singer whose career had begun in the Twenties and who’d become popular in the Thirties and Forties. I knew his records well. He’d had a big hit called Tight Like That, and he recorded with a man who is now the king of gospel publishing, Thomas G. Dorsey. But Tampa, by the time I met him, was just a frail, wizened little man whose hands shook uncontrollably. He had an expensive old Gibson in a case beneath his bed, but all he could do was show it to us - his hands wouldn’t let him play.

Another singer Joe took me to see was Kokomo Arnold, who had also recorded in the Thirties and Forties. His big hit was Kokomo Blues, a song about the bright city, that seven-light city, that sweet old Kokomo. He told me I was the first one to ask about his music since the early Fifties when some people from a jazz magazine in Belgium had come to see him. But the next time I saw him was in a hospital, where I’d gone to visit him with Charlie Musselwhite. Kokomo’d had to have much of his insides cut out, and he was just a shadow of the man I’d seen with Joe.


Joe also carried me to see Tommy McClennan, who recorded for RCA Victor in the Forties. We visited him in Cook Count Hospital, where he was dying of TB. He was just a skeleton, but his eyes were hot like coals burning at you. And his music was like that, too - it had a savage, searing sound. He was a fierce man.

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And there was Jazz Gillum, who was just about the craziest man I’d ever met. Joe took me to see him on a very uncomfortable summer day, with both the temperature and humidity up in the nineties - the kind of day when doing nothing makes you sweat; when dirt forms up under your fingernails for no reason at all. We drove out to the West Side and stopped in front of a tiny frame house, just a shanty, really. When we walked into the place I thought I’d hit Hell City - as hot as it was outside, it was insufferably worse within. All the windows were shut down tight. Clad in a huge brown overcoat and sweating profusely, Gillum stood beside a woodstove, stoking a raging fire. He was extremely paranoid. He’d written the very successful Key To The Highway and had never gotten the publishing money for it, and was afraid I’d come to steal his other tunes. We didn’t stay long enough to change his mind.

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Eventually I sat in so many bars and met so many singers that the south and west sides of Chicago ceased to be new territory for me. Joe, from his travels, knew blues singers from all over the country, and when he suggested that we make some field trips I was quick to agree. The first jaunt we took was to Milwaukee so I could sit in with Sonny Boy Williamson. Now, this Sonny Boy thing can be confusing. The original Sonny Boy’s name was John Lee Williamson. He was a big star for Bluebird Records and recorded many songs the Joe liked to sing, such as Decoration Day Blues, I Can Hear My Black Name Ringing, and Katie Mae. The second Sonny Boy Williamson’s name was Rice Miller. He was much older man than the original Sonny Boy, and had been recording even longer, but he didn’t become famous until after the original Sonny Boy dies - stabbed by a woman in his Chicago doorway.

It was this second Sonny Boy, Rice Miller, that we went to Milwaukee to see. We found him at a funky lounge in the black section of town. He was an old man - God only knows just how old he was. He had a baleful stare and a sour mouth, and he’d check you out with cold, squinty eyes that said you were just so much dust from the road. He sat at a table among the customers with his harmonicas and mike and old hotel towel, and to start off a song he’d spit blood into the towel and then blow a little harp. He wouldn’t tell the band what song or key or anything, and they’d just stagger in behind him. He didn’t care if they were there or not - he’d just tap his feet and play along by himself. I wasn’t real crazy about approaching him to play, but I did, and he asked me if I knew Help Me, which was a hit at the time. I said “Yeah, I believe it’s like Green Onions,” and he said, “That’s right, go ahead and play.” So I sat in with him, and the people seemed to like us.

Big Joe was getting drunk at a table with some older, heavy-set black women. After Sonny Boy’s last set he came up to me and said, “Michael, there’s some real fine leg sittin’ here.” Now, besides being of advanced years, these women had a combined weight of several tons, and didn’t fit my idea of good leg at all. But as an inducement to stick around and maybe go home with one or two of these women, Joe said, “These ladies have their womanhoods way up high on their bellies.” Considering their weight, I could see how that might be true, but I told him, “Joe, I don’t believe this is something I want to get into - I think we’d best head back to Chicago.” Joe got pretty irascible at this, but finally agreed to go, and we made it on home all right.

“Drive me down to Gary,” Joe said one day, “and I’ll carry you to see Lightnin’ Hopkins - him an’ me is old, old friends.” So Joe and I and Charlie Musselwhite and Roy Ruby, who later for a time played bass with Steve Miller, climbed into Roy’s car and headed east to Indiana. Actually, we had to go out beyond Gary, into the countryside, where eventually we came to a barbeque pit, or roadhouse. This kind of place was also known as a barrelhouse or chock house, and seems to have pretty much disappeared from the North, and maybe from the South too. The roadhouse was run by an older black couple and consisted of a barbeque pit in front and a large bare room in back. This back room was heated only by body heat - when there were enough people in the room, the place got warm. And that night it was hot.
Joe had gotten himself a center seat and was buying drinks and ordering people around when the opening act, J.B. Lenoir and his Big Band, came on. J.B. was a short man in a zebra-striped coat that hung down low behind him. He had straight hair, but it wasn’t up in a high process, it was slicked down flat against his head. He looked like a seal. The band backing him featured three horn players of such advanced stages of age and inebriation that they had to lean against one another to avoid collapse. J.B. played guitar and sang through a microphone on a rack around his neck. He has a high, almost feminine voice, and was a fine singer. He danced through the crowd as he played and sang, and Joe sat nodding his approval - he liked J.B. quite a bit.

Then old Lightning came on, and he was as sly and slick and devilish as a man could be. He had a real high conk on his head and wore black, wraparound shades. He had only a drummer behind him, and when the blue lights hit that conk - man, that was all she wrote.

When the set ended Joe went over to Lightning to say hello, but before he could get a word out Lightning said, “What are you doing down here? I’m the star of this show, you know.” “I know you the star, “ Joe replied, “and we don’t mean no trouble. I carried these white boys here down to see you, and I just wanted to pay some respects.” So Lightning mellowed and bought Joe a drink, but that was a mistake, because Joe didn’t need it. Sure enough, Joe got raspy and quarreled with Lightning, and we were turned out of the place. When we got to the car, Charlie hustled into the back seat and pretended to fall asleep. I rode shotgun and feigned sleep, too. Roy was driving and Joe was between us, trying to direct Roy where to carry him. Joe was hard enough to understand sober, but drunk, you had no chance at all - it was just syllabic noise.

What Joe had a penchant for doing when he was drunk was to look up distant relatives of his, sisters-in-law or whatever, and see if their husbands were working a nightshift so he could screw their women. So he had us driving through all the ghetto areas of Gary, Hammond, and East Chicago, ranting and roaring at Roy, who was unable to understand a word of what Joe was saying - it might as well have been Tagalog. And Roy would look over and say, “ Michael! I know you’re not asleep - you’ve gotta tell me how to get home!” And when I wouldn’t respond he’d turn to Charlie and say, “ Charlie, god dammit, wake up! You gotta show us how to get out of here!” But Charlie’d just lie low, too. Joe’s eyes were tiny, squinchy red slits, and we weren’t about to go up against that grousing, cursing, indecipherable angryness. If Joe wasn’t ready to return to Chicago, that was it - we weren’t going. Not that night, anyway. Finally, as dawn broke over the smokestacks and rail yards and cracking-towers of northern Indiana, Joe grumblingly directed Roy home.

In early July Joe took it into his head to visit some of his people down in St. Louis. The owner of the record store, Kaercher, thought it was a fine idea. “Yeah, Joe,” he said, “you go down there and be a talent scout. Take a tape recorder along and say you represent my company. Record some people, see what kind of deal we can make, and bring back some tapes.” Well, I’d begun to have doubts and trepidations about taking these field trips with Joe, because once outside Chicago my friends and I were pretty much at his mercy, and you could get into some strange situations with the guy. But St. Louis was new territory for me, and I knew there were supposed to be some famous old bluesmen living down there, so I said OK. I called up another pal of mine, George Mitchell, and asked him to join us. George was a college student, originally from Atlanta, and had worked at the record store. He wore those Kingston Trio-type button-down shirts and had a real neat Ivy League haircut. He really dug blues, and while in his teens had gotten to know many artists in the South. He got along well with older black people, and especially well with Joe, so I thought he’d be an ideal guy to have along.


The drive to St. Louis was real nice. Wonderful, in fact. Joe talked to George and me about things from thirty years ago as though they’d happened that morning. He reminisced about Robert Johnson and Willie McTell and Blind Boy Fuller; he told how Sunnyland Slim had helped Muddy Waters get a record contract; he explained how Big Bill had gotten rich. Being with Joe was being with a history of the blues-you could see him as a legend. He couldn’t read or write a word of English, but he had America memorized. From forty years of hiking roads and riding rails he was wise to every highway and byway and roadbed in the country, and wise to every city and county and township that they led to. Joe was part of a rare and vanished breed- he was a wanderer and a hobo and a blues singer, and he was an awesome man.

It was nightfall when we got to St. Louis, and it was hot - lord, was it hot. The first place we stopped was the home of Joe’s sister, or sister-in-law, or step-sister, or something. When we walked in, there were little kids sleeping on every available surface, so we all went into the kitchen and sat down. “Now you know I play the guitar,” Joe said to his relatives, “and this boy Michael do too, so we’ll play some while we visit.” He brought out his guitar, and with it a bottle of Schnapps. I took George aside and said, “Man, we better not let this guy start drinking. It’s a long weekend, and if he stars in now, his brain’s will fly right out the window - we’ll have a lunatic on our hands the whole time!” But Joe was set on drinking, and when he said, “Michael, why don’t you have a little taste?” I went ahead and put some down. I figured if Joe was going to get drunk and crazy, I was going to get drunk and crazy right along with him. So I drank as much gin and Schnapps and beer and wine as I could get in me that night, and I sat with Joe and played the blues. And man, I got sick. For the first time in my life I got king-hill, shit-faced, tore-up drunk. I puked in the hall, I puked on the sofa and puked on the wall. I was just rolling in puke - I was sick, sick, sick.

I woke up on a bed the next morning to find Joe standing over me. He had stayed up all night drinking and he was more than just drunk - he was on a bender. His nostrils were flared and his eyes were red and runny. A barbeque-fork was in his hand and on it was pig nose, and hot grease from the nose was dripping on my chest. He opened his mouth and his Schnapps breath hit me in a wave. “Snoots, snoots!” he shouted, “I promised you barbeque, an’ fine snoots is what we got!” My head was throbbing and my stomach was still queasy, and when I looked up and saw this horribly fat and greasy pig nose and inch from my face, I lurched out of the bed and threw up again. Joe began to curse me, “Man, you done puked all the damn night and into the morinin’ an’ now you pukin’ up again! Can’t you hold that stomach down?!” I slunk out of the house with George, who wasn’t feeling on top of the world himself, to try to find something to settle my stomach. Joe stood roaring at us as we left: “Where you think you is, you think you home in Chicago now, an’ those niggers out there’ll kill ya!” But my head and stomach were already killing me, so I took my chances on the street. And it was the funkiest street I’d ever seen. I thought I’d seen funk when I’d gone out to Jazz Gillum’s in Chicago, with the sealed house and roaring fire - but this section of St. Louis we were in made Gillum’s shanty look like a penthouse on the Gold Coast. But we found a drugstore with no trouble and got some aspirin and bicarbonate and Coca-Cola, and they seemd to help a little, but they sure didn’t help a lot.

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When George and I got back to the house, Joe was on the porch with his relatives and their friends, strumming his guitar. And he was crazy. Every woman who came by he clawed at, and every man who passed by he argued with. If there was a woman in the street he’d shout, “Say, sweet mama-c’mon over sweet mama, sit a while on daddy’s knee!” And she’s look around and see a seventy-year-old, three hundred pound man yelling at her, and she’d get a funny look on her face and keep walking, maybe a little faster than before. Finally I said, “Joe, I thought we came down here to do some scouting and find us some singers. Let’s go out and do it!” But Joe just said, “Now don’t you rush me - these are my people and I wants to spend a while with them!”

But his people got vexed out by his rowdy behavior, and an older woman, a church woman, finally came down on him. “You can’t act this way around here,” she said. “Just where do you think you are? You nothing but a crazy animal what ought to be in a cage! Why don’t you up an’ leave an’ let us right folks be?!”

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We piled in the car and drove aimlessly about the city under that scorching July sun. A thermometer on a downtown bank building read 107 degrees, but I believe the inside of the car was twice that, and the fumes from Joe’s breath we so thick I thought George’s cigarette might blow us up. My head was still pulsing and my stomach was pitching again, and finally I said, “ Joe, let’s stop somewhere - the heat and this car are getting me.” So Joe guided us across the Mississippi River to a nightclub in East St. Louis. It was still daytime, and no one was performing, but the bar was pouring and there were a few guys sitting at the tables playing cards. Joe drank beer and George and I watched these fellows play games with names like “Tonk,” “Coon Cat,” “Pitty Pat.” And balefully, malevolently, they watched us watch them. “Joe,” I said, “I think these guys might like to see us die - maybe we should go someplace else, while we can.” So we got in the car again, and I suggested to Joe that we find a tourist area called Gaslight Square, where I’d heard a fine player named Old Mr. Gibson hung out. But Joe started ranting again. “Don’t you be telling’ me where to go! Just who carryin’ who?” “Well, I said, “it’s my car, and George has been doing the driving -” “I don’t give a care who been driving! This is my city an’ I’m doin’ the carryin’ an’ we gonna be with my people in my part of town!”



And he got madder and madder and reached into his pocket and brought out a little penknife with a blade no more than an inch long. I started to laugh - it looked like a toy. But he suddenly reached over and popped it right into the palm of my hand. I leaped out of the car, howling. “Now you did it, you fat old sonofabitch!” You cut me - I’m bleeding! I’m going to the police and have your ass in jail!” But I don’t believe Joe heard me- he’d passed out. He just lay there in a mess, sweating and snoring. “George,” I said, “let’s find the county hospital - I’ve gotta get fixed up.”

At the hospital the put some butterfly stitches in my palm and wrapped me up. I left the emergency room and walked across a steaming asphalt parking lot toward the car, and from forty feet away I could smell drunken, sweaty, seventy-year-old blues singer. I got in and Joe seemed to regain his senses, what ones he had left, anyway. I showed him my bandaged hand and he claimed not to remember a thing. He behaved as though nothing happened. “Listen, you boys,” he said, “ now we goin’ to find the best blues singer of them all - the finest I ever knew, yes sir!”

He directed George to a place that didn’t even have front steps - they’d all just rotted away. We walked around behind the building to try the rear stairs, and in the back yard was a mountainous collection of refuse - every kind of filth imaginable was back there. There were old molding mattresses, shredded and stained with the springs sticking out, there were pieces of cars that had rusted and reddened from years of exposure, and I don’t thing the garbage from the tenants had ever been collected - I believe they’d been throwing it in the yard ever since the apartment was built, and from the looks of the building, that had been a long time ago.

We started up the rickety stairs to the second floor. George struggled with Kaercher’s big tape recorder while I lugged Joe’s ancient amplifier, which, judging from its weight, must have been sheathed in lead. I was soaked with sweat, my head was pounding and my cut hand was throbbing, my stomach felt sour and the stench of eons-old garbage tore at my nostrils, and as we approached that second-floor landing I didn’t care, I really did not care at all, just how great a blues singer was up there waiting for us.

A middle-aged barefoot brown woman in a loose-fitting housedress let us into the apartment, which was stifling. We dropped our gear in the kitchen and followed her to the front room, and the first thing I saw in there, seated on a couch, was a twelve or thirteen-year-old girl who weighed at least 400 pounds. She was dressed in flour sacking, and you could tell by the shape of her face that she was an idiot. I don’t mean a person with no sense, I mean a complete retardate. She was mumbling and drooling, and her face was smeared with grease. On a table in front of her was a plate of rib bones, and beside the plate was a jar of mayonnaise that looked like zinc ointment left too long in the sun. What the girl would do was take a bone and dip it in the mayonaise, then run it back and forth through a gap in her teeth to get the meat off.


As sick as I felt, and as bad as my hand hurt, this was it. I mean, things had been funky before, but daddy, this was freak city. “Joe, “ I said, “Let’s not stay here. I’m not feeling well at all - I think we’d better go.” “Shut up!” he yelled, “I don’t want to hear nothing’ about it! I’m the talent scout here, I’m the boss, an’ you people are working’ for me! Now get in there an’ set us up our machine.”

So George brought the tape recorder in from the kitchen, and as he was threading a new tape through it a bedroom door opened, and in hobbled this legendary blues singer that Joe had been touting. He appeared to have been sleeping, or passed out, and he looked as though he’d been lying in there with all his weight on his face. Joe introduced him only as Jimmy. He was old and toothless and looked only slightly less demented than the girl in the flour-sacking. From under the couch he dragged out a scratched and stained violin with only two strings on it. “Now you really goin’ to hear something’ ,” said Joe, pulling out a fresh pint of Schnapps. I asked for the bottle. I had heard that more drink could sometimes cure a hangover, and besides, I thought if I could get down enough down me I might go numb, and at that point, numbing out seemed like just the way to go. I took a big swig of Schnapps and gagged. Joe snatched the bottle away and commanded George to turn the recorder on.

Jimmy picked up his bow and began sawing off strange tonalities in no particular key and mumbling incomprehensible lyrics. My stomach started rolling again and I was sure I was going to be sick. I asked the woman of the house where the toilet was, and she led me to a door at the end of a hallway. I opened the door and found not a toilet, but a closet. There was nothing in the closet but a few sheets of newspaper and a hole - hole, about two feet in diameter, in the floor. I turned and looked at the woman. “Our daughter have a little trouble with her weight,” she said. “she too big, don’t you know. The regular seat in the bathroom, it ain’t right for her, so we done fix up this here place.” I tried to stammer out a question, but the woman just waved at the hole. “Don’t worry none,” she said, “no one livin’ down ‘neath us now. Ain’t been no one for months.” she walked away and I got down on my knees and got sick with no trouble at all. But I faced away from the hole. There was just no way I could look down that thing.

When my business in the closet was finished I went back to the living room and took George aside. “George,” I said, “this is about enough. We’ve got to go back to Chicago, now.” He agreed right away, so I asked Joe to pack up. His eyes popped. “What you mean we goin’? You know I’m doin’ the carryin’ here!” Joe, I don’t care who’s doing the carrying - George and I are going back.” “You don’t like my people!” “I like your people just fine, Joe, but it’s just not my scene, I’m sorry -” “Yeah, you is sorry, all right! Well, you go on back to Chicago! Go on an’ go wherever you wants - I’m stayin’ here!”

I looked at George. He was fidgeting with the car keys. Joe pulled on his Schnapps and glowered at us over the top of the bottle. “Joe, look,” I asked, “do you want us to drop you somewhere before we leave?” He thought for a moment. “Yeah,” he finally said, “you carry me over to East St. Louis, where my cousin live.”

So George and I crossed over an old iron bridge into Illinois and Joe directed us to the outskirts of town, where we drove down a narrow dirt road full of potholes. We stopped in front of a ramshackle frame house set well back off the road and Joe, carrying an old battered suitcase, got out. George pulled Joe’s amp from the back seat while I handed him his guitar, and the three of us stood there in the road, Joe looking sullen. “Well, see you back in Chicago,” I said apologetically. “Take care, Joe,” said George. Joe just grunted something and George and I got back in the car and drove away.



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A hundred yards or so down the road I turned around and looked back. Joe was still there in the road, fumbling with his suitcase and equipment. He was an image from the lyrics of a blues song, or from the cover of a record jacket - Joe with his suitcase and guitar, looking down a hot dusty road, alone. “George,” I said, “we can’t just go off like this - it’s like we’re abandoning him or something. We gotta turn around.” and we did. Because, for better or for worse, here was a man of stature. There was a great pride in this man, a great strength in this man. And there was poetry. He was a poet of the highways, and in the words of his songs he could sing to you his life. And to hear him talk about Robert Johnson or Son House or Charlie Patton, to hear life distilled from fifty years of thumbing rides and riding rails and playing joints - to hear of levees and work gangs and tent shows; of madames and whores, pimps and rounders, gamblers, bootleggers, and roustabouts; of circuit-preachers and medicine-show men - well, it was something. Because to know this man was to know the story of black America, and maybe to know the story of black America is to know America itself.

He didn’t look at us as we pulled up beside him in the road. “come on, Joe,” I said, “come on back to Chicago with us.” “No,” he replied, ‘I want to stay some while longer. You boys go on back to your peoples - you don’t belong here.” And he was right. I had thought I could be part of his culture and live out on the street with him, but I couldn’t. I was a stranger in a strange land, and it was nobody’s fault but my own. So George and I wheeled around and drove away again, and this time when I looked back, Joe was gone.

Back in Chicago I avoided the record store for as long as I could. But staying away finally got to be worse than any sort of confrontation, so one day I took the subway downtown and headed for the shop. Joe was in the basement, sitting there in old serge trousers and a lime-green shirt with spangles all down the front. The spangles looked like the little things you see on sugar cookies as Christmastime. He had a bottle of beer in one hand and on the floor beside him sat a six-pack. I stopped a few feet away from him. “Joe,” I said, my voice tentative, “it’s good to see you. How’ve you been?” “Michael, I been all right,” he said. He reached into the six-pack for a beer and offered it to me. “Have yourself a taste and sit awhile.” I took the beer and pulled an old metal chair over and sat down, facing him. He picked up his guitar and played riffs from a couple of songs, then he held it out to me. I shook my head. “I don’t want to play, Joe, I’d rather watch you.” He lifted an eyebrow at me, then went back to playing. And he played hard. He bent over the guitar and really worked it, pulling off notes all up and down the neck, making those nine strings ring. When he finished he was sweating. He set the guitar on the floor, up against his leg, and took out another beer. He uncapped it, then pulled a large blue bandana from a hip pocket and began to mop his face. “Ooh,” he said from behind his kerchief, “ooh-eee.”

I reached for the guitar. I had it on my lap and worked it around in my hands, feeling the smoothness of the wood, the metal sharpness of the strings. Joe gave his brow a final swipe and stuffed the cloth into a breast pocket. A funny look was on his face. It was a shy look, but at the same time it was a sly look, too. “Well, Michael,” he said, “we really had ourselves a time in St. Louis, didn’t we?” I bent a note or two, high up on the neck. “We sure did, Joe. Not a doubt about it.” I ran a couple of arpeggios and handed the guitar back to him. But he didn’t take it. “that sound good, Michael,” he said, and gave his head an affirmative little nod. “You play on some.”

And I did. There was no way I couldn’t. Joe’s world wasn’t my world, but his music was. It was my life; it would be my life. So playing on was all I could do, and I did it the best I was able. And the music I played, I knew where it came from; and there was not any way I’d forget.



Big Joe Williams Playlist

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Comment by Lou Novacheck on July 26, 2012 at 7:22pm

I listen to all types of music. If you like electro-pop, 70s-80s, wmse.org is featuring all electro-pop right now, but only another 38min.

Comment by madeline burke on July 26, 2012 at 7:10pm

That is so cool!!!! and welcome to the random goodness that is the Cirkus. Please feel free to add a blog post to the Main Page. If you need help with anything here, please let me know. There is much free music here...running your cursor over the text will highlight any "hot" links in the post.Enjoy! Madeline Burke

Comment by Lou Novacheck on July 26, 2012 at 7:05pm

New to the site, was reading your post of the Mike Bloomfield book. I noted the reference to a guy named "Kaercher" in the book, who supposedly ran a record shop and a recording studio. "Naah! Can't be" I said to meself. So I dropped a line to my friend, Bob Koester, who lives in Chicago and owns a record shop and a recording studio. It's him. Bob Koester is the "Kaercher" in the book. The shop is the Jazz Record Mart, and his recording label is Delmark. The city of Chicago erected a sign outside his shop a few years back when he completed his 50th year in business!

Comment by Lou Novacheck on July 26, 2012 at 7:00pm

Comment by Donald N jennings on February 18, 2012 at 1:33pm

Man, that was some trip. I remember my guru, Backwards Sam Firk, and the story of him and Tom Hoskins (AKA Fang) finding Mississippi John Hurt and bringing him back to Firk's place in Maryland. Firk, (Mike Stewart), Fang, and John Hurt, all RIP now.

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Happy Birthday Wes Race!

Thanks to Harry Hoggard for the above…See More
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