By: Caine O Rear
Muddy Waters, the great Mississippi bluesman, once remarked that it took a few hip white kids from Britain to alert America to the music in its own backyard.
Today, that same music – the blues – seems to be on the verge of extinction in the land of its birth.
"It's been put on the backburner, " said bluesman Willie King from his home in Old Memphis, Ala. "It shouldn't have been. Because most everybody, whether they know it, need it more than they ever needed it before."
Blues music, King said, slowly began to disappear as other musical genres became more popular in the United States, largely for commercial reasons. King said that's a tragedy, since it was the blues that birthed those very same forms. "If you really study the blues, it's the foundation or the root of most music we hear today," he said. "Rock 'n' roll, country and western, hip-hop and soul. It's like one big tree. It's got fruit on it, bark on it, leaves on it. But it all comes from the root. That's where it is."
King, along with his band the Liberators, arrive in Richmond next week for the extraordinarily rich and versatile National Folk Festival. For King, national recognition of his art has been a long time coming. A lifelong musician, King's music didn't reach a wide audience until 2000, with the release of the album Freedom Creek. Since then he has released a string of critically-acclaimed albums, and been the recipient of numerous awards.
Born in 1943, in Prairie Point, Miss., King grew up on a sharecropping farm in Old Memphis, which lies in the fertile Black Belt region of the state, just a few miles from the Mississippi line. Like Muddy Waters and other great bluesman of yesteryear, King got his start playing the diddley bow, a single piece of wire that is plucked and whose pitch is determined by with a slide. King's version was a strand of bailing wire attached to a tree.
But it wasn't long before King made the transition to six strings.
"After I left the diddley bow I played the acoustic," said King, adding that it was the only practical option. "We didn't have no electricity. Very few people mostly had kerosene lamps."
Years later he picked up his first electric, which he ordered from a Sears and Roebuck catalogue.
King, who still plays electric and whose sound is often likened to John Lee Hooker and R.L. Burnside, favors a Fender Stratocaster today. "I've been playing it for awhile. It done come attached to me," he said.
It was also around the time he acquired his first electric that King headed north to Chicago, then the de facto capital of electric blues. There, he was exposed to some of the century's greatest blues musicians, including his favorite artist of all time, Mississippi's inimitable Howlin' Wolf.
"His voice just stood out different than any other singer that I've ever heard," King said. "It made me want to do something constructive, help inspire me to try to continue to play the blues."
A country boy at heart, King liked Chicago but said his mind was always telling him to go back home. So it was just a short time before he ended up back in Old Memphis, where he still lives today.
And it's Old Memphis today that inspires his music.
"I feel the blues came from the backwoods, the backcountries. So I feel myself, that while I'm here, is to try to get close to the roots of what the blues really started out from. And try to preserve it and bring it back home."
Years ago King started the Freedom Creek Festival near Old Memphis, which still draws blues fans, political activists and barbeque lovers of all stripes to this remote, poor region of the South. Holding the festival on a creek bank has much significance, King said. "People used to wash their clothes and water livestock in creek banks. Made moonshine whiskey on creek banks. It really served on the plantation and the rural areas. I don't want to forget the old creek banks. Want to bring it back to the roots."
Blues fans may have seen King and his festival featured on Martin Scorsese's PBS documentary, "Feel Like Going Home," which explored the connection between the music of West Africa and Mississippi.
Outside his music, King is active in social and political issues. In the early '80s, he and his cohorts launched the Rural Project Association, a non-profit group whose mission is to help local residents develop self-help projects to help combat poverty, and cultural roots so that they might develop talents to be used socially and economically.
For King, the music itself also has the power to heal. He sees the blues as a gift from God that was sent down to African Americans as a form of healing, but intended to be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of skin color or economic class. He believes that the early bluesman, whom he calls "the old blues brothers," were swindled for commercial reasons.
"It's [the blues] been forgotten because a lot of people have tried to profit off of it, make plenty of money from it. But they neglected the old blues brothers, didn't treat them right. Give 'em a pint of whiskey. A few dollars here and there. [It was] to get the African American people away from the blues."
King's songs also speak to national issues. "Terrorized," which addresses the terror that has been inflicted on African-Americans, was written in light of America's War on Terror. "We spend a lot of taxpayer's money now over in other countries, fighting terror…but we [African Americans] are still being terrorized. And if you terrorize me, someone's going to terrorize you. It's just that simple. You don't have to have a Ph.D. degree to know that."
Another song, "Handwriting in the Sky," compares the path of the storm Katrina to the path taken by the African slave ships of old. Rich with apocalyptic imagery, the song is one of King's finest.
Today, Old Memphis hardly exists anymore, King said. What once was a community with a store and a park for baseball games has now been whittled down to virtually nothing. Part of the RPA's mission is to teach young people the roots of their culture and previous means of subsistence, things like quilting, vegetable farming and making jelly, the loss of which King partly attributes to the advent of welfare. "We're trying to keep those traditional ways of life, or surviving skills. They don't know anything about it."