Ask Rufus: They sang the blues

Ask Rufus: They sang the blues
August 25, 2011
Rufus Ward
The Dispatch

Rufus Ward (contact)
April 30, 2011 9:45:00 PM

I have heard blues music all my life but paid little attention to it until I was at Ole Miss. Along with several other members of the Deke fraternity I went to Memphis one weekend to hear a blues concert in Overton Park at the "Shell." It was blues men such as Mississippi Fred McDowell and Furry Lewis. After that we often went to Huey's in Memphis and heard Furry play there.

We contacted Furry to see if he would play for a fraternity party. He said he would and would charge $50, beer to drink and a barbecue rib plate. I drove to Memphis to pick him up. It's one of the occasions I really regret not having a tape recorder.

Driving back to Oxford I was playing a Joan Baez folk music 8 track (I guess that dates me). She was singing "John Henry" and Furry said "cut that off." I asked him why and he responded that was not the way he taught her to sing that song. He then complained that flying back from Europe the airline had lost his guitar. I asked him what he had been doing in Europe and he replied he had been opening for the Rolling Stones.

On another occasion Furry told me that he had invented bottle neck blues. He said that he began using a glass slide and that he had originally used a Gilbey's Gin bottle neck. He added nothing else had ever sounded as good.

At first I thought he was feeding me a line, but soon found out that Furry had opened for the Rolling Stones on at least two European tours, had appeared in several movies, and Joni Mitchell had written a song about him, "Furry Sings the Blues." He had begun playing blues in the 1920s and had played with the W.C. Handy Orchestra. There are now two Smithsonian albums with his music. The second time Furry played at a party for us he said he was going to be recording songs for the Smithsonian the next day.

I later asked Furry why he had played for us for almost nothing, and he laughed and said if he were not doing anything else he would even play for free for people who liked his music.

My experiences with Furry made me realize that there are also some great blues men from the Golden Triangle area. There was Big Joe Williams who lived in Crawford and Howlin' Wolf who grew up in White Station near West Point.

Joseph Lee Williams was born in Crawford in 1903. As Big Joe Williams he became a legend in blues and folk music. Big Joe's early career began with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels in the 1920s and then in 1930 he recorded with the Birmingham Jug Band. In the 1960s and 1970s he toured Europe and Japan. He became known as the "King of the 9 String Guitar." He died in Macon in 1982 and is buried in Crawford.

In 1979-1980 Michigan State University had an archaeological project along the Tombigbee River. We had a party for them in West Point and got Big Joe to come up and play. The folks from Michigan all brought their Big Joe record albums to get autographed and could not believe we could have someone so famous play for a party. Like Furry, Big Joe only charged $50 to play for some local people who just liked his music.

In 1910, Howlin' Wolf was born Chester Arthur Burnett in White Station near West Point. He is said to have been taught to play the guitar by Charley Patton. He admired Jimmy Rodgers and developed his own famous howl based on Rodgers' "blue yodel." He sang the blues locally and in the Memphis area until discovered by Sam Phillips, who would later discover Elvis. In the early 1950s Wolf moved to Chicago where he was considered one of the "classic Chicago blues men." He lived there until he died in 1976.

Some of the all time great rock musicians were inspired by Wolf. He especially influenced the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, who recorded albums with him in London.

Like Furry Lewis, Wolf around 1960 had also played for Deke fraternity parties at Ole Miss.

Howlin' Wolf was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His biography there begins: "Howlin' Wolf ranks among the most electrifying performers in blues history, as well as one of its greatest characters."

Those interested in the history of blues and its links to our area should visit the Howlin' Wolf Museum in West Point.

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