Willie King Was The Blues

Bluesman Willie King passed away from a heart attack at home in Old Memphis, Alabama, on March 8th (Tuscaloosa News article here, NYT obit here).

Here are some excerpts from an article at the Alabama Blues Project website about his life:

Willie King – outstanding bluesman and committed community activist.

Ever since he first heard a blues musician play at this grandmother’s juke joint, Willie King has been consumed by the blues. “It got all over me,” he says, “and wouldn’t let me go.” He has been mining a deep groove ever since and has never stopped practicing, performing, writing and developing the blues according to Willie King.

In recognition of a musical career that started on a plantation with a one-string, homemade diddly-bo and has led to a national and international reputation, the state of Alabama is awarding Willie King this year’s Folk Life Heritage Award.

Willie King’s story is about music but equally it is about his care, interest and concern for the community he grew up in and the cultural skills, which he calls “traditional survival skills,” that helped his oppressed community survive and develop despite some very hard times. King credits his grandfather with instilling him with these values and giving him the desire “. . . to do at least half-way right!”

Like many other aspiring guitarists in the poor South at that time, King’s first instrument was a homemade diddly-bo made by nailing bailing wire to a tree in the yard. By age nine he had graduated to a one-string guitar that he could bring indoors so that he could play at night. Willie was thirteen before he owned his first guitar, an acoustic Gibson, which was purchased for him by Mr. W. P. Morgan, the plantation owner who owned the land on which his family lived. King paid off the $60 price tag for the guitar by working with Morgan and helping out on the plantation. W. P. Morgan became a close friend and mentor to Willie King, an unusually close relationship at a time when segregation was the norm. Willie remembers Mr. Morgan with great affection and perhaps their friendship helped inform King’s often-repeated theme of coming together and loving each other regardless of any differences.

At the same time as King was gaining a local musical reputation, he was working to improve the life of his community. In 1989 he founded the Rural Members Association, a non-profit organization dedicated to passing on the traditional survival skills of his community to the next generation. That same year, he opened a community center located on Route 17 at the junction of Route 32, a focus of local interest and a place where he implemented a program of traditional skills workshops aimed at educating the younger generation in not only local skills but more broadly the whole set of caring and supportive values that helped a struggling community in the past.

Willie and the Rural Members Association have sponsored classes in blues music, farming, woodworking, food preservation, and other rural African American traditions. They have also provided transportation, legal assistance, and other services for the needy of Pickens County over the past two decades. Willie has also partnered with the Alabama Blues Project to provide blues education programs throughout Alabama and beyond.

Starting in 1997, Willie has organized an annual festival in Pickens County, called the Freedom Creek Festival. Willie explains, “We was targetin’ at tryin’ to get all walks of life, different peoples to come down and kinda be with us in reality down there, you know. Let’s get back to reality, in the woods . . . mix and mingle . . . get to know each other. Get up to have a workin’ relationship, try to bring peace . . .” The Freedom Creek Festival showcases many unrecorded and unrecognized regional back-woods blues musicians, more recently alongside such internationally renowned artists as Birmingham native Sam Lay, T-Model Ford and David “Honeyboy” Edwards. The festival has gained an international reputation for the authenticity of the music, and the warmth of its hospitality.

Here are some clips from “I Am The Blues”.

Now, not to be a prude, but the first part of this documentary video has some suggestive dancing.

The documentary, Down in the Woods, is available here.

I could listen to this *all day*!:

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