Willie Dixon on Songwriting, Bass Playing, and the Blues

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    For four decades, Willie Dixon loomed at the forefront of Chicago blues, working as a bassist, arranger, band leader, producer, talent scout, agent, A&R man, and music publisher. His most enduring contributions, though, were the songs he wrote. Dixon made Muddy Waters the “Hoochie Coochie Man,” taught Howlin’ Wolf “Evil” and “Spoonful,” and showed Sonny Boy Williamson how to “Bring It on Home.” “Willie Dixon is the man who changed the style of the blues in Chicago,” said Johnny Shines, a regular on the scene. “As a songwriter and producer, that man is a genius. Yes, sir. You want a hit song, go to Willie Dixon. Play it like he say play it, and sing it like he say sing it, and you damn near got a hit.”

    Laced with images drawn from his Mississippi childhood and subsequent life in Chicago, Dixon’s lyrics explored longing, lust, love, betrayal, magic, endurance, joy, and other real-life experiences. Some of his best bordered on sheer poetry. Consider, for instance, these verses from “Wang Dang Doodle” (to get the full effect, listen to Koko Taylor original version, with Buddy Guy on lead guitar and Willie Dixon on bass and harmony vocals, as you read along http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aVxMBAWr6Es):

    Tell Automatic Slim, tell Razor-Totin’ Jim

    Tell Butcher-Knife-Totin’ Annie, tell Fast-Talkin’ Fanny

    We gonna pitch a ball, down to that union hall

    We gonna romp and tromp till midnight

    We gonna fuss and fight till daylight

    We gonna pitch a wang dang doodle all night long

    All night long, all night long, all night long, all night long

    We gonna pitch a wang dang doodle all night long

     

    Tell Fats and Washboard Sam that everybody gonna jam

    Tell Shaky and Boxcar Joe we got sawdust on the floor

    Tell Peg and Caroline Dye we gonna have a heck of a time

    And when the fish scent fill the air

    There’ll be snuff juice everywhere

    We gonna pitch a wang dang doodle, all night long

    All night long, all night long, all night long, all night long

    For Dixon, writing lyrics was inextricably linked to reporting on the human condition – “the facts of life,” as he described it. Today, he’s rightfully regarded as the poet laureate of the blues.

    Born William James Dixon in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on July 1, 1915, Willie learned to communicate in rhymes with his mother, a religious poet. He had vivid recollections of skipping school to follow around Little Brother Montgomery’s band as it played atop a flatbed truck. In his teens he served time in Mississippi prison farms. He began his musical career singing bass parts for the Union Jubilee Singers gospel quartet. In 1936 he left Mississippi for Chicago and devoted himself to boxing, winning the Illinois State Golden Gloves Heavyweight Championship the following year. His subsequent professional career lasted four bouts (or five, if you count the fracas with his manager in the Boxing Commissioner’s office). Guitarist Leonard “Baby Doo” Caston talked Willie into making music his career and built him his first bass out of a tin can. In 1939 they formed the Five Breezes, which specialized in jazzy vocal harmonies. The band performed until at the outset of World War II, when Dixon was jailed for refusing induction into the armed forces. After a year of legal entanglements, Willie was free to gig around Chicago with his new lineup, the Four Jumps of Jive.

    After the war Dixon and Caston formed the Big Three Trio, which recorded for Columbia. They were big fans of the Mills Brothers, and their harmony vocals hit a popular note with white audiences along the North Shore. After hours, Dixon headed to Chicago’s South Side to jam with Muddy Waters and other bluesmen. Hearing Dixon at the El Casino Club, the Chess brothers recruited him for their Aristocrat label, the forerunner of Chess Records. Dixon’s initial contribution was as a studio musician. By 1951, he had full-scale involvement with Chess Records and its subsidiary, Checker. As the company’s staff producer and chief talent scout, Dixon had a hand in the success of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, Sonny Boy Williamson, Koko Taylor, and many others. In 1955 he began recording singles under his own name, for Checker, but these did not fare as well as other performer’s versions of his songs. While at Chess, Dixon played bass on the breakthrough rock and roll recordings of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Later in the 1950s, he plied his skills at Cobra Records, helping Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Buddy Guy, and Betty Everett get their starts.

    During the early 1960s, Dixon helped organize the American Folk Blues Festival and toured Great Britain and Europe. Audiences, who recognized his name via songwriting credits on the backs of albums, flocked to see him in person. “I can’t say enough about Willie Dixon,” said Keith Richards. “I mean, what a songwriter! To me, that’s one of the names. When I was getting into the blues, it was, ‘Who wrote this?’ I was lookin’ at Muddy Waters records, and who wrote it? ‘Dixon, Dixon, Dixon.’ The bass player is writin’ these songs? And then I’m lookin’ at Howlin’ Wolf: ‘Dixon, Dixon, Dixon.’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah, this guy is more than just a great bass player!’ And let’s face it: He was an incredible bass player. You know, that would be enough. But he’s the backbone of postwar blues writing, the absolute. Personally, I talk of him and Muddy in the same breath, and John Lee [Hooker], come to that. You know, gents. These guys don’t have to prove anything. They know who they are. They knew what they could do. They know they can deliver. Willie, to me, is a total gent and one of the best songwriters I can think of. Willie Dixon is superior.”

    Early on, the Rolling Stones established their blues credentials with Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You” and scored a 1964 Top-20 hit in the U.K. with his “Little Red Rooster.” While making a name for himself in London, Jimi Hendrix thrilled BBC listeners with his otherworldly cover of “Hoochie Coochie Man.” Cream, with Eric Clapton on guitar, transformed “Spoonful” into the classic power trio jam. Clapton’s peers, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, each covered two Willie Dixon songs on their first post-Yardbirds albums, Beck and Rod Stewart doing “You Shook Me” and “I Ain’t Superstitious” on Truth, and Page featuring “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby” on the first Led Zeppelin album. Back home in the U.S., Dixon’s songs easily crossed over into rock, with noteworthy versions by the Doors, Allman Brothers Band, Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, and many others. He’s doubtlessly the only composer in history to have his songs covered by Styx, Queen, Oingo Boingo, PJ Harvey, and Megadeth.

    Willie Dixon released several solo albums, notably 1970’s I Am the Blues, on Columbia, and the 1989 Grammy-winning Hidden Charms. In the late 1980s, Chess Records celebrated his career with the Willie Dixon box set. Near the end of his life, Dixon collaborated with Don Snowden on an autobiography, I Am the Blues: The Willie Dixon Story, and founded the Blues Heaven Foundation. Willie Dixon died of heart failure on January 29, 1992, and was buried in Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois.

    Over the years, I spoke with Willie several times. He was always helpful, friendly, and insightful. My favorite interview with him, published here for the first time in its entirety, took place at his home on April 21, 1980.

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    Are you playing much bass these days?

    Yes. I was playing last night at the Wise Fool here in Chicago, and last week I was over in Ohio. And the week before that, I was up in Rhode Island, New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia.

    What kind of bass are you using?

    Oh, I’m using a upright bass. It’s a old Kay. My son, he play bass. He’s got one of those from England – I done forgot the name of it, but it’s one of those that’s made in England. He’s had it a good while. And I play the upright Kay bass.

    How long have you been playing the one you have now?

    Oh, this Kay bass I have, I had it ’round ’bout 18 years or something like that.

    Do you ever play electric bass?

    Oh, yes! A long time ago, I first started on the electric bass, when they first came out with them, you know. But at that particular time they wasn’t doin’ very much rock-style stuff. I found out that the old upright bass gave the type of things that I was doin’, like the blues and the spiritual things, a better background sound. Of course, the modern bass do a beautiful job on the modern-type songs, you know, but I had one at first. Jack Myers – you know, the fellow that was playin’ with Buddy Guy – I let him have it.

    How many basses have you owned during your career?

    Oh, I would say I’ve really owned about five different basses. I bought a Fender bass for my son once. And then I had one given to me once. I’ve owned five basses.

    When you started performing in the late 1930s, who were the bass players that you listened to?

    Well, I used to listen to this fellow who used to play with Duke [Ellington] a long time ago, Blanton. Blanton was my idol. Jimmy Blanton.

    Did you ever have a chance to meet him?

    Oh, no, I never met him. I just heard him.

    Would you practice playing like him?

    Well, I never actually tried to play like him, but there was a fellow called – well, we all called him Hog Mason. I done forgot his name, but I know we called him Hog Mason. He taught me a lot about the bass, him and Baby Doo Caston.

    This was in the 1930s?

    Oh, yes, that was in the ’30s.

    You were boxing at the same time?

    Yeah.

    That must have been hard.

    Oh, well, it was, in a way, ’cause I was boxin’, workin’, and playin’, tryin’ to learn how to play the bass, at the same time.

    You never hurt your hands, though?

    No, no. I hurt my hands in the boxing, but not foolin’ with the bass. [Laughs.]

    In the early days, how did you find out that blues sessions were being held? How were you connected with those guys?

    Well, what happened is – you might remember Tampa Red. Tampa Red used to live down on 35th and State, right up over a pawn shop down there. And we’d go down there and listen to him play and sing all the different ones. Because I could sing harmony, a lot of time I’d be singin’ harmony with him and givin’ the guys different parts. And by being able to understand harmony, especially while they gettin’  – they had an old piano in the back, but the piano was never in tune anyway! I could understand harmony pretty good from the time I was a kid at school, you know. There was a fellow in the South called Federal Phelps [Leo Phelps] – I used to sing in a spiritual group with him, called the Union Jubilee Singers. And he taught me, oh, just about everything it was to be known about harmony, because I learned about how to blend chords together in harmony with the spiritual group. And then when I came to Chicago, there was another group that was singin’ harmony. And I was singin’ harmony with everybody, so I begin to know quite a bit about the parts. Were you playing bass too? Oh, no, I wasn’t playin’ bass. I was imitatin’ the bass fiddle, like the old Mills Brothers used to do.

    With your voice.

    Yeah. Then so when I got over there with Tampa Red and them, every time somebody would get ready to know what would go here to make it harmonize, I would always give ’em the the tune with my voice, and that’s what they would play. It turned out to be pretty good.

    Leonard “Baby Doo” Caston

    When did the bass work its way into it?

    Well, I was fightin’ more than I was doin’ anything else. I used to be around the gymnasium on 48th and King Drive – they used to call it South Park then. As I’d be playing around there in the ring, why, this boy Baby Doo Caston used to come up and play the guitar. Sometime I’d hop over the ring and we’d stand around there and harmonize and sing together. And then when I got kind of expelled from the fight game, I just started to singing with him. That was around 1939. And when I started singin’ with him, then I never got back to the fight game. Yeah.

    When did you start playing bass for a living?

    Well, it was around 19 and 39. Well, you see, in fact, Baby Doo made me a tin-can bass, one of these basses out of tin can, and I used to play it all over Jewtown with the different guys. We’d pass the hat around the audience and get a little money. And then we’d go off through the different neighborhoods there, singin’ like the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers and things like that. And I’d always play the tin-can bass, until I got a job at Jim Martin’s on the West Side, a place called Martin’s Corner. Because I wanted a bass fiddle, he decided he’d buy me one. He bought me one, and I paid him back ten dollars a week. It cost about two-hundred-and-some dollars. And I paid him back until I got it all paid for. After two or three weeks, Baby Doo Caston used to always show up. He was a guitar player and piano player too. There was another fellow called Hog Mason – he used to come by and help. And after two or three weeks, why, heck, I could play just about as good as I can now. I just wasn’t quite as fast, I guess.

    You started playing on record sessions later on in the 1940s?

    Oh, yes. In fact, I was on record sessions in ’39. That was with the Five Breezes. I was on a thing with the Bumping Boys – this is a Decca thing with J. Mayo Williams, the Bumping Boys. Then I got on this thing with the Five Breezes. That was done through Lester Melrose. He was the one used to be up to Tampa Red’s house all the time. And then from there – of course, the years had begun to change – we got the Four Jumps of Jive. That was on Mercury. In fact, that was one of the first things that Mercury cut. In fact, I think it was the second thing that Mercury had done cut. And then the Big Three Trio, when we got involved with Columbia.

    Big Three Trio, 1947: Ollie Crawford, Baby Doo Caston, Willie Dixon

    You were with them for six or seven years, right?

    Oh, yes, about seven years or more. And then during that time I started running into various ones that was singin’ spiritual things, and they wanted to get involved in recording. Then I started recording different things with spiritual groups of different kinds.

    You got into the blues a little bit too.

    Oh, yes. Well, the blues was always there in the beginning, you know. But what happened when I got to doin’ a lot of these blues groups – I played with Memphis Slim. He and I made that “Rockin’ the House,” “Lend Me Your Love,” “Darling, I Miss You.” I was on that [in 1947]. That was with a fellow called Simpson.

    You played with most of the great blues guitar players.

    Oh, just about all of them.

    Do any of them stand out?

    From way back, or the later ones?

    Either way.

    Well, the way-back guitar players was pretty good, just like Big Bill Broonzy. I liked him. And I liked Tampa, the way he played, because he had a unique style of his own. Those were among the older guys.

    They were mainly acoustic back then.

    Oh, yeah, they used to play the acoustic. And then Baby Doo Caston used to play acoustic guitar too.

    Did you like playing with Elmore James?

    Oh, yeah. Elmo had his own unique style too, you know. Elmo had a style that most of the time was practically the same thing, to a certain extent, you know. And then Robert Lockwood, Jr., had a beautiful style in those days, although he played strictly blues. Of course, today he kind of mixes it up with jazzy sounds, you know.

    Who do you feel were the most creative and innovative guitar players?

    Well, did you know a guy called Jody Williams? “Little Joe” – they called him “Little Joe.” His name was Jody Williams. He had a very creative style, but he got out of the music.

    I wonder why.

    Well, I don’t know – various things. Different things happen in your life when you’re young, and then when you get older different things happen. But one thing, he got married and it kind of tired him down a little bit. I think he had a jealous wife, you know. But that Robert Lockwood, Jr., could play just about anybody’s style, you know. And then he had things of his own. He could do it today, I believe, because I think he was one of the main influences of B.B. King also.

    What were your early sessions like?

    Oh, well, when I first started, I was playin’ the tin can on sessions. And then after the tin can, I got involved with quite a few of them because I played with Sonny Boy Williamson – you know, the first Sonny Boy. And I played a couple of things on a couple of Bill’s sessions [Big Bill Broonzy]. A lot of those things with Lester Melrose, you know, was done with the tin can.

    What time of the day would the sessions take place and how long would you be there?

    Well, most of the time they’d happen in the evening, you know. They’d start in the early evening and then probably end up at night and like that.

    Would you have one microphone for everybody?

    Well, sometime it would be. It all depends, you see, because years ago they didn’t have all these different tracks that they have in the studio now. Yeah. And what would happen, they’d put the mike into the instrument that you was gonna play. They used to wrap cloth around the bass – put the bass mike down in the bottom of the tailpiece. And then when you play it, why, it would come right through like an electrified bass.

    Did any of the blues players have unusual recording habits?

    Oh, most of the guys had certain habits, but sometime they would have to change them in order for the various recordings. You know, like the average guy they do now, like where there’s a break in the music for the singer or something to come through and sing the punch line, everybody would jump up and try to fill in this spot, and the guy that would be singing wouldn’t be heard. This is one of the habits that a lot of the musicians had then, and they have it now. A lot of times you have to try to wave ’em down or something to keep them from playing the break line.

    You’ve written so many well-known songs.

    Mm-hmm.

    Would people come to you and ask for songs, or would you write songs with specific singers in mind?

    Well, some of them would come to me and ask me for songs, and then some of them, whenever I find they would be stuck for a song, I’d just say, “Look, I got a song that I think you can do with all ease, and it’ll work.” And most of the time, why, they worked.

    How would you write songs?

    Well, most of the time, if I was writing for an individual, why, I would kind of quiz the individual and get his feeling and his expressions and the way that he talked and the way that he sang and the things that he liked about it, you know. Because the first thing you’d have to do is try to get something that he liked that you feel that the public would like at the same time. And this is one of the ways that I always tried to do. I always tried to get the feeling of the fellow that was gonna sing this song, and how he felt about the various things of life that he would be singing about and how he felt about other things that I was gonna write about, and try to get all these things together and then match them with the feeling that he thought was best, and especially the way that he sung and the way that he expressed things. And I would always work these things kind of in together.

    Would they tell you what kind of chord changes they wanted?

    Well, no, they didn’t know what kind of chord changes they wanted themselves. Most of the time what would happen was I would tell them how to.

    This is how you got material together for Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters?

    Well, some of these things I did, and some of these things I already had wrote and I would bring to ’em. Like on the first song that Muddy made, why, I brought it to him. He was working over on 14th and National, and I took it over there to him. And he liked it so well – it was “Hoochie Coochie Man” – that he done it the first time. We went in the washroom, practiced it a few minutes on his intermission, and he come right out and done it. And he been doin’ it ever since.

    Were the royalties as good back then and as frequent as they are today?

    There was no royalties [laughs]. Most of the time, there wasn’t no royalties.

    Would you just sell a song?

    Well, sometime you would and then sometime you wouldn’t. Sometime you would think you was gonna – they would always give you a contract saying they was gonna give you some royalties, but you never got ’em anyway. Yeah, they probably give you $25, $50, or something when you first record it. But after that, that would be just about the end of it.

    What happened when rock and rollers started covering your songs?

    Well, I begin to get a little more royalties out of it, because the songs got so popular until you’d tell somebody you wrote the song, and they wouldn’t believe it. And then when you’d go to the recording company, they would say, “You gonna get a royalty statement at such-and-such a time.” They’d give you a statement alright, but sometime there wouldn’t be no money with the statement. Sometime it would be a little money with the statement. But we didn’t have no definite way of gettin’ in. And the average lawyer you go to, the recording company would pay him off to don’t pay you.

    What is your opinion of the covers of your songs done by rock and rollers?

    Oh, I like them real well, because a lot of the youngsters and things, I would give ’em ideas about some of the stuff, because there’s no song that can’t be changed in the varied direction.

    What was your impression of Cream’s version of “Spoonful”?

    Beautiful, beautiful.

    Were you impressed with the guitar work?

    Oh, yes. Very much so.

    Did any of the rock players ever look you up?

    Oh, yes. But most ’em was real young at the time. Just like when Memphis Slim and I was workin’ in Europe [circa 1962], a lot of the young artists, they didn’t have no rock around then no more than the little bit that Chuck Berry had done started, you know. So the kids over there was all interested in the blues and was askin’ me about how could they make this in the Chuck Berry style and like this. And I would go to work, just try to explain it to ’em. Sometime I would put it on tape for different ones. Different people over there would have my songs. I sung a lot of different songs and left ’em for ’em, the youngsters, just to learn, because they seemed to like the blues real well. I would give them rough ideas about how to go about it, and they’d put it together.

    Did you have encounters with the Rolling Stones?

    Oh, when they was young, a lot of times. But I didn’t even know – in fact, they didn’t even know – that they was gonna be the Rolling Stones themselves. In fact, there was a fellow that I left songs with, he was telling me about the Rolling Stones. Talkin’ about this group that called themselves the Rolling Stones, and they was youngsters. Some of them say they met me at different halls that I was playin’ over there. There was so many kids over there in London, you know. Memphis Slim and I was workin’ Piccadilly Square, and kids of all descriptions used to come in there. We let them in at the back door, where they could hear us playin’ things, because they didn’t allow when they was too young to come down front. I don’t know, but some of them used to give us pictures and all like this. “We gonna sing,” and all like that. And then way later, I started meetin’ some of these guys. But I wouldn’t know ’em by their picture, because they were naked-face kids, you know. 10, 12, 11 years old – like that – and then the next time I see him he got hair all over his face and asking me don’t I remember him. How am I gonna remember somebody with a naked face when they come up with hair on his face ten years later, you know. Kid can be 10 years old, and then when he get 20, boy, he done stretched out and got hair all over his face and don’t look nothin’ like he used to. And then I hardly looked at the picture anyway. But once in a while I run into a picture around here and one of ’em say, “Yeah, this is me! Don’t you remember me?” No, I don’t remember. But I tell a lie sometime: “Yeah, yeah. I remember.” I remember somebody givin’ me the picture, but I don’t have the least idea who it is.

    Back when you were working as a talent scout, who were some of the players you found?

    Oh, I found a lot of different players, you know, at different times. Like Buddy Guy, of course, and Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Betty Everett, and folks like that.

    Where did you find Buddy Guy?

    Well, Buddy Guy was singin’ at a little old place down on 16th Street. I was workin’ for the Cobra recording company. I had been working for the Chess company, and we had done Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley and a few of the others. Like that John Brim, Shakey Horton, and a few others. Anyway, when I was working for the Cobra recording company in between, Cobra didn’t have no artists, nobody but Arbee Stidham. And he [Eli Toscano] would tell everybody he wanted to find other artists. Well, some of these artists had called me at different times when I was workin’ with Chess, and so I started contactin’ ’em. I contacted otis Rush, and I made “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” which was a big number. Then I contact Buddy Guy. But Buddy Guy, at that time, he couldn’t keep time. And he tried to do a lot of B.B. King-style things, so I was trying to get him away from the B.B. King style. I give him this song about “I Sit and Cry and Sing the Blues.” But he didn’t do a very good job on it, you know.

    And then I got involved well with this Rev. Ballinger and all these different fellows that was singin’ in spiritual groups. Then Betty Everett, one day she was comin’ by the place, just walkin’ along and lookin’. I walked out and asked her did she sing, and she said, “A little bit.” She said she sung in church. I got her in there and started playin’ around with her on the piano, and she sound pretty good with her voice, so I made a couple of songs for her that turned out pretty good. And then this boy, Little Willie Foster, he had had a record that come out before with some company, and I done some things with him. Jackie Brentson – different ones, you know. And it was always somebody askin’ me to write songs for ’em, but whenever I had a chance, I would just write songs. And if I thought certain people could do ’em, those are the ones I’d let have them. Those that I felt like couldn’t do ’em – a lot of my songs I don’t give to certain people, because I don’t feel like it’s their type of thing. This is one of the reasons I feel like I been lucky enough to get quite a few of the things into the public, because anybody can’t do any song. I mean, especially according to the way they have adjusted themselves to singin’. But then you can find some people that’s kind of flexible enough that they can understand what you’re tryin’ to do.

    Would you use your bass when you compose?

    Well, sometime I would, and sometime I wouldn’t. Most of the time I get a thing in my mind. I get the words that I would like to say and the expression that I would like to have them said in to get the best results. And I would like for these things to be a part of life, because I’ve always felt like blues was the facts of life being expressed to other people that didn’t understand the other fellow’s condition. So by feelin’ like this, it gave me the chance to express the feelings and the things that I felt like the people would like to say or want to say or would like for other people to know. And so this is the way I mostly wrote my songs. And after you get words – or vice versa, you know – then you can put certain tone qualities to it that would fit the words. And then at the same time, sometime you got better tone qualities that you would like to use, so you would have to find words that fit these tone qualities. One would make the other stick out, just like a picture on the wall. If you have a good background, it’s a good thing to put the picture on of a certain color or a certain kind. And if you’ve got a good picture, you wanna have a good background. You got a good background, you want a good picture. But you want it to contrast which each other where one will stick out from the other, and will attract the attention to the public.

    Would you usually hear the lick first, or would you hear the words?

    Well, it all depends. You don’t hear ’em – you make ’em. In other words, you make the words. Say, for an instance, where’s a guy that’s in a very good condition and he’s happy. And it’s something that made him happy. He’s in love, and he feels a certain way about a girl or something. You know these are the things that he would want to say. He would want to say, “I love you,” or he would do anything for her, like this. So you get these words together in some kind of poetic form where they can be properly understood. And then you find the music to go with it. Then the other way around, some fellow would come along with a good tune. You might have a good tune in your mind that you want to put the proper words to it, and you have to find the words to go with this particular tune. So it works both ways – it all depends on what position you’re in and the way you feel about it.

    Which tunes of yours are you most proud of?

    Oh, frankly, I have a new song that I really think – in fact, I have several new songs that I think quite a bit of. And it look like most of the time it’s the latest song that I’m involved in that I seem to be more proud of than the others. Because it builds on the facts of life that exist today. And then these various things that exist today, it’s been a great controversial subject between the majority of the public wanting to do one thing and what they consider right and wrong is another thing, and what the world considers right and wrong [is] another thing. So you just have to decide what’s what, and bring out the truth in it.

    I know that just about all of my life it’s been a controversial thing about religious activities and what’s gonna happen after you die. And the pie in the sky, and whether you’re gonna have something when you die, or whether you ain’t gonna have something when you die. But nobody know about all these things being true, because ain’t nobody been able to prove it. Since nobody’s actually been able to prove it, what I have done, I kind of got these ideas together and kind of put them together in a little song that I have now called “Pie in the Sky When You Die.” Now, some of the words to this song, it speaks for itself. It’s got a very attractive musical thing that I put with it. It says something like,

    Hey, you better hear what I say

    You better have your fun before you get away

    Get you a straight or get you a gay

    Get you a man or a woman, but have it your way

    I’ll tell you why – it could be a lie

    It may not be no pie up in the sky when you die

    Well, you see, nobody knows about these kind of things. Everybody wants to enjoy themselves anyway, but a lot of people are afraid to take a chance because they feel like their reward is in the sky or when they die. Or hereafter – you know what I mean? So puttin’ it together like this, that means you better go on and enjoy yourself because you don’t know for sure what’s true. So that’s why I built it like that by putting these things together. Now, this is very easy for you, see, when you explain it. And then as you go through these words and sing it, it will make the average individual think. Just like in the second verse of it, says,

    Hey, a lot of crooks are gone, a lot of politicians –

    Folks like Jimmy Jones or Al Capone

    You say you’re goin’ to heaven, but it look like hell

    Because they put you in a hole almost deep as a well

    I’ll tell you why – because it could be a lie

    May not be no pie up in the sky when you die

    You know? Wait – I put the wrong ending to that. The second verse supposed to say,

    Hey, a lot of crooks are gone, a lot of politicians –

    And even Jimmy Jones

    If they get to heaven before you do

    It may not be nothin’ left for you

    I’ll tell you why – it could be a lie

    It may not be no pie in the sky when you die

    Well, you see, I always make three or four verses, and sometimes I get ’em kind of fouled up there. But anyway, then it have a middle to it. You see, years ago, blues didn’t have middles in them. People didn’t want ’em. People used to try to brand blues as always a 12-bar thing, but after I started working with these various blues things, I found out that it’s earthly impossible for you to give a complete story with all the facts of it in 12 bars like they was doin’ it, so I started creatin’ middles and everything else to these various songs in order to give a complete story. So in the middle of this particular song, it says,

    How do you know if these things are true

    And no one came back to prove it to you

    So if they got a lot of gold with angels and wings

    By the time you get to heaven there may not be a thing

    Then it goes back to:

    Hey, you don’t know if it’s true

    You better treat me like I treat you

    You say you’re going to heaven but it look like hell

    Because they put you in a hole almost deep as a well

    I’ll tell you why – it could be a lie

    It may not be no pie up in the sky when you die

    Well, when you do these songs like this, it make the average individual think. Because they want to think like this in the first place. But they’re afraid to think like it, because some of them fear after-death and some of them don’t know what they think. You know? So at least it gives them a decision to make one way or the other, because nothin’ have been actually proved. And this is what about the blues, you see, is the blues explain the facts just like are, whether they are right, wrong, or in between.

    That’s very well said.

    Thank you.

    When was the best time for blues?

    Well, I think if the blues are properly exposed, the time is better now, because the people today have a better understanding of the blues and the blues are being better exposed. People are interested enough to want to know what the blues are. Most of the time, people have never actually heard. They always reached the decision that the blues was just a bunch of sad music and somebody cryin’ for the lack of something. But it’s not that. It’s the idea that the blues are the facts of life, whether it’s good, bad, or in between. But when people reach decisions on things that somebody else have said, without any experience, they can reach any kind of decision because somebody hand it to ’em. But when you begin to have certain experience of your own, and begin to know that these are the facts of life, then you can look at just about any blues song and see where these facts existed with certain people at certain times about certain things. That make you understand why they sung and do sing and are very emotional about such things as the blues. It’s not an imagination – it’s a fact.

    When you were young in the late 1920s, did you hear the blues of Mississippi John Hurt and guys like that?

    Well, I heard a lot of blues, as far as that concerned. I heard a lot of spirituals. But you know, they didn’t have very many things on – in fact, when I was real young, they didn’t even have no radio. But after they started having radio, they just put everything on that for entertainment that they thought they’d like, like the Mills Brothers and church songs or anything, just to entertain the people. They didn’t have no definite program of any kind, only what they could get – especially in the South there. Whatever they could get, they put it on there.

    Did you ever try to play guitar, Willie?

    Oh, yes. I played a couple of times when I was in Europe. When we first started the American Folk Blues Festival, I used to do some folk song things – mostly things I made of my own.

    How have the roles of the guitar and bass changed in the blues?

    Mainly changed quite a bit, because most of the time years ago it was mostly acoustic. And this acoustic style couldn’t give you the long phrases and the long slurs like they do when it become electrical. And then on top of that, with the electrical equipment, you can get a lot of different sounds to emphasize various things that you couldn’t do with an acoustic. Mm hmm.

    How has your own style changed?

    Well, from a kid, just like I was explainin’, when I was a youngster they considered blues as just a 12-bar thing, and most of the blues was done like 12 bars. Done like Bessie Smith and all those kinds of things.

    How about in terms of the way your hands move on the fingerboard?

    Oh, my style hasn’t changed very much. But sometime I found out that doin’ certain things in certain places can give you a better effect to attract the attention and put a better musical sound behind what you are doin’ for expression. You see, one brings out the other. The sound brings out the music and the music brings out the sound when they are working correct. Because one puts you in the mood for the other.

    Do you play in styles besides blues?

    Well, I can play just about anything, as far as that’s concerned, but I hang onto the blues because I feel like the blues is my heritage. Now, on top of that, it’s my people’s music through many generations. And I feel like, in fact, it’s necessary that these things should be because most of the things that was created by black people have been either distinguished, forgotten, or are out of proportion with everything that’s happening today. And I feel like it’s necessary for the history of the blues to be known – from where it come and how it is and what it’s for.

    You stand at the crossroads of blues. You can look back and see the acoustic era, and you can look more forward and see the electric. What do you see as the future?

    Well, frankly I feel like blues will develop more than any other style of music, because as the people learn more about what the blues are about, they’ll begin to write more about it and think more about the facts of life. And by being the facts of life, these are the things that people are interested in. Most people are interested in life more than they are death because they are living life, and they expect death. But they think of life first, because if there don’t be no life, there can’t be no death.

    Does the thought of death bother you?

    No, neither one of ’em bother me. When I was a youngster, people had brainwashed me into believing me a lot of different things that they didn’t know themselves. But when I wasn’t able to think as well for myself as I am today, well, naturally, I kept my mind involved on these types of things because that was the only thing I was around the people talkin’ about then. But once you learn to think for yourself and understand for yourself, you’ll find out the other fellow that’s tryin’ to give you information about something don’t know more about it than you. So then you start using your own judgment.

    Besides Freddie, do any of your children play the blues?

    Oh, yeah, all of ’em play if they want to. And sometimes they do and sometime they don’t. I have a boy called Butch – he plays very good piano and he plays very good blues and other things too. He play at church. He played out to the Wise Fool with me last night. Yeah.

    Do any moments stand out as highpoints of your life in music?

    Well, that part has never actually bothered me about the best, because to determine the best, you would have to be done in certain areas, you know? Because the best in one area would be one thing, and the best in another area would be another. It all depends on how much experience and what’s been goin’ down in that particular area.

    What do you look forward to in the future?

    I’m lookin’ in the future for bigger and better blues. Yeah. And bigger and better understanding among people themselves. And I know if they listen to the blues, they gonna get the true facts of life without all the fiction involved. And it’s got to create better understanding among everybody.

    One more think I’d like to know before I go. You came from a family with 14 kids, right?

    Yeah.

    And you have 14 of your own?

    Right.

    How did you ever find the time to have such a career in music?

    [Laughs.] Well, that’s the thing about it. When you involved in the facts of life, that is the facts of life – people! Yeah. People have to be born, just like everything else.

    Thanks a million.

    Alright, and thank you very much.

     

    For more on Chicago Blues:

    Otis Rush: The Complete Living Blues Interview

    Papa Charlie Jackson: The First Popular Male Blues Singer

    Tampa Red: The Guitar Wizard

    Jimmy Rogers on Songwriting, Muddy Waters, and Chicago Blues

    Johnny Shines: The Complete Living Blues Interview

    “Dust My Broom”: The Story of a Song

    “Rollin’ and Tumblin’: The Story of a Song

    Transatlantic Blues: How Britain’s Blues Boom Saved American Rock and Roll

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    © 2011 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This interview may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.


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