The long journey of Pickens County blues man Willie King
by Glenny Brock
Aliceville, Ala., is an hour'92s drive west of Tuscaloosa, Ala., and although the interstate will get you most of the way there, the trip gets better once you'92re on the two-lane highways. The other motorists move less hurriedly. The shoulders are lush with cattle-stocked pasturelands and old-growth hardwoods. And at 60 miles per hour, the humidity isn'92t so oppressive '97 the damp heat stirs up the smells of sweetgrass and simmering mud.
Near the Mississippi state line, a muddy stream called Freedom Creek snakes several miles between the Tombigbee and Sipsey rivers. And while Willie King has lived most of his 59 years within a few miles of Freedom Creek, he claims that he'92s now living in a new world.
'93Everything around me has really changed,'94 he says. The people that once criticized me '97 now they want to talk to me. Sometimes I can'92t believe it.'94
King is getting ready for the Freedom Creek Festival, an annual blues show he organizes to benefit an Aliceville non-profit organization called the Rural Members Association, which he helped found. On the day that we visited, Willie'92s minivan had to mow through a sea of tall grass to get us to the festival site on a field that rises above the creek. A wood-plank stage, built by King and some of his neighbors, stands in one corner of the field, partially shaded by ivy-covered trees and backed by the sloping banks of Freedom Creek. Several acres stretch out in front of the stage, a sun-covered field that Willie assures us will be crowded with people once his fifth annual festival begins.
'93It will be full of people '97 every one of them having a ball,'94 he says. '93Wait till you see it. They'92re going to be jumping.'94
A local gospel choir will give the first performance of the day, followed by a host of renowned blues players from Alabama and Mississippi: Jackon'92s Ironing Board Sam; Tuscaloosa'92s Debbie Barnes; Jock Webb, Todd Johnson and '93Birmingham'94 George Connor, all from the Magic City. Along with King'92s own band the Revelators, a handful of musicians from in and around Aliceville are on the bill. Sixteen-year-old Travis Hodge, a youngster involved with the Rural Members Association who has been learning from King, will join his mentor on stage throughout the day.
'93Travis jumped on them blues,'94 King says proudly. '93I went out to his house and talked to his parents '91cause he wanted to play the style of blues I was playing. So he'92s picked it up. He just jumped right on them.'94
The festival will turn five this year and the RMA will celebrate its 21st anniversary, but it'92s just in the past few years that both have gotten King national attention. He'92s been profiled in The Nation magazine for his community activism and in Living Blues for his music. His two CDs Freedom Creek (2000) and Living in a New World (2002) are getting airplay on major blues shows and he starts a 12-city tour next week. His phone rings all the time now, but he seems unfazed by the new legions of fans.
'93I'92m not a popular man,'94 he says. '93 I'92m just an old guy dragging through the woods.'94
Despite what he says, King doesn'92t drag much. He and his band the Revelators have a regular Sunday night gig at juke joint called Bettie'92s Place, just over the Mississippi state line. RMA activities keep him busy and he teaches music in public schools through the Tuscaloosa-based Alabama Blues Project.
'93I used to work with them a lot more, but now my schedule'92s so busy. At almost 60 years old, my schedule'92s so busy '97 can you believe it?'94 he laughs. '93When I really wanted to do it I couldn'92t. It came late, but I'92m thankful. In my 20s and 30s I tried and nothing happened. It just wasn'92t my time. That'92s the way I see it. It just wasn'92t the time.'94
THE OLD ROAD
'93I don'92t know how it happened or how she was chosen, but my grandmother was the only one that was allowed to have what they called '91the Saturday night juke,'92'94 King says. '93After supper you'92d take out all your little furniture out of one room, and they'92d play the blues and dance '97 you'92d call it a juke.
'93So my grandmother would have the juke and that way she made a little extra money. She sold sweet potato pie and whiskey, and they had the juke every Saturday night. Sometimes the boss man would come down there himself and join it, and other white people were there, too.
'93And old Brook Duck, an old blues legend, he used to play for my grandmother at the juke before I was born or even thought about. He always said that my mother '97 she was about 14 years old at the time'97used to stand upside the wall and just watch them play. Duck said that sometimes my mom used to come over to him and say, '91Oh, I wish I had a son or daughter that one day could play the blues like you.'92
'93I guess her prayer was granted,'94 King says, '93'91cause here I am at your feet.'94
King'92s parents split up when he was very young, and he was raised by his mother, grandmother and grandfather. His grandfather followed Islam '97 a rarity in rural Alabama '97 and educated young Willie in the Muslim faith. His mother and grandmother were both Christians and taught him to love gospel music and appreciate that faith as well. The whole family shared a love of the blues, but the music brought a new faith to Willie, consuming him at a young age.
'93I don'92t know just how to explain it '97 something just got on me,'94 he says. '93I seen an old fella playing, and something got on me and it rode me night and day. This is the truth, now. I'92m telling you the truth. Something got on me and I couldn'92t rest. I couldn'92t shake it.'94
King made his first guitar when he was about 10, stringing up baling and broom wires alongside the house and using bricks for the bridge and tuner. He turned 14 before he had his first guitar. The man who bought it for him was a white man named W.P. Morgan, who bought the plantation where King'92s family lived. King once opened a gate for him and Morgan returned the favor repeatedly during King'92s adolescence.
'93He came over where I was standing and I opened the gate for him, and he gave me 50 cents for opening the gate,'94 King remembers. '93And fifty cents, back then, man.
'93Then he came on up to the house, out there where he lived, and was telling everybody he had bought the place and he asked for a drink of water. So, you know, we weren'92t used to white people drinking out the same things that we drank out of. Somebody said they'92d go get him a glass and he said, '91Ya'92ll drink out of this dipper?'92 and we said yeah. And he said, '91Well it'92s good enough for me.'92
'93After he left, everybody got to talking, saying, '91'91Man, I wonder what kind of man that is drinking out of the same thing we drink out of.'92
'93That was the first time something like that had ever happened,'94 King says. '93They talked on that just about half a night.'94
When King was 14, Morgan bought him his first guitar. At 15, Morgan taught him to drive. Once he turned 16, King took Morgan'92s truck to get his driver'92s license and was allowed to borrow it to go visit his girlfriend. Also at age 16, King made a decision that would forever change his relationship with Morgan '97 for the better.
'93I told him I wasn'92t going back to the cotton fields no more,'94 King says. '93I went to have a little talk with him. He asked me, '91What are you going to do? Steal? How are you going to make it?'92
'93And I said, '91No, I ain'92t planning on stealing from nobody.'92 But he said, '91Now if you go to jail, don'92t call me.'92
And I said, '91Thank you, sir. I won'92t.'92
'93Everybody had bet me money that this wasn'92t going to happen, that I was going to be afraid to talk to him. But he gave me a break. He gave me one year and I made it.'94
King was already playing gigs with other local musicians. They played Saturday night sock hops and jukes '97 where playing for several hours would earn the musicians a few dollars apiece.
'93Back then I knew two or three songs and I would play them over and over again all night,'94 he laughs. '93They started stomping and jumping to it, though, so it was all right.'94
UP NORTH AND HOME AGAIN
In his 20s, King followed the lead of a lot of blues players who came before him, as well as a lot of southern blacks: He left the south and headed for Chicago, hoping for better jobs at better wages.
'93Everybody that could migrated up north, cause '91round here just wasn'92t paying anything,'94 he remembers. '93You'92d be working hard and still no money, no matter what you did. Back then you had to come up with ways to make ends meet. A lot of people tried to get out '97 just looking for something better, trying to make it.'94
King stayed in Chicago only a year. He never played professionally in the city, but he spent many nights listening to the blues at Howlin'92 Wolf'92s home club, Silvio'92s. He met new players and rekindled old friendships with other musicians from down south. He got work in the meat packing industry in Chicago, but he found the city life harsh and exhausting. Under what he described as near constant pressure to join street gangs and commit robberies, he drifted back south and settled down in Aliceville in 1968.
'93I started playing out on my own and then I got in w/ some of the Civil Rights workers,'94 he says. '93I got entered into that and started working to bring about some change with the music. It was hard on the African American people back then. Talk about hard times, whew, unbelievable.'94
The conditions in Pickens County drove King to begin writing political songs and the musical strain of his social activism continues even now. For decades he wrote lyrics that focused particularly on civil rights; in the last few years, his emphasis has shifted somewhat '97 to human rights and community building. He has built a philosophy on what he calls his '93strugglin'92 blues'94 or '93crawlin'92 blues,'94 the music that details the fight against a crushing oppressor.
'93The blues was a gift to mankind, but it only came down through a hard oppressed people,'94 he says. '93It was a spiritual medicine to help ease a worried mind. When you hear the blues, there'92s a transaction and through this transaction something happens that I cannot explain.'94
LEARNING SURVIVAL SKILLS
For King, the blues is a healing salve, but it'92s also a political force. He uses much of the money that playing earns him to give the blues to another generation, in hopes that the music will lead young people to take care of the community they come from and keep them out of what he calls the '93gang-banging streets.'94
'93I take a lot of my little blues money and put it back into Rural Members Association,'94 he says. '93We teach and demonstrate what I call '91survival skills.'92'94
The survival skills King means aren'92t what you'92d expect '97 his essential skills include quilting, sewing, picking berries, making preserves, singing gospel music and playing the blues. King explains that the idea for the Rural Members Association came from the elderly people in the Aliceville community who were worried about the old traditional ways dying out. By teaching young people traditional skills, his thinking goes, the RMA makes them more self-sufficient and enables them to serve in the community.
'93If you get creative, you can help your own self and then you can use that to help whoever'92s next you,'94 he says. '93You just keep it going for the good of everybody.'94
King has run the RMA since 1982, so he made a commitment to try to keep alive the old ways a long time ago, but just last year, a visitor from Mississippi said something that made him realize that the skills he had learned in his childhood on the plantation were still vital now.
'93I had a bishop from Mississippi come to see me last year, a bishop of the Methodist church. He told me something I really didn'92t know. He said, '91You know back then, ya'92ll was really blessed and didn'92t even know it. All us white folks was dumb '97 in the house drinking milk and laying down, but ya'92ll got the inside knowledge of how to survive. I can give you all the money you want, but you don'92t need us. We need you.'92
'93I got to thinking about it after he was gone, what he was really saying. I'92m living now in a new world, but I still think about the old world. There are more young people that I'92m trying to bring into the new world, but they got to know about the old world too.'92'94
For King, the blues has always been a way to serve people. Now that he'92s getting his first experience with large-scale commercial success, his desire to serve continues to drive his music.
'93There'92s a spirit that dwells in everybody that don'92t care about the color of your skin,'94 he says. '93You'92ve got to serve that spirit, satisfy it, and I'92ve been doing it with the blues. Looking back to where I crawled from, I'92m happy. I'92m in peace because I stayed with it. I struggled with it, but I never kicked it aside. I always stayed with the blues.
'93From the Bible'92s standpoint, it'92s like Jesus said, '91Whatever you cast out on the water will come back many fold.'92 '93If you cast bad out there, it'92s coming back many fold. If you cast love and good out there, that comes back too. I'92m nearly 60 years old and I see my blessing unfolding at last. A lot of people can'92t understand why this is happening now to me. I say, '91Have you ever studied the bread that I cast out on the water?'92 All the excitement around me now is just a result of my trying to cast out more good than evil.
'93But I ain'92t letting nothing go to my head,'94 King says. '93I'92m just still on the road crawling. I don'92t want anything to distract me from what I'92ve got to do.'94