THE STORY TOLD BY SAMUEL B. CHARTERS - Will Shade, of the old Memphis Jug Band, still lives in a ramshackle house behind Beale
Street, and most of the older musicians in town drop around to see Will and talk for a moment when they're down on Beale Street shopping. Usually I stop by Will's whenever I'm in Memphis, and over the years he'd led me to other singers
like Gus Cannon, Charlie Burse, and Furry Lewis.
He was in poor
health when I stopped by in April 1961, recovering from a serious operation, but after we'd talked for a moments he mentioned that one of the blues singers he'd known in the 1930s had stopped by his place a few weeks before.
''His name's Willie B., I don't know what all his name is, but that's what we call
him, Willie B.'He's one of those real hard blues singers like you're always asking about''. He sat on his rumpled bed fumbling with the papers jammed into hos wallet. ''I put his number down somewhere''. Finally Will's wife, Jennie Mae Clayton,
who sang with him on the old recordings, found the piece of paper with Willie B.'s number on it folded into one of the wallet flaps. Will held it out. ''He's sing the real old hard blues for you''.
I called Willie B. over the weekend and asked him if he could come around to Shade's on the following Monday night.
Some people were coming over to sing and I wanted to hear some of Willie B.'s blues. It was already noisy when O got there, the room crowded and heavy with smoke. Charlie Burse was sitting on one of the beds trying to tune his tenor guitar
with Will's harmonica, and three or four people standing around the grimy iron stove were shouting an incoherent blues to the accompaniment of a broken ukelele that one of the women was playing. Willie B. arrived a half hour later, a
short, well built man in a light sport shirt and ripper jacket. He tuned his guitar to the harmonica, then to the noise of shouted arguments, heavy dancing, and shrill singing. Charlie, Will, and Willie B. began playing a fast blues.
At first I just sat in an unsteady chair listening. Willie seemed to be filling out the music with sudden runs or emphasizing the rhythm with sharp, percussive notes on the lower strings of the guitar. There was an unmistakeable presence
in his playing. After three or four numbers Burse broke a string and Will began arguing with a man from the room next to his about a note he was making on the harmonica. I leaned over and asked Willie B. to sing a blues. He picked up
his guitar again and began singing in a low voice. Even with the noise around him I could hear the intensity and emotional richness of his singing. It was as Will Shade had said, the ''…. real, old hard blues''.
Although Willie B. was born in Memphis on November 4, 1911, and raised in the city, his
roots are in the blues tradition of the rural South. His father, from Pocahontas, Tennessee, still plays the old bottle neck style, and Willie B. (the family name is Borum) learned some of his father's tunings, some of his songs, and
much of his feeling for the blues. He began playing the harmonica in the early 1930s, and his first teacher was the great Memphis harmonica player Noah Lewis. Lewis was recording regularly with Sleepy John Estes, and Willie
B. still remembers some of his old numbers. After Lewis, Willie met Sonny Boy Williamson and the two of them toured Arkansas with small blues groups working out of Memphis. From Sonny Boy he learned some of his singing style, and there
is still some of Williamson's shouted exuberance in Willie's singing. He worked with other blues singers in Memphis, and even played with the Memphis Jug Band for some of its engagements. Frank Stokes, who was recording regularly for
Paramount and Victor, took Willie out with him on trips down into Mississippi when Frank want to visit his family.
About 1937 Willie decided he'd have more chance as a musician if he learned the guitar and he has been playing both guitar and harmonica ever since. He recorded for the first time a year or so later.
He and another guitar player named Alan Shaw traveled to New York with a Memphis singer named Hattie Hart, and accompanied her on some recordings for the American Recording Corporation. Neither of them sang on the session.
The second World War interrupted Willie's musical career, and in January, 1942, he went into the service. In December, 1942, he took part in the first North Africa invasion; then went into the later landings in Sicily and Italy. As the
war's end he was with a Quartermaster unit in the Italy mountains, and in 1946 he returned to Memphis and took a job with the Buckeye Soys Bean Oil Company. Except for a three year interval from 1950 to 1952, when he studied radio and
television repair on the G.I. Bill, he has been at the same job. He married two years ago and lives in a new home he and his brother have built on the outskirts of Memphis, working his day job during the week, and doing repair work on
Although Willie made the decision to take another
job when he left the Army, he has never stopped playing and singing the blues. Even in the Army, he spent his last year as a Colonel's driver, spending most of his time singing for parties. Since then he has been working picnics, dances,
and occasional club jobs, usually with three or four piece blues bands, but sometimes just by himself. He hasn't been playing as much since his marriage, but he still works on new blues, and whenever there's a family party he usually
sings. Sometimes his father will join in, playing one of his old bottleneck blues. During the afternoons that we worked together selecting numbers for his recording session neighbors would often stop to listen to Willie's playing and singing.
They'd sit for a minute or two; then they'd turn to me and say, ''He really can sing them old blues''.
During a long session one afternoon Willie stopped singing for a moment and began talking about the blues. He said, ''A blues is about something that's real it's about what a man feels when his wife leaves him that
he can't do anything about. That's why none of these young boys can really sing the blues. They don't know about the things that go into a blues''. His blues like ''Mailman Blues, ''Country Girl Blues'' and ''Stop Cryin' Blues''
have an emotional sincerity that reflects this attitude. One of his best numbers in his own ''Overseas Blues'', written in the early summer of 1945. There was a rumor that troops from Italy would be sent to the far East to finish the
war against Japan. ''Overseas Blues'' is his unhappy comments on the situation. Two of his most exciting performance were ''Brownsville Blues'' and ''Worried Man Blues''. For these blues, he returned the guitar to his father's old tuning
and used an improvised astinato rhythm on the bass strings with much of the feeling of the older blues styles. These two blues, with their fusion of musical elements from different periods of blues development, express the rich variety
of his musical background. ''The Stuff Is Here'', with its harmonica introduction, has some of the style of the old Memphis Jug band.
One of the most surprising aspects of Willie B's style is his technical virtuosity. He is a brilliant instrumentalist on either guitar and harmonica and plays the two of them
together with the same excitement. He is able to play the harmonica with the same ''choking'' and slurring that other players need both hands for and his guitar is a driving. Insistent counter voice to both his harmonica and his strong
singing. He is an intense, moving singer in the greatest blues tradition.
Even Willie B. was surprised at the sound of his performances when he listened to the first playbacks. He shook his head, ''I was kind of nervous, you know, but that's really the blues. That's the blues just like we were
During the summer months the soya bean oil plant
where Memphis Willie B. has a day job goes on to double shift haring back the men that have been laid off over the spring, putting on some extra crews, and giving everybody a chance to get in a little extra work. When I stopped by his
house on a close, oppressive morning in August he was sitting back in the work shop behind his house, his guitar on the couch beside him, sitting back in a tired slump. He shook his head, ''I've been working a little extra time, you know,
going in the afternoon and working until we get everything in at night. We didn't get done until two thirty this morning. After a while, working like that for a week or so, you begin to get a little tired''. There were some sheets of paper
scattered on the couch underneath the guitar, and a notebook left open on the work table in the center of the room,It was a hot sticky morning, the air slack and unmoving. Willie got up to turn on a noisy fan at one end of the room and
there was a flurry of loose papers from the couch. The pages of the notebook fluttered across the table. As we picket them up, putting them under the weight of the guitar I noticed that they were blues. I asked Willie about them, ''They're
just some blues I been working on'' he answered.
''How do you
have time to write anything when you're working?'', I asked him.
smiled. ''It's working that gives me my ideas. I walk around the plant at night, when if's quiet you know, and I can hear men talking. Some of them is crying that their wife has left them or that she isn't doing them right, and somebody
else is saying that his girl's took up with somebody else. I hear all that and that's what I put into my blues. I come back here and write down the things, rhymed up, of course. I make the verse and things right when I'm still there walking
around at the job''.
One of the qualities that immediately sets
apart the singing of a major blues artist, like Memphis Willie B., is the intensity of the emotional experience which is communicated and sustained by the verbal poetry of his performance. Although the blues has been developed and exploded
into an often than and repetitive popular music idiom the original function of the blues, which was the expression of personal emotion, or the description of personal experience and attitude, is still live and vital. In developing a blues
there is this a quality of ''hearing man talk'' and there is mechanical process of making the verse and developing the verse around the central idea. The subject matter the blues is limited, usually the theme is of some aspect of love, just
as is the theme of most American popular music, and over the years there have been built up a number of verses which fit almost any situation. For many singers the creation of a blues is limited to a hurried selection of the standard
verses to suit the mood without consideration of a personal expression, or attitude. Since the form of the blues is rather rigid usually the standard three line rhyme with similar rhythmic stress and length for each verse, the repertoire
of conventional verses can be used almost without alteration or development. As a result most blues are disappointed in their lack of originality or individuality Often the singers are not entirely at fault certainly. An ambitious singer
must produce an unceasing flow of new material, and usually he is forced to begin using whatever he can find lying around to put a blues together. Although Willie B. uses many of the conventional blues verses, as do all blues singers,
he is unlike most singers in that he uses the conventions to develop ideas which have an immediacy of emotional expression.
In ''Lonesome Home Blues'' he begins,
''It's lonesome in my home, just me, and myself alone,
Lonesome in my home, just me and myself alone
I ain't got nobody to love me, Lord, and my baby gone''.
It is a statement of a popular blues theme is the second verse he develops the idea with a particular example, touchingly personal.
''Oh in my sleep, I could hear her call my name
In my sleep, I could hear me call my name
Lord, when I feel over beside me, I couldn't see
a doggone thing''.
In the third verse he turns from his own unhappiness to a general statement of his situation.
''A room without a woman is like a car
without a steering wheel
A room without a woman is like a car
without a steering wheel
And if you ever been mistreated, Lord,
you know just how I feel''.
From this general
reflection, part of the store of conventional blues verses, he turns again to his own feelings, almost as though he had stood up and walked across his empty room to stare unhappily out of the window.
''I wake up early every morning and my pillow
be soaking wet.
I wake up early every morning and my pillow
And I be looking for my baby and she ain't
even come home
With his last verse he returns to the general mood with
which he began the blues, ending with a final defeated shrug.
Lord, I'm lonesome as I can be.
Lonesome, Lord, I'm lonesome as I can be.
I wonder why my baby, why she don't
come back to me''.
Using the attitudes of a blues convention with a personal emotionalism, and developing the attitudes with a careful pattern of general statement and particular as example, Willie
B. has created a blues of considerable strength and vividness.
Willie B is able to catch with a line or phrase an almost unforgettable picture. In a few words in ''Funny Caper Blues'' he describes the scene a man finds when he visit his unfaithful woman.
''Everytime I see you I catch you in your gown
hair all mussed up your window shade
On the can picture an unsatisfactory relationship in a wry verse in ''Hard Working Man Blues'' he sings,
''Every morning before payday, you treat me
like a queen trest a king.
Every morning before payday, you treat me
like a queen treat a king.
And when I get my money in your hand you treat
me like somebody you never seen''.
These are the classic qualities of the blues, and in blues like these Willie B. shows
his complete mastery of idiom. There is, however, a development of the blues style into a personal almost narrative statement of some particular event. In his first album ''Introducing Memphis Willie B.'' (Bluesville 1034) Willie sang
one of these blues, an account of his experiences in the army in Italy called ''Overseas Blues''. In his second album ''Hardworking Man Blues'' (Bluesville 1048) he has included a blues about his induction into the army, ''Uncle
Sam Blues''. It is in blues of this distinctive type that Willie B.'s singing becomes most personal, while still remaining part of the blues idiom, and they are perhaps among his most interesting performances. As he sings in ''Uncle Sam
''Lord I got bad news, I'm gong to tell you
what it's all about.
I got bad news for you baby, I'm going to tell you
what's it's all about.
You know Uncle Sam's having trouble overseas
and he want's me to help me out''.
''You know the doctor Ok'd me, and I'm glad
there was nothing wrong.
You know the doctor Ok'd me, and I'm glad
there was nothing wrong.
only thing I hate, I've got to leave you
here all alone''.
''I get up early in the morning
I've got to check with my local board.
I get up early in the morning
I've got to check with my local board.
It's going to be so lonesome without you
going down that lonesome road''.
'' Hold on Baby, I'll be back someday.
Hold on baby, I'll be back someday.
Lord don't let nobody drive my little girl astray''.
''You hear that train blowing,
calling little Willie I know.
''You hear that train blowing,
calling little Willie I know.
Baby you know the condition,
booked out and bound to go.
So bye, bye, little girl, don't forget to write
bye, bye, little girl, don't forget to write
Lord, I'll be thinking of you both day and night''.
I would be difficult to express emotion with a more tersely honest simplicity and directness, and in each of Willie B.'s blues
there is much of this same quality.