Friday, November 18, 2011

Delta Blues Odyssey . . . Sonny Boy Williamson II

"You name it whatcha wanna
You name it your mammy, if you wanna"

"King of the Harmonica" . . . Alex "Rice" Miller . . . Sonny Boy Williamson II

He was the quintessential bluesman, in that so much about him is caught up in myth, conflicting information and dates, etc., much of it just outright lies/claims by Sonny Boy himself. For instance, the name Sonny Boy Williamson . . . that "II" is on there for a reason. Even though Rice Miller claimed to be the "real" Sonny Boy Williamson, another bluesman by that same name had been playing since the early 1930's, and was murdered in 1947. The shame is that because his name was appropriated by Rice Miller, John Lee " Sonny Boy" Williamson I has become somewhat forgotten . . . even though you are familiar with some of his songs . . . "Good Morning, School Girl."

Rice Miller was born in Glendora, MS . . . a sleepy little town that harbors a very dark and depressing past (we will touch upon this in a future blog entry).

Some of Glendora's dark past relates directly to Rice Miller for he was "born on a plantation owned by Selwyn Jones, who was called to task by Mississippi Governor Earl Brewer for mistreatment of African Americans in 1915; in earlier years at least a dozen lynchings had been reported in Tallahatchie County, including several in Glendora."

Finally a museum that was open and allowed photography . . . The Delta Cultural Center in Helena, Arkansas. If we were able to stay a few more hours we could have taken part in a live radio broadcast by the KFFA studio, which is now located in the museum.

Little Jailhouse Gumbo and the famous the King Biscuit Time drums. The King Biscuit Time radio program is the longest running radio program going, and it is where Rice Miller became Sonny Boy Williamson. The sponsor of the radio program, the Interstate Grocery Company, began to bill Rice Miller as Sonny Boy Williamson to capitalize on the popularity of the original (who rarely came south). After John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson died, Rice Miller started billing himself as the "original" Sonny Boy!

What remains of the rooming house where Sonny Boy Williamson died in Helena, Arkansas.

Capitalizing on the success of the radio program, the Interstate Grocery Company put out Sonny Boy Corn Meal. This old trailer is parked across the street from where the original building for the company once stood. Apparently, it had been donated to the Delta Cultural Center, but was in such bad shape (like much of Helena) that it had to be demolished.

Part of the logo for Sonny Boy Corn Meal . . . Little Jailhouse Gumbo got a t-shirt with this image on it.

"The weirdest music I had ever heard" . . . W. C. Handy

It was here in Tutwiler, MS, that Handy first encountered the blues (while waiting for a train). Credited by many as "the Father of the Blues," he was more of a popularizer of the musical form.

Above . . . One of many murals in Tutwiler. This one depicts Sonny Boy who is buried not far outta town. While in town, our touristy actions garnered the attention of a fairly inebriated local who engaged me in conversation (after the requisite bumming of money) about how "everyone in these parts has a nickname." There was one called 'Red', and one called this and that (I can't remember the whole list, for it went on for awhile), and "one called 'Fly', because they say he favors a fly!" So, in my mind this begs the question . . . "well, what is your nickname?" And he replies without the slightest hint of irony, "I don't have a nickname."

If you need a harmonica, I know where you can find one, or two, or . . .

Buried near two sisters (who tragically died in a house fire at the ages of 89 and 95), Sonny Boy's grave remained unmarked for 12 years before this monument was placed by the owner of Trumpet Records.

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