[NOTE: I suppose “obscurity” is a relative concept. Before the modern era, one would actually have had to “research” a person in various “hard copy” sources, before lamenting his or her “obscurity.” In more recent years, however, with the Internet in general, and “Google” and “Wikipedia” in particular, it has become harder to label someone as “obscure.”
And yet–imagine my surprise when, as I was using the Internet to find information about a lesser-known Blues performer, Willie “61” Blackwell, I ran across the following: On December 13, 2012, on “The Evening Blues,” one “Joe Shikspack” mentioned that Blackwell was “apparently too obscure to have a Wikipedia entry.”
And I thought, holy cow! You mean that there’s a Blues performer about whom there is either so little known or about whom there is so little interest that he/she doesn’t even rate a fan-driven entry in “Wikipedia”? That hardly seems fair!
So, I began to search for more information on Mr. Blackwell. Obviously, the results below, as the “Sources” reveal, are the product of research by other Blues fans, not by yours truly; for the most part, I’m only the compiler. But now, the story of Willie “61” Blackwell has a home, even if it’s not on Wikipedia!]
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Willie “61” Blackwell ” was born in LaGrange, Tennessee, on Dec. 25, 1905, and died sometime in 1972. He was introduced to the guitar by his father and by neighbors, but until the 1930s, Blackwell apparently considered the piano his main musical instrument. He didn’t concentrate on guitar until the late 1930s, after, in his telling, his left arm was severely injured by friends of a pianist he’d defeated in a talent contest. (We Blues historians have a word for such a story–“Ouch!”) A 1937 Memphis city directory listed Willie Blackwell as living at 207 Keel Ave., working as a “Musician.”
Detroit Blues musician Robert “Baby Boy” Warren claimed that his elder brother, Jack, helped Willie learn to play guitar after his “accident,” but Blackwell told one interviewer that none other than Blues legend Robert Johnson taught him the guitar. So, I guess, as Boss Plunkett of New York’s Tammany Hall Democratic organization once said, you pays your money and takes your choice.
An online “Willie ‘61’ Blackwell Discography” includes a picture of an elderly Blues performer, supposedly Willie Blackwell, taken by Mike Rowe and labeled “Beale Street, Memphis, 1970.” It also lists Blackwell’s eight recorded songs for the Bluebird label, all of which can be found most conveniently on a four-cd compilation album, When the Levee Breaks. The songs are as follows:
Disc 1, selection 12–“Four O’clock Flower Blues”; selection 22–“Noiseless Motor Blues”
Disc 2, selection 7–“Bald Eagle Blues”; selection 21–“She’s Young And Wild”
Disc 3, selection 3–“Machine Gun Blues”; selection 20–“Don’t Misuse Me, Baby”
Disc 4, selection 11–“Chalk My Toy”; selection 21–“Rampaw [sic, probably ‘Rampart’] Street Blues.”
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In the summer of 1942, Alan Lomax, traveling through the South to collect songs for the Library of Congress, met Blackwell and his friend William Brown on Beale Street in Memphis [See Lomax, The Land Where the Blues Began, pp.5-12.] Harassed by white Memphis policemen for consorting with the black performers, Lomax, along with Blackwell and Brown, headed across the Mississippi into Arkansas, where they visited a juke joint, Hamp’s Place, out in the middle of the cotton fields.
Lomax admits that he was more interested in recording Brown than Blackwell. He describes Blackwell as not particularly talented, already given over to drink, and unable to stay awake very long in the juke joint because of his consumption of moonshine. Lomax even writes that Blackwell, “although he was in his twenties,” had “eyes streaked with brown and his face had that muddy, blurred look, typical of alcoholic blacks.” (8) Which is interesting, because the only date for Blackwell’s birth that I’ve encountered in my research, 1905, would have made him not “in his twenties” but 37 in 1942. Still, there seems no question that, by the time Lomax encountered him, Willie Blackwell was pretty well in the grip of alcohol.
Whatever Blackwell’s age that night at Hamp’s Place, and however deep in his cups he was, Alan Lomax was able to coax from him both another version of his 1941 Bluebird release, “Four O’ Clock Flower Blues,”and one of the strangest Blues songs ever recorded, “A Jap Girl for Next Christmas from Santy Claus.”
When Alan Lomax asked Willie “How long have you been making up songs, Willie?” Blackwell responded, “Well, I’ve been just jivin’ on with verses all my life but I never had no opportunity and never was very interested in ’em and therefore was quite natural, come natural. . . .” Willie also explained that he had adopted his nickname, “61 because I rambles 61 Highway from Chicago clean down to New Orleans with my guitar for my buddy. . . .” (10)
Blackwell’s human Blues buddy, William Brown, told Lomax at Hamp’s Place that Willie “used to be good once. But whiskey gittin him. He worry too much. He always mad. . . . That poor boy never goin nowhere. I’m leavin before I get to be like him.” (12) Sounds like an epitaph, but there was more to Blackwell’s career
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After his two Library of Congress recordings with Alan Lomax, Willie Blackwell dropped “off the grid” for nearly two decades, not an unusual move for Blues performers whose careers had been decimated by the Great Depression. Sometime after 1942, perhaps as the explanation of his nickname “61” in his interview with Lomax suggested, Blackwell followed Highway 61 out of the Mississippi Delta to Chicago, part of the Great Migration, and from there to Flint, Michigan, where he worked at General Motors until his retirement.
Like a number of his contemporaries, Blackwell eventually was “rediscovered” during the 1960s “Blues Revival,” by Ron Harwood and Sam Stark. According to a 2007 online sketch from a writer calling himself “Bunker Hill,” Ron Harwood discussed Blackwell’s “rediscovery” in a Jazz Journal article, June 1967 (pp.6-7):
Finding someone named ’61’ in a city the size of Flint was not a pleasant thought. But after a few trips to Flint (80 minutes out of Detroit) and a fair share of blind alleys, we finally located Willie ’61’ Blackwell living about a mile from the Buick automotive plant. The nickname ’61’ was derived from a Bluebird recording that Willie made in 1942 called “Highway 61 Blues”. . . . The Northwest Folklore Society held a concert in which Willie appeared along with Little Sonny, Washboard Willie, Dr. Ross and Sippie Wallace. Prior to the concert, we had obtained very few complete songs by Willie. He was approaching senility and he constantly repeated the fact that he would soon be leaving for Chicago to record with ‘Big Bill [Broonzy, who had died in 1958].’ But in the concert, the applause of the audience snapped him out of his dream world and brought him round to singing all of his songs completely. . . . After he had finished playing guitar and singing we ran across the stage and seated him at the piano. Then, as if the past was clouding his eyes with memories, he began to play and sing as he had thirty-five years ago. Months of hard work melted into mere triviality as the piano banged out 1920’s Chicago style blues. It was a moment I shall never forget. . . .
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[Epilogue: A review of the cd compilationWhen the Levee Breaks includes the following about Blackwell, which can serve as a conclusion to this modest attempt to fill the gap left by the absence of an entry for Willie “61” Blackwell in “Wikipedia” :
As late as 1941, it was still possible for a highly individual performer to emerge, as Willie ’61’ Blackwell did. Blackwell had no great instrumental talent but his lyrics took an original line on otherwise mundane events and emotions.]
“Joe Shikspak” on Blackwell:
Brief Blackwell biography:
Blackwell song lyrics:
“When the Levee Breaks” compilation:
Review of “When the Levee Breaks” compilation:
Alan Lomax, The Land Where the Blues Began (New York: Pantheon, 1993), pp. 5-12.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject: