Blessed with the devil’s music
T-Model Ford lost about 40 years he could have been singing the blues. During an interview from his adopted hometown of Greenville, Mississippi, the 89-year-old musician said that he first picked up a guitar when he was 58 years old.
“One day,” he said, “my third wife come out of the kitchen — I just come home in my truck — and she said, ‘ Hey, hon. Did you see your present?’
“I said, ‘ What present?’ and she said, ‘I went shopping today and I ran up on a guitar and an amplifier for $50 and I bought them.’ I said, ‘ Oh, baby, you’re spendin’ my money on something like that? As old as I is, I can’t play no guitar.’ ”
Nevertheless, he found that he had some music in him, working up his own distinctive playing style on that old guitar. “It was a Gibson. It sounded good,” said Ford, who plays with his band Gravel Road in Taos, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque this weekend. The Santa Fe show is part of the Santa Fe Blues Festival on Saturday, March 27, presented by Southwest Roots Music and billed as a “five-hour blues-and-barbecue event for all ages.” It also features music by Soul Kitchen, Jake Lear, and Harmonica Mike Handler & Marc Malin.
“It’s warm down here,” Ford said in early March. “Sun’s shining pretty.” Greenville is in western Mississippi, almost in Arkansas, but he grew up (as James Lewis Carter Ford) in the small town of Forest, in central Mississippi. By the time he was 11, he was plowing furrows in the fields on his family’s farm, guiding the plow behind a mule.
As a teenager, Ford worked for a sawmill in the Forest area, and then went on to drive a truck for a lumber supplier. He grew up poor, with no radio, and if he had the desire to go out and hear some live music, he had to do it surreptitiously. His father, a mean and abusive man, considered the blues played in juke joints and at parties the “devil’s music” and forbade the young man from seeing performances.
His ability to teach himself blues guitar and vocals later in life, though, related to his youthful appreciation for the music. Asked what musicians he listened to when he was learning, in his late 50s, he said, “Well, I wasn’t listening to nobody. I heard Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf when I was a boy. That sound got in my head and I never did forget it.”
Ford’s self-taught blues can, in one sense, be described as a looser version of the formidable performance approaches exemplified by those two men. McKinley Morganfield, who later changed his name to Muddy Waters, was born in 1915 in western Mississippi. He grew up in Clarksdale, which is, appropriately, the home of the Delta Blues Museum. In 1941, musicologist Alan Lomax recorded Waters, who was known for his prowess on slide guitar. Two years later, the bluesman moved to Chicago, where he would become the famous face of that city’s heady blues scene.
Howlin’ Wolf — another bluesy nickname; he was born Chester Arthur Burnett — was also a Mississippian, five years older than Waters and 11 years Ford’s senior. Known primarily as a tremendously aggressive, thunderous vocalist, he learned the blues first-hand from Charley Patton, one of the originators of the Delta blues style; and learned harmonica from another blues elder, Sonny Boy Williamson II. He went north to Chicago in the early 1950s and, like Waters, had a series of impressive bands featuring players like Hubert Sumlin and Willie Dixon.