Blessed with the devil’s mu­sic

Pasatiempo - - Onstage This Week - Paul Wei­de­man The New Mex­i­can

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.

Soul Kitchen

T-Model Ford

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