On a recent trip to New York I spent a happy couple of hours browsing the Barnes and Noble bookstore on East 17th Street. I love American bookstores. I love American books. They have a different feel in my hand as soon as I pick one up. There are other small differences too, such as the type-face.
The book I bought was a biography of Buddy Guy, by David Ritz.
Life being how it is, it took me almost a year to read it. Once I started, I couldn’t put it down.
Buddy Guy is considered among the best blues guitarists alive today. He was a regular session player at Chess Records. He was a sideman in the bands of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. He and Junior Wells formed a band of their own, and in the 1960s he became a recording star in his own right.
His life story (told in his own words) has so much to tell that I don’t feel one blog post could do it justice. Let’s start right at the beginning.
You might be looking through a book of pictures or walking through a museum where they got photographs of people picking cotton back in the 1940s.
Your eye might be drawn to a photo of a family out in the fields. There’s a father with his big ol’ sack filled with cotton. There’s a woman next to him – maybe his wife, maybe his sister. And next to them is a boy, maybe nine years old. He got him a flour sack. That’s all he can manage. After all, it’s his first day picking.
That little boy could be me. I started picking at about that age. I stood next to my daddy, who showed me how to do the job right.
Depending where you coming from, you could feel sorry for that little boy, thinking he’s being misused. You could feel he’s too young to work like that. You could decide that the world he was born into – the world of sharecropping – was cruel and unfair. And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Except that if that boy was me and you were able to get inside my little head, you’d find that I was happy being out there with my daddy, doing the work that the big people did. I wanted to be grown and help my family any way I could.
Didn’t know anything else except the land and the sky and the seasons and the fruits and the fish and the horses and the cows and the pigs and the pecans and the birds and the moss and the white cotton that we prayed came up plentiful enough to give us enough money to make it through the winter.
I saw the world through the eyes of my mama and daddy. Their eyes were looking at the earth. The earth had to yield. If it did, we ate, if it didn’t, we scrambled. Because we didn’t have no electricity – not for the first twelve years of my life – we were cut off from what was happening outside our little spot in Louisiana called Lettsworth.
I didn’t know it at the time, but we were living and farming like people lived and farmed a hundred years before. When I got my little flour sack and went out in the field, I was doing something my people had been doing ever since we were herded up like cattle in Africa, sent out on slave boats, and forced to work the land of the southern states of America. That fact was something that came into my mind when I was an adult playing my music in Senegal. Someone brought me to the Point of No Return, one of the places where slaves were sent off to make that terrible Atlantic crossing. Maybe that’s where the blues began.
But to me – nine-year-old George Buddy Guy, son of Sam and Isabell Guy, born July 30, 1936 – black history was not part of the elementary schooling I got at the True Vine Baptist Church. That’s where I was taught to use utensils and read little books about white children called Dick and Jane. Black people weren’t in those books. Blacks weren’t part of history. All we knew was the present time. We knew today, and today meant shuck the corn and feed the pig and go to school in the evenings after our chores was done.
I had fears – snakes and lightning and ghosts who were said to haunt the graveyards. But I had something bigger than those fears – a feeling of family. Back then, family feeling was stronger than it is today. If you had a righteous mom and dad like I did, they could make you feel that, no matter what, everything was all right. If you had two older sisters like mine, and two younger brothers, who always had your back, you felt protected.
We lived in a wooden shack built up on pillars. When it was blistering hot and we wanted to escape the heat, we’d go under the cabin where the dirt was cool. The inside was just a couple rooms and a wood-burning stove. No running water. We pumped the water into a tub for our weekly baths. We also used those tubs to soak the pecans we picked so that when we sold them by the pound, they weighed a little more.
Our work never stopped. The business broke down like this: a family owned the land and got half of everything we produced. When I was younger we lived on a smaller farm. But when I turned eight we moved to a larger plantation. That land was enormous. I ran around that land barefoot and learned to shoot a barrel shotgun. If I went out in the woods with my dog and came home with a bird or rabbit, I’d get a pat on the back from Daddy and a hug from Mama. During dinner that night I might get seconds.
We farmed six days a week. There were no such things as parties on Saturday night. Sunday was church. Church was happy because the music was happy. I was taught that we didn’t just use our voices or tambourines to praise God – we used our whole bodies. Wasn’t no shame in jumping and shouting for the Lord.
First music I heard – music that touched my heart – wasn’t made by no man. It was the music of the birds. They was singing in the morning and singing at night. I could follow the different melodies made by different birds. How did they learn their songs? Why were they pretty? When they sang I’d close my eyes so that everything disappeared except those chirpy songs that made me realise that the world was filled with beautiful sounds.
My folks only had a third-grade education, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t appreciate talent. There was a man named Henry Smith who had talent. Daddy called him Coot and made sure he came. He over every Christmas with his two-string guitar. They’d give him wine and have him play. His was the first guitar I ever saw. The finest one I ever touched. I watched him pick the thing with his fingers and produce a sound that gave me goosebumps.
When I first heard Coot we still didn’t have no electricity which meant no radio or records. Coot would take a wooden chair, sit himself down, put the guitar on his lap and make it talk. Just two strings. His voice wasn’t big, but it went good with the music. Told a story. Made you stop and listen. Naturally, he had no drummer but when he kept time by stomping his foot on the wooden floor, you felt like dancing. You felt like playing and singing yourself.
You best believe I studied Coot. I saw how him and that guitar were connected. It was his woman, his baby, his friend. He stroked it like you stroke a dog. He made it cry and made it laugh. He made me wanna get one.
This is an excerpt from:
When I Left Home
Buddy Guy with David Ritz