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Can I tell you about the blues?
Baby, I was born with the blues...
So begins the fictional memoir Been Here and Gone, the extraordinary story of an all-but-forgotten bluesman, Coley Williams. A backup musician to some of the most famous and infamous figures in the annals of blues music, and a former recording artist in his own right, Williams had a backstage pass to a world that most of us could never even ...
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Can I tell you about the blues?
Baby, I was born with the blues...
So begins the fictional memoir Been Here and Gone, the extraordinary story of an all-but-forgotten bluesman, Coley Williams. A backup musician to some of the most famous and infamous figures in the annals of blues music, and a former recording artist in his own right, Williams had a backstage pass to a world that most of us could never even imagine. In 1998 at the astonishing age of one hundred and two, Williams agreed to tell his tale for the first time. We can only be thankful for the fruits this "collaboration" with renowned author David Dalton has yielded: as funny, furious and funky as a lick on a talking guitar, Dalton's rhythmic prose captures the inimitable voice of a man who walks it like he talks it without missing a beat.
From his youth as a tenant farmer on the Mississippi plantations to the Great Migration to the Northern cities, from his incarceration in the notorious Sugarland prison farm to the temptations of freedom on the open road, from the juke joints of the deep South to the stages of Swinging London, Coley Williams' life is at once the story of the blues and the story of the twentieth century. Across a hundred years of tumultuous change, we follow him through the hardships of the Flood of 1927 and the hardscrabble years of the Great Depression, the race riots of the 1960s and the birth of the Civil Rights movement. Along the way, Williams' vividly recounted anecdotes introduce us to the pantheon of blues legends whose paths he crossed: Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson, Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, the immortal Robert Johnson, and even the young Elvis Presley. Raucous, rambunctious, and often downright dangerous, these larger-than-life musicians, singers, and all-around rabble-rousers live again in Williams' wonderfully colorful recollections. And of course, throughout it all, there is the music: whether it's the plaintive and lonely sound of the Mississippi Delta or Chicago's lowdown and dirty electric hellfire brew. Here is the boisterous blues in all its hues-salty and soulful and sad with a glimmer of hard-won hope always singing out beyond the last note.
Been Here and Gone is a highly personalpanorama of the century as seen and experiencedby one of the most remarkable figures in recentliterature. It is at once a wildly inventive epic, aheartfelt testament to the people and places of avanishing era, and an invaluable contribution tothe literature of - music and popular culture thatwill fascinate blues fans, history buffs, and generalreaders alike. If Coley Williams' story (to quotethe old son) was nearly the "Blues the WorldForgot," then Been Here and Gone is just the tonicwe need to refresh our memories and remindourselves of the vitality of this music and thepeople who have lived it. Here before us is theAmerican Century, set to the tune of the Americanmusic. Can I tell you about the blues? Baby, I wasborn with the blues...
The Hoodoo Bash
My hundredth birthday near to did me in, if it was my hundredth that is.
They say I was found one hundred years ago yesterday. Found is what folks used to call bein borned. See, in the old days people believed that everything that ever was or ever will be was already out there in the universe. Volcanoes, baby snakes, toasters, alligator shoes, plaid pants and downhome blues. I just happen to be floatin down the Milky Way when Mama and Papa caught me, and that's the truth. You can believe it or not.
I was countin on spendin a nice peaceful day with my great-great-grandkids or whatever they is, sippin lemonade and eatin pecan pie. Vida Lee's pecan pie is one of the things that has allowed me to see this day. Right now, I'm just too tired to hunt for the recipe but if you're still around later...
Where was I? Oh yeah, the so-called birthday. As I say, I went to bed the night before, dreamin I was in a boxcar headin down to Mobile, that's right, but I woke up to something sounded like I left the police scanner on all night. When I lifted the shade to see what all the fuss was about I wanted to pull the covers over my head and crawl right on back into my boxcar dream.
I was livin in a trailer out on Highway 61 near Robinsonville. With Vida Lee of course. Vida Lee is my wife and the lady what puts the pecans in my pie. Anyway. Out by the side of the road was a whole mess a people I had never in my life seen before. There was the local TV news from Memphis pullin up in a van, there was pickups and limousines and VW buses full of hairy kids. It was like the circus come to town.
There was faces atthe window, there was faces at the door. Someone was knockin like a fatback drummer on a lard-pail lid.
"Who the hell is that?" I asked Vida Lee.
"Says he's Willard Scott from the Today show and he wants for you to come and blow out the candles on this here guitar-shaped cake."
"Tell him to blow 'em out his own damn self."
Now the phone start ringin in the hall and naturally Vida Lee got to answer, much as I am forever tellin her to let the thing ring. Damn invasion of privacy is what it is.
"Just pick it up, ya old fart," she tells me. "It's the President! He wants to wish you happy birthday."
"President of what?" I asks. She ignore me as usual.
Covers the receiver with her hand and tells me, "Now, honey, don't get mad but he seems to think you're Muddy Waters. Whatever he says just say, 'Thank you, uh, your Honor.'"
"The hell I will," I told her. "This is my hundredth. Let him say what he wants at his hundreth."
That, by the way, is more or less the story of how I came to not speak with the President of the United States. A memory I shall treasure forever.
Now how the word got out 'bout my hundredth, I still do not know for sure, but by noon people was queuing up to get in. The BBC was there, the Blues Channel, God rest my soul, French television, CNN, and Entertainment Tonight.
All shovin mikes in my face, askin all kinda stupid questions to which there ain't no answers anyways: "What is the blues? Where do it come from? How's it feel to be this old?"
Also: "What is your secret and can it be bottled?" And: "Is it true you knew Lincoln and Whitman and Billy the Kid?" Not to mention: "Give your opinion of kids today and what do you want your tombstone to say?"
Seems I'm the last of my kind. Like I was a passenger pigeon,or a two-headed calf. Oh man, a hundred-year-old bluesman is a sight to see.
"Woman," I says to Vida Lee, "you been down at the post office broadcastin on your own personal frequency?"
"What in hell you expect you turn a hundred years? You a celebrity, baby, a Delta dinosaur. Hell, you on the mornin news. You're historical, like Paul Revere's horse or something."
I was gettin tired. I wanted to lay down on my waterbed, smoke some grass, drink some whiskey, and watch Hee Haw on the television.
One thing about gettin this old, you miss the people who was close to you. You mention Charley Patton, Ma Rainey to these kids today they don't know who the hell you talkin about.
It was too many people and too many bottles. I was drunk and stoned, that's right, and pretty soon I passed out with my head in the cake.
By and by up come Marie the Prophetess, two-headed woman from New Orleans, her cowrie shells janglin as she walked. She musta been a hundred and twenty if she was a day. Had wrinkles on her like knee-socks. She didn't look all that good to tell the truth, but I was amazed to see her walkin at all.
"My my, don't you look good for a hundred years; still handsome I see."
'Course I know just what she's doin, so I just say, "I shoulda. knowed I'd see you and your bag of tricks, today bein today and all."
'Well, I couldn't miss your hundredth, baby, now could I? You lonely, Coley? I figured you for lonely."
"With all these damn people here?"
"But you don't really know these people, do you? When you get to our age all your real friends is in the past."
"And a good thing too." I tells her that. . .