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Blues Mandolin Man: The Life and Music of Yank Rachell

Blues Mandolin Man: The Life and Music of Yank Rachell

by Richard Congress, David Evans (Foreword by)

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Yank Rachell and his mandolin playing style moved every musician lucky enough to hear him perform in the early sixties. When he died in April 1997, he left behind a stack of unanswered requests to tour Europe and to play blues festivals in the United States.

In Blues Mandolin Man: The Life and Music of Yank Rachell, Richard Congress delivers the first


Yank Rachell and his mandolin playing style moved every musician lucky enough to hear him perform in the early sixties. When he died in April 1997, he left behind a stack of unanswered requests to tour Europe and to play blues festivals in the United States.

In Blues Mandolin Man: The Life and Music of Yank Rachell, Richard Congress delivers the first biography of a family man whose playing inspired and energized the likes of David Honeyboy Edwards, Sleepy John Estes, and Henry Townsend. No other biography discusses the mandolin's influence and role in the blues.

Guitar great Ry Cooder said, "Yank's style fascinated me because it had a lot of power and it's very raw-and what a great thing to do, just attack this little instrument like that."

Charlie Musselwhite, the noted harp player, worked with Rachell and club hopped in Chicago with the elder bluesman. "He just had a great spirit about him," Musselwhite said of Rachell's playing and singing, "really just shouting it out. If the world was made up of people like Yank Rachell it would be a wonderful place to live."

Blues Mandolin Man chronicles the life, times, and music of a man who was born into a family of sharecroppers in 1910 in rural western Tennessee. An active musician for 75 years, Rachell mastered several musical instruments and first recorded for Victor in Memphis in 1929. Through the blues, Rachell's world expanded to include Chicago, New York, recording studios and, after the sixties, radio, TV, and national and European tours.

Yank's recollections reveal new information about personalities and events that will delight blues history buffs. Rich appendixes detail Yank's mandolin and guitar style and his place in the blues tradition.

For this book Richard Congress, who reissued two of Rachell's old LPs in CD format, worked closely with him to record memories spanning decades of blues playing. Congress tells a compelling and engaging story about a colorful and thoughtful character who as a child picked cotton and plowed a field behind a mule, who grew to manhood coping with the southern Jim Crow system, and who participated in the creation and perpetuation of the blues.

Richard Congress is the owner of Random Chance Records, a record company based in New York City.

Product Details

University Press of Mississippi
Publication date:
American Made Music Series
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Well, in the house when I was growin' up we had them old straw ticks,you know, made out of straw, bed tick. Straw in 'em. And then youhave them shucks tore up and put in your bed. Well, you sleep on that. Didn'thave no mattress or nothin' like that then. Way back, didn't have no mattress.No.

    You work all day, go out in the fields and work from sun to sun. Comeback, you take a bath in an old tin tub and wash. But you got to pack thewater, carry it in a pail, you know, and make a fire and heat the water beforeyou get in the tub to take a bath. Had that old, big bar of yellow soap andyou take a bath in that. And you go to bed and get up in the morning. Yougo to the field about sunup, and the sun go down and you come back in andyou got to pack that water again. Make a fire and heat up the water and takea bath.

    My family sharecropped. The man furnish you a house and furnish youwith a team of horses to work with. And the man go to town and open up atrade for you, so you'd get your groceries. And about every week you'd goand get groceries or something, get an allowance, to carry you that week.My daddy didn't own no tools. The man furnish everything. Furnish yourmules, plow, and tools. At the end of the year you had to pay what he furnishyou, groceries, coffee, flour. That fall when you get your cotton youhad to pay him.

    The end of the year come the man say, "Well, you like to got out thisyear, but next year maybe you'll pay out." See, they done got all the moneythen, you know. There wadn't nothin' for you. "But maybe you'll get out andgit it up next year. Youlack a little payin' it all out. Next year maybe you'llmake it out." You clear some money in a way. But you'll never clear out, neverget out of debt.

    "Well, maybe you'll get out next year." They done got all the money. Allthat kind of stuff, you know. He say that. He out there settin' under a tree.He out settin' on the porch and you, you're out there in the hot sun, hoeingcotton row by row.

    My daddy used to cook sorghum, make molasses and everything. Sorghumgrow like corn, and you go out and cut that sorghum and you cut the headoff, lay it down there. And they got a mill. You hitch your mule to it andyou take that sorghum and you put it in that mill. And that mill go aroundand ground that juice out the sorghum. It run into that pan. They got a longpan to cook it in and they skim it. And the mule goin' around and around.

    The sorghum get done, then they put it in jars. And they make that goodmolasses. They keep it too long, it turn to sugar. In wintertime you don'tfeel like cookin'. You put bread in the fireplace and rake back the ashes. Makeup some cornbread and put it down in there in those bricks. Put some ashesover the top of the bread. It come out brown. It ash cake. Brush it off andeat it with that sorghum that went to sugar, you got a good dish. Eat someside meat. You done kill a hog, and you eat that. We enjoyed it.

    I was seven years old when I started to work in the fields, until I wasabout seventeen. Seventeen, eighteen, I hung it up! I hung it up, man. Gettin'that old mule and hitch 'em up. Plow one row at a time. Ohhhhhhhh!

    Twelve o'clock bell ring and you go to the house, eat lunch. Then yougo back out there. Well, you may go out early in the morning. Come outabout eleven o'clock. It's hot. Wait until later in the evening and go backwhen it's cool. You lay back your cotton, and later, after a while, you seeyour cotton blooming. After while, cotton boll come on. Later on cottonopen and then you gonna get them old long sacks, start pickin' cotton.

    Got a big wagon and you empty that cotton in there and take it to a gin.They take the lint off that cotton and leave the seed. Well, we get the seedon it, some of it. And they make a bale of cotton out of it. They got thingsto make a big bale of cotton. Five hundred pounds, that what they do allday long. Five hundred dollar for a bale of cotton. You may raise five bale ofcotton, you may have ten bale of cotton.

    The man go round with a sample.

    "Well, we goin' see how much cotton is today." And he carry the sampleup there. Come back.

    "Well, they say so much a pound. You want to sell your bale?"


    Take the bale up there and sell it. Get some money out of it. And he getthe money. You done got the seed money and you gin your cotton. The seedcome out of the cotton. But the lint, they bale it up.

    I'm telling you, man, country's something else. But I enjoyed it. I didn'tknow no better. I lived so far back in the country my breath smelled likecordwood!

    We was livin' on the man's farm. He own that house, the man furnishyou a house to stay in. We grow cotton, corn, peas, all of that. But the mainthing is the cotton. That's what made the money. Other things you use.

    Some peoples get so far in debt they run off the land. Some of 'em didthat, run off. 'Cause they got too much in debt. No. We stayed there. Workedfor the white people. Bailin' hay, plowin', cuttin' wood. I never did run off.Always tried to do the right thing. I ain't got no background that I know of,from my days up to now. They got nothin' about Yank. Now some of 'emrent. When you rent a place, everything on the farm is yours. Say you renttwenty acres, well, everything you raise on it is yours.

    My daddy didn't like the city. I tried to get him to come to the city. No,he ain't comin' up here eatin' wasp's nests. He called white bread wasp's nests.He said, "I ain't eatin' that wasp's nest. I want to eat me some corn bread andstay on the farm and raise my meat." And that's what he did. He never didcome into the city. After I growed up, I left and stayed in the city. But I goout and see about 'em and sometime make a crop with 'em, but I'll be in thecity.

    My daddy was Indian, part Indian. He used to carry mail on a horse andbuggy. Ya got ya a mailbox, ya hear him: "Hayoooooo!" Hand raised. Heuse to carry mail and he always talk about north. Go north. Don't stay hereamongst these folks. Go north. Had Indian in him. Don't know what tribe.

    'Round our house nothing but trees, grass, out in the country. In the oldcountry house you could lay in bed and see the sun rise. Them old cracks inthe house. My house was about half a mile from the road. It was made ofwood. Some of 'em were made of logs and had that dirt between the logs.We had shutters, no glass windows. They didn't paint no house then, not inthe country. Inside the house we didn't have much furniture. Some of thehouses I lived in—we moved around some and work on another farm—hada porch, some didn't.

    Had a barn there, chickens and a henhouse. Daddy had a vegetable garden.Had greens, onions, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, peas. Didn't haveto buy nothing much but a little flour and a little sugar and coffee. We raisedeverything. Ain't like here, you have to pay for water and sewer and all thatjunk.

    When I got big enough to work, I could haul cotton, corn. Had to walka piece to the field. Take that long hoe, and hoe that cotton.

    I had two brothers. They worked in the fields too. Leslie was the oldestbrother. A. B. was the baby boy. I'm the middle son. We all used to play musictogether, we three brothers.

    They passed away a long time ago. The baby boy, he was seventeen whenhe passed away. My baby brother was on a wagon one day. They had tohaul wood. Went out in the country to cut wood in the bottoms, in the woods.So we could make a fire or something. So he was in the wagon up there andhis foot slipped under the wagon and knocked the leg out of whack. Got hisknee joint out of whack. So he went home. My daddy tried to put his legback in shape, but that leg was infected and that killed him.

    When my older brother passed he was 'bout twenty. Leslie worked for aman had a peach orchard. He was spraying that peach orchard and that spraykilled him. A man sell them peaches; he had a big orchard, Robert Doolin.He work there for the man four or five years, but sprayin' them trees withthat poison got him. And that left me with nobody. Then me and SleepyJohn run up together.

    My brother Leslie made moonshine. He'd cook it out in the wood andwe'd drink that stuff. Sometime we'd drink it as it came out of the little thingbefore it went in bottles. We didn't care. The mash, you know. Sleepy Johnmade a song about it: "... been drinkin' moonshine, harm many a man." SonnyBoy did too, both of 'em made that song.

    Both my parents work. My mother worked until eleven o'clock, she comehome and fix dinner. 'Bout twelve we go and eat. Then one o'clock we all goback to the fields. At night when we all come back she cook supper. We eatsupper, then go to bed. 'Fore that we go and pack that water, take a bath,and go to bed. Next morning we get up we hear the old man out there sharpeningthat hoe at five o'clock. Wang! Wang! Wang! Wanng! So we can hoe cottonand corn. You got to chop that row one at a time. Them suckers long,them rows!

    Chop out two rows a day, you know. Aw, that was all right. I didn't knowany better. Want some water, have to go to the spring and get the water.Have a well, have to draw the water out the well. My daddy used to digwells. He got two planks and lay them together. Put them in the ground.Got a bucket and let it a'whirl down in the ground and hear the water set. Itgo awhoop! Full of water, draw it up. Doom! Doom! Doom! Good cold water.

    You want a light, you have to go get some coal oil. Two lamps sat on themantelpiece, one lamp on each side. Them all the light you had, wadn't atall like the light nowhere. Wadn't at all like the light in the world out there.It was so dark you couldn't see nothin'. Now and then you'd see a neighborhouse waaaaaay over yonder, a little old, dim light. Wadn't no light out inthe country nowhere. Wadn't no gravel road, dust road.

    Well, I have done some hard work though. I used to work in the bottoms.My daddy was a timber cutter. We tote them logs. Put a big log down, twomen, one man on that side, I'm on this `un. And two men on behind.

    Well, I'm a young man, but I love to pull them old men down, you know.I didn't have no better sense, strainin' myself to death. And them old men,I'd take the stick and draw it more to me you know. Put the heavy on him.The old man couldn't hardly make it. That tickled me; it tickled my dad,too. I pull him down, you know. He say, "Man, that boy sure is stout. Thatold boy pull me down." It was killing me. I didn't know it. But I got a kickout of pulling old men down, carryin' them logs. Yeah.

    Well, the day's work done, we all be at the house. We tired, go to bed.No entertainment. We ate supper and then we go to bed. I wouldn't go outnowhere. On a Saturday, on a Sunday, we young boys would go out.

    "Daddy, I want the horse."

    "Oh no, them horses got to work tomorrow. You can't ride that horse."

    "But now I got to work too."

    "But no, you can't ride that horse; the horse got to work. You have towalk."

    I walked, man. We set down and talk about the girls thereabouts the day,then go home. Well, you got to get up early that morning. The old man goin and call you once or twice. You better get up. If you don't, the next timehe have a switch there. Sometimes I stomped the floor, make him think Igettin' up, you know. He come on upstairs and throw that cover back. Uhuh! You gon' get up then! Man I'm tellin' ya. Oh, I'm glad of it now, I knowall about it. I'm glad it happened.

    But, man, I used to follow a mule all day long. Two of 'em. Row by row.Row by row. Ten acres. Cotton. Corn. Work. Work. Work. Work. Didn'thave no tractors then. No tractor wouldn't be seen. Nothin' but horses andmules.

    The sun be boomin' down. See them monkeys `cross the field jumpin'. Ithot. I didn't care. All day long. Sun get to gettin' down, I get to feelin' good,get to hollerin' and singin'. Goin' out that night! And the next mornin' I wakeup, I'm so sleepy. But I have to go to work. Night come, sun get low. I get tofeelin' good. Gone again! I just kept a goin'. Gettin' up at four and five o'clockat mornin'. Wadn't just sunup. Just keep a goin'.

    Go to work in the fields and twelve o'clock the man ring the bell. Boom!Boom! Go eat lunch. Ya got an hour. The day be so hot. Them old wren birdsbe flyin' round your door: "Laziness will kill you!" Them old birds whistling,you know, "Laziness will kill you!" That's what we said the birds was sayin'.Then the old bell go to ringing. Have to get out in that hot sun, get out inthe field. Make me so mad. I said, "I'll get up and shoot that bird!"

    Got sick real bad once. I was 'bout seventeen, and I had pneumonia.Thought I was dead. Went to the graveyard, lot of 'em. They told somebodyI was dead. But I was sick. We live in a little old house. You know oldpeople try to stop up every crack they see to keep warm. See, the old houseis open, you know.

    And the doctor, name Doctor Hess, come there say, "Open them windowand door, give this boy some air or he goin' die." Say, "Y'all take all theflesh air from him, he ain't gettin' no air." That what save me, 'cause youknow they breathin' my breath and it stop up. I couldn't get no air at all. Itwas hard on me. So they thought I was dead, but I wadn't. But I had pneumoniabad. I had it twice. I had a tetch of it when I was here in Indianapolis.But I had a bad case when I was seventeen.

    My grandmother Rose. Grandfather named Horace. Rose Taylor and HoraceTaylor, them my grandparents. My mother's name Lula Taylor, my father,George Rachell. At home they call me Rachel, but I'm a Rachell. Say itlike this: Ray-shell. My grandmother started callin' me Yank. I don't knowwhere she got it from. She called me Yank; I come up Yank. They been callin'me Yank ever since I was a little old boy. Some call me Jim, some call meblack boy, some call me Rachel Road. I had all them names. Some call mebaby Rachell. Some call me James, some call me S. T.

    My grandparents farmed, too. That all there was to do, farm. Wadn't nofactory or nothin'. Nothin' but a glove factory in Brownsville. Nobody workthere but white people. No colored people work at the glove factory. I helpbuild it, but I didn't work at it. They didn't give me no job. You had to farm.You couldn't farm, you work at a fillin' station or somethin'.

    Them women would cook for them white ladies. One lady would cookfor the man. She went there on the front porch and he made her go 'roundto the back door. Said, "Don't come on my front porch!" Man, they was helldown there!

    I left my parents on the farm when I went to town, but I would send stuffout there to help 'em out. I would take care of 'em, you know. My motherpass away before my father did. They been gone a long time now. But wewere grown when she pass away. I got married and had a baby before mymother pass away. My oldest daughter, Willa B., she 'bout fifty now.

    My old granddaddy, when we was kids, we used to pick at him and werun. He had an old shotgun. You have to punch cotton or somethin' in it toget it to shoot. Yeah. We go out and pick at him. Make him shoot it, thenwe three run, and he shoot up over our head. Boom!

    Then grandmother would say, "Horace, you better not shoot themchildren!"

    He say, "I'm just playin'. I ain't gonna hurt 'em."

    We just carry on. Pick at him all the time.

Going to School

We lived way out in the country, so we went to school in the church,Brownsville Taylor Chapel, a Baptist church. I had three months of school.A boy didn't go to school much. They had to help their daddy work all thetime. The girls went. But me, three months every year, that's all. Out in thecountry I had a lot of friends goin' to school, part-time, you know. But theyhad to go to work like I did. But the girls had a little more chance to gothan the boys did, 'cause them old men wanted you to work all the time.

     "Come on son, we got to cut up them corn stalks." In the corn fields wherethe corn grow they got a corn chopper now, but you had to take a hoe andcut them stalks down and cut them up so they'd plow over them, you know.So they'd rot under there and fertilize, you know. Something like that. Man,they had something for you to do all the time. But you could see the schoolbus. The white kids be goin' to school, but we'd be in the fields choppin'cotton or something.

    "Hey! All the kids! I want to go!"

    "No, you can't go to school. We got to fix the fence. The pasture for thehorse is there. We got to go cut some dry wood to cook with. Well, youain't got time to go to school."

    Went to school a little bit, that's all. Every time I went the teacher wasgone anyway. Didn't learn nothing. Well, I had a teacher, Miss Beulah, andthere was an old man. Now you didn't have no desk to put your books on.You had to hold your books in your hand. I'd have a chance to go to schoola little in the summer, yeah. We'd go about three days a week sometime.Well, we had to study language, grammar, geography. They had them allright. I went to the sixth grade. That's all the far I got and I was lucky to getthat, 'cause I didn't have no chance to go to school.

    I'd go to school with a little bucket. Got two little biscuits in it, an' aslice of meat, and go on to school. Didn't have no lot of stuff to eat. Had towalk about five miles to get to school.

    Didn't have no bus to carry you to school. You got to walk there andwalk back. You get home, you got to change your clothes, put on them workclothes. Go cut up a pile of wood for the house. You had to carry it into thehouse to keep a fire all night 'cause them houses was so raggedy you couldlay in the bed and see the sunrise. That's right. I ain't lying. And you set upthere and your knees burn up, get scorched trying to keep warm. Your behindwill freeze if you don't turn around, 'cause there's heat in the front, but youain't got no heat behind you. That's right.

    I'd of liked to done it more, go to school. But I couldn't go, had to pickcotton. It was a good time there when I went. When I went I had a goodtime, yeah.

    One teacher named Wiley Taylor, he was a man. Woman named MissBeulah Hayes, and another old woman. I forget her name. She a mean oldteacher. I liked Miss Beulah Hayes. She was good to us. She let you go outdoorsto recess anytime. Let two of us go out to recess. Carry our apples,something to eat there, and come back in, yeah. She teach us, she had ablackboard and crayon, you know. Go up there. Me on one side, anotherone on the other side, and she'd mark it up. I done forgot what we did there,but we get up there, spelling, you know. Yeah, it was something else.


We'd go to church. Had a wagon, two mules. We all get in the wagon andgo to church. Hear the old wagon cluckin'. Cluck-a-luck-a-luck-a-luck! Oh,everybody have a wagon. Didn't have no air-conditioning in the church.Had the windows up. Them old ladies wear them long dresses draggin' thefloor, old hat on, goin' to church.

    My mother was a real serious goin'-to-church person, my mother was.Used to go to church and the preacher be preachin' toward them sinners,and they wouldn't go in. They'd peep in the window. I walk around the churchmany a night looking in the window. I finally decided to go in. The mournin'bench was where the sinners set, and the preacher trying to get 'em saved.All the mourners who ain't got no religion set there. So finally one night Imade up my mind. I was with my mama.

    She said, "Such and such a boy, his son died last week."

    I said, "he did?"

    "Son, you better get yourself some religion."

    That scared me. The meetin' started. I went on up to the mournin' bench.The preacher, he preached and he preached. That Friday night he quitpreachin'. He said, "Son, better get somebody to pray for you."

    People would come up to me and say, "Son, you got it! You got it!" But Iknow I didn't have nothin'. I wouldn't jump, you know. I wouldn't get up.

    So he said, "Get somebody you know to pray for you, son." He got tiredof preachin', you know. Wadn't nobody would go up there. So I was settin'up there on the mournin' bench, but I didn't feel nothin'. He was preachin'to a bunch of us on the mournin' bench. He sat down; he said, "Son, youknow somebody who will pray for you?"

    I said "Yes."

    Old lady settin' over in the corner, Jenny Taylor. Old man, baldheadedman, settin' over here, Duffy Taylor. Miz Jenny had a long dress draggin' onthe floor, had a fan and an old bonnet on her head. I said "Miz Jenny, willyou pray for me?"

    She said, "Yeah."

    I said, "Cousin Duffy will you pray for me?"

    He said, "Yeah, son."

    They come down and got on each side of me. But, boy, when them folksgot through talkin', God almighty! I went up! Boy, I had it! I'm tellin' you! Igot it now. I feel it, boy, I'm telling you right now. I knowed I been bornedagain. I know that. Then I went on there and I got it. They sprinkled me.

    I come up here to Indianapolis. I join the church up here; they were Baptists.Well, the man carried me down, put me down in the water. Blubb-blubb!Brought me out. But I ain't like that fella that the man baptized three times.He baptized and they said, "Do you believe in it?"

    He said, "Yeah." Carried him down again.

    They said, "Do you believe?"

    He said, "Hell, yeah! But I believe you tryin' to drown me!"

    I was about eleven when I first got saved.

Chapter Two

Had a pretty horse and buggy. Not no car. And I used to dress nice, youknow. I'd take all them girls from them boys down there, and couldplay music too, you know. Them gals fell for me. My buggy be full of 'em.Dadgummit! I used to be a bad old man! My hair was black and curly and Iwas sharp as a tack. I went that a'way all the time.

    I hitch up my buggy. If you got a field a corn, I'm gonna stop and fill mybuggy up with corn for my horse. Go to the girl. Pull the bridle off the horse.Let him eat corn while I'll be in there with her. That horse eat. I come back.Get my buggy, and go home.

Excerpted from Blues Mandolin Man by Richard Congress. Copyright © 2001 by University Press of Mississippi. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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