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I wasn't supposed to be James. I wasn't supposed to be Brown.
And I wasn't supposed to be alive.
You see, I was a stillborn kid. My mother and father lived
in a one-room shack in the pine woods outside Barnwell, South
Carolina, and when my mother's time came, they sent for my
Aunt Estelle and Aunt Minnie to help. They'd helped at births
before, and when I appeared, they did all the usual things, gave
me the usual spanking, all that, but I didn't respond. They kept
trying, but nothing happened. After a while, they just laid me
All during the delivery my father paced outside the cabin,
listening to the noise coming from inside. He could tell when
it was over that nobody sounded too happy. When he came in
to look at his child, my mother was sobbing. Aunt Estelle said,
"He never drew a breath, Joe."
While Aunt Estelle tried to comfort my father, Aunt Minnie
picked me up and started blowing breath in me. She just
wouldn't give up. She patted me and breathed into my mouth
and rubbed my back. Just about the time my father busted out
crying, I did, too. He waited until he was sure I was all right,
and then he walked nine miles into Barnwell to record my
birth: May 3, 1933.
They were going to name me Joe Brown, Jr. Then, for no
particular reason, they added James. Because they didn't understand
the flow, they had it James Joe Junior Brown. Eventually
it got straightened out to James Joe Brown, Jr., but the
Brown should have been Gardner because that's what my daddy's
last name was originally.
For a lot of reasons it's very hard for the Afro-American to
trace ancestors. When I look at my family tree, the hardest thing
to figure out is where the African came in. It must be from my
grandmother, on my father's side. But my grandfather on that
side was pure Indian, a Cherokee, I think. My grandmother
was working in someone's home and had a relationship with
him. So on March 29, 1911, about three miles from Barnwell,
my father was born Joe Gardner. When his mother, my grandmother,
left South Carolina, he stayed behind with a woman
named Mattie Brown, who used to take in children when their
parents died or couldn't support them. She raised him, and he
took her last name.
There's some mystery behind my daddy's mother. After
she left South Carolina she married a white fella and went to
New York and then to Philadelphia. Some of the first
numbers banked in the numbers racket in Philadelphia were
banked by them, and the white fella became very wealthy
On my mother's side there is a strong Asian element and
some American Indian. My mother is Asian-Afro, but she's
more Asian because her father, Mony Behlings, was highly
Asian. I never thought that was possible until I visited Surinam,
right next to Guyana north of Brazil, and saw dark-skinned
Rebecca Behlings, my grandmother on my mother's side,
was brown-skinned and had hair that hung way down her back.
My great-grandmother on my mother's side, Susan Bryant, was
almost a full-blooded American Indian-I'm not sure what
tribe-and her hair was so long she could sit on it. She was
married to Perry Bryant, who was Afro-American. I don't know
how they got together, but it must have been unusual for a
black and an Indian to be together back then. They were both
around ninety-eight when they died, which was before my
mother and father got together in 1929, so my great-grandfather,
and maybe my great-grandmother, too, must have been slaves
at one time.
Because of all these different bloodlines, I feel a connection
to everybody, not to any special race, but to the human race.
I'm very sensitive to the Oriental people, as well as to the
African people, and I can tell that the African and the Oriental
people have a very strong bond with me.
I know about my grandparents, but I can't say I really knew
them. I saw Rebecca Behlings (she was called Becca) about
twice, and I've never seen a grandfather in my life. Becca and
Mony Behlings lived in Bamberg, South Carolina, and had a
son and two daughters besides my mother, Susie. Mony had an
organ and used to play blues and gospel on it. That was unusual
because most people who liked gospel wouldn't have anything
to do with the blues, which were considered dirty and low-down.
Mony later left for Florida with another woman, and the
family never saw him again.
Everybody picked on Susie-Becca, the other two girls,
everybody. They expected her to do all the work around the
house, and they beat on her all the time, until Becca's sister,
Eva Williams, took her away to live with her near Barnwell.
That's where my daddy stole her from-from Eva's. He stole
her because he had to.
Eva didn't want Susie to marry my father because she didn't
know anything about him and was afraid that Becca would
never forgive her if she let it happen. So my father worked out
a plan to steal her away. On a certain day at a certain time he
got a friend who owned a Model A Ford to drive him by the
house. Over her real dress Susie put on an old dress, like she
was going to do cleaning. When the car pulled up, she took off.
Eva saw right away what was happening. She ran out of the
house and hollered for her son Perry to catch my mother. But
Perry was in on the plan with my father. He ran her down, but
just before he grabbed her, he faked a fall. By the time he got
up, she was in the car and gone. They drove off somewhere and
got married and were living down in the woods near Barnwell
when I was born.
I guess we lived about as poor as you could be. At that time
my father did a lot of turpentine work. There were trees all
around the cabin, and he worked them. He'd score the tree on
each side and place a little trough there to catch the tar that ran
down. He'd come back later with a scoop and a bucket and dip
the tar into the bucket. When the bucket was full, he poured it
into a barrel. When he had enough full barrels for it to pay, he'd
take them in to the turpentine company. They paid by the barrel.
There wasn't anybody out there with him, because the trees
or the barrels, either one, would show him up if he was slacking.
They were his boss.
When I was four years old, my parents split up. I didn't
know why because I was too young to understand, but I understood
it was happening. That's one of my earliest memories:
my mother standing in the door of the cabin getting ready to
leave, my father facing her.
"Take your child," he said.
"You keep him, Joe," she said, "because I can't work for
I didn't see her again for twenty years.
Life out in the woods with my father was rough. We lived in a
series of shacks all around the Barnwell and Elko areas. We
lived in one as long as the people gave my father work. When
he lost a job or tried to find better work, we moved on. The
shacks were unpainted, didn't have windows except for shutters
that you could pull together; and there was no electricity
or indoor plumbing. But we did have plenty of firewood for the
stove. My father chopped it, and we threw in some kerosene or
fatty pine to start the fire.
We ate black-eyed peas and lima beans, fatback and syrup,
polk salad that we picked in the woods, and corn bread. Although
the diet never varied, there was almost always enough.
But I was unhappy because I was alone all the time. Daddy
was gone a lot, working in the turpentine camps, and the various
common-law wives he had to take care of me didn't stay
around very long, so I was left by myself a lot in the house or
out in the yard. Every now and then I had a playmate, but we
were so far out in the country I more or less had to be a loner.
So I played with sticks and sang, I guess. Dug holes. Got up
under the house. Played with the doodle bugs-"Bag, bag doodle"-that
kind of thing. Years later I wrote and recorded an
instrumental tune called "Doodle Bug."
I don't think you can spend that much time by yourself as a
child and not have it affect you in a big way. Being alone in the
woods like that, spending nights in a cabin with nobody else
there, not having anybody to talk to, worked a change in me
that stayed with me from then on: It gave me my own mind. No
matter what came my way after that-prison, personal problems,
government harassment-I had the ability to fall back on
The best thing I remember from that time is the ten-cent
harmonica-we called 'em harps-my father gave me, I started
playing it real early, when I was about five years old. I played
"Lost John," "Oh, Susannah," "John Henry," and I sang. My
father sang, too, but he sang blues songs he heard in the turpentine
camps, things by Sonny Boy Fuller and Blind Boy Fuller,
"Rattlesnakin' Daddy," things like that. I don't remember
whether I sang them, but I know I never liked them. This is
going to surprise a lot of people: I still don't like the blues.
My father also made home brew, and he was real good at it.
Everybody wanted some. All the white people asked him to
make it for them because he could beat anybody else making
it. He made it out of apples. He'd let 'em sour and then peel
'em. Then he'd put 'em in a barrel and stir 'em and stir 'em and
put sugar in. After that he let it sit a long time until it got real
thick. You knew when it was ready because you could smell it.
I guess it was really apple cider, but it was good stuff.
He had a capper, too. He washed out the bottles and scalded
'em and got the big old Co'-Cola caps and beat 'em flat. Then
he'd put the bottles in the capper, put the caps on, and mash it
There was another thing my father had: a temper. He could
be very mean, and a lot of times he gave me whippings I didn't
deserve. He'd be away from home, and when he'd come back
somebody would tell him I needed a whipping, and he'd give
it to me, no questions asked.
He had a temper about white people, too, but he never
showed it to them. Where white people were concerned, I
would say my father threw a rock and hit his hand. He'd call
white people "crackers," curse 'em and everything when they
weren't around, but when he was in front of them, he'd say,
"Yessir, nawsir." That's when I lost respect for my father.
I will not accept what my daddy accepted. I will not accept
being a boy. If you push me, you got a problem. I was a boy as
a boy, but as a grown man I will be respected. That's the reason
I call everybody by his last name with a Mr. in front of it and
insist on the same thing in return.
One of the things that probably makes me feel worse than
anything in the world is to see a Caucasian walk up to my father
and say, "How are you, Joe," and then walk to me and say,
"How are you, Mr. Brown." I think the man who does that is
more ignorant than my father.
I love my daddy to death, but he has never looked a man in
the eye and told him he didn't like him. That's the difference
between us: I'd tell a man to his face I didn't like him. But I
wouldn't be mad with his brother. My daddy would be mad at
all of 'em but tell 'em, "Yessir, nawsir," and then be ready to
kill 'em later.
People like that are dangerous. And that's what we're facing
today: people who laugh with you and say you're all right and
then kill you later. It's the same thing the Ku Klux Klan used to
do. The same people you work with in the daytime come at
night to lynch you.
My father gambled a lot, too. Never won. He'd gamble any
place he could find. He played a lot of Georgia Skin. That's
where you shuffle the cards and deal one to each player. Say, I
have a seven and you have a five. You flip over cards from the
top of the deck, and if a seven comes up before a five, I caught
you and win your money. You bet any amount you want on it.
I don't know what Daddy had going for him. He's been a
strange man for a long time. The mystery could have been in
me, though, I don't know.
One thing about my daddy, he was always hardworking. I
think I got a lot of my drive from him. He was never without a
job for more than five days in his life. He did whatever work he
could get. He did farm work. He did a lot of filling station
attendant work, washing and greasing cars, and maintenance
around the station. After all the turpentine work, he did a lot of
highway work. He's a heavy-equipment operator, but he never
had formal teaching so he couldn't get his certification papers.
He stopped in the second grade in school. He is a jack of all
trades and master of none because of the sheepskin he wasn't
able to get.
My father had a very hard time trying to bring me through.
He worked hard just to take care of his child, but the system
really went against him because he didn't have very much
knowledge. They deprived him of knowledge, and that's probably
the greatest sin in the world.
The social system back then was like it is right today: economic
slavery. One thing you have to understand about slavery:
A man never enslaved a man because he didn't like him; he
enslaved him because he wanted him to work for him. It's
about free labor. That's all it's ever been about. It works that
way everywhere in the world.
My father did his best, but finally he had to get Aunt Minnie,
who was really my great-aunt, to come take care of me-Minnie
Walker, who first blew breath into me. The three of us
were living around Robbins, South Carolina, in another one of
those shacks, when my father decided that he could find better
work across the Savannah River in Augusta. So the three of us
moved into town, but he split from Minnie and me. He was still
around, but from then on my father and I never lived in the
same house again.
In Augusta, Aunt Minnie and I lived with another aunt of
mine in a house at 944 Twiggs Street. That's one place I will
never forget. Outside, Highway 1 ran right by the door. You
could go all the way to New York on that highway. Inside, there
was gambling, moonshine liquor, and prostitution. I wasn't
quite six years old.
Augusta was sin city: plenty of gambling, illegal liquor, and a
lot of houses like the one I grew up in. The local government
then was corrupt, the police could be bribed, and the law was
whatever they said it was. It was like Phenix City, Alabama, on
the other side of the state, just over the state line.
A lot of the corruption went back to Prohibition. Even after
repeal, Georgia stayed dry for a long time, and a whole system
of payoffs developed out of that. Augusta was also in the Bible
Belt, and the ministers were all the time getting the city to
crack down on the illegal activity. It just made it harder for the
police to keep everybody happy. Half the time they were arresting
you, and half the time they were looking the other way.
I got to Augusta at the end of 1938. The house was located
in a section of the city called "the Terry," short for the Negro
Excerpted from JAMES BROWN THE GODFATHER OF SOUL
by JAMES BROWN WITH BRUCE TUCKER
Copyright © 1997 by James Brown and Bruce Tucker.
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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