“Blues are the roots, the rest are the fruits.”
— Willie Dixon
His momma was weeping by now and Willie knew it. That’s why he couldn’t tell her, couldn’t look Miss Daisy in the eye and let her know he was leaving for Chicago. It would hurt too much—him more than her, maybe. So he left while she was at church. He stuffed some clothes in a pillowcase and ran to the rail yards with his friend Shedrick, never looking back. He couldn’t look back. Willie Dixon had to get out of Mississippi.
The boys slipped aboard a boxcar as the freight train rumbled out of Vicksburg. There were at least a dozen men crouched in the empty car and dozens more inside other cars on that train. Most of the men were much older than the two young black boys and many where white. The train rolled and rattled through the Delta forest and by the old plantations near Greenville and Cleveland and past the cypress bayous and strange Indian mounds outside Rosedale and Shelby. The car was hot and it stank of human piss and shit. Even though Willie was big for his age, though and smart and confident, he was just a bit little scared as the train slowed before pulling into the rail yard outside Clarksdale.
The boys jumped off as the boxcar crawled to a stop, following the other men as they walked down the road, waiting to catch the next northbound train on the other side of the big yard. The boys were startled when a police wagon pulled up behind them. Deputies poured out of the truck and began arresting some of the men, including Willie and Shedrick. In his biography, Dixon recalled that only the blacks were arrested that day. The whites were allowed to walk away. The boys were handcuffed, thrown into the wagon with about 20 other black men and driven to the jail in Clarksdale. The next day the county judge convicted the two boys of hoboing and sentenced them to sixty days of hard labor at the Harvey Allen County Farm, one of the most brutal prisons in a state known for brutal prisons. Willie Dixon had just turned thirteen years old and his friend Shedrick Johnson was only ten.
But age didn’t matter to the Clarksdale sheriff or the judge. This was harvest time and the county farm needed forced labor pick the cotton. Blacks of any age were rounded up on minor charges, such as vagrancy and public drunkenness, and made to work in the fields and mills.
That first night at Allen Farm Willie and Shedrick were stripped of their belongings and clothes. They were handed prison stripes to wear and their legs were bound with shackles. Then they were marched over to the Cage, a battered shack enclosed with chicken wire and covered with a leaky tin roof. It was filled thick with black men and boys–some coughing, some crying. The Cage was a miserable place and a place of misery. The air smelled of despair, pain and slow death. The two boys huddled together in the dark, trying to sleep as the shackles bit into their legs. Some of the men in the Cage were naked, others wore their filthy prison stripes, day after day, night after night, too exhausted to wriggle the rags off their chains.
Like the infamous Parchman Prison, which was only a few miles down the road, Allen Farm was a jail without walls and fences. The plantation had been carved right out of the forest by the first generation of prisoners. It was surrounded by swamps and bayous flush with gators and cottonmouths. Few tried to escape. William Faulkner called these prison camps “destination doom.” (For more on the dreadful conditions at Mississippi prisons checkout David Oshinsky’s chilling Worse Than Slavery.)
As the sky darkened on that first night, a ghostly white mist rose up from the fields of the prison. A loan voice began a rhythmic wail, a stark, wordless chant. Soon it was joined by the clapping of hands and the rustling of chains, an assertion of existence from the depths of the darkness. It must have struck Willie then that the blues was a nocturnal music, a subversion against the austere regimen of the day, with those caged voices singing dark melodies of liberation.
The prisoners were awakened at three-thirty in the morning, fed a watery bowl of grits and a tin cup of chicory coffee and herded out into the fields to pick cotton, fell trees, mill lumber and drain swampland. The men toiled a minimum of ten and as many as fourteen hours each day. In 1929, Allen Farm was an all black prison. The guards were white, many belonging to the Klan. Prisoners were whipped, beaten and sometimes shot—the dead bodies just buried in the swamp and the relatives never even notified.
Willie had been working for a couple of weeks digging a large drainage trench when he heard a man screaming. Dixon dropped his hoe and walked toward the awful cries. He saw an aged black prisoner, a former preacher, who had fallen down from exhausting in the blazing heat. The old man was being savagely beat to death by three guards. Dixon watched helplessly as the man was murdered. Suddenly he was startled by a harsh voice shouted from behind him.
“What you lookin’ at, boy?”
Willie turned and saw the prison warden astride his large horse, the man they called Captain Crush. Crush’s right hand held a long leather strap, perforated with holes and studded with bits of metal. This implement of torture was known to the prisoners as Black Annie. Crush was swinging the ominous strap back and forth as he summoned Willie toward him.
“I go down there and this guy took that damn strap and hit me upside the head,” wrote Dixon in his riveting autobiography I Am the Blues. “I stayed deaf for almost four years.”
The blow from Crush’s strap shredded a big chunk of skin from Willie’s face and knocked him out. The young man was carted to the prison nurse, stitched up and sent back to work. The next day Shedrick and Willie were ordered to bury the body of the old preacher in an unmarked grave.
After that ordeal, Willie was sent to the water detail as a form of punishment. This tedious assignment involved exhausting work carrying water barrels from the camp out to the fields and back all day long.
Willie was counting down the days on his sentence when a fellow prisoner told him to stop thinking so foolishly. “Hell, Dixon, ain’t nobody get away after 60 days,” the old-timer told him. “You’re here until the day you die.”
That’s when the young Willie Dixon decided there was only one way out of Allen Farm. He had to escape. A few days later as Dixon carried an empty water barrel back to the camp, he spotted an old mule. No one else was around. He hopped on the beast and quickly rode away toward a line of trees. Willie rode that mule for two days in the woods when he came across an old woman at a small cabin. The woman told Dixon to stick to the forest. She warned him that Captain Crush and his men had killed a runaway prisoner near the cabin only a few weeks earlier. She gave him some clothes and food and sent him away.
Willie headed north, through bean fields and pine forests, until he hit the sluggish Yazoo River. He dismounted and the mule immediately turned around began walking back. Fearing the animal was heading back to the prison farm, Willie grabbed the reins and pulled the mule into the river. The two of them swam across the Yazoo, climbed up the clay bank and followed the railroad tracks north for three days until they hit the outskirts of Memphis. For a week, all Dixon had to eat was crayfish and raw potatoes that he’d swiped along the way. He later said that there was an old blues line running through his head as he traveled north: “I’m going up country, I won’t be back no more.”
At the Nonconnah Rail Yard just south of Memphis, Willie finally let the mule go and slipped on board another freight train, riding it all the way to Chicago. He arrived on the southside in the late autumn of 1929. Wall Street had just crashed.
* * *
Willie James Dixon was the master impresario of the Chicago Blues. More than anyone else, Dixon shaped the sound of the electrified urban blues that would later inspire rock musicians of the 1960s and 1970s, from the Stones to Led Zeppelin. Nearly every record issued by the Chess label bears his imprint. He was the label’s talent scout, arranger and house bass player. Beyond that Dixon was the most prolific songwriter in the history of blues. According to Leonard Chess, Dixon could write songs on demand, coming up with topical and novelty songs within five to ten minutes. His signature compositions (“Hoochie Kootchie Man,” “Spoonful,” “Little Red Rooster,” “Evil,” “Wang Dang Doodle”) became the gold standard for the modern blues, recorded by everyone from Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters to Koko Taylor and Otis Rush.
Dixon helped to midwife the birth of rock and roll. He arranged and played on nearly every early Chuck Berry record, from “Maybellene” to “Roll Over Beethoven.”
“For my money, Chuck was the first rock and roller,” Dixon said. “I felt that all the others took after him. The kids might have had a few of those rock ideas to a certain extent but they really weren’t as deeply into it as they got after ‘Maybellene.’ I can give you a little insight into why Bill Haley and Elvis Presley got all the credit for beginning rock and roll. Chuck was in one vein of blues and some radio stations just didn’t consider playing blues. At the time the majority of people got it in their minds they didn’t want the black man’s music to move and blues is the black man’s music.”
Dixon was born in Crawfish Creek Bottom near Vicksburg in 1915. Vicksburg sits on the Mississippi River in the southwestern Delta, Charley Patton country. He was, of course, the seventh child in a family of fourteen. Willie’s father, Anderson Bell, worked at a sawmill for $7 a week. His mother, Daisy, operated in a small diner in Vicksburg, working from five in the morning to eight at night. When she arrived home, Miss Daisy mended clothes, for money and sometimes for food. On weekends, she worked as the janitor at the Spring Hill Baptist Church. It was a hard life.
Willie’s brother, L. V. said that their father got around and the Dixon boys had to be careful about who they dated. “A lot of the girls in town were our half-sisters,” L. V. said.
In those days blacks weren’t allowed to own handguns in Mississippi, but Willie’s father always wore a pair of them, tucked into his pants. It was rumored that he’d even shot a couple of white men, who had tried to rob him.
“Don’t you ever take them off, Daddy?” Willie asked.
“When my skin comes off, my guns come off,” Anderson told his son.
One day an insurance salesman showed up at Willie’s house and smooth-talked his way inside. The man began to put the moves on Willie’s mother. When Miss Daisy pushed him away, he slapped her hard across the face. The man pulled a gun from his pants just as Willie’s father walked into the kitchen. As Willie watched helplessly from the hall, the salesman turned and shot Anderson in the face, the bullet shattering his jaw and ripping a big hole in his check. Anderson steadied himself and fired back twice, killing the man. Dixon’s father wore an ugly scar on his face the rest of his life. In a few years time, Willie Dixon would wear a similar scar on cheek.
Though Willie’s mother dropped out of school before she was ten, she taught all of the Dixon children to read, even before they entered school. Willie was smart enough to be admitted to the Cherry Creek School at the age of four, two years younger than most. She also bought the kids a gramophone and a few records. Even though Miss Daisy was a religious woman and hated the blues (which she called “reels”), while she worked, Willie nearly played the grooves off of Victoria Spivey’s “Black Snake Blues.”
They called Willie “Fat Papa.” He was a big kid, who weighed 200 pounds when he was just ten years old. He tended to run around Vicksburg, shirtless and shoeless, popping into Curly’s Barrelhouse to listen to the piano player Little Brother Montgomery play the blues. Sometimes Montgomery’s band would set up on a flatbed pulled by Montgomery’s Model-T. The band consisted of Montgomery on piano, Little Rose on clarinet, and Blind Joe on banjo. Montgomery shouted out the blues through a megaphone.
Though self-taught, Montgomery was a versatile pianist, as gifted in jazz and swing as he was in boogie-woogie numbers like his own composition “Vicksburg Blues.” (Dixon notes, however, that the term boogie-woogie was an invention of white players and promoters. Black musicians called that style of deeply-grooved lefthand comping “doing the Dudlow Joe.”) In the late 1950s, Willie Dixon pulled Montgomery into a Chicago studio to record with the young guitar genius Otis Rush.
Dixon said he tried to emulate Montgomery’s complex counter-rhythmical style when he started playing stand-up bass. “Little Brother was my influence on so many things,” Dixon said. “The type of thing he had going always stood out from the rest of them. Some of those things were so hard to play, the average guy in the blues wouldn’t fool with them anyway. He’d have bass lines going one way and he’s going the other way and you can’t find that today. I was never influenced by any bass players at all.”
When Willie was six he began writing couplets and song lyrics, keeping them in what he called his “Poem Book.” By the time he was ten, Dixon had written hundreds of poems and songs, some of which he would record 20 and 30 years later.
Times were rough for the Dixon family. The rent on their house on Jackson Street was only $5 a month, but often they didn’t even have that much money. Anderson drank and gambled a lot of it away. So Willie started working when he was eight years old, earning $3 a week washing and folding clothes at a Chinese laundry in the white part of Vicksburg. When he walked home from work, white teenagers called him “a lazy nigger” and threw rocks and bricks at him. It was the same story nearly every day. The Klan cast an omnipresent specter across Vicksburg in the 1920s. “The Klan marched by our house dragging some black guy up to the school, tarrin’ and featherin’,” Dixon recalled in his autobiography. “You couldn’t do nothing about those things. A black man had to be a complete coward just to survive.”
To help out at home, Willie often went scavenging for food and firewood. One day Dixon and two of his pals were rummaging around in an abandoned house that had once belonged to a local doctor. Inside the derelict building, the boys picked up some wooden planks for fuel, along with a few rusty pipes and old faucets.
As Willie walked home with the slabs on his shoulder, he was accosted by the Vicksburg sheriff, a brute and Klan leader named Babe Harmon. Harmon gave Dixon a thrashing before arresting him. The following day the local judge, another Klan member, sentenced Willie to a year of hard labor at the Ball Ground County Farm. Dixon was 12 years old. He spent the next 12 months working in the cotton fields from four in the morning to six in the evening.
“That’s when I really learned about the blues,” Dixon said. “I heard these guys down there moaning and groaning these down-to-earth blues. I began to inquire about them. They were in prison for different things and at that time I didn’t know what it meant to fall victim to circumstance, even though I was a victim of circumstance myself.”
Out in the fields, the men would sing the old work songs, call-and-response blues. The music drifted across the plantation, lightening the load, making the long days bearable. “I really began to find out what blues meant to black people,” Dixon said. “It gave us consolation.”
One morning Willie was working in the field when the prison matron pointed at him. “I want that nigger,” the woman said. Two of the trusties got Willie and marched him to the corncrib. The woman was corpulent and depraved. Nearly every day she forced one of the prisoners to perform some kind of sexual act on her. If the prisoner balked, she threatened to cry rape in front of the guards, a sure death sentence. When Dixon arrived at the corn crib, the fat woman was lying back in a pile of cobs, her dress pulled up and her legs spread. She grabbed Willie by the back of the neck, pressed his face to her crotch and demanded that he lick her off.
“This woman had had other men killed,” Dixon said. “It was humiliating and it really turned me against all that sex stuff for awhile. She was filthy. For a while I thought all women were that way.”
After finally being released from the Ball Ground Prison, Dixon knew he had to leave Mississippi, perhaps he would go to Memphis or even as far as Chicago, where his oldest sister now lived. A few weeks later, he and Shedrick took off, all their belongings in a bag, and secretly boarded that fateful train to Clarksdale.
Willie Dixon and Don Snowden, I Am the Blues: the Willie Dixon Story (De Capo)
William Farris, Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues (UNC)
Mike Rose, Chicago Blues: the City and the Music (DeCapo)
David Oshinsky, Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice (Free Press)
This Week’s Playlist
Willie Dixon, I Am the Blues (SBME)
Little Brother Montgomery, Farro Street Jive (Folkways)
Victoria Spivey and Lonnie Johnson, Idle Hours (OBC)
Hubert Sumlin, Blues Party (Shout Factory)
The Black Keys, El Camino (Nonesuch)
Jeffrey St. Clair’s latest book is Born Under a Bad Sky. He is the co-editor of Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com.