“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.
* * *
I’m the last one hired
And I’m the first one fired
I’m the only man
That has never been satisfied
I am the blues
–Willie Dixon, “I am the Blues”
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.
When Willie Dixon hit Chicago in 1929 he was on the leading edge of the second great northward migration of blacks from the Delta. In 1930 alone nearly 8,000 blacks from Mississippi, fleeing low wages and sadistically racist conditions, landed in Chicago, drawn by the promise of factory jobs and a more liberated culture. Chicago itself was undergoing a dramatic demographic transformation. In 1900, the total population of blacks in the Windy City barely topped 30,000. By the time Willie Dixon stepped off that Illinois Central Freight train into the vast labyrinth of the South Yard more than 230,000 blacks called Chicago home.
Though Dixon’s oldest sister lived in Chicago, he was too scared to contact her. Instead, he found laborious work in a local onion field outside Harvey, Illinois. He was paid less than a dollar a day for 10 hours hoeing in the frozen ground—he earned a nickel for each bushel he filled. For those first few weeks, Dixon slept in a cardboard box, with no winter coat or blanket. He soon fell in with a local gang of black youths. Willie was big for his age, but he was still only thirteen and easily manipulated by older kids.
The gang woke Willie up early one morning, telling him they were going to help him steal some clothes. But as the gang entered an old farmhouse, Willie tripped over some milk bottles, awakening the farmer, who chased the boys off with a shotgun.
After that close call, Willie swallowed his pride and moved in with his sister and her husband on the southside of town, near the old Regal Theater, where Dixon first saw Louis Armstrong and the Hot Fives play. He also saw Cab Calloway perform at the Metropolitan, another black-owned club nearby. Twenty years later Calloway would be recording some of Willie’s compositions.
Dixon took odd and demanding jobs across the city. One of the worst was with an ice company where he hauled 100-pound blocks up and down flights of stairs to offices, bars and apartments. He was paid $15 for each 60-hour week he worked there.
Later that year Dixon worked in a coal yard, earning ten cents a load to bring coal down to the rail yards for the steam locomotives. Laboring from seven in the morning until dark, Dixon could haul about eight loads a day. In a good week, he made a little more than five dollars. It was enough to eat on, but that was about all.
It was around this time that Willie learned that his father had died. Anderson had been crushed to death at the lumberyard, when a pile of logs collapsed on him. Dixon moved back down to Vicksburg for a few months to help his mother. He was still writing in his poem book, adding a few songs every day.
“I began to take life apart and put it together into words,” Dixon said. “I would try to find the right tone to emphasize the facts of life. I found out that things from my past fitted a lot of people in the present and also their hopes for the future. It didn’t always have to be a sad song. I noticed most people think the blues is a sad thing, but blues can be happy as well as sad. The blues can give you a feeling that nothing else can give you. And once I get that feeling, I smile to myself. You look at yourself and you see where you came from and where you’re going. And you feel like you got a beautiful chance, thanks to the blues.”
Down in Vicksburg, Willie penned a couple of songs (“Lonely Man” and “The West Ain’t Wild No More”) for local country and western acts. He later said he wrote them only to see his name on a record, though his sister said Willie had always wanted to be cowboy.
Willie began hanging out with an old man black named Jim Nelson, who had been a friend of Dixon’s father. Dixon called him a “hoodoo doctor.” Nelson was a fat man with no teeth. He sold herbs, roots and strange trinkets. The shelves inside his house were crowded with glass jars filled with dead snakes, the tails of pigs, fetuses. Nelson told fortunes and mixed potions. Dixon would later incorporate many of these items, black cat bones and John the Conqueror roots, into his songs, as totems of black potency and talismans against white oppression.
About that time, Dixon also wrote a song called “The Signifying Monkey,” a comic bit of blues hokum based on cartoon animal characters his friend Eddie Cooper used to draw in grade school. Willie would sing the song on street corners and people would crack up laughing and ask him for the lyrics. So he began printing up lyric sheets and selling them for 10 cents a copy. He eventually sold 40,000 copies of the song, which was recorded in the 1940s by Cab Calloway and Count Basie. Dixon had written the first draft when he was 10.
In 1931, Dixon began singing bass in a harmony group called the Union Jubilee Singers. The quartet toured Mississippi from Greenville to Jackson, playing at churches, auctions and fairs. They also sang live every Friday afternoon on WQBC radio in Vicksburg. The show was sponsored by the W. T. Farley store and the band got paid in clothes.
Later that year Dixon started boxing. His first bouts took place at the Saturday afternoon fights in a ropeless ring at a Vicksburg park. “You fought with your fists and one of those guys could hit you with his natural fists and knock you out cold,” Dixon said. “Sometimes guys get knocked right off the damn stage into somebody’s arms. They’d throw him right back up there.”
By then, Dixon was six foot four inches tall and weighed close to 300 pounds. His body was rock solid from years spent cutting firewood and hauling heavy loads of ice and coal. He quickly laid waste to the local competition, including one heralded white professional boxer who broke his arm punching Dixon in the stomach. Dixon decided to test his fortunes in the big city once again.
In 1936, Dixon was back in Chicago. He began training at Eddie Nichols’ Gym, where he became Joe Louis’s sparing partner. Dixon didn’t know much about boxing technique, but he could take almost any punch and he threw heavy, punishing blows. In 1937 he won the Golden Gloves championship before a huge crowd at Chicago Stadium by knocking out everyone he faced. Afterwards he turned pro. Dixon won his first five fights, but the purses were meager. Dixon was getting only about $40 per fight. It turned out that his manager had been ripping him to the tune of hundreds of dollars a fight. This revelation led to an altercation in the boxing commissioners office, which got Dixon slapped with a six-month ban from fighting.
This experience taught Dixon to be wary of managers and others who claimed to be looking out for his financial interests. Dixon would be one of the first recording artists to demand audits of his royalty statements and vigorously pursue labels and bands that had ripped off his music, including his ground-breaking lawsuits against Led Zeppelin for stealing “Whole Lotta Love” and “Bring It On Home.” Dixon won.
As Dixon cooled his heels by sparring in the gym, he met a singer named Leonard “Baby Doo” Caston, who was casually playing his guitar at ringside. The two hit it off and quickly formed a group with three other musicians. They called themselves the Five Breezes. Dixon wrote a few songs for the group and they began performing at a popular Westside casino called Martin’s Corner, owned by a local political fixer named Jimmy Martin. Dixon was playing a bass guitar Baby Doo had made for him from a large oil drum with one string tied across it. “I got to play that thing pretty good,” Dixon said. “I played that bass the way I used to sing.” Martin, who was embarrassed by the contraption, eventually bought Dixon a stand-up bass from the Chicago Music Company.
The Five Breezes played at Martin’s Corner for more than a year until they were lured away by a couple of southside gangsters who had opened a strip club called the Pink Poodle. The mobsters paid well. Band members were paid $35 a piece each week. Then on Sunday mornings the group would gather early on a corner near the open air markets in the “Jewtown” section of Chicago’s Westside. Willie would set a bucket out and they’d play all day for tips. “We’d go to Jewtown and man the people would come and give us so many pennies and dimes and nickels,” Dixon recalled. “We would even count them. I remember many times when we used to come home with $50 apiece and that was more than the average guy was making in salary.” Sometimes Dixon played out on the sidewalks of Maxwell Street by himself, twirling his big bass, singing snatches of bawdy lyrics, as a couple of girls from the Pink Poodle danced alongside him.
During the day, Dixon labored at the stockyards hauling sides of beef from the freezers to the boxcars, miserable, back-breaking work that earned him less than $30 a week. With the money he was pulling in from the Five Breezes, Willie soon quit his day job, saying: “When they get a big guy that’s young and healthy, they think he should do all the heavy work. Every time they get ready with something heavy to be hauled or lifted up, they’ll have you come by forty of the little guys that ain’t doing a damn thing. My salary was the same and I just said the hell with it and quit.”
In 1940, Willie Dixon began receiving draft notices from the Selective Service, which had just established the first peacetime conscription in American history. All males between the age of 18 and 45 were meant to serve in the military for a year. He ignored the notices for two years. “I’d made up my mind I wasn’t going no damn where,” Dixon said. Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the hunt for soldiers became more intense. Willie still threw the increasingly threatening letters in the trash.
One night in 1942 when the Five Breezes were playing at the Pink Poodle federal agents entered the bar and pulled Dixon off the stage while he was playing bass. As they cuffed him, Dixon screamed that he was a conscientious objector and that he refused fight and kill other humans. He was taken to federal lockup and soon placed on trial.
Dixon testified at court that he didn’t feel obligated to serve because of the conditions of black people in America. “Why should I go to work and fight to save somebody that’s killing me and my people?” Dixon exclaimed, foreshadowing the Vietnam-era draft resistance of Muhammad Ali. (Though Dixon didn’t have Elijah Muhammed writing his quips for him.)
Dixon told the court that he didn’t consider himself a citizen of the United States, but “a subject,” without full rights. Dixon’s resistance didn’t go down well with the court. He was sentenced to five years in federal prison. When Dixon began organizing other black prisoners to resist serving in the military, the authorities placed him in solitary confinement and restricted his diet to bread and water for weeks at a time. Willie was hauled before the court another twenty times. He was repeatedly chastised by the judge and threatened by prosecutors. But Dixon refused to serve.
The conditions were harsh, but Dixon kept sowing seeds of dissent from inside the prison. He became such a threat that the prison authorities offered to let him out of jail after 10 months if Dixon agreed to sign a document that kept him from performing or working at any government facility or contractor.
Dixon read over the agreement carefully in front of a federal prosecutor before he finally scrawled his name in large script directly below the final paragraph so that the feds couldn’t secretly add any other restrictions.
“Man, you don’t even trust the government,” the lawyer chided Willie.
“No, the government don’t trust me.”
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)