Back in the day, describes Billy Johnson, Leland, Mississippi swelled to 4x its present population on Saturday nights. Live music and food carts on every corner down by the tracks. That was way back when a national magazine described this little Mississippi delta hamlet as “The Hell Hole of America.” Things like blind tiger booze, chitlin circuit clubs, skin balls, cathouses and card games abounded. But real history was being made, too. Even a teenage delivery boy from Memphis later made a big name for himself. “It was the most amazing thing, so much talent coming from such a small area,” B.B. King later said. Funny where a conversation about hot tamales will go!
Take a Ride on the Hot Tamale Train!
Going back in the Leland paper, the first place you see hot tamales is Frank cooking them at a place in Leland in 1911.
Ramsey Russell: And welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere, I’m in Leland, Mississippi in the heart of the Mississippi Delta about 20 minutes east of my hometown in Greenville. I’ll tell you a funny story, I was in Wyoming of all places, Wyoming, not too far from Fort Laramie one day and we stopped to get lunch and a little third generation Mexican restaurant out in the middle of nowhere, Wyoming, cowboy country and the dinner special, the lunch special was hot tamales. And I asked the lady I said, are they any good? She goes, Oh, si señor, they’re the very best. I go, wait a minute, I’m from Mississippi, that’s a mighty big word talking to a Mississippi boy from the Delta that grew up eating hot. Now, don’t you all think that’s kind of interesting that hot tamales are such a big deal that the hot tamale capital of the world self-proclaimed is right here in Washington County, Mississippi. Joining me today is Billy Johnson to help me explore hot tamales in the great state of Mississippi. Billy it’s good to see you again.
Billy Johnson: Yes, sir. Good to see you.
Ramsey Russell: How you been?
Billy Johnson: Been good.
Ramsey Russell: Been catching any fish?
Billy Johnson: Hadn’t been, been working on this museum. I’ve been eating some though.
Ramsey Russell: One of the most interesting things I think I’m just going to fly into it this way. Why are hot tamales such a big deal here in the Delta, but especially Washington County?
Billy Johnson: Well, it all goes back to the land. Other words, you and I talked about last time about the Cajuns coming and taking the war out cotton ground and growing rice and teaching people how to cook crawfish and duck and goose. And it’s the same way with hot tamales. Going back in the Leland paper, the first place you see hot tamales is Frank cooking them at a place in Leland in 1911. Now, most of the folklore you hear about hot tamales is that when the labor and the farmers had to go to World War I that they brought Mexicans in here to pick the cotton crop and that’s where they came from. But it kind of shows that they were here before that. But all of this different ethnic foods in the Delta, there was no middle class in the Delta, it was just the plantation owners and the people that work for them and the Lebanese and the Italians and the Jewish people and the Chinese all came in here and open stores and then a lot of the Italians started farming and all of the food, the different foods that people eat got here because of the land. And in those days you work 6 days a week and on Saturday night in Leland you’re going to laugh but it was 5,000 to 10,000 people.
Ramsey Russell: How many people is in Leland, Mississippi now?
Billy Johnson: About 4000. But in 1960, as late as 1960 it was 12,500 people living on the farms around Leland in the Leland trade area and 7500 people living in Leland.
Ramsey Russell: And they’d all come to town on Saturday night?
Billy Johnson: They all come to town on Saturday night. My folks had a drugstore on main street which had been highway 61 back in the 20s and 30s and all that and blues guys would sing on the corners and these people would have these push carts, they’d sell boiled peanuts and one guy sold buffalo fish and you could smell those buffalo, he’d have them in there and he had a spoon of a string and he had some newspapers and a meat cleaver and how many ever ribs you wanted, he had hit him with that clever wrap them up in the paper, tie them up in string and hot tamales and wherever these blues singers were on these corners, these food cart vendors, push cart vendors would be there. And often times in the winter, farmers would load the labor up from their farms and they would go down to Florida and pick citrus or maybe in late summer when the crop was laid by, but before it was time to pick cotton, they had taken them to Ohio to pick tomatoes. And a friend of mine told me, it was a guy named Hot Tamale Charlie.
Ramsey Russell: Was he a blues singer?
Billy Johnson: No, he was a hot tamale guy. But the friend of mine drove a bus full of people down to Florida to pick citrus. And he said he parked the bus, cut it off, open the door and the first guy he saw when he walked out was Hot Tamale Charlie. So that’s how food spreads, that’s how the blues spread. We had a place called the Bourbon Mall and the guy was fooling around and he unwrap a couple of hot tamales and wet them down and rolled them in flour and fried them and you dip them in ranch dressing and man, look, they out of sight, they serve them at restaurant out here in Stoneville.
The Bourbon Mall
I mean, it was a drink from Hollandale or a drink from Leland or a drink from Indianola.
Ramsey Russell: Folks, listening out here Bourbon Mall was a nice restaurant in the absolute middle of nowhere down a cotton turn road, basically. You drove so far down that gravel road through cotton fields, you said, I ought to be lost.
Billy Johnson: My daddy used to say that, he was from Meridian, he said, Delta folks is the damnest thing I ever saw. They want to go to a restaurant that’s one drink away from home. He said, you go to Indianola, everybody in an Indianolan restaurant is from Leland, you go to Cleveland and all the folks there are from Clarksdale, Delta folks like a place like that and that Bourbon Mall was an old 100 year old country store building and best food around and they had a resort license so, bring your own bottle, stay open late as they wanted to and it was one drink from home. I mean, I mean, it was a drink from Hollandale or a drink from Leland or a drink from Indianola. So that’s, a great place and it ended up burning down.
Ramsey Russell: You showed me just a minute ago pretty damn interesting, you showed me one of them little old carts and it’s just like a big wheel barrel, that’s got big deep side wheel barrels, is what it was.
Billy Johnson: With bicycle tires on each side.
Ramsey Russell: With bicycle tires on it with bicycle tires. And, how many dozens of those would have been scattered around Leland or some of these delta towns back in the day?
Billy Johnson: BB King’s mother in law Ruby Edwards, they called her Red Ruby and she owned Ruby’s Night Spot in Leland and she owned Club Ebony in Indianola and she had about 25 of those push cards and they would be wherever a corner where somebody was playing the blues, she’d have one of her carts there. And she lived a street over from my grandparents and one Sunday morning I had spent the night with my grandparents and they had gone and opened the drugstore Sunday morning and I just took a shortcut down McGee street where where they lived. And Ruby was sitting there at a picnic table with a pearl handled pistol laying on the table and she had a wash tub full of quarters and she had her kids counting them and stacking them and she was rolling them. And I went to the drugstore, I said, man, you all ain’t making no money with this ice cream and these newspapers you need to get you some damn hot tamales over there, I don’t seen more money this morning than the law allows.
The Threads that Bind
So, hot tamales, fried fish, the blues, all of those threads are intertwined, when you look at the Delta history.
Ramsey Russell: I read somewhere Ruby Red was selling them 10 cents a piece or three for a quarter.
Billy Johnson: That’s right. And we had a lady named Etta that sold hot tamales and there’s a lot of different hot tamales in Leland when I was a kid and they all had their own recipe, none of them tasted exactly alike. if you go to Doe’s eat place in Granville, they got great steaks and great hot tamales, but the hot tamales have got a little bit of a bite, a little bit of aftertaste to them. Hot tamale heaven over in Greenville, theirs is a milder version of that, when you taste it, when you bite it, it doesn’t have an after taste, a little bite to it. And when I was a kid, I mean, people made them out of, some people made them out of chicken, they just use different kind of – whatever they had –
Ramsey Russell: That’s the whole basis of hot tamales is you can make whatever you got.
Billy Johnson: Oh, yeah. But it was always at these country stores or commissaries along these railroad lines where people congregated, that’s where the hot tamale cart showed up. They followed these musicians around and they’d give the musician what they wanted for free, just to let them hang around on their corner. But when cotton farming started transitioning from labor intensive to capital intensive, that’s when all the labor, like three quarters of a million people migrated from Mississippi up north and they took those hot tamales recipes with them, they took the blues with them. So, hot tamales, fried fish, the blues, all of those threads are intertwined, when you look at the Delta history. Kids would come here, that maybe from out of town or something and won’t know what’s hot tamales, they didn’t have any idea and it shocked me because I thought hot tamales were everywhere.
Ramsey Russell: Well, I did too. I’m only being partly, when I said I was probably a teenager before I realized, that was something, we went down to Doe’s and got, when company came into town. I just thought it was a Southern thing. I identify hot tamales, not with Mexican, but with soul food for the reason we’re talking about, I mean, right here in Greenville. Do they still have the World Champion Hot Tamale contest?
Billy Johnson: Yeah, they have a big, it’s like the third weekend in October in Greenville and people from everywhere are coming and enter. All of these are family recipes and how the family got a hold of the recipes, I don’t know. But I mean, people make them different ways and it’s just transcended, I mean, 110 or 15 years right here in Leland that we knew about. So, Leland was known as the hell hole of the Delta. The Collier’s Magazine wrote that story in 1908 in May of 1908 about the American saloon and they said a guy was drunk and got on the train and they told him to drop him off in hell, they dropped him off in Leland. But the Washington County anti saloon league marched on the town and that was when, like I said, 10,000 people were here every weekend. For one thing, Leland was wide open, gambling, blind tiger booze, prostitution, people came here for a good time, they didn’t come here for trouble. But when the Washington County anti saloon league, marched on the town, they said that Leland’s moral decay was due to carp shooting, blind tiger booze and kept women and when I saw that, I said, hell, no wonder people flocked to here.
Ramsey Russell: What is Blind Tiger Booze, now? I never heard that word. Moonshine I’m assuming. Bathtub gin?
Billy Johnson: No, you remember, I told you about Clay Matthews on Montgomery Island, putting the whiskey by the log and they had blinks of light and all that, they had these little old phone booths type contraptions and you’d slide your money in a slide in the door and you wouldn’t see who the customer was or the seller and they call them blind tigers. And they had saloons and then when prohibition came, I remember when prohibition came, there was an article in the Greenville paper said that, they felt sorry for the neighbors in Leland because they was going to have to learn how to drink water.
Entrepreneurs of Historic Greenville
Ramsey Russell: No wonder there was 10,000 people in town on the weekends.
Billy Johnson: Well, the Italians came and if it was 25 Italian families here, they had 25 different wine recipes that they brought from the old country. So they made all kind of wine at these old country stores and people would come out there and sell hot tamales and play the blues and they were selling them wine and home brewed beer and stuff. And like with Red Ruby, she was smart enough that she cut the most influential white businessmen in town, they were loaning gamblers money 25 cents on the dollar and she would like rent a building from them. So she would be protected from the law and they were trying to build a new hospital, so Bill Caraway was the mayor and he got all the bootleggers and club owners together and they said, okay, this is the way this thing is going to go down. We’re going to charge you $100 a month and that’s a fine slash tax and we’re going to put that money in the hospital fund and when we get enough in there, we’re going to get a grant and we’re going to build a hospital. So that’s what they always cared about the legal hospital was the hospital that the blues built. But Ruby was a very progressive thinking person and like, Tina Turner came and played her club and it would hold 600 people and they played three, 90 minute shows in one night and it’d be 600 people inside and 600 people outside waiting to get in. And I could hear all this from my grandmama’s house, you could hear the music, you could hear that bass drum, you could hear that saxophone wailing and people hollering and screaming, it was just highly excitable times for a kid, 8 or 10 years old. But guy named Pine Top Perkins came and he had put in his autobiography that his first paid gig was at the main street cafe in Leland, Mississippi in 1931. And he came to our Blues Museum and signed some stuff for us and I took him to the building and a lady named Carrie Berkeley owned the building and she owned a big arc and what an arc was a big long house with 4 or 5 different apartments in it and that’s what they call the arc. And she had an arc for the musicians to stay in. And they arrested Carrie several times, but one notable time they had the whiskey in there, they had the bottle, a jug of whiskey and Carrie paid one of the policemen to get rid of the whiskey. So when they came to court, they put a glass out and they pour, it was going to turn the jug up and show what you had did nothing come out, so case dismissed. But Carrie Berkeley, work for a doctor here and he opened a small hospital before the other hospital I was talking about and she worked there so long, they called it the Carrie Berkeley Hospital. But Carrie Berkeley taught Ruby Edwards, Red Ruby her trade. She taught her about how to handle the women and how to handle the prostitution in, the gambling end and the liquor end. So, they used to have this thing called a skin ball in Leland, the Black Gamblers played a game called Georgia Skin and they’d have a big skin ball in Leland and they dig holes in the ground and put pump pipe across it and cook a half a side of beef or half a side of pork and they would play at the different clubs like 3 nights at Ruby’s, 3 nights at Shelby Brown and a lot of musicians, sweet smelling women everywhere, money everywhere, gamblers with big rings on and one of the famous gamblers was a guy named Hard Face Clan and he was from up at Tunica and the local gamblers love to beat one of them guys like that. But my grandfather had the drugstore and next door was Cage’s Cafe and it was a cab stand and there’s a guy named Joe Smith that ran the cab part of it, he was one legged and this guy named as been Aaron, he was the local gambling expert. Hollandale came out, they were going to have a skin ball, it’s going to start on a Saturday –
Ramsey Russell: It was about 40 miles down the road.
Billy Johnson: About 20, it was going to last 10 days or to the next Sunday, 8 days. I went down there and right before daylight, he called for Joe Smith to come get him the cab driver and he called my granddaddy and he said, I need you to open the store for me. He said, are you sick? He said no, sir, he said I’m fixin n to bring Hollandale to Leland in two pillow cases. And when my grandmama drove my granddaddy up there and gets out the back of the cab and he got a million dollar smile on his face and $20,000 and in those two pillowcases and he put it in my grandfather’s safe, this was on a Sunday morning and he said, I bought Hollandale to Leland in two pillow cases. Anyway, needless to say their skin ball, didn’t last for 10 days, Hard Face went out there and broke them for the first night. But any time there was a big gathering of black gamblers, the hot tamales people, the musicians, the prostitutes, all that would show up in town. And we had a town marshal and we had two part time policemen. Wasn’t nobody had no trouble, they were here for good times and hot tamales and the blues and gambling was all part of it.
Ramsey Russell: Was Red Ruby, was she into the hot tamales and all the whole lifestyle before or after she became BB King’s mother in law?
Billy Johnson: Before.
Ramsey Russell: Okay, where’s she from? Leland?
Billy Johnson: She was like, maybe from Hazelhurst or somewhere and she came here like, in maybe the late teens or the 20s and a guy named Jones had Club Ebony in Indianola and she had Ruby’s Night spot by the 30s, Carrie Barkley had taken her under her wing and taught her how to be accepted. And, I mean, they call those old clubs, Chitlin circuit clubs and they were black run, small nightclubs all across the south. Well, most of them whole hearted people, but she had two places that would hold 600 people and she’d bring in Highland Wolf from Muddy Waters and they play in Leland one night and they play in Indianola the next.
Ramsey Russell: Where is this on a timeline, Billy?
Billy Johnson: Well, BB married her daughter in the 50s. Greenville had an air base and the air base people would come over here to get liquor and women and any kind of commerce along that lines would come through Ruby. She was a big, kind of a big bucks woman and she didn’t drink a drop and she’d sit in the front and selling those half pints for $2 a piece and she’d lean down to get one, they’d be looking down her dress and she’d say, oh, baby, ain’t she going to buy me one and she’d sell that same half pint of whiskey 40 to 50 times and one night and didn’t touch a drop of it. She’s a business woman. And we talked about it a little bit before about how the migration started in the 50s and 60s. She would buy their houses when the black started going up north, the ones that didn’t live on farms, the ones that lived in town and worked on farms or worked in a store on a farm, she would buy their houses. And then after Ruby died, her kids took over all that rental property. It was a man named George and he had an ice and coal plant here in Cleveland and he came here in the late teens, early 20s and he was sweeping up a man owned 45 saloons and he would sweep up in the saloons and was sleeping on the bar. And my great grandmother was Lebanese and they told her about it and she got him and took him in. And what happened, the guy with the saloons married a sanctified woman and she made him sell the saloons. Well, who did you sell them to? Was George. So when the depression hit George had a lot of cash money and my great granddaddy had 2 or 3 store buildings in his house and the cotton went from down to a nickel and the farmers couldn’t pay their accounts and labor couldn’t pay their accounts and he’s going to lose everything he had, well, who helps him out was George because as you sow so you reap well, that’s some of it right there. But anyway, George had a lot of power and he had a lot of property and he leased several nightclub owners, their buildings and long as you leased the building from George, you were protected and when George died the next week, the police went over there with ax handles and busted up all the crap tables and shut it all down and people that knew what was fixing tried to tell them said, look, if you stop, these people aren’t starting any trouble, but a lot of Baptist here in town didn’t want all that whiskey drinking and womanizing stuff going on when they shut it all down, they shut all the businesses down in Leland and they tried to tell them, but in a way it really didn’t matter because most of them went up north, after that anyway.
The Mississippi Delta Blues Trail
BB King probably said it best, they asked him about the Mississippi Delta and he said, the most amazing thing about the delta is that so much talent came from such a small area and basically what he’s referring to is 250 internationally known blues artists coming from 100 mile radius.
Ramsey Russell: How important was Leland Mississippi along the Mississippi Delta Blues trail?
Billy Johnson: It was real important. It was an old blues singer here, named Blind Summers. And a guy told me that in 1952 I think, 51 or 52 Elvis Presley used to drive a truck delivering to these stores around here and that he met Elvis Presley on the street, this guy was from Hollandale and said everybody from Arcola and Hollandale came to Leland on Saturday nights and he met Elvis Presley listening to that old singer, Blind Summers. And this guy was drafted, went to Korea, next time he came to Leland, Elvis was playing at the Temple Theater, Love Me Tender.
Ramsey Russell: And that was one of his songs?
Billy Johnson: No, that was the movie Elvis had gotten famous and came back and it was already in the movies and ain’t been two years. But I ask, no known pictures and no known recordings of Blind Summers.
Ramsey Russell: But he may be singularly the man that inspired Elvis into the blues?
Billy Johnson: Not singularly, one of them. Elvis, of course, like a lot of kids in the south grew up listening to gospel, listening to country music, listening to blues, I mean, it’s all intertwined. I mean, two of the best blues singers, pure blues singers I ever heard was Hank Williams senior and Jimmy Rogers, the father of country music in Meridian. Jimmy Rogers, mother died and he lived in a railroad camp with his father and it was these Gandy dancers and all that and he sat around at night and listened to them playing music, and it was a guy named T talk or something, I can’t think of his name, but he’s the one that inspired Hank Williams senior. So, music’s like ice cream, you got to put some kind of name to it, flavor to it, so you can sell it. And they used to have race records and the white race records were country and the black race records were blues. One of nickels difference between it was just went one way and one with the other. Now, when you’re talking about the blues, it’s a big misconception that the blues, the Mississippi Delta blues started on cotton plantations. But when you look at the history of the delta, the delta was the last area of Mississippi to be cleared. Before the timber cutting started, it was the largest uninterrupted stand of southern hardwood timber in the world. And within 15 or 20 years you’re talking about in the late 1800s people coming in here and buying tracks of timber and they setting up these Groundhog sawmills and they were building this dummy line railroad out to them. So you had saw mill workers here that came from all over, you had railroad workers here that came from all over. Along about that time, the government started building the levies, you had levy camp workers. Well, speed it up a few years, they got through building the levee, they got through building the railroad, they got through cutting the timber, what was left? Cotton farm. So when the blues was discovered it was on these big cotton plantations, but it was here before that. I think 1903 or something, maybe WC Handy heard a guy playing slide guitar up at a passenger depot and whoever was playing it had learned it from a Hawaiian guy and he was using a knife as a slide. So, the music came here from a lot of different directions. Friend of mine, said that blues was just like the Bo Weevil, wherever cotton showed up, they was both going to show up for too long. And all the stuff is like, I don’t know, BB King probably said it best, they asked him about the Mississippi Delta and he said, the most amazing thing about the delta is that so much talent came from such a small area and basically what he’s referring to is 250 international known blues artists coming from 100 mile radius. And BB started playing gospel and one of the old blues singers said you keep wanting them pats on the back, you just keep playing gospel. But if you want to put some dimes in your hat, start playing blues and BB played at these old like the Highly Ridge store out here for $5 a night, plus all the fish he could eat and stuff like that. So, people like Muddy Waters and Highland Wolf, they ended up in Chicago, I guess probably the most famous blues artist from around here was Jimmy Reed and he went to, I think, Detroit and then somewhere and ended up in Chicago. But BB told me he used to open for Jimmy Reed and they said that, Jimmy Reed was an epileptic and one of the things that helped him was, he drank a little liquor and it was relaxing and it would ease those seizures. But he said they were down in, it was either Mobile or Montgomery, I think maybe it was Mobile and he was opening for Jimmy Reed and the promoter came back there and told him said BB, you keep him sober and I give you $50 extra, so he’s sitting back there with Jimmy Reed and everything was going good until it came time for BB to go do a sound check and it was a policeman guarding the door and he told the policeman, he said, you stay right here and don’t let him take a drink till I get back. Well, when he come back, he said, Jimmy Reed and the policeman was drunk, Jimmy Reed was calling, cousin King, called him cousin King. So, I guess probably one of the most interesting stories from Leland is when World War II broke out, a guy named John Dawson Winter was the mayor and he and before him, his daddy, he was John Dawson Winter Junior and his daddy had a cotton company upstairs in this building where we’re sitting now. And he had served, I think 3 terms as mayor and he got drafted and his wife was pregnant, well, when he went to the war, she went to Beaumont and had the baby and it was John Dawson winners, the third Johnny Winter. And they came back after the war and we’re living in Leland and she got pregnant again, she went back to Beaumont again and had Edgar Winter and Johnny Winter told me that when after he was born, that the doctors told his parents that it was a one in 4 million chance of them having another, Albino and they had another one, who’s Edgar and Johnny Winter, one of the best slide guitarist the world has ever known, when he played Woodstock, one of the songs he played was a song he had written about Leland, Leland, Mississippi blues and there’s a blues marker out here, honoring Johnny. When a Motown and disco and soul and all started coming into vogue, a lot of the black music listeners went that way and weren’t listening to the blues and people like Muddy Waters were having to go to Europe to make a living. And Johnny played with Muddy Waters and produced 3 albums for him and they won a Grammy Award for all 3 of those albums. But Johnny’s grandfather led the town band and play banjo and his grandmother taught public school music and taught private lessons, piano lessons and singing lessons and they had a Winter family band and Johnny and Edgars grandparents, his father and his two aunts and so they had a rich musical heritage. In the building where I just showed you the hot tamale cart, it’s a picture in the 40s, I think or 50s of Miss Winter leading the first Baptist church choir. So, little Milton, big influence on me, I guess it’s like in 88 Jim Henson lived here as a boy in the creek that runs through Leland, he used to play down there with a friend named Kermit Scott and when he started puppetry and started the muppets, he named one of them Kermit the frog after Kermit Scott. And they were going to do a museum for him and my dad was on the committee and I told daddy, I said, look, you all need to put another room on that building and put all these musicians from Leland in it. Well, music museums in the Delta at that point, it wasn’t but one that was Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Sid Graves had started it in the Carnegie Library up there. Anyway, I think the Henson family maybe wanted the museum to be singular and focus, if you’re going to do it, let’s just do it for Jim Henson. And they kind of told me, he said, well, we’re fixing to redo the library, we’re going to do an exhibit about the blues guys there and I believed them and a few years rocked on and Sunburst Bank donated, the old bank of Leland building to the city and they were going to put something upstairs, for the blues guys and I believed them, by this time you’re getting up to like 1997. And I got some people together what Ruby Edwards son, Terry could see and the vice mayor Leroy Parker, he was big in the VFW in Greenville and he bringing in a lot of blues acts and that’s how we started the highway. And I finally said, look, it finally dawned on me, these folks say they want this to be a Kermit the frog town, they ain’t going to do nothing down to honor the blues guys or musicians. So that’s when we laid the groundwork for the highway 61 blues museum and next door to the drugstore was the main street café and that’s where Tyrone Davis’s, aunt and uncle, they operated the cafe and whether it was, Tyrone or whether it was little Milton or Smokey Wilson or whoever, when they came to Leland, they park that big tour bus over across from my folks drugstore and they went and ate, it was still segregated back in the 60s they ate there and they came in the drugstore and we had a soda fountain and the drug stores sold Stella guitars, marine band harmonicas, those old Jews harps, guitar picks, strings and Son Thomas and Eddie and all those old guys, I knew him. I mean, we had a King Edward cigar box with all the picks in it and I remember when Smokey Wilson went to California, he came in and he liked these metal thumb pick and then he had these picks that you wear on the end of your fingers that covered the bottom of your fingers and he was finger picking. And little Milton’s mother was living on Tucker Street in Leland and he grew up around the drugstore and knew my grandparents and all and we were trying to open this Highway 61 Blues Museum and Milton had played, I think maybe in Jackson that night was going back to Memphis and it was a Sunday afternoon and I was in the building that we were renovating and Milton came in there and he’s like, hey, man, what’s going on? I said, man, it’s tough, he said, what’s wrong? I said, man, look, I got tired of begging these people to help us and he just like a snake, his hand went out and got me by the front of my collar and he pulled me within about a foot of him, he said, boy, let me tell you something right now, don’t you never quit begging for something you believe in. He said, if BB King and I ain’t be, we’d still be driving tractors over in Indianola and man that next day, I went back out to the same people that had – we’re trying to raise $30,000 and I mean, the town wouldn’t even give us no money. They gave us $10,000 to have a festival to try to raise money for the museum, once we got open, the town lawyers said, hell, we can’t give money to something that don’t exist. Well, the state put $12 million in the BB King Museum in Indianola, they put 10 or 12 or 15 in the Grammy Museum in Cleveland, I mean, if you don’t put money into something, it won’t never exist. You have no deal, if you don’t start somewhere, you end up nowhere and I think we raised $12,000 and we needed 30 and I signed a note for the other 18, but I never forgot what Milton told me that day. And Milton Campbell, he was the kind of guy, I don’t know which bike it was first national bike or something, but they had a bike up in Greenville with two big lines out front and BB to Milton one time said, look, you always got to put something back for a rainy day because a lot of times they go play somewhere and they’d get a cut of the door, didn’t nobody come? Hell, they didn’t get paid too much. And Milton said that, he always out of every quarter you make, put back a nickel and he used to tell BB’s drummer Caleb from Greenville, he said, man, I get them lives indigestion the other day. So, these blues artists, there’s an aura about them just the way they phrase things the way they talk and people in Europe, German folk music might be singing about some cow and a beautiful alpine and this and that it didn’t talk about their music didn’t reflect the realities of life and they looked at the Delta as some mystical place and these blues artists were mystical people that they couldn’t believe how things were over here. But when they came to the Delta and they hung around these country stores and they hung around with these blues artist, they found out that they were real, I mean, son Thomas lived in the alley behind our drugstore and Willie Morris was writer in residence at Ole Miss and he was a big son Thomas fan. So they came and got son and took him up to Willie’s house and he played and this and that and he was staying with Willie, well, they got to drinking after the show at Willie Morris’s House and it got to talk about hats and witches and all that kind of stuff. And Willie Morris looked at son and asked him, he said, son, do you believe in ghosts? He said, no, sir, I don’t believe in them, don’t believe in them at all, but they’re there, that’s the kind of realness that’s in your music. Somebody asked Son Thomas one time said, where you get the blues? He said, well, there’s lots of ways to get the blues, if you broke, you can get them, if you’re hungry, you can get them, if your woman leave you, you can get them and that’ll give you the blues, but if she take up with one of your friends and that’ll bring you on down.
Life Will Give You the Blues
Life will give you the blues if you let it, but I mean, that’s just like fishing, you can go one day and not catch nothing and the next day you get up and say, hell, I ain’t going out there…
Ramsey Russell: Life, life will give you the blues.
Billy Johnson: Life will give you the blues if you let it, but I mean, that’s just like fishing, you can go one day and not catch nothing and the next day you get up and say, hell, I ain’t going out there, they didn’t bite yesterday or you can get up the next day and said that they going to be hungry today, they going to bite sometimes because they didn’t bite yesterday and you go out there and tear them up. So, Willie Foster was a dear friend of mine, harmonica player had diabetes, lost his eyes, lost his legs and still would go to New Zealand or Europe and when we were working on the museum, he came in there and saw his exhibit, his display and started crying. I said, Willie, what the hell is wrong with you? You’ve been all over the world. He said, Mr. Billy, you don’t understand when them people that know me come from across the water and they come here to Leland, this museum going to show what my hometown people thought of me. And man, I got a tingle when he told me that, I didn’t have any idea that it meant that that much to him. Look at BB King, to me in my lifetime BB King has been the best ambassador to the State of Mississippi ever had, he carried in his lifetime, more love around the world, more times than anybody. And he told people about the Mississippi he knew and the friends he had and growing up on the farm where they raised chicken and sheep and goats and hogs and milk cow and they raise their own food and playing in the gospel, gospel band, God singing with gospel groups. And I was in Memphis whenever BB came back to Memphis and played at his club, Rufus Thomas all his old friends would show up and BB would do, like 2 hour and a half or 2 hour shows, the first show would be like 7 o’clock and it would be people that were, bankers, cotton brokers, even people dressed up in suits and it was kind of a stiff, not really, stiff show, but it was just a – I don’t know how to describe it. I mean, BB would play for them, then they’d take a break and the second show, the night people would be out and the musicians would come in, Preston Shannon and I can’t think of that boy, that boy’s name now, Jimmy, he was Eric Gale’s brother, little Jimmy King and they’d all show out for BB and he’d let them all sit in. Then you go over to BB’s bus and all these people would come in and this lady came in with a young boy and he said, oh, Mr. King, I enjoyed the show said, would you sign this guitar for me? And he said, I want to be a great blues musician just like you are, BB signed the guitar when he handed it back to him, he said, young man, could I give you some advice? Yes, sir. Learn to be a great musician and then you can play anything you want to. So by the time you get my age might not, nobody want to pay nobody to listen to these old blues. And it was a way those old blues guys communicated, they could look in your heart and tell you exactly what you were thinking, I mean, it was enlightening in spirits, getting to open a museum that honored them and see what it meant to them.
A Tribute: Highway 61 Museum
We’re down there looking at that old hot tamales cart owned by Red Ruby, she called them Red Hots.
Ramsey Russell: We’re sitting here on highway 61, old highway 61 right here in Leland, Mississippi, you started the Highway 61 Museum as a tribute to these folks. We started off talking about hot tamales, we found a way, all the way through the hell hole of America and all those great stories I’d never heard before and we’re talking about the blues and I want to bring a full circle just a little bit. We’re down there looking at that old hot tamales cart owned by Red Ruby, she called them Red Hots. And you know what, I find it so interesting Robert Johnson, buried over here in Mississippi, supposedly sold his sole to the devil at the crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi. But as our buddy Hank Burdine pointed out one time that probably ain’t where he did it, it was probably right over here at Rose Dale because he sang about Red Hots and that makes more sense to me, that kind of brings it full circle to Red Hots and the Hot tamales and Robert Johnson and the blues right here in Leland, Mississippi.
Billy Johnson: That’s right. Well, a lot of these songs, Robert Johnson had Sweet Home Chicago, Come on in my kitchen because it’s going to be raining outdoors, Hot Tamales, playing blues, I mean, I think the crossroads is probably somewhere in somebody’s mind, because I keep going back to son Thomas. The building that we got the blues museum in was a 4 story Montgomery hotel, right on highway 61, the man that owned it at this point was named Taylor Webb, he was a lawyer and he had operated, he bought the motel, it was a Montgomery Hotel, he had bought it from Mr. Montgomery and maybe operated it to up in the 70s. Son Thomas, his mother worked there, his wife worked there and he was a porter there and sat and played for tips. And he and Mr. Webb had gone up in the elevator to the top floor and they had a leak and he took some tar and a mop and they were going to fix it. Well, when they got up there, some bricks had fallen off and knocked a hole and it was 100° and by the time they got wood and fixed the hole and all, Mr. Webb told Mr. Thomas, he said, son, it’s miserable up here, you want to wait and let’s fix it in the morning when it’s cool, he said, all I ever know is misery in my life and said tomorrow ain’t going to be no better than today. So, I mean, being able to hang around my folk’s drugstore, the 400 block of North Maine in the 50s and 60s when I was growing up was a confluence of cultures and the thread that bound those cultures together was baseball. It was a radio station, they could listen to the Saint Louis Cardinals and all of the older black men would eat at the cafe and then come get whether it was a plug or a chewing tobacco or a pipe tobacco or cigarettes, I think at that time short Camels was like a quarter pack and Camels with a filter was like 35 cents and they would stop and talk to my grandfather about baseball and that was the thread that they all respected each other because they love baseball. And coming from north to south, you had a Chinese grocery store in the 500 block on the corner, you cross the street coming south and you had had Harry Ruben, he was a Jewish merchant and then Mr. Thomas Lebanese had a store there and then you had Pinckney shoe shop and Clyde Pinckney, one of the Mr. and Miss Pinckney son’s was a disc jockey out at WESY. And back then the blues artist when they came to town, they would go straight to WESY and do a live interview. I remember they had these guys, the Lindsay Brothers and they had a music store in Indianola and Red Ruby would hire them and they had one of those old green panel station wagon with the wood paneling on the side and they had these great big speakers in the back seat, one pointed out of each one. And I remember that thing and they would advertise for Ruby, they’d go all out there in the country around the country stores where people were chopping cotton, “Tonight at Ruby’s Night spot, Little, Bill Wallace in his Singing Guitar”. And I was just a little fella, I said, man, I want to go hear that guitar sang, man, I ain’t never heard nothing like that. But all of that went on in that one block. You come on down from the Pinckney shoe shop and you had the main street cafe and then you had our drug store and then PC Abraham had a store next to us. So whenever the blues guys came to town, Highway 61 ran right next to the Y&MB railroad. And whether the blues guys came by the bus or they came by the train or whatever, that was the center of where they hung out, the drug store, the main street cafe and they played in all these clubs. And I mean, people asked me said, what’s it like growing up in Leland as a kid? I said, hell, everybody played on the radio come from Leland. Jimmy Reed had all those songs, Tyrone Davis went to Chicago and he was a valet for Freddie King and he came up with this song, “Can I Change My Mind?” And he took it to Karl Davis at one of those record companies and he kept waiting on him and waiting on him and he never would come out and see him and after about a week, I mean, I asked Tyrone, I said, how did you end up being a big star? He said, God want me to be. And he said, I tried to see that man for a week and he wouldn’t see me and said he had a party in his house as a big stack of records and an 8 year old boy went up in the middle of that stack of records and pulled my song out, put it on the turntable and within 25 seconds, everybody in there was up dancing. And next thing Karl Davis calling me said, can you come to my office? He said, hey, I’ve been at your office for a week or 10 days and he said, come on and he said, I got another record company that I can release this on and went to number one and the rest is history. So when you go down that street and you go by the main street cafe and you go by Pinckney shop, they playing Jimmy Reed, they playing Little Milton, they playing Tyrone Davis and I would go down to the Chinese store and they had a boy, Edwin Yee, he was a year older than me and he was in one of those record clubs and we listened to Eric Clapton and he had a group called Cream and an album called Disraeli Gears and I wasn’t musically mature enough to know that the music I was listening to going to that Chinese grocery is where the music I was listening to there came from. So, I mean, it was a hub of music around here because of Red Ruby, trusting the white people and the white people trusting her and she made this town what it was and that’s why we have a blues history here, that’s why we have a blues museum here because of her ability, charisma, whatever the musicians trust her. She’d have Tommy Dorsey orchestra there and she’d have a rope in one section over there where all the white people sat, I mean, Ray Charles, James Brown – let me tell you something, when you got the ability to sell 600 tickets, Cab Calloway, he come do a breakfast dance, he may be playing in Jackson or Yazoo city or somewhere and 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, he shows up here and they do a breakfast dance. So Ruby was very articulate, progressive thinking, made this town what it was.
Ramsey Russell: Folks, you all been listening to my buddy, Billy Johnson in Leland, Mississippi on highway 61. Thank you all for listening to this episode of Duck Season Somewhere, we’ll see you next time.