Some may have noticed that Stefan Wirz has started a Forest City Joe discography http://www.wirz.de/music/forrefrm.htm
I thought it might be appropriate to post the following tribute, albeit knowledge having moved on somewhat in the intervening decades!
A Memory Of Forest City Joe
Jazz & Blues, July/August 1971 (p.9)
CRITTENDEN COUNTY, Arkansas, has the Mississippi River for its eastern border - a border that extends north to Frenchman's Bayou and south to Horseshoe Lake. The county's major town is West Memphis and two highways can speed one's progress through the countryside: Highway 55, pointing north to Blytheville and Missouri, and Highway 40 which runs west to Little R7ock via Forrest City. Crittenden County is deep in the cotton-belt and here Joe Bennie Pugh was born on July 10th, 1926.
Joe's exact birthplace is uncertain but it was definitely in the area south of West Memphis near Horseshoe Lake and Hughes. His parents, Moses Pugh and Mary Walker, were plantation workers and they raised their child in a world devoted to the production of cotton Joe grew up to be an uneducated field-hand and spent his early life working on the land or the nearby Mississippi levees. Somehow or other he became involved in the musical activities of his community and learned to play harmonica, guitar and a little piano. When Saturday night came around, Joe would be helping with the entertainment for the dancers.
Joe got to hear Sonny Boy Williamson when he was old enough to drink and gamble in the juke-joint, while listening to the latest blues records on the box. He was so impressed by John Lee's unique vocal and instrumental technique that he, like many others, worked hard to produce a perfect imitation. Joe was not only inspired by Sonny Boy's music, but also by his popularity. He too wanted to leave the cotton fields and become a professional recording artist.
Lord, I'm going down to the river,
I'm goin' watch the boats sail by. (x2)
Someday you know Iíll buy, me a ticket,
Man, Iíll go on further up the line.
By 1947 Joe was going by the name of "Forrest City" Joe. We can only guess at the origin of this name. He may have lived there for a time, but this is uncertain - possibly he sang a popular blues about the town. Whatever, Joe had become a well known figure in Northern Arkansas and Missouri, thanks to his Sonny Boy impersonations, and began to move around, trying to make a living by music or just plain hustling. He went from Hughes to West Memphis and then north, by way of Osceola, Blytheville and Caruthersville, to St. Louis where he sheltered under the wing of Big Joe Williams. Blytheville is remembered in song:
Down in Sawdust Bottom, people that's where my baby lives (x2)
But you k now, 'round that place you call Blytheville,
Man, them people will get somebody killed.
(spoken) I got to go
1948 saw Joe reaching Chicago. He had a partner with him called "J.C.", who played guitar and was also from the Delta. We can presume that Joe met his hero at last, and must have been shocked by Sonny Boy's tragic death in June. His blues, "Memory of Sonny Boy" indicated that he was on intimate terms with the man and his wife. When he got to record it for Aristocrat in 1949, he may have been consciously attempting to carry on the tradition, or even (more likely) trying to cash in on the tragedy. In fact the company probably only recorded Joe because of his almost uncanny ability to recreate a sound that once meant good record sales. Whatever the motive for releasing the record, it did not sell and Joe was not to record again for a decade.
Now I was standin' down on the corner,
Man, I overheard the words Lacey Belle was cryin' (x2)
She said, you know it's a world of trouble,
Lord, I ain't got no man.
Now you know Sonny Boy told me, Sonny Boy told me before he died (x2)
He said, Joe you know after I'm gone,
Man, I want you to play the blues awhile.
(spoken) I said yeah ...
Now you know the sun was down,
Man you know I heard the poor girl cryin' (x2)
Lord, she say, I ain't got nothiní but the blues,
You know Iím gonna miss that little man of mine.
So long, so long,
Man, I ainít got nothing more to say, (x2)
Now you know I ainít got nothiní but the blues,
ever since poor Sonny Boy been dead.
So Joe came back South to West Memphis and got a job with Willie Love's Three Aces who were extremely popular at the time and broadcasting regularly. However, Chicago was still calling, and after some months Joe was back there again. Here (according to Bengt Olsson) he lived at 3802 South Ellis Avenue with his wife, and his home became a well known meeting place for musicians. Making little progress on his own, Joe joined a small combo that Otis Spann was heading at the 'Tick Tock Lounge' on the South Side at 37th and State Streets. Spann remembered Joe as being "one of the best," and they stuck together for four years. Then Muddy Waters hit the big time and took a band on the road. In 1954 Spann went with him and split up his combo, leaving Joe in the cold.
Without having made a name for himself, Joe quit Chicago for good in 1955 and went back South again where he was at least popular and times were easier. Settling in the Hughes area, he got a job as a tractor driver, quickly slipping back into the old routine of work all week, play music weekends. In spite of this, the name of "Forrest City" Joe was becoming a memory only for most people.
Got the blues in the mornin',
Lord, I got the blues all through my day. (x2)
Now you know the worst thing man,
The blues gone to my head.
In August, 1959, Alan Lomax "discovered" Joe in Hughes, sitting out front of "The Old Whiskey Store," playing guitar for the loungers. It was a Friday night, and Alan decided to record Joe in the evening, when work was over and they could get a band together. At last, Joe was back on record again. Backed by Sonny Boy Rogers (guitar) and Thomas Martin (drums) he cut several Sonny Boy songs in the traditional manner. Unlike his earlier songs, which were lyrically original, the 1959 Atlantic tracks were plain imitations, except for "Red Cross Store" with slightly changed words and for which Joe played piano in a very knocked-out style. In the middle of this song he calls out, "Send her back to Memphis, Tennessee - 1956 Wilson!" This and "A Woman On Every Street," demonstrate that Joe probably lived in Memphis for some time, but when?
Man, I got a woman live on Beale Street,
Boys 1 got one live on Willow Grove. (x2)
Now you know, I got one over on (Feeney?)
I got one live out on that Nashville Road.
While Joe waited for Lomax to bring him fame and fortune, he continued to play a little music locally and also did some gigs with Willie Cobbs in the same year. By 1960, Lomax was getting round to the idea of bringing Joe up North and then heard that he was dead. Bad luck followed Joe right to the end.
On April 3rd, 1960, Joe was returning home with friends from a dance when their truck flipped over by Horseshoe Lake. Joe's head was crushed and he died instantly. No one was around to write a "Memory of Forrest City Joe" and it would be another decade before his death was confirmed.
Notes: Details of Joe's life obtained from copy of death certificate held by myself. Song transcriptions were again my work, but thanks are due to John Broven and Mike Rowe for details of the Aristocrat numbers. Other general details obtained from articles by Bengt Olsson and Rick Milne.