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Some folks say the Big Bill Blues ain't bad. Musn't have been the Big Bill Blues I had - Big Bill Broonzy, Big Bill Blues

Author Topic: Forest City Joe  (Read 5639 times)

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Offline Bunker Hill

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Forest City Joe
« on: February 01, 2009, 02:56:28 AM »
Some may have noticed that Stefan Wirz has started a Forest City Joe discography

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
Mike Leadbitter
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 I?ll buy, me a ticket,
Man, I?ll 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 nothin? but the blues,
You know I?m gonna miss that little man of mine.

So long, so long,
Man, I ain?t got nothing more to say, (x2)
Now you know I ain?t got nothin? 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.

Offline dj

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Re: Forest City Joe
« Reply #1 on: February 01, 2009, 03:40:49 AM »
Thanks for posting that.  Forest City Joe certainly fits on the list of postwar artists that one wishes had recorded more.  He also perhaps should go at the top of the list of artists who should have recorded with a more sympathetic accompaniment.  The guitar player on his Chess sides plays in a style so distant from Joe's as to make most of the songs a bit of a chore to listen to.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Forest City Joe
« Reply #2 on: February 01, 2009, 10:39:37 AM »
The guitar player on his Chess sides plays in a style so distant from Joe's as to make most of the songs a bit of a chore to listen to.
I tend to agree and perhaps that's why Chess only released one 78 and left the rest for the Brits and Japs to unleash on the market.  ;)

Joe Bennie Pugh, v/h with poss J.C. Cole (g).   
Chicago, 2 December 1948
U 7164   Memory of Sonny Boy   Aristocrat 3101
U 7165   Special delivery man   Ch(J) PLP 6032
U 7166   Shady Lane woman   Ch(J) PLP 6032
U 7167   A woman on every street   Aristocrat 3101
U 7168   Sawdust bottom   Ch(E) LP 6641 047
U 7169   Ash Street boogie [inst]Negro Rhythm LP 107,
                    Ch(J)  PLP 6032
U 7170   Mean mistreatin? woman Ch(E) LP 6641 125
U 7171   Lonesome day blues   Ch(E) LP 6641 125

Offline jpeters609

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Re: Forest City Joe
« Reply #3 on: February 01, 2009, 06:17:30 PM »
All of these tracks (as well as Robert Nighthawk's complete Chess recordings) can be found on an out-of-print Charly CD called "Black Angel Blues" (CD Red 29). About Forest City Joe's accompanist, Muddy Waters is quoted in the liner notes thusly:

"They (Chess) would have had me to play guitar on that thing, instead of that he got a jazz guitar player. You remember that record? He wasn't playing no blues, just chordin'. But I had went out somewhere...I did know who he (the guitarist) was but I don't know his name, but he wasn't no blues player, you know. He played in a jazz band. Forest City Joe was a great harp player."

Oh, what might have been...

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Forest City Joe
« Reply #4 on: April 03, 2010, 01:28:57 AM »
Thought I'd bump this 50th Anniversary of his death

Offline Sternococktail

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Re: Forest City Joe
« Reply #5 on: July 01, 2013, 11:54:15 AM »
Was in the Memphis area for several weeks in the early summer of 1969 together with another Swede, Bengt Olsson. If I remember it right, he was looking for information about FCJ. So we crossed the bridge made famous from Chuck Berry's song, and spent some time in Arkasas, but found nothing. But a local sheriff had us standing in the position facing a wall. But we was released when he was convinced that we were just two crazy Europeans addicted to N-word music.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Forest City Joe
« Reply #6 on: July 02, 2013, 02:26:50 AM »
In his introduction to Memphis Blues, Bengt says "This book is the result of research done by the author and Peter Mahlin...."

If you are he, most folk here have been longing to know whatever happened to the manuscript of Bengt's revised Memphis Blues book which was due for publication by Taylor & Francis. Have you any idea as to its status?

Here is a link to a discussion of this, it is about 8 messages down by author "dj".

Offline JohnLeePimp

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Re: Forest City Joe
« Reply #7 on: July 02, 2013, 07:28:44 AM »
I like that Sonny Boy Rogers' guitar... did he do any other recording? blue I shade a part of this town.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Forest City Joe
« Reply #8 on: July 02, 2013, 08:18:17 AM »
Indeed he did. He was a member of Muddy's band in the 70s, toured with Lazy Bill Lucas and Mojo Buford during 80s. In 1990 he recorded an album, They Call Me Cat Daddy, which tragically coincided with his death (7 May 1990) just prior to a commencement of a tour to the UK.

Now that's what I call "having the blues". :(

Offline Stefan Wirz

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Re: Forest City Joe
« Reply #9 on: July 02, 2013, 12:12:54 PM »
Sonny Boy Rogers / Cat Daddy discography at


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