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Author Topic: Blind Willie Johnson in my town  (Read 5937 times)

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Offline Dave in Tejas

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Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« on: November 10, 2008, 06:18:51 PM »
Blind Willie Johnson lived and died here in my town of Beaumont, Tx, at 1440 Forrest St. I recently visited the empty lot where his ?House of Prayer? stood and burned in 1945, in which he died afterwards.


I took some pictures, and cruised the neighborhood.

Willie Johnson was a street preacher and singer, and his neighborhood was bustling in the ?40?s with the shipyard nearby. There is a large concentration of black churches in the neighborhood. I found 10 churches within a 3 block radius, many predate his time there.


There was a prominent juke joint at the foot of Forrest St, about a block from his house.

You can see the detail on the wall, it was probably a wild place. I can imagine him singing on the sidewalk near there.

« Last Edit: November 10, 2008, 06:25:50 PM by Dave in Tejas »

Online Johnm

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #1 on: November 10, 2008, 06:49:50 PM »
Thanks very much for the photos, Dave.  The sense of place that they give, along with your captions, to my sense of Blind Willie Johnson and his world is very enriching.
All best,
Johnm

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #2 on: November 10, 2008, 07:50:20 PM »
I second that. Thanks so much. Very evocative. I'll call up those images when I hear his music now.
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Offline Stuart

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #3 on: November 10, 2008, 08:22:12 PM »
And I'll third that. Much appreciated. Even though years have passed, the photos give a sense of place and the context from which the music came forth. The geography behind the history, so to speak.

And BTW, that is one great looking guitar--and I'm sure that it sounds as good as it looks. Play it a while, and if you do eventually decide to sell it, you can always tout it as being tested and bona fide.

Offline Slack

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #4 on: November 11, 2008, 06:49:32 AM »
Yes, thanks for posting those Dave!

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #5 on: November 12, 2008, 03:33:52 AM »
nice pictures, very interesting :D

Offline Dave in Tejas

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #6 on: November 13, 2008, 09:21:35 AM »
I can't get over the similarities of the picture above of the storefront / jukejoint and this cover of the Yazoo "Praise God I'm Satisfied" record.

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #7 on: November 13, 2008, 12:04:43 PM »
I think thats a Robert Armstrong cover, no? Maybe he did his illustrator's due diligence research in situating BWJ.

My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.
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Offline TX_Songster

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #8 on: November 13, 2008, 02:33:08 PM »
Dave,
That is great!  I love the painting "Rest Girls."  That should be preserved somehow.  You've inspired me to do a tour historic blues sites in East Texas.  I have visited Mance Lipscomb's grave in Navasota, but I didn't do any research or try to find any of the places he may have played in Navasota. 

Thanks for sharing,
Joel

Offline outfidel

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #9 on: November 13, 2008, 04:58:29 PM »
Great photos! I love the "Rest Girls" painting too -- John Tefteller should get a copy & do a re-printing.

btw, where (what town) did Mance Lipscomb meet Blind Willie Johnson? Supposedly BWJ would ask young Mance to tune his guitar for him. Looking at a map of Texas, I realize that Beaumont is a looooong way from Navasota.
« Last Edit: November 13, 2008, 05:01:01 PM by outfidel »
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Offline Rivers

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #10 on: November 13, 2008, 06:45:02 PM »
Marc Silber has this story at http://commongroundmag.com/2005/04/journeys0504.html

Quote:
One of my mentors, Texas bluesman Mance Lipscomb, once told me about the day he heard the song ?Motherless Children? performed by two men standing on a corner in Navasota, Texas. In his velvety, crooning voice, Lipscomb said one of them was ?coffee-colored, blind, and used a jackknife for a slide.? The description gave me a chill because I was sure that it must have been Blind Willie Johnson himself whom he had heard so many years ago. (Mance also used a knife when he played slide guitar, and you can hear his knife rattle along the edge of the frets as it slides over the strings.)

End quote.

Mance's jackknife playing is so close to Willie J (see the Vestapol video) I just assumed he'd studied the guy. If that were the case you would think he would have known who he was. So the account above probably raises more questions than it answers.

Offline Dave in Tejas

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #11 on: November 14, 2008, 06:55:51 AM »
Right, BWJ only lived out the end of his life in Beaumont. Marlin Tx was his birthplace, not too-too far from Navasota.

The old juke joint (and the "Rest Girls" sign) is bull-dozed. I took the pictures, and went by a couple of weeks later for some others, and it was a bare lot.

No one has been able to find BWJ's gravesite.
« Last Edit: November 14, 2008, 11:20:00 AM by Dave in Tejas »

Offline Pan

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #12 on: November 14, 2008, 07:04:10 AM »
The old juke joint (and the "Rest Girls" sign) is bull-dozed. I took the pictures, and went by a couple of weeks later for some others, and it was a bare lot.

If this is the case, we have even more reason to be grateful for your pictures!

Thanks for posting them.

Pan

Offline outfidel

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #13 on: November 14, 2008, 12:55:06 PM »
Now I remember where I read the Mance-BWJ story -- it was in Mance's biography, I Say Me For A Parable. Here's some of what he said:

Quote
Lemme see. Was another blind fella, retcht in here an played on the streets in my hometown: Blind Willie Johnson. I got some a his songs. Oh yeah, I was a kid, in the teenage, maybe in nineteen-sixteen. He come from Marlin or Houston.

Cause he was travelin an he come to Navasota -- him an another blind fella follad one anothuh -- oh we was a dark fella, I furgit his name. But I knowed Willie Johnson. He could sang all those verses, but he couldn't play the gittah: he'd put it outa tune, an I'd tune it up fur im.

An they give him a privilege ta go ta play, make his nickels on Satiddy, on the streets. Now if he wadn a blind man, they wouldnt. Like I'm a man who was workin out on the fawms? If I played inywhere, it'd be out in the bottom out in the woods...

Yeah, I found im at Tex's Radio. Across from where the bank used to be at. Right there where he was standin ever Satiddy, until he moved from here in a diffunt town. He sided he could do better, an he moved up.

He'd come right there on the corner, an he had people here ta the highway. Just hunneds a people standin right there on the streets. White an black. Old colored folks an young ones an all. Listenin at his voice.

An how he got nated ta me (translation: how BWJ got familiar with Mance), he ask, "Was inybody here could play a gittah?"

An lot of them people pickt me out say, "Yeah! Here's Mance Lipscomb. He kin play purdy good gittah."

Say, "Tell him come up here an tune up my gittah."

An so, I went over there an squeezed through the gang. He couldn see me, he jest hear me walkin. An I walkt up an touch im, say, "Mista Willie, I'm the boy come ta tune yo gittah fur ya. If you will let me."

He say, "Come on! Yeah! Who is you?"

An I told him my name; he never did furgit it. I didn play much, but I know how ta tune up. An every Satiddy, if I was late gittin there, he'd ask people where was Mance Lipscomb at.

He had a rough old gittah. It was rusty as a terrapin. A old piece a gittah wit holes all in it. Somebody may a give it to im, he jest out trying ta make a livin.

An where he's made it then is sangin and playin. People put nickels in his cup an give im a little pocket change. He had a wire around the neck a his gittah, wit a handle on it. You'd drap a nickel in there, an the he'd play anothuh song, people'd go up ta him draptheir nickels in there an git out an put it in his pocket.

He was a real good songster. He wadn a gittah player. Oooh yeah, loud voice. Lookt like he was wholesome, he could hoot so. I done hear im sang so miny times I jest look fur im when I'd go ta town, cause I stayed in there in the country, a mile an a half outa town where I was bawn.
« Last Edit: November 14, 2008, 12:58:22 PM by outfidel »
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Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #14 on: November 14, 2008, 02:50:09 PM »
Wow! Great. What do you think accounts for Mance's low opinion of BWJ's guitar playing though?
My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.
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Offline uncle bud

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #15 on: November 14, 2008, 03:05:12 PM »
With Willie's masterly intonation, I seriously doubt he couldn't tune a guitar. My wild guess would be an audience interaction shtick that resulted in Willie being nice to a kid. Who happened to be Mance Lipscomb. (!)

If you typed that out, outfidel, many thanks. That spelling would drive me bonkers.

Offline Dave in Tejas

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #16 on: November 14, 2008, 03:47:18 PM »
This is cool stuff, guys.

Mance, I think, was saying that BWJ was more popular for his singing, than for his playing. He certainly didn't take away from how Johnson attracted the crowds.

I've noticed that these old guys would sometimes denigrate another's playing. For example, Rev. Gary Davis was pretty arrogant about his playing, and talk down others.
 
I really like how these guys were from rural Texas, I enjoy the roughness of their style.

Thanks so much for the citation, Outfidel!

Online Johnm

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #17 on: November 14, 2008, 05:45:55 PM »
Hi all,
One other thing that is funny about this story is that Mance in 1916 would have been around twenty.  He and Blind Willie Johnson (at least The Blind Willie Johnson who made the records we listen to now) were almost certainly contemporaries, and it's entirely possible that Mance was the older man.  The Blind Willie Johnson who recorded being an oldster when Mance was a kid seems very implausible.
All best,
Johnm

Offline Rivers

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #18 on: November 14, 2008, 05:46:43 PM »
Yeah amazing work outfidel, that would have driven me up the wall too. Personally I'm looking forward to the plain english translation of Glyn Alyn's book. In the gratuitous gossip department Steve J told me during our drive to the ferry after Port T '07 that an author we all know may have the rights to do just that.

I realize there are two schools of thought on this. Personally I think it was a mistake of the author to attempt phonetics, or is it 'transliteration'? I can imagine the vernacular just fine with an occasional dropped 'G', don't need to develop any new kind of eye-brain coordination, you bethcha! :)

Anyway, back to BWJ...
« Last Edit: November 14, 2008, 05:48:45 PM by Rivers »

Offline waxwing

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #19 on: November 14, 2008, 06:04:02 PM »
Could just be that it was early in his career, and that he started out as a singer, perhaps having been in choirs, suddenly with a need to accompany himself in order to make a living. Could he have attracted large crowds on the strength of his voice alone? Possible. I don't know how old he was at the time of his recordings, but they only represent a snapshot in the breadth of his life and development.

All for now.
John C.
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Offline Dave in Tejas

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #20 on: November 14, 2008, 06:43:41 PM »
Quote:
"Personally I think it was a mistake of the author to attempt phonetics, or is it 'transliteration'?"

It's funny, being from East Texas, that citation reads as easily as anything. I can remember being a young kid and not understanding a thing a old black man would say to me.

Offline Rivers

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #21 on: November 14, 2008, 07:08:07 PM »
Being in Texas for 3 years now I admit it's a lot easier than the first time I tried to read it!

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #22 on: November 14, 2008, 08:01:08 PM »
I love the phonetic dialect reconstruction. It adds a descriptive element which helps to convey the cadence of speech. Many fine writers have employed that method of fleshing out a character.
Vell, dats ull I got ta sez 'bout dat fuh du momen. >:D
My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.
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Offline outfidel

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #23 on: November 15, 2008, 12:26:42 PM »
Quote
Personally I think it was a mistake of the author to attempt phonetics, or is it 'transliteration'?

The first time I picked up I Say Me for A Parable, I hated the phonetic spelling. It seemed like a needlessly difficult way to "get" what Mance was talking about.

Then I got hold of Les Blank's film A Well Spent Life. When I went back to I Say Me for A Parable,  I loved it. You can really "hear" Mance talking -- it would definitely lose something if Glyn Alyn had printed it in "proper" English.

Anyway, as far as him saying Blind Willie Johnson couldn't play guitar: I don't think Mance was the type who just put down other guitar players, the way Rev Gary Davis did. I'm guessing Mance meant that Blind Willie Johnson was more popular for his singing. The other possibility is that BWJ might've only played in open tunings -- some of these guys (like Rev Gary Davis) didn't think that was "real" guitar playing -- that it was sorta like "cheating". Anyway, these are just guesses...
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Offline Rivers

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #24 on: November 15, 2008, 06:21:27 PM »
I'm looking forward to the translation. Will it be called "For example, . . ." do you think?

Offline outfidel

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #25 on: November 16, 2008, 01:18:42 PM »
Here's a little more from I Say Me for A Parable -- and the songs Mance learned from Blind Willie Johnson:

Quote
Johnson put out "Motherless Chillun". An I pickt it up from him. And then he sang other spiritual songs, but all his songs didn blong ta him. He got em from somebody else, see.

Like that song "Titanic: God Moves on the Water". Well, I heard him first in sangin it. That where I learnt it from. But anothuh blind fella from Houston put that song out. An I didn know that til about ten years ago.

He jest sung "Motherless Chillun" and "Titanic", an this song about "He's a dyin bed maker. Jesus gonna make up yo dying bedside". Now he sung them three.

Now I give you the understandin ta what I'm fixin ta play: "Motherless Chillun Sees a Hawd Time, When Yo Mother's Dead". Nobody treat you like yo mother did. Yo mother is the best friend, young man, you ever will have. Cause see, ain't nobody in the world, out the world kin take Mother's place.

Now listen. That song is true: an say, "Yo father will do the best he can. But its so miny thangs Father cain't understand." Is I'm tellin you right? Its so miny thangs a father caint answer as a mother. He kin go so fur as a father's wills an reaction. But he cain't be nothin but a father. An this song is tuned in Spanish:

[Mance plays his version, in D tuning, of "Motherless Children Sees a Hard Time"]

Yeah well, I didn steal it. But I learnt it from Blind Willie Johnson. An I got other pieces I learnt myself: "Titanic". Course, he played it.

But where I got it: was a diffunt blind man lived in Houston. He couldn play a lick. An he couldn read, but his wife read it off a newspaper, he could rememorize it, an he made him a song out of it. Cause he got the schedule of it an made the verses comepair. An he made a record of it.

I never did meet im. I met his wife, after he was dead. An we had a hootenanny goin in Houston? In nineteen sixty-two. An Mack McCormick, he stayed in Houston an he knowed this woman.

So he carried me down there, an I didnn know the set up. I played around on the stage, and Mack McCormick come up an say, "Mance, I want you ta play "The Titanic". An when you stawt ta playing, I'm gone represent his wida an his daughter ta git on the stage, an set side a you an let you play it so they kin hear it.

I say, "Well, git em up here."

So, he pronounced that I was fixin ta play "The Titanic". Here they come up on the stage an one got on side an one got on the othun, I'm in the middle of em. I tuned up the gittah, an stawted ta playing, I knowed ever verse. An knowed ever angle on the gittah. An she knowed ever verse.

An she sot there an cried like a baby. She knowed her husband wrote that song, by his mind, an what she read it off to im. So here's "The Titanic". I'm gonna show ya all them good codes:

[Mance plays his version, in D tuning, of "God Moves on the Water (The Titanic)"]
« Last Edit: November 16, 2008, 01:24:12 PM by outfidel »
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Offline TX_Songster

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #26 on: November 17, 2008, 06:22:11 AM »
I love this board- great stuff here!

Dave in Tejas, I got a little sick to my stomach when I read that they dozed the building.  What a crime!  We're losing our history piece by piece.  Again, thanks for the pics.

Regarding Mance's opinion of BWJ's playing, seems to me it could have been a number of things that forced BWJ's guitar out of tune.  Bad weather, bad guitar, bad strings, bad day...  Also, Mance may not have heard BWJ's recordings like we have.  His only exposure to Mr. Johnson may have been that day, and it could have been a bad one.  Also, Mance's opinion may have been filtered by time. 

Regarding Say for Me... , I also had difficulty reading it, and never finished.  However, I guess I'm in the same boat as Rivers.  I've only lived in Big Tex for a little over three years.  I tried reading the book before I moved down here so maybe the time is right to give it another try.  Now if I can just get the book back from my father-in-law...

Offline Dave in Tejas

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #27 on: November 17, 2008, 06:39:11 AM »
Spike, thanks for that link, the liner notes were very good reading, especially in a broad "traveling blind street singer" way. Lots of history.

They mentioned Forsythe street that Willie played at, I know the street well, I worked one street over. In the days Willie would have been there, it was a thriving center of black economy. By the time I knew it, was only known for prostitution.

I was discussing this topic with my wife, and she recalled a blind black man that sat and played in front of Gibson's Discount Center (a general store in Beaumont) in the 60's & 70's. I couldn't believe that I had forgotten about that man, I would stop and listen, and put something in his metal cup.

Songster, don't feel bad, that place had fallen down years before, the hurricane just finished the job. The black church next door wanted the lot for expansion. The bible says of the church "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it"
Maybe Willie's songs doomed it years before.

Offline Dave in Tejas

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #28 on: May 08, 2009, 07:49:59 PM »
Hi guys.
Dragging up this old topic, I thought I would show a new thing. I was working in the neighborhood of the old pictures and lo and behold ran upon this church, which is the church that Blind Willie did his preaching in. The old records show he died at 1440 forrest st. and that is the vacant lot, but I did not see "The House of Prayer" at 1995 Forrest because it was on the other side of Interstate 10, which of course didn't exist back then. The wood siding type used on this church is the type that was used in Beaumont from around 1900, so I'm pretty sure this church existed when Blind Willie lived in the neighborhood. To me, at least, this is a interesting find. Sorry, my old pictures have faded off the topic.

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #29 on: May 09, 2009, 06:53:05 AM »
Thanks for this Dave. Seems to me I've seen a photo this church before, any one else think it looks familiar? Record cover perhaps?
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Offline Dave in Tejas

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #30 on: May 15, 2009, 04:54:29 PM »
Sorry if I got anyone's blood pressure up, but turns out that this is the church that probably replaced the one burned down that BWJ was at in 1945.

I had a conversation with both the current pastor, and a man who was there in the 60's, and he said the church moved to this building in the 50's.

I have changed my efforts to try to find out the name of the blind black man who played guitar with a slide and tin cup in front of "Gibson's Discount Center" in my town when I was in school. I used to stand near and listen to him, sometimes put in a quarter.

Most of my friends think I have such odd persuits.

Offline Dave in Tejas

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #31 on: January 10, 2011, 07:41:08 PM »
Hi guys.
Update: Grave marker installed for BWJ, went by there after work today.
Nice job, I wouldn't mind something like that over my grave.

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #32 on: January 10, 2011, 08:35:12 PM »
The Railroad crossing signs really make the shot.
My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.
Vladimir Nabokov (1899 - 1977)

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Offline Norfolk Slim

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #33 on: January 11, 2011, 01:25:23 AM »
Pardon my ignorance, but why do there appear to be tea cups on the corners of the headstone?!

Offline Dave in Tejas

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Re: Blind Willie Johnson in my town
« Reply #34 on: January 11, 2011, 06:40:24 AM »
Oh, you're not ignorant Slim, I'm not sure myself, but it could be a reference to the cup BWJ had wired to the head stock of his guitar to receive coins.
I don't know a lot of BWJ lyrics (except mmmmm,  mmmmm, mmmmm ) maybe something about a coffee cup? At any rate, Shane Ford, the man who sponsored the whole thing, will let me know soon.

 


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