“If you ain’t lived it, you can’t play it. You gotta live it.
“You can’t just go out there and say, ‘Hey, man, this is the blues, man, and I can play 3000 licks. I look good and I got a real nice lookin’ guitar and a amp, and I got an endorsement. I’m super bad.’
“You ain’t super bad!”
Sometimes there’s a thin line between what’s real and what’s a “deal” in blues. Then again, some acts cut such a heavy line in the sand separating the two, most people can’t even comprehend what they’re experiencing. But something inside tells them it’s the truth.
Blind Mississippi Morris lives that truth every day and every way. When one crosses the Mason Dixon Line to the King Biscuit Blues Festival it is was like seeing the blues with 20/20 eyesight for the first time. For many, it was Blind Mississippi Morris with Brad Webb on guitar who brings that vision into the clearest focus.
He was born in a hail storm on April 6, 1955 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, his mother’s fifth child and his father’s ninth. There was one bed, and they all slept in it. His twin sister didn’t survive birth. But even today he says he feels her presence. “Yeah, yeah. You know when somebody’s looking at you and you feel ’em looking at ya? It be kinda feeling like that.”
He believes that the real emotion of the blues only comes from the struggle paying dues to sing the blues. “Go out there and grab one of them cotton sacks in the winter time and pick all day and make 50 cents. Try and pick 250 lbs. of cotton so you can make that 50 cents. You never get that 250 lbs., you never make that 50 cents (chuckle), and you had to make that 50 cents ’cause that’s how you payin’ your family.
“Not only did you have to make that 50 cents, your wife had to make it, or your brothers and sisters, you mama and daddy, all of ’em had to make that 50 cents ’cause you’re payin’ the man at the farm store up there where you take up everything. All the money stayed on the plantation that had so many rich plantation people, and there were so many ignorant people working on the plantation, they couldn’t count and whatever they told ’em that’s what they owed. That’s why they went around in a circle and never got out of debt.”
What’s the difference between that and slavery?
“That is slavery. That IS slavery.”
So, how much progress have we made? Blind since he was four, Morris has survived playing 22 different harps and singing on Memphis’ main drag for almost half a century. Today, he’s called “the real deal on Beale,” and you can find him at the Blues City Café Friday and Saturday nights and at B. B. King’s on Sunday afternoon. It’s been a struggle every step of the way, but he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve. It pours from his heart.
Morris remembers the day he bought his first harmonica. He was four years old and already blind, sitting on the steps of a sporting goods store in Clarksdale. “This white gentleman came out. I guess he had went in there and bought something for fishing or hunting. But anyway, he was talking to me, and I didn’t know he was talking to me ’cause you know you have to see people talking. So many people go around walking and stuff.
“He said, ‘Don’t you hear me talking to ya?’ And he looked in my face and seen my eyes was a different color or whatever the problem was, and he seen I was blind and he apologized to me ’cause it hurt him so bad.”
Feeling guilty, the white man handed Morris 50 cents, a lot of money, especially for a four-year-old who could gorge himself on candy for one tenth that amount. “So, he gave me 50 cents. I went and bought my first harmonica. I always wanted a harmonica because my uncle was Robert Decks. He was one of the recording artists with the (Mississippi) Sheiks. My auntie (Also in the Sheiks) used to put her hair up under a baseball cap so they wouldn’t know she was as girl ’cause the men would be trying to jump her, but she was a harp player for him and he played the guitar. He could play it all, but he was a better harp player.”
But Robert Dicks never gave Morris harp lessons. “He never let me mess with his stuff. He never would, but they let my brothers. They was older. They could mess with his stuff, and none of ’em was serious about it. They’d get it and act the monkey and the clown, be jumpin’ all around, acting silly, but I wanted to play it, but I felt bad ’cause they didn’t let me do it, They didn’t let me mess with their stuff, but when they leave home, and they left me there, I’d get up in one of them ladder back chairs, get up and get them harps out, and I played and when I hear ’em come back, I put that joker back up there and act like nothing ever happened, you now?
“The only time I got caught was when I went behind the bed. My brother, he’s older than me. They used to keep a jug of whiskey with one of them metal cups over the top of it. They covered up with a flannel sheet, and we were ramblin’ back there and found it. We got to drinking that stuff. We got up under the bed. We got busted, man. That’s when we got beat down. That’s the only time got caught. Yeah, they didn’t mind putting the switches on ya fore they tie you up, ya hear?
How long was it before he took another drink?
“Man, I couldn’t wait to take another drink. That stuff was so good. I didn’t know it makes you sick like that. Every time they would leave, we’d be huntin’ for that stuff, man, ’cause sometimes they hadn’t even put in bottles, but the guy that rented the house, he was a bootlegger. So, they was sittin’ around there, and we’d get them bottles. We knowed they had it, so we brought it to ’em, and we didn’t wait for ’em to leave, man. We’d continue our terribleness.
How long did it take him to figure out it was that drink that made him sick?
“Well, it didn’t take you long. So, you drank that drink, and you got to throwing up, man, and you done had it.”
Playing harp began to fill in the blanks that blindness had put into his life. At four he only had a young child’s memories of things he’d seen around him.
“Back then, you was outside playing. You was in a country environment. And you played with your brothers and sisters, and you had certain toys, push scooters and homemade little sticks with tops on ’em like a wheel you could push and roll ’em, and you made little gears on it and stuff, and you got a chance to see butterflies and sun flowers and bumble bees for sure, you know? The garden, the dogs, the chickens, hogs and stuff like that in the country.”
Losing his sight sharpened his other senses he applied to his music.
“Everything is sharper. Your eyesight plays a big part in your whole nervous system really, but once you lose that sight, you gotta learn to use your ears more, your hands more, your taste and smell. Those are the things you rely on. Everything becomes so sensitive. You could step on certain things and know what it is. You learn to hear certain things and know what it is like different things like different coins, or you can just be in a distance and hear something fall and know it fell.”
Morris was learning how to adapt. He remembers a place on Beale St. back in the ’50s called The Hamburger Café. “They had a white side and a black side. It was a funny thing. The lady knew my mom real well. They was good friends, and every morning when all the white people would leave, they’d be left with all that nice food, man. She’d call us little children. ‘Come on down here and set up on that stool,’ and we’d eat like we had money. (Chuckle) Yeah, uhm-hm.
“The merchants would leave when the business hours was over. Nobody was down there till 6 o’clock, not the merchants. There wasn’t very many of them bold enough to stay down there. There as a lotta black people had things going on, the music outside. They was selling ice cream. They was selling barbecue, hot tamales, hot dogs, all those things, man. For five dollars, your whole family could enjoy a whole weekend down there.”
After five o’clock the street went from white to black. “They had a pool hall down there, shoe shine shop, barber shop. There wasn’t very many clubs down there. They had ’bout maybe two or three clubs down on Beale. Oh, it’s done grew since then. Everything that changed. Man, it’s full, and it’s blooming. I love that, but the part I do hate about it is they don’t have enough blues on Beale St. ’cause that’s what Beale St. is all about, blues and jazz. That was it, blues and jazz, man.”
There are conflicting stories about how much time Morris spent away from his family in a school for the blind, but it took up several years of his childhood.
He didn’t add “Blind” to his name until he was in his 20s. “People thought I was stuck up or they’re acting, waving their hands or doing certain gestures, and things. I had to remind ’em. I’m a blind guy, you know? So, eventually I added that to my name so they would know that. Man, I had to get used to it myself ’cause I used to call myself just Mississippi Morris you know. It took me a while to get used to it. Then, after the’80s I had it down pat.”
Not only were Morris’ aunt and uncle in the Mississippi Sheiks’ but before he moved to Memphis he lived in Clarksdale where he was partly raised by Howlin’ Wolf’s mother, Gertrude Young. “She was our babysitter, ’cause my mom had to go work for one of the lawyers doing his housekeeping and cooking and stuff, washing and ironing, and we was her burden for the rest of her day until mom got home.
“(Howlin’ Wolf) would come there I guess when he was traveling. I don’t know if he was going to New Orleans or where he was going, but he would stop through there, and he would try to give Miss Gertrude money. He would come up there, and she was scared of him like he was poison. She said everything he had belonged to the devil. He was a big guy, but he wasn’t that kind of person ’cause he used to work for the ice house there in town. He used to bring the ice around. He was nice to everybody. He didn’t take no (mess) though.”
Aunt Mary had played harp with Sonnyboy Williamson. Morris remembers seeing him but never went to KFFA to see him perform on King Biscuit Time. “He used to come through the cotton field and (sell) that flour stuff, the King Biscuit Flour.”
Morris was too small to understand the historical significance of Sonnyboy’s broadcasting live blues music over the airwaves. “You’re too little to know anything business wise. You just look at all the exiting stuff that’s going on around you so different. You hear that music, you see people dancing. You wonder what that’s all about, what they’re doing, but all you know, it sounds good, and you might try and shake a leg or something or do a little dance. You never know. It depends on how bashful you was. I don’t think I was much of a cutup for dancing and all of that, but I sure be trying to ease up there, and listen to the music and ask a few questions. ‘How ya do that?’ ‘Show me how to do that.’ You know how kids are.
Guitarist Brad Webb who has recorded several albums with Morris, talks about the Bill Wyman connection: “Sherman Cooper from Como MS was also a great friend in the Blues who helped hook us up with Bill Wyman from the Rolling Stones and Richard Havers where we made it in Bill Wyman’s book Blues Odyssey on page 143. We also got a mention plus there’s a video from Sherman’s place in Como, MS where we jammed with Bill Wyman. Robert Belfour performed and Jesse May Hemphill was there too, what a treat.”
Blind Mississippi Morris once performed in Albany, New York at a Sunday night blues society jam where a middle-aged woman worked herself into a lather doing the hoochie coo all elbows and knock knees, never realizing he couldn’t see her. Morris chuckles at the image.
“Yeah, well, you know how that goes. That’s how the name Blind Mississippi Morris came about ’cause people thought I was stuck up or they’re acting, waving their hands or doing certain gestures, and things. I had to remind ’em. I’m a blind guy, you know? So, eventually I added that to my name so they would know that.
“Well, a lotta kids don’t understand. Kids don’t understand. Ain’t nobody teaching the history of the music, where it came from, and the kids that do the rapping, the kids that do this rap and different little soul venues and stuff. They can’t get away with a lot of that stuff in some spots, but when the tourists come to Beale St., they looking to hear what Beale St. is famous for, and that’s the blues or jazz blues, or uptown swing.
“It’s that kind of music they had back in the Jellyroll days. Jellyroll Morton and all them guys. And Cab Calloway. It was a nice cluster of music that everybody understood, and it’s having to do with the times. That had a lot to do with a lot of things, but back then we had our times. Nowadays, the kids have their times, you know? There’s just a few of us now. We just lost one. We lost Preston Shannon. He was a troubadour. Yeah. He kept it out there – he kept it live and it kept it real, but you got Earl The Pearl still out there. You got myself still out there.”
Blind Mississippi Morris discography by Brad Webb
1991: Country Days a mix of back porch style with Band cuts.
1993: Walk With Me with Slick Ballinger
1995: You Know I Like That We wrote songs for the first CD and signed a contract with Johnny Phillips at Select O Hits in Memphis after talking to Bubba Sullivan in Helena about Johnny’s new label.
1997: Bad To Worse self released Russ Wheeler added on keys.
1999: Back Porch Blues a more raw CD with Robert “Nighthawk” Tooms on piano and David Fowler on drums for one song, “Juke” A tip of the hat to the old Blues Musicians before us.
2008 Back Porch Blues
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.