Remembering T-Model Ford

Cheating. Grudges. Abandonment. Shootings. Woman trouble. Man trouble. Too much whiskey. Not enough whiskey. Flophouses and fixin’-to-die. The blues has it all.

It’s a musical world rife with I’m-down-here-in-the-ditch-and-I-can’t-get-out resignation if that’s your preference, but there’s more to the blues than blank despair. If I were forced to describe my feelings about the blues in a single word, I wouldn’t choose sad or depressing any more than I’d choose anguish, tribulation or woe. When I hear the blues, I feel like traveling. The music overflows with highways and journeys, crossroads and railroads, picking up and leaving, heading home or wandering off  – to Chicago, to Memphis or Helena, to Anywhere-But-Here.

Robert Johnson went down to the crossroad.  Tab Benoit’s night train is rollin’.  R.L. Burnside did some rollin’ of his own, and a little tumblin’ for good measure.  R.L.’s grandson Cedric and his buddy Malcolm bought a lemon of a car and ended up having to hitchhike home. CeDell Davis says he’s gonna be moving on and suggests we might want to heave ourselves up out of our own chairs to start packing.  Sitting around’s not going to get us anywhere.

Unfortunately, James Lewis Carter Ford has done the last of his traveling – at least in this world. Known as T-Model to friends, admirers and detractors alike, he died at home of respiratory failure on July 16 at the age of 88 – or 83 or 93, depending on which report you read or whom you choose to believe.

I first met T-Model Ford in Clarksdale, Mississippi at the annual Juke Joint Festival. I’d stopped by the parking lot behind the Rust Restaurant on Saturday afternoon to hear Lightnin’ Malcolm and Cedric Burnside play.  Like most people, I had no idea  T-Model and CeDell Davis were planning to join them. When the men appeared, palpable shivers of excitement and anticipation began to run through the crowd.

As friends helped CeDell, a victim of polio, get settled in his wheelchair, T-Model worked the crowd, shaking hands and grinning.  Slowly, the crowd began to transform itself into a house party. Some family and friends were getting together to make a little music, and in the process the gathered crowd would catch a glimpse of shared roots and shared lives in a way impossible at a concert.

Cedric Burnside, grandson of blues great R.L. Burnside and son of drummer Calvin Jackson, has played for years with a variety of musicians including Junior Kimbrough, Kenny Brown and the North Mississippi Allstars.  After teaming up with Steve “Lightnin'” Malcolm, another young Mississippi native who lived for a time with CeDell Davis, the  pair began writing and composing with flair and self-awareness. 

I don’t just sing about the blues, but I live it, too,” they sing, before adding, with a straight-faced irony possibly lost on the blues tourists surrounding them, “Some people say they read about the blues, been readin’ about it for a while. Well, I don’t have to read about the blues, ’cause I been livin’ it since I was a child.” 

CeDell Davis, a native of Helena, Arkansas, is one of those who began livin’ the blues as a child.  Contracting polio at age nine while living with his brother near Tunica, Mississippi, he was forced by his disability to give up the harmonica and re-learn his guitar skills. He grew creative, telling an interviewer,

“I was right- handed, but I couldn’t use my right hand, so I had to turn the guitar around. I play left-handed now. But I still needed something to slide with, and my mother had these knives, a set of silverware, and I kinda swiped one of ’em.” 

It was the perfect solution for someone unable to put a slide on a finger and use it conventionally.  He wasn’t the first to use a knife, but he was in good company.  In a famous autobiographical passage, W.C. Handy remembers his experience in the Tutwiler, Mississippi train station.

A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags, his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularised by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song too, struck me instantly. Goin’ to where the Southern cross the dog.”  The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.

“Weird” is right. A metal knife handle on metal strings produces a sound that could be charitably described as unique. Others describe it as akin to fingernails on a chalkboard. While it’s true an initial encounter with CeDell and his guitar can be discomfiting, there’s nothing uncomfortable about meeting the man himself.  Rolling through the gathered crowd in his wheelchair, he had a word and a handshake for everyone in his path, including his old friend T-Model.

T-Model, a man with as much hard living and bad luck behind him as you could have and still be alive, was a bit of a wonder himself. Writing about Fat Possum Records and their artists  in the London Guardian, Richard Grant lays out the highlights:

T-Model’s life reads like a horror story. At the age of eight, his father beat him so badly between the legs with a piece of firewood that he lost a testicle. His ankles are scarred from the chain gang. His neck is scarred where one of his wives slashed his throat. He has been shot, stabbed, pinned under a fallen tree with a broken ribcage, beaten unconscious with a metal chair. He watched his first wife go off with his own father, watched another die after she drank poison to try and induce a miscarriage. The only woman he ever really loved poisoned him at the breakfast table. He woke up in hospital that afternoon and never saw her again.

He began playing guitar at age 58, on the night his fifth of six wives left him. She’d presented him with a guitar as a parting gift and Roger Stolle, owner of Cat Head Delta Blues recalls, “He stayed up all night drinking white whiskey and playing that guitar. He kind of went on from there.”

Indeed he did. Unbelievable as it seems, T-Model wasn’t especially eager to apply words like anguish, tribulation, or despair to his own life. As he said,

“I play the blues, but I don’t ever get the blues. After my sister died I prayed to God to please let me live like a tree. Tree don’t care if them other trees is dyin’. Tree don’t care about nothin’. When they raped and killed that white lady [an 88-year-old white woman who was teaching him to read and write] I felt bad – she was a good old white lady – but I didn’t let it get me down. I don’t let nothin’ get me down.” 

As Grant notes in his article, most people aren’t able to stay happy because they’ve decided to be happy, no matter what. Still, it seemed to work for T-Model. “He plays the north Mississippi hill-country hypnotic boogie-groove like nobody else on earth,” commented Memphis musician Jim Dickinson, producer for Ford’s album Bad Man (2002). “His music is not a complaint of self-pity, but a celebration of life.You could see it in his smile.”  Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys noticed the smile himself after driving to Greenville on a whim, just to see if he could find T-Model and play with him.

“We jammed all afternoon and played a juke joint that night, then slept on his floor. He was nothing but nice – all smiles. There’s nothing like T-Model’s smile, and boy, he’ll use it! He’ll find the prettiest girl in the audience and just smile all night.”

Certainly he seemed happy enough in Clarksdale.  Basking in the palpable affection surrounding him, firm and straightforward in his singing, he clearly enjoyed playing with Cedric. As the set finished, T-Model rose, steadied himself on his cane and bantered a bit with the musicians around him. Then, a model of graciousness, he took his place in the crowd  while CeDell and Malcolm, the old and the young, the black and the white, the root and the branch, began to edge through another song, just as they would have done when they shared the same house .

As he watched and listened, T-Model casually reached down, picked up his cane, flipped it under his arm and began “playing” in rhythm with Malcolm.

Look at that,” the fellow from Chicago sitting next to me said.  “Just look at that.”  Next to us, a photographer stopped in mid-focus to stare, before saying to no one in particular,  “Can you believe that?”

We watched, transfixed, as the old reprobate, the “ol’ tail-dragger”, a man with a checkered past and the sweetest smile in the world seemed to breathe in life and breathe out blues in a process as easy and natural as CeDell’s table knife slicing music into a plateful of chords.  He just couldn’t help himself, and everyone saw it.

When Lightnin’ saw what T-Model was up to, he caught Cedric’s eye and the Two-man Wrecking Crew grinned at one another across the crowd. Seeing Lightnin’s amusement, CeDell looked over at T-Model, who gave a deep, elegant bow in return.  With only a pause, one song ended and another began as CeDell’s voice strengthened, the rhythms intensified and the chattering, admiring crowd began to grow quiet.

It was then, in a small Delta town nearly hidden from the world, that travelers from Rotterdam, Rochester and Rolling Fork leaned forward in anticipation, feeling the Blues itself begin to travel.  Pitted against the low mumurings of a threatening storm, the music rolled and tumbled from one guitar to the next, from one singer to the other. As clouds heaped up and chords grew heavy in the  air, CeDell sang on while Lightnin’s guitar flashed and the music poured down, running like an unbanked river across hearts flattened and scoured by life, flooding out into the streets, spreading and leveling as it flowed.

Washed clean of inattention, the fellow from Chicago stopped talking, leaned back and closed his eyes. Surprised by an unexpected surge of joy, the photographer from Jackson lowered his light meter and set his camera aside.

Smiling back at CeDell, T-Model winked, folded his hands over the crook of his cane and lightly tapped a foot over the fine, raspy grit of the pavement. Off to the West, the rain rolled down and the River tumbled on, sluicing through the Delta, the source and the life of the Blues.

To hear my favorite cut from T-Model’s “Jack Daniel Time”, click here for “Red’s House Party”.
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70 thoughts on “Remembering T-Model Ford

  1. A great story. You pulled me right in and there was nothing left to do but jump to “Red’s House Party.” All I needed was an approaching storm. I listened to it and the grandkids playing outside instead. –Curt

    1. Curt,

      The energy level of “Red’s House Party” is about on a par with grandkids, I would think! I know you’re enjoying them.

      And I’m glad you liked the story. As it turned out, that trip was one of the best I’ve taken in this country. It left me with a lot of trails to follow, and some equally interesting experiences outside that of the festival. But the music? Just the best, and the people likewise. I hate that T-Model has gone on to that great house party in the sky, but it is a good opportunity to share him – and the others – with people who might not know what treasures they are.


  2. Thanks for this well written story of T-Model. Astounding, his ability to live joy in the midst of such a dark life. Joy is such a mystery, and while it sometimes comes unbidden, bringing joy to others – via song etc – seems to be a way to open our hands.

    1. Allen,

      You comment reminded me of what must be a quotation, but I haven’t been able to source it. The phrase is, “joy is a mystery, and the dark waste of pain”. Clearly, T-Model knew both – and he was no angel. From what I’ve read, he could be a pain to work with, or worse. Apparently he took that motto on his cap pretty seriously, and intended to be “the boss”, for good or for ill. He had a temper, and could be provoked, and certainly drank a bit more than was good for him.

      But we all change, and I think it’s clear that over time he became a fine person. Quirky, but fine. In his latter years he had family and friends, work that he loved, music that gave him joy. What more could a person want?


  3. Until I read your essay, I had never heard of T- Model Ford. In fact when I saw the title I thought that your article was going to be about cars!
    I must admit, I have never heard of any of the Blues singers you mention, but I certainly found them very interesting and very ‘real’ people. Sometimes songs especially the Blues genre, do reflect personal experiences and the listener’s experience is richer and more meaningful.

    Although I have never heard the music of the people you mention, I have enjoyed over the years the music (and even the personal stories of some of the singers themselves) of BB King, Etta James (“At Last’), Billie Holiday (‘God Bless The Child’), Ray Charles (although he did mix several styles with the Blues), Bonnie Raitt, etc.

    As usual, you caught my attention with your fabulous ability for story telling, drew me in enough to vicariously experience your trip/blues festival. Thank you.


    1. Maria,

      Funny you should mention cars. When I got up this morning, I discovered some site devoted to selling Fords had linked to this post – presumably because a silly little bot had decided this would be just the thing for a potential Ford buyer to read. Well, I hope some stop by to kick the tires!

      There’s such a rich musical heritage in our country it’s hard to take it all in. I started in college with folk music – Huddie Ledbetter, the Carter family and such – and then moved on to bluegrass, but I’d never really paid much attention to the blues until the last ten or fifteen years. Part of that is living so close now to music I’d never been exposed to – Cajun, Delta blues and so on. It makes a huge difference when you can meet the music-makers and listen to them “in situ”, as it were.

      The musicians you mention were much favored by my mother, although, given a choice, my dad would listen to Dixieland or other jazz. I’ve not thought of Etta James in forever. I found this great video from her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – in 1993. We’ll just slide right past the fact that it was twenty years ago!

      Thanks so much for stopping by. I’m glad you enjoyed T-Model, and the music, too.


  4. One word when i think of the blues? “Home.” You took me home to the delta again, amiga! You must have been at Morgan Freeman’s “Ground Zero’.

    I lived in clarksdale long long ago in the late ’70’s and early 80’s. I returned for a visit about 8 years ago — I’ll have to tell you about that in person one of these days when I find my way through your part of the world!

    as always, great post! thanks for taking me home!

    1. Zee,

      What? Ground Zero? Me? Well, of course!

      I didn’t stay in Clarksdale, though. I went up the road to Uncle Henry’s at Moon Lake, mostly for the literary associations, but also because gr-gr-gramps started his Civil War career at Helena and was part of the Yazoo Expedition. You surely knew Sarah and George Wright, the innkeepers there.

      I don’t know if Tennessee Williams haunts the place, but some of their dust has to be left over from the 1930s. Uncle Henry’s raised seediness to a fine art, for sure – and I loved it. I could just hear Blanche Dubois saying, “”Yes, the three of us drove out to Moon Lake Casino, very drunk and laughing all the way.”

      George is gone now – I believe it was last year that he died. Apparently it was from natural causes, which occasioned a certain surprise in some quarters.


  5. Wonderful story, beautifully told. Sends me back to my own excursions into the blues. As a college kid in Chicago, of course it was all around us. The big thrill was going backstage after a Muddy Waters concert to meet the man himself. (He was something of a reprobate, too, to say the least.) But the story you tell is from the heart of the blues country, and that simply can’t be beat.

    1. Susan,

      There was a good bit of exploration and learning taking place on this particular trip, but one thing I knew I wanted to do was make a stop in Rolling Fork, where Muddy Waters was born.

      There’s a gazebo on the town square dedicated to him. The day I was there, a young man with an electric keyboard was sitting there, just messing around. It was a reminder that what goes around, comes around, even musically. The Blues went to Chicago, got amplified with the help of Muddy Waters, and now the sound has come back home and another generation is taking it up.

      We just lost David “Honeyboy” Edwards two years ago next month. He was one of the great acoustic players, and a last link to Robert Johnson. He did a fine job with Sweet Home Chicago . You must have had a fine time, with all that music to chose from!


  6. Linda, what a fabulous story of a great blues man. T Model Ford was as unique as they come. I really enjoyed reading this since I am very much a fan of the the blues. The men that played what I call old time blues are just about all gone. They have left a legacy that I’m not sure any of the younger guys can live up to.

    There is nothing better than the guitar and the harmonica combo and the fast picking of lightening and nimble fingers.

    Listening to T Ford’s music made this a really good read.

    1. Yvonne,

      If you enjoy harmonica, I need to mention that Terry “Harmonica” Bean is the fellow playing on the “Red’s House Party” link. He played professionally with T-Model for a time, but apparently quit after one too many fights broke out at their gigs. But he came back for “Jack Daniel Time”, and played wonderfully.

      Here’s a video of him at the 2010 Juke Joint Festival. It’s another of those up-close-and-personal performances that makes the festival such a delight.

      Eric Clapton’s one musician who’s spent some time not only learning from the old-timers, but paying them tribute. Here’s a part of his Robert Johnson sessions. It’s fascinating to listen to Clapton talk about the difficulties of learning to do what Johnson did. As he says, if you really wanted to be able to emulate him, it would be a lifetime project.

      I’m glad you enjoyed this. I didn’t realize you’re a blues fan. Glad to find another.


  7. I cannot imagine making it through the travails that T-Model did and coming out alive, much less smiling. What a character. What a part of history! Those experiences are where the blues comes from – and no one can imitate it who hasn’t seen that kind of life. Wonderful story and so well-told.

    1. SDS,

      He’s pretty much proof of what another resident of his fine state had to say about the possibilities open to humans – that we not only can endure, but sometimes do prevail.

      T-Model certainly could have been a Faulkner character – or one of Flannery O’Connor’s, for all that. I’m just glad I got to meet him and experience his music at Clarksdale. I’m not sure I would have had the guts to track him down in some of the venues he played.

      And it’s true – you can’t put on the blues like a suit of clothes. If you missed reading the piece I linked in the first line of the second paragraph, I think you’d enjoy it. It certainly supports your point, though it does give you a way to figure out your very own blues name!


    1. Thanks so much, montucky. I love this post for just that reason – that I somehow managed to capture a bit of that afternoon’s magic.

      Turning music into words isn’t the easiest thing in the world, but it certainly is worth the effort. Since I can’t transport us all back to that Mississippi afternoon, this is the next best thing!


  8. It’s 5:45 a.m. on Monday morning and I am tapping my foot and bobbing in time to a great rocking tune from an artist I’d never heard of (as best I recall) until about 20 minutes ago. :)

    I absolutely love this post. And thanks for introducing me to Mr. T-Model Ford.

    1. Bill,

      It’s as good as a rooster for getting a body up and going, isn’t it? Probably better. I don’t know if you caught it hidden in a link, but this one was recorded live to tape with no overdubs, which helps to preserve that “raw” sound.

      It’s too bad that you and T-Model had to meet under these circumstances, him being gone from this world and all. But his music remains, and a lot of stories that likely will be shared for a good long time. I dont know if I have another story in me about T-Model, but I sure enough have another title: “Houseparty in Heaven”.


    2. How could I have forgotten? When I was in Clarksdale, the Rev. Peyton and his Big Damn Band also were performing. He plays guitar and sings, while his wife plays the hottest rubboard I’ve ever come across. They’ve got a new video out. It was shot in a barn in Indiana in one day. It’s – amazing. It’s called Clap Your Hands, and you can find the lyrics here..

  9. I have always loved the music, though the only one I knew by name was W.C. Handy. What tragic lives these men were able to survive. Their music is their souls speaking to us. Thanks for telling their stories so beautifully Linda. I think a lot of us may listen with different ears.

    1. kayti,

      Your mention of only knowing W.C. Handy by name reminds me of a remarkable story I came across about Alan Lomax, the ethnomusicologist who criss-crossed the country for years putting names to these indescribable sounds.

      When he came across Muddy Waters in the 1940s, he actually was on a search for Robert Johnson – who already had been dead for three years without Lomax knowing it! We owe people like him such a debt – without them, these hidden treasures never would be seen. In a sense, they’re like the outsider artists you’ve written about. They just create, and leave it to others to preserve the record of their accomplishments.

      I mentioned Honeyboy Edwards in a comment to Susan, above. One of the enduring myths is that he was around when Robert Johnson died. There was woman trouble, apparently, and a poisoning thrown in because of it. You might enjoy this short article.


      1. Great stories—myth or not—about Robert Johnson’s death. I checked out the Mother Jones link, which led to many more great blues stories. I actually did know more blues names, just not the ones you mentioned, and those were not strictly blues. Django Rheinhardt, Oscar Peterson, Fats Waller, Gypsy jazz and so on. I loved the jazz clubs in the Fillmore in the 40’s. And of course Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. My, I could spend a nice afternoon just reading about them!

        1. It’s funny – I came to folk music first, then bluegrass. While I was living in Salt Lake City, the “new grass” groups were around, and I got to hear Hot Rize, the New Grass Revival and David Grisman. I loved Grisman, and through following him was introduced to Stephane Grapelli and eventually Django Reinhardt.

          I think Reinhardt and Grapelli’s “Minor Swing” is my favorite, but if you’ve never heard Grapelli with David Grisman, this will make you smile – and smile, and smile.

          1. Love it! My two German friends, twins in their 80’s, knew Grapelli and Django and introduced me to them, though not in person as they know them. I used to play folk in Joan Baez’s time, and one grandson is learning blue grass. “Mega-cool” as he would say.

  10. Nephew #4 will be here this weekend to celebrate his father’s (my brother’s) milestone decade. I look forward to sharing this link with him. He graduated from DeBakey HS at the top of his class and we all just figured he would go into health sciences…not at all. He’s studying liberal arts and majoring in music business in New Orleans with graduation just a year away.

    Thank you for telling this story and supplying the mp3 link. It seems the “blues” is the very serious and joyful business of living. I’d like to say healing and coping…but with so much bad luck, tough experience without ceasing it seems, I think those who really live it are connecting with those who live tough times and those who don’t. Healing and coping wouldn’t be the blues…the connecting is palpable.

    1. Georgette,

      This really has been a summer of wonderful family connections for you, hasn’t it? When you share the link with your nephew, ask him if he’s met Roger Stolle, who owns Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art in Clarksdale. Roger went through something of the same kind of epiphany I did – except he landed in juke joints when he left the corporate world, instead of landing on boats.

      You can read his bio here, and you’ll see links to much else. Roger’s a warm, welcoming sort of person and if you catch him on a non-festival weekend he always has time to talk. If nothing else, he serves as a marvelous example of what can be accomplished by passion and hard work.

      One of my favorite quotations always has been Hunter S. Thompson’s, “When the going gets tough, the tough turn pro”. But he’s got another one that your nephew might also want to consider:
      “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” ;-)

      As for the nature of the blues itself? I’d never try to define the blues, but I can say this – whenever I’m feeling down, it’s the blues that can pull me back up. As someone said to me in Clarksdale, “If you can sing it, you already over it”.


  11. Before your post, I’d never heard of T-Model Ford. What a fascinating story! To think that someone who’d endured so much meanness and sadness could somehow rise above that and provide so much pleasure for his audiences is simply amazing.

    You know, there must be some “magic” in music. A few nights ago, the TV news had a feature piece on a 101-year-old jazz trumpeter, still going strong in New Orleans. I suppose it’s true that “most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be”!!

    1. Debbie,

      Just think of all the people still out there whom neither of us have heard of – people who are playing, painting, designing, sculpting, exploring, collecting – completely out of sight of the world.

      We live in such a celebrity-obsessed culture. To be quite frank, I find most “celebrities” pretty boring. Why anyone would want to focus on someone like Justin Bieber or the Kardashians rather than the interesting people just down the road is beyond me. Like everyone else, I have my favorites, and I’ll travel to a concert or club to hear some good music. I’m interested in people like Eric Clapton, and will read books by and about them. But I don’t need the media telling me who’s “important”, and I pretty much got over the obsession thing with Ricky Nelson. (I confess: I still remember his favorite color was red, and he wore a size ten shoe.)

      I found your trumpeter! His name is Lionel Ferbos, and he’s quite a guy. He certainly doesn’t look like the 101 years old that most people imagine. Apparently staying active and doing what you love has a positive effect.


    1. becca,

      So glad you enjoyed it! That’s just how I felt at Clarksdale – every time a set ended, I found myself wanting more. That’s probably why CD sales are so good at such events – it gives people a chance to “bring back the magic”.


  12. Great essay. The sound of metal sliding across metal strings is a sound all its own.

    Nice phrases throughout the post.
    ” man with a checkered past and the sweetest smile in the world” – so true of many blues artists
    ” clouds heaped up and chords grew heavy in the air” great imagery.
    ” music poured down, running like an unbanked river across hearts flattened and scoured by life, flooding out into the streets, spreading and leveling as it flowed.” Wonderful description of the blues.
    Lots of other notable phrases.

    The writing as musical as the topic. Nicely done

    1. phil,

      Good of you to note those last couple of paragraphs. I’m rather fond of them, myself – mostly because they capture the afternoon for me, as well as making it possible for me to share it with you.

      On the other hand, experiences like that seem to evoke descriptive language. When you have such people, such music and a place that feels “out of time”, I think everyone has the urge to hold on to it in one way or another. Some people take photos, some buy CDs and then go home, get out the guitar and try to replicate the sounds. I sit around and peck at a keyboard.

      Thanks for your kind words. Apparently we’re going to have high summer for a while now – just the sort of weather suited for the blues.


  13. You really do have a way with words. I read this while sitting at work & yet I could hear the music & smell the coming rain as if I was there behind the Rust Restaurant myself… Now I’m off to check out those links you shared!

    1. The Bug,

      Well, good gosh. That’s about the best thing anyone could say to me!
      That’s what I wanted to do – put you there, so you could enjoy it, too. If I did that, I’m happy as can be. I hope you enjoyed the links!


  14. The making of music is a magical thing. It’s the one thing every Human culture has in common, but for thousands and thousands of years, music was one of those you had to be there. Live music was the only kind of music there was. If you wanted to hear music, you either had to be within hearing distance of somebody who was playing it, or play it yourself.

    Then, 177 years ago, all that changed.From wax coated cylinder to wave file in just 177 years. Mind blowing. It is some consolation that even though T-Model and many of his generation are gone, their echoes remain. In that we are very, very fortunate. Those echoes have crossed time and space, and resonated in some pretty amazing places, like here and here and here

    Not to mention here

    1. WOL,

      Wonderful links! One of the things I like best about them is the reminder they contain that the best musicians of today are intent on honoring the ones who came before. And then there’s this – think how many people have used our modern technologies, especially YouTube, to learn how to make music. You don’t have to take lessons from a junior high band instructor who hates kids but gives lessons to supplement his income (she says, with a shudder).

      Even Jimmy Buffett sings the praises of homemade music, and everyone from the three-year-old with an empty oatmeal box to the old woman rocking on the porch singing to herself can join in.

      And isn’t it interesting that people fresh from an experience of live music often find themselves reduced to that phrase as they try to tell others about it: “You had to be there”.


  15. Pretty darned cool that you got to meet him! I was coming home from Torch Lake last weekend and American Roots (Routes?) was saluting him — you are right about the blues being good traveling music. And boy, did I enjoy that show! I learned a ton from it, but I think I may have learned even more from you! How do you survive a life like that and still have joy? You were lucky to have had the chance to meet him — what a tribute to Model T and to this musical genre.

    Wish you could head north to the Great Lakes Folk Festival next month — we have that music and tons more from around the world!

    1. jeanie,

      I’m so glad to know about the American Routes series. Somehow I’ve missed that. The T-Model Ford salute isn’t up on the website yet, either by date or name, but no doubt it will pop up soon. There’s a wealth of other musicians to sample there while I wait, and I’m looking forward to it.

      I really don’t have a good answer to your question about survival and joy, but it certainly is all around us. Granted,the circumstances may not be so dire or dramatic as those T-Model faced, but just think of how many among our blogging friends are in the process of surviving “this” illness (!) or “those” circumstances, and still manage to radiate joy. It’s a gift, no doubt about that.

      I was blessed to meet him. It’s an experience I’ll never forget. The best part is that I got to meet Burnside and Malcolm, too. Both of them are touring. Once I get a few loose ends tied up around here I may check their schedules. I was particularly impressed with Cedric Burnside, who’s won Blues Drummer of the Year twice, I believe.

      I’d love to head north, but I’d be equally pleased if some north headed down here in the form of cooler weather. A friend’s been up in Minnesota, and enjoying every minute. There’s nothing like getting a phone call from someone determined to gloat about the fact that she’s sitting on the edge of a lake, trying to decide whether to put on a sweater!


    1. nikkipolani,

      Speaking of intimacy, this event was the first time I’d intentionally taken photos of people. Heaven knows they didn’t mind – there were dozens of professional photographers around, or at least people who had that sort of equipment, and plenty of “just picture-takers”. But it felt intrusive – I certainly learned the value of a zoom lens – and it’s been interesting to read the musings of people who do this sort of “street photography”.

      T-Model certainly did experience a good bit of turbulence in his lifetime. But, from what I’ve read, things smoothed out in the end. I certainly hope so.


  16. What a beautiful tribute — punctuated with such wonderfully intimate images — of this amazing soul. I truly hope he’s found the peace he so deserves. What a life and obvious talent….

    1. FeyGirl,

      it amazes me that he didn’t begin playing until he was nearly 60 and didn’t record for the first time until the 1990s, at the age of 75. He’s lucky he didn’t get himself killed before his career ever started – he was one rough dude, and not always so charming.

      That’s all right. As Woody Guthrie put it in “Pretty Boy Floyd”, some will rob you with a six gun, and some with a fountain pen. I’ll take T-Model’s kind of honesty about himself over the slickness of a few I’ve known.


  17. Your topic made me wonder how long ago English speakers began to refer to a depressed state of mind as “the blues.” It seems that at least as long ago as 1741 there was already a reference to “the blues” or “blue devils.” In Slang and Its Analogues, John S. Farmer wrote in 1890:

    “Few words enter more largely into the composition of slang, and colloquialisms bordering on slang, than does the word BLUE. Expressive alike of the utmost contempt, as of all that men hold dearest and love best, its manifold combinations, in ever varying shades of meaning, greet the philologist at every turn.

    A very Proteus, it defies all attempts to trace the why and wherefore of many of the turns of expression of which it forms a part—why true BLUE should be synonymous with faithful, staunch adherence to one’s faith and principles ; or why, on the other hand, to look BLUE should signify affected with fear, dismayed, and low-spirited.

    Curiously enough, the historical method helps but little to decide why in one case an exact reversal of meaning should have taken place in the application of the word ; for, as far as the evidence is concerned, both the good and bad shades of meaning appear to run contemporaneously.”

    And speaking of reversals, I also have to wonder how the Model T gave rise to T-Model.

    1. Steve,

      The name’s interesting. T-Model started out on his family’s farm, but got a sawmill job in his early teens. He did well, and moved on to a lumber company near Greenville, in the Delta. Eventually he was promoted to truck driver, and that seems to be when he became known as T-Model.

      What I do wonder is what role some Cajun workmates might have played in the formation of his new name. “Tee” is a Cajun nickname, as in Tee-Tee, probably from “petit”, and Tee-Do, which may have come from “petit doux”. One of the best known Cajuns is Tee Jules (Jules d’Hemecourt IV) whose Cajun Twelve Days of Christmas is a classic. Just possibly, T-Model started out as Tee Model or Tee Ford, and it was turned into T-Model by folks who didn’t know better and assumed it referred to the car. It would make a terrific research project!

      That’s a wonderful excerpt from Farmer. The first thing I noticed was the inclusion of “blue devils”. I had a customer in Rockport who was the Duke University Blue Devil for a year. The school’s mascot was named after the French “les Diables Bleus”, another nickname, given during World War I to the Chasseurs Alpins, the French Alpine light infantry battalion.

      When I read Farmer’s observation that “both the good and bad shades of meaning appear to run contemporaneously”, the first thing that came to mind is the wonderful documentary, “Wild Women Don’t Have The Blues”. There’s a good clip here. The raw power of people like Robert Johnson or T-Model can’t be denied, but in a very real sense the women highlighted the complexity of the blues – that sense of good and bad in tension. [Last sentence edited for clarity.]


      1. The T in T-Model did remind me of the French ‘ti (from p’ti from petit) that means ‘little’ and that forms the first part of various male nicknames, but because T-Model was black rather than Cajun, I discounted it. It’s certainly plausible, though, that Cajuns gave him the nickname. I’ll wait to see if the “terrific research project” becomes yours.

        To the list of things I did not think about and you did, you can add the Blue Devils of Duke. You might think it strange that someone who has a degree from Duke didn’t think about that, but I was in a program that had me on campus only for two summers and not for any regular semesters. I remember the smell of curing tobacco that often filled the Durham air.

        1. A Cajun source for his nickname seems plausible partly because of the population movements out of Louisiana during and just after the Depression. He would have begun working in the sawmill and lumber business somewhere around 1931-1936, and it makes sense that by about 1940 he would have been driving his truck and working with men who had come north looking for employment.

          I don’t think I’ve ever smelled curing tobacco. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it growing. The southeast is as much a mystery to me as the northeast. I hope to remedy that some day, especially since the people I know from South and North Carolina seem to think they’re living in heaven.

          I found another “blue” last night in the Vitae of a fellow Texan. He’s written a paper on “The Lady in Blue”, a Spanish Abbess named Mary of Agreda who evangelized Indians in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas from 1620-1631. The story is that she did this without ever leaving her convent in Spain. Apparently she was capable of “bilocation” – being in two places at the same time. I’d love to be able to do that.

          It’s quite a story – one that might even put old Tristan to shame.

  18. Marvelous read. I remember when you went to the Juke Joint Festival.

    I saw B.B. King in concert at Charleston County Hall in the early 70’s. I paid for a girlfriend’s ticket, so I wouldn’t have to go by myself. I don’t remember how much they cost but they had to have been $10.00 or less apiece. I sure didn’t have much money back then. We were the only two white faces in the place. My friend didn’t even know who B.B. King was. We had a blast.

    There were three bands that played before B.B came on stage. All three were fantastic. A bit blues, a bit R&B.
    When BB came out, he sat in his chair about 10 feet from the edge of the stage, which we were leaning on. He had a horn section, I remember that.

    Sadly, the turnout was less than optimal. The place was practically empty. He didn’t return to Charleston for about 20 years or so. Can’t blame him.

    I caught a fairly well known SC blues artist, Drink Smalls, a few times in local watering holes. In the mid to late 90’s and up to 2004, when it closed, there was a local place downtown called Mama’s Blues Palace. Hubby and I went a few times with friends.

    1. Gué,

      I remember those days of ten dollar tickets. That’s why festivals and local places are such wonderful options – plenty of music, a variety of performers, and the ability to get up and leave if you really don’t like a musician. I think everyone’s had the experience of sitting through a movie or performance they’re not enjoying, just because they paid the money. Not only that, getting local lodging and arriving early can be a huge plus when it comes to meeting people and learning about the area apart from the music.

      I love the image of you leaning on the stage – Gué as groupie. That’s an image for the ages!

      Never in my life have I heard of Drink Small, but I see he’s also known as the Blues Doctor. Not only that, he’s a fine musician who plays with some fellows with equally interesting names – like Ironing Board Sam! There’s an hour long clip on YouTube of his 80th birthday party in January, and a really great video from Pawley’s Island Tavern. It’s interesting how someone can be so well known in their area, and yet be a complete blank somewhere else.

      Hearing pencil sharpeners, conversation and the copier are great, but I haven’t seen you mention – are you able to hear any music yet? I suspect it’s still just a huge cacophony – but in time, won’t it be great to be able to listen to things like this? I so hope it’s sooner rather than later!


      1. No, no music. I’ve made a conscious decision to not listen to it just yet. With all the aural cacaphony, I’m afraid if I do it too soon, I’ll be so supremely disappointed I’ll never try again.

        I’ve seen in forums that the ablility to really enjoy music, post cochlear, is not particularily good, due to the sound quality. I’m going to let things settle for a while. Get speech and other sounds sorted out, before moving on to higher things.

        1. That makes sense. I read a few articles about learning to listen to music, and have a better sense of the complexities. It does seem as though there are some “tricks” to make the process easier and more enjoyable. I’m sure your audiologist will help you with that when the time comes.

          I’m so sorry that the nature of your trip was changed so radically. You know we’re all thinking of you and wishing you the best in the days ahead.

    1. Ken,

      I just was mentioning to Gué how strange it is that someone can be known in their local area and still remain unknown across the country.
      Sixto Rodriguez took that to a whole new level, to say the least. I didn’t know about him until the Oscar nomination for the documentary – it’s an enthralling story.

      Around here, it’s nearly impossible to hear the name “Rodriguez” standing alone without thinking of George Rodrigue . I’d not have one of his paintings hanging in my house, but plenty of people do, and his story’s equally fascinating.

      I did have to laugh when I opened up the site this morning and saw the photo. You know how they say people begin to resemble their pets (or vice versa)? There’s a certain similarity between George and his blue dogs in the photo – not the color, certainly, but the expression. Fun to see.


    1. He pretty much shared himself, but I’m glad you enjoyed his comment – and thanks so much for stopping by. The more people I can introduce to T-Model, the happier I am!


    1. Susan,

      No, I hadn’t seen it, but appreciate you bringing it by. I love the first section of the poem, especially the way Eliot moves from the river to the sea, then back to land again. I’ve used those lines about the river as “a strong, brown god” when writing about floods. I think they’re perfect, and filled with truth.

      I have much more experience of the Mississippi than of the Dry Salvages, of course, but Eliot experienced both, living in St. Louis and then sailing as a youth out of Gloucester Harbor. I’ve always thought “The Dry Salvages” starts out strong and then slowly fades away, as words based in experience give way greater abstraction, but that’s just me.

      If you don’t want to kayak out, you could always spend a few days here, getting to know “The Four Quartets”. Wouldn’t that be fun?!


    1. Bella Rum,

      What a wonderful thing. I’d far rather you feel as though you’re in Clarksdale than on that crazy interstate! I’m glad you enjoyed it – put your feet up, have some iced tea and listen to a bit more music. It cures what ails a person!


    1. thinkingcowgirl,

      I suppose the flooding imagery felt especially appropriate at Clarksdale because I had traveled through the Delta, walked the levees, seen the Mississippi and so on. Geography may not be destiny, but it certainly shapes our experiences.

      I’m thinking about rivers again today, after getting the news that JJ Cale died yesterday of a heart attack. Have you heard he and Eric Clapton together on “The Road to Escondido”? It’s just marvelous – as is all of his work. It wasn’t more than a week ago a blogger asked us what we’d chose as our “anthem” at this point in our life, and I picked “Ride the River”. Interesting.

      As for T-Model, I suspect his guitar had one big advantage over the gals. It didn’t talk back!


  19. Wonderful. There is something about the Blues…you’ve caught it in this rolling riff of a piece. As for T-Model, I think his hat says it best: he was The Boss. Thank you for sharing him. May he rest in peace.

    1. ds,

      He was the boss. If you don’t believe it, just have a look at his artist profile over at Fat Possum records. There are some pretty funny lines there, none of which I chose to quote here. ;)

      From what I’ve read, it seems as though he almost was a force of nature – raw, unpredictable, destructive, compelling. Or, he may just have been an extra-crotchety old man. In either case, he made some fine music.

      Good to see you. I do hope your summer’s going well. I thought of you the other day when my search engine terms included about six instances of “sky blue pink”. Who knows what that was about, but it certainly made me smile!


    1. Hippie Cahier,

      I just found an absolute treasure. Here’s a video of CeDell and Malcolm on the very day I wrote about. At 1:00 you can hear T-Model referring to himself as the “old tail-dragger”. Just after that, the camera catches him. He’s not hard to spot, with his black shirt and hat. He’s sitting next to the woman with the long blond hair – of course! If the guy with the camera had panned the crowd a bit more, I would have been in a frame or two – I was sitting right across from T-Model.

      Glad you enjoyed the post, and “Red’s House Party”, too. It’s time to get back to Mississippi, I think.


    1. Andrew,

      This really was my first experience with street photography. It was interesting to watch all of the photographers who were there. Some were moving all the time – crouching and walking and elbowing through the crowd. I changed my position once – from standing at the edge of the crowd to sitting on the ground right up front.I was happy with my photos, to say the least, and I felt like I profited from being unobtrusive.

      It was a great weekend. It’s even more special now that T-Model’s gone – the sort of souvenir that beats a poster or a tee shirt hands down!


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