A Bluesman’s Biography

I’ve been asked to share some thoughts about my life as a musician with you. I’ve decided to do this as a “faux Journal,” making three brief entries spanning the beginning, middle and current periods of my 50 year journey playing the guitar and researching the roots of the Blues and related music. — Tj

TJ’s Journal Entry
Oct. 12, 1964 (12 years old)

Last night I played at the Coontz Jr. High Talent Show ….Boy was I nervous. I did the “Boogie Woogie” number, instrumentally and all by myself. Everybody seemed to really like it, as they really applauded for a long time when I was done.

That’s the piece I’d auditioned with, and though I tried to change my selection to a Beatles song during the run through, the judges/teachers all insisted that I play the Boogie one instead. At first I was a little mad, but now I can see why they made that decision, as the people just go crazy when they hear it. I’m really glad Mr. Shoape, my guitar teacher, taught it to me. A simpler version of that Boogie Woogie was my very first lesson from him. He told me when he was growing up as a teenager everybody loved that kind of music.

I love my acoustic, arch top, Gibson guitar, but I really want an electric guitar. Mom & Dad said last night, after the concert, since I proved to them that I was serious, they would see what they could do to get me one (even if they don’t have a lot of money.)

Today at my lesson, Mr. Shoape told Mom and me that he would sell me his 1953 Fender Telecaster for just $50. Mom said she would talk to Dad about it later tonight, I sure hope I can get it.

Well, that’s all for now, as I want to practice a little more before bed time, especially since I’ve barely played three hours today (not counting my lesson.)

TJ’s Journal Entry
July 1974 (23 years old)

Boy what a trip life is. Who would of known ten years ago when I started playing the guitar that I would be living in Memphis TN. playing & learning from such great, early, Delta Blues legends like Bukka White & Furry Lewis.

Man, I can’t believe all that I’ve learned down here. I thought Jimi Hendrix was the first guitar player in the world to play his guitar from behind his back, but Bukka’s been doing that for over 50 years. Mr. Furry, when he’s showboating, will fret the strings with his elbow (which everybody always thinks is pretty far out.)

Both of them have been so good to me, not only showing me their techniques and tricks on the guitar, but letting me perform with them on both guitar & harmonica. And most importantly, both of them treat me like family.

There’s one thing that is most upsetting; both Bukka & Furry seem to have a hard time making ends meet. Though they are known all over the world by real Blues lovers and music historians, America, as a whole, hasn’t really given them, and the other founding Mothers & Fathers of the Blues, their due. Within their neighborhood communities, and their small pocket of Blues fans, they are really revered. It kills me though, that they, and so many of their peers have it so rough.

The poverty that surrounds them in the inner city is really terrible. I realize that there have been many gains in Civil Rights, but now that I’m living here, I can see first hand, why many black people may feel that there are few, if any ways, out of this. Even Beale Street, once the busiest street of the Blues in the whole world, now looks like a ghost town. I sure wish it could be restored.

Black originated Blues is the foundation of so much of American music, yet the billions of dollars made by Elvis (who everyone calls the King), the Beatles, Stones etc. etc. never ever seem to get back to the source from where it came from. Most people, in fact, don’t even recognize the true bluesman’s place in history. It took me years, myself, to figure out that even my first lesson on the guitar, that old Boogie Woogie, was just one of the countless off shoots of the Blues. It makes me wonder how many other contributions Blacks have made, that also got stolen and unrecognized, in other fields.

When I tell Furry & Bukka that I wish I could do more for them, they just laugh and say “That’s okay, times are hard” — and that they know I’m doing all I can do. After I press them as to what else I could do, both of them have said, in so many words, to take their lessons, learn them the best I can, add myself to it and pass the Blues, its histories, and who I learned it from, on to future generations.

Now I’ve got to figure out exactly the best means to do just that.

TJ’s Journal Entry
Nov. 15, 2010 (58 years young)

Sometimes I meditate on that old adage — Watch out what you wish for…you might just get it! When I was a young man, I first thought that– since you’ve got to pay your dues, if you want to sing the Blues — that I better go out and intentionally, and almost self destructively, give myself the Blues. Especially since I was white, I felt compelled to justify, to myself and the the Blues world, that I had earned the right to play the Blues.

After hanging out with the likes of Furry & Bukka and just living, for that matter, I learned that only a fool would go out looking for the Blues. If you don’t feel you’ve paid enough dues yet — just wait. Life will undoubtedly, in one manner or another, oblige you.

The only sane reason to play the Blues is to lose the Blues. Don’t go out looking for them, as they will come to you. Examine yourself and your soul daily and play from your own experiences, and experience fully with your mind, body & soul what your playing, Blues or otherwise. Learn to express yourself through that artistry. If you’re not a musician, then paint your Blues, sculpt them, dance, act, write them or by any means necessary, follow your passion and method of expressing them. Just as sure as BB King plays the Blues, Martin Luther King expressed his Blues and those of his generation (and for generations before him) through Community Action! We all have many crossroads to face, find your path and deal responsibly with everything & everybody you find on I. They’re all there for a reason.

“I’ve got stones in my pathway..and my road seems dark as night”
– Robert Johnson..

My path has been to be an educator, as well as a performer. As a young man, I was amazed and appalled at what most of America didn’t know about Black music. This eventually led me to also seek out, and research everything I didn’t learn in school about African American history in general. In my program “Hope, Heroes & the Blues,” I use the blues as a window into such important, and too often, untold stories.

That old Boogie Woogie & Mr. Shoape’s 53 Telecaster has taken me to five continents around the world, and the privilege to teach over 45,000 students. I’ve done my best to fulfill my promise to the Bluesmen; to pass the Blues, its histories, and who I learned it from, on to future generations. On my journey I’ve had, and continue to have, plenty of stones in my own pathway. Fortunately for me, you can’t kill the spirit of someone who, no matter how many hard times they go through, keeps turning life’s lemons into lemonade. Such attempts by others to do so are moot. Through the Blues, such challenges have only made me stronger and more passionate in what I believe, play and teach. All Shades, all hues, all blues. After all, to paraphrase Herman Hesse, Blues is like a river; you never step into the same river twice, and you never play the same blues twice the same way.

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