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Sonny Boy's Role in Delta Blues History

Sonny Boy Williamson's music legacy (his intimate involvement in the early history of Rock 'n' Roll and Rhythm and Blues from the '20s to the '50s and '60s America and early 60's England) and the Mississippi delta environment from which he remained tied all his life speak volumes about the political and social climate in which we live today.

His mysterious life story, the under-appreciated significance of Helena Arkansas radio station KFFA's "King Biscuit Time" which featured him and the rich history of the Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana delta are very much relevant to Today's history.

 

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King Buiscuit Time Bluesmen

Conway Twitty, Ronnie Hawkins, The Band’s Levon Helm and more important bluesmen than you can count were born or grew up within a 50-75 mile radius of King Biscuit Time’s that broadcast to roughly 10% of the nation’s African-American (then, Black) population in 1941 when KBT premiered. Mid-day “dinner” (the break between the two eight-hour shifts Black farm workers were expected to work) meant listening to King Biscuit Time and, for the first time, many church-going Blacks and music-loving Whites heard a proud man hold his head high and play music that touched their soul. Sonny Boy became the first Black media star of the South. His music literally gave “Eyesight To The Blind” (“Black is Beautiful” in the 1940s). More importantly for Sonny Boy it made money for their sponsor, King Biscuit flour and later Sonny Boy Corn Meal and the irascible Sonny Boy had the run of the delta — his sponsor would almost always get him out of jail to do the show and he could advertise his appearances free

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Blues Poetry

DELTA BLUES POETRY: THE STORIES BEHIND SELECTED LYRICS OF SONNY BOY II

Delta blues lyrics are, often, very dense, highly-codified poetry that would empower powerless delta Blacks to sing what they could not dare to say. Delta Whites would often dismiss the simple, country images as folksongs rather than admit the Black (often viewed as unreliable and less than human) could create art. Sonny Boy II’s songs express many of these themes and feelings.

Without a doubt, Rice Miller AKA Sonny Boy II, was one of the most original and colorful folk blues poets of all time. While self-centered to a fault (65% of his songs listed on this site begin with I, are a command or are autobiographical), Sonny Boy’s images are unique in bluesdom. Who else could come up with such Biblical references to sex as “(She gave)Eyesight To The Blind”, “She Gave Life to The Dead,” “Unseen Eye” or “The Unseeing Eye?” Always fighting with his woman and then begging to get “The Key (To Your Door)” or telling his woman “(You don’t have to call no police; I’m) Gettin’ Out Of Town”, or, about to be caught by a returning husband, knowing “(There Ain’t But) One Way Out” he told his life’s story.

Many of his songs were autobiographical. “(I Ain’t) Fattenin’ (No More) Frogs For Snakes” was allegedly aimed at an employer who didn’t pay him. “Pontiac Blues” was about Trumpet Records’ Lillian McMurry’s new Pontiac which “Miss Lillian” offered him if his wife Mattie could travel with him as his manager (he declined the opportunity). “309” was not only Trumpet’s street address on Farish Street in Jackson Mississippi but the song gave out Lillian’s home phone number (for obvious reasons, the song went unreleased for years). “West Memphis Blues” talks about a real fire that happened at his home in West Memphis in June of 1949. I know about it; I found the arrest record on Suspicion of Arson (he was exonerated). I strongly suspect “The Goat” was about a personal encounter Sonny Boy had with the law deciding to give him “time” instead of “fines” that Max Moore, Interstate Grocer’s owner, paid. Sonny Boy’s braying vocal interjections and his goatee make a good case for why he was called “The Signifying Goat.” The stories go on forever and many references may never be fully identified.

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Blues Industry Pioneers

RECORD COMPANIES AND PIONEER RADIO STATIONS
◾ Alligator Records have released three Sonny Boy compilations: Clownin’ With The World, Goin’ In Your Direction and Keep It To Ourselves. Their website includes a brief Sonny Boy biography and Marc Ryan’s wonderful original liner notes for the above albums.

◾ Arhoolie Records issued King Biscuit Time, a compilation of Sonny Boy’s best Trumpet Records recordings.

◾ Chess Records. Most of Sonny Boy’s best-known recordings were issued by Chess and Checker, currently owned by MCA. The majority of Sonny Boy’s original Chess albums are still available, although The MCA “His Best” and “Essential” compilations are recommended as first choices because there is a lot more music per dollar.

◾ KWEM Radio in West Memphis Arkansas is where Elvis Presley,Johnny Cash, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf and others got their first radio exposure (including B.B.King on Sonny Boy's Hadacol show). Future members of The Band such as drummer Levon Helm of Turkey Scratch, Arkansas grew up listening to this type of music. The Band was formed in Toronto Canada (originally as Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks) with Levon Helm and four Canadians from the area (Robbie Robertson, Richard Manual, Garth Hudson and Rick Danko). The Band was heard on KFFA in Helena Arkansas.

 

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The Sources of Sonny Boy's Lonesome Harp Sounds

 
If you can close your eyes and imagine the rural setting for Alex Miller in 1918 when he first learned to play his harp and think about what his influences might be an interesting story emerges. He was born in 1912 and was playing by age six in 1918. A local vegetable vendor, Big Jim, came walking past Alex Miller’s father’s blacksmith forge playing his harmonica to the sound of his mule’s saddlebags slapping on the sides of his mule, as Sonny Boy told it to a British reporter in 1965.
Then, I can imagine, he listened to the sounds of his lonely world. The average population density of the delta plantations was about one person per acre. While Sonny Boy lived with a large family, during the day they were all at work. He would have built his blues harp sound on what he heard: a baby’s cry (his trademark Wah-Wah sound), the sounds of a cat and dog fight (listen to “The Hunt”), the lonesome whistle of a train travelling across the delta (the high lonesome riff on “All My Love In Vain” and the chug on “Help Me”) with its rhythmic chugging sound across the lonely delta.
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