Ford Tough

Mississippi bluesman T-Model Ford has known little but chaos and violence, and that's what he sings about

When septuagenarian bluesman T-Model Ford sings "I'm Insane," he's not playing around. Even in a musical genre defined by tough times and hard-luck stories, Ford's life stands out for its sense of madness frequently on the verge of spinning out of control.

Born James Lewis Carter Ford, T-Model knew little but chaos and violence from his earliest years. He says he was severely and savagely beaten as a child at the fists of the man he calls "Daddy." At 18, he killed a man and did two years on a chain gang in Tennessee. He's been in and out of jail for much of his life. A late bloomer as a blues man--he picked up the guitar when he was in his late 50s--Ford survived five marriages and, as far as he knows, has sired 26 children.

Ford, sporting a ball cap announcing himself as "The Best #1 Dad," simply says, "I know them if they come to me."

Catching up with Ford in Greenville, Mississippi, is easy. If he's not in his ramshackle trailer at the western edge of the town of about 40,000, he can be found cruising the city streets. Ford drives slowly, sometimes on the wrong side of the road. Meandering several blocks, he toots the horn and waves at nearly everyone he sees. He pulls to the curb at one point, yelling, until one of his younger children emerges from a bar to say hello.

The left brake light on his two-door, white 1974 Lincoln is burned out. Two stuffed teddy bears and a box of tissue are jammed against the rear window. A worn child's stroller is lying on the floor. Unused disposable diapers dot the back seat of the worn car. The modern, high-tech cassette player in the dash is worth more than the car--he paid $600 for the Lincoln.

On a lazy Saturday afternoon, Ford takes some time to sit down at the Walnut Street Bait Shop, a blues joint near the casinos that have sprung up in town. Stella, his girlfriend, is getting the club ready for the weekend crowd. Brad, the club owner, who is on a 12-hour furlough from the hospital, stops by to yak with T-Model. A friend passes and asks if T-Model is packing his pistol. Ford, flashing a smile highlighted by a gold tooth with a diamond-shaped pattern cut in the crown (most of his lower teeth are gone) answers by pulling a knife out of his pocket and says, "and I'm gonna kick your ass, too."

T-Model thinks he was about 58 when he first "fooled with the guitar." His pregnant wife--the fifth and last--bought him a guitar and amp. Ford yelled at her because he didn't think they had the money to waste.

She left him on a cold night taking their three kids. Fueled by a gallon of corn whiskey--which Ford claims he'd never tasted until then--he fiddled with the knob on the guitar to make it louder. He sat there until he got it straight. "I was walking those strings," he says as he raises his thick, bushy eyebrows.

One of the first tunes to come out of Ford's new toy was Howlin' Wolf's "How Many More Years." Others followed, many of them original works about Ford's life experiences.

As time went on, T-Model says he was "gettin' gooder and gooder," with the guitar. He adds, though, "the more I drink, the better I sound.

"I didn't have the blues," he adds. "I didn't figure I'd ever learn. But I got it in me and wanted to play it. The blues will make you do things you don't wanna do."

T-Model was born in Forest, Mississippi, on June 24, but he has no idea what year. Folks tell him he's 77 years old.

"I'm not gonna argue about it, 'cause I've never been to school a day in my life," he says. "I can't read, I can't write, I can't spell nothin'. If something comes up, I get the white man to explain things, straighten it out."

T-Model says "I'm not mean, I'm not bad. If I tell you something, you can trust me. I'm just an honest old black man."

Ford describes his father as "a mean man," who inflicted severe beatings on his son. The abuse reached a sadistic peak when he lost a testicle at his father's hand. "He cut it out," Ford recalls.

"My momma and a white woman came with some grease and put it back in," he says.

The paternal drubbing continued when Ford was an adult. Ford's first marriage ended not long after his father took up with Ford's wife. "I had blood in my eyes," Ford says as he describes how he was loading his pistol when he found out about the affair. "But it was dirty for my daddy to do that to me. I was an angry man."

Ford's anger had a habit of spilling into violence. When he was 18, he killed a man who was about 40. Ford does not remember his victim's name, but it happened during a brawl.

The man Ford killed was going after his first cousin. T-Model grabbed a 10-cent bottle of beer and conked the man in between the eyes. "He come behind me and stabbed me in the back."

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