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Highway 61 Revisited

Just north of New Orleans on Highway 61, the swamps give way to the pines, and "dirt for sale" signs dot the countryside. Logging trucks race from what used to be thick forests to paper mills. Antebellum homes and plantations line the way. As the four lanes narrow to two, the blacktop fades and the yellow lines look worn. The fabled blues highway begins to roll and curve as it winds toward Natchez, Mississippi.

A way off the road, and outside the city--in the "boondocks," as they say--Elmo Williams and Hezekiah Early have torn up the piney countryside with their brand of "original" blues for the past 50 years.

The audiences that come out to hear Elmo and Hezekiah today are younger, whiter and less raucous than the locals who heard them in the 1950s and 1960s. Then it was "rowdy," Early says.

"You had to get high, man, to play in there," Williams answers. "You had to get wit' them. You had to get rowdy--dodge them beer bottles! Back then you liable to get your drum bust all up, guitar, amplifier, all that tore up in fights; you had to worry about your instrument and yourself. Today, I don't worry so much about that; I just ask the Lord to take care of me."

Elmo Williams and Hezekiah Early may appear to be newcomers to the blues scene--they only recently started touring and recording--but they are actually old-timers who provide a rare link to the Mississippi blues tradition they grew up with.

Williams and Early go back together to the 1940s. Today, they tour the States, Europe and Japan, cranking out their distinctive brand of raw, stripped-of-fat, meat-grinder blues.

Sitting in Williams' comfortable living room just outside Natchez--Early settling on a dining room chair and Williams sinking into his comfortable red velvet couch--the blues veterans take time to recall the rough-and-tumble world where they cut their teeth. The pressed blue jeans, the lightly starched shirts and the polished shoes they now wear are at odds with their image as hell-raising badasses, an image probably more reflective of their youthful days. But their hard-driving, insistently rhythmic sound reflects an image of a life gone by, yet one that they hold onto with an iron grip.

Born in February 1933 in Natchez, Mississippi, Elmo Williams wanted his father to teach him to play the guitar. Elmo Williams Sr. was a skilled guitarist, but before he had the chance to pass down his expertise to his young son, he was killed in a car wreck. Elmo Jr. was only 10.

Little Elmo did watch his father play the guitar and studied Big Elmo's technique. "The old blues stuff that I play today is my daddy's sound," Williams says.

In 1940, the renowned Natchez blues bar the Rhythm Club burned to the ground. The movers and shakers of the Natchez African-American community had packed the club to hear a band from Chicago. The inside of the tin building was festooned with Spanish moss, laced with a petroleum-based insect repellent. Shutters were sealed shut with nails to keep gate crashers out. The door swung in to the club's only entrance.

What young Elmo and his cousins Lula Mae and Willie Mae encountered in the aftermath of that fire was horrific. The smell hung heavy in the damp air for days. "People were hollerin', screamin' and cryin'," Williams says. "I saw the people that burned stacked up like wood."

The Rhythm Club fire killed 208 people. The inferno wiped out the leadership of the black community, according to Ronald Miller of the Historic Natchez Foundation.

Howlin' Wolf wrote about it in his 1957 track "The Natchez Burnin'." Forty years later, Williams wrote about it too: "Have you ever heard about the fire/That happened in Natchez Mississippi town?/I was standin' there/While the old building burned down to the ground/Lucille was there/Lula Mae was there/Willie Mae had just walked downtown."

Williams first picked up an "ol' raggedy guitar" when he was 15 years old. Williams and his friend C.P. Proby began to pick, strum and slide the lone ax they shared. Williams fretted the neck just as he'd seen his father do. Williams figured out a few basic chords and invented a couple of new ones.

After a while, Williams and drummer James Sims started playing out in the country at a little juke joint owned by Cleveland Belton every Saturday night. After a stint in Korea, Williams returned to Natchez. By day, he labored on a road crew, in a saw mill, as a truck driver and as a boxer in a bakery. At night and on weekends, Williams' band, Elmo and the Houserockers, hammered out the blues deep into the Mississippi and Louisiana nights.

There was the time two women got in a fight, knocking over the mike stand, while Williams was onstage. "The microphone hit my mouth and broke my teeth in the front of my mouth," Williams says. "I finished the fight until they come pull me away from her."

Another time, Williams was cut when he refused to give a patron a couple of bucks. "Back then, it was rough," he says. "Fighting just followed me."

These days, Williams is retired from his day job. When he's not touring, he spends most of his time with his second wife, Fannie Lea Williams, who sometimes sneaks a pinch of chew from her cousin Hezekiah.

Hezekiah Early was born just north of Natchez, in October 1934. He grew up with his family on a farm. On Saturdays, his father, who also played the fife, would go to town to bag groceries at the Big Four, a grocery store on Franklin Street. The Big Four used to send harmonicas to Early and his brother. When Early was 9, he started to blow the harp.

"We would start playing around with the harmonicas, and I learned how to play a few tunes and kind of stayed with it," Early says. "Got pretty good on the harmonica, and that went on for quite some time."

Guitarist/singer Robert Fitzgerald and his son John, who was a horn man, heard about young Early. When Early was 13, with his mother's approval, he went along with the Fitzgeralds to house parties out in the countryside. It was around this time that he got to hear local DJ and harmonica player "Papa George" Lightfoot.

"I started to playin' a whole lot of his tunes," Early recalls. "And that's what really brought me out on the harmonica."

Early continued to play under Lightfoot's watchful eye. At 18, he "weaned away from the harmonica and started playing drums. And that went on for quite a number of years."

Early said he didn't fool with the harmonica until sometime in the late '70s. It was then that Muhammad Ali was in town looking for a harmonica player for the TV film Freedom Road. After hearing Early, Ali was suitably impressed, and the harp man from Natchez got the role. The Greatest asked Early why he'd quit playing the harp. Early explained that he had to give up his love for the harmonica because of his need for drumming.

Ali then asked, "Why don't you figure out a way to play the harmonica along with the drum?"

With that, Early mounted his harmonica to a mike stand with black electrical tape so that he could simultaneously beat the drums while blowing the harp. Early went on to form a band in which he played both the drums and harmonica and was supported by various local guitarists and trombonists. The sound was rooted in New Orleans blues with the trombone giving it a Dixieland flare.

Early, who recently retired after toiling as a tire builder for 30 years, won't talk about what the locals call his "humdinger of a reputation." He is well-known in Natchez, and many people in town have a "Hezekiah story."

Miller of the Historic Natchez Foundation remembers the day in February 1996 when the area was hit by an ice storm. Guests at the Natchez Eloa Hotel, attending a conference, were confined to unheated quarters.

"Everything was iced over. No one could get around," Miller says. Miller called Early's wife saying the restless guests needed to be entertained. Early left his job at the Armstrong Tire Plant and showed up at the hotel with a few of his band members. "It was a magical evening," Miller says. "Hezekiah played for two or three hours and then went to his regular gig."

Williams says that crowds these days "want to hear somethin' new mixed with the old." He adds, "They just want to have a good time, that's all I know, they just want to have a good time."

When Williams starts picking his Gibson Epiphone--courtesy of Northwest Airlines after baggage handlers tore up his guitar in Japan--he taps out the bass line with his thumb.

At times Early is steady and at others he's positively frenetic as he blows the harp while anchoring the beat at the same time. He brings a deceptive sophistication to the raucous and rowdy side of the blues.

"I go back to the past when I start playing," Williams says. "You can see it on my face and the way I move. I gets that feelin' again."


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