Search This Blog

Friday, May 4, 2012

Muddy Water and Blues

Soul Survivors

By Elodie Pritchartt

The Spring of 2011 was hot, and the Mississippi River was straining against the levees as a massive surge of water — snowmelt from the North — made its way toward the Gulf of Mexico, a flood the size of which hadn’t been seen since the 1920s. The river pushed more than just water.  Deer, possums, alligators and pit vipers fled the rising waters and I thought of Randy Newman’s song, “Louisiana 1927.”

Rained real hard and it rained for a real long time
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

The only difference this time was the lack of rain, and while the prison crews in their black-and-white striped jail suits worked ‘round the clock to fortify and raise the levees, sprinklers irrigated the corn and soybean fields on the other side. Who ever heard of a drought and a flood at the same time?  It’s always some damned thing.

They almost called the whole thing off, but the levees held.  And when Ferriday, Louisiana, hosted its second Soul Survivors Festival, it was a triumph.  We were all survivors. 

Gathered under the cool shade of Rockabilly Plaza, locals and visitors from New York, St. Louis and beyond were there to enjoy the music of Ferriday’s oldest Soul Survivors who all had one thing in common: Haney’s Big House.

Li'l Poochie
YZ Ealey, Hezekiah Early, Li’l Poochie, Gray Montgomery, Elmore “Elmo” Williams and Jimmy Anderson had either played there or been there back in the 1950s and 1960s when it was one of the hottest clubs on the Chitlin’ Circuit —  B.B. King, Solomon Burke, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Irma Thomas, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Johnnie Taylor, even comedians Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley and others all performed at Haney’s.

It was at Haney’s where trombonist Pee Wee Whittaker would sneak a little boy named Jerry Lee Lewis into the back door so he could hear and see the performers whose sounds would influence his own boogie-woogie and rockabilly styles on the piano.

Hezekiah Early
The Soul Survivors are well known in their own rights for their contributions to music in the Delta with each having a place on one of the many Blues Markers that make up The Mississippi Blues Trail, a project of the Mississippi Blues Commission that marks historical sites related to the birth and growth of the Blues in Mississippi.

We had gathered to hear and honor these men on that muggy, fecund Louisiana day.  Festival organizer Tommy Polk had arranged to give them each an award, after which we all settled in for a treat and a bit of history in the making as it marked the first time they had all played on stage together.  The only one missing was Jimmy Anderson who, due to health concerns, was unable to attend.  

Elmo Williams

Hezekiah Early, 77, is a vocalist who plays guitar, drums and harmonica. The son of a sharecropper he still owns his first guitar. He built it, himself, from a wooden cheese box his father brought home.  He played society parties in Natchez, Mississippi, and in the house band at Haney’s.  His recording of a blues album led to a gig at the 1984 World’s Fair followed by fourteen overseas tours — virtually all of Western Europe and Japan.  He’s toured the United States, extensively, the largest performance on July 4, 1986, at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, before 1.5 million people.

“It was so many people, it was frightening,” he recalled.  “It was unpredictable.”

A far cry from the simple days as a sharecropper’s son playing at picnics under the oaks.
YZ Ealey

YZ Ealey — his real name — learned to play on a guitar his brother brought home in 1946 when YZ was nine years old. After his brother left for Korea, YZ started playing at home with another brother, Melwin, a church deacon, singing and performing religious songs, then later at parties in the country playing rhythm and blues.

YZ Ealy
In 1959 after a four-year stint in the navy, YZ returned home and formed his first band with his brothers Melwin and Theodis, and three other musicians — YZ Ealey and the Merrymakers.

They played clubs, high schools, and dignitary functions all around the Miss-Lou (Misssissippi/Louisiana) area.  During the same time, they were the house band for three years at Haney’s Big House.
Guitar player in the YZ Ealey band.

YZ has worked as a longshoreman in New Orleans, and on the factory lines at Diamond International and Armstrong Tire & Rubber in Natchez.  But his fondest memories are of Haney’s.

“People would come from far and near,” he said.  “People who lived far away would always look forward to going to Haney’s Big House.  It was fun.  You could look up while you’re playing and see one of your old friends that lives in Chicago, New York, Memphis, California.  You could always see an old face.  It added a joy to your playing, you know?”

YZ’s favorite music is Country and Blues, his favorite artists Little Milton and Albert King.  He loves the Blues, calling it “born music.”

“It’s so real,” he says.  “Because, you see, it started from slavery when all a person could do was work. You had no privileges.  You had no other way to find contentment or satisfaction but just hum it out or sing it out.  And all that was natural.  And anything that’s natural is real.  You see?

“That’s a time of depression.  But when you’re joyful it’s expressed the same way. So that’s reality again.  When your heart aches, you express it the same way.  Reality again.  Depression. Women. Good times.  That’s what the Blues is all about.  A sack full of reality.”
Gray Montgomery

Gray Montgomery, a guitarist, drummer and harmonica player is the only white man in the group, and at 84, also the oldest. And about to become a newlywed.  Life hasn’t slowed him down.

He started playing when he was fourteen.  A boy from Texas moved into town with a guitar and a repertoire of songs and stole his girlfriend away.

“So I says, ‘Well, look at this,” he says in a gentle Southern dialect. “ And I got me a gi-tah [sic].”

It was his brother’s guitar.  And it wasn’t long before he was the better player. He studied the older men, in particular a black man who worked for his mother named George Jackson.  They lived in a little house on the outskirts of town next to five other houses occupied by blacks and a small juke joint — the Airport Inn Grocery with a jukebox in the back playing Lightnin’ Hopkins and Muddy Waters.

He says he can still hear George playing in the kitchen:

Dey’s a rabbit in a hollow log
Ain’t got no rabbit dog
Gone shoot him with my .44
‘fo day.

“He would pick it out and bend those strings and make that Blues sound,” Montgomery says, demonstrating the twang of the strings with his tongue.

As an adult, Montgomery played clubs in Natchez in a band called Billy Tabbs & Western Swing Band for $5 a night.  He also had a radio show. 
Jimmy Anderson

“We needed a piano player at the radio show,” he says.  “So one day Jerry Lee Lewis came over.  But all he played was church music.” 

So Montgomery hired him on as a drummer and hired a blind black man named Paul Whitehead on piano.  He remembers one night, in particular.  An intoxicated man came up to the bandstand and asked Jerry Lee if they’d play “Down Yonder.” 

According to Montgomery, Jerry Lee told him they didn’t play it. 

“Don’t tell him we can’t play that,” Montgomery said. 

“He’s just a drunk,” said Jerry Lee.  “He’s crazy.”

Photo Credit:  August Thompson for The Concordia Sentinel

“I said, ‘Jerry, without drunk, crazy people we wouldn’t have a job.’  He didn’t like me much after that.”

Although he never played at Haney’s, Montgomery played in black juke joints all over Mississippi with Papa George Lightfoot.

“If you’re a musician, your race, color, origin, don’t matter. I learned something real good about my life, being white and associating with the black people.  It don’t take money, wealth, background….it don’t take any of that to make you happy.  I’ve seen so many black people that didn’t have nothing, and they were happy.  They’d sing and laugh and slap their knees.  Laughter is good medicine.  You’ll live a long time if you laugh a lot.”
It works for him.

This year's Soul Survivor Festival takes place on May 26 in Ferriday.  For more information, see the Soul Survivor's Facebook page as well as the website at

* This post dates from 2011.  Soul Survival Festival is no longer being observed.