Editor’s note: On Monday, March 25, we left our accommodations at the Walton Family General Store in Durham and found our way to the McDonald’s on North Roxboro Road for some web-based research. I had blues on my mind. I found a Bullfrog instead. Blues musician Bullfrog Willard McGhee, whom I’d stumbled into on the back roads of the Internet, responded immediately to my unsolicited query and agreed to meet me in Raleigh. We had two beers apiece over three hours, and I christened my new digital recorder with a three-hour interview which ran in excess of 10,000 words. It took the better part of an entire day to transcribe. It’s a terrible way to do business. I’ll try to tell the story of our day and my night with the Bullfrog in as digestible a way as possible. Thanks for your time, Mr. Bullfrog.
Raleigh, N.C., March 25 – It’s Monday, the day after the close of the NESCent conference, and predictably enough I’m coming up empty. I had this idea about exploring Durham’s old-school blues scene, which thrived in the 1930s and gave the world legendary names like Blind Boy Fuller, Reverend Gary Davis and Sonny Terry.
The epicenter of this scene was a black neighborhood called the Hayti, which now exists mostly as an inspiring collection of parking lots.
I’m having as much luck with the Durham blues as I had with the behemoth. I took the latter to Durham Tire on North Roxboro Road. The Durham Tire folks were unfailingly nice to me. When I arrive, the mechanic, Doyle, is out getting a haircut.
I return to the RV and call the Music Maker Relief Foundation, which represents a host of latter-day Carolina blues artists. I have a brief conversation with a young woman from Wayne, Pa., which is a scant two-mile walk from the Breslin manse in Berwyn. This hometown connection does not secure me any kind of preferred access. She takes my message, says maybe Music Maker CEO Tim Duffy will call back. (He never did. Three weeks later, he still hasn’t.) I try the St. Joseph’s Historic Foundation, home of the Hayti Heritage Center, but nobody’s around who might help.
It’s cold. The prevailing chill bears little relation to the North Carolina that Doc Watson’s music has conditioned me to expect. A bit of sunshine makes it nearly bearable. Instead of hanging around waiting for Doyle to get sheared, I walk north on Roxboro, following a sign for “Historic Stagville.” If I can’t get the blues, I might learn something about Stagville.
It doesn’t take me long to learn something. A half-mile up the road I see a historic marker across the street, planted in the grassy island separating the right-turn lane from the rest of Roxboro. Excited, I dodge the afternoon traffic and thread my way to the marker.
What I learn: The historic plantation that 18th-century entrepreneur Richard Bennehan brought to life lies seven away miles out along Old Oxford Road.
Apparently Stagville is something to see. It was one of the largest antebellum plantations in the south, immense enough to make Scarlett O’Hara swoon. By the outbreak of the Civil War, the good folks in charge of the sprawling, 30,000-acre plantation Stagville had managed to find homes (and jobs! Talk about your Original Job Creators!) for 900 slaves. But I got all that from Wikipedia. I didn’t make it to Stagville, yet somehow I got those lowdown Stagville Blues.
Undaunted, I take a bracing stroll around the perimeter of the adjacent strip mall, trying at all times to place myself in the path of the sun. Someday archaeologists will be able to learn a lot about us when they excavate places like this. It is who we are.
Eno Square, this particularly cultural touchstone, is anchored by a Food Lion supermarket. There’s much more. There’s always more. There’s a Chinese restaurant, a pizza joint and a Mexican restaurant. I know, this is hard to fathom. To mix things up, there’s a hot dog restaurant, a martial arts center, a dry cleaners, a tanning salon and a wireless store. And of course there’s a dollar store and an oversized corporate drugstore.
What else do you need to know? Without trying, I have walked right out of Durham, N.C., and into the cool, commercial madness of Anywhere, U.S.A.
Having seen enough, I trudge back toward Durham Tire. When I arrive, Doyle has a scanner attached to our engine. He’s trying to help me while he attends to the shop’s previously scheduled auto repair. I wait another hour. Finally, I get a sincere apology. It’s too cold to work on the behemoth outside and all the spots in the warmth of the garage are spoken for. I ask about tomorrow, but no dice. We’ll have to figure this out later.
Total bill: $0.00.
I rejoin Becky and Max at the McDonald’s. I poke around the Web, giving the blues thing one final effort. Finally I throw up my hands and Google: “Does anyone alive remember Blind Boy Fuller?” It doesn’t score a direct hit, but it does introduce me to a character named Bullfrog Willard McGhee. Mr. Bullfrog, a blues musician himself, has published a series of pieces on the Triangle Blues Society website chronicling important sites along the Piedmont blues historical trail.
Then I find his bio at the St. Joseph’s Heritage Foundation, and it leaps from the page with the absurd power of myth. He appears to be a Zelig of roots music. He must be 90, because he’s been everywhere and seen just about everything. I am intrigued. It’s worth a shot. I email him at 5:52 p.m. At 6:25 the cell phone rings. A few minutes later, I have an appointment to meet the Bullfrog at 9 at Havana Deluxe, a cigar bar in Raleigh.
“They let you smoke in there,” Bullfrog says, “and I know that’s one thing I like to do when I drink beer.”
I’m not looking forward to a night of second-hand smoke. But I figure if a guy called Bullfrog is generous enough to meet a wandering stranger on the spur of the moment, the least I can do is meet him in his natural habitat.
We pack up our ridiculous array of electronic equipment, saddle up the behemoth and begin to wind our way south and east toward Raleigh.
Enter the Bullfrog
Along the way we stop at a large retail outlet, the name of which I’ll not mention, to pick up a digital recorder. Now my friend Lauri supplied me with her Livescribe pen and accompanying paper. The pen is a digital-age wonder. It is a pen, a computer and a digital recorder all in one. I don’t know why it intimidates me. I’m going to regret eschewing the pen in favor of a conventional digital recorder.
We make Raleigh before 9 and park on an adjacent street. I gather my stuff, bid Becky and Max adieu and walk toward Havana Deluxe. I get there ahead of the Bullfrog. The Havana’s a private club. I ask the bartender if he knows a fellow called Bullfrog. Of course he does. You don’t forget a name like Bullfrog. You don’t forget a guy like the Bullfrog.
I order a beer for myself and one for the Bullfrog.
When he arrives, we chat for a while at the bar, and then I suggest we make use of the Havana’s plush leather furniture to commence the interview proper.
First question: What’s up with the Bullfrog?
The Bullfrog does not disappoint. He is a natural-born storyteller.
“I was a homely, homely child,” he says. “I’m not even kidding. I was a very unattractive child. The kids on the school bus when I was 11, they said “God you’re so ugly you look like a bullfrog.”And it stuck. I been a bullfrog for a long time.”
I ask him if he might not engage in a bit of self-mythology. His story, it’s incredible. He’s 41. Briefly, he’s hung out with John Lee Hooker (who made him cry), Honeyboy Edwards, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, John Jackson, Utah Phillips, Johnny Shines, Brownie McGhee. He’s spent a few minutes with everyone this side of Robert Johnson.
His biography says he drove a cab in New Orleans until he lost everything to Hurricane Katrina. He has a history degree from West Virginia University. Says he nearly ran over Dr. John while driving his cab. Twice. Then Katrina left his house in 18 feet of water. He had 16,000 albums in his collection. They’re gone. All of them.
It can’t all be true. I’m a skeptic. He says, no.
“It’s pretty straight,” he says. “I don’t have anything I’ve mythologized. In point of fact, a lot of it you can’t tell all the best parts of it.”
You never tell a reporter right off the bat that you’re going to edit all the best stuff out of your story. Why, I say?
“Because people are puritanical morons. I don’t know man, you know, you can’t even tell all the best stories. That’s just how it shakes out, man.”
Somehow, two minutes in, he’s already taken the conversation in an unlikely turn. He’s talking about Blaze Starr, the famous American burlesque star. And I can’t even figure out how he got here, except that she’s from West Virginia, just like Bullfrog. But here we are, talking about the Bullfrog’s fondness for Blaze Starr.
“She sells jewelry up in Maryland now, she has a little jewelry shop,” he says. “I keep meaning to go up and see her. I work a lot of burlesque. I do a lot of big, bawdy songs with half-naked girls. I keep talking about pouring into a van and just driving up there to meet Blaze Starr and hang out for an afternoon. I just think that would be so much fun.”
I would be the last one to dispute that.
I accost him with boilerplate questions. How did you get into music? Who were your influences? When did you start playing? Because I suffer the occasional lapse of narcissism, I tell him a story about the time my dad blew a gasket when I came home from college with the Robert Johnson album and threw it onto his old phonograph player.
“I had the opposite experience that you had with your dad,” he says. “My dad loved the blues. He took me to see Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters and Sonny Terry.”
How outrageous is Bullfrog’s narrative? When his dad was dying of leukemia, he confessed his only regret was that he discovered Son House too late to see the great Delta bluesman in person.
Here is a story about his musical roots:
“When I was a kid in West Virginia, there was a blues guy named Nat Reese. He lived on Bell Street. My grandma lived on Thorn, and there was a music store across the street. He sold his records out of the music store. I was probably 8 or 9 the first time I met him. Somebody, it might have been my Uncle Jim, saw his car in front of the record store, and we literally trooped across the street to go see the famous Nat Reese. I was just a little kid. I got to be real good friends. We were friends for 31 years. We were friends for a long damn time. He was a big part of it. He was big part of talking to me about music. He played in a gospel quartet and he played blues. He just loved all of that stuff.”
I ask how on earth he managed to meet all the famous and noteworthy musicians who show in his biography. He says it was a combination of factors, paramount among them his mother’s wanderlust and his fearlessness.
“My mom was what geographers call a chronic mover,” he says. “So we’d move every seven or eight months whether we needed to or not. Whether the sheriffs had been to the door or not. I grew up in Chicago for four or five years, and those in those four or five years I lived in 10 or 11 different places.”
He was curious as well as fearless. He looked up noted bluesmen in the Chicago phonebook, then he started dialing. The rest took care of itself.
“You know, Chicago is famous for the blues,” he says. “I wondered if those guys were in the phone book. And astonishingly, all of them were. Johnny Shines was in the phone book. Pat Armstrong. A bunch of them. So kind of on a whim, I called up Pat Armstrong and introduced myself, and he invited me down. I met him in a bar. I snuck into a bar. I was about 13 years old. I snuck into a bar and sat in the back where him and Carl Martin and Ted Bogan and Banjo Robins played the show.”
I don’t even bother to mention I’d never heard of Pat Armstgrong, Carl Martin, Ted Bogan or Banjo Robins. I don’t have to. Even through a haze of cigarette smoke, I see my ignorance reflected in the Bullfrog’s eyes. He’s too polite to call me an impostor.
And one thing led to another.
“Sometimes I look back on it and go, ‘what were you thinking man?’ When did it occur to you to just randomly call these guys out of the phone book. Because of that, and just being little … I was 13, 14 years old and these guys were real nice to me. Dave “Honeyboy” Edwards was real nice to me. Johnny Shines was real nice to me.”
I know about both of them. I’m lolling against the ropes, trying to stay on my feet. I manage to turn the conversation back to the personal, where I’m on less shaky ground.
“My parents divorced out of my memory,” he says. “I don’t really have any memory of them being together. He was a librarian when they split up. He drove the Bookmobile for the metropolitan library system in Oklahoma City. He was a reference librarian at Virginia Tech. Then he ran the W. Leslie Rogers Free Public Library in Pennsauken, N.J., for the last ten years of his life.”
He came across his intelligence, which is readily apparent, quite honestly. His mom has a Ph.D in biochemistry.
He refuses to be harnessed. He veers from his father getting his Master’s in Library Science in Oklahoma to his time in New Orleans, in the heady days before Katrina. Before I know it, he’s sitting at a bar buying Snooks Eaglin Scotch.
“New Orleans was great for me,” he says. “I used to sit at the bar in the Rock ‘n’ Bowl with Snooks Eaglin and buy him Scotch and milk. Watching him drink it turned my stomach. but he was such a nice man. Walter Payton was a great bass player. He played for Okeh and Stax. He’s the bass player for ‘Working in the Coal Mine.’
“There were a bunch of guys like that. Clarence Brown. Clarence lived in Slidell. Him and my old buddy Jimmy Smith were friends, and I got to be friends with him. He was a nice man. By the time I met him he was already sick. but we ran around some and had a good time.”
See what I’m saying? He’s got a thousand stories. Some of them are so good I don’t care if they’re embellished. Bullfrog insists they’re all true. When I express admiration over all his stories and life experience, he says it’s not all gravy.
“I’m 41. I have no money in the bank. I’m single and chasing it. I don’t have no kids. There are a lot of things I traded against to get what I got. And I’m glad of what I got, but right now I’m kind of looking for some of that other stuff too, some of that experience of being a grown man.”
Still, I say I can’t believe his mom let him hang out with whiskey-soured bluesmen at age 13.
“She was a workaholic,” he says. “And she just wasn’t around that much. A lot of times I didn’t see her till 11, midnight or 1 o’clock during the week. Maybe not at all on the weekend. That’s a lot of unsupervised time to fill up. I filled up my unsupervised time by coming up and unlocking the door and sitting on the couch and watching TV behind a locked door waiting for some kind of adult supervision to show up. But it wasn’t always that.
“A lot of times I’d go out and find trouble to get into. Some of it was really good, interesting trouble. Some of it was the kind of trouble, that, I look back and think just what a stupid idiot I was. There was definitely some trouble. I mean I didn’t set any fires or anything. But I might’ve stolen a car or two, and I sure liked smoking dope.”
As soon as they got to one place, his mom get restless and moved on. Chicago, San Diego, Switzerland, Oklahoma, West Virginia.
“I went to 13 elementary schools and seven high schools,” he says.
After a spell in Chicago, they headed west. Out in California, he met one of the most compelling characters you’re likely to meet anywhere. His name was Willie Grey. He was an extraordinarily gifted musician with an even more extraordinary gift for self-sabotage.
“I lived in this beach town called Encinitas,” he says. “It’s a sandy little wind-swept town on the ocean. There’s a music store on the main street they always say was one of the places Dickey Betts hid his Allman Brothers money. I never saw him in there. I was walking down that street one time and the door kind of exploded out of this liquor store and this guy comes staggering out. He spins around, clicks his heels together and does the Sieg Heil salute. Right up on his heels comes a guy out of the liquor store brandishing a broom. I’d actually just come from a garage sale where I’d bought a six-string steel guitar. For $6. They were in the middle of yelling at each other on the sidewalk and the liquor store owner saying ‘don’t ever come back in here again Willie, you stupid son of a bitch.’ And Willie was calling him a Nazi scumbag. They’re doing this back and forth and he kind of catches me out of the corner of his eye and looks over and says “is that your guitar?’ Everything just stops. He says, can I play your guitar?”
Next thing, they’re hanging out on the beach. Bullfrog gets a job sweeping up a grocery store. He cuts a deal with the liquor man. If he’ll sell a 14-year-old boy beer, the 14-year-old boy will make sure Willie Grey never sets foot in the store again. When he gets paid, he buys a six-pack of Bud Light and goes to see Willie.
“He was unbelievable,” Bullfrog says. “I mean unbelievable. He was drunk, smelly, and he lived in a pink Volkswagen bus sitting up on cinder blocks in the parking lot next to the railroad tracks. He was kind of a hobo and a bum.”
He was a beach bum, a broken-down wino. But he could play some wicked blues.
“We’d go down in the cul de sac at the end of D Street and sit there next to the ocean on this park bench and he’d show me stuff on the guitar till the beer was gone,” he says. “And when the beer was gone he’d fuck off into his old van and pass out. He told me about trading cigarettes with Sonny Terry for harmonicas. He said he traded like a carton of Lucky Strikes or Chesterfields to Sonny Terry for two of his harmonicas.”
Willie Grey was a man after the Bullfrog’s heart. Born entertainer. He could play the guitar, the piano, the harmonica. Play whatever you put in his hands. And he could spin a yarn.
“He always claimed he was first cousins with Bob Weir, that he’d steal drugs out of Bob Weir’s jacket pocket backstage at Grateful Dead concerts,” he says. “He told so many stories it’s hard to know what’s real and what ain’t. He’s just a bum, just a hobo. He never recorded. We broke into a gated community once, broke into the clubhouse because there was a piano there. He sat down playing the piano for hours. And he was unbelievable. Everything he touched sounded like the record. It just blew me away.”
They hung together for a couple of years, the old bum and the kid. He got Willie beer, and Willie showed him Tampa Red licks. He even rode the rails with Willie Gray, stealing away in boxcars and casting his lot with the fates of the old steel rail.
Then, suddenly as he’d come into his life, Willie checked out. Even as he tells the story of Willie’s end, there is an undercurrent of admiration in the Bullfrog’s voice.
“He didn’t do nothing,” Bullfrog says. “Man, he didn’t do nothing. He fell in love with this girl and she broke his heart. And he climbed up on the railroad tracks. He got shitfaced drunk and laid down on the railroad tracks and let the train take him.
“And that takes some kind of fucking commitment, man. You gotta have your mind made to lie on the railroad tracks and let a train take you.”
His father was his first guitar teacher.
“He was a gifted amateur,” he says. “It wasn’t long from the first time he showed me something till the first time I showed him something. There’s a great paragraph in the Grapes of Wrath where Steinbeck talks about how most men know how to chord a guitar to sing a hymn, but not that many men can thump the bass and pick out the melody on a guitar. He says it so beautifully nothing like what just came out of my mouth.
For the record, a bit of the old master:
And perhaps a man brought out his guitar to the front of his tent. And he sat on a box to play, and everyone in the camp moved slowly in toward him, drawn in toward him. Many men can chord a guitar, but perhaps this man was a picker. There you have something — the deep chords beating, beating, while the melody runs on the strings like little footsteps. Heavy hard fingers marching on the frets. The man played and the people moved slowly in on him until the circle was closed and tight, and then he sang “Ten-Cent Cotton and Forty-Cent Meat.” And the circle sang softly with him. And he sang “Why Do You Cut Your Hair, Girls?” And the circle sang. He wailed the song, “I’m Leaving Old Texas,” that eerie song that was sung before the Spaniards came, only the words were Indian then.
And now the group was welded to one thing, one unit, so that in the dark the eyes of the people were inward, and their minds played in other times, and their sadness was like rest, like sleep. He sang the “McAlester Blues” and then, to make up for it to the older people, he sang “Jesus Calls Me to His Side.” …
And after a while the man with the guitar stood up and yawned. Good night, folks, he said.
And they murmured, Good night to you.
And each wished he could pick a guitar, because it is a gracious thing.
“My dad had all the chords,” he says. “He could play alternating the bass line with his thumb and while pulling up the other three strings with his three fingers. He could play straight time and waltz time. That pretty much was the deal. His time was good. One thing a lot of people don’t realize. At the heart of it all, if your time is good, the simplest things sound very strong. A lot of people do really complicated stuff and the time isn’t good, so it doesn’t sound that good.
“His time was good. It made the really simple stuff he did sound strong. Really strong.”
Then there was his maternal grandfather, Franklin Niday. He preached the gospel and played the guitar. He played a bright red Gibson guitar with “Jesus Saves” inscribed on it.
“He was a southern missionary, a hellfire and brimstone Baptist preacher,” he says. “He built a Baptist church in his front yard in 1954 or 55 and preached in it until he died in 1987.”
As is customary with Bullfrog’s story, this one gets better. His grandfather had a little bit of a secret, musically speaking.
“He was one of the best most good and virtuous people I’ve ever heard about or knew,” he tells me. “But Dad used to tell the story how they’d go up behind the chicken coop. There’s a farm pond behind the house, they’d go up there and he’d play ’em songs that he learned when he was coal mining in Elkhorn and different places around McDowell County. That was a rough part of the world in the ’20s and ’30s. Grandpa liked whiskey before he was a preacher, so he’d go up there and sit in the whorehouses and listen to the music.
“And anybody talking about their grandpa would say,’ yeah but I know he was in a whorehouse but I know he didn’t … Trust me when I tell you I know my grandpa was hanging out in whorehouses and I know he went up there for the music. He wasn’t going up there for the girls. He went up there to drink whiskey and listen to music. He’d sit up behind the chicken coop and he’d play them “Deep Elem Blues,” “Long Lonesome Road Blues.” Great old secular songs that he picked up hanging out in rough and rowdy coal camps in West Virginia. It was something my grandpa could never share with the rest of the family. As far as they were concerned all he played was hymns. All he knew was songs about Jesus. My dad would tell you he had more repertoire than Jesus.”
I ask where they lived in West Virginia. Bullfrog says it was in Mercer County, out Sand Lick Road, nearby Coal Creek Holler. Sand Lick Road. Coal Creek Holler. Rustic poetry of struggle and defiance. What city slickers call the middle of nowhere.
His grandfather was self-sufficient. He mined coal when had to, worked on the railroad too.
“He had nine kids that lived,” he says. “He built the house and built the church and he preached and sang on WAUI radio out of Bluefield. And he had that church that he preached in every Sunday morning. And he had a little store, 10 by 20 feet maybe. He’d sell flour and molasses and sugar and salt and things that you didn’t want to come down off the mountain and drive 10 miles into town to get.”
And he kept right on working until he fell off a roof at age 80 and died a few days later.
“He did whatever he could get anybody to hire him to do,” Bullfrog says. “And there isn’t a kid in the family who doesn’t have a story about somebody who lost their job in the railroad at the mine or the railroad or whatever. He’d wake up one of the kids at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, and he’d only ever take one of them at a time. They’d go out and get a sack of flour, a tin of cookies, a sack of sugar, tea and coffee, 32-pound bag of beans, and they’d drive up and carry them up on the porch, set them on the porch and they’d drive off and go home.”
The story of his grandfather’s goodness makes Bullfrog emotional. He has to wipe away tears. He apologizes, then wipes away more tears.
“He was a good man,” he says. “He was something else. Sorry. He really was.”
Deep in the blues
There’s this other side to Bullfrog, which covers his fascination with the lives of old blues players. He’s a tombstone tourist. He’s traveled from Memphis to New Orleans visiting the graves of dead legends.
And he’s angry at the way Durham bulldozed its blues heritage. Three years ago, he decided to do something. He began searching for the grave of Floyd Council, an obscure bluesman from Sanford, N.C., who unwittingly joined Pink Anderson in providing the name for one of rock and roll’s most famous bands. Pink Floyd.
Why did he take up the cause of Floyd Council? Well, it’s a long story.
“I do this kind of tombstone tourism thing,” he says. “I get a kick out of going and seeing places. I guess some people save their whole lives to go to Florence and see Michelangelo’s David. I end up going through old courthouse records trying to figure where old dead blues guys lived and are buried.”
The more he thought about the vanished legacy of Fuller and Davis, the angrier he got.
“It was just one thing after another after another. I’d gone down to see the graveyard where Floyd Council is. It’s a tangled mess. Nobody’s done anything in that graveyard since 1986. There’s no grass to cut. There’s trees to cut.”
Then he came down with a “little” cancer thing about six months ago. The project has fallen behind. So far they’ve cleared two acres out of 23 in the Sanford cemetery.
He plays when he wants to, he says, often with the harmonica player Tad Walters. He does educational programs for schools. He teaches a course chronicling the music of the American labor movement. He just did a seminar at East Tennessee about African-American influence on mountain music. He’s a man for all seasons.
He’s got a day job, too. He’s a floor manager at a nearby Ace Hardware store. He is proud of his musical roots in West Virginia. It brings out the musicologist in him.
“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” was written in Bluefield, W.Va., and so was “Sweet Georgia Brown,” he says. “You wouldn’t know it, but there was a real thriving chitlin’ circuit. It wasn’t a chitlin’ circuit, it was a coal camp circuit. That whole of Route 52 between Welch in McDowell County and Bluefield in Mercer County had these dinky little rooms, no bigger than this one, that had Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller, all of those guys. Just unbelievable acts, and you could see them for a nickel or a dime.”
In the summer of ’96, he drove from Chicago to New Orleans on a madcap blues history tour.
“I stopped in Clarksdale,” he says. “I stopped in Greenville. I stopped in Rosedale and sat on a park bench in front of the drugstore where Robert Johnson used to busk. I went down to Bentonia to see Skip James’ grave, I drove to Helena, Ark., and hung out with Frank Frost and his wife. He had been a guitar player for Sonny Boy Williamson. Later in life he became a harmonica player. We sat around all afternoon playing old records. Eventually we got a guitar out.
“I went over to the building where Sonny Boy Williamson lived and got a brick out of the foundation. Just one of those silly things. My souvenirs are cheap and easy. Before Katrina I had a fairly impressive collection of bricks. Always thought I’d make a fireplace or something out of them.”
“I visited with Wade Walton, Ike Turner’s barber and a blues man in his own right,” he says. “He told great stories. He played Ike Turner records then put on his record. At one point he went back and came out with this heavy leather razor strop. He hooked it up on the wall and stretched it out and got this razor and just started singing and keeping that rhythm with that old straight razor and singing these old blues songs. That was just a huge score.”
And then there was the holy grail in Avalon, Miss., home of Mississippi John Hurt.
“You ain’t supposed to like John Hurt. That’s folk music. I love John Hurt. It’s all well and good to be a great virtuouso performer. In point of fact music is for all of us. You have to love musicians that keep it simple.”
He never found Hurt’s sharecropper shack. But he did find something.
“He’s buried on top of this beautiful hill,” he said. “A fox came out and walked 10 feet in front of us all the way up the hill. We were creeping along at 2, 3 miles an hour so this fox could walk ahead of us. I love John Hurt.”
His tone turns sober when he gets to Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller and Gary Davis.
“As far as I’m concerned, that’s the holy fucking trinity,” he says. “If I had the money I’d commission stained glass in the style of Catholic saints and have those windows right next to each other.”
He sits there, the spitting incarnation of a country boy. Denim overalls, mountain man beard. Bright red sweatshirt and orange Chuck Taylors. But he’s no country bumpkin.
No sir. And he can talk about roots musicians until you can’t see straight. Henry Thomas. Willie Walker. Blind Alfred Reed. He’s just getting started. Don’t get into an obscure-musician-naming contest with him. You’ll go down. Hard.
He made friends with John Jackson, the Virginia bluesman who dug graves for a living before being whisked out of obscurity by folklorists in the 1960s. His most cherished story involves a day sitting on John Jackson’s porch and playing the blues.
“He was really nice to me,” he says. “We did a lot of playing together, a lot of hanging out together, a lot of just sitting around bullshitting together. His manager was Trish Byerly. I have this moment crystal clear in my head. We were playing “When He Calls Me, I Will Answer” and I’m working my Es all up the neck. Trish came out on the porch and said ‘John, Eric’s on the phone and he’s at the airport and wants to know if he can come and see you’.
“John just looked at his thumbnail for a long time. He had this callous that came off the side off his thumb that he shaped with fingernail clippers into a pick. It was one of the most disgusting things you’d ever watch anybody do. But he had this impressive callous from 70 years of doing it. He was sitting there looking at that thumb and he was rubbing it with his finger. He looked at if for a long time, he looked at me and said, ‘tell him, I only have time for Bullfrog today. I’m exactly where I want to be right now. And she went back in the house and told Eric Clapton that he couldn’t come over to John Jackson’s house because he was too busy hanging out with me. ”
Back to Durham. The Bullfrog knows his Durham blues, chapter and verse. He tells me how Fuller, Davis and Terry had to make hay playing along Pettigrew Street outside the American Tobacco Company warehouses and cigarette factories. And this raises the notion of Fuller as an “indoor shooter.”
What the hell’s an indoor shooter?
“Where I’m from in West Virginia, the Lester brothers are inside shooters,” he explains. “You can always tell what bars still let the Lester brothers in if you can see starlight through the bullet holes in the ceiling. And you know not to drink there. Fuller was like that. He liked to take his gun out and shoot it. He’d shoot up the walls in his living room.
“Fuller was in the house one night shooting his gun and he accidentally shot his wife Cora in the leg. They came and arrested him and took him to jail and he got about 10 great songs about how hard prison life is from spending the night in jail. She wouldn’t press charges on him, so he got to come home. That’s where “Walking My Troubles Away” comes from.”
“They’d sit at that intersection on Pettigrew,” he says. “There’d be all these barbecue trucks with big pig smokers out back. And there’d be this permanent haze of pig smoke at about knee level. He’d be sitting out there with his guitar case open in front of him with all those guys coming out of the American Tobacco warehouse. At the time these black guys were making $15 a week. That was a good job for anybody. When the whistle blew every eight hours and guys would pour out of the American Tobacco warehouse off of the Lucky Strike line, out of the little rail yard they had there where tobacco came in and cigarettes went out, they’d pour out of there to go over the railroad tracks and walk to the Hayti where they all lived and shopped. Fifteen dollars a week was a lot of money then. Him and Gary both would and sit on the sidewalk and play. Sonny Terry used to go out there and blow his harmonica. They’d sit out there in a haze of pig smoke waiting for those guys to come over the hill. It all came real quick. It’s not like people were walking by all day. They didn’t go out and play on the street for eight hours like it was a job. They’d go out there and hit all of those whistles. Every time there was a whistle, they’d get out there and play and guys would come out and throw money in their cases.”
Of course, a little money also makes you a target for thieves. Fuller worried about getting ripped off. Too much, perhaps.
He was real paranoid about somebody stealing his money because he was blind,” Bullfrog says. “Gary walked with a stick. Fuller got blind later in life. He never learned to walk with a stick at all. He was always by himself. He’d come out of Tin Can Alley and walk up Fayetteville and park himself at Pettigrew. He’d get his guitar out and play, but he didn’t have nobody looking out for him. He got a little pistol and carried it in his belt. If he thought someone was stealing for him, he’d take his gun out and start brandishing it. Nothing clears the street faster than an angry blind man with a gun.”
The King of New Orleans
And finally, New Orleans. He move there in 2003. He lived in the Gentilly district, in the Fillmore neighborhood. Katrina wiped him out. Sixteen thousand albums. Gone.
I don’t mean to be heartless, but I really want to know if he really almost ran over Mac Rebennack.
Not once but twice, the Bullfrog says.
“Man, when he steps out in the street he owns New Orleans,” he says. “He is the fucking king of New Orleans. And his attitude is if I step out in the street, that street belongs to me now. I almost ran down Dr. John twice crossing against the light. He walks with that cane. The second time he actually whacked that cane on the hood of the car and made a dent.
“I had him in my cab a few times. We laughed about it. I said I almost ran you down once. He said, ‘yeah, that happens to me a lot.'”
I check the time. It’s past midnight. We’ve been here for three hours. Just slips away, the time. I think of Becky and Max in the camper out in the street. It’s past time to go.
I thank the Bullfrog profusely for his generosity. We walk out together. He strolls back to the behemoth with me. We part ways. I rejoin the family.
The Bullfrog disappears into the Raleigh night.