The Barrel-House Blues of Speckled Red (FG 3555) (1961)

SAM_0019BLUESMAN DEAF WILLIE PO’ BOY, DEAD AT 112          Little-Known Singer’s Passing Goes Unremarked (Clarksdale, Mississippi) — The death at age 112 of perhaps Mississippi’s least-heralded bluesman, Deaf Willie Po’ Boy, was announced yesterday to little fanfare. With his inarticulate, tuneless wailing, a trademark nasal whine which rock critic Robert Palmer likened to “the noise a mother tapir might make were she stuck in a bear trap watching her babies be slaughtered and eaten”, the frighteningly obscure singer-songwriter made little to no cultural impact during the genesis of the country blues in the American south during the first half of the 20th century.

Willie’s signature tune, “The Pardon Me Rag”, famously appeared nowhere on Harry Smith’s landmark Anthology of American Folk Music, thus marking him out as a non-entity during the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s. Later, his songs, “What You Say?”, “Better Put It In a Letter” and “You’ll Have to Repeat That Blues” remained all but unknown, and certainly unplayed, by British blues aficionados like Cyril Davis, Alexis Koerner and John Mayall. Indeed, legend has it that the Rolling Stones first manager and producer, Andrew Loog Oldham, actively discouraged his charges from learning any of Po’ Boy’s music, calling it “crap of the first water”. In addition, Willie merited no mention whatsoever in the recent autobiographies of both Eric Clapton and Keith Richards. To this day, blues musicians have consistently refused to cite him as an influence, seminal or otherwise.

Born William Heingartner in 1901 to remote rutabaga farm slaves whose owner hadn’t been told that Abraham Lincoln had set African-Americans free over four decades previous, Willie’s plantation field birth was a joyous event for his mother, Lulabelle, as it meant she could stuff the newborn in the rutabaga sack she was carrying to make up the day’s weight quota. Unfortunately, pressure from two yellow turnips damaged the infant Willie’s stirrups, causing his deafness and a life-long dislike of root vegetables. The young Heingartner left home at age 13, marrying a week later. The marriage, however, was short-lived, his wife cheating on him during their honeymoon. It is believed that this event marked the point at which he turned to blues music as a means of self-expression.

Willie was an elder of blues great Robert Johnson and it is believed that the two never accompanied one another onstage, giving rise to speculation that Johnson probably didn’t see Heingartner play at juke joints in the Mississippi delta, where the hearing-impaired guitarist was banned from performing as a result of his profound incompetence. Around this time Po’ Boy achieved some notoriety by claiming to be the father of Charley Patton, despite being born at least a decade after the Father of the Delta Blues. The next time anyone heard of Willie was in 1970 when he brought a suit against Jimmy Page claiming copyright infringement. Po’ Boy alleged that the Led Zeppelin leader had stolen the lyrics to his song “I’m Fixin’ To Git Me A Hearin’ Aid” for the band’s 1969 epic, “Dazed and Confused”. The case was thrown out by the judge who was unable to decipher the original words due to Willie’s impenetrable speech. Later in life, friends and neighbors expressed gratitude that Heingartner had given up singing, though he still caused much irritation at family and social events by playing untuned guitar.

Before he died in 2001, noted folk-blues scholar John Fahey recalled of Deaf Willie Po’ Boy: “Nope, can’t say I ever heard of him.”SAM_0020

Published in: on June 13, 2013 at 12:09 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Another classic!

    As it happens I have just started reading Robert Palmer’s “Deep Blues”. I shall look forward to reading between the lines to see if I can pick up any trace of Deaf Willie 🙂

    • 🙂

  2. i had to actually look up “william heingarter” on wikipedia to see if this was a parody or not… despite the obvious clue in the alias i.e the word “deaf”!
    having checked out discogs the actual artist in question here (if anyone is interested) appears to be “speckled red”, which was a pseudonym for one rufus perryman (1892-1973)…

    • In fact, Bill Heingarter is the name of an American acquaintance who stayed at my house a couple weeks ago. We’d been talking about blues names one night and the next morning I woke thinking about “Deaf Willie Po’ Boy”. Given the forename, I thought it’d be cute to use Bill’s actual name; I asked before I took, though.

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