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In memory of Muddy, father to us all
I get up at break of dawn. Been doing that my whole life. That’s what happens when you grow up on the farm. Circumstances might change, but if you a country boy like me, you still hear the rooster.
My house is way on the outskirts of town in the far suburbs of Chicago on fourteen acres of land. Looking out the backyard I see trees everywhere. Got a thing for trees. I like watching how the leaves turn color in the fall, how winter frosts over the branches, how little buds break out in spring and new leaves come to life in summer. The seasons got a rhythm that connects me to the earth.
First thing on my mind are beans. Thinking about going to the store to buy beans. If I find some freshly shelled beans, I’ll jump over the counter to get ’em. Get to the supermarket when the doors first open. Someone might recognize me, might say, “Buddy, what you doing here?” I say, “Hey, man, I gotta eat like everyone else. Gotta get me some fresh beans.”
When the weather’s warm, I want melon. But you can’t sell me melon without seeds. Just like you can’t sell me white-and-yellow corn. I don’t fool with no food that’s messed over by man. On the way home, if I see a stand on the side of the road, I’ll stop to see what they got. If they got corn and I spot a little worm crawling over the top, I’ll buy it. That means the corn hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals. It’s easy to clean out the worm, but how you gonna clean out the chemicals?
I’ll spend the rest of the day in the kitchen. Maybe I’ll cook up a gumbo with fresh crayfish. When I was a boy, crayfish tail was bait. Now it’s a delicacy. The rice, the spice, the greens, the beans—when I get to cooking, when the pots get to boiling and the odors go floating all over the house, my mind rests easy. My mind is mighty happy. My mind goes back to my uncle, who made his money on the Mississippi River down in Louisiana where we was raised. My uncle caught the catfish and brought it home to Mama. That fish was so clean and fresh, we didn’t need to skin it. Mama would just wash it with hot water before frying it up. I can still hear the sound of the sizzle. And when I bit into that crispy, crackling skin and tasted the pure white of the sweet fish meat, I was one happy little boy.
That’s the kind of food I’m looking for. I’m looking today, and I’m looking tomorrow, and I’ll be looking for the rest of my life.
My life is pretty simple. If I’m off the road and not getting ready to go off to New York or New Delhi, I’ll spend my day shopping and cooking. Maybe the kids will come over. Maybe I’ll eat alone. At 2 p.m. I’ll take me a good long nap. After dinner I’ll get in my SUV and see that I’ve put some 200,000 miles on the thing. If it’s low on gas, I’ll take the time to drive over to Indiana where gas is a couple of cents cheaper. I’ll remember that one of my first jobs off the farm was in Baton Rouge pumping gas. Back then the average sale was $1. Today it’ll cost me $120 to fill the tank. Ain’t complaining—just saying I’ve seen some changes in these many years I’ve been running this race.
Around 7:30 I’ll head into Chicago. My club, Legends, sits on the corner of Wabash and Balbo, right across from the huge Hilton Hotel on the south end of the Loop. It’s a big club that can hold up to five hundred people, and I’m pleased to say that I own the building that houses it.
I go in and take a seat on a stool in the back. I say hello to the men and women who work there. Two of my daughters run the place, and they’re usually upstairs going over the books. Occasionally a customer will recognize me, but to most everyone I’m just a guy at the bar. That’s how I like it. I don’t need no attention tonight—I’m not playing, I’m just kicking back. I’m feeling good that I got a place to go at night and that Chicago still has a club where you can hear the blues. Live blues every night. Can’t tell you how that warms this old man’s heart.
Funny thing about the blues: you play ’em cause you got ’em. But when you play ’em, you lose ’em. If you hear ’em—if you let the music get into your soul—you also lose ’em. The blues chase the blues away. The true blues feeling is so strong that you forget everything else—even your own blues.
So tonight I’m thinking about how the blues change you and how they changed me. Thinking about how I followed the blues ever since I was a young child. Followed the blues from a plantation way out in the middle of nowhere to the knife-and-gun concrete jungle of Chicago. The blues took my life and turned it upside down. Had me going places and doing things that, when I look back, seem crazy. The blues turned me wild. They brought out something in me I didn’t even know was there.
So here I am—a seventy-five-year-old man sitting on a bar stool in a blues club, trying to figure out exactly how I got here. Any way you look at it, it’s a helluva story.
Before I Left Home
You might be looking through a book of pictures or walking through a museum where they got photographs of people picking cotton back in the 1940s. Your eye might be drawn to a photo of a family out in the fields. There’s a father with his big ol’ sack filled with cotton. There’s a woman next to him—maybe his wife, maybe his sister. And next to them is a boy, maybe nine years old. He got him a flour sack. That’s all he can manage. After all, it’s his first day picking.
That little boy could be me. I started picking at about that age. I stood next to my daddy, who showed me how to do the job right.
Depending where you coming from, you could feel sorry for that little boy, thinking he’s being misused. You could feel he’s too young to work like that. You could decide that the world he was born into—the world of sharecropping—was cruel and unfair. And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Except that if that boy was me and you were able to get inside my little head, you’d find that I was happy being out there with my daddy, doing the work that the big people did. I wanted to be grown and help my family any way I could. Didn’t know anything else except the land and the sky and the seasons and the fruits and the fish and the horses and the cows and the pigs and the pecans and the birds and the moss and the white cotton that we prayed came up plentiful enough to give us enough money to make it through winter.
I saw the world through the eyes of my mama and daddy. Their eyes were looking at the earth. The earth had to yield. If it did, we ate. If it didn’t, we scrambled. Because we didn’t have no electricity—not for the first twelve years of my life—we were cut off from what was happening outside our little spot in Louisiana called Lettsworth. I didn’t know it at the time, but we were living and farming like people lived and farmed a hundred years before. When I got my little flour sack and went out in the field, I was doing something my people had been doing ever since we were herded up like cattle in Africa, sent out on slave boats, and forced to work the land of the southern states of America. That fact, though, was something that came into my mind when I was an adult playing my music in Senegal. Someone brought me to the Point of No Return, one of the places where slaves were sent off to make that terrible Atlantic crossing. Maybe that’s where the blues began.
But to me—nine-year-old George Buddy Guy, son of Sam and Isabell Guy, born July 30, 1936—black history was not part of the elementary schooling I got at the True Vine Baptist Church. That’s where I was taught to use utensils and read little books about white children called Dick and Jane. Black people weren’t in those books. Blacks weren’t part of history. All we knew was the present time. We knew today, and today meant shuck the corn and feed the pig and go to school in the evenings after our chores were done.
I had fears—snakes and lightning and ghosts who were said to haunt the graveyards. But I had something bigger than those fears—a feeling of family. Back then, family feeling was stronger than it is today. If you had a righteous mom and dad like I did, they could make you feel that, no matter what, everything was all right. If you had two older sisters like mine—Annie Mae and Fanny—and two younger brothers—Philip and Sam—who always had your back, you felt protected.
We lived in a wooden shack built up on pillars. We didn’t have no indoor plumbing. When it was blistering hot and we wanted to escape the heat, we’d go under the cabin where the dirt was cool. The inside was just a couple rooms and a wood-burning stove. No running water. We pumped the water into a number-three tub for our weekly baths. We also used those tubs to soak the pecans we picked so that when we sold them by the pound, they weighed a little more.
I didn’t know about glass windows. Our windows were made of wood. When it rained, we shut the windows and, if it was summertime, we sweated bullets. The crazy Louisiana weather had all kinds of storms rolling through. I once saw a killer hurricane tear the porch from the rest of our cabin and blow it some twenty feet away—with Daddy and Fanny standing right on it! When lightning ripped open the sky, I ran to Mama, who held me in her arms and whispered, “Don’t say nothing, boy, that’s just God doing his work.”
Our work never stopped. The business broke down like this: a family owned the land and got half of everything we produced. When I was younger we lived on a smaller farm. But when I turned eight we moved to a larger plantation. That land was enormous. There were cattle and horses and acres of corn and cotton. On a good day I could pick seventy pounds of cotton. (My brother Sam got up to two hundred pounds.) I learned to rope the cow and ride the horse. I had a pony of my own. I ran around the land barefoot and learned to shoot a barrel shotgun. If I went out in the woods with my dog and came home with a bird or rabbit, I’d get a pat on the back from Daddy and a hug from Mama. During dinner that night I might get seconds.