The list of songwriters and musicians that I love is a long one. There is also a shortlist.
This shortlist is reserved for those artists who go beyond just being songwriters and musicians. They are the artists whose very existences are, have been, and will continue to be, life lessons to me. The way they think, feel, speak, walk, move, dress, sound—these people are the alpha and the omega of what I understand of the world.
To these songwriters and musicians, I owe a debt that goes beyond influence. If I am anything resembling a whole person; a thinking, feeling, living person who is mindful and aware in the world; then it is due in no small part to these artists. If I myself am anything resembling an artist—a poet, a musician, a storyteller—it is on their shoulders that I stand. If I live, it’s because I have breathed their air.
Tony Joe White is on my shortlist.
For one thing, “Willie and Laura Mae Jones” is probably the greatest song about racism a white person has ever written.
Tony Joe is, to me, what was once the impossible. To hear Tony Joe for the first time was to begin to believe that maybe there was a home for someone like me in the world.
He brought together the country and the city; blues music and folk music; poetry and rock n’ roll; pathos and funkiness. He did it all, all while being so fucking cool. He wasn’t the first or the only to do any of the above, but he did it all like no other. There is no put-on in his songs, no over-earnestness, no dogmatism, no self-righteousness, no sanctimony. He is just straight up raw and beautiful.
Tony Joe is, to me, like Sleepy John Estes—a true blues storyteller. The characters in his songs—just like those in Sleepy John’s—are just right there, and real. Roosevelt and Ira Lee. Willie and Laura Mae Jones. Old Man Willis. Polk Salad Annie. The High Sheriff of Calhoun Parrish. The Backwoods Preacher Man. These people are as good as alive to me.
Tony Joe White is Carson McCullers with a harmonica rack.
Tony Joe White passed away on October 24th. As recently as last month, he was still giving us more music. Fittingly, a blues album. Of it, he said:
“I’ve always thought of myself as a blues musician, bottom line, because the blues is real, and I like to keep everything I do as real as it gets.”
Tony Joe White is as real as it gets.
The cotton was high and the corn was growin’ fine
But that was another place and another time.
image credit: Heinrich Klaffs