Stories by Rambling Steve Gardner

Here is a small collection of stories by Rambling Steve of a few of the Mississippi blues men and women who were his friends. Some of them made music and songs that have traveled far from their Mississippi homes. Music that circled the globe and started a fire that is still burning, shining a light to lead us on when we might otherwise lose our way.

Mr. Sam Chatmon

SAM CHATMON of the Mississippi Sheiks

The first time that I ever saw the legendary Sam Chatmon, of Mississippi Sheiks fame play, tobacco smoke was so thick in the hotel ball room that if you didn’t know better you might have thought that the whole place was burning up. Sam was playing for a political fundraiser of some kind in Jackson, Mississippi, the state capitol. The party was a standing room only affair, over-run with groups of slinky women sporting big hair who clung like kudzu to the arms of big-bellied men with extremely narrow minds. As whiskey flowed, the political candidates worked the crowded room with the skill and enthusiasm of circus performers…contorting, slinking and bending to grab and shake as many hands as possible. With no “fat lady” to sing, Sam Chatmon was brought onto the stage to do the job.



Mr. Sam sat down with his old Gibson guitar and leaned toward the microphone smiling as he opened with his story about the time that he played the San Francisco blues festival and used his money from the event to buy a car. Sam said that he wanted to try his hand at being a taxi driver before he came back home to Mississippi.

“Yeah, I tried to run a taxi out in California, but I couldn’t think of what to name my taxi… I drove over to where all the other taxis hung out but it looked like they had taken up all the names…then about that time I saw a good lookin’ woman walk by smokin’ a cigarette and I said to myself, ‘Yeah, that’s it, I’ll name my taxi the ASH TRAY TAXI’. So, if you’re a cigarette smokin’ woman, throw your butts over in here!”

Sam brought the house down with that story and song. It wasn’t long before the people who could still stand, were up dancing and screaming. By the time he ended the show an hour or so later most were singing along with him, especially on his most famous piece, “Sitting On Top of the World”.

Sam Chatmon was born in 1897 in Bolton, Mississippi and had about eleven brothers and around twelve half brothers, the most famous of which was delta blues man Charley Patton, known as the true “king” of the Delta Blues. Sam’s brother, guitarist Bo Carter along with Sam’s father, a former slave, formed the boys into a family string band that became known as the Mississippi Sheiks, after the success of their first recording session.

The Sheiks were popular in both the white and black communities throughout central Mississippi especially the Bolton to Vicksburg route that included Raymond and Edwards, all small towns mentioned in song by the Sheiks or Charley Patton.

Sam told me that he and his brothers all “traded off” on guitar, mandolin, harmonica and banjo with some of the other brothers working the fiddle, jug or bass. The family band traveled widely and recorded nearly 80 sides for various labels during the 1930’s. The great depression, health troubles and finally world war pushed most of the brothers back onto the farms or planted them deep in their graves.

Sam moved finally from central Mississippi up to the little delta town of Hollandale. He worked as a tractor driver until he moved into town and took a job as a night watchman at the cotton compress warehouse. He cut three LP’s after he was “re-discovered” in the 1960’s and was featured in a film or two.

Sam toured the South and traveled as far north as Canada- but always by bus never by air. He told me, “I’m not worried to fly and have the airplane go down if it’s my time to go…but what if it’s the man that’s drivin’ the airplane’s time to go…what can you do? That airplane will fall from the sky and that man will just take you with him. No sir. No airplane for me…I’ll ride the dog (Gray Hound Bus) any day…I figure that(on the bus) I stand a better chance of making it on out till its MY time to go.”

At his small house in Hollandale, Sam and I used to sit out in his yard under the shade trees or in his front room on the sofas and chairs that his lady kept covered in plastic- removed only when visitors came calling. After a snack of catfish or watermelon, Sam would let me blow the harp while he picked some of the old time tunes that he and his brothers played so long ago.

He told me, “Steve, everybody needs a chance to be told to sit down…after a while as my harmonica wasn’t suiting him he would stop playing and look over at me and grin…OK…SIT DOWN… and listen for a while now.” That was some of the best advice that I have ever gotten, especially concerning music. It changed my life.

For any willing to listen, Sam offered up his advice, served up like great barbecue, it was always hot- and spicy enough to hit the spot and kept you coming back for more. Sam would lean back, look you over and say things like, “Learn how to do things for yourself… Don’t wait on anybody to do for you if you have your health…save your money if you can…make a nest egg… but have a good time too. And don’t let anybody take away what you have inside…that’s who you are…and if you have a good woman… you better tell her that she’s good some time if you plan on keeping her….”

Growing up light skinned in a huge mixed up family with a former slave for a father; being part American Indian and white too, Sam had little patience for racism and the trappings of segregation and Jim Crow or Uncle Tom. He made fun of these false chains and those connected with them whenever the mood struck.

Singing renditions of, “Should I paint my face?” or “You’re gonna look like a monkey when you get old…” or one of his favorites, “Stoop Down Baby”, which he sang at the Mississippi State Governor’s mansion, in Jackson, for a reception put on by the First Lady.

Sam Chatmon died in 1983 at the age of 86. He sang the blues that were the life that he lived. He left us the last verse of his most famous song, “Sitting On Top Of The World” to remember him by-

When I’m dead and in my grave, There’ll be no more women for me to crave. Now I’m gone, you don’t have to worry, I left you sittin’ on top of the world.

Jessie Mae Hemphill

The She-Wolf of the Blues

The late model Lincoln with the leopard spotted interior fishtailed off the gravel road and skidded to a stop in the front yard of the rough sided single wide trailer in Como. The driver’s side window dropped down and into the darkness Jessie Mae Hemphill hollered out, “I’m home…if you are up in my house you better start running now!” Sparks spewed yellow like a Roman candle as the .38- pistol in her hand “barked” three times at the moon. A yard dog whined as it tucked its tail and ran under the porch. Then all was quiet except for the jangle of keys and empty .38 cartridges hitting the old wood deck as Jessie Mae reloaded her smoking pistol.

Climbing out of the car we gathered up the fried chicken, fish and cold drinks that we had bought for our dinner down at the Sardis truck stop and made our way inside Jessie Mae’s trailer. No one ran out the back door as we went in. She told me all about how someone had broken her door in and stolen one of her good guitars along with one of her favorite stage outfits while she was on tour in France. “ Now I shoot first and ask questions later…I ain’t got time for that…stealing…people done forgotten how to act…if I don’t git ‘em, God will.”



In Jessie Mae’s kitchen we sat down at the table, poured our drinks into jelly glasses and put the fish and chicken on plates. Jessie Mae said the blessing and put some food down for her inside dog, a fuzzy little brown yappy thing that had puppies under her trailer a few months back.

We ate and laughed about how fast someone could run when they think that they are being shot at. We both had been shot at as kids by one angry joker or another who thought that all children needed a little rock salt in their back side, delivered from the barrel of a shot gun to make them grow up right.

Grabbing a piece of fish she told me, “Yeah, times have changed now, but I can take care of myself! I been playin’ the guitar and shootin’ guns Steve since I was about nine years old. My mama carried a gun all the time she was out or kept it loaded under her pillow on her bed. I used it too but I cleaned it so she wouldn’t know."

"One time when I was just a girl and I had started likin’ this older boy of about 18, as my boyfriend, I saw him walkin’ with another girl and kissin’ her right by my house. That made me so mad. I took my mama’s pistol and shot at that boy five times. I was tryin’ to git them both. They were so scared."

"They were duckin’ and divin’ all over the yard. He ran off and left his hat and the girl he was with broke the heel of her shoe off in the ground when she ran away. That gun was heavy so most of the bullets went into a bank of dirt down the hill from the way they ran. I know it scared them ‘cause I didn’t see that boy no more for a long, long time. By then I didn’t want him to be my boyfriend.”

Jessie Mae grew up in the hill country of north Mississippi around Como and Senatobia where she was born October 13, 1933. She was raised by her blind granddaddy Sid Hemphill. She was his eyes and his helper carrying his musical instruments, leading him from place to place.

Sid Hemphill played everything from fifes and pan flutes to banjos, fiddles and guitars, more than fourteen musical instruments in all, most home made. He was one of the best and most respected musicians of the Mississippi hill country. He was recorded by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress collection and is included on the SOUTHERN JOURNY vol. 3 CD.

Jessie Mae got her musical start playing bass drum and snare drum at picnics in their family fife and drum band, singing in church and by watching her Aunt Rosa Lee Hill, a fine guitar player and singer in her on right. “I loved my granddaddy and my Aunt Rose. I learned by watching them until I finally got my own guitar."

"A lady who lived near us bought one for her daughter but that girl didn’t take to it…so I got it and just started playin’ it like my Auntie…I played the tambourine too, sometimes tapping it with my foot while I played the guitar. That’s my style. ”

Women blues guitarist and singers were pretty rare during the late 30’s and 40’s and even 50’s when Jessie Mae was growing in the deep blues traditions passed on to her by her granddaddy and aunt. For one thing it just wasn’t socially acceptable for a woman to travel alone or play guitar on the stage, let alone in jukes and clubs. The roads were rough and the times could be dangerous for both blacks and whites.

Jessie Mae played whenever she got the chance and was a regular at clubs on Beale Street in Memphis. As she modeled one of her favorite cowboy hats for me she batted her eyes and said, “Ain’t I the prettiest thing you’ve ever seen? I was some good lookin’ when I played in Memphis. B.B. King was crazy about me baby! And all those other men too! That’s when I started calling myself The-She Wolf.”

In 1967 and 1973 Jessie Mae was recorded in Como by some blues researchers but the recordings were never released. But one of them, David Evans, returned again in 1979 and those field recordings led to Jessie Mae’s sessions for High Water records and her first album, She-Wolf released in France.

She began to tour and won W.C. Handy awards for best traditional female blues artist in 1987 and 1988. Feelin’ Good was Jessie Mae’s first American full- length album released in 1990, which won a W.C. Handy for best acoustic album. She was also featured in the movie DEEP BLUES and the French documentary, Me and My Guitar, Jessie Mae Hemphill.

In 1993, just as Jessie Mae was gaining the praise and recognition that she so deserved, she suffered a stroke, which paralyzed her left side preventing her from playing the guitar. Jessie Mae continues to sing but mostly spirituals now. Her friends from around the world have done their best to help. Bonny Raitt and the Music Maker Foundation both send checks from time to time.

A CD and DVD were recorded at Sherman Cooper’s farm in Como with Jessie Mae and scores of musicians and fans in 2003 and released 2004. (I am proud to say that I was there too, hitting the guitar and blowing some harp for Jessie Mae.) It was called, Dare You To Do It Again.

The project was produced by The Jessie Mae Hemphill foundation ( The funds from sales of the CD/DVD help Jessie Mae with the high price of food, housing, medical and other bills that she is facing in this toughest of times in her life.

Jessie Mae is confined to a wheel chair now and is sometimes down but far from being beaten. She still packs her pistol too. When I stopped by to see her a while back I noticed that her pistol was on her bible, her clock radio was in pieces on the floor of her bed room and that her old Gibson electric had a hole all the way through it.

She laughed that great Jessie Mae She-Wolf laugh of hers and said, “Well Steve I couldn’t get that clock radio to stop botherin’ me and that guitar never would stay in tune anyway! So I just shot ‘em.”

I wasn’t sure that was the whole story but as I pulled my old guitar out of the case I was extra careful to get it into tune before we started singing. I didn’t know how many bullets she had left in that pistol of hers, and I wasn’t anxious to find out anytime soon either.

Don’t let the wheel chair fool you; this She Wolf can still bite and will dare you to do it again.
JAMES “SON” THOMAS- Blues man, Folk Artist, Grave Digger

The sun was taking cover in a cotton field at the end of the day as dull, gray mosquito fog fought its way off the back of the farm sprayer that was snaking its way through the narrow streets of Leland, Mississippi, the mid-delta town that Blues man James “Son” Thomas called home. Son picked up his guitar and we ran for it as the mosquito fogger rolled closer to Son’s house. “We better bottle it up and go. That spray don’t do nothin’ except make them mosquitoes mad and want to bite you more.”

After he got a cigarette going we laughed and swatted after the mosquitoes that had followed us into his narrow shot gun house-that’s a house built with the rooms all lined up in a row, the kind where you could open the front door and shoot a shot gun straight through it and the bullets would pass through every room and out through the kitchen. Now Son was spraying his own mosquito spray and complaining, “Man, listen. These delta mosquitoes are so big that they can pick up the cow and ring the bell for the calf….”

We sat in his bed room and ate cold fried chicken left over from our trip out to the Leland cemetery where earlier that day he had pointed out many of the graves that he and his uncle had dug some years earlier. Son raised his ten children by digging graves with his uncle, playing blue at fish fries, house parties and small jukes and later by selling his folk art. I chewed on a cold chicken leg and battled with the mosquitoes while he picked the guitar and told me some of his stories.


James Son Thomas



“Yeah man, I remember one summer it was scalding hot and there came a drought after all the crops were laid by. No body had any work and no body was dying so that meant that we didn’t have any work or money. We sat by for maybe three weeks watching the heat and sun crack open the ground and bake it hard as concrete just wishin’ that somebody would die-not one us you understand, just somebody whose time it was, ‘cause we needed the money. It wasn’t long in that heat before a whole heap of ‘em started dropping off, both black and white, on every end of the county. We started workin’ then!”

He took a deep drag on his cigarette and continued on, “You know in those days a lot of folks would keep the body at home on ice before they buried them ‘cause they was waiting for all of their kin to get back home for the service. Well in that kind of heat it took a heap of ice to keep a body fresh.”

“When we got real busy then mornings I would take off one way and my uncle, he was one armed but could dig, he would take off another and then we would meet back in the middle late over in the evening. Well with the ground so hard we got behind. I mean we dug on those graves all day and sometimes into the night. We used picks, shovels and a lot of back too. You know I don’t much like diggin’ in a dark cemetery at night. It was some kind of rough. But we got it done.”

Son pointed a finger west and said, “Early one Saturday I was on my way to the other end of the county to cover over some graves at a little country church when I got stopped by a Highway Patrolman for speeding. The patrolman told me that he was going to give me a ticket. I told him that he just as well give me two because I would be coming back down this road just as fast-I had to get back for a big funeral here in Leland at the white cemetery."

"He looked at me kinda hard. I told him I covered graves and that in this weather you got to move fast before the bodies swell so that they jump up out of the coffins and scare the family and the preacher. He never smiled but he put that ticket book back in his pocket and said, ‘Go ahead on then!’ So I stomped down on it”.

Son told me that he and his uncle got fifteen dollars for every grave that they dug, and that they dug them by hand with picks and shovels-four feet wide by seven feet long by six feet deep. “One time though this white man died and his family burned him up and put him in a can. They stopped by my house to ask me if I would dig the grave for them. I told them it would still cost fifteen dollars. I dug his grave with a post-hole digger. That wasn’t too bad.”

“When I was a boy I lived with my grandmother and used make trucks or animals and skulls with corn for teeth. I used the Yazoo clay that was easy to dig out of the riverbank near her house. One time I put one of my skulls up in my granddaddy’s room so that he would see it when he went to light the lamp. He was scared of ghost. When he saw that skull it scared him so bad he made me get up right out of the bed that night and take it out of the house. It made me mad so I decided to do something to get him back for doing me that way."

"The next night I tied a string onto his bedsprings and ran it through a crack in the floor to my room- the old house where we lived was full of cracks and holes. Anyway, when he got into the bed I started pulling that string and shook him. He raised his voice at my grandmother to stop shaking the bed. He made such a fuss that grandmama got out of the bed to show him that it wasn’t her."

"I shook him real hard then. Man, he jumped up and said, ‘I know what it is. You bringing these white folks clothes up in here and some of them are dead, now they all comin’ back at us. Old woman I’m packin’ up and leavin’ you here right by yourself.’ And he did too. He wouldn’t come back to that place. We all moved after that.”

Grabbing up his guitar off the floor Son added “I learned some guitar from my uncle. He would teach me for free but charge me to play on his guitar. I had to wait until he got away from the house to play and hope that I wouldn’t bust a string."

"I finally scrapped up a little money and ordered my own box out of the Sears and Roebuck catalogue. I got good enough to play house parties and fish fries for a dollar a night and then I started hitting the jukes every chance I could get. I used to see Elmo’ James when he played down in Yazoo City with Sonny Boy Williamson."

"Elmo’ had a bad hart. After he got to know me a little he would let me spell him on the guitar when he got tired. Oh man, Sonny Boy didn’t like none of that. He would get to fussin’ about not wanting to play with me, call me names and just walk out of the place. Elmo’ didn’t care one way or the other. If it was his gig he would point me toward his guitar, grab his lady and holler, ‘Blow boy, blow!’ That’s when I started working real hard on my bottleneck style.”

Son Thomas was featured in five or six blues films and made a handful of recording between his “discovery” in the late sixties and his death in 1993. He toured Europe with his music and his folk art has been shown in galleries from New York to Paris.

He met First Lady Nancy Reagan in Washington, D.C. at a gallery that was featuring his art. Son proudly displayed a snap shot of the two of them in his home on a front room shelf with some of his best natural clay skulls made with real human teeth.

Grave digging, whiskey making, gallery shows and European tours were not enough to pay the devil to lift Son Thomas out harms way and hard times. He was accidentally shot, then stabbed later on by his wife around 1981.

Shortly after that he was nearly burned up by a faulty gas heater that badly burned his fretting hand. Just as he recovered from his burns and things were picking up in 1991, Son had surgery for a brain tumor.

“Yeah, the doctor sawed off the top of my head and fixed me up some how. I lost some feeling in places but I’m all right now. I’ve been paying that doctor on time…a little every month when I have it. I went down to check on how much more I owed and they told me that that doctor had gotten high powered and moved away from here. I reckon that if he needs anymore of my money he can let me know.”

James “Son” Thomas died of a stroke in 1993. He was only 66 years old when his spirit floated away on the ethers that he told me, “ settle down on a body…bringing music and songs…dreams…taking spirits away to another world…far away from this one filled with graves, pain and sickness.”

“Give me beef steak when I’m hungry, Whiskey when I’m dry… A pretty woman while I’m livin’ And heaven when I die…”

Beef Steak Blues, James Son Thomas

Jack Owens

JACK OWENS Bentonia, MS. Blue Man

Boom! Boom! Boom! With every shot the armadillo jumped and dodged as it ran for its life through the yard. It seemed to fly past the junk cars and rain barrel as the smoke and bullets chased it back to the safety of its hiding place in the woodpile beside the house. Jack kept firing his pistol and shouting, “You better run! ‘Cause I’m gonna git you!” At ninety-two, Jack Owens still moved like a cat, played the blues better than any man half his age and didn’t take any sass- at least not from any “low down” armadillo.

Jack put down his pistol while I picked up what was left of our last bottle of “Hog-Mouth” gin, Jacks favorite, before it all leaked out across the rough porch onto Jack’s guitar; still laying where it fell when he knocked it over trying for a better shot at the armadillo. Jack took a “taste of gin” then gulped down a mouthful of orange soda and passed the bottles back to me.



Sitting back down on the porch, Jack flashed me a gold-toothed smile and waved his hand at the woodpile. “He was lucky, but not as lucky as me! I’ve been shot at but nobody’s ever hit me. I’ve shot five men too. Didn't kill a one of them and never been a day in jail for any of it. No sir."

He continued on worrying the lid of the orange soda bottle, "And wouldn’t you know it, three of them fellows that I shot, got to be pretty good friends of mine. Especially after they got patched up and that gal we all was after moved away from here. I hear she’s spendin’ some rail road man’s money down in Jackson now.”

Before Jack started shooting at the armadillo on that hot August night a few years ago, we had been drinking gin and giving the guitars and harmonica a good workout on two of Jack’s favorite tunes “Cherry Ball” and “Devil Got My Woman”.

Jack and I would get together on hot summer afternoons to drink gin and pick a few blues tunes out under the shade trees at his house outside Bentonia, a small community up 49 high way, not too far from where I grew up in North Central Mississippi; Jack shouting, “the cat did it!” after every tune until the gin was gone and us with it.

No matter how long we played or how hot the day, Jack could always play “just one more”. To his way of looking at things, if the sun hadn’t come up it was too early to stop playing and go home.

Between sips of gin and a taste of the blues Jack Owens told me his stories and tall tales. He told me that he was born about 1904 or 1906 and was raised between his two grandmothers, one of which was an American Indian and the other the daughter of freed slaves.

Jack told me that he had farmed and toted a pistol since he could crawl and learned guitar and whiskey making from his uncles as soon as he could walk. Jack claimed country musician Buck Owens as a cousin, who supposedly learned guitar with him from the same whiskey making uncles before he moved away from Mississippi.

Jack laughed at me that when I asked him if he had know Skip James, also a Benonia blues man. He Replied, "Sho did" and moved into a new story without another word about Skip.

Jack said, "When I was just a kid-man living around Bentonia me and some partners decided to hop a freight down to Jackson. Yeah we didn’t have no money so we pawned a cow that belonged to the daddy of one of the boys, and bought us a big jug of whiskey with the money."

"We figured on playing enough music down there to get that cow back. Well anyway we drank so much of that whiskey that we couldn’t standup right as we tried to catch the train coming out of town. One of the boys tried to grab on to the train like the conductor but he was too drunk and that train was moving too fast for him. That boy, he got pulled up under the wheels and the train cut his leg off."

Jack leaned back and continued on, "We tied up his leg with his belt and then we all drank the rest of that whiskey. Yes sir we did. After a while that boy asked us where his leg was.” He said that they had to look around a while for it and somebody called out, “Here it is.”

Jack said that the fellow that lost his leg, looked at it, kissed it and then threw it as far as he could. “And his leg still had on that boy’s shoe and sock!” That shoe was still in good. But I guess that he wouldn't be needing it anyhow." “We got that boy off to the hospital. Well that boy was gone for a good while” Jack said. “Then one day he came back around with a peg leg and rode everywhere on a pretty little shetland pony. He could dance and get around good."

"You know what? He broke up two households and ran off with a third gal!” Jack gave out a good laugh and finished the story with a sparkle in his eye as he said, “Man you know them gals in Bentonia were crazy about that pony!”

Jack was recorded several times by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress and had discs out on labels in the US and Europe. He won a Handy Blues Award or two, and was in a Levi’s jeans commercial for MTV. He toured Europe and played festivals all over the world after he got over his fear of flying in an airplane.

Jack was a farmer and a tractor-driver. But other than as a guitar player, he was best known in the community as a bootlegger-who ran his own juke house and sold the best whiskey in the county. Jack Owens was one of the last Bentonia blues men who still played cross note guitar, in the style made famous by his friend and fellow Bentonian, Skip James.

Jack cooked for himself and lived alone in a fairly new four room wood house that was heated by a wood-burning stove in the front room. He said that ever since he had been kicked in the head by a mule he had lost count of the number of times that he had been married. But he always grinned that he was still on the lookout for a good woman.

Jack’s music took him around the world and back again. He out lived most of his friends and family. Jack Owens died in his sleep at the age of ninety-four with a bottle of gin on his bed-side table, a shot gun under his bed and his pistol under his pillow.