During my decade of active field-work in the Southeast, many of my informants became friends (unlike Buddy Moss) and a few became very close and special. Among that latter, smaller category was Willie Trice – ironically, it was Moss who was responsible for us looking in the right area for he and his brother, Richard (see Bastin’s chapter in NOTHING BUT THE BLUES, ed. Larry Cohn, or our pieces back then in BU). He was a special person, not just to myself, but to all of “us” who had the good fortune to meet him, including the many people I took to his place. On first meeting, he was sitting in the front yard of his mother’s house, one foot up after an injury, spraying the flies with a Flit gun. The following year (1971), both lower legs had been amputated as gangrene had set into them one by one, a common side effect of his adult-onset diabetes. This is a very common phenomenon amongst poor folks in the South, especially poor Blacks whose nutritional history has been suspect at best. (1) Poor diet throughout their lives sets them up for it, plus they can also have familial/genetic aspects as well. Willie’s brother, Richard (a/k/a Little Boy Fuller on Savoy) eventually had similar difficulties resulting in double lower limb loss, something he worried would happen. That first year (1970), Bruce and I were gladly received by Willie, his mother, Lula Mae Couch, and his sister, Annabelle. One day that summer we were invited over for a meal and were faced with a veritable cornucopia of southern culinary treats – from fried chicken to candied yams, potato a.o. salads to veggies galore, two or three kinds of pie! We felt accepted, and then some, as well as royally stuffed (in the American sense)!! And embarrassed by the excess! They really shouldn’t have done THAT much for us… but they did and we were thankful.
After the second summer, I took Willie’s old National guitar from under the bed where it had been moldering for a long time in order to see if I could have it resuscitated. It went north with me and I got Robert Gear (whatever happened to him, I wonder?) in Boston to have it re-conditioned for him. A pretty nice job was done – Bob even took the rusted body to a friend’s auto painting shop and had the metal rehabbed and painted with maroon car enamel! I was then able to return it to Willie in 1972 when I headed South once again – he seemed pleased. It gave him something to do in his new state of limited mobility and he went back to it with great seriousness. He also bought himself a wooden Gibson (SJ?) flat-top to play – that gave him more tonal variety in recording.
Willie’s style of guitar-playing, as that of his friend Gary Davis, was an exacting one where any fluffs would stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. And Willie was a perfectionist. I would pull into the front yard, often unannounced, and go into the house –Willie usually had some “new” songs that he thought were ready to record… he was usually right. He’d wheel his chair into the spare room and get himself and his guitar onto the middle of the double bed. Then I’d set up the two microphones and record whatever he had for me that day, usually in no more that two takes. Beautiful music was taped over the years – his version of “One Dime Blues” on my 12-string the first summer brings McTell to mind, but there is no connection between them save their Piedmont guitar style.
One stroke of serendipitous “genius” that I had was to present Willie with a cheap cassette recorder/player that I had purchased at a pawn-shop in my travels. This did two things. First, it allowed Willie to work on his material on tape, playing back what he’d come up with, and getting a song to where he was happy with it himself. Second, it totally de-mystified the recording process as it was something that he could do himself, so no big deal. The net result was longer and more relaxed recording sessions in that spare room, and lots of material on tape as a result. Back then a used cassette machine was no more than US$ 20 (at most) in a pawnshop, a very worthwhile investment in this case.
Mr. Willie Augusta Trice was one special and lovely man and a seriously good and unique (within the local traditions) musician. He may have known Blind Boy Fuller and Gary Davis, but that happened after he was a fully-formed player (unlike younger brother Richard) and he was not another Fuller acolyte. In fact, if you listen closely to the Fuller recorded output, you can hear something of Willie in a few of his songs (e.g. “Black & Tan”) – influences went the other way, for Fuller was a musical sponge! People like Willie Trice made all the difficulties and frustrations of doing field-work worthwhile with his charm and grace. I know that my life is a better place for having known him and I’m sure there are many others who would agree that theirs was, too.
(1.) For another dietary/genetic factor, go to “Stroke Belt” in WikiPedia. They are all interconnected in many ways.
Peter B. Lowry
Published: BLUES & RHYTHM 129 – May 1998, p.13.
I seldom gave Willie a call when I was coming – he swore that he knew of my arrival ahead of time by dreaming of me the night before. It must have been true, for he was always ready and willing whenever I showed up. Mulga wire? I do not know. Being around him was relaxing, I do know that. Musically, he was a marvel, playing both secular and sacred songs for me.
Bill Phillips, a friend of Bruce’s, helped Willie get coffee-house gigs in the area after we were not around, driving him to them and even recording one or two for me when I wasn’t there. I left two of my mics with him to use with his own tape recorder when I was up North. There’s probably at least one album in the “Bill Phillips” tapes, more likely two! And a coffee house gig recording, too!! Plus an album of some of his religious material – now THAT’S a commercial idea, wouldn’t you say!! What would I know.
The one LP that I issued was, of course, the proverbial ice-berg tip, and I had plans for a number of additional releases by Mr. Trice. I might make mention that I could never get him to not call me “Mr. Pete”… Bastin was “Mr. Bruce”… old southern inter-racial habits die hard, don’t you know. One might also refer to the songs he played at the big Chapel Hill concert that came out on Flyright back in the day. Then there was his contribution to the earlier “dry run” show with Peg Leg Sam, and Henry Johnson, also on the campus.
The last time I saw him was a couple of weeks before he died. He had been given a piece of land by a White friend some years back and had always wanted to move there, just down the road. By that time Willie had been ill with cancer, but he’d been able to move into a trailer (caravan/UK) on his piece of land. He was there when I arrived, being taken care of by his sister, Annabelle (once again), a nurse from Arizona (I think) when I finally came by after a few years absence. When he saw me, he sat up and loudly exclaimed, “All right, all right, all right!” His sister told me before I left that that was the most animated he’d been in months… I was moved and saddened. Glenn Hinson (O&S #5), one of the friends I’d taken around to meet Willie and one who “stuck”, called me in Atlanta about a week later to tell me that Willie had passed. I drove North for the funeral with the strange feeling that Willie waited for me to come by one more time before dying… sounds egotistical, but there it is. What do I know!