3305: WILLIE TRICE – “Blue & Rag’d”
Original LP and CD re-release
Born February 10, 1910, Willie Agusta Trice has lived all his life within a mile or two of his birthplace, a quiet rural section of wooded North Carolina just west of Durham. He soon became interested in playing something himself, for both his parenls played instruments; his father played a little guitar, while his mother, Lula Mae, played organ in church and was a very accomplished guitarist, having learned from her father who taught guitar. “She used tp play for the old ‘eight-hand sets’ . . . they call it a barn-dance now.” Though both parents played mainly church music, he heard the older secular pieces from three uncles, Luther, Albert, and Clarence, who all played guitars and some banjo . . . “played blues and rags . . . didn’t call them blues then, you know, called them reels.” His maternal uncle, Clarence Couch, played with a slide, and other musicians came by to play with various relatives and helped the youngster tune up his home-made guitar. He used screen-wire and clothes-line string on it. He even made another one out of a plank for bottle-neck playing.
Under the influence of this talent, Willie started out in D, using a bottleneck and a couple of fingers – he’d play around the house or for the younger children in the neighborhood. As he grew up, his younger brother (Richard) also began to play guitar, and as soon as Richard was old enough, they’d play together for dances and parties. Willie had begun to acquire his personal style as early as 1927!
About 1930 he ran into Floyd (“Dipper Boy”) Council from Chapel Hill who played with the Strowd brothers, Thomas and Leo – Floyd was a fine blues guitarist, and (save Gary Davis) was the only person to back Blind Boy Fuller in recording sessions (not even Brownie McGhee was so honored!) By 1933, Willie had met Davis who often came by the club a cousin ran (now the house in which Willie lives) where he surprlsed all by playing the beat-up piano there.
Willie was accustomed to hearing the latest blues 78s, either an the one music store on Main St. in Durham, or at cousin Sammy’s small country juke-house . . . Blind Willie Johnson. Blind Blake, and Blind Lemon Jefferson were all favorites, but Buddy Moss, Ramblin’ Thomas, and Josh White were heard as well. “If you’d heard Richard and me starting off, you’d have thought it was Buddy Moss and Joshua White” (who recorded togelher). Later on he would get to know Moss after Buddy moved to Burlington in 1941. Suddenly, in 1935, Willie heard Blind Boy Fuller on record and was amazed to discover that he was living in Durham. He set out immeditlely to find him, and from Ihat time, Willie and Rich became close friends with Fuller, up to his death in 1941. The younger Richard was very strongly influenced by Fuller, becoming almost a disciple of his Carolina-style guitar, but Willie remained Willie. When Fuller went to New York to record out-of-contract for Decca an 1937, he took the Trices with him; they recorded six titles, two each as lead, and two unissued duets. Atlhough Richard recorded again in 1949 for Savoy (as Little Boy Fuller!), Willie never again recorded commercially, though both brothers recorded demo discs in the 40s and 50s at local radio stations. They were usually given to various women-friends and subsequently lost – Willie had broadcast, though, as early as 1932 over WPTF in Raleigh.
Whereas Blind Boy Fuller, Gary Davis, and Sonny Terry would play music for a living, Willie always held some sort of day-job, working at a variety of jobs from tending a gas station/store to construction work. He also raised crops for twelve years for his cousin, Mager, on the side. As a result, when the “professional” bluesmen would play around the tobacco warehouses in Durham during the fall selling season, Willie only found time to go there occasionally and rarely ever played there himself. In truth, Willie was and is very much the country man and never Iiked to stay too long in Durham – he even has incorporated his feelings into a song on this album!
Thus strongly rooted in the rural area of his birth, Willie never showed the slightest interest In moving North, as had many of his friends. Gary Davis went to Raleigh in 1938, then was in New York City by the early 40s: Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry were established there by 1942 . . . even brother Richard went to New Jersey in 1946. Others with whom Willie used to play either moved North, or eventually were “taken over“ by the church (including, recently, his brother Richard). By the mid-60s Willie had stopped playing with any regularity . . . but he stiil hung onto his National guitar.
In 1969 a casual remark by Buddy Moss in Atlanta led Pete Lowry and I on a search for the Trices; the outcome of Moss‘ remark should be obvious, and Willie picked up the steel again. He wasn’t far out of practice, and the unfortunate loss of his legs from diabetes in 1970 left him with plenty of time to play – it also had therapeutic value. Pete and I have been by to see him with some regularily, and I was fortunate enough to pass a lot of time with him while in Chapel Hill during 1972/73. He continually works on his older songs, adapts Ihem, and also writes new material in almost mystical fashion – using a cassette-recorder, he polishes up his stuff until he is satisfied with it (he is his harshest critic), and then he’ll let Pete record it! He has played concerts at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, as well as the 1973 Blues Festival held there, with other appearances hopefully to come.
Willie Trice continues to show many of the facets of black secular music found in the rural Carolinas, as well as the influence of the church. He is well able to play early pre-blues country dance pieces (usually in C), many of which he remembers from his uncles. His own blues style is immediately recognizable, showing a heavily syncopated rhythm on the bass strings, and incorporating complex chord changes and progressions. He prefers to play in A or E, but is just as capable of handling D or B. Although his style is occasionally reminiscent of Fuller, it is no more than a general regional characteristic, for Fuller drew upon similar existing material and styles (especiallv from Gary Davis). Willie proudly claims that Fuller used some of his material and licks, and this is certain to be the case. Willie can incorporate traits of musicians into his work, usually consciously: one can pick out Davis-like bass runs, Moss and White-like treble work — but they are only a part of the greater fabric which is undeniably Willie Trice.
Bruce Bastin (1974) author Crying For The Carolines and Red River Blues: The Blues Tradition in the Southeast
TRYING TO FIND MY BABY – A swinging medium tempo original blues number, verse and chorus construction to the lyric (rather than the more “standard” AAB stanza). This is deceptively simple, with a fine bass run in one of the breaks, as well as overall excellent bass-work. (7)
YOU HAVE MlSTREATED ME – Is a slow blues with a very strong similarity to some of Fuller’s pieces, though showing that unique Trice stamp. Hardly a “cover” in any sense of the word. (8)
NEW DIDDEY WAH DIDDEY – Here is a “cover” of another artist’s song, that of Blind Blake. There are melodic similarities here, but the lyric is all Willie’s . . . it is an original adaptation of an “old” song. (6)
TROUBLESOME MIND – A very slow piece, which shows Willie’s “cascade” of notes (he does a similar instrumental), which device he uses on appropriate tunes. He certainly is back in practice! (8)
SHINE ON – This is a song he got from Uncle Albert – he in turn got it from an itinerant musician that passed through Durham during the teens sometime – Willie has adapted it, of course. (7)
I LOVE YOU, SWEET BABY – Another up-tempo song . . . it never ceases to amaze me how Willie can keep such steady time . . . dealing with the not unexpected female pecadillos. (8)
I’VE HAD TROUBLE – If one were prone to philosophizing, this title could sum up the experience of being poor and black in these United States. As it stands, this deals with the more mundane male/female thing. (9)
GOOD TIME BOOGIE – Here is one of those pieces valid for one of those “eight-hand” sets of yore . . . Willie has a number of these recitative numbers he remembers or creates, though this one is definitely for dancing! (6)
NEW CARELESS LOVE BLUES – Another “cover”, this time of a Fuller /W.C. Handy piece (where he got it from is problematical) but again Willie administers a lyrical transfusion – not to mention the facile work on his Gibson. (1)
GOIN’ TO THE COUNTRY – A fine, romping song that demonstrates his rural preference as alluded to in the notes. Anything seems to be better than the city, doesn’t it? (4)
SHE’S COMING ON THE C & O – This is another recitative piece, this time more introspective. There are some nice images pulled out of the guitar, as well as the joy and nervousness of her return in the lyric. (7)
MY BABY’S WAYS – A combination of an old song, with a pretty sophisticated chord-progression thrown in at the end of each verse. A fitting finale to an album by a lovely gentleman, and a fine artist – hopefully, the first of many such records. (5)
(1) Durham, NC – 9 Aug, 1971
(2) Durham, NC – 5 Sep, 1972
(3) Durham, NC – 12 Sep, 1972
(4) Durham, NC – 20 Oct, 1972
(5) Durham, NC – 12 Dec, 1972
(6) Durham, NC – 18 Dec, 1972
(7) Durham, NC – 20 Apr, 1973
(8) Durham, NC – 12 Dec, 1973
Pete Lowry (1974)
n.b. – Willie Trice can also be heard on: Bull City Blues, Flyright 106 Carolina Country Blues, Flyright 505 Orange County Special, Flyright 506
Wilie Trice was one of those special people – not just in my life, but in the lives of most everyone who chanced to meet him. We had some sort of special, almost mystic connection . . . I would irregularly just appear unannounced at the door of his mother’s house and he’d be sitting there waiting for me. He would tell me that he had dreamed of me that night and therefore knew that I was going to be there to see him that next day. We recorded extensively after the sessions taped tor this release – friends like Glenn Hinson or Bill Phillips kept in close touch with Willie and his family (Bill even recorded some of the later sessions tor me. WilIie was often “ready” when I wasn’t around.) Willie played at a Chapel Hill coffee house a few times (where he was recorded by Bill Phillips) as well as a couple of festivals at the college . . . his musical originality and wonderful personality were not kept under a bushel, but were appreciated by all who happened to cross paths with the man.
Willie lived with his mother, Lula Mae Couch, for most of the time that I knew him. The loss of his legs as a result of adult-onset diabetes curtailed any interest in travelling: he backed out at the last minute of an appearance at the National Folk Festival at the Wolf Trap Farm in Vienna, VA one summer. David Bromberg filled in tor him! And then the cigarettes struck back and he developed throat cancer. Radiation therapy got that “under control” and he was able to eventually perform again. I last recorded Willie in 1975 but was not able to get South to see him for over a year.
One thing that WiIlie always wanted was to live in a mobile home on a piece of land down the road that a former employer gave him. After his mother died in 1976. he got his wish and moved into a trailer with wheelchair ramps. And his sister, a nurse, came East to care for him. Late in 1977 I stopped by to see him and he was obviously ailing – he seemed pleased to see me, though, and repeatedly exclaimed “All right!” while I was there. Before I left, his sister told me that that was the most animated he had been in months. A few days after I arrived in Atlanta, Glenn Hinson called to tell me that our friend had died. I went back to Orange County for the funeral at the church down the road from his mother’s place thinking selfishly that Willie had waited until I came by one more time belore dying. It felt that way, and I’m glad that he did.
Willie Trice was a very special person to me, as you can tell. I always felt better after seeing him, as though some burden had been lifted. I miss him very much and know that others who knew him feel very much the same way. This album of secular material is just one slice of the Willie Trice musical pie – enjoy this one and ask for seconds and thirds!
Peter B. Lowry (1995) CD release (Cottekill, NY)
As you can tell from the above, Willie Trice was someone important to me in my decade of travelling through the South East, both as a musician and as a human being… dare I say it, a friend. As much as one could be that across the age and racial barriers that we both straddled. He eventually called me by my first name, but always preceeded by “Mister” – some habits can never be suppressed, no matter how hard one tries! It made me a bit uncomfortable using familiar of his name, but I carried on. The music was a god-send, I do believe, for Willie once he had lost both his legs to adult onset diabetes. It gave him a focal point onto something that HE could do, and do well, something that parts of the outside world appreciated and honored. If there is a deity, she works in mysterious ways!
As I have indicated elsewhere, Willie is probably the person who I recorded in the most depth (with help from Bill Phillips one year) during by decade of active southern field-work. He would have four to six new pieces worked uo to his satisfaction to “give” me whenever I showed up at his mother’s house. He’d wheel himself into the spare room, clamber onto the double bed (the springs were not noisy!), and set himself with his guitar in the middle. I’d set up my two microphones, put a reel of tape into the Uher, and away we’d go! Another batch of fine music “captured”.
People like Willie made the heavy slogging around the South East more bearable for me; spending time with a friend is like that. I like to think that I (and others like myself) probably made his final decades more sociable and enjoyable than they might have been, considering the extent and the circumstances of his handicap. While he didn’t go “out” much further than Orange County, NC, Willie Trice had a moment in the folkloric sun that would have been missed had we not met Buddy Moss and then the Trice brothers. We would all have been the losers had that not happened.
The twelve pieces on this album were taken from nine recording sessions done over a four year span (1970-1973) at his mother’s home in the Orange County, NC, outside of Durham. Further sessions were done later by me and by Bill Phillips.
For more on Willie Trice, see “Oddenda & Such” #9.
Peter B. Lowry (2012) Sydney
Stefan Grossman has released a DVD entitled “LEGENDARY COUNTRY BLUES GUITARISTS”: Vastopol 13129 that is distributed by Rounder Records. There are seven clips of Willie Trice shot by Joan Fenton in the 70s while she was a folklore student at UNC-Chapel Hill. The titles are: “Be Your Dog”, “Run, Boy, Run (incorrectly titled “Run Here Gal”), “Poor Boy Long Ways From Home”, “Good Time Boogie”, “Sweet Sugar Mama”, “God Don’t Want No Coward Souls” (incorrectly titled “Stand & Welcome Jesus”), “When The Saints Go Marching In”.
Peter B. Lowry – 2015