WILLIE TRICE – “Wild Bill”
Early Times: 1970-1971
liner notes essay
My third-ever field recording session of anyone, this time of the Trice brothers, took place in 1970 and was the first in the long skein of material I “got” at that location in my ten years on-the-road. It took place outside Durham, NC at the home of Lula Mae Couch, the mother to Richard and Willie Trice. Both brothers had recorded commercially for Decca about 1937, travelling with Blind Boy Fuller to NYC for his illegal out-of-ARC-contract sessions. Each brother had a single 78 released, and there was also a duet (not all of their sides were issued) as well. This was Willie’s only commercial recording session: his brother recorded two solo sessions (eight songs) for Savoy Records ca. 1949 in Newark, NJ. That was it for the Trice brothers in a “real” studio, for the “race” market.
In August of 1970, Bruce Bastin and I stopped by to meet the brothers again and maybe hear them play at their mother’s place. Richard had gone “full church” by then, something he maintained until his death – Richard even told us at that time Blind Boy Fuller had promised him from his hospital bed to stop singing blues if he recovered. That supposed conversion might have had an influence on Richard’s switch, as well as the impact of his seriously church-going wife! Willie was not so fixed in his genre thinking, though, as this collection will show. Neither brother was currently playing by 1969/1970, but they stepped right up and did it well under very casual “folkloric” conditions in 1970. There is occasional mild wind noise on the microphones and a smattering of almost inaudible background talk. That is to say, recorded outdoors under a shade tree and after a veritable feast put on by their mother, sister, and Richard’s wife. It was way too much food, but we soldiered on and things went well!
There was a bit of guitars being passed around; they were both fascinated by the full sound of the twelve-string I had brought along on this trip. Richard played and sang a smattering of sacred songs, while Willie did all sorts of material – sacred songs, blues, ragtime, OTM tunes – that presaged our long and productive relationship through to 1975. There are about one hundred selections in toto that I recorded by Willie in that time with a minimal duplication of titles, all of them at least being good and most being excellent in both song choice as well as their playing.
Our relationship was unlike any I’ve experienced before or since – it was more than just that of a folklorist and an informant; a kind of special friendship developed, but within HIS bounds and experiences. I was always “Mr. Pete” to him, no matter what I might say . He lived with his mother in a nice older wooden framed home with a couple of bedrooms, living room, and a kitchen – water was brought from a well in the front yard and the toilet was in an outhouse out back. It was not in the least ramshackle, but it was also minimally furnished – heat came from a wood stove in the living room, and there was electricity and a telephone.
I mention the ‘phone because I never did use one to contact Willie about recording… I’d just show up and he’d be waiting for me. It seems that he would dream of me the night before and knew that I’d be there… he never failed in all the times I showed up unannounced, truly out-of-the-blue. He’d have at least four songs ready for me, we’d go into their guest room, he’d clamber onto the double bed, I’d set up the equipment, and we’d do some serious recording!
One thing that I had done was to give him a basic “Bb” inexpensive cassette recorder/player that I got at a local pawn shop… nothing fancy, but it accomplished two things. One was that, it allowed him to work on his songs to his satisfaction: he was a “delicate” and exacting player, one who’s work could be off-kilter if not perfectly realized, but he worked it over so that was not a factor. The second thing was that it totally de-mystified the recording process because it was something he could do himself whenever he felt like it! So as much as we could be in the inter-racial cultures of NC in the 1970’s, we were “professional” in our work and friends in our relationship – he was a special individual.
I saw Willie one final time before he passed – he had moved after his mother had died to a trailer/caravan on a piece of land down the road a friend had given him many years before. It was his desire to have his own place, and he finally did. Willie was in bed and I just appeared unexpectedly as I usually did, this time at his bedside. He saw me, sat up and said “All right!” a bunch times with great enthusiasm at my presence, and held my hand. His sister, a nurse from AZ who was caring for him said that it was the most animated he’d been in many months… I think he knew I’d make it to see him one more time before his departure.
Glenn Hinson called me in Atlanta within a week to tell me that Willie had died, and when and where the funeral would be held. Needless to say, I was in attendance. To me, Willie Augusta Trice was a remarkable man who was also a remarkable musician, and as a good friend to me as I hope I was to him. Certainly, our joint musical activities gave him a purpose after losing both his legs, and he appreciated that I had gotten his old National back in action for him . He was one of the main reasons that I “did” all that stuff for ten years – I am attracted by good older people and like to spend time with them!
This particular album is taken from those first recordings sessions that I did with Willie in 1970 and 1971, before his diminished physical state was firmly established. The first is quite informal and loose, always spontaneous, and it exposes some aspects of Willie’s musical background that I did not get from him later on. His slide playing and his playing my twelve-string guitar. It is a collection of hymns, old songs, and some blues: I did not bring out the twelve-string again, nor did he do slide pieces later on. The material he recorded for me was always his choice or creation, and he had his two guitars later which were enough for him and on which he worked on his choices.
The songs ran the gamut from known “traditional” material (“I Wouldn’t Mind Dying, If Dying Was All”, “Poor Boy, Long Way from Home”) to original stuff like “Three Little Kittens Rag”, or the title tune. Surprises were his take on “The Titanic” using slide (he used a smooth piece of beef leg-bone), and his take on “One Dime Blues” on twelve-string guitar. He had never heard Willie McTell or his version of the song recorded in 1949 (but not released by Atlantic Records until the 70’s). Proof positive that McTell was just “another Piedmont picker” who happened to specialize on the twelve, but whose playing style was in that widespread realm! (Not a special Atlanta 12-string thing as has been posited over the years by W.E.)
These recordings were the start of the single most-lengthy relationship that I ever had as a folklorist/field-recorder – he was more than just an “informant”. (I never got him to stop referring to me as “Mr. Pete”, though, no matter how often I asked.) I couldn’t have been more fortunate in making his acquaintance, though. He was a fine guitarist and a good singer with a very exacting and delicate touch , and a gentle personality as well. Giving him that cassette recorder was a brilliant move on my part, as was having his National rehabilitated for him !
VALE, Mr. Willie Trice. Thank you for being my good friend and sharing your artistry with us all. You are missed, kind sir – I enjoyed and cherished our times together over those half-dozen years, even if I was always going to be “Mr. Pete” to him!
PETER B. LOWRY