Legendary bluesman Joe Louis Walker has performed for over 50 years. A product of the great migration that sent him and his family from Mississippi to the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area, Walker was ordained a bluesman from a young age as he was handed the torch of African American traditional music from his parents.
Standing the test of time, a difficult task for many musicians, Walker continues to rack up accolades, create new music, and give back to the community, younger musicians and the culture he represents. Never at a loss of words, Walker is rooted in the human experience, and is aware of how that experience is specific to Black life, past and present.
Recently, the African American Folklorist sat down with Walker at the W.C. Handy Blues & Barbecue Festival in Henderson, KY, after he put on an amazing show, to discuss his journey, the culture of blues, and how it relates to the Black experience.
Here’s an excerpt of the interview:
Lamont Jack Pearey: When it comes to African American folklore, history, and traditions expressed through music. Blues should be at the top of the list. I recently attended the WC Handy Blues Festival in Henderson, Kentucky, and sat down with a few artists, the Co-Chair and Music Director. On this first installment of the festival interviews, I speak with blues legend Joe Lewis Walker.
Joe Louis Walker: I tell everybody that I talk to, that I’m a musician and artist, I sing a little bit, and produce. When I picked up a guitar, I did not say I was gonna be a blues artist, or a rock artist, or this artist and most musicians I know, don't we just, the idiom finds us. It just so happens that my daddy comes from Cleveland, Mississippi, in the late 1930s went to California, Madera, Fresno. My mama comes from Little rock, and all their mothers and father’s left the south... And to make a long story short, their Michael Jackson was BB King.
Lamont Jack Pearley: There were a lot of great blues musicians that still talk and dress as if they're picking cotton, and they've never picked cotton. And we have an issue today that is prevalent in the black community. Should the blues be addressing our problems today?
Joe Louis Walker: Well, the blues means a lot of things to a lot of people. I'll tell you a story. And it sort of answers your question, when I was 16, I left home. I thought I was grown, so my dad said you got to go! So I moved in with a woman that was 26. This woman had worked with, she was a freedom rider. She had left Bowling Green, with a bunch of other young people like the young people around me now. And the first thing she did, she was on a bus that was bombed. And so when she finally got to Mississippi, she was like, Oh, I'm finally here. So they said, we're gonna put you with an older lady. They said she was gonna be safe, won't be any problem. They put in with Fannie Lou Hamer. She said, Joe, I've never been so afraid. My friend is alive right now named Janet Clinger. She wrote several books. And she said, just the stories alone are harrowing. Yeah. And so my friend went through all of that and some.
Lamont Jack Pearley: Before you finish your story, you have to give a short description of Fannie Lou Hamer so people can understand the gravity of this young lady living there.
Joe Louis Walker: Fannie Lou Hamer was beaten by the police so bad that it ruined her inside and brain for years. She never gave up. So my friend Janet Clinger moved in with her. And to make a long story short, Janet got a severe dose of real history. And so anyway, to answer your question, I'm downstairs. I'm 16 years old, in my mother's house. We're having Thanksgiving. And so I have Janet with me. from downstairs and we downstairs, you know, having some fun? And then my dad comes down here. Joe, you were the white woman. You think I didn't know that? She's my girlfriend, you kicked me out? I mean, you know, what do you think? And he said, I’ll tell you something, if things go bad, like it was for me in Mississippi, she can go back being white, but you're black -- gone stay black! And to me, that's what the blues is about.