While he's only come to a national audience in recent years, Alabama-based bluesman Willie King sets himself apart from many of today's modern bluesmen and blueswomen by his insistence on addressing topical and political issues in his songwriting. But in reality, the blues has a long tradition of protest songs or other songs written to bring about societal change. King's 2001 debut for the Rooster Blues label, Freedom Creek, with his band, the Liberators, opens with "Second Coming," a song about the immortal nature of the spirit, and invokes civil rights activists John Brown and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., certainly great spirits whose thoughts and deeds live on in America and around the world. Other topical and political songs on King's Rooster Blues debut include "Pickens County Payback," "Stand Up and Speak the Truth," and "Clean Up the Ghetto." An earlier album, 1999's I Am the Blues, was released through a group he is a part of, the Rural Members Association.
A guitarist and singer/songwriter, King was born in Prairie Point, MS, on March 8, 1943. His grandparents and local sharecroppers raised King and his siblings after his mother and father separated when he was two. Fortunately, King was raised in a music-filled household, as his grandfather was a fan of both gospel and blues music. A young Willie King made his own didley-bo, a one-stringed instrument, by nailing a bailing wire to a tree in his yard. He began playing that and eventually progressed to guitar, when his plantation owner, W.P. Morgan, brought him his first guitar, an acoustic Gibson, when he was 13 years old. King paid off the $60 price tag for the guitar by working on the plantation and feeding the plantation's cows in the morning. He made his professional debut at a house party in Mississippi, playing all night for two dollars. King focused his efforts on learning more tunes and expanded his repertoire to include tunes by Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Hopkins, and John Lee Hooker.
In 1967, King moved to Chicago and spent a year trying to find secure work in that city's south and west sides. He returned to Old Memphis, AL, and began working as a salesman, traveling rural roads, peddling his goods, and talking politics with mostly poor, rural Alabama residents. King got involved in the civil rights movement and with the left-wing Highlander Center. Throughout the 1970s, King continued to write blues songs inspired by the civil rights activism of performers like Josh White, Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, the Freedom Singers, and Pete Seeger. King calls his political songs "struggling songs," and in reality, they are political tunes used to educate his audiences. As he explains in his biography accompanying Freedom Creek, "Through the music, I could reach more people, get them to listen."
In 1987, Rooster Blues founder Jim O'Neal was blown away by King and his band at a festival in Eutaw, AL. O'Neal was attracted to King's juke-joint guitar stylings, raw vocals, and political lyrics. The pair kept in touch during the next 13 years, and when O'Neal relocated his label to Memphis from Chicago, the two hooked up to record Freedom Creek, which was released in October 2000. King's Freedom Creek album was recorded on location at Bettie's Place in Prairie Point, MS. The success of the album brought about a follow-up, Living in a New World, released in 2002, with liner notes penned by poet, blues scholar, political activist, and former MC5 manager John Sinclair, who was then based in New Orleans.
If there's any justice in this world, in coming years this prolific songwriter and powerful singer and guitar player should continue to be well recorded. King and his Liberators are a vital part of a long tradition of social and civil activism in the blues form. King's raw guitar sound and soulful vocals and his band's simple yet complex message songs need to be brought to more festivals like the Chicago Blues Festival, the San Francisco Blues Festival, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and other festivals of international prominence. ~ Richard Skelly