Juke joint legend and Delta storyteller Bill Abel shares a personal history
Interview by Casey Hilder | Photos by Rory Doyle
Arts | August 2015
Click Magazine: How’d you learn to play music?
Bill Abel: I met a man named Paul Jones, a local welder, when I was 10 years old and growing up in Belzoni, Mississippi. He was a part-time musician and I just started playing with him and a few other guys in Humphreys County. I picked up a lot from him and his, but he died in 2005. This was right after I first started playing solo shows in 2000, before that I always played alongside him. I played a lot with other people — guitar and bass, mostly.
CM: Your most recent album, 2008’s One-Man Band, showcases your work on a number of instruments including electric guitar, dobro, hi-hat, snare, bass drum and all manner of percussions — not to mention a few homemade deals like cigar box guitars. What led you to branch out from your initial learnings?
BA: Well, I don’t play like that much anymore — I’m old. It’s tricky to keep up with and kinda hard on the body playing drums with your feet. Most people sound better with a real drummer anyway, you know?
CM: What have you been up to recently?
BA: I lived in Jackson for a while, but the whole time I would find myself coming back to Belzoni to play music. I came back to study painting and sculpture at 52 years old as an older art student at Delta State. When I moved back, I started playing more and with new people — people like Cadillac John Nolden and T-Model Ford. Probably the highlight of those years was recording with Hubert Sumlin for an album in 2005. I got to play with a lot of people down here in the Delta before they died and, strangely enough, they were always looking for new people to play with.
CM: What do the blues mean in 2015? Is it still being passed down like it was in your day?
BA: Well, you’ve got two sides in that corner — you’ve got the old-school, authentic, old blues — parts of that can’t be carried on. They sang about the times. You can’t sing about cotton if you’ve never picked cotton and even something like the pronunciation of the words — the cultural aspect of the blues — that part’s been dying off real fast. You can’t carry that on, but you can carry on the style. The new blues is different, you know? Playing-wise and the format, it’s just different. When the electric guitar came out in the 1940s, the guys who stayed here in the Delta instead of going to Memphis or Chicago or anywhere else weren’t playing the same style. The Delta guys learned how to play the electric guitar for a better sound to get people dancing in the juke houses, and they played it like acoustic with their fingers. But when Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf took it to Chicago, that’s when they started to spread the sound out across multiple bandmates. It really evolved the music. But here in the Delta, it stayed raw. The guys who played electric down here play loud, fast and full of information. Kind of like what Paul Jones played.
CM: You’ve performed alongside some real legends — Henry Townsend, Hubert Sumlin, Big George Brock, Sam Carr and Kenny Kimbrough, to name a few. Who was a big inspiration for you that you never got a chance to play with?
BA: That’s one to think about. Probably all the guys who are long dead and gone, the guys from the 1920s. I’ve been inspired by a lot of their music. Robert Johnson, Skip James, Charlie Patton. I really like Skip’s stuff.
CM: You’ve performed around the world, from Clarksdale and Chicago to Italy and the UK. What are some acts you really remember?
BA: In June, I played at a festival in Switzerland called “Blues Rules.” That was really nice. I also played in Norway last year. No big festivals or anything, just a few clubs. A few years before that, I was in Sweden at the Åmål’s Blues Festival. I don’t have a booking agent and I don’t get to play all the time. Being a local guy, when somebody hears you play and they want to hear more, it’s special. I’m not that famous, you know, so it means a lot when I get to travel to play.
CM: What do you think gives this particular brand of Delta music such a universal appeal?
BA: People ask that all the time and the answer I’ve come up with is that a lot of people were listening to those old pre-war recordings — some done down here, some in Wisconsin, New York, and Texas — and those guys were singing how they felt, which was pretty doggone bad sometimes. And that stuff — that emotion and pain — that went on record. People can feel that worldwide. So many people come around these days, Europeans who are into the old blues — that really interests me.
Like many denizens of the Mississippi Delta, the blues comes naturally for Bill Abel. A juke joint staple since his youth, the 52-year-old Abel has spent the past 15 years refining his solo act and branching out to bring the history of the region to a wider audience, all while maintaining the traditions taught to him by legendary local pickers.