Bud Spires: Bentonia Bluesman
Plays only as Half of Partnership
By Lisa Nicholas for the Yazoo Herald in 1978
© Bill Steber
Bud Spires can blow a blues harp, but only with one man, Jack Owens. They've been playing together for about 15 years.
Spires says Owens just "ran up on me playing the harp and we started fooling around until we commenced to play notes together."
"You know how a kid plays a harp? He just sucks the air in and blows out. Well, I could play like that before I met Jack, but no notes. After I heard him, I could play notes. It's got to where now anything he can pick, I can blow. And it's getting better, too. Some other guys tried to blow with him, but they couldn't."
Spires feels training with one partner for a long time allows them to play like one person. Although Spires can't play the guitar, he knows when Owens is playing wrong and usually can tell what he is going to do next.
When they first started playing together, Owens had an electric guitar. Spires had a double noted harmonica. He's never played an electric harp, but thinks he could.
"I could play that double noted harp so hard and loud that you could hear it over that guitar."
The two sit close together to play. Spires says he has to sit close to Owens so he can hear what notes to play. They've sat like this in houses and clubs, in Luckett's Club and the Blue Front in Bentonia.
"I can't play by myself. They'll be waiting for me to play all the time, but I can't get Jack. I'll blow the best I can, but I can't blow with nobody else."
Spires cups both his hands over his harp to play, conjuring a whining, wistful sound. He can't tell anyone how to play harmonica, because "you just have to know."
"Sometimes I volunteer and come on in there and sing a little, too. Me and Jack take turns. Like in 'Catfish Blues,' first it's his turn, then mine. 'Your Buggy Don't Ride Like Mine,' too."
Spires will stop and talk o Owens while he's playing, commenting on his verse, or telling him to speed up the music.
When Spires was young, listening to the blues was all he had in mind. His daddy used to pick a guitar, and blow a harp.
"He could sit on a sidewalk and play. He used to draw the people out of the stores. He was named Arthur Spires. I guess I could do it, too."
He got his first harmonica as a child for 25 cents. He doesn't know what brand he plays, and doesn't care. Sometimes he dips his harp in water to loosen up the keys. He plays them until they wear out.
"I've blowed the sides off this one. I had to nail them back on."
Before they play, they tune. Some nights it's easier to get it right. When things aren't going fast enough, Spires says either the guitar is drunk, or the harp is sober.
Spires’ favorite harp is an A. He will blow a C if he can't get an A. If he plays a G, Owens has to "drop his strings way low, almost loose" to get in tune. The high notes on Spire's harp are like brand new because they are never used. They just don't play songs that go up in that range of notes.
"I ain't got nothing to do but this here. I grew up in Mississippi, ain't hardly been out. I'll get together with Jack anytime to play. I could play everyday."