“Singing & Living the Blues,
But T-Model Ford Keeps Rolling On”
By Donna St. George, Staff Writer
Philadelphia Inquirer, February 10, 1991
GREENVILLE, Miss. — His girlfriend died four days earlier, just collapsed at their bedside in the middle of the night, and T-Model Ford is hurting bad. Real bad. He talks about his beloved Jessie until his lined face wrinkles with pain.
"The finest woman I ever had in my life," he says sadly, thumbing through scratched Polaroid photographs of her at the car-repair garage where he helps out when he's not playing his guitar.
Ford is an old-time bluesman, little known except in the Mississippi Delta. There, in small towns that dot flat fields of cotton, he plays ram-shackle juke joints on weekends and scrapes together a meager existence in the hard living, hard-luck blues tradition.
His are bedrock blues of poverty and heartbreak, raw and roughshod, performed largely in obscurity. They recall the way the blues started — as the emotionally powerful, sustaining songs of plantation workers in the deep South.
In recent years, the blues have taken on more voices. Artists like Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan have turned a contemporary style of blues into a popular, multimillion dollar industry. And there is a generation of those who play Delta blues with the urban flourishes of a B.B. King.
Fewer are down-home traditionalists like Ford.
On this recent day, blues beguile this Delta bluesman. Ford is recalling that his "baby" was sweet, that they never argued, that she applauded him at every bar he played in for three years. Grief shines through his dark eyes.
Before long, T-Model Ford is plucking away at his heartache, a sound loud and dark and lusty. Right there in the middle of the greasy garage. "Ohhh, baby, honey, what's wrong?" he bellows, the paced, twangy music from his electric guitar overpowering his verse.
|(c) Bill Steber|
Ford is playing his concert in the garage as if he were playing Saturday night on Greenville's raucous Nelson Street. This burst of blues started after someone asked about his music. Ford was happy to demonstrate, and his guitar was stowed nearby, in his carpet-walled red van.
Now, in his smudged blue jeans and muddy work shoes — surrounded by dead engines and open hoods — his left foot taps, his head bobs and one song bleeds into an-other. All are about love and women. "I know you been around making honey, darlin', but you're going to sail back home."
It's an expansive sound from a small, resilient man. At 66, Ford is thin, with a thin black mustache, his hair showing only touches of gray; a gold cap on his front tooth is cut in the shape of a star. He drove logging trucks for a long stretch of his life, and a few serious accidents have left him with a bad knee and a stiff gait.
In the garage, his audience is composed of more cars than people. T-Model Ford doesn't seem to notice. He's used to playing to small crowds for close to nothing. Sometimes he may drive 50 miles for as little as $25.
In juke joints and an occasional blues festival, Ford performs with artists of his generation, like Willie Foster and Sam Carr. He's recorded one song, "Tell Me What I've Done," which featured "The Heartbroken Man" by Roosevelt "Boobs" Barnes & the Playboys.
So far, he complains, the song has reaped him $40 — and a good part of that covered the cost of gas to Mem- phis for the recording session.
However, Rooster Blues Records says its next Delta album will feature T-Model Ford, along with Foster and Carr. "I love his music," says Jim O'Neal, owner of the record company. "It's the real down-home Delta blues." As Ford plays in the garage, George Walker cracks a slight smile. Walker, a man of few words, owns the repair shop; he and Ford have been friends since 1963. Often they sit in Walker's cramped office, in worn chairs beneath three mounted deer heads, a deer's mounted tail end and two mounted fish. They keep each other company.
All these years, Walker had never seen his friend sing the blues. He is fixed on the sight.
"Well I loved you baby. I loved you all night long."
Ford smiles confidently. He knows he's sounding good. He bends his head into his guitar as if he's listening closely. Ford doesn't read music — or even words for that matter. He can't sign his own name. When his then-wife bought him a guitar 20 years ago, it was a surprise; he had never played before and had no idea how. He taught himself.
The blues came to him quickly, one gift of expression. Now he says he can reach inside himself and songs are waiting.
"You ain't lost it yet," concludes Dorothy James, 39, who is at the Greenville garage to reclaim a family car and has seen T-Model Ford play around town for years.
But her 19-year-old son hasn't. Timothy James stands at Ford's side, still for only a moment. Then he absorbs the rhythm, swaying and stepping and nodding to the older man's music. They look like they are on stage together, two generations.
Ford was raised in Forest, Miss., the son of a sharecropper; he started working in the fields when he was 6. Hard work and tough times have stayed with him since. He's been a truck driver and a laborer all his life. He spent two years on a prison chain gang, he says, because of a barroom brawl 50 years ago that left one man dead.
It was 1952 when a fellow worker started calling James Ford "T-Model." It was a name that stuck.
Ford's music is the blues of love — the cheating and betrayal blues, the confused-about-you blues, the come-back-to-me-blues blues. Some of it is borrowed from legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. Some of it is Ford's own. All of it is steeped in his emotion.
He's been married five times. By those women and others, he has had 26 children. When he tells stories of his life, he talks about women and music, and most of it has a gritty, sexual, done-me-wrong tone.
The Tone of the Blues.
By his own telling, though, romance always ended in pain — his, hers or both. That's the way it was, he says, until the day he hooked up with Jessie McCoy at a juke joint in Moorhead, Miss.
Their love was immediate — and, until now, lasting.
"She never did lie to me, never did," Ford recalls. "Let me tell you something. I loved her, good Lordy Jesus."
On the day they met, Ford told liar a fine woman like her should have everything she asked for. So Jessie McCoy ordered whiskey for all her friends. "It cost me $30, but I didn't care," he recalls.
"I had about $300 or $400 out there in my station wagon, hid out there," he remembers. "When we took a break, I went out to the station wagon, unlocked the door and showed her the money. I said, 'Don't beg nobody for nothing. Here's the key."
From that day on, he says, T-Model Ford and Jessie McCoy were devoted. His gold-capped tooth was her idea. Ford wears the wire-rimmed glasses that McCoy gave him and a cap with the name of the company where she filleted catfish.
When Ford performed, Jessie, who was 49, would sit at the nearest table. "I hear you, baby," she would call out. She intercepted all advances from other women.
"Yeah, oooh — and I'm an old man," he remembers, laughing.
T-Model Ford can't forget. In his neglected home, with its bare light bulbs, torn floors and peeling wallpaper — where the living room is anchored by four straight-back chairs around an old gas heater — Ford reaches for a pint of moonshine under a sofa cushion. He takes a swallow.
"My feelings are in that coffin," he reflects a while later. "My feelings are gone away. I don't have no feel-ing no more." But when he plays the blues in the garage, his emotion isn't gone. Be-hind his dark-lens glasses, Ford's eyes are misty.
He sings the blues.
"You know I love you, baby, and I just can't stand to see you go."