The Day Bo Carter Played on My Porch
(July 15, 1935 - June 27, 2001)
“The Day Bo Carter Played on My Porch,” written on April 12, 2000, published later in Living Blues magazine.
The first thing he said to me after his ex-wife and housekeeper, Vivian, introduced us was, "You know I wrote Corrine Corrina. I can sing it for you." He was already fooling with the strings on his metal guitar and strumming something that sounded like the wailing chords I loved hearing on those old 78 records of Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and Lightnin' Hopkins. A bit exotic for a white girl born and bred in Vicksburg, Mississippi, but my father owned Farris Novelty Company, a jukebox business that catered primarily to black juke joints all over the state. I had been hanging out in Daddy's shop, playing those records and soaking up that strange music from the time I was ten years old. I'd danced to Corrine Corrina many times but had never heard of Bo Carter until Vivian told me he used to be famous.
Now here I was, in my early twenties, married, mother of a toddler, and living in my parents' home. Bo Carter had come from Bolton to sing for me and my husband Archie at Vivian's request. It's 1958 or 1959, obviously a good many years past Bo's heyday. He's blind, tattered, stomach hanging over his bunched-up pants—but all smiles as he plays and sings his song for us. "Corrine Corrina, where you been so long?" and every so often he knocks his guitar, stops the music, and growls a lyric: "Listen here, Corrina, tell me where'd you stay last night?" Vivian steps out from the kitchen and nods her approval. She hasn't been married to him for years ("He got mean after he went blind," she told me), but she does what she can for him. She even half-carried him up the steep steps to the back porch, a stroke years ago having left him not only blind, but partially crippled.
His roving, rolling blues seem to spin out without a destination. Carter grins as he makes up some naughty lyrics: "I saw my baby coming down the street with no clothes on, and she shore looked good to me... the men they all took and lick they lips, but she don't belong to nobody but me." He sings these lines with great passion and tags them with "And she always will." Hearing sexually suggestive lyrics sung by a black man, in person, is a new and rather startling experience for me but I see that this is just business as usual for Bo Carter. Archie's feet tap out a perfect rhythm and even Baby James keeps time with his little hand.
Carter's breath is running short. I get him some iced tea from the kitchen and Vivian brings a plate of food. He's sitting on this tiny bench—actually a pantry stool—and I try to get him to come inside but he says, "No, ma'am, I'm all right here." I think if he really did write Corrine Corrina he ought to have some decent money since everybody from Cab Calloway to Joe Turner recorded it. I ask him if he isn't still making money on the song. "Well, somebody offered me fifty, maybe sixty dollars and I was broke so I sold it. I tried to buy it back after the Sheiks and me made some money, but... well, my name's on it."
I watch as he balances his plate precariously, spilling food on his shoes. I wouldn't know until years later how influential this man was as an early, prewar blues musician—or how many great self-taught artists like him had disappeared into lives of desperate poverty and ill health. Some, like his brother, Sam Chatmon, were rediscovered and redeemed late in life and even made money from their music again. But that didn't happen to Bo Carter. He recorded Corrine Corrina at his first session in 1928 under the name Bo Chatman, and began recording as Bo Carter in 1930. Earlier in 1930 Bo, his brother Lonnie, and Walter Vinson recorded Sitting On Top of the World, Winter Time Blues, Stop and Listen Blues, and other songs as the Mississippi Sheiks. He joined the Sheiks in several other recording sessions until 1935.