Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Obituary of Henry Stuckey:

The Obituary of Henry Stuckey:
By Jacques Roche (Stephen Calt) for 78 Quarterly in 1968

The military marker of Henry Stuckey at
Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery, 

 Bentonia, Yazoo County, Mississippi
Today's strange state of affairs, which brings the rural blues singer acclaim for ethereal but earthy qualities he never intended to cultivate, and then gives him a commercial brush-off, prevented the public recognition due Henry Stuckey before his death on March 9, 1966. 

Referring to the gushy compliments and reviews that have beset him since his rediscovery, Skip James once remarked: "You can't live off air puddings. Henry knows that, too; he's too smart for these slicks who talk you into studying the music racket again." At Mr. Criswell’s plantation in Satartia, Mississippi, where Gayle Wardlow dis-covered him early in 1965, Henry Stuckey both laughed off and shrugged at the concert success of his former protege, matter-of-factly commenting: "I can play just like him."

Henry Stuckey, according to one who saw him play, had a "beautiful, deep voice, but was so ugly I couldn't bear to watch him long." Although it is difficult to asses the worth of a bluesman whose music was never made public, Stuckey's reputation was such that H.C. Spiers, when interviewed by Wardlow, still remembered him from the 1920's. Even at that, none of his discoverer's overtures to record companies produced an encouraging response.

"How old is this singer? In his sixties?" an Electra secretary peevishly wanted to know. "Well, we can’t speculate on every kid that comes along with a tape recorder; we backed one kid once and he never found a single blues singer. Send a tape." Since word got around that the Library of Congress' unctuous impresario paid only in cokes, blues singers have also been unwilling to speculate on the promise of 'sending a tape'. On the premise that even a `has-been' country blues artist merits closer scrutiny than any would-be blues ' interpreter', the following data in regards to Stuckey has been compiled by Gayle Wardlow and myself.

Henry Stuckey, born in the 1890’s, saw his first guitar in 1904. A year later, he took up that instrument.  Between 1907 and 1909, the young Skip James wandered into a Bentonia Jukehouse to watch Stuckey and an older musician, Rich Griffith (also deceased), accompany a fiddler who was playing Drunken Spree. Though that title is still part of James repertoire, Stuckey had completely forgotten it some 55 years later. Upon his return from the war in 1917, Stuckey taught James how to play guitar. The style he is said to have shown Skip was built around ragtime pieces like Salty Dog ("The old version") and Stack 0 Lee, all played in the key of G. Soon, Stuckey was pirating Skip out of his house at night, when, unbeknownst the James family, the pair played in nearby barrel houses. Stuckey, who towered over his young partner, served as a general bodyguard at such times.

Jimmy "Duck" Holmes at the grave of Henry Stuckey in 2017
As many as a dozen musicians worked around the Bentonia area during that period (Stuckey himself had a brother, Shuke, who “played better than Henry did.”)  "I’d follow them like the pied piper, all over town," Skip reports. James learned some local pieces, including a version of Slidin’ Delta ("They’d have a real deep, sad sound even when they were rapped or frailed"), and then quit playing guitar for a year to "study" what he had seen and learned. From that point on James's music—such as his early composition, All Night Long—started .coming from "within," though some songs, like I Looked Down the Road, still retain an older, possibly local, touch.

The school of blues-playing developed by James on his Paramount recordings could be designated “Bentonia,” for Skip, now falsely billed as a “Delta” bluesman, adhered to no distinct regional style: e.g. Delta. Only James and Blind Joe Reynolds, among the blues singers who count, were so musically isolated. Both men were among the most eclectic of blues singers. Whereas some blues singers like Tommy Johnson (whose Coal Black Mare, a piece in Spanish tuning, was learned by Skip appeared in nearby Flora during the early 1920s, the music played by Skip and Henry Stuckey never spread out of Bentonia. Within Bentonia, both James and Stuckey set out to destroy all their competition.

These two men performed whenever Skip happened to be in town. ("I never got into anything or anyplace too deep or long; that's why I reckon they call me Skip.") Both picked their Stella guitars with three fingers and played in cross-note' tuning. When the first country blues records came out, they “studied” some of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s pieces, as well as those of later artists (like King Solomon Hill), but only for the purpose of “playing them better.” Today, Skip will reluctantly perform a few such acquired pieces, like Jack O’ Diamonds.

In neighboring towns like Pocahontas, James was not adverse, Stuckey recalled, to singing his blues on Saturday night and going "up the road" to preach on Sunday.  Neither married man stayed home at night: "We treated our wives in any kind of way," said Stuckey. Both readily acknowledged their excessive drinking: "I was trying to be a 'man,’ so quite naturally I was a habitual drunkard," James said.  According to James, Stuckey was an expert and wily crapshooter: “I never would join a game with Henry when he shot those craps with strangers.” In his own right, Stuckey was an entrepreneur who would, rather than hire himself out to house parties (at which food and admission prices made up the musician's fee), rake in the entire profit from his own parties in Sartartia. “He’d do most anything to get out of work. Henry always liked to take it easy—you'd always find him out hunting or fishing somewhere."

Stuckey, in turn, when asked if Skip worked as a youngster, replied, "His mother sure did. Hah!" The personal attitude of each rediscovered man towards the other was totally patronizing, and somewhat conspiratorial in matters pertaining to music and other Bentonians. Skip, when referring past local violence directed against himself, would validate his remarks by saying: "Henry Stuckey could tell you about it." Stuckey, on the other hand, would only snicker at Wardlow's then-relayed accounts.

Even when James made the Bentonia scene, their respective sidelines often sundered the pair. However, Stuckey was able to con-firm the fact that Skip's Cherry Ball was composed at his Grafton session. He was familiar with many of Skip's compositions, like Cypress Grove and Devil Got My Woman, a piece he said had been once known locally as Devil's Dream. He remembered Skip's unrecorded Crow Jane and Catfish ("an old song") from the 1920's. Of Special Rider, he said: "A woman died while singing that song." While Stuckey knew little about the development of Skip's piano style, he sometimes backed up his piano-playing on guitar.

During the 1930s, Stuckey ran a barrelhouse in the Mississippi Delta ("He got as far as Belzoni," said Skip). At that time, he met Charley Patton, whose style, he, unlike James, personally appreciated.

In 1935, James came back from Texas and happened to pass by a party at which Stuckey was playing. Although Skip had, for the most part, quit playing blues since his recording session, he teamed up with Stuckey that night. Earlier that same day, Stuckey said, someone had recorded him. No record of a Stuckey session exists. James remembered that particular house party, but maintained that his own involvement was minimal and that, not having wished to "make a show" or intrude on Stuckey's performance, he tactfully waited until other Bentonians threw a party in his honor before playing in public.

James soon went on to Alabama but, in the late 1940s, returned to Bentonia with his second wife, and once again took up blues-singing with Stuckey. Henry s cousin, "Sport" Stuckey, threw parties every Friday night at which the two entertained, while James' cousin, Lincoln (Buddy) Polk of Yazoo, ran a cafe in Bentonia which featured both men. Another cousin of Stuckey’s, Burd Slater, also played locally and performed some of their songs, although James reports that he had a predilection for "Muddy Waters’ stuff."  Stuckey and James also accepted invitations from friends to play for nearby Delta parties. Once, Stuckey recounted, both men saw Kid Bailey playing in a Delta barrelhouse, though the incident is not remembered by Skip.

Soon, Stuckey was advising James to go up North, where musical opportunities seemed greater. To James this meant living in a 'reprobated’ city like Chicago which he felt should be ‘wiped off the map'. Nevertheless James, who disliked his job residency in Sartartia, suddenly left with his wife in the early 1950s. Yet, tiring of the travelling required of a musician, he then abandoned-his-brief comeback altogether. Stuckey in turn went up to Omaha and found work as a band guitarist. They never met again.

At the time of his discovery by Wardlow, Stuckey was living in a barren, one-room shack with his wife, daughter, and grandchild. ("I imagine his luck must have struck tough in the North.") Blandly, Stuckey indicated that his Delta barrelhouse operation had netted him more money than his Omaha career. Despite a plantation strike in ‘tense’ Leland which took place at the time of one interview, Stuckey remained characteristically relaxed. His affable and reserved demeanor suggested that of a Delta rather than a Yazoo County resident. In discussing his erstwhile friend; the older man didn't seem to believe in or comprehend Skip's transformation from his comprehend days on the Whitehead plantation. Just the same, Stuckey, while lacking James' ambition to travel, record, and take up the ministry, nevertheless exhibited the same detachment from his surroundings and contemporaries which made Skip, by his own description, "an odd fellow.'

Puffing on a cigar, Stuckey, who had kept up with James' career through the `grapevine' (Skip's cousin in Yazoo), stated, " I' like to meet him again. I was up in the Delta in the fifties and heard somebody playing .22-20 in a house. When I went inside, I only found a phonograph record." 

Skip James, who "wouldn't play in Bentonia again for $10 a minute," had, just before receiving news of Stuckey.'s death, been discussing an eventual visit to Sartartia to see him.


  1. In the early 1920s, Rev 4 gospel preachers, Henry Stuckley and Nehemiah Curtis James, incorporated "Rock & Roll" in their lyrics.

  2. OMG, misspelled "Stuckey", sorry. Please edit "l", Stukeley an Anglican clergyman. Awesome piece. Thank you.