My twin sister, a friend, and I had just split a three-pound porterhouse at Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville, Mississippi, and were taking an after-dinner stroll down a dusty, treeless road when two men whistled from the concrete stoop of a turquoise shotgun. A washing machine laid catawampus on their lawn and a screen door leaned against the white plywood porch. “This here’s a blues legend,” said the younger one, a man who looked to be in his sixties. He nodded at his friend, a black gentleman with thick eyebrows, a gray sweatshirt, and a wooden, duct-taped cane. “Do you know him?”
“Of course,” I lied. I was new to Mississippi and didn’t know much.
“He wants to say hello.”
The older man, T-Model Ford, sent his pal, the owner of the house, down the block for a fifth of Jack, and invited us to pose beside him on the steps and take photos. “Friends call me the Tale Dragger,” Ford said, putting his arms around my sister and me. “Black Nanny is in that van over there. You want me to get her out?”
Unsure who or what Black Nanny might be, we said okay and helped Ford, eighty-eight, haul his amp and mic stand into his friend’s living room. Photographs of children hung on the walls and a brown plaid couch was positioned across from the television. The name “Black Nanny” was spelled in golden mailbox letters across his Fender. “I used to have more guitars,” Ford said, from his perch on a metal folding chair, “but the record company took them.”
His voice was raspy and warm. “Stella . . . I’m gonna beat the hell outta you,” he sang. “I’m gonna put my shoes in yo head / I went to jail for kicking a man’s ass. I started walking, going home / I’m mad as hell.” The guitar rang raw. I thought of rusty farm equipment, the sound a stick makes when it’s trailed across the curved tines of a drag harrow. “I’m going to remember some fuckers how to play.”
Ford swigged from the Jack and passed it around until the room tilted. Some songs repeated. Some lasted twenty minutes. We kept waiting for him to shoo us away, but even after his friend excused himself to meet a date, Ford kept strumming. “You like that?” he asked, mid-pluck. We nodded, and he repeated the riff several more times.
“I never did sleep with a white woman until I was seventy years old.” Ford put his ear to his guitar and laughed. “But I wouldn’t sleep with any of you. Not even the big girl.” He nodded at my tall friend, who shifted in her seat.
Between songs, Ford told us he’d had seven wives. Thirty-five children. Seventy-five grandbabies. More great-grandbabies than there are crawdads in the Mississippi. He started singing blues when his fifth wife brought home a Gibson and announced she wouldn’t divorce him if he taught himself to play. Ford had plowed fields, worked a sawmill, run lumber, and driven a semi, but he’d never played guitar. “I’ll try,” he told her, and less than a week later she split. Before we said goodnight, Ford offered to gift my sister, who can pick a few licks, Black Nanny. “I want to, but then I’d have nothing left to play,” he explained.
When Ford gigged in North Mississippi, I’d do my best to go see him. He sang a few times a year in Oxford, where I lived, to a raucous university crowd. One Fourth of July at the Hill Country Picnic in Potts Camp, I watched him croon a forty-minute ballad to the bottle of Jack Daniels he kept at his feet and tipped back for inspiration between verses.
The last time I heard the Tale Dragger, at Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale, he had a pacemaker. A pretty, plump woman sat beside him, monitoring his balance and requests for booze. I assumed she was his granddaughter, but in fact she was his wife. By then Ford was ninety-three. Despite a recent stroke, he’d just put out Taledragger, his eighth album, a jaunty collection made up of melancholic titles like, “I Worn My Body . . . So Long,” “Someone’s Knocking On My Door,” and “How Many More Years.” He was plunking Black Nanny and his twelve-year-old grandson rode the drums, beating steadily while staring glum-faced at the muted television. Ford wore jeans and a cap imprinted with the image of a skull. He looked tired. A sign on the wall advertised the birthdays of several other octogenarian bluesmen. A back-up musician filled in the chords that Ford forgot. Though he had toured the country several times and had a devoted, almost cultish, fan base, only six of us were in the audience.
By this time, I’d been living in Mississippi four years and had familiarized myself with the Tale Dragger’s legends. A drunk man told me that when Ford was a child, his father, a sharecropper, whipped him. Once, he beat him so bad that, at six years old, Ford dug a rectangular hole in his backyard. Before he lay down, he told his mother his dad done busted his nut and he’d gone ahead and fixed himself a grave. Two decades later, a jury found Ford guilty of murder and sentenced him to ten years on the chain gang. He served two. It wasn’t until he was fifty-eight that Ford learned to pick tunes. He began recording at age seventy-five.
Barbecue smoke from an outside grill drifted through the slatted window at Red’s, and dust rose from the busted sofa where I sat. Christmas lights flickered in the July heat and faded wrapping paper peeled off walls where it had long ago been stapled. The owner of the bar, Red himself, sold Budweisers for cash from a cooler behind the counter. Though they started slow and sparse, Ford’s songs revved up quickly, clattering along like a procession of old Cadillacs, their motors jimmied together with wire hangers, the rhythms more beautiful for their brokenness. When the tempo picked up, I’d get off my stool, shuffle my feet, and throw a few dollars in the bucket.
Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson famously said, “Anybody singing the blues is in a deep pit yelling for help.” While a fraction of Ford might’ve still been lying in his backyard grave, I heard joy in his singing and celebration. His lyrics are a testament to the longevity of libido. “If you don’t want me,” Ford crooned to our tiny crowd, “Why don’t you leave me alone / I want you to love me, woman. Lemme lay down in your bed.” Even at ninety-three, Ford didn’t mess around.
Photo courtesy of Fat Possum Records.