Michael James : Muddy Waters and James Cotton at the Fat Black Pussycat, 1963

Muddy Waters and James Cotton at the Fat Black Pussycat in Chicago, 1963. Photo by Michael James from his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James’ Pictures from the Long Haul.

Pictures from the Long Haul:
Muddy Waters and James Cotton 
at the Fat Black Pussycat, 1963

Music has always been big in my life… In the 1950’s I was all in when Rock and Roll swept the scene, its fans, its makers, and its content crossing racial boundaries. No more Snooky Lanson and Your Hit Parade for me.

By Michael James | The Rag Blog | September 3, 2013

[In this series, Michael James is sharing images from his rich past, accompanied by reflections about — and inspired by — those images. This photo will be included in his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James’ Pictures from the Long Haul.]

My younger brother Beau was often ahead of me: like having a car with a nice paint job, and knowing what was going on in music. In our early Bedford Junior High years, while I was probably listening to Pat Boone muck up Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill,” Beau and a little band of hipsters, the Jolly Jazzbos, were down in Norwalk at the Forest Hotel, a black joint where bluesman Jimmy Reed was too drugged-up and drunked-up to perform. They got to see him nod out on stage.

Regarding the paint job: when he graduated from high school, Beau spent the next year working at Kerrigan’s Auto Body, a place worthy of one hell of a sitcom. Beau had a beautiful 1950 Ford convertible. Unfortunately, I backed it out of the shop’s painting bay where it had just received a new paint job, leaving it with a big scratch.

It was only days since I had returned from my motorcycle trip to Mexico City and my eye-mind-heart-opening summer of study and adventure. Then I headed back on the highway with Beau, in his Ford. We headed west to Illinois, to Lake Forest College — I to be a junior and Beau a freshman. I was glad to be bringing him along. I knew it would be a good year.

While I was now more aware of the world, I was still not old enough to drink legally, and not old enough to vote. I felt more grown up, though: smarter, and certainly cooler. However, I was (and still am) prone to infantile anti-authoritarianism; I refused to sign in for the required all-student-body college convocations. I conspicuously walked on the grass near the administration building that sported “Keep off the Grass” signs. (Hey, grass is for walking on!) I parked Beau’s Ford in the college president’s designated parking space, which seemed sensible since the Prez didn’t use it.

Having experimented with weed in Mexico, I was of course hooked, appreciating how it enhanced my perceptions. And I was looking for more. This quest took me and some friends to a pool hall in Waukegan where we found it, getting a lid from a pool-shooting black kid. Unfortunately, it didn’t have the same effect as the smoke in Mexico City, and I recall I felt burned.

All this said, it wasn’t as if I was going to the dogs: I was a productive young guy. I was getting A’s, going to classes, lectures, and the library. I was involved with student organizations and government, and the college newspaper, The Stentor. I explored religion, and considered becoming a minister. Checking out the religious scene had me going to Quaker meetings, visiting the Bahia Temple, and attending Unitarian services. I was unconsciously developing and nurturing the roots of my own spirituality and future political action.

That process included meeting William Sloan Coffin, the Yale Chaplain. He spoke at Lake Forest and we talked at a reception at President Cole’s home. He was among a growing number of people who influenced and inspired me. A few years later someone reported that he asked, “What happened to that young guy with good ideas?”

Ideas don’t drop from the sky. Humans learn from experience, both their own and others’. Learning: I was being exposed to, participating in, and observing all manner of things. In The Stentor office I heard about the New Left through the College Press Service. It reported on a meeting in Hazard, Kentucky, of unemployed coal miners with members of Students for a Democratic Society, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Northern Student Movement. That event caught my interest.

And the events kept coming.

On campus there was a foreign film series, and there were many speakers. I heard Alan Watts talk about Zen. I thought Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan was great — though the sorority housemothers and some sorority sisters did not and were bent out of shape by her ideas on women in society.

Classmates Dave Feldman and Penelope Bartok (now Rosemont) started the Jacobin Society, a leftist club that brought liberal and radical speakers to campus. There was Fair Play for Cuba, the American Friends Service Committee, Jay Miller of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Carl Shier, a labor organizer with the United Auto Workers. I really liked him. And the Jacobin Society provided my first encounter with Joffre Stewart, a black beat poet, anarchist, and long-time contrarian-type guy in Chicago’s left political scene. He got someone to burn a draft card at our small meeting!

On the music and political front we brought the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Singers to campus. I drove the school’s van that brought them back to Hyde Park, to the home of Sylvia Fischer, who called herself a socialist and was a leader in the Chicago Area Friends of SNCC. James Foreman, a SNCC leader and major civil rights movement thinker, was handing out travel money. Willy Peacock said: “I can’t get back to Mississippi on $25” — to which Foreman gruffly replied: “You have to.”

Music has always been big in my life — listening, playing, singing, and dancing. In the 1950’s I was all in when Rock and Roll swept the scene, its fans, its makers, and its content crossing racial boundaries. No more Snooky Lanson and Your Hit Parade for me. Beau and I would blast our tunes. Our dad, a Broadway musical kind of guy, would yell up the stairs: “What do you think this is — a fucking plantation?” Oh, Dad.

I danced my ass off on November 22, 1957, when Bo Diddley came to St Anthony’s Hall in Saugatuck, the Italian section of Westport. The ticket price was $5 a couple. I had a jug of cider brought back from a visit to see Beau at a school named North Hampton, in New Hampshire.

I loosened the cap to let the cider ferment. Apparently Beau had done the same thing, getting kicked out of that school a few weeks later when he got drunk and stole the school’s tractor for a nighttime joy ride into town. I too got drunk, sharing swigs of fermented, hard apple cider with Jerome, Bo Diddley’s maraca player. That was a night to remember!

A friend’s dad drove us to New York for Alan Freed’s rock ‘n roll shows at Lowe’s State and Brooklyn Paramount theatres. I went to shows at the Apollo in Harlem. I listened to Jocko’s Rocket Ship Show on WNJR out of Newark (“Woo-ditty-wop and we’re back with the Jock, back on the scene with the record machine…”). Late at night I listened to tunes on CKLW from Windsor, Ontario, and the Hound Dog Show from Buffalo’s WBLK. I started getting a regular dose of country and western listening to WWVA out of Wheeling, West Virginia.

Doing my time at Lake Forest from 1960 to 1964, the good music kept on coming — listening to lots of jazz, plus Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Dave “Snaker” Ray, and Spider John Koerner. And Doc Watson, Roscoe Holcomb, The Country Gentleman, Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, the Seeger family, as well as chain gang chants and field hollers on Folkways Records.

Active on the Cultural Activities Committee, I met Old Town School of Folk Music pioneers Fleming Brown and George and Gerry Armstrong. We brought Mississippi country bluesmen Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon, a guy named St. Louis Jimmy, and Muddy Waters’ cousin Otis Spann to the College.

I met Mike Bloomfield and Charlie Musselwhite, who were hanging around Joe Segal and Bob Koester’s Jazz Record Mart on Wabash below Roosevelt University. I worked with Bloomfield to put on a little blues show at a high school for the local Junior Chamber of Commerce; attendance at this early production was sparse.

My professor friend Sam Pasiencier, who’d developed the rolls of film from my 1962 Mexico motorcycle trip, took me to a place in Chicago on Broadway north of Diversey called the Fat Black Pussy Cat. There we saw Muddy Waters playing with harmonica player James Cotton and some young white musicians. I got a good shot of Muddy and James.

Early in the summer of 1963 I was heading to the Twin Cities on my motorcycle. Outside of Portage, Wisconsin, the engine blew. I chained the Triumph to a fence, hiked through fields and knocked on a farmhouse door. A big farmer in overalls let me use the phone in his kitchen. That night I took a bus out of Mauston, riding north to meet up with Beau and his squeeze Ellie, daughter of Werner Pese who had been my freshman World History professor — a smart man and heavy smoker, with a heavy German accent.

A few days later, the three of us returned to the bike, with a trailer hooked to the back of the Ford. Back in Illinois, I sold the Triumph to a motorcycle shop in East Chicago, Indiana.

That summer I participated in an open-air art exhibit in the Lake Forest town square, displaying my welded sculptures, a torso carved from stone, and figures made of clay. Then, still needing language credit, I headed back to Connecticut for another dose of español.

I attended Trinity College in Hartford. Terry Montgomery and Tim Lyons were the two guys I hung with at Trinity. Tim lived in Kent, where we visited his family’s dairy farm. He urged me to climb on the back of a young Guernsey cow. I expected her to buck, rodeo-like, and could only laugh when the frightened beast stood in place, shitting and swinging her tail, decorating my backside.

The civil rights movement and upcoming March on Washington were in the news. The New York Times reported the leaders of the March were forcing SNCC’s John Lewis (now Congressman John Lewis) to cool it on radical demands, weakening his call for jobs and freedom to accommodate the Kennedy Administration. Tim, Terry, and I headed to Washington, D.C. in a green VW bug and spent the eve of the March at the home of a lady friend of Terry’s. He said she was a nymphomaniac; I had to ask what that was.

On the morning of August 23, 1963, we were moving: first in the little green critter of a car surrounded by busloads of people on the freedom road; then we walked — marching, surrounded by a mass of humanity. And then thousands upon thousands of us stood together as one at the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool. We felt a real sense of hope and togetherness, a belief in the future.

To this day I welcome the tears that come every time I hear Dr. King as he declares, “I have a dream… we shall over come, someday… black and white together.”

That day is good forever.

[Michael James is a former SDS national officer, the founder of Rising Up Angry, co-founder of Chicago’s Heartland Café (1976 and still going), and co-host of the Saturday morning (9-10 a.m. CDT) Live from the Heartland radio show, here and on YouTube. He is reachable by one and all at michael@heartlandcafe.com. Find more articles by Michael James on The Rag Blog.]

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