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Willie King’s Freedom Creek Festival lives on


The late bluesman Willie King, seen playing to a crowd at a past Freedom Creek Festival, passed away March 8, but the 2009 festival he had been planning will go on May 29-30, honoring his memory and life’s work.

The late bluesman Willie King, seen playing to a crowd at a past Freedom Creek Festival, passed away March 8, but the 2009 festival he had been planning will go on May 29-30, honoring his memory and life’s work. Photo by: Courtesy Photo


Jan Swoope



There''s an isolated field in the Old Memphis community, tucked behind a collection of mobile trailers circled, more or less, like a ragged, rust-pocked wagon train.  


Sporadic outsiders on the rural road deep in the Alabama black belt rumble past without ever suspecting. There are no flashing signs, no come-hither lights. But the faithful who have made the pilgrimage to Willie King''s Freedom Creek Festival any time during the past 11 years know that patch of land as a primal home of authentic blues.  


King passed away March 8, but friends and the Rural Members Association King founded in Old Memphis are making sure his planned festival takes place May 29-30 in his honor. 


"Almost all of the lineup was in place before Willie died," said longtime friend and collaborator Rick Asherson, of the Alabama Blues Project. "The response from the artists and people who want the festival to go on has been unbelievable. Everyone is absolutely delighted." 




Artist lineup 


The two-day event unfolds on a makeshift stage under trees near the deep ravine and creek that inspired the festival''s name.  


Music Friday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. features Little Willie Farmer, Lightnin Malcolm, Vanessia Young, the True Blues Express, Taylor Moore, the Old Memphis Blues Kings, Caleb Childs and more. Cedric Burnside, Friday''s anchor, is scheduled to go on stage at 8 p.m. 


Saturday''s roster, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., includes the Alabama Blues Women Revue with Sweet Claudette, Shar Baby, Caroline Shines and Debbie Bond; Todd Johnson; Big Joe Shelton; Clarence Davis; "Birmingham" George Conner and more.  


Well-known blues artist Kenny Neal is slated to perform near 8 p.m., following Jerry "Boogie" McCain at 6:45 p.m.  


"I think Freedom Creek is unique in that it''s a mix of internationally-renowned artists with local, very down-down, rootsy artists and everything in between," said Asherson. "We''ve got Kenny Neal from Louisiana, a big, international artist; he''s just all over the world -- and then people who live in the same community where Willie grew up." 


More information about the festival, including directions, is available at  




Come prepared 


"It''s very uncommercial," stressed Asherson. "We make a specific effort to keep it very simple. There''s no ''backstage,'' nothing fenced off. Quite often, whether famous or not, the musicians are just mingling with the crowd, enjoying the music."  


Local food vendors will be on hand, but festival-goers are reminded the nearest store is several miles away and to bring what they need -- such as lawn chairs, sunscreen, bug spray or extra food -- with them. 


Proceeds from Freedom Creek Festival support the Rural Members Association, an organization King founded to preserve community culture and skills like quilting, canning and woodworking, and to assist those in need of help, such as transportation to and from medical appointments.  


"Willie always tied the music in with the values of life and wanted to help people through hard times," recalled Asherson. "I always like to quote that song of his where he sings, ''feed the hungry, care for the sick ... that''s what the blues is all about.''" 




The spirit of Freedom Creek 


Asherson recalls a powerful memory of his late friend.  


"One of my strongest and happiest memories of Willie King is that he was just so happy at Freedom Creek to see those people coming together. There would be old and young, black and white, rich and poor; he just loved to see them all come out into the woods to enjoy the music. It was his spirit and the mission of Freedom Creek."  


King himself was quoted once as saying, "We was targetin'' at tryin'' to get all walks of life, different people to come down and kinda be with us in reality down there, you know. Let''s get back to reality, in the woods ... mix and mingle ... get to know each other. Get up to have a workin'' relationship to try to bring peace."  


Editor''s Note: The Willie King Memorial Fund has been established for those wishing to assist with funeral expenses and to create a historic marker celebrating King''s life and works. Contributions may be sent to The Willie King Memorial Fund, c/o West Alabama Bank, P.O. Box 406, Aliceville, AL 35442. A donation link is also available at


Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.


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