March 11, 2009
Willie King''s contributions to the blues are widely appreciated. Through his art, this son of rural poverty transcended the boundaries of race and class.
The 66-year-old Pickens County, Ala., resident also had a reputation for helping others, not just through his music, but in scores of lesser-known and profoundly meaningful ways.
Saturday night in Omnova Theater in Columbus, Willie played his final performance, singing of the angels he saw in the Friendly City -- angels who had helped him when he previously had fallen ill in the city during a concert visit in January and was taken to Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle for treatment. Saturday''s event was a tribute performance for those who had attended King''s January concert.
Then on Sunday, his 66th birthday, he suffered a massive heart attack and left to take his place with another group of angels.
He leaves behind many friends and admirers. The Dispatch story Monday on King''s passing is the top-viewed page on www.cdispatch.com. Readers continue to blog their comments onto the story, sharing their favorite memories of Willie or just saying how much he will be missed.
Included among the blogs are memories of "seeing Willie at Bettie''s," a juke joint frequented by King over the years in the Sandyland community in Noxubee County east of Macon.
Another reader recalled the day King was honored with a Mississippi Blues Trail marker. Still another shared that she had played King''s music so much "even my teenaged daughter has him on her i-Pod."
Besides being a musician, King also was a grassroots activist and, as one reader pointed out, "a down home good person." In 1983, he founded the Rural Members Association in his community of Old Memphis to bring together older people in the area to share their traditional crafts and skills with children and younger adults. Over the years, the RMA held workshops on woodworking, farming, sewing, quilting, food preservation and other practical subjects, as well as the blues. The organization also started the annual Freedom Creek Blues Festival.
To Willie, the "blues was one of the survival skills that helped rural communities survive," Rick Asherson, assistant director of the Alabama Blues Project, told us. "He wanted to uplift and help people get through hard times."
Asherson recalls King''s many years of blues outreach programs, which touched thousands of children throughout the Southeast and even as far away as Iowa.
"We felt very honored to work with Willie," Asherson said. Although there were many other bluesmen involved with the Alabama Blues Project, Asherson said, "Willie was our preferred guest artist ... There''s no one quite like Willie."
He was, as Asherson said, "a real deal blues person."