High Steppin Momma
The Dallas Morning News November 12, 2000 Column: OUR TEXAS Birthing the blues East Texas provided plenty of material for Clyde Langford and others who sang of love, sex, drinking, prison, poverty and death Author: Bryan Woolley; Staff Writer Article Text: Clyde Langford's grandmother used to come and stay with his family from time to time in their little white frame house on the edge of Centerville. Her name was Georgia Bladen Price. And she had a beau whose name was Joel 'Thunder' Hopkins. He lived not far away. Thunder was an older brother of Sam 'Lightnin'' Hopkins, one of the greats of the East Texas blues men. 'And there was another older brother, John Henry,' says Mr. Langford. 'He's the one that showed Lightnin' how to place his fingers on the guitar and like that.' The Hopkins brothers, says Mr. Langford, were distant cousins of his. 'Joel was sweet on my grandmother,' he says, 'and teaching me the guitar gave him an excuse to come see her, to be around her, you know. That's how I got started.' On a sunny morning, Mr. Langford is sitting in the living room of that same white house, which has been his home for 53 of his 66 years. He's dressed for company in blue and purple and an open nylon shirt of many colors. He's wearing a derby and a ponytail and picking a beat-up flattop guitar. A piece of silver duct tape covers a hole that his fingers have worn in the top. He's singing: She's a long, leany mama, and she's real sweet to me/She's a long, leany mama, and she's real sweet to me/She's a long, leany mama, and she don't know when to stop. His voice is rough and nasal. The accompanying notes from the old guitar are twangy, metallic, wild. So blue. When his song is over, Mr. Langford says: 'Joel succeeded with my grandmother. She loved him. He was a good clown, a good dancer, a good guitar-picker. My mama didn't think much of him, because he didn't go for working. He was a big gambler.' It has been said that the blues arrived in Texas with the first slaves. And, except for the Mississippi Delta, more country blues musicians have come out of the cotton fields and steamy forests of East and Central Texas than any other place. Huddie 'Leadbelly' Ledbetter was born near Caddo Lake. Mance Lipscomb came from Navasota. And Lightnin' Hopkins grew up in Centerville, on the edge of the East Texas forest. Blind Lemon Jefferson was from Wortham, a little to the west. They were the best of many who left the countryside and migrated to Dallas' Deep Ellum or Houston's Third Ward and farther into the world beyond the trees. Blues is about love, sex, drinking, prison, poverty and death, and there was plenty of all that in East Texas when Thunder Hopkins was showing young Clyde his way around a guitar. Black people there lived according to certain 'rules and regulations,' as Mr. Langford calls Jim Crow law and racist custom. Before the Langfords moved to the little house in Centerville, they lived in a tiny rural community called Nubbin Ridge. At the Nubbin Ridge general store, Mr. Langford says, black people weren't allowed to buy Coca-Cola. 'That was the rules and regulations,' he says. 'If nobody was in the store except a good white friend of yours, he might buy you a Coca-Cola and hand it around his back and say, 'Drink this quick, now, before somebody sees you.' The main drink for blacks was what was called a Juneteenth, a strawberry. And the strongest drink we could buy was RC. 'They would ask, 'What's for you, boy?' Even if you was 100 years old, they always called you 'boy.' You asked for a pound of bacon, and they gave you sowbelly, the meat from the hog's stomach. It still had the tits on it.' One morning at the breakfast table, his father complained about having to eat sowbelly all the time. Later, Clyde's mother sent him to the store to buy bacon, expecting him to return home with more sowbelly. 'I can remember it as clear as yesterday,' he says. 'I said to the storekeeper, 'We're sick of eating that old sowbelly. Why can't you sell us (and I used that n-word, you know) the same bacon you sell to the whites?' Everybody in the store laughed and laughed. But, bless my soul, the man went back and got some of that beautiful bacon, the kind from the side of the hog. He wrapped it and gave it to me. 'I carried it back to the house. Mama unwrapped it. She hollered, 'Fred! Come here!' Daddy looked at it and said, 'I don't know what I'm going to do with that boy. I can't teach him nothing.' I told Daddy what I had said to the storekeeper, and he said to me, 'You ain't got no sense. You've got white-folks bacon here. You get on that horse and take this back.' 'There were so-called 'special' blacks. Everywhere you went, there was blacks that the whites was extremely partial to. My dad was one of them. White people would slip my daddy something and maybe ignore the other blacks. But what I done had scared the devil out of him. That story spread like wildfire. All the blacks in the world was talking it up. 'That appears to offend my kids when I mention it to them. But that's the way it was. They say, 'I wouldn't have put up with that.' And I say, 'Yeah, you would have put up with it or you would have got your neck broke.' That was the rules and regulations. 'All of that is nothing but the blues. All of that is the blues.' He bends over the guitar again. Well, I bought me a knife, one that I could afford/Well, I bought me a knife, one that I could afford/It was too long to be a knife and too short to be a sword. 'The blacks and whites here did not go to school, did not go to church with each other,' he says. 'But we visited each other. On a weekend, a white family that lived three or four miles from us would come visit us and come to our table and eat. But if another black family would come, they would leave. Just like when we went over to their house. If we saw some more white friends coming, we automatically would leave. That was the rules and regulations.' Mr. Langford's father made his family's living by digging water wells by hand. When Clyde was 13, the Langfords moved to Centerville, current population 812, the seat of Leon County. Clyde helped his father with the digging, hauling the mud out of the holes. In his spare time, he mowed white people's lawns and chopped weeds out of their flower beds to earn money to buy a guitar. 'It took me a long time to get ahold of about $15,' he says. 'Mama had a big, thick Sears and Roebuck catalog, and in there was a little old standard guitar, flat top, round hole, for $8.95 or $8.98. So I ordered it. I was so proud that morning when Daddy went to the post office and came back and said, 'Boy, your guitar came.' 'Joel tuned it up and hit some numbers on it and showed me how to play some things. I got this one little old sound going: TUNG-tung, TUNG-tung, TUNG-tung. Daddy said, 'You know, I'm sorry that boy got that thing.' Mr. Langford laughs at the memory. 'The Hopkinses never learned to read no music,' he says. 'Just like me. I don't know how to read no music. It's all by what they call 'ear.' Once I hear something I like, it pictures on my brain system. And once I picture it, it's there. I picture it in my head first, and then I learn how to play it.' When he was 15 or 16, Clyde got a gig playing the blues every Sunday morning on KIBY, the radio station in Crockett, 33 miles east of Centerville. He had a manager named Bob Green. 'He gave me my musical name, Spike Langford,' Mr. Langford says. 'He gave me gas money and half a gallon of wine and two or three dollars to put in my pocket over there every Sunday.' Clyde graduated from high school in 1953. His father, he says, was 'heckbent' that the boy was going to college and make something of himself. Clyde was just as 'heckbent' that he wasn't. He ran off to Fort Worth, worked a bit and played in the little honky-tonk joints. In 1954, he joined the Air Force. After basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, he was assigned to Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert, where the B-52 bomber was being tested. 'There was a little town near the base, but blacks were not allowed in there at all,' Mr. Langford says. 'So I played my guitar around there on the base, in the little theater and what-have-you.' Then he was shipped to a base in Japan. 'I had precious little money,' he says. 'The biggest portion of my pay, I was sending it home to help my dad buy a new pickup. I didn't have much chance to go downtown, so I spent many an hour hanging around the base, picking my guitar. A lot of people would gather around and listen. Mainly big wheels. Those lieutenants and those colonels.' From time to time, though, he would get to leave the base. 'I played in a lot of cities in Japan, in little old honky-tonks they had there,' he says. 'The Japanese loved my music. I used to have some pictures of me with some Japanese girls in my lap, but my wife got hold of them and ripped them up.' When he had been in the Air Force for 'two years, five months and nine days,' he was discharged and returned to Centerville. He helped his father with the digging and started playing and singing in joints in Mexia and Huntsville and other towns in the area. Two guys and a girl sang with him, and there was another guitar player named Joe Lee Lacy, who was known around town as Joe Boy. 'Joe Boy played with me just about everywhere I went,' says Mr. Langford. 'But sometimes he would be down the street drinking a gallon of wine. About 45 minutes before closing time, he would show up so he could get his portion of the money.' I know you're in love with another man, baby, and that's all right/I know you're in love with another man, baby, and that's all right/Every now and then I wonder what other man you're gonna love tonight. 'The blues came out of nowhere,' Mr. Langford says. 'It just got picked up. It's solid and it's not solid. It kind of created itself. It kind of accumulated. Blues has no end. It has a meaning if you can figure out what the meaning is. Once you figure out the meaning, it's something you can't explain. It's like trying to reach out and catch air. It's there. We know it's there. But where is it? We can't catch and hold it.' After World War II, Lightnin' Hopkins had moved to Houston, where he was making a name for himself. So Mr. Langford went to Houston, too, to see if Mr. Hopkins would introduce him around and give his career a boost. 'He would not,' says Mr. Langford. 'He would permit me to play two or three numbers with him at a dance or something. That was all. I got me a little place to stay. I stayed down there a week. I would see him every morning. I was over to his house, begging him to let me play with him. I tried to get him to teach me one particular chord. He never would. And anytime he would get ready to make that chord, he would always look at me to see if I was noticing. And if I was noticing, he would turn his back to make the chord. He didn't want me to learn it.' So it was back to Centerville and water wells. He played at dances and picnics and house parties. He played in 'little old honky-tonk places' out in the countryside, where drunkenness, lust and jealousy often led to violence. 'I wouldn't play them places for big bucks now,' he says. 'I can't run and dodge like I used to.' He married a 12-year-old wife named Annie Louise, who tore up his pictures of the Japanese girls. She bore him four children. 'My wife, she never went for my music,' Mr. Langford says. 'All the years we were together, she didn't go for it. I think where I made a mistake is that I carried her with me one night to a dance, and she seen all those girls all over me, and it just melted her mind. She said, 'You've got to make up your mind: Your music has got to go or I'm going.' So the music got gone.' Twelve years ago, after being married to Clyde for 23 years, Annie Louise died. She was 35. So over the past few years, Mr. Langford has been performing in public again, a little bit. On Juneteenth in 1999, he took his guitar and sat in the gazebo on the Leon County Courthouse lawn and played the blues. 'I was extremely happy and thrilled to be there,' he says. 'You see, blacks weren't allowed to participate on the street. Not with no music. Not even on Juneteenth. The only way a black was permitted to participate on the street in Centerville, you had to be a rassler or a boxer. 'But I did last year, and also this year. I played in the gazebo. Even lots of whites came out to hear me. Some of them came up to me afterwards and said, 'Oh, we always loved the blues, but we didn't want nobody to know it.'' Mr. Langford leans forward in his chair. His voice drops to a whisper. 'And they said to me, 'Clyde Langford, if I or any other whites had recognized the blues, it would have caused the blacks to try to equalize.' And I said, 'Equalize? What's that?'' He laughs. 'I had a lot of fun with that.' He closes his eyes and touches the guitar again. I love you in the morning time, I love you late at night/Please, pretty baby, why can't you treat me right?/Let's talk it over, baby, let's talk about a thing or two/Let's talk it over easy; we might even talk about me and you. He sings verse after verse after verse after verse. The song lasts almost 30 minutes. When it ends, he opens his eyes and says, 'Have mercy! Have mercy!' Then he says: 'The blues is something blacks got out of the sky somewhere. And we own it.' Caption: PHOTO(S): (1-5 Photos by RANDY ELI GROTHE/Staff Photographer) 1. Clyde Langford, 66, lives in Centerville, in a part of Texas that has been fertile ground for blues artists. 2. A beat-up old guitar, patched with duct tape, testifies to years of use in songs about heartbreak and hard times. 3. With a $9 guitar FROM THE Sears Catalog, Clyde Langford learned to play from Joel 'Thunder' Hopkins, brother of legendary bluesman, Sam 'Lightning' Hopkins. 4. Friend Katie Buckner listens to Mr. Langford play on the porch of the home where he's lived for 53 years. 5. Mr. Langford hasn't performed actively for years, but his sense of style hasn't faded.Copyright 2000, 2001 The Dallas Morning News Record Number: 4197700.