Artist Inflects Music with Activism and Love Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Mike Schulz   
Tuesday, 28 June 2005 18:00
When asked what message he hopes to convey with his music, the acclaimed singer, songwriter, guitarist, and social activist Willie King has a simple yet profound answer: “Love. To love everybody and have respect for everybody. ”

It’s a message that the 62-year-old King – an inspired blues artist with a beautifully scratchy, passionate voice – has been expressing for years, long before he became an established, award-winning performer.

By the late 1960s, the Mississippi native was a noted speaker for political, social, and local causes. He wrote songs and performed, but his primary goal was in shedding light on those – like himself – who grew up under economically depressed and often painful conditions. That aim was intensified by a 1976 visit to The Highlander Center, the noted research and education organization located in the foothills of Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains.

The Highlander Center, and its annual gathering of activists and educators, has long played a role in major American political upheavals – including the Southern labor movements of the 1930s and the civil-rights movement of the 1940s through ’60s – and its purpose and practices fit King to a tee.

“A young lady got me to play at a festival in Utah [Alabama],” King recalled in a recent phone interview, “and [later] she took a position at the Highlander Center. She wanted me to sing what I like to call my ‘working-and-struggling blues songs’ there.” His visit to The Highlander Center became an annual one until 1985, and the experiences changed the artist’s life. “It made me want to write more, and tell my story through the blues. I wanted to talk about what’s happening with the African Americans in our community.”

An opportunity to do so came with King’s sponsoring of The Freedom Creek Festival, formed with the help of several like-minded friends. “We had a vision,” he says, “a spirit came while we were settin’ down in the woods. We had to help bring people together. ... We had to get people together to help keep the creeks alive. When I was a boy we had to wash clothes in the creek, we went fishing in the creek, people got baptized in the creek. ... We wanted to get people to remember the old creeks and show their appreciation.”

An eclectic mixture of blues musicians, political activists, and barbecue cooks – all converging on the creek banks near King’s birthplace of Prairie Point, Mississippi – The Freedom Creek Festival celebrated its eighth anniversary on May 28, and has grown exponentially since its inception. “That first year there were about 50 people, with six or seven blues players. We have three, four, five hundred nowadays,” he says, adding that visitors now attend the festival from as far away as Europe.

King finally made his first recording a year after the festival’s inception, when he and “Birmingham” George Carter teamed up for 1999’s Walk the Walk, Talk the Talk, which paved the way for King’s first solo endeavor, 2000’s I Am the Blues. To this day, King is amazed by the good fortune that led to his current recording success.

“I met a gentleman in ’82-’83 named Jim O’Neal,” he says, “who worked for a label called Rooster Records. He introduced himself and said he wanted to record me some day.” King laughs at the recollection: “I thought he was just jivin’.”

But the singer would eventually discover how serious O’Neal was. “Thirteen years later, the phone rang, and it was Jim O’Neal,” who had subsequently moved his label from Chicago to Memphis. “He asked me, ’Still playing music?’” The rest, as they say, is (music) history. King says, “Even now I have to pinch myself to make sure it’s real.”

Since I Am the Blues, King has also released 2000’s Freedom Creek, 2002’s Living in a New World, and 2004’s Jukin’ at Bettie’s, recorded at a nearby Mississippi establishment – “I only live about a mile and a half from Bettie’s,” he says – which King has publicly called his favorite juke joint in the world.

Although King spent a year living in Chicago in 1967, and has worked in the Midwest previously – “I did a few workshops for correctional facilities, and for a museum” – this will be the first year that King will be performing the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival, and the blues artist awaits the chance to bring his message of love to a new group of fans. “I feel great about it,” King says, “and I’m looking forward to it.”

Despite his recording successes, though, King will remain an activist; new generations of fans continually remind him whom, exactly, his activism will benefit. “We need to work with the young people,” he says, “to get them to learn something about what it takes to survive. ... I love working with young people, and,” he says, chuckling, “they like to be around me for some reason.”