By HANK BURDINE
Hippie chick from Pascagoula with deep Delta ties
“Sam, I just can’t play like you…”
“Lil’ Podnuh, you ain’t supposed to play like me, ’cause you ain’t me. You are supposed to take that song and do it like you do it. You take that song and make it yours.” And through the years, Lil’ Podnuh, Libby Rae Watson, has been playing more like Sam Chatmon and performing his, and her own, blues most all of her life. And she is on a mission to continue performing and promoting the blues not only in Mississippi but all over the world. And she is doing a jam-up fine job of it.
Libby Thompson grew up down on the Gulf Coast in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Her daddy was a dentist, and she was the youngest of three sisters and three brothers. Libby’s mother died when she was five years old, and the whole family was raised by their father. She started piano lessons in the third grade and was given a classical guitar by the sixth grade and learned three chords. (A lot of music can be played on only three chords!) In high school Libby started listening to the Allman Brothers Band, Taj Mahal, Bob Dylan and others, trying to understand and figure out the blues. Once she realized what the blues really were, the repetitious rifts, the calls and responses, the soul and mournfulness of the real blues, she was hooked. She dug into the blues of Muddy Waters, listening, learning, and trying to figure out what the songs really meant, how to truly understand them and how to play them. She had grown up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in an established, comfortable lifestyle and in an affluent neighborhood. What did she know about the blues? She had never picked cotton, plowed a mule, hand pumped water from a pitcher pump out back. She didn’t know the cold and lonely, muddy path to the hog pen or to the privy, but her mother had died when she was five years old and that’s the blues! She was just a cute little hippie chick from down on the Coast who liked the blues and was wanting and searching to know more about them. It didn’t take her long.
In 1973, while attending dental hygienist school in Jackson, Libby met Bobby Ray Watson from Pleasant Hill, Mississippi. Bobby Ray had grown up in the North Mississippi hill country around R. L. Burnside, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Johnny Woods and others. He played the guitar and the harmonica. There Libby heard a different kind of blues from the traditional Delta blues. The young aspiring couple were immersed in the hard driving, pulsing Northeast Mississippi hill country blues, unlike the slow and mournful wails of the Delta blues. In Memphis they met Memphis Piano Red, Mose Vinson, and Furry Lewis. Together their young, searching hearts were exploding with the remnants and the vestiges of the last of the great bluesmen. Some were still performing, and some had come back from obscurity to play once again during the blues resurgence of the 1960s at folklife festivals and music gatherings.
While traveling in Northeast Mississippi, Libby Rae had heard about Big Joe Williams. She found him sitting in his car on top of a hill under a big shade tree. She got in with her National guitar, and they started playing and singing. She played a few songs that brought tears to his eyes because his mama used to sing those songs to him. Libby Rae put a metal slide on her little finger, and she and Big Joe Williams sat in the shade in his car and played the blues. A young white gal from the Coast picking a National guitar while Big Joe Williams sang the blues was pure nirvana. Boys and girls, it just don’t get much better than that. Take my advice, pull up the song written by Libby Rae Watson called “Big Joe.” You will end up with a tear in your eye and a smile on your face.
But it was not until Libby Rae came to Hollandale and met the legendary Sam Chatmon, an original member of the Mississippi Sheiks, that she met her zenith. She came into his living room after meeting him one day with five guys, all with their guitars, to play with and learn a little from the great bluesman. After a while, Sam told the boys to just “get on out of here; I’m gonna show her something.” Sam Chatmon started playing “Whiskey Blues.” When Sam told Libby Rae Watson to take those songs and “make them your own,” he basically gave her permission to do just that. “Lil’ Podnuh, one note with feeling gives you more satisfaction than all the technique.” She had been told by Big Joe Williams to play with finger picks to make the music loud in the Northeast Mississippi hill country style, while Sam Chatmon told her to use no picks but to play with her natural fingers for a natural sound. Libby Rae Watson had crawled up into the lap of the elder statesman of the blues, a gentleman and a gentle man. She would listen and learn, and she would carry his music and his rollicking finger picking style, along with her own music and songs, all over the world. I also had met Sam Chatmon back then, and I can truthfully say that without Libby Rae’s love and devotion for this great bluesman, a lot of his music and his aura would be lost. She is carrying it on wherever and whenever she plays.
And her story begins…
Throughout all her travels in Northeast Mississippi, Memphis, and extensively in the Delta, Libby Rae had met and befriended a number of original bluesmen. In 1978, she partnered with MACE out of Greenville and helped coordinate and put together the lineup for the very first Mississippi Delta Blues Festival held at Freedom Village out in the country south of Greenville. Celebrated musicians like Big Joe Williams, Eugene Powell, Son Thomas, Furry Lewis, and Sam Chatmon, along with others, made up a stellar crew of performers. She knew them all, but “the one that really changed my life and the one I cherish the most as far as friendship was Sam Chatmon. We just hit it off really well.”
Every chance she got, while working a regular routine in Pascagoula as a dental hygienist in her daddy’s dental clinic, she was up in the Delta, hanging out with Sam Chatmon, learning and listening, absorbing the style, the rifts, the feelings of Mr. Sam’s blues. She learned deep and well, with love and affection for not only the music but for the man himself. And it was at Sam Chatmon’s funeral in February of 1983 that Libby Rae Watson was asked by the family to play the world-renowned Mississippi Sheik’s blues song, written by Sam and his brother Bo Carter, “Sitting on Top of the World.” She was laying a friend, her mentor, and loved one to rest. I had been asked to be a pall bearer for Mr. Sam along with his Bar-B-Que Boys from Canada that he played with. Three white men and three black men toted Mr. Sam down. As Libby Rae cradled her Gibson Black Special #2 and began strumming and singing, there wasn’t a dry eye anywhere. I don’t know if it was Libby’s tears or not dripping off, but I believe I saw that guitar cry. Maybe I was just blinded by my own tears.
“Now when I’m dead and in my grave, no more women’s will my poor heart crave. Yes, I’ll be gone, but don’t you worry, I’ll be sitting on top of the world.”
Years before, while working as a dental hygienist, Libby had heard of a 1931 Duolian National guitar. She drove over and looked at it, strummed it, and timidly asked how much it was. Four hundred dollars was a lot of money for a guitar, but those guitars had a soul of their own. All you needed to do was pick it up, put a slide on your finger, and the music came to life. She borrowed the money, and the next weekend brought it home. Later on, Libby Rae was in Nashville at the Old Time Picking Parlor and spied the Gibson Black Special #2 that she later played at Sam Chatmon’s funeral. She paid two hundred dollars for the guitar and forked over fifty dollars for a hard case. These two guitars were sitting on top of the bed in her home during Hurricane Katrina. When the surge waters came into her house, those two guitars just floated right up to the ceiling and then floated right back down unscathed as the flood receded. It was as if someone had just reached down and protected those two guitars. She lost ten other guitars during the storm. Regarding the National Watson says, “This guitar and I have been roommates for forty-two years. It carries the blues mojo from the hands of Furry Lewis, Johnny Woods, Big Joe Williams, Sam Chatmon, and many more blues greats.”
Her Own Legend
In the early 1990s, Libby Rae began performing publicly starting off at the Rainbow Coffee House in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. She and several friends started a band called The Liberaetors and developed a strong fan base along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The Liberaetors released two CDs of original music, Saltwater Blues and Spur of the Moment, during their nine years together. In 2013, she released her solo album Sweet ‘n’ Salty and in 2016 released Times Ain’t Now Like They Used to Be with the group Jericho Road Show with friends and fellow musicians Rambling Steve Gardner, Wes Lee, and Bill Steber. In 2017 she released, along with Wes Lee as the duo Sweet ‘n’ Salty. the album I Done Told Ya. Libby Rae duoed and with Bert Deivert, she released She Shimmy in 2020. In an article reviewing the music, Brenda Germany says, “Libby Rae Watson’s inimitable voice, storytelling, and fingerpicking guitar style that reflect her deep talent and true love of what she does make this collaboration with seasoned bluesman Bert Deivert irresistible.”
Libby Rae has won numerous awards and was the Mississippi Delta Blues Society of Indianola Blues Challenge 2014 and 2015 winner, finalist with Wes Lee at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis and 2014 and 2015 semifinalist. Libby Rae can be found playing at music festivals in Sweden, Switzerland and Canada and in blues festivals such as the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas, Juke Joint Festival and Deep Blues Festival in Clarksdale, and the Sam Chatmon Blues Festival in Hollandale.
I can see Mr. Sam very proudly looking down at his Lil’ Podnuh from his perch “on Top of the World” with his long lanky legs all splayed out and his guitar in his lap just smiling at his dear friend and purveyor of his, and her, blues. He smiles and just says . . . “Aw, SHUCKS!”