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By Tom Murphy
Unsung champions of the Delta blues have often boasted colorful nicknames. And while a memorable moniker never hurts a shot at notoriety -- Jaybird, Bo Weavil, Scrapper and Peg Leg, for instance -- few bluesmen go on to become household names, let alone footnotes to Robert Johnson. For Willie Houston, a 76-year-old guitarist, singer and junkman who's called Denver home since the end of World War II, an unadorned handle and complete obscurity come with the territory.
"I thought about callin' myself 'Junkyard Willie,'" Houston says. "But I'd rather use my own name."
Houston prefers to keep things simple. With a passion for the blues, the seasoned scrap collector understands the origins of American black music in a way that predates television by nearly three decades. He started out with nothing (and still has most of it) in Grand Cane, Louisiana, a northwestern speck twenty miles from the Texas border. The oldest of ten children raised in a two-room country shack mostly by his mother, Beatrice Acy, he can relate stories about Chickasaw Indians and the Civil War told by his 112-year-old grandfather, C.D. Houston. ("He could tell you about slavery, too," the junkman notes.)
A yarn-spinner in his own right, Houston summons memories of his childhood as if the events happened yesterday. (Like the time he caught on fire when he was five years old: "I took off runnin' and the more I run, the more it burn. I don't know why.") What he remembers most vividly from those days, though, is years of backbreaking labor in the hot sun. He split time working a neighboring plantation with fifteen other families and living with his kinfolk in the sticks.
"We was a thousand miles from nowhere, man, in the swamp part -- where the alligators and bears and stuff is at. So far back, a car couldn't get down there," Houston recalls. "Wagons and teams -- that's all you could use. I think about the South when I'm playin' blues -- goin' to the cotton fields, goin' to eat this watermelon for dinner, watermelon for supper, watermelon for breakfast, piece of bread for dinner or whatever. I tells this because that's my blues.
"I been through the hacker; I been through the cuts. My life, it hasn't been easy," Houston continues. "The most of it was in the farm life. Had to work instead of go to school, like I wanted. That was the worst time there. You worked on the farm from six to six, you don't even get fifty cents. All the kids had to do that."
But growing up dirt-poor in the swamp had its share of happy moments, too.
"I used to take a tin bucket and make music as good as anything," Houston recalls, smiling. "My mom told me -- I'll never forget. The moon was shinin' bright -- whew, that moon was shinin' pretty! Daddy was gone. I was sittin' on our porch, and I started playin' that bucket. I beat it so much I could bend the tin and change the tone. And she says, 'Boy, you keep that up, and one day you're gonna be a 'fessional."
His mother's prophecy was realized shortly after he had taught himself to play the Jew's harp (or "juice harp," as he calls it), earning pennies, nickels and dimes from the folks in town. Through the worsening days of the Great Depression, Houston, then seventeen, grew restless and moved to Joplin, Missouri. Armed with a seventh-grade education, he found work in a lumber mill. More important, he met a man with a guitar whom he remembers only as "Bruce."
"I used to give him a bottle of beer to try to teach me how to play. I told him I could learn it in a week. He said, ŒYou can try; I'm gonna give you one note. If you got any blues about yourself, you'll understand what it's all about. You need to know that box,'" Houston says, echoing his mentor. "'If you gotta feel your way around, that guitar gonna play you. That's what it's gonna do. I don't care how well you think you know it; sometimes those jokers'll play you. Sometimes it gets mean, boy. And if you do hit 'em bad, you gotta know how to cover 'em up right quick.'"
After Houston improved as a six-stringer, his wanderlust -- along with a draft notice during the Korean War, in 1951 -- took him to Fort Knox, in Kentucky, where he pulled special duty stateside as a colonel's chauffeur, shined a lot of shoes and even saluted Eisenhower in person. Following the war, with visions of becoming an entertainer, he caught a Greyhound west and ended up staying at the Rossonian Hotel in Five Points for a spell. In 1953, he was injured in a car crash and spent 72 days flat on his back in Denver's VA hospital. He eventually found steady employment at a plant that processed telephone poles, all the while honing his skills as a guitarist and vocalist.
"I can play solo; I did that a lot," Houston says. "But my sound and style is better with a group."