Junkman Cometh

A diamond in the rough: Willie Houston.
John Johnston

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."

In 1959, the newcomer's first placard -- announcing "Guitar Willie and His Rhythm Rockers" in silver, glitter-flecked letters -- went up at the Saddle Club. More gigs followed at various Denver venues, including the Casino Ballroom ("In them days, admission was only fifty cents," Houston notes), and the group soon became an American Legion Hall staple.

"I tried to sneak in a little blues stuff, but they wouldn't let me do that," Houston says. "They said, 'You got to get in here with the swing.' But I hate to give up what I been raised with."

Even so, in 1962 Houston played backup on "Snowflakes," a vinyl 45 in the spirit of Chuck Berry, on Denver's now-defunct Band Box imprint. It was a far cry from his traditional Southern roots.

"Everybody started from the cotton fields; ain't no city boys here," Houston says emphatically. "We call it the bigfoot country. We all from down there -- Blind Lemon, Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Hopkins, John Lee Hooker. B.B. King pulled cotton right there in Arkansas."

In less grandiose company at his monotonous day job, Houston found himself gigging less frequently. Then, in 1968, after learning to use a cutting torch, he became his own boss -- a full-time junkman hauling scrap metal from old cars and the like -- and hasn't looked back since. The cluttered yard that currently surrounds his old frame house in Denver's industrial Cole district (and home to his faithful Chow, Jinx) is evidence of a long and junk-filled career: Old washers and stoves rub shoulders with ancient automobiles in a vast sea of rusted box springs, broken vacuum cleaners, discarded aluminum and claw-foot tubs.

"To be a scrap man, you got to put everything to good use, because you don't know what tomorrow is gonna bring," Houston declares. "Being a bluesman is much easier, but it works on about the same order: It's a talent that you got. I love to do either or both."

And he shows no sign of slowing down at either or both -- especially his music. Filled with gut-driven tunes that grab the listener with honesty and conviction, his 2001 full-length debut Blues Man Willie Houston and His Guitar, released on Northglenn-based FastTrack Records, arrived fully developed, a lifetime in the making. Playing a replica of B.B.'s Lucille-edition Epiphone, the bluesman celebrates the longstanding twelve-measure form with a vibrato-rich field shout, covering the bases of heartache ("I Need Your Love So Bad"), isolation ("1000 Miles") and unrequited lust ("My Apple Tree"). Houston is more concerned with Greyhounds leaving the station than hellhounds on his trail. He may never have made a pact with the devil at the crossroads or had his guitar tuned at the stroke of midnight, but with a loose, fluid, economic style and a down-home approach, the junkman adheres to traditional six-string rundowns and turnbacks with raw, personal expression. It's an overall familiar sound that he affectionately qualifies as coming from "the alley."

"People don't come to the street to hear blues," Houston insists. "They come to the alley. They say, ŒPut me in the alley.' You can't go no deeper -- old moonshine sittin' up there 'Gad-dawgit, boy! Gals out there doin' that Betty-rubbin' stuff, you know -- that's dance. Everything goes on in the alley -- everything. You don't do no uptown stuff. You goin' down. You down and out."

For all his implied troubles, Houston, a bachelor, rejoices the females who've done him right over those who might have dogged him for a fool. A case in point is the standout opening track, "Sally Mae."

"I met that girl, I was about thirteen years old," Houston recalls. "We'd go swimmin' in the country lakes together, go up to the hedgerow. Sally Mae was a runaway; she was a rambler. She didn't let no grass grow under her foot, not at all. Sally Mae would go one plantation to another one, 'cause her mother passed on. I could write a lot of things about Sally Mae. She was a sweet little girl; Sally Mae was the one. She did me right, but she got away.

"I used to have a different woman every night," Houston confesses. "I stopped that life. You get to where you don't want to do that. It's no good for your health.  

"I stopped smokin' and drinkin' in the '70s," he adds. "I might take a social drink with some water or something. Guys come by -- we get through playin', I might give 'em a sneak. But I'm not livin' that kind of life."

Deceptively youthful and hernia-free, with all of his original teeth, Houston prefers hard candy to hooch these days. He's a refreshing contrast to seniors who clip coupons or comb the beach with metal detectors in Sears activewear and cuts a rugged figure with his bib overalls, callused mitts and workboots. And with the Night Cats -- his latest backing band, which features bassist Henry Lopez, drummer Donald Williams and reed expert Don Albright -- he's been hosting weekly practices at home for several months in order to take another shot at the stage. "I always did like to entertain," he says. "I don't care how old I am."

Though such a desire spits in the eye of a strict Baptist upbringing -- fit only for backsliding types on the mourner's bench -- Houston cuts through the once-popular distortion of blues music as infernal noise.

"They call that workin' for the devil. It's not!" he fumes. "You want to talk about your history, your life. Is it wrong to tell your life? I'll play the blues in the church, 'cause I'm talkin' 'bout what we're goin' through -- 'specially the black people. And if they don't understand it, it's just too bad. It's me and the good Lord, that's who it is. He's involved in it, too. He gives me the talent and he tells me to use it."

"I still goes to church now," Houston adds. "I turn on my TV. I get all the parish I want on that."

More at home in a juke joint than Amen Corner, Houston -- equal parts working stiff and junkyard griot -- sums everything up with characteristic simplicity: "Blues ain't just said; blues is lived. People can tell on a bandstand if you're fakin' or you're telling the truth. You don't need a smile. The things I had to go without, and the things I had to go through -- that's not a good feeling. And it's not something to laugh at. But I want to be a gentleman up on the bandstand, like B.B.," He got a good name of bein' a nice, beautiful person. Warmhearted -- that's what I want to be.

"You got to have it here," Houston concludes, pointing to his chest. "You got to make your heart talk."

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