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Remembering Pinetop Perkins

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Another of the great blues musicians from the Mississippi delta has died, one of the last now. Pinetop Perkins passed away at his home in Austin, Texas on March 21, 2011, aged 97. Just last month, he won a Grammy for Joined at the Hip, his CD with Willie "Big Eyes" Smith who was in The Muddy Waters Band with him for many years. I got to know them 35 years ago when I met Jerry Portnoy, Muddy's harmonica player. We took up together and for a couple of years, I went on the road off and on with the band.

The original blues was music that emerged from extreme poverty in Mississippi, where both Muddy and Pinetop were born and worked on plantations picking cotton. It shouted out the pain of injustice, hard work and love gone wrong. More injustice and loss than we privileged white folks could imagine, yet, more often than not, it ended with a laugh. It sang the praises too of both love and lust. When we white kids went to hear the blues, we came out feeling high, like we'd been set free from the chains of repression and empty propriety.

Rock musicians like The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton made fortunes off the blues, but the original blues artists made nothing close even with constant touring. Some endured near poverty their whole lives. It wasn't fair, not nearly, yet I never saw a hint of bitterness. Over and over, I saw gentility in their presence, kindness to strangers and acceptance of what they could not change.

Pinetop was a man who greeted everyone with a smile and laugh. No matter who you were, he was happy to see you. To be embraced by his smile made you thrilled to be alive. It was that warm, that accepting. He was not a man to complain or frown. On rare occasions, driving down some long highway I heard him mention a trouble he had, maybe some worry about money or family. Sometimes he said it two or three times, repeating it like a mantra that told it like it was. He didn't analyze or ask for help, just told it like it was. And Muddy would just echo back, "Ahh-ah." Softly. Kindly. Then Pine would let it go and start talking about fishing or something else he loved.

Once, when we were in Cannes, France, Pinetop went to an outdoor bar around the corner from our hotel and ordered a drink. It was a hot, sunny, summer afternoon and he sat on the enclosed patio under an umbrella. The band was playing on a small island off the coast so had to board a ferry around dinner time to get there. Everyone met outside the hotel to walk down to the pier but there was no Pinetop. Someone checked his room to find it empty. When Jer and I walked around the corner to see if he might be wandering about, we spotted him at his table on the patio.

"Pine!" we called over. "It's time to go!"

He smiled, got up and ambled over like he had all the time in the world. "I forgot my wallet," he said. "I left it up in the room."

We quickly paid his bill. He'd had several drinks by then. When he realized he'd forgotten his wallet, he'd simply settled in. He couldn't speak French and knew he couldn't explain the situation. Neither did he try. It could have meant trouble had he walked out of there so he sat in the hot sun all afternoon. He made the best of his dilemma -- ordering a few drinks, a little food, watching the world go by.

"Were you worried, Pine?" I said.

He wasn't. He just laughed. Something was bound to happen, he said. Someone or something would set him free. Then he laughed again. There was such grace in his acceptance of life in all its permutations, sweet laughter even in the face of discomfort, and gratitude for the gifts that came his way. That spirit is in the music too. Pinetop Perkins blues. May we all listen and, in his honor, pass such gifts along. They hold the seeds of freedom and peace. Rest in peace, Pinetop. What a life you lived!