Last year I drove through rural Mississippi in the course of doing a piece on Brett Favre coaching high school football for the New York Times. As anyone who’s ever driven through rural Mississippi can attest, it’s sort of boring and terrible. However, there is one bright spot: you can catch some great blues music on the local radio stations out there, and almost all of the musicians have great names. I specifically mentioned Ironing Board Sam and Honeyboy Edwards in my piece, but another I remember hearing a blues station DJ mention was T-Model Ford. Well, Mr. Ford died recently, and the obit the Times did on him is an interesting read, to say the least.
This, in particular, is one of my favorite sentences of 2013: “Once described by the head of that label as “the friendliest fun-loving psychopath you’ll ever meet” (Mr. Ford spoke openly, and amiably, of having killed at least one man), he began his musical life in the 1980s in Mississippi juke joints.”
Though his exact age was “shrouded in the smoky legend,” the obit notes that Ford was likely well into his 90s at the time of his death. What was his recipe for longevity, you ask?
Mr. Ford toured energetically until last year, when he suffered a stroke. He owed his crackling longevity and lust for life, he said (he had 6 wives and at least 26 children), to a simple three-part regimen.
“Jack Daniel’s, the women and the Lord been keeping me here,” he told The Chicago Sun-Times in 2003. In old age, however, on doctor’s orders, he reduced his involvement with the first of these to some extent.
And then there’s this…
If Mr. Ford exuded the aura of a backwoods bluesman from Central Casting, he came by it more or less honestly, for his personal narrative seemed to rival that of any blues song:
There was the childhood spent working the fields under the brutal Mississippi sun.
There was his first wife, whom he married when he was a teenager, and who left, Mr. Ford said, to run off with his father.
There was another wife, who he said drank poison to try to end a pregnancy but died instead.
“I heard her thump down on the floor, stone dead,” Mr. Ford told an interviewer in 1999. “I was sad, I loved that woman, but I didn’t let it get me down.”
There was still another wife — either the third or the fifth; the number varied with Mr. Ford’s recollection — who gave him his first guitar before decamping.
There were the times, more recently, that he tried to stab members of his band, because they irked him.Of the stories that swirled around Mr. Ford, some were tall tales in the oral tradition of old bluesmen. Others seemed born of the gleeful, spur-of-the-moment hyperbole with which Mr. Ford, who could neither read nor write but was no less canny for that, embellished his many interviews.
And still others, given the realities of black life in the Depression-era South, were apparently true — including the two years he spent on a chain gang for killing a man in self-defense.
That man may not have been the only one Mr. Ford killed in his long life. As he wondered aloud in an interview with The New York Times in 2001, “Do I count the one I run over in my Pontiac?”
Go read the whole thing. I insist.
Side note: I’m not sure what it is but the last few month have given us some great obits. There was Lord Michael Pratt’s, the lady who loved Waffle House, the world’s greatest cat-burglar, and the guy who loved to wash down his cornbread with buttermilk served in martini glasses, just to name a few. I guess as long as people keep dying…