PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
October 30, 2007

Call Him a Blues Man

by Jim Newsom

Doug MacLeod has a great blues voice, filled with the hardscrabble grit of the Mississippi delta. You can tell immediately that he is the real thing. But he was no son of a sharecropper. In fact, he spent his childhood in Raleigh, St. Louis and Port Washington, NY.

“I was with George ‘Harmonica’ Smith,” he told me in a recent telephone conversation, “and he said, ‘You don’t sing like a white man, you don’t play like a white man, you don’t act like a white man; are you sure you’re a white man?’ And I said, ‘Yeh I’m sure. Just don’t tell my mother that because my dad’s still alive!’”

MacLeod, who brings his distinctive voice, entertaining storytelling and intricate slide guitar playing to the Virginia Beach Central Library Saturday night, started listening to the blues when he was a shy youngster with a debilitating stutter.

“In St. Louis,” he said, “blues was on the radio 24 hours a day. We’d be listening to guys like Little Milton, B. B. King, Lightning Hopkins, Jimmy Reed—all that stuff was on AM radio.

“I had a terrible stutter when I was a boy; I couldn’t speak. I was playing bass in St. Louis with these bands, and one day I picked up a guitar and tried to sing. And when I sang, this voice came out. I don’t know where it came from, I just know that when I sang this voice came out and then I could speak.”

He joined the Navy right out of high school and spent three years stationed in Norfolk.

“I actually joined to ‘see the world,’” he laughed. “And to be quite frank, it was a legal way of running away from home. I signed up when I was seventeen, and when I turned eighteen I told my mom and dad I was going.

“I was there [in Norfolk] three years; I got shore duty. I lived in a rooming house on The Hague—now I guess it costs a lot of money, but it cost me ten bucks a week back in those days. Then I moved over to West Bute Street just off of Freemason. I had a studio apartment and I was paying sixty bucks a month.

“When the Forrestal was shifted over to the Pacific Ocean and they were shipping guys out of Norfolk, I was scheduled to go. But I could fix this one piece of radar—they useta bring it down from Rhode Island, Maine, Maryland and Jacksonville. I was like a savant; I could do that, so I stayed there.”

He found a burgeoning folk scene in Norfolk and Virginia Beach in the mid ‘60s:

“On Freemason Street there was a place called the Folk Ghetto; it’s a hair salon now. And I played down on 17th Street at the Upstairs Coffee House. That was the days of Judy Kay, who is Juice Newton, Emmylou Harris, Gove Scrivenor. It was a great scene.”

More importantly, he learned the meaning of the blues from one of its sources, an old bluesman who lived in Toano.

“He was this one-eyed guy that they said ran with Blind Lemon Jefferson,” he explained. “I knew him as Ernest Banks. A musicologist later told me that was probably a fictitious name because he may have gotten in trouble back in the ‘30s and migrated to Virginia—he didn’t play like a Piedmont guy, he played like a Texas guy.

“I found him because they wrote about me in the Virginian-Pilot. I was nineteen, and they said I was the ‘king of the blues in Tidewater.’ The shame of it is that I believed it, and I was walking around with a big head. Then this fellow came up to me and said, ‘Hey, do you want to meet this guy that ran with Lemon Jefferson?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ I was so brash that I was gonna impress the old black man.

“I got up there and boy did I get a lesson! I played all these notes—diarrhea guitar—but I didn’t say nothing. Then he picked up that guitar and played for me, and I was embarrassed. But I must’ve impressed him some because as we were walking out of his house, he put his arm around me and said, ‘Boy, now you know where I live.’ And I said, ‘Does this mean I can come back?’ And he said, ‘You ain’t deaf too, are you?!?’

“I spent time with him, and he taught me more like the philosophy of music. He never taught me how to play or what frets to use. We just hung out and if I got it, I was supposed to get it.

“About a year ago, I went up Route 60 and a woman showed me where his house useta be. It’s all built up now, but in those days it was like groves of pines; it was deep in the country. I never got a chance to say goodbye to him because he froze to death in his house.”

After his discharge, MacLeod studied music at the University of Missouri and Berklee College in Boston, then moved to California. Though he was always a bluesman at heart, he did some time in the pop music world.

“I was working with Mary MacGregor, who had a big hit called ‘Torn Between Two Lovers,’ and we were opening for Mel Tillis. I was the leader of her band and I was supposed to set up the soundcheck. And I started stuttering—every once in a while it’ll happen to me. The road manager for Mel Tillis goes over to Mary’s road manager and says, ‘I don’t really think that’s funny.’ And our road manager says, ‘Well, you’d better laugh at it ‘cause he stutters too!’”

“I remember what Ernest Banks told me after a gig at the Folk Ghetto,” he replied. “We were sitting drinking wine on the street and I said, ‘I don’t know nothing about pickin’ cotton or mojos or black cat bones. What am I gonna sing about?’ He said, ‘Color don’t got nothing to do with it. Have you ever been lonely? Have you ever needed money? Have you ever needed a woman?’ And I said, ‘Yeh.’ He said, ‘That’s the blues. You just write and sing about what you know about, and never play a note you don’t believe. And then maybe I’ll call you a blues man.’”

Does he think his mentor would call him a blues man today?

“I think he’d be awful proud of me.”

copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.