For our latest Longreads Member Pick, we’re thrilled to feature “The Gutbucket King,” a new ebook by journalist Barry Yeoman and The New New South, about the tumultuous life of blues singer Little Freddie King, who survived stabbings, alcoholism and personal tragedy. You can read a free excerpt below.
He stood at the kitchen window waiting. He had memorized everything around him: the pine walls, bare of wallpaper or even paint; the wardrobe where his widowed mother kept her churn for making buttermilk; the stove fueled by the firewood he cut each morning; the two coolers, one for dairy and the other for cakes and pies. He had branded them into his memory, these artifacts of a life that, after today, would no longer be his.
His mother was working in town. As she cleaned the house of the doctor and his wife, Josie Mae Martin didn’t know that her blue-eyed son was planning his escape from McComb, Mississippi. He had even assured her otherwise. But he had it all worked out: When he heard the chug of the southbound freight train, heard its piercing whistle, he would dash out the side door, run around the L of the house, and grab from its hiding place the 50-pound flour sack he had stuffed with a pair of shoes, two shirts, and a pair of pants. He would bolt to the west side of the Illinois Central tracks, squat behind a bush, and wait until he saw an open car.
He thought he knew how to do this. He had heard his father tell stories about “hoboing” the trains on his way to jobs picking cotton in the Mississippi Delta to the north, or cutting sugar cane in Vacherie, Louisiana, to the south. Before his death, Jessie James Martin and his friends would sit around drinking and talking about the fine art of eluding detection in a boxcar, traveling around the roughest parts of the South without suffering a detour to the local jail. The boy always listened closely, culling their stories for tips. “My daddy did it,” he thought to himself. “I can do it, too.”
He didn’t know what would await him at the New Orleans end of his journey — a 14-year-old boy with “not nary a copper cent” in his bib overalls — or if he’d make it at all. And he surely couldn’t have guessed what the next six decades would bring: the grubby floors of back-of-town nightclubs; the ruinous infatuation with Taylor Cream Sherry; the cuttings and shootings that would threaten to cut short his life; the sounds of a brass band without a horn in sight; the marriage marked by violence, forgiveness, more violence, and grace; the cheers of crowds in far-off countries; the fall from God and eventual return; the apocalyptic storm that marooned him five hundred miles away; and, by the time he reached his 70s, the exquisite silence of weekend mornings, broken only by the sound of tour buses rolling past his home.
All he knew, on this most anxious afternoon of his adolescence, was that he wasn’t going to miss that train.
The man holding the Epiphone electric guitar wears sunglasses, two-tone shoes, and a pumpkin-and-black suit with a matching shirt and necktie. Curly wisps of hair—gray, like his pencil mustache — stick out from beneath a brown felt Homburg hat. A white sash hangs over his left shoulder, decorated with a row of crude smiling skulls. Between two of those skulls, in what looks like a child’s calligraphy, is the name by which everyone knows him: Little Freddie King.
Now 73, King hasn’t lived in McComb, Mississippi, since the 1950s, when he jumped off that still-moving freight train three miles from this very spot: a poorly executed leap that left him scraped up and so dizzy that for the first few minutes in his new hometown, he couldn’t move from the edge of the tracks. From this wooden bar in Uptown New Orleans, named Carrollton Station after the nearby streetcar barn, his childhood home is 100 miles and almost 60 years away. Yet for him, it remains palpably close. It’s the rootstock of his music and the source of many of his best stories, like the one he’s recounting tonight.
“I was a little boy, running around outside,” he tells the crowd — buoyant, mostly white, some young, some old. “And I was on the lazy side. I didn’t want to do no work.
“My daddy, he said, ‘Boy, come on around this house. I’ve got a job for you.’ So I followed my daddy to see what he wanted. He had a whole big wagonload of corn dumped there behind the house. And he had those great big 50-gallon drums. He said, ‘Boy, you shuck all that corn. Shell all of it and fill them drums up there. Then you take it and go feed the chickens. That’s your job. You better do it.’
“I said, ‘Daddy, I don’t want to do that.’ He said, ‘Boy, you ain’t gonna do that? Well, you’re going to have to answer to the business end of this rattan vine.’” The first syllable of rattan comes out hard, like a gruff but friendly bark: “this RAT-tan vine.”
King likes to prolong a good tale, to keep his audience twitching and laughing, poised just on the edge of busting into dance. His story goes on for a while, with more defiance from the son and escalating threats from the father until the boy finally relents in the name of saving his own behind.“So I started feeding the chickens,” he says. “Every time I threw some corn out there, I said, ‘You a bad chicken.’ As the years passed by, I got to thinking about it. I said, ‘You know what? I’m gonna make a song about that. That dog-gone bad-chicken song.”
King lets out a series of galline squawks, louder than it seems like his small body can produce, but indeed emanating from his throat. His band amps up. Buckle-kneed Bobby cradles his harmonica with both skinny arms; bass player Skeets stands stiff-backed and serious; Wacko Wade holds down the percussion. Then King launches into his beloved “Chicken Dance” song, and the floor starts to rattle with the collective stomps of dozens of sneakers, flip-flops, and fancy boots covered in rivets and studs.
Little Freddie King, born in 1940 as Fread Eugene Martin, is one of the last country bluesmen still performing in New Orleans. In a city known for traditional jazz, for the brassy secondline music that fills the streets on Sunday afternoons, and for the distinctive rhythm-and-blues that helped sire rock’n’roll, King’s music is altogether different. It reeks of damp cotton and feels so emotionally charged that the frequency of light seems to change when he picks up his guitar; the air turns grimy and explosive all at once. Rhythmic structures break down: A 12-bar phrase in a King song can fill 13 bars today, 11 tomorrow, and change flavor as his mood rises and falls. He calls it “gutbucket blues,” borrowing a phrase Louis Armstrong used to describe music that’s low-down and dirty, like the buckets that collected innards at old Louisiana fish markets.