Randy Magee & Eddie Cusic
"I tried so hard in this world,
to get along with you"Talking to Randy Magee &
Introduction: my brother Marc and I (Catfish & Cotton) have traveled countless times to the Mississippi Delta since 2011 to talk to blues musicians, festival organizers, owners of juke joints and soul food restaurants. We made several short video documentaries and wrote several books about it. In this article we focus the Highway 61 Museum in Leland, Mississippi. In 2011, we talked talk to the driving force behind the museum, Randy Magee, and also to his close personal friend, Eddie Cusic. Eddie is a "giant" of the blues, who was 83 years old at the time of the interview. Unfortunately, he died in the meantime.
This article is a translation from the article I wrote for the leading Belgian blues magazine "Back To The Roots".
C&C: Hello Randy. You are one of the driving forces behind the "Highway 61 Museum" in Leland, MS. How did the museum come about, and what is your link with the museum?
Randy Magee: This museum is Billy Johnson's idea, and we've been open eight years now. About fifteen years ago, we first spoke about starting a museum. Billy had built up a collection of personal items from various musicians, valuable and unique pieces. I suspect his wife wanted those artifacts out of the house (laughs). He started this museum by himself. A few days before the first festival he organized in Leland, I asked him if I could be of any help. I started with practical tasks such as building the stage, but that evolved quickly. I am now creating the website and working in the museum.
C&C: So your project involves much more than just a museum?
Randy Magee: Of course, the museum in itself is a lot of work. We have a lot of first-hand information about the local blues scene and musicians and try to present it in a logical and interesting way, but we also have two festivals: one is the "Leland Crawfish Festival" and the other is the "Highway 61 Blues Festival". We use the proceeds from these festivals to finance the museum because there is never enough money (laughs).
C&C: The area surrounding Leland has a rich blues history, but let's focus on two musicians who still live in Leland and who have a strong bond with the museum.
Randy Magee: Closest to the museum is Pat Thomas. He is a fairly young musician and the son of the great James 'Son' Thomas. Pat Thomas mainly plays music from his father. He also physically resembles his father. Pat's life and work is a great tribute to "Son" Thomas. Pat comes to the museum every day, and he plays for the people who visit the museum.
And... of course there is Eddie Cusic. He is one of the oldest and most important icons of the blues scene in Leland.
C&C: Hi Eddie, glad you were there today. When did you start playing blues?
Eddie Cusic: It was a long time ago. In my early years we didn't have a radio in the house. Sometimes there was a radio on the plantation. Listening to the radio was really an event in those days, it was like going to the movies. Everyone was there when the radio was turned on and wanted to know what was going on. Mississippi was a really poor region, especially at that time. We went to school whenever we could, sometimes for just an hour, and then went back to work on the field. If you wanted to learn something, you had to figure it out for yourself. I first heard the blues when I was very young, a child, and I loved the music. I decided: "When I am old enough, I want to be a blues musician."
I started playing music on a single string nailed to the porch, on the wall (making marks with his arms as if playing double bass). I sang while playing music on that one string. That's how it all started. Every time I finished school or work, I came home and tried to play. That's how it all started in that old house on the plantation.
C&C: When did you get your first guitar?
Eddie Cusic: That was quite some time later. I actually wanted a guitar for a long time, but my mother wouldn't buy me one. She was afraid I would play blues (gets agitated and laughs), but I didn't listen and eventually got an old guitar. I put on new strings and learned to play on it.
We didn't have a lot of money, we worked all week, and we lived in a 'shotgun house'. All my stuff fit in one bag that hung on the wall or ceiling. To make some money, my mom had a juke joint. During the week we worked on the land, on Saturday and Sunday evenings we worked in the juke joint.
On Monday you had to be ready for the working week again. We worked on the plantation. There was a supervisor, "Big Boss Man," and if you didn't work hard enough, he would scream so loud you would go back to work (imitating in a deep voice).
My mom sold corn whiskey in her juke joint. After all, we couldn't get any other whiskey. Everyone came to the juke joint on the weekends to get drunk. It was the only place in the area where you could go out.
Two years later I finally got a really good guitar. I learned to play the guitar myself, no one helped me. I once bought a music book, but I didn't understand it, so I threw it away. You can only play blues if you experience the blues. I play by ear. That's how I do it.
C&C: Did you play with a band?
Eddie Cusic: Sure enough, I founded "The Rhythm Aces". We mainly played in Mississippi.
Randy Magee: That band was important to many people. In the 1950s Eddie gave several musicians the opportunity to perform for the first time. Little Milton was one of the many guys who sometimes played a song with the band. At the time, Little Milton was a terrible guitarist, but an excellent vocalist. At that time he was sixteen to seventeen years old, and his parents had just died. He lived with Eddie for several years. During those years Eddie taught him to play the guitar...
Eddie Cusic: ... and he got, well, ... much better than myself (laughs). We played a lot in those days, mainly in Mississippi, not so much in other states. I didn't know how to do that. I had no money, no transportation, no one to help me. I wish I had found a manager then who could introduce me to the music industry. My life would have looked different.
Randy Magee: Eddie was drafted into the Korean War, and when he got back home, Ike Turner had already discovered Little Milton and offered him a contract with Sun Records in Memphis. When Eddie returned from Korea, Milton already had a first hit on the radio.
Eddie tried to keep the band together and go on tour over the next few years, but there were always problems: the bass player was in prison, the drummer fell in love with the wrong woman and disappeared, and so on. He just got tired of leading a blues band.
Eddie Cusic: So I quit playing and found a job as a mechanic. I wouldn't touch a guitar for the next 25 years. I only started playing again just before I retired. Around that time, James "Son" Thomas asked me to perform with him, and I did. We became friends. He was a gravedigger. He used to say, "Man, there are so many musicians out there who don't play as well as you do, and yet they get rich with their blues music." When I retired, I thought about what he said. So I started again play.
C&C: The Highway 61 Museum is really impressive for its first-hand stories and artifacts from local musicians.
Randy Magee: Yes, that's right. That's what we focus on, the little stories of the local musicians. We've collected lots of things and information from people like T-Model Ford, Cadillac John Nolden, Bill Abel, Eden Brent, Boogaloo Ames, John Norton, Harry "Bub" Branton, Duff Dorough, Mickey Rogers, Son Thomas and Pat Thomas. We know those musicians and know their life story firsthand.
C&C: Outside of the museum there is a blues trail marker from Johnny Winter. What is his relationship with Leland?
Randy Magee: Johnny lives in Connecticut. He played at our festival last year. He was not born here. His relationship with Leland is a long story. Johnny's father was mayor of Leland just before World War II. When he was drafted into the war, his wife was pregnant with Johnny. Her parents were from Beaumont, Texas. At the end of her pregnancy, she went back to her mother and father. So Johnny was actually born in Beaumont, but when Mr. Winter returned after the war, they returned and lived in Leland for about three years. Johnny's father was a cotton broker, and the "blues marker" is in front of his office. Johnny's grandfather was a founder of the Presbyterian Church. The Winter family was important to Leland, and many of them were talented people. They played theater and music. Johnny started singing in church, in the church choir. That's the connection between Johnny Winter and Leland.
C&C: In the museum there is a very special piano. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Randy Magee: It's Boogaloo Ames' piano. His real name was Eddie Ames. He was born in 1920 and moved to Mississippi from Michigan. He was a very good pianist and played with some big bands. Boogaloo played with an old guy, Billy "Doc" Booth. They had a band together and played every Thursday night at Lillo's Italian restaurant, just outside the city. Boogaloo had a problem with alcohol. By the end of the night he was mostly drunk, but you couldn't tell from his music. It had no effect on his virtuoso piano playing. Later in life he played with Eden Brent. They spent sixteen years together. Eden was of rich, white descent and young, Boogaloo was black, old and poor, but Eden treated him like a family member. Eden attributes all her success to Boogaloo. She calls herself 'little Boogaloo'.
C&C: Eddie, there are a lot of young people out there who want to play the blues. Do you have any advice for them?
Eddie Cusic: Most young people don't play blues anymore, but luckily there are a few who continue the tradition, and I'm happy about that. Blues is a feeling. When your sweetie lets you down, or you feel bad, or your dog walks away, you get the blues. Listen (sings): "My babies gone, she won't be back no more", or "Ludella, baby don't you hear me calling you, I tried so hard, in this world to get along with you". You see, that's the blues! The blues is a feeling! Experience the blues first and then play your music (laughs).
If you are interested in more stories of the Delta, take a look at the Catfish & Cotton books!