Born: March 18, 1943, Prairie Point, Mississippi
Died: March 8, 2009
Photo credit: Bill Steber – www.steberphoto.com
A community activist who preferred the intimacy of juke joints to big festivals, Willie King described his music as “struggling blues.” Influenced by blues and gospel music, King preached a message of love and social justice to his adoring fans. Raised by his grandparents on a plantation, he constructed his first guitar by nailing a string of bailing wire to a tree. A plantation owner loaned King the money to buy his first guitar. He began playing house parties as a teenager, earning a few dollars a night. In 1967, King moved to Chicago hoping to establish his music career. After a year spent playing in the clubs on the South and West sides, He moved to Old Memphis, Alabama, just across the border from his hometown. He worked as a traveling salesman in rural areas selling shoes and other dry goods while talking politics with his customers. In 1983, King established The Rural Members Association, an organization dedicated to bringing together community elders with youths to pass on the “local heritage of traditional African American cultural arts and survival skills to the next generation. King started the Freedom Creek Blues Festival in 1997 to benefit the programs sponsored by The Rural Members Association. The two-day festival held on King’s farm features national acts alongside local blues bands and gospel singers. Blues fans from around the world make annual pilgrimages to attend the festival and to mix with the locals. In 2000, King recorded two CDs: a self-produced recording I am the Blues and the critically acclaimed Freedom Creek, a live recording at Bettie’s Place.