Farewell, T-Model Ford

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From the obituary in The Times (£)

Blues musician whose whiskey-fuelled guitar playing, raw lyrics and risqué repartee made him the toast of the Mississippi Delta

It was difficult to distinguish between reality and legend in the life of T-Model Ford. Like many of the great bluesmen, his ability to self-mythologise and his delight in weaving picaresque tales about himself were considerable, so that he appeared to have been dreamt up by central casting. What is certain is that he played and sang with a passion that was as raw and stark as it was eccentric and captivating, and which made him one of the last links with the great blues tradition of the Mississippi Delta.

He never learnt to read or write and although he claimed to be 93, nobody knew his true age for sure. But if the details of his life are unverifiable and may have been embroidered over the years, the narrative he told was credible and consistent with the harshness of black life in the segregated Deep South of pre-civil rights times.

He came from a sharecropping family descended from slaves and he was ploughing fields behind a mule by the time he was 11. There were several spells in prison and two years served on a chain gang, after he was sentenced to hard labour for killing a man in a knife fight in a juke-joint. He bore scars on his ankles from the shackles, which he would show off when telling the story. He said that the killing had been in self-defence.

He was married half a dozen times and fathered an estimated 26 children. His first wife allegedly ran off with his father. Another drank poison to terminate a pregnancy and died. He came to music late and started playing the blues in his late fifties when a later wife — he thought she was probably number five — gave him his first guitar.

“She was all the time running off, leaving and coming back,” he said. She agreed to stay if he learnt to play, and, according to the Ford version, he stayed up all night drinking moonshine whiskey while he taught himself the rudiments. “She left the next Friday night,” he added ruefully. It was a great punchline — and the start of a new career.

Ford played guitar in a highly unconventional manner. As he did not know how to tune the instrument, he invented his own unique method. The results were ramshackle but added a haunting tonality to his music. Other musicians joked of his idiosyncratic style that he played “in the key of T”.

After moving in 1973 to Greenville he began to play in local bars and clubs located on the town’s famously wild Nelson Street, attracting attention with his rough, old-school style and strange, rhythmic guitar playing. “He’d play late, then he’d spray himself with a bunch of mosquito spray and sleep in his van,” according to Roger Stolle, owner of the specialist blues record Cat Head store in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and one of Ford’s early champions.

A bottle of whiskey was kept close by on stage and on his tour of England in 2007, notices were posted asking the audience not to buy him a drink. His fund of tall tales spilt out at random between songs and his rapport with his audience was colourful. One of his favourite gags was to pick out an attractive woman in the crowd and tell her partner: “You’d better put your stamp on her because if she flags my train, I’m going to let her ride.”

Other musicians found him difficult to work with, in part because of his feral, untutored style but also due to an unpredictability that on at least one occasion saw him attempt to stab a fellow band member. Fat Possum’s founder, Matthew Johnson, described him as “the friendliest fun-loving psychopath you’ll ever meet”.


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