Farewell, T-Model Ford

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”.

Let us now praise famous underachievers

A charmingly unsparing obituary in yesterday’s Times(£) celebrated the life and times of rock musician Kevin Ayers.  Very old readers of this blog may remember him. 

A richly gifted singer and songwriter, Kevin Ayers made some wonderfully quixotic and engaging pop music, full of wit, warmth and whimsy. He was a founder member of Soft Machine, one of the seminal groups of the 1960s “underground”. Elton John appeared on his albums and both Mike Oldfield and the future Police guitarist Andy Summers played with him. He was also briefly a member of an “alternative supergroup” with Brian Eno, John Cale and Nico.

But while many of those he worked with went on to become platinum-sellers, Ayers — whose talent was described by John Peel as “so acute you could perform major eye surgery with it” — took a conscious decision to remain a cult figure, making records blessed with a freewheeling spirit and languid charm that operated blithely outside the fads and fashions of the music industry.

On several occasions in his career stardom appeared to beckon, but Ayers invariably found a way to thwart its arrival. Indeed, he was inordinately proud of the fact that he lacked the outsize ego and relentless ambition of the average rock’n’roll celebrity. Asked about his lack of drive when he released a comeback album in 2007, he replied: “I lost it years ago. But, in a way, I don’t think I’ve ever had it.”

He preferred a studied decadence and the indolent life of a bon viveur to the dedicated pursuit of fame and fortune, and the word louche might have been invented to describe him. It was once said that he wrote three kinds of songs: while drinking, while drunk and while hungover.


“Tony Greig died of a heart attack on Saturday. It was probably for him a merciful release because the late stage of any cancer is often hell on earth.”

So wrote Christopher Martin-Jenkins in The Times on 31 December. He knew what he was writing about. He died of cancer himself on New Year’s Day.

Cricket has attracted more intelligent commentators and inspired more good writing than any other sport. Compare the panel of experts on Match of the Day with that on Test Match Special. CMJ was a paragon of his trade and a great character, too.

So it is entirely worthy of him that there should have been such a rich outpouring of obituaries to mark his passing. Only a sport as literate as cricket could have achieved this. His obits reward study, too, even for those who give not a jot for the deeds of flanneled fools. They are models of their kind. 

CMJ was a character in ways obituarists dream of. His scattiness was productive of myriad anecdotes, all of them brilliant. He was also an advanced technophobe whose mishaps with his laptop were legion.

Richard Hobson in The Times recalls: 

In Lahore once, he could barely disguise his pride as he handed over a piece of paper with what he said was a wi-fi code, having managed to explain how to log on to the hotel’s internet. I lacked the heart to tell him it was nothing more than a receipt for a coffee. 

The pick of the crop of obits for CMJ is that by Simon Barnes in The Times. It really is as good as it gets: 

That voice, brimming with love, the lightest possible top-dressing of irony, flowing with easy precision from a million radios. So that wherever you happened to be, in a stuffy flat, lying in the garden, cruising the motorway, in bed in a different time zone, doing the washing-up, you were there too, the swallows skimming low across the fielder-crisscrossed grass, the sun still warm, the shouts of the players, the sigh of disappointment from the crowd, the solid smack of one that comes clean off the middle.

Life ought to be like this: always an hour after tea, England always 300 for two, the sun shining, the world untroubled and Christopher Martin-Jenkins at the microphone.

He told us about cover drives and yorkers and legside nurdles and the one that goes on with the arm. He told of a game played on six continents of the world. And always, his voice sang of his love for all this. It was a voice that seemed to call the swallows themselves into being.

AFTERTHOUGHT – Cricket commentators are famous for the way that, when rain interrupts play and there’s nothing happening, they carry right on chatting animatedly for as long as the downpour lasts. Such is their love of the minutiae game that they always have plenty to say.

There may be food for thought here for funeral celebrants. From time to time you travel back from visiting a family and you reflect that there’s very little, almost nothing, to say about the person who’s died. A blameless life, wholly uneventful. Aaaargh. (I’ve done it myself.)

This isn’t meant as a criticism. But if it’s cricket commentators’ love of the sport that gives them plenty to say about an uneventful game, perhaps the lesson is that it’s a simple love of human nature rather than any higher cleverness that can transform the minutiae of an uneventful life into something compellingly interesting. 

What I will and wont miss by Norah Ephron

Posted by Vale

Writer and director Norah Ephron died this week. Called an artist of consolation, she is remembered for comedies like Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally, but also wrote screenplays for the more serious Silkwood, fiction and a huge number of books, articles and blog posts. In I Remember Nothing she left a list of all the things she would and wouldn’t miss:

What I Won’t Miss

Dry skin
Bad dinners like the one we went to last night
Technology in general
My closet
Washing my hair
Illness everywhere
Polls that show that 32 percent of the American people believe in creationism
Fox TV
The collapse of the dollar
Bar mitzvahs
Dead flowers
The sound of the vacuum cleaner
E-mail. I know I already said it, but I want to emphasize it.
Small print
Panels on Women in Film
Taking off makeup every night

What I Will Miss

My kids
The concept of waffles
A walk in the park
The idea of a walk in the park
The park
Shakespeare in the Park
The bed
Reading in bed
The view out the window
Twinkle lights
Dinner at home just the two of us
Dinner with friends
Dinner with friends in cities where none of us lives
Next year in Istanbul
Pride and Prejudice
The Christmas tree
Thanksgiving dinner
One for the table
The dogwood
Taking a bath
Coming over the bridge to Manhattan

You can find the book here.

The list was found over on Lists of Note

‘Moose…Indian’ – whose last words?

Posted by Vale

150 years ago yesterday Henry David Thoreau died.

I’ve loved him ever since I came across his views on the first transatlantic telegraph cable. Emerson had written in praise of it, but Thoreau – with something of the prophet in him  – refused to be enthusiastic simply noting that “perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.”

He invented an improved pencil, but, having done it once could see no purpose in doing it again, even though its manufacture would have made him a fortune. Instead, he lived by his hands and his wits working out in the world how best to live in it.

Emerson’s eulogy is worth reading as a shrewd record of the man and an introduction to his thought and unique life. Emerson finishes with:

‘The scale on which his studies proceeded was so large as to require longevity, and we were the less prepared for his sudden disappearance. The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost. It seems an injury that he should leave in the midst of his broken task which none else can finish, a kind of indignity to so noble a soul that he should depart out of Nature before yet he has been really shown to his peers for what he is. But he, at least, is content. His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.’

The full text can be found here

 Thoreau’s final words are wonderfully enigmatic:  ‘Now comes good sailing’, he said, followed by ‘Moose…Indian’.