Willa Mae Buckner – Requiem for a snake lady
In Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where more than a few people own decorative license plates reading “Tobacco Pays My Bills”, you can take the Waughtown Street exit and then maneuver toward the Alvarado Joyeria. That’s a jewelry store, and that’s where you turn on your way to the Johnson-Howard-Robinson Home of Memory, where they came on a warm January afternoon to pay respects to Willa Mae Buckner, The Snake Lady.
Rev. Sam Hickerson, who’d never met Willa, officiated at the service. He wondered out loud what it was about this lady that could have brought such a diverse group of mourners together. He didn’t know that the answer lay not only in the kindness of her sweet old soul but also in her bawdy songs, her carnival background and her great love of the Devil’s own metaphor.
“She was a good friend,” Tattoo Joe said after the service. “She had her snake show back when I had my freak show, and we traveled around together. First time I saw her I went to see her show, and I looked at those snakes and said, ‘They’d make nice boots.’ She heard me and cussed me out. She cussed better than a sailor.”
Tattoo Joe has a hairless dog with elephantine skin, which is nothing close to what it would take to shock Willa Mae Buckner. “There ain’t but like five hairs on his whole body,” Joe said as he opened his Chevy hatchback and unleashed the elephant dog. The group of mourners gathered around the canine, happy that all vestiges of what Greil Marcus calls the old, weird America were not gone from this world.
But Willa — who spoke seven languages, loved Jesus and prayed often, messed with an old black hoodoo pot, stripped at Midnight Rambles in the 1940s, started Christmas shopping in the summer, swallowed swords, and sang “Let Me Play With Your Yo-Yo” at Carnegie Hall — Willa Mae Buckner is gone. In her life she was shot, slurred, hassled and harassed. She never left home without lipstick, high heels and a knife, and she knew how to use all of those to best advantage.
“She was a combination of Granny on the Beverly Hillbillies and some seriously crazy black burlesque queen from back in the day,” said blues legend Taj Mahal. “Willa Mae was as real as it’s going to get in this century, or in the next.”
As to what Willa Mae Buckner meant to American music in the twentieth century, it’s hard to say. Her libidinous signature songs, “Peter Rumpkin” and the aforementioned yo-yo treatise, are not particularly well-known, and her music is available only on two compilations distributed by the nonprofit Music Maker Relief Foundation of Pinnacle, North Carolina.
Buckner was a genuine trailblazer, though, an attraction on the ill-documented carnival and medicine show circuit. Like long-dead medicine show vets Pink Anderson and Peg Leg Sam, Willa borrowed liberally from vaudeville, knowing full well that the strange, sexy or hilarious was more likely to draw paying customers than the heartfelt and forlorn.
Pink gave a first name to a famous British art rock band, and his songs on the jukebox helped a young Arkansan named Johnny Cash want to become the Man In Black. Peg influenced Lyle Lovett indirectly, through brilliant Texas songwriter Eric Taylor. Taylor spent an evening with Peg in Anderson, South Carolina, and worked up a version of the blues classic “Delia”, later passing that version along to Lovett at a Houston listening room. Peg’s lyrics finally appeared square in the middle of Lovett’s “Since The Last Time” on his 1992 album Joshua Judges Ruth. “Lyle credits me in the liner notes, but he should have credited Peg,” Taylor acknowledged.
No one credits Willa, but her contributions to the shady, time-dimmed world of traveling shows are many. “All sorts of people were at those shows,” Mahal said. “It has to go somewhere.”
Tim Duffy runs the Music Maker Foundation, which assists the indigent blues musicians Duffy calls the “true pioneers of Southern musical traditions.” Guitar Gabriel, who performed in some carnivals with Willa, introduced Duffy to the Snake Lady.
“Any town we would go, old black folks would recognize her,” Duffy said. “She was from the pre-television, segregation era, and Willa was a star. People think the blues is just Muddy Waters. In Southern, working-class African-American communities, though, they might not even know who Muddy Waters was, but they know Willa because she came to play the tent show every year. Three generations of people came out to see her snake shows.”
Born June 15, 1922, in Augusta, Georgia, Buckner said she had a happy time of it until her mother died when Willa was 11. Before that, her home was something of a neighborhood hangout. “They liked my daddy’s home brew, but they favored my mama’s moonshine,” Buckner told Hampshire College student Carolyn Tennant, who wrote a college paper about her. Willa Mae remembered fish fries at the house, complete with loud music and dancing. “You know I was out there shaking my to-tee-to.”
Her mother’s death was followed by father Freddie Morgan’s hasty remarriage. Buckner said she was treated unfairly by her stepmother; she left home at age 12 and spent a year at her uncle’s house in Winston-Salem. One night when Willa was 14, she attended a minstrel show belonging to either Jimmy Simpson or Jimmy Samson (sources offer varying spellings). By morning she was dancing in the chorus line. She eventually moved into a more prominent role, performing risque blues songs for the men who would gather:
Brother Jim, what’s we gonna have for supper
The heck with a man who’s got a wife
And don’t know how to.
Fumble dumble, all night long
Whiskey’s in this glass
Anybody here don’t like this song
They can just.
Kiss me once, kiss me twice
It’s been a long, long time
Willa accompanied herself on piano, which she said she learned at age 21. She taught herself to play guitar midway through her next decade, and would gig at clubs or at minstrel shows.
But she didn’t just sing and play at the Midnight Ramble posing shows. When the carnival closed its doors to children, she’d stand naked behind a curtain until the curtain opened. Then she would remain motionless for a couple of minutes, until the curtain closed.