Willie Watson, the Church, and the Search for a Lady
“Take this Hammer” coated the walls of the church, at times right up to the ceiling. Willie Watson’s eyes were tightly closed under his brimmed hat. The vibrato was more apparent on the words he decided to stretch.
It’s an old work song. Forced labourers on chain gangs used to sing it. This use of leased-out prisoners started after the abolition of slavery and continued into the 20th century. The chain gangs aren’t being leased out anymore, so “Take This Hammer” no longer echoes around the railroads or brickyards of the American South. Willie Watson brought it to life in front of us in Bangor, though.
We were in a small church on Bangor seafront for the Willie Watson gig as part of Open House Festival. Watson was on the alter with his guitar, banjo, mic, and a tiny three-drawer box of notes and plectrums and harmonicas and strings. He released his debut solo album Folk Singer Vol. 1 a year ago – a collection of old and traditional American folk songs. He’s touring Ireland with these songs, then back to the States. There are other oldies added to the mix too, because he’s “kind of tired of these song after singing them for a year.”
“Mexican Cowboy” is off the album. It was the second song of the set and he brought out the banjo for this one. He knew we would like that, he even said “I know how much you love this banjo.” We laughed and couldn’t wait for him to start playing it, which he did with signature ease, squeezing the life out of the instrument and into the song. Another notable from Folk Singer Vol. 1 was “Stewball,” which he told us was a mandatory sing-along. “All you gotta sing is uh-huh.” He made us practice, and then he made it tricky with that “repeat every fourth line” instruction. So we uh-huh’ed and we repeated, and we weren’t bad for a congregation of people who weren’t in the choir. And the Reverend Watson was kind; he applauded our efforts at the end of it.
If I’ve got this right his dad was from Lurgan. Or was it Maghera? Either way, he might be New York born and bred, but Willie Watson was brought up with HP Sauce, and After Eights, and mince. There was a group of cousins in the audience waiting to meet him at the end of the show.
Watson was funny and boyish. He ran off stage (the alter) at one point to grab the harmonica rack he’d forgotten. It was like he’d forgotten his football boots and had to jump out of the car to grab them, while dad kept the engine running. A few songs into the set he took off his hat and skimmed it across the stage as he prepared for his next song. “Now I feel bad,” he half grinned/half frowned, then bounced over and picked it up to place it somewhere nicely.
It was only fitting that he sang some gospel songs. “Dry Bones” is a “mean, badass gospel song,” he told us, and was my favourite of the night if the truth be told. Particularly noticeable on this was the percussion on the banjo that was framing the melody. “I Belong to the Band” was another beauty. His voice was clear and warm in this still peaceful space. There was some quiet humming from the floor.
“James Alley Blues” was off the album, with the immortal lines:
Sometimes I think you’re too sweet to die
And another time I think you oughta be buried alive
Despite the tenor of the song though his voice was pretty mellow. Until the line “She wants to drive me like a mule,” when the harmonica jumped in sharp and melodic. “I didn’t mean a word of it ladies” he beamed out at us at the end of the song. “I want to marry a nice Irish girl” he continued as he took off his hat and smoothed his hair back with his hand. “So I’ll be signing CDs out front after the show …”
Later on he reckoned he’d made up for this with “Rollin Mama Blues.”
Tell me mama, how you want your rollin’ done?
Well just as long as you like it, if it takes me all night long
After which he thanked the ladies in the room and repeated that he’ll be signing CDs out front. I can’t be sure, but I don’t think he struck lucky in Bangor.
Photo credits Katie Loughrin.
Originally posted on Gigging NI