Bill Neely Interview

Bill Neely was born near McKinley in Collin County, Texas, on September 19, 1916. His parents were sharecroppers in those flat lands just north of Dallas. Bill’s father Charlie King Neely came to Texas when he was 18 after growing up and working on tobacco plantations in Kentucky. His mother, Cary Helen Burleson, was from Nashville, Tennessee, and she sang, played guitar, organ, piano, and accordion and taught many a song to her son Bill while sitting on the porch after work. When Bill was growing up there were square dances almost every Saturday night at the Neely house or at somebody else’s place. He also heard Negro field workers sing blues and spirituals and picked up the “Graveyard Dreams Blues.”

Bill Neely has been singing and picking guitar since 1929 when Jimmie Rodgers showed him a few basics. In the late 1940s he started writing his own songs and has been doing it ever since. The songs on this, Bill’s first album, are almost all his own compositions. Like most real folk artists Bill can’t read or write music but once a song is formed in his head it stays there and when he plays for an audience or a recording microphone they come to him one after the other.

 -Chris Strachwitz, from the notes for Bill Neely – Blackland Farm Boy, 1974 (Arhoolie LP 5014)

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Interviewee: Bill Neely
Interviewer: Chris Strachwitz
Date: April 1973
Location: Texas
Language: English

This is an interview originally recorded for research purposes. It is presented here in its raw state, unedited except to remove some irrelevant sections and blank spaces. All rights to the interview are reserved by the Arhoolie Foundation. Please do not use anything from this website without permission.

Statement on the passing of Chris Strachwitz

Arhoolie Records Founder
July 1, 1931 – May 5, 2023

We celebrate the life of our founder, friend, and great record man Chris Strachwitz. He died peacefully at home in Marin County, CA, surrounded in his last days by dear friends and family. Over his 91 years, Chris captured the music that represents the best “down home music” the world has to offer.

He was at the forefront of nearly all the roots revivals over the last 60 years including blues, zydeco, Cajun, Norteño and Tejano music. His drive to document traditional music helped introduce the nation to our diverse musical heritage. He had the foresight to save music that might have otherwise been lost to obscurity and played a role in strengthening cultural traditions through his records, films, and most recently the Arhoolie Foundation. He cared for those around him, fought for royalties and recognition for Arhoolie artists, and provided counsel to countless musicians, writers, film makers, and academics.

Plans for a public celebration of his life will be announced in the coming weeks. Today we’re thinking of all that Chris brought to our lives and the lives of the musicians and fans with whom he shared his passion.