Bongo Joe Interview

“If you can have an influence to cause people to see on a level, you can get yourself out of a situation, and when you get out of the situation you don’t have to worry about somebody else trying to connive or scheme a way to throw you right back in it, because you’re out of it truly. You ain’t out of it through scheme.” – George “Bongo Joe” Coleman, (November 28, 1923 – December 19, 1999)

In this brief interview Bongo Joe is not very talkative; however, he does reveal a few glimpses into his creative personality.

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Interviewee: Bongo Joe (George Coleman)
Interviewer: Chris Strachwitz & LARRY SKOOG
Date: 1968
Location: San Antonio, TX
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.

See below photo gallery for a transcript of the interview

Bongo Joe Interview Transcript:

A Note About the Transcriptions: In order to expedite the process of putting these interviews online, we are using a transcription service. Due to the challenges of transcribing speech – especially when it contains regional accents and refers to regional places and names – some of these interview transcriptions may contain errors. We have tried to correct as many as possible, but if you discover errors while listening, please send corrections to

Larry Skoog:    You told me that you were born in Florida was it? You have to say yes so they can get it. I can’t record a nod, George. When?

Bongo Joe:           ’23.

Larry Skoog:    1923?

Bongo Joe:           Yeah.

Larry Skoog:    Born and raised there?

Bongo Joe:           Uh-huh.

Larry Skoog:    Where did you first start banging on the drum, on the can there?

Bongo Joe:           Houston.

Larry Skoog:    In Houston? What gave you the idea for it?

Bongo Joe:           Just trying to get a job as a drummer, and I couldn’t get the job unless I had my own drums. I tried to make a loan from several sources to buy drums. ….. my first job, and couldn’t get the money so I got some cans and fixed them up like drums and started playing on street corners in Houston.

Larry Skoog:    When was that?

Bongo Joe:           That was in the early 50s.

Larry Skoog:    Early 50s?

Larry Skoog:   I see these Jamaican guys beating on these things. Did that influence you, or did you think about that at all?

Bongo Joe:           No. I was doing it long before I ever heard of it.

Larry Skoog:    I’ll be darned.

Chris Strachwitz:        Did your parents or anybody in your family ever play music?

Bongo Joe:           I ain’t got no parents. They’re all dead.

Larry Skoog:    So it was just something you sort of felt like doing then. I imagine you knew you had a talent for it.

Bongo Joe:           Mm-hmm (affirmative). I always did like the rhythmic-type music, such as xylophone, piano, drum. Anything you bang on, that’s what I always liked.

Chris Strachwitz:        Did you get most of your songs by just observing people?

Larry Skoog:    Making them up?

Chris Strachwitz:        How do you make them up?

Bongo Joe:           Make them up as I go along. Got my first time yet to do the same one twice the same way.

Larry Skoog:    Well, they’re pretty good songs. Is there one thing or another that you particularly like to sing about?

Bongo Joe:           Tell you the truth, no.

Larry Skoog:    Do you use the songs to tell-

Bongo Joe:           First thing come to my mind.

Larry Skoog:    First thing come to your mind? Here comes that amateur drum beater right there. He said he’s not going to sleep. He’s going to listen.

Speaker 4:       If you play something.

Larry Skoog:    He’s going to play something. You’ll hear him. And don’t worry a bit about them, because we told them they could stay up and listen.

Bongo Joe:           They don’t bother me.

Larry Skoog:    You can make it as loud as you want. What about … What did you do for a living before you started banging on the drums?

Bongo Joe:           Piano.

Larry Skoog:    Played the piano?

Chris Strachwitz: Have you played lately at all?

Bongo Joe:           Acapulco.

Larry Skoog:    You just sort of travel around and find a place-

Bongo Joe:           No, I try to stay in one place.

Larry Skoog:    Try to stay in one place. You said you’d lived in Houston for a while, then Galveston, and then Fort Worth.

Bongo Joe:           Yeah. I’d go to Houston for the winter. That went on for about six or eight years, and then I started going to Fort Worth. That lasted about five years. I was considering Galveston as home base.

Larry Skoog:    Until they built the old folks’ home.

Bongo Joe:           Yeah.

Chris Strachwitz:        You made too much noise for them, or what?

Larry Skoog:    Driving the crowds out.

Bongo Joe:           I had to stop playing at 10:00 every night.

Larry Skoog:    And down there, that’s just when people are getting started down there.

Bongo Joe:           People didn’t have no where else to go, and that’s when the crowds got big.

Larry Skoog:    He played down there in front of the gift shop o n Seawall. I used to see him … I used to see you when I was going fishing and things like that, and going back and things like that. You’d be always setting up and getting ready to start just I was coming back from fishing. A couple times I stopped to listen.

Chris Strachwitz: Have you ever gone back to Florida, the beaches there, played there?

Bongo Joe:           Uh-uh (negative).

Larry Skoog:    Consider yourself a Texan now, huh. That’s groovy. We need more good drum beaters in Texas.

Bongo Joe:           I found it to be the best state I ever been in since I been big enough to know about them.

Larry Skoog:    Do you like to travel?

Bongo Joe:           The news media kept me from going back to Florida.

Larry Skoog:    Really? How come?

Bongo Joe:           These movements, yeah, movements.

Larry Skoog:    Oh. You mean the civil rights stuff and things like that?

Bongo Joe:           Yeah.

Larry Skoog:    Just thought it wasn’t going to be a little too wild down there, or thought that you couldn’t say what you wanted to say?

Bongo Joe:           No, I just didn’t want to go down there.

Larry Skoog:    I can understand that.

Chris Strachwitz:        Have you thought about going to California?

Bongo Joe:           Me, for myself, if I ain’t going to take part in a thing I’d rather not be around it.

Larry Skoog:    That’s right.

Bongo Joe:           One way or the other.

Chris Strachwitz:        Do you have any strong feelings about things that you feel you want to express?

Bongo Joe:           [inaudible 05:38] promotion, that would be on the level. Something starting up here, I’m positive.

Larry Skoog:    You seem to want to express yourself through your music, and you seem to want to tell people-

Bongo Joe:           There’s a bigger percentage of it, but I refuse to ever mention it in words.

Larry Skoog:    I know your songs always deal with the human condition, how people treat each other.

Bongo Joe:           See, you don’t say how good you can shine a pair of shoes by … I can make them look so you can see y ourself. You don’t understand, and I’ll exercise it. See what I mean?

Larry Skoog:    Yeah.

Bongo Joe:           Sometime I might say, “Do you like a shine?” [inaudible 06:22] shine shoes after I get through, something like that. In fact, I have shined shoes, and that was the method I used.

Larry Skoog:    Really? In other words, the demonstration is the proof. When you do it, and do it well, that’s what the whole thing is about.

Bongo Joe:           Sometimes a demonstration can prove … I don’t want to say prove, but verify or signify not only what you can do, but what you want it to be placed.

Larry Skoog:    Yeah, how you feel about it.

Bongo Joe:           Because you have to be around a thing at least seven straight days in order to estimate that, and you got to know something about the field to be able to do that behind the seven days being around it.

Larry Skoog:    Right, the time.

Bongo Joe:           In other words, you can sense the way a guy plays if he’s a real musician. I ought to say, first you got to be a real musician from the inside through what you can remember and exercise and coordinate, and I might use the term cooperate too. A lot of that goes in.

Larry Skoog:    A whole lot of it, yeah.

Bongo Joe:           In other words, you observe a musician for about seven days, if you’re pretty well-equipped for knowing things, you sense the way he plays under the circumstances. See? You can pretty well tell from that.

Larry Skoog:    You see him in different situations and how he performs and what he does with it.

Bongo Joe:           That way you can just about tell what kind of crowd he wants to play for.

Larry Skoog:    And what he’s trying to say, too.

Bongo Joe:           Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Larry Skoog:    Who would be some of your favorite musicians?

Bongo Joe:           Right now-

Larry Skoog:    I mean of all time.

Bongo Joe:           Dave Brubeck, Stan Kenton, Erroll Garner, Fat Wallace, Chick Webb, Gene Krupa, Stan Kenton, Duke Ellington, Johnny Hodges,  Flip Phillips, Dizzy Gillespie, and this Mexican guy, I can’t think of his name right now.

Chris Strachwitz:        The good jazz orchestras.

Larry Skoog:    Yeah, the guys that are really trying to do new, and yet solid, jazz.

Bongo Joe:           Today it’s just a lot of noise and crap.

Larry Skoog:    Right. That’s the way I feel about it too. I don’t like the stuff that’s real new, and I don’t like the stuff that’s real, real old. I like the guys like … Like Ellington is my favorite of all time. The kind of guy that’s trying to present something more than just sounds, you know. A feeling.

Bongo Joe:           The newness of anything ……   development of the thing,  ……..or musicians.

Larry Skoog:    That’s right.

Bongo Joe:           That is the newness. What makes it new is originally from wherever it comes from right then.

Larry Skoog:    That’s right. It’s not just trying to mix any different. Because then anybody make it.

Bongo Joe:           No music can be new no longer than one minute after it’s been played.

Larry Skoog:    That’s right. That’s a good observation, in fact. That’s going in the notes. I know what you mean. I noticed in your songs, George, the ones that I’ve heard so far, a couple I heard last night and the ones that I heard down in Galveston and the ones I heard on that record that Mac made, the ones I heard today, you seem to like to talk about man and how man is treating each other and the relationships between people and this sort of thing, and I think you do it beautifully.

Bongo Joe:           Any real man, if you want to be a real man, he can’t wiggle out of a situation just looking out for himself.[inaudible 00:10:24] It’s impossible to improve the earth in that manner.

Larry Skoog:    Yeah, I’ll buy that.

Bongo Joe:           If you can have an influence to cause people to see on a level, you can get yourself out of a situation, and when you get out of the situation you don’t have to worry about somebody else trying to connive or scheme a way to throw you right back in it, because you’re out of it truly. You ain’t out of it through scheme.

Larry Skoog:    That’s right. It’s an honest thing. That sort of sums up the way I feel, that all your songs are talking about things like that. Honesty, like that song you sang today about the little dog.

Chris Strachwitz:        I wish I could … Can you remember that one?

Larry Skoog:    That was … That made an impression on my children.

Chris Strachwitz:        Yeah, they remembered it.

Larry Skoog:    There’s something … They say a person that’s got a poetic spirit can talk to the wisest person in the world, and to the smallest children, and I think there’s something valid in that because there’s something about truth that reaches all levels of people. I feel that way, anyway, and that’s the way that song-

What do you use in your coffee, George? Anything? Take cream or sugar?

Bongo Joe:           Benzedrine

Larry Skoog:    What’s that?

Bongo Joe:           Benzedrine

Larry Skoog:    I can’t offer you Benzedrine I got a some good bourbon. I got the rest of that wine.

Bongo Joe:           No.

Larry Skoog:    And I got cream and sugar.

Bongo Joe:           A little sugar, no cream.

Speaker 5:       Would you like a piece of apple pie?

Bongo Joe:           I better not eat nothing sweet.

Larry Skoog:    I feel the same. The sugar kind of gets in your throat, doesn’t it?

Bongo Joe:           No. I just … I have high blood pressure sometimes.

Larry Skoog:    Oh, I see. I’m bothered with the same complaint. I got eight different kinds of pills. Eight. I’m not kidding.

Bongo Joe:           What is it?

Larry Skoog:    For high blood pressure.

Bongo Joe:           The name of them, do you know?

Larry Skoog:    No, uh-uh. They didn’t tell me. All they said was …

Bongo Joe:           Let me look at them, I can pretty well tell you.

Speaker 5:       Would you like a ham sandwich on rye?

Bongo Joe:           No, I better not get no food in my mouth. No food. I can’t whistle with it. You ever see anybody try to whistle with a soda cracker in their mouth when they chewed it up?

Speaker 5:       You really get a total picture of San Antonio down there on that Alamo Plaza, don’t you?

Larry Skoog:    Tell you, every kind of people walk by that place, don’t they?

Bongo Joe:           Oh yeah.

Bongo Joe:           Of course, you got to study people in order to know just about what to teach them.

Larry Skoog:    That’s right.

Bongo Joe:           Can’t just rig up a set pattern like you would a bucket of water and pour it on them and expect them to drink it.