Mercy Dee Walton Interview
“The blues to me was a way of getting rid of your trouble through your music. During those times when I started playing things kinda rugged, you know what I mean. A dollar or two was a great thing back then. I just started playing the blues. You get words, you play the blues. Play it all. Take it out on the music. Because that’s the reason why I love the blues. I play a variety of music, but I love the blues best because a guy really tells how he feels. Your soul singing the blues.” – Mercy Dee Walton
- Mercy Dee Walton Interview 00:00
Interviewee: Mercy Dee Walton
Interviewer: Chris Strachwitz
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. email@example.com
Mercy Dee Walton Interview Transcript:
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Strachwitz: When were you born and where?
Mercy Dee: I was born August the thirtieth, 1915 in a little place called Waco, Texas. I’ve been playing, singing the blues since I was about, oh, thirteen I guess. I come up around such blues artists as Sonny V, and Pete. Pete the Grey Ghost we called him. He was a blues singer. Delois Maxey. Guys like that.
They was playing for things during that time, playing for things called rent parties. Ten cents house parties. They didn’t have bands or anything like that. Mostly just a piano player. I started to playing the blues then. Went from that to the country supper. That thing way out into the country. You go out there and you play all night long for a dollar and a half.
Finally I moved to California and I played around Fresno, around the harvest, and this and that. That’s where I made my first record back then, in Fresno. I flew.
Strachwitz: Could you tell us something more about those singers that you mentioned? The Grey Ghost. I’ve heard that name before.
Mercy Dee: Well, it’s Grey Ghost. He never did make any records or anything, but he was a great piano player. A great singer. This guy, Delois Maxey was, too. Oh, man he’s a terrific blues singer.
Strachwitz: Where did he come from?
Mercy Dee: They was from Waco, those two guys. There’s another guy out of Dallas called Son Putney.
Strachwitz: What did he play?
Mercy Dee: He’s a piano player. Mm-hmm . Eddie Burroughs (?). Fella called Eddie Burroughs played guitar. Eddie played a nice guitar. All those guys were really good.
I was about to say a while ago, I finally got into this recording with a little small company. It wasn’t a big thing. The big companies, they heard of them so I…
Strachwitz: Who ran this Spire Company?
Mercy Dee: That was Chester Lu.
Strachwitz: Chester Lu.
Mercy Dee: A Chinese fellow.
Strachwitz: Did he make any other records except yours?
Mercy Dee: Well, I think I was the only guy he had then.
Strachwitz: What’s sort of made you sing the blues?
Mercy Dee: Well, I guess it was just the way I expressed a guy’s self. The blues to me was a way of getting rid of your trouble through your music. During those times when I started playing things kinda rugged, you know what I mean. A dollar or two was a great thing back then.
I just started playing the blues. You get words, you play the blues. Play it all. Take it out on the music. Because that’s the reason why I love the blues. I play a variety of music, but I love the blues best because a guy really tells how he feels. Your soul singing the blues.
Strachwitz: Did you work on a farm or were you mostly playing…?
Mercy Dee: I lived in town, but when the harvest time come up, I’d go out and pick the cotton, and chop, and this and that.
Strachwitz: How much would they pay you in those days?
Mercy Dee: Oh, about fifty cents a hundred.
Strachwitz: Fifty cents.
Mercy Dee: About fifty cents a hundred. It wasn’t too much. Then on a Saturday and Sunday you get a chance to play for this country supper deal. Play all night for little or nothing, but still it was great money to me.
Strachwitz: How would they have that group? Would they be on a platform?
Mercy Dee: Well, no it wouldn’t be exactly group. As I say, it would just be, just piano.
Strachwitz: Oh, just piano.
Mercy Dee: Just piano. They had houses then that a group would go out to pick cotton, well, they had these houses for them to live in, see and it would just be a big, vacant house and they’d rent a piano and put it in.
Then they’d put a table across the door and have a tub of soda pop, fish, and this and that and they’d give a ball, see. Boy you’d be surprised, people’d come from miles around. Just like you have big dances now at the auditorium. Yeah. Oh yeah.
Strachwitz: You played at that time usually around Waco and that area?
Mercy Dee: Oh, yes.
Strachwitz: Did you ever tour any other parts at that time or mostly around Waco?
Mercy Dee: Well, at that time before I started making records, I wasn’t doing any too… I’d go from different towns, but after I made a few records naturally I went all over.
Strachwitz: Before you came to California, what sort of numbers did you used to play? Do you remember the names of them?
Mercy Dee: Oh, just the low-down blues. Just the blues. In other words, a guy at that time it wasn’t too many blues artists out on the records. We had a few like the old Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Walter Davis, and this and that, you know. But the blues artists at that time, the ones that we did have was big guys. You know what I mean? It’d be Mamie Smith and Bessie Smith and them playing. Well, they was the big …
Strachwitz: The big sellers.
Mercy Dee: Yes. But a small time just some blues artist, well it wasn’t too many of them on records. I think World War II brought that in.
Strachwitz: But you had a lot of them singing around.
Mercy Dee: Oh, gee. Man, we had some. I believe at that time the guys was playing more and singing harder. They was playing more piano, they played more soul in another words. Those guys really played soul, man. When a guy sat down to play then, he played. He could entertain a whole two, maybe two hundred and fifty peoples with just the piano! And he didn’t need a drum. Oh man, he didn’t need a drum. Slapping his feet and singing, but it was good. The rhythm and everything was there.
Strachwitz: Then did you come out here during the war?
Mercy Dee: No, I come out before the war, but I was playing back there. Oh man, I’ve been playing all my life. Yes, sir. I been with quite a few of the companies in Los Angeles. Some of the top ones.
Strachwitz: Who were some of the people that played with you? Can you remember who was the drummer on your Specialty thing, that One Room Country Shack?
Mercy Dee: That was a boy I called Whiteside. I think his name Jesse Whiteside. I think that was it.
Strachwitz: Where was he from? Los Angeles?
Mercy Dee: Oh, I don’t know.
Strachwitz: Where’d you cut those records?
Mercy Dee: At the studio. For Mr. Rupe. Art Group. He’s a fine fellow, Art.
Strachwitz: What’s his name?
Mercy Dee: Art Rupe.
Strachwitz: Art Rupe.
Mercy Dee: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Strachwitz: He was with Specialty Records?
Mercy Dee: Well, he’s the big boss.
Strachwitz: Oh, he;s the big boss. I see.
Mercy Dee: Yeah. He’s the big guy over at Specialty. Oh, yeah.
Strachwitz: Let me see what I wanted to know about. Oh, remember that woman on that thing, the Red Man Blues. Who was that?
Mercy Dee: Oh, that was, well that was, I’ll say my wife.
Strachwitz: Oh, she was your wife.
Mercy Dee: Mm-hmm (affirmative). A girl called, uh, Thelma and of course on the records I named her Lady Fox.
Strachwitz: Oh really.
Mercy Dee: Uh huh (affirmative).
Strachwitz: [You know that in European … want to know exactly who played with whom. He always wanted to know everybody in the audience…] You remember the guitar player on the Imperial?
Mercy Dee: Oh, yeah. That was Big Tiny Webb. He’s dead.
Strachwitz: That was Tiny Webb?
Mercy Dee: Big Tiny. You know Tiny? Yeah. That’s who he was.
Strachwitz: He impressed a lot of other guitar players in his time. Especially around Los Angeles.
Mercy Dee: Yeah. Oh man, Tiny.
Strachwitz: Who was the drummer at the time..?
Mercy Dee: I don’t know the drummer over there. It was somebody that Lu knew.
Strachwitz: When you made that one for Bob, did you just make it one side?
Mercy Dee: No, it was a whole deal. A whole record, but they didn’t do anything.
Strachwitz: He only issued that one side.
Mercy Dee: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Strachwitz: Did you have a guitar player at the time in the studio? There was a Hawaiian style guitar.
Mercy Dee: That is a boy called L.C. Robinson.
Strachwitz: L.C. Robinson, L.C. Good Rockin Robinson.
Mercy Dee: Yeah. You know then we made a thing for Bob called “The Main Event”. Did you hear that?
Strachwitz: Was that you one there?
Mercy Dee: Yeah, that’s me. That’s my record.
Strachwitz: That’s a jump band.
Mercy Dee: Yeah, that’s my record.
Strachwitz: Oh is that right?
Mercy Dee: Yeah.
Strachwitz: That was recorded at some concert or something, wasn’t it?
Mercy Dee: No, it was dubbed. We cut it right there at Bob’s.
Strachwitz: How did you know it was dubbed?
Mercy Dee: They [?] in the studio. They got all that pattin and shoutin. They built that in. Whistlin’.
Strachwitz: Oh, I see. That was all done after.
Mercy Dee: Yeah.
Strachwitz: Who was in that band? I mean that sounds like…
Mercy Dee: Well, we had Jesse on guitar, and they had one of the … he played tenor but that day he didn’t have his tenor, so he borrowed an alto, and there’s one of the old Andy Kirk Band boys. He used to be with Andy Kirk on alto. And I forget who it was on the drums, but it was a swinging little group.
This thing was a cut through [?] and you’d be cutting a session and the boys would get nervous, like, they’re trying and make so many mistakes and this and that, so I said, “Let’s jam one.” And so we jammed one. So a place of business right across the streets on Seventh there, it’s a little beer tavern, said The Main Event. Bob said, “What are we going to name the thing?” I said, “Let’s name it The Main Event.” Man it sold. Swinging Deacon used to use it as a theme song all the time.
Strachwitz: Oh yeah?
Mercy Dee: Yeah, it really jumped.
Strachwitz: I was wondering about those names that you mentioned. Did they play around Waco?
Mercy Dee: Yes. All through Texas. It’s quite a few. Let’s see. There’s another guy called Big Hand Joe Thomas. Well, I was around quite a bit in Fort Worth. I didn’t play with him, but I was around when he was gigging and we’re speaking T-bone Walker when he was playing at The Dixie Tavern. I was working up on [Throckmorton 12:00] a little place called Bryson Tavern.
Strachwitz: Was this all before you started having records?
Mercy Dee: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yes. There was a fellow called Willy Woodson. He’s a terrible boy on the piano. He was. He’s dead now.
Strachwitz: Was he a ……
Mercy Dee: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Willy Woodson.
Strachwitz: I thought I heard one of them… [?]
Mercy Dee: That was a guy. Now, you remember when they started playing boogie woogie piano, you know? Well it was a guy before. I want to say he’s originally but he’s the best I ever heard on that boogie woogie was a little guy we called Pinetop Shorty. Little oldster. Pine-Top Shorty. We named him that. Boy, he could play up some boogie woogie.
Strachwitz: About when was this? Do you remember when?
Mercy Dee: Oh, well, it’s way back. I’d say back in ’31. ’30, something like that. Them boys, those guys was playing a lot of boogie then. Let’s see …
Strachwitz: Did you ever hear of a fellow called The Black Ace?
Mercy Dee: Black Ace. I don’t think. Where was he from?
Strachwitz: I think he’s from, see he lives there in Fort Worth now. He plays a steel guitar.
Mercy Dee: No. I knew I think it was a piano player or a drummer from around Fort Worth called Blind Wally. He was… I think he played, oh, I forget whether he played piano or drums, but he played one of those instruments. He was good. That’s what his boy Sonny V is from. Fort Worth.
Strachwitz: How old do you think he is? Is he still around do you think?
Mercy Dee: Well, I imagine. I don’t know whether he’s still playing. Sonny he’s, at the time he was a few years older than myself. Sonny should be around fifty-one. Something like that. I imagine he’s still around, but I don’t imagine he’s playing.
Strachwitz: How about this Grey Ghost? I heard some other folks talking about him.
Mercy Dee: Grey Ghost, well now he is a guy that really plays a knowledgeable blues. You know this deep, deep blues. Real country blues. He’s good.
Strachwitz: Were you ever much concerned with the spiritual scene or anything of that kind of gospel music?
Mercy Dee: Well, no but I have a deal wrote up now I’d like to get going. It’s kind of on a religious kick.
Strachwitz: I see. I was wondering, you know, when we talked to Lil’ Son Jackson he felt very strongly about he didn’t want to mix the two. He said it’s a completely different feeling that goes into it. I mean they very much sound alike often; it is very much like the blues. He said it’s a completely different feeling. He didn’t want to mix them. Do you have any feelings about this?
Mercy Dee: To my idea, music and singing is just singing. If I was to do a spiritual number, I believe I’d put my whole heart in, just like I would the blues. It’s just singing and playing to me. If you don’t put your soul in either one, it’s nothing. If you sing a religious number, you’ve got to put your soul in. If you sing a blues you’ve got to put the same thing. Unless you would, say, do a spiritual number and have something in the lyrics that would be downing and mocking against the church or something, or against religion, then I think it wouldn’t be good, but just to sing it, I don’t have no scruples against singing.
Strachwitz: I was hoping if you could tell us again about Smokey Hogg. When did you first run into him?
Mercy Dee: Oh, man. I run into Smokey in LA and he wants to go out on a little tour with me and Big Jay McNeely. And boy this guy had the sorriest personality you ever saw on a bandstand, but the people just love him. He walks up on a bandstand, it’s like he’s cleaning a shotgun or something with no band personality whatsoever. But when he starts with that style that he got the peoples, oh man, they just yell for him.
Strachwitz: He was a pretty heavy drinker, isn’t he?
Mercy Dee: Well, he do. Yes. I’ll tell you another thing about the guy: You know he believe in himself. I mean yeah he’ll tell you in a minute, say, “When I get to such and such town, I’m going to knock ‘em dead.” You’d be trying to figure how with the style, you know what I mean? Yeah, he really believed in himself. If you’ve got a short distance there from here to LA, he’d won’t ride in the bus. He’d say, “Well, I’m going to fly down.” When he really hits, he hits. That old style he got, it just sells. I don’t know where he find those numbers, but just like he had one I think was Penitentiary Blues. About the bells ringing and the this and that. Even the kids for when hit was out, they was going for it.
Strachwitz: Do you remember hearing any of these songs like that or I’ve heard one song they called There Ain’t No More Cane on this Brazos, or anything like that? Did you ever recall any songs like that were like that around when you were in Waco?
Mercy Dee: No, it was more or less singing the something like the things you hear me do. This blues. Low-down blues.
Strachwitz: Did you ever hear one by … No, you probably havn’t. There’s a Tom Moore’s Farm. Did you ever hear anything about the Moore brothers? They owned a huge land down the Brazos.
Mercy Dee: Mm-hmm (affirmative). No, I didn’t. I didn’t hear about it.
Strachwitz: I was just curious.
Mercy Dee: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Sure.
Mercy Dee: Yeah.
Strachwitz: Let’s see. Did you ever run across any other singers like Smoky that you remember? Those blues singers around at that time that you run across…
Mercy Dee: Well, I run across quite a few fellows there in LA. But those guys was such guys like Percy Mayfield and we played a bunch of gigs together. Like Smoky, no I haven’t run into too many of them. Only I’ve run into a bunch of them that wasn’t making records. You know, Just guys playing.
Strachwitz: Do you remember any of their names?
Mercy Dee: There’s guys like this Son Brewster. Well he tried to play the piano a little and he sang terrific.
Strachwitz: Where’s he from?
Mercy Dee: He’s from Texas. He’s from I think Waco. Yeah, last time I think he was from Waco. Then there was a guy years ago before I even started playing. I was trying, but before I could learn good, there was a guy out of Marlin, Texas called Bob Jackson. He was a terrific piano player. Oh, man.
Strachwitz: Do you recall any particular numbers he did?
Mercy Dee: No, he was just only doing the like commercial numbers then that was on the radio and he was doing them, and the blues. I do recall one number that he was terrific on; it was a thing called Troublesome Mind.
Strachwitz: That was Trouble In Mind, I’m going to lay my head on a railroad line or something?
Mercy Dee: Yes. It was like that, but the way he sang it was a different kind of a deal. It was a real blues the way he sing it.
Strachwitz: You remarked saying that most of the fellows then tried to play like what they heard on their jukebox. I mean that was already at the time, didn’t they make up more in those days?
Mercy Dee: Well, the jukebox wasn’t too much of a going thing then.
Strachwitz: Where did they hear most of their songs?
Mercy Dee: I think especially the blue, they just make ‘em. It come from one guy to another, see. In other words, at that time, a piano player was the main thing, see, and they’d just go from town to town. You get the good piano player. He’s here today and he’d catch the bus and he’s over in Fort Worth. Because he could play, like I was telling you, he could play to an audience of about two hundred people just him. They’d rent a little old small place and the guy didn’t even have a mic most times. No mic, he’d just holler loud and sing. Yeah, they didn’t have to have mic.
Strachwitz: Then the other fellows in that town, they would sing sometimes the same numbers as one who gets pretty well-known.
Mercy Dee: Uh-huh (affirmative). Well, it just goes from one to the other. They just made up their blues. Well, most of the blues is just …
Strachwitz: Yeah, they make em up. There’s some that are some pretty distinctive ones, that seem to carry on dialect. Baby Please Don’t Go, do you remember it? That must be pretty old.
Mercy Dee: I remember the number but I done forgotten who… wasn’t there a recording of that?
Strachwitz: Yeah, there were a couple of fellows working on that. Where did you get your style from? Do you remember anyone in particular that really impressed you?
Mercy Dee: I believe I do. I believe I got my style from a guy called Delois Maxey. The guy I was mentioning, I mentioned him a while ago. He’s a piano player.
Strachwitz: He was from …
Mercy Dee: Waco. Well see, at the time …
Strachwitz: Mostly it was his piano style that you went after? How about your singing when you drop low and..?
Mercy Dee: It’s singing and the piano. See as I say, the piano player was a popular thing then, see. I wanted to play and sing and I used to just follow the guy around. He’d play at these ten cents house parties.
Strachwitz: What do you mean by ten cents? You mean everybody pay ten cents…
Mercy Dee: Everybody paid a dime. There’d be a common house, but everybody’d come in, pay the dime, and that would be split with the piano player and the person with the house, see. They didn’t have to have nothing but a piano in the house.
Strachwitz: Who would furnish the food and the drinks?
Mercy Dee: No food or drinks. Just bootleg liquor and pay a dime and go in. You’d be surprised at the people’s get in one house. Ten cents and just have a piano player. Sometime they went so far as to sometime they have a large garage or something, and they’d give it in that, but it’d only be a piano player playing.
Strachwitz: Did you ever hear any other kind of groups. Like Lowell Folsom, he told me that he once played in a band a lot of mandolins and even banjos in there.
Mercy Dee: Well, I’ll tell you you’ll find mostly groups like that around Houston. They plays kind of a French deal called zydeco.
Strachwitz: Oh, yeah.
Mercy Dee: You find that around Houston.
Strachwitz: Where do you think that term comes from, the zydeco? Do you know that?
Mercy Dee: Let’s see. I don’t know exactly, but I think it’s from Louisiana.
Strachwitz: Have you ever seen it spelled? You see, this friend of mine who’s very much interested in this kind of thing, he wasn’t sure how you spell it. He’s heard it, you know…
Mercy Dee: I don’t know. Look like it would start with a z to me.
Strachwitz: Yeah. You’ve never seen it written?
Mercy Dee: No.
Strachwitz: You’ve never seen it.
Mercy Dee: Well, see zydeco, they seldom use a piano and it’s got strings. In other words, you remember you’d see sometime, you don’t see it now very often, you’d see a guy with a washboard — like Spike Jones deal — and some kind of something he made blowing through like a comb or something. They’d build their band around that. And some of them got pretty nice bands. I mean playing some pretty swank places in Houston with that kind of stuff. One band, I was in Houston one time and I saw a guy had a regular wash tub made into a drum and you’d be surprised at how nice a tavern this thing was sitting up in and they was wailing.
Strachwitz: It was just a tub as the drums?
Mercy Dee: Well, no they had the tub sitting up in one side covered with some kind of a skin, I guess, and you could tell his seat was a tub and they was going to town.
Strachwitz: Who else was in that band?
Mercy Dee: Well, the drum, and then got a couple of guitars, and a mandolin and this and that. Strings mostly. Well see, it’s a part of town in Houston they call French Town.
Strachwitz: Oh yeah.
Mercy Dee: Coming back to this zydeco, it’s a bunch of colored peoples out of New Orleans and around Louisiana that’s half French and they speaks a broken French. They have their own music and this and that. Well, that’s what they like, see. Yeah, they go for that.
Strachwitz: Yeah, I heard quite a few. Especially with the accordion.
Mercy Dee: Yeah. I know a boy, he came out here several years ago and I had carried him out to Specialty. Clifton Chenier, he plays accordion. Well I carried him out to Specialty. That’s the first time he ever made a record.
I don’t think they had the thing named. They just named themselves right there, “Boppin the Rock” it’s just something he’s playing. Then the flip side I think he played some kind of a French tune. In other words, he’d be singing in French, but they would buy it in Louisiana.
Strachwitz: I like that.
Mercy Dee: Mm-hmm (affirmative). That’s zydeco.
Strachwitz: Where’d you first run into Sydney? Was it down there?
Mercy Dee: Sydney, let me see. I think it was Fresno. Mm-hmm (affirmative), down in Fresno. I think that’s it. I like Sydney’s harp. He plays a nice harp, man.
Strachwitz: Most of the time you always played by yourself.
Mercy Dee: Well, no. Oh, I’ve been playing with a group a long time, but most of them were recordings, see. Seemed like I could get more out of it. Well at least the one that sold the biggest was just with drum and piano, see. But I played with groups for I don’t know how long.
Strachwitz: Where here in Stockton have you been playing these gigs?
Mercy Dee: Well, I played all over. The Dew Drop Inn, the Elks, and I did the Flame Club. Of course, we recently finished a little engagement last night at the Riverbank. A little place called a Log Cabin. We played out there last night.
Strachwitz: Who does most of your getting you jobs and this kind of thing? Do you do those yourself or do you have somebody?
Mercy Dee: Well, oftentimes a guy will need a, those kind of things, a guy will need a band or this and that. It’s just whoever would do a good job, well he’d come around and pick the best guys for it. If I run into it, in other words I don’t have a permanent group of my own at the present time. Just if a gig come up we go pick up some fellows and go.
Strachwitz: I was curious, how did you run into Joe Williams? Did he just show up one day?
Mercy Dee: Joe Williams. I happened to be in Oakland and you probably have heard tell of this. Marcellus Thomas, well he told him that I was upstairs in such and such a room, he come up, and for some reason, I don’t know why, he thinks he know me. From I mean before, see. He was just going on, “I know you in Chicago.” I didn’t know him before. But he’s got a powerful blues that’s really down-home blues he got. Oh, yeah.
Strachwitz: Is there anything in particular that you want to say, that you fell about music or how it’s going? What you do about… Would you want to have me say anything particular about how you feel about popular music or blues or…
Mercy Dee: Well, I’ll tell you about music. I like it all. Some pieces I don’t like well as I do the other, but I think the rock and roll is great. Now, if it’s going to be a rock and roll deal, I don’t mind going and sitting and listening to it, go hear somebody else play it. But I hate for a guy who play rock and roll try to play with me, or I try to play with him, you know what I mean? Of course I have been in spots like that. I’ve even run into spots where I have to do a night or two with extreme progress boys, where you know shuffles and blues and stuff like that. Ballads, they don’t, you can’t mix it with that progress unless you’s a progress man, but you’d be caught in a pinch and you go ahead and do the night. In pain.