Bluesman Joe Calicott was born and lived his whole life in the small town of Nesbit, Mississippi, and is one of the most underrecorded legends of the Mississippi delta solo acoustic blues tradition. He first picked up the guitar at the age of 15 and, in 1929, first appeared on 78s as the second guitarist to Garfield Akers. A year later he recorded two tracks with Jim Jackson, “Traveling Mama Blues” and “Fare Thee Well Blues,” which have since appeared on many compilations including Blow My Blues Away,” Vol. 2. His playing on these tracks is marked by an aggressive vocal that would mellow throughout the years.
Callicott almost completely gave up the guitar in 1959, the year of Akers death, but picked up again in the mid-60s for his own personal enjoyment. In 1967, blues documentarian George Mitchell sought out the artist and recorded eleven tracks with the then slowed down but still magnificent musician. These tracks would later surface as part of Fat Possum’s George Mitchell Archive and the 2003 album Ain’t A Gonna Lie To You. Just before he died, in 1969, Callicott mentored Kenny Brown, a then 10-year-old boy who skipped school to learn guitar from this unassuming master who lived just down the street.
FARE THE WELL BLUES by MISSISSIPPI JOE CALICOTT
Although his early recording career resulted in only two songs issued in 1930, Nesbit native Joe Callicott (1899-1969) is often regarded as one of Mississippi’s finest early bluesmen. His guitar work was also featured with local bluesman Garfield Akers on Cottonfield Blues, a classic 1929 single that illustrated how blues developed from field hollers. In the late 1960s Callicott recorded more extensively for folklorists and served as mentor to Nesbit guitarist Kenny Brown.
Callicott, whose music was notable for his delicate guitar style and rich vocals, spent most of his life here in Nesbit. He began playing blues as a young boy and performed for many years together with fellow guitarist Garfield Akers (c. 1900-1959). They played mostly around the area at informal gatherings and performed in a distinctive local style similar to that of Memphis blues pioneer Frank Stokes and Hernando’s Jim Jackson. In 1929 Jackson arranged for the pair to record for the Brunswick-Balke-Collender corporation of Chicago, which had set up a temporary recording unit at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. Callicott’s recording of “Mississippi Boll Weevil Blues” from that session was unissued, but he played on Akers’ two-part single “Cottonfield Blues,” which was issued on the Vocalion label. The following year they again recorded in Memphis. Vocalion issued “Dough Roller Blues” and “Jumpin’ and Shoutin’ Blues” by Akers, while Brunswick released Callicott’s “Fare Thee Well Blues” and “Traveling Mama Blues” (using the spelling Calicott on the label and Callicutt in company files). Although Callicott gave up performing in the 1940s, Akers was active on the down-home Memphis blues scene of the early ‘50s. Akers, however, never recorded again.
DOWN TO THE RIVER by MISSISSIPPI JOE CALICOTT
In 1967 folklorist George Mitchell met and recorded Callicott, and Callicott’s subsequent return to performing included a booking at the 1968 Memphis Country Blues Festival in Memphis and travels as far as New York City. Recordings made by Mitchell and British producer Mike Vernon of the Blue Horizon label revealed the impressive range of Callicott’s early repertoire, which included songs about World War I and the boisterous nightlife of Beale Street. During this period Callicott also taught guitar to Kenny Brown (b. 1953), who lived with his family next door. Brown later became well known in the blues world via his twenty-year relationship with Holly Springs guitarist R. L. Burnside as well as his own recordings. On his 2003 Fat Possum CD Stingray Brown recorded three of Callicott’s songs.
Another young student of older blues artists in the area was Bobby Ray Watson (b. 1943) of the nearby Pleasant Hill community. Watson often performed together with local harmonica player Johnny Woods (1917-1990), a dynamic performer and native of nearby Looxahoma. This area’s most famous resident, legendary pianist and vocalist Jerry Lee Lewis, included many blues songs in his repertoire. The Nesbit ranch purchased by Lewis 1973 became a tourist attraction and featured a piano-shaped pool.