Blues Singer Willie J. Foster's Garden

R.I.P.: Willie J. Foster
September 21, 1921 - May 20, 2001
Willie J. Foster in his back yard.

The afternoon of Friday, May 15, 1998, started with nothing for me to do. Around 8 pm that night I planned to see harp master Willie J. Foster at the B & B Quick Mart, but 2 pm found me driving aimlessly around Greenville. I found myself where Nelson Street meets the levee. I hadn't been on Nelson Street in more than a year, so I turned the Bluesmobile right, east, and headed down Nelson Street, thinking I'd drive by Perry Payton's Flowing Fountain Lounge just to see if it was still there.

It was, and I also saw Perry's big Buick outside the front door. Thinking the joint might be open at such an early hour, I slowed my big Bluesmobile and looked closely.

Through the screen door, I could see inside the building. The joint was open. I parked the Bluesmobile and went inside.

Perry was alone inside the building. We greeted each other warmly, then he served me a soft drink and sat beside me on an adjacent bar stool. After a minute during which he mostly bitterly complained about the casinos taking the money of his customers, the screen door opened and a middle aged black woman walked quickly inside and sat on the stool on the other side of Perry.

In addition to the Flowing Fountain, Perry operates a funeral home. I kept my mouth shut while Perry explained in detail to the woman all the intricacies of the white man's legal system as it pertained to the affairs of her recently departed mother. During that conversation, which I let go in one of my ears and out the other ear because it was none of my business (except that Perry's funeral home had not handled the funeral arrangements for the recently departed), a thought struck me--white people pay good money to bad lawyers for information that some black people get from their bartender for nothing.

The system explained, the woman exited as quickly as she had entered. Perry and I continued our conversation. "So," he said, "you're gonna see Willie Foster tonight, huh?"

"Yeah. Out at the B & B out by the festival grounds. That's the only place I've ever seen Willie--at the festival. And a long time ago I saw him at a white people bar, but the sound system went out."

"He can blow that harp," Perry said. "Never heard better."

"Yeah, he's good. I'm looking forward to hearing him tonight and to meeting him."

"You never met him?"

"No. Never met him."

"Well, hell, why don't you go over to his house and meet him? He'd be glad to see you. That is if he could see you. He's blind."

"Yeah, I know."

"He don't live far from here. Want me to call him?"

So Perry called Willie and then gave me directions to his house. Thus by the coincidence of driving down Nelson Street began one of the most memorable meetings of my life, one I will remember for the rest of my life.

I easily found Willie's modest and neat white frame house and parked the Bluesmobile at the curb beside a white picket fence. There behind a white wooden gate across his driveway stood Willie J. Foster, a tan cordless phone dangling from a black string around his neck, his arms down at his sides and his eyes looking across the gate and toward the road as if looking for me. But, no, I remembered, he's blind.

I got out of the Bluesmobile and walked up to the gate and the elderly black man on the other side. His eyes still looking across the gate and toward the road, I noticed his right foot seemingly searching for something on the ground on his side of the gate. "Hi, Mr. Foster," I said. "I'm Junior Doughty. Glad to meet you."

"Glad to meet you," he returned. "I've heard Bud [Horton] talk about you. Can you see a wire down here on the ground?"

I looked over the gate and at the ground near his feet. "No sir."

"Well, this gate will just have to stay untied. Come on in."

I joined him in his yard and pulled the gate closed behind me.

He nodded his head toward the nearby front porch and said, "Go on in the house."

I stepped up on the porch and waited while he, using an aluminum walker, came across the yard and agonizingly slowly climbed the steps and joined me on the porch. "Go on in," he said again. "Hold the door open for me."

The door, thick glass from top to bottom, had a sturdy metal frame and was covered with black wrought iron burglar bars. I opened it and stepped inside his living room. It was squeaky clean and neat as a pin. To my right I could see through a doorway and inside a bedroom. It was clean and neat and the bed was made. I turned and held the door as Willie Foster slowly came through it. "Lock it," he said as he entered the room and I closed the door.

I locked it and said, "Damn, Mr. Foster, why do you have such a heavy duty front door?"

He made his way slowly to a wheelchair against a wall. "My youngest son," he said as he plopped down in the wheelchair. "He's 18. I just bailed him out of jail. ‘Leave ‘im in there,' everybody told me. But he's my son."

"Yes sir."

"What could I do?"

"I don't know," I answered, wanting to say, If you have to bar your doors to protect yourself from your son, maybe you should have left him in jail. Then I said, "Is it crack?"

"Crack cocaine," Willie said, sweeping his arm angrily around and pointing it toward the kitchen and a back door built exactly like the front door. "That street back there--it's Crack Alley. I tell him, ‘Stay away from that street.' But he doesn't listen to me, he doesn't listen to me, he doesn't listen to me. . . ."

Embarrassed and wanting to change the subject, I said, "Your house sure is clean and neat. Makes mine back in Louisiana look awful. You married?"

"Yes, but me and my wife don't live together. She lives about 4 blocks over. She comes over and takes care of me. We get along better'n any married people I know. Long as she lives over there and I live over here."

"Is she a lot younger than you?"

"She's 41. That's a lot younger than me."

"That's why y'all don't get along." Then, engaging my mouth before I engaged my brain, I said, "You ought to get you a woman close to your own age. Y'all might could live together an' she could take care of you."

"What? I don't want to live with a woman! My wife takes care of me just fine and we don't live together. I don't want an old woman! I like young women."

"Yes sir. How old are you?"

"I was born on September 21, 1921. I'll be 77 my next birthday."

"Yes sir."

"I was born on a cotton sack."

"You what?"

"My mother was picking cotton when I was born. Started having me out in the middle of the field. They spread out a cotton sack and laid her on it. That's where she had me."

"My God."

"Lots of people don't believe that, but it's true. I'm the only child she had. Don't have any brothers or sisters."

I knew Willie Foster was crippled as well as blind, but I didn't know why he was crippled. Sitting near him as he sat in the wheelchair, I could see that his left leg was artificial. It had been amputated slightly above his knee. "Mister Foster, how'd you lose your leg?"

"It got infected when I was on tour in New Zealand in ‘93. We went swimming in the ocean one day, and I stepped on a shell and it cut me between my toes. I pulled it out and threw it away, but a little piece of it must have stayed in there. It got infected, but I didn't worry much about it until it started hurting. Then it started really hurting. When I got back home I went to the VA in Jackson. They tried everything. They'd get the infection stopped, then it'd come back. I never had anything hurt me like that leg did. That went on for 3 years. Awful pain. Then in ‘96 the doctors told me they could give me an antibiotic that might kill me or they could cut off my leg. I said, ‘Cut it off.' Just like that I said, ‘Cut it off.' Didn't think twice about it. And that leg hasn't hurt me since."

Willie chain-smoked menthol cigarettes. He crumpled an empty green pack and reached out his hand and moved it around until he found one of the several ashtrays on the little table beside his wheelchair. Then he wheeled the chair inside the nearby bedroom. I stood and followed him.

He reached the foot of the bed and got out of the wheelchair. Then, carefully and awkwardly and bracing on the bed, he eased around the bed. I stood on one side and watched as he reached the head of the bed on the other side and then, carefully and awkwardly, got on his knees in the floor and started pulling stuff from beneath the bed. Out came his hand, clutching a green carton. He extracted a green package from the carton and stuffed the carton back under the bed, hiding it from his son, I then realized.

At that moment and as that blind and crippled old man started the slow and awkward process of returning to his wheelchair, my throat swelled with emotion--anger at his son and pity for the old man. "Mister Foster, if you'd asked me I would have gotten you a pack of cigarettes. Next time you need something just ask. I'll get it for you, okay? Won't be any bother."

Willie J. Foster in his bedroom
Willie J. Foster in his bedroom
At that moment I watched the old man swell with emotion--anger at me. He stated, "Listen! Everything I can do for myself, I do! I was born doing for myself! No sisters. No brothers. If I fall, then you can help me." He plopped down in the wheelchair, green pack of cigarettes in his hand.

"Yes sir," I said, beginning to admire this old man.

He started wheeling himself back toward the living room. I followed. Nervous, I started to close the bedroom door. "Leave it open," Willie said and pointed toward the top of the door. "Used to when I'd go to bed at night, I'd close the door and prop a cowbell up at the top. If my son came in there at night, it'd fall off and wake me up."

I was stunned. This old man, blind and crippled, went to bed at night afraid his son would sneak in the room and knock him in the head.

"Now," Willie added, "I've got a burglar alarm in there. If he comes in, it goes off and wakes me up."

Willie wheeled his chair beside the living room window. I sat on the nearby couch and watched him smoke a cigarette. I can't describe my emotions at that moment as I watched him outlined by the light from the window behind him. Suddenly, the phone hanging from around his neck rang. A lady from the Smithsonian calling, making arrangements for Willie's upcoming concert at that institution. All I could think about was a cowbell and an 18-year-old boy.

Then Willie needed my help and asked for it. He sent me in his bedroom for an envelope and a marker, a blue marker I must add. I wrote the Smithsonian lady's phone # down on the back of the envelope. "Large numbers," Willie informed me.

When I finished and he hung up the phone, I handed him the envelope and he held the large blue numbers about two inches from his eyes. "Good," he said.

I remembered Willie mentioning the VA Hospital and that he was about my father's age. "Mr. Foster, were you in World War II?"

"4th Battalion, Quartermaster Corps. In England. I drove a truck. You know, the first time I got on stage was in London in 1943 when I was a soldier. One of those shows came. What do you call ‘em?"

"A USO show?"

"That's it. USO. There was three people with that show. Joe Louis. He was the world's greatest boxer. Betty Grable. The most beautiful girl in the world. Billy Eckstine. He had the most beautiful voice in the world. I went there to see Joe Louis. Joe Louis was an inspiration to me. You know, a black man and he was the world's best at what he did."

"Wow, you actually saw Joe Louis?"

"Did more than that. Joe Louis hit me."


"The three of them got up there on stage. Joe Louis got up there and---"

"Wait a minute. Did you say that Joe Louis hit you?"

"On my shoulder. Let me finish. Joe Louis got up there, and he boxed around the stage. Betty Grable got up there, and she paraded around and showed us how beautiful she was. Billy Eckstine got up there and sang. When it was over they left the stage and stood along the wall. Then the announcer came out and said if any of us soldiers had a talent, come on up. One guy did the splits. Another guy done the jitterbug. A guy sang. Then the announcer said, ‘Anybody else?' Nobody went up. Then the announcer said, ‘Where's Private Foster? He's always blowing his harmonica.'

Willie showing me a case of harmonicas with a red  tuning letter on the bottom of each harmonica's box.
Willie showing me a case of harmonicas with a red 
tuning letter on the bottom of each harmonica's box.
"My mother sent me that harmonica. Didn't cost her but a quarter. It was a B. Man, I kept that harmonica for years. Finally blowed it out."

"A "B"? Like Bee Brand playing cards?"

"No. Tuned for B. Like B, C, G."

"Oh," I said. "So that announcer said, ‘Where's Private Foster?' huh?"

"Yes. Then the guys around me started pushing me up on that stage. I'd never blowed a harmonica in front of an audience before, especially an audience that big and in front of Joe Louis. I was scared to death. Not only that, I didn't really know but one song--Lionel Hampton's Hamp's Boogie. You ever heard of Lionel Hampton?"

"Yes sir, but not the song."
Willie blowing a "B"
Willie blowing a "B"

"There was a piano up there, and I walked over to the guy playing it and I asked him if he knew Hamp's Boogie. He did. I told him I'd never been on a stage in my life. He told me not to worry and to just blow and he'd follow me. So I started blowing. That piano player was good. He followed everything I did. The people went crazy. Screaming and yelling. I could see Joe Louis, and he was clapping his hands and yelling. When the song ended, they wouldn't let me leave the stage. They wanted another song.

"I walked over to the piano player and said, ‘That's the only song I know.'

"He said, ‘Play it again.'

"So I played Hamp's Boogie again. Played it a long long time that time. When it ended, I ran off that stage. Guess what? They pushed me back up on that stage. I didn't know what I was gonna play, but I knew I couldn't play Hamp's Boogie again. The only other thing I could do was make that harmonica sound like a train. Wuuuuu wuuuuu wuuuuu. Chug-a chug-a chug-a wuuuuu wuuuuu wuuuuu. Just like a steam train. You know a steam train?"

"Yes sir."

"So I walked over to the piano player and said, ‘I can make this harmonica sound like a train. Can you do a train on that piano?'

"He said, ‘You blow it and I'll follow it. If we don't do it, these people will kill us.'

"So that's what we did. That piano player was great. He could make that piano go clackety clackety clackety just like a train. Those people really went crazy. We went wuuuuu wuuuuu wuuuuu clackety clackety clackety chug-a chug-a chug-a wuuuuu wuuuuu wuuuuu just like a train. We finally had to stop and get off that stage.

"We had to walk by Joe Louis and Betty Grable and Billy Eckstine. They shook our hands. Joe Louis said, ‘That was good, Private Foster. Keep the good work going and you'll be a star someday.'

"And then he tapped me on the shoulder with his fist. Playful like. You know what I mean. A little tap."

"Yes sir. A love tap. Joe Louis was proud of you."

"I was so glad that man put his hand on me."

Willie after the Joe Louis story
Willie after the Joe Louis story
Several long silent seconds passed, during which I took the photo on the right. I sat there in awe of a man that Joe Louis actually hit. That man, Willie J. Foster, sat there with the memory going through his mind, reliving it again.

"Mr. Foster? Have you lived in Greenville all your life?"

"No. I left here when I was a young man, ‘bout 18. Went to St. Louis. I'm back now. It's a funny story how I got to St. Louis."

"What happened?"

"There wasn't nothing here but working in a cotton field. I decided to go north. Didn't care where. Just anywhere north. Went down to the train station to get a ticket to anywhere north. There was a white man in front of me in the ticket line. He told the ticket man, ‘Give me a ticket to St. Louis.' When he walked away with his ticket, the ticket man asked me, ‘You want a ticket too?' I said, ‘Yes sir.' When he handed it to me I looked at it and it was to St. Louis. I said, ‘Well, that's as good a place as any. At least it's north.' So I went to St. Louis."

I laughed and said, "Guess if that white man had bought a ticket to Chicago, that's where you'd've went too, huh?"

"That's right," Willie said with a laugh. "But I had a rough time when I first got to St. Louis."

"What happened?"

"Almost starved to death. I got a job right off working in a foundry. They handed me a broom and said, ‘Start sweeping.' You know a foundry?"

"Yes sir. They cast metal."

"That's right. Now I had a little money when I got to St. Louis, but when you go to work at that foundry they hold back a week's pay. You don't get paid ‘til you've been there for two weeks. Now I didn't spend my money on dice or cards or women or drinking like some guys did, but after two or three days I didn't have any money. I got hungry. There was a place where a bunch of men sat and ate their lunches. They'd tear the crust off their sandwiches and throw it against the wall. I got so hungry I'd pick up that crust and blow off the dirt and eat it. But that little bit of bread crust every day at lunch wasn't enough food. I got so hungry I got weak, dizzy. One day one of those men threw half of a pork chop against that wall. I was about to die I was so hungry, and I didn't care if that man's lips had touched that pork chop or not. I grabbed it as soon as it hit the floor and ate it.

"He said, ‘Hey, boy, what are you, a dog?'"

"A white man?" I asked.

"No, a black man. I said, 'No. I'm a man, not a dog.' He said, ‘You a dog. Dog you better get your ass back to Mississippi where it belongs.' Another man said, ‘Boy, why you eat that pork chop and it came out of that dirt over there where people spit and everything?' I said, ‘Because I'm starving to death. The only thing I've ate in three or four days is the scraps off y'all's bread.' The first man said, ‘Dog, you making me sick. Get your ass back to Mississippi.' Then one of those men tore his sandwich in half and gave it to me. The next day most of them brought me something to eat. The day after that even the first man brought me a sandwich. After that I ate fine, and payday came and I made it."

I finally decided that I had taken too much of Willie Foster's afternoon. I thanked him for allowing me that time with him, then stood and walked to the heavy duty glass door. I unlocked it and opened it, prepared to step out onto the front porch. I heard Willie say, "Would you like to see my garden?"

I turned and looked down at him in his wheelchair. His outstretched arm pointed toward the kitchen and the back door. "It's out back," he said.

"Yes sir, I'd love to see your garden." I closed the front door.

"Lock it," he said.
Willie in his back yard.
Willie in his back yard.

I locked the front door and, carrying Willie's aluminum walker, walked behind him as he wheeled through the kitchen and up to the back door and stopped. I went around him and unlocked the door, noticing marks on the casing. "Looks like somebody tried to break in," I observed.

"My son," Willie said.

I held the door open while, slowly and awkwardly, he got out of the wheelchair and into the walker, came through the door, across his back porch, down the steps, and finally stepped out in his back yard. I held my breath that he would not fall. Remembering his words about not helping him unless he asked, I did not offer a helping and stabilizing hand. But I stood close in case he fell.

He led me up to a chain-link fence which once surrounded a small dog pen. Proudly, he showed me some large and budding tomato plants and about six small pepper plants inside the pen.

"That's some damned fine tomato plants," I truthfully observed. Then, more than half seriously, I added, "Looks like they'll be loaded with big juicy tomatoes about the time of my next visit to Greenville."

Willie grinned and said, "Come on by and get you some."

Willie at the gate to his garden.
Willie at the gate to his garden.
"Is that pepper plants?" I asked.

"Sure is. I like peppers with greens. I like to fill my mouth with greens and then take a bite of a pepper and chew ‘em all up together. Man, that's good."

"Well, Mr. Foster, I'm gonna have to take your word for that. I like a little pepper sauce on my turnip greens and mustard greens, but I ain't man enough to eat a fresh green pepper right off the plant. Not even if I got five gallons of buttermilk to chase it with."

Willie laughed. Then he said, "Say, Junior, would you like to see how a blind and crippled man weeds his garden?"

Willie weeding his garden.
Willie weeding his garden.
More than a little shocked, I hesitated before saying, "Ah, yeah, I guess so."

He reached out and found the chain-link fence, clutching it, using it for a guide as he left the walker outside of the dog pen and hobbled inside the pen. To my astonishment, he then eased his body down the fence and got on his hands and knees.

He crawled forward, one hand out, moving, feeling for a pepper plant. Finding one, his hand moved down, finding the stalk, then his fingers moved around in the dirt around the stalk and found blades of grass, then pulled the grass from the ground.

Willie's hand pulling grass from around a pepper plant.
Willie's hand pulling grass from around a pepper plant.
I wanted to rush forward and help him. But I remembered his words: If I fall, then you can help me. So I took the pictures and stood there.

Finally, the last blade of grass pulled from beneath his peppers and his tomatoes, he pulled himself up the fence and out of the pen and got back in the aluminum walker. Now he retraced his slow and awkward path across the back yard, up the steps, across the porch, and through the back door as I again held it open. "Lock it," he told me again as he left the walker and plopped wearily in his wheelchair.

Near tears and with my mind almost overwhelmed with emotion, I locked the back door as he wheeled himself toward the living room. I picked up the walker and carried it through the kitchen and placed it beside his wheelchair, sitting again beside the light from his front window. "Mr. Foster," I said, "I've got to go. I'll see you tonight at the B & B."

"Okay," he said and held out his hand. "I enjoyed talking to you. Come back."

"I will," I said and meant it. I took his hand, shook it, then released it. I turned and unlocked the front door. As I looked through the door, I saw the mailman deposit something in the mailbox attached to the fence. "Mr. Foster," I said, "there's the mailman. He left something in your box."

"Would you get it and read it for me?" Willie asked.

"Yes sir." I walked out to the fence, pulled a letter from the box, and returned to the living room. I hesitated, not wanting to open the letter.

"It's okay," Willie said, I guess sensing my hesitation.

It was a tax receipt. I read it aloud, then placed it in Willie's hands. Then I said, "Goodbye, Mr. Foster."

"Goodbye. Please come again."

I grasped the handle, and the door unexpectedly opened, seemingly of its own accord. There holding the door stood a young black man, the son, I realized. Without a word to me or a look at me, he walked past me and into the living room.

"Hey!" I heard Willie Foster say. "Can't you speak?!"

I turned as the young man turned and looked over his shoulder at me. He sneered at me and lied, "I did," and walked toward the kitchen.

I looked down at Willie Foster, his sightless eyes looking in the direction of my right hand. "Goodbye, Mr. Foster," I said again and went out the door.

For a long moment I sat in the Bluesmobile in silence, my eyes filled with tears and looking through Willie Foster's white fence at the black bars covering his front door. Then I started the motor and drove away, leaving him alone with his garden and his son.


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