Owens, Jack 1904–1997
Jack Owens 1904–1997
Blues singer and guitarist
When he died in 1997 at the age of 92, Jack Owens was perhaps the last living link to the pure Mississippi Delta acoustic blues tradition. Other bluesmen made more numerous and more famous recordings, but Owens had a unique style that showed how blues players shaped musical materials in their own personal ways. Other players from the Delta traveled far and wide, moving north to Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s to help give birth to modern electric blues, or taking their art to college campuses and folk festivals during the folk blues revival of the 1960s and beyond. But Owens remained rooted for his entire life in the place where he was born, in later life receiving a steady stream of visitors who came to hear him play and to learn what blues music was all about.
Jack Owens was born L. F. Nelson on November 17, 1904, in Bentonia, Mississippi, at the Delta’s edge. Owens was raised by the family of his mother, Celia Owens, after his father left the family when Owens was five or six years old. Before his father departed, he taught Owens a few chords on the guitar. This is all Owens would keep of his father, electing to drop his father’s surname of Nelson and adopt the name of Owens instead. Owens also learned to play the cane fife, an African-American instrument with historical roots stretching directly back to Africa, and he may have played the fiddle and piano at times. But it was his guitar skills that caught the attention of local musicians. By the time he was a teenager he had learned a few standard pieces of the music that was just beginning to be called the blues, and by 1920 he was pressed into service playing at local parties and gathering places.
Similarities to Skip James Style
Blues authorities disagree as to whether Bentonia had its own distinct style of the blues, but all would concur that it was home to a group of especially talented players. In addition to Owens and several other musicians who were poorly or not at all represented on recordings, there was Skip James, one of the genuine stars of the Delta blues style. James, who had married one of Owens’ sisters, encouraged Owens’ musical efforts. James told London Guardian writer Val Wilmer that he said to Owens, “Hey Jack, you done started you something, ain’t you?” James and Owens shared a basic style marked by intense, death-haunted lyrics, lengthy, intricate guitar solos, individualistic guitar tunings.
At a Glance…
Born on November 17, 1904, in Bentonia, MS; died on February 9, 1997, in Yazoo City, MS; married three times; children: three (died in fire, 1930s).
Career: Began performing at house parties around Bentonia by 1920; remained in Bentonia all his life, working as farmer and operating front of house as juke joint into 1960s; discovered by folklorist David Evans, 1970; recorded album It Must Have Been the Devil, 1971; began touring after death of third wife in 1985; appeared in film Deep Blues, 1991; performed in New York, 1992.
Awards: Received $10,000 National Heritage Fellowship Award, 1993.
and sharp falsetto vocal exclamations. The two sometimes performed together around Bentonia.
Owens’ song repertoire overlapped somewhat with that of James, but he also created pieces such as “Jack Ain’t Had No Water,” which are not known to have been played or recorded by any other musician. Even his recordings of pieces identified with James have a distinct flavor, and it is difficult to compare the talents of the two musicians. The restless James attracted the attention of record-company talent agents and was recorded in his prime, in 1931, but Owens stayed put in Bentonia and was not recorded until he was discovered by folklorist David Evans in the late 1960s—by which time, though still a vigorously active musician, he had achieved senior-citizen status.
Owens was reluctant to leave Bentonia because he feared police harassment. From a modern perspective it is easy to romanticize the life of the traveling blues musician, making a living off nothing more than a guitar and a set of profound reflections, but in fact blues musicians were frequently arrested and charged with vagrancy. “We had bad times here. Bad times,” Owens told the London Independent. “They’d hang a nigger just like he was a squirrel.” Instead of risking the real perils of life on the road, Owens worked all his life as a farmer in Bentonia.
In many ways Owens lived the hard life he sang about. He lost his three children in a house fire in the 1930s, and he never learned to read or write. His music catered not to record buyers nationwide, but to the local people who came to his house to hear him play. Owens converted the front of his house into a “juke joint”—a dancing and drinking place where moonshine liquor flowed and dishes such as barbecued goat were served by Owens’ wife (he married three times) through a hole cut out of the kitchen wall. Owens often performed with Bud Spires, a blind harmonica player. The two would sit opposite each other with legs interlocked so that Spires could respond to Owens’ cues. The juke joint lasted into the late 1960s, long after most such places in the Delta had vanished.
Spires appeared on Owens’ only album, It Must Have Been the Devil, which appeared in 1971 and was re-released with added material on CD in 1995. The 1971 album came about after Skip James told folklorist Evans that if he went to Bentonia he could find other musicians like himself who had thus far remained undiscovered. The album, which The Down Home Guide to the Blues called “a beautiful and moving musical experience,” offers insight into what the Delta blues sounded like on its home turf. Owens, unconstrained by conventional ideas about the length of recorded songs, lets loose with improvisational structures of varying lengths. The album’s title track, more than ten minutes long, is a special highlight.
Even in 1971, It Must Have Been the Devil was a startlingly concrete manifestation of a largely forgotten and heavily mythologized world. The album and the story of Owens’ discovery became well known among blues fans, who came to the Delta in search of the true source of the blues. Owens generally rewarded visitors with a performance on the front porch of his home, provided that they honored his request to bring him a bottle of his favorite Hogmouth brand gin. Owens rarely left Bentonia until after the death of his third wife in 1985. By that time, in his ninth decade, Owens was regarded as a living legend.
Owens began appearing at festivals and blues performance venues when he was in his nineties, making his New York debut in 1992 after taking his first plane flight. In 1991 he was featured in the widely praised documentary Deep Blues, and in 1995 he appeared in a Levi’s jeans ad, seated on his familiar front porch. In 1993 Owens received a $10,000 National Heritage Fellowship Award. He cashed the check and kept the proceeds in a pouch under his shirt, using some of the money to renovate one of a collection of rusting pickup trucks that had come to rest in his yard. Jack Owens died in a hospital in Yazoo City, Mississippi, on February 9, 1997, and it might be said that the first generation of the blues died with him.
It Must Have Been the Devil, 1971, reissued by Testament, 1995.
(Soundtrack, with various artists) Deep Blues, Atlantic, 1991.
The Last Giants of Mississippi Blues: Jack Owens and Eugene Powell, Wolf, 1993.
Contemporary Musicians, Volume 30, Gale, 2001.
Rucker, Leland, ed., MusicHound Blues: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink, 1998.
Scott, Frank, Down Home Guide to the Blues, Down Home Music, 1991.
Down Beat, August 1995, p. 55.
The Guardian (London, England), March 18, 1997, p. 18.
The Independent (London, England), May 7, 1995, p. 65.
New York Times, February 20, 1992, p. C16.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com
—James M. Manheim
"Owens, Jack 1904–1997." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/owens-jack-1904-1997
"Owens, Jack 1904–1997." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved January 20, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/owens-jack-1904-1997
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At the time of his death on February 9, 1997, at the age of 93, guitarist Jack Owens was the oldest performing Mississippi Delta bluesman, one of the last links to the golden age of country blues and an American tradition that has all but vanished. Although Owens made his recording debut late in life with It Must Have Been the Devil in 1971, he had already earned recognition from his rural hometown of Bentonia as a first generation blues singer and guitarist, influencing younger artists such as Muddy Waters and B.B. King, as well as modern performers like Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. “He’s the dean of living Delta bluesmen and gives you a rare window into a world that most of us can only read about, or listen to on records,” said David Evans, a music professor at the University of Memphis and the man most responsible for “rediscovering” Owens during the 1960s blues revival, as quoted by Josh Getlin of the Los Angeles Times. “There just aren’t too many people like him around, and soon they’ll all be gone.”
Owens spent his entire life in Bentonia, Mississippi, a quiet town of modest homes and aging storefronts located between Jackson and Yazoo City on the edge of the Delta. Although not found on many maps, the small community occupies an honored position in blues history, enough to attract a fair number of blues enthusiasts during Owens’ lifetime each year to an old wooden house off a rugged dirt road on the outskirts of town. It was here that the legendary guitarist, weather permitting, could be seen on the front porch of his dilapidated shack, sitting in his weathered tan vinyl rocking chair, often clad in a worn jacket of the same color. If he felt comfortable with these strangers, Owens, a slight and well-worn, but steely-eyed and confident man even in his later years, would invite them onto his porch, answer their questions, and after negotiating some payment for his time, begin to play his acoustic guitar and sing in his piercing, bone-chilling wail.
Unlike many Mississippi blues performers, Jack Owens, born on November 17, 1904, never sought fame, fortune, or outside recognition for his music. Content to remain unknown to the mainstream, he only left the Bentonia area with his music during the last ten years of his life, when he started touring from time to time across the United States and in Europe. “I don’t got long,” Owens told Getlin in 1995. “But until I’m gone, I’ll be here.” His parents were longtime farmers, and Owens, the oldest of eight children, began working in the fields at an early age and never learned to read or write. Inspired by several family members who played guitar, Owens in his youth developed an interest in music as well, learning to play on a three-stringed instrument. According to Owens, blues songs came to him naturally during the long hours toiling in the fields. “I’d be working the plow and then a song would come to me, I’d be moanin’ me a song, and then when I’d get home, I’d try to play it,” he recalled. “But I
Born on November 17, 1904, in Bentonia, MS; died on February 9, 1997, in Bentonia; married three times; third wife, Mabel, died in 1990.
Discovered by a blues critic and released It Must Have Been the Devil, 1971; began playing occasional music festivals, 1990.
Awards: National Heritage Fellowship Award, 1993.
was dragging a guitar around the floor before I could even walk.”
Although regional distinctions are less clear today as the American countryside has become more homogenized, the Delta area years ago was a place where everyone in each rural community knew each other. Families helped raise one another’s children, sharing food and other necessities during tough times. The people also relied upon music as a primary source of entertainment and self expression, passing on traditions, as well as a strong sense of community, from one generation to the next. Some Americans, however, would just as soon forget about the oppressive circumstances that shaped the music of the deep South. Mississippi country blues and the lifestyle that nurtured it grew out of slavery, racial bigotry, and economic struggles.
While he always wore an outward cheerfulness, Owens, like his neighbors, knew of dark moments through personal experience. He lost his only three children in a house fire in the 1930s, and the death of his third wife, Mabel, in the 1990 also took an emotional toll. In addition, he witnessed and felt the lash of racism firsthand. “Look at that place,” he said to Getlin, pointing toward a local river. “Once it was filled with black bodies. There was lynchings here. The peoples who got taken didn’t do nothing. They stringed ’em up and set fire to the bodies.” But in the wake of such cultural injustices, the people of the Delta developed a sound rich in musical authenticity and human contact, with each small community uncovering its own original voice.
Bentonia, in particular, rose to a high standing in the blues world through its indigenous music. “It’s a chilling kind of Delta blues,” Don Kent, manager of the respected archival label Yazoo Records, explained to Getlin. “But like so many other styles, it was the music of people who were overwhelmed by a violent, changing world.” More specifically, the style distinctive to Bentonia “is defined by its minor modes, myriad complex tunings, intricately picked guitar accompaniments, eerie, moaning vocals and lyrical focus on death, violence, the supernatural and, oh yes, unfaithful women,” wrote David McGee in the Rolling Stone Jazz & Blues Album Guide.
Skip James, regarded as the Bentonia blues standard bearer, brought the area’s music to the rest of the world with his 1931 sessions for Paramount Records in a style defined by its high-pitched singing and powerful, dynamic guitar work. James, a childhood friend, was at one time married to Owens’ sister; Owens referred to his late pal as “Skippy.” Prior to his success, only the residents of Bentonia knew of James, and if they knew him, they certainly knew about Owens, his running buddy and one of Bentonia’s most colorful characters. Owens’ guitar playing sounds similar to that of James—ambitious, sharp finger-picking, stinging single notes, and double-note bursts of feeling. However, Owens played with more tempo shifts and bouncing and driving rhythms, a technique he insisted he developed on his own.
Moreover, Owens’ writing was more open-minded; rather than provide a straight story line like James, Owens focused on anecdotal observations about people and places. “As much as any bluesman who has ever been recorded, his music recognizes a connection between humans and the sky above, the land below, the invisible, omnipotent God who brings life and death and the dark forces that speak to our basest natures,” wrote McGee. Through such insight, Owens methodically picked out tunes in minor keys while singing in his haunting falsetto, all of his tales gaining urgency through atmosphere amid swirling guitar lines.
As the years passed, Owens quietly farmed and played his guitar in Bentonia, where he became a popular local entertainer. On the weekends, he turned his small shack into a juke joint. As the proprietor, Owens not only provided a jukebox and sold gallon jugs of moonshine while his wife sold barbecued goat sandwiches through a hole in the wall, but also served as the evening’s live entertainment. Often, he performed for his customers with the harmonica support of longtime friend and comic foil Benjamin “Bud” Spires, the son of Chicago bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Spires. This way of life and the juke joint performances endured well into the late-1960s, long after most of the other Delta bluesman had migrated to places like Chicago.
Owens would have remained hidden had it not been for James. In 1966, Owens’ old friend stayed as a guest at the flat of blues scholar David Evans, then a folklore Student at UCLA, for several days. One night while the blues legend was performing at the Ash Grove nightclub, Evans asked James if he knew any other musicians like him from Bentonia still playing. Evans then traveled to the remote town, hoping to find other artists, and locals immediately directed him to Owens. Soon, he recorded Owens’ first album, It Must Have Been the Devil, released first in 1971, then reissued in 1993 to include five extra tracks. Containing the songs most identified with Owens—the anguished “Cherry Ball,” a surging workout featuring guitar and Spires on harmonica in a fierce duel entitled “Hard Times,” the field holler “Can’t See, Baby,” a tale of lost love called “Jack Ain’t Had No Water,” and the title track, an account of evil doings afoot and the model for the famous James song “Devil Got My Woman”—It Must Have Been the Devil became an instant collectors’ favorite.
In the 1980s, the record gained a wider audience. By then Owens, one of the few Delta bluesmen still playing, had outlived most of his contemporaries, and people wanting to hear the original music flocked to his porch. Although the juke joint had long since closed, Owens and Spires remained, and as Owens’ celebrity grew, he became a tourist attraction. In 1990, after his wife’s death, Owens, backed by Spires, began playing on occasion at music festivals, earning high praises in blues magazines and enjoying a cult following on the blues revival circuit. Most of the time, however, Owens and Spires could be found back home, happy to play for those who searched them out in Bentonia. According to McGee,” Cash and a couple bottles of whiskey get the music started; what happens next will change you.”
In 1991, Owens was featured on the soundtrack for Deep Blues, a landmark documentary of the living blues tradition based on the book by the late Robert Palmer. That same year, the 11-track import The Last Giants of Mississippi Blues arrived, featuring seven songs recorded by Owens in 1980 and 1981, four from 1991, and ten tracks recorded during the same period by fellow bluesman Eugene Powell, born in Utica, Mississippi, in 1908. In 1995, he was featured playing on his front porch in a television advertisement for Levi’s 501 jeans. The high point of Owens’ career occurred in Washington, D.C., in 1993, when he received a $10,000 National Heritage Fellowship Award from the United States government for his work in keeping folk traditions alive. For two days and nights in Washington, Owens was treated like a national treasure, then returned to a simpler life in Bentonia. For years afterward until his death, Owens kept the entire amount of money from the Heritage Award hidden in a pouch under his shirt.
(With Bud Spires) It Must Have Been the Devil, 1971; reissued, Testament, 1995.
(With others) Deep Blues (soundtrack), Atlantic, 1991.
The Last Giants of Mississippi Blues: Jack Owens and Eugene Powell, Wolf, 1993.
Swenson, John, editor, Rolling Stone Jazz & Blues Album Guide, Random House, 1999.
Billboard, January 8, 2000.
Down Beat, August 1995.
Los Angeles Times, November 22, 1995.
Jack Owens, http://www.hub.org/bluesnet/artists/jackowens.html (August 13,2000).
"Owens, Jack." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/owens-jack
"Owens, Jack." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved January 20, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/owens-jack