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Robert Belfour

Robert Belfour

May 2007. Interview by Rick Webb. Photos by Andy Hall

Born near the town of Holly Springs in the Northern hill country of Mississippi in 1940, from an early age Belfour was steeped in the music unique to that area. He first learnt to play guitar from his father and was neighbour and friend to artists such as Othar Turner, Syd Hemphill, and future label mate Junior Kimbrough. In 1959 he moved to Memphis and spent the next thirty five years working in construction, playing music in his spare time.

Appearing on Beale Street from the 80s, in 1994 he was recorded by blues scholar, field researcher, and ethnomusicologist Dr. David Evans. Eight songs came to be featured on the compilation 'The Spirit Lives On, Deep South Country Blues and Spirituals in the 1990s' released by German label Hot Fox. This led to a recordind deal with Fat Possum Records and the release, in 2000, of his first album 'What's Wrong with You'.

Like Kimbrough and other North Mississippi Fat Possum label mates R.L. Burnside, and T- Model Ford, Belfour plays rhythmic, riffy, trancey blues but he adds a level of detail with some sophisticated fingerwork. His powerful vocals have, aparently, led him to be dubbed 'Wolfman' at times.

We caught up with him before his sold out appearance at this years Sptiz Festival of Blues, the final show in a short UK tour...

So how's this tour been going? What sort of people are you getting at your shows? Have they been busy?

Everything's been going fine! One more show, and that's tonight, then leaving for the airport in the morning. Some of them have been at little small places, where you know aint too many people gonna get in there anyway, but the place was full! That's all you can do - when you get in there and you aint got nowhere to sit down you just stand, that's it. But all of the shows went great.

Do you play at this sort of level back home?

Well I travel all over the world. I travel nationally as well as overseas. A lot of time I'm overseas - it mat not be in London but I'm somewhere - France, Paris, Switzerland, all them different kind of places... Mexico... I go all over the world. From the East Coast to the West! I book my own self, I aint got no booking agent.

Robert BelfourAnd you travel alone?

I travel alone... I enjoy it, because I don't have to worry about nobody else. When they send me my contract I just look over it and if I like it and it's right I get the ticket and I'm gone. That's the way to do it! Half the time when you're traveling with a band, the head person of the band may not even make no money when he gets through trying to pay everybody else!

Been on my own ever since I started at seven and a half years old... I started recording in my late 30's and I'm 66 now, so you know how long I've been playing.

This kind of traveling all over and playing internationally though, that's a fairly new thing for you isn't it?

Well I've been playing most of my life really, but I wasn't playing in the public. I played around home for years, and around Beale Street for years before I got known, but I really got known overseas before I got known in the United States.

How did that happen?

Dr. David Evans recorded me in Memphis State... Hot Fox records in Germany put out the record ("The Spirit Lives On, Deep South Country Blues and Spirituals in the 1990s.") and that's why I first got to be a celebrity - in Germany, and then in Europe...

And was it a surprise you you that it happened?

Not really... but I liked it! I'd been playing all my life - I thought myself by ear listening to the radio... started off by chord and I changed over - I wanted to do notes... I wanted something somebody else wasn't doing, because everybody was imitating somebody else you know - chords and stuff - and I wanted my own thing.

But you still consider yourself to be playing 'Mississippi Hill Country' music?

That's right... When I first started going to Germany and they heard my playing and singing they thought I was from the Delta... "Mississippi Delta Bluesman Robert 'Wolfman' Belfour" - that's what was on the poster, and I spoke to them about it... Years later I was playing in other places, nationally, and they're like "You don't live in no delta?" and I'm like "No I don't live in no delta I was born right there in Red Bank Mississippi, 'aint nothing like the delta, it's hill country." (Note: most bigographical information available has Holly Springs as Roberts place of birth and I can find no reference to 'Red Bank' but I'm pretty sure that's what he said.)

Once I was being interviewed they asked me "You knew Jr. Kimbrough didn't you" and I'm like "Yeah I knew Jr Kimbrough, I see him some time, every so often", they said "He learnt you how to play didn't he?" I say "No!" They were gonna give him that credit for learning me how to play but I learned my own self by ear. So I had to put a stop to that before it got any further.

Robert Belfour

The way you play is very individual - although it sounds like 'Hill Country Music' there's a lot of you in it as well and I wonder where that extra stuff comes from?

I learned it as a kid. Don't asked me how I learned it, it was just a gift for me to do. I don't know how I learned to tune a guitar but I can tune a guitar three different ways and play it. By ear - I'd be listening to those records you know - John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Lighting Hopkins all those guys see. I learned how to play cross tuned Spanish so that's the reason why can't nobody tune their guitar to find what I do - because it's cross tuned Spanish tuning.

I learned that when I was a kid, but I didn't know what I had then. I recorded it first time come out in '94 and Dr. Dave Evans asked me "Do you speak Spanish?" I said "No" he said "How you tune your guitar in Spanish like that then?" I said "I don't know I just know how to tune that tuning and I can't speak a lick of Spanish". He said "I don't know how you learned it" I said "I don't know either!"

But I just found the tuning by listening to the sound of the song that John Lee Hooker did, you know 'Boogie Chillun', 'Crawling Kingsnake' all that. I learnt that as a teenager.

Robert BelfourSo you learnt from records, but were there people around you playing like that when you were a kid?

Well around in my neighborhood where I was raised up there was nobody that I know played guitar. I only saw two people that played guitar and that was Con (sorry - had trouble with the accent/recording technology here so these may be wrong...) and ah... what was the other mans name? Puddin... They were kin people and I before I got to be in my late teens I went up there - I heard about there's be a guitar up there you know - it was kind of open house where people went and hung out all night, gambling and all that stuff - they sold bootleg whisky and everything - and I slipped off and went up there that particular Friday night. I was a teenager then, but I was big for my age, and I went in and they saw me - I couldn't buy no whisky, they wouldn't let me have no whisky!

So I sat over there and everybody was dancing, there was women dancing and everything, and I liked that but the main thing I liked was the guitar... So I sat over there for a while. The next Saturday I went back there and I don't know how they found out I could pick a guitar, other than a lady that came down there the next following week...

Her name was May Dale, she knew my mother... She played guitar and sang that song - "You ought to see me holding my pillow where my baby used to lay". She talked to my mother and she played for a while and she finally talked me into playing a song on the guitar.

I used to be a bashful type and she finally got me to play a piece, the song 'Crawling Kingsnake' - John Lee Hooker - and she told me "I'm gonna show you how to play this song, I want you to learn this." I sat there and she showed me. She did it about three or four times and then she handed me the guitar. I was a little awkward at first but when she left there I was playing better than she was! Because I had in in here (taps heart) but I was a little bit shy you know, of her too, by her being a woman, a lady.

She left there she said "You got it... Just keep on playing, one of these days you might be somewhere" and she got up and walked out and don't you know I aint saw that lady since. I aint seen her from that day to now, and that was back in the 50s, but she made a difference in me, and I recorded the song - years later I recorded that song "Holding my pillow" It's on one of them albums ('What's Wrong With You', 2003, see below). Often now I wonder, I would just like to see her again. I know she's up in age now - she was a young woman, maybe twenties or maybe thirty then. I asked people around and I found out that most people around there knew her - knew she played the guitar and I would ask about her, but she left - went to Chicago and nobody never heard from her no more.

Robert Belfour Robert Belfour

But there was just something about the guitar, I couldn't let it alone - I just had to keep messing with it. Just something about it... Something would always worry me to go get it and play it. I can't place what it is... In later years as I've got older and experienced in music and stuff and that guitar, well it's just something the good lord wanted me to do. I had to make my own choice of which one to do - church or blues! I used to sing in the choir in the church. I used to play church songs but I chose the blues on account of when I first got recorded the person that pushed me wanted to record me in the blues. Now I do blues but I don't put my whole soul in the blues... I still believe in the man upstairs...