An Article by Brenda Germany
“I didn’t plan to go ‘find’ the blues. The blues found me. I’ve been consumed by it for over 40 years. Like Sam Chatmon said, ‘The blues is my daily occupation!’ ” – Libby Rae Watson
In all likelihood, many of us have memories of irreplaceable and precious items threatened by the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina. For blueswoman Libby Rae Watson of Pascagoula, Mississippi, one item stood out in particular among her precious things worthy of saving – a 1930’s National Duolian guitar. Floating safely on a mattress throughout the storm, it never succumbed to the rising waters. “This guitar and I have been roommates for 42 years. It carries the blues mojo from the hands of Furry Lewis, Johnny Woods, Big Joe Williams, Sam Chatmon and more blues greats.”, Watson explains.
The youngest of six children born to Dr. Perry and Ernestine Thompson, Libby (Elizabeth Ann) began her musical journey at an early age when a ukulele left at their home by a sister’s boyfriend captured her interest only among her siblings. That ukulele led her toward piano lessons while in elementary school, a guitar at age 13 and the flute in her high school band, further expanding her musical inclination and experience. While browsing through a local music store during her mid teens the blues did indeed “find” her. A country blues songbook full of songs and photos of early blues legends Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Elizabeth Cotton and more, all from Mississippi, drew her to the music, the people who made it, and the culture. She, in her words, “just became infatuated with it.”
Top Photo: Libby Rae Watson (Photo by Stephen Anderson); Above photos Libby Rae Watson with the legendary Sam Chatmon (Photo courtesy of Libby Rae Watson)
While attending college in Starkville and later Jackson, Mississippi during 1977-78, still captivated by the music of the blues, Libby traveled often to the Mississippi Delta and Hill Country exploring, searching out, documenting, meeting and playing music with the quintessential surviving blues players. In 1978, she partnered in coordinating the talent for the first Delta Blues Festival in Greenville, MS, bringing together celebrated musicians such as Big Joe Williams, Eugene Powell, Son Thomas, Sam Chatmon, Furry Lewis, and many more. “But, the one who really changed my life and the one who I cherish the most as far as friendship was Sam Chatmon. We just hit it off well.”
The last surviving member of the famous 1920’s Mississippi Sheiks string band became her musical mentor. “One day I was trying so hard – I was a pretty good finger picker. But on some of the fancy stuff, I said, “Sam, I’m really trying hard. I don’t know that I can do that like you.” He looked at me and he said, “Well, you ain’t supposed to do it like me. You ain’t me. You take that and you do it how you do it. That’s what – you take the song and you make it yours.”
Following completion of her college degrees and dental hygienist training, Libby Rae returned to Pascagoula to work alongside her father in his dental office. Having become an experienced, accomplished fingerpicker and slide player under Sam’s continued mentorship and with her natural talent Watson continued her music as time allowed. In 1983, as a tribute to his memory and friendship, Libby performed the Mississippi Sheik’s famous “Sitting on Top of the World“ at Sam Chatmon’s funeral at the request of his son.
Libby Rae Watson with Big Joe Williams (Photo courtesy of Libby Rae Watson)
In the early 1990’s Libby gathered her courage and first performed publicly at the Rainbow Coffee House in Bay St. Louis, MS. Not long afterward, she and several friends formed The Liberaetors band developing a large fan base along the Mississippi Coast and releasing two CDs of original music “Saltwater Blues” and “Spur of the Moment” during their 9 years together. Soon to follow was the release of her solo album “Sweet ‘n’ Salty” (2013), the 2016 release of “Times Ain’t Now Like They Used to Be”, as part of the MS State Tourism 16-city Americana in Mississippi tour collaboration called the Jericho Road Show with friends Rambling Steve Gardner, Wes Lee and Bill Steber, and the 2017 release of “I Done Told Ya” with Wes Lee as the duo Sweet ‘n’ Salty. With Bill Steber’s frequent encouragement to make a new CD she began to think that this just might be the right time.
And, so she did. In April 2020 Watson, along with Bert Deivert, released the 12 track CD, “She Shimmy”. They first met in the Delta but, their friendship grew through the internet and a shared affection for the famed Mississippi Sheiks band with Deivert inviting her to play at the acclaimed 2019 Amal Blues Festival in Sweden. Deivert, an accomplished blues musician, is from Massachusetts but has lived in Sweden since 1974 and has performed in 24 countries over his career. Interestingly, the main vocal and guitar tracks of “She Shimmy” were recorded at Deivert’s studio in Sweden with additional back up vocal and instrumental tracks being added later in the United States at California and Mississippi studios.
“She Shimmy” – The April 2020 release by Libby Rae Watson and Bert Deivert
This entertaining compilation of country blues songs is a treat for fans of traditional blues and those wishing to discover them. Unlike contemporary five piece blues bands popular today, “She Shimmy’s” tracks embody the original sound and feeling of the blues from their inception with emotionally expressive and sometimes playful lyrics supported by finger-picking and slide guitar along with the mandolin highlighted by additional friends, Charlie Musselwhite’s harmonica and Eric Bibb’s guitar talents. Both Watson and Deivert each play vintage guitars from their collections on the album – in particular the 1939 Gibson L- 0, precursor to Gibson’s L-1 flat-top of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson.
Original songs include the lively title track “She Shimmy”, “I Won’t Cry”, “Big Joe” the story of finding legendary bluesman Big Joe Williams, by Watson and “Cuckoo Crowed” by Deivert. Also included are “Blue Steel” revealing the notoriously bad tempered jazz singer, and feared “hoodoo man” and “Blues Man in My Graveyard” the tale of a pastor who discovers that bluesman Belton Sutherland is buried in his graveyard written by Mason Arnold. Blues classics by Mississippi Sheiks’ Sam Chatmon and Armenter Chatmon along with George “Little Hat” Jones round out this enjoyable collection. Libby Rae Watson’s inimitable voice, storytelling, and fingerpicking guitar style that reflect her deep talent and true love of what she does make this collaboration with seasoned bluesman Bert Deivert irresistible.
Among her recent awards are: Mississippi Delta Blues Society of Indianola Blues Challenge – 2014 & 2015 winner, also 2017 Winner (with partner Wes Lee), International Blues Challenge, Memphis, TN – 2014 and 2015 semi-finalist, 2018 finalist as duo Sweet ‘n’ Salty with Wes Lee. Watson was also selected to receive a 2019 Mentorship Grant to study under Bluesman Earl ‘Little Joe’ Ayers in Holly Springs, MS.
Libby Rae Watson currently tours as a solo, a duo with Wes Lee called Sweet ‘n’ Salty, and with fellow musicians Rambling Steve Gardner, Bill Steber and Wes Lee as the Jericho Road Show. She may be found performing at festivals throughout the South, Canada and Sweden, including King Biscuit Blues Festival, Clarksdale’s Juke Joint Festival, MS Traditional Acoustic Blues Fest, or The Sam Chatmon Festival in Hollandale, MS. If the opportunity arises to catch her performance at venues along the Blues Triangle from New Orleans to Memphis, Nashville and all points in between, treat yourself to the original country blues!
“I am a person who wants people to understand that the music they listen to now, whether they think it does or not, all kind of relates back to America’s music, which is country blues, Appalachian music; people just need to get back to the roots of things.” – Libby Rae Watson
Libby Rae Watson with Bluesman Earl ‘Little Joe’ Ayers (Photo by Stephen Anderson)
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Libby Rae Watson – www.libbyrae.com