Blue Moon Saturday Nights

May 22nd, 2010

By Larry Ennis

Ben Waters was a close friend of my Grandpa Henry. They had worked together for many years in the Brook Side Coal Mines. The fact that Ben was black and Henry was white never mattered one iota. The two men fished, hunted, made moonshine, and even raised gardens together. Ben had been part of my life as far back as I could remember. As I recall, Mr. Ben was welcome to about every home in that little southern town. When he wasn’t working in the mines, he was helping everyone with their gardens in the spring and summer months. Come fall, he would be helping folks kill and dress pigs. In either case he’d make a little cash but mainly he bartered his services for things from the gardens and meat from the people who owned the pigs.

Yes sir, you might say Ben was a “Jack of all trades.” Well, I suppose that moniker might stick, especially if you didn’t know him real well. In spite of his many talents, old Uncle Ben was the best guitar picker in Alabama, if not the whole country. Many was the time I’d sit riveted to my seat and listen while Ben and my grandmother sang and made music. We’d all get us a seat on Grandma’s big front porch where we sang and picked late into the summer nights.

My Grandma Luler was a multi-talented old gal who played about every stringed instrument you could name. Seems like everyone in my blood line was talented in music except for me. Ben would settle down into an old straight-backed chair and just sort of follow Grandma’s lead. Mostly they did gospel music and some old hill country music that Luler had brought from her childhood. Some nights Luler didn’t sing or pick at all but instead let Ben use the time to showcase some of his songs and music-making ability.

Ben Waters was a Blues man at heart. Damned good Blues man, I might add. I was amazed at how he used a piece of glass tubing to slide up and down the strings of his old Gibson guitar. The glass tube had started out life as an Alka-Seltzer bottle, but Ben made magic with it.

The Blue Moon Cafe was west of town and just outside the city limits. Owned and operated by a black man named Sam Washington, the cafe served some of the best food you ever ate. On the weekends the cafe became a roadhouse catering to the local black people. Mr. Washington was able to entice some very good and sometimes famous Blues people to perform at his cafe/roadhouse. As I said earlier, Ben Waters was a genuine Blues man. He worked the Blue Moon every weekend with or without other Blues artists. Ben made very little money, but he loved to entertain.

My father was a big Blues fan. I can still remember him staying up late into the night to listen to the radio. You have to remember that this time period was the early 1950s, and segregation was still a way of life. No one played Blues until late at night when decent white folks were in the bed. WLAC 650khz in Nashville played Blues every Friday night. WCKY in Cincinnati played Blues on Saturday, but they didn’t begin until 10:30 p.m. My dad would brew a pot of coffee, open a fresh pack of Camels, and depending on the season he’d throw a log on the fire or set up a fan near the radio. He loved that old Philco radio. Many years in the future he would realize his dream of getting a Ham Radio License, but like I said that was still a long way off and it’s a different story.

Old Ben knew how much my dad liked to hear good Blues musicians. He always let my dad know in advance if somebody special was due to show up at the Blue Moon. I’d always try to get my dad to let me go with him to the Blue Moon on Saturday night. We always sat outside in the parking lot and listened to the music. My dad felt that our presence inside the cafe was sure to cause a stir and that it might cause Ben some grief. Even though the cafe was in a dry county there was plenty of booze to go around. Most of the time it was moonshine made by Ben and my Grandpa Henry. The whiskey was then sold to Sam Washington by my Aunt Mertie. My people go back a long way in the moonshine/bootlegging business.

I bet my dad and I saw and heard nearly every Blues man in the south as they came through town. Standards like B.B. King and Muddy Waters (no relation to Ben). Some lesser-knowns such as Jimmy Reed, Slim Harpo, T-Bone Walker, and Howling Wolf before he went north to Chicago. The Blue Moon burned to the ground in the spring of 1957. The law arrested and convicted a retarded busboy who was working for the owner. All the evidence pointed to the busboy, so he was convicted of arson and got a sentence of eight years. Two years later an insurance investigation found evidence that pointed to the owner and exonerated the busboy. It was all about the insurance — quarter million dollars to be exact. As for Ben Waters, he just continued on with his music and a little help from his friends.

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2 Responses to “Blue Moon Saturday Nights”

  1. Tom Carter |

    Nice story, Larry. I grew up mostly in the South, too, and I remember the roadhouses and “juke joints” very well. Many, if not most, were owned by African Americans and patronized mostly by them. I went in sometimes just for a beer (although I was underaged in the beginning and sometimes couldn’t get it) or to listen to whatever band they might have playing that night. Being a white guy in a place full of mostly blacks was noticed, of course, but I don’t remember ever getting any kind of negative reaction.

    Some of the music played in these places was really excellent, especially Blues, which I love. It’s too bad that this part of our home-grown culture is mostly lost.

  2. d |

    I Love the Blues,espially,B.B.King. Wish I could’ve been there,sounds amazing,Larry.For once,we completely agree. Good story and made me go there. In my day,I also went where no white girl should go,but I loved black music and food. My favorite person ever, was Bessie Mae Slan,my moms maid and child raiser,me being the child,she was my good mama. She deserved every right the civil rights movement made possible,as do all people.

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