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Interview: Watermelon Slim (Part One)

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(This is part one of a two part interview with Watermelon Slim – read part two tomorrow at this same bat channel – Blogcritics.org)

Four weeks ago I had barely heard of him, three weeks ago I read about his album The Wheel Man in a newsletter I get delivered to my email inbox and was interested enough to request a copy from his label Northern Blues.

The CD came in my mail along with another on Thursday of last week. From the moment I put The Wheel Man in my player on Friday I haven't let a day go by without listening to it. On Sunday I decided to contact his publicity people and see about an interview. They emailed me right back telling me to contact Watermelon Slim and then send him the questions I wanted to ask him.

After a quick flurry of emails between the two of us I sat down and wrote of the questions you're about to read and sent them off to him first thing Monday morning. By five thirty the answers you're about to read were waiting in my in box.

Talk about your whirlwind romances. It's not often a musician, will excite me that much as both a person and a musician that I will take those steps that quickly. The fact Watermelon Slim responded so quickly says to me that my timing was right and this was meant to happen this way.

Slim says he doesn't believe in coincidence and neither do I, which means everything you're about to read is just the way it should be, the questions and the answers. Two days from now I might have asked different questions, or he might not have been so available to answer so quickly. Who knows and who cares what happened today. What matters and what happened was that I was privileged to ask a person of integrity questions about himself and his art, and because of that we are all going to lucky enough to hopefully get to the man called Watermelon Slim a little better.

Sometimes the force of a person's character is so strong that you can hear his voice through the words on the page. Maybe it's because I've been listening to him sing these past three or four days on a regular basis but I swear each time I read these words you're about to it's like I'm talking to him in person his voice is so clear.

There are very few individuals left in this cookie cutter world we live in, as more and more it's becoming controlled by marketing executives and image consultants. Which makes people like Watermelon Slim all the more damn precious.

The only editing done to Slim's answers was out of necessity for html mark up and to change the spelling of a few words so that Queen wouldn't be offended. Thank you Watermelon, and thank you Chris of Southern Artists management for setting this up so quickly.

1) Can you tell us a little about your early years; where you were born, family size etc.?

I was born William P. Homans, like my father and grandfather before me — an eldest son of an eldest son of an eldest son. My family line survives in a daughter, Jessie McCain Dandelion Homans, the reason for me to continue to achieve anything in this life. She is a sweetheart whose personal horizons are unlimited. She has inherited just enough of her mother's (the Blues woman Honour Havoc, from whom I have been long separated, but on legal advice, not divorced) more delicate European features (Scandinavian probably, maybe Jewish) to go with my old-line Anglo-Saxon cragginess with an admixture some generations back of Wampanoag (Massachusetts) Indian. Both dad and grandpa showed the Native American blood strongly. Family members would say that I favor my mother more than my brother does.

As I understand, I was almost dropped on a doorstep on Beacon Street, Boston, Massachusetts, but my mother held me in and we got to the hospital a couple of miles away in order to schloop me out in an organized fashion, so to speak. I have one full brother, Peter, who is a world-acclaimed classical composer, a half sister and brother from my mother's second marriage to Robert A.Totty, a successful small businessman from Petersburg, Virginia, and two half sisters from my father's second marriage,
to Libby Hayes, a socialite from Boston.

My father, to whom I dedicated my first major release, Big Shoes to Fill, was one of the most eminent attorneys in American jurisprudential history. He was a criminal defense lawyer, and his cases include the Boston Strangler, the Chicago Seven Conspiracy trial, the unbanning in America of English author Henry Miller's books (Sexus/Plexus/tropic of Cancer/etc.), the first test of Roe v. Wade, the Dr. Kenneth Edelin abortion trial, and the defense of Freedom Riders in the 1950-60s in Mississippi and Alabama. He was a colleague of William Kunstler and an instructor, at one point, of F. Lee Bailey. His manual on criminal jury selection remains the state of the craft ten years after his death in 1997.

He was also the only civilian attorney ever allowed to go to Vietnam to defend in a capital case, which he did in 1971, the year after I returned. He fought in two navies for all 7 years of World War II, dropping out of law school at 17 1/2 in 1939 to join the Royal Navy against the Nazis, then in 1942, when the U.S. had declared war, returning from Europe and fighting the Japanese in the Pacific, eventually reaching the rank of lieutenant commander. His friend John F. Kennedy held me in his arms when I was an infant, in 1950. He was, besides, a workaholic who was also completely, paradoxically, incapable of handling finances.

Wartermelon Slim1.jpg
Big Bill (he stood 6'4 1/2" at 17, when the English wouldn't let him fly Spitfires because of his gangly height, so he joined the Navy instead) was a man who cared deeply, almost, some would say, obsessively, about each individual who came to him for help. I shall never fill his giant shoes, not if I win 20 Handy Awards.

Were there any indications at that time that music would become such a big part of your life – was your family musical or were you exposed to a lot of music as a young person anyway?

All correct. We had no professional musicians, but my mother played some piano, and me and my brother were always strongly encouraged to sing in choirs and glee
clubs in church and school. My first starring gig was as a boy soprano soloist, singing the Bach-Gounod Variation of "Ave Maria", at age 9. I can sing you dozens of hymns from the Episcopal Hymnal of 1940, dozens more "Negro" spirituals, and various show tunes from musicals down through the years. My mother and Bob Totty, and the black woman who worked as our "maid", in those last years of Jim Crow segregation, Idell Gossett, and her grown children and their husbands, kept a wide variety of music in our various houses in Asheville, North Carolina — we moved about a fair amount.

I first heard the blues, though I didn't know that's what the music was till nearly a decade later, in 1954, when Beulah Huggins, the first "maid" I remember, used to sing snatches of John Lee Hooker hits — "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer", and "Boogie Chillen" are the two I remember — as she did her work. It was the first live music I ever heard besides my mother singing me lullabies, and one trip I remember to Ringling Brothers
Barnum and Bailey, with 5 rings, which I can reliably date in 1952.

People sometimes remark that I sound "black". Well, if I do, I come by it naturally. Black women helped make me who I am today. And any "white" person who denies that
he or she has been profoundly influenced by "black" music and culture in the United States is in terminal denial. I suppose I have a bit more in me than most,
considering my father was a Freedom Rider. Indeed, growing up, I got called "n____r-lover" more than once, and once fought over it. Fine, bring 'em on. I heard myself say the word "gook" once too often in Vietnam, and that was the beginning of my real getting hip to the universality of racism.

This is one of those questions you may choose to ignore and that's cool, but I'm curious as to what made you decide to leave school to volunteer in Vietnam.

A combination of the extreme naiveté I have just alluded to, and a complete lack of motivation to do well in college. I somehow failed ever to have received any vocational/professional guidance throughout what was otherwise an outstanding education, so I had no real idea why I was in college, in 1968. I did poorly, dropped out, and since I had no real job skills (I'd never worked at anything but landscaping, greenhouse work, and janitoring, with a couple of stints as summer camp counselor thrown in), and not even an outstanding athletic team in my strong sport to be a part of (I was a national-class epee fencer in high school, finished second in the Connecticut State Championships to a former Olympian and went to the Nationals in 1968. Give me a sword and I'll face a black belt…),

I did what any son of such a father would do, I joined the Army and volunteered for Nam duty. I wasn't a very good soldier; I was discharged with the rank of Private, E-2, one rank above Buck Private, or E-1. But I did my time and my discharge is honorable.

In your bio it says that you were laid up in hospital in Vietnam when you made yourself your first guitar. Was there some specific incident that inspired that act, or what was it that made it so important for you to make music at the time?

I did not make my first guitar. I obtained a balsa-wood Vietnamese-made acoustic guitar for $5 from a local small concessionaire, and began playing it at the hospital in Cam Ranh Bay, where I was recovering from whatever unknown herpes-like disease I had caught in Long Binh. the guitar, an opportunity to sit with it for a few days and get started with it, and the other necessary tool — a slide, which was my Zippo cigarette/doobie lighter — and my growing knowledge of blues music all came together. Coincidence? I am a phenomenologist, and there ARE no coincidences.

(This is the end of Part one of my interview with Watermelon Slim, you can read Part two tomorrow at Blogcritics.org.)

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.