Me and Little Archie and Mexican Joe…
I was eleven years old when Hank Williams died, stoked on muscle relaxer and alcohol in the rear seat of a Cadillac, headed for a New Year show in Ohio.
We lived in a little town in North Carolina’s mid-section,about the size of Murphy. The farm and the sawmill provided most jobs, along with three cotton mills inside the town itself.
Music was everywhere, something you absorbed through the pores. It was 1953, television just getting started but radio everywhere and all the time. Country music was king.
We didn’t have television, got to visit the neighbor’s and watch sometime. Of ten they were watching Arthur Smith and the Crackerjacks, a country music act from nearby Charlotte.
PLAYING IN THE BAND
I wanted to play in the school band but a cornet( short version of a trumpet) cost $125 and that was a lot of money back then. A man gave me a baby pig. We raised it up to market size, it brought just over $40.
Parents made up the difference and I got my shiny brass horn and started learning band music. Already had been exposed to piano lessons and was just naturally curious about any kind of music.
Civic pride, especially in a little town, is a powerful thing. They started a fund-raising drive to buy the band some uniforms . Bought maybe 30 brand-new blue-and-gold uniforms, with hats and belts. One hundred percent WOOL.
The darn uniforms arrived in June and the town fathers insisted we have a parade right then, to show off the band and its snappy new uniforms. Did I mention the 100% WOOL?
Sure enough, for the Fourth of July we had a parade, small as it was. The town’s only Police car up front, then the band, then the Fire truck. It was hot.
We played a concert afterward and later played sometimes at big family reunions, always sharing the stage with genuine hillbilly bands in fringed coats trimmed in rhinestones.
LITTLE ARCHIE & MEXICAN JOE
On our residential street, just two houses up above us, was a family with a boy my age. The dad was Big Archie, they called the boy Little Archie. Beer was legal in our little town, you could buy it at a couple of filling stations downtown, where you might find Big Archie if you were looking for him.
Little Archie had an older sister or two and a Mom and one of them bought the sheet music for a song called “The Death of Hank Williams.” They showed it to me — the event was similar to the death of Elvis – and I was impressed by the number of verses which told the awful story.
But I had obtained a second-hand harmonica from my grandparents’ home, the same place I would obtain a second-hand guitar a few years later. They had stuff you needed, it was all family, wasn’t it? There was a brass telescope in a drawer I liked a lot but one of my thieving cousins beat me to it.
Anyway, by trial-and-error I was teaching myself to play the harmonica. By ear. The melody I was learning was a simple one, a country song called MEXICAN JOE. “South of the Border, say I know a lad…He’s got more sweethearts than anybody had…Dancing, romancing, always on the go. The girls they all call him Mexican Joe…”
BIG STAGE DREAMING
Little Archie, it turned out, already had a guitar. And for a 12-year-old he could play chords pretty well. Playing the melody, picking out the lead was something he could learn in the future. But we soon linked up and could play MEXICAN JOE with enthusiasm, both in the same key and rhythm.
Neither one could sing, or even wanted to. But we could play music together on the back porch and we loved it. He insisted that I come and spend the night at his house, we could play and scheme.
He was a sophisticated kid, had been places I hadn’t. Including local square dances where people danced and drank and sometimes fought. But they paid admission.
You and I could be the band, he said. We could charge people a quarter apiece to get in and we could play and they’d all dance. We’d make a lot of money.
It was a tempting offer and I didn’t think it would interfere with my career as a uniformed member in the regular school band. But it finally dawned on us, after we played MEXICAN JOE for the umpteenth time.
Sure, it was a great song for dancing. And sure, we played it quite well. But what was going to be our second song? We didn’t have any inventory. Our dream of being local entertainers died right there.
Not long after that I saw Big Archie and another man coming down the sidewalk carrying a sack. Come here boy, they said, we’ll show you something. Something down in the sack made a strange clacking noise and at first I thought it was a snake. They laughed and I looked and it was an owl they had caught.
That was on a Saturday morning, cold weather. Don’t know what they did with the owl, maybe traded it for beer.
Sunday afternoon a classmate walked across the vacant lot behind one of the filling stations downtown, going to visit another classmate of ours. He found a dead man, passed out and frozen to death. It was Big Archie.
After that Little Archie’s family started taking in a few old women as boarders, sort of an early nursing home. Some of them had dementia and hollered frequently, providing small entertainment for our neighborhood.
We moved away shortly and lost touch with that time and that town. Still remember sometimes, especially when I hear a Hank Williams song…