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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
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.
And 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...
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
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
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
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.
So 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...
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.
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...