Mississippi Folklife announces the new Fall 2021 Issue: Performances and the Pandemic.

Earl “Little Joe” Ayers + Libby Rae Watson

Earl “Little Joe” Ayers + Libby Rae Watson
Earl “Little Joe” Ayers and Libby Rae Watson participated in the Mississippi Arts Commission’s 2019-2020 Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program. This grants program supports the survival and continued evolution of community-based traditional art forms. During the apprenticeship, the master artist teaches specific skills, techniques and cultural knowledge to the apprentice, who is an emerging artist of the same tradition. Participants are awarded $2,000 to assist with the teaching fees for the master artist and other expenses such as travel costs and supplies. To learn more about the program, click here.

Introduction 

Earl “Little Joe” Ayers grew up playing Hill Country blues, a type of blues distinct to North Mississippi that is unique in its hypnotic guitar style with few chord changes. Through the apprenticeship program, he shared his knowledge of this style of blues with his friend and apprentice Libby Rae Watson.   

Master Artist: Earl “Little Joe” Ayers 

Master blues guitarist, Joe Ayers. Photo courtesy of Libby Rae Watson.

Hill Country blues Master, “Little Joe” Ayers is from Lamar, Mississippi, just outside of Holly Springs. He grew up playing with legendary Cotton Patch Soul Blues musician, Junior Kimbrough, and as a teenager, they played house parties together. Eventually, the two made several recordings and played with other bands from the area. 

“I began playing guitar as a member of Junior Kimbrough’s band the Soul Blues Boys in 1965,” said Joe. “We made our first recording in Memphis for Philwood Records in 1967. Later, after George Scales left the band, I moved to bass guitar which I played as an active member of Junior Kimbrough and the Soul Blues Boys until Junior’s passing in 1998. I have continued to play with anyone who shows interest in my music, or the blues from the region.”

Apprentice: Libby Rae Watson

Libby Rae Watson. Photo courtesy of the artist.

During the apprenticeship, they focused on the finger picking and thumb techniques of this particular style of blues so that Libby Rae will be able to teach it to future generations.

Apprentice Libby Rae Watson was born and raised in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and she has always had a natural interest in music. She played the flute as a girl and started playing guitar in high school. It was around this time that she discovered blues music, and that most blues performers were also from Mississippi. In the quote below, Libby talks about how she discovered blues music.

“Maybe around ninth or tenth grade, I had a friend move here from California and brought all new music. And so I was listening to some cool stuff that I wouldn’t have heard for another couple years or so. That got me off into the blues thing. So I really just liked that kind of music, just inherently liked it.”

In college while training to become a dental hygienist, Libby spent her weekends traveling the state and seeking out other blues musicians to play with, accompanied by her future husband who was also interested in the blues. As she became more confident in her musical ability, Libby met many experienced musicians and eventually developed a close relationship with Sam Chatmon of the Mississippi Sheiks, who brought her into his inner circle and became a mentor. 

Apprenticeship Experience 

Apprentice, Libby Rae Watson with master artist, Joe Ayers. Photo courtesy of Libby Rae Watson.

Joe met Libby in 2016 at the music venue Foxfire Ranch, just south of Holly Springs. Libby had been touring with three other musicians hoping to help Mississippians gain a better understanding of blues music. After their initial meeting at Foxfire, Joe called Libby and they quickly became close friends, talking on the phone and playing together often. 

During the apprenticeship, they focused on the finger picking and thumb techniques of this particular style of blues so that Libby Rae will be able to teach it to future generations. 

“A lot of those songs are pretty similar; they’re all in the key of E or A, so to make them sound different they each have their distinctive lick,” said Libby. “So what I was trying to get out of each song was the distinctive lick. And then of course, yeah, I’d turn the recorder off and sit there and try to play it with him. [Joe] would just keep playing, keep playing, keep playing. 

Libby not only wanted to gain a deeper appreciation of Hill Country blues guitar, which is notable for its rhythmic droning quality, but she also wanted to build her relationship with Joe. As Libby explains, “It made the learning part real easy because we’re friends.”  

Some of Joe’s most distinctive qualities are his friendliness and hospitality, as well as his love for Marshall County, where he grew up. One of his favorite places is the cemetery, where he can learn about the genealogy of Holly Springs families. During the apprenticeship, Joe and Libby would spend half of their time together playing, and then Joe would drive Libby around North Mississippi, pointing out spots that were significant to his history and the history of the blues. 

Their apprenticeship took a holistic approach by understanding the history and culture of the music, as well as perfecting how to play it.

Conclusion 

Because Libby lived on the southern coast of Mississippi, and Joe resides in the northern region of the state, they had to make good use of their time when they could meet in person. To help her learn, Libby would take phone videos of Joe playing the “licks” to study when she returned home. She would not copy his playing but wanted to understand the basics of it and interpret it in her own way. Their apprenticeship took a holistic approach by understanding the history and culture of the music, as well as perfecting how to play it. Through their time together, they are not only preserving Hill Country blues music, but the history that created it. 

 
In the fall of 2020, the Mississippi Arts Commission (MAC) hosted their annual State Arts Conference virtually. During the conference, one artist from each of the five apprenticeship pairs spoke about their apprenticeship experiences and take-aways for a panel facilitated by MAC’s Folk and Traditional Arts Director, Maria Zeringue. In this video, apprentice Libby Rae Watson talks about the significance of her apprenticeship experience and why it was important for her to participate in the program.

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Amanda Malloy

Amanda Malloy

Amanda Malloy is the Visual Arts Editor at Mississippi Folklife. She graduated with a B.A. in Liberal Studies from the University of Mississippi. She also received her M.A. from the University of Mississippi in Southern Studies, focusing on southern photography. Amanda has presented at various conferences and institutions, including the Southern Studies Conference at Auburn at Montgomery as well as the Center for the Study of Southern Culture. She has also received the Special Achievement Award from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters for her collaboration and performance in The Passions of Walter Anderson: A Dramatic Celebration of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Artist.