House of blues

The crude signs with crookedly stenciled letters started poking out of empty fields across town as winter approached, offering "Fresh Coons" and a phone number.

The only thing more down-home than that is the man who put them there.

Glemie Dell Beasley is the real deal, a 69-year-old blues musician who learned to sing while picking cotton on an Arkansas plantation, and whose pastime is selling freshly killed raccoons from his house.

He's got a freezer full of them,cleaned, skinned and wrapped in plastic grocery bags. They're fatty and white, with long, furless tails that curl across the carcasses. The price is $15 each, or two for $25. Since the signs went up a few weeks back, he's gotten dozens of phone calls about them.

Raccoon meat is a Southern country dish. "It's usually for the holidays," he points out. "The diehards, the older people, now they'll eat it all year long, but most of the time they just like it in fall," he says. "It's a fall, wild-game thing." He hunts them himself at night, using dogs with such names as Undertaker and Gravedigger to chase them up a tree, where Beasley brings them down with a .22. On a good night he can take home eight or nine raccoons.

Beasley gives the step-by-step recipe for a traditional coon dinner: "You soak him in vinegar and water, soak it four, five hours, and that get the wild game taste out of it. After that you cut him up just like you cut up a rabbit, then you preboil it about a half-hour, let the water jump about a half-hour, then take him out, put him in a pan like that, get your seasoning on, then you put him in the oven, just like you do a roast." Cook until well done.

His quiet life hints little of his past, except for the guitar that sits in his living room, an ES 345 Stereo Gibson from the early '60s that he named "Little Mary" — a beautiful collector's item that's always plugged into an amp next to the couch. Daytime hours find him sitting back, picking out Delta blues licks, his hoarse rasp singing some of the simple, bare songs he played in Detroit's blues scene years ago.

Back in the 1960s and '70s, Beasley was Glemie Derale, a singer and guitarist who played alongside such local blues luminaries as Washboard Willie, Eddie Burns, Little Sonny, Little Junior Cannaday and Bobo Jenkins. He eventually formed his own backup band and played bars and festivals around the state until he scaled his performances back a few years ago.

Beasley was born during the Depression into a family of sharecroppers on a farm in Three Creeks, Ark., a tiny dot on the map. "They called it a farm but it was more like a plantation," he says. "Out there in the hot sun, picking cotton and picking corn, you had to sing to make it through the day. So we sung the blues on the farm. We used to sing a lot of gospel, and my daddy would hum an old hymn. I don't know if you know what a hymn is; it's what the blues originated from." And he hums a wordless tune — some three-note, bare-bones field song sung by plantation workers long before him.

Life was hard back then, he says. He started working in the fields as early as 6 years old. "I wasn't big enough to do much," he says. "I was picking my own cotton. You carried a sack to put the cotton in, but when I was little I put cotton in my mother's bag."

Beasley's idol was Texas blues guitarist Lightnin' Hopkins.

"That's how I started," he says, smiling at the memory. "We used to go into town on a Saturday — you know how you go into town to pay your bills — and my mother and daddy would give us dimes and my brother would take his 20 cents and go to the movies; I'd take my 20 cents and go into a café, you could play five records for a nickel in the jukebox, and I'd spend all my 20 cents on Lightnin' Hopkins. It was 1947. I must've been about 8 or 9 years old. I loved that man."

An older brother came to Detroit, and Beasley followed soon after, leaving the cotton fields for the big city in 1958. "I got a job doing construction," he says. "I went out on Friday, they hired me Saturday. I worked Saturday and Sunday and I took home a check for $136 and I called everybody I knew and told them I done made $100. I had never seen a $100 bill before that."

His music career began when he was discovered by Big Jack Reynolds, a local blues musician originally from Alabama. Reynolds got word that this bluesman from Arkansas was living on the west side and playing music that spilled from his home onto the street. Reynolds put him in his band.

Eventually, Beasley moved on, went solo, got married, had a few kids, got divorced some years later. He kept his day job most of those years, making a career of driving a truck until he blew his back out on a delivery a couple decades ago. "So I went on and retired," he says, "and I've been a hunter, fisherman and a blues singer."

With more time for music, he blended his love of blues and hunting into an annual festival, the Coon Hunters Hoe Down, held for years at small halls in area places such as Romulus and New Boston, and even a few times on Belle Isle.

An old-fashioned revival mix of blues, country and gospel acts would play while raccoon meat was grilled and served with black-eyed peas and baked beans. Sometimes they'd have rabbit and squirrel. The event usually drew a couple hundred people, including bystanders who'd wander over, curious about the roots music and the smell of strange meat cooking.

Beasley still plays the blues these days, but only in his house, with the TV on softly in the background, casting a flickering light in the dark room. In summer he opens the front door and windows and performs in his living room, drawing a crowd. His bass-playing son comes to play along once in a while.

"Sometimes we get an audience out there, 20, 25 people," Beasley says. "They come by but they'll stay out there on the street."

He purchased his little west-side house more than 40 years ago. There's a faintly wild game smell to it. Some kind of winged bugs crawl here and there. There's a copy of American Cooner magazine on a couch. Bars cover windows, and the wallpaper's faded. His mutts whine and howl in his back yard, next to dog houses. He lives a backwoods lifestyle, in a house of blues and coons and hounds, an island of country life within the city.

Spread out on his coffee table are reel-to-reel tapes from recording sessions, fliers for old shows, and tickets for past hoedowns — a career in music summarized in little piles before him. On a wall he's got a framed photo of him with blues legend Albert King in a dressing room in some long-gone Detroit bar, two men born on plantations, both bringing rural Southern blues to a Northern industrial city.

His public appearances nowadays are rare — the hoedown when it happens; an annual Youth Day gospel concert he holds at his church, where kids get to play and sing with him; and a wild-game and soul-food senior citizen ball at a UAW hall in Warren, likely one of the most unusual senior concerts ever.

But he's got the itch to play music again, and he's looking to get back on stage, maybe put a new band together. He practices every day, trying to work out the kinks and remember songs he learned working on the plantation years ago. "I'm old time," he says. "I've been around a long time. But I still got it in me."

Detroitblogger John scours the Motor City for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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