When you first meet Willie Green, before a word is spoken or a song is sung, you know that you are in the presence of an American authenticity that is so rare these days.
Green, at the age of 79 (or thereabouts, he is unsure of his exact age) is one of the last Delta bluesmen. These musicians, born in the darkest days of the Deep South, gifted the world with a genre of music that laid the foundation of both jazz and rock n’ roll. The blues is arguably our country’s greatest cultural contribution to humanity to date, and yet Green like so many of his fellow artists, has spent most of his adult life scraping by.
Green was born to a sharecropper family in Pine Level, Alabama, a small farming community just outside of Montgomery. At twelve years old, he was taken out of school to work in the fields harvesting cotton, corn, cabbage and peanuts. His mother had left, and his grandmother was struggling to raise him and his siblings on a monthly government stipend. It was the 1940s, in the rural South and work otherwise was scarce.
“I had to help my family. In those days there was hardly no work,” says Green. “Working with the peanut pickers was the hardest job I ever had. The hardest job there is. There was snakes out there in the field. I remember I would go hide in the truck, scared.”
Green followed the harvest as far north as Maine, and as far south as Florida. In 1947, he settled with family living in Ft. Lauderdale. He began playing the harmonica, or “harp” as he calls it, at the age of 15. He picked up the guitar later down the road. As a young man, he began playing gigs around Florida in places with names like the Blue Chip, the Down Beat and the Diamond Club.
True to the art, Green lived like a rolling stone most of his adult life: finding work where he could get it, and playing music when the opportunity arose. That is until twelve years ago, when a chance encounter changed his life forever. Green moved to the Ocala area and was homeless, living under a bridge. He played for tips at The Yearling Restaurant (where he still plays to this day) in Cross Creek, just outside of Gainesville. Rick Ambrose, owner of Rick Ambrose Productions, and his family came in for some good southern food, and heard Green playing for the first time.
“I was pretty amazed at what he was doing, and it just so happened that I knew John Hammond was playing at Café 11 the following week,” says Ambrose. “I worked it out with Ryan Dettra, who owned Café 11 at the time, to bring Willie over without ever hearing him, to open for John. I said trust me, this is going to be spectacular…and it really was.”
When Ambrose left, Green never thought he would see him again. But two weeks later, he returned with the news that Green was the opening act for blues star John Hammond.
“I was nervous that night. I had never played for all those people. I had only been playin’ for 15 or 20 people. The place was full, and I said to myself, I ain’t gonna make it,” says Green. That night, Green played to a standing ovation, and Hammond told the crowd that Green was “the real deal.” Thus the name, Willie “The Real Deal” Green was born, and with Ambrose’s help his career took off.
“The best part (of my story) is when I met Rick. After that night, I thought I was a professional, and I worked my way up and that is what I am now. A professional,” says Green.
In his third chapter of life, the tide turned for Mr. Green, and it has been rising ever since.
This year he turns 80 years old, (at least that is his story and he is sticking to it), and doesn’t seem to be slowing down one bit. He has played before thousands at many musical festivals including Magnolia Fest, Springing the Blues, and the International Blues Challenge in Memphis sharing the stage with icons and rising stars of the music world.
Next month, he will play at the Springing the Blues Festival, and you can catch him at The Yearling most nights of the week. Green was recently nominated for the Florida Folklife Heritage Award, an honor given by the State of Florida to select folk artists whose legacy will have a lasting impact on our cultural history. There are not many true Delta blues musicians left on this earth, and we have one blowing the harp around town right here in Northeast Florida. He’s the real deal.