I met Willie Dixon in 1976 when I attended his concert at Toad’s Place, a music club at 300 York Street in New Haven, just off the Yale campus. Toad’s Place has hosted blues musicians for over thirty-three years and was a favorite venue for my students.
Dixon and I both grew up in Vicksburg, and I had long admired his career as a blues composer and performer. The morning after his concert, Dixon came to the apartment where I lived as a resident fellow in Calhoun College at Yale, and we spoke there about his life. It was especially moving to share our memories of Vicksburg as we spoke in New Haven.
Willie Dixon was born on July 1, 1915. He first discovered the blues in Vicksburg and composed songs such as “Sweet Louise” while he was in high school. After graduating from high school, he moved to Chicago in 1927, where he launched his prolific career as a blues performer and composer.
Compositions such as “Hoochie Koochie Man,” “Spoonful,” “Wang Dang Doodle,” “Little Red Rooster,” and “Evil” established Dixon as America’s foremost blues composer. His education in Vicksburg and his early decision to compose blues songs underscore the importance of literary expression within the southern black community. Dixon’s work also helps us understand the crucial link between the oral tradition of the blues and writers like Richard Wright, who captured these worlds through his fiction. Wright’s literary career and Dixon’s musical career reflect the power of black worlds that moved from Mississippi to Chicago during the first half of the twentieth century.
In folk tradition the blues performer and his music are associated with the devil. Delta bluesman Robert Johnson is reputed to have traded his soul to Satan for musical skills that gave him special power over women. Links