One hot summer day, I was on the porch of Ezelle’s drink house with Captain Luke listening to his wild stories about Guitar Gabriel. He trailed off of one particularly interesting tale, despite my pleas to continue. Then, to my surprise, he picked up my guitar and started to strum a strong country beat and sang a wonderful ode to his old mule.
I had heard Luke sing dozens of old blues and sentimental songs. He always had great interpretations of classics and a unique sense of timing. Until that point, I had never heard him perform a song that he had written. Luke had grown up on the farm, and his tune brought me back to the furrows of that South Carolina farm, walking barefoot behind his Uncle Jessie as they toiled in the brutally hot Southern summers. The song was joyful and it demonstrated a mastery of the folk song idiom. I always sensed the Captain was a great artist, and if he had only one song to write, he could not have done better.
In 1999 we had moved to an old tobacco farm in the nearby town of Pinnacle. We helped guitarist Cool John Ferguson relocate to a house down the street from us and we spent a couple years recording and rehearsing with many artists. Our first project was to make a record for Captain Luke. Upon my urging, Luke agreed to sing “Old Black Buck.” As Luke sang, Cool composed an intricate, lovely country guitar piece on the spot. I could not believe it! These two blues musicians created a tune as beautiful and timeless as any classic Southern folk melody.
Country musical traditions run deep in African-American culture. It is often ignored that before the advent of the blues, slaves played violins and banjos, and many of staples in a country fiddler’s repertoire are old minstrel tunes. Both Captain Luke and Cool John had enjoyed and performed country music their whole lives, so it should be no surprise that they have mastery of the folk idiom.
Since that session, Captain Luke has performed “Old Black Buck” every time he has taken the stage. Audiences are instantly enamored by his voice and the story of his old mule. He has received tremendous applause after each performance, ranging from venues like Lincoln Center in New York to stages throughout France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Spain.
Luke will often comment that his favorite people on this side of the pond were his fans in Argentina: in 2005 he was invited by the legendary guitar maestro Botafoga to tour this country. Luke performed on national radio, television and at concerts at soccer stadiums, schools and clubs through out the country. On the last nights we performed in the theatre district of Buenos Aires. These shows were sold out, and Botafoga’s band had charted arrangements to Luke’s idiosyncratic timing. When the band followed his voice with all its delays and turnarounds, Luke just smiled, chuckled and his deep baritone mined even greater depths. Luke had reached back to that summer day in Winston-Salem, when he had created a song that would be heard around the world. He considered himself lucky to join that song on its journey, meeting new friends and seeing places he never dreamed he would ever go.