Is it to our benefit to meet our idols? Or are they better stowed away in our imagination where they can remain on pedestals? Richard Wall's "Finding Pops McCoy" has a different approach to honoring a master. August Riche's genuflecting, but consumerist driven, portraits remind us that all idols are human.
finding pops mccoy
by Richard Wall
It was three in the afternoon when Charlie called. I was sitting on a stool made from an old tractor seat, at the bar of the “Wormy Dog” Saloon in Oklahoma City, and getting outside of my fourth Budweiser.
“I found him,” said Charlie.
“Found who?” I said.
I was skeptical.
Let me explain.
Henry ‘Pops’ McCoy was an old-skool delta bluesman. Born in 1920 in a shotgun shack just outside Clarksdale, Mississippi, he was a left-handed albino, blind in one eye, who played a mean guitar and made money wandering around playing the blues at fish-fries and juke joints across Mississippi. Story goes he cut ten recordings in the 1930s and then disappeared.
Only one photograph of him exists and only one of his records was ever found, supposedly kept in the vault of an anonymous collector and last valued at ten big ones.
Yep, you heard me right, ten thousand dollars.
For over four decades, blues historians who discovered Son House, Skip James, Bukka White and Furry Lewis, have searched for Pops McCoy with no success and now my college drop-out buddy and fellow blues freak tells me he’s found the Holy Grail.
“Where’s he buried?” I said, taking a sip of beer.
“He ain’t dead.”
Budweiser sprayed across the bar.
“Get the fuck outta here.”
Charlie was beside himself. “It’s true man. Get this, he’s livin’ in Okarche, Oklahoma.”
“That’s on the way to Kingfisher, right?”
“Yeah, imagine that, a blues legend livin’ an hour away.”
“He must be like, 98,” I said. “How the hell did you find him?”
“My sister told me.”
Charlie had my undivided attention.
“Run that by me again?” I said.
“OK, it’s like this,” said Charlie. “My sister Babs, she moved out to Okarche a coupla years back. Well, she just got herself a volunteer job helping out senior citizens, you know, delivering food, cleanin’ up around the house, shit like that.”
“So, anyway, she tells me she’s met this ancient dude, well into his nineties, calls himself ‘Pops’ an’ keeps goin’ on about when he played the blues; talks about seein’ Charley Patton and Robert Johnson play when he was a kid. Babs thinks he ain’t all there but she says he’s got a beat up ol’ gittar he picks on now and then.”
“So he calls himself Pops an’ plays the gittar,” I said. “Don’ mean it’s Pops McCoy.”
“That’s true,” said Charlie. “McCoy ain’t his given name, it’s Smith or some bland shit like that, but I asked her what the dude looked like.”
“And she said he’s an albino an he’s got a milky eye an’ he plays the gittar left-handed.”
Charlie laughed. “Best of all, she sent me a picture of him playin’ the gittar. It’s him, man. I know it’s him.”
“What do you wanna’ do?” I said.
“I’m comin‘ round to pick you up, we’re goin’ up there tonight. You better be sober, dude.”
That night we stopped at Babs’ house in Okarche. She said she thought Pops’ mind was pretty much shot to shit and all he talked about was the old days in Mississippi. She also said that she saw a box containing five 78rpm records, each with a Paramount Records label.
I looked at Charlie.
Back in the sixties when the blues became popular, collectors would walk the black neighborhoods of Mississippi, knocking on doors and buying up old records. By the seventies, pretty much every decent record had been found and that’s when the prices started going up.
Original Paramounts were rare. Very rare indeed.
Between us we reckoned we could raise about eight-thousand bucks. Charlie said we should offer five and see where things went.
Next day, the three of us arrived at a tiny wooden house on the outskirts of town. Babs knocked on the door. After a few minutes, a frail old man appeared, stooped over a walking frame, and dressed in grey jogging pants and a plaid bathrobe.
“Hey Pops,” said Babs. “How’re you doing? I’ve brought my brother and his friend to see you.”
Pops smiled in vague recognition. “Well come on in,” he said.
“You folks go on and sit down,” said Babs. “I’ll go into the kitchen and get us something to drink.”
We followed Pops into a room that smelled of old age. He waved us to a threadbare sofa, and then lowered himself into a battered armchair.
Once settled, a cloud of confusion passed over his face. “Who you folks again?”
“Fans of yours, sir,” said Charlie. “Babs is my sister.”
We talked about the blues for a while, his face became alive as he spoke of the old days, but then his voice tailed off, his good eye staring into the distance as his mind closed down.
Then he came back.
“Who you folks say you were?”
When we told him again, he said. “Oh yeah, tha’s right, y’all come t’look at my recuds.”
Pops waved to a cardboard box in the corner of the room. “Drag tha’n over, son.”
I picked up the box and carried it back to the sofa, my hands trembling as I pulled out and examined each record.
They looked the real deal. Five 78 discs in almost pristine condition.
“Recorded them in Grafton, Wisconsin in nineteen an’ thirty-seven.” Said Pops.
“Well sir,” said Charlie. “We was wonderin’ if you’d be thinkin’ of sellin’ them?”
Pops frowned. “Y’all wanna buy them scratchy ol’ things?”
“Yes sir,” said Charlie. “An’ we’d pay you a lot of money.”
“S’at right?” said Pops. “An’ how much is a lot of money?”
“Well,” Charlie said. “We got five thousand dollars in cash.”
Pops whistled. “Five thousand dollars?”
He fell silent, staring into the middle distance for a long time.
Charlie blinked first. “Of course, we might be able to move it up a notch.”
Pops came back. “Yo’d pay more than five thousand?”
“Yes sir,” said Charlie. “How much was you thinking of?”
The old man sighed, and then scratched his chin.
“Well,” he said. “I was thinkin’ of fifty thousand dollars.”