A chapter of North Carolina blues history ended Tuesday with the death of George Higgs, a blues-harmonica player from Tarrboro. He was 82 years old and died from respiratory and heart ailments.
"He hadn't been doing well the last two years," said Bettye Higgs, his wife of 63 years. "He did one concert in New Bern last year, and after that he just wasn't able."
In his day, Higgs was one of the most renowned harmonica masters in the state. He learned the music from his father, who taught him how to play harmonica, and blues mentors including Sonny Terry and Peg Leg Sam.
Higgs was never a full-time musician and had to work for most of his life, so music was something he did nights and weekends at house parties. Still, his reputation grew over the years and he won an array of honors, including a North Carolina Heritage Award in 1993.
"George represented the last active musician in his generation of Eastern North Carolina's country blues tradition," said Wayne Martin, executive director of the NC Arts Council. "He always said he liked the old music, which was really true -- not only the old repertoire, but the older ways of presenting it. His music was never urbanized, and it always felt like Eastern North carolina."
He never stopped playing those old songs, including the Peg Leg Sam standard "Greasy Greens." That went over well on the folk and blues festival circuit in America and beyond, including Europe.
Higgs also released two albums through the Music Maker Relief Foundation, winning album of the year from Living Blues magazine for 2001's "Tarborro Blues."
"The last time I played with him was about a year ago and he still had it," said Music Maker head Tim Duffy. "His voice had gotten a little softer, but he could still blow."
UPDATE: Funeral arrangements are set. Public viewing will be 2-8 p.m. Saturday (Feb. 2) at Willoughby Funeral Home in Tarrboro; with funeral services set for 2 p.m. Sunday (Feb. 3) at C.B. Martin Middle School in Tarrboro.
Below, a feature from 1993, when Higgs was the News & Observer's "Tar Heel of the Week."
George Higgs is sitting on top of the world
By David Menconi, News & Observer 6/6/1993
TARBORO -- A blues harmonica's natural rhythm is like that of a chugging train. George Higgs plays the instrument at an unhurried pace, one that makes good time and lets you admire the view along the way.
Perched on a stool in his Tarboro bungalow's tidy living room, Higgs sings and plays one of his old favorites, a sly ode to collard greens:
Well, way down South where I was born
Didn't raise nothin' but cotton and corn
Green tomatoes and blackeyed peas
Man, good Lord, them greasy greens...
Higgs plays with remarkable expressiveness, sometimes using the harmonica to double for words and singing with gritty power. When he settles into a call-and-response groove between his voice and harmonica he switches back and forth so seamlessly that it seems impossible that one person could be doing both.
If you're gonna fix a plate for me
Don't fix nothin' but greasy greens.
"That was written by a fellow called Peg Leg Sam," Higgs says after the song is finished. "Peg Leg Sam came from down South. I never knew too much about him or anything about his people, but he was one A-1 harmonica player. He used to blow down at the tobacco warehouses in Rocky Mount during the tobacco auctions. I heard him when I was real small.
"A lot of people say his leg got shot off, but he never did say what happened to it. He would start to jamming that peg on a wooden floor when he was playing, and it would sound like he had a drum behind him."
Laughing at the memory, Higgs puts the harmonica back to his mouth and blows some more.
George Higgs is the real thing, a bluesman who learned the music as an oral tradition handed down from previous generations. His first musical mentor was his father, who taught him how to play harmonica. He also learned from the late great Sonny Terry and the aforementioned Peg Leg Sam, becoming a master of the instrument.
"George is arguably the best living Piedmont-style singer and harmonica player," says Durham blues musician Scott Ainslee. "He's been playing music in his community since the '40s, mostly at house parties. But he has almost no notoriety outside Edgecombe County."
Higgs has lived in the Eastern North Carolina county all his 63 years, mostly in and around the hamlet of Speed. He spent a few years farming, like his father. Then he worked as a carpenter for more than 32 years, finally retiring two years ago because of rheumatoid arthritis.
Music was never a full-time career for Higgs because he was too busy earning a living. That's a common experience for blues musicians, and his music is all the more powerful because Higgs lived it.
But the down side is that he remains an undiscovered treasure, a world-class player whose reputation hasn't traveled any farther than he has.
That's starting to change. Higgs has won a number of awards in recent years, including one of this year's Folk Heritage Awards from the N.C. Arts Council.
The award, which will be presented this week, is the state's recognition of each recipient's talent, and carries a $3,000 grant as well.
Ainslee -- who nominated Higgs for the folk heritage award and frequently plays with him at festivals -- also is trying to secure a grant to record an album of Higgs' music.
Such recognition is nice, even if it's long overdue. Higgs is unusually young for an authentic Piedmont blues musician. At least he's getting some attention while he can still capitalize on it.
"Before I learned anything about arts councils or folklore societies, I just played for fun," Higgs says. "The first thing I can remember is singing the blues, but I didn't think there was anything to it. Years back, if I'd known there were people with interest, maybe I could've made something of it.
"But it was just for fun," he said. "Playing and drinking that corn liquor."
Higgs has played with a few bands over the years. Mostly, though, he has performed at weekend house parties for friends, family and co-workers. Higgs' skill on the harmonica and guitar made him a popular fellow at parties.
"We'd get some fried fish, some cooked pig, a little corn liquor; yeah, those house parties would get pretty wild. I remember the man with the liquor would want a dime for a drink. Well, money was scarce and some fellows would take an iron and press aluminum foil on pennies. In the dark, they could pass for dimes. The next morning, the man would come to find out he had more pennies than dimes."
Until recent years, Higgs was almost as accomplished on guitar as on harmonica. Then a 1987 mishap with a saw crippled the index finger of his left hand. Higgs guesses he lost "about half" his guitar-playing ability, but he still plays well enough to get by.
Putting aside his harmonica to pick up a guitar, he plays a couple of songs, starting with "Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl."
His style is classic Piedmont fingerpicking, with the thumb keeping time on the top strings and the index finger plucking leads and melodies on the bottom strings. His repertoire is long on traditional blues classics that aren't written down anywhere except in the heads of people who still play them.
"A lot of these songs come from way, way back, the '40s or even earlier," he says. "Like 'Greasy Greens.' Whatever you enjoy, you'd write a song about it, and everybody likes to eat. Or folks would be out plowing a field, then after work they'd do a song like, 'The sun is shinin', but I believe it's gonna rain.'"
Then he demonstrates by playing a blues riff and a chorus that goes just like that. "Yeah, those were the good old days. Everything is so fast and modern now."
Higgs starts outside toward his car to take a visitor on a quick driving tour of his old stomping grounds.
"I started trying to play guitar at about age 11," Higgs says, settling in behind the steering wheel. "There was this one old fellow in the neighborhood who played, and I would follow him around. He would tune my guitar for me every Sunday. By the next Sunday, it was out of whack again and I would have to go find him again, until I learned how to tune it myself. That's the key to any instrument: You can't play it 'til you know how to tune it."
Before he learned how to tune his guitar, however, Higgs had to get one first.
"I had this squirrel dog, Sam, that this other fellow from the next farm over wanted to buy," he says. "I didn't want to let Sam go. But my daddy said, 'If you sell the dog, you can buy a guitar.' So Sam was gone. I loved that old Sam, but I wanted a guitar more.
"That's how I got my first guitar. And even after I sold Sam, he stayed at my house more than the other guy's. So I never felt like I lost him."
Higgs drives through Princeville and pulls onto N.C. 122 for the short drive over to Speed, past acres and acres of fields planted with neat rows of corn and cotton.
"My dad, he loved that cotton," Higgs says. "He planted more than anybody in our neighborhood. We'd pick 15, 20 bales by hand and never sell before July -- that's when you'd get your peak. He was 66 when he died. My mother lived to be 90 years old. She was a tough one, never got on that bed. She was cooking the morning she died. Just fell on the floor in the kitchen."
When Higgs was growing up, Tarboro was the nearest town of any size. He has traveled this route countless times over the years, going back to the days before there was even a road.
"I was born between Hobgood and Speed, a little closer to Speed," he says. "My grandfather and his father, they all lived around here. I remember my grandmother, Hattie Higgs. She would sometimes tell stories about slavery. Her mother used to get whupped for misbehaving, she said. But that wasn't something she talked about much. It was a cutoff subject."
Just outside Speed, Higgs points out where he married his wife Bettye in 1949 (the building was torn down years ago and it's a cornfield now). Then there's a dilapidated old house his family lived in when his two oldest girls were born.
"See that field there, I plowed it many a day," he says. "Many a day."
Higgs remembers something about almost every house in Speed -- one where a cousin who played banjo used to live; another where "Cracker Jack," the biggest moonshiner in the area, lived.
He also remembers buildings that aren't there anymore, like the general store that became ground zero for parties every Saturday with Higgs blowing his harmonica long into the night. Today, it's an empty lot.
"Home sweet home," he says with a wistful smile. "Yeah, this is where I done all my running around and guitar playing. I remember when this was a dirt road and I used to walk it every hour of the day and night, with a guitar on my back.
"All my roots are here."
Born: March 9, 1930, near Speed.
Family: Married to Bettye Higgs since 1949; six children ages 26 to 42, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Career: While earning a living as a farmer and carpenter, became one of the most accomplished Piedmont-style blues singer and harmonica players.
Awards: N.C. Folklore Society's Brown-Hudson Award, 1992; N.C. Arts Council's Folk Heritage Award, 1993.