I'm sad and grateful with tears for Marion Washington, better known by his nickname "Little Joe." I am grieving more deeply than I would have guessed for what was obviously inevitable, given his 75 years and his frail and failing health in recent months.
If you want to understand where this talented musician was coming from -- sonically and otherwise -- listen to some early Johnny "Guitar" Watson, another late Third Ward phenom. Check out that guitar tone, the raspy vocals.
Our Little Joe was original and unique; yes, he was, but he -- just like his mentor Joe "Guitar" Hughes -- was profoundly influenced by Watson. Little Joe was the last link in that lineage, the final articulation of a combination of sounds we will not hear again live on local (or other) stages.
One key part of Little Joe's appeal might be ascribed simply to his longevity, for he outlived Watson by 18 years, Hughes by 11.
But Little Joe, as his nickname implied, also had a disarmingly boyish quality at times, at least as sometimes revealed among his friends. Some of us glimpsed a surprising capacity for sincerity, an almost childlike manner that could bring out the best in us.
Despite the sense that he was always on the make, looking for a handout and often disappearing down the street as soon as he got the cash he was seeking, Joe was not a con artist or a bum. The radical freedom with which he lived made him closely acquainted with hardship, more than any of us perhaps understand.
But helping Joe survive, being willing contributors to his welfare, brought out the best in a whole lot of good folks--from venue owners to fellow musicians to his longtime friends, casual acquaintances, and generous strangers.
I personally thank all of you who responded--once or on a regular basis--to the impulse to help Little Joe, to slip him some cash or buy him a meal or give him a ride or to perform whatever the service might have been. Little Joe, in his abject neediness or his charming friendliness, came to embody the opportunity for each of us to be a cheerful giver. Charity extended to Little Joe made us better humans.
Story continues on the next page.
Flashback: I recall riding through Third Ward with the great trumpeter and successful bandleader Calvin Owens at the wheel, circa 1996, shortly after he had moved back to his native Houston from Belgium. We saw Little Joe walking down the street pushing a malfunctioning bicycle, looking as ragged as a hard-luck alley cat. Calvin hadn't had any contact with him for over a decade, so we pulled over to say hello.
After a brief chat through the car window, as we slowly drove away, I muttered, "I sometimes worry about Little Joe." Calvin braked his Lincoln Continental, reached over and tapped me hard on the chest. "Don't you worry about Little Joe Washington," he said. "He's a survivor, and he'll still be here when most of us are dead and gone."
In many ways, Calvin was right, for Little Joe outlived most of his contemporaries (including Calvin) in the vintage Houston blues scene. But Little Joe too is now gone, and somehow it seems right now that something bigger and better than one individual has slipped away too.
It's OK to grieve, I guess--not that there's any choice once it hits you the way it's got me. But let's all do ourselves a kind favor by listening to the music and remembering Little Joe.
We are fortunate to have known him, for -- as weird as it may seem to some observers-- he provided us with opportunities to become better human beings. His presence was a catalyst that bonded many people, made us part of a community, and we should all be grateful for that.
Pending the acquisition of a larger venue for the service, Little Joe's viewing and funeral is scheduled for 9 a.m. Saturday, November 29 at Skipper Lee & Son Eternal Rest Funeral Home, 4610 S. Wayside Dr. Dr. Roger Wood is the author of Down In Houston and Texas Zydeco, and co-author of House of Hits.
ROCKS OFF'S GREATEST HITS
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism