Friday, April 3, 2020

In Memoriam of Bill Withers, singer-songwriter and coal-miner's son

Many obituaries and tributes to the great Bill Withers are available online, but I'm going to quote from just one, this NPR story by Anastasia Tsioulcas, because it highlights his rural and working-class roots:
The son of a West Virginia coal miner, William Harrison Withers, Jr. was born July 4, 1938. He grew up with a stutter and was one of 13 children in his family. Only six survived infancy. 
He was the first man in his family not to go into the mines, and he couldn't wait to get away from the place where he grew up, as he told NPR's Morning Edition in 2015.
Withers' father died when he was just 13. Soon, another tragedy struck the family. "My social idol was my older brother," Withers told NPR. "He got hurt in the coal mines — he got crushed by a coal cart — so, he wasn't able to work in there anymore." Withers' brother became a mailman, and he saw a way out of the mines for himself, too. 
Withers joined the Navy after graduating from high school in 1956. After a nine-year stint, he moved first to San Jose, Calif. and, a couple of years later, to Los Angeles. For a while, he was a milkman, and then worked in a factory making airplane parts. In the evenings, he would sit in as a singer at small clubs around the city. Between shifts, he learned how to play the guitar and began writing his own songs, which he began shopping around to labels.
I also love this quote from Withers:
I don't think I've done bad for a guy from Slab Fork, West Virginia.
Slab Fork, West Virginia, for the record, has a population of 202.  This attention to Withers' roots is a reminder that Black people live in Appalachia, too. 

Withers' music career, which ended in 1985, lasted less than two decades.  He told NPR in 2015:
I wasn't socialized as a musician. It wasn't the only way I knew how to live.

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