Jerry McCain, Gadsden


Jerry "Boogie" McCain (2007) article by Anne Kimzey

The Alabama Folk Heritage Award, given every two years, is the state’s highest honor for the folk and traditional arts. In 2007 the recipient was blues musician and Gadsden native Jerry “Boogie” McCain. Born in 1930, McCain  played blues harmonica for more than 70 years. He is a true representative of the blues tradition in Alabama, or as he says it, “I am Jerry Boogie McCain. I ain’t CocaCola, but I’m the real thing!” 

His home-town of Gadsden has also recognized McCain’s contri- bution to the community’s musical roots by featuring him in performance with the Etowah Youth Orchestra. Jerry McCain earned the nickname “Boogie” when he began playing harmonica on the streets of Gadsden at the age of five. Several of his uncles played the harmonica, and his mother and aunt played guitar in the church, but his real musical influences were the blues musicians he heard on the jukebox at his father’s barbecue stand when he was growing up in the 1930s and ’40s. He enough, you're going to get them.

“The blues come from wanting, not getting; needing, not having. That’s where the blues come from, see, blues is a feeling. And it’s not just about a woman leaving a man or a man leaving a woman,” he explained. Perhaps because he speaks the language of the blues so well, this harmonica master and songwriter has attracted fans world-wide. He has toured Europe several times, performed at national blues festivals and has been featured on the cover of Living Blues magazine. In spite of national and international attention, only in more recent years has McCain gained recognition in his home state. He has performed regularly at Birmingham’s City Stages festival.  

McCain began imitating the sound of blues legends Sonny Boy Williamson and Sonny Terry. It was the music of Little Walter that inspired McCain to launch his own recording career. He made his first commercial recording in 1953 on the Trumpet label in Jackson, Mississippi and has since recorded on a variety of labels, such as Excello, Rex, Okeh and Jewel. In the late 1980s and ’90s he made several CDs with Ichiban Records and released This Stuff Just Kills Me in 2000 on Jericho.

He recorded his best-known song, “She’s Tough,” in 1960, which was covered by the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Back in the early days of his career McCain traveled from town to town on what was known as the “chitlin’ circuit,” performing in juke joints all over the South, but always returning to Gadsden. All the while he was developing his own performing style. “I used to play like everybody. Sonny Boy Williamson, Jimmy Reed, Little Walter, Sonny Terry. Anybody that played harmonica,” said McCain. “Now I did that for years in the ’50s, in the ’60s, and then in the ’70s I started to changing my style.” Then in the ’80s, I got my own style.” McCain said that all blues harmonica players had started sounding like to him, so he began modeling his harmonica breaks after the musical phrasing of jazz horn players and guitar players. “Most harmonica players don’t hit those licks,” he said.

In performance, he enjoys interacting with his fans, sometimes leaving the stage and moving through the crowd as he plays to individual audience members. Another crowd-pleasing technique he has perfected is playing the harmonica with his nose. “I play the harmonica with my nose better than a whole lot of people play with their mouth,” he said. Jerry McCain learned to play music by ear, and he composes, as he puts it, “by mouth.” He has the gift of being able to write and arrange tunes in his head, which he then dictates into a tape recorder for someone else to transcribe. He is adept at improvisation and has been known to make up tunes while performing on stage. “People see me the next time I play and say, ’sing that song,’ but if I don’t write it down, it’ s gone. I have been in bed and songs go through my mind that’d be good songs. And I’ll say, ‘I’ll do it in the morning.’ When I get up in the morning it’s gone. It comes and it goes. If you don’t write it down while it’s coming, then you’ll lose it,” he explained. He prefers to write songs that tell a story and many of these stories are borrowed from his own experience. True to the blues tradition, his songs have a personal side to them, but they also provide social commentary and criticism. Often they reveal his wit and humor.

Jerry McCain writes about the world around him, as in his song “Burn the Crack House Down” on his album Love Desperado. “Everywhere you go is crack,” he said. “I just put that song together on account of all this crack all over the world. Most of my songs tell a story. I don’t like to write a song, just to be writing a song to make some money. I must tell a story. I have to tell a story.”

Anne Kimzey is a Folklife Specialist for the Alabama State Council on the Arts.