Artist Spotlight: Drink Small
inThe Artistson December 29, 2016
The Blues Doctor knows what ails you. He’s an expert diagnostician of the many maladies of the heart and soul. He got his education early, being born in the depths of the Depression to the cotton fields of Bishopville, South Carolina in 1933. As a member of a share cropping family, he started working in the fields young. One day, when he was just 8 years old, the mule-drawn wagon he was riding in lurched and both Drink and the cotton bales were thrown off the side. When his uncle started the mule to go again, the cart rolled over young Drink and severely injured his back. With no money for doctors or the hospital, a local midwife nursed Drink as best she could. But weeks later, when they removed the makeshift cast she put on him, it was clear to all that Drink would not be making a living as a farmer.
So at age of 11, Drink started work as an explorer of the human condition in song. He played the piano and guitar through high school and performed in homes and at churches. While he was sent to barber school, he discovered very quickly that he didn’t want to cut hair, he wanted to “cut up”. He turned his full attention to the music and has spent the eight decades since “boogalooin’ on Saturday and hallalejehin’ in church on Sundays”. Drink has travelled the world, playing the big festival stages and the dives, the country clubs and the juke joints, the chapels and the tent revivals. The study he has made of our plight is poignant and sometimes a little sad, but never lacks for humor:
“Rich people got the blues because they are trying to keep the money, the poor people got the blues because they are trying to get the money and I got the blues because I ain’t got no money.
Jesus had the blues. He had them because he didn’t want the devil to get all of the souls. He turned the rocks to souls, so the devil wouldn’t get them all. You know he turned the water into wine, I guess he did get drunk. Three quarters of the world is water. I’m glad he didn’t turn all of the water into wine or we would be in trouble.”
We met Drink Small way back in 1991, when he was still touring and recognized as one of the most renowned gospel guitarists and South Carolina’s finest bluesman. His music never brought him riches, but he made a living and has received some of the greatest honors a musician can earn, being the recipient of a South Carolina Folk Heritage award and being named a Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts heritage Fellow.
While we often hired Drink to play at the many music series and festivals we supplied talent to in North Carolina and around the country, for many years Drink never needed the assistance of our Musician Sustenance program. But, time has a way of wearing down the most fiercely independent of us. As Drink neared his 80s, his sight slowly began to slip away from him. Now completely blind, Drink can no longer travel or perform. The monthly stipend Music Maker sends him has become crucial to maintaining his extremely humble lifestyle. While Drink appreciates the financial aid, he believes that being part of the Music Maker family provides artists an essential sustenance for the spirit:
“Now the guy that had never been discovered, he will have a second chance. And some of them that have been discovered and are kind of confused or about to give up, Music Maker spices them up, gives something to live for and a reason to continue on. And the ones that have done it and have given up, you give them something to come back to.”
— Denise Duffy