John Lee Zeigler, from Kathleen, Georgia, was a unique blues stylist who played the guitar left-handed and upside-down. Born in Peach County, Zeigler was raised on a farm as one of 17 siblings. John Lee walked six miles to school every day, often barefoot. At the age of nine, he quit school and started working in the fields, plowing with mules. As he worked, folks would sing around him. “They were singin’ church songs, they were singin’ blues. I heard the moanin’ and all… I never did do none of that,” Zeigler recalled in a conversation with the British Photographer Valerie Wilmer in the early 1970s. Here’s more from that conversation.
“Mama never would let me get out. I was about 16, 17 years old ‘fore I got to gettin’ out anywhere, ’cause they kept me close. We couldn’t run around like children do now… When I got 18, 19, then they started to let me go out, I went out to parties a little bit. I couldn’t stay out no longer than 12 then. I had to report back home… I married when I was goin’ on 21, then I got out on my own. And that’s when I really started to playin’ out.
“Along in then, peoples was givin’ a lot of house parties and things. You’d have a jig every weekend. Wasn’t but a little bitty money, but that was big money then. So they kept me busy ’round home. And on the weekend they’d have fish fries and folks would be havin’ a good time. They would really have a good time. Which it ain’t now, but they had a good time then… It wasn’t nothin’ like it is now goin’ on. You wouldn’t have to be worried. I’ve swung my old guitar over my back a heap of times and walked. Me and a friend of mine, we walked, sometimes three miles to these jigs. Too dangerous to get out there now. They can’t afford it now. Back a few years back people had that money, well they got the money now, but it’s living expenses so high till the people can’t pay you what it worth to play… I had drummers play with me. And I had a bass player play with me a while. He went into the preachin’, he got religion. So Rufus [McKenzie], he beat the spoons with me. He played a lot of house parties with me. After he went to drivin’ long distance [trucks], well he couldn’t be with me. But I mostly played by myself. That’s the way I mostly enjoyed it.
“I sit down and I make these up. That’s the way I get my songs… And when I come up with ’em, well, then I sing ’em. I’ve had some problems too. I ain’t gonna say I ain’t never had no problems. ‘Cause I done had some problems. Everybody done had some problems… But the time I’m writin’ these songs, it really ain’t no problem with me. I just sit down and put ’em together. And when I put ’em together, I play ’em and see how they gonna sound… I got this music from my personal self. I didn’t get this music from nobody else. Never heard it. Nobody played like it. I play by ear. I didn’t go to school for this. Same way about plumbing. I’m a plumber. I’ve plumbed 38 years. And I didn’t go to school for it. I learned it by motherwit. What you learn by that, can’t nobody take away from you but the Good Lord.
“You know, you get out and get to thinkin’… you think about a lot of things in life sometimes. Everybody do… and you can think about these songs and things, when it comes into your mind then that’s the time you write ’em down. That’s the way they come into my life. I’ve put quite a few songs together. Then I play a lot of other people’s songs. Lightnin’ Hopkins is my favorite. John Lee Hooker is a good player. Which, me and him done played together some. We played in Hawkinsville down there some. But he used to be up here, way back when we was younger, he’d be up here in all these clubs up here on the weekend. But Lightnin’ Hopkins now, that’s my favorite man. Lightnin’ Hopkins, he got some chords, what I mean, that lots of ’em can’t record. Just like my chords, I got some chords that nobody can record.
“I don’t know how many done been around my place or been tryin’ to learn how to play. Some players come around and they try to learn my chords but they couldn’t learn ’em. ‘Cause I play bottom upwards, and they play right-handed, so my bass string supposed to be this top here. See, these strings here supposed to be up here when I’m playing, but I got ’em down here. And they can’t understand that. That’s the way I learned how to play. I never did move these bass strings up. So it’s just natural to me with these strings down here like this. The way I learned, I learned without a slide, then a little later on, then I went to usin’ a slide. Lot of people use knifes, different things, but I never did. That copper tubing, right there, that’s what I use. Cut me off a piece of that copper tubing and go right on with it, and that’s what I work with. Yeah, it amazing, but you know, that’s the way it is.”