Meeting Uncle Joe Witcher
inArtist Storyon April 5, 2016
Gail Ceasar, of Pittsville, VA is Music Maker’s newest Next Generation Artist partner. A country blues phenom and distinct singer, in her playing she honors and celebrates the music of her family and South Central Virginia. We are thrilled to be partnering with her. This past week she introduced Music Maker Communications Coordinator Corn Lewis and myself to her Uncle Joe, one of her earliest influences and a wonderful gospel musician who has been playing for nearly 80 years.
“When I played blues, I played like this,” Uncle Joe made an ‘E’ chord shape on the guitar, “when I got saved, I started playing like this,” Uncle Joe then made a ‘C’ chord shape on the guitar. He never went back to ‘E.’
Uncle Joe, also known as Joe Witcher, is an 83 year-old retired sawmill worker from Pittsville, Virginia. The oldest of 15, he grew up looking after his younger siblings, pouring concrete and playing guitar any chance he could get. Later, when he had his own family of 12 children to care for and feed, he traveled around the South looking for the best pay to send home to his family. Along the way, he also performed at churches and radio stations.
Today, everything about Uncle Joe conveys a dutiful man who proudly accepts and takes pleasure in the work of life. Even at the age of 83, while his body fails him, his mind is ever-sharp and his confidence presents a man still in the prime of his life.
“I didn’t learn from anybody, the good Lord taught me this,” he said, explaining that his dedication to his craft is inspired by his deep faith and he is at the ready to testify his unyielding love and gratitude.
While we talk, Gail Ceasar, listens closely to her uncle. She’s heard these words before and understands their meaning better than Corn and I, who were hearing them for the first time. Uncle Joe humbly credits the Lord for his talent, and in so doing, glosses over the lifetime of dedication to his craft. Its more likely that Uncle Joe spent hours listening closely to the musicians he grew up with, including his father. Also, when radio came along, it’s likely that he was pouring over the shows coming out of Bristol and Nashville. His wife’s name is Maybelle, and he ponders over whether or not she may have been named after the great Maybelle Carter, barring timeline issues.
Gail Ceasar brought us all together today. A few weeks ago, she played a few tunes telling Corn and I, “this is how my Uncle Joe would play it.” After ascertaining that Uncle Joe lived nearby and was maybe still playing, I begged her to introduce me to him. She made the calls and soon we were all sitting in Gail’s living room together. It was a beautiful day and the sun blasted through the curtains as we sat together and rapped about spirituals and what we would do with a million dollars, the benefits of buying guitars as a gospel musician and different playing styles.
Uncle Joe expressed his joy and relief that Gail was carrying on these musical traditions, whose influence he saw shrinking in the presence of contemporary styles and new tastes among churchgoers. “Gail is the best, you’re not going find anybody around here that can play it like her.” She sat by quietly looking at her hands and beaming.
“I didn’t teach Gail a thing, she got it all by herself.” If it’s not the church, I hope there is a venue where Gail and Uncle Joe’s tradition can influence future generations of players and music lovers.