Bonnie was idealistic, she said, until age 16. “Then I just said, ‘Forget it.’ The country was falling apart in the Sixties, it was just a lot of hedonistic rock music. It went from the beautiful days of Selma and SNCC, when white and black people were working together in the South…then Watts blew up and all of a sudden black power came about, and there wasn’t anything pleasant about being a white person working in America.”
At Radcliffe, she played her music at “folk orgies” during exam periods, at hoots and in her own dorm room where she answered her fellow dormies’ requests for songs like “Suzanne.”
Still, she considered herself a blues freak, and in her freshman year she met white blues freak Number One, Dick Waterman.
Dick is a beady-eyed man with a shock of black hair. He is 40 and looks like a 28-year-old man who looks 40-ish. He speaks haltingly in a high voice, is smarter than he sounds and spends most of his office hours on Bonnie. Dick had been in Cambridge since 1962, working as a photojournalist. He covered the 1963 Newport Folk Festival for the National Observer, and in 1964 rediscovered Son House, who was interested in working again but had no manager. Since then, he has managed Fred (“I Do Not Play No Rock & Roll”) McDowell, Skip James, Arthur Crudup, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy. He not only managed them, but housed them, fed them and force-fed dozens of colleges around the country into booking them in blues festival packages.
Dick, then 33, and Bonnie, 18, met at blues hangouts like the Club 47 in Cambridge and WHRB, the Harvard radio station. “We were just sort of vague friends,” said Bonnie. “Then after a while…. I think he liked redheads or something.”
But in 1968, blues were giving way, she said, to “all that psychedelic supermarket stuff. So Dick picked up and said, ‘Forget Cambridge,’ and went to Philadelphia.”
Bonnie herself took the summer of ’68 off to go to Europe with two girlfriends, and in England she discovered the work of Sippie Wallace, a woman who would later be called her “mentor.” Sippie Wallace was 70 and had been making records since the Twenties. She wrote such numbers (now identified with Bonnie) as “You Got to Know How” and “Women Be Wise.” Bonnie heard an album Sippie cut in 1966 while on a European tour with Junior Wells, Roosevelt Sykes and Little Brother Montgomery, among others.
“I’d never heard a voice like that in my entire life,” said Bonnie. “I liked Bessie Smith but I wasn’t a big fan of classic blues, and Sippie was somehow much more raw.”
Sippie, she said, is not so much her mentor as “my sassy grandmother. She probably, in her day, was as sassy as some of the things I get into. There is just no gap.
“And did I tell you she thought I was Karen Carpenter? She wrote Dick a letter: ‘One day I hope to be able to have Bonnie play drums behind me!’ ” Bonnie bounced with laughter on her hotel bed.
Sippie, her career curtailed by a stroke and chronic arthritis, first met Bonnie in 1972, after Bonnie had recorded three of her songs. Sippie joined Bonnie onstage at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival singing in public for the first time since that 1966 tour. Last year she joined Bonnie for concerts in Boston and Washington D.C. She was still confined to a wheelchair and able to play the piano only on her standout number, a low-voiced, trembly, angry-sounding “Amazing Grace.”
On November 1st, Sippie, who lives in Detroit, performed with Bonnie again, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her arthritis has regressed and she was back on piano, dueling with Bonnie on several numbers and snarling out a new song: “Bonnie, You’re So Wonderful.” A packed house at old Hill Auditorium capped the four-and-a-half-hour show with a rousing “Happy Birthday” to Sippie. She was 77 that day.
After Bonnie’s return from Europe in 1968, she continued to see Waterman — and friends. “It only cost $8 student standby to fly to Philly,” she said, “so twice a month I’d fly down there. That’s when I started to hang out. I would skip school a lot, we would take off to lots of little blues festivals Dick would book. And I think I went to almost every gig.”
Occasionally Bonnie would pick up her guitar and work out arrangements on blues tunes. “But I mean I had this whole other life. Music at that point had become a hobby. I was mostly a college student. I still was really working at having to study. And it was real hard to try to do my homework with Fred McDowell sitting ten feet away from me.”
“She played well when I met her,” said Dick Waterman in Houston. “She had a real genuine love for the music. There were many people trying to be like Michael Bloomfield or Johnny Hammond,” he said, but Bonnie had the advantage of access — through him — to all the blues performers. She took advantage, he said, to ask them about tunings and songs. She would return favors later by hiring artists as opening acts at her concerts. The musicians’ initial response to her, Dick said, was “sort of amusement. They thought her interest in the blues was some kind of freakish quirk. But she’s proud that Buddy and Muddy and Junior and Wolf now regard her as a genuine peer, not ‘She plays good for a white person or a girl,’ but, ‘She plays good.’ “