American Routes Shortcuts: Billy Joe Shaver
The late outlaw country singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver was born in 1939, in Corsicana, Texas, a town named after the island of Corsica, the homeland of the city’s founder. Growing up in World War II Texas meant a rough and tumble life for Billy Joe; his father left before he was born, and his mother, Victory, went to find work in the honky-tonks of Waco, leaving him with his grandmother, Birdie Lee Watson. She bought him a Gene Autry guitar and told him he’d be on the Grand Ole Opry someday. But it wasn’t at home where he developed his love of music.
Billy Joe Shaver: We didn’t have a radio, and there was a barber shop about five, six miles away, and I would go up there and listen to the hit parade they had going, but I didn’t get much out of that. The place that I found where the music was, was across the railroad tracks–we lived right at the railroad tracks-and on the other side was the cotton pickers, and they all lived in them little old shacks, you know, in one room shacks.
Nick Spitzer: Were these African American, White folk? Who were they?
BJS: Yes, Black people. My friends, I love 'em, and the one woman had a stand-up piano on her front porch, and everybody would gather over there after they got done working. Some of them had to work up into the night, and I would gather over there with them and they let me, and I learned pretty much everything I learned about music from just getting over there. They let me sing, and I'd make up stuff. Man, I had the blues down.
NS: Billy Joe Shaver in 1973, “I’ve Been to Georgia on a Fast Train,” a song that recalls his youth growing up in Texas. And it’s true, like in the song, that Billy Joe left school in eighth grade, but not before he had a challenge from an English teacher named Ms. Legg who saw some potential in the young man.
BJS: Yeah, Ms. Legg, she gave me a leg up. She would come down to homeroom–they called it homeroom–and it would be an hour that everybody from all grades come and stayed in that one room and just mess around, throw stuff at each other and things like that. But Ms. Legg would make us all do something, and she made us write a poem one day. She said, "Write me a poem," so I wrote her a poem, and everybody else did too. She'd come by me, and I was one of them kind of guys that had my cigarettes rolled up in my sleeve and all that.
NS: This is around eighth grade?
BJS: Yeah, and I thought I was tough and all that stuff. And she comes up to me with that poem, and she said: "Where'd you dig this up at? Yeah, I know you stole it, so tell me where you got it." I said "I ain't steal nothin'," and she said, "Well okay, I want you to write me a poem by tomorrow, and I want, I mean I want it coming from you." So I went home, and I wrote her a poem trying to curl her toenails, you know, about space. It kind of knocked her on her butt. I wasn't real sure I knew what I was talking about, but apparently I got lucky, and sure enough it was a humdinger.
Billy Joe Shaver passed away on October 28, 2020.
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