It’s good to start a new year by remembering those who passed in the just concluded year. These aren’t the most famous (or infamous), and I didn’t know them personally (or, at best, had met several briefly), but their lives touched mine in three of my passions.
American roots music
It was not a good year for seminal musicians, too many passed this year in blues and old-time country music, including four of the Delta blues fathers.
Hubert Sumlin, 80, December 4. One of the Mississippi Delta fathers of the Chicago blues, his guitar was featured with Howlin Wolf and influenced many who followed.
Willie 'Big Eyes' Smith, 75, September 16. Another Delta blues musician, the drummer for the Muddy Waters band; nicknamed by Waters because his eyes got big when he played.
Wilma Lee Cooper, 90, September 13. An old-time country singer, she sang the mountain music of Appalachia; old-time ballads, fiddle tunes, and gospel.
Wade Mainer, 104, September 12.A banjo player from the Blue Ridge, widely known as the grandfather of bluegrass, one of the last of a generation of Depression-era rural string-band musicians.
David 'Honeyboy' Edwards, 96, August 29. Another of the original Delta blues guitarists, the last member of the first generation who played with the legendary Robert Johnson.
Gil Scott-Heron, 67, May 27. Often credited with being the first rap musician, he called himself a a “bluesologist,” drawing on the traditions of blues, jazz and Harlem renaissance poetry; his word in “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” still rings with truth.
Clarence Clemons, 69. June 18. “The Big Man,” saxophonist, close friend and collaborator in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, keeping their rock-n-roll firmly rooted in the African-American musical tradition.
Hazel Dickens, 75, April 22. Grew up in a three-room shack in West Virginia’s coal country, and became a powerful voice of the working class, bringing poverty, labor and loss to her music. I saw her perform several times.
Pinetop Perkins, 97, March 21. Another of the original Delta bluesmen, a boogie-woogie blues piano player who worked in the Muddy Waters band.
Charlie Louvin, 83, January 26. With brother Ira, the Louvin Brothers were one of the finest brother acts in old-time country music; their harmony singing was always an inspiration.
Politics and public life
Tom Wicker, 85, November 25. Reporter and columnist for The New York Times, hiscommitment to civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam war earned him a spot on Richard Nixon’s enemies list, and criticism from colleagues who felt he crossed the line from journalism to advocacy; his columns were a staple of my life for 20 years.
Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, 89, October 5. One of the most courageous and passionate leaders of the civil rights movement, who endured bombings, beatings and more than 30 arrests in his efforts to end segregation.
Mark Hatfield, 89, August 7. Senator from Oregon from 1966-1996, a deeply believing Christian and passionate advocate for peace and social justice; he led Congressional efforts against the draft, the war in Vietnam, and nuclear weapons; and as Appropriations Committee chair, redirected money from the Pentagon budget to social safety-net programs.
Clara Luper, 88, June 8. Although never well-known, she led one of the first sit-ins in 1958 that sparked the civil rights movement.
Several I grew up with in the 1950s and 1960s, Killebrew and Snider are now in the Hall of Fame.
Jim Northrup, 71, June 8. Detroit Tigers outfielder from 1964-73, best known for a winning two-run triple in Game 7 of the 1968 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals; also played with the Baltimore Orioles and Montreal Expos.
Harmon Killebrew, 74, May 17. A slugger who led the major leagues in home runs for the decade of the 1960s, he played from 1954-75 for the Washington Senators and Minnesota Twins.
Duke Snider, 84, February 27. One of the fabled “Boys of Summer” in the Jackie Robinson era Brooklyn Dodgers, and then the Los Angeles Dodgers, he was a fine defensive outfielder and consistent hitter in a career from 1947-63.
Duane Shank is Senior Policy Advisor for Sojourners.