Alabama Folkways Articles

February, 1995


by Steve Grauberger

Once a distinct part of Alabama's musical culture, the blues has become nearly non-existent in its original rural form. One reason for this is the association of the blues as a tool of the devil by many American Christians of African descent.

We surmise that musically, the blues was initially, greatly influenced by early African American religious singing, by the unique spontaneous harmonies and rhythms evident in the hymns and gospel music.

However, the blues takes on another quality, instead of the lyrics being about God they often turn to a darker side of life which at times appears quite hopeless and also has sexual overtones which can be very explicit. Therefore, it is not unusual for a bluesman of old to rid himself of his past lifestyle by turning to the Church and to God for his salvation.

Seventy-five-year-old The Bishop Joe Perry Tillis personifies this type of human transition. He gives Church services every 1st and 3rd Sundays at the Our Saviour Jesus Holiness Pentecostal Church in Samson, Alabama playing electric slide-guitar, singing, and talking through one scratchy amplifier. He preaches the Pentecost and uses a combination of testimonies, and extended hymns he developed with the help of his guiding angels, his daughter and good friend Sister Bertha Lee Baker.

Tillis was born in Talladega County and was raised in Coffee County near Elba. He took up playing music when he was fourteen. His first instrument was a ukulele and then he got a guitar. He was a farm laborer, plowed with a mule, drove trucks and learned to play and sing the blues in his spare time.

As a performing blues musician Tillis played slide guitar using a short steel tube placed on his little finger in the "bottle-neck style." He played and sang in a solo vocal tradition most prevalent in the South. "I always did play alone. I never did like no band. I always was a loner. If I went off and things didn't go good, nobody would know it but me."

He traveled all over performing as a professional bluesman. "I went everywhere playing the blues, Oh Yeah, All in California, New Orleans, New York. Oh yes, I was a professional."

Tillis never made any records. He explains, "I never did want no records much. There just wasn't enough in it. See, I could get out there with my guitar, I played the blues and I'd get out there in a club or some building and make myself $2000 a week. I couldn't get that on records. I just never did fool with no records much, on that a-count. If I wasn't doing nothing but plowing a mule I wanted something out of what I did."

When he was on the road he met the likes of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. "A lot of those guys they really run me up the tree all right. Let me tell you something, Muddy waters could do that thing. I loved to hear him. One guy out of Geneva, Alabama, Dan Pickett, was real good."

In 1954 he went almost totally blind and mentioned that he was a religious backslider as he drank too much an ran around until 1967 when he came back to God. He now lives alone next to his Church and is almost wholly self-sufficient. He does get help with housework and to travel between places.

Bishop Tillis' hymns represent a musical style turned full circle, similar to the blues although it can not qualify as that because his music is totally in praise of the Lord and is an integrated part of his Church service. In the area of Religious musical culture of Alabama his compositions are a one-of-a-kind experience.