Little Freddie King may be the very last of the great bluesmen. A true Mississippian who fell in love with the city and did whatever he could to get here and become a renowned musician, Freddie can still be found rocking and rolling several nights of the week. His journey to become an internationally known blues player was not an easy one, but he knew that he had to come to New Orleans because it was his home.
Little Freddie King was a young boy living on a farm in Mississippi when he learned his musical skills. “Back in the days like that, every day was rough days, hard days. It was a whole lot of work and wasn’t any money—cultivating land and stuff like that, growing our own corn and cotton. My dad [Jessie James Martin], he used to play guitar all the time. I used to watch him, and I loved it a whole lot. I just kept watching him and asked him to learn how to play. He said, ‘Boy, I can’t learn you how to play, you have to learn yourself. But I can show you three chords.’ So, I didn’t forget the three chords, but I was too small to really do anything during that time,” he recounted.
He kept at his craft, but he was distracted by the idea of big-city living. He traveled to New Orleans on a bus for a church trip, and he knew that it was where he wanted to spend the rest of his life. He explained, “By the time I got off the bus and looked around, everything was so convenient and everybody was having fun, and poppin’ and rockin’ and everything. I said, ‘Wow, this place is for me! This is where I’m supposed to be at.’”
The 14-year-old Freddie told his mother that New Orleans was “where [he was] supposed to be at,” but she threatened to skin him alive if he even talked about moving there ever again. She was worried that he would be kidnapped or murdered. Freddie appeased his mother for some time, but he ultimately couldn’t stay away from the place he felt like was his real home.
“Momma, she was working out there in the town. She goes to work in the morning and comes home in the evening time. She looked around and said, ‘You still here and you didn’t go yet?’ I said, ‘Yeah, momma, you said don’t go, so I’m not going to leave,’” he explained, saying that she was still threatening him with being flayed if he ran off.
“The next day, she went to work, so I got my little suitcase. I didn’t have a real suitcase, I had a flour sack. I put a pair of shoes and a couple shirts and a pair of pants. The train was headed south, and the track wasn’t too far behind our house. Around 3:30, here come the big train. At the time, it was burning charcoal, so it had a great big smoke stack. I run on the west side of the track and laid down.”
Freddie knew about “hoboing” the train because he had heard his father and uncle talking about it. He stayed out of sight of the conductor by lying in the grass, and he waited until he saw a train car with one of the doors open. “I ran alongside of the train and was flopping on the side of the car just like a kite. It was hard for me to get inside of the car. I finally got inside and start to thinking. I said, ‘Well if the cops get me, I’m going to jail.’ So that’s how I got down to New Orleans.”
Shortly after Freddie arrived in New Orleans with his flour sack full of clothes, he met up with some friendly people who helped house him. A local reverend got him a job at a service station, and he went to a thrift store to buy his very own acoustic guitar.
Over the next few years, Freddie honed his guitar skills by playing the notes that he thought of in his head. By the late 1960s, Freddie played around the greater New Orleans area with players like Slim Harpo, Babe Stovall, and Harmonica Williams. Freddie’s bands often played in rural areas like Slidell and Covington where audiences were more racially mixed than they were in the city.
Though Little Freddie King feels most at home in New Orleans, he is revered in Europe where he often tours. He claimed that they treat him like the biggest rock star there.
You can see Little Freddie King perform on Friday, May 4, at 12:20 p.m. in the Blues Tent.