It’s been a while since Algia Mae Hinton was on a stage, but she’s still a dancer. That hasn’t changed, even though she’s wheelchair-bound nowadays.
“The reason I can’t walk, I danced so much and told so many stories, I wore out my legs,” she says and laughs. “But I’m gonna walk again, dance again. Ain’t giving up.”
A recent Sunday afternoon found the 87-year-old Hinton holding court in the living room of her modest country house, decked out to entertain visitors. She wore black-velvet finery with jewelry to accent bright red nails, her eyes hidden behind rock-star shades.
Hinton used to perform for festivals with crowds in the thousands – even once at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Now as one of the last surviving Piedmont blues players from the old days, she performs mostly for family and friends.
But even without a guitar in hand, she still draws a crowd of those near and dear to her. A steady stream of relatives passed through – grown children, younger grandchildren, younger-still great-grandchildren – to give a hug and a kiss and hear a story or a song.
Every adult man got the same treatment: Hinton looking at them askance and clucking in mock-disapproval, “He got so many women.” It brought down the house every time.
Among the visitors was one of Hinton’s longtime music friends, Mike “Lightnin’ ” Wells, who sat on her couch picking Piedmont blues on a guitar. Hinton swayed to the music, doing a little soft-shoe dance in her wheelchair – a version of the thunderous, full-body buck-dancing she used to do in her prime.
“Algia Mae,” Wells finally spoke up in mild exasperation, “you gonna sing or not? I’m here playin’!”
Hinton smiled, muttered about Wells’ “many women” and began to sing.
I’m goin’ down this road feelin’ bad
Lost the best friend I ever had…
A lot of the songs Hinton sings are the traditional blues, folk and gospel tunes she learned growing up on her family’s farm in the 1930s and ’40s. But this is one she wrote herself, inspired by harsh real-life circumstances – the night in 1984 when her house burned down.
“Lost everything I had,” she said matter-of-factly, then paused. “Lost a lot of things in this life.”
A working life
In 1996, Wells produced an album for Hinton called “Honey Babe: Blues, Folk Tunes and Gospel From North Carolina.” The title track was the first song Hinton ever learned, and the serial number they gave the album was 82929 – Hinton’s birth date of Aug. 29, 1929.
Born to a farming family, Hinton came along at the end of her parents’ 14 children. They had her out working in the fields almost as soon as she could walk.
“I have done some work in my day,” Hinton said. “In the field picking cotton, cucumbers, tobacco. Housework and schoolwork, too. Cutting wood for the woodstove, did that, too.”
As she spoke, her son Williette Hinton sat nearby. At 61 years old, he is the eldest of Algia Mae’s four children who are still living.
“The snow was this deep, and mama’d go out there in it to get wood to keep us warm,” Williette said of his mother. “We were old enough to go out and do that, but she wouldn’t let us. She felt like we might get sick, and she could handle it better than us. That woman taught me how to work, that’s for sure.”
Algia Mae has always been been self-sufficient, and that’s fortunate because she had to fend for herself as a single parent after her husband died more than 50 years ago. In her telling, the circumstances of his death were more than a little sordid.
“I got married in 1950 and my husband was killed in 1965,” she said. “Murdered. Got killed in New York, over that rock dope. He died and he had so many women! I tell you what, I did ask the Lord to forgive him. He come back here, I was gonna bust a cap in him. But I’m glad I didn’t do it.
“I don’t even know where he’s buried at,” Hinton added, with a shrug. “Never married another man. One was enough. Married a family, that’s what I did.”
From good luck to bad
Hinton started learning music at age 9, primarily taught by her mother (an expert finger-picking guitarist). She learned to dance, too, and that came from her father. Show-off tricks like playing guitar behind her back while dancing, she figured out pretty much on her own.
By her teenage years, Hinton was an accomplished 12-string guitarist playing Piedmont blues – an uptempo, clattery style of acoustic music with elements of bluegrass and ragtime. The best-known first-wave women players of North Carolina Piedmont blues were Elizabeth Cotten (author of the enduring genre classic “Freight Train”) and guitar virtuoso Etta Baker, who have both been gone for more than a decade. Hinton ranks behind Baker and Cotten, and she’s pretty much the last survivor of the generation after theirs.
It’s actually hard to fathom how Hinton found the time or energy for music over the years, given the mammoth amounts of labor involved in tending to seven kids. But she never stopped playing, dancing, performing.
“I played at camps, jailhouses, rest homes, lotta places,” Hinton said. “In jail, people in there killed somebody. They’d tell me, ‘C’mere, you.’ No, uh uh!”
For most of Hinton’s first four decades, playing music was almost strictly for family and friends. That changed in 1978. Glenn Hinson, a folklorist from UNC-Chapel Hill, was putting together an album to accompany a museum exhibit about 19th-century African-Americans in North Carolina, and he’d heard about a hotshot female guitarist in the vicinity of Zebulon.
Asking around took him to Hinton’s front door, but she was deeply suspicious of a white stranger coming around to ask about her guitar-playing. Complicating things further, she’d just been playing at a house party where someone had been stabbed.
“She was sure I was the law, there to get her in trouble,” Hinson said. “As I learned later, when she saw me through the door, she ripped the strings off her guitar. Then she showed it to me: ‘See, no strings. I clearly haven’t played in a long while.’ ”
Eventually, he earned Hinton’s trust by mailing her a new set of guitar strings. After recording her for the museum project, Hinson helped get her booked into festivals.
On the festival circuit, Hinton’s dazzling guitar, irrepressible spirit and wry kitchen-table wisdom (“When You Kill The Chicken Save Me The Head” is just one of the culinary songs in her repertoire) made her an instant hit. For good measure, she was a killer dancer as she played tunes like the old Rev. Gary Davis number “Buck Dance.”
While music would never amount to a full-time career, it earned Hinton acclaim and honors including a North Carolina Folk Heritage Award. In 1983, the noted folklorist Alan Lomax came to North Carolina and filmed Hinton, Durham bluesman John Dee Holeman and friends on a porch, playing and doing “Flat-Foot” tap-dancing.
A year later, in 1984, Hinton played Carnegie Hall in New York City. It was the gig of a lifetime, but the good feelings would be short-lived.
“Literally the night she returned from that, her house burned down,” Hinson said. “The night before, she’d been sleeping in New York City. Then we brought her back, dropped her off at home, it was a cold night and the wood heater caught the front room on fire. It just went up, and she had nothing. That’s very much been her life, a very hard one in every dimension – occupational, family, you name it. She’s had a hard life of ‘bad luck and trouble,’ as she’d say.”
Back in Hinton’s living room, Wells was still playing and she was still singing. Occasionally, she’d tap out a beat on an old drumhead bearing autographs of some of the many people she’s played with – fiddler Joe Thompson, folklorist Mike Seeger and former Carolina Chocolate Drop Dom Flemons.
Thompson and Seeger are both gone now. So is most of the rest of Hinton’s musical generation, whose numbers are dwindling.
“Algia Mae,” Wells said between songs, “you and John Dee are about the last two old original Piedmont blues players still out there.”
Seemingly lost in thought, Hinton didn’t answer. She has survived not just musical peers but all 13 of her siblings, and even three of her seven children. One of the hardest losses was Hinton’s youngest daughter, Elgia Mae Hinton, who died of heart troubles in 2008 at age 46.
“There aren’t but a handful like Algia Mae left,” said Tim Duffy of Music Maker Relief Foundation, which gives financial support to elderly blues players in need (including Hinton). “But what a life she’s had. Billionaires haven’t had a life as rich as hers. She’s funny. Kind of a genius, even. At first, she might seem like this kind of obtuse old lady. But she’s got a very sharp wit, and she’s one of the funniest songwriters. ‘Cook cornbread for your husband and biscuits for your outside man’ – who comes up with poetry like that?”
Nobody except Hinton. But she seems at least as proud of her family as her music.
“I raised my kids up, salt and pepper and switch,” she said. “I bet you whip yours, too. Right? You’ve got to. If you don’t, there’ll be trouble.”
At that moment, she realized that her son Williette was grinning broadly as he listened. She paused, gave him a stare and a dramatic shake of the head.
“He got,” she pronounced solemnly, “so many women.”