RL Boyce & Jessie "Chip" Daniels
Text by Adam Lore

RL Boyce and his daughter Shanquisha, Como, MS, 2001

I had a hunch that I would enjoy the company of RL Boyce even before I knew for sure who he was.  I was standing off by myself at Otha Turner’s ’99 picnic when a tall, lean man who wore a cap that declared “goats are great” came up to me, shook my hand, said, “Hey man.  How you doin’?  Lookin’ good,” and then continued on his way.  That weekend I saw Mr. Boyce sing, play guitar, beat drums, and do a grinding slowdance with a dog when all his human dance partners were exhausted or elsewhere.  I was pretty impressed and thought, “Wow, I should talk to this guy someday.”  That occasion came almost two years later, on the funeral day of Napolian Strickland, a legendary fife player who was a long-time collaborator with RL.

RL Boyce has been playing music in the north Mississippi style since he was a young man.  He says, “I always wanted to be a guitar player,” and grew up listening to RL Burnside, John Lee Hooker, and Fred McDowell, who he describes as “the toughest man you ever saw in your life.  I’m talkin’ about bad.  Sho’nuff bad.”  He has played guitar and/or drums with Strickland, Otha Turner, Jessie Mae Hemphill, and Twenty Miles, as well as been a mentor to Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars.  His style is playfully exuberant, full of repetitive, immediately appealing and danceable boogie riffs that slither about in a loose, freewheeling, but always under control manner.

RL Boyce

Chip is one of RL’s cousins and is probably one of his biggest fans.  His birth name is Jessie Daniels, but everybody calls him Chip.  Chip’s laugh is as close as can be to a giggle without actually qualifying as one, and traces of this laugh can be heard in his expressive singing voice, which contains a youthful enthusiasm and joy that is unmistakable, even when he sings about sorrow and hardship.  Also cousin to Strickland, Mr. Daniels also plays the fife and beats the snare drum.  When he takes his turn at blowing the cane, he’ll often call out in euphoric song and shake his instrument at the crowd. 

This music has been an integral part of each of their lives since their formative years and their art is a direct outgrowth of the local tradition.  They also share a belief that the music they listen to and create is a healer that has enabled them to cope more easily with an often-arduous life.  RL, Chip, and other area musicians have an especially intimate relationship with the music and audience, which is one reason that this custom has not faded and their songs continue to resonate with many people in northern MS and elsewhere.

RL, Chip, Yancey Allison, and I sat down with refreshments at the guest house of Sherman Cooper on July 28, 2001, a couple hours after Chip, RL, and the other pallbearers labored with shovels under the hot sun to cover Napolian Strickland’s sky-blue coffin with tan Mississippi earth.

When was the first picnic you went to?

RL: The first picnic I went to, man, it was LP Buford[’s store, the site of many picnics.] I was…I’m 45 now.  I can’t believe I’ve been a man 25 years.

I have a record you’re on from 1970, when you were playing with Napolian.

RL: Yeah, Napolian and Otha.  But my first time of playing, man, I could carry you back to the place that I used to live at, and the place that I walked across a ditch, they had the fife and drums.  I told my mama one day, I said, “Lord, if I ever get over there…”

How old were you then?

RL: I was about 15 years old.  And then when I did get to playing with Otha and them, I played with GD Young, I played with Napolian.  Napolian was the best that I ever played with.  Let me tell you somethin’: when Napolian called a cane, whooo, everybody.  And man, we would get down!  Napolian, he would blow, then he’d walk down and come back…Napolian, man I’ll tell you somethin’: back then in ’70, ’75, and ’80, man, I had a good time.  I had a good time.  Yeah man, I had a good time.  When I played with Bernice [Pratcher], me and Bernice were the youngest two that played with Otha.  Her and I were young.  And I played when she didn’t play.  And nobody learned me.  I learned [drums] on my own.  I don’t read no music.  I don’t read no kind of music.  I go by sound.

As far as I can play guitar, but ain’t one man I want to be like, that’s RL Burnside, because you see me and him is second cousins.  And I wanna be like John Lee Hooker.  But then a lot of times, we get to playing and stuff, they wouldn’t let me play my style.  Most times I get on up there man, me and Luther [Dickinson], we go up…and I say, “What do you want me to do?”  “Well, go ahead and do what you gotta do.  Anything.”  I tell you, I tear it up.

I saw you two play together at the picnic a couple years ago.

RL: We cut a few demos about a month ago.  He did a little church song and he asked me to help him do it.  I said no.

Do you ever sing church numbers?

RL: Oh yeah.  I’m the type, when I sing a church song, I get full and I go.  Man, let me tell you somethin’: when I get to singing, and when I get full, there’s a side door there, and I go to that side door and won’t come back in there.


Child of God

Some people lie to sing just one or the other.  Rev. Wilkins was talking about that at the funeral today – he won’t sing the blues anymore.  [ed note: Rev. John Wilkins, son of the legendary Rev. Robert Wilkins, eulogized Strickland.  He said that they offer him $500 a night to sing the blues on Beale Street in Memphis, but being a man of the cloth he won’t do it.  At the same time, he couldn’t resist giving the congregation a little taste of what they would want him to sing, if he did such things.  He gave a dramatic recitation of “brother killed a chicken and he thought it was a duck / he put it on the table with its feet stickin’ up / you got to bot-tle up and go!” in his deepest preacher voice, sounding as if he wished he was back at old Jim Canan’s and eliciting vociferous delight from the faithful.]

RL: Well, he ain’t gonna sing it no more because he changed.  But now if he hadn’t changed, he would.  I played with him, some church songs.  He tried to teach me some and I tried to teach him.  But, you know, I know my style, he know his style, and I can’t tell him his style and he can’t tell me my style.  I had friends by the name of Nick Taylor and Joe Townsend, they sing that song, “Goin’ Over the Hill,” and those were the two guys who taught me how to play what I wanna play.  I mean, I can go anywhere in the world and anytime a person asks me to fill in, I’m ready to fill in.  I can fill in.  But I’m gonna tell you one thing: you ain’t gonna beat me and I ain’t gonna beat you.  I’m gonna know my style and when you get up there, you know your style.  And you take like Luther and Cody, when we always went somewhere, when they want me to do a song, it’s in my head what I wanna do.  And then they tell me, “Don’t show me up!  Don’t show me up!”  I said, “No, I ain’t gonna show you up! (laughs) I’m gonna back down.  It’s your show.”


Goin' Over the Hill

Otha Turner, Andre Evans, Jessie 'Chip' Daniels, Aubrey 'Bill' Turner, Senatobia, MS, 1999

Chip: I started way back.  Abe Chatham, he had them picnics, and I started with Otha and them, with my daddy.  He’d carry me when I was a little boy.  He’d take me out in the back of the trucks to the picnics and I liked it so well, I’d sit down and beat by myself.  And my dad told me, “Hey!  Look at that boy beat!”  And Otha told me, “Come on out here!”  So I loved it and I started beating.  I was a little ol’ boy.  I was about maybe 10, 15 years old.  I loved it!  And the picnics, with these guys beating the drums man, I loved it.  It just hit me right there.  I liked that.  I always could sing: “goin’ over the hill,” “my baby don’t stand no cheatin’.”  And I loved it, and when I would go to the picnics, my dad would tell me, I was out there, I used to beat the Hambone and I could pop my lips.  And then they’d give me, back then, I’d get a nickel for every time.  Hey, them nickels started comin’, I was still beatin’ the Hambone.

Who else were you listening to when you were growing up that you really liked?

Chip: RL Burnside.  Fred McDowell, he’s my cousin.  He’d come to my daddy’s house and play. … I would go in here and sit down and listen, he would play the guitar, hey, and I liked it. … I was like RL – man, I want to do that one day. 

When you were first taking up music, did people encourage you?

Chip: What it is, they found I had a voice.  See, I sang all through high school in the choir, and I started going to talent shows.


Somebody's Knockin' on My Door

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RL: Let me tell you somethin’: one time I stayed by myself for five years.  Lemme tell ya, blue, man.  You get by yourself, ooohhh Lord have mercy. … When I played by myself I cut all kinds of songs.  I could sit there at night, I’d get me a six-pack of beer, and I’d go home and sit there, man, a song would come through my head.  Again, let me tell you somethin’: if the blues is with you, it’s with you. … You get off by yourself, man, get to thinking, and think what people have did to you and for you way back yonder, whooo.  I used to mourn, I ain’t gonna mourn no more!

Chip: RL, he started out … on a bass drum.  He had one friend, LT, he wanted to be like RL, but look here – he couldn’t catch RL.  Napolian, he’d say, “Come on, man!  Come on, man!  RL!”  When RL would get to that drum, ssshhh–!

RL: I was bad!

Chip: People crowdin’ around and around…

RL: I’m like Muhammad Ali: “I’m bad!  I’m the greatest!” (laughs)

Chip: But you know what I like about that?  He’s natural.  RL, you were born with that talent. … To me, you just can’t learn like that.

RL: There were 17 of us.  I’m the only one of the family that played blues.

Chip: My mom, she used to sing in the choir.  They say you can be born with a talent or you can learn it, but I was born with a gift for singin’.  I don’t do it like I’m supposed to, but I love singin’.  If it sounds good to me and makes me feel good, I know it sounds good to you.

RL: I was livin’ by myself.  On Saturday evening, I’d get off work.  I had me no guitar, and man, I had my own tape player.  I’d sit there and make my own music up.

Chip: RL!  You talkin’ about a harmonica?

RL: Yeah.

Chip: Hey!  You can blow it!

RL: Oh yeah.  I can blow what I wanna blow. … It ain’t what you do, it’s how you do it.  I just sit back and watch people sometimes – you do this, you do that.  One of these days, I’m gonna do just what you’re doin’.

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RL: I ain’t been all over the world.  Let me tell you somethin’: a lot of people pretend they’re so famous.  I’m not famous.  I was born and raised here.  Back when I was comin’ on, man, it was hard.  Man, you talk about hard, it was hard when I was comin’ on.  My friend…when I went to school, his daddy was big time.  I couldn’t talk to him.  But now I and him work together.  [I’ll say,] “Hey man, you wanna beer?” … He won’t speak to me.  He’ll see me and don’t see me.

But the Lord put everybody in one way.  He put you here for two things: that’s to stay here or to leave here.  He put you here for two things: you can stay here or you can leave here.  And a lotta times, I hear people hollerin’ about heaven and hell. … Everybody I see, they’re goin’ one place.  Know where it is?  Straight down! (laughs) When something happens to me, you know how I told ’em to bury me?  With my face down! (laughs)

RL Boyce at his family reunion in Como, MS, 2006

What do you think is most important for people to know about you and the music you play?

RL: (laughs) Get me another drink, here. (laughs) I love the blues.  I was raised up on blues.  I come outta the cottonfield on blues.  I went to jail on the blues.  I stayed in jail 377 days, I was blue. … But lemme tell you somethin’: if you ever get lonesome (lifts guitar), it’s a friend. 

Chip: Sometimes I have trouble, I feel so lonesome, you know what I do?  I sit down and sing to myself.  But you know, it comes from here. (points to his heart) … It cools me down.

RL: I can’t play Junior [Kimbrough’s] style.  I can’t play RL Burnside’s style.  I play this other RL style.

Chip: Right!

RL: I play it my style.  Make it what you want out of it. 


2012 postscript:

RL Boyce periodically holds house parties where he plays for his friends, neighbors, and visitors from far and wide.  He also continues to perform with the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band.  In late 2007 he recorded his debut album, which was released in July 2013. 

Jessie “Chip” Daniels died on June 28, 2002, after suffering a stroke.  A brief remembrance is found in the Turner benefit program.

The audio excerpts heard here were spontaneously performed during this interview, captured on a cheap handheld cassette recorder.  RL is playing Ranie Burnette's old guitar, and Chip is lead singer. Both men sing on "Child of God," with Chip being more prominent due his proximity to the recorder. This material is presented in fond memory of Chip.  

In September 2012, 50MOER brought RL to New York City to play few solo shows.  The video and black-and-white photos below are from the final night: a 3+ hour set at the Great Jones Cafe, with Greg Anderson sitting in on drums.  The color photograph is from the show at Barbes.  Many thanks to Ted Barron for the photos and Amy Verdon for the video.