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In this charming home video, renowned bluesman George Higgs reminds us that there’s always “two sides to every story.” Mr. Higgs hailed from Speed, North Carolina, a small town about an hour east of Raleigh in Edgecombe County. “It’s a slow town with fast name,” he liked to say. Mr. Higgs died last year at age 82.
We came across this heartwarming story on Mr. Higgs by Ben Casey, an award-winning writer, photographer, and newspaper reporter. It was originally published on February 7, 2013 and appears here with the gracious permission of the author.
Divining George Higgs
Ben Casey Remembers A North Carolina Blues Giant
February 7, 2013
It was a sunny but brisk day, just a year ago this month. Leigh Russell, director of cultural enrichment programs at Pamlico Community College, accompanied me to the outskirts of Tarboro to interview George Higgs, a highly acclaimed blues original from Edgecombe County.
Higgs had been chosen to be a highlighted feature of the annual festival celebrating North Carolina’s musical heritage. Literature about him talked of his association with other musical greats from all across the state and his tour of Europe with some of them.
His biography told of his early years growing up on an Edgecombe County farm, always working on a farm, doing some carpentry, but playing for all types of events, festivals, and clubs in his early years. The NC Arts Council and others had compiled quite a litany of his accomplishments. Following directions to his home, there was the usual effort to visualize what his surroundings would be like when we arrived.
Though the road signs were clear, we wondered if we had the right directions as we turned down a one-lane, dirt path. That road gave us a ride you’d expect on a roller-coaster.
Feeling unsure, we stopped and talked to someone for clarification. They were not sure who we were asking about when we mentioned his name, but knew that a musician lived in that double-wide we had just passed.
We found George Higgs living in a modest dwelling on more than an acre. It was also home to a variety of farm implements and tractors from yesteryear. Graciously accepted into the home, we found a warm & cozy environment with medical oxygen tanks by a recliner, a living room filled with music memorabilia, and a guitar on resting on its stand. Posters promoting concerts headlined by George Higgs were on the wall.
I realized was sitting on a sofa that had accommodated some of the music greats in North Carolina from past and present years, including David Holt who toured with Doc Watson.
George Higgs recalled learning to play the harmonica from hoboes who camped on the farm during the Depression, and from convincing his father to buy him a guitar after first proving he could play a tune on an old hand-me-down.
I asked Mrs. Higgs what it was like to live with a star. “Oh, he ain’t no star.”
And without bitterness or remorse, George could humbly explain that he lived through the times that he played in places where he had to enter through the back door.
Back in the day, working on assignment for college publications and newspapers, I have photographed musical celebrities from Paul Anka to Jerry Butler, from The Embers to The Association and more in between that I can remember. I will have no trouble remembering George Higgs for the rest of my life. I left his home with goose bumps. I had goose bumps the whole time I was in the wings photographing him on stage at Pamlico Community College.
Delcine Gibbs was the one to tell me about the Oriental art exhibition featuring African American NC music greats. She can relate how I couldn’t contain my excitement in telling her that I had interviewed and photographed George Higgs.
The very next day, I honestly felt I had been kicked in the stomach when I learned that he had died the day before, the day I learned he was in the show at the Village Art Gallery. Losing George Higgs is a loss to his family, and to the family that calls North Carolina home.
I will never forget him and his humble patience in living through the days when he had to enter through the back door to perform on the main stage. He was something, both on and off the stage.
Ben Casey is a Road Scholar with the The North Carolina Humanities Council. He holds a Master of Arts in Teaching from Duke University and is a writer/photographer whose book All in One River: Falls Dam to Pamlico Sound, Interviewing the Neuse River, is a photo-essay on the Neuse River. Living Waters: The Trent River, Wellspring for Jones County, North Carolina, documents the Trent River and its ecosystems. His most recent book is Dismal? The Great Dismal Swamp Canal. He has also documented the restoration of the American Tobacco Historic District in Durham, NC. As reporter/ photographer for The Pamlico News, he won two first place state awards for feature writing and for a photo essay. Visit Mr. Casey’s website at bencaseyphotos.com.