More Details About Ike Zimmerman Are Revealed
An Alabama based radio station recently uncovered more clues about Ike Zimmerman. They even interviewed his daughter. And yes, the last name is Zimmerman – finally that issue can be put to rest. Ike, as it turns out, was a pretty great guy…..
Isaiah “Ike” Zimmerman was born in Grady, Alabama in 1907. In his early years, Ike was a farmer in Alabama. He came from a farming family. His brother, Herman, was also a farmer in the area. Even then though, Ike was into music. Music, it turns out, was the absolute love of Ike’s life. It was what he lived for. Even at an early age, Ike was remembered as playing blues in juke joints around not only the Grady area, but surrounding towns as well, including Montgomery.
It was in Montgomery that Ike met his soon to be wife, Ruth. Ruth worked in a hotel in the city as a cook. She lived under the hotel, in quarters provided for the workers. She would ride the street cars of Montgomery, and on a chance meeting, met and fell in love with Ike. Of course, the rest is history.
Ike would eventually leave Grady with his brother Herman. He would end up following Route 80 out of Montgomery, and connecting with Highway 51 near Jackson, where he headed south. He ended up in a place called “The Quarters”, in Beauregard, MS. The Quarters, as described by Ike’s youngest daughter Loretha Smith, was a small enclave located by the Beauregard Cemetery and a crossroads. She said there were only about 5 or 6 houses there. Of course, the Quarters no longer exists, but we believe this was located on East Ave, just south of Beauregard Road. This is where Ike would eventually settle. It was a cozy, 2 bedroom, 1 kitchen house with a front porch. It pretty much was a shotgun house as we know them today. Ike worked as a road constructor, but barely ever put down the guitar.
Ike, it turned out, loved music so much, he taught quite a few people. Most of his students were women. In Fact, one of his most gifted students (other than Robert Johnson) just recently died – and she was quite skilled on the guitar as well. In fact, some locals say she was just as good as old Robert. Ike, it would seem, was a loving man who not only had a gift for music, but had a unique gift to be able to successfully teach it to others who wanted to learn.
All the while Ike was in Mississippi, he never stopped playing the guitar at Juke Joints all around the area. His brother Herman, who also still lived in Mississippi, lived near Martinsville, MS. On one trip to see his brother, Ike would stop into a store/juke and ended up meeting Robert Johnson. Often times, this area is referred to as “One Stop”, because at the time, the area had one stop. They used to have two buildings on the corner, but only one remains. This area now sits on the corners of Martinsville Road and Highway 51. Robert explained to Ike, upon them meeting, that he had just come from Hazlehurst, which was just a few miles north. This lends to the rumor that Robert had traveled to Hazlehurst to learn guitar for over a year. Partly true – he would travel on, as it turns out, from Hazlehurst stopping in Martinsville. Here he met Ike, and his life changed forever.
Robert – known at that time in that area as R.L. – would follow Ike back to his home to stay with him. How this happened is still unclear – it is possible Robert just needed a bed for the night, and Beauregard was not far away – or perhaps he had a chance to hear Ike play and was offered the chance to learn. Either way, Robert went home with Ike. Ike’s wife, Ruth, made room for Robert to sleep in the house. Robert would come to be treated like a member of the Zimmerman family. Ike, and his wife, were quite fond of Robert. Robert was so eager to learn, that Ike literally taught Robert everything he knew. Robert ate it up, and practiced diligently.
We’ve all heard the story of Robert and Ike practicing in a nearby cemetery atop the tombstones. This cemetery, The Beauregard Cemetery, is still there today. Robert and Ike would leave Ike’s home in The Quarters, take a small dirt road through the woods, cross over a crossroads, and walk right into the then white-onwned cemetery to play. The occupants who lived around the cemetery remember being able to hear them play, both at night, and during the day. This path they traveled to the cemetery also lends a lot of credence to Crossroad Blues. If Ike represented the devil, the song takes on new meaning. Going down to the crossroads all seems to just make more sense. Of course, the song Crossroad Blues does not mention the devil by name, but it still lends credence to the “selling your soul” to the devil, and the song itself.
In fact, it is common knowledge among the Zimmerman family that 4 recorded songs of Robert Johnson should actually be credited to Ike Zimmerman. His children claim they heard 2 of the songs well before Robert ever came to stay with them. As Ike often would play his kids to sleep, 2 of the songs were common tunes in the Zimmerman household. These were Walking Blues and Ramblin’ on my Mind. According to them, Dust my Broom and Come on in my Kitchen were tunes Ike wrote while Robert was there, writing them to assist in his teaching the blues to Robert. So maybe we could say they were co-writtien, but in all honesty, it sounds like those 4 songs were written by old Ike himself.
On top of all these cemetery sessions, they played a lot at the Zimmerman home. Ike actually had a fireplace in his home, and a lot of music was played in front of the fire. Some say Robert stayed with the Zimmermans’ close to two years – but no one really knows. One little kept secret is that the guitar was not all Ike would teach Robert. He also taught him how to play the harmonica. Robert, who was already decent at the instrument, would learn to master it as well – confirming stories later told by Johnny Shines that Robert was a proficient harp player. Eventually, after Robert had been taught all he could, he told Ike he was ready to go out on the road. Ike told Robert he was ready – and just how proud of him he truly was. Ike, however, went one step further – and they headed out on the road together.
While on the road together, the two more competed with each other than played duets. They would follow each others acts in jukes, and compete on street corners for attention. They played Hazlehurst and some surrounding areas. Eventually, they ended up in Texas together. From there, they would go their separate ways.
Robert would return north to wow his fellow musicians with his amazing new skills. He told Ike at the time he was headed for Memphis. Ike, on the other hand, would eventually leave Beauregard from LA to meet up with his brother Herman. In later years, Ike would become a pastor in Compton, California. Though he eventually (mostly) gave up the blues, he never gave up guitar. He played spirituals, and his family and friends often say he died playing the guitar. He played his whole life – and his youngest daughter said that even during her wedding in 1948 Ike was still playing those blues. Ike would die around 1974 at the age of 67.
Everyone who knew Ike loved him. He was an honest, kind man who went the extra mile to help everyone he could. He was a loving, caring father who took good care of his family. He loved his life, his family, and music. He never was much of a spotlight kind of guy, but in the end, he shaped music forever.
He could truly be the Father of the Blues.