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'Hurricane' Ruth Digs Into Beardstown Characters


"Hurricane" Ruth LeMaster came to music through her parents. Her father was a trumpet player who fell under the spell of all kinds of music, including Dixieland, blues, jazz, big band, R&B and bluegrass.  As a young girl she absorbed that music, as well as the different sounds from the Friday night jam sessions along the Illinois river during the summers in her hometown of Beardstown, Illinois.

"People would come from all over central Illinois.  They'd park their boats down by the seawall at the end of State street and they'd just walk up.  We'd have trumpet players, trombone players, sax players, slide guitar, steel guitar, violin, banjo's ... you name it.  There were cats and women from all over central Illinois," said LeMaster. 

The music she heard as a young girl introduced her to blues, rhythm and blues, and country.  As a teen she found Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, and Cream among others.  And as with many teens of that time, LeMaster dug into their hero's and discovered Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Big Mama Thornton among others. 

"And then I delved into Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, who were idols of Janis Joplin," said LeMaster.  "That's kind of where it all led me to. Now I HAD heard Big Mama Thornton because my Mom absolutely loved her, along with Ray Charles, and John Lee Hooker.  So I was introduced to them at a very early age."

LeMaster was smitten by both the music and stories of these legends, particularly  Smith and Thornton.

" Bessie was a big-boned gal just like Big Mama.  She could hold her own in a room and with anybody she was up against.  If you see old footage of either one of these women, just their stage persona and the joy they sang with was very inspiring," gushed LeMaster.

Growing up in Beardstown, she didn't have to read liner notes or rock biographies to understand "colorful characters," as they seemed to be etched into the fabric of the town, and even her family.

"My grandfather was a bootlegger, that's how he supported his family.  My Mom would drive a car at the ripe old age of nine, with my grandfather riding shotgun.  He would go in and deliver gin, homemade whiskey, and homemade beer into the houses of ill repute in Beardstown. And there were many.  One of those was 'Big Mama's House of Ill Repute" down by the railroad tracks," said LeMaster.

She said she remembers her mother sharing stories about the Beardstown Big Mama.  LeMaster said "she had the prettiest girls in town working for her" from her original song "Big Helen" was absolutely true. 

"She was at least a good six foot three," marveled LeMaster.  "Probably 265-270 pounds, one of the toughest women you would ever meet.  She always had a razor on her and was not afraid to throw someone out if they were  misbehaving with one of the girls. My grandpa loved her, and had a great deal of respect for her."

She compared the Beardstown Big Mama with another character that would come to Beardstown in prohibition days: the feared gangster Al Capone.  She said despite his notorious ways, Capone took care of the town's poor.

"He would make sure the kids had coats, hats, gloves, scarves, and shoes for winter.  Big Mama would do the same.  She would take people that were down and out and hurting and buy their groceries.  She'd pay for it all.  And my Mom was right there in the middle of it.  Sat in Big Mama's kitchen waiting on my grandpa.   The cops would come in after the bars closed and sit around and drink with Big Mama. They all knew about her, but nobody cared," said LeMaster.

You can hear LeMaster sing and play "Big Helen" and other songs documenting the characters of Beardstown at venues across Illinois and the Midwest in upcoming months.

Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.