(GURDON, AR) – Clark County [Arkansas] was the birthplace of a man who witnessed and contributed to the 1940s blues movement. James “Jimmy” Witherspoon was born in Gurdon [Arkansas] in 1921, the son of Leonard and Eva Tatum Witherspoon. His father, who passed away early into Witherspoon’s childhood, was a brakeman for Missouri Pacific Railroad while his mother was a church pianist.
A deeply religious woman, Eva ardently disapproved of blues music, which she found to be “dirty” and unrefined.
Nevertheless, Witherspoon’s love of blues continued through listening to radio and local jukeboxes. Both of his parents had been in the First Baptist Church’s choir and at the age of five, he also joined, further honing his ability with a dream of one day singing professionally. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Witherspoon won a singing contest in Clark County around this same time.
He left for Los Angeles in the mid-1930s and found work as a drugstore dishwasher. During this period, the city’s Central Avenue was a haven for blues and jazz lovers, with several clubs populating the thoroughfare.