Famous blues guitarist visits cousin in Kennewick

Dori O'Neal, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 25, 2014 

Internationally known blues guitarist Wes Mackey has a connection to the Tri-Cities that goes deeper than his music.

Mackey was in town this week for a concert at The Roxy in downtown Kennewick. The stopover also gave him an opportunity to visit his cousin Zelma Jackson of Kennewick.

Both were raised in the same black Gullah community on the East Coast which has retained strong traces of its West African origins because of its isolation on islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina.

And though neither has seen a lot of each other since their childhood in South Carolina, they have always stayed in touch.

"I was so glad Wes decided to finally bring his wonderful music to the Tri-Cities, and to visit me," Jackson said. "He's never been here before."

During his visit, Mackey also met with some area school kids Saturday afternoon and talked about his music before the Roxy gig that night.

Teaching young people about music is something he's always done when he isn't performing around the globe. At age 71, he has no trouble communicating with the younger generation.

"I discovered a long time ago how to talk their language," Mackey said. "I simply started talking about the hip-hop scene and immediately had their attention."

Mackey and Jackson grew up in a culture where music was important.

The Gullah people are the only African Americans who have preserved much of their African linguistic and cultural heritage, Jackson explained.

"The Gullahs are descendants of slaves who kept their African culture alive for generations," she said. "It's a simple lifestyle and one I cherish. We even have our own language and music is very much a part of that culture."

Jackson continues to visit her homeland each year, and though she tends to forget how to speak the Gullah language, after a day with relatives and friends, it all comes back, she added.

Mackey said his grandfather was born just as slavery ended and his legacy was to raise his family in the Gullah in South Carolina.

"I literally grew up with the blues, which is part of the Gullah culture," Mackey said. "There is a warmth in its people. We were taught manners and respect. Much of that culture is still alive."

Jackson remembered watching her cousin play his guitar when they were kids.

"Wes was raised in a musical family," she said. "All his brothers played the same guitar, so when it got to Wes it only had three strings. But that didn't stop him from playing it. I remembering him putting that guitar behind his head and playing it. He's always been an amazing musician."

Jackson, 61, spent eight years being raised by her Gullah relatives because her parents were in the military. She went to live with her parents at age 9 and spent the next several years as an Army brat, living on various military bases around the world.

"I learned so much about the Gullah Geechee while living with my grandparents," she said. "But I was fortunate to live all over the world with my parents too."

Jackson earned a geology degree from Virginia State University, then went to graduate school at the University of Washington. She moved to the Tri-Cities in 1982 for uranium exploration with the Department of Energy.

She is well know around the Tri-Cities for her tireless volunteerism in the community and its issues.

Mackey left the Gullah life as a young man. He married and had four children but abandoned them for his music when his children were little, he said.

And even though he has performed with such legends as John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, the guilt of leaving his kids never left him, he said.

"I suffered a lot of guilt about leaving all those years ago and did some heavy partying as a way to escape it," he said. "But wisdom does come with age, and even though I'd almost lost my way, my kids reached out and saved me and today we have a good relationship."

He also has a bond with Jackson that is rooted in their Gullah heritage, Mackey said.

"When you're raised in (Gullah) culture I think you appreciate the simpler ways of life," he said. "I love playing my music, writing songs and visiting with Zelma. And this visit is not going to be my last."

-- Dori O'Neal: 582-1514; doneal@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @dorioneal

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