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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.Ben Casey
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.George in his home, showing off the High School diploma he received in 2011 from Raleigh Charter High School.
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.Higgs and his harmonica
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.George Higgs on stage at PCC
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.George Higgs, 1930-2013