by Pat Saik
photo by Allen Reed
Mr. Bo Darensbourg, known to his friends and fans as Guitar Bo, was born with the hands to play the guitar, large hands with long flexible fingers and enough dexterity to make one guitar sound like two. He becomes a one-man band when he wants to shape his mouth into making sounds you’d swear was a slide trombone. He may add to the fun by playing his guitar upside down or behind his back.
Born November 19, 1937 in Bay St. Louis, Mr. Bo has lived his entire life in and around Ballentine Street, where he and his beloved wife Dee, an accomplished blues singer, now reside in a cottage built by volunteers post-Katrina. Like everyone in the first block of Ballentine, Katrina’s surge caused houses to tumble and cars to float.
Mr. Bo not only has the hands to play, but he was born into a family of musicians. He credits his grandfather’s blind brother, Uncle Amos, with teaching him how to play guitar. Mr. Bo expanded his musical knowledge by studying books on guitar playing and teaching himself how to play. Mr. Bo, though he claims not to be a singer, plays blues guitar and sings himself, making up lyrics as he goes. He loves the rhythm and blues tradition, but enjoys playing in a musical landscape from blues to country-western.
Mr. Bo’s lineage in Bay St. Louis goes back five generations. Mr. Bo’s great-great-grandfather, who had two sisters and three or four brothers, all lived on a semicircle now called Caron Lane, which enters from Ballentine Street and curves into Third Street. At the time Mr. Bo was growing up, townfolk called it “the alley.”
Mr. Bo’s grandfather, who himself had five brothers, had his own place on “the alley” and was himself a guitar picker. Mr. Bo’s father worked as a baker at Bobby Ann Bakery on Main Street, a once familiar building, now demolished, across from the old Post Office. That job provided bread for the family during the days when people lived on red beans selling for ten cents a pound and raised their own hogs and chickens. With no refrigeration, meat was salted. Broken pine branches burned in an ironcast stove provided warmth in the winter. With a little lard, a little flour, and a little sugar, the family survived. As a child, Mr. Bo attended St. Rose School and did his homework by the light of a kerosene lamp.
Mr. Bo proudly announces that when he was twelve years old, he took part in his first Mardi Gras parade and credits his community with being the first to initiate Mardi Gras celebrations in Bay St. Louis. The revelers coated their faces with soot from the pipe of a wood heater. Some adorned themselves with moss, the “Moss Men,” while others would take an inner tube, put it around their waist, and cover it with yards of material, the whole giving a fantastic impression of a fine woman walking down the street and swinging her hips.
Parading all over town, putting on a show for white onlookers at the Knock Knock Lounge (then located on Beach Boulevard), and eventually returning to “back of town” to put on a show for residents of their own neighborhood, everyone had fun. As a younger member of the parade, Mr. Bo’s job was to carry the gifts of wine, given by onlookers and merchants during the march through town. Homemade elderberry wine, made from native elderberry trees, probably was included in the mix. At the end of the parade, Mr. Bo got to lay the burden down, quite heavy by then, and went off to play.
Bo first set eyes on Dee in 1961, at a nightclub in New Orleans where she was performing as a blues singer with her 16-piece band. "Ohhhh," Mr. Bo whispered to his buddy, “that’s going to be my wife.” During a break, he asked her for a kiss, to which she kindly consented. He then gave her his phone number and disappeared. A year later, when Dee’s band needed a guitar player, she called him. And they have been playing together ever since.
Dee was raised in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana and later moved to Gretna and Harvey. She has lived on the Mississippi coast since 1962, playing to both black and white audiences. Dee recalls receiving hefty sums playing local clubs when she got on top of a table and started shaking her hips. As Bo describes it, “I play the strings; she does the singing and the shaking.”
Together, they have played on stage with B.B. King, opened for Fats Domino at the Biloxi Coliseum, entertained at the Krewe of Nereids ball, and wowed highfalutin dancers at the Diamondhead Yacht Club. They played at Dock of the Bay, the International Trade Mart in New Orleans and entertain regularly at St. Rose de Lima’s annual fair. Bo and Dee are still at it and enjoying every opportunity to perform at venues large and small. Mr. Bo plays for the sheer enjoyment of it. If you can’t afford to pay, you don’t have to. In Mr. Bo’s words, “If you ain’t got nothing, you don’t have to give us nothing.”
Dee and Bo have lived in their present location on Ballentine Street since 1971, just around the corner from where Bo was born. Considerate of his neighbors, Bo admits to softly playing his guitar sitting on their front porch in the wee hours of the morning. So if you’re taking a stroll down Ballentine Street in the middle of the night, you just might hear the soft sounds of a blues tune winding through the air.