“Cadillac” John Nolden

Blues Harmonica Player & Vocalist, Renova

“Cadillac” John Nolden is a blues harmonica player, songwriter, and vocalist from Renova, Mississippi. He was born in Sunflower on April 12, 1927, one of ten children. The family worked on various plantations in the area, including one owned by the mayor of Sunflower, W.L. Patterson. Nolden, who emphasizes the value of hard work, picked and chopped cotton and plowed with mules, and recalls that his family often went to work before sunrise. As a young man he began driving a tractor on the L.E. Moore plantation near Minter City, and over the years worked in various jobs, including a brickyard in Indianola. His nickname derives from an old Cadillac he drove that continually backfired.

His father, Walter Nolden, sang gospel, and three of his uncles—“Red,” Bruce, and Mel—played guitar. Nolden didn’t take up any instruments as a young man, but was a strong vocalist, and formed a gospel group with his siblings called the Four Nolden Brothers. He sang baritone and first and second lead. He recalls as influences the Golden Gate Quartet, the Fairfield Four, and the Soproco Spiritual Singers, who performed over WWL out of New Orleans.

Nolden and his siblings performed throughout the region and had a radio show on a station on Greenwood during the mid-1940s. Riley (later B.B.) King’s quartet, The Famous St. John’s Gospel Singers, performed over the same station. Other local groups included the Big Four from Belzoni and the Happy Band Quartet from Sunflower.

The group eventually broke up when one brother died, and two others left the area. Nolden later sang for 8-9 years with the gospel group the Four Stars out of Sunflower [not to be confused with a group of the same name from Clarksdale, which featured Early Wright].

Nolden also played blues together with his brother Jesse James Nolden, a guitarist, on the streets of Sunflower and occasionally at house parties and jukes. He was reluctant to play the latter because of the threat of violence. Jesse James later moved to Jackson, where he lives today. Other blues musicians who played on the streets of Sunflower included Riley King, then a resident of nearby Indianola, and Charlie Booker, a Sunflower native and Leland-based bluesman who recorded for Modern Records and Sun Records.

Nolden listened religiously to Sonny Boy Williamson II’s daily lunchtime radio show King Biscuit Time, over KFFA in Helena, Arkansas, as well as on Saturdays [Sonny Boy recorded a show in Belzoni that was broadcast later out of Greenville and Yazoo City; Charlie Booker also had a local radio show sponsored by a tire company.] Nolden saw many local performances by Sonny Boy’s band and also has strong memories of Robert Nighthawk.

After his brother left the area and the Four Stars disbanded, Nolden stopped performing except for occasional solos at church. Around 1970 he was inspired to take up the blues again to help alleviate the pain he felt after his wife abruptly left him. “She even took the curtains from the windows,” he recalls. He bought a harmonica from the Simmons drug store in Cleveland and “went to hummin’ a little then… I just couldn’t hardly hold it back.”

During the ‘70s and ‘80s, Nolden performed some on the streets of Sunflower but otherwise played mostly around the home. In the ‘90s he performed locally with a band that included guitarist Monroe Jones and appeared under his own name at the Delta Blues Festival and the Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival. In 2000 Jones introduced Nolden to his current partner, guitarist Bill Abel from Belzoni. They have played regularly at venues in the area, as well as at the King Biscuit Blues Festival, the Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival, the Highway 61 Blues Festival, and the Yazoo Blues Festival. In 2000 they released the CD Crazy About You, which contains five originals from Nolden in a vintage style, and in 2005 they traveled to perform for a blues society in Pennsylvania.

-Scott Barretta

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