When I was 20, knowing little of the blues and almost nothing of pain, I began chasing old black men across America for answers.
Answers to what I didn't exactly know, but because these men made music that spirited me to worlds I never knew, it seemed important to cut their work open and look inside.
Once, in a Route 40 motel out near White Marsh, I asked J.B. Hutto to name that certain something which made his music so magnificent. The slide guitarist was silent for a long moment and said: ''Oh well, you know, I just play the blues.''
In the basement of the old Congress Hotel I asked Muddy Waters where the blues came from and he said: ''Son, the blues come from slavery days when you had to turn the kettle up high and sing down low.''
And in the shadow of the Smithsonian Institute's great woolly mammoth I tried to find the bottom line by asking Willie Dixon if he could tell me what is the blues.
Without taking a breath he declared: ''The blues are the truth, the blues are the facts, the blues are the roots of all American music.''
That was the last time I asked anyone who had devoted his life to the blues to explain the elusive mysteries of life.
Willie Dixon died of heart failure Wednesday in Burbank, California. At age 76 he followed brethren like Hutto and Waters into a boneyard that has now claimed all but the very last few of this country's great and genuine bluesmen.
As the composer of hundreds of songs, the longtime house producer for Chess Records, and a bassist and singer who cut many of his own records, Willie Dixon is being remembered around the globe as a primary influence on a Sixties generation of long-haired white boys who hit it big with rock-and-roll covers of Dixon classics like ''Spoonful,'' ''Little Red Rooster'' and ''You Need Love.''
But I will remember Willie Dixon as the great articulator of the blues.
''Listen to the message in the blues, the message in the blues is the most important part. This is what my people need to know,'' he told me. ''The blues have been neglected all the way around. Nobody has actually pushed the blues, they always went on their own. The world has always underestimated the blues, like people didn't know what they was talking about when they talked the blues. If [outsiders] didn't have the experience, then naturally they wouldn't know.''
Willie Dixon never tired of schooling those outside the blues experience -- rooted in slavery, poverty and misery -- to its message of endurance and hope. He especially enjoyed passing it to young black children far removed from the music's beginnings in Deep South towns like his Vicksburg, Miss., birthplace.
To that end he formed the Blues Heaven Foundation a decade ago and was a chief participant in Chicago's ''Blues in the Schools'' program, which donates instruments to students and conducts classroom blues workshops.
And he was also a kind host to many a writer and musician who made the pilgrimage to his southside Chicago home; people like my colleague David Zurawik who played blues harp long before he wrote for a daily newspaper.
In 1969 a friend needed a ride from Milwaukee to Chicago to fence some stolen saxophones and flutes. David says he refused the favor until he learned that the trip involved a visit to Willie Dixon's house.
Remembering the visit, Zurawik said: ''Willie hadn't said two words when he came down the basement where his sons were practicing, took the bass, and said: 'OK, let's do it.' He started a bass line to Hoochie Koochie Man or Little Red Rooster and my mouth was hanging open -- Willie Dixon was playing bass and I was blowing harp to one of his tunes that I'd heard 9,000 white guys play on the record player in my basement. Then he said: 'OK boys, let's eat' and everyone went upstairs for a big pork chop dinner. Willie asked me if I liked stewed yellow turnips and I lied and said, 'Oh yeah, I love 'em,' and he piled them up. They were so bitter, but I ate them and even asked for more. But the main thing about the visit was that this was a purely gracious act by a man whose music was being ripped off left and right. If anybody had the right to tell two white guys who showed up at his door to go to hell, it was Willie Dixon.''
I last saw Willie Dixon in 1983 at Muddy Waters' funeral when he said of Muddy's death: ''The blues has no where to go but up. It's been down too long.''
A photograph of the composer hangs on the pink walls of my Highlandtown row house with an inscription that says: ''To Rafael, a great writer . . . Willie Dixon.''
It is priceless to me, a wonderful treasure, but until just now it hadn't occurred to me that Willie Dixon never read anything I had written.
But he knew that I wrote about the blues, and through the blues I wrote about the history of his people, and that was enough to qualify.