RIP Dick Waterman, keeper of the blues and my favourite columnist
Published 3:20 pm Monday, January 29, 2024
By Nik Dirga
Mississippi blues writer, photographer and keeper of the flame Dick Waterman has died, one of the most extraordinary columnists I ever worked with in all my years in journalism. He was 88.
Dick worked with some of the great blues legends starting in the ‘60s like Mississippi John Hurt and helped “rediscover” the forgotten Son House. He gave many struggling blue legends a second chance at a career and some sort of justice and support. He also photographed and hung out with pretty much EVERYBODY in the music scene at that time – Dylan, Jagger, Bonnie Raitt, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Janis Joplin.
There will and should be some fine obituaries taking in the whole sweep of his career. But when I met Dick Waterman, he was a columnist for the weekly newspaper I started working at in 1994, Oxford Town. It was the very beginning of my post-college career and I knew everything and nothing. The editor Chico had hired him and it was one of the best things he’d ever done.
Almost every week Dick would drop these fascinating columns and stories about his life in music, tales of the legends and the forgotten geniuses, peppered with his gorgeous black and white photos. His columns were candid, backstage stories of what the blues legends were really like, or about his own life. When I was asked to take over as Oxford Town editor, visits from Dick were always a highlight.
Not that it was always smooth – Dick Waterman would turn in his column as late as humanly possible, shuffling into the old-school layout room close to midnight with a sheath of pages, while the pressmen could be heard loudly grumbling in the back. Once he discovered fax machine technology he pushed it even further. I attribute my skill at editing some copy very, very fast to some of his columns.
But he was unfailingly gentle and kind, with a bit of the “distracted professor” vibe around him. His photograph stash was an astonishing treasure trove that he had really just started to understand and promote in the 1990s. At one point he let us use an amazing photo of B.B. King on the back of an Oxford Town t-shirt.
I was just a rather self-important and fumbling 25-year-old editor dude at the start of my own weird journalism career but Dick was always good to me, and honestly, it took me a long time to fully understand what an amazing “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” type character he was in the ‘60s music world. I’ve never met Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters or Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, but hell, I knew Dick Waterman.
When I left Oxford Town around 1997 to sow my wild oats back in California, Dick Waterman for some reason singled me out in his column in what is still, coming up on 30 years on, one of the kindest single acts of writing anyone has ever done for me. I include it not to brag, but to show what kind of man Dick Waterman was.
He wrote about a Mississippi journalism award I won and said, “For the second year in a row, the Best General Interest Column was won by Oxford Town editor Nik Dirga. To appreciate this feat, you have to understand that he doesn’t even think about his own column until the rest of the paper has been completed. Nik has already announced that he is leaving in a few weeks and my sadness at his departure is mixed with the joy of having had the pleasure of working with him.”
“If Tiger Woods is the best golfer in the world at the age of 21, I can only hope that I stick around to see what literary accolades will come forth for Nik Dirga. The best part of working with Nik is that he honestly does not know how talented he really is. I am over twice as old as Nik Dirga and he is the best editor with whom I have ever worked.
“I wish him well in his travels and know that I will be reading his byline out there somewhere.”
He didn’t have to write all that about me, I know now, and I’m sure no Tiger Woods. But he did write it.
I wish you well in your own travels now, Dick, where ever they may take you.
Nik Dirga is a former editor of Oxford Town now living in New Zealand