For over thirty years, he was on the move with his guitar, cassettes and "I Break For Jake" bumper stickers.
Michigan Radio's Jennifer Guerra interviewed Shakey Jake a couple years ago and has this remembrance:
It had been more than five years since I'd last seen Jake. I used to see him all the time when I was an undergrad at the University of Michigan. He'd be on the corner of State and whatever – the intersection always changed, but not Jake! He always looked the same: top hat, fur coat and pink sunglasses. And he'd always playing his guitar.
Ok, well "playing" is probably a strong term. It was more like he'd hit the guitar string and occasionally shout out some words. My friend liked to call it "cha ching cha ching, hey hey".
When I moved back to Ann Arbor, a couple years ago – I ran into Jake. This time, he did look different. He was more hunched over and slower than I remembered. Apparently he had had a stroke while I was away. So his speech was really slurred.
But he still managed to carry around his guitar and a tip bucket. And the myth surrounding him? Well it was even bigger than I remembered. Here's what some locals think about Jake:
"There's a lot of rumors going around that he had a mansion in Florida, and he was living down there living with the Bee Gees..."
"Supposedly he's really old, and he doesn't age because of some voodoo magic he performed..."
"We're not sure how old he is. We've heard everything from 92 to 105..."
Half the cars around town still sport "I Break for Jake" bumper stickers. I've seen kids wear "I Break for Jake" t-shirts. And at one time there was even a bagel store in town with a sign that said had a sign out front that said "We Bake for Shakin' Jake!"
"I'm Shakin' Jake," says Jake. "That's my name."
When I finally got the chance to interview him, he didn't have much to say except:
"I'll be all right now. I'll be all right now. I'll be all right now."
That's it, that's all he would say. I think he liked that people didn't know a whole lot about him, that he had this myth surrounding him. Eventually, though, he opened up...
"I been here forty years," he says.
"Where'd you come from?" I ask.
"Little Rock, from the Cotton Mill," says Jake. "I picked cotton, chopped cotton, bailed hay. I've done it all."
"Why did you come here?" I ask.
"Something to do!" Jake replies.
We talked for a couple more hours...mostly about how he had been institutionalized. About his thirteen guitars and his recording studio days. And about his family:
"My brother died," continues Jake. "My mother died in 1974. But I'm doing alright. I'm by myself now, so I'm not worrying about it."
I should say that Jake wasn't totally alone. A bunch of local business owners looked out for him and he had friends all around town. He had a caretaker, social security, and a HUD apartment.
He had endeared himself to the town. And whether or not he knew it, he made a difference.
Shakey Jake's caretaker and friend, Carol Lopez:
"A middle aged women said to me one day: I have soft spot in my heart for that old man. And I said why was that? I was standing on the street corner, not feeling all that great, and Jake was on the other side of the street waiting for the light to change and all of a sudden he went, toot, toot! And I looked up and he said, you make me a mighty fine wife. And she said, it just made my day."
Shakey Jake Woods died on Sunday. At last count he said he was 103 years old. Records indicate he was probably closer to 82.
A memorial service is planned for 1PM on Sunday, September 23rd at Muehlig Funeral Chapel in Ann Arbor.