Year of the Blues
Photo by Tony Bonyata
I am the oldest living bluesman. I know you don't believe it - you skinny little white man gaping at the old black carcass on the bed before him, shaking his head sadly. Hey white boy - I'm really in here - it's only the shell that's been shattered - the spirit is still here and I can see your blurred image though my milky eyes are dimming.
You've come no doubt because you've heard a story from someone and came to see the mummy for yourself. You are the only visitor I've had for some - oh let's see - thirty-some years? - not counting the little nun that comes every other week and reads me the magazines and some scriptures. Gotta give Sister Gonzales credit - she don't even know if I'm listenin' or not, but she keeps comin'. I've watched her turn from a pretty young thing into an aged crone before my very eyes. I worry about the good Sister - she's been sick lately. Hate to think I might outlast the old girl yet.
So you tracked me down huh, kid? And how do you like the place? Not exactly known for it's cheerful demeanor or sanitation, eh? Well that's what you get when you're poor and black and got no family to speak of. They would'a pulled the plug on me years ago, but I'm a tough ol' rooster and keep making just enough of a fuss to give 'em pause enough not to try anything. Still wondering if they might just slip me something one of these days anyway - put me out of my misery. In fact I expect that's the way my time on this earth is going to end - a choke and a cry and I'm called to face my judgment.
And how about me? I know I look a bit of a sight. Probably hard to imagine the lump of flesh with its missing limbs once had a stable full of beautiful girls catering to my every need, huh? Yessir - I think back on all those pleasures of the flesh and I get to tinglin' even now. Sometimes when I'm listening to Sister Gonzales read I get a little excited and try to reach out to grab her and show her what a man can do, but I forget there ain't no arm there anymore and my stump just kind of waves in the empty air.
To never touch a woman again - might as well be dead. And dead is where I would rather be, but for the knowledge of the debt I will have to pay for the sins I have committed against my fellow man. For not only am I the oldest living bluesman - I am the greatest of them all. What - you say you've never heard of me? Well, listen closely, kid, and although I cannot speak - and you will not hear, I will tell you the story of my life.
But first watch this. Did you see what I did with my left hand - the one that still has fingers? That was the fastest riff in the world - the one that made Son House, Blind Blake, Lightnin', B.B., and all the rest bow down to me in awe. No one has ever played that riff as fast as me - I alone have the gift. Yes - I see the nurse explain that it's only a spasm - an involuntary movement of the muscles, but I can assure you there is nothing involuntary about it. Watch - here I go again. My fingers will never touch a guitar string again, but I can hear every note in my head as though it was ringing out loud in my cell. Can't you hear it, son?
It's a cry. First thing I heard when I was born was my mother moanin' and cryin' as she died. I joined right in and even the dogs howled along. Least that's what my pappy tol' me. Course I didn't see much of him growin' up - he wasn't 'round much and I pretty much raised up my own. I was livin' out on the streets by the time I was ten. But before she died, my granny told me 'bout how her daddy got snatched up and brought over from Africa when he was a boy; and how he was taken from his mother and father and sold to a white man; and how he married her momma, but the girl got sold down the river and the kids got took away. One day later on they heard how he broke loose and struck a white man and got hisself hung up in a tree for his efforts. She used to cry and cry 'bout that - then she'd take me to the church and cry some more. And pray that the white man would pay for what he'd done to us.
Gran told me a story of how the spirits gave all men all of the musical notes in the kingdom of Heaven, but that a white king wearing a powdered wig had decreed that only certain notes were acceptable to God - so the black man had to accept slavery even in his music. But we fooled the white man. We only used the notes we were told to, but we used them our own way. The white man said those diminished or flat notes were the devil's business - we just took 'em for a substitute for the songs the white man made us lose when they took us into exile to pick their cotton and sweep their floors.
After Gran was gone - I hung around on the streets with some tough older fellows - who played some wicked music on cheap guitars and mouth harps. I took to it myself, and built myself one out of a cigar box and made a little noise with it. I was never one of the best, but I kept at it and earned a bit of change. Went nearly a month without hardly eating and bought myself an old second hand one and carried that beauty on my back for many years.
There was always plenty of trouble about - so I hit the road and one day found myself in New Orleans. I was a pretty good-looking gent at the time and not dressed too shabby - cuz I always had some ladies looking out for me and helping me along. But I got involved with a Hoodoo woman and she changed everything for me. I expressed to her one night my fear of dyin' and she said some words and put a spell on me for long life - and this has been my blessing and my curse ever since. Then I told her my dream of how I wanted to be the best guitarist in the world - to be able to tame the wild notes to make the guitar howl and cry and scream at the white man. She mixed up a foul smelling gris-gris and spoke some incantations to Esu. She told me I would get better and better as I played, but that to become the best - there would have to be a sacrifice. Well that was too much for me - so I moved on - but the Hoodoo woman must have had some effect because I did get better and better and began to make a bit of a name for myself.
Unfortunately - she weren't too happy about me cuttin' out either - so she went ahead and cursed me too. So even though I was playin' faster and better than ever - I wasn't able to make any money. Every dollar I earned just slid right through my hands. I did hit the bottle a spell there and I ended up playin' railway stations just for a nickel or two to buy a taste. I remember playin a little slide one day in Mississippi and looked up to see a well-dressed black fellow eyeing me. "That's the weirdest music I ever heard, boy," he said - and asked me to play some more. I saw his picture on some sheet music a few years later - guy by the name of W.C. Handy - and he was calling my music the blues and selling it.
Well - there weren't nothin' I could do about it, but I figured if he could make some money out of it I could too. I was tired of all the headaches in the south and read in the Defender that Chicago was the place to go for a young black man - so one day I climbed up into a freight car and rode my way up north to Jewtown - that's what they all called the area 'round Maxwell Street where that whole Chicago blues scene was happenin'.
Spent a good many years tryin' to make something happen in Chicago. Played with a lot of fine musicians, and worked some down on the killin' floor at the stockyards, but never seemed to be able to get my hands on that gold they told me the streets was paved of. White man got all the good jobs - we got the dirt and blood and rats and the slums. Got a cold one year during the Great Depression and couldn't stop shakin'; and I got so homesick I decided to head on back down to the delta - I didn't care if I starved I was so sick of it all.
One night I stopped in a Juke joint in a little place called Greenwood Mississippi thinking I could make a couple dollars playing. By that time I was pretty damn good on my guitar and could please a crowd with several popular tunes of the day. But there already was a young man playing - and I was about half sick when I heard that young man play. Handsome fellow he was and played with a fire in his eyes. The bar-owner's wife was all over him and I heard some of the people chuckling that the old man wasn't gonna go for that long. It was then - desperate and sick and foolish - that I remembered the Hoodoo woman and I came up with my plan.
It wasn't hard at all. There was a shed out back and a got myself some turpentine and mixed it up with the most expensive bottle I could afford from the bar. Gave that young fellow some flatterin' words and asked him out back for a drink. He probably thought it tasted funny, but he didn't ever let on - didn't want to seem ignorant. After a while he said - "I don't feel so well, Pops" and I just put an arm around him and walked him to his room and told him to sleep it off. I know it sounds crazy now, but here's what I was thinking: if a sacrifice was required - what would a sacrifice of the greatest guitarist I ever heard be worth? Course the stupid fools all thought the bar owner did it - though no one could prove anything. That story 'bout meeting some big black man at a mysterious crossroads and having him tune your guitar is all hogwash - never happened to me at all - but the Hoodoo woman's magic sure did because I took all that young boy's fire and pain and made them my own.
I began playing like I had the devil himself inside. People would come 'round and watch and listen and just suck in their breath amazed. All the best musicians would sneak in and watch me from the back of the room and slink out before I was done. I was the fastest, meanest guitar master in the south and nobody could stand the heat when I got cookin' in the kitchen. Only one that could take it was Skip James and that man would just stare at me with those icy blue eyes like he knew - knew what I had done.
I was the best and I knew it. But what good is being the best if it don't bring you pleasure? I was filled with guilt and pain. I found out that young man's lady had died in childbirth like my momma - and so had the child - and I felt as though that pain was in me too. I found I could not stop playing. My hands would just keep on and on all night faster and faster - no one could listen any longer - there were too many notes to absorb.
I feared for what I had done. Heard that Lomax fellow was recording some the other bluesmen, but I gave my guitar away to a youngster I met one day and just stopped playing. Worked in restaurants washing up and cleaning for twenty years after that. Had some women here and there, but never let 'em get too close. Early 1960's I heard they were going to do some more recordings - and I got up the urge to show 'em my chops. Crazy idea. Got myself up to Chicago in no time, but that Hoodoo curse was still over me and got hit by a truck my first day back. Mangled me up pretty good. Was in a coma for three weeks. Lost both legs and an arm.
Now I been lyin' in this bed for too many years to even recall. Heard about those English kids pickin' up on the blues and bringing it to the attention of the white folks. Typical of the way the white folk think - they got something right under their nose, but they're too much a herd of sheep to even get it. Got to be told what to think. Skip stopped in one day and told me all about it. Last real person to come in and he just talked for a bit then looked at me deep and hard and walked away. Until you that is.
I see you looking at that picture on the wall. Yes that's Picasso's Old Guitarist - one of the orderlies had a sense of humor and thought it would brighten up the room. He sits there, broken and bent and taunts me every day. He ain't lily white like those fake Jesus Christs you see in the churches - I know he's brown like me, but they should'a taken that nylon sting number away from him and strung an easy rider on his back instead. Be more appropriate.
Getting' ready to leave now are you? Well I'm sorry I'm such a disappointment to you. I know why you're here - the old nun read me an article in passing - she probably didn't think it'd mean much to me- but seems 2003 is the Year of the Blues. And to top it off - sponsored by Volkswagen - Hitler's people's car wasn't it? Hell that bastard wouldn't even shake Jesse Owen's hand at the Olympics. Don't know whether to laugh or cry over that one.
Well you just go now. Leave me to my busy life here, okay. I know I ain't got much time left now anyway 'til I got to give an accountin' of myself. No doubt I'll get to meet Mr. Johnson face to face and he'll have a thing or two to say to me. Meanwhile, I close my eyes and these gray walls disappear; and I can see a blue, blue ocean in front of me. The sun is warm on my face and a cool breeze comes flowing across the deep water. Behind me I can hear children laughing and I can hear my mother's voice singing. Among the white-capped waves on the horizon I see the curves of white sailcloth filled with wind, moving silently toward me. I am young again - a child like my grandfather once was - my body is whole and my withered legs are strong and fast. I turn and run and never stop running.
Past, present & future
misguided ramblings of the MusiCurmudgeon
Stroll through the vaults of a diseased mind!
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