© Lamar Sorrento
The Search for Blind Lemon
By Jim Dickinson
If you've got Dickinson, you don't need anybody else.
TWO TON BAKER
I don’t know when I first heard the music in my head. I don’t remember not hearing it. Sometimes in the morning it would be the first thing I heard, shutting out the sounds of reality—the traffic outside the window and the people moving around. My mother would sit at the upright piano, playing and singing song after song off old pieces of sheet music from her past. I searched these songs for meaning. Like the cowboy songs of Gene Autry and Red River Dave, each song told a story of a remote place and time.
The stories and music of the radio came from far away, but every afternoon there was a show that came from Chicago: “Two Ton” Baker, the Music Maker. He played the piano, sang, gave the news, the weather, and a sort of running commentary. He never stopped playing the piano under the dialogue. He played differently from my mother. My father said he played jazz. He had a theme song, “Near You,” that he played every day at the beginning and end of his show. My father liked Two Ton Baker. So did my mother and I. It was something we shared. But the stories on the radio were mine: Bomba the Jungle Boy, The Green Hornet, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters, and Captain Midnight. “Plunk your magic Twanger, Froggy!” said Smilin’ Ed McConnell to his Buster Brown gang. Midnight the Cat would mew “Nice,” and Squeaky the Mouse would start the music box.
Marshall Field’s department store had a giant Christmas tree, rising high up through the huge store. Marking the entrance to the North Pole Village were Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus, with real white hair, whiskers, and red velvet suits with white fur trim. A first rate operation. Each child talked to Santa and was asked to sing a song. The song was then recorded by midget elves onto a disc of white cardboard that looked like a smaller version of my grandmother’s old 78 records. Most children sang “Jingle Bells” or “Silent Night.” I sang the Georgia Tech fight song: I’m a ramblin’ wreck from Georgia Tech and a heck of an engineer. Santa and Mrs. Santa were surprised. Like all the good jolly fellows, I drink my whiskey clear.
Santa laughed. My mother was embarrassed. I played the record over and over until it wore out, fascinated by my own voice coming out of the box, singing “Ramblin’ Wreck” and talking to Santa Claus. I could remember the feeling of the moment while hearing it recreated on the white cardboard record.
Before I started school my mother wanted me to have piano lessons. Her father played, as did his father. My mother had been a semi-pro in childhood. Not a prodigy, she was quick to explain, just a good young player. She played in church and she was an accompanist to an older girl violinist. They played classical competitions statewide. My mother worked very hard at it. Her drive and competitive spirit pushed her over the edge and she had an emotional breakdown when she was fourteen. Afterward, she continued to play in church but never professionally.
But she wanted me to play. I wanted to play like Two Ton Baker. We went across town to a piano teacher whose name I don’t remember. He had snow-white hair like my grandfather and the kind of ghost fingers I would see on many great piano players, with transparent, almost blue skin. (Charlie Rich had these, as does Jerry Lee Lewis.) My teacher’s expression was blank and emotionless. One day at my lesson one of his children ran into the room screaming and crying with a bloody nose. He looked up without emotion and continued the lesson as his child ran crying from the room. A cold fish.
He told me about the lines and spaces and the dots that symbolized the notes on the keyboard. Due to my poor vision I thought he was kidding me about the dots on the paper, the way adults obscure the truth by telling a child one thing when something else is the “grown-up explanation.” The first song on my first lesson was “Motor Boat,” which consisted of playing middle C in repeated eighth notes, the irony of which would reveal itself in later years.
As they say in professional wrestling, business was about to pick up. Late in the summer of 1949, we moved to Memphis, Tennessee, into a big old house on three acres east of the city limits with a cotton field in front and farms behind. A railroad track ran less than a mile north of the property. When we drove up the long gravel driveway the first thing I saw was a small black man standing with a big sickle, like the one the figure of death holds to mow down the condemned. This strange little man wore a hat that seemed too big for him, not formed or fitted like the hat my father wore to work, but round on top and crushed in the back. I later learned that this was worn to create the illusion of being taller. I would learn many things from this man; he was to become the greatest teacher of my life.
Everyone called him Alec—“Smart-Alec”—although that was not his real name. Alec was our yardman. My father had hired him to clean up the property, which had been tied up in a divorce case and allowed to run wild.
I spent a lot of time in the new environment of trees, bushes, and drainage ditches that was our yard, but Alec did all the work, mowing grass and trimming the hedge that surrounded our house. I followed him around and slowly he taught me many things: how to tell the time of day by my shadow on the ground, when it was going to rain by the leaves on the trees, how to throw a pocket knife underhanded, how to shoot craps and play Pitty Pat, Smut, and Red Dog. He told me stories of his weekend adventures with moonshine and dice games and Car 44 (the local police car). At noon he came into the house to eat lunch. He would tune the kitchen radio to WDIA, “the black spot on the dial,” and listen to Honeyboy and Brother Theo “Bless My Bones” Wade play music I had never heard on white radio.
I had heard boogie-woogie piano and one day over the car radio I heard a loose, horn-driven instrumental with a rhythm section like the band at the circus. My father told me it was Dixieland. But I had never heard music like they played on WDIA. The beat was heavy and repetitive. The notes were long and mournful like songs in church. The piano didn’t sound like my mother or Two Ton Baker. It was wild music that seemed about to spin out of control. Alec sang while he worked—sometimes songs without words, just long vowels that sounded like an animal howling or a tortured soul moaning in the lonesome night.
COME ON DOWN
TO MY HOUSE
In Memphis, our lives took on a new routine, a slower rhythm. The pace of life was easier. People talked slower, holding on to their words, almost singing. Where before I had played in a concrete alley full of coal chutes and garbage cans, now I played in a drainage ditch that ran through our yard of big old trees and bushes, over an acre of jonquils, yellow in winter’s last feeble snow. It was pitiful in comparison to the frozen world by the lake. At first I hated it. I fell asleep those first few nights to the whine of the window fan on the sleeping porch and prayed that I would wake up back in Chicago. Slowly the place sank into my soul.
The school was old, weird, and boring. They let us out at cotton-picking time and for the Mid-South Fair. I guessed that it was a school for farmers. I did not belong. I was suspected of being a Yankee and was not to be trusted.
I had finished the second grade at the National College of Education in Chicago, but still could not read. They put glasses on me and put me back in the second grade. Though the glasses cleared up the fuzzy edges, they did nothing to correct the multiple vision I’d seen all my life. I learned to read by the shapes of the words and I learned to memorize what I heard.
The social structure in this country school was important, and no lines were stronger than the racial barriers. In Chicago, the races, even the nationalities, had been separated by neighborhoods. Interaction was rare. In Memphis, there were black people everywhere, but confined within the invisible walls of segregation. It was black and white. No Third World tan or yellow. Jesus loves the little children, but there were rules: drinking fountains, restrooms, movie theaters, waiting rooms, public transportation, schools, and churches were all rigidly and absolutely divided along black and white racial lines. Culture itself was exclusive to skin color. Strangest of all were the lines between black and white music.
My father’s new office was in downtown Memphis on Front Street, “Cotton Row,” where the business of the international cotton empire was done. The Diamond Match office was the entire seventh floor of the Falls Building. The Falls Building was an old and historic building, and you could see the Mississippi River from the west windows. W. C. Handy and his band had played The Alaskan Roof Garden on its rooftop during the jazz age. The south side of the Falls Building opened onto Park Lane (or Whiskey Shoot, as the locals called it). It was an alley between Front Street and Main Street that the bootleggers had used during Prohibition to roll whiskey barrels up from the river to the Main Street taverns and speakeasies. Park Lane was a little world unto itself: a barber shop, a store that sold model airplane kits, and best of all the Fun Shop Magic Land, a dark and mysterious corner shop that sold amateur magic tricks. It was a great place for kids.
Most Saturday mornings, I would go downtown to the office with my father. Once, after he had been through his mail and done whatever bookkeeping was required to balance the line of figures, we headed off to lunch at Pete & Sam’s, an Italian restaurant on Main Street with a screen door and checked tablecloths. On the weekends the front of the Falls Building was locked, so we exited the side door that opened onto Whiskey Shoot.
Just outside the door in the alleyway, four black men were playing music. A four-string tenor guitar, a violin, a man tapping a washboard with drumsticks, and a man singing and thumping a string tied to a broomstick and run through a washtub. They were making the strangest music I had ever heard. The men were dressed like field hands or hobos. There was a white couple jitterbugging in the alley acting drunk, as the tall thin man with the washtub bass sang, “Come on down to my house, honey, ain’t nobody home but me.”
He laughed and went down low on the broomstick and shouted, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” and laughed some more. I was hypnotized. It was like being hit over the head. Never in my short life had I heard anything that so moved me. It was like music from heaven, yet these men were clearly not the angels described to me in my mother’s church.
After the one song, my father put a dollar bill in the coffee can in front of them and made me leave. But I carried the words and music with me. I can hear it now, more than fifty years later. After that experience, other things in life just did not seem important, only finding that magic music.
Later, I went to the library. There was only one book: Samuel Charter’s The Country Blues. It had a chapter in it called “The Memphis Jug Bands.” I had seen the great Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band in the alley, including Charlie Burse on guitar and his cousin, Good Kid, on washboard. I didn’t find out who the fiddle player was until years later when Charlie Musselwhite told me his name was Milton “Red” Roby.
I was with my father at a warehouse in West Memphis, Arkansas. My father and the warehouse manager were counting cartons of clothespins. It was summertime. Over the hum of the big fans built into the walls I could hear what sounded like jungle drums from a Tarzan movie. I followed the pounding up wooden stairs to an office. Painted on the glass door was a lightning bolt and red letters, KWEM RADIO. The door was open. Four Negro men in sun-bleached work clothes were playing music. One man, bigger than the others, was growling words I could not understand into a silver microphone. I watched until my father found me. Outside in the parking lot, I snapped on the car radio and searched until I found the strange music I had heard in the warehouse. The announcer said, “You have been listening to the Howlin’ Wolf.”
The music stuck in my head. I had an older friend with a 78 rpm copy of Wolf’s “I Got a Woman” on Chess Records. I listened to it over and over. Then one day in Ruben Cherry’s Home of the Blues record shop on Beale Street I found a Chess record with a gray album cover with the drawing of a lone wolf howling at the moon. I took it to the checkout counter and Ruben said, “Boy, you got the blues there.”
Howlin’ Wolf led me to Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. Then Jimmy Reed. I started to discover a pattern repeating within their songs. A chord progression of lines and patterns. It seemed learnable in a way that my mother’s piano sheet music did not. The disc jockeys on WDIA and WLOK, Rufus Thomas and Honeyboy, were my new teachers.
HE USED TO BE SOMEBODY
When Alec saw that I wanted to play music, he wanted to help. Although he was a great singer and always sang while he worked, he could play no instrument. On Saturday mornings, when he would come by to wash my father’s company car and get paid for the week, he brought me piano teachers.
The first guy was named Butterfly. He was the stepson of the man who owned the George Washington Broad Street Café where Alec hung out and where Frankie Laine had tipped a cop car over by hand. Butterfly had just gotten off the Penal Farm and his heavily processed hair was shaved clean an inch above his ears. Alec explained he had to pay off the barber to save at least the top of his rooster-tail hairdo. I watched as his huge hands danced over my mother’s piano keys. He played “Three O’Clock in the Morning,” one of Alec’s favorites, and he tried to show me the “blues scale” with the flat third and seventh. I didn’t get it.
The second teacher Alec brought me was better. Alec called him “Piano Red,” which seemed to make him mad. He was not Piano Red. I knew that and I tried to look sympathetic. He was older. Hunched over, wearing an old gray overcoat and snap brim, he was obviously drunk. He sat down at the piano and coughed deep in his chest.
“What chew wants to hear, boss?” he grumbled.
I asked if he knew “Come on Down to My House,” the song I had heard the Jug Band play in Whiskey Shoot.
He laughed and said, “How does you know that song? Man, that song’s older than yo’ daddy.” He played through the melody once and spoke solemnly to me. “I’m gonna show you somethin’. Pay attention to this,” he said. “Everything in music is made up out of codes . . .” I thought, codes . . . secret codes! Like Captain Midnight. No wonder I couldn’t understand it. It’s in codes! Why didn’t my mother tell me that?
“This is how you makes a code. You take one note, any note. Then you goes three up and four down—just like in poker. Three up and four down and you gots a code.”
Of course he meant chord. It works anywhere on the piano. Not steps and half steps like the music teacher told me, but keys on the keyboard. Three notes up and four notes down and you have a major triad, tonic root note on the bottom, first inversion. That was it—the information that I needed to know. A triad on top and an octave on the bottom could open into a boogie-woogie pattern in the blues scale. Apply to that appropriate rhythm and syncopation and you are playing rock & roll piano, pal!
So I learned the secret of music from the Phantom, still unknown to me by any other name until one afternoon years later. I was in the Melody Music store on Poplar Avenue by the viaduct across from the Bitter Lemon. I was just hanging out. It was raining and out of the storm stepped the Phantom.
He took off ragged work gloves and shoved them in his overcoat pocket and ran his hands over one of the keyboards in the showroom floor stock. I was afraid the owner would run him off, but that didn’t happen. He played “Sophisticated Lady” without sitting down. He saw me watching and stopped. He looked up. “Come on down to my house . . .” he rumbled in recognition.
“Thanks for what you showed me,” I said, trying to think of something better.
He shrugged, waved his hand goodbye, and shuffled back into the rainy afternoon. Ferguson, the old black guy who did the maintenance on band instruments back in the workshop, came over to me and said, “Man, how does you know that ol’ man? That was Dishrag. He used to be somebody. That was Dishrag.”
HOW MUCH MONEY
Beale Street was magic, the Harlem of the South. When the slaves were freed after the Civil War, those who came to the city from whatever plantation in the Mississippi-Arkansas Delta settled in downtown Memphis, east of the Union fort on the bluff. Beale Street. A series of underworld bosses like Big Jim Kinnane allowed the district to run wide open. Bars and gambling halls, whorehouses and trim joints flourished with abandon. It was a world within a world where few whites would venture.
By the ’50s, after reform mayor E. H. “Boss” Crump and the long arm of Prohibition, Beale Street had settled down to a four-block-long string of pawnshops, pool halls, a couple of movie theatres, a hotel for blacks, and bar rooms that never closed. Replete with colorful characters and urban myths, it was a place of wonder for a teenage white boy. Music was everywhere. Speakers pumped the jive out on the sidewalks and street musicians sat huddled on the corners with tin cups full of shiny new unsharpened pencils, begging for change from the passersby.
Alec told me wild stories of bad men like Frankie Laine who would hold his pocket knife between his gold-capped teeth and strut down the middle of the street, daring all comers to take him on. I loved to go to Beale Street with my father. He was known there by merchants and bookies alike. He took me there to get my first zoot suit, my first guitar, and my first real understanding of our segregated world.
From Main Street to Pontotoc white folks were tolerated, if not welcomed. Below Pontotoc, it was a no-man’s-land. The north side of Beale and Main was occupied by Tony’s Fruit Stand, where my mother shopped for nectarines when she was pregnant with me. The south side was the Blue Light photography studio and Home of the Blues record store, and down on the corner of Beale and Pontotoc was Nathan Novick’s sales store with the notorious Lou Rafael. “Lou the Jew.” When Big Jim took me to Beale Street to buy my first electric guitar we went to maybe half a dozen stores before Nathan’s. My father knew it was the payoff. There were pawnshops on the north side of the street with racks of guitars on the sidewalk. Old and new, worn-out and shiny. Silver metal National guitars like nothing I had ever seen. Loud-mouthed Hebrew hucksters fast-talked their pitch and my old man back-talked with the best of them. He loved to wheel and deal. It reminded him of Chicago.
Finally we ended up at Nathan’s. There was an ancient, high-yellow shill standing in the doorway. He wore a loud three-piece suit, a painted silk tie with a flowery pocket handkerchief, and a suede fedora. It was late summer and he was dressed for midwinter. He did not sweat. He worked the passersby like a carnival pitchman.
Once you got inside it was the domain of Lou Rafael. He wore a white shirt, bow tie, and suspenders with the stump of a smoldering cigar in his teeth and a thin trimmed mustache. He cursed and grumbled, “How much money you got? You don’t have any money. Get the hell out.”
There were rows of glass showcases filled with police badges, handguns, brass knuckles, and flashy jewelry. The guitars were at the back of the store where Lou was standing. He and my father dickered back and forth. I could tell my old man was really enjoying himself. Finally Lou brought out a white guitar with gold-flecked membranes running through it. I loved it. A Stratoline. He threw in a green and black cord to sling over my shoulder.
At home I stood in front of the full-length mirror wearing my white and gold-flecked Stratoline and dreamed of the future.
It’s hard if not impossible to describe Dewey Phillips. If he is known at all, it is as the Memphis disc jockey who first played Elvis Presley on the radio. He is little known as the man who brought to life the idea that was Elvis. In 1949, the same year that we had moved to Memphis, Sam Phillips had come to town from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and Dewey Phillips (a brother of the soul, not the flesh) had lost his job selling sheet music in a dime store and started broadcasting a nighttime music program on WHBQ radio.
I would like to say that I was hip to Dewey from the start, but sadly I was not. Hooked on WDIA and Rufus Thomas, I was late coming to Dewey. Memphis loved him. He was loose, sloppy, incoherent. Everything else on the radio was tight and scripted with a formal tone. Dewey was wide open. He joked and talked in multiple voices to people who weren’t there. He “interviewed” baseball legend Dizzy Dean and actress Kim Novak. Doing all the voices he would say, “How you doin’, Diz?” and he would turn off mic and say, “All right, Pardner,” in his Dizzy Dean voice, then he would say, “Come on in here, Kim Novak,” and reply, “Hello boys,” in a forced basso profundo.
He made up the commercials. “Good ol’ Falstaff beer. If you can’t drink it, freeze it and eat it. Open up a rib and pour it in.”
But the music was the thing. He’d play Hank Williams’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and then Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Strange Things Happening Every Day” or Otis Jackson’s “Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt.” No rules or restrictions. Yet there was a sameness, a texture to the songs he chose, a “place” to the sounds and voices. There was the idea—the black-white crossover that became not just Elvis, but defined the Memphis Sound—the real deal. The mother lode. This was the golden age.
I got to know Dewey later in life—after his fall from grace. The deterioration of the friendship and working relationship between Dewey and Elvis symbolizes the corporate sellout of the rock & roll culture.
Memphis was a strange and wonderful place in the 1950s. Colorful local heroes like stock car outlaw Hooker Hood, Sputnik Monroe, “World’s Greatest Wrestler,” and Daddy-o Dewey who blasted the air waves with “Red Hot & Blue.” Elvis represented a lifestyle that already existed in Memphis. Long divided by race and property, two cultures were reaching out to embrace each other musically, the collision of racial cultures that the geographical and political polarity made inevitable.
The threat of Communism and nuclear holocaust put the big squeeze on the American Dream. TV made the global village smaller and bigger at the same time. The ’50s held the promise of prosperity. This new music represented the triumphs of the individual human spirit and grew to symbolize freedom to the world. You could see the idea coming into focus. Dewey Phillips was the emcee, the stage manager, and the ringmaster of the music that would change the world.
I’M SAVING MYSELF
It was in art class that Ray Fitts told me about Elvis. Fitts was an accordion player. He had seen Elvis on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show and told me I had to see this. The second time Elvis was on the show, I was tuned in. He sang “Tutti Frutti” and “Blue Suede Shoes,” then came back later and did “Baby, Let’s Play House.” It was like seeing Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band, only turned up and rocked out.
Black shirt, white tie, just like Tony Cabooch. His hair was long and black and anointed with grease. It was beautiful. He was beautiful. He smiled a sneering smile and stuttered, “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.” The trio behind him was simple and solid and rocking like no white country singer had ever been. They might have looked like Hank Williams’s Drifting Cowboys, but they sounded more like the stage band for the “Harlem in Havana” dancing girl show at the Cotton Carnival midway. It had the same almost out of control power as the Jug Band, but these were white people and it was on network TV.
When Elvis played his first gig in Memphis after the Dorsey shows and the release of “I Was the One,” backed with “Heartbreak Hotel,” I was there. He had just played Vegas for the first time and bombed—too much for middle-aged mobsters. Nationally, he was breaking out bigger than anyone since Frank Sinatra.
Ellis Auditorium was opening the North and South Halls and Elvis would perform to both sides at once. My father got me a hard-to-come-by ticket from a friend at WHBQ radio. There I sat, surrounded by strangers, waiting to see the truck driver from Tupelo. My seat was second from the aisle, maybe twenty rows back. To my right sat a girl who looked to be sixteen. She sat quietly, not moving a muscle. The opening act was Hank Snow, the Singing Ranger. He performed alone. He was a very small man with a big country and western guitar. He wore a spangled Nudie suit and cowboy boots. His big song was “I’m Movin’ On.” “When you hear my wheels hit the tracks, you’ll know your true lovin’ daddy ain’t comin’ back,” he sang. The girl beside me made no sign of life. She did not respond to his performance in any way. She did not applaud or scream as many did.
The second act of the show, after a brief intermission, opened with Elvis’s band onstage alone. For the first time in Memphis they had a drummer—the guy from the TV performance. After one instrumental number, they brought out the Jordanaires quartet. Still nothing from the girl on my right.
Finally, I asked her, “Are you all right?”
She looked at me blankly and said, “I’m saving myself for Elvis.”
When Elvis walked on stage, she went nuts. So did I. So did every human being in Ellis Auditorium North and South Halls. He walked slowly onto the stage, grinning to the crowd. He wore blue slacks and a bright green sport coat with a white shirt and no tie. He carried his guitar loosely behind him, almost dragging it. A charge of electricity ran through the audience and every molecule of air seemed to vibrate.
He worked the crowd, and they responded to his every move. Facing one audience in front and another behind, he would wheel around, holding himself up with the microphone stand or sometimes falling to his knees like a tent revival preacher, pointing his finger at the audience and pleading. He seemed to be playing to each individual at once, as if posing for a thousand photographs at the same time. His every move was perfect. He prowled the stage like a big jungle cat. He teased and joked with the crowd like a long-lost friend. He introduced his mother and father, seated in the audience to my left. They stood as a spotlight swung to pick them out.
After what seemed like only a few minutes, he said, “Well, ladies and gentlemen, this is our last song. It’s a new one we learned in Las Vegas. Me and the boys are going into the studio and record it next week. Hope you like it. This has been real nice playing for the home folks and all, and now I only got one thing to say. YOU AIN’T NOTHIN’ BUT A HOUND DOG,” he sang, “crying all the time.” The tempo was up with the rumba pattern bass line, common to early rock & roll, syncopated to the top eighth note beat. Elvis let his guitar swing down almost behind him, as he gripped the microphone and sang, “You ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine.”
He sang the same verse over and over, but it didn’t matter. No one cared. It was easily the most exciting thing I had ever seen. He was like a preacher at the end of his sermon, giving the invitation to lost souls to follow the profession of faith and join the body of Christ. People ran down front on both sides of the stage, filling the aisles as Elvis stalked like a strip tease dancer, then fell to his knees as the tempo of the band cut to a slow drag. Elvis sang the last chorus again half as slow as the rest of the song, like Muddy Waters at the end of “Got My Mojo Working”: “You ain’t never caught a rabbit—you ain’t no friend of mine.”
I talked about the show for months. I described it in detail to friends and family whenever I got a chance, spreading the new religion of the King of Rock & Roll, or as George Klein would say, “Elvis himselvis.”
Her name was Laura. She had dark red, almost black hair pulled back in a ponytail. She wore horn-rimmed, cat-eye glasses like the sexy secretaries on the covers of pulp detective-story dime novels. She wore cashmere sweaters with the buttons down the back. That did a lot for her figure, which needed no help. When she strutted down the hall, books clutched to her chest, the waters parted. She didn’t know anybody at White Station High School, but had her eye on society, hell-bent on being a sorority girl and moving up the food chain. Even then, I was a little left of center. We dated off and on all through high school but she always had her eye on some pre-Ivy League slick with a mama’s boy haircut and a high-end future. We went to horror movies at the Normal Theater over by the university: The Curse of the Cat People, The Wolfman, and best of all, Creature from the Black Lagoon. The white bathing suit scene with the scaly Gill-man swimming secretly beneath the unaware bathing beauty was an unforgettable vignette in my early pursuit of happiness.
Laura had no use for Elvis. She was a pupil at Jane Bischoff’s dance studio, studying modern dance and jazz dancing. From time to time, Jane would take a group of her most talented dancers to perform at a supper club called the Silver Slipper out on the highway. One night at such a performance, Laura encountered a young, unknown Elvis. He was clowning around backstage, flirting with the girls and flashing a shiny tin badge inside his pink sports coat that said “Chicken Inspector.” To say that she was unimpressed is putting it mildly. To further her point, Laura played me a 78 record of Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton singing the original recording of “Hound Dog.” I made her play it over and over, fascinated by the loose groove and the sarcastic lyrics, glossed over in Elvis’s simplified white boy version.
This was one of the gems of arcane knowledge I drew from her father’s record collection. His record collection was mostly vintage Dixieland. The “Big Mama” Thornton version of “Hound Dog” featured the Johnny Otis Orchestra, which sounded like no more than a trio. It was the same song that Elvis sang, but with more lyrics, more story. The groove was incredible. The drums turned the beat over and over like the five chord section of a blues pattern. There were extra beats in the chord progression and irregular word phrasing in the vocal delivery. At the end, the band started to howl and bark like dogs as the song faded out. I loved it. It was my favorite thing I had heard since Will Shade and the Jug Band in Whiskey Shoot. Over and over I made Laura play the intro on that worn-out 78, trying to reveal the secrets of this primitive story in song.
In 1957, before guitar players were a dime a dozen and you could learn how to play like Chuck Berry at your local music store, there were three guitar teachers in town: old man Tanqueray who taught only classical and Spanish guitar, Lynn Vernon who taught basic jazz and was very good, and Lieutenant Forrest O’Kelly who taught at Berl Olswanger’s, but he was a cop which ruled him out even then.
So you taught yourself, and I still maintain that rock & roll should be self-taught. Guitar players usually fell into one of two categories. There were jazz players who could maybe read music and played arrangements, and there were the hillbillies, cowboy players who could not read music and played instinctively.
The black musicians—relegated to play either white, roadhouse honky-tonks like the Plantation Inn or their own establishments—also fell into two categories. The first group were schooled musicians who played big band holdover jazz standards at sit-down, reading gigs in the theaters on Beale Street, music that was more sophisticated than any played at the white clubs, except the Peabody Rooftop. The second group played black juke joints down in the heavy hood or out on the highway, with a mixture of aspiring locals and traveling acts left over from the Medicine Shows who played the blues from town to town on what was called the chitlin circuit.
These worlds and groups did not meet. Jazzbos and hillbillies did not mix. Not musically or racially, except in the minds of Dewey Phillips and the generation of white boys who were out there listening to the music in the night. We sought it out. Blues, jazz, howling hillbillies on the Grand Ole Opry, and moaning bluesmen from Randy’s Record Mart. And amid the commercials for Hair Care (“for Kinky Hair”) and ads for an “autographed picture of the Lord Jesus Christ standing in the garden,” we heard Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin’ Wolf. We heard Smilin’ Eddie Hill and his Country Cowboys in the morning and Dewey Phillips in the afternoon, playing everything from Hank Snow to “the late, great Johnny Ace.” And we soaked it up. And when we met a brother follower of the new faith, we had to at least check each other out.
Charlie Freeman came out of nowhere. At sixteen I could tell that this guy was a pro. Somebody brought him and Steve Cropper over to my house because they played guitar. They both went to Messick in Midtown Memphis, which was a social barrier between us, since everything in Memphis comes down to a matter of race and where you went to high school.
We jammed that afternoon in my basement. I had bought a Silvertone Duo Jet from Steady Eddie. Cropper had a Telecaster even then. Charlie took lessons from Lynn Vernon and passed what he learned on to Cropper. Charlie leaned toward the jazz school but had a funky tone and feel, more like Lowman Pauling who played with The “5” Royales. We exchanged phone numbers. Charlie Freeman never met another musician without exchanging phone numbers. It became a ritual that I watched transpire over and over. Cropper kept getting shocked from stepping off of the rubber mat that covered the concrete floor (he never did figure it out). Charlie never got shocked.
Charlie Freeman and Steve Cropper played with Packy Axton, Duck Dunn, Don Nix, Terry Johnson, and Wayne Jackson (who was from West Memphis and grew up listening to the music from the Plantation Inn). They called themselves the Royal Spades, named after a pinky ring with a diamond inside an ace of spades that singer Ronnie Stoots wore. Stoots sang with both my band and Charlie’s.
I played a couple of gigs with them at a chicken wire joint on the outskirts of North Memphis called Neil’s Hideaway. On my first gig there I naively asked Packy, “What’s the deal with the chicken wire?” It stretched around the front of the stage like a baseball backstop.
“Wait ’til eleven o’clock,” was all he had to offer.
The gig was pretty smooth. The piano was a piece of crap but that was par for the course. I liked playing with horns, with Terry Johnson swinging like a rusty gate. Eleven o’clock came and the hillbillies hit the chicken wire with everything that wasn’t nailed down. Ashtrays, beer bottles, hi-ball glasses, shoes, pocketbooks, everything that you could think of. We kept on playing the T-Bone Shuffle like nothing was going on and pieces of debris came at us through the chicken wire. Then it was over as quickly as it had started. Packy looked over at me and rolled his half-shut eyes. I never questioned him again.
THE WITCH MAN
There is a guitar pattern that starts with Jimmy Reed, who uses it as a recurrent theme throughout his entire repertoire. It’s played by two, sometimes three guitars, a lead and a rhythm. Chuck Berry takes the same three notes from a basic boogie-woogie bass line and makes them into the rhythm guitar part that was the hard drive of rock & roll (which led to the eighth note frenzy of punk rock). This same riff with yet again a slightly different groove and backbeat feel is present over and over in Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, which is without question one of the best group names in the history of rock & roll.
My band played them all. We had a killer Twist groove in ’59, at least two years before public acceptance and the fad. I still feel that old feeling when I hear the three-chord turnaround and the shuffle of the eighth note pattern that is the intro to the Twist itself. The pattern took on the name “shifting” locally, as opposed to “Chuckabilly,” which was slightly different than the Jimmy Reed pattern (none of which are played correctly today). The Stones call it “grinding.”
My band was opening for Bo Diddley. We had Jimbo Hale playing electric bass. This was the big party of the fall. Hell, everybody was going to be there. We had some time to kill so we drove down to the river. The lights on Riverside Drive were blue and lit the night in a strange still-black way. Cars went by and telephone poles of the colored slum in the way most downtown part of the city behind us towering ghost-like blinking in the night, making the city honk noise. Something screamed from far away THIS IS IT. This is the night. The great wake for the summer. The big beast coming to rest. Tonight.
The National Guard Armory was lit up like a circus. The Memphis Belle, a B-17 bomber from World War II, sitting in front like a guardian angel. The parking lot was already full, but I squeezed my old Buick in between the East Memphis Chevys and Pontiacs and walked through the red mud to the back door—the musicians’ entrance. I stepped cold into a full-blown drama. Bo Diddley had caused a riot the night before in Nashville. A girl had jumped onstage and started to dance. The girl was white. Thus the problem. The story had run in the Memphis paper and the frat boy promoters were starting to sweat it. Bo Diddley has not showed up. My band was contracted to play one set. We agreed to keep playing. We sounded good with Jimbo Hale on electric bass. Ronnie Stoots was still singing with us. I was jazzed to see Bo Diddley and had little use for Stoots singing “Summertime.”
It got later and later. We stretched it out. The audience was getting crazy. Finally we got the word. Bo Diddley had arrived. We stopped playing and went out the back door where two Chrysler station wagons had pulled up and parked on the sidewalk. They were covered with randomly placed pin-striped hot rod decals and a hand-lettered sign that said BO DIDDLEY BAND. Two giant black men in thick fur coats were driving. The three-piece band was unloading their drum kit. Bo Diddley was arguing with the frat boy promoter when Ricky Ireland, Stanley Neil, and I walked up. The frat boy was shaking what was obviously a performance contract and screaming, “It says right here you are playing two one-hour sets and taking one break.” He is irate and overly agitated. Slowly Bo Diddley reaches in his pants pocket and pulls out a wadded-up greasy piece of paper and unfolds it. Sure enough, it is the contract.
“Yeah,” he says. “It say that in my contract, too.” He wads it up and puts it back in his pants. He points at me. “He could have been Bo Diddley.” He points at Stanley, who is in true racist near-frenzy. “Or he could have been Bo Diddley,” he continues. “But I is Bo Diddley and Bo Diddley is taking three breaks.”
That was it. I agreed to play the breaks for an extra $150 and the proceedings began. The hour struck and the witch man, great raiser of the dead, had arrived. He had an amplifier that looked like an icebox laying down and an orange guitar shaped like a Ford Fairlane. The trio was wearing knee-length red coats. Bo turned on the amp and tuned his guitar at full volume. The crowd screamed. Bo laughed and laughed and kept tuning. Then he started, drums laying a repeated pounding rhythm, maracas filling up the holes. Over and over the jungle sound filled the armory, swelling. The world stood on its head and screamed. No one was exactly dancing—the crowd moved like one great sheet. On a pedestal ten feet over the crowd’s heads the mad men were rain dancing. The night stopped being pink and became flaming green and everything in it was orange like merthiolate spilled in a bathtub. Some of the football disciples down front who had six-pack beer cartons on their heads were whooping the Indian dance, hearing the organ grinder, and hearing the mating call.
Watching his hands was a mystery. He was not making recognizable chords. He seemed to play a pattern first open and then closing his hand for the four chord. He zoomed his hand up the neck making the low bass string scream and rumble. I looked around and Ricky was watching him, too. I could see in his eyes that he was trying to figure it out. After the dance, we went over to Ricky’s. We worked in his music room until dawn, by which time we had figured out “open” D tuning. We were the new white masters of the black man’s magic powerful technique, which opened up a new world of soul funk. Then wild-eyed, still possessed by the witch man, I was in bed and away on a gray sleeping cloud.
HEY BO DIDDLEY
In the 1950s, Wink Martindale was a Memphis TV personality with a kid’s show on WHBQ called Mars Patrol. The set was the inside of a rocket ship with audience seats facing a control panel. Each afternoon Wink and his crew of kids would blast off to a Flash Gordon serial adventure. He also co-hosted Top 10 Dance Party, a Saturday afternoon teenage show featuring couples from local high schools with local musical guests. The co-hostess of Dance Party was Anita Wood, Elvis Presley’s girlfriend. That’s where I first saw Jerry Lee Lewis playing with a trio—no guitar. At first the kids laughed at the long-haired piano player, but by the end of the first song they were no longer laughing.
Martindale did a live on-the-air interview with Elvis early on in ’56 that was a show stopper. Wink asked him, “Elvis, when you were graduated from Humes High School, did you expect to pursue singing and—”
“I didn’t expect to get out of Humes High School,” Elvis snarled, leaning on a juke box on the set.
When Wink moved to L.A. and the big time, WHBQ threw a farewell party concert at the old Casino Youth Pavilion on the fairgrounds. The lineup was Thomas Wayne, starring behind his current hit “Tragedy,” and Warren Smith, the “Ubangi Stomper,” one of my favorite Sun artists. Scotty Moore and Bill Black had just quit Elvis and were the backup band for most of the evening. My band was there to back Kimball Coburn. We were to play two sets of four songs. Ronnie Stoots and I both sang one song a set while Kimball Coburn did two. Anita Wood, now Elvis’s ex-girlfriend, was backstage. Bill Black always liked me. He thought I was funny. He came up to me backstage and asked, “Dickinson, you got a bass player yet?”
“No,” I answered.
“Well, by God, you got one tonight!” Bill had just gotten a Fender electric bass and it sounded great. We did our first set. I sang Little Richard’s “Send Me Some Lovin’,” and it went over real well.
Second set, Ricky encouraged me to do “Hey! Bo Diddley,” but I had not brought my guitar. Bill Black said, “Why not use Scotty’s?” Ricky asked his permission, since I was already pretty drunk. I could tell that he was reluctant, but he nodded his approval. We did Stoots’s song and Kimball came up and did “Cute,” his local hit. Bill looked over halfway through and asked me, “What’s the name of this song?”
I told him, “Cute.”
“Never heard it,” he said, not missing a note.
I strapped on Scotty Moore’s high-end Gibson guitar, and started to tune down to open D for “Hey! Bo Diddley.” I saw Scotty offstage freaking out. It was too late to stop. I was too far gone. The crowd went nuts. They hollered back, “Hey! Bo Diddley,” and hooted and hollered when it was done. I staggered offstage past Scotty Moore frowning his disapproval as Bill Black howled with laughter. Anita Wood was standing there, goggle-eyed. “That was fantastic,” she gushed. “Could I have your autograph?”
I signed her arm with a ballpoint pen. Warren Smith slapped me on the back and said, “Boy, you sing just like a nigger.” That was the greatest compliment I had ever been paid.
BRING ON THE BULLET
It was a month after our gig there with Bo Diddley. Piano Red was playing and Jimmy Reed’s son, Alvin, was leading the band. Red had long been one of my favorites and my band had played “Rockin’ with Red” and “Red’s Boogie” as part of our set since the beginning. Red was a pink-eyed albino with gold teeth. His show was an old-school r&b revue with a girl singer and vocal group. All during his set, members of the audience shouted, “Bring on the Bullet! Bring on the Bullet!”
The Bullet was a quadriplegic. While the band played a one-chord vamp, crew members brought on what looked like a cross between a baby’s high chair and a bar stool, placing it center stage. Next, a man dressed like a valet brought a stuffed sofa pillow out and carefully placed it on the stool/high chair and brushed it off with a whiskbroom. The crowd was chanting now, louder and louder, “Bring on the Bullet, Bring on the Bullet!” Finally the stage crew and the valet carried on a legless, armless black man with a bald head. The crowd went nuts. The stagehands carefully placed the figure down on the sofa pillow, high atop the stool-chair. The valet put a microphone in front of the motionless body. You had to wonder what he was going to do. The Bullet opened his mouth and began to scream. That was his act. He bellowed like a banshee for two or three excruciating minutes, then the stagehands reversed the process and carried him off, stool, pillow, and all. That was it. What else could he do? The Bullet screamed, not words but pure emotion. The frustration and anger of half a man, trapped in an immobile shell, was released in the only way he knew. I tried to imagine his life on the road, his endless time between performances. Was there an anvil case backstage with a sign on it reading THE BULLET—THIS END UP? What did he feel in those moments onstage that were all his own? What emotions came to him as the crowd of white strangers called out, “Bring on the Bullet”? Was this all he had? This time onstage, screaming? Who was he? What was his name? What was the rest of his life other than the golden moments in the spotlight, when he became the ultimate rock & roll singer, the supreme protest beyond Elvis, Jagger, Johnny Rotten, or Axl Rose, raging against life itself in an incoherent scream of agony, hate, and frustration? Surely he hated the audience that called his phantom name. He blew them away with his screams from hell, like a dragon breathing fire. The burning sound of his howl seared away the soul of the audience in a moment of ultimate release.
SEE THAT MY GRAVE
IS KEPT CLEAN
I woke up still in my clothes, and at first I didn’t know where I was as I returned to the reality of the Waco-Baylor dorm. It was early, and I could hear the sounds of the dormitory coming to life. I escaped. Walking through the empty Saturday morning campus I turned up Speight Avenue and headed for the Catacombs. Things would be better there. The air was cold and clear and my first cigarette tasted like straw as smoke filled my lungs. It reminded me of burning leaves at home with Alec and my dog. I took another deep drag and held it in, reaching into my pocket for my shades. Shake if off, big boy. You can fight but you can’t win. Here you are. Trapped like a rat. All you can do is play it out.
When I got to the apartment, Pat was making coffee. She smiled and put in some extra water. She looked good in the morning. She always looked good. She had checked out of the dorm for this weekend. Jimmy Browning was still asleep with the customary look of horror on his face. We sat down at the small red kitchen table with our steaming cups. We both heard the screaming from the next room, “God damn,” and knew that Jimmy was awake. More coffee and new plans.
I didn’t know what Jimmy had in mind so I asked, “Is Wortham, Texas, somewhere around here? Do you know where that is?”
“Of course I know where it is. It’s in Texas,” he huffed. “It’s right down the road. What’s your sudden interest in Wortham? It’s just an old oil boom town that went bust.”
I went over to the orange crate that held the community records and picked up an album. “Says here Blind Lemon Jefferson is buried in Wortham, Texas. I thought if it was somewhere close we might go see his grave. It’s unmarked.”
“In the first place I’ve never heard of Blind Lemon Jefferson and how are we supposed to find a grave if it’s unmarked?”
“Well,” I told him, suddenly taking interest. “There’s this book I’ve got that describes how to get there with a picture of the graveyard.”
I played them the record. Blind Lemon is hard to take. It is not like listening to Jimmy Reed or B. B. King. Its hard counter rhythm, strummed in an atypical series of patterns, doesn’t resemble standard blues form. He recorded early and stood out from the more gospel structured Delta style. There is a melodic counterpoint and ballad-like melody line that remains unique in the blues idiom.
I went back to the dorm and picked up my copy of The Country Blues by Sam Charters. I showed Browning the picture of Blind Lemon, the photo of deserted downtown Wortham, and the photo of the lonesome windswept graveyard with the unmarked sunken space where Lemon and his brother were laid anonymously side by side between the marked tombstone of his mother and her sister.
“This is great. This is great!” Browning gleefully exclaimed. Pure D Texas at its obscure best. This is it. We’ll hit the road tomorrow. It’s all set.
We spent the rest of the evening listening to “Black Snake Moan” and “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” Browning had found yet another thing about his beloved Texas in which he could take pride.
Sunday morning. Old timers could feel a norther coming in the water pipes. The campus was deserted. The rooming house on Speight Avenue was hungover. Pat made coffee. The stereo was turned down low. “Black Snake Moan” was crawling in the room. We drank the hot coffee and went downstairs to the car. The platinum blonde sat shotgun, silent behind her sunglasses. I shared the back seat with a sack of ice after a stop for beer. Jimmy pointed the green Ford sedan toward Wortham. We crossed the Brazos River with the north wind in our faces and a Lord’s Supper tablecloth commercial on the radio.
Soon the scenery was a blur of rangeland, scrub oaks, and the “Big Sky,” as the locals like to call it. Browning was from West Texas. His idea of “just down the road” and mine were two different things. After about an hour we started to see dilapidated oil rigs clustered in rusty bunches. Like good Baptists, they were not working on Sunday. The little town past the oil field was Wortham. It was closed up tight. We drove until we found an open gas station. The attendant was a kid. Jimmy did the talking. He said we were students from the college writing a research paper. The kid pointed and mumbled something about “old niggers.” The old men were not hard to find. They sat on a bench around the corner from the domino parlor. One stood leaning on a crutch, his right leg off at the knee.
Browning asked if they knew anything about Blind Lemon Jefferson.
“Yah, sah.” The one-legged man spoke. I took over since I was supposed to know, telling him what I had read on the back of a record album. How Lemon was born in Wortham, Texas. How he had frozen to death on a street corner in 1930. How the record company had sent a man south with his body, but it only got to Dallas.
“No, sah.” The one-legged man shook his head. “It was ’29. I remember ’30 was bad, but I never shall forget ’29. Me and ol’ Pete dug the grave.” He pointed back to the bench. “It was us that buried him. The ground was solid froze. They had to lay out planks to walk on. We built a fire to thaw out the dirt enough to dig. New Year’s Day.” He gave us directions: “Past the white cemetery—outside the city limits on the left.”
We parked on the roadside. There was no gate. One strand of barbed wire was strung between the fence posts. A homemade sign twisting in the wind said “Close Gap.” The unmarked grave of Blind Lemon lay between his mother and her sister. The same chain of events that left his coffin in Dallas also did away with the record company money for a headstone.
The afternoon sun was warm but a cold wind blew across the badlands. We huddled together around the group of graves in the Negro cemetery. Browning grinned with Texan pride. Pat stood shivering, her arms crossed beneath her breasts, wondering what this was all about, what we were doing there. I remember the song Blind Lemon had sung into the darkness:
Well there’s one kind favor I ask of you,
Well there’s one kind of favor I ask of you,
Lord there’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you,
Please let my grave be kept clean.
Back in Waco, at the old house, we drank and talked and someone brought me the guitar. I played and somewhere in the night would be what I was playing about.
IT DONE BEEN TOO LONG
My friend Merrill’s taste in women had improved. His new squeeze, Sarah, had real class. She was like the new schoolmarm in an old cowboy movie. She was a fair-skinned brunette with a kind of moist glow around her. As karmic synchronicity would have it, she was from Wortham, Texas, where Blind Lemon was buried. She said that her old family maid talked about Lemon all the time. She agreed to take me to meet the old woman.
This was it! I was going to get a first person insight into the legendary figure about whom so little was known. Sarah Moody would be my portal to the past. One weekend in early spring we organized a safari. Sarah and Tommy Rodman rode with me to Austin where we picked up Jimmy Baird. We were armed with a tape recorder, 8-mm camera, and the Sam Charters book, where I had initially learned of Blind Lemon and the Negro graveyard in Wortham.
The old woman was short and round. She sat in a rocker, looking out the window of her shotgun shack across the railroad tracks from what you could call “downtown Wortham.” She was surprised to see “Miss Sarah,” and they oohed and aahed over each other with the real affection of old friends. Sarah told her why we had come. “Blind Lemon?” the old woman said. “I was raised up with Blind Lemon. He was a child and I was a child. I was raised up with him. I can tell you all ’bout Blind Lemon.” I showed her the picture in the Charters book. “That’s Lemon. That’s Blind Lemon! Like he was coming in the door. He was a child and I was a child. I was raised up with him. That’s Blind Lemon.”
We packed up the tape recorder and left the old woman muttering in her beard, “I can tell you all ’bout Blind Lemon,” she repeated. She did not, however, do so. I started to realize that’s all there was going to be. Baird was disgruntled, and grumbled as we got back in the car. Sarah was apologetic and Rodman was confused. I was disappointed but starting to get the picture. There was no doorway to the past. No Rosetta Stone to unlock the secret of the blues.
I drove to the old Negro cemetery where we had seen the neglected grave the year before. Things were different. There were small tin markers with cardboard name plates stuck in the hard Texas dirt over the graves of Lemon and his mother. At the head of the weed-covered barren space that held all that was left of Blind Lemon, there was an old glass pitcher with two brooms sticking out of it. Inside the glass pitcher was a letter handwritten on what looked like a roll of adding machine tape. It told a rambling story of some pilgrim who was to meet with friends at the graveside. The letter was vague. The symbolism of the broom was obvious: “See that my grave is kept clean,” he had once sung into the darkness.
When I looked up from the strange letter I saw a group of elderly black folks walking toward us over the dead grass and the sunken graves. The leader wore a black suit and a ribbon banner across his chest that told me he was a minister of the gospel. Sure enough it was the pastor and the deacons from the church next to the graveyard. They wanted to know what we were up to. Sarah and Baird did the talking, being the most respectable looking. The preacher recognized Sarah’s family name and warmed up right away. “We had some folks come looking for that same grave a few weeks back. One of ’em wasn’t right in the head. They lef’ that ol’ stuff up by the grave. Police took that one boy off and locked him up. They got him in the hospital now. He’s not right. I can see you folks is all right and not up to nothin’. You say you is from the university?”
“Yes sir. We’re doing research on Blind Lemon Jefferson and regional music from the Twenties and Thirties.”
“You folks needs to go see Trappy,” the preacher said, receiving a nod of approval from the deacons standing behind him. “Old Trappy. He used to lead Blind Lemon around when he went to Dallas to make them records. Lemon taught him to play second guitar with him.”
He gave Sarah directions to find the old man and she appeared to know what he was talking about. It seemed like we wandered all over Central Texas before we found the little country store that we were looking for. The old man was there. He wore a white dress shirt and black suspenders. He sat in the shade out back of the country gas station that had seen better days. Some old men sat nearby playing a silent game of checkers.
Trappy was more forthcoming than the old woman. He had been Blind Lemon’s lead boy and led the blind musician out of the Texas flatlands and up the old highway to Dallas. Lemon taught him to play second guitar. He had not gone on Lemon’s fatal trip to Chicago. “I’da took better care of him, watched out, ya know? He’d get drunked up and pass out on the street. Wasn’t so bad down home but up there in Chicago he just froze up and died.”
I asked Trappy if he still played guitar.
“Lightnin’ struck my cabin one night in a storm, knocked down my guitar from where it was hangin’ on the wall. My wife took it as a sign from God and worried me ’til I gave it up.”
I pulled my guitar out of the back of the car and strummed it a while. “Why don’t you see what you can remember?” I offered him the old Stella.
He chuckled a deep rattle in his chest and took the instrument from me.
“Lemme see can I chord that thing.” His old fingers were clumsy on the steel strings reaching for an E chord. He plunked around for a while but seemed to get nowhere, “Nawsuh, I done forgot. It done been too long. You play somethin’ for me.”
The guitar felt funny in my hands, like a stranger rather than an old friend. I tried to play a line of “Black Snake Moan” and he grinned a toothless grin. “That’s fine,” he said.
As I drove us back to Austin and then Waco, I thought about the experience with the old woman and with Trappy. I thought about the black minister and his deacons patrolling the graveyard, protecting it from “crazy white strangers” prying into their past. We were invading a private culture where we had no place. As badly as I wanted to learn the secrets of Blind Lemon, I did not want to trespass on this private history, this society that had produced the music that I loved.
The next day was Sunday. Again, I went out to the lake and listened to Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar on the car radio as the sun sank in the west. When I got back to the dorm I tried in vain to crack a book. The old woman and Trappy were still on my mind. I could see Lemon being led by Trappy the child as they walked the streets of Wortham nearly half a century before. What was it in the eternal darkness of his world that had caused him to sing out? He was hell with the ladies, stumbling onto them to cop a quick feel. Poor blind boy—he wrestled, blind as a bat, in a traveling snake oil medicine show carnival. His songs were nasty, salacious, thinly veiled double entendre sexual humor save for the one simple request, “See that my grave is kept clean.”
Down the hall some brave soul was playing his record player. Devil music on the Sabbath. It was a far cry from Blind Lemon and yet part of the same American musical experiment where the races reached for each other. The B side of the record was a medley of songs my band had played two years before in Memphis.
LOST IN THE WOODS
I fell back into the easier rhythms of Memphis and into old habits as well. Memphis State was like high school. I had to wiggle around and rely on the “kindness of strangers” to get myself enrolled. Baylor was refusing to send my transcript, a trick they pulled that could end up with my ass in Vietnam. Somebody, somewhere in the bowels of Baylor, was pissed at little Jimmy. With the help of some old theater friends and Laura’s mother, who was a placement counselor at Memphis State, I got registered as a fifth semester freshman with basically no credits except the ones from summer school. I got the university’s first-ever psychological deferment from ROTC.
I signed up for theater history and anthropology. I found a place to hang out across the railroad tracks from school, aptly named the Campus Grill. Charlie Freeman was there most afternoons taking some classes—about halfway in school. Bass player Tommy McClure would show up occasionally as well. Sometimes there would be a whole rhythm section sitting there.
I gigged around with them a little. Roadhouse gigs up on Highway 51 and down in Arkansas. But mostly I had started playing folk music. I traded my Rickenbacker solid body for a Gibson J-45 fire engine red sunburst, got out my old Jimmy Reed neck rack and harmonica, and fancied myself the poor man’s Ramblin’ Jack. It was easy. No band, no split the cheese. Talk, make sarcastic remarks, and tell lies to the audience. Hell, I was good at that!
I played the new Bob Dylan record for everybody. It was like when I tried to turn my high school friends on to Jimmie Rogers, “The Singing Brakeman,” or Blind Lemon Jefferson. Back then, some got it, but not many. (They thought I was kidding with Jimmie Rogers.) It was the same deal with Dylan. Most folks didn’t get it.
I soon buddied up with a kid I had known at White Station, Bill Newport, whose mother was my senior English teacher. Bill was a good companion and co-conspirator. He had a garage-converted pool hall that became my Room for Baylor Boys—a place of recluse and repose where we spent many an hour contemplating Eric Dolphy.
YOU BOYS FROM
That Memphis fall was beautiful. The leaves changed slowly, gold to black gum red. I got a sheepherder’s jacket at the saddle shop where I had seen Elvis cracking bullwhips with Nick Adams back in the ’50s. I gave up the Ivy League Bruce Wayne disguise and settled back into jeans, Sears work shirts, and black Wellington low top boots.
Jack Kennedy had managed to get elected without my vote. I turned twenty-one later that fall. The year of Camelot. I “became legal” as we say down South. I could “vote and tote” (that is, apply for a handgun permit), but it was more important to me that I could buy liquor and legally drink in a bar without trouble. I made full use of my new privilege. I drank my lunch at the Campus Grill and then I’d go to anthropology or philosophy class with a mild buzz.
I started to search for traces of the musicians found in the Sam Charters book. The beginning of the civil rights movement made it even harder to break through the racial barrier, making old black folks distrust the white boy asking questions. My old actor pal, Leon Russom, found the first solid lead. He was a student at Southwestern and had a teacher who claimed Gus Cannon was his family’s yardman. They lived on Parkway, which had a tree-lined esplanade that had once bordered the city and now marked the beginning of Midtown. Gus lived in the place. He was tall and thin—old but not yet bent—bald-headed, with a Russian-looking fur hat and gold-framed spectacles.
We found him bent over a gas lawn mower in the driveway of the house on Peabody. Two strange white boys walking up out of the afternoon into the world of an old black man from another lifetime. We were still ignorant of what was to happen to each of us. He led us up out of the chilled October air and into his room over the toolshed behind the big house. The small room was over-heated by a gas stove. I noticed strangely painted lead pipes standing in a box in the corner. We sat.
“There was a fella here month or so ago to see me. White fella. You boys from New York?” Gus asked.
Leon shook his head. “Memphis,” he said.
I wanted to say, “sir.”
“I came to Mefus when I’ze ’bout yo age,” he said. “Playin’ in a medicine show. Fust seen a fellow blow a jug in Mefus—give me idea for them blowin’ pipes.” He gestured toward the pipes standing in the box. They were painted multicolored and capped on one end with rubber can stoppers. They had old bottle caps and pieces of colored glass beads stuck to the long sides. “Pipe’s got a mo’ better sound,” he added. “That New York fella had had a machine with him and he recorded me. I used to make records ya know for de RCA Victor company. Yas suh. Folks don’t believe me when I say that but it’s a fact.”
“I believe you,” Leon said reverently. Sitting in the afternoon sunlight, the old man rolled his head.
“You play music, suh?” he asked me. I nodded. “You have the look of a musician. Would you play fo’ ol’ Gus den. I don’t hear near ’nuff music these days.”
The old man reached under his bed and pulled out an ancient cardboard guitar case. Opening it slowly, he removed the oldest Gibson guitar I had ever seen and strummed it once with his giant brown thumb. “I gots it tuned like a banjo—the fourth string down. You tune it to suit yourself.”
I ran the string the way it was—making my E chord into a minor. I pulled up the G string to standard (like the Bo Diddley open D tuning, yet another secret code of their magical black music). I ham fisted some slow blues. Gus Cannon, onetime leader of the Jug Stompers, slowly swayed in the dusty light streaks from the now setting sun, his eyes about closed. After a few minutes he asked, “You like that music, white boy?”
“Don’ mess with it if you don’ like it. Dats ol’ music and it sot in its ways.”
It was getting dark. We said our grateful goodbyes and he told us to come back anytime. He did not play for us that first time, as he would many times in the future. His banjo was in pawn. The man who recorded him sent him a copy of his record and no money. “I’d sho’ like you gentlemens to hear my record, but I ain’t got no playin’ machine.” As we left he asked if we were from the NAACP.
WHERE ARE YOU GOING,
Back in the old days folks who played music in Mountain View, Arkansas, gathered at the Stone County Courthouse on Friday nights for what was called “The Sing.” By the summer of 1963 local school teacher and celebrity Jimmy Driftwood had restarted the old tradition with hopes of attracting government grant dollars. Behind the national notoriety of his hit record, “The Battle of New Orleans,” Driftwood had appointed himself keeper and purveyor of the local ethnic musical scene. Musicians would gather in the courtroom with the audience seated and the players in the jury box. One by one they took the witness chair and did their turn at performance. Fiddlers and banjoists, little old ladies who played knitting needles. There was a man who played the bagpipes and paraded up and down the aisle as he wailed away. They performed ancient and familiar ballads and unfamiliar songs learned within family traditions. My old partner from Market Theater, Phil Arnault, turned me on to it and I went up whenever I could.
During my trips to Mountain View I often visited cowboy folk singer Glenn Ohrlin at his small ranch. He had one of the best acts I ever saw on the coffee house circuit. Born in Sweden, he came to America as a merchant marine and became a cowboy in Colorado. He played self-taught, classical guitar (he had invented his own musical notation employing no bar lines) and sang cowboy songs in a cracked, emotionless voice. He had a show stopping version of “Beautiful Morning Glory.”
One night Bob Knott and I were at Glenn’s ranch and I did a little too much talking about Bookmiller Shannon, one of the regulars who performed with Jimmy Driftwood at The Sing. He was a pusslegutted old reprobate who frailed his banjo (which had a picture of a canoe on a moonlit lake in the pines painted on its old head) with it delicately balanced on his flannel shirt-covered belly. I could see it was getting to Glenn, otherwise a portrait of serenity. Glenn thought Driftwood was a phony and did not participate in The Sing.
He didn’t trust folk school teachers. After I had made one too many comments on the profundity of Bookmiller Shannon, Glenn grumbled and stood up. He said, “You boys get up and come on with me. I wanna show you something.” Glenn said he had to drive. We got in his car, a worn-out Dodge with a push button transmission stuck in second gear. Glenn lived halfway up one of the mountains that Mountain View overlooks. We went further up on the blackest, darkest gravel road I had ever seen, up what surely was a trail for goats. The Dodge whined and strained. Head lights bobbed up and down, flashing into the nothing of the eternal Arkansas autumn sky. We drove up and up. Finally Glenn stopped and we looked around at nothing. We got out of the car and stood there in a darkness that was as black as the bottom of the Longhorn Cavern. Out of the black stepped a tall, thin old man dressed in sun bleached overalls and a shapeless straw hat. Glenn said, “Boys, this is Mr. Sam Hess.”
We stood amazed, still trying to adjust to the lack of illumination.
“Hidy,” the old man cackled.
He reached down behind what I guessed was a fence post and pulled up a crockery jug with a corn cob stuck in the top. He withdrew this stopper and took a long drink. “Been breaking ground up the draw,” he said.
I saw the mule he had been penning up when we arrived. He had been working all day until well after sundown, breaking new ground with a mule on a steep incline in this unforgiving rocky brown dirt. We followed the old man and Glenn up a rocky path to a little cabin glowing with coal oil lamp light. Walking through that door was like entering another dimension in time—wood stove, rocking chair, calico curtains. Everywhere I looked, on top of every flat surface and all around the room stood Bell-topped mason jars full of fruit and unknown substances, three deep from the wall. As if in explanation for our awe at this spectacle, Sam Hess declared, “Emmer’s been puttin’ up.”
A tiny old woman standing behind the door chuckled and rubbed her hands together. She nodded her head in approval.
Glenn said, “Sam, these boys want to see yer banja.” He nodded and led us to a closed door. We went inside what appeared to be a bedroom. He reached under the bed and pulled out an instrument case. I thought about Gus Cannon but this was somehow different. The air was full, like the feeling you sometimes get in church as the organ plays nondescript chords before the prayer. A feeling of anticipation and something more.
Sam Hess removed the banjo from its case. It was a top-of-the-line Whyte Laydie five-string standard scale banjo. His hands were disfigured by arthritis and lifelong labor. His knuckles looked like walnuts. His fingers were bent and broken. Yet his hands moved like magic on the beautiful instrument. He frailed with the backs of his fingernails, playing the same style my French grandmother played. He began to sing in a pure falsetto with a tone like cool creek water spilling over gravel. He sang “Barney McCoy” as if it was coming out of the Child Book of Ballads, “Oh where are you going, Barney darling.”
I don’t remember coming down the mountain. I couldn’t even tell you how we turned the car with only second gear back around for the return trip. I only know that the next morning Bob Knott and I stopped at Jimmy Driftwood’s house for breakfast and I could not help but notice Jimmy’s hair was dyed brown. As his wife served us breakfast I saw the silver sparkles in her fingernail polish. Driftwood revealed that the ancient guitar he claimed his grandfather made out of a fence post and bed slats had actually come from a pawnshop in Nashville.
Glenn Ohrlin saw Jimmy Driftwood as an enemy. Glenn had explained that most of the real local musicians would not go to The Sing due to family feuds predating the Civil War. These musicians did not trust outsiders like Driftwood or talk of government money. Soon thereafter, the deal was done and a Folklore Center was built and a regimented annual Folk Festival was organized, bringing in musicians from hither and yon who had nothing to do with Ozark culture.
Dr. Nash, my anthropology instructor, called it the “Trobriander Effect.” Scientists discover a primitive society living in the paradise of pre-Western Civilization. Through contact with the outside world, the balance and perfection of the community is polluted and eventually destroyed. The worst thing you can do is destroy the thing you love. The unforgivable sin.
The Memphis Country Blues Festival had grown to be a three-day event. It was being shot by National Public Television for a series with Steve Allen called Sounds of Summer. Friday was to be a rehearsal and Gene Rosenthal of Adelphi Records was smart enough to film the rehearsal. The TV crew shot Saturday and Sunday, which was a gospel show. It was a fantastic lineup. Bill Barth pulled together more real bluesmen than had ever been assembled in one place. All the regulars: Furry Lewis, Bukka White, Mississippi Fred McDowell, the fabulous Reverend Robert Wilkins and family, plus Ishman Bracey and Joe Callicott. Lee Baker was out of prison, having done his time in Lexington like Tim Leary. Baker had formed a band named Moloch with Eugene Wilkins, the little brother of the screamer from my Blue Ridge vocal group. They were loaded for bear. Barth scheduled our Sounds of Memphis rhythm section to back up Albert Collins. Collins did not show up so we took the set. Ringers showed up who had nothing to do with area music like Johnny Winter, the albino white boy from Beaumont, Texas, who was supposed to be a big deal.
There was much negotiation backstage among the carpetbaggers, would-be record company types, and public TV creeps with clipboards and clearance contracts. I saw Gene Rosenthal talking heatedly to Marvin, lead man and protector of blues mummy Nathan Beauregard. All at once Marvin produced a .45 automatic from his suit pants and stuck it in Rosenthal’s face. Negotiations came to a halt. Later I complimented the ex-grave digger, now keeper of a blues legend, on the smartness of his move with his piece. He said, “Thank ya, suh. Weren’t nothin’.” I shook his huge brown paw of a hand and started to introduce myself. He said, “Oh, I knows you. You is Mista Dick’son’s boy. You live out there by the graaaave ya’d.”
When a TV stooge tried to get Reverend Robert Wilkins to sign a release form, Baby Son, the reverend’s youngest boy and tambourinist extraordinaire, said, “Daddy, these folks ain’t sanctified.”
Our band was booked as Soldiers of the Cross and we were scheduled to perform gospel material. Barth also booked me to play with Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachell because I played like the guy who recorded with them back in the day. It was great. Sleepy John told me, “Man, you plays jes’ like Knocky Parker.” I took it as a great compliment until I found out Parker was a white stride player from up North.
LET ME CALL YOU
For our third date Mary Lindsay and I went to the Oso coffee house. Blues legend Furry Lewis was playing. I couldn’t wait. Charlie had found Furry living on Beale Street, working as a street sweeper for the city. Twice a day, with a pushbroom and a garbage can on wheels, Furry Lewis swept Beale Street—down the gutters and up the cracked and crooked sidewalks. Armed with my Webcore tape recorder, I picked up Mary Lindsay and we headed for the Oso in North Memphis. She smelled great and looked dangerous.
Furry Lewis was a small black man with white hair and blue eyes. Dressed in a dark gray suit and Sunday shoes, he limped to the stage on a cork leg, juggling his guitar as if he might drop it any time. I asked him if I could record his performance. He said, “No suh. I don’t mind.”
He sang everything: old blues, stuff older than blues, minstrel medicine show tunes. He sang Jimmie Rogers’s “All around the water tank . . . waiting for a train,” and after an abstract bottleneck solo, he yodeled. He sang church hymns and “St. Louis Blues” with no recognizable Handy lyric. He closed his last (of three!) sets with “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” where in the melody both vocal and bottleneck went to a full four-chord change. Each time Furry held the one and looked at his guitar as if it was missing the chord change all on its own. You couldn’t tell whether it was part of the act or not. He told stories between the songs and recited poems not unlike George Beard. He opened the second set with:
Our father who art in Washington.
Mr. Kennedy be his name.
He taken me off rat trap tobacco,
Put me back on golden grain.
’Cause the sweetest flower in the world
Is the lily of the beach,
And the worse whiskey I ever drunk
Right here on Poplar Street.
’Cause the hoppa grass makes the hops.
Honey bee makes the honey.
Good Lord makes all the pretty girls.
Sears and Roebuck makes the money.
“’Scuse me,” Furry snickered.
He was an incredible entertainer. It was like watching a living montage of sixty years of American subculture from which I had been separated by lines of race. And now, here it was at my fingertips. I was like an overcharged battery. Mary Lindsay could tell it. “That was something special,” she said when we were back in the car. “I feel really lucky to have seen that. It was amazing.”
I didn’t know where I was going. Driving aimlessly. I didn’t know where to go. I drove down the river. We talked. I told her about seeing the Jug Band when I was a kid. I told her about Gus Cannon. I told her about Butterfly and Dishrag and the “codes.”
“You live an interesting life,” she said. When I kissed her I could no longer hear the music in my head.
THE RETURN OF
On New Year’s Eve I proposed. We had been to a house party at Steady Eddie’s. George Tidwell was there with his new bride. She was an airhead with an infectious Gracie Allen charm that was disarming. I saw Mary Lindsay watching her and smiling. It looked like she was thinking about the future.
We had other married friends. Phil Arnault from the Market Theatre with his wife in Vets Village. Phil’s wife taught Mary Lindsay to make green pea casserole with mushroom soup and canned fried onion rings. It became the backbone of our early marriage.
She didn’t say yes right away. The second time I asked her we had doubled with Newport and Laura—not a really great idea. As a result we were both pretty drunk. She said yes.
I was engaged. I was finally no longer a freshman in college. And I had my second recording contract. I was hoping to get a little further than I had with Ruben Cherry and Home of the Blues. Bill Justis had booked a day at Sam Phillips’s studio for me to do a record. A week before the session, I got an envelope from Justis with a lyric sheet to a song in it. The song was written by Shel Silverstein. Obviously Bill meant for me to record it. There was no way. The song in question was “The Unicorn,” which, of course, was a big hit later by the Irish Rovers. I couldn’t hear myself singing the words “humpty back camels and chimpanzees.” The only thing I could think to do was act like I never received it. I knew that if I did that whatever I did record had to be really good.
I called Crosthwait and asked him if he had ever thought about playing the washboard. We went to a hardware store down by Memphis State and got a Zinc King washboard and half a dozen sewing thimbles to use as picks. We drafted our friend George Gillis who had played bass on my Home of the Blues session to play washtub and the New Beale Street Sheiks were born.
We rehearsed once, played a gig Friday night at The Pastimes Peanut Bar, and showed up at Sam Phillips’s studio Saturday morning for the session. Nobody was there except Scotty Moore, Bill Black, and Rowsey, the repair man. Justis had failed to nail down the booking for the session, and Scotty wasn’t buying it. We looked pretty bad. Crosthwait had hair trailing down his back and Gillis and I were hungover. I told Scotty to call Justis in Nashville. After he got off the phone, Scotty okayed the session and it fell to Rowsey to engineer. I found out later it was his first and only session. We set up around a couple of RCA 77s and laid down four songs as fast as we could. While we were cutting, Bill Black was calling people on the phone and having them come over and laugh at us from the control room.
When we finished Bill Black was shaking his head. “Dickinson, this is the wildest thing you’ve ever done,” he chuckled. I tried to get the tape from Scotty but he wouldn’t let me have it. “I’ll send it to Bill,” I said.
“No, man. I’m going to Nashville tomorrow. I’ll take it to Bill myself.” Scotty still didn’t trust me. More than a week went by and no word. I didn’t hear from Justis. So I called him. “What did you think of the tape?” I asked.
“Great, man! Great. The record comes out Thursday. Chet Atkins tried to buy it. It’s a hit.”
“Record?” I choked. “That was a demo.”
“Oh, man, you could never do it that bad again,” Bill said.
“Bill, you have no idea how bad I could do it,” I said, with all my heart.
“What’s that playing bass?” he asked.
“That’s a washtub and a clothesline tied to a broom stick,” I answered.
“A rope! A rope!” Justis shouted. “I went all over Nashville trying to EQ a rope!”
The record did in fact come out on Thursday. We got a Cash Box review and a pick-hit on the cover of Billboard. Then, on Sunday, the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan for the first time. Our hour in the sun was brief. On WLAC John R. played it for two nights. The first night he said, “Wait a minute, ya’ll. There’s some kind of racket down in the parking lot. I’m gonna stick a microphone out the window and see what we can hear.” Then he played the record. The next night he said, “I’ve been in the music business for thirty years and this is without a doubt the worst record I’ve ever heard.”
Justis set me up with Ray Brown, the notorious booking agent who had aptly named Jerry Lee Lewis “The Killer.” Brown was an ex-disc jockey who booked all of the Memphis artists: the aforementioned Killer, Bill Black’s Combo, Johnny Ace Cannon, Jumpin’ Gene Simmons, the Mar-Keys, and anybody else he could sell to a college fraternity, radio station, or nightclub honky-tonk. He had an office downtown that was an incredibly fun place to hang out. Ray had the same kind of caustic sense of humor as Bill Justis. The strangeness of my act appealed to him. He booked the New Beale Street Sheiks as a novelty act. We played conventions and happy hours. Nobody had any idea who we were but it always went over. Jug band has a universal appeal.
We were in the audience when Furry Lewis played and got to be friends with the wise old man. Charlie Brown had also found Will Shade.
I was supposed to go to Nashville to meet Fred Foster, the owner of Monument Records who distributed Southtown, Justis’s label that had released “Do It All the Time” by the New Beale Street Sheiks. The day before I was supposed to go, Charlie Brown called up wondering if I wanted to meet Will Shade. After all those years I was finally going to meet the genius from Whiskey Shoot, the leader of the Memphis Jug Band! I met Charlie and his partner Bailey Wilkinson at their joint and we drove down to Beale Street. There was an apartment house on Beale. Furry lived in a basement unit. We climbed the stairs to the third floor and knocked on a door.
Will Shade was dressed in a bathrobe, pleated suit pants, and suspenders over a wifebeater. He wore old blown-out house slippers. His wife, Jennie Mae Clayton, stood mute at the stove with her mouth poked out. Will welcomed us in.
Furry had taught us that it was impolite to come empty handed. Charlie Brown unsacked a fifth of Old Charter. The woman at the stove grunted. We drank. Will told stories. He went to his chifferobe and shuffled through socks, pulling out a well-worn official-looking document. He shook it as he told us about suing Duke Ellington over “Newport News.” He reached under his bed and pulled out what I swore was the same old Gibson I had seen at Gus Cannon’s. He played big band block chords and sang in a whisper.
From out of nowhere, Furry appeared. He bristled with anger, obviously pissed that “his” white boys were paying attention to Will. Bailey Wilkinson had a guitar with him. It was a nylon string classical instrument totally unsuited to Furry’s bottleneck style. I can still hear the clacking of his aluminum conduit slide as it bogged down on the neck of that Goya student model guitar. If ever anything truly deserved the term gutbucket it was the awkward, chopped off, no-sustain of Furry trying to blow Will Shade away. It was old-school head cutting. Furry played his repertoire and headed for uncharted territory as Will Shade seemed oblivious to his competition. It wasn’t pretty. Suddenly Will cried out, jumped up, and shuffled out the door down the hall. He didn’t make it. When he came back he had pissed in his pants.
“Look at dat!” his woman hollered. “Yeah, now, look at that. You done done it.” She was all over him, “Fuckin’ around with white trash! Go on out of here! Get on out. Let me clean this ol’ fool up.”
Jennie Mae was once known as the most beautiful woman on Beale Street, duels were fought over her to the death. She had concealed her old friend Memphis Minnie in the county poorhouse, protecting her from the blues nazis. She was a remarkable woman from another era, living out her days in the place where she had been a queen.
Charlie Brown thought it was hysterical. I drove home in silence. Our house was empty and cold. I set a fire in the fireplace in the den and watched the flame. I woke up in the morning in the den with my clothes still on and the TV screen buzzing with snow. I did not go to Nashville. I never told Justis why. I called Mary Lindsay, who came over right away. We spent the weekend together. She never asked me what was wrong.
I couldn’t put it together. Obviously there was a lesson here. These two old men who in youth had lived and played their peculiar music that now spoke to me, made me think of old Sam Hess. The men could not be more different. Mountain country and city slicker, white and black, sons of Dionysus, singing the music in their souls. I saw the common thread: the women. Emmer and Jennie Mae Clayton, each living out their time with a musical treasure all but forgotten. We too were the common thread. The crazy white boys. The searchers. We invaded their world looking for hidden secrets. Two worlds that came together only in us, in the seeking.
One spring afternoon, Newport and I were joy riding in East Memphis smoking a joint. He was driving. I was staring out the window, passing through an upper-middle-class part of suburbia where we had both been raised. In the front yard of one of the colonial modern houses, I saw a boy about five or six years old following a black yardman. The yardman was walking and humming, the little white boy running to keep up. Newport had seen the same thing and he said, “That’s the story of your goddamned life, right there.”
THE NORTH MISSISSIPPI ALLSTARS
We met the Allstars’ tour bus at dawn: Dickinsons, Burnsides, Turners, stage crew, film crew, and a Mississippi lawyer on the road to Bonnaroo Music Festival. We were two races and three generations met in brotherhood to rob the train. R. L. Burnside, godfather of the hill country blues, was in good spirits, wearing a ball cap that stated “Retired” instead of his usual “Burnside Style” slogan. His wife, “Big Mama,” was ready to party. Across the state of Tennessee our Silver Eagle flew the back roads, avoiding the traffic of 95,000 souls descending on the little hillbilly community to celebrate life and music.
Mid-afternoon the bus parked at Motel 6 and we shuttled to the festival grounds, parting a sea of humanity, and chilled backstage until show time. In the hospitality tent a retro-hippy girl came up and asked Mary Lindsay if she was really Mountain Girl. Mary Lindsay thanked the girl for the compliment as her stunning white curls blew in the Tennessee breeze. We were treated like royalty. The festival promoters had constructed a wooden throne with a red velvet seat and padding for R. L. Burnside to sit onstage as we played. My sons’ band, North Mississippi Allstars, joined by R. L. Burnside, son Duwayne on guitar, three other lesser Burnsides, four surviving members of Otha Turner’s Rising Star Fife & Drum Band, keyboardist Jo Jo Hermann from jam band giants Widespread Panic, and myself on keyboard. We stomped ass. We rocked like a Lazy Boy recliner on the back porch of some backwoods double-wide. This was my son Luther’s vision realized. A traveling Dream Carnival of Southern culture and lifestyle evolved from the Memphis Country Blues Festival of the ’60s, the punk rock-blues fusion of the ’90s, Otha Turner’s goat barbecue picnics, and Sunday nights at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint, joined onstage by Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes as a shadow of things to come.
Chainsaw guitars scream in the night and church organs moan like a fat country girl in love. Drums thunder-roll like the circus from hell is coming to town. Sounds echo like two freight trains trapped in the same tunnel, running head-on for doomsday. Phantom riders patrol the darkness, sabers drawn. Trembling in their ancient graves, the Confederate dead lie restless for Revelation’s final conflict.
The set was like Mud Boy on steroids. Field drummers and hill country rappers mixed in a gumbo jam of Jujuka warriors at the rise of the full moon. The audience snake danced in full trance bond, like a huge sweating reptile god undulating to the magic of the cumulative song of the South beyond time and space. Song from my own musical past handed down father to son in the way of all true knowledge in culture.
Later I was told the temperature reached 140 degrees onstage. I hid behind Cody’s drum riser on one of the trio songs and smoked a joint, trying to hang on. I made it through the insanity of “Snake Drive,” the encore, and staggered offstage like a drunken sailor on sea legs. I stumbled into one of the courtesy tents and that’s when the lights went out. As Philip Marlowe once said, “A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom.”
When I semi-woke up, Luther and some of the Turner crew were dumping me into the back of a pickup truck. Luther knew not to take me to the festival medical tent, full of brown acid and ecstasy O.D. victims. Thank God.
“I’ve been carried out of better places than this,” I told my son. They took me back to the motel room. I drifted in and out of so-called consciousness. A bottle of water and a fat joint later I thought I might live. I lay there with my wife watching me like a mother hawk protecting her nest. We were supposed to meet Dylan at his stage after our set. Sorry, Bob. Not today.
Ghosts floated around the bed. Time shifted and swirled together in a milieu of past memories. Laughing phantoms circled me like the trinity of Christmas spirits that haunted Scrooge, both Ebenezer and McDuck. Alec Teal was there dressed up for a funeral or a Saturday night craps game. My mother and father joined together in the eternal night of death. The organ grinder and his tireless monkey with Two Ton Baker playing a piano on bicycle wheels. Froggy the Gremlin, “Li’l music box is running down.” Captain Midnight trying in vain to decode the chaos of my gradual return to reality. “What’s the matter, Dickinson? Can’t you take it anymore?” they chanted in unison. “Getting old?” Charlie Freeman drifted by wearing his sunglasses, headed for the vocal booth to pass out. Time passes and people change. Junior’s juke joint has burned to the ground. The world of Otha Turner is passing away, but it will not be gone. Like images scratched on the back wall of some prehistoric cave, the reverberations communicate with the future—immortality—an act of communion. I have stared into the void of the pit, looking down into the empty grave. What if anything waits on the other side of the closed door?
As the Allstars’ tour bus rolled back to Mississippi on what seemed like an endless journey, I was afraid to sleep. Afraid of not waking up. It seemed to take forever to skirt the perimeter of Memphis, the ancient city of the Dead.
Finally at dawn my wife and I walked up the driveway too narrow for the Silver Eagle, up the gravel path to our two-trailer home in front of the red barn studio compound. I felt the weight of my history pressing down on my aching body. Our basset hound greeted us with tail wagging and huge ears flapping, asking, “Where have you been?” Where indeed?
The blues is a legend, a musical tradition emerging from the dark prison of slavery and the frustration that accompanied newfound freedom. Torn from homeland and family, separated from culture and custom, the call and response of the African work song took on new emotional meaning as field hands sang to dispel the open-sky silence. A lonesome sound in the darkness, a howling dog or passing train echoed by harmonica or guitar became a raw powerful statement of hard times, long work, and fast pleasure—a voice in the Southern night complaining about the human condition. Ghost music from the past. The poverty and the prejudice of rural Mississippi in the first half of the twentieth century provided the fertile garden, a stage set for an unwinding racial drama.
The first Memphis Country Blues Festival, in 1965, created a symbiotic community of the remaining first generation blues musicians of the mid-South and the Memphis music underground bohemians. From the Insect Trust and Electric Blue Watermelon to Panther Burns and Mud Boy & the Neutrons, hipsters, hippies, and punk rockers have been interacting with Delta and hill country masters and the flow has gone in both directions. As surely as R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough can be heard in Tav Falco and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, the chaos of the “crazy white boys” has crept into the sound of every artist on Fat Possum. I perceive this to be a miracle.
There has always been racial spillover, the two-culture collision of black-white fusion like Paul Burlison from the Rock and Roll Trio playing with Howlin’ Wolf on the West Memphis radio. Charlie Feathers and Junior Kimbrough.
Hank Williams learned guitar from Tee Tot, a street musician. In the ’50s, I learned from Butterfly Washington and Dishrag. Furry Lewis taught Lee Baker. As Mississippi Joe Callicott taught young Kenny Brown, as Otha Turner taught my sons, the tradition transcends color lines and generational boundaries. It’s a complicated process of push and pull from both sides of an ever-changing line in the sand. Each time it is crossed the line blurs and becomes less important. This mutant musical form traces the history of one of the most significant changes in the social fabric of the western world in the twentieth century.
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