Several years ago, one of my clients asked me to write a bunch of historical fiction pieces. I do not consider myself a good writer of fiction, but I am good at cashing checks, so I wrote ’em.
Technically, my client owns the story I am about to post. But since I don’t make any money from this site and the readership is vanishingly small, I’m going to put it up anyhow and they can cease-and-desist me if they want. Although it’s about music and musicians, it’s on Off-Topic Tuesday because it’s fiction. Part 1 of the story is on the flip.
When we talk about the Mississippi Delta, we’re not talkin’ about the place where the big river flows into the Gulf, although that’s a delta, too. A writer once said that our Delta “starts in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.” Maybe it does. On most folks’ maps, it’s the northwestern part of Mississippi, from DeSoto and Tunica counties up north to Yazoo and Holmes down south. The big river is always west, exceptin’ when it floods. ‘Course, it don’t do that too much anymore, not since the Army Corps of Engineers tamed it some. But the floods made the land fertile for the crops.
Where the music came from, that’s harder to say. The smart folks say that the blues you hear down this way came from black folks singing songs while on the plantations, or it came all the way from Africa somehow. But it could be that the blues just grew down here, like people planted their hearts in the ground and watered ’em with sweat and tears, and music grew up like corn shoots. Songs about hard times and good times, ’bout bein’ poor in money but rich in love or spirit, things like that. Whatsoever the reason, there’s lots of music down here, and there always has been.
Picture the year 1937. Now picture a boy, 12 or 13 years old. By that age, he’d already know what it means to work from sunup to sundown. But that also means he’d know what Saturday nights are for. That’s when people head for the juke joints, them roadside places where they could have a cold drink and a bite of somethin’, and enjoy a little music at the end of a long week workin’. So one night the boy is there in the juke. Choppin’ cotton or balin’ hay all day puts muscles on, so nobody’s gonna know how young he is. He’s sittin’ by himself when a musician steps up on stage. It’s not much of stage, no more than a couple of wooden crates turned over, just enough so folks can see.
The musician plays all kinds of songs, songs from the radio, dance numbers, even a church hymn if somebody asks for one. But then the musician stops, tunes up his guitar, and starts a slow song. “I got stones in my passway,” he sings, “and my road seems dark at night.” He sings how his enemies have betrayed him, and his voice sounds high and mournful, like a lonely hound’s whimper. The song quiets the juke like a blanket fell over it.
The boy is listening so hard his ears are turnin’ red. The words are one thing, but it’s the guitar playin’ that’s got him. On the musician’s next song, one hand’s fingers are slidin’ up and down the neck of the guitar like it was greased, while the other is pickin’ out notes so fast down below that it’s all a blur. The boy turns to a man next to him, an older man he’s never seen before, and whispers, “It sounds like there’s two people playing.”
The older man looks over and says, “Don’t it, though? That Robert Johnson is somethin’.”
The boy can’t believe it. “That’s Robert Johnson?” He’d heard talk about Robert Johnson. They said he was born down in Copiah County, but his mama was from up by Tunica. They said he loved the ladies, and the ladies loved him. And there was one other thing everybody knew about Robert Johnson, but they only whispered it, because it was too terrible to say out loud. Robert Johnson went to a crossroads at midnight, and he met the devil there. The devil tuned his guitar for him, and when he went to play it next time, he could play it like nobody ever before.
“He is somethin’,” the boy whispers to the older man.
“You want to meet him?” the older man says. The boy gets a chill. His mama wouldn’t like him talkin’ to a man who had dealt with the devil. But then he thinks to himself: Mama ain’t here.
Stay tuned for Part 2.