Friday, March 21, 2008

Delta Blues

The world has run down like an old alarm clock and time rattles on towards dawn. Can't sleep no more. Three hours to go now. The wax drips from the lip of the saucer and pools on the table, twin beads polishing shins lying akimbo on the old school desk, adding a lachrymose finish to wood less than antique. I’ve mellowed like the wood in the time since that desk was in my old schoolhouse across the creek and down the road.

I remember hot dry afternoons when I found a cool deep pool under the willow on the way home from school. Hours passed slowly as I watched the flies on the surface of the pedestrian stream, hoping for that mystical moment to be watching just the right fly when a big-mouthed bass would surface and gobble it down, disappearing into the depths like some monster from the Pleistocene, lurking, idly threatening, choosing his moment to rise again.

Dust motes floated on sunbeams penetrating the thick canopy of boughs, and settled among the dead flies and twigs passing on the glassy highway meandering through the county to join the Mississippi and ultimately to flow out into the Gulf by New Orleans, a place I’d heard about in songs that issued from the roadhouse by the crossroads, a place where darkies went to dance, where legends came to play for food and beer and enough money to buy gas to get to the next township, the next roadhouse. all the way from Natches to Mobile, legends like Robert Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy, Son House and Willie Brown, out-of-work black men who packed up their guitars and played wherever they could for any payment whatsoever, forced by the Great Depression to take to the road.

Some of us kids would sit in the shadows of the roadhouse in the dark of a summer’s evening, listening to the magic as it flowed through the high open windows, listening to the stomping of the dancers feet on the floorboards from beneath the building where in the daytime the dogs would crawl to sleep away from the heat of the day. We’d sit there slappin’ our thighs in time with the boogie-woogie back beat and trying to emulate the walking bass line of the musicians inside, while the sky filled with gimlet-sharp stars and clouds of fireflies.

Round the hardware store I heard the old men talk about how David “Honeyboy” Edwards and Johnny Shines used to come to the roadhouse to play and how the party would go on for days and nights, people falling over at work because they had stayed up all night dancing.

It’s been a long time since Charlie Patton, Sunny House and Willie Brown tore up the Delta night around Clarkesville when we were children in our early teens, but the rhythms never leave the blood and the heart is always hearkening home, to where the blues wasn’t just the rhythm of an impoverished populace but more the spiritual sustenance of a way of life, replete with its hardships, its sorrows and its joys, no less than the Gospel music we absorbed on Sundays, yet grittier and more meaningful for its visceral appeal and prurience. We didn’t intellectualize about it, we didn’t worry it this way and that trying to understand it, but we couldn’t let it go. We worried at it, like the tongue worries at popcorn kernels stuck between tooth and gum, irritated but wanting more. To quote Robert Johnson,

I mistreated my baby
and I can’t see no reason why
I mistreated my baby
and I can’t see no reason why
Everytime I think about it,
I just wring my hands and cry.


- 30 -

Robert Johnson, May 8, 1911 - August 16, 1938
Father of the Delta Blues

3 comments:

David said...

"Some of us kids would sit in the shadows of the roadhouse in the dark of a summer’s evening, listening to the magic as it flowed through the high open windows, listening to the stomping of the dancers feet on the floorboards from beneath the building where in the daytime the dogs would crawl to sleep away from the heat of the day. We’d sit there slappin’ our thighs in time with the boogie-woogie back beat and trying to emulate the walking bass line of the musicians inside, while the sky filled with gimlet-sharp stars and clouds of fireflies."

Wow. What a wonderful and magical time it must have been.

David

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Bandersnatchi said...

I appreciate your kind comments. Thank you.
Uh, David? I wasn't really there. I'm not that old!
It's merely creative writing, rather than a memoir.
But I'm glad you liked the imagery.

Geoff