Monday, October 5, 2009

Heart-Sankin' Blues: A Story Of Unknown Legends

Firstly, I'd like to thank all of you for continuing to support this Blues blog. If there is any artist you'd like to hear, just mention him or her in "The Cooling Board" feature. Secondly, I'd like to let you know that I read all of your comments. If I do not respond to you in a timely manner, I am sorry. I currently teach English at a university in South Korea, so my days are quite busy.

Finally, the following is the first of three chapters of a book I am currently writing on the Country Blues. Your feedback would be much appreciated. I have copyrighted the material, though I doubt that any of you would do anything immoral with my story. I'd love to hear what you think of the piece of writing.

Sincerely,
Hard Luck Child

Heart-Sankin’ Blues: A Story Of Unknown Legends
By Daniel Pepper

William “Crybaby” Wells

In the early summer of 1967, I was done with college and wondering about what mundane and wonderful surprises awaited me. I decided to take a tip from my long-time friend, Andrew Birdy, and leave suburban Pennsylvania and travel down south to interview and maybe get on tape; even if only for a brief moment, three of the least known and recognized but best artists that a certain genre of American music had to offer. That genre of music was the Country Blues. The men I was searching for were none other than William “Crybaby” Wells, Charleston “Low Swing” Smythe, and “Mississippi” Joe Wilkes.
My obsession with the Country Blues began back at my parents’ apartment in 1959 when I was at the ripe age of fifteen. I listened to the music and bought the records of the day, of course; don’t get me wrong. I had numerous singles from Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, the Dell-Vikings, Chuck Berry and a white hillbilly named Elvis Presley. I much preferred Elvis’ Sun Records stuff to his recordings that were coming out around ’59.
Now, I grew up in Greenwich Village and would often travel not too far to get my records. There was a store there, it’s probably gone by now, called The Record Spot. It was owned by a big, fat, Italian man named Salvatore. When I say fat, I’d like to clarify something; I mean “F-A-T”. Ol’ Salvatore had to have weighed at least three-hundred pounds. He reminded me of one of Bruno Sammartino’s regular opponents who could be seen on wrestling matches on television at that time. It was not unusual to walk into the store and find Salvatore eating a meatball hero from his favorite Italian restaurant two blocks away, Luigi’s Eatery.
However, there was something special about this brute of a man. It wasn’t his ability to eat more than a yeti. It was his obsession with black music. That’s right, this colossal individual built and shaped my unfortunate, current mental state by exposing me to all of this “jungle music”, or “It’s horseshit, Peter!”, as my typical Jewish father would say as he ate his tuna fish sandwich everyday when returning from work. I always loved and respected my father, though there was a real distance between us. And so on Saturdays and Sundays it had become a tradition to wait for my mother and father to leave the apartment and visit the Goldstein family, the only blonde Jewish couple I’d ever seen or met. For the first four years they lived down the hall from us, my father would always swear that they were Danish or “definitely Norwegian”. Anyway, they didn’t look like other older Jews in my neighborhood.
Oh, by the way, what became such a tradition was waiting for them to leave the house so that I could listen to my “race music.” The first record I bought was a crisp, brand-new, Mickey and Sylvia- “Love Is Strange”. I got it in 1958, but I’m pretty sure it was released a year or two earlier. So, how’d I get into the Country Blues? Like I said, it’s all Salvatore’s fault!
One day, I took a walk to The Record Spot and I just happened to wander into the “Rhythm And Blues” section as it was written in crappy-looking orange letters. I distinctly remember Salvatore putting his arm around my shoulders and giving me a pseudo-warning: “Stay outta there!” However, at the same time, he was in reality totally urging me on to buy a Muddy Waters record! You know how kids are- when they are told something is forbidden, they become so curious until they explode just like Sal’s stomach after a three-course Italian dinner with his Aunt Maria and sister Christina. I made up those late two characters, by the way.
The record was “Can’t Be Satisfied” from 1948, and as I may have mentioned, this was in 1959 when I was fifteen years old. It was Muddy’s first commercial single that I know of and was a huge success. I’d never heard urban/electric/“Chicago Blues” and certainly never the Country Blues which dominated black record sales in Mississippi and Alabama and those other foreign lands during the 1920s and early 1930s, so, to me, there wasn’t yet a distinction between the Delta Blues of Son House and the Texas gems of Blind Lemon Jefferson or J.T. “Funny Papa” Smith and the urban music that screamed “bright lights, big city”, like that of Little Walter or Jimmy Reed.
However, this would all change what I remember now as being about three weeks after Muddy had first enlightened me. The next record I bought was Eddie “Guitar Slim”’s “The Things That I Used To Do.” I loved both of my “jungle music” records, of course, but I saw a much greater purity, intensity and unrestrained Negro spirit in the Muddy record. The second record had Ray Charles on piano, a bass player, a drummer, and, of course, “Guitar Slim.” The first had Muddy and a beaten-up, old guitar, with minimal accompaniment from other musicians. The second had the promise of making it big if one were a Negro and pulling all-nighters at upscale clubs, as well as meeting beautiful women and sampling some fine wine. The first promised only Muddy sitting on a back porch in Rolling Fork, Mississippi on old Stovall’s plantation and maybe having a chicken wing or two. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that I liked the second one a lot, but was completely enthralled and possessed by the first one.
The three Bluesmen I sought out never made much money and chances are that you’ve never heard of them. One of them, “Mississippi” Joe Wilkes, is of the same caliber as Blind Willie McTell, Charley Patton and Skip James. The other two aren’t as wonderfully gifted but still cut the occasional masterpiece of a record back in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s. So, how on earth did I ever find out about these guys?
I was at a Howlin’ Wolf show in 1965. Muddy Waters was rumored to be showing up to out-do the Wolf. The name of that game in Blues circles was “cuttin’ heads”. Anyway, Muddy didn’t show up, but obviously just seeing Howlin’ Wolf do one or two of his hits was worth more than the price of admission alone. He performed songs like “Back Door Man”, “Smokestack Lightning” and “Little Red Rooster”, all with the intensity and fervor of a mad, ravenous predator stalking his prey, to put it lightly. It was an amazing show. I went with my high school and later college buddy, Andrew Birdy. He told me he had a big surprise for me that he’d tell me about after the show. After the electrifying concert had drained me, Andrew said that a friend of his who had helped discover Son House informed him that three Bluesmen whose records I’d always sought after were still alive but were unsure about joining the whole Blues and Folk revival of the ‘60s, and then he gave me tips on where exactly they were residing! This was a big shock to me, because I thought that all three of them were dead and that there was no earthly way that anyone, let alone my best friend, could ever pull enough strings to find out where these awesome musicians lived! After all, they were truly obscure figures, even in Country Blues terms. With all the strings Birdy was pulling, Andrew must have been the puppet master himself!
I left my apartment in Allentown that I’d lived in since my third year of college on July 18, 1967. My destination was Moose Hill, Alabama, the home of “Crybaby” Wells. On his records, the “Crybaby” was never in quotations. Listeners were either supposed to believe that his first name was really Crybaby or that the record company that produced his records, Vocalion, was illiterate. For the remainder of this tale, I shall occasionally use quotations around “Crybaby” when I feel it aesthetically pleasing.
Wells was born on May 4, 1897 and recorded sporadically from 1928 to 1933. His greatest songs, though none of them managing to sell impressively, were “My Black Belle”, “Moose Hill Mistreatment Blues”, and “Some Lucky Day”, with its boyish, almost corny charm. The last was a pseudo-teenage love story about he and a girl named Ida May. “My Black Belle”, on the other hand, was an up-tempo song that was incredibly dirty with its double-entendre lyrics and perverted, chauvinistic humor. It sounded musically a bit like Blind Willie McTell’s “Kind Mama.”
I still vividly remember passing a small, battered brown sign, which you could tell used to be a pristine white; the sign reading, “Welcom [sic] to Long Horse- Moose Just Down the Road”. I had assumed that “Moose” meant Moose Hill, and I was right. I continued driving for about five minutes and then came to a sign that said “Greenwood,” so I turned around and slowly began driving back to Moose Hill. Greenwood in Mississippi, and not Alabama, is where Robert Johnson supposedly died, by the way. I drove slowly to ensure that I didn’t leave Moose Hill again; the town was about the size of a shoebox. I parked at a gas station and went in to get a Coca-Cola. It must have been close to a hundred degrees that day. The man working at the gas station was shirtless, something you’d never see in suburban Allentown or New York City or Philadelphia. He noticed I wasn’t from “’round here” and he asked me what I was doing in lovely Moose Hill. I told him I was looking for a Blues singer named “Crybaby” Wells. He laughed and said, “Now what you want to see old Crybaby for?” I was extremely surprised that he even knew of Wells, considering how the gas station employee looked to be about only thirty years old. To make a long story short, he gave me directions on a napkin to Crybaby’s house and I got there less than three minutes after leaving the gas station. Remember that you can drive through the entire town in five minutes!
An aging, brown-skinned man with a very timid look on his face was sitting on his front porch with a woman folding towels beside him. I asked if “Crybaby” Wells was there, even though I had a strong suspicion that the man at whom I was looking was indeed Wells. She said, “You lookin’ at him right now, sir”. I introduced myself, saying that I was from up north and was a lifelong fan of the Country Blues, and that I loved the records that Crybaby cut thirty-five to forty years before. He said, “Why, thank you. Are here for the money?” I was a bit confused by his response as I watched the woman whisper something to him in his right ear and then watched his eyes widen and perhaps a small, wrinkled smile grace his boyish face. Though I couldn’t quite make out exactly what the lady had said to Mr. Wells, I heard the words, “…wants you to play for him.” Crybaby then said, “I’m so sorry, son. Thought you was here fo’ ma money. You wanna hear me play? ‘Cos I can still play, you know”. I was elated and responded, “I’d love to hear you play, and if it’s not too much trouble, Mr. Wells, I’d like to ask you some questions about your life. I’m very interested in-.” At that moment, he cut me off as he left his chair and his smile grew; “You can ask me anything you want, son. Linda, go get ma gitfiddle!”
Just then, Wells began laughing and smiling like a schoolboy. His smile no longer looked aged and bogged down by years of living in poverty. “That’s my daughter, Linda. She helps an old man out. Good girl, she is.” Then he chuckled twice and took the guitar Linda handed him. It was a beaten-up old Stella. He was the only one of the three Bluesmen I sought out that almost never played with a slide. He pressed his bare fingers on the archaic guitar and without showing any sign of rust began to play and sing for me, “Some Lucky Day,” which my favorite book, The Art of Blues Song, had told me he recorded in April 1928. The following are the complete lyrics he sang to me that July afternoon, and it was very close lyrically and musically to the original masterpiece indeed:

“Some lucky day, I’d kiss Ida May
Some lucky day, your gal’ll beg me to stay
She might be yours now, won’t be yours long
Look in your bedroom, find your good girl gone

I loved Ida May since I’s a boy of nine
Miss Ida May’s frame, it look so fine
She got a face like a red cherry
Wiggle like a blueberry, she someday be mine

(Spoken: This my favorite line, y’understand)
Apples in the cupboard, peaches on the shelf
You know I’m getting’ tired, sleepin’ by maself
Ida May, Ida May, you on ma mind
If you cry ‘bout a nickel, you’ll die ‘bout a dime

Some lucky day, I’s kiss Ida May
The wind gonna change, gonna blow my blues away
The sun gonna shine in my back door
And whiskey won’t worry my mind no more”

By the end of the song, Wells had left his rocking chair and we were both smiling like two Alabama boys at a squaredance some one hundreds years before. After the song, Crybaby Wells chuckled for what seemed like an eternity. He tried to say something a few times but all that came out was, “Oh my, oh my, good songs make you, make you, woo-hoo, good rhymin’”. I was then brought a bottle of coke that looked older in some mystical way than the one from the gas station. It was definitely one-hundred degrees by then and the rest of my day was spent interviewing Crybaby Wells.
Crybaby sat back down in his rocking chair and plucked a few lonesome and random notes on his guitar before putting it down behind him on a wooden table with thee legs and an aspirin bottle on top. I said, “Wow! That was a great performance.” He responded, Thank y’ sir.” “Please call me Peter,” I responded. “Can you tell me a bit about your life, starting with as far back as you can remember? It’s for a book I’m writing about the Country Blues.” By the look in his eyes, I could tell that Wells wasn’t sure what the newly-coined term, “Country Blues,” meant. To him, it was just the “straight, natch’l Blues,” as Fred McDowell often said.
Wells responded, “Long as ma name ain’t used in no corrupted manner, yessir, let me see.” He paused for a moment and put his head down. The following was a hue amount of information to take in at once, so I took out my portable tape recorder, which was a considerably large piece of equipment I’d put down on Linda’s unfortunate, newly-folded towels.
“I’s born in May of eighteen-and-ninety-seven. May the 4th. My father came and went as he pleased. Stayed for a few months. Would leave, you know, as he pleases, ‘swell. Took to lovin’ my mother. She saw I didn’t do no wrong. An’…”, Crybaby began to laugh, “them chil’ren, you know how chil’ren be, took to callin’ names and such, laughin’ at ma attachin’ to ma mammie, like is some kinda great calamity, y’know. But I took it not so fine back in them days. Would cry a lot.” Crybaby laughed and giggled and his voice popped once or twice while saying the following, “Mammie, Mammie. Chil’ren callin’ me names an’ such. All cryin’, y’know. And this was back in before, oh, nineteen ought five. Times was diff’rent then, you see. No such automobile and fridge-o-daire, haha, you know fo’ the food you have in yo’ home…to keep warm…cold.”
I asked, “So, the neighborhood kids mistreated you a lot?” He responded, “Why, yessir. I’d cry abouts every night. Very solemn days they was. But ma sister, Cora Ann, she born in eighteen-and-eighty-eight, she’d take care o’ me lak my mammie would. So I had two mammies, by the grace of God and Lord Jesus. And I thank them very much to this day. Course, only ma sister left here. Good Lord see to it that my mother passed on but jus’ as well fo’ she’s in glory now. Sister be a blessing, y’know!” Crybaby laughed and I could see a hint of blue in his eyes as the sun hit his face. I shook my head “yes” and asked, “Do you have any other sisters or brothers and what schooling do you have?”
“Had a baby sister, Carol, born in nineteen-and-seven. Two brothers, both done got killed in The Great War. Spent much time with ma fam’ly, all womens, y’see. An’ chil’ren took to callin’ me sissy boy. You see, ma brothers were womanizin’ in they young days and wouldn’ let me do as they did, fo’ mamma would chastise ‘em if they’d a-try. So, I’s usually with womens in ma fam’ly. Had only one boy frien’, y’ understand. Clarence. But he died some time ago due to circus…dances with lady folk and…her…the woman’s man. A pity but he’s in glory jus’ like my mammie, I know. An’ you know how I know this fo’ a fact? I can fac-tize this fo’ ol’ Clarence never missed a day of church, hee-hee, never missed a Sunday.”
I responded with, “I see. I’m sorry to hear about the children calling you names, and about your brothers and Clarence. How did you get into the Blues and recording for Vocalion from 1928 to 1933?”
“Well, when I was old enough to walk prop’ly, I’d go to Sat’day night festivals, y’kno. I even seen many a medicine show. It’s quite rarest to see them nowadays. My older sister, Cora Ann, taken me over in a town called Hilton. I seen Charley Patton once. He was the biggest. Damn! Hee-hee. Cora Ann, y’know what she told me? She says when Charl’ Patton was comin’ a-town, back in them days, town peopl’d make a big purty sign with a purty picture and writin’ his name real big. Made me wanna start to playin’ to. So I commenced to pickin’ the guitar.”
“So, Charley Patton was the reason you started playing?” He answered, “Well, I believe is quite fair to say so. But Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake was helluva guitar pickers, too! But we got word years later he died. Patton. Nineteen-and-thirty-fo’, that he died.”
“How did you start recording for Vocalion?”
“Started in nineteen-and-twenty-eight when a man, fine man, named Mr. Weinright came to Moose Hill and Long Horse from up north, one them big cities, y’kno; he come lookin’ for musicianers to put on the records. Them days records was a-might big. Was me and a boy, ol’ skinny-legged chile named Chester Thurman, couldn’t play a lick but stole ma first gal from me, Julia. Y’ see, this is life. Quite a serious an’ funny thang at the same time. Boy stole ma first gal from me also done tried to beat me outta a recordin’ deal. Oh, the luck of it all!” Crybaby stood up as he laughed, and then his shoulders gradually sank as he calmly sat back down in his rocking chair.
“So, you won the recording deal! Congratulations.” I smiled and Crybaby bowed his head, as I tried to gingerly ask, “Were you in love with Julia?”
“Well, I reckon I was. First gal I loved. Loved her in the summer of nineteen and…’twas ‘round the time of The Great War. A year later Chester’ed taken her from ma arms.”
Crybaby then looked down at the ancient plywood porch and grinned. He drank his Coca-Cola as the sun began to affect all three of us. Linda appeared throughout the conversation with smiles and a few, “Lord, it’s burnin’ like the Devil!” I was vey humbled by Crybaby’s story. I’d expected a rough, dangerous, ex-levee camp moaner and instead got a very genuine and innocent character who loved his mother, older sister, younger sister, and his daughter.”
“Well, it is quite ironic that Chester showed up in both of those situations. But that’s a beautiful story. What are some of the songs you remember recording, and do you remember any recording dates by any chance? I know it was a long time ago.”
“I ‘member, ‘Moose Hill Mistreatment Blues’, ‘Rainin’ On A Monday”’. ‘It’s rainin’ on a Monday, lak it never rained befo’. It’s rainin’ on a Monday, lak it never rained befo’. First Baptist Church been flooded, and they locked up the gen’ral sto.’ ‘Some Lucky Day’, which played fo’ you. ‘My Black Belle’, Mr. Weinright said that sold some when I saw him fo’ ma second session. I wax’ eighteen songs? I still ‘member to play and sang most of ‘em, y’understand. Four sessions I had. First in April of twenty-eight.”
“Do you remember which tunes came from which sessions?”
“Yessir. ‘My Black Belle’, ‘Some Lucky Day’, ‘Dead Cow Blues’, ‘Tastes Like Butter’. Was ma first session in April of twenty-eight. I was back in June of nineteen-and-twenty-nine. That’s one year later. ‘Rainin’ On A Monday’, ‘Blues Like Never Before’, ‘Georgia Brown From Outta Town’, ‘Moose Hill Mistreatment Blues’, ‘Grandpa’s Blues’, ‘Walkin’ Cane Blues’, ‘You Must Have Lost Your Head’, and ‘West Virginia Woman Blues’. My third session in January nineteen-and-thirty, I suppose, maybe March. Could never ‘member which one them months. I wax’ ‘Your Troubles Ain’t Like Mine’, ‘When I Lay My Burden Down’, and ‘Up In Them Blue Skies’. Both religious songs, y’understand. And ‘Bye And Bye’. ‘Bye And Bye’ was a lot lak Charley Patton’s ‘Poor Me’ record. Not the same, though.”
Crybaby struck me as having an impeccable memory, as I was able to check the dates he gave me with the recording information I had available from The Art Of Blues Song. By the way, I felt that the Patton song and “Bye And Bye”, a great song in its own right, bore no resemblance to each other whatsoever, but didn’t tell Crybaby this. “And your last session?”, I asked as I wanted to make sure that his memory was as impressive as it seemed.
“Last session in October of nineteen-and-thirty-three. Depression hit hard, y’ understand. Hit colored folk ‘specially hard. ‘Who’s In The Kitchen Blues’, ‘Alabama Runaround’ and the last song I make a record was…was the old ‘Roll And Tumble Blues’”.
“Wow! It’s amazing that you still remember all that. That’s great”. Crybaby bowed and soothed his head with his cold Coca-Cola bottle. “Back to your schooling. How far did you go?”, I inquired.
“Went to Lawrence Lane El’mentary. Then ma daddy came to stay with us fo’ the last time. Said the boys needed to do more work out in the fields. He left a year later. Jus’ as well. That was ma schoolin’. But, y’ know, I am, really am so sorry to ma heart I didn’t continue. Be lak a Martin Luther King figure or somethin’ of the sort, y’ understand. He’s a good man.”
“May I ask what you first name is, Mr. Wells?” The boyish Bluesman proudly and abruptly said, “William. Let me see if I can ‘member somethin’ fo’ you.” He then sang the complete lyrics to “Rainin’ On A Monday”, which made me then rank the tune as an official “masterpiece”. The original recording of it was of such poor quality that it was difficult to decipher the lyrics. However, this reading of the tune allowed the song to breathe a much-needed, new life, and to take its place as a brilliant piece of Blues wisdom.

“It’s rainin’ on a Monday, lake it never rained befo’
It’s rainin’ on a Monday, baby, lak it never rain’ befo’
First Baptist Church been flooded, and they locked the gen’ral sto’

Mary’s in the piney woods, and Mary’s sister’s in my heart
Mary’s in the piney woods, and Mary’s sister’s in my heart
You know I’m so sorry, babe, but the best of friends got to part

It rained all of Monday and Tuesday mornin’, too
It rained all of Monday and Tuesday morn’, too
It came from Long Horse to Moose Hill, boy, hard and heavy dues

Mr. Totts closed the gen’ral sto’, latched them windows down, too
Mr. Totts, he closed the gen’ral sto’, latched them windows down, too
He put everything but honey on the door, rain water came right thru

People drowning on Elder Avenue, my baby’s on Park
People drowning on Elder Avenue, my Julia’s on Park
Said I know my mamma can’t be ‘way too far

People drownin’ on Simpson, Cora Ann on Clarke
Peoples is drownin’ on Simpson, Cora Ann on Clarke
We’s all just poor folk, searchin’ fo’ family in the dark

Now, what’s happened to the court house, honey, been washed away
Said, ooh, court house have done been washed away
Said the whole country ain’t nothin’ but mud and clay

Friend, if I had wings, Lord, like Noah’s dove
Friends, if I had wings, Lord, like Noah’s dove
I would save my town, Julia, the girl I love

Women hug their men, and goose pimple babies begin to cry
Women hug they lovers, and goose pimple babies begin to cry
Look like everything ‘round these parts has sure upped and died

Long Horse under water, hard rain have hit Moose Hill
Long Horse under water, hard rain have hit Moose Hill
(Spoken: People think it be the last day here)
Drinkin’ outta Brother Thomas whiskey still

You should have been ‘round in nineteen-and-fifteen
You should been in Moose Hill in nineteen-and-fifteen
For such a lonesome sight, lucky chile, you ain’t never seen

Long Horse is gone, ain’t no more Moose Hill town
Long Horse is gone, ain’t no more Moose Hill town
If there be a God, why have he left us to drown?”

“Wow! That’s great. Those are some wonderful lyrics, Mr. Wells. Your performance was very intense. Do you remember lyrics to any of your other songs?
“Sho. Believe I ‘member near all of ‘em. Was diff’rent times then. Man would take his guitar and jus’ play. Not for no big money or nothin’, neither.”

“What’s it tastes like butter?
What’s it that’s so sweet?
I get the same ol’ feelin’
Every time we meet

Meet me in Tallahassee
Jus’ meet me naytime fo’ Fall
An’ baby if it be cold ouside
Don’ forget to wear yo’ overalls

What’s it tastes like butter?
What’s it that’s so sweet?
I get the same ol’ feelin’
Every time we meet

I hear laughin’ from on down the hall
Uncle Ned, drunk again, I can hear him call
He sold his watch, he sold his gold chains
Sold everything but his doggone name

Me an’ my baby was walkin’ down the street
Greetin’ everybody that we meet
Said hello to the preacher and he did mutter
Mr. Wells, “Don’t it taste like butter?”

What’s it taste like butter?
What’s it that’s so sweet?
I get the same ol’ feelin’
Ev’ry time we meet”

“I’m very happy that you just sang that song for me because I don’t have that record. That’s my first time hearing that.” Crybaby Wells answered, “Well, I’m glad you lak it. That’s a real old song from back ‘round slav’ry times. Right after slav’ry times. Mus’ excuase maself. Guine to the washroom. Linda, keep this nice man occupy.” I then got a chance to ask Linda what she thought of her father’s music and musical career. She answered, “Well, I must say that he has a way with them words. An’ he’s an expert guitar picker. And he was always there fo’ me when I was a chile. Quit his travelin’ days…ways fo’ I was born so no regrets or problems hea, Mr. Peter.” When Mr. Wells returned, I was privileged enough to listen to him perform for a fourth time. This time the song was the haunting, “Dead Cow Blues”.
“Well, Mistah Peter, I wrote this ‘bout how the cows on Maxwell Plantation , ‘bout three-and-one-half miles down this road, y’ make a right out of this way, y’ understand, that’s ol’ Maxwell’s. Well, there was cows dyin’ over there and nobody knew why. But in nineteen-and-twenty-one wasn’t nobody gettin’ no milk from Maxwell.”
“Did the community here in Moose Hill depend on Maxwell Plantation for milk?”, I asked.
“Well, y’ might say that. Yes, ‘deed, we do depends on ‘em for milk. In them ol’ days, of course. Then they set up a gen’ral sto’ where you could buy yo’ milk ‘bout the same time, y’ understand. But I remember…for a long time wasn’t nothin’ to drink at the ol’ dinner, dinner table but water from the well. So, here I’mma play fo’ you the ‘Dead Cow Blues’”.

“Ol’ Mr. Maxwell, he ain’t passin’ time so well
Mr. Maxwell, I said, he ain’t passin’ time so well
Well, milk is turnin’ blue, he ain’t got no goods to sell

They tell you don’t look nor peep into them dead cows’ eyes
They tell you don’t look, no, nor peep into them dead cows’ eyes
Keep you worried in the daytime, have you shakin’ in the night

Want milk gotta go to the gen’ral sto’, want lovin’ go some place else
Want milk gotta go to the gen’ral sto’, want lovin’ go some place else
You want drinkin’ water, po’ boy, take yo’ oaken bucket to the well

You know ol’ women say Mr. Maxwell is doin’ somethin’ wrong
If he’s doin’ right all them cows wouldn’t be gone
He be foolin’ an’ cheatin’ with another man’s wife
So he got hoodooed an’ now his business ain’t right
I can’t look at no woman with her dress worn real high
The dead cows have made me lose ma appetite
Woo-hoo, yes, dead cows have made me lose ma appetite

What evil under Heaven, could Mr. Maxwell have done?
What evil under Heaven, could Maxwell have done?
He pullin’ the drawers on another man’s wife, that lucky son of a gun

Can’t get no fresh milk, boys, it’s just water from the well
So hot in the summer, baby, it’s a burnin’ Hell
I can’t look at no woman with her dress worn real low
Them dead cows they keep me on the go
Woo-hoo, yes, all dead cows keep me on the go
(Spoken: I got to move, now!)”

“Wow. Did people used to say not to look the dead cows in the eyes, as a sort of a superstition?” Crybaby responded, “Yes, zactly wat the ol’ womens say. If you believe them ol’ ladies, hehe, y’ understand. I paid it a lotta mind back in them days. Sounds funny nowaday. But peoples would say, ‘Plantation’s haunted, Crybaby!’ Used to believe it, too.”
I decided to change the topic by inquiring about Crybaby’s work experience. “What jobs did you hold?”
“Well, I began workin’ at the gen’ral sto’ in nineteen-and-twenty-three, two years after them Maxwell cow problem. Fo’ that it was pickin’ that cotton jus’ lak the rest of ‘em. Never was too good at that, y’ understand. And after or ‘round thirty-five I worked at the market. They set up a market with them thangs that’d keep your food cold. Fridge-o-daire. Much like a gen’ral sto’ but bigger, y’ know. You all have them markets nowaday.”
Then, Crybaby began to say aloud the lyrics to “Grandpa’s Blues”, not in an effort to impress me with his gift for creating lyrical imagery, but perhaps simply to relive his glory years as a recording and travelling musician. On the other hand, maybe he felt he had become the grandpa in “Grandpa Blues”.

“Say, what makes an old man so mean and sad?
What makes an old man so doggone mean and sad?
He wants to love his woman but he knows that’s just too damn bad

What make grandpa love ol’ grandma so?
What make grandpa love ol’ grandma so?
Grandma don’t want nothing but chocolate to the bone

I laid down last night, think’ ‘bout ol’ grandpa, sho’
I laid down last night, thinkin’ ‘bout ol’ grandpa, sho’
It’s a pity when you old and chil’ren don’t love you no mo’

If I could holler, Lord, like a mountain jack
If I could holler, Lord, like a mountain jack
Baby, if my grandma could still wiggle, jus’ like a twelve pound potato sack

Well, grandpa’s getting’ old, and his hair is turnin’ gray
The old man’s gettin’ tragic, and his hair is turnin’ gray
And you know grandma, too, be well past her day”

“Was a song I write ‘bout one ol’ couple down the street some-a-ways. Wouldn’t never speak no bad of ma own grandpa and gramma, of course. ‘Course, you see, they was slaves. Had hard lifes. Not like what you call now a hard worker. They’s workin’ in the fields from sun-up to sundown, y’ understand. Us colored folk, we all use to be slavin’ in the fields. That’s why I lak this Doctor King fellah so damn much.”
“It’s nice to hear that you feel that way. So when did you stop working at the local general store?”
“Stopped workin’ there in 1933 when I’s 36 years old. Always lakked it there. People treat you real nice. M’boss was Mistah Ernest Dodds, nice fellah, always paid me on time. No complaints there, y’ understand. Left on good terms, what them young people sayin’, call it ‘buddies’”.
The next song Crybaby Wells played for me was undoubtedly the most chilling live performance of any piece of music that I’d ever seen. It was the song, “Bye And Bye”, which reminded Wells of Charley Patton’s tune, “Poor Me”. The hair on the back of my neck and arms stood up as William Wells took his metallic slide out of his pants pocket.

“Wintertime’s comin’, where you goin’ to hide?
Wintertime’s comin’, where you goin’ to hide?
I’ll meet you, baby, in the sweet bye and bye

You drink corn whiskey, blinded my eyes with lye
You drink corn whiskey, blinded my eyes with lye
All right, baby, meet you in the sweet bye and bye

Wintertime’s here, hair freezin’ on yo’ head
Wintertime’s here, with the hair freezin’ on yo’ head
Lay down with me, baby, straight ‘cross my feather bed

Wintertime’s harsh, don’t it make yo’ heart break?
Winertime’s harsh, don’t Crybaby make yo’ heart break?
Breakin’ my heart, baby, good God, for goodness sake

When I get married, won’t marry any doney or crow
When I get married, won’t marry any doney or crow
Gonna get me a hip-shakin’ mama, keep me warm from the snow

Wintertime’s comin’, honey, where you goin’ to hide?
Wintertime’s comin’, honey, where you goin’ to hide?
I’ll meet you, baby, in the sweet bye and bye

Don’t take no woman, who be full of hate and scorn
Don’t take no country woman, who be full of hate and scorn
Make you wish to God you ain’t never been born

Wintertime’s comin’, where you goin’ to hide?
Wintertime’s comin’, where you goin’ to hide?
I’ll meet you, baby, in the sweet bye and bye”

Crybaby’s breathtaking bastardization of a Christian song was completely realized! I exclaimed, “Wow! That was your best performance yet! I have chills. That was excellent, Crybaby.”
“Why, thank y’ sir. You know, m’ uncle Leroy taught me that song. Is an old song he done made. I reckon ‘bout nineteen-and-ten. Always make them people jaw drop open, hee-hee. The Blues do that to you. Makes you wish y’ ain’t never been born and make you want to live some mo’”.
That night, I was invited to a small show that Crybaby was to play at Ma Rainey’s Grill, named after the famous female Classic Blues singer, Ma Rainey. Perhaps Crybaby was slowly attempting to come out of retirement and join the Country Blues revival, but I felt that he’d never be able to get into full swing if he relegated himself to playing in the south in front of microscopically small crowds. When I suggested Newport, Cambridge and NYU to him, he said that he’d think about it; “I’ll keep that on ma mind, Mistah Peter”.
We got into Crybaby’s 1949 Chevy and proceeded to leave Moose Hill for nearby Lamont, Alabama. “All kindsa musicianers back in them days’d come to Lamont. Charley Patton, Lonnie Johnson, even Lemon Jefferson a few times. Lonnie Johnson was the best guitar picker I ever seen, though not in ma style. I couldn’t never play lak that man. But that was more den thirty years ago, y’ understand.” I was told that Lamont was about an hour away by car by Linda before we left. The circumstances that seemed to randomly arise that day lead me to be able to conceive of Blues music on a higher level, I thought. However, looking back on things, I realize how foolish and na├»ve I was. At that time, you see, all Country Blues fans were obsessed with Robert Johnson and got into the habit of deifying him. Even though I was an intelligent young man who was experienced in the field of liberal arts and knew how to distinguish scholarly biography from hyperbolic nonsense, I too fell for the Johnson myth, one-hundred percent.
The car broke down about 25 minutes into our trip. Linda was driving.
“Well, I don’t know now what to do. Maybe, y’ know one of them motels ‘round here, Linda? Them people might be awful upset I ain’t there, but it looks like the rain is comin’ down awful hard. I ain’t a young buck no mo’. Hee-hee.”
Linda responded, “No, papa, ain’t never been to Lamont. I went with you to Elmville once for a show; that’s all.” Just then, Crybaby’s face lit up and he began to tell me all about the mysterious Epscott Inn. “Epscott’s just down the raod some. You’ll take quite a likin’ to it, y’ know. Where Robert Johnson stayed whenever he’d play in Long Horse, Moose Hill, Elmville, Huntsville.”
At that point, I was in Heaven! Just hearing the name of the man I believed to be the greatest of all Country Blues singers come from the mouth of the talented Wells left me elated. “Did you know Robert Johnson?” My face glowed like a traffic light that was stuck on yellow.
“Well, I remember him tryin’ to pick up on Son House’s way of playing, you see. Never was that good at it. Then, of course, he became an expert guitar picker. Never knew the man, though. But they say the whole town of Lamont be haunted by his ghost. Hee-hee”.
In retrospect, I realize that this kind, gentle, old man was trying to satisfy the curiosities and interests of a young, urban, upper-middle-class Jewish male who loved Country Blues, as opposed to directly lying to me in front of my face.
After a walk that was probably only ten minutes long we got to the inn. I was sweating and covered with rain water. My shoes were all muddy. The rest of the gang was in the same condition. Crybaby opened the front door of the inn and I immediately noticed a very plump and short black-skinned woman slapping around an electric fan that appeared to not be cooperating with her; “Damned confounded thang!” I tried not to laugh. “Ma name’s Minnie. How can I help y’ all?”
Linda informed this woman who didn’t resemble the fantastic Blues guitar star and singer, Memphis Minnie, in any way, shape or form: “Ma daddy’s car broke down, so three of us’d like one night hea.” The place looked deserted, so I didn’t worry too much about whites in the area noticing me socializing with blacks. Besides, the weather outside was so atrocious that I figured such racist nonsense wouldn’t be any logical person’s number one priority. Then again, racists aren’t logical, are they?
I asked Crybaby what we were going to do about the car; if we should call to get it towed or something. He just laughed and told me, “Y’ know, ain’t nobody here’s gonna know their number or nothing, y’ understand. Besides, that car’s been troublin’ me ever since I bought it. I’ll just let it alone.” I had no idea how we were going to get back to Crybaby’s place in Moose Hill.
After a nice little dinner featuring chicken and French fries at a hamburger place next door to the inn (and after getting soaked once again on our 35 second trip there), I went to my room and Crybaby and Linda went to theirs. Crybaby was really tired. I made a mental note that the man went to be at only 8:15. I washed my face in the bathroom, which was surprisingly clean, considering the fact that we were in a shoebox town in Alabama. I thought about my long day and a wide smile instantly graced my face. I then, in my young foolishness, looked up at the ceiling and noticed a huge and ragged “RJ” carved, and my mind idiotically began to wonder if Robert Johnson had stayed in the same hotel room some thirty years before. I could hear one of the inn’s employees outside, taking out the garbage while singing Josh White’s “Jelly, Jelly.” The pretty voice was then abruptly silenced and I heard a bunch of garbage cans rattle and fall onto the ground. It must have been the rain and wind that caused the noise, I thought.
Moses Hilton, employee of the Epscott Inn for forty-four years had a stroke and died that night. I found out this information on “the singing garbage man” in the morning. His last words were about good looking women driving him to his grave, lyrics not in White’s version of the tune.
About ten minutes after the garbage cans rattled, I could hear Minnie calling from outside my bedroom window, “Moses, Moses? Where you at?” As I got up to open the window, the cries and “Oh, my Lord!”s began. I soon saw that it would be impossible to get any sleep that night. More importantly, I realized the fragility of human life.
Crybaby knocked on my door two minutes later, according to the Mickey Mouse clock next to my bed. I turned on the light and he looked at me with the most empty look I’d ever seen on any human being’s face. He sat on my bed and spoke the following words with his eyes wide and teary and unable to make contact with mine, “You know, someday you got to die. It’s a sad thang, really. I know ‘Ol’ Mose’ since, ah, befo’…when I was just gettin’ grown. Why people go, y’ don’t know. Jus’ got to trust that they in glory. Fo’ I don’t believe in six days of creation and one day of sleepin’ so man can go into them bowels o’ Hell. Never made much sense to me. He in glory now, ‘Ol’ Mose’”. By the time Crybaby had finished talking, I, too, was a bit teary-eyed. Linda had come into the room to say, “I’m so sorry, daddy. He in Heaven though now. You come back to the room and leave the nice man to rest.” I told Linda that it was all right and Crybaby didn’t have to leave.
Moses Hilton had no family and had worked for most of his life at the inn, and so the next morning we buried him behind the torn-down and ancient wooden fence in back of the inn. Crybaby gave what could be called a eulogy along with the Reverend Ar Mabel, who I found out after the funeral used to be a Bluesman himself and actually cut some Gospel-Blues records under that name.
“I known ‘Ol’ Mose’ since befo’ I don’t know when. Went to Lawrence Lane El’mentary Schoo’ wit’ him. Never thought I’d see the day when one of us rascals’d die. I’m cryin’ jus’ lak a baby an’ such right now ‘cos I love this man like a brother. Why, I remember him sayin’ to me, ‘Play that again, man!’ Now, I ain’t speakin’ of ma music, now. Jus’ of this fine man’s kindness. Y’ know, I stopped talkin’ to ahh Moses Hilton ‘bout ten years ago. I don’ know why. Some things jus’ happen lak that. Y’ kno, life is jus’ funny that way. I reckon it was over some squabble that never should have been. Somethin’ over money. Well, let me tell you’ bout money. ‘tain’t nothin’ when comparin’ to a fine friend like Moses Hilton. A fine brother! ‘Cos a man named Moses Hilton was always here fo’ me. I knowed Moses wife Corinne. She died when she was givin’ birth. An’ Moses wasn’t the same after that. That was back in, some time in the nineteen-twenties. But he never made no complaints ‘bout that, no sir! Not ‘Ol’ Mose’! Moses Hilton always had a smile on his face. And I’m so sorry, babe, I’m so sorry to ma heart that I ain’t said nothin’ to the man in ten ahhh ten years. Why I walked into this hea Epscott Inn lak I ain’t never seen the man in ma life. Didn’t say one word to him. Why, me a big shot! Who in the Devil do I think I am? I love you, Moses Hilton, and I hope to ma heart you an’ the Good Lord can fo’give me fo’ ma sin. ‘Ol’ Mose’ is in glory now. He has laid his burden down. Thank y’all fo ‘listenin to maself. Thank you, Lord Jesus. Amen.”
By the end of the speech, William “Crybaby” Wells”, who had such a way; such a divine way with words, had cast a spell on Linda, Minnie and myself. Even the Reverend Art Mabel, who must have presided over hundreds of funerals, and who revealed that he knew Moses Hilton for a good twenty years, was in tears. We laid Moses into the ground and buried him promptly. We then headed back to Crybaby’s house. Life was beginning to seem more and more like some fantasy that I had concocted. But I was sincerely grateful for my crazy dream.

9 comments:

Frumpy said...

Great reading, mate :)
I wonder if Dick Waterman, George Mitchell or even Joe Bussard have ever written their history with the blues...I know John & alan Lomax surely did. Your story is great reading and a very authentic document of a country blues fan not only discovering the wealth of the music for himself but also documenting it for posterity who grew up very much differently but who will be sucked in immediately after the first paragraphs :)
I enjoyed it. Please keep it on and try to get it published in full soon.

Daniel said...

Yeah, I liked this chapter too. Of the blues discoveries I've read about, this seems to be one of the most human, if you get my meaning.
That is to say, in my opinion, too many of the young white people who re-discovered aged blues greats did so with ulterior motives, sensing that blues would be a boom industry. Of course, this isn't to say that they didn't also love the music - but I find it somewhat disturbing that many of them pressured blues artists into signing contracts for their own small companies, and effectively exploited them, dispite displaying an overt reverence for the artists they had 'found'.
So, what I'm saying is that your account has a balance of the natural reverence with which we approach musical heroes, as well as a sense of respect. And that was great to read... It's refreshing, also, how you were willing to admit that you had expected a tough as nails levee-moaner in Wells, only to be confronted with a very gracious, pleasant family man.
Also, the actual descriptions of Wells' 1 on 1 performances are excellent. Makes me wish I'd been there...

Now, there are two stylistic criticisms I have (and they're not a big deal in my opinion).
Firstly, the contrast between how you transcribe your speech and Wells' speech is jarring. I of course understand the need to convey Wells' distinctive use of the language, and I don't object to that. It's just that you might want to tone down the contrast somewhat. As it is, it makes you come across as overly formal, stiff and proper, which I'm sure you're not...
Secondly, when white (or jewish for that matter) authors are writing about black blues artists, they need to excercise a certain sensitivity to the legacy of racism which so obviously permeates so much of U.S. society.
For example, in "I'd Rather be the Devil", the biography of Skip James by Stephen Calt, the author is excellent for 90% of the book. It is, however, is marred by extremely tenuous speculation about James' criminal past, which I believe represents the author taking liberties with the rights of his subject.
Now, of course, there is nothing like that in your chapter - which like I said, was good - but I do think you want to watch to be conscious of that type of issue. But I did cringe slightly at the immagining of Muddy Waters eating fried chicken down on the Stovall plantation, as well as comments about the 'negro spirit'. Surely there is a way to convey the raw power of country blues without resorting to stereotypes?

Anyway, they are two relatively minor comments on an otherwise very stimulating read! Thanks for posting :D

Hard Luck Child said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hard Luck Child said...

Thank you so much for the kind words, Frumpy. I'd love to get this thing published. However, first, I'd like to see Johnny Shines' autobiography get published.

Daniel, I understand your criticisms. To me, Negro has a very positive connotation, as in the phrase, "Negro spiritual". When I hear those words, I am overwhelmed and get goose bumps. For some reason, when I hear "African-American spiritual", I'm not as moved. Also, let's keep in mind that an organization like the NAACP still keeps "colored people" in its title. It's that one horrendous word- nigger- that I am vehemently opposed to.

I understand what you mean by the chicken comment. To me, chicken is a universally loved food, and it's more realistic than it is racist to assume that fried chicken (as well as pork) was eaten down south and still is. If I would have added a word like "watermelon", I think that would have been racist, certainly. It would have provided the reader with a stereotype of black people. I also think that I said "maybe a chicken wing or two", which serves to mitigate the sentence. I'm only speculating, in other words.

I'm happy that you feel that I am not part of that first generation of Blues historians, SOME OF WHOM looked at all of these men as criminals and savage geniuses. There was nothing savage about Lonnie Johnson or John Hurt!

Much like Westerners who became interested in East Asia (these people are called Orientalists), the first generation of Blues historians gave us invaluable information about Blues, but also gave us misleading and sometimes racist info., too.

Finally, after reading "I Say Me For A Parable", which is all about Mance Lipscomb's life, I wasn't sure how to go about transcribing Crybaby's words. If I would have written everything down in "proper" English, some of the feeling would have been lost. If I would have relied solely on phonetics, the thing would have been unreadable. So, I did the best I could!

Daniel said...

You know, the comparison you drew between 1st generation blues historians and orientalists is excellent. The more I think about it, I think I was grasping at a similar concept, but that I didn't have the right word.

So, to expand on the comment... I think many listeners take an 'orientalist' perspective to blues music. Take the audiences at the Newport Folk fesitvals: they rejected contemporary, electric, chicago blues (and Bob Dylan, once he went electric!), not on any valid musical or artistic grounds, but because it didn't have the 'purity' they associated with folk music and down-home black musicians. They took certain expectations into their listening, and rejected things that didn't match up.

Of course, it isn't to say you've got to like electric blues equally to country blues - not at all - but it is to say that many white listeners listened to black blues musicians not as musicians in thier own right, but as they imagined and wanted them to be. I think a similar mentality underlies the idolisation of Robert Johnson that you have criticised.

So I more made my initial comments to draw attention to this type of dynamic which we both seem to criticise.

And anyway, as a quite young listener to blues music, and something of a recent convert, I have to say: I've learned a lot from reading your blog and listening to the artists you've posted. So, thanks again!

Hard Luck Child said...

Thanks for the great reply, Daniel! I also feel that there's a definite similarity between Orientalists and the first generation of Blues scholars. Perhaps I can see this very well because I majored in Asian Studies during my undergraduate years AND I'm a huge Blues fan! Haha

Your comments about Newport are 100% correct. Look at Lonnie Johnson; a man who could outplay and outsing Robert Johnson any day. He was also alive and in great shape in the 1960s. However, because he wanted to do some pop and Jazz standards and croon, he was rejected by the Country Blues audience. The same is true when we speak of Josh White, another fantastic player, singer and showman.

Just because something doesn't have the immediate shock of a Robert Pete Williams tune or Fred McDowell's 1959 recordings by Lomax doesn't mean that we can't call it Blues. While I love Alvin Youngblood Hart's Country Blues covers, I also think the guy does a tremendous job of tackling Zeppelin songs!

Menzel said...

What an amazing reading, keep it up!. Please let us know if you get published, I would love to buy and read it.

About the way you transcribed Crybaby words... I think it's great and I fail to see why would it be unappropriated.

Pike said...

I have nothing to say except THANK YOU! Greta, Beautiful Work! Thank you again. Waiting for the rest :)

The Master said...

This was an amazing read, thanks. I was wondering if you have any information on Odell "Pig Knuckles" Smoot, another great unsung Negro country master. I think he lived in Caribou Creek, Georgia, but I may be wrong about that. Please include more fried chicken, watermelon, big black mammies and good old-timey Negro talk in the next chapter.