The book is made up of a large number of short chapters each of which is focussed on a major scene in the History of Rock. It sets my character in the middle of it and paints the whole scene.
The earliest record of a description of Blues was made by W.C Handy, a black band leader, who wrote about an itinerant singer who he saw while waiting for a train at Tutwiler station. The man sang a repeating refrain while playing the guitar with a penknife. That unknown singer became my main character. He moves through the whole spectrum of Rock Music.
I sat on that station and soaked it up.
It was desultory at the railway station at Tutwiler. The Mississippi August sun was unrelenting and the air thick with moisture. No matter how used I became to the sultry heat, it was draining. The sweat beaded on my skin and refused to evaporate into the over-laden air. My overalls were already sodden and my shirt, with all its many holes, was clinging to my body. My red bandana, tied loosely round my neck, soaked up some of the moisture and stopped the sweat running down my back. It was still early morning and sure to get worse before noon. I was grateful not to be labouring in those fields. My guitar was my passport to an easier life. I wanted free of those plantations and that gruelling work but there were only two ways out that I knew and I had no urge to go into the church.
I set myself down on the bench by the brick wall in the shade of a big trees festooned with Spanish moss. It afforded me some shade and a good view over the station. This was a good spot. When there were enough people gathered I would put on my show. I knew that I would be able to have two shots at it because when the train finally arrived I had a second ready-made audience.
My attention was drawn to the only other person on the station; a gentleman was sitting on the other bench nearer the track. He looked to be around thirty years of age but obviously quite affluent. It too was shaded from the sun but I could see that he was greatly troubled by the heat from the way that he kept mopping his brow with his handkerchief. His over-heated condition was not at all assisted by his attire. He wore a starched shirt and tie with a three-piece suit. Although he had discarded his hat, which rested on the seat beside him, he had kept his long dark frock jacket on despite how uncomfortable that must have been. He was desperate to create an impression. He was here on business.
It did not take much working out that although this man was black-skinned, like me, he was none-the-less a man of some importance and a musician to boot. I could see that from the trumpet case he had laid beside his valise. That was highly unusual for the year of 1903. Most dark-skinned men and women were bought and sold. This one was, from all appearances, a free man. He might be a potential mark. It was worth a try. A man had to make a living.
I took up my guitar, took my knife out of my pocket, and began to practice my repertoire. I watched the man. I could see from his suitcase that he was called W C Handy. He looked like he was a young man of means. I plucked the guitar and as soon as my knife connected with the strings I could see from the way his body stilled that I had his attention.
I worked up slowly; setting up the rhythm and making those strings give up their shrill urgency as I applied the blade of my knife, before coming in with the vocal. Some said that it was a voice that was deep and emotive beyond my years. I liked that and strained for every anguished emotion I could summon up from the depths of my short but experienced life. I gave him everything I could. I poured the pain of that heat, the despair of those long days of hoeing, picking and weeding down those endless furrows under that blazing sun, the dust, the scant pleasures and the life in those shacks. The whole of life was in those plaintive songs; not just my life but the life of my people. But I also made sure that I captured the joy and spirit too. Those songs were all my own with their three chord progression, verse and repeated refrain. I had distilled them out of my African roots.
I could see I had his full concentration. He turned towards me and watched intently to see what I was doing, how I had constructed the song, the way I repeated the refrain. I could see he had a trained eye and was taking it all in.
This was my music. I had pulled it up out off the memories of my heritage, from the songs my family had passed on to me and from the white man’s music that I’d heard coming from the mansion in the evening. The local master encouraged us to play western instruments. He would often take in a group of us into the house to entertain his guests. We had learnt his melodies.
I blended them into something of my own that sang of my world and experience.
A few more people drifted in to the station and stood around while I played. I put on my full act and by the time the train arrived I had accumulated some copper in my hat. The smart business man was the last to board. He came over to me, dropped silver in my hat, smiled and nodded his approval. He did not say a word but I could see that he had appreciated my performance from the way he had studied it so intently.
I turned my attention to the people descending from the train. It was time to do it over again.
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