I spent a bit of time going around Mississippi checking out the places where the old Blues guys performed. They’d do their street busking, sing at taverns or jukes and perform at barbeques. In order to attract a crowd they deployed all the tricks of showmen.
My character started off at Tutwiler station but works his way up from the early acoustic blues through Chicago electric Blues and into Rock ‘n’ Roll. He caught Country ‘n’ Western on the way.
The trick was to get him to cover all of the major events, get across to England, back out to the West and East Coast, the 70s scene, through Punk and on. I had to play around with the times a teeny bit.
Crystal Springs was a typical little Mississippi Town. There were a lot of these towns around the Delta. They were the centres for trade with general stores and places where those with spending money could get a drink, play some cards or find a woman, where the white bosses could meet for business or buy equipment, and where horses, livestock and equipment could get serviced. They were all a bustle. I moseyed into the centre. There was a small square where people sometimes gathered. It was shady which offered some relief from the heat and so it was popular with buskers like me. We’d set up on the street corner and play our hearts out for nickels. I tended to ramble round. It didn’t pay to stay in one place too long. You’d attract attention from the sheriff and he was likely to give you a bed for the night and put you to work for a month or two to pay it off. They didn’t like itinerant ramblers any too much. Besides you had a novelty value and that soon wore off. No – I stayed a day or two and left. Sometimes they’d let me play in one of the taverns and sometimes one of the plantations would take me on. If there was heavy work to be done they liked a musician out there in the fields leading the chant. It raised spirits, put in energy and paid off in productivity. I could do that but it was long and hot all day under that sun. There was nothing easy about that. I avoided it if I could. Besides, there were plenty of guys who had no option. They were blind or crippled and could not work those fields. If they could not play they didn’t eat. I was young and fit; I hated to take food out of their mouths. I was happy to ramble, play the jukes and busk for a living. It suited me just fine.
Crystal Springs was good. I was hopeful that I could add to my few coins that I had gleaned. If I was lucky I would eat well and if I was even luckier I might just attract the eye of one of the pretty things who cast an eye in my direction and then I could end up in a comfy bed for the night.
As soon as I got there I realised I was plum out of luck. The two best places were taken and both had attracted sizeable crowds around them. I left my guitar alone and settled back to watch and learn.
I was new to this trade and had a lot to learn. If I was not going to starve I needed every tip I could possibly get.
The Main Street was dusty. Every time a horse or wagon came through it would kick up quite a cloud. It added to the general discomfort and streamed in with the sweat running down your face. We were used to it.
On Main Street there were boarded walkways for when it rained. When it rained in Mississippi it was like the heavens had simply tipped a lake over on top of you. It came down in such a stream that it was a mystery as to how anyone managed to breathe. The dusty turned to mud that sucked you in, the street became a river and the wagons bogged down in the quagmire. If it wasn’t for those covered boards nobody would get around. All the women in their long dresses would be stranded rats.
On the boards in front of the hitching rail I recognised Tommy Johnson. He was one of my favourites so no wonder that he was pulling everyone in. Tommy knew how to entertain a crowd. He was like a magnet. He’d gather them round and magic the coins out of their pockets. I listened as played the intricate patterns on that guitar and watched his fingers closely. Man, he was good! He was singing some song about canned heat. I could relate to that. Many’s the time I’ve had to doss down in the alleys where the down and outs live. I’d clear the sterno tins away so I could stretch out. Those guys were mean mothers. I had to cuddle my guitar to me all night. They’d steal the shirt off your back to get another tin. They never seemed to sleep. All night long they’d be heating those tins up and getting high on that juice. It rotted their minds and made holes out of their eyes but they were past caring. Tommy sure could sing about reality in that high-pitched falsetto voice of his. Not that this was the only thing about his act that the crowd found entertaining, no sir. There was nothing he could not do with a guitar. He was a crowd pleaser. He would work the crowd by playing that thing behind his head; he’d throw it spinning into the sky and seemingly catch it with hardly a stutter in the playing. It drove the women wild and they’d shriek and squeal with delight and grip their cheeks with eyes wide, while the guys shook their heads in admiration. He’d finish off with a handstand on his guitar while still strumming. It sent shivers through me. I knew I was out of my league. I bet Tommy was never short of a drink or a bed for the night. I had no chance.
But as if that wasn’t bad enough on the other side of the square there was another of the legends of the area – Charley Patton. With his wavy hair and pale, red tinged skin he stood out. He was half Indian but it wasn’t just his looks that were striking. He too was a wizard with the guitar and Tommy’s equal at working a crowd. Whatever Tommy could do in the way of tricks he would do better. Charlie had that crowd shrieking. I watched as he played that old box behind his back and then walked it down the boardwalk playing it between his legs. His deep, rich voice was a contrast to Tommy’s high pitched tones and the crowds were lapping it up. A few years before Tommy had idolised Charley and learnt a lot. Now the pupil was giving the master a run for his money; though I could see that both of them were doing alright.
It was time for me to shut up shop and hit the road. I was not going to get much joy around here while these two were in town. They’d monopolise the jukes and drinking holes. I wouldn’t get a look in.
With a smile on my lips I watched them for another half hour. They were mesmerising. From where I was sitting the high voice and low growl blended into a perfect sound as their strong voices carried across the square and the guitars blended together. I couldn’t keep my eyes still as they darted from one to the other drinking it in. I was in heaven but there was no way I was going to compete with that. All I could hope was that I didn’t find Blind Lemon in the next place. That would cook my goose.
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