I wrote this about ten years ago.
Tutwiler Mississippi (Chapter 1 out of 89)
It was a desultory day 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. My overalls were already sodden and my shirt was clinging to my body. My red bandana, tied loosely around 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 to be free of those plantations and that gruelling work but there were only two ways out that I knew and I had no desire to go into the church.
I sat down on the bench by the brick wall in the shade of a large tree festooned with Spanish moss. It afforded me some shade and a good view over the station. This was a good spot. When enough people were gathered I would start my show. I knew that I could have two shots at it because when the train finally arrived I would have a second ready-made audience.
My attention was drawn to the only other person at the station; a gentleman was sitting on another bench nearer the track. He looked to be around thirty years of age and was obviously quite affluent. He was shaded from the sun but I could see that he too was greatly troubled by the heat from the way that he kept mopping his brow. 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.
Although this man was black-skinned, like me, he was nonetheless a man of some importance and a musician to boot. I could see that from the trumpet case he had laid beside his valise. This was highly unusual for the year 1903. Most dark-skinned men and women were bought and sold. This person 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, my knife from my pocket, and began to practice my repertoire. I watched the man. The name on his suitcase was W C Handy. He looked like 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 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 gave him everything I could, describing the pain of that heat, the despair of those long days of working under a blazing sun, the dust, the scant pleasures and the life in those shacks. But I also made sure that I captured the joy and spirit of life.
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, made from the memories of my heritage, the songs of my family and the white man’s music I’d heard coming from the mansion in the evening. The local master encouraged us to play western instruments. He would often take a group of us into the house to entertain his guests. We had learnt his melodies and merged them with our own.
I blended them into something of my own that sang of my world and experience.
A few more people drifted on to the station and stood around while I played. By the time the train arrived, I had some copper in my hat. The smart businessman was the last to board. He came over to me, dropped silver on top of the other coins, smiled and nodded his approval. He did not say a word but I could see that he had appreciated my performance.
I turned my attention to the people descending from the train. It was time to start over again.