I got to keep moving….and the day keeps on remindin’ me, there’s a hellhound on my trail…
Robert Johnson, 1937
The above lyrics were written by Robert Johnson, an American blues guitarist, singer and songwriter. He was known for being somewhat ordinary in most regards, except for his musical talent. His undeterred commitment to the road – travelling in all seasons and weathers saw him travel all over the Mississippi delta, playing in Memphis, Helena and smaller towns across the region. He died at the age of 27, of unknown causes. But legend tells of a deal done with the devil at the crossroads, perhaps explaining both his seemingly supernatural skill, and need to keep moving on.
This popular, enduring legend has sat with me for some time, and today’s ‘Work in Progress Wednesday’ is Blues Hound – a story that I hope you find devilishly good!
Isaac sighed as he placed the trumpet back inside its battered case. The red velvet lining was beginning to look worn and had torn in a few places. He once imagined it covered in stickers of exotic locations and visa tags, but now, the only thing it was coated in was the beer some drunk had knocked over as he passed by. He cleaned and buffed away until the liquid and the smell had gone. He sighed again as he shut the case and locked it.
Three of the bulbs around his dressing room mirror had blown and never been replaced. It made his strong, dark face look drawn – grey almost. Strange shadows fell down from his brow. His salt and pepper stubble and matching buzz crop hair made him look younger than he was, but the crows-feet and eyes themselves never lied. He was old and tired.
He took his old trilby hat from the stand and placed it on his head. He looked in the mirror and let out a third and final deep sigh. At least black never went out of fashion. The hat, shirt and suit were the only clothes he owned, but he had never needed more. He opened the door of the dressing room and turned out the lights as he left.
He crossed the dark bar in silence, giving a simple nod of the head to Bubba – the big, mean looking, but actually kindly owner who was stacking the tables and chairs. In a few short steps he was out into the early morning air.
Honestly, what do I expect? he thought. He looked around. He was playing in a swamp, on the outskirts of a town even Louisiana considered distinctly back-water. This is how he would end his days, playing in an out-of-town bar surrounded by nothing but swamp, gators and cottonmouths. He shuffled along the dirt track to the crossroads where he would wait for his grandson. He set down the trumpet case, disturbing the dust a little so that it was picked up and carried a little in the wind.
It wasn’t cold out, but he felt a sudden chill in the air. As he looked up, he watched as the stars seemed to go out one by one. He checked his watch to see if he was early, only to notice the second hand slowly shudder and then stop. He heard the wind pick up, then suddenly, it was rushing along the road, howling like an express train, and, as he looked, he caught the thick tendrils of a twister as it touched down a little way from the crossroads. As his breath caught in his chest, it seemed to suddenly change size and velocity, passing him by in a cyclone of brown tainted air and tumbleweed. He realised it was just a dust devil, but he felt unnerved and on edge.
He looked back up the road and saw a pair of headlights steadily approaching him. He smiled with relief, grateful for his grandson’s timely appearance. But as the car drew near, he realised it wasn’t his grandson in his dishevelled Volkswagen bus. It was a sleek, black, 1955 Cadillac Coupe de Ville in immaculate condition. It looked like it had just driven off the production line. It slowly trundled to a halt beside him, the big V8 four-stroke engine burbling and rumbling its displeasure of the low spluttered revs as it idled. The blacked-out window now opposite him slithered downwards with an electric hum. A silver-haired, handsome – but older white man, met his gaze with steely blue eyes and a smile that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a crocodile.
“You must be the Isaac I’ve heard so much about,” grinned the man.
At that, the driver’s door opened and a very large black man, wearing an expensive and tight fitting pinstripe suit stepped out. He had a huge barrel chest and he seemed to ripple as he walked. Isaac had seen Cassius Clay and Doug Jones fight at Madison Square Gardens in 1963, and he felt sure this man would have been able to hold his own against either of them, or perhaps even both at the same time. As it was, he appeared to be the man in the car’s valet, as he opened the door for him.
The man wore a perfectly tailored, dark grey pinstripe suit, with a claret red tie and a white silk shirt underneath. As he stepped from the car, he put on a matching grey pinstripe fedora with a claret silk band. Isaac had always liked the look and feel of a hat and found himself warming to the man unintentionally.
“Who have you heard about me from?” Isaac asked, wondering if he could be a talent scout maybe.
“Oh word gets around,” smiled the man. “Smokey Bo Benson mentioned you, wanted me to check you out.”
“Really? Thought that boy died a long time ago,” Isaac smiled.
“Bluesmen don’t die, they just improvise,” grinned the man.
“You play?” Isaac asked.
“I’ve been known to play a mean fiddle from time to time,” the man quipped with a grin. “Why don’t we talk about getting you out of this dump and into the limelight Isaac? Come sit with me whilst you wait for your grandson.”
Isaac took a step towards the car. After all, what do I have to lose he thought.