Wednesday, July 10, 2019

T.J. Wheeler's Epic: "All Roads Lead to the Blues" Chapters 1-3

©2007 all rights reserved By TJ Wheeler 

Chapter 1: 
Sunday Jubilee 

Sunday is a day for Church. In the South, for millions of African Americans, Church means Jubilee…a day to rejoice. Fittingly, it was a bright, sunny Memphis morning in early April, 1974. The stifling, sticky humidity was a good month away and the freshness of the spring air seemed to paint a bright smile over the people and the sad streets of Memphis’s inner city. 

Blue and I drove by scores of families, dressed in their proverbial Sunday bests, heading to their local houses’ of worship. Neighbors greeted each other with morning salutations. Church bells rang out, as if singing, “I’m so glad troubles don’t last always”. 

The incongruous sight of a classic World War B52 plane, sitting in the space of a standard 100-foot house lot, made me take a double-take as I slowly cruised down, the pothole, infested roadway. This was Mosby Street, and if my directions were right, I had to be within a few blocks of Country Bluesmen Furry Lewis and Bukka White’s respective houses. On the opposite side of the street from the plane, I noticed a small group of well dressed elderly Black men sitting together on a bench, and a few folding chairs, propped up next to a small brick grocery store. They seemed to be deep in counsel, talking away to each other, in a good-humored, but a heated discussion. Though dressed appropriately, they didn’t seem to be heading to church. It was obvious they weren’t looking to go anywhere, as they certainly, beyond a shadow of a doubt, had arrived. 

Looking closely as I drove by, I was disappointed that none of them looked like Bukka or Furry. Not yet discouraged, I continued driving up and down about a half-mile area, half expecting to see Furry and Bukka on a front porch playing some old Blues songs on their guitars. Stopping at the corner of Mosby and Dunlap, the sounds of sanctified music emanating from a small brick and tiled church, reminded me that Buddy (the owner of a local Blues bar; Peanuts) had mentioned Furry lived across from a church.

On the front porch of a tiny, gingerbread, corner house, an elderly Black woman slowly rocked back and forth in an old wicker rocking chair. She stopped for a moment, nonchalantly looked over at me, and then went back to her rocking. In that one movement and moment, she was telling me, in no uncertain terms, that there wasn’t nothing so surprising or special about a long-haired white boy, driving an ancient, turquoise-colored step van on a Sunday morning up and down her block of Mosby Street. Wow, I thought to myself, she’s arrived too! When she realized I wasn’t going anywhere, she asked, “You looking for Mr. Furry, Boy?” Not waiting for a reply she continued, “He’s home.” pointing across the street, to a green, one-story, small house, “He’s a little tired right now, but you go ahead and give a good loud knock on his door if you want.” 

“That’s no problem, I can come back later”, I instantly responded. 

Ignoring my reluctance to disturb Furry, she countered, “Now you go ahead with what I said, or Mr. Furry will be raising sand with me. If he thinks you drove away without seeing him, I’ll never hear the end of it.” 

Reading me like the Sunday paper, she nipped any more argument from me with a simple but determined look sweeping her right hand back and forth pointing to Furry’s doorway. 

Following her orders, I lightly knocked on Furry’s door and prepared to make a hasty retreat, not expecting him to answer. 

“What I’d tell you? Knock loud enough so he can hear you boy!” She impatiently exclaimed. 

This time I gave the door two or three good solid knocks. Instant[y I heard the confused ramblings of someone being startled mumbling “Whoa…what?...Good God.” At this point, something apparently fell and toppled on the floor. Furry was, without a doubt, awake. “Who’s there?” he yelled. 

Oh no, I thought to myself, just what I was afraid of, I’ve woken him up. I looked over at the woman in the rocker desperately, and stretched both my arms out, at my sides, palms up, as if to say, what do I do now? She kept fanning her hand towards the door and said: “Go ahead and tell him who you are, everything’s alright!” 

Stammering slightly I told him “Hey Furry, My names T.J. Wheeler. I was hoping to visit you for a short spell, but I can come back later if you’re sleeping” 

“No, no, no…you just give me a second and y’all can come on in.” Just as he said, a second later the door opened, though I didn’t see anyone on the other side of it except his guitar leaned up against an old burgundy colored couch. “Come on in, I’m upstairs in the basement.” 

“You’re what?” I incredulously asked, though this time the only reply was a curious silence. The rickety screen door squeaked a little as I gently pushed it forward. Slowly I stepped inside. Furry was lying in his bed, which was directly to my left of the door. A prosthetic wooden leg lay at the foot of the bed. I was amazed that a one-legged man, half asleep, had gotten in and out bed and opened the door that fast! My amazement was doubled when I saw Furry’s, dried out apple-like, eighty-one-year-old face. The old Bluesman was as tired and worn-out as anyone I’d ever seen in my, comparatively, short, young life. I was shocked. 

My heart sunk as I sat down across from him on a couch that was long as his bed. Had I waited too long? Was Furry going to die right, here and now, before me? “Are you sure your okay Mr. Furry?” I had to ask.

In slow motion, and with a lot of effort, he raised his head, squinted at me, and said, “Don’t you pay no never mind to all that. You sit a spell and make your self comfortable. You're in”, pausing then starting again, he slowly spoke, stressing each syllable, “Fur-ry Lew – is’- sssss house now! That makes everything alright. Alright?” His eyes, in battle with fatigue, struggled to remain open. 

“Alright”, I tentatively replied with a tone of voice that definitely revealed my misgivings. 

“You see” Furry continued, though the pauses between his words grew longer. 

“I’m …just gettingggggg…backkk….from Nash------Ville.” Before I could even ask what he’d been doing there, Furry’s nodded off. Now that’s ‘fast asleep’ I thought to myself. Quietly, as I started to rise off of the couch, sure enough, Furry raised one eye halfway and said “I just drifted for a sec everything gonna be alright. That bus ride done layed me out sure enough. You okay?” 

“Yeah I’m fine Furry, don’t you be worrying about me. I just wanted to stop by and say hi” I reassured him. “Now if you’re sure you don’t need anything, why don’t you grab yourself forty winks or so, it would sure make me happy. I’ll come back after you get a little shut-eye.” I figured since he was more concerned about a stranger’s happiness than his own needs, I would make my happiness dependent on him getting some rest. 

He smiled weakly back at me and said, “I don’t need much sleep. You best keep your word and get on back here, you hear?” 

“I hear you loud and clear. I’ll be back. I promise.” I reassured him. 

Mr. Furry finally gave in to his exhaustion and by the time he repeated saying “Loud and clear…Loud…and…….clearrrrr” he was once again asleep. 

Stepping back out onto Mosby Street, I tipped my hat to the woman who was still peacefully rocking away. She hollered over to me, “You get what’cha come for?” 

“We haven’t even started yet” I laughingly spoke back to her, in a voice loud enough for her to hear, but not so loud that I’d wake Furry back up. She laughed, back with me. “He’s getting some rest,” I said and then promised her. “I’ll be back after a while.” 

“You do that. Mr. Furry needs his visitors as much as he needs sleep” she said wisely. 

“I heard that,” I said with a smile. As an afterthought, I asked, “There’s another Bluesman I’m looking for as well by the name of Bukka White. You wouldn’t know where I could find him, would you?” 

“You best not let Mr. Furry hear you talking about Bukka. They fell out a while back,” she said cautioning me. 

“Fell out of what?” I asked.

“Right…” She slowly drawled and asked arbitrarily “So you a funny man?” 

Puzzled by her question, I just stared inquisitively at her. 

Not waiting for a reply she said, “Bukka’s most likely at his office. It’s just down the Street a few blocks, you can’t miss it.” 

“He’s at his office on a Sunday? I asked. This time I was the one not waiting for an answer. “What’s the name and address of his office?” 

She laughed and said, “It ain’t got no name or address, Mr. Funny man. Just head down Mosby Street till you see it.” 

My hand went up as if to ask, just one more thing, but before I could, she crooked her head, raised one eyebrow, looked at me dismissively and gestured down towards the office. At this point, Mr. Funny man knew he better just do as he was told! “Thanks for everything” I smilingly said and then drove off back down Mosby Street. 

“He’s at his no name, no address office, on a Sunday no less” I mumbled to myself, doubting that the woman had any idea what she was talking about. The whole idea of Bukka having an office really didn’t seem very believable. He certainly had never mentioned it, but then again the few times I had hung out with him wasn’t exactly situations where the subject was likely to come up. Maybe I was misjudging her. She certainly had Furry’s number. Whether they “fell out” or not, the one person that, most likely, would have known how to find Bukka, had been Furry and being so concerned for his health, I’d totally forgotten to ask him. 

It would be at least a few hours before I would dare to go back to Furry’s. In the meantime, I would give my search one more attempt. The sight of the plane, again, reminded me of the old-timers gathered across from it. This time I slowed down and pulled right up to the corner of the sidewalk where they were sitting. Leaning out the driver's side window I greeted them saying; “Morning Gentlemen…Fine day were having…How y’all making out today?” 

Some of them smiled cordially back at me. One or two stared straight ahead, poker-faced, partially concealed behind their bluish, gray puffs of cigar smoke and Fedora and Homburg hats. “Would any of you, happen to know the whereabouts of a Bukka White, or maybe an office he has around here?” Just then, lifting the brim of his stylish Blue, straw, polyester blended hat, a dark chocolate face man, with equally dark sunglasses peered up and flashed a broad tooth, wide-open smile, mischievously at me. Neither the cigar smoke, hat, nor glasses, could mask any longer the identity of who I was looking, straight ahead, at. “Bukka” I exclaimed! 

My surprise reaction caused a roar of laughter from everyone, including those with poker faces, which Bukka had, quite proudly, been one of. “Son” Bukka said, laughingly looking up at me, “You’re in the thick of it now, this here is my office. We’ve been wondering for the last hour, seeing you drive up and down, back and forth, if you was ever going stop. I’ve been waiting on you boy. What took you so long?” 

“If he only knew,” I thought to myself. 

Chapter 2: In the beginning

Old Blue went huffing and puffing along. Her endurance had never been pushed this long or hard before. I begged her to keep going for just a little while longer. “In a few minutes we’ll be there and you can rest just as long as you want” I reassured her. 

Blue pressed on so valiantly that she had me half believing what I had just told her. We both knew the truth, which was, we were both in a nettles nest of trouble. Silently we persevered, neither of us allowing honesty to come between us and our resolve of reaching our goal. 

Her heavy panting grew progressively worse. It was painfully clear to me that she was seriously dehydrated and on the verge of a complete breakdown. She bravely struggled on for a few more yards and then gasping and choking, finally collapsed, dog tired! 

Softly I patted her and whispered “You done good Blue. Don’t you worry; I’m going to find help. We’re not licked yet!” Quickly I rummaged through some nearby cardboard boxes and pulled out some old sweaters. I then grabbed an empty 5-gallon gas can and hastily headed off. 

A year ago or so, in 1973, at my home of Bainbridge Island, Washington, I had bought an old turquoise-colored, 1959 GMC Step Van from my friend Tom Swan, and immediately christened her “ Old Blue”. 

To her credit, Blue had managed to limp her way within 5 miles from our destination and only a 100 yards, or so, from the nearest watering hole i.e. an antiquated, but run-down gas station. 

The aging attendant, as white, wrinkled, worn and dirty as his coveralls, stopped sweeping his pump area as soon as he spied me heading his way. A puzzled look crossed his face as if to say “Who in God’s creation is this coming?” With my hands full with sweaters and the gas can, I tried to dodge the strong, spring, south wind that was whipping dust around me. More importantly, it was also threatening to blow off my chocolate brown, cowboy hat, and expose my, shoulder-length, dishwater; blond ponytail. When traveling in what I perceived as “red neck” areas, whether it be North, South, East or West, I commonly tucked my pony tail under my hat as a safety measure. 

As I approached, he slowly and dryly asked, with a deep Tennessee drawl, “regular or ethyl?” Then, turning his head askance from me he spit uncomfortably close to where I was standing. 

Sidestepping the spit and the question, I said, “Howdy, my names TJ Wheeler” and reached out to shake his hand. He let my hand hang in mid-air for a second or two then cautiously shook it. Then I proceeded to tell him, an abbreviated, but rambling account of my last few days on the road with Old Blue. 

I explained to him how I’d left Steamboat Springs, Colorado, less than a week ago, and that I was a 22-year-old, journeyman, Blues & Jazz guitarist, who had saved what little he could from gigs all winter so I could come to Memphis to study with Furry and Bukka. 

By a young Blues Guy standards, I had left fairly flush, meaning I had a couple of “C” notes in my truckers’ wallet (Foot/Note AKA F/N. Define “C notes”), and an extra set or two of guitar strings. A low, ominous, guttural sound, reminiscent of a crossover of Blind Willie Johnson voice and a cement mixer, emanating from the bowels of Blues engine, however, had changed all of that, but fast! 

Unfortunately, after being fleeced by a roadside mechanic, I was left with only a double sawbuck to my name which had gone straight into Old Blues gas tank. I told him how the mechanic warned me that I only had a 50/50 chance of reaching Memphis since he was only able to give Blue a band-aid, temporary fix. The $10 filled the gas tank and I had hoped, by driving conservatively, I could just about make the remaining 250 miles. “Just about” took us to spitting distance (so to speak) of Memphis and here I was. 

He motioned as if to speak, but I cut him off before he to get word one out. “I’m not looking for a handout; I just want to barter with you for a few gallons of gas”. 

A few minutes later I was proudly heading back to Blues, carrying the full 5-gallon container. The gas cost me not only the sweaters but also the gas can itself, which I drove back to him after emptying every drop into Blues parched tank. 

After lapping up the gas, Blue gratefully, turned right over, purring like a cream fed kitten! Hearing her engine hum revived both our stamina and excitement for our adventures ahead in the Home of the Blues, Memphis Tennessee.

Chapter 3 “If Beale Street Could Talk” 

To me, Memphis is a tone poem and a timeline of Blues and Black history. It was the first major urban center off of Highway 61 north of Mississippi. That fact alone helped Memphis and especially Beale Street, become a fertile economic and artistic foundation from which Black Americans could grow. I was praying a little of its Mojo would rub off on me. 

There’s not a place in America that hasn’t been influenced by Blues & Jazz and for that matter Black History, whether they know it not. In 1974 it still seemed that the latter still applied more than the former. The belief that Memphis would be an exception to this rule was part of the reason I was careening down the highway in Old Blue. 

As each mile brought me closer, the song “Jug Band Music” by the Memphis Jug Band, ran through my head. “Way down south Memphis Tennessee, Jug Band music sounds so sweet to me”. That was the first Jug Band song I’d ever learned. I had played that, among plenty of others, thousands of times over the last 8 years of my life. Much of those years, I spent on hitchhiking adventures far & wide from my home in Bainbridge Island, Washington. Seattle, Bellingham, San Francisco, Denver, Austin and New Orleans, Louisiana itself, were but a few of the places I had busked daily for tips, playing my fledging blend of Country Blues, Jug Band, and Swing Jazz songs 

I started reflecting back on how this journey began so many years ago. Not unlike millions of other baby boomer teenagers (especially white ones) I was swept away by the mid 60’s British Invasion and then subsequent musical trends as Folk Rock, followed by the late 60’s psychedelic era. Fortunately for me, I fell into various clicks of musical friends that pointed out to me that almost everything I’d been playing and listening to had been based out of the Blues. That really started me back chaining to the masters in both electric and acoustic Blues. By the time I was eighteen, though, I had lost interest in most electric guitar, with the exceptions of some Deep Blues and Jazz. In most of those cases, the guitar just happened to be amplified, as opposed to being defined by the fact that it was electric. The wall of sound volume had become so overwhelming and redundant that even overhearing an acid rock-tinged guitar solo would make me feel anxious and stressed out. 

For the last five years, I had been concentrating almost exclusively on acoustic country Blues and solo Jazz guitar. What had really sold me on acoustic guitar was discovering an Elizabeth Cotten record in a local state college library. Instead of attending classes, I spent more time there listening to her album over and over. She was a Black woman in her early seventies, who played an alternating bass, fingerpicking guitar style. Her vocals, on selections like “Oh Babe it Ain’t no Lie” and the folk music classic “Freight Train” though hoarse and occasionally off-key, endeared me by its sweetness and intimacy. The latter she wrote, amazingly, when she was only six years old. 

Thinking back, I realized how fortuitous it had been that only a week after discovering Elizabeth Cotton, I was also able to see Tim Hardin at the Troubadour in Los Angeles while on a family vacation. He was a white man in his late 30’s, with a reputation as a somewhat surly, but romantic folk singer songwriter. His deep expressive tenor voice, choice of chords and his phrasing, though, gave away his Blues & Jazz influences. 

After those experiences, it wasn’t more than a week, before I traded my Vox Continental combo organ and a huge Rickenbacker amplifier in on a 1969 Martin D 28 acoustic guitar; the same guitar both Hardin and Cotton played. Though I could have used the money, and even though I wasn’t playing it much at the time, I just couldn’t part with my 1953 Fender Telecaster. When I was only 14 my first guitar teacher George Shoape, a Texas Swing style, guitar player, in his mid-seventies sold me the guitar for only $50. He called, and I continued to call, the guitar “Gloria” after his deceased wife. 

With my new Martin and new influences, my focus was now on strictly acoustic Blues and Jazz (Mississippi John Hurt to John Coltrane). I rarely found too many people to share that complete range of music with. Instead, I had pockets of different friends who were immersed in one or two of the particular styles. Despite the vast musical stylistic differences, I found a kinship in it all, that I cherished. For the most part, the only bands I performed with regularly were loose, makeshift Jug bands or other acoustic Blues roots music. Our material mostly stemmed from Memphian, Gus Cannon and his Jug Stompers, the, fore mentioned, Memphis Jug Band and the young Greenwich Village-based revivalists “The Jim Kweskin Jug Band”.

Trying to learn country Blues guitar by myself meant sitting hunched over a phonograph turntable, and repeatedly playing over and over the same riffs and passages, until I either learned it or the albums started skipping. It was one way, but not my favorite, method of learning. Instructional manuals were also somewhat helpful, but most of them left me cold, and within a few minutes, I found I was distracted. Years later I would find out that such lapses of concentration could have made me the first poster child for ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder.) 

At the time, I didn’t know of a single music school or university that offered courses in Country Blues guitar (F/N they might have existed but I wasn’t aware of them). Even if they had, I doubt that I would have got a sense of true satisfaction from them as I was longing for a richer learning experience. 

The more I listened to these early Blues pioneers the more I craved for the adventure of seeking them out. On a local Seattle Public Radio station which call letters were no less K.R.A.B., I heard a live recording of both Bukka White and Furry Lewis playing individual concert sets at the Seattle Folklore Center. I was as riveted listening to them on my small bedside radio as I had been when I was a small child, after discovering an AM station that every night would play vintage broadcasts of the Green Hornet and the Shadow 1930’s - 1940’s radio serials. Even then something told me that these two elder statesmen of the Blues would somehow be playing an important role in my life someday. 

Over the next couple of years I was lucky enough to see touring Blues legends like Son House, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee, and Roscoe Holcomb whenever they came to Seattle Washington, which was only a half-hour Ferry ride from my home on Bainbridge Island. As good as that was, I still was itching for the experience of hanging out, and hopefully learning from such Bluesmen in their own neighborhoods. By the ripe old age of twenty, my own rambling brought me to the Deep South for the first time. During that year I had the opportunity to meet both Bukka & Furry, on different occasions, while they were out on the road. Each of them had invited me to look them up if I was ever “down their way”. 

What a whirlwind the last 5 years had been. Now, here in the spring of 1974, and over a year since I had first met both Furry & Bukka, I was on the verge of making my Blues dreams come true. Considering that they both met hundreds of fans all the time, I prayed that they would still welcome me, whether they actually remembered me or not! 

Old Blues open windows filled the van with a seasonable, slightly humid early April breeze. The warm wind and passing the “Now entering Memphis Tennessee” sign brought a smile to my face. The first part of this dream had come true. Now I wondered, being broke, hungry and homeless if my adventure would end before it had really begun. 

There was another small fly in the ointment, which I hadn’t given too much credence to up to now. In my excitement of actually seeing and speaking with Furry & Bukka, I had neglected to get specific directions to their homes. In fact, I had forgotten to even get their addresses. After all, I had thought to myself, these guys are known by Blues fans all over the world. How hard could it be to find them in their own home town, let alone that home being Memphis? 

Maybe, part of me hadn’t really wanted to know their exact whereabouts. Just maybe I thought that would be a part of the magic of the journey. Magic now and my wits (the reliability of both being highly questionable considering the predicament I had gotten myself into) were the only two things left I had to rely on. 

“Blue” is a pretty thirsty gal, and I knew couldn’t afford any sightseeing trips. Even though its heyday had long been over, I figured, if I was going to look for Bluesmen in Memphis, there’d be no better place to start than Beale Street. 

Bukka, on up to his little cousin from Indianola, Mississippi, BB King, had cut heads and their eye teeth on Beale playing in Juke Joints like Pee Wee’s and W.C. Handy Hall. BB himself, and countless others made their mark at the weekly talent show/competition at the Palace Theatre. No other than, R& B singer, Radio DJ, comedian, MC, and overall Blues renaissance man, Rufus Thomas, once said of Beale Street in the glory days of the 19330’s - the 1950’s; “ If a white man went to Beale Street on a Saturday night, by Sunday he’s never want to be White again”. With a reputation like that for Blues, Boogie Woogie, and Bar B Que there had to be some link there as to how to find these two rascalians. 

As the downtown Memphis streets signs, one by one, passed by…Poplar…Union…Madison… my anticipation grew. When I finally took a left off of Second Ave and slowly headed down, what once equated to the Wall Street of the Blues, I was shocked. Beale Street now resembled a ghost town, consisting only of the forgotten, and the forlorn. The sunny skies and disposition that I was in just a few minutes ago had now been replaced by an ominous feeling as grey and gloomy as the clouds that had rolled over Beale. The decaying stench of garbage, urine, and cheap wine permeated the air. A clutter of discarded bottles and blood-soaked syringes were rampant on the street and in its gutters. The once hopping, classic Blues and Jazz clubs had all long been boarded up. In the center of Beale, the few lost souls left, all African Americans were drinking from paper bag covered bottles of booze in WC Handy Park. 

An iconic statue of WC Handy stood stoically above the winos and the junkies who partied at his feet. I thought back to my childhood Bible lessons in Sunday school and couldn’t help feeling the same deep sorrow for WC that I also had felt for Christ on the cross at Calgary. The wisecracking and obnoxious drunks now morphed into the Roman guards who taunted Christ as they crucified him. At that point, I started wondering how anybody, present company included, would want to be Black (or any other color) on Beale Street now. 

The only Blues here, I thought were the Blues of decay and human misery. With the quiet perseverance of the bronze he was cast in, W.C. stood strong and steadfast. Ignoring the jesters surrounding him, he kept one eye on the remains of the street which had helped earn him the title of “Father of the Blues” and one eye on what might be again. F/N*(Handy was the first major publisher of transcribed Blues, he led several horn dominated bands, which employed many Blues & Jazz musicians, which at one time included Furry Lewis. His compositions like Beale St. Blues & Saint Louis Blues, though very often arranged in a very jazzy manner, are some of the best-known Blues songs in the world).

I drove back and parked Blue on the corner of Beale and Second Street, which, having more traffic on it, seemed slightly safer. Blue’s driver’s side outside door lock was broken. The only quasi way of locking her was from the inside. To get back in I had to leave the driver's side window unlocked so I could, then, reach in slide the window back and unlatch the door lock. I worried about venturing too far away from her, as all my guitars were inside hidden under a blanket. Walking down Beale Street for the first time in my life was downright spooky. Schwab’s Department store and a couple of pawnshops were about the only signs of what used to be one of the most bustling, Black-owned business communities in the south. 

At first glance, Schwab’s looked like the classic five & dime, variety store, similar to a Woolworths, which one used to be able to find in every town and city across America. What made Schwab’s stand out to me, as I quickly learned from walking through the aisles, was the abundance of display cases full of African American Hoodoo items. 

Catholics have their Rosary beads, and many other Christian denominations, use prayer candles. In deep southern Black culture, though, Hoodoo, spiritual and good fortune charms were, in every way, just as much ingrained in their cultural heritage as a rabbit's foot was to mine. One person’s spirituality is another person’s superstition I thought to myself. 

Though New Orleans has their Voodoo shops, this was the first time I had seen in an otherwise regular variety/department store, stock such an array of Mojo Bags, Black Cat bone, John the Conqueror root, let alone, the milieu of different type of prayer candles. Each candle had its own special purpose and was decorated with that in mind. One covered with dollar signs was for praying when you would be strapped for some badly needed cash. Another with Cupid arrows and hearts on it was, of course, for praying to make someone enamored with you. Name it… for revenge, sickness, taxes, food to just simple spiritual harmony there was a candle for everything. The odd thing was how normal it all blended in with the other items in the store. 

I could just hear a neighborhood husband and wife planning a trip there, “Say Ma” ‘What Pa” “I’m heading down to Schwab’s, anything you need?”, ‘Yeah Pa, why don’t’cha pick up some dish detergent, a new pair of genes for Junior, some molasses, a backache candle, a couple of Mojo bags, some Black Cat Bone powder, and that new Elvis record’. “Okay Ma I’ll be right back”. 

With nothing in my pocket but the bottom, I could barely afford to pay attention let alone a Mojo Bag, which reminded me, I needed some money and I needed it now! Hurriedly I walked back up to Old Blue, went in and came right back out with an old, small Black & White portable television that my Mom & Dad had given me last time I was home. 

The very first pawnshop I came to I rushed into carrying the TV under my arm. A cigar-chomping, paunchy pawnbroker greeted me curtly by saying “I hope you aren’t expecting much for that relic”. It took all my powers of negotiations to pry a measly fifteen bucks out of his cash register. Ignoring my reached out, palm up, hand he said “First we gotta fill out this paperwork. What’s your address kid?” 

“Well, actually I’m just pulling into town. For the time being, I’ll be staying in my step van till I get situated.” I said. 

“You’re staying in a van?” He repeated back to me in disbelief “I’m not sure I can take merchandise from a vagrant” 

“I’m not a vagrant” I responded, even though legally that was more ambivalent than I let on, “I’ve only been in Memphis less than an hour. There’s nothing to worry about, the TV’s not hot or anything”. 

“Just hold tight kid. I’ll call in the serial number, and if it clears you’ll be all set” He then added the caveat “It’s just normal procedure”. 

In the classic country Blues song “Walking Blues” by Robert Johnson, Robert complains “Minutes feel like hours, hours feel like days” (F/N * credit). My mind started racing as each minute dragged on. The pawnbroker, with his back to me, spoke in a hushed, muffled voice behind the shops counter. He finally put the receiver down and turning around to me casually said “They’re checking, it’ll only be a few more minutes”. 

Now the anxiety really started spreading through my body like a shot of adrenaline. This in combination with the sleep deprivation of being on the road had me now in a full-scale panic. Visions of Old Blue being looted and losing all my guitars created a burning sensation in my stomach that was already hurting from hunger pains. Running out the door, I shouted; to the pawnbroker that I’d be right back as I had to check on something. My heart was pounding fearfully, as I raced up Beale like I was in a marathon. 

Before I had gone a block an unmarked police car, turning it’s siren on, suddenly swerved in front of me, stopping me dead in my tracks. Leaping out of their Dodge Dart, two plain-clothed detectives, with guns drawn like they were right out of the “Streets of San Francisco” cop show, ordered me up against a brick building and hollered “Assume the position”. Though in my paranoid mental state I certainly wanted to keep on running, the site of their revolvers convinced me otherwise. 

“What’s the hurry boy?” the cop that had been driving asked me. “Why don’t we just head back and take a look at that television you seem to want to get rid of so bad”. “Forget the TV” I exclaimed to them, “The real crimes up the street. A bunch of junkies are breaking into my van!” They both looked at each other incredulously, and then with a’ what the Hell’ kind of shrug to each other, the other cop aka “sidekick” directed me saying “well go ahead then, lead the way”. 

What a sight we must have made! Two middle-age Memphis dicks (f/n: slang for cops) busting their asses up Beale Street, led no less, by a semi delusional, longhaired hippie, Blues freak! I half expected, to see the statue of WC Handy jump down from his perch, yell “charge” and play a bugle call as we all went Truckin up Beale Street, like it was San Juan Hill. 

When we, the “Memphis Roughriders”, arrived at the scene of the alleged crime, I immediately went through the process of unlocking Blue and hopped in followed by Starsky & Hutch. Tossing aside the blanket on the floorboard, I let out a heavy sigh of relief realizing my instruments were intact. 

“Thanks” I stammered “I guess I let my imagination get the better of me.” 

“Not so fast…You’ve got a small music store in here. Why do you need so many guitars anyhow? You can’t play more than one at a time can you?” The curious minds of Memphis’s best wanted to know. 

So much for feeling relieved. With the deftness of a door to door, vacuum cleaner salesman, I gave a demo of my entire trick bag of axes. “See this one’s my only electric guitar, a 1953 Fender Telecaster, which is why I need that small Fender amp to play it through. The flattop here is a Martin D28 that’s great for fingerpicking as well as flat picking”. This ploy seemed to be working, as smiles seemed to be replacing their suspicion. 

Sidekick took a small step forward and asked me “Y’all wouldn’t know ‘Rocky Top’ would you?” 

Reaching inside the coin flap of my corduroy pants pocket, I pulled out a heavy gauge flatpick and riffed through a quick verse and chorus of his request, thanking God that I happened to know that old Bluegrass warhorse. Both of them were pretty relaxed, when Officer Krumpkie (f/n), popped the sixty-four dollar question; “Just why is it you came all the way down here, to my town, without a place to stay or a pot to pee in?” 

“Well, I’ve come to really study the Blues” was my simple reply. Hoping they might understand a little better, I pulled out my old Dobro, slipped the chrome-covered steel slide (F/N slide) on my, left-hand pinky finger and launched into a medium tempo, twelve-bar Blues progression, playing some old slide licks I had already copped from Furry and Bukka. 

I concluded the Blues tune with an extended slide riff all the way up past the neck and on up to the middle of the resonator. The lead officer looked at me a little puzzled but sympathetically said, “Son, I think you’re a little late for that kind of music. Folks around here like to listen to Elvis, a lot of country and a little church music.” He broke the news to me, as if he was a doctor telling me I just had six months to live. 

“Don’t forget Southern Rock. The college kids up in Overton Square are crazy about that Huey Lewis and Lynard Skinner.” Sidekick added. 

“The deep delta style of Blues is what I really am after. I’m searching for two, old Blues masters named Bukka White and Furry Lewis. You’ve wouldn’t know where I could find them would you?” I asked curiously. 

After a pregnant pause, long enough to bare sextuplets’, Sidekick asked me “Fuzzy who?” 

Shocked by their response, I completely and foolishly abandoned my submissive posturing. “Fuzzy who?” I repeated indignantly, “How can you call Memphis your town when you don’t even know anything about the Blues that grew up here? Blues fans from all over the world revere the ground that Bluesmen like Furry and Bukka walk on. There wouldn’t be an Elvis, or any of the music you mentioned without the Blues.” 

I was on a roll now, and couldn’t have stopped myself if I wanted to, which for health reasons alone, I really should of. “I’ve driven halfway across the country in a van that could break down any minute, can’t remember the last time I’ve slept, I’m broke and hungry, can’t even pawn my TV without getting the cops called on me, you guys are giving me the third degree and frankly I’m getting pretty fed up with everything!” 

The volume and the anger of my own voice snapped me back to reality. These two, at any time, could have taken me out as easily as they would the garbage. What had I done now? Bracing myself for the worst, I swallowed hard and to my surprise, looking more like a pair of students who hadn’t done their homework than detectives, they both started heading for the door. “Everything seems in order here. We’ll see to it that you can retrieve your money back at the pawn shop, and get on with what you’re doing.” The lead officer said in a, more or less, formal tone that restored each of us to the comfort of our original roles. “I’d get that door lock fixed right away, you’re not in the Rockies anymore”. He cautiously added. 

As they left, still somewhat stunned by their passive reaction to my rant, I let out a barely audible “Thanks”. In retrospect, I wished I’d let them know that my “Thanks” meant thanks for not knocking my head off, and being so unlike the stereotype of southern cops that I had seen in too many B grade movies. 

Sidekick stuck his head back in the doorway smiling and said “By the way good luck finding old Fuzzy”. That being said, they were gone.

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