Friday, August 2, 2019

T.J. Wheeler's Epic: "All Roads Lead to the Blues" Chapters 4 & 5 

Chapter 4: Peanuts for Peanuts 

T.J. Wheeler and "the man himself James Cotton at a gig at the Music Hall around 1987.
It was a triple bill of the James Cotton Big Band, the Johnny Copeland Band, & Tj Wheeler & the Smokers.

With Fifteen bucks now in my pocket, I felt like the character in the old William Moore Blues song i.e. a real “Ragtime Millionaire”. I was more than ready to leave Beale Street and continue my search. Sidekick had mentioned that the current hang for young people interested in music was Overton Square, so I decided that would be my next stop. About a ten minutes drive straight down Union Street, I saw the influx of college-age kids, being all so busy with themselves, and figured this must be the new hip spot. 

Opposed to the dirty, grimy conditions of Beale Street, Overton Square was squeaky clean. In fact, it was so damn cute I wanted to scream. The overall bubbly, Ivy League enthusiasm of everything was quite insufferable to me. After all inside most blues guy, there’s a, not so secret, cynic just begging to get out. I did figure I should at least walk around and see what made this square supposedly so non-squareish. 

Over the next hour or so that it took to check out the club & food scene I made two conclusions; 1: Most clubs had music and none of it was the Blues, and 2: What a hero was. The club music calendars posted had scheduled for southern rock acts or soloists regurgitating James Taylor and Cat Steven’s covers. It was almost enough to make me almost lose my appetite, but not quite! 

Carefully I scrutinized the menus of several small sandwich and pizza joints, in an effort to stretch my $15 to the max. Settling on a small sandwich shop, I sat down and asked the waitress what she recommended. Her reply was simply “A Hero.” That’s rather profound, I thought to myself. After reading the confused look on my face, she explained that she was talking about a sandwich. I’d had plenty of subs, torpedoes, and in New Orleans, Po Boys, but never a hero. At the moment though, considering how ravenous my belly felt, it made perfect sense. Sometimes, I guess a hero can be nothing but a sandwich. 

Finishing my meal, I gazed out the restaurant window and stared at the College kids streaming by. Maybe it was just my hunger and lack of sleep, but I couldn’t help but imagine what it must feel like to be so young and seemingly carefree. Though many of the students were my age or close to it, they nevertheless, made me feel as old as the very Bluesmen I was seeking out. 

That happy thought spurred on further reflections; starting with foster homes, school expulsions, and years of police harassment, resulting in frequent arrests, and consequently jail time. Most of the latter had seemed imposed on me for questioning authority too much. Don’t let me kid you though, I hardly was a saint. During most of my teenage years, I frequently used pot, psychedelics, alcohol, and even tried shooting up drugs a few times. Too many of my friends, though, had lost their way, if not their lives, by drugs and suicide. By the time I hit twenty, I realized I was pretty lucky to still be alive, and put my drug phase behind me. My straight and narrow might have had a few more dips and bends in the road than some, but I seldom indulged in anything more psychedelic than an occasional toke and a chug from a bottle of tequila. Drugs, in general, made me feel more apathetic than anything else. That was one thing, I figured, the world needed less and not more of. To me, the mid-’70s could be summarized by the old adage “I know there’s apathy but who cares?” 

In reality, there was always only a minority of my generation who had really fought to create a better world community, though the opposite is usually portrayed by the media. It certainly hadn’t taken long for the fire and ice of those dreams to segue into the narcissism of the “me generation.” About the only thing I had any real faith left in was the Blues. It was my constant and it always saw me through no matter what. 

By the time I finished daydreaming it was getting dark. Blue and I found an inviting parking lot of a nearby 7/11 store and decided we’d had enough for one day. The sun would be waking me up soon after it rose so it was time to set aside thoughts of a rundown Beale, a yuppified Overton Sq., and my own shortcomings, and get some rest. After all, despite the setbacks of my first day in Memphis…Bukka, and Furry were still out there someplace and it was only a matter of time before I would find them. I said goodnight to Blue, crawled inside of my sleeping bag and quickly nodded off. 

Sometimes a minor irritation, like Blue’s squeaky sliding door, can be a blessing in disguise. After a few hours of sleep, the high, whining, sound of Blue’s driver’s side door being slid open woke me. My eyes, being sleep blurry, could only make out a dark shadow, but my ears clearly heard footsteps entering the doorway. My right hand slowly and silently slipped out of my sleeping bag. Reaching underneath my cot, I clutched a tire iron that I had left there in case such an occasion ever arose. At least till both of our eyes adjusted to the lack of light, my uninvited guest couldn’t see me any better than I could see him. From the deepest, most evil, depths of my soul I conjured up a voice to put a death fright in him. Though it probably sounded closer to Fat Albert than Howling Wolf, I screamed: “What the Hell do you think you're doing?” 

The intruder responded in a sheepish voice that cracked, when blurting out, “Excuse Me” and made his get-a-way. They say a squeaky wheel gets the grease, but as far as Blue’s doors went they never got greased again. 

The early morning Memphis sun quickly had transformed Blue into an oven with me wiggling around in my sweaty sleeping bag like a piece of country-fried bacon. 

Realizing that it was futile to try to sleep anymore, I begrudgingly got up. After taking a leisurely Blues Guy shower in the Men’s room sink of the 7/11, I snagged a discarded morning copy of the Memphis Commercial Appeal out of a trash bin and headed into a nearby diner where I settled down into a booth. It took me two hours to find the bottom of their advertised bottomless cup of coffee. By then the stares of the manager, told me, in no uncertain terms, that my extended, liquid breakfast had bottomed out. The stores were beginning to open, so I figured it was time to renew my search as well as walk off the caffeine buzz before I imploded in the restaurant. 

Over the next couple of hours, I covered a two-mile perimeter. Anyone who looked even vaguely like they might be interested in the Blues, or provide a link in my quest to find the whereabouts of the two Bluesmen, I questioned. Music stores, Bar BQ stands, African Americans of the same generation, no rolling stone was left unturned. By noon, I still had nothing to show for my amateur detective work. At this point, I was frustrated enough to start distributing their pictures on milk cartons. At Strings & Things music store, upon inquiring, I did find a solid piece in the puzzle. The manager there told me that Furry played every Tuesday night at, what he described as, a little funky bar called “Peanuts”. Now I was getting somewhere. 

On the fringe of Overton Square, on my way back to Blue, I noticed a used record and book store that sent my Blues radar off big time. On closer examination, it looked that my instincts might just pay off. Not only was there a stellar collection of used Blues, Jazz and Folk music, but I noticed a big stack of old “Living Blues” (F/N LB) magazines. “Pay dirt”, I whispered to myself. The lone employee there looked to be a few years older than me, but still enough of my generation to be wearing, a beard, mustache, and long hair. When I tried to engage him in conversation though, he seemed reticent and more involved in reading a second-hand copy of Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan (F/N) than talking to me. Not letting that deter me, I said “That’s quite a collection of Living Blues magazines. Are they actually for sale, or just for individual research?” That actually got his nose out of his book and his eyebrows over his black horn-rimmed glasses. “Ah-ha…He’s broken” I confidently thought to myself. 

Within a few minutes he told me that Furry and Bukka, not only both lived in the projects, but within a couple of blocks from each other, on Mosby Street. He went on to say that Bukka, rarely performed in Memphis, and when he did it would be at an event like the annual Memphis Delta Blues Festival in Overton Park. (RESEARCH PARK & FESTIVALS CORRECT NAME). Verifying Furry’s gig at “Peanuts”, he mentioned that Furry had his own trio there. His band consisted of a young Black harp player (F/N slang for Blues harmonica) named Lindsey (RESEARCH LAST NAME) and a second guitar player named Lee Baker. I thanked him profusely, and though I really couldn’t afford it, bought one of the Living Blues Magazines. On my way out he gave me one last tip. “If you head into the projects, drive; don’t walk, and always go in the daytime”. Though ice and crack had yet to inflict and ravage inner cities across America, in 1974 the Memphis Ghettos could still be a dangerous place no matter what your color. 

His cautionary tone made me take a pause on what had brought us nationally to such a place, more than for my own safety. A decade before the so-called, war on poverty, created by President Johnson had unraveled just when it was starting to make a difference. During his last years in office, funding for Johnson’s “Great Society” was redistributed into the Viet Nam War. Inevitably both of Johnson’s wars were lost, and in the doing, so was much of America’s sense of hope. Inner cities neighborhood, like Memphis, reflected the brunt of both losses. 

Compared to the last two decades before it, mid-seventies civil rights activism was at a low. Many of our high profile leaders had been assassinated, jailed or exiled. Richard Nixon had won two terms in office based on campaigns that pledged to create a war against lawlessness and civil disobedience rather than poverty. In doing so he held on to the tried, if not true, tactics of exploiting fear rather than promoting hope. My thoughts came back to old friends that seemed now more concerned with the deluge of self-help books rather than helping others. For proof of that, all you had to do was stop meditating for a minute and open your eyes. The oxymoron of free love had digressed into frustrated, middle class “open relationships” and suburban wife swapping. Psychedelic drugs like LSD had largely been replaced by hard drugs like Crystal Meth, Heroin, and the ego gratifying, but never satisfying Cocaine. 

Many of my generational peers were of course, in a milieu of ways, still trying to make a difference. Too many others though had seemed to simply resign themselves to jaded complacency. As much as I had rebelled against them, my parent’s generation, who grew up as children in a depression, and into adults during a world war, had a genuine enthusiasm about owning a home, raising a family, and providing for their children things they had gone without. On the contrary, many of my generations seemed to me, more like lost dogs who were returning home out of hunger, more than love, with their tails and their freak flags tucked between their legs. We had looked into the abyss of self-knowledge, the futility that can underline activism, half-realized dreams, and promptly ran back to the sanctuary of the system, shag rugs and classic rock radio. Making it took deference over making a difference. Expanded cable and wallets won out over expanded minds. Yippies had become Yuppies or were living way underneath the increasing radar. Be here now was now me here now. (Say that three times fast) The revolution had been televised after all, with all the intellectual veracity of “Threes Company.” 

Even the roots music revival had faded. Delta Blues legends like Furry, Bukka and their few remaining generational peers were slowly being pushed back into the obscurity from where, only a few years ago they had been found. 

With all of this in mind, I couldn’t help but wish I had been born a few years earlier and perhaps in one of the more prominent Folk Blues revival areas like Philadelphia, Greenwich Village, Washington DC, let alone the natcha’ll settings of Memphis or New Orleans. A sense of urgency had been driving me for sometime. Mississippi John Hurt, one of my biggest influences, had passed away before I had even heard his recordings. Strokes, disease, alcoholism, and hard living had taken their toll on the original generations of Bluesmen and Women. The irony of having their careers renewed, just when old age was diminishing some of their skills had also compelled me to get off my rusty, dusty and seize the moments and time left. For me, it just didn’t get mo better than hanging with the old-time Blues and Jazz cats. Irascible as they sometimes were, they were the real deal, when real deals were few and far between. 

Reading this, y’all are probably thinking that I was a pretty lost puppy myself. Actually, I felt more abandoned than lost. There is a difference. My course had been set for me, from the very first time I’d picked up a guitar. The way I saw things, it was a society that had lost its way, not me. I’ll admit though, I had some serious misgivings about certain things that were creating a hole in my soul. This trip, in addition to finding Bluesmen, was about remedying them and patching myself back up. 

Realizing how long I had been gone playing Sam Spade, I high tailed back to the 7/11 to avoid getting Blue towed away. Thankfully, Blue, as well as all my worldly possessions, were all still there. Blue’s interior was now hot enough to bake a pizza. Cooling her off, let alone my guitars, before their necks warped like pretzels, was crucial. 

It would still be several hours before Peanuts would be open so I decided to look for someplace for us all to cool off and rest. Heading away from town on Madison St. (MAKE SURE OF ST. AND DIRECTION), with all the windows open, we found ourselves driving through a pretty ritzy, ditzy area. The high rollers houses were shaded on either side of the Street by walls of pine, poplar and birch trees (FIND OUT TYPE OF TREES) which soon cooled us all off considerably. 

TJ Wheeler is the most
dedicated blues educator in history.
Within a few miles, I saw a shopping plaza with a cinema. Parking Blue in the shade, I splurged and spent two dollars and fifty cents, of my steadily decreasing funds, on an air-conditioned, Saturday matinee. A large bag of popcorn set me back, near that much again, though I rationalized it to myself, that I was having both my lunch and dinner. The featured presentation was a brand new film by Paul Newman & Robert Redford called “The Sting”. Twice I sat through the movie. One time watching and two times sleeping! 

Refreshed, I started on my way to Peanuts and hopefully towards the final pieces of the Furry and Bukka directions puzzle. On my way there, I noticed a small spaghetti house, with a sign saying “Live Music Friday Nights.” After yesterday’s escapades, I was tempted to just keep on going. At the last second, I pulled over, went in and half-heartedly asked to see the entertainment manager. Less than a half an hour later, after a brief audition, I had a three week Friday night gig. Now I really felt things were taking a sure turn in my favor. 

Peanut’s was located between ------ and ------- on the-------street. (Check out EXACT STREET NAMES). It looked like the proverbial Blues hole in the wall in the middle of… really not much at all. There were no apparent signs of an old scene like Beale or of a contemporary scene like Overton Square. In fact, the only signs of life noticeable at all were a series of warehouses, a couple of nearby fast food joints, a dirty book store, and a few blocks away, the city hospital. 

Once inside, Peanuts looked like a horizontal tall glass of water, long and lean and widening out a little at the mouth. An old mahogany bar ran close to the length of the club, and the friendly woman bartender ran it and her mouth behind it. I ordered a draft, sitting with the regulars at the bar. When I noticed that she had a moment, I asked her about Furry. 

She looked to be, like me, in her early twenties. Dressed in denim jeans, vest, and a matching snap-brim cap, she seemed happy to talk about Peanuts number one customer /entertainer. “I love Furry, but of course everybody here does” She explained. “Who you need to talk to reality though, is the owner, Buddy. He’s off doing some errands, but should be back within a half hour or so”. Outside of ordering coffee or popcorn, this was the closest thing to a conversation with a woman I’d had since leaving Colorado a week ago. 

Woman, for the moment, was a distraction I neither had the time or money for. Not having a serious relationship for a couple of years, I was getting used to intermittent periods of celibacy. For now, the best thing for me seemed to be leading a Monk-like life few wants, solidarity, practice, and limited desires. The most important thing, of course, was to see where things went, once I did finally find Bukka & Furry. 

Just like the bartender told me, Buddy came waltzing in about thirty minutes later. Bald on top, Buddy’s remaining dark hair, continued to fill out his face with a well-trimmed beard and mustache. The customers greeted him warmly with shout outs of “Hey Buddy” and “How you making out today?” Wearing Blues jeans, and a grey t-shirt with a smiling picture of Furry Lewis on it, Buddy acknowledged the regulars with a nod or two without smiling or lingering for any conversation. At the end of the bar, he stood and shuffled through some paperwork that the bartender handed him. Though he seemed a little rough around the edges, I figured by the affectionate way everyone treated him, and the fact that he apparently was close to Furry, he must be, yet another Blues curmudgeon with a heart of gold. I had known plenty of them, and though a pain in the ass sometimes, they were usually pretty good souls once you got through their armor. 

Another thing many dedicated Blues aficionados can be, including me, is protective… sometimes to a fault… of their beloved older Blues musicians. It’s a pretty natural instinct for sure. After all, I had never met a Bluesman or women who hadn’t been taken advantage of time and time again. Despite the good intentions of the protectors, the Bluesmen, sometimes wound up the worse for wear from such zealous treatment. The Blues musicians I had met were fierce, independent spirits, who took such attention as flattery, but at the same time, resented being treated like children. Overprotection, in a certain sense, is really just another form of rejection, and paternalism is just downright patronizing if not racist. (F/N credit Burt Hardy) 

Sizing up Buddy, my first impression was that he very well may be pretty tight-lipped himself, understandably so, about giving Furry’s personal info to a stranger. That being said, my immediate mission was to make myself anything but a stranger to him. Being too broke to stand on protocol; I walked over and introduced myself to him. Buddy was more than a little standoffish. Still, he quietly listened while continuing to ruffle through his papers, all the time checking me out. 

Telling a few tales of my own experiences with both Furry and Bukka as well as the advents of the last few days, he became less pensive and more empathetic. Buddy did finally give me some general directions, within a block or two, of both Furry’s and Bukka’s homes on Mosby Street. He also surprised me by inviting to play at his Monday open mike night, without even hearing me. He mentioned that I could pass my hat for tips if I was inclined to do so. I enthusiastically agreed. Playing Peanuts for peanuts, I thought to myself as I left. 

When I exited the doorway the last few rays of a beautiful twilight were sinking behind a blanket of darkness. The words of the Book store manager, echoed in the back of my mind; “…drive don’t walk and always go in the daytime.” Considering I had only been in Memphis for two days, and had 1… barely avoided being falsely arrested for fencing “hot” televisions as well as vagrancy, 2… successfully held off an intruder, 3… gotten two gigs and 4… most importantly of all, discovered how to get to Bukka And Furry’s, I was doing pretty damn good. I stood and fidgeted for a few moments, turning Blues ignition key ring over and over in my fingers, and then finally said out loud “Nahh…why push my luck?” 

Chapter 5
“Sunday Blues Jubilee” Part Two 

When Bukka asked me what took me so long, even he, the original Blues Griot/storyteller had no idea of the magnitude of the answer he and his office partners were in for. Over the next couple of hours, stories of my adventures, Blues music, and Old Charter Bourbon poured over the Mosby Street neighborhood in about equal proportions. 

They seemed as disappointed as me over the fate of Beale Street and about the cities overall lack of appreciation for Blues music and, for that matter, Black people in general. All of them seemed equally entertained by my adventures leading up to today, though they all scolded me for, last night, even thinking about looking for Bukka passed sundown. 

It took on the celebratory tone of a family reunion, with Bukka recalling to his friends how we had met. “Now fella’s this boy here get’s around. I ain’t lying when I tell you that! You see he’s like a Tennessee twister if I ever saw one. You hear me talking? Bukka asked somewhat arbitrarily. “I swear if he ain’t in the Gulf of Mexico one day and before you can finish a mouthful of a chew, he’ll jump up and land in the middle of the Rocky Mountains!” All the guys surrounding him laughed good-naturedly, and responded in quips of “You sure do go on Big Daddy” and “Uummm Ummmm.” 

Just how much Bukka really remembered about me I secretly questioned to myself but saw little sense in informing anyone else since we were all having such a good time at his “office”. “What was that festival we met up at anyhow?” Bukka asked me. 

Taken back a little, in a good way, that he did actually remember me, I paused for a second or two, and then responded “The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.” 

“Man, if that wasn’t something. I’ve been to horse tracks before but never seen one full of music like that!” Bukka was doing more than remembering, he was reliving the experiences for everyone. And by the looks on the faces of all his friends, enraptured in every detail of his descriptions he was certainly succeeding. “Old Robert Pete, Babes, Roosevelt and even B, were all there with me.” For me, as well, his retelling was as vivid as being there again. Calling it awestruck would have been putting in mildly. Being in the presence of Bukka, Robert Pete Williams, Babes Stovall, Roosevelt Sykes and BB King had been like sitting down with the Knights of the Round Table of the Blues. 

“They had us running around all the stages so much, I felt like I was running a race myself” Bukka went on. “TJ here would be carrying guitars, getting smokes and drinks for us. You sure helped out son. You see I didn’t mind running like a horse, but it if it wasn’t for TJ, I’d been packing like a mule!” This broke everybody up. Deep belly laughs reverberated down the street and started drawing curious onlookers to come over and see what all the excitement was about. 

“Hey I ain’t lying, I lie some of the time, but not all of the time. TJ sprung up next time in Colorado with another boy who played a million-dollar stick!” Bukka was really on a roll now. 

“Now you are lying Big Daddy”. The protest from his comrades cut through the continued laughter ‘There ain’t no stick in the world worth no million dollars’ 

“If there is I want you to go cut me a limb off the tree that dere one came from and give it to me,” said another. 

Bukka sat and bided his time casually smoking his cigar as his cronies lightly chided him. “Now lookee here, if any of you misfits and refugees had the natural-born talent that boy did, you’d be making a million dollars off a stick too. You go ahead TJ and tell these fools about the million-dollar stick.” 

Though everything had been said in jest, when Bukka directed me to explain about my friend’s lucrative instrument, all eyes and ears went on me. “Well my friend Randy Hanley and I hitchhiked from Denver to Boulder, Colorado to visit Bukka at his hotel and then go see him perform a concert. We both brought our instruments. I brought my guitar and Randy brought his flute and we both pitched in a bought a bottle of Old Charter bourbon, which is Bukka’s favorite. We all had a taste or two and started jamming. Randy was really inspired on his flute by Bukka’s music and was playing the blues on that thing better than I’d ever heard him. Bukka asked him ‘what do you call that thing your blowing boy?’ Randy stopped playing. I could tell he felt a little self conscious. He said it was a flute. Now Bukka he snaps right back at him, “that ain’t no flute!” When he say’s that he’s smiling at us and neither one of us knew what to do or say to him. I mean, what do you say to a Blues legend when he bold face tells you that your flute ain’t no flute?” 

Now the fellahs, who were all crouched down, and leaning forward towards me, on the edge of their seats, were starting to chuckle again, as they anticipated what old Big Daddy was going to do next in the story. “Well, Randy was a little nervous, and we both felt wicked awkward, but he tells him again ‘yes this actually is a flute.’ Bukka just looks at him right in the eye and still smiling says with a mindful attitude, ‘you listen to what I’m saying now; I know flutes and that ain’t no flute.’” 

Now the fellahs were starting to tease Bukka again as they laughed as my story spun on. “Big Daddy why you so mean to that boy” and another one cackled “Bukka you know you were messin with that poor boy’s head”. 

“Finally” I continued, “Randy looks right back at Bukka all bewildered like and say’s ‘Well if it’s not a flute what in the world would you call it?’ Now Bukka’s smiling from ear to ear at us and say’s ‘That ain’t no flute boy, that’s a million dollar stick!’ Well Randy and I both practically keeled over and we shouted back at him “A million dollar stick? Well, Big Daddy knew he had us now and shouts out over our laughter, ‘You keep playing that stick boy, and it’ll earn you a million dollars!’” 

Now the laughter was so infectious that we were all about to bust a gut! The on lookers, from little kids on up to grandma’s and grandpa’s, were all drawing closer, smiling and laughing whether they understood precisely what was going on or not. 

Once the roar died down, Bukka now satisfied that that his reputation as a raconteur had been restored said “Well now y’all only know the half truth about the whole affair.” We were all curious by this sudden turn around, though no one more than me. 

“What cha talking about now Big Daddy?” one asked and we all wondered. 

“There was two of them there, so they had to be playing two instruments right?” We all nodded in agreement. “You see it’s only a half truth, because you know who was playing the million dollar stick but cha don’t know what TJ here was playing.” 

We all were silent for a minute, then one of them spoke up in rather a triumphed tone “That ain’t so Bukka, the boy said he brought a guitar with him.” 

Bukka just reeled out the line a little further, “He said he brought a guitar but he was playing a butter knife!” Having spoken, with the patience of Job, he just waited for the bait to be taken. My face started getting a little red as I realized where Bukka was going. 

“Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me. Booker T Washington White I know your layin for me now” ‘Yeah Bukka’ the others chimed in, ‘Just tell us how that boy made music out of a butter knife.” 

Now that everyone was back in the palm of his hand once more he continued. 

“Old TJ here made music with that butter knife just like my Grandpa used to do, in fact he kinda reminded me of him all dressed in overalls, a big straw hat, and playing his guitar with a butter knife. I thought he just got back from share cropping!” 

All the fella’s, Bukka and even I had to laugh about the image Bukka had conjured up. “Shoot yeah, he was making some slide sounds with that thing! Some of them were about as old as my granddad. I had to teach you to get with the times didn’t I TJ?” 

“Yeah you right about that Bukka. If I didn’t know I had a lot to learn, I wouldn’t have driven half way across the country to be here!” 

“I heard that right” said one of Bukka’s friends with the air of unquestionable authority. 

“It wasn’t that he was not playing that thing, ain’t no fly’s on him. I just told him, son this ain’t 1923 this is 1973 you can’t be lookin and playing like you just got off the farm! People they be coming tonight for a show. You‘ve got to keep up with the times!” 

At this point I interjected my two cents into the fray “I told him, the people they are coming tonight to see you they won’t be caring about what I have on anyhow.” 

Bukka broke back in “That’s where I said that you was wrong. You think your here to visit, but since we’ve already rehearsed, you two are going to be my band tonight!” 

“Randy & I just about fell out of our seats when you told us that” I added. 

Rambling on, Bukka said, “There wasn’t a thing I could do to set his clothes straight that late in the game, but I told him, ‘From now on when you get on the stage son, you gotta dress like you’re going to the bank for money. You gots’ to keep in style.’ Now, to get rid of that butter knife, I gave him an extra slide I had. TJ; why don’t you go get your guitar and show everybody that slide?” 

This was seconded enthusiastically by everyone in Bukka’s corner. My guitar was retrieved from Blue, out of its case, and in my hands, along with the slide Bukka had given me on my finger, before Bukka and his crew even had time to miss me! 

“Show us what yah got boy” someone yelled, but I was too nervous to look up to see who. Between me and my old, Cyclops Dobro, it was only Cyclops’s one eye that was open. Cy was already in open G, which was a tuning Bukka, used a lot himself. It seemed like the slide Bukka had given me wanted to play one of Bukka’s songs called “Fixing to Die”. Pulling on my hand like a Ouija board, the slide had a mind of its own, but I was determined it was going to mind me. Even as young as I was, I had enough sense not to embarrass myself playing a song of Big Daddy’s right in front of him and his friends no less. Instead, with a firm grasp on my slide, I lid into a song I had learned off a Mississippi Fred Mc Dowell record called “Koko Mo”. After a deep breath, to help shake off some of my nervousness, keep the beat and the slide from running away from me, I started off a medium tempo groove. Sliding up to the fifth fret on the high e string, I did a backward slide into the songs signature riff and began to sing “Koko mo me baby, Koko mo me right, Koko Mo me baby I’ll be back tomorrow night”. 

After singing and playing a verse or two I forced myself to look up and see if there was anybody left to play for. To my pleasant surprise, a street party was well underway! kids were dancing in the middle of the street, the fellahs were smiling back and forth at each other, and one young man, no older than me, started passing his cap, collecting funds, for a liquor run. Bukka barked at him as he passed by saying “now you be sure to buy some Old Charter with that, as I don’t want to be drinking that sad rot gut ‘10 High’ whiskey like that Furry Lewis do.” 

A pretty young girl, and apparently her little brother, still dressed in their Sunday’s bests, started walking down Mosby Street smiling right at Bukka as if he was the only person on the whole block. The closer they got the bigger their smiles grew. “Deborah, Lindsey you both get over here and give your Big Daddy some sugar!” Bukka affectionately called out to them. They both ran over to their Grandfather and gave him a hug and a kiss. Bukka had been in his glory holding court, but the youngsters he was hugging brought out another, disarming, vulnerable side of him. His face grew as radiant as the afternoon Memphis sun. We all took pause, basking in the pride and love he so obviously had for these children. Lindsey, who appeared to be about nine years old, squirmed a little bit in his hot and itchy, dark blue, wool Sunday going to church suit. Deborah was roughly twelve years of age. Her church wardrobe consisted of a light pink chiffon dress, paten leather shoes, and pink and yellow berets. She was as cute as a proverbial button. She almost immediately started working that cuteness, in trying to coax a quarter out of her Big Daddy. 

Bukka listened to her whispered plea and patiently explained “Deborah I can’t go giving you a quarter every time you get a mind for some candy child. If I did your Big Daddy wouldn’t have a thing to put on Big Mama’s supper table.” Disappointed, she swiveled side to side, looking down at the pavement, as to say, that without that quarter she could surely never be happy again. Bukka, a rock, solid, giant, for a mid size man, turned to a heap of mush, at the sight of his melancholy baby girl. Caving in, like a makeshift Kentucky coal mine, he told her “Now I tell you what, you two go home and change out of you’re church clothes and ask Big Mama to get my guitar for you. Y’all carry it down to me, and you best make sure not to drop it, and I’ll see that you and Lindsey both get a quarter.” Gleefully they sprang to the task at hand and made a bee line, for Bukka’s apartment. 

The apartment was one of a half dozen that was comprised in a solid, but cold and austere, one story brick building. There seemed to be hundreds of carbon copies of them as far as the eye could see. These leftover symbols’ of the early LBJ era were strategically constructed throughout Memphis’s inner city, amongst the myriad of run down houses, churches and over priced convenience and liquor stores. Urban Renewal had digressed back too Urban Refusal. 

By the time Deborah and Lindsey returned with Bukka’s guitar, a pint of Old Charter Bourbon and a few communal quarts of ice cold Stag beer had arrived and were being passed around. With the shared libations, music, a sermon or two from Bukka, and a street wise, street full congregation; Blues Church had officially commenced! 

As I had done for him in New Orleans and again in Boulder, I got Bukka’s 1920’s Style “O” National Steel Resophonic guitar out of the case, took the proper thumb pick and slide out, and handed them to the master. His guitar was already tuned, in the same open G tuning as mine, and within seconds he broke into one of the favorite, comparatively speaking, newer songs, he’d written “Gibson Hill”. The song had all of the time tested Bukka White trade marks, a rollicking rhythm, some descending bass lines, verses that were half in rhyme and half free verse, plenty of Slide guitar solos and intermittent fills to answer his husky voice as he sung lines like “Went on up to Gibson Hill—(find lyric)-------------------hill”. More and more people, young and old filled the street side service, sasified if not sanctified in the Blues. 

Adjusting his tuners to an open “D” tuning, Bukka broke into the old Blues warhorse “Baby Please Don’t Go”. This was followed by one of his early classics called “Jitterbug Swing.” His full throat, baritone voice filled the street and brought yet more newcomers in from the surrounding area. The Juke, Barrelhouse Delta stylings of the last couple of songs segued into a deep brooding version of the Charles Brown classic “Drifting and Drifting.” For this one, Bukka tuned back to standard tuning, and chose the peoples key of “E”. He turned the Jazzy/Blues standard back into the older style of a slower, mournful, Mississippi moan. Singing “I go drifting and drifting, like a ship on out at sea”, Bukka echoed his vocal intensity with punctuating, low string, hammer ons’. Simultaneously, and in unapologetic hammy manner, he shook his cherubic cheeks in rhythm with his pulsating National Steel, bringing new meaning to the term “In your face!” His mugging not only brought out the drama of the song, but with a sense for the macabre, provided comic relief. In awe, I sat amazed by both his mastery of the Blues music as well as theatre. 

While the sun and whiskey warmed us, his songs continued to move us. Blues Church, Mosby Street style, i.e. Delta Blues, a little communion, jukeing, joking, and all around getting down, carried on for another good hour. When appropriate, I did my best to back him up, alternating on second guitar and harmonica. Much of the time, I just sat spellbound soaking up the sounds like a honey bee would pollen. 

The impromptu concert finished with Booker T. Washington White pulling out all the stops on his signature song; “Aberdeen”. For what must have been one of thousands of times, in a thousand different places, from gin houses, juke joints, Parchman Farm Prison, street corners, hippie halls, coffee houses and in festivals from Seattle to Germany; Bukka bellowed out the opening lyrics, “Iiiiiia…ahhh was over in Aberdeen on my way to New Orleans,…I was over in Aberdeen on my way to New Orleans, those Aberdeen women they buy my gasoline.” Bukka’s power over his crowd, on his home turf no less, lent the song and his prowess more “gasoline” than I had ever witnessed in my life. As he sang that line, Bukka’s right hand alternated “fanning” his National from the bridge to the highest point of the guitar neck, in a quasi diamond pattern, while his left hand laid down, in quarter note rhythm multi string hammer ons’. Bukka’s continued his heavy syncopated hand beats, while the urgency of his singing voice called out, in what certain African cultures would call a masked voice (F/N masking). The immediacy and interaction with the crowd produced a group oneness and a emotional pulse that was beyond riveting. All of our groups physical reflexes grew, breathed, and interplayed with the music like an instrument within itself. It wouldn’t have surprised me if the Mosby Street itself began swaying up and down, in a lazy, languid counter rhythm. In the middle of all this an epiphany washed over me; I wasn’t in Kansas anymore and for that matter any other place musically and emotionally the Blues had ever taken me before. 

Not that my life had been void of incredible musical experiences, much of which I owed to my parents for feeding my insatiable concert habit as I was growing up. Just a partial musical laundry list would have to include, experiencing the Beatles twice, the Sonics on a regular basis, playing their pre punk, R&B, Jimi Hendrix, and even hitchhiking 800 miles overnight to see the debacle of the Rolling Stones at Altamont. 

Bill Graham as musical impresario of the Fillmore Ballroom has to be mentioned for introducing million of hippies, including myself, to the Blues. Encouraged by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, he co billed Blues artists with the biggest name psychedelic acts of the time. Similar promoters followed suit. It wasn’t long before I was going to Seattle’s own Hippie Hippodrome called “Eagles” almost every weekend to catch the Blues groups with a growing distain for the Acid Rock groups. Blues greats like, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, James Cotton, Big Mama Thornton, JB Hutto, Albert Collins, Bobby Blue Bland and the king of kings himself BB King now were reaching, at least on this continent, the largest white audiences of their careers. Soon I was also seizing the opportunities to see Jazz great like Charles Lloyd, Miles Davis and Cannon Ball Adderlly as well. 

These experiences as well as seeing Furry in a coffee house and even performing Bukka in Boulder, and Babes Stovall in Jackson Square, New Orleans over the last couple of years had been nothing more than a prelude, for the Mosby Street throwdown that was happening now. 

Bringing the song to its crescendo, Bukka in a smooth, single lighting fast motion swung the guitar up out of his lap and up and over his head. Not missing a beat, Bukka wailed away in a myriad of percussive, syncopated rhythms that would have made Jimi Hendrix throw away his lighter fluid. Especially the children, seeing the outlandish showmanship of Mosby Streets Big Daddy, gleefully shouted out their amazed approval as they danced away to the songs until the impromptu concerts conclusion. 

Mosby Street’s community thanked Bukka, and with smiles still on their faces, they slowly drifted back to their nearby homes and front porches. 

Picking up for Bukka, I placed his picks and slide back inside the little plastic bag, sealed it tightly and put them back, along with his guitar, in his old, and original National Steel guitar case. Though a little tipsy from the bourbon and beer, let alone the incredible performance he had given, his beaming smile clearly showed he was one happy, but tired Bluesman. Carefully, I helped him up the slight incline of his driveway, and the 100 yards, or so, to his apartment. An elderly, short, stocky woman, wearing a simple house dress, glasses and her hair wrapped and tied under a handkerchief, was waiting for him behind the front screen door. As we approached her Bukka called out “Leola this boy here just came a hell of a long way, to see me. Fix him a plate honey before he leaves if you would. I’m going to take me a rest as I feel that swimming of the head coming on.” 

Leola and I helped Bukka to bed. Without bothering to get undressed, Bukka layed down on top of the covers of their queen size bed, and fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. 

Sitting me down at the yellow, Formica, mid size kitchen table, Leola instructed me to just to relax while she heated up a plate for me. Within minutes she served me a heaping plate of collard greens, fried chicken and a slice of corn bread. Since I was nineteen years old I’d been, outside of seafood, a vegetarian. With a diet which highlight had been popcorn and a tuna hero over the last several days, I voraciously wolfed down the meal without a second thought. 

“I see you must like southern cooking” Leola told me, with a sweet, but jesting smile on her face. 

Trying not to talk with my mouth full, I waited for a second, swallowed and then replied “Uumm, Uumm that was not only the best meal I’ve had in days, it was the only real meal I’ve had for over a week” 

“Well there’s more here if you want it” She graciously answered back. 

Not wanting to eat them out of house and home, I politely declined, though I did add, “It’s been years since I’ve had fried chicken, but I know that this has to be the best I’ve ever had!” 

We talked on casually for the next half an hour or so. She was curious about me, though she seemed somewhat used to the occasional Blues pilgrim making an unexpected appearance at her door requesting to see her common law husband. Not wanting to pry, she didn’t ask too many questions, but seemed genuinely grateful that I’d come so far to spend, whatever length of days or weeks, with Bukka. The one thing that worried her was that I was sleeping in various parking lots in my van Blue. “Things are changing here, and it’s not for the better. I guess it was never all that safe to begin with, but it seems the older I live the harder life is on everybody. And it don’t get no harder or unsafe than out there on those streets.” Her eyebrows burrowed together as she spoke and her fingers fidgeted with her apron anxiously. 

Her concern moved me. It had been a lot longer than my last home cooked meal that someone had expressed any caring feelings for me, out side of my parents that I hadn’t seen for 8 months. At the time, it seemed didn’t really count back then to me, as they, number one; were so far away, and two; that was their job as Parents to worry about me! The simple act of relaxing and conversing with someone who, know less, seemed to really take interest in me, let alone my stories, did almost as much for my soul as playing on the streets with Bukka. It certainly eased the alienation and conflict I had felt surrounded by the prosperous and purposeful students of Overton Sq. Both her and Bukka’s benevolence towards me made me feel for certain that I had done the right thing coming all this way. I felt at home. 

In telling her about my reasons for my southern sojourn, I told her how I had also looked up Furry. Just the mention of his name seemed to tickle her for some reason.” Old Furry” she said, as much to herself as to me, and paused to let out a giggle, “Lord have mercy, him and Big Daddy, the way they fuss with each other, I swear, it’s no better than children, maybe worse!” 

Though I laughed with her, I wasn’t all together sure why. Prodding her gently, I asked her to explain what she meant. 

“Well” she went on, “When Furry lived down on Beale Street, him and Big Daddy were as close as kin. Bukka always be going on to me about Furry did this or Furry said this. He’d start laughing, and telling me about everything Furry had done; it would be as if Furry was in right here in the room with us. I swear they just loved each others company so much.” She paused to chuckle and then added, “It was like they were brothers. Hummm” she wistfully sighed and quit fiddling with her apron, as if she were about to move on to another subject. 

“You can’t stop now Leola.” I exclaimed. “What happened between them?” Pausing once more to collect her thoughts, she looked down at the floor and then back up at me and said, “They just fell out. Not a whole lot to be said about it, at least Bukka didn’t say that much about it, but I knew it was troubling him. I could tell.” 

“Something had to of happen” I insisted. It was obvious that I was fishing for something more tangible than they ‘just fell out.’ 

“It was more a lot of little things, and it didn’t happen all at once. Just little by little…” She drifted without finishing, but then came back as if she had recalled something from a long time ago. “I first kind of sensed that things were a little different with them when they had come back from someplace they played together.” 

“Do you remember where?” I asked. 

“All I remember was they had flown, so it must have been a long ways away. I remember Bukka saying something about Mr. Furry being mad at him for drinking too much from the whiskey bottle they was all sharing. Bukka told Furry that if hadn’t been for him, Furry never would have got the job in the first place. They apparently went around and around like that bickering till they were both just feuding more than having fun.” 

“Wow a couple of great old players like that feuding at their age. I never would have suspected it.” I replied, slowly shaking my head and pulling on my chin while contemplated what she was saying. 

“They’re feuding alright, and that’s the only word for it. Best friends, and now talking about each other like they be Cain and Abel!” 

“I’ve heard of dueling banjos but feuding Bluesmen, I thought that kind of stuff just went on the Beverly Hillbillies” I chuckled. 

Laughing as well, Leola philosophized, “Maybe they just too close together to be together as friends anymore.” 

“Well I gotta say Leola; I think you may be on to something there” I said, concurring with her appraisement. 

“If the truth be told” Leola said with finality, “If I thought it would teach either of them a lick of sense I’d take my switch out after the both of them!” We both laughed out so loudly, we had to hush each other before we woke up a sleeping Bukka White. 

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