The Devil's Music Gumbo
The music of my life wails out in a minor key, a blues really, though by that I ain't saying it's been tragic. On the whole I regard myself a damn lucky soul. I took those three chords and that twelve bar verse rigged by the stars I was born under, and I slapped my own rhythm to it. Much as I've had to harmonize, that melody's my own. Now it seems to me every song's got a hook down deep in the bait, a theme that kind of defines the rest. In my life I suppose it was the two years I spent on the road with Mose Jackson, and you could say my song takes off from there. Sounds different every time I play it, but then, that's the way with the blues. You kind of bend it around to wring all the shades and tones out of it. You riff without a ruled sheet in front of you, but hell, you know it all by heart.
Don't suppose I could forget the first time I met Mose, seeing as how the day he came to town was the day the preacher died. Friday the thirteenth it was, the hottest day of July, 1936, and it might have been the hottest summer of the Great Depression. Both jobs and hope were damn scarce down there in Bonaparte, Louisiana, but Mr. Roosevelt was in the White House, so I guess things could've been a bushel or two worse.
I guess old Mose is what you'd call a cult figure these days, but back then he wasn't but one more dark gypsy with a guitar. You see, the WPA had sent down a gaggle of white folks who'd got themselves into thick sweat over the Delta blues. They came into places like Bonaparte and turned on their recording machines, and the rest is history. They'd turn up somebody like Poke Brindle or Po' Boy Lewis playing their rendition of Mose's "Witch Woman Blues" and they'd interview them afterwards. And damned if nearly every one of those blues pickers wouldn't say something like, "You think that was good? Why, you should've heard the way Mose Jackson done it." Of course, they never got Mose down on a recording, nobody ever did. And maybe that's why Mose Jackson is more myth than man for most folks.
Now old Mose had got to be one of the strangest birds ever flew south. I can hardly ever remember him coming or going, only already being there or already being gone. And that's exactly the way he turned up in Longchamps' Barbershop that afternoon. Just as Elmo Beaudreaux, Esquire, the black folks' lawyer, came back with word the Reverend Walker from the white church "wouldn't have nothing to do with burying no nigra" in spite of the twenty dollar gold piece the congregation had scraped together for a fee. The news just got everybody down, except of course for the dear departed who lay there stretched out in what Bertram Longchamps always referred to as the "manny-cure" chair and couldn't have been got down by a swarm of hornets.
So here it was five in the afternoon and hotter than a forgot skillet, and the flies so thick you could hang your hat on them. A couple-three stray dogs clumped in the doorway to savor the holy fumes, and they had to be shooed pretty regular. So tempers were short and breaths shallow, and nothing was getting an inch closer to fixed when a handsome stranger spoke up and cooled the room like somebody'd opened up an icehouse door.
"You folks short a preacher, I take it."
He was an elegant man, Mose was. Chocolate brown skin and hands looked like they'd been carved out of stone. And he was all tricked out in a sharp-creased, beige suit with a dark blue tie and matching pocket square. Had a light grey fedora tilted just-so on his head and a big, dreadnought guitar slung over one shoulder.
"Reverend Jackson," Mose said by way of introduction.
He flicked a thumb across his nose and reached over, first to Elmo, then to the other folks gathered around.
"Traveling ministry. Come from up Texarkana."
Mose went at us with both hands, giving everybody a firm tug. When he got to me he hesitated I was just the barbershop mascot. But he laid a big wink on me and pumped my hand just the same, giving it an extra crank for good measure.
"I'd be pleased, yes I would," he said. "I'd be pleased to see the dear departed here back to his maker."
Now folks in Bonaparte ain't exactly the type to trust a stranger, much less with the burying of the preacher had dunked their babies and planted their ancestors. But something needed doing and quick. So inside of half-an-hour they'd got the preacher's remains stretched out in Wepster Buntley's wagon. And Mose and Elmo Beaudreaux, Esquire were sitting up top with Wep as the rest of us followed the doleful ferry, as it were, down to the church yard where a hole was already cooling.
The Reverend Stubbs was lowered down and shoveled under, and at last everybody was able to snort the first good, deep breath they'd got in hours. This plus the jug of Wep's Scuppernong wine, passed around in keeping with the occasion, made for a cooperative choir when Mose struck up his guitar and led us all through seven or eight verses of "Nearer My God To Thee" with a chorus of "We Shall Gather At The River" chucked in for good measure.
Seemed to me Mose was panhandling after that twenty dollar gold piece before the last melodious notes had even faded. And this caught the church elders by surprise, as they'd thought a man of the cloth oughtn't pay much heed to those things rendered unto Caesar. But they paid up anyhow, and flung a few dozen daisies down, and were gone, leaving just me and the alleged preacher standing there, casting shadows like a couple fence posts missing a gate.
"What's your name, Boy?" Mose asked me.
"Booker," I told him, "Booker Thadeus Blake." That was my name and still is today on my seventy-seventh birthday.
"Well, Bookhead," he said, labelling me forever, "Tell you what. You show me the way to the juke joint and I'll spend some of this here gold eagle getting you stinking drunk, and how'd you like that?"
How'd I like that? Beau Boudin's bloodhound, snuffling in the fresh dirt at that very moment, might have reared up on its hind legs and asked me directions to the courthouse seeing as how no preacher of my acquaintance ever got within pistol range of the juke joint.
Course, I wasn't exactly a stranger to juke joints myself. Why, when I was just nine years old I'd got myself a Hohner harmonica, and I'd sneak down to Big Blaine's joint on Pelican Bayou. I'd crouch outside and play along with the blues through the walls. Time I was eleven I got good enough so they'd drag me inside and make me stand on a table. "Blow Booker, blow!" they'd yell. "Man alive, that little boy can blow them blues!" And I'd go home with a few nickels every night. So you might say juke joints and me go back a ways.
My mama, on the other hand, was deacon sure the juke joint was the next station to Hell, seeing as how that's where "the Devil's music" was played.
"Kind of funny," I told Mose. "She'll go to the mojo man or the juju woman to get the Saint John the Conqueror root every time I got the sniffles, but the blues is 'the Devil's music'."
"Bookhead, " Mose said.
"Booker," I corrected him.
Mose hawked a big gob of spit into the churchyard hedges.
"Bookhead," he went on, "Juke joint's always the first place a man run when the Devil's chasing him. Guess when the righteous folks spied the Devil waiting outside the juke joint every time they passed, they just naturally figured the old boy got him a stake in the place."
Didn't take much coaxing from Moseinside of ten minutes we were down at Red's Sugar Shack, swilling from a jar of Louisiana gator piss. After we'd got ourselves oiled up a bit, Mose picked up his guitar, and I backed him with the harp, and pretty soon we'd got that juke joint rocking and rolling like a rowboat in the wake of the Robert E. Lee.
Let me tell you about the blues. Folks have had the blues way before there was any music named to go along with it. Of course, not everything named the blues was dipped out of the same well. There were sophisticated black musicians like Scott Joplin and W.C. Handy, who played mostly to white folks, who'd call a number a "blues". But their blues was a far cry from the country hollers played by the hard-scrabble sharecroppers in the South. Then you had the urban blues of women like Mamie and Bessie Smith, Miss Hazel Harrison, Ethel Waterswe could even hear her on the radioand Ma Rainey. But the blues that came out of Mose Jackson was one-hundred-percent, uncut, sour-mash, Mississippi Delta bluesmusic so full of life you could hear the slap of catfish in a burbling stream, the yawk of the crows in a rattling cornfield, the whack of cotton choppers hacking their way through the weeds on a still, hot Delta day.
Now I'd accompanied blues pickers before, but none like Mose. He could make that damn Washburn of his speak in tongues. And he had a way of using his picking hand to keep a couple-three things going at the same timea heavy back beat on the bass and wailing lead notes mixed with fat, singing chords. I had to keep looking over to make sure there weren't two guitar players sitting there. I remember he started out with an eerie blues he'd learned from his home-boy, Robert Johnson. Mose's voice wailed and my harp answered him the way field hands will call out to each other in the heat of the noonday sun.
Went down to the crossroads, fell down on my knees,
Went down to the crossroads, Baby, fell down on my knees,
Asked the Lord above have mercy, save a poor boy please.
Mose tried on Charlie Patton's "Rattlesnake Blues" and "Preaching Blues" by Son House and a couple-three numbers by Willie Brown and Skip James, and long about that time my mouth was dry as a Methodist sermon. Hadn't had a bite since breakfast, either. So I let Mose go it solo while I hit Red up for some of his home brew and a bowl of gumbo.
Now Red's was real backwoods gumbo. Made from crawdads and stump water mainly, and various and sundry other ingredients could range from salt pork to a possum old Red had run over in his Model T. Gumbo's kind of like society, I always say. If you don't stir it up a bit every once in a while you get the scum rising to the top and the dregs falling to the bottom. Red always stirred the gumbo up pretty good. And when he had to step away from the pot to break out a few more jars of gator piss, his wife, Ida, who was called Ida Sweet from the popular song "Ida, Sweet as Apple Cidah," took over the stirring. So Red's gumbo was pretty much an equal opportunity deal. You got what you got by the luck of the ladle, and I was usually pretty lucky and didn't end up with anything I couldn't identify.
Course, after a few snorts of home-made corn liquor most folks don't much give a chicken's ass about what's in the gumbo. Guess that's why it's general practice to pass the jar around on election day, seeing as how some of the politicians that crawl out of the muck in Iberville Parish ain't to be savored without a good head full of hooch.
Anyhow, good gumbo is something I take seriously, and I don't suppose I can go any further in my story without giving all you folks without benefit of Creole culture the definitive recipe for gumbo.
First off, you can't make gumbo in small batches. Gumbo is kind of like an atomic reaction. You need what they call a critical mass, and my experience over the years is something on the high side of eight quarts, though I've never really sat down and done the equations. So you need you a great big stew pot. Take about a pound of salt pork, diced, and melt it down over a medium heat. Then you need a couple large onions. Did I say large? They got to be huge or else the gumbo won't do. Don't cheat and try to use four small onions, it ain't the same. Take a whole head of garlic. Chop up the onions and garlic and a handful of hot peppersScotch Bonnets are your best betand saute the whole mess in the salt pork drippings till you can see moonlight through the onions. Some folks like to put in a spoonful of molasses at this point to caramelize the whole thing, and all I can say is it won't hurt. Next you throw in some Cajun sausage or whatever other meat you might have around. I recommend against possum as it tends to overpower the gumbo. Put in about four quarts of water and chop up some vegetablescarrots , celery, potatoes, tomatoes, what have you. Lastly you throw in a couple pounds fresh, cleaned crawdads. Simmer the whole muddle over a slow fire for three-four hours, and during the last hour throw in a good handful of crushed sassafras leaveswhat folks hereabouts call filet gumbo. Then cook up a big pot of rice and invite the neighbors.
Another thing about gumbo, long as I'm on the subject, this country of the United States of America is about as close to gumbo as you can get for consistency. Good gumbo takes a mix of different things, all of them taking on the flavor of everything else, yet you can still kind of see where they came from.
Now some of the hometown folks rode me halfway to Bogalusa because my mama was Jamaican and taught me what she referred to as "The King's English." And though I'd sweetened it up with a lot of Louisiana black-strap molasses, they still said I spoke like a white man. Let me tell you first off that I don't speak like any white man. I speak like Bookhead Blake. If Bookhead Blake didn't exist then I'd got to invent him, and he didn't so I did. Now that we got that straight, I'll tell you that I got this flavor of mine from simmering in the pot, and nobody ought to be ashamed of any spice they pick up as part of the broth they got to swim in.
Anyhow, I guess I got off the subject of Mose Jackson. Problem is, time I got through blowing harp and tipping the jar and generally having myself one hell of a time down there in Red's Sugar Shack, there wasn't any Mose Jackson to get back to. Instead there was Sheriff Ham Denton, so named for the time he ate an entire hog thigh at a sitting, along with Elmo Beaudreaux, Esquire and half the African Baptist congregation. There was lots of cussing, and some talk of being hoodwinked out of a twenty dollar gold eagle, and I seem to recall a discussion of tar and feathers too.
About the same time old Red himself came out from the kitchen waving an empty cigar box and screaming about armed robbery. Somebody pointed out that Ida Sweet was missing, and old Red just bawled even louder. A quick check outside by Ham and the Baptist posse turned Ida up in short order. They found her in the poke weed with her skirt yanked down to her anklesnone the worse for wear, and a smile on her face it would take a month of her poor husband's glaring to erase.
At that point the sheriff threw his hands in the air mumbling something about "knowing better than to get mixed up in nigra business," and he waddled down towards Yvonne's Orleans Eatery to take his daily donut inventory. And that was about the last I saw of Mose Jackson till about a year later in Baton Rouge.
Me? I was a sixteen year old kid never been outside Louisiana, and Mose must have seemed pretty exotic. But I'd got no idea how our lives would get tangled up together, and if I could have looked into a crystal ball, or as the Obeah man down in Cruller's Hollow would divine into a bowl of cedar brake water, I'd have seen some pretty amazing sights. I'd have seen myself on the road with Mose, Memphis, Kansas City, Chicago, New York. I'd have seen the juke joints and the road houses. The greenback gospelers and the pimps, though I still couldn't have told you which was which. I'd have seen my first love, too. And the road back to Greenwood, Mississippi, where the hell-hound that followed Mose all his life finally chased him down.
But most of all I'd have seen how Mose Jackson would create me as sure as I'd been his natural-born son. And how none of what would become my life would have ever come to pass unless Mose Jackson had come to town that long-ago day to bury the preacher.
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