I caught the blues from my baby
Walking down by San Francisco Bay.
It’s an old cliché.
I got the blues.
Six strings, steel guitars, songs of sorrow,
Bottleneck sliding, backyard backbeat, back to the roots
Swing so low, sweet-chariot gospel, hard-life,
Dirt-road, main-street, highway gliding,
It was skin-deep, dark-town, black-face,
Po’ white, sallow-cheek, roughneck blues;
All the colored mothers gone ragged to the fields
Men and women, fast-food joints, factory-lines
High-wire injuns, sky-rise raising, walking the girders
Steel construction, strip-mills, everybody laying blacktop,
Hired hands, welfare wages, seasonal labor, nobody need you now,
I hear the sound, Muddy Waters, dead and gone,
Howlin Wolf, old black man echoing in the white man’s halls,
Roots and rhythm, long-time coming, hard words, soft.
I hear the ringing, cheap acoustic rattle, string vibration,
Strum it, pick it, feel it from the heart, let it heal the soul,
Leadbelly, deadbelly, speaking it, guttaral in the night
Is it sad-song, is it tempered joy, the blues?
Does it beat in the heat of forgotten days?
Days in the delta, down among the pine and the cypress trees,
Days long-gone in hard-rain forest, days in swamp or the cotton fields,
Sweat of the sugar-cane, sweet and slick, sap of pleasure
Drawn through pain, good behaviour whipped into flesh,
Reminded, owned, ornery, every inch of life lived because
Of hope: release, escape, freedom, more prisons than sanctuaries,
So long in hiding, falling toward tomorrow with all that pain remembered,
All the heartbeat moments on the way till what the cells contain
Are jumbled notes, jangled chords, music of tribulation
Footesteps dragging the days out, or running,
Breathless, flight into what can only be night
Else the daylight dogs must run you down.
Blood-beat story, history of peoples
Dark or light, every one of us a slave,
Not all of us knowing the ring of steel
For what it was, for what it is.
Catch in the throat, skip in the pulse,
Realising what we all go on singing, happy or sad,
Is the ache of getting here despite.
© BH, 2016
The blues. That’s my guitar. That’s Howlin wolf behind my wall. It must be something about the roots of music and the people who made it. It must be also the troubled ground such music grows in.
Why should I presume? Because exploitation is still here: soft cuffs now and coercion is more subtle but compliance is in the bedrock of this world we’ve made. As for Chester Burnett there, old Howlin Wolf himself. Well, I met the man once, not long before he shuffled off, in the Cowdray Hall in Aberdeen. He looked up at me from his can of McEwan’s. I said something enthusiastic, being too young to know better. ‘Keep the gigs goin’, man.’ was all he said.