Night after night we'd lie on the corn-husk mattresses in our cells, listening to the blues drifting over from the Negro side of£ the block. I would be reading or just Iying in my bunk, eyeballing the whitewashed ceiling, when somebody would start chanting a weary melody over and over until the whole block was drug". The, blues would hit some colored boy and out of a clear sky he'd begin to sing them:|
Oooohhh, ain't gonna do it no mo-o, Oooohhhh, ain't gonna do it no mo-o, If I hadn't drunk so much whiskey Wouldn't be layin' here on this hard flo'
This would get to one of the other cats, and he'd yell, "Sing 'em, brother, sing 'em," trying to take some weight off himself. Then the first one, relieved of his burden because somebody has heard - him, as though the Lord had heeded his prayer, answers back with a kind of playful resentmenthe'd been admitting he had the blues but he's coming out of it now and can smile a little. So he comes back with, "You may make it, brother, but you'll never be the same." And now some third guy, who'd been listening to the half-sad, half-playful talking back and forth, would feel the same urge and chime in, "You might get better, poppa, but you'll never get well."
Those chants and rhythmic calls always struck a gong in me. The tonal inflections and the story they told, always blending together like the colors in an artist's picture, the way the syllables were always placed right, the changes in the words to fit the musicthis all hit me like a millennium would hit a philosopher. Those few simple riffs opened my eyes to the Negro's philosophy more than any fat sociology textbook ever could. They cheered me up right away and made me feel wonderful towards those guys. Many a time I was laid out there with the blues heavy on my chest, when somebody would begin to sing 'em and the weight would be lifted. Those were a people who really knew what to do about the blues.
The white man is a spoiled child, and when he gets the blues he goes neurotic. But the Negro never had anything before and never expects anything after, so when the blues get him he comes out smiling and without any evil feeling. "Oh, well," he says, "Lord, I'm satisfied. All I wants to do is to grow collard greens in my back yard and eat 'em." The white man can't feel that way, usually When he's brought down he gets ugly, works himself up into a fighting mood and comes out nasty. He's got the idea that because he feels bad somebody's done him wrong, and he means to take it out on somebody. The colored man, like as not, can toss it off with a laugh and a mournful, but not too mournful, song about it. It's easy to say he's shiftless and happy-go-lucky and just doesn't give a damn. That's how a lot of white people explain away this quality in the Negro, but that's not the real story. The colored man doesn't often get sullen and tight-lipped and evil because his philosophy goes deeper and he thinks straight. Maybe he hasn't got all the hyped-up words and theories to explain how he thinks. That's all right. He knows. He tells about it in his music. You'll find the answer there, if you know what to look for.
Knocking around with Rapp and the Rhythm Kings put the finishing touches on me and straightened me out. To be with those guys made me know that any white man, if he thought straight and studied hard, could sing and dance and play with the Negro. You didn't have to take the finest and most original and honest music in America and mess it up because you were a white man; you could dig the colored man's real message and get in there with him, like Rapp. I felt good all over after a session with the Rhythm Kings, and I began to miss that tenor sax.
Man, I was gone with itinspiration's mammy was with me. And to top it all, I walked down Madison Street one day and what I heard made me think my ears were lying. Bessie Smith was shouting the Downbearted Blues from a record in a music shop. I flew in and bought up every record they had by the mother of the bluesCemetery Blues, Bleedin' Hearted, and Midnight Blues then I ran home and listened to them for hours on the victrola. I was put in a trance by Bessie's moanful stories and the patterns of true harmony in the piano background, full of little runs that crawled up and down my spine like mice. Every note that woman wailed vibrated on the tight strings of my nervous system; every word she sang answered a question I was asking. You couldn't drag me away from that victrola, not even to eat.
What knocked me out most on those records was the slurring and division of words to fit the musical pattern, the way the words were put to work for the music. I tried to write them down because I figured the only way to dig Bessie's unique phrasing was to get the words down exactly as she sang them. It was something I had to do; there was a great secret buried in that woman's genius that I had to get. After every few words I'd stop the record to write the Iyrics down, so my dad made a suggestion. Why didn't I ask my sister Helen to take down the words in shorthand? She was doing secretarial work and I figured it would be a cinch for her.
If my sister had made a table-pad out of my best record or used my old horn for a garbage can she couldn't have made me hotter than she did that day. I've never been so steamed up, before or since. She was in a very proper and dicty mood, so she kept "correcting" Bessie's grammar, straightening out her words and putting them in "good" English until they sounded like some stuck-up jive from McGuffy's Reader instead of the real down-to-earth language of the blues. That girl was schooled so good, she wouldn't admit there was such a word as "ain't" in the English language, even if a hundred million Americans yelled it in her face every hour of the day. I've never felt friendly towards her to this day, on account of how she laid her fancy high-school airs on the immortal Bessie Smith.
Inspiration's old lady gave birth to a new brainchild one afternoon at a Rhythm Kings rehearsal, when I took a few choruses on Jack Pettis' c-melody sax while he was out humoring his bladder. My head began to buzz while I played. I had to cut loose some way, to turn my back once and for all on that hincty, killjoy world of my sister's and move over to Bessie Smith's world body and soul. My fingers itched for a horn, so I could sit around and blow with my real friends for the rest of my life. I was so hyped-up I couldn't sit still; every nerve in my body had St. Vitus' Dance and sweat popped out all over my face. Now-or-never was the play.
Finally, without knowing for sure what I was going to do, I ran home. I sneaked into the house and stole my sister's Hudson-seal fur coat out of the closet, then I beat it down to a whorehouse and sold it to the madam for $150. With the dough I made for the Conn Music Company and bought an alto sax for cash. Then I began to breathe easiermy sister had paid for her fine-lady act and put me in a business where they said "ain't" all the day long and far into the night. Great deal.
The Rhythm Kings were rehearsing all afternoon, and Rapp made me break out my brand-new horn and sit in with them. Every note I blew that day was a blast at my sister and her book-learning. I couldn't go home after that, naturally, so the same day I moved into a room across from the poolroom. Come to think of it, I ain't been home since.