I headed back to Clarkesdale and was staying across the road from what is now the Riverside Hotel. Back then it was the G T Thomas Hospital for Negroes. I was sitting on the porch strumming my guitar and working on a new tune. I was so engrossed that the ambulance pulling in must have passed me by. I still had hopes of fostering some sort of a career out of my music and was preparing for the evening juke.
Slim, a new friend of mine, was working as an orderly at the hospital and came across to sit by my side.
‘You heard the news?’ he asked, looking extremely serious.
I shook my head and waited for him to tell me. Slim would normally give me the low-down on all the comings and goings of the hospital. It was a busy place. I was expecting some line about an acquaintance of ours. I didn’t expect it to be quite so far-reaching.
‘That was Bessie Smith they just brought in.’
My attention immediately snapped to full on. Bessie was not quite my kind of thing, too jazzy and vaudeville for my tastes, but she was enormously popular and I liked her well enough. Everyone had her 78s. You could hear her songs coming out of everywhere you went. She was one of those black women who had crossed that barrier. The white folks were digging her, though I was dang sure that most of them weren’t picking up on some of the things she was putting down in her songs. They were pretty close to the knuckle.
‘She’s bin in a car crash,’ Slim informed me. ‘Looks real bad. Her arm was hanging off. I don’t know if she’s going to make it.’
Slim was proved right. Poor Bessie didn’t make it.
It was to be the last of my trips around Mississippi as an itinerant Blues singer. Times were beginning to change. I could smell it in the air. Automation was coming to the Delta. The plantations were looking to lay off people. The blacks were hit worse but they were by no means the only ones who suffered; the poor white farmers were hit just as bad.
The local jukes were buying in juke-boxes and had no need for our sort anymore. The cards were on the table. People were worried at the thought of another recession. But for now we put those thoughts aside. Dave ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards and I teamed up and still thought there were good times to be had on that old Highway 61. We were ready to chance our luck
Our rambling took us down to Greenwood where we were delighted to meet up with Robert Johnson again. Man, did he look sharp. He wore his suit with style, spats and his fedora tilted at a rakish angle. Robert was hot. He was really pleased to see us and full of life and fun. We met up often to play the taverns and jukes. Robert was popular and a man in demand at the barbeques. He had all the tunes and trotted them out with style. Not only did he have the Blues but he knew every popular song making the rounds and even threw in a bit of Country. He was very well-liked.
Robert regaled us with the tales of his recording sessions. He’d been all the way over to San Antonio where he’d stayed in a plush hotel. A talent scout had picked him out and a white man had recorded him in that same hotel room. He was full of it. The white man had wanted to hear him play authentic Delta Blues and he had obliged. He’d enjoyed himself. The acoustics in the stark room gave him the opportunity to create a good sound. He’d faced the wall to bounce the sound back at the recording equipment.
The first session had gone so well they’d invited him back for a second which was every bit as good. The white man had liked it. There was talk of a tour and even mention of an appearance at the New York Carnegie Hall.
Robert was expecting another call any day. He was preparing new songs to record and already looking ahead to that appearance at Carnegie Hall in front of all those rich white people. The world was opening up for him.
Dave and I took it all with a pinch of salt. We’d heard it all before. Skip James, Booker White and even Leroy Carr had all gone off to hit the big lights. They recorded and came back with a wad of money but that was soon gone and the big time had receded into the past. This was a white man’s world. Blues singers were a dime a dozen. If you were lucky you recorded tracks in some little studio set up above a store. You got paid in cash and if it sold to the black audiences in the south somebody else made the money. That was just the way it worked.
We knew Robert was full of bullshit, but there was no denying that he was making the money and success was bringing success; the landlords were happy to have him in their taverns and the young ladies seemed keen too.
We settled ourselves in the corner, laughing and joking between songs, and drinking more than our fair share of the local moonshine that passed for whiskey. We were pulling a good crowd in the place and the landlord was more than happy to ply us with drink. That wasn’t all we were pulling. It was easy to see the twinkle in the waitress’s eye as she brought our drinks across. They had something going.
It was only later in the evening that I noticed that same landlord giving Robert a real mean look. Dave saw me looking and whispered in my ear that that waitress was the landlord’s wife. It clicked. Robert had a reputation as a bit of a ladies man and that landlord looked as if he might be a mean son of a bitch. I noted it. We might be in for a bit of trouble before this night was over. Not that this seemed to deter Robert. He was having a fine time flirting with the young woman and knocking back the whiskey.
I noticed the landlord giving us a particularly ugly look as he sorted a batch of drinks. Something in that look made me suspicious. It wasn’t unknown for them to poison the drinks, putting strychnine rat-poison in with the whiskey. I whispered to Dave and Robert to pass this one over. Dave took my advice but Robert was having none of it and readily downed his drink.
Later that evening he began to feel unwell. He was cramped up with stomach pangs and took on an unpleasant pallor. Dave took him back to his lodgings while I held the show. There wasn’t going to be any business with that waitress tonight.
We didn’t hear anything from Robert the next day and Dave went round to see if he was alright. He was worse, lying in bed with foam around his mouth; his whole body was racked with pain. Dave was worried. But there was no doctor to be had. He thought it would pass.
We both thought that he probably deserved it; playing about with another man’s wife in front of him was asking for trouble. But he was young and fit. He’d get over it.
We were shocked to hear the next day that he’d died.
I think something died in me that day.
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