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Saturday, December 5, 2020

Johnson looked down at his shoes and sighed.

They were covered with fine yellow dust, the same color as the shoulder of The Great River Road. He’d walked it for days. The long fingers of his left hand clung to a piece of rope tying his suitcase together. The suitcase looked like it was made of alligator hide, but it was really just cardboard. He had a guitar slung across his back.

For weeks, he’d worked his way up Mississippi’s US 61, picking up occasional gigs. He’d sing in juke joints in exchange for a meal and a drink—usually a couple of tamales or a ham hock, washed down with cheap no-name bourbon. He never got to play more than one night at any of them. He wasn’t very good. He had a reedy voice that broke when he tried to hold the high notes, and his guitar-playing sounded like he’d just learned to play. Which was exactly the case. Still, he had hopes—and hope kept him going on his little part of The Great Migration.

As he approached Clarksdale, he heard—faintly, off in the distance—someone playing a guitar. It was unlike anything he’d ever heard before. It had a driving demonic rhythm that alternated with long blue notes that stretched and snapped at him. They moved him in ways he never imagined music could move him. It thrilled, but also depressed, him. There was no way in hell that he could ever play like that. He kept on walking, and tried to think about something else.

He’d gotten a couple of miles further, when he came to the spot where US 61intersected with US 49. He sat down at the side of the crossroads, and waited. Something, he felt, was important about the place; he felt sure that something was destined to happen there. Occasional cars went by and, every once in a while, a farm truck rattled through. None of the drivers seemed to notice him sitting there. Hours went by, and the big red sun began to settle through the Mississippi haze.

No one showed up. Whatever destiny had in mind for him, it clearly wasn’t meant to happen there.

He stood, slowly, his gangly legs stiff from sitting so long on the hard ground. He picked up his suitcase and guitar, and looked back—south—facing the direction he’d already walked. He decided he should find out more about the infernal music he’d heard earlier that day.

It was just dark when he heard it again. Set well back—a good distance away from the highway—he could see a small run-down cabin. As he approached it, several chickens scattered noisily. The music stopped.

A voice called out from the front porch, “Whatcha’ be wantin’ here, boy?”

Johnson shuffled up the path, a little embarrassed. “Sorry to bother you… but I heard someone playing, an’ had to ax…” his voice trailed off.

“Ax what?”

“How you do it? I ain’t never heard nothing like it.”

“Come here, boy, and set a spell. Whatcher’ name?”

“It’s Robert, but you can call me Bob”

“I’m Son. Son House. An’ this here’s my Mississippi National steel bodied guitar.”

“Could you teach me how to play like that?”

“You got any money?”

Johnson looked down. He had unlimited youth and ambition—and a surprising amount of nerve, approaching a stranger like that—but he sure as hell didn’t have any money.

“Can you play that guitar you’re carryin’?”

“A little bit… nothin’ like what you can.”

“Les’ hear it.”

Johnson set down his suitcase, took the guitar from his shoulder, and played.

For a few seconds.

“That’s enough,” interrupted House. “Boy, you got you some long fingers… long enough to reach all the strings… but you shore as hell ain’t reachin’ ‘em at the right time.”

Johnson was hurt, but didn’t want to complain.

House continued, “Still… ah think ah could learn ya’ a few things. Here’s the deal I got for you; I kin’ make you the best dam’ blues man they ever was… but they’s a price to pay. You willin?” Johnson was definitely willing to pay. He’d pay any price, as long as it wasn’t in cash, since he had none. House said he wasn’t interested in cash.

“Kin ya’ work?”

“Shore. Whaddya’ need me to do?”

“Boy… if there’s anythin’ ah hates, it’s farm work. If you take over feedin’ ma’ chickens, weedin’ ma’ garden, choppin’ wood, and carryin’ water from the pump… .” The list just went on and on.

Starting the next morning, right after chores, House began Johnson’s lessons. He worked on timing, fingering, and how to run an old hambone along the guitar neck to bring out the wailing tones that had intrigued Johnson the first time he heard them. The lessons went on for a few weeks.

Every night, after dinner, Johnson sat off to the side, and listened as House read bedtime stories to his kids. His young daughter always wanted to hear the same story, so House’s student had to listen to Hans Christian Anderson’s tale about the Little Mermaid—again and again. And again. Most of the story didn’t interest him. It was too girly-girly for his taste, and all those oceanic details meant nothing to the man who was born and raised on the delta.

One night, however, something in the story caught his attention: the part about the witch and the deal she made with the little mermaid.

When the story was over, he went out to the front porch, where he’d made a pallet for himself. He tried to get some sleep, but it was no use. He tossed and turned, hoping to shove the story out of his consciousness. “It’s only a dam’ fairy tale,” he tried to tell himself. Still he couldn’t stop picturing the witch’s warning—and the little mermaid’s willing acceptance of the terms. Terms that put her very existence at stake. Something about the story—which was sappy, trivial in a way that could only appeal to a little girl—burned in his brain. Day after day, the chores and lessons went by. Night after night, the bedtime stories, followed by tossing and turning. It felt like a never-ending cycle he was doomed to repeat, again and again.

But it did come to an end.

One day, Son told Robert that he had learned everything he knew how to teach. The student had even gone beyond his lessons, learning to shape his thin cracked voice to mirror the stretched plaintive notes of a bottle-necked guitar. Johnson packed his pasteboard bag and swung the guitar over his shoulder. He walked away from the House house, then headed back to highway sixty-one.

He kept going, past the intersection of highway forty-nine, this time without stopping. He just walked until he came to a familiar juke joint. Even though he’d played there before, something in his manner, some weird self-confidence, convinced the bartender to let him play again.

As the sun went down, a few customers trickled into the bar. They sat at worn-out tables with bottles of beer, or flasks of whiskey, and talked among themselves. They ignored the young man sitting at end of the bar, and the guitar that leaned against his stool.

It was only when he got up to play, that they recognized him. No one wanted this no-account, no-talent hick to spoil their evening. Some booed. Some threw empty bottles or chewed-up bones at him.

Johnson stood, not exactly facing them. He seemed to stare at something standing in the doorway, something none of them could see.

The first striding bass notes made them sit up and pay attention. A few high chords had them leaning toward the make-shift stage. Then his high, cigarette-roughened, voice grabbed them:

Early this morning
When you knocked upon my door
Early this morning, ooh
When you knocked upon my door
And I said “hello Satan
I believe it's time to go”

They were mesmerized.

Song after song poured out of him. He performed like a seasoned bluesman, someone who had been living, and singing, the blues for sixty, maybe seventy years—even though he was still in his twenties. No one could believe that this was the same pitiful amateur they’d seen only a month or so earlier.

After his set, folks crowded around him, buying him drinks, and begging him to explain how he could have changed—so completely—in so little time. He looked up at the ceiling, as if expecting to find an answer written there. Eventually, words formed, “I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees.”

He paused.

The new fans looked at each other, confused.

He continued, “I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees.” Another long pause, causing more confused looks.

He brought it to a close, “Asked the Lord above, ‘Have mercy, now, save poor Bob if you please.’”

He could tell that the juke joint’s customers had no idea what he was telling them. They understood no more now than before they even asked him anything. He had an answer ready for them: “It wasn’t the Lord above who had mercy on me.” More puzzled looks. “It was the Lord below.”

They bought it. Completely.

Over the course of the next few months, in many more juke joints, he told the story over and over. He gradually embellished his version of the Little Mermaid into a personal life-story that became legendary. Everywhere he went, people flocked to hear the devilishly-good guitar of the man who had sold his soul to Satan. He was well on his way to becoming the most famous bluesman of all time. At least until the devil came to collect.

Turns out, if you invoke Satan’s name often enough, even if—or especially if—it’s in the middle of a lie, it amounts to a verbal contract.

This story is excerpted from Backstories: As retold by Gary Allen, available in two formats:


©2020 Gary Allen


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