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As I opened the door, the sound of the guitar grabbed me by the nape of the neck, reached into my soul, and never let go. There are few things in this world as wild, as primal, or as powerful as blues guitar. In the hands of a master musician, the guitar screeches and squeals; it cries and howls; it wails and yowls; it bawls, and it shouts. Blues guitar can reach in and rip the soul right out of your body.
Blues is an emotional art form. It’s a musical style born in the heart and sung straight from the soul. Blues singers cover the entire range of the emotional spectrum. Capturing the full gamut of the human experience. Bluesmen sing about headache and heartbreak, lust and love, betrayal and rage, hope and happiness. But at its absolute best, the blues is about redemption. It’s a feeling that can cut you down at the knees or inspires you to stand up tall on your own two feet. And that’s what blues music was for me-the soundtrack of my redemption. In the words of Howling Wolf, “The Blues can fill you with a low down sorrow that hurt so bad, you wish you was dead, or it can make you fall in love too. “
And that’s exactly what the blues did for me. It gave me the confidence to stand tall; it connected me with my people; and it helped me to sing my song and add it to the rich tapestry of black American art.
So, as I entered The River Street Jazz Club nearly ten years ago, I had no idea I was walking into my collective past and towards my individual future.
Growing up in a litter of five, my sister and I were the only children of color. In fact, my sister was the only other black face I’d ever seen until I was in my late teens. My mother was a small, lily-white woman with dark hair and big brown eyes. Sadly, she was also a spiteful and uneducated racist with a keen hatred for black music, black art, and black people. My mother had many rules of the house. One of those rules was absolutely no music-especially black music-in the home or on the car radio. On the rare occasions that I broke the rule, my mother would come stampeding into the living room and stare directly into my child eyes.
Dropping her voice an octave-her breath reeking of mayonnaise and kielbasa-she’d sternly grumble, “Son, you stay away from those niggers.” Viper-tongued and dripping venom, she’d hoarsely whisper, “They’ll slit your throat and stab you in the back when you least expect it.” Then, as a final refrain-voice an octave higher-she’d add, “Now turn that god damn nigger music off and get out of my face!”
But as I walked through the rusty steal door on a Tuesday, at the age of twenty-three or twenty-four, I was-forever-leaving it all behind.
Oddly enough, a white French-Canadian poet and American outlaw writer named Jack Kerouac helped guide me through the prison of my past towards the freedom of my future. I was a young man and curious about everything. I’d been reading the about beat writers, and I was passionate about the whole thing. I was mad for the world and mad about life. I was crazy about art and books; I was hot about poetry and music. As Henry David Thoreau once said, “I went into the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” For black men in America, our history, our language, and our music are our proverbial “woods.” When I walked into a smoky, upscale juke joint in Plains, Pennsylvania called The River Street Jazz Club, I was walking into the wild. I was rediscovering a part of my people long lost in American culture.
Historically speaking, there are few social advantages to being born black in America, but blues music is one of our rare cultural heritages. The Blues is a testament to our suffering. It’s a means of “bearing witness” to the atrocities of our origins in America. And beyond that, the Blues “bears witness” to the human soul-from the depths of greed and lust, to the peaks of love and kindness. There was, and always will be, a part of me inherently drawn to the struggles and triumphs of the oppressed -and make no mistake about it; the Blues is an art form created by the oppressed and dispossessed in America.
It was a Tuesday night-open mike night-at The River Street Jazz Club, and the joint was mostly empty. The few patrons there were middle-aged, well dressed, upper class white men. But I didn’t mind. I wasn’t there for the crowd or even for the girls. It was curiosity that had driven me there. It was my people shouting through the weighty din of history that compelled me to go. It was fate that landed me in the audience on that very special night.
I was lucky enough to walk in on an exceptional set. Although there were only a handful of regulars in the audience, local blues legend Clarence Spady was playing as if the devil himself had possessed him. Clarence is a small, middle-aged, dark-skinned black man from Scranton, Pennsylvania. Once hailed as “the future of the blues,” he’s also one of the “baddest guitar slingers” on the planet. His father was a legendary blues guitarist, and if it weren’t for his nasty heroin habit, the name Clarence Spady would be synonymous with the Blues. He’d be right up there with B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Muddy Waters.
That night, the Clarence Spady Trio took us all on an eager journey through the history of the blues. From its origins in the Mississippi Delta, he played songs like “Dust My Broom” and “Illinois Blues.” I sat there-jaw-dropped and mesmerized-as he covered uptown Chicago rhythm and blues hits like “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “Spoonfull.” He even played grease-drippin’ funk classics like “Cissy Strut” and “Pick Up the Pieces” before ending the set with a faithful Hendrix rendition of “Little Wing.”
I had never seen or heard anything like it my life. His fingers flew across the guitar like a force of nature. Truly, the man was a hurricane on six strings-pure raw and primal energy. But there was one song in particular that stayed with me over the years-a Robert Johnson cover entitled “Crossroads Blues.”
Robert Johnson is a legend-a Faustian myth in the annuals of blues history. As a young man, Jonson would hang around the juke joints and honkey-tonks admiring established bluesmen like Son House and Charlie Patton. At that time, young Robert Johnson couldn’t play for dead. He would just sit there admiring his heroes. When the guitar found its way into Johnson’s hands, the other musicians would leave the room because Robert sounded like a yowling cat. Then one day, the story goes, Robert walked in, sat down, and mesmerized the crowd with his unearthly playing. He blew legendary players Son House and Charlie Patton off the stage. The new king of the blues had arrived, and a legend was born. But Johnson was gone almost as soon as he arrived. Dying on all fours, barking and howling like a rabid dog, Johnson was rumored to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his otherworldly guitar skills.
Robert Johnson wrote “Crossroad Blues” in his early twenties. Most people think the song is about his deal with the devil, but for me-on that evening-it took on an entirely different meaning altogether. Johnson tells the story of a lonely, frightened black man walking on a dark road late at night. He writes, “I went down to the crossroads and fell down on my knees. I went down to the crossroads and fell down on my knees.” As Clarence sang the first lines, I knew that the lonely, frightened black man was I, and I also realized that my people’s music and their history was my lonely darkened road.
The second verse begins with one of the saddest lines ever written in the blues idiom. Johnson writes, “Mmmm, the sun goin’ down, boy, dark gon’ catch me here. Oooo, eeee, boy, dark gon’ catch me here. I haven’t got no lovin’ sweet woman that love and feel my care.” It’s the same kind of lonesomeness I lived with my whole life-a profound and deep sadness permeating from the pit of my stomach to the bottom of my soul. It was the kind of loneliness that drove me from my home to The River Street Jazz Club by myself on a Tuesday night.
I wish I could tell you that “Crossroad Blues” ends happily. It doesn’t. But I can happily report that my story does.
Hearing the Blues for the first time was like finding religion. I sat there alone in the club, white-knuckled and dripping in sweat. I knew right then and there that I’d own a guitar. In fact, I knew that I’d die if I didn’t, so I called off of work the next day and scoured the local pawnshops until I found the guitar that felt just right-a well-worn, fat-bodied Yamaha acoustic. Guitar in hand, I threw two hundred and fifty dollars (rent be damned!) on to the counter and walked out of the pawnshop towards the rest of my life.
I’ve owned a handful of guitars, played hundreds of shows, and discovered countless guitarists over the years, but there will always be an empty seat in the bar of my heart for Clarence Spady and the gifts that he gave that night: a lifetime love affair with the Blues and a visceral connection to my heritage and my people-blues people.
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