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Blue Note Souls

written by: Ron Kempton

 

I’ve come a long way with the help of God. He lives out on Rout 61, somewhere between Memphis and Clarksdale. I was twenty-one in 1936. My mother and father split after he caught her with a needle and tracks on her legs. I never saw either one of them again.

My name is Chance Rhine. I’m the only female bass player working the “Chitlin’ Circuit” with any band that needs me. Mostly second-rate gospel bands and Creole musicians from New Orleans.

I was in Baton Rouge doing a gig with a Creole group for a two-week stay. One night, after the joint closed, all the musicians came out and played a long, after hours’ jam. That’s where I met Moze. He wouldn’t tell anyone his last name, so everyone called him “Slo Mo.” He talked slow, walked slow, he just did everything slow. Mmm mmm mmm!  He’d get ‘hold of a mic and start singin’… in that slow, deep, syrupy voice. Oh Lord! The room and the women in it melted, real soft and easy.

He was chocolate-faced, real milky dark skin. He had no problem attracting female attention.  As I recall, he had a different woman on his arm every time I saw him. I saw what they saw, but being shy and needing to work so I could have a room and food on the table, I never said much. I’m quiet about that sort of thing anyway.

He was a good man to me. As a matter of thought, he changed my world all the way around. He liked me ‘cause he said, “There ain‘t no women bass players I ever heard of, and your skin is lighter than mine!” It made him feel like he didn’t stand out so much. I never saw him stand out or get noticed by anyone except women. No one wants folks noticing them, but that’s what he thought and that was fine with me. As long as I was working.

He was right about my light skin. Fact is, my grandfather was white -  part German. The way I heard it, when I was coming up was, that he raped my grandmother and she got pregnant with my daddy. I remember them pretty well, being at their house near Tupelo. When she got with child, she found him and said it was his child and he was going to help raise him. If he didn’t, she’d kill his sister and his mother.

I wasn’t sure that story was all right. I’d seen them together and it looked to me like they got on pretty well. I think what might’ve been is, they were both young and had a time together. He got her knocked up. One way or the other, that’s how my daddy came into the world.

He was stern, taught to listen to classical music. Our house was only allowed to hear the masters and that’s what I grew up on. He was very religious. I was not going to listen to no “Devil music.” If he caught me, he’d skin me alive.

We had an old upright piano that was solid out of tune. Somehow, I could hear the low end. I sat at that old piano picking out the bass lines. Made my mama proud. She secretly worked up extra money selling black tar. I think that’s how she got herself mainlined. If it was or wasn’t, she saved enough to get me an old stand-up bass from the church. It was laying in the basement. They guessed it might be better having me playing on it than rotting down there.

When my daddy found out, he beat mama bad. They just never got on. I don’t know what made ‘em get hooked up in the first place! I don’t think I want to. Once my folks split, there wasn’t a reason for me to carry on like I had a family or nothing so I went out and started buskin’ on my stand-up near street corners. Wasn’t long before traveling musicians went hiring me to be their bass player. I been working ever since.

Moze got on with white folks. I don’t know how he did. I never asked him about it, he just got on with anybody that came along. Me? I stayed quiet and kept to myself. Moze was just a friendly, sweet looking man with good graces. There was some he would stay away from, but mostly he got on with everybody around the circuit. He was one of those folks that most everyone liked the minute they came on him. I stayed with him as long as he was going to have me for a lot of reasons, but that was one good one that kept me on. He hired me to play for his band, and I thought, “Hell, why not?” Figuring it wouldn’t last long. I couldn’t know then I was there to stay.

The boys were good to me. They treated me like they treated each other! Reverend “Mac” Smith was the drummer. All he cared about was getting paid. He didn’t talk much, but he drummed his ass off! The whole band just fell into his groove without thinking too much. T. Red played guitar and smiled all the time. He always said, “The world look better when you smile.”

“Big Slim” Little rode the keys. Played piano like a madman. He was short and wide and I loved to hear him talk. He had a Creole drawl and told stories from all over. Made me laugh so hard I nearly wet myself. Horn players came and went. Swing was the thing, and they went whenever and wherever the money got better. Never got to know them well before they were off again. We were a great band even so, and Mr. Moze had some fine contacts all over the South. He helped everyone. Sometimes by gigging for free, other times with whatever money he had saved. He was well liked and well respected in Memphis and all around the South. He worked hard! He asked his musicians to work hard too. He was good to us, and we played our hearts out for him.

The year got on and we were gigging big time all over. I played my fingers to the bone every night for eight months. When the end of 1936 hit, we played even more. After the year passed, we stopped off in Memphis, did a gig on Beal Street, then nearly dropped over. Moze said, “We all ought to settle down for a spell and let winter pass.” I dropped right there in Memphis and felt like I might just sleep the whole year away. It was restful as it could be. Time passed and I thought maybe Moze and the band took off without me! Then one early morning he rang me up and said, “I got you lined up. You good to go?” I didn’t say anything until he asked, “Are you still there?”

“I would love to keep working with you Moze”. He asked me where I was. Said he was nearby and could he come over? “I’ll be waiting,” I answered. I made sure I was proper, then looked out past the stained frames of the old window from the room I had for six dollars a week: the beige walls, single mattress, a washbasin with the bathroom down the hall almost made a home. It was time to leave. I wanted to go with Moze. I felt so at ease with him.

Truth told, I was pretty taken with him. I never felt that way about anyone! As much as I knew, no one ever felt that way about me. I’m tall and thin. Maybe that’s it. Or, maybe I just felt more about playing music than getting cute with a man.

A light knock on my door pulled me away from my inner thoughts. Then I heard a slow, soft, voice say, “I know y’all’s in there. Ain’t nowhere else you might be.” I smiled and called back, “I might be anywhere. It just so happens that I’m in here.” I opened the door and there stood Moze, dressed fit to kill.

“Good Lord, man! Look at you! Where you goin’ in them duds?“

My God, that man was good-looking. He just a lady killer every way you turn him. He smiled and said, “I’m out conductin‘ business.” “Come in here before the neighbors start talkin!’” I cautioned. There was no way you couldn’t feel the chemistry ‘tween him and me. It just filled the room. “I was hopin’ to see you alone for a spell Miss Rhine. Can I feel free to share my feelings with you?” He was looking so good his feelings were the last thing on my mind. But he got me wondering, so I said, “Speak your mind Mister, I’m standin’ right here.”

He looked at me like a sad ol’ dawg, then he looked at the floor and cleared his throat. “Chance, I sure do feel strong about you. You’re a beautiful woman, and I think we could make a real nice couple.” I looked right at him and said, “Is that how you sweet talk all them gals you’re with every time I see you?” “Fair enough, and I had it comin,’” he said. “Chance, I spent these long winter months workin’ up to sayin’ what I feel for you. I know I been a tomcat and you got every right to turn me down ‘cause of it.”

I was melting like a woman might, but I just had to step back and show him I wasn’t going to be another one of his fancies. “Does that mean you want to marry me?” That old southern air just set itself as still as Sunday morning. All you could hear was the slow turn of the ceiling fan. Then he looked at me all slow and gentle and said, “Yes Ma’am it does.”

I wasn’t sure I could trust the world around me, but he was always real good to me. I stood there looking at him. For all the music in my soul I couldn’t conjure up a reason to say “No.” This meant I was going to take on his name.

“Moz, I’ll be takin’ your name. I think it’s time you told me what it is. I need to know your last name.” I spoke more like I was asking than not. He stood there awhile looking around the room for a spell and said, “I sure am hungry…you hungry Chance?” I knew he was avoiding what it was I was trying to get at, plain as day. “Moze you just asked me to marry you. That means I’ll be takin’ on your name. Now, what is it?” I started poking him in the ribs with my fingers.

Then I did something I swear I thought I’d never do. I didn’t even know I knew how. I sidled right up to him, looked at him real sweet, and spoke in a kind of soft sweet voice. “I do want to be close to you.” I let my hands run up his chest. Then I kissed him real soft and he looked at me and said, “Damn!” I quit the girl stuff and said, “You know, maybe I might change my way of thinking. If you don’t want to give me your last name, maybe I can find a man that does.”

“It’s ‘Flowers,” he choked out. I looked at him long enough to make him blush and then I started laughin.’ “Don’t you laugh at me! It was my daddy’s name and that’s what I got.” He was trying to be stern, but it didn’t come off. Moze was just a sweet jar of honey. Him trying to sound angry was not going to work.

“What’s your middle name if you don’t mind me askin?” I was still smiling and he was acting hurt so I told him, “Moze you a good man no matter what. I don’t mean to laugh, it just took me by surprise.” He smiled and said, “My mama named me ‘Moses Raincloud Flowers.’” “’Raincloud!’” I burst out laughing again. “Good Lord, Boy, no wonder you don’t tell folks your name. Hell, if I was named all that I’d call myself ‘Don’t Ask!’”

He sat down on the edge of the bed and started laughing. “Sweet Jesus, I been hidin’ from that name my whole life.” I sat down next to him and leaned my head on his shoulder. “I just feel your love all over Mr. Moze, and I don’t care you got a name like… ’Raincloud.?’” Then I started laughin’ again. “Where your mama get that from?”

He answered soft and slow. “She was made to help her mother at a schoolhouse near a reservation when she was comin’ up. Her mama heard that name and liked it. That’s all there is to it.” Then he said, “Ain’t much worse than ‘Chance.’” I pushed him down on the bed and said, “Y’all’s crazy.” He pulled me down close. “If this is crazy, I’ll have the whole thing.” He looked at me soft and real. Before I knew my own heart, we kissed. His arms wrapped me so tight and strong, I about gave in to the moment. I just felt warm. Part of a connection that only touched him and me. Then I let go and said, “There ain’t nothin’ wrong with my name… Raincloud. I s’pose I could live with ‘Chance Flowers.’” Then he crooned in his slow deep stage voice, “Just before we go any further, I think we might take some vows.”

Lifting myself up, I reached for my coat and handbag. We wasted no time. Found a judge, called some of the musicians for witnesses, and got hitched. Wasn’t long before we were on the road and making music.

Spring and summer went by so fast I can’t hardly remember anything but playing our fingers off. We got married and hit the road.

A woman is blessed with intuition. She can look through a man’s face and tell if he‘s lyin,’ cheatin,’ or even if he’s lost the feelin’s he once had. I knew Moze loved me and was keeping the promise he made. Each day that went by gave my heart the passion I needed to fall deeper in love with my man. That I did with my whole heart, soul, and strength.

Moze billed us as “Sweet Surrender.” That Autumn the clubs we played jumped all night long. In late September the “Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith, was killed along Highway 61 near Clarksdale. The man on the radio said they got her to the G.T. Thomas Hospital, but she died early the next morning. It hit Moze real hard. He met Bessie once on the circuit and they talked about doin’ somethin’ together.

He always wanted to sing with her. He got close, but the chance just kept getting past him. Now it was gone forever.

That night in our room, he sat stone-still near the window and whispered, “Now Bessie is gone, maybe I might run into Robert Johnson.” I spoke up and asked, “Slo, I don’t think I ever heard of Robert Johnson. Is he a friend of yours?” He looked at me for some spell and said, “Lord, Miz Chance, where you been? He’s a songster.

Plays guitar like a crazy man! He is hard to come by. I just happened to hear him once at a juke joint I was at with a…” “With a what?” I said, knowing full who and what he was with. “Why don’t you just tell me about this Mr. Johnson?” I said, letting go for good reason. “He can turn out a blues with more feelin’ than both of us put together.” “Well, no wonder he got past me.” I told him. “My daddy swore he’d skin me alive if he caught me listenin’ to that ol’ ‘Devil music.’” “Come on, I’m goin’ to take you with me Girl.” “Where you takin’ me at this hour?” I said, letting go of my apron. “Come on, Lady C, we are steppin’ into the night.”

We drove toward the river, then south on Riverside. I said, “Hang on Moze. I want to stop a spell and look at that ol’ river.” We pulled off to the side of the road and just let that water shine into the night. Moze said, “Life keep on goin’ just like that river out there. Ain’t nobody goin’ to stop it.” I agreed, then told him, “It’s so beautiful, I get all soft inside and think about things like music and love.”

Moze paused, then said. “It reminds me of singin.’ I think about the motion of that river sometimes when I’m on stage. I love to get that slow motion feelin.’ Let those notes roll on out of my soul, just like that river.”

The next thing I knew we were kissing and hugging. It got real steamy too. Then Moze says, “Child, if we don’t get on we gonna be here all night.” We left the river and soon got to a place where the night folks work their trade. Moze parked, then came around to my side of the old ‘28 Duesenberg that almost ran like a car should, and opened the door.

“My my, you showin’ me something tonight!” I laughed. “Please take my arm.” He spoke softly. I was getting all romance-like and feeling real sweet on him, wanting to cozy up to my man. We walked down in shadowed neon that made the road shine in all of life’s colors. Every night owl we passed stepped aside and spoke out: “Slo Mo, good to see y’all tonight.” He took me around a corner and down an old alley, then inside what was once a booming speakeasy. Been a few years since prohibition ended, but this place still kept the night light burning.

We left our coats up front and found a small table near the empty stage. One blue light gave the stage a mysterious glow, as if looking for a guitar, drums, or piano to cast an eye on out of the darkness. Moze looked over to me and smiled. I turned and looked as a woman came around my side of the table. “Slo! I haven’t seen you in so long!” She spoke with a dark accent that made me warm and scared at the same time. “Shadow, this is my wife, Chance.”

Moze looked in my direction. She sat at the table and reached her hands out to me. Her dark eyes filled me, made me feel as if I was alone with her in a place that only the two of us could share. I believe she had that effect on everyone. She was beautiful and sensual. Her thumb slid down the back of my hand. My heart pounded as she pulled me close and hugged me. Her black hair framed her face like water falling, her lips a sweet tenderness. I felt so timid when she looked in my direction I knew I must be blushing. She was sweet sexuality and cruel emptiness all at once. You could feel her presence heat your body and freeze your soul at the same time.

The spell was broken by the sound of Moze saying, “Where’s Misty Lain?” “I had to separate him from his manhood and send him off.”

She spoke in such a sultry tone that Moze and I both got lost in the cold reality of her wicked deed. “He was no longer giving me all I need.”

Her words grabbed me and slid over my skin. I almost couldn’t sit there any longer. I looked at Moze pleading with my eyes, when he said, “Shadow owns this joint. She just ain’t a woman you cross in word or deed.” Shadow smiled and then devoured me with her gaze.

“I’m a Gypsy, Chance. I don’t like to be exposed by lies; only warm hands. Tell me you sweet thing, is Moze treating you right?” “Yes. I know he loves me and I love him.” My voice fell shallow in her gaze then she said, “You let me know if he ever hurts you, and I’ll have his hands cut off for you.”

I had no doubt whatsoever that this woman was as dark and mysterious as she seemed. Her manner left no question. Any man or woman messing with her would spend the rest of their life in a hell they would never get out of. I could sense all over the room that everyone knew not to mess with Shadow. You may never be heard from again. If you were, it wouldn’t matter.

She cast her gaze toward the barkeep. He called out, “Salty!” I must have been lost in a spell. The room, so crowded when we came in, was now almost empty. A man looking about half past dead walked onto the stage with a guitar in hand and sat down on a piano stool in the dusky blue light. Every note was slow, sad. His hand slid up the neck of his guitar, then eased back down.

Each note rolled over my body. Warm fingers lightly caressed my soul and spirit. He pulled strings, bent strings, sometimes softer, sometimes harder, I let myself feel his touch and became his instrument. Nothing ever sounded so painful, yet so sweet. It was like being kissed for the first time, sultry and strange. I couldn’t get enough. He hummed and moaned, then told a story. His voice let me know he felt every inch of it.

My woman turned sunshine all into rain
Lord, my woman turned sunshine…all into rain
She ran off with her candy boy
Left me here cryin’ all hurt ‘n  full of pain

If this was what my daddy called “Devil music,” then let it burn me to the ground. We left before the early hours. The blues he played lit my soul on fire. Shadow was long gone, casting her seductive spell on whoever she was with. Moze drove me back to our room. Sunrise washed the city. We never left the bed. The long night had turned us inside out. It was well past mid-day before we went to sleep.

We hit the circuit in late March. We had a new drummer, name of “Smoky Man” Jim. He laid down some kind of wild beat that got us and the audience up and jumpin.’ I was on Moze about playin’ blues all the time! I never let up. We were hot with the jazzy Creole Moze loved, but I was on him about getting some up-tempo blues into our set. “Woman!” he said. You gonna stop dawgin’ me or we gonna have some kind of nasty words. I ain’t playin’ blues in this band. I can’t sing blues like some of them guys. It would never give me a chance to sing the way I like to. You know, like that ol’ river out there.” It was no use. He had his mind set and wasn’t going to change anytime soon.

The summer of 1938 was hot and humid. “Sweet Surrender” played all over the South. We were in demand and Moze couldn’t get enough. In mid-August, word came down from some traveling songsters that Robert Johnson had been poisoned near Greenwood, Mississippi. The band took the news with sad resolve. There was nothing to do but keep playing. Moze booked us all over, and as much as I loved playing, it was all going too fast. Way too fast. I felt the need to ease up, but Moze was the bandleader and wanted to keep working. He booked us anywhere and everywhere.

In late August, he started movin’ us west into Texas and further up north. We did some gigs in Port Arthur and Moze starts talking California.

“Moz Honey,” I said, “We got to slow up some. Bad things happen when you get goin’ too much.” “This kind of thing don’t always stay with ya Chance! It’s here today, gone tomorrow.” He spoke to me as he kept on looking for more places to play.

At the end of August we pulled into a small town east of Beaumont, Texas. We found rooms at a refurbished rooming house that used to be an old farmhouse for work hands. I didn’t feel right from the start. It was dusty and any folks we did see looked at us with more than suspicion.

The rooms were small and the beds were clean, with sheets that were old but fresh draped on the back of a chair. It was a one night stand, but that didn’t stop me from gettin’ after Moze. “We don’t need anything like this Slo.” “It’s just one night and then we won’t come back.” He said over and over. “Honeyboy, you got to listen to me! This place has a bad way, a feelin.’ It just is a place we shouldn’t be. Slo, I can’t tell you why. It just don’t feel right.” He looked me in the eye before he spoke. “Miss Cain is an old friend of mine. She owns this place. She’ll take good care of us and Woman, I can’t manage a band based on your feelin’s. Now please stop dawgin me.”

It was no good saying anything more. I went along hoping we could get out of there soon as possible. By mid- afternoon it was time to go set up the stage. The place was an old converted movie house. I don’t think it even had a name. To me It was just a dump. It was on the black side. The white side of town started right across the street from where we were unloading our gear. There was a filling station with a bunch of white boys yelling after us, hounding us and making threats.

They’d been drinking. It was mid-day, and they were pretty lit up already. We all ignored them while we took the instruments out from the baggage compartment on the side of the bus. Then one of them threw a beer bottle. It hit me square in the back. I fell down with the breath knocked out of me for a spell. I felt Moze and the others trying to help me up. For the first time since I met him, Moze lost his temper. He stood up and called them boys a bunch o’ no good crackers. Then he hurled the bottle back at them. It hit one of the younger boys in the head, and left a gash.

Just then the police rolled up. I was still catching my breath and by now I was up leaning on the bus. My back was sore and I figured there was gonna be a pretty bad bruise there for some time. The cops ran the boys off and told them not to come back. Then they arrested Moze for disturbing the peace! It took all afternoon to get him bailed out. The judge was old and couldn’t hardly hear. The folks whose boy was hurt were there with their friends and town folk, angry as hell and calling out Moze should be hung right then and there! It took so long it was only minutes before stage time when we all got back. Some of the boys stayed there and had it all set up so we just went out, played, got through it as soon as we could, then headed back to the rooming house.

We pulled into the lot. I got right off the bus and went into the room. Falling on the bed felt so good. My body was aching and my back was so sore I could barely move. I drifted in and out of sleep. I couldn’t rest until we were as far away from that place as we might get. I could hear the guys moving their equipment out of the bus and reloading things for the trip back to Memphis.

Then I heard the sound of cars. More than one. Car doors were opening then slamming shut. I knew deep inside without seeing anything what was up. As painful as it was, I got up and moved slow to the door of the room. There were men all over, yelling and fighting. This wasn’t a load of cowards with hoods on their heads. It was all the folks from the court room they took Moze to. Men and women whipping and beating everyone. “T Red” was laying near the bus covered with blood. They threw rocks at the bus, breaking windows and hollering

“String ‘em up! That’ll teach ‘em!”

I started to yell for Moze, but as soon as I did I felt a crash on the back of my head and everything went black. I don’t know how long I was out, but when I came to, the fightin’ was over and the cars were gone. The sun was bright by then. I made myself get up, stumbling and fighting my way to my feet. I looked all over, not seeing well. I tripped and fell over something. When I got a good look, I saw that it was “Big Slim” Little. He was dead. Cut up real bad, all on his face. His fingers were gone on his right hand. “Awe Jesus, Moze, where are you? Moze!” I yelled. I tripped and stumbled my way around the bus and looked over the grounds.

The horror that met my eyes was too much for me to take in. Moze was hanging from a tree about two feet off the ground choking and gasping. I ran over and grabbed his legs. I held him up for as long as I could. I don’t know where the strength came from but I held him up for longer than I thought I could, yelling for help. He had his hands tied behind him, my strength was all out from my back to my head. I was beat up and hurting. I pushed him up for what seemed so long, and in the August heat it was all I could do to keep myself standing and him from strangling.

I yelled for help, calling out to the boys in the band until my throat was all used up. I could feel him trying to help me by struggling to get his hands free, but he was still choking, he’d struggle then fall limp. I felt something dripping on my face. I thought it was sweat until I looked down and saw blood all over my clothes. It was coming from my man. He was choking up blood and gagging on it! He finally got his hands free just as Reverend Mac kicked the luggage compartment door and fell out, gasping for air. When he saw what was going on, he got up and ran over to help.

Moze was able to reach up and pull the noose off his neck. When he did he fell forward. I shouted in pain. Mac caught him, then all three of us tumbled to the ground. We lay there for a spell until Miss Cain rolled up with her truck all full of food and tools. She had been gone all night and was just getting back from buying supplies.

She was a business woman, she was also white. I had misgivings, but she was an old friend of Moze.’ He helped her by playing for free at her club in New Orleans when it first opened. That was a few years back. She loved musicians and wanted to spread out. She took up this place so musicians had a place to stay when they played nearby. She also wanted to work it into a motel. When she saw what was going on, she ran over to help. All three of us took Moze into her house.

She called the ambulance and police. After an hour, the ambulance got there with the police. Seems they had to fight over whose county we were in so they could decide who would come and take Moze to what hospital. The police acted like they didn’t understand what for, until Miss Cain told them they’d better start doing their job or she would make a call to judge Troyman. He was a friend of hers. “I’ll let him hear about a bunch of shiftless cops who didn’t care to help me when I needed it!” I was so intent on Moze, I couldn’t focus on the rest of the guys. I found out later, the dead and wounded were taken care of. The killer of “Big Slim” was arrested and his cronies charged as accessories. Not certain what became of that. Never heard anything about it.

“I suppose my money isn’t good enough for the people I helped get into office. Now officers, do you want to uphold the law or should I start using my political clout to have you removed from your jobs?”

The officers stood there. It all just seemed beyond them. Miss Cain walked over, picked up her phone, and started dialing. “Now just hang on a minute, Miss Cain,” one of them said. “You don’t need to go stirrin’ up more trouble than we already got!” “Then you find the monkeys’ asses that tore up this poor man on my place, and you arrest them. I will be pressing charges!” She got them moving and the ambulance drove Moze and me to the hospital for coloreds.

Moze was in the hospital for three weeks in Texas. Then Miss Cain helped get him moved to Clarksdale, the same hospital Bessie Smith died in just a year before. I didn’t know how much money and influence Miss Cain had.  Moze told me later that she was responsible for a lot of judges, lawyers and officials all over the south. The men and women that did this didn’t keep from getting caught and jailed for their attack on her property. The young men who started it all in the first place were also charged. I didn’t hear much of that kind of thing in those days. Almost always the folks who did that sort of thing got away with it.

Miss Cain and Moze were long-time friends. He worked for her and helped her by playing music at her place for free. Now she was ready to give back when he was in need. After a long spell, she had him moved to Memphis so he could be closer to home. Folks from all over came to see Moses. He was much loved and with the help of Miss Cain, they all pitched in and got us a small house on a tree-lined street.

I brought him to our new home when he was released. It was small, but we didn’t need much more room than what the two of us took up. Time passed. He wanted to get back to what he loved. He tried to sing, but nothing came out except an old gravelly sound that wasn’t going to work for the music he loved.

I never saw him so sad. He just looked at me and whispered, “I can’t sing like the river no more. I ain’t worth the mud it’s flowin’ over. Sweet Lord, Chance! We were so close. I been on the phone to the folks in Los Angeles more than once. My soul is weary and I feel like dyin.” I sat up straight and looked at him. “Say that again, Moze!”

He stared at me, puzzled. “My soul is weary and I feel like dyin.’”

I stared back at him for the longest time. Then I called the band. It wasn’t long before we were all crowded into the little house Moze and I shared. “Play a blues,” I called out. They started the intro and played sweet and slow. “Now Slo,’ say it again,” I said. “Say what?” he growled. “Say how you feel.” “My soul is weary and I feel like dyin.’” He called out over the band. “I’ll be damned. Keep playin.’” He yelled.

He rose up, slow and painful, and sang a blues with the soul and feeling that could make you cry. When the song was over I said,

“You may not be able to croon like you used to, but Lord man, you can sing a blues like nobody else.”

The winter passed while Moze got rested. By late spring, he was ready to make a go of it. We changed the song list to all blues and jazz blues. Sure enough, Miss Cain called. She was re-opening her jazz club in New Orleans.

We made the trip, but Moze was just too beat up to keep going. He just no longer had the juice for such hard traveling. Once in a while, we’d play gigs around Memphis. Some of the old musicians would show up, but that’s all. Moze was never quite the same. I loved him even so. We spent our days in different places.

Sometimes Moze had the get-up and go to travel to New Orleans. He was a sucker for the Big Easy. Miss Cain always liked to get him on a stage when she could. The musicians enjoyed playing, and seeing Moses again made them feel at home. Sometimes we went down by way of the river.

Mostly we drove down highway 61. It’s said that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads there in Clarksdale. Bessie died there and countless musicians, men and women, traveled that road looking for redemption on the other end. Sometimes, when we’re driving along Highway 61. The smell of the damp air and trees smothered in ivy and moss fill me with a spirit I can’t explain.  I think about that big beautiful river and I swear… God made it all just for me. Some days end with me watching the sun set at the river’s edge.

Moze and I walk arm in arm talking sometimes, just quiet like. By 1953 I was alone.

Moze passed silent while he slept. I like to think he was playing and singing like he used too. Dreaming of the good days. I still work playing bass. I teach from time to time. On nights when I’m home alone, I think about my sweet Moses. How we sat and looked out the window of the small home our friends got us, had talks, and laughed. Oh! We sure laughed. We didn’t gig anymore, not like we used to. He longed to be on the road. I would sit by him, sing to him, share the cool of winter, cuss the Memphis heat, and take long walks along that big muddy river.

It talked slow, walked slow, it even sang slow as it made its way to New Orleans.

Moses knew that river like he knew himself. He was hurt by injustice, but he never got bitter. He just kept on moving, letting life be what it is: a long sweet song, sometimes filled with dissonance but sometimes filled with beautiful melodies.

I walk by the river alone now. When I ‘specially feel alone, I sit in the window Moze and I used to sit in together. I think about my Love and listen to Bessie Smith.

 

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:

I love blues music and the stories of the people who made that wonderful music. I wrote a  fictional story that relates the life of a young woman during a time when life was hard and frightening for African Americans. Her talent and her strength find her in places and with people she may not have been part of without falling in love with her band leader.

Ron Kempton

Ron Kempton

My name is Ron, I'm a poet, writer and award winning songwriter. I've been writer since I was eight years old, I play guitar, bass, some piano. It's my life long dream to write professionally, I write short stories and I've also written two books.
Ron Kempton

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