Short story about a blues legend, written from the point of view of his guitar.
The Blues Man
He was born to play the blues. We both were, really. I knew it the first time he picked me up, his small hand stretching across my neck as he made the shapes that form chords. I knew he would someday be a legend.
He found me in a music shop in Memphis, back in '49, when Beale Street was really happening, and not the tourist trap it is today. They weren't calling him “Honeyboy” yet, he was still plain ol' Curtis Walker to the world, and he was ten years old. He spent the entire summer working at the shop, sweeping, dusting, polishing and tuning guitars, whatever Mr. Jones asked, he did it. By the end of the summer, he had earned me, the only guitar he would ever own, the only one he would ever need.
We sounded great together, right from the start. He would strum and pluck my strings and harmonize with the sounds I made. Soon, he had learned to slide from fret to fret and bend my strings to add the bluesy sound we both loved so much.
Day and night we would play. Scales to warm up, then the songs he would hear on the race records his father played at home. Skip James, Howlin' Wolf, Leadbelly, all the greats of the blues. Then on Sunday, he would carry me to church and we would make a joyful noise unto the Lord.
One day, he took an old Coke crate and turned it upside down, glued a strip of sand paper to the bottom, then threaded a small strap of leather through the hole on a stack of washers, and fashioned it to the side of the box with a couple of screws. He would strum my strings and sing, while he tapped his foot on the crate to keep time, which added a drum beat, while the washers would add a jangly sound. Occasionally, he would scuff his shoe across the sand paper and get a scratchy sound to throw in the mix, and after a couple of years had passed, we sounded good enough for an audience, so we headed for Beale Street.
Beale Street is as famous to blues musicians as Wall Street is to business executives, or Broadway is to an actor. Dreams are realized or shattered on a one-mile stretch of road and the soundtrack never changes; call it stormy Monday, and Tuesday is just as bad.
We hung around Beale for most of his teenage years, playing in various clubs with whoever would let us on stage. Playing with the best, he learned from the best, and people like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Hound Dog Taylor became his mentors. By his sixteenth birthday, he had picked-up the nickname, “Honeyboy”, due to his “sweet licks”, and developed a reputation as a masterful, professional blues guitarist. When he received an invitation to tour the “Chitlin' Circuit” with “Smokehouse” Sammy Evans, he put on his best Sunday suit, quit school, and the two of us hit the road, playing blues, and getting paid to do it.
The “Chitlin' Circuit” was a string of nightclubs and theaters, throughout the south and east, where it was safe for black entertainers to perform. From Detroit, Michigan to Jacksonville, Florida, we played for anyone who would listen; Honeyboy even got to sing a few from time to time, especially on the nights Sammy wasn't up to it. Our turn to shine came more frequently, until finally, it became a regular part of the show.
Seven years passed and we had never looked back. The Apollo Theater, the Cotton Club, the Royal Peacock, we played for packed houses in all of them, and the name Honeyboy Walker began to stand alone. At age twenty-three, he was a seasoned veteran of the road, a professional musician in every sense of the word, and it was time for us to go out on our own.
He learned the craft of songwriting from Sammy, among a lot of other things. Smoking, gambling, drinking, and women seemed to go with the lifestyle, and Honeyboy didn't shy away from any of them. Just like the master musicians he learned from, he used these subjects in his songs, and soon, we were back on Beale Street, but this time, we were performing our own music, and the audiences were starting to take notice. We spent a few months in Memphis, eventually headlining a few of the smaller clubs on Beale Street, while we honed our act. One night, we were playing at the Scat Cat Club when Big Jim Lynch from Red Hot Records approached and said he wanted to give us a record contract. We were on our way.
We had been in plenty of recording studios during our time with Smokehouse Sammy, we even did some studio work on the side when we weren't touring. While being there was nothing new, it still seemed special; the two of us, realizing the dream we had forged together, back in the clubs on Beale Street.
Thanks to a blues revival in the late 50's and early 60's, the music was as popular as it had ever been, especially among young white kids, and our first record was a huge success! When we headed back out on tour, we found ourselves playing in some new places, like white clubs, college campuses, and even some of the larger venues, which we had not been able to get into before. By the time our tour was over, and we had released another album, Honeyboy got an offer to travel overseas to England, where the blues had found a new audience among the British youth.
The years we spent in England were joyous for both of us. He met a woman and got married, while we played hot blues music with a lot of people that would someday change the scene and become legends on their own. There was a new band, “The Rolling Stones”, who had taken their name from the lyrics in an old Muddy Waters tune, a young guitarist named Eric Clapton, who would eventually be featured in several wildly popular bands, before launching his own successful solo career, and a tragic young genius, named Jimi Hendrix. A fellow American, who would revolutionize the blues, the guitar, and music in general, then died way too early. For Honeyboy, it was the most creative time of his career, the songs he wrote and the records we made, seventeen in all, cemented his status as a blues legend; but, it was the love he made and the family he created, that thrilled him most. As the years rolled by, the kids grew and made their own families, and grandchildren became the joy in his heart. Meanwhile, as age sat in, his hands began to shake, and we stopped playing our songs; but, by then, the music had changed so much, nobody cared anyway.
I spent the next few years sitting alone on a stand, surrounded by memorabilia, in a room rarely visited. Gold records, old posters, and photographs made a fine monument to a grand career, but there was no one to play me. On the day he laid her to rest, he found me in the room. His blues were heavy and he needed to unburden himself, so he picked me up from the stand, his hands trembling with grief and pain. He laid me across his lap and fumbled through the chord shapes, just as he did back in Mr. Jones' music shop, and we softly moaned together. We played our blues, one last time.
While the sad, slow music spilled out of the room, it caught the ear of his grandson, a young man of ten, named Nathaniel. The music sounded sweet to him and he followed it into the room, and listened to us sing together. When the song was over, he walked into the arms of his grandfather, an hugged him for a long time, then sat down and picked me up. His small hand stretched across my neck, as Honeyboy showed him how to make the shapes that would form the chords.
Thank you for reading my story. I hope you enjoyed it, and will take time to read another!