Copyright (c) 2015 by Randall R. Peterson ALL RIGHTS RESERVED This is a work of fiction. All persons, locations and actions are from the author's imagination or have been used in a fictitious manner.
By R. Peterson
-------Saline County, Mississippi 1840-------
“Wallace! What’s that you be smiling about?” Fifty-five year old Bessie Willis arched her sweaty back against the long bag dragging behind her and looked to where her youngest son had moved over two rows east in the sultry cotton field. The pain just under her left rib-bone was getting stronger.
“Something moved past in the air momma … I’s can feel the breeze on my face!” Wallace Willis was looking toward an approaching patch of clouds in the sticky-warm Mississippi sky, “… like wind from a passing wagon.”
“Don’t you go talkin’ to me ‘bout no angels,” Mamma Willis scolded. She gritted her teeth and wiped her face on a white apron to hide the pain. A murder of crows rose from a gnarled magnolia tree and then quickly settled in the green leaves … too tired or too dazed by the day’s heat to fly. “Not with five more acres to pick before night fall!”
Cassie, Cassandra, Josh, Jacob and Andrew all looked up as their youngest brother began to sing … to a click and swish rhythm. Wallace’s opening and closing fingers snapped as they plucked cotton and then brushed the sides of the worn burlap bag slung over his shoulder. “Swing low … sweet chariot …”
“Now Walnut you listen to yo momma,” Jacob laughed. “Ain’t gonna’ be no death wagon comin’ fo my hide on dis day!”
Bessie felt the breath being forced from her lungs by the pain … and she prayed.
Wallace smiled and shook his head. “Coming for to … carry me … home.”
“You is askin’ for trouble little brother!” Cassie tied the top of a full bag and gave it to Josh.
“Swing low, sweet chariot.” Wallace sang louder this time. Bessie forced a smile. The talk and the song was freeing minds from the backbreaking work. The Willis family would still complain if they were sitting down to a whole-chicken and biscuit dinner.
“Lord Almighty!” Cassandra blurted. “Now day is two of dem. Who the other be fo?”
Josh’s rich baritone voice copied the four-three-one tempo. “Coming for to … carry me … home.” He looked at the others as he dragged the bag to the end of the row and made his eyes big. “I loads sacks on a wagon all days long … just fo once … I wishes I could ride.”
“You was, each of my young-ins, baptized in river water filled with the love of Jesus,” Bessie Willis lectured her children without a pause in her picking. Her voice was scratchy, forcing air, and she hid it with feigned indignation. “Same as John did to our savior in the Jordan. You’ll do good to keep yo eye on his good message … and on his Holy Book!”
After a moment, Wallace again sang softly. “I looked over Jordan … and what did I see …”
“That’s better momma … that’s in the good book.” Cassie pricked her hand on a dried bristle shaped like a thorn and stuck the finger in her mouth to stop the stinging, picking twice as fast with her left hand.
This time Josh sang along with Wallace … and they both looked up and asked the scorching sun the same question. “Coming for … to carry me … home?”
“You better hope it’s a chariot and not a wagon with Reverend Alexander Reid driving … him a wonderin’ who be calling down the Devil … and on his own land.” Bessie Willis was bent low in pain pulling on a clump of pigweed, when a sudden gust of wind lifted her apron and blew-away beads of sweat clustered on her forehead as well as a handful of cotton balls. She could breathe once more. Bessie and her entire family gasped at the sudden rush of heaven-sent cool, blissful air.
The sun glistened off a half dozen black faces and white smiles rising from the vast cotton fields as the siblings all sang together … “A band of angels coming after me …”
Momma Willis couldn’t resist the good feelings stealing into her heart. The sharp pain in her chest was beginning to ease. Thank you, Lord! Life was hard and the days long and hot, but she had her family close by. This was more than lots of folks had. Keep us together dear Jesus … me and my childs, she prayed. Maybe God was the wind … Bessie stared at leaves shimmering in the magnolia tree … they were both so hard to see … but so easily felt.
When Wallace sang again, the whole family joined in rich harmony … including momma … “Coming for … to carry me … home.”
-------Harlem, New York City 1913-------
“That’s a catchy tune!” Jim Burris opened the door of the third-floor hotel room holding a bottle of Pikesville Pure Rye Whiskey. A gust of wind sent sheet music pages flying across the room in a figure eight pattern. Chris Smith plunked at the keys of a battered piano situated midway between the room's two open windows. Their drapes fluttered in the breeze, and across the street, a murder of crows settled on the Layfayette Theatre's rooftop.
“Leave that door open,” Chris said “Feels like an angel come in …that be right downtown cool.”
Jim placed the bottle of booze on a small table next to the bed. “That song reminds me of a railroad tune my gran-pappy used to sing.” His eyes took on a far-away glaze.
“I didn’t know you was part china-mans,” Chris joked as he tried to tinkle two melodies together.
“Grand-Pops was part of a darkie-crew fetched to Plum Creek Nebraska to keep things rolling after the chinks wanted to be paid white-wages for rockin’ the rails and stayed in their beds.” Jim wiped sweat from his head, poured two glasses and handed one to Chris. “It’s a working song, and you has to be movin’ to sings it.”
“I thought you was out for the day with that woman of yours?”
“Naw, she went to that frees-fo-everbody clinic to see after that cough of hers.”
Jim stood up and stretched his legs, then he ordered Chris to play the first line again …“Walk me there brother … slow and easy.” He tap-danced as he sang words to the notes … “First you put your hands on the rail … and you hold on tight.”
Chris turned and watched his friend as he played. “You got some moves there brother.”
Jim was miming the railroad work. “Then you lay 'em to the left, then you lay 'em to the right …” His feet were getting into the swing. “…Step around the ties all nice and light …Then you rock ‘em down and rock ‘em down with all a your might,”
“You go on uptown,” Chris cried in jubilation.
“Stretch your lovin' arms straight out in space …then you go fetch another with style and grace.”
Chris began to play faster and he shouted. “I hear that smoky train a comin’ and we is rockin’ and a rollin!”
“Swing it from the pile and bring it back … from now till night-come you be ballin' the jack.”
Loud coughing came from the hallway just as Chris and Jim finished the song. Juliana Brown swayed in the doorway half-dressed in a chorus girl costume. She looked pale. “What’s all this stomping going on?” she scolded. “I got no sleep and two shows to do tonight!” She began to cough again and only Chris noticed blood on the cloth she held to her mouth.
“What that doctor say about you bein’ sick, Baby?”
“He say a shot of whiskey and a hot bath fix me up fine,” Juliana lied. The word tuberculosis felt like a knife that had been stuck in her chest.
“You tell Mr. Levy we gots another tune for the Darktown Follies,” Jim told her. There was pride in his eyes.
“Not no railroad smoky jive you don’t,” Juliana chortled. Her hands shook as she poured herself a drink and lit a cigarette. She gave Chris a warning look and rolled the bloody-cloth secretly into her hand from behind a cloud of exhaled smoke. “This show is about dancing … not a bunch of damn track-tramps.”
“That’s alright mama,” Jim told her. “I’s can change the words up a bits … tickle that dead elephant again Chris!”
This time Jim sang the words a bit different. “First you put your two knees close up tight … then you sway 'em to the left, then you sway 'em to the right,” He didn’t hear Juliana begin to cough again.
“I think we is cookin’ up something here …” Chris stood up smiling.
“I hope so, Juliana said wiping blood drops from her mouth with the hanky. “I just saw that hard man Richards downstairs and he say if he don’t got four dollars in his hand by morning … we is all haulin’ our butts to the East River. We ain’t all eatin’ … off what I makes dancing.” Juliana’s face was a world of trouble. She tried to hide the swollen arm Silent Tom had twisted until she screamed.
“Baby Doll, I gots me a song that's gonna change all our lives — you won' have to dance no more 'lessen you wants to!' Jim sprung to his feet, smacked a kiss on her cheek then rummaged through a littered drawer for pencil and paper. “I best write down these here words,” and his voice rang with laughter.
He had just scratched Ballin’ the Jack on the paper when Juliana swayed and then crashed to the floor. A glowing Chesterfield cigarette rolled across the wood planks. “No Baby … No!” Jim ran to her … and slipped in a widening pool of Juliana’s blood.
-------Georgiana, Alabama 1935 ---------
“I done like you said,” the boy told the black man sitting behind the trash bin in the alley between to the Butler County Bank and a homeless shelter. “I brought you some of my momma’s cookin’.” Rufus Payne leaned the battered guitar he’d been playing against a barrel dripping with kitchen slop and wiped his hands on his pants. It had to be a hundred degrees in the shade.
“You done good, boy.” Rufus’ mouth watered as he watched the thirteen-year old pull a dishtowel from the top of a pan filled with beef-stew and floating a half-dozen baking-soda biscuits. “You done right good you did.” He didn’t wait for the lad to pull a bent spoon from his bib-overall pocket but began to scoop the thick liquid out with his hands and shovel it into his mouth.
The boy stood next to the Sears Silvertone guitar and idly brushed the strings. “Go on now boy. I says you could play … nobody gonna’ say Ol Tee-Tot go back on his word.”
“You said you would teach me!” The boy gave the homeless man a reproachful look just as a gust of warm wind scattered worthless stock certificates into the air from an open garbage can. “That be the Good Lord showin’ rich folks what comes of greed …” Rufus rolled his eyes up at the sky and watched the worthless papers fly in a figure eight pattern. He tried to move the conversation away from music … but the boy just sat there watching with hopeful eyes.
“Ain’t no teachin … just doin,” Rufus lifted the guitar and thrust it into the boy’s hands, then he pressed the youngsters fingers on the correct places on the strings just above the frets. “This here is called an “E” chord,” he said. “It stands for eat and that’s what I’m gonna’ be doin’ while you practice.”
The boy watched a flock of crows settle in the dusty street beside a line of silos, pecking for bits of spilled grain, to take his mind off his hurt fingers, as he pressed down on the strings. “Your mamma … she cooks real fine … your papa he be a lucky man.” Rufus said with his mouth full.
“Ain’t got no papa,” the boy said. “We got boarders instead.”
Rufus finished the stew and wiped the sides of the kettle with a last biscuit while the boy practiced strumming the “eat” cord and two others. “I figure you ready to perform your first song now,” Rufus licked his fingers then swiped them across his beard. “I’m gonna’ gum a few words and I want you to switch cords each time I clicks my finger.” The boy stared at the vagrant with wide eyed excitement and began to strum.
The man the street people called Tee-Tot cleared his throat, and spat on the wall, before he began to sing. “My buckets got a …” He clicked his fingers twice and the boy switched to an “A” chord. “Hole in it … My buckets got a …” Rufus clicked his fingers once and the boy played the “E” chord again. “…hole in it. My buckets got a …” Tee-Tot clicked his fingers three times and the boy played the complicated “B7” chord. “…hole in it … I can’t buy no …” One click and the boy switched back to the “E” “…Beer!” Rufus laughed and slapped his hands on his dirty pants.
After five times through the song, the boy began to sing along. “Say now … you is playing pretty good for a youngster. What did you say your name was again?” A sudden cool breeze dried the sweat on the old man’s head.
“Hank,” the boy told him. “My name is Hank Williams.”
-------Clear Lake, Iowa February 1959-------
A gust of frigid wind and blowing snow whipped the coats of five young men as they ran toward the airplane idling on the icy Mason City Airport runway. “This is crazy,” Waylon said, watching the others climb aboard the Beech Bonanza N3794N. “What kind of people fly in this kind of weather?”
“People that don’t want to freeze inside a bus that’s already broken down twice,” Charles replied, adding “Peterson says he can fly us all the way to Moorhead Minnesota in a little more than two hours.” Charles slapped his back. “You’ll be lucky to make it there by morning. Why did you give up your seat? I thought you were coming with us.”
“J.P. says he got a touch of the flu and he thinks the bus is too cramped,” Waylon, the band’s bass player, lifted his coat collar against the wind and handed Charles a scrap of paper. “Here’s a list of songs I think we should perform on our next show. Look it over and see what you think.”
Charles put the paper in his pocket and then laughed as he climbed inside the aircraft. “I hope you freeze inside that bus!”
“I hope your plane crashes,” Waylon yelled back.
Waylon was back inside the car that had driven the remaining band members to the small airfield when the plane took off. He and the driver watched the plane soar into the night sky and make a figure eight before it headed north east.
“You got to be nuts to fly in this kind of weather,” the driver started the car and turned on the heater. “Who was that anyhow?”
“Members of the Winter Dance Party Rock and Roll Tour Waylon said with pride … that guy I was just talking to is Charles Hardin Holley … most folks know him as just Buddy Holly.”
A flock of crows flew up from a snow-covered field when the sheriff’s car stopped next to several others the next morning. Plane wreckage was scattered over an acre of corn stubble.
“Who we got belonging to those bodies?” The sheriff pointed to men lifting four cloth-covered gurneys from the field as they stepped over a broken pole-fence.
“A bunch of recording artists heading for a show in Minnesota,” a deputy said. “One of them was that guy with the black-rim glasses that sings them songs you hate on the radio.”
“Music ain’t been the same since Hank Williams died,” the sheriff said. He reached down and picked up a piece of blood spattered paper fluttering across the frozen ground. Song names were written with an ink pen on notebook paper. His eyes moved quickly down the list.
True Love Ways
It’s so easy
It doesn’t matter anymore
That’ll be the day
Crying, waiting, hoping
Words of love
Not fade away
“Not fade away …?” the sheriff laughed at the last song title. “Damn fool talk … a year from now … nobody in the world will even remember who the Hell these kids was.”
-------Woodstock New York August 18th. 1969-------
The stage manager told the band everything was ready and they could go on. Because of weather and equipment delays, the acts had gone on all night … it was morning. A light mist hung in the air. The crowd of half a million people who camped-out in Max Yasgur’s hay fields had dwindled to a mere two-hundred thousand … still a massive audience. Jimi finished rolling the joint, lit it and handed the marijuana cigarette to drummer Mitch Mitchell. The harsh smoke swirled in the air and formed a loose figure-eight lying on its side.
“I think maybe we blew it,” Mitch said. “Maybe we should have gone on at midnight.” He gazed out over a sea of faces. “Half the crowd has gone home.”
“Half dead people coming off acid a mile away can’t hear the music anyway,” Jimi said. “We’ll wake up what’s left of this #%@$ fest.
A frantic sound engineer approached Jimi. “This can’t be right,” he stammered looking at his clipboard. “You have six Marshall amplifiers, with full stacks on stage … and you want the volume on nine? Are you insane? That much audio amplitude will create a hurricane! Are you trying to kill people?”
“You have to do more than hear the music,” Jimi told him. “You have to #%@$&# feel it… up close and personal.”
“This is all on you,” The engineer threw his hands in the air. “You’re pushing a thousand watts,” he mumbled.
“We don’t mind the wind,” Hendrix told the sound man as he clipped the strap to his Fender guitar and walked onstage. “No one in this band will go chasing a hat.”
An hour into the set, a flock of crows that had rested on a sound and light tower, took frantic flight as Jimi ground-out the opening riffs to Foxy Lady. “You know you’re a cute little heartbreaker …” he sang.
American astronauts had walked on the moon a little more than a month before. People back on Earth, especially in this drizzly part of upstate New York were aware of a special kind of wind, with the power to push walls … and as Eric Burton said … also move minds.
-------Jamaica, Christmas-time 1974-------
Slow Hand filled a glass with Courvoisier Cognac and 7up, grabbed an acoustic guitar and decided to go for a walk on the pristine beaches outside the hotel, hoping for a breeze and a little inspiration. The day had run out of excesses and the sun was drowning in the ocean. Fiery blood-red beams on the horizon announced the death of another day. Rolling waves coming off the blue waters sounded like recording-studio cymbals played at one-quarter speed. The cries of gulls became the sound of worn-out playback reels dragging and squeaking in the stifling humidity. Each wave washed the sand clean … and made it ready for new prints.
The sea birds were agitated, flying sorties and diving at something on the ground. A large black bird with a damaged wing, a crow by the looks of it, carved figure-of-eight circles around a large piece of driftwood, covered in seaweed, half-buried in the sand.
“That one should have stayed north,” a black man, shimmering in the fading light, with dreadlocks and a long stick he was using to poke-up clams said, “some do … you know.”
“Maybe the bird was tired of the cold,” Slow Hand told him, “tired of everything … but not ready for death.”
“The angels will come whether you be ready or not.” The man stopped for a moment and dropped a clam in a worn burlap bag slung over his shoulder. “That dark chariot come when it’s ready … not when you are.”
“None of us knows how long we got … or do we?” Slow Hand finished the drink and wished he had another.
“God Almighty is like the wind,” the man said. “You can’t see him … only the things he moves. You’ll know when the chariot comes for you … cool and breezy like wind from a passing wagon.”
“That’s a pretty keen observation,” Slow Hand said. “By the way I’m Eric … Eric Clapton.”
The black man tried unsuccessfully to brush sand from his fingers on a pair of too-big white trousers then laughed and stuck it out anyway. “Wallace Willis,” he said. “I don’t shake too many white hands.”
“How long you have you lived here?” Slow Hand asked.
“Can’t say as how I ever lived here … in this place,” Wallis told him. His eyes grew large and white like two eggs laid in a coal bin, while his body began to fade away. “I was born in Mississippi and rode that dark chariot more than a hundred-years ago.
Slow Hand turned his head and laughed … the black man looked no more than thirty-five at most. When he glanced back the man and his bag were gone. A large wave washed all tracks from the sand and soaked Slow Hand’s shoes. The injured black bird had found the strength to fly … and was just a speck in the sky.
Slow Hand sat on the chunk of driftwood and began to tune his guitar as night came. A cooling breeze blew off the ocean … refreshing, magical and wonderful. The stars came out watching … and listening. The British guitarist began to play and sing. The words came from a world beyond, where only souls and a few others dwell … “swing low … sweet chariot …comin’ for to carry me home …”