ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
He was the only player I’ve ever seen who could stop a street full of people dead
with his playing, just like that. Set his little amplifier on the sidewalk, plug in,
and go. . . . They wouldn’t throw no change, either. I’m talking bills
Satan and Adam albums
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If That Don’t Bring Her Back
By Adam Gussow
I sent my baby a brand-new twenty-dollar bill
If that don’t bring her back, I’m darn sure my shotgun will.
John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson
Nobody actually knew what had happened to Nat. One moment he was the crown prince of New York’s downtown blues scene, double-parking his cab in front of Dan Lynch’s Blues Bar on Sunday afternoons, striding indoors with a harmonica in hand to blow chorus after squalling chorus at the weekly jam sessions; the next moment he was gone, fled South to his father’s or sister’s in Norfolk or Newport News.
He’d been shot in the chest on the corner of Thirteenth Street and Second Avenue, just down the block from Lynch’s.
That was the only fact everybody seemed to agree on. The guy who shot him was either a drug dealer or a jealous lover or pimp connected to Doreen, Nat’s brilliant white girlfriend, a prostitute and junkie. Nat had either been yelling at Doreen or slapping her around or both. The shooting wasn’t supposed to have happened–Nat was too smart, too generous, too self-disciplined–and yet it seemed fated. Everybody who knew him was shocked; nobody was surprised. Nat Riddles would go get himself shot, and disappear.
He’d be back. He always came back, after the stories people told had had a chance to swell and ripen.
Some Sunday afternoon when the jam session was flying high he’d shoulder back through the swinging doors of Dan Lynch, flash his dazzling smile, bear-hug ten or twelve dear old friends, yell out to Chuck Hancock on the bandstand, kiss Karola and Diana at the bar
“I love it!” he’d say as a cold Heineken found its way into his hand, “I love it!”
and stand there beaming as Chuck’s alto sax screamed, honked, and snarled. Nat was back! He’d been president of the student government at Long Island University, a Tae Kwon Do adept, a trophy-winning disco dancer, a graphic artist at Pratt. He’d freebased cocaine in the days before crack. He was perpetually on the verge of becoming the blues world’s Next Big Thing. A young black harp-player with the Sound. White guys who loved blues couldn’t get enough of him. “Nat!” they’d yell. “Hey, Nat!” He called all waitresses “darling” and made the older ones melt where they stood. He was my master. One of two.
We met on a cold April night in 1985. The lovelorn neighborhood harmonica player–recent dropout from the graduate English program at Columbia–had just made his big-stage debut on the steps of Hamilton Hall, where three hundred sitters-in protesting the university’s investment policies in South Africa were being entertained by various campus bands. A Marine Band harp blown through a large outdoor P.A. system ruled the world. I was bopping home down Amsterdam Avenue, lost in the sound of my own notes decaying as they spiraled up and collected under the wallway between the Law School and Philosophy Hall. Bird was my model: sweet, angular, endlessly unfolding lines.
A yellow cab heading uptown passed me, slowed, then hung a U-turn and pulled up to the curb. The driver leaned over and rolled down the passenger-side window. He was older than me but not much, and black. He smiled as if we knew each other.
“Was that you?” he asked.
“You mean playing just now?”
I shrugged. “I was noodling.”
“It sounded nice. I thought I oughta see who the hell you were.”
Still leaning on his elbow, he flipped open a tool kit sitting next to him on the front seat. The trays were cluttered with harmonicas, cables, a ball microphone.
“You play?” I said.
“I’ve been accused of that more than once.” His smile was a promise, an effortless seduction. He selected a harp, cupped it beautifully with enfolding hands, and stared at me as he played, eyes narrowing slightly as he bore down. I stood at the open window, struck dumb. The gods had blessed me with another visitation. I blinked in the glare outside Plato’s cave. The records I’d been listening to–Little Walter, James Cotton, Junior Wells, my old high school collection–were mere shadows of the true and beautiful.
“Shit,” I said.
“You like that?”
He shut off the engine, got out of the cab, came around front, set his open toolbox on the hood.
“You’ve got the music in you,” he said, selecting another harp. “All you need are a few of the subtleties.”
We stood on the corner of 118th Street and Amsterdam in the cold wind for forty minutes while he recapitulated the stylistic evolution of American blues harmonica. John Lee Williamson–the first Sonny Boy, not to be confused with Rice Miller–was our honored forefather. You wanna build a mansion, you gotta pour some concrete. Little Walter and Junior Wells were blowing straight John Lee stuff before amplifiers came along and shook everything up.Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds is an awesome motherfucker and blows some shit that would spin your head. Not to mention Sugar Blue, the baddest street blues harmonica player ever to come out of New York.
“Man,” he said, “Sugar used to walk the streets with his head down, practicing, and he was always high. I mean always. And he was the only player I’ve ever seen who could stop a street full of people dead with his playing, just like that. Set his little amplifier on the sidewalk, plug in, and go. Diddleyotten rebop, wabba dabba doobop! They wouldn’t throw no change, either. I’m talking bills– ones, fives, tens, fluttering through the air. A whole blockful of people, man. Taxicabs would pull over, women–beautiful women, gorgeous women, luscious women–would stop dead in their tracks. That was Sugar. I ain’t tellin’ you no lies. He was always practicing, too. Every time you’d see him he’d be walking down the street with his finger in his ear, figuring things out.”
The cold finally chilled us. He gave me his card before he went. Nat Riddles, Harmonica for All Occasions.
Source: Random House
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Adam Gussow is assistant professor of English and southern studies at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of Mister Satan’s Apprentice: A Blues Memoir and has been a professional blues harmonica player for many years, touring widely in the 1990s a s part of the Harlem-based duo Satan and Adam.
MR. SATAN is Sterling Magee, legendary Harlem guitarist and songwriter who has performed and recorded with James Brown, King Curtis, Etta James, George Benson, Willis “Gatortail” Jackson, and others.
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A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family thats about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrinas inexorable winds is the voice of Wards narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her familys raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brothers blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt. Her fathers hands are like gravel, while her own hand slides through his grip like a wet fish, and a handsome boys muscles jabbered like chickens. Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isnt usually just metaphor for metaphors sake. She conveys something fundamental about Eschs fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, whats salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.
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By Melissa V. Harris-Perry
According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel. The selfless Mammys behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own familys needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.
Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.
As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 30 December 2011