Fattening Frogs For Snakes

21 Days In Jail

for Bob Howe & John “Chinner” Mitchell

Robert Lockwood Junior
was born on a farm
between Aubrey & Marvell,
Arkansas, around 25 miles west
& north of Helena, on March 27, 1915.

As a young man living in Helena with his mother
around 1928 or ’29,
Robert Lockwood
had the good fortune
to meet his mentor,

Robert Johnson,
who had big eyes
for young Robert’s mama
& hung around the house there
long enough for Robert Junior
to pick up on his music. Robert says:

”At the time, my ambition
was to play a piano
or an organ. I had heard
a lot of guitar players,
but I wasn’t interested in ’em.
But then Robert came along,

& he was backin’ himself up
without anybody helping him
& sounding good. He would go somewhere
to play for people
& tear up the house. So I got
right on top of that. By him

having a crush
on my mother
I got a chance to be around him
a little bit. I think I’m about
the only one
he ever taught.”

Around 1934 or ’35
Rice Miller began to appear
at Robert Lockwood’s door
seeking his mother’s permission
could Robert Junior ac-
company him

(Rice Miller,
later known as
Sonny Boy Williamson,
”secret hero of these poems,”
the greatest harmonica player
of all time). So Robert says:

”I started going to places in
Arkansas with him, but he
worried my mother
for about two years, before she
let me go
to Mississippi with him. And sure enough,

we had some pretty strange ex-
periences there. One time
we left the Delta
& went up into the hill country,
& in Sardis
they put us in jail

for vagrancy
for 21 days. That was
on a Friday. On Saturday
we went up to the second floor
& raised the jailhouse windows
& started playing. In a matter of minutes

the jailhouse was surrounded
with people. There was a little
fence down there, about as big
as the one
by the side of my yard,
& the people started throwing nickels

& dimes
& quarters & dollars
over that fence. The trusty went out there
& picked the money up
& we knew he didn’t bring it all to us.
We knew he got fat,

but when he turned it in to us,
we had made 400 dollars.
That day.
The next night
the high sheriff
& the deputy sheriff

came & asked us
did we want to go out
& make some money. Sid & Ed
was their names. And for the next
21 days,
they took us out

to serenade for the whites,
every night but Sunday. They’d take up
the money for us,
pass the hat, make the people not put
nothin’ less than a dollar in it.
And then they’d take us back

& put us in jail. Now,
mind you,
they was bustin’ places
for corn whiskey
left & right, & they gave us
a whole gallon of that. We had girls

comin’ to the jailhouse
& spendin’ the night. We was eatin’
from a hotel down the street.
So it really wasn’t
like bein’ in no jailhouse.
But it was terrible

because it was against our will.
See, this particular
part of Mississippi
was really starved for music.
And the police officers,
they liked the way we sounded

& just took advantage
of bein’ police officers. They knew
the only way
they was going to be able
to enjoy us was to lock us up.

“Sonny Boy
was doing quite a few country &
western things—
’You Are My Sunshine’
& stuff like that—but we would
do the blues

for them, too.
Them white people down there
always did like the blues.
They just didn’t like
the people who created the blues.

by the time
our 21 days was up,
we had close to a thousand dollars
apiece. So old man Ed
asked me & Sonny Boy

at the same time,
if I turn ya’ll loose,
what ya’ll gonna do?’ And I mean
I’ll tell you the truth,
even if it hurt me. I grew

up like that. I said,
’Mr. Ed,
I’m getting’ the hell outta here.’
Sonny Boy said,
‘Whoahhh, I’m gonna st-st-

st-stay around awhile.’
They laughed &
let us out. Knew damn well
he was lying. And as soon
as we got out,
we hit the highway.”

— Detroit
March 22, 1982