Fattening Frogs For Snakes

Country Blues

for Rockin’ Jake & T.J. Wheeler

”You want to remember,”
Mississippi Fred McDowell says,
”that back in the 20’s & 30’s,
they didn’t have

nothin’ to do but farm
& nowhere to go
on a Saturday night
but to what you’d call a fish fry.

There was no picture show
or TV
or nothin’,
just nowhere else to go.”

David “Honey Boy” Edwards
was raised on a farm
between Cleveland & Leland,
Mississippi. “On Saturday,”

Honey Boy told Robert Palmer,
”somebody like me
or Robert Johnson
would go into one of those little towns,

play for nickels & dimes.
Some little towns,
you'd have to go & see the mayor
or the judge

& ask him if you could play
on the streets. Some of ’em would say,
crowds on the streets,

somebody might get hurt.’ And sometimes,
you know,
you could be playin’
& have such a big crowd

it would block
the whole street. Then the police
would come around,
& I would go on

to another town
where I could play at. But,
most of the time,
they would let you play.

”Then sometimes,”
Honey Boy relates,
”the man who owned a country store
would give us something like a

couple dollars to play
on a Saturday afternoon. We’d sit
in the back of the store

on some oat sacks
or corn sacks & play
while they sold groceries
& whiskey & beer up front,

& the people would come in
& listen to us
& pitch in. In the afternoon
or maybe in the evenin’,

we’d go to the movie theatre
& play before or
after the movies. Then
people would start leavin’ town.

”About 8 or 9 o’clock at night
they’d go out in the country
where they could make all the
noise they wanted,

drink that corn,
dance all night long. The people
that was givin’ a dance,
they would put coal oil

in a bottle,
put a wick in it,
& hang it up in a tree.
We’d follow that light

going to the dance. Maybe the man
giving the dance
would see you in town that afternoon
& hire you

to come out & play there
that night. Wasn’t too much money,
but we’d play,
eat, drink, have a good time.

They would cook fish,
sell fish sandwiches
& white whiskey. Some outside gambling
on an old table,

bad lights,
way out in the country,
you know. We’d play inside,
sit down on a chair & relax.

they'd give a big picnic
out in the country,
dig a deep hole in the ground,

put charcoal
down in that hole,
put an iron grate
across it, & lay down a whole hog

on that grate. They’d let that hog steam,
mop it with that hot
barbeque sauce, & keep it turnin’
all night long. In the morning

it would be so tender
you could take a fork
& just cut the meat
right off the bone.

They’d have whole barrels
of lemonade sitting out there,
some guys got 4 or 5 gallons
of corn whiskey. Sometimes

they’d get a wagon,
2 mules,
3 or 4 men,
& rent a piano in town,

haul it out there, have a platform built
with a brush arbor over it,
have piano & guitar
playin’ under there.

”There wasn’t that many
blues players,
you know,” Honey Boy
says. ”We would walk

through the country
with our guitars on our shoulders,
stop at people’s houses,
play a little music,

walk on. We might decide
to go on, say,
to Memphis. We could hitchhike,
transfer from truck to truck,

or if we couldn’t catch one of them,
we’d go to the train yard,
’cause the railroad was all
thru that part of the country then.

”We’d wait till the train
was pullin’ out
& jump in the second blind
or else get a reefer—

that’s the car
they put the ice in,
for fruit & stuff,
so it’s something like a deep freezer.

”We’d get down
in an empty reefer,
pull the door down over us,
& the handle

was inside the car,
so couldn’t nobody
get to us. Then

when we were ready
to come out, we’d just
knock the handle up
& come out. I’d walk around

the blind side
of the train
& come out
on the passenger side,

just like I got off
the passenger car,
go out & catch a cab
to where I'm goin’.

”In Memphis, you could play
in front of the big hotels,
sometimes in the lobbies. And in the evening
you could always go down to Handy Park,

there off Beale Street.
Peoples would be gettin’ off work
& they’d stop off at the park,
get them a drink,

& listen to the blues,
because some of the fellows
would always be there
playin’. From there,

we might hop a freight,
go to St. Louis
or Chicago. Or
we might hear about

where a job was payin’ off—
a highway crew, a railroad job,
a levee camp there
along the river, or some place in the country

where a lot of people were workin’
on a farm. You could go there & play,
& everybody would hand you some money.
I didn’t have a special place then. Anywhere

was home. Where I do good,
I stay. When it gets bad
& dull, I’m gone. I knowed
a lot of places

& had enough
to go to
to make it. Man, we played
for a lot of people.”

— Detroit
March 22, 1982/
New Orleans
February 27 > Nov ember 25, 1995