Fattening Frogs For Snakes

It Was the Way These People Lived

for Sunshine Sonny Payn

”Helena was a little Chicago
back in the 30’s & 40’s,”
a “life-long resident”
told Robert Palmer. “We had 9,

maybe close to 10 thousand people
living here then,
& around 70 per cent of ’em
was black.

“Helena was a pretty
nice-sized town then,”
Johnny Shines adds. “Had its own
bus service, I remember. And lots of

places to play there,
too. Juke joints,
I guess you’d call them. The guys
running them

had the protection of the police—
not state protection
but the local police—

so they kept the places open
through those means. Now,
a juke joint is a place
where people go

to play cards,
gamble,
drink, & so on. So far as
serving drinks, like you would

in a bar or tavern,
no,
it wasn't like that. Beer
was served in cups; whiskey

you had to drink
out of the bottle. You didn’t have no glasses
to drink the whiskey out of,
so you drank it from the bottle

or you used your beer cup,
& they were tin cans usually. See,
they couldn’t use mugs in there
because the peoples

would commit mayhem,
tear people’s heads up
with those mugs. Rough places
they were.

”When you were playing
in a place like that,” Shines recalls,
”you just sit there on the floor
in a cane-bottomed chair,

just rear back
& cut loose. There were no microphones
or P.A. setups there—you just sing out
as loud as you can.

”The way you’d get
those kind of jobs,
if the guy owned it heard of you
he’d come around & get you,

tell you what he paid,
& you take it
or leave it. Some places was paying
a dollar & a half a night

but then you got many tips
by playing requests,
& like that. Sometimes people
just throw you money,

anyway,
just come & chuck it
in your guitar. People
attempt to pour whiskey

in your guitar,
beer in your guitar,
anything! They’d get to drinking,
see, & you’d have to watch out

for people like that. Most of those places
were pretty rough, but I didn’t
have too much trouble,
being a good-sized fellow.”

Mr. Sonny Payne, since 1942
the announcer & disc jockey
for “King Biscuit Time” on KFFA Radio
was a kid in Helena in the 30’s:

”On a Saturday afternoon,” he says,”
or a Saturday night, all you had to do
was go down to the landing
where the boats docked,

or down along Walnut Street,
& these guys would be
out on the corner
singing. Or you could go down

to the railroad depot
south of the main part of town,
& there’d be some guys
sitting there

playing harmonica & guitar.
Play half an hour, people come by
& drop something
in the hat. Down at Cherry

& Elm, right by
where you drive through the gap
in the levee
down to the ferry landing,

the kids would get together
& sit on the sidewalk
across from the Illinois Central ticket office
& the main telegraph office. Most of us

couldn’t afford radios
back in the 30’s
when I was growing up,
so we’d sit there & wait

for the telegraph operator
in St. Louis
to telegraph the innings
in the baseball game. ‘2 balls,

2 strikes. Uh-oh. They got a man
on base.’ This is how we used to listen
to baseball,
by Morse code. And there’d be musicians

around there. These people played
so beautifully. They would come into town
in the evening
after picking cotton all day,

sit right on the piers
down by the river
with their guitars & their harmonicas
& even with jew’s harps,

& they would sing the blues
& make it sound like something
out of Hollywood,
like somebody really

produced it. It was
unrehearsed. It was the way
these people lived. Back in the 30’s
& 40’s

we had the best music
in the world,
right here
in this town.”

— Detroit
March 23, 1982/
New Orleans
November 25, 1995