Fattening Frogs For Snakes

Swinging the Blues

for Robert Lockwood Junior

”I never really listened to guitar players
after Robert Johnson,”
Robert Lockwood says. “I listened to horns.
I’d tune in Count Basie,

or somebody like that
& sit & try to copy the licks
the horns were playing. . . .
That’s where all

the good guitar players
got their ideas, from other types
of instruments.” And from a few other things
along the way, as Robert recalls:

”I was out west
with the Union Pacific
work train, & one night
I went into a club

in Caspar, Wyoming. This band
was playing there, & I came back
the next night
to listen to them again. Finally

the piano player came over & said,
’Man,
you must be a musician.’ I said, ‘Oh,
I just try to

play the guitar,
you know.’ Well,
the man who owned the place
had a beautiful guitar & amplifier,

& they rolled that shit out
on the stage
for me to play. I went up
on the bandstand

& I sang & played
’Caledonia,’ by Louis Jordan,
something by Eddie
’Cleanhead’ Vinson, & ‘Things Ain’t

What They Used To Be.’ And the house
came down. I got ready
to leave the stage
& the man said,

’You comin’ down? You better
stay on up there—
I’m gonna give you
15 dollars for the day.’

That was a very decent salary.
So I played that man’s guitar
for almost a year. That was a nice
bunch of dudes. They went out

& bought me about
5 suits of clothes,
brought ’em back & said,
’You gonna wear these.’

But then we started playin’
down in Texas, the shows
started getting held up—
30 minutes in one place,

an hour in another—
because I was black. I assumed I was
bad news for the band, & I slipped
off from them. They never would have let me go.”

Again, in Memphis,
on Beale Street,
in W.C. Handy Park,
”one afternoon in 1947,”

Robert Lockwood was playing solo guitar
& blew away
the 5 or 6 musicians
of the Memphis Jug Band

right there on their regular stand.
So one of the band members
accosted Robert Junior
while he’s counting up

his little change
from the crowd in the park:
”’You know, you raise hell

with that goddamn guitar
all by yourself.’
‘Thanks.’
’Don’t you want a band?’

‘Naw.’
’Motherfucker,
you got one. We got a lot of jobs,
& you gonna help us do ’em.’

‘Well, tell me
how much I'm makin’
& all that. And by the way,
what’s your name? And what

do you play?’
‘I’m a piano player.
My name is Bill Johnson,
but they call me “Destruction.”’

”That ’Struction,
he could play. He could play guitar, too. You know,
I was still playin’
with my fingers, & he was the first one

to put a straight pick
in my hand. I couldn’t hold that pick
for nothin’ at first, but he said:

‘Goddamnit,
you gonna use it.’” (& Robert Jr.,
very wisely,
carefully followed his instructions)

— Detroit
June 1, 1982 /
New Orleans
May 31, 1997