|"A song is anything that can walk by itself."
|- Bob Dylan
In the days when magic was plentiful and sacred (rather than the vice versa we know today), there lived near Beale Street in Memphis a man of extraordinary powers, name of Beaureguard Rawhead. He was, as a conjureman, quite remarkable, but he wanted to be something else. He wanted to be a songwriter.
He had seen W.C. Handy as a youth and he had been thunderstruck. Suddenly it was as if all his magic was nullified. He wanted to conjure something as powerful, as universal as "St. Louis Blues," or "Mister Crump."
And as he grew older, and his fame as a powerful magicman grew, the need to produce just one memorable song grew, too, until it was an authoritative obsession. So, when the bluesman, Tiny Red, came to see Beaureguard about some business, he saw the chance for a right proper tit-for-tat.
Tiny Red was from Arkansas by way of New Orleans by way of the Orient, which is to say Tiny was a grabbag of musical inventiveness. You know him best for "Silver Dollar Pantleg Blues" and "A Frothing of Delight" and for inventing the phrase, "Your world." But, in his day, Tiny was as hot as they come, as big as Big Bill. In his own tiny way, of course.
Tiny came to Memphis that fateful fall to scout some talent for a travelin gig he was offered on the European continent. Most specifically, he needed a second guitar and he heard tell of a Memphis bar rat name of Pete Holder played like the murmur of dreaming brooks. This was the word that he got.
He spent about a month on Beale scouting talent but he wasn't having any luck finding the elusive Mr. Holder. Some said they had just seen him, some said no, he was in California. Some nights he was told he had just missed him. He's working at BingoBango, he was told. When he got there he hadn't played since last week.
Tiny hadn't come to see Beaureguard Rawhead for no guitar player, no, naturally he came to see the conjureman for an affair of the heart. Seems Tiny had a major heartdeep crush on a dancer at one of the clubs, a woman with a rear like a Buick 6, comely like a pine bridge. Named Callie.
Tiny came, like so many before him, for a philter. He disbelieved in his own charm, in his personal ability to woo so fine a female, so he sought a charm outside of normal human makeup. A love potion.
Tiny knocked tentatively on Beauregard's tin-plated door, anxious for thaumaturgy.
"Who?" Beau growled.
"Tiny Red Montgomery," Tiny swallowed. "From Arkansas."
"Don't know ye," the answer.
"I need some help, sir."
"All God's children do."
"I was told you were the man to see bout this," Tiny said, a little bolder.
"Who said that?"
"Squiggly Robbins, for one. Bob Dobolina. Skincat Resin. All told."
"You music man?" Beau asked with a twinkle.
"You are welcome."
Tiny ducked entering the cramped quarters, dark as time. There was a jumble of material everywhere, tables piled with books and manuscripts, papers on top of an old upright piano, every surface obscured by knickknacks and gewgaws, objects seemingly floating in the air. One stooped, sidestepped, bent and shuffled to see the munificent wizard of Beale, who sat grinning in a burnished chair, a smile like a keyboard.
"Sit, sit," the old man gestured vaguely.
Tiny carefully pushed aside some papers and settled on an upturned crate.
The magicman fixed him with a milky eye.
"You know W.C. Handy?" he asked quickly.
Tiny hesitated. Know his music or know the man, he wondered. He had actually met the great man once in Montgomery, Alabama, in a dark club, shook his hand, even. This seemed like some kind of test.
"I play his supernal music in my act," he brought out, finally.
"Ahhh," Beau said. "I believe we can do some transacting."
The deal Beaureguard Rawhead laid out for the bluesman was simple but onerous. In exchange for a love potion he would conjure, Beau would be taught how to write a song.
Tiny rubbed his hand across his face, leaned back, leaned forward again. He blew out a bit of sour wind.
"I dunno," he began.
"No deal then."
"Mr. Rawhead, writin songs. I dunno, it can't be taught."
"No sir, I was born writin songs."
"Naw," Beau said and he grinned like a warden.
Tiny knew he was gonna agree to this, he just wanted the disclaimers up front.
"I can try it, sir. I can sure try it."
"Thas all I'm asking, " Beaureguard said, standing up.
Tiny rose too. The two men shook hands. They agreed to start that very evening.
The sunset in Memphis was red like the blood of Abraham, the river sucking up that color like a lamia, like a mother dog. There was an eeriness in the air, a tone underneath the everyday, like a buzz in the distance, like cicadas from another world.
Tiny showed up on time, as the day was giving way to night. The old conjureman was eager to get started; he had cleared a space around his piano, like one might clear the ground to build a fire, or make a sacrifice.
Under his arm Tiny carried a sheaf of papers in a beatup folder, his songs. He spread those out on the piano keys and Beaureguard glanced at them perfunctorily.
"Don' need these," he said.
Tiny stared at him a second.
"Mr. Rawhead, lemme get started. You need to learn the musical notation. This the language of the music, the alphabet. Can't build no song without this."
"Don't want to build no song. Wan to. . ." and he stopped, seemingly to change his tack. "Awright. I see. Teach me this," he said, tapping the sheets.
They spent most of that evening going over basic notes and melodies, Tiny using the out-of-tune piano to demonstrate the sound beneath the symbol.
It was two in the morning when he put his long arms above his head and stretched himself with a crackling of bones.
"That's about it for tonight, I guess."
"Don't know how to write no song, yet," said the old man petulantly.
"Takes some time, sir."
A week passed this way. Small advances, stubborn setbacks. The two men at loggerheads, butting them.
After two weeks the men were more cordial, whiskey between them, good talk. They spoke of love, sex, the river. A bond formed like electricity and the lessons took on a new compeerage.
And progress was made in the manufacture of a song.
Who woulda believed it? Beau began to see the warp and woof of music, began to comprehend its sortilege, its special fluidity. Music spoke to him in his dreams and waking he spoke back. He began to hum around the house, tunes coming in like broken radio waves, indistinct at first, scattered. Gradually, a cohesion commenced like his newfound fraternity with Tiny, some kind of coming together.
Secretly at first, he began to cobble together a few lines, a phrase or two with accompanying melody. A song was perceived through the dim, a strain appearing in the murk. Beaureguard, in private seclusion, was writing a song, unsure about revealing it to his master, the man who gave him music.
For his part Tiny suspected the old man was onto something. A new lilt to his conversation emerged, a new lightness to his banter. And in his muddy eyes blue stars danced sometimes, tiny shots like sparks off an anvil. Magic commencing.
The party to celebrate the partnership of Tiny Red and his new guitar player (it was Andy Love due to the mysterious fact that Pete Holder never materialized) was held at the Club BingoBango on a mild Friday night in October. Word spread that there was to be an all-night jam and a number of the great and near-great and never-to-be-great attended. At one sweat-retted point in the proceedings, there on the same modest stage sat in Mississippi Red, Alexander Jimspake, Styx Quetzlcoatl, Big Bill Broonzy, The Lonely Dog, Robert Jung, Jimmy the Snake, Ed Alexander, Pudding Puddinski the chanteuse, Roman Rebus, John Kills-Her (the Native American harp player), Squeaky Joint, Tuff Green, the Shawcross Brothers, Skeets Cameron and the Duchess herself. It was a callathump, a shivaree. A bombast. And it was the first time, historically speaking, that the word "bluesfest" had been used. It was coined that night. Write it down.
Long after midnight, the conversation a murmur of ghosts and drinking men, the air fuliginous, Beaureguard Rawhead slipped in almost unremarked through the back door. On the stage, Styx and Peep-eye Harper were weaving a sleepy rondo, which sounded a little like "Back'em up Blues in D." Everyone was sorta half there and half woolgathering.
Beaureguard slid up to the stage, and took a seat at the 88s, and looked at them with a kind of wonder and amusement. The two musicians hesitated and the crowd sort of hummed and burbled and there was a few seconds of dusty silence.
Beaureguard touched the first key with his left-hand pointer and some other keys followed and before anyone could quite assemble their thoughts, he started singing softly, almost to himself at first. The words were incomprehensible initially, then took form and poured forth, Beaureguard finding a voice as thick as annihilation, as sinuous as ice. Tiny rose slowly from his seat in the middle of the dim and din and hung there like a suspended orb. It was a minor miracle. It was better than he thought possible. The conjureman had a voice, a reason to sing.
And it was on that night that the now standard number, "Saprophytic Blues" was born.
Beaureguard went on to have a minor singing and songwriting career, nothing matching the magic of that firstborn number (though The Latin Students had a minor hit with one of his songs, "They Bribe the Lazy Quadling," in the early fifties). His soul was at peace, however.
The other side of the bargain was, surprisingly, not as successfully achieved.
"What good am I who cannot make the smallest world over?" Beaureguard cried out to his dark gods.
It wasn't that he gave Tiny Red a faulty philter, a no-motion potion. The elixir worked, oh yes.
Tiny took the small crystal bottle home with him and sprinkled it on his hairbrush as instructed. He lit the brush and it burned as expected with a steady purple flame that had a tiny red center like the back of a black widow. But he never again saw Callie Pigeon, the woman he had so set his heart upon winning.
He went to the strip club to see her perform and was told she had disappeared. Poof, like a thought.
His heart ached and he knew an emptiness hitherto undiscovered, and he spent some lonely nights wandering Beale, in a trance-like funk.
He forgave the old conjureman, attaching no blame to the failure of the contract. He was sad but not bitter.
"I failed you, boy. I need to make it up to you," Beaureguard said, hangdogedly.
"It's O.K., Beau. I'm O.K."
"Man needs love, Tiny."
"Let's go get us some Zombi Killers, drink ourselves outta the blues. What say?"
"I don' know, Beau. I don't feel right out on the street anymore. Something's wrong."
"Weirdness. Collywobbles. Somebody following me."
"Who do that?"
Tiny Red looked up at his friend. Tiny's eyes were deep sad, red-rimmed.
"Old woman. I look up. She everywhere I go. I dunno, she's O.K., I guess. Kinda pretty. But, I don' need nobody following me, you follow?"
The two men sat in stony silence for a few moments, the love between them like a cat. The air was tinny, faraway music somewhere.
"I get rid of that woman," Beaureguard spoke. "I make you a better potion. Maybe Callie Pigeon, Brother, she gone. She no more. I make ‘nother potion—you meet whole new woman. You watch. You see."
Copyright © Corey Mesler 2004. Title graphic: "Magic and Muse" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2004.