Indiana Northern University appears entirely made of concrete. My alma mater wasn’t Harvard, but we had green places to meet, toss the bee, and ogle ladies. Here, there’s no quaint office of the registrar built at the turn of the century, no frolicking squirrels and tree-lined, undulating brick paths. Just a series of sidewalks connecting utilitarian cubes. There is, however, a big sign stretched across the doors to the host building, a Hilton hotel, featuring the conference’s jive title: “WHAT IS BLUES?/ BLUES IS WHAT?” And in red letters beneath, it reads: “INU welcomes Brother Ben!” I can’t say I’m fine with the omission.
I crease the brim of my brown fedora, then put it on. Earlier, when I was waking at seven and Ben came back from his four miles—completed in less than forty minutes—I asked if we could stop between the Comfort Inn and the campus. That way we could at least start the day in natural fibers. The synthetics are either so slippery you can’t sit straight in your seat or so coarse you feel body hair slowly abraded. Ben came out of the bathroom, wrapped in a towel, his gold sleeves in. He sat on the edge of his bed, crossed his legs. “Nothing between here and there,” he says. “So for now”—and here he assumed a pimp’s mincing delivery—"we gon’ spend time with the finest of ladies. Poly and Esther.”
At six stories, the hotel’s the tallest building on campus and isn’t institutionally gray. Inside the lobby, I console myself with the small sign that welcomes Sam Stamps in addition to Brother Ben, but there’s little time to admire it. We barely get our hats off, courteous southern gents that we are, before a mass of white men in their forties and fifties, nametags encased in plastic pinned to their lapels, turn our way. Like lions sensing a crippled wildebeest, they regard us, the old and young representatives of the True Delta Blues. Keys to a past that probably never was.
Two emerge from the pack, one a wide-set fellow with comfortable shoes, a blazer, and an Albert Collins tee shirt. Albert the Iceman’s smiling face is in silhouette, stretched by the wearer’s broad gut. The younger and slimmer of the duo holds a clipboard and appears like the English profs I recall, with a bow tie, tweed jacket, wide-wale cords, and black-and-white saddle shoes. Together, they walk toward us, and the older guy extends his hand. “Deeply honored, sirs,” he says. His British accent throws me. I step back, a perfect Silent Sam gesture. Ben offers his left hand and says, “Glad to be heah. And who I makin’ a new ‘quaintance with?”
“Sorry, so sorry,” the Brit says, releasing Ben’s hand and clasping mine. “Rodney Graham. Co-organizer of the conference, professor of American Studies here at good old INU. My partner, in more ways than one”—at this, the bow-tied dandy steps forward—“Dr. Lowell Hardy.”
“A pleasure,” Hardy says, bowing. Then, to Graham, “Rod, we do have a panel on Field Hollers in fifteen minutes and no slide carousel.” He taps the face of his watch while his saddle shoes scuff the carpet.
“My younger colleague is insistent on promptness,” Graham says, patting his own stomach. “As I know you are, too, Brother Ben.”
“Folks got a right to ‘spect the show gon’ start when it say on the ticket.” Ben shuffles forward, shrunken and bent already. I’ve seen this transformation many times yet still check my urge to applaud. Earlier, just out of the shower, he looked like one of those old-timers lapping thirty-year-olds in the Ironman Triathlon. Now he looks as though someone had removed his spine.
“Gentlemen,” Hardy says, another slight bow following. “And whatever you call yourself,” he says to Graham, who blows a kiss that Hardy catches before racing to the center of the conferees. I don’t know what to make of this brief introduction, other than to remark on how odd a combination they are. Hardy I’ve never heard of, though Graham has written two books I remember. Although he can be too fond of casting every blues player as an ass-kicking brawler—“Tell Razor Totin’ Jim”: Bad Men and the Blues is one of his titles—he is knowledgeable. Some of the other men are also dressed in blues-fan gear, the older your concert tee shirt, the better. Others, like Hardy, appear in outfits designed to be worn when talking about Edmund Spenser. Walking backward, Graham says, “I should probably make an appearance at the Field Hollers panel. You gentlemen are welcome to attend, but I imagine you’d prefer, ahem, a bit of rest before four.”
“Thank you, perfessuh,” Ben says, and Graham walks away a few steps.
In a Sam Stamps voice, I say, “Thought the concert at seven-thirty.”
“Is,” Ben says.
Graham turns around. “And, oh yes,” he says. “If you get hungry, feel free to call room service. And if you need some, ahem, libations, we’ll be sure to dispatch a graduate student, if you wish.” He winks, turns with a chuckle, and joins the other conferees squeezing into the elevator lobby. “What’s this four o’clock mess?” I say.
“Four o’clock mess,” Ben says, musing. “Good title, but a little too close to ‘Three O’Clock Blues,’ don’t you think?”
I shake my head, flex my fingers over the taut muscles of his arm. My lips are close enough to his ear to kiss it, yet I put up a hand to shield my mouth, lest anyone from the conference should be skilled in lip reading. I’m too upset to speak in any voice but mine now. “Seriously, what’s going on at four?”
Ben groans, turns to face me, and straightens up. We look as secretive in our communication as a pitcher and catcher. Ben says, “A little question-answer session. An hour tops. I told you.”
I say, “But that was.” I pause, try again. “I thought you were talking about some before- and after-show bullshitting.”
“Didn’t I say it was formal?” he says. He actually scratches and shakes his bald head like that old noggin ain’t keepin’ facts straight no mo’. “Getting old, like I said.” Bet he’d know to the penny how much we have in the touring account. Bet he knows the interest rate and how his Wendy’s and Walmart stocks did yesterday. “Don’t try to con me,” I say. “Not this time around.”
“Tell you what, Pete,” Ben says. “These are some persistent dudes. Worse than reporters or regular writers. The folklorists want your stories. You know, hard time livin’, that sort of stuff. The musicologists want to know whether you copped your chord progression from Ishmon Bracey or Roosevelt Sykes. And I don’t know what the hell the English professors want.”
I let go his arm but still feel blindsided. “What if I say no?”
“Pete,” Ben says. “Don’t talk that mess. I forgot to tell you. An honest mistake.”
“Honest,” I say. “That’s not a word you should use too much.”
He kneads my shoulder. I shrug away. “Let’s get checked in,” Ben says.
We advance to the reception desk, staffed by a young brunette with braces whose red tag on her black vest reads, “Tara Bruns, Class of ‘02.” She hands over two white key cards, and Ben says, “Thank you kindly, ma’am.” She blushes and smiles, ducks her chin near her chest. Probably the first time in this college sophomore’s life she’s been called ma’am, let alone from such a respectful old gent of color. I turn away, surprised to discover I want a drink. Maybe it’s the one rebellious thought I can summon, like getting drunk before the Q&A could keep me out from under Ben’s hand. Yet I would only confirm the scholars’ suspicions. Can’t even get drunk without remaining a part of the act.
Ben’s rep for promptness is well earned, and we show up at the conference room at 3:57. While he shuffles forward, I’m holding on to one of his arms and wearing sunglasses, which hide my contacts and, according to Ben, look good on a shy country boy in front of all these smart folk. I doubt any questions will be directed to me, beyond name, home state, and harp maker. We enter the room and survey its gray carpet, auditorium-style seating, buzzing fluorescent lights. Ben tips his hat to the crowd, says, “Y’all must be blues people.” This knocks every one of the scholars out. Not only recognized for the blues lovers they are, but told so in authentic Delta dialect. A long table stands at the front of the room. Two chairs with our names taped to them greet us, as well as a pair of bespectacled students setting up microphones and checking their recording system. Ben whispers, “You’ll like this,” then says aloud, “No tapes, god damn it. You got to get Mist’ Mabry’s approval.”
Hardy steps forward, still resplendent in his bow tie and jacket, though the creased flesh around his eyes shows fatigue. “Problem?” he says.
“Never said nothin’ ‘bout no tapes,” Ben says, jabbing a shaking finger at the mics.
“In the past,” Hardy says, “we’ve always . . .”
Ben says, “I doan care ‘bout no goddam past. This is today, and today Brother Ben says no tapes.” Wheezing, he gropes for the tabletop with his hand and says, “Sit me down, Sam.”
I get him in a chair, then take my seat, watching the rest unfold behind the safety of my lenses. Everything appears dim and green, as though I were submerged in a still pond, but nothing obscures my enjoyment as Ben stands up and says, “You want my voice, you buy you a goddam record.” This is the burned Brother Ben that Heywood talked about, he who signed performance contracts that paid him pennies, who’s still trying to collect royalties from record companies that swindled him, who swore long ago he’d never let someone make another nickel off his name unless he made a dime first. He and Bucket did get caught in some tangles early on—Mankiewicz and Stern fucked them out of some serious change—but that’s precisely why he resurrected Wilton Mabry, an imposing and intelligent cat who didn’t drop his g’s while speaking the language of cash-up-front, and allowed Ben and Bucket to never fear for their finances again.
Nonetheless, it’s a rare opportunity for everyone, including me, because this side of Ben doesn’t get seen much. In this new century, as he’s neared his fictive eighties—he’s only sixty-six—he’s become more of a diplomat, eager to, as he says with a hand on his heart, “Show folks how happy I is just to be alive.” Now I keep my hand in front of my mouth, so no one can tell just what a fine time I’m having while Ben lists past injustices—how many are real, I have no idea—and Hardy keeps tapping his pen against his clipboard. The conference participants have moved away from the front rows. No one wants near Ben’s manufactured fury, yet no one looks away. Then Ben says, “Gimme a quarter, Sam. I’ll call Mist’ Mabry. He clear this up right quick.” Now he coughs, and Hardy jumps back, expecting, no doubt, a shower of sputum. Ben collapses into his chair and his head lolls close to me. He whispers, “Tell him to get me some water. Might get some more bills after that tirade.”
I nod, then ask Hardy for water, wondering whether Ben knew about the taping and planned on this little performance or whether it was entirely impromptu. I’d prefer it planned, otherwise he’s too scary to be believed. And when Hardy returns with two bottles of Evian and an apologetic look, he tells the students to remove the microphone, then says, “No taping. Brother Ben, you have our deepest apologies, both for our presumptions and the past wrongs you suffered.”
I want to grin but open my mouth instead, a good response for a Natchez boy unused to so many syllables. “We ready,” I say, once my spell of incomprehension passes.
“Wonderful,” Hardy says, dragging his sleeve showily over his dry forehead. Then, to the crowd slowly filling in those empty front seats, now that the storm has passed, he says, “Can we now get everyone seated and let this afternoon’s Q&A commence?” He takes a seat, and suddenly Graham appears beside him. In his own seat, Ben slumps, his fedora tilted back and the collar of his lime-colored shirt spread like wings, same as mine. The first time I saw him shape himself into this mysterious relic of a distant past, I wondered how he could transform back to the fellow he was in everything but the blues. I wondered as well if he ever feared, as I did and still do sometimes, that one day he might not be able to flip that switch.
No question poses much of a problem, as they’re directed at Ben and concerned with the legend he’s gone to such lengths to establish. These university profs want to know if he and Bucketmouth really met at a church supper, drawn together by a visiting minister’s sermon against the blues? Did the events described in “Put Down That Pistol” transpire as he sings about them? Had that feud with Honeyboy Edwards ended, or was Ben still claiming Honeyboy hadn’t been there the night Robert Johnson died? (Sonny Boy II claimed to have been there, too. Then again, he claimed Charley Patton died in his arms. Always good to know someone told more lies than I can muster.) Ben says, Yes, Yes, and No, though he still doesn’t think the night of Robert’s passing went down as Edwards tells it, he just concedes Honeyboy was likely there. Behind my sunglasses, I scan the rapturous and genuinely moved faces of these white men, watching Ben spin. Unlike Sonja Hutch, they all know the stories. Some jot down notes, while others mouth words with him, or nod knowingly when he’s about to reach some high point in the telling. Likely, this is the closest they’ll ever get to such experiences, which is why they make so much of the music, want so much to understand it and its makers. Ben says if it wasn’t for white men like these fellows, and Lomax, Charters, and Strachwitz, blues might not be alive, even in the precarious position it occupies today. Still, I wish somebody darker than Tony Orlando were trying to prop it up.
“Why did you never go electric?” someone asks.
Ben cocks his head, fits a curled hand behind his ear. “What he say, Sam?”
Deafness. That and the cough seem to be his new wrinkles on this strangest of tours. You ask me, it worked for Reagan, why not the Last True Delta Bluesman? I repeat the question, far louder than I need to. A smile stretches Ben’s lips and he holds up his right hand, rubs his thumb against his fore- and middle fingers. The laughter in the room is almost complete. From Graham and Hardy, seated as close as sweethearts in the front row, to the late arrivers in the rear of the room, all seem entranced by the charlatan next to me. Ben says, “Them electrics did costed a lot of money.” He coughs into his fist, his throat rattling. “Thought I’d buy one by and by, but that day still ain’t come.”
“But you did consider switching?”
“Considered. But considered and buyin’ is two different things, my frien’.”
A number of pens scratch across paper as a younger guy, curly-haired and thin, like a Q-tip, stands. “Plus, I’m sure, it’s a question of tone,” he says. “The early electrics didn’t quite have the brightness one can get with an acoustic.”
He’s got calluses on his fingertips. A shiny Martin undoubtedly waits in a case in his hotel room. Ben agrees and spurs other players to share their insights on whether a brass slide, like the one Ben uses, elicits as eerie a sound as a bottleneck, shot glass, or Case knife. All the divisions are starting to show. I could point to the Piedmont lovers and the champions of the Texas sound, the standard- and open-tuning camps, those who swear Skip James or Lightnin’ Hopkins should be elevated above Robert Johnson, and those who maintain that, despite his bloated corpse, Elvis was far more than a white boy copying a black man’s groove. At some point during this conference there’s going to be some hollering among them, and I hope we’re out on the road when it heats up.
As I envision such a ruckus, some fellow in a denim shirt and a bolo tie stands and hitches his trousers. He says, “I’m Dane Connor, editor of Good Rockin’ Tonight.” He pauses, looks fore and aft, as if waiting for a deferential hush to fall. It doesn’t, but he presses on. “I wanted to know why we’ve heard so little from Silent Sam?”
Ben grins at me, pats my knee as Graham stands, then tugs his tee shirt over his stomach. He says, “Naturally, Dane, his very nickname might indicate why this is so.” Still seated, Hardy reaches and tugs the tail of Graham’s blazer, his clipboard hopping on his bouncing knees. I feel like a man with a savior, though Connor crosses his arms, looks my way, and says, “I’m sure he wouldn’t mind answering a few questions.”
Ben says, “Sho, he doan. But when he got somethin’ to say, lissen up. Won’t say it mo’ than once.”
I am prepared. Able after many years to freely share Sam’s knowledge: Mississippi—its weather, staple crops, how that noisy nuisance of a mockingbird is the state bird. I can tell you the high school curriculum of the Natchez City Schools, can share the charming anecdote about playing harp outside Gilmore’s barbershop while the one and only Brother Ben was getting his head cut. But neither Graham nor Connor speaks, and a man heavier than Graham says, “What would you attribute as your key influences?”
I lean forward, slide my sunglasses down, and stammer, “Attribute?”
Ben, slouched in his chair, winks, then covers it with a blink and a yawn. Only one in the room to see that rapid wink, I also know it’s a sign of teacher praising the pupil. He shouldn’t be surprised. I stole that gimmick from him.
The questioner’s T-shirt features a photo of R. L. Burnside, another legend whose years left seem few. “Who’d you listen to growing up?” he says.
Too easy, only I need to remind myself to add a “Mr.” before everybody’s name. Learned that from Memphis Slim on Blues in the Mississippi Night, where he jokes with Big Bill Broonzy about asking for Mr. Prince Albert tobacco because of that white man on the can. In my head, it sounds a bit ridiculous, still I say, “Mr. Big Walter Horton. Mr. Little Walter Jacobs. Mr. Sonny Boy Williamson.” But that’s Silent Sam, a deeply grave young man who finds little in the world of the blues to laugh at.
“I or II,” someone says.
“Mr. Sonny Boy Williamson what played with Mr. Robert Johnson some and taught Mr. Howlin’ Wolf to blow harp.” I pause, toss out another “Suh.”
“You’re such a young man,” Dane Connor says, standing again. “I would think that at your age you wouldn’t be interested in such players. I’d even think you’d be more interested in R&B, soul. Even rap and hip-hop.”
“Is there a question among all that supposition, Dane?” Graham says, seated. Hardy gently smacks Graham’s broad belly with his clipboard.
Hands on his hips, Connor stares at Graham, then at me. “Did you listen to any hip-hop or rap growing up?”
Overhead, the fluorescent lights buzz. I drag my low heels over the carpet, unprepared for this question. Ben says the best thing is to tell the truth when you’re stumped because we can always somehow work it into the act. Let slip some telling detail about my Michigan youth? We’ll invent an uncle who worked at Fisher Body and let me visit some summers. Details like that, he’s convinced, are ignored by the fans in favor of the stories they already expect to hear. “No, suh,” I say. Then, because I can’t resist and think I can pull it off: “Them rap fellas talk a lot about nothing and cain’t none of ‘em play even a juice harp.”
And fuck if for the first time in my performing life I don’t get a big hand for something I’ve said. Ben pats his hands together, too, while Dane Connor sits down. I don’t know how to respond, so I go back to an old stand-by: shut up and duck my head low, as if I believe I’ve said too much.
Ben leans in, whispering in his off-stage voice, “Want me to leave you alone with your adoring public?”
I scrape my lower teeth over my mustache, shake my head. “You know they’re yours,” I say.
In all the time I’ve been on the road with Ben, no one’s ever said or done anything that revealed suspicion I wasn’t who we insist I am. We selected 1969 as the year of Sam’s birth—making Sam three years older—because that year in Rodney, the tiny hamlet we chose as a birthplace, the county hospital’s records were lost in a fire. A Samuel Murray Stamps did go through the Natchez school system, but as far as we know, that cat’s never been called by anyone to find out if he blows harp with the Last of the True Delta Bluesmen. And to be even safer than we probably need, one of Ben’s properties in Jackson—he owns two apartment buildings in Meridian and just bought another in Oxford—is a duplex the utility companies attest to be our residence. (He’s in 1408A South Jefferson. I’m in B.) Another reason why New Orleans is a good place to live is if Ben needs me, I can fly Southwest to Jackson and at the duplex we two can greet those who’ve arrived to learn about the True Delta Blues.
Only one time did we have a close call, when we were in Phoenix after the sole blues festival we played together. (Ben demanded the promoter call Wilton Mabry and explain why instead of cash they had a check made out to Brother Ben, and then he called Heywood, who had fun playing along.) In the airport, we were walking to our gate and a girl I went to high school with, Melanie Keys, breezed past. Still blonde and pale as paste, she looked good in Top-Siders and Lacoste, which is what she wore when she won my heart back in ninth grade. “Peter?” she said, and I froze, largely because of that terrible crush. My body ached for the hug she looked ready to give. “Peter Owens,” she said. That’s when Ben grabbed me by the arm and pulled me along before I could answer her. “Keep movin’, Sam,” he said in a voice Melanie must have heard. “Lady be thinkin’ we all looks alike.”
Hasn’t always been easy as Sam, though. A lot of Razor’s fans weren’t happy to see him gone. Those first few years, most claimed Razor was a better player. A crueler number called me Simple Sam, as I didn’t speak much, for fear no one would believe my accent placed me any farther south than Toledo. Folks talked a lot of shit my first two tours, but Ben made it clear I was not to reply. I had to be like Jackie Robinson in 1948, holding my tongue still in a mouth that wanted to chew those people up.
Yet what ultimately makes Sam such an easy figure to fake is his lowly status. Save for his talent, there’s absolutely nothing about him anyone would want to emulate. Those caught passing are trying to improve their station. The nouveau riche pretending they’re old money, the gay acting straight, the black playing white. Why would a college graduate—cum laude, no less—pretend to be the lowliest of the low, a near-illiterate man of Mississippi, nearly frightened of his own shadow? Makes no sense at all. Which must be why it works.
An hour before the show, we’re in the lobby listening to requests for interviews, to which Ben says, “You gots to talk to Mist’ Mabry.” We pass up many chances to ride over to the Performing Arts Center, which is within walking distance, and take the Brougham. Waiting outside the entrance are Hardy and Graham, who offers us a pint of Old Crow and says, “I’m sure you came ready supplied. Nonetheless, thought you might enjoy another.”
Behind him, Hardy rolls his eyes and holds the clipboard flat against his chest. In “Leavin’ on My Mind,” Ben sings, “Ain’t gon’ follow no highway, I keep on followin’ that crow,” which once led him, in an early concert with Razor, to say, “You know that old crow I’m talkin’ ‘bout.” From that aside, word got around that this was Ben’s preferred distilled spirit, and since then he’s received thousands of pints from people trying to show they knew what he was really talking about. According to Heywood, Ben used to pour that nasty-ass shit out and fill the empties with Hennessey to soothe his frayed voice after a show. I’ve seen nothing of the kind, as if with me Ben needs to be sharp and sober all the time. He can’t look away for a minute.
“Why, I thank you, suh,” Ben says now, handing me the bottle. I place it in my harp case with the three empties I brought to scatter in the dressing room as evidence of a preshow debauch. I’ve also got a flask filled with caffeine-free Diet Dr. Pepper and the least smidgen of Jim Beam for aroma, which Ben will call his private stock and not share with a soul except me. I’m hoping for a beer or two after the show. Just then, Dane Connor walks by, tugging on his string tie. Graham stops, and Hardy keeps escorting us to the dressing room. Ben says, “Them’s two mens who doan like each other.”
“Tell me about it,” Hardy says, shaking his slim head.
I feel a little slow on the uptake, remembering the exchanges from earlier. I believed Graham was on my side, not against Connor. Ben says, “What the problem, perfessuh?”
Hardy pushes open the door of the dressing room and Ben shuffles in, grumbling about sore feets. They should be pained, hemmed in by those boots he bought in the store off Crenshaw. I follow and Hardy says, “Do you really want to know?” Still tapping a saddle shoe nervously against the floor, he clutches his clipboard against his chest with both arms, looks both ways, and before we agree to hear him, he says, “Graham’s been dealing with Dane forever. Swears he’s a homophobe. And Dane’s new to blues. He did much of his early work on Appalachian folkways. Anyway, his stuff is pretty paternalistic, all this talk about how the black community has abandoned the blues and how well-meaning whites like himself are doing the most to keep it alive. But even for all his talk about how much he loves our music, he doesn’t seem to like black people very much. Sometimes he won’t even talk to me.”
I thought Hardy and Graham were lovers, and what Hardy’s said seems to confirm that, but the transition to Connor’s bigotry and what that’s got to do with why he won’t talk to Hardy—I’m confused. Behind my sunglasses, I look at Ben, who looks sage and says, “Hurts my heart when I hear that mess still goin’ around.”
“I know,” Hardy says. “But I do a number on him in a chapter from my book.”
Ben sits down on a low couch and I sit at the other end, hand him the flask. He thanks me and uncaps it. I can smell the bourbon as he sips from it and makes a face. “Your man down in Vicksburg brew this, Sam?”
“Yessuh,” I say, shifting my attention to Hardy. I study his close-cropped hair, his slim nose, his green eyes to determine if I’ve been in the presence of a brother all along. Whether he is or isn’t, he seems all right, and after Ben caps his flask and makes another face, I say, “You study blues, too?”
“Yes. Well, no. But. Let me explain.” Seems I’m the first person who asked him a question about himself during the conference, instead of demanding A-V equipment or reimbursement for mileage. He pulls up a director’s chair, sets the clipboard on his knees, and says, “I deconstruct . . . Well, I really rigorously examine what writers have previously written about the blues. Graham’s publisher is already very interested.”
“Pardon?” Ben and I both say at once.
Hardy drops the clipboard, holds out one hand above his knee. A pen’s still between his forefinger and thumb. “Take, let’s say, Charters, and his romantic, overblown descriptions from The Country Blues.” He sets the other hand down on his other knee. “Then bring in the more down-to-earth, gritty readings of someone like Bill Ferris in Blues from the Delta. Are the writers really responding to what they witnessed among the musicians and their audience, or are they actually revising what their peers wrote, giving us this endlessly self-reflexive body of work that might not really be as much on the subject itself, blues, as versions of the subject itself, the writing about the blues?”
“What you callin’ yo’ book?” Ben says, to my surprise. I could barely repeat what Hardy said, and I’m supposed to be, as Ben’s said many times, the educated one.
Hardy’s palms press together, and he shakes them. “ ‘Sittin’ on the Outside’: White Misrepresentations of the Blues.”
“But your book ain’t about the music,” I say.
“In a way, no, but what I’m saying is that most writing isn’t about the music.”
“But you like blues, right?” I say. The answer’s obvious, I think. Why else would he be here?
But Hardy leans back and makes a face, appearing to shake his head. With a start, he consults his watch and springs from the director’s chair. “I need to leave you two be,” he says, clipping his pen to the clipboard. “Break a leg!”
I look at Ben, who passes me the flask. “Need something stronger than this?” he says, then takes out his guitar to get us in tune.
It could be said if you’ve seen one of Ben’s shows, you’ve seen them all, especially when you consider the consistency of his playlist and that he hasn’t recorded since Blues at Your Request. But judging by this SRO crowd, people look old enough to remember Heywood and Bucket. With my two predecessors, Ben had a different show, more quiet and country with Bucket—half the time, Ben claims, they were pretending to be folkies—and a bit more lively with Razor. They had an on-stage rapport that was two parts profound and one part profane. We’re somewhere in between, ordinarily, but not so mechanical we produce the same show every night.
Take this performance. Ben’s aware, probably in a way I can’t quite claim, of how these people, rightly or wrongly, see him as the remaining link in a chain of performers that stretches back past the giants to those true ciphers like Robert Petway or Garfield Akers, men about whom we know next to nothing except they wandered into makeshift recording studios and left behind a sound so pure. And Ben gives it to them, as best he can, this sound, this history, this ideal, the True Delta Blues. He snaps strings between his fingers and growls like Patton, offers the occasional Tommy Johnson yodel, slashes strings and keens like Son House, and on “Stones in My Passway,” his voice and playing resembles Robert Johnson’s so much you better not close your eyes too long. You’ll think Ben’s been to that lonely crossroads in Coahoma County, had his guitar tuned by the same big, black man.
He’s giving them all the great Delta players, making up for the fact that the only one they may have seen perform was Son House, and even then near the end of his life, when he had to be more or less shown how to play by Al Wilson of Canned Heat. (I’ve always mistrusted that story, though. I think Eddie was having a little fun with those white boys. Lord knows, he needed it.) Ben’s playing like Delta blues won’t be heard again in these parts for some time and it’s his responsibility as a person who belongs to this lineage (even if he does drive a Volvo and shoot scratch golf) to play them as best as they can be played and, in so doing, keep them alive until he comes around again.
Me, I’m trying hard not to get caught up in the reverie, trying hard to forget what went down in the dressing room or the before that. Once or twice I hear my playing get a little behind. Ben slows down while keeping his eyes shut, his mouth open, even when he’s humming, so the lights catch the gold on his teeth. His boot sole slaps the stage, and the echo travels my spine and tingles in my hands. Feels like we’ve got ahold of something and I don’t want to let go. Which is why I should endure the off-stage performance. Hard to believe it, but we sound so true together. I savor the rusty taste of my harp, feel the notes shaped by my hands and breath right before I hear them. My shirt’s wet under the arms, as are the backs of my knees, but it’s a good sweat that loosens me up, keeps me right on time with Ben. Sadly, the end of the playlist is coming. No matter how loud the hollering for more gets, when we finish “Old Black River,” that’s it. I’ve heard two answers to the question of why Ben doesn’t play encores. One from a surly Ben: “If you wants mo’ music, you gots to pay mo’ money.” The other from a kinder one: “I gives all I can till there ain’t no mo’ in the tank.”
But tonight he surprises me, surprises the crowd, too, because after “Old Black River” fades out, and I drop my G harp in my pocket and prepare to tip my hat, his slide slips down to the bottom of the neck, and he’s playing something lively on the thin strings. Could be “Dust My Broom,” could be “Highway 49,” but out of that riff he pulls “Don’t Start Me Talkin’,” a little slowed down and less rowdy than Sonny Boy, but I’m still happy to play along. The scholars, to a man, jump out of their seats and try to clap the same beat Ben’s boot slaps out on the stage. For a second, as Ben and I wind up the intro, I almost think he nods, a gesture signaling that I should sing. It would be a first time for that. I’ve never even spoken on stage. Then, as I blink and near my mic, my harp in both hands, he sings, “Well, I’m gon down to Rosie’s, stop at Fannie Mae’s.” I doubt anyone can hear me above all the ruckus, yet I get to it, sucking air from my harp as if it’s the only source of oxygen in the room.
“Amazing,” Rodney Graham says. Followed by Hardy, he’s the first to enter the dressing room, and unless he’s got wax paper and a comb in his pocket, he holds no instrument. “You threw in what the Cajuns call a lagniappe,” he says, an unfamiliar word before I moved to New Orleans, where I hear it about every day, from the dry cleaner, the butcher, the barista at Starbucks.
“Caught me out, didn’t you?” Ben says.
“But why that number?” Graham says, scratching a grizzled eyebrow with his thumbnail. “Seems a bit, how should I say, modern, for you.” He turns to Hardy, who nods fiercely, though his eyes seem blank.
Ben gets seated, holds his left hand out like he’s wearing a papal ring meant for kissing. “That’s just fo’ a frien’ of mines,” he says, then sips from his flask to end that line of questioning.
I step away, size up Hardy. Maybe he is a brother, but he’s got a white parent. I figured neither of these two were players, though plenty are streaming in, their guitar cases banging against the door frame. I wouldn’t mind another harpist—I could use the competition—but none appears tonight. Cats sit on the floor around Ben, who keeps his guitar case open, sipping regally from his flask and offering his left hand for shaking. Then, just as I wonder if he’s going to arrive, Dane Connor walks in, case in hand, only it’s not big enough to be a guitar. Everyone’s tuning up and looking toward Ben, who hasn’t yet dropped his flask and doesn’t have his guitar resting on his chartreuse slacks. I take off my leisure suit jacket, look around for anyone holding a six-pack of beer. No one matches that description. Connor unlocks his case and pulls out, of all things, a mandolin. “Christ,” I hear someone say, and it’s Graham, whispering pretty damn loud to Hardy. “Of all things.” Then, aloud to everyone, he says, “Dane. The bluegrass jamboree is held in Tennessee next month. This is a conference on the blues.”
“Yank Rachell,” Connor says, so sudden he had to have walked in intending to say that man’s name. “A fine blues mandolin player.”
“Another?” Graham says, waving away the hands of Hardy, who looks at me and mouths, “Told you.”
I see Connor’s lips moving, but Ben shuts his case and caps his flask. “Enough’s enough,” he says. His head droops as he mimes drunkenness or fatigue. “The spirit willin’, good people, but mah flesh weak.” He raises his head to me. “Come on, Sam. He’p me up.”
I collect my jacket and weave through all the players, taking Ben’s guitar case in one hand and his elbow in the other, and lead him, with all his mock-infirmity, to the door. The players have stopped tuning up and flexing their fingers. Dane Connor, whose name is getting muttered with a lot of venom, stands alone near the doorway. Ben tips his hat, says, “Perfessuh,” and flutters his eyelids, as though he can’t keep them open for a minute more.
“I didn’t mean any offense earlier,” Connor says. His skin’s so pale it takes on a blue tinge. “I just was wondering about something that’s been bothering me for quite a long time.” He pauses, looks down at his mandolin as if it’s somehow the reason for Ben’s abrupt departure. He looks up, blinking, but then he starts nodding. The silver ends of his string tie clink together as he says, “You know, there’s just not a lot of your people who listen to the blues anymore. Why do you think that is?”
Your people. This chump probably is a bigot, like Hardy said, and must have been waiting since the end of the Q&A to get his shot at this question. I’d like to bust that mandolin over his head. Yank Rachell wouldn’t mind. Ben shakes his head, which inspires me to start working my lips, as if to avoid the stammer Sam’s anger often breeds. “Why doan you axe some them black folks who doan like blues?” I say, stuttering a little. “If you can find any.”
I wanted to stress “you” but lean harder on “find.” We don’t see Connor’s reaction, as we’re out the door, keeping quiet until we reach the Brougham. Inside, seat-belted and locked in, Ben says, “That was a good one.”
I overlook the compliment, ask why Ben quit before the jamming started. Heywood warned me once that as long as there were two people gathered in his name, Ben would play.
Now Ben says, “I’m tired, Pete. Just like I said.” He starts up the car, gets us on the campus roadway, where there’s no traffic at all, and lamps on both sides light the way back to the hotel. “You think Hardy’s mixed?” I say.
Ben turns to me, his face shadowed but enough of his disbelief visible for me. “You got those contacts in, Pete?”
“It wasn’t that obvious.”
“Better get to your doctor, tell him you can’t see a lick.”
I chuckle, blow the opening riff from “Don’t Start Me Talkin” again. “You’re in twelve-bar cadence again,” I say.
“So I am,” Ben says distantly. The hotel’s just up ahead, and he slows down. “You feel like driving some?”
“I need to take my contacts out,” I say. “But go on.”
Ben turns off the car, and we get out to gather our things from the room. Then, as if I’d forgotten all about the performance and only remembered it now, I say, “You played some kind of fine tonight.”
At the elevator, he waves his hat at me dismissively. “That ain’t nothing. You were two for two with that quick lip. Next thing I know you’ll be asking to sing.”
The elevator doors open. I step inside. Actually recall that moment from tonight’s performance and wonder what I’d do center stage, the mic all mine. Eventually, I wave at Ben with my hat again. “Ain’t my show,” I say.
“For now,” he says and winks.