By Bobby Rush
With Herb Powell
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When you’re in your mid-eighties like me, you know you’re way past the first song of the show. You’re actually walking back to the stage for one more encore. The bus is outside the nightclub, warming up. It’s ready to take you to the airport or to your hotel or to take you home for good. Or you may just drive another three hundred miles into the abyss of the night. So if I’m thinking about my daddy a lot, it just means I’m thinking about my longevity and how I got to be one of the last men standing of the original American music bluesmen.
Many people know my name: Bobby Rush. But way more do not. Oh, you’ve heard about the blues greats, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, and others. And you should have, because these men gave us one of the greatest art forms in the history of humanity. These greats were my teachers, peers, and, most of all, friends.
But I’ve been lying to ya.
Some say I was born in 1940; I’ll take that. Some say I was born in 1934, and I’ll take that, too. But they also say I was born in 1937. And I’ll bet you I’m the only person in the history of show business that made themself to be older—not younger—than they really are. I started lying about my age when I was twelve, becoming fifteen overnight—and I ain’t never looked back. If you can’t give me a pass on that, then I ain’t studdin’ ya.
My daddy knew the Bible from front to back. I’ve recorded over four hundred songs and can remember at least two hundred and fifty of them—music and lyrics. I guess I inherited his superb memory. And I’m glad I did because now, as I sit down and try to tell you my story, I realize it’s a blessing to remember to remember.
After B.B. King died, it closed the door on our almost-sixty-year friendship. Some said I was the next in line to carry the torch. I don’t know if that’s true, because B.B. and I traveled the same road, but we cruised on different wheels. And that’s the beauty of life. But I am connected to him and so many others because their stories are surely connected to mine. I am, we are, a part of a very American story. I am a proud Black man. I am a proud bluesman. And I am a product of the American South.
But now I’m just one man with one story left—mine.
The sugarcane stalks were just starting to turn yellow in late September. I looked at the back of Daddy’s hands as he massaged the stalk. The contrast of his boot-black skin against the greenish-yellow leaf looked like the stark colors that I only saw on the shelves of the general store. “Hm-mm, it’s just about dry enough, Junior,” Daddy said. It wouldn’t be another week before me and three of my brothers were out there cutting down the stalks with long-blade machetes.
This wouldn’t be my first time chopping sugarcane. But when your mind is young, you put together things bit by bit. So I knew what the result of all this chopping would be—and that was syrup. Sweet, dark, Louisiana syrup. During my childhood, soppin’ up that syrup with Maw’s hot homemade biscuits was heaven on earth—the highlight of my day. Still, as much as I knew there was a purpose in this harvesting, I just wanted to be near Daddy.
My daddy was some kinda man, I tell ya. At around six foot two, he looked as tall as a tree to me. Good-looking, fit as a fiddle, black as midnight, tough as a bulldog, and yet a peaceful man. His entire demeanor commanded attention. A true bookworm, he read everything. Every day. All day. And yet he had only a third-grade education. With a daddy like mine, I don’t carry one single note of the dark blues of not having a father. So fully present in my life, he is a large man in my memory, spirit, and heart.
A quiet but a serious man, he was everything to me. Despite his reserved style, my earliest memory of him is when he’d grab me with his enormous hands, lift me up high to the ceiling, and set me down on his right knee. He’d then pop me up and down to the rhythm of his whistling. Man, could he toot. The tone of his whistle was pure as a flute, and his licks were as soulful as Junior Walker’s saxophone. You could tell whatever song he was tootin’ because his melody was so accurate. He probably could whistle better than anybody I ever heard in my entire musical life.
But something happened to me the day Daddy pulled out of his pocket a dull silver harmonica. Whisking it back and forth against the fabric of his blue bib overalls, he put the shined harp in his mouth and started to play. On his rock-solid knee, my mouth hung wide open. I was astonished. I could do nothing more than to stare deeply into his brown eyes and listen to the greasy yet melodic sound coming out of the harmonica. In my childhood mind, it sounded like somebody was crying, but they weren’t sad. The slew of changing tones Daddy was producing with his mouth created pictures in my mind. One tone sounded like an old hound dog; another sounded like a train—it fascinated me. I watched how he gripped the harmonica. I watched how his cheeks quickly ballooned up with air—and just as quickly drew small as he blew out. The mystical mixture of him rhythmically popping me up and down on his knee while I listened to the music coming out of that harp—became my first groove.
My first groove. It’s something when a groove hits you. You feel it in your bones. You feel in your hands. You feel in your butt. You feel it in your heart. It’s primal. It’s magnetic. It’s pure. It’s irresistible. Knowing that his sound captivated me, Daddy performed for me. And since he didn’t joke or play around much, this was a special moment. His eyes lit up. He bopped his head slightly from side to side. Sensing my ever-increasing interest, he smiled. Still, this was not the moment that put me on the road to becoming a musician. But it was damn sure starting the car.
When you’re from the Deep South, Black, and born right after the Depression, there’s a language that comes with that. So when I say my daddy was an upright man, maybe only some old people from Louisiana or Mississippi would understand what I’m talking about. Yeah, my daddy was upright in the traditional sense—as in righteous and decent. It didn’t hurt Daddy’s reputation that he was also a preacher. With that, it connected him to a tradition that was as old as time, and it showed through his actions of kindness and counsel to others.
But he was upright in another way, too. In Louisiana, cutting a Black man down to size was sport for white men. Between walking around with a bowed head and all that “yes sir” and “no sir” shit, passiveness was a way of life for most Black men—but not my daddy. Now I ain’t saying he was the Malcolm X of the 1930s and ’40s, but he did not let that unspoken code of “you better not get outta line, boy” shrink his manhood. He was more man than most men—Black, white, or Creole. So upright also means that he had a spine like steel, and that raised his stature. Daddy was the only Black man I saw in my early years that white men would consistently reach out to shake his hand. That may seem like a simple thing, but in the Deep South it wasn’t.
Daddy was as equal to the white man as a Black man could be. At least in my little world of Claiborne Parish in northern Louisiana.
I was born in a shotgun house in Carquit, Louisiana. Carquit, smack-dab between Haynesville and the county seat of Homer, was like a million other tiny towns in the rural South. It was just a road with a sign. My mother, Mattie, and my daddy, Emmett Ellis Sr., had ten children but raised eleven. My oldest sister, Margie May, had a baby in her early teens. Not uncommon with the times, my parents raised Christine as my sister. Most of us didn’t know that she was a niece until Christine was in her teens, which is when she found out herself. There’s a funny difference between the South and the North. For decades, when a teenage girl would get pregnant, the family would often send her to relatives in the South to have and raise the baby. But when you’re in Louisiana, there ain’t nowhere farther South for you to send anybody! But it is a testament to the character of Maw and Daddy that my sister/niece Christine was loved just as much as we all were.
After Margie May, Mary Lee popped up, then Acen Jewel (but everybody called him A. J.), Alvin, Lillie Pearl, me, Verdie Mae, Gerdie Bee, Andrew, and Larry. You may or may not believe this, but there was no fighting amongst my siblings—ever. Daddy forever said to us to “take care of your brothers and sisters,” and that instruction was planted early and planted deep. So deep that fighting amongst ourselves seemed to be out of step with our very DNA—the life he wanted us to live.
My older brother Alvin took good care of me when I was very young. I rode on his back everywhere. As he is almost ninety today, sometimes I’ll call him “Horsey” to take us back in time to our humble beginnings. Those ordinary beginnings changed when I was three or four. The white man that my family was sharecropping for, George Tinkernut, moved to the city. Tinkernut, who admired Daddy, gave us his house. Now we had three bedrooms, a kitchen, and a living room. And a big old barn. And mane, let me tell you something, we was living high on the hog. But don’t get too happy. The house was still raggedy. You could still count the number of chickens you had by looking through the cracks in the walls!
These A-frame houses, a common fixture in the American South, had no indoor plumbing, so we had an outhouse—the regular kind. The fancy kind was when they had two holes cut out of the hardwood bench for emptying yourself. Using the Sears and Roebuck catalog for toilet paper, you had to make sure you hung the catalog back up on a nail. Because if you left it on the plank of wood, sometimes snakes would hide behind it. And if there was anything my sisters were scared of, it was snakes.
With the number of people we had in the house, we owned two slop jars—fancy-looking white enamel-coated steel buckets with a lid, for peeing in the middle of the night. If you had to do number two, you had to put the slop jar outside the front door as to not stink up the house. We cleaned it out first thing in the morning—returning it to its sparkling white shine. Our primitive shelter also had no closets. One of the old jokes about this kind of living was: “What do you need a closet for when you only got five, maybe six pieces of clothes?” But you still made do. In the corner of the room Daddy attached to the walls a homemade wood rod. Putting a sheet over that rod—you know what you got? A closet. And you hung your clothes on another wall-mounted stick. But Daddy did buy a beautiful chifforobe (wardrobe) out of the Sears and Roebuck catalog for Maw’s nicer things. The chifforobe had a mirror attached to the door. Later, that would come in handy for me.
To most of the Black people around, we looked like Mr. Charlie. Daddy seemed to have it together more than most. Between his ability to read and write and his churchy counsel, the huge barn we had on Mr. Tinkernut’s land served others, as Daddy let Black folks from miles around store their hay there. It seemed that I was always being reminded that people respected Daddy. Though looking back, I’m sure some may have envied him, too.
Unless you’ve lived on a farm, you can’t imagine how much hay we used. In the years before people started using twine to wrap hay bales, they used a very thin metal wire. And out of fear that we might need something later—something that right now may seem useless—we threw nothing away. Nothing. So along with worn-out metal tubs, glass bottles and jars, and a hundred other things, hay wire was everywhere. It was on the post of the mule lot, pigpen, wrapped around tree limbs, and at the side of the house—you could always find it.
I really can’t tell you what made me start making instruments. But all I can say is when I saw some white, tall drink of water trying to play a tub bass out back at Mr. Beer’s store, my mind got me to thinkin’. It was just an old number three tub turned upside down with a broomstick nailed to it. Mmm, I thought, with all that wire hanging around, I know there got to be an old tub thrown away out at the edge of the woods. Finding a broomstick and an old sugarcane syrup bucket, I got some nails. I tried to make one—it wasn’t too successful. First, the cane bucket was rusted a bit, and I couldn’t figure that I needed to nail the broomstick to something like a two-by-four piece of wood first, and then nail that to the tub.
Not too long after that I saw what I’d find out later was what they call a diddley bow, but to me it was just a one-string guitar. It was nailed to a wooden sign pole on the main drag in Homer. Sitting on the wagon waiting for Daddy, I saw some kid come up and play it a bit. I never left the wagon, but I could see well enough what it was. And that was it.
It couldn’t have been two days later before I was hammering a nail to the side of our shabby gray house. I don’t know why Maw didn’t stop me. But my baby sister Gerdie watched with curiosity as I drove those two nails about a foot and a half apart. My brother Alvin helped me drive two more nails in the wall, and I laid a brick with a pop bottle up top. With the ever-abundant hay wire, I wrapped it around the top end of the nail and strung it over the curved part of a pop bottle. I pulled it gently but strongly down, down, down to the lower nail. Taking another pop bottle, I strung it over the curve in the bottle and wrapped that wire around the top of that nail with the determination of my daddy swinging an axe. I was only six. And I did it! Plucking it for the first time wasn’t even about music; it was the thrill of me building something.
But the wire was thin and sometimes rusty. It just kept breaking. Then one day the brick hit me in the head, the pop bottles crashing to the ground, breaking in pieces. My older brothers and sister used to say about me that when I was very young, if I didn’t get what I wanted at the moment I wanted it, I would fall apart. But I grew out of that quickly. You had to. There was nothing but a spirit of “do” in my house.
So I wasn’t going to let those broken bottles beat me.
Maw went through a broom maybe three times a year. You gotta understand, with cracks between the wood slats of the kitchen floor, Maw would sweep the kitchen of crumbs and anything else, and the chickens under the house would eat everything up. I found an old broom that had been thrown out in the thicket of weeds. The wire that strapped the broom bristles to the handle was raggedy, so I carefully unraveled it. I also added some more nails to hold the pop bottles in place if the wire broke. But this time I put the brick at the bottom so it couldn’t knock me in the head again! The broom wire was thicker. It had a more resonant tone—that’s the ticket.
But soon that raggedy wire broke. I was very disappointed and almost crying, so I ran to Maw.
“Maw, I need a piece of broom wire.”
“You wanna make that old guitar outside that wall, don’t you, boy?”
“Well, you can have dis old broom here when it wears out.”
But it was a new broom! It would take months for that thing to start falling apart. I couldn’t wait that long. That broom wire was key to my everything: enjoyment, music, attention—everything. When Maw was out with Daddy in the fields, I grabbed that broom. I stuck that broom in a bucket of water and got it very soggy. Then, quickly sneaking around to the edge of the woods, I went down and into the cow pen. I fed them cows that broom—and they, thinking it was grass, ate it like ice cream!
Just having gotten the broom shabby enough, I returned it to the back of the house. I waited for some days, and when Maw was out back I said, “Maw, can I have this broom?” She said, “Oh yeah, boy, you can have dis old broom—it’s all tore up anyway.” She didn’t know that it was the new broom. I returned to making my one-string guitar. And soon I was back to pickin’.
I felt bad about lying to Maw. But I had to.
I had to get it going again. I continued to play with it. Learned how to change the pitch by running my left hand up and down the string while plucking at the same time. I took a flimsy piece of leather from Daddy’s old belt and used it as a pick. As I learned to diddle, my brothers and sisters paid me a bit more attention. As I found different pitches on that one string, I made up little rhymes and sang them in that key. I moved my finger around to a lower or higher key and made up little things in each pitch. I didn’t know it then, but I was learning how to compose (a little), how to sing in different keys (a little), and how to entertain my baby sister Gert (a little). And all those littles added up to something big. A great big hunger. It’s hard to put into words when you’re that young what it feels like to become obsessed. I guess it’s the homemade stew of craving to be special and craving to create something.
I started to dream. I recall working in the cotton fields in the heat of the day, and instead of working I was just staring at the sun, getting cooked—lost in a daydream of playing music. Maw crossed into my row and hit me in the head with a tin cup and said, “Boy, don’t you know you’ll go blind fixin’ on the sun? Keep your head down and pick that cotton.”
Every chance I had, I played with the broom wire on the side of the house. I played that one string so intensely that I would get lost in it, dreaming I’m onstage in a long tailcoat, a tailcoat like the man had on Daddy’s Prince Albert tobacco can. I’m lost in a fantasy set in motion by the twangy sound of the diddley bow. As dark clouds gathered and moist, humid winds blew, I wasn’t paying any attention to it. Eventually buckets of water fell from the sky. As the heavy warm rain ran down my face, my spell was only broken by Maw’s loud demand of, “Junior, you better git yo’self in dis house. You’ll be sicker than death.”
Give and Take
Pretty much only white folks had syrup mills. With the wagon loaded up with our cut sugarcane, we would head over yonder to Mr. George’s syrup mill. This would be an all-day affair. First, they used a tractor motor–powered grinder to pulverize our sugarcane harvest into liquid. Then they boiled that cane into syrup. The complete process took about seven hours. This day we ended up with about eighty gallons of the purest cane syrup. Keep in mind, Mr. George didn’t charge you for the cane grinding. What he did was take half of the syrup, and Daddy took the other half.
He’d sell his—and we go home and eat ours.
They call it the barter system—but in my young mind it was just the math of simple country living. And much of our survival depended on it. Anything you could not raise on your own land you traded for. Even at the general store. Maw would send me there with three chickens in a croker (burlap) sack. I’d loosely tie a piece of twine at the top—just taut enough as to not smother them, but loose enough that the chicken heads could stick awkwardly out of the top. With the three blinking, bug-eyed chicken heads poking out, I’d throw the sack on my back and walk the two miles to Mr. Deb’s store.
“Mr. Deb, my maw wants a can of lard and three pounds of meal.”
“Boy, how many chickens ya got?”
“That should do it.”
That was just the math of country living. But in the sharecropping life, there was way more subtraction than there was addition.
With white folks taking, and Black folks giving.
A big part of the sharecropping deceit was that all the plantation owners had these little stores. Within a twenty-five-mile radius around the Homer and Haynesville area, Mr. Beer, Mr. Deb, Mr. Harper, Mr. Oldham, and so many others had these little general stores. Black sharecroppers would buy from these stores, and around 80 percent of the time they would buy stuff on credit. Which was referred to as “fall term.” In other words, you paid up when your fall crops came in. Problem was, the little profit you made from sharecropping went right back into the hands of the very plantation owners that you were sharecropping for. Not to mention that if they charged you two dollars for flour, they were probably getting it for a dollar. So you got screwed six ways from Sunday: the product markup, the credit ruse, combined with any profit you may squeeze out being sucked like a vacuum cleaner right back into the white folks’ hands. So you were never free. Never had the opportunity to buy land. Never had the opportunity to have a dream.
But I would experience another kind of math in my young life. I never could add up racial differences when I was young. We lived in a Black world. Yes, white folks were around, and I knew they were white. But it was just white folks. Meaning that the interactions were not human. White folks in our world were like amplifiers on a stage. They had a sound; they were present but not alive like a guitar or drums. They were just there.
But the calculation of Daddy + Maw + us children would create some early confusion for me.
My maw was white. Born of a white man and a Cherokee woman, to the world she was white. She wasn’t even “high-yellow.” It was like an open secret that everyone knew, but no one ever talked about it. This only made it an even deeper, yet open, secret.
She would always say she was one-fourth white, but all her sisters and brothers looked whiter than white except for one. See my young mind’s math problem? She was white visually—but she was damn sure Black to me. At five foot five with crystal blue eyes, she was strikingly beautiful. When she was young her hair was long and flowing blond; as she got older it turned a lovely auburn color. With a trim yet curvy figure, she was built like a brick shithouse. Everybody looked at Maw—women, men, boys, girls, Black, white, Creole, aged eight to eighty, blind, crippled, or crazy. She was stunning.
The following summer, after we moved into Mr. Tinkernut’s house, a white ice-delivery man rode up to the fence of our home. It was so hot that day you could fry catfish on the ground. I couldn’t have been older than five or six. My brother Alvin and I were shooting marbles within the white picket fenced-off yard. The dirt road to the house was fenced in, too—so you couldn’t just drive up.
Beep, Beep Beep! the iceman’s horn blurted out.
“Hey, boy, y’all niggers want some Goddamn ice?”
My brother and I didn’t say a word. He hit the horn again in longer, more annoying beeps. Beeeeep, Beeeeeeep Beeeeeeep!
“Hey, boy, did you hear me! I said, y’all niggers want some ice?”
Just like a rocket, Maw briskly pushed the screen door wide open and hightailed it towards the truck. The iceman jumped out of his truck, cupped his hands to his mouth, and nervously shouted out: “Oh, oh, I’m so sorry, ma’am, I thought only niggers lived here now.”
Maw stopped her march and placed her hands on her hips. She waved her arm in the air to Alvin—motioning him to open the gate. The iceman drove slowly in. I didn’t hear what they said, but I saw the iceman take off his hat and quickly brush his oily hair back with his hand to make himself presentable. He clasped his dingy hat with both hands, holding it in front of him waist-high, as to show respect to Maw. They exchanged a few words, and the man brought the ice in the house. He humbly bowed his head, tipped his hat to Maw, got in his truck, and drove off. That iceman went from calling us niggers one second to bowing his head in front of Maw. Mmm… that’s interestin’, I said to myself. I reckoned from this that white men behaved themselves around Maw.
By the same token, when I was seven or eight years old, Daddy, Maw, and I took the wagon over to somebody’s big place in Homer to load up with bales of hay. Daddy walked into the barn. There was this tall and dingy-looking white man guiding his mule behind him with a frayed rope. I guess he saw Daddy and Maw earlier talking from afar, because as Maw and I waited on the flat wagon, he approached us.
“Mattie, what you doing with dat thar nigger?” he said.
“I’m a nigger too,” Maw said.
“Oh, no-no-no, you is not no nigger.”
“Yes, I am too. Ask Mr. Beer.”
Mr. Beer ran one of those small plantation stores I spoke of earlier. So in my young mind, he was an authority figure. But why did Maw have to declare that she was a nigger? After all, I was her son, and I knew I was Black. And I was aware of her white appearance—but my young brain couldn’t distinguish that she was anything different from what Daddy, I, and my brothers and sisters were.
Although I couldn’t understand the attitudes or, really, can of worms towards Maw’s white skin, I witnessed things that added even more confusion.
I remember like it was only yesterday: Maw and I were on the wagon going to a larger general store on the other side of Haynesville. I felt special that it was just her and me. With so many brothers and sisters, this kind of moment alone with Maw felt almost holy because it was so rare. Sitting close beside her, I could smell her hair mixed with the scent of bleach that was in her freshly washed white dress. As we got about thirty feet from the store, she said, “Now Emmett, you get in the back of the wagon.” I didn’t ask why—I didn’t have to. I was six or so and had total trust in that whatever Maw told me to do was right, even though, looking back, it felt a wee bit odd.
“Now you stay right here, Emmett.” With that, she gathered her satchel and hopped off the wagon. I had a bird’s-eye view through the tall and wide plate-glass store window. I stared and stared. In the store were all men, two proprietors and two or three patrons. They were all smiles as my maw was looking at the shelves, seeing what was in stock. I realize now that Maw was playing up to them, and they all were having just a good ole time. And at the same time she was cunning, because on this day she seemed to get anything she wanted. The wagon was soon loaded. What I didn’t know was that Maw’s bloodline was a prominent one in northern Mississippi, Louisiana, and southern Arkansas. Maw’s granddaddy was a Mr. Van of Mississippi. White and wealthy, he had a lot of children. They were all whiter than white and carried all the privileges of what white and wealth bought in the South. That store owner in Haynesville, Mr. Beer, Mr. Deb, and others knew of Maw’s kin. They gave her the deference of being from the Van family. Still, I’d find out later the price Maw paid to marry a Negro.
- On Sale
- Jun 22, 2021
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Hachette Books