–Ralph Ellison, Paris Review No. 8 Interview by Alfred Chester & Vilma Howard
Walking into the uncomfortable warmth of the building, the odor of warehoused, enfeebled, sick humanity struck the senses like a soft blow from a foul flannel rag. Spotless floors and walls, televisions blaring so that weak ears might hear them, someone struggling weakly to play an old hymn on a spinet from the Baptist book of devotional music, the aromas of overcooked vegetables and meats reducing down to mushy preparations all conspired to make one feel a little bit sick,oppressed.
The researcher, clothed in collegiate chinos and a plaid sport shirt, his steel rimmed spectacles glittering under the bright lights of the nursing home, wore a jaunty jazz man's Kangol cap at a rakish angle.
He tried and tried to get the old man back on the subject.
"No, sir, I mean to ask you about Jefferson, you know. Blind Lemon. Back in Dallas."
The ancient black man, confused, looking up and over his shoulder at his daughter and a nurse, couldn't hear him. He chafed under the wool of the tight Army tunic, running a forefinger around the tight collar with one hand, pointing to a row of campaign ribbons on his chest with the other.
The writer nodded at the ribbons and smiled, scratching an itch in his professorial beard gone gray, white in some spots.
"Is this motha' from the Army, or what? I thought they were interested in how we chase Pancho Villa through all that cactus in them Model T Fords, man."
The writer and the old man's daughter exchanged glances. He had already visited the family home in South Dallas where he and his wife had raised half a dozen kids while he worked on the railroad and in warehouses until he retired. After he had become enfeebled, he went into the rest home near where he had been born, a cotton town an hour's drive from Dallas.
"Daddy, listen. The man say he want to know about the time when Blind Lemon Jefferson stay at our house in South Dallas. You know, the guitar man from Wortham, from Groesbeck, from Marlin. You know, the blues man. He…" Her tone was insistent, though patient, a little loud for politeness.
The old man still didn't understand.
After a lifetime in the news business, the researcher, whose day job as a copy editor on the Dallas daily started as a beat reporter prying facts out of people grief-stricken, scared to death, injured, angry, crazed, knew hearing impairment when he saw it. The man was so hard of hearing he had no idea what was going on.
He had decided he was going to be decorated, once again, for his pre-World War One service in General Black Jack Pershing's skirmishing band of marauders that had pursued the rebel bandit Villa across the border into Ojinaga and beyond, into the barren desert country, after the Mexican chieftain had made raids on Douglas, Arizona, and Presidio, Texas, during the Mexican revolution of 1917.
What made that story interesting was that for the first time, the Army had used motorized transport, Model T's, to pursue the fleeing Mexican irregulars. It was the beginning of the end for the cavalry.
Though it was a fascinating subject, unfortunately it wasn't what he was interested in at the moment. He was working on a coffee table book, a definitive oral history of the famous Dallas neighborhood of jukes and dives, pawnshops and liquor stores, bootleggers's cafes and hotels known as "Deep Ellum."
Another spot for the inevitable birth of the blues, nurtured in the plantation towns and shipped to the hub cities.
It was so-called because Southern people often mispronounce Elm as "Ellum." The "Deep Ellum" neighborhood was anchored at its main point on both sides of railroad tracks with sidings for warehouses just East of downtown Dallas on Elm Street, the same street where almost fifty or so years later and fifteen or twenty blocks west of there an assassin with a high-powered rifle lay in wait for President Kennedy on Dealey Plaza, the Dallas County Courthouse square.
"Does he have a hearing aid? Perhaps if we put it in, he would hear us and catch on," the newspaperman turned historian interjected to the woman, who was, herself, in her seventies.
"Well, he have one, but it's broken. Besides, he only hear what he want to hear." She turned the corners of her mouth down and looked down on the top of her father's head in a severe frown.
The writer was starting to believe it.
He kept the tape recorder rolling. The detail of what he, the old boy with the ancient Army tunic, wanted to talk about was marvelous. There were all sorts of little asides about cantinas, what the people were like, how much beers cost, how much tequila and pulque would set a soldier back, how the old man and another private soldier named Ace Jackson spent most of their time fixing flats caused by cactus thorns and keeping the radiators of all those Model T's cool, then catching up to the skirmish line on the double.
He let a jolly forty-five minutes pass as he listened to all this.
"Was it hot, sir? After all, Presidio is almost always the hottest place in the state during the summer, and…"
The little old buffalo soldier's eyes lit up. He'd finally heard something.
"Hot! Shee-it, man. It was scalding, boy. I was too hot to worry about anything, man.
"It was a little old bridge up there that they had blown up, went across a little gully, and, man, when we got up there they really let us have it. They shot all up in there with some kind of machine guns, man. We had to wait 'em out…"
"Yes, sir, I see," the writer shouted, leaning in close. "What I am interested in was the time you met Blind Lemon Jefferson, the blues man, and he stayed at your house. How long did Blind Lemon Jefferson stay at your house?"
Suddenly, the old man reared back in his chair, his chest expanding, making the brass buttons of his old Army tunic strain, his cataracted, blue-filmed eyes suddenly blazing behind the trifocal lenses of his glasses.
This interview was not about his war with Pancho Villa, after all. It was about how he had invited a newly-arrived traveling man with a guitar to stay awhile in his home.
"Blind Lemon Jefferson! He a git-tar man! That fool stay at my house, man!"
Yes, sir, the writer shouted at him. Where had Jefferson come from?
"He been everywhere, man. Beale Street in Memphis, Sweet Auburn in Atlanta, Sugar Hill everywhere, The Beat in Marlin, The Sunnyside in Houston, all down in Loo-zee-ana and Mississip'a. Man, he been everywhere picking that git-tar and playing them blues."
How did he meet him?
He sat back and pondered.
"I guess up on the corner where he was playing. I don't hardly remember no more. It's been a long time ago."
He grinned back over his shoulder at his daughter and the nurse again.
Did Blind Lemon play on the corner?
"Seem like they all did. They play and folks would dance. Put down cardboard they got from the freight warehouses over on the tracks and dance, spin around on they heads and they backs and come up dancing. Yeah."
Was that in Deep Ellum or in South Dallas?
"Both places. Everywhere. Didn't be no rules against it. They be doin' it everywhere, man. They be inviting the git-tar man on inside the café to have a little somethin' to drink, a soda pop or somethin'."
He slapped his knee and laughed.
"Had plenty to drink in them cafes."
Well, was it his policy to open his home to boarders, or did he just decide that he liked Blind Lemon and decided to…
"Man, you akses way too many questions, boy! Here I thought you were from the Army and you were going to do something about my medal and everything and you be talking about all this here trifling shit like this. This here don't be about nothin'…"
The daughter gave the writer a pointed look, said, "I think Daddy is tired now. Maybe another time."
He folded up the microphone, put his notebook in his pocket, took one last picture and shook hands all around, backing away from the interview feeling confused and sad.
"It's been a pleasure, sir."
"Yeah, man, come back when you can stay a little longer."
"Daddy!" His daughter attempted to shush him as if he was a rude child.
Driving back to Dallas, cutting down through the smooth asphalt between the miles of stout cotton plants and geometrically precise rows of cultivation, he suddenly felt morose, mourning he knew not what.
Was it another missed opportunity to learn something about the train-riding blind man that brought his style of blues to Dallas, had been in Clarksville in the Delta, traveled the South, only to die in mysterious circumstances in Chicago? He was a cipher, but an important cipher, one about which little was known except that he was from the East Texas cotton town of Wortham in Freestone county. It was as little to know as what was known about Robert Johnson.
A blind man with "an uncanny ability to get around without much help from others," the biographers often said in their foreshortened, abbreviated narratives. In fact, many people thought he may have had partial sight, since photographs of him show that he wore clear, thick glasses and not the dark glasses completely blind men usually wear.
"He a git-tar man!"
He fairly shouted it at the windshield, knowing it would become one of his most cherished stories, something to tell people about his life, his work.
He was already framing the section of the book he would make out of the interview. How he loved his craft.
When he reached the city, the tedium of the black land giving way to motels and factories, warehouses and railroad yards, he crossed Trinity River bottoms and detoured into the potholed streets of South Dallas, stopped at a liquor store and bought a short dog of white port and a lemon, squeezed it in the wine, shook it up, poured a little bit on the ground for the dead, their spirits hovering all around him.
Throwing back his head and chugging down the sweet, syrupy stuff, he noticed a wino rolling up on him.
"Save me a spider on that, daddy?"
The writer handed him the bottle, winked, said, "Sure, dude. Knock yourself out."
Starting his old car and throwing it into gear, punching one of his home made tapes into the stereo and turning it up, he threw back his head and shouted, "He a git-tar man!"
Jim Parks is a Texan, a newsman, a truck driver, commercial fisherman, deckhand and a dreamer. Keep him away from the firewater and don't mess with his food or his woman.