Blind Lemon, by Jim Parks

"[African-Amer­i­can folk­lore] is like jazz; there's no inher­ent prob­lem which pro­hibits under­stand­ing but the assump­tions brought to it."

–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."

He snort­ed.

"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.

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1 Response to Blind Lemon, by Jim Parks

  1. Jim…
    Read with great inter­est your recent piece on David Sib­ley and would like to talk with you fur­ther: tony.​passarello@​consumeraccess.​us

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