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After arriving in Chicago in 1919, Jackson Black played a lot of blues and worked a variety of jobs. He hoped to make a living playing harp. That did not happen. He began to realize that he was good, but maybe not ‘make a living’ good.
He tried the stockyards for a year. He lasted two at meat packing. He did house framing, shingling and sewer work.
He bought a Harmony guitar and liked it so much that he applied for work at the Harmony factory. He wanted to build guitars.
Harmony hired him as janitor and cleaning crew man. A colored man’s chance for a better job there was slim. The job was tolerable and the pay was regular. He had more time and energy after a shift to do the things he liked.
Music and boxing were the two big pastimes in the colored sections. Jackson liked both. He got an opportunity to box and gave it a try. He was fair to middling. He liked the gym and had good jab, good feet and fair defense.
He lacked what it took to take advantage when he put a hurt on someone. He did not like getting hit. He stuck with it until he was knocked out and his ears rang for days. He’d gone seven and four as a middleweight. One KO for and one against. He quit boxing with more relief than regret. He’d done it. That was enough.
He hung out in the blues and fight clubs and got respect in both venues. His kind and quiet nature helped. He was a bit of a sucker for anyone down on their luck.
One Friday he was riding the street car home from work. He got off on State Street to walk the few blocks to his rented room. A tall fat man sat on an upturned five gallon bucket playing a little four string tenor guitar and singing the blues. He had a raspy voice. Not a church voice. Not a real pretty voice. But a good, likeable voice.
Jackson listened a bit and then put a coin in the man’s open guitar case. He pulled out the C harp that was always with him and held it up for the guitar player to see.
The fat man nodded his okay and Jackson quietly played along and would turn up his volume and do a lead when the fat man gave him the sign. He got a few turns at singing too.
It was comfortable. They sounded good together. It was the closest thing to playing with his old friend Willie. A crowd came and went and tips came in. After a fast passing hour, the fat man said, “Now that was fun. But I gots to get home for dinner or my woman will rip me up. Here man. Take some of this dough.”
Jackson thanked him kindly and turned him down. The fat man was Big George. Up from Alabama and working as a cook for the I.C. railroad. Big George invited Jackson home for ham hocks and beans. The two men were almost instant friends. Better yet that Big George’s wife, Georgine, and their kids liked Jackson and that Jackson liked them back.
Big George and Jackson met on Saturday to play some more. The playing time was too short. Big George had to catch his train.
* * *
A few months later, Jackson was employed as a sleeping car porter on the Illinois Central. Most of the time he worked the same crew as Big George.
* * *
Historical Note: Railroad work was good work. Only a few jobs were open to colored men. Sleeping car porter was maybe the best. The on train hours were long and the time had home was scarce. A good porter made good money. Expenses on the road were small. This was even truer if you had a cook for a friend.
Memphis Minnie, queen of the blues, played a club on the south side of Chicago. There was no sign or advertising on the exterior of the club known as Ernie’s Place. Folks in the know went to a heavy and locked door and knocked.
The bouncer behind the door squinted at them through a peep hole. If he thought they were okay, he let them in. Most everyone looked okay. As long as the police got their weekly cut from the profits, there was no trouble.
Minnie was long and lean and just fine. The modest dress she wore didn’t look modest on her. She made a simple dress look sexy. She wore hoop ear rings, a necklace and a bracelet that flashed on stage. She wore her straightened hair in a pony tail that night.
She played guitar and banjo on the level of the best blues playing men. When Minnie played, Minnie moved. Could not help it. She did not move to be sexy. But it was what it was.
It was a colored club, but half a dozen white ‘swells’
were in the audience. Prohibition was on and beer and liquor were illegal. You would never know this at Ernie’s. The booze flowed freely. Gambling was also illegal. Tell that to the poker and roulette players. You would get a good laugh.
It was Minnie’s last night in Chicago. She’d had a good run, but she was ready to move down to Louisiana for her next gigs.
Usually when Minnie took a break, Ernie would come on stage and talk up the crowd, then put a record on the phonograph hooked to the loud speaker. That night, Ernie had told her he had some friends in town that would play on her breaks.
Playing an arch top six string with tobacco burst finish; Minnie finished Crazy Blues, a Mamie Smith song. The applause was loud and enthusiastic. Ernie came up to the mike and as always, tried to talk up the crowd. He introduced his friends, ‘The Railroad Conductors.’
Minnie visited the lady’s room then went to Ernie’s table. The Conductors finished their second song, Frankie and Albert. Ernie slid a glass of Templeton Rye on the rocks in front of Minnie. The Queen of the Blues did not drink ‘No name booze.’
The Conductors did ‘Banty Rooster Blues’ next, an old Charlie Patton song. Minnie said, “Ernie, those boys aint half bad. Get them a drummer and bass player and they’d be a good house band for you.”
“I know, I know,” Ernie replied. “But they really is railroad men. On the road too much to play here regular.”
Of course Minnie knew colored men were not allowed to be conductors. ‘The Conductors’ were a two man band. One was tall and fat with a jacket too small. The other was middle sized and well set up. He was sharply dressed and groomed, with a pencil thin mustache and a part line cut into his short ‘natural.’ Both had guitars and the smaller man played a fine harp.
Minnie was between husbands at the time and the sharp dresser had her attention. She said, “Ernie, tell me bout’ those boys. They single?”
Ernie chuckled and told her, “The middleweight is. He’s a sleeping car porter. Up from Mississippi. The fat boy’s married and got kids. He a cook. Up from Bama.”
Minnie said, “ MMM mmm mmm.. He do look fine. Middleweight?”
“Jackson Black. Mississippi boy. Fought middleweight for a while. Not bad, not real good. Same train crew as Big George.”
The Conductors finished a five song set and Minnie went back on stage. When her night was finished the Conductors had gone. Minnie was disappointed.
* * *
Authors Notes: Memphis Minnie was real and a true queen of the blues.
Templeton Rye was one of the few ‘name brand’ liquors made (illegally) in the U.S. during prohibition. It was and still is made in Templeton, Iowa.
Ernie’s place is fictitious, but I believe it was like many other clubs and speakeasys of the day.
* * *
Sweet Zee From Bayou Bartholomew
Zelma Lou was the much loved daughter and only child of the Reverend Edgar Woolfolk and his pretty wife Zelma. They lived just a few stone’s throws from Bayou Bartholomew in the one bedroom clapboard parsonage house next to the Great God Almighty Church and Cemetery.
Zee was named after her mother, but the family and soon everyone else took to calling her Zee or Sweet Zee. Zee did not like it when her school teacher called her Zelma. Once she got her daddy to go to school and set teacher straight on what she was to be called. Zee!
Zee’s daddy ministered to three churches along the bayou. He was a New Testament forgive and rejoice man; a music man and a Hallelujah man. Edgar wanted folks to accept the Lord, love one, get along, rejoice and sing.
He rode his church circuit and visited the elderly and infirm on a white jenny mule named Cleo. He carried a Vega mandolin and a jaws harp for church music and fun music. Edgar saw nothing convincingly wrong with playing Oh Lord music for church and Oh Momma music for fun. Edgar was a happy man and he spread the happiness.
It was rumored that he once or twice gave into temptation and spread a little too much happiness with a wife or widow from his smaller churches. He had an arch enemy in Clester Johnson. The why of their one sided feud was never spoken by Edgar or Clester. But Edgar and his wife, Myrt quit attending Edgar’s church. And it was whispered that Edgar had dallied with Myrt.
Edgar had his faults, but he was a fine daddy and he loved his wife and treated her like a new bride. He taught Zee to fish and trap and play the mandolin. And he treated her like a princess.
Zee was always little, but she had a big zest and zeal for life. That little gal had a voice and laugh that carried and did not sound like it should have come from her small body.
There was so much in her life that Zee liked; riding Cleo, playing her daddy’s mandolin, fishing and trapping, playing with the share cropper kids just up the road and all the kids that came to church and Sunday school. At fourteen, she had stopped growing at just under five feet. She weighed a hundred and five pounds. She was generous and kind and deserving of her ‘Sweet Zee’ name.
Nearly every day the Woolfolk family ate from the bounty of Bayou Bart. Blackened or fried catfish with okra from the garden. Crappie and bream filets for any meal, but the Woolfolks favored them for breakfast. Muskrat, possum and coon from Zee’s traps… .Sometimes turtle too, but Zee never did like to eat turtle.
Nearly every week, the Woolfolks would sit down for Sunday dinner in the homes of Edgar’s congregation. Most often it was a chicken dinner. Edgar had a well known ritual for that. He would put an amen on his dinner blessing then dance his hands in the air exclaiming, “Winner, winner chicken dinner, thank you Lord Jesus!”
One blustery January day when she was fourteen, Zee’s happy life on Bayou Bartholomew came to an end….
Cleo came home without her daddy and with blood on her hind quarters and saddle. Edgar’s lifeless body was found sprawled on the ground along a tree lined trail. The spot where he died was half a mile from Clester Johnson’s share cropper’s shack. The men that found Edgar suspected Clester was involved and the sheriff was called. A white deputy came to the scene and ruled it an accident, saying Edgar fell off the mule. When asked about the blood on Cleo’s saddle, the deputy snarled, “Well he musta got up and tried to remount before he died. Nigger was probably drunk.”
* * *
That summer at a revival in Pine Bluff, Zee’s momma was introduced to the Reverend David Albers. Reverend Albers was originally from Pine Bluff and now had a big church and congregation in Chicago, Illinois. He was recently widowed and had four children that needed a momma.
It was a whirlwind courtship. Zee’s momma was the daughter of a preacher and the widow of a preacher. A new preacher was coming to live in the parsonage and she and Zee would have to leave. She was at her wits end from grief and worry. She had nowhere to go and the Reverend Albers and his offer to marry seemed like a miracle. It was just too good to be true. She did not love him, but prayed that love would come in time.
Soon and very soon she was a preacher’s wife again and she and Zee were living in Chicago.
* * *
Sweet Zee liked Chicago well enough. She especially liked a chance to go to high school. That opportunity was not available back home. But she missed Cleo and her friends and the bayou. Most of all, she missed her daddy.
When Zee first met the Reverend Albers, she did not like him. But as time passed and she got to know him better…. She detested the self righteous little bastard. She wondered and marveled at how he had so many people following him like he was Saint Paul come back to the earth.
Reverend Albers was small in size and small in human kindness. The reverend insisted Zee be called Zelma, her ‘proper name’.
He did not like any music but ‘good church music’ - played on an organ or at the least, a piano. He grudgingly allowed Zee to play her real daddy’s mandolin, but only for proper hymns. No more ‘devil’s music.’ He talked of adopting her and changing her last name to his. Zee said, “I like being a Woolfolk just fine.”
The straws that broke the camel’s back came after the reverend came home and caught his own children laughing and singing blues music with Zee. He gave Zee an angry scolding. She sassed him back. He slapped her face.
Worse yet, after Zee was in bed she heard the reverend berating her momma for not putting a stop to Zee’s insolence.
In the morning at breakfast, Zee spied her momma’s swollen eye. Sweet Zee, gentle Zee, got angry and still. It was a cold, killing anger. Her momma said she stumbled and hit a door. Zee could see the lie and put her finger in Reverend Albers’ face and started in on him. He stood up, knocking over his chair and screamed, “Get your hand out of my face and go to your room! Now, damn it!”
Zee’s gritted her teeth and gave the reverend a two handed shove knocking him ass over tea kettle. Then she went to her room. The tension did not abate and Zee begged her mother to leave with her. But they had no money and nowhere to go. Her mother could not or would not leave.
Zee was called to the reverend’s study. Two church deacons stood on either sides of his desk. Zee was told the reverend would ask the church to pray for Zee to be ‘rid of her devil ways’. And if she ran off she would be ‘drug home and beat til’ she learned her lesson.’
It would break her momma’s heart, but Zee had to leave. It would be better for her momma and better for her. She had almost no money and no living relatives other than an ailing grandmother in Louisiana whom she had never met. She would go back to Bayou Bartholomew. She didn’t know what she would do there, but folks would help her.
She packed a few things and left home before the family was awake. She hated to do it, but her daddy’s Vega mandolin was her only asset. She would pawn it for money for a train ticket. It made her cry but she had resolve. Maybe there would be another mandolin in her life, but it would not be her daddy’s.
When the pawn shop near the railroad station opened, Zee was waiting at the door.
* * *
Memphis Minnie had time to kill before her 9:00 train. Minnie liked pawn shops and had seen one near the station. She liked to look at musical instruments, clothes, jewelry and guns like the little nickel plated 32 in her purse.
There was a girl in the shop playing a mandolin; playing it well. She looked fourteen or fifteen, but a little thing. And pretty too with a heart shaped face and coffee colored skin. Well, she’d be pretty if she wasn’t teary and sniffling.
Minnie listened as the girl tried to convince the pawn broker to give her more money for the mandolin. His offer was insultingly low. And he said he would go no higher.
Minnie marched her long legs up to them. She angrily pointed at the man and said, “I’d like to slap the shit out of you! You would cheat this girl just because you see she desperate. Ass-hole!”
Turning to Zee, she said, “Sweetie, come with me. Let’s talk about this. If you really have to sell this, I will give you twice what he would pay.”
* * *
Minnie and Zee were boarding the south bound Dixie Flyer. The conductor had just punched their tickets when two colored men in suits, screamed for the conductor, “Stop that girl!”
Minnie pushed Zee ahead. The conductor was busy taking tickets and he hesitated. Minnie hustled Zee toward the colored car, but could hear a fuss behind her. She saw a colored man in a trainman’s blue uniform and nearly panicked. But she recognized him saying, “I saw you play at Ernie’s last night. Please! Help me hide this girl, she aint done nothing wrong.”
Jackson Black was shocked to recognize Minnie. He was a big fan of hers. The only thing he could manage to say was, “Uh, uh, okay.” He hustled Sweet Zee off to the kitchen car where Big George hid her in the pantry.
The deacons somehow got the conductor to allow them on board to search for Zee. But the Dixie Flyer kept a tight schedule and the deacons soon had to leave. Not long after that, Jackson ushered Zee and her mandolin – it was still her mandolin – to the club car and a seat with Memphis Minnie. He tipped his hat and said, “Ladies, welcome aboard the Flyer. I will be back to visit with you later.”
Memphis Minnie, queen of the blues was real as was the Dixie Flyer. Bayou Bartholomew is and was real, but the church and people in the story are fictional. Minnie left home at thirteen and made her own way playing in blues clubs. (I think she would have had a soft spot in her heart for Sweet Zee.)