“Blues’n How to Play’em” is the second (other) of my stories from the Sparks collection I published with Simon Smithson that I’m now making available individually for anyone who missed that limited-edition collection.
It was one of the most challenging stories I’ve ever written for a couple of reasons, not least of which was that it’s written in a Blues-y patois.
I realized when writing about “Struck by the Light of the Son” that both it and “Blues’n How to Play’em” began their lives as two-page stories based on Janet Fitch’s writing prompts. I know that I wrote an early draft of “Struck by the Light of the Son” as a story for the “fret” prompt; I can no longer recall the word for which I handed in what later became “Blues’n How to Play’em.” I do remember that the prompt was just an excuse; I’d already started the story a couple of times.
Honestly, I no longer remember the inspiration for the story. I know I workshopped it a few times, both at USC and in one of the myriad writers’ groups I once-upon-a-time found and joined on MySpace.
Wow that seems like eons ago.
“Blues’n How to Play’em” was originally called “Delta Blues.” I liked the double meaning of Delta–it is not only a regional designation but also, in science, the designator for a change (as signified by the Greek delta. Which is a little triangle sort of thing but with a slightly bold bottom line. I’m sure there’s a way to ASCII this character, but frankly, meh).
As a storyteller, I don’t think I have anything to tell if someone doesn’t change. It’s that delta that makes situations stories for me, and makes me care about what’s happening, because the moment something is happening, and someone is changing, I’m most interested in who that person was before anything changed and who they became afterward. And I think, for me, it has to be a someone; technically, a situation’s changing could probably be a story, but it’s the people I care about.
There does have to be that change, though. Change is the heart of conflict, and without conflict, I’m left to wonder not only why I should care but why I’m reading in the first place. I’ve got way better things to do than read nothing happening.
I workshopped “Delta Blues” several times before I finally got anywhere with it. I was working on my novels in the meantime, and they always get the majority of my attention. When a novel doesn’t work, I get interested in why and figuring out how to solve the problem and move forward to keep telling it; when a short story doesn’t work, I’m more inclined to forget it–generally with some frustration, admittedly–and go back to something more worthwhile.
What happened, though, was that I had this very literate start, complete with that lone Bluesman at the crossroads, and it was well toned and well written, but there was no heart to it, and so I kept setting it aside.
And then came Supernatural. An episode during which a famous Bluesman made an ostensible appearance, the introduction of Hellhounds and the Crossroads demon.
Which made me go back, not to the story, but to the Blues. I went back to old recordings of Son House and Charley Patton and, of course, Robert Johnson himself. Also, a newer band called Boozoo Bajou, as well as B.B. King’s then-recent CD, which included a song called “Dust My Broom.”
It was Son House who did it, finally.
Specifically, a recording of a show he did live at the Gaslight Cafe in Manhattan in 1965. It wasn’t the music or his playing of it; it was hearing him, and his voice. In fact, if nothing else, it was his banter between songs, the way he spoke, the rhythm and the cadence of his old voice, deep and phlegmy and weary but long-suffering and wise in the ways of the world. I heard his voice, and in my head I heard him talking to that young man playing his guitar at the crossroads. I heard not just the voice but his curiosity, his exasperation, his frustration, and ultimately his compassion for that young man.
It was that rhythm and cadence, those missed vaalls and those ee-longated cons’nants, the ups’n the downs’n the hips’n the hops’n every li’l syllbla the man’s voice, how it rose’n fell, how it chided’n how it encouraged. I heard’im tellin’it like it was’n even like it wann’t, which is offen jus’ezimpohtent.
For a moment on hearing that voice, I worried, for two reasons. The first was not being sure I could pull it off in the first place. I mentioned not long ago in reference to the
The other was a more prickly situation I’ve encountered before, most recently when Raych reviewed Will Self’s Dorian at Books I Done Read. In that review, she said:
Ambition the Third: Self is a self-identified straight man. I FEEL like, objectively and in a perfect world, this wouldn’t matter, right? Because if all people can write about is their own distinct experience, we are going to have a ton of novels about writers hacking away at their typewriters and drinking coffee. But let’s go back in time to 1993 (Dorian was published in 2002) when Self interviewed Martin Amis about Amis’ book Times Arrow. Self first identifies as ‘half American Jewish’ and then claims to have ‘a very prickly sensitivity for any gentile dealing with [the holocaust].’ And yet, he feels ZERO qualms about dealing with what his own narrator calls ‘the cellular Auschwitz of AIDS.’
Which is a proverbial can of worms. I’ve read a lot of other people write (neither so humorously nor as effectively) about what so many call “writing the Other.” Which is usually how the idea is presented.
So my immediate fear, besides whether I could pull off writing dialect, was how people would ken to a white dude writing about the Blues scene of the Mississippi Delta in, like, the twenties or so.
Thing I realized, though, thing I think anybody got to realize, here, is couple things, first of which got to be that we’re all others, aren’t we? Because like Raych suggests, we all write “what you know,” like everybody done always told us all, we all write our own experiences, well, no room for fantasy or science fiction, for one, probably shouldn’t write about crime ‘less you gonna write In Cold Blood. True crime.
Second thing is that Leroy, the protagonist of “Blues’n How to Play’em,” isn’t really “The Other.” Leroy’s a young guy workin’ on his craft, on his art, tryin’ta figure out how to get better at what he wants to do most in this here’n world. Leroy’s a guy just wants to play his axe and play it well and play it for other people, play it for people might like it, might sing and dance and who knows maybe forget their worries and cares for a while.
I might know something about wantin’ doin’ something like that. Oh boy might I.
So I thought about it, and I thought about Leroy, and I went for it, and buggerall did I come up with a story I’m legit proud of. It wasn’t easy to write (and it was even more difficult for my editrix to edit, lemme tell ya), but still, hey, pleased with the result. Hope you enjoy it, too. You can get it right here. For just 99 cents!