The grey haze of cigarette smoke wafted through the air, curling and dancing as it reached Muddy’s nose. His nostrils flared as he inhaled and his ears perked as the clink of gin bottles subsided.
Behind the bar, an old man – the bartender– wore a grey waistcoat, his sleeves rolled to reveal dark-hued skin. Taking deliberate steps, he crossed the room towards the empty stage. Clutching for the side stair railing in the dim light, the man climbed to the stage-front of his densely-packed club. His wristwatch struck eleven, and the old man’s eyes drooped. As he unwrapped the microphone cable, he glanced at the crowd gathered before him, weary from long hours scraping for paychecks at the local mills and steelyards. On weekend nights, they flocked inside, desperately trying to forget the demands of the world around them. There wasn’t a single white face amid the crowd, but then again, there rarely were in this part of Chicago.
Muddy perched beside the stage, his right leg pressed firmly against the wall. His Gibson hollow-body guitar was slung loosely across his shoulder with the leather strap his mother had carved for him before he stepped on the train to Chicago. The flickering tungsten light glimmered across the glossed surface of the body, sanded and fading to a deep ebony. His hand slid across the neck, his palms tingling as he casually felt the grooves of the guitar’s frets. He glanced back down.
Bolted underneath the strings, a gleaming silver bar wrapped with copper coils contrasted starkly with the worn wood of the guitar. He toyed with a switch on the upper corner of the guitar’s body. Some newfangled electric pickup–powerful and raw. The guitar felt foreign in his hands. He was wary of the audience’s reaction; he didn’t know how they would respond to the emphatic growl of his instrument.
The night before, Muddy had languidly been rehearsing with Rich and Davy in the basement of his Chicago tenement. Smokes was late. He had a drummer and a harmonica player, but he needed his backup guitarist to scratch out a terse chord progression. Smokes was always late, though; he was always running across town, either at the record store, gigging with a friend, or attempting to seduce another woman with his guitar, smooth voice, and slicked hair. Muddy didn’t care much. When Smokes did arrive to play, his urgent licks rattled the thin walls, twanging with characteristic ferocity. That was Smokes’s style: he didn’t play much, but when he did, those listening felt enraptured by his emotiveness.
Forty-five minutes later, Smokes barged through the front door with a short steel bar and a black box gripped tightly in his hands. A smile stretched across his face.
“Muddy, ya gotta try this,” he panted. “Gimme your guitar”
Muddy warily handed him the instrument. “Don’t worry, I done this ‘bout a million times now. Learned all about it yesterday.” Muddy was hesitant. When he first came to Chicago six months ago, he had only brought a briefcase, a tweed suit, and his guitar–the one that his mother had bought him at the pawnshop for his 17th birthday. It was all he owned.
Still, Smokes promised it was worth it. “You’ll love the sound this baby makes,” he whispered as he grabbed a screwdriver. It was Smokes that had first taken him in when he arrived, brought him along as his vocalist and rhythm guitarist before he could find any gigs of his own. Muddy felt indebted – for months, he had slept soundly on Smokes’s torn sofa after grueling days at the lumber mill. “Never forget,” his mother would croon as she clutched him underneath the sycamore tree outside the sharecropper’s barn, “to remember them that help you.”
Slipping the steel bar underneath the strings of his guitar, Smokes fastened it with four screws and threaded the attached cable through the soundhole towards the black box. “An amplifier–it’ll make ya loud. Real loud,” Smokes explained.
At the club, the old man on stage gripped the microphone, using the stand to steady himself. The crowd hushed as the microphone squealed. The man slowly began speaking, his withered voice scraping in the smoky air.
“Ladies and gentleman, from back home in Mississippi” – the crowd chuckled – “Muddy and the Smoke Trails.”
Muddy climbed onto the stage, where Rich and Davy stood waiting for him. Smokes, as usual, raced into the club and jumped onto the bandstand. He winked at Muddy. “Ya ready to show them what tha’ puppy can do?,” he motioned toward the steel bar mounted on Muddy’s guitar: the pickup.
In the basement of Muddy’s apartment last night, when Smokes had plugged the cable into the amplifier, the guitar began to hum. At Smokes’s request, Muddy strummed an open chord on the neck – and jumped at the sound his pawnshop guitar made.
Suddenly, his guitar, which struggled to be heard above the roar of automobiles and the clatter of house parties, roared and growled. It pierced through the noise of the city, vibrating through the tenement halls. The sound, Muddy observed, came through Smokes’s black box. And it was loud. Overwhelmingly loud.
As the drummer behind him tapped on the hi-hat, Muddy launched into a lick that he’d heard years before in Mississippi. He struck the strings with punctuated force, but unlike the steel twang he expected, his guitar purred and wailed. The clean intonation Muddy was accustomed to was replaced by crackling distortion that scratched through the stale air. He traced the shuffle of the drums, his notes rippling with emotion. Smokes and Davy stood stunned. Outside, windows opened as neighbors stretched to identify the source of that otherworldly sound.
Muddy strummed the final chord and furrowed his brow. A smile crept like a vine on Smokes’s face and Davy began to applaud enthusiastically, but Muddy dropped his guitar. That sound wasn’t his; that alien growl sounded like a gross perversion of the music he grew up with – the gritty, authentic tone that he played with his friends back home. His mind flashed back to sunsets underneath the farm’s sycamore tree, the strings of his borrowed acoustic guitar twanging in the empty fields. His mother used to sit beside him, her voice quivering as she sang alongside him. She watched as his fingers learned to dance across the fretboard, and she leaned against the bark and sighed as he strummed earthy chord progressions.
When he decided to come to Chicago to escape the South and establish his name – as a musician away from the arid cotton fields that he’d watched his mother toil in – everyone laughed at him. “Don’t nobody listen to that kind of old blues you’re doin’ now, not in Chicago” his uncle had jeered.
But before he stepped on the train northward, carrying a patched briefcase in one hand and his guitar in the other, Muddy remembered his mother beckoning him away from the platform. “Don’t you forget ‘bout who you are,” she whispered. “When you go off to that city, remember that you’re my son.”
As Muddy waited silently on stage, his mind flashed back to his youth – to the painted Mississippi skies and the sycamore tree. When he played the blues, its somber lyrics and steely sound reminded him of his mother, youthful and nurturing. The distortion of the amplifier intrigued him, but every crackling note felt like a betrayal of his childhood.
He glanced out at the audience, buzzing in crisp slacks and fur hats. They looked old-fashioned: honest, hardworking folks. Muddy fiddled with the switch that activated Smokes’s pickup. The crowd hadn’t come late on a weekday night to hear the roar of an electrified guitar. They stood eagerly, listening for the scraping sound of a bottleneck slide striking an acoustic body: something emotional, something authentic, but something familiar.
After all, Muddy needed their approval. He was establishing a reputation within the South Chicago blues scene, but he wasn’t famous yet. Muddy desperately needed the bar owner to invite the Smoke Trails back; the gig money, combined with his days at the lumber mill, barely managed to cover his rent. He couldn’t judge how the crowd would respond to the distorted snarl of his guitar, and he couldn’t afford to risk their disapproval.
Glancing back at Smokes, Muddy shook his head. “Not today, Smoky,” he called from the corner of his mouth. “It just don’t feel right for the blues.” He flicked the pickup switch off.
As the drummer rattled the hi-hat, the audience swiveled towards the bandstand. The sharp trill of the harmonica pierced the stagnant cigarette smoke. Muddy closed his eyes and internalized the rhythm; his body swayed in response to the bitter chords of his rhythm guitarist. Muddy crooned lyrics, contorting his mouth so that his voice quavered – just like his mother used to do years ago. The verses glided across his tongue, lines about the cotton fields and the Mississippi sun, though Muddy had never worked in the fields like his parents. He sounded authentic, though, and audiences craved it. His voice was hoarse, and as he surveyed the audience, the women who met his gaze longingly followed his grey eyes as he crossed the bandstand.
A woman rushed through the door into the back of the bar, nearly knocking over the boxes of bottled beer stacked against the wooden wall. Her olive eyes searched for Muddy with alarm, a pleading expression on her face.
Muddy recognized his girlfriend, Alicia, immediately. She didn’t often frequent his gigs, and her rushed entrance concerned him.
Alicia waved frantically at Muddy, gesturing for him to find her. Muddy, his voice softly lilting the last lines of his song, waited for the cymbal to crash before motioning to Smokes, Rich, and Davy to hold the set. Muddy climbed down from the bandstand and waded across the sea of sweaty bodies and Formica tables towards Alicia. Her ordinarily inquisitive eyes were tinged with concern; her ordinarily seductive expression was crisscrossed with wrinkles.
“Muddy, Muddy, I need to tell you somethin’,” she gasped.
“Alicia, what’s the matter, hon?” he replied
“Listen, Muddy, I was at home and the telephone rang for you. It’s about your mama, Muddy”
The smoke clung to Muddy, dragging him back into the stale swirl. He squinted at Alicia in the hazy light. His expression steeled.
“Alicia, what happened?” His face locked into a grimace.
“It’s your mama, Muddy. She passed away a few hours ago” For a few moments, Muddy stood stunned, staring at the beer casings behind his girlfriend.
Muddy’s vision distorted from the teardrops in his eyes. His mind raced, flickering to the train station where he last embraced his mother. He remembered the sycamore tree, her aching voice that would sing no more. He remembered her laughter as he scraped a broken bottle across the steel strings of the guitar.
“She was old, Mud. She passed peacefully,” Alicia whispered.
He remembered when his mother used to sing with him when emotion gripped him. She told him to make music from anger and grief, how to channel his disgust and play with ferocity. She taught him how to sing the blues. Muddy eyed his guitar, leaning on an amplifier stack on the bandstand. Sprinting towards the stage, he slung the body around his neck, plugged the loose cable into the amplifier, and turning to Smokes, he flicked the pickup switch on in a deft motion.
“Hey, what’s wrong, kid,” Smokes called out to him.
“Shut up and play,” Muddy retorted.
His mother was gone, and so was her love for the earthen intonation of an acoustic guitar. Swiveling the pickup’s volume control, Muddy fingered the fretboard and strummed. The guitar snarled. And it snarled loudly.
The audience, jarred, faced Muddy with a blank expression. In the far left corner, the bartender removed his hat and clutched it to his chest. The harmonica squealed, the bass drum boomed, and Muddy slid into a gritty, powerful delta blues. Muddy didn’t care what the audience thought, but when Muddy bent his strings and his guitar wailed, the audience watched, spellbound.
The chords rattled underneath Muddy’s fingers as the guitar shrieked in agony and wailed in grief. Muddy danced across the neck, spitting his grief into punctuated, quivering phrases. As his steeled expression relaxed, salty tears dripped from red eyes onto the ebony frame of his guitar. The confined barroom quaked as Muddy attacked the guitar. Muddy howled with his guitar, and the audience began to shuffle in time.
For Muddy, each bend resembled the wail of his mother as she picked cotton in Mississippi. Every slide felt like the blues she sang under the sycamore tree, every tremble like her voice at dusk.
As the final chords reverberated in the club, the audience roared in approval. Tears streaming down his face, Muddy threw his guitar onto the bandstand and leap off the stage. Smokes and Alicia called after him as he sprinted out of the back entrance, but Muddy ignored their cries and raced onto the empty South Chicago street.
Droplets of rain fell lightly, glistening in the moonlight. As he sprinted across the pavement, Muddy’s tears were indistinguishable from the raindrop. The swirling fog of the urban night reached out to him, swirling and enveloping his hunched form. Muddy’s silent rage muffled the horns of automobiles and the sirens of police cars.
From the back entrance of the club, Smokes peered through the fog. He only saw glimpses of a silhouetted figure disappearing into the Chicago night.
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