The news that the Klan had gathered and stormed into the Black township of Independence in Georgia, where the Blacks outnumber the Whites a hundred to one, came through twenty minutes before 'Blind Henry' Forget was about to take the stage.
News had travelled through the audience and immediately liquor sales rocketed. There was an air of lynching amongst the Black audience. The Whites present had made a judicious exodus. The news had not reached backstage.
There was no question that the set would be cancelled. Management would never allow such a thing. The audience would tear the Club apart. The show would go on. 'Blind Henry' would play. If the dogs wanted their day, 'Blind Henry' would be thrown to the wolves. What was one Whitie worth now that a blood moon hung in the midnight sky?
'Blind Henry' couldn't see the half-closed eyes that could've been the whiskey or it could've been the bitterness. In 'Blind Henry's view, it was that old, well-worn race card.
He thought of his Black wife and the way he'd had to turn his back on his White family to be with her. It hadn't been easy. It hadn't been easy at all. He loved his Daddy but he hated his politics. His was a family where the firstborn was expected to become The Master one day. But he'd been born blind which kinda put him in a world of his own. His Daddy loved him. As much as a White man could love a son who was born handicapped.
His Daddy's red-neck friends came to admire him but not before 'Blind Henry' learned who he was and who he was allowed to be. A White musician just about hung on to the bottom rung of the social ladder. So long as he kept his balance, they'd turn a blind eye to the anomaly.
x'Big' Henry', Henry's Daddy, was a big noise in Independence, Georgia. He had clout. He had standing and he was White.
'Independence for whom?' 'Blind Henry' would say.
'You don't let your grammar slip, do you, Henry,' laughed Minnie.
'My Grannie was all White, all right. But she had a Black heart and I ain't talkin' about no wickedness. She was a songbird ... singing in the trees, ... singing independence ... for all men's needs. Black and White -- women too.'
Minnie sure did love her White boy. He could play better than any Black man she'd ever seen or heard. She'd ask him, 'What colour are you, Henry?'
He said he didn't rightly know. 'I'm blind. It wasn't God's mistake. I'm His cunning. He needed a sheep to live amongst the wolves so he could lead His people who were blind on the inside -- a blind Pied Piper taking the good folks into the heart of the mountain where all the best music is forged.'
His Daddy didn't see it that way. 'Blind Henry' snuck out of the family home to live in a rundown shack on the edge of the Black township; not quite Black; not quite White.
'Blind Henry' didn't see it that way. Minnie was his light, music was his ride.
'This is your ten-minute call, Mr. Henry, Sir,' called out the coloured kid banging on the dressing room door.
'Are you really gonna go out there 'n play, Henry?' said the piano player.
'You bet your sweet Black arse he's gonna play!' It was the club owner. Big, fat cigar man, red shiny shirt, lime green tie -- enough to poke your eyes out, it was.
The rhythm section looked up but said nothing. They looked at each other, then turned away. They knew this was no place for a White man, no place for a White musician.
I don't know if 'Blind Henry' was thinking about it or not but his wife, Minnie, was at home embroidering a crib quilt for when Henry's new'un would arrive. Could be any day.
Henry knew it. He'd told Minnie the boys wouldn't mind if he took one night off to be with her. She said, no, because she knew that's what Henry wanted.
There was no knowing how things were moving along. The Klan didn't take out classified Ads to tell the Black folk of Independence they'd be calling. Them White boys sure do like a party -- barbeque. Burn the Black man down! Whoop 'n holler around like Injuns at a campfire -- all under the cross. That great symbol of sacrifice. Them White boys was sure gonna have a sacrifice. A suckling pig. What better main-course than a plumped-up piglet-sow, carrying the abomination of a White man? That would be their idea of 'finger-licking' good.
No one knew it would be that night. Word had gone round the clubbers that the Klan planned to make it a long holiday weekend and wouldn't be gone until the 4th of July. It didn't sit kindly at the little round tables or in the crowded booths with the table chandeliers and the squashed up drinkers. The crowd was a slumbering creature that couldn't get comfortable. It was getting irritated. It wanted an itch to scratch. Then someone pointed out there was a White man in the band. It made the creature growl a bit. A bit became a lot. Smouldering, was what it was.
Then someone said, 'The Blues is bigger than a White man's folly.' That held them for a spell. It sure made Fat Cigar sweat though. Not 'Blind Henry', mind. What was going on in his mind only the music would tell.
The band came on stage. 'Blind Henry' held back.
The crowd held its breath. Henry held his nerve.
'Blind Henry' was his own kind of nigger. In his world, there was no ebony or ivory except on the keyboard. His stage was a dialogue between instruments. If you wanted to talk to 'Blind Henry' about his feelings, you had to listen to his playing.
Folks wanted to hear what 'Blind Henry' thought of White boys touching little Black girls in private places, stringing up half-witted farm boys who went laughing like loons to the lynching tree because they thought they were the centre of attention. They didn't know no better but they'd swing just as good as any Speak-Easy dancer.
Henry Forget came on. 'Blind Henry' brought it on.
He wasn't gonna miss his chance of fingering with the Devil. It wasn't often a man got to play with such an illustrious musician as the Devil.
There was no pussyfooting around the fact that once again the Great White Worm was on the move. The crowd listened to the band mulling over the problem amongst themselves. The bass line set the pace and started the feet tapping. Then came the smiles and the hand-clapping; musicians and audience in one mind.
For the minute the darkness was pushed back.
The players squabbled over who'd carry the flaming torch and who it would be passed onto. 'Blind Henry' gave it to Billy Sachs who passed it on to Whistling Jack who passed it back.
Then, it was gipsy fire-juggling, back and forth, Mardi Gras madness, deep-fried river fish dancing on amber coals.
The crowd loved it. Couldn't get their fill.
'Blind Henry' spared a smile to the bass player who passed on a wink to the sax. He gave a little shrill and the good folks laughed. Fat Cigar was breathing again.
But the night wasn't over.
The band wanted to show what it was made of. The Blues was bigger than the White man's folly. 'Blind Henry' was gonna tell 'em where it's at.
Man, could that White nigger play! He took that Devil and spun it around like Christmas.
He bounced it.
He pitched it.
He stuck his finger in Old Nick's eye. The crowd called out for 'Blind Henry' to stick his white finger up the Devil's arse.
'Blind Henry' laughed. 'I'm blind,' he called out with a wicked rift. 'It wasn't God's mistake. I am His cunning! I just don't know which end the Devil keeps his arsehole. It seems to me the mouth and the arsehole keep repeating the same old shit!'
'Hallelujah!' cried the crowd, calling for 'Blind Henry' to play some more. Spank that Old Man! Send him back to Hades. We don't want no white-wick candles with their flaming torches of pride and prejudice. We want independence! Independence is our home, our birthright. Independence is what we is. And, what we want is, is what we was -- whizzy-waz! -- toot that horn! -- sack that sax! -- beat that drum!
Man! That was a night to remember! We remembered to forget, forget that some men have to hide the colour of their skin under a white sheet.
Them boys on stage with 'Blind Henry' hit boiling point. The Blues is bigger than one man's folly. Ask 'Blind Henry' Forget, a man who couldn't see Black nor White -- only colours.
Article © Christian McCulloch. All rights reserved.
Published on 2020-01-13
Image(s) are public domain.