Jackson's Blues by John Bolton
Monday, November 25, 1963
It was a sad day in this negro man’s life… The day of JFK’s funeral. It was after supper and I was sitting alone in the kitchenette, living room and bedroom of my one room apartment. I was sippin’ Ten High whiskey from a jelly jar and listening to ‘Heat Wave’ by Martha and the Vandellas on WKNR. Not blues, but good music.
Most evenings I will play me some blues. Most evenings I feel the blues. Felt the blues that night, but didn’t feel like playin’ em.
My second hand Kay guitar was leaned against the two burner gas stove with only one working burner. The cigar box guitar I’d had since 1912 sat on that gray, threadbare, broke leg sofa.
That sofa be propped up with a brick where the leg was broke off. Me an’ that old sofa. We ain’t good lookin’ but we is comfy.
A knock come on the door and startled me so bad that I spilled whiskey on my pants. I muttered sumpin’ bad, turned down the radio and opened the door. Standing on my front stoop was a skinny white man in a dark, cheap and wrinkly suit. Weren’t many whites in my neighborhood. Specially’ after dark.
He looked like a bill collector or a repo man. He had a little pudge belly, a white shirt, a skinny tie, loose at the neck. Bare headed, losing hair from the front . Little mouth under a beak of a nose. Looked like a jew, maybe. Bout’ 35 year old.
Strange ass time and place for a white man to come callin. I looked him up and down, thinking, ‘ I don’t owe no money. You is not my land lord. What the hell do you want?’ But what I say is, “Yeah, sir?”
White man says he lookin’ for the Jackson Black that played harp and guitar on Willie Jefferson’s records made in 1919 in Memphis.
Huh! That surprised me plenty. That record was long forgotten by most peoples. I said, “That’s me. Jackson Black.”
The man grins, looking like he means it. He says, “I’m glad to find you. I would have called but I couldn’t find your phone number.
I didn’t have no phone. Could not afford one right then. Did not want one. Man points at the Kay saying, “Looks like you still play. My name’s Howard Jensen. I’m collecting stories on the old time blues people and recording their songs.” He put out his hand to shake.
Howard Jensen ain’t no jew. He is a musicologist. Now I ain’t got nothin’ against Jews. The few I been around treated me better than most white folks. Musicologist. First time I ever heard that word. Means kinda what it sound like.
Howard was music crazy. I think he liked ever’ kind of music. But what he loved was the blues and that old time Gospel. That was sumpin’ we had in common.
He told me bout’ some of the peoples he’d ‘interviewed’. Famous folks like Howlin’ Wolf and Hubert Sumlin. And lesser known names that I still knew. And some folks I never heard of.
I told him “I knew Howling Wolf when he was plain ol’ Chester Burnett down on Dockery Farm in Mississippi.”
We visited a spell and then Howard went out to a black 61’ Ford Falcon with them skinny white wall tires. He came back lugging his tape recorder. He sat the machine on my red Formica table and threaded a black ribbon through the wheels. I pulled a C harmonica out of my breast pocket and played the melody of that old Blind Blake song that bout’ half way fit my situation.
Howard surprised me then. He knew that song and on the second verse I played, he started singin’ it. And he weren’t half bad. That there showed me somethin’.
When I start makin’ money, she don’t need to come around.
When I start makin’ money, she don’t need to come around.
‘Cause I don’t want her now, Lord. I’m Detroit bound.
I put the harp back in my pocket and picked up the Kay.
I said, “Tell me another blues you can sing.”
He chose ‘Midnight Special’. I played it and he sang it. With me trying to sing harmony on the chorus. Howard said that was real fine and he asked if could still do any of Willie’s songs.
I started in on one and he stopped me he waving his hands telling me, “No wait. I want to get it recorded.”
I was nerved up because I had never heard myself sing on a machine. I played on Willlie’s record but did not sing. So, I played the introduction to Willie’s ‘Sunflower River Girl’. Slow and soul. Like Willie did. Got that song as dead on as I ever could. You know I ain’t the singer or player that Willie was.
Howard shut down the machine and said what fine songs Willie had wrote. He played it back for me. Sounded funny hearing myself, but is sounded good too. Better than I thought it would. Simple good blues. Bout’ all I am good for.
I did three more of Willie’s songs and Howard put em’ on tape. We took a little break and Howard told me what he knew about Willie. It wasn’t much and he had it wrong about when Willie died.
I said, “Uh huh. Well some of that ain’t right. I can tell you the truth. But first I gots one more of Willie’s songs. Last one. My favorite.”
Back in the day, I had me a thang for a pretty little milk chocolate gal name of Luvina. Willie started a song about her as a joke. Just Willie givin’ me grief ~ teasing me. But it turned out a good song. I said, “See that old seegar box guitar there? That’s the one I played on Willie’s record album. Just on this one song. A little guitar lick that sounded good on the three string.”
That made Howard pleased as punch. We taped ‘Sweet Luvina’ with me playing the cigar box git. It still sounded right. Some songs need simple and true. That old box has a lot of it.
Sweet Luvina pumpin’ water at the well.
Ask her for a drink and she give me one.
That sweet Luvina pumpin water at the well.
Ask her for a drink and she give me one.
I say, “What chu’ doing Saturday? Let’s have some fun.”
. . . . . .
Then I told Howard about my friend Willie. Course’ you know my name’s Jackson Black. I was born on Dockery Plantation in Sunflower County, Mississippi in the last century, 18 and 99.
We were a few miles from Cleveland, Mississippi. My momma worked Dockery Farm. We had two rooms in one of the big workers’ boarding houses. Bunch of folks there. More’n fifty souls livin’ in them buildings that size on Dockery.
Willie, that is Willie Tom Jefferson, was born on a cotton plantation near Dubbs in Tunica County Mississippi. I was born on the first day of winter in December 21 of 99. That’s the first day of winter. And Willie was born on February second, 1900. That is Ground Hog Day. Huh.
Willie and his family moved to Dockery farm when we was both about three years old. We were friends from that day on. We was poor, colored and living on a cotton and sawmill plantation. But we was little and we didn’t know we was poor. We had folks to love us and a passel of kids to play with. Seemed just fine to us then.
We went to school and we worked and we played. I remember hoeing cotton, picking cotton and workin’ the truck gardens from the time I was seven. Not long days then, just breaking us in to know how to work. It was hard. I remember big ole popping, leaking busted blisters on my hands and crying to my momma.
We had some fun in the fields too. We’d listen to gossip and stories. We’d sing songs and do those old field hollers like:
Who’s been here since I been gone, honey?
Who’s been here since I been gone, babe?
Pretty little girl with a red dress on.
Some people calls Mississippi the home of the blues. But the way I see it, Dockery Farm or like some folks calls it, Dockery Plantation, that area right there.. Sunflower County and nearby – That is where the ball really got rollin’.
Dockery was big. They say near bout’ ten thousand acre. I cannot picture that in my mind. But it’s mighty big. Lots of folks livin’ there all the time and they say at planting and harvest times we had bouts 2,000 workers and lots of them had kids too. Most of us was colored, but there was Mexicans and white folks too.
Dockery had its own railroad and its own general store. We had a post office, a school, a doctor, and our own churches. There was more music at Dockery than you could shake a stick at. We had us fiddle tunes and string bands and dancing on Saturday nights. On Sunday mornings we had hymns and
Gospel songs. In the afternoon we had more music and what I think was some of the first real blues.
Seem like it was more fiddles and banjos till bout’s 1909 or 1910. The blues started comin’ on then, Guitars got to be what people wanted to hear. Popular. Me and Willie wanted a guitar real bad…….
First singer and guitar player I remember liking a lot was Henry Sloan. Now he was good. There was a young feller on Dockery you might have heard of. Name of Charlie Patton. He was seven or eight years older than me an’ Willie. He got his self a guitar and took schooling on it with that Henry Sloan. Me and Willie remember Charlie doing ‘Pony Blues” before it was ever on a record.
Charlie Patton could of passed for a white boy. Even working the fields he stayed kinda light complected. He had whitish hair that was straight and long. But he had negro blood, so he was colored too. That is how it worked. How it still works. But for a while, Charlie was the music king. All the young mens wishing they get a guitar and do like Charlie Patton.
Later on we had Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson and Eddie House. They started calling him Son House later on. Robert Johnson would hang around, but he was no great shakes for a player when I first saw him. Robert would hang around Son House and them good players and watch their playing hands.
I stopped and asked Howard, “You know Robert’s story?” Of course he did. I went on about how Robert left for awhile and come back able to do things with a guitar we’d never even dreamed of. Had good songs too.
Then later yet we had our Willie Jefferson and Honeyboy Edwards. And a big old boy named Chester Burnett. Later on he’d be the ‘Howling Wolf
Willie was as good as them that got famous. And we had lots others that was ‘wanna be’s’. Back then I was mostly blowing harp and Willie was on guitar. I was never real good,
but had me some fun and I loved the music. Still do.
I got a harmonica for Christmas when I was 10. It was second had, but it played sweet and true. I was playing “Camptown Races” by New years.
Four or five fellas had didley bows with one single wire string they would play at. Me and Willie made one of them when we was bout’ twelve. Willie would make up songs on it.
And there was a few cigar box guitars around. Some of them had tuning pegs carved out of hard wood. Some had bolts and wingnuts for tuners and them worked better. Held pitch.
A real guitar bought from a catalog or even second hand cost way more than most of us could pay or even save up for.
And there were not used guitars around back then. Not much.
Willie got lucky and got the best cigar box guitar anybody around there had ever seen or head. It was a three string with two geared machine head tuners. And a third friction peg tuner off an old banjo.
Got it from his daddy for Christmas. Willie’s daddy worked the sawmill on Dockery. He was a carpenter and
a handy man. And a pretty fair fiddler. Made his own fiddle.
Willie’s daddy knew how to make something that would play right and sound good. He got those machine head tuners from somebody’s busted guitar. He got a cedar cigar box. He made a good neck out of seasoned southern yellow pine. That’s that same guitar right there. Willie gave it to me after we got a store bought guitar. Catalog guitar.
Willie’s daddy bought used strings off Charlie Patton and Charlie tuned it up and taught us how to tune it an open chord he and got us started off on the right foot. Charlie was real nice about how good a lil’ git it was.
Me and Willie would both play that thing. Willie soon got good enough to play in front of folks. And Willie was a singer. I wasn’t bad, myself. It was just that we had Charlie Patton and Willie and them others that…. outshined me, I guess.
A real guitar was the dream for us. We were done with school for good the spring we were thirteen. I was the scholar. I went through all eight grades. Momma made me. Willie got held up a year with pneumonia and sickness. He called it good after 7th grade.
We was working Dockery at whatever they put us too. And together we saved up and ordered a guitar from a catalog in the Dockery store. Paid for it with the Dockery farm coins they paid us with.
Willie, he could play about anything. Guitar, banjo and a little fiddle like his daddy. Most of the time we tuned that store bought guitar to an open G chord. Like we did the cigar box. It fit our voices and Willie could do wonders with a bottle neck slide. He kept improvin’ and pretty soon he was playing house parties and dance parties. And getting his food and drink for free and sometimes for money.
I would go sometimes if it was nearby and sit in on harp for a few songs. But I had more interest then in sweet Luvina than the blues.
World War One came along and me and Willie went to join up. Lots of colored men did. We called it the Great War back then. The docs said I had a heart murmur. Shee-it! I could work dawn to dark in the fields and that Army doctor said I was not fit to serve.
Willie went. He wanted to fight and they told him he would get his chance. They put Willie to cooking. He hated that. Finally, they sent him to France and he did get to fight. Lots of colored soldiers never did get a chance.
Willie was in that trench warfare. Got gassed near some little town that I cannot remember the name of. Made him real sick. Got pneumonia again. He came home bitter and mad.
Not long after Willie come home we went up to Memphis and made that record. Early part of 1919. Colored records was just starting to sell good. I played on it, but mostly cause’ he was such a good friend of mine.
Willie made that record and it was good. But he never got to see it come out for sale. Never got to hold it in his hands. Spanish influenza was killing a lot of folks then and we both got it. After all he’d been through in the war, poor Willie Jefferson got killed by a little ole’ flu bug. That’s what happened to Willie.
Willie Jefferson and Jackson Black are fictional characters based on similar people of the time and place. Luvina is fictional.
Howard Jensen is a fictional character based on Alan Lomax and other musicologists.
I have done my best to keep the other names, places and stories historically accurate.
Story #2 Willie Jefferson’s Christmas Guitar
By John R. Bolton
Walter Jefferson had a tired smile on his face as he sawed out a dance tune on his fiddle. He was one of two fiddlers in a string band with a tenor banjo and washtub bass. All four band mates had worked dawn to dark helping with the cotton harvest on Dockery Farm. It didn’t matter that it was a Saturday. Didn’t matter that Walter was a carpenter and sawmill worker. Come planting and harvest time, the bosses put workers where they were needed.
The band took a break at eleven and moseyed outside the house for drinks, smokes and trips to the outhouse or bushes. Every piece of the home’s furniture was in the yard to clear room inside for dancing. Admission was charged and home brew beer and moonshine whiskey were being sold in the yard. It was a money making venture for the house dwellers. They had a sick child and doctor bills. Folks knew this and came to spend hard earned money on a good cause and a good time. Most of the money spent was Dockery Farm coined money - not legal tender of the U.S. of A.
The band waived their usual small fee and agreed to play for three drinks apiece. Thereafter they would pay like everyone else. Walter Jefferson quit after three beers.
A harvest moon cast a pale yellowish glow over the house, yard and the town of Cleveland, Mississippi. It was warm for October and it had been downright hot playing inside. Walter sipped a cool beer from a Mason jar and rolled his neck and shoulders to stretch sore muscles.
Some kind of ruckus broke out in the side yard; one man’s angry cursing and a murmur of other voices. Walter worked his way there to see what the fuss was. He got there in time to witness Robert Jones slam a guitar to the ground. It was a guitar that Robert had worked and saved for and ordered from a catalog in the Dockery store.
Robert Jones was usually a nice fellow. Put too much booze into him and he was a mean drunk. He had pitched a fit over some slight from Lucie Brown. The guitar that Robert worked so hard for was broken at the upper neck. Robert, now even madder, gave it a crunching stomp and followed that with a vicious kick.
Walter Jefferson, who loved most any stringed instrument, rushed to the fallen guitar like it was a hurt child. He cradled it in his arms and felt his eyes grow wet with sadness and anger. Two men from Robert’s work gang took him by the arms and ushered him away toward Dockery farm.
Walter carried the guitar’s earthly remains back into the house. The band played until midnight and the house party was over. People carried the furniture back inside. Most everyone headed for home. Sunday morning church time was not many hours away.
Walter trudged back to Dockery with his fiddle and carrying the broken guitar in a borrowed gunny sack. Christmas would be coming and Walter had two music loving boys. Willie, his eldest, had taken quite a shine to the guitar playing and singing of Henry Sloan and Charlie Patton. Walter had big plans for the salvaged guitar parts.
* * *
Early December of 1909 blew in bitterly cold. Ice formed on the edges of the creeks and the Sunflower River. Snow flurries swirled, but did not accumulate on the ground. Work on Dockery slowed for the field workers, but the saw mill was at its peak. The 14 horse power Russell steam engine billowed white wood smoke into the chill air as it labored to turn the belts that powered the saws.
Still, Walter Jefferson found time to put the finishing touches on his handmade Christmas presents. Doll cribs for Alberta and Bettie, a sling shot and a one string diddley bow for nine year old Chester and a three string cigar box guitar for Willie, who would turn eleven in February.
Each of these presents was equally important to Walter. But loving music and instruments as he did, it was easiest to pour his heart into the cigar box guitar. And from teaching Willie to play fiddle, Walter recognized a talent considerably beyond his own.
What Willie really wanted was a factory made guitar like he saw Henry Sloan and Charlie Patton playing. Walter knew that. Of course money was scarce and that was about as likely to happen as Walter getting his dream of his own farm and a good mule. That was not likely.
Walter got a Sqaurona cigar box from one of the crew cooks. He had never heard of that brand, but it was a handsome box made of a dark wood that Walter could not name with certainty - maybe a mahogany from South America. The box had a warm resonant tone when he thumped the top. Not wanting to spoil that pretty top, he cut two circles into the side for sound holes.
He made the neck from a seasoned and knot-free piece of southern yellow pine. He shaped it with a draw knife and a four in hand rasp and he sanded it smooth.
The frets were salvaged from the broken guitar. One disappointment was the machine head tuners. Walter had used one for Chester’s diddley bow. It later turned out that only two of the remaining tuners were in working order. Walter scrounged an old friction peg tuner from his banjo playing friend. He mounted the two geared tuners on one side of the peg head and the friction peg on the other.
Secrets were sometimes hard to keep on Dockery where people knew most everybody that lived and worked nearby. Willie found out what his daddy was building and managed to show up at the right time to catch Walter in the act of rubbing linseed oil into the neck. Walter let on that
he wasn’t sure what he would do with his creation. Maybe keep it. Maybe sell it.
* * *
Charlie Patton was to come around on the Saturday before Christmas with used guitar strings. Charlie was playing in Clarksdale that night. Walter worked it so Willie was there when his guitar playing hero came for the stringing.
Charlie Patton strung it up and fussed over the tuning. When things were to his satisfaction, Charlie said, “Dang, this lil’ box sound fine.”
Charlie picked an introduction and played one of the songs that would soon make him famous: ‘The Pony Blues’. Charlie taught Willie how to tune that cigar box guitar and play three chords.
Less than a week later the Jeffersons, and future blues man Willie, celebrated the finest Christmas he would ever have.
Willie Jefferson’s Blues
A short story of historical fiction and of blues music and
cigar box guitars.
by John Bolton
Story #3 Jackson Gets His Mojo
By John R. Bolton
It was a Saturday night in 1915 at Emmett’s Juke near Cleveland, Mississippi. Henry Sloan finished his first set and put down his guitar for a break.
Willie Jefferson and Jackson Black hustled up for a chance to play. Willie used Sloan’s six string and broke into ‘Casey Jones’. Jackson played a nice harp, adding to and complimenting Willie’s singing and playing. He never got so loud as to overpower him.
The boys were just fifteen years old, but they were getting good. They finished their fourth song and Sloan reclaimed his guitar. Speaking loud enough for everyone in the juke to hear, he said, “Gimme that guitar afore
you younguns takes my job.”
Sloan was one of the best players in Mississippi. Maybe in all of the Delta. He had a new and better paying gig starting the next week. He wanted to help the boys and his friend, Emmett, who owned the juke. He took more breaks than usual, showcasing the boys. They did twelve songs and not a song was repeated.
Every Saturday for two years, Willie and Jackson had washed dishes, cleaned and did what was asked of them, including digging new outhouse pits.
They played every chance they got. In return, they received pocket change,
encouragement and playing tips.
Emmett was happy. The crowd was good and he made money. Nobody made trouble. After they closed and cleaned up, Emmett called the boys for a sit
down. He told them, “You done good tonight. Henry Sloan is playing in Clarksdale next Saturday. I needs a band. I thinks you ready to play for pay. But I gots conditions. Willie’s got to borrow a six string. That cigar box git ain’t loud enough in here. You knows that.
And Jackson, you gots to sing out, boy. You ain’t loud enough. And
you gots to sing a couple of songs on your own. Willie starts off strong,
but I hears his voice fading after he sings a lot.”
The boys walked home to Dockery Farm. Willie was exuberant. He knew where he could borrow a decent six string and he figured this was their chance. Jackson felt pressured. He didn’t think he was good enough to be singing leads. He did not want to do it. It had been hard enough to get up
and play harp the first few times. He’d done it for Willie.
But Willie would not shut up. He said, “Jackson, you can do Saint Louis Blues and the Wreck of the Old 97’. Shee-it, you sing Casey Jones better than I do.”
Jackson felt his face go hot and he screamed out, “Bull shit! You get
somebody else to sing. Get Luvina if she’ll do it. Get Johnny Stokes for a few songs. He thinks he can sing.”
Willie knew Jackson could sing well enough when he put some air behind his voice. When he let it loose. He’d been on Jackson to do just that.
Willie figured Luvina was the one to turn Jackson’s head. Jackson was sweet on Luvina.
Luvina was a year older and had her eye on Johnny Stokes. At almost seventeen, she felt she would soon be an old maid if she didn’t find a man.
Johnny was nineteen, a hard worker and a good prospect. But Luvina liked Jackson too. She wanted to help and she had an idea she thought might work.
She figured she knew what the problem was. When Jackson was little, he’d had a bad stammer. It seemed like he was pretty much over it now. She could tell that he tried to hold his tongue until he knew what he wanted
to say. And then he spoke in a deliberate way.
She remembered how Jackson had hung his head in school and tried to avoid reciting his arithmetic or anything else that called for speaking out loud. She remembered him getting made fun of too. And she remembered how the
teasing came to an end.
One day when Jackson was twelve, an older boy named Lucious, mocked his
stutter and ridiculed him. Willie got mad and goaded his friend in a way
he had never done, asking him “Whaa wha why don’t you kick his ass, Jaa
People had urged Jackson to stand up for himself before, but he’d never done it. A light bulb went on his head that day, a revelation.
Luvina saw it all. She watched him get a mad on and let it boil. He made himself available to Lucious and Lucious took the bait. Jackson slugged him in the belly and followed with a punch to his face. He had not yet learned how to fight, but he could wrassle and he could punch. He took the older and larger Lucious down and pummeled him as though he was every person that ever made fun of him.
That happened a couple more times with other boys. Once Jackson took a beating. But there was no quit in him. The mocking stopped and as time passed he stammered less and less.
Luvina was a superstitious girl. Her idea was to make Jackson a mojo. She lost sleep thinking about which ingredients to use and how many to use. Of course it had to be an odd number. Even numbers were unlucky. She settled on seven. She told Jackson the number but would not tell him the ingredients. She got red flannel and black thread and sewed up a handy pocket sized mojo bag.
Saturday night came around and Willie and Jackson were on the little raised platform in Emmett’s Juke and looking out at a full house. Willie had a grin so big his jaw hurt.
Jackson’s Luck - Jackson's Blues #4
By John R. Bolton
Early March 1919
Southbound on the I.C. (Illinois Central Railroad)
Willie Jefferson and Jackson Black rode in the colored car sharing a pint bottle of whiskey in a paper sack. They were in a celebrating mood and bound for home after Willie had achieved his dream of recording his songs in Memphis.
Willie was so happy and self satisfied he would just start chuckling and
then tilt his head back and cackle. Jackson told Willie, “Tone it down,
man. You’ll get us in troubles. Our good luck can turn to shit real fast.”
Willie just laughed again and replied, “Maybe you’s right Jackson.
I feels a head ache comin’ on. Gots to lay off this good liquor.”
It was more than a head ache. Soon Willie’s back ached and then his whole body. His throat hurt and he was starting to sniffle and cough. As the train slowed for the home station, Willie said, “Man, I hopes this shit aint the Spanish flu.”
Jackson helped Willie get home and was met there by Willie’s daddy, who told him, “Better get on home Jack. Your momma’s real sick.”
Word of the flu had been spreading faster than the flu itself. Jackson prayed it was just a bad cold going around. That prayer was not answered the way he wished. His momma barely woke when he got home. She told him weakly, “Stay back Jack. I don’t want you getting what I got.”
“Too late, Momma. I think I gots it too.”
Jackson did a little for his mother and then Miss Ethel, the old midwife and plant doctor, stopped in and checked on them both. Jackson soon felt like he had been run over by a team of horses. Every muscle ached and every cough made it worse. He had the chills and shakes and could not get warm. He laid on his pallet of blankets and coughed and suffered.
Miss Ethel came by in the morning and let herself in. Jackson’s momma
who was only thirty six years old, had passed away. Two days later Jackson lost his best friend. Willie passed too.
Miss Ethel came by twice a day to put mustard plasters on Jackson’s chest and back and to admonish him to take ten deep breaths an hour and hold them in for a count of three so’s he would not get pneumonia. Jackson did that and was able to attend his mother’s burial in the colored cemetery. There were more fresh graves than he’d ever seen
His mother’s funeral was a blur to him. He was physically better for Willie’s funeral. Willie’s daddy played the old hymns on his fiddle and the right Reverend Johnson said the eulogy. Willie thought Jackson would have wanted him to play, but there was no way he could sing or blow his harp without coughing.
* * *
Two weeks and two paydays later, Jackson packed his momma’s satchel with a wool blanket, his spare pair of trousers, two spare shirts, socks his momma made, underwear and a picture his momma holding him when he was just a button.
The neck of Willie Jefferson’s cigar box guitar poked out one end of the satchel, covered with an oil cloth. Jackson wore a good second hand suit, and a good hat cocked to the side. He carried two harmonicas in his pockets. These were the harps he had played for Willie’s record. He wished Willie’s daddy had given him the store bought guitar instead of the cigar box. He might need to stand on the corner and play for change like he’d seen done in Memphis. You never knew.
Jackson was bound for Chicago and the hope of more opportunities and a better life. Friends walked him to the station, laughing and joking and wishing him well. He was taking that Cannonball train north. The freedom train. Leaving Mississippi in style.
Leaving Mississippi in style was a bit of a sham he put on for his friends. He departed the passenger train at the first stop in Tennessee. His ticket would take him no further. He had money enough to ride to Chicago. But he thought it could take time to find work and he wanted to get there with money in his pocket.
Jackson was both excited and afraid. He had never stolen a thing in his life excepting produce that he ate while working the fields and fruit off a tree here and there. Now he planned to steal a ride north on an IC freight train.
He’d heard stories about how to do it. Never take a car with any whites. Hop aboard a slow moving train on a curve so there would be less chance the engine crew or the brakeman would see you. No matter what, don’t get locked in a box car. Don’t ride in a car full of grain or it might suck you down and suffocate you.
Jackson’s first ride could not have started much better. He hopped on a flat car and tucked in snug and out of the wind behind a load of wooden crates marked for a destination in Chicago. Jackson could not believe his good luck when he read the destination.
Hours later the freight was shunted to a side track in Effingham, Illinois in a rail yard to the side of the downtown area. Jackson read the town name rolling in, but had no good idea where he was except still short of his destination.
It was late evening and dark. The train sat there. After a while Jackson pulled out his blanket and wrapped up in it. He managed some sleep, but woke up cold and hungry in the late dawn. He was peeking around wondering what he should do and how long the train might sit. Someone unseen shouted out, “Hey! There’s a nigger on that flat car!”
Jackson grabbed his satchel and scrambled off the side of the car away from the voice. He sprinted then loped toward a small timber in the direction away from town. As he reached the timber’s edge he looked back and was relieved to see no pursuit.
He smelled wood smoke and spotted a white man sitting by a fire. The man called out, “Over here Bo,” and beckoned him with an arm. It took a bit more urging on the man’s part, before Jackson warily approached. On closer inspection, the white man looked old. Around sixty, Jackson guessed. The old man asked, “Headin’ north or south?”
“North,” Jackson replied. “Chicago, I hopes.”
The man told Jackson to call him ‘Dollar Dick’. Dick was a hobo. He explained to Jackson that tramps work when they are forced to, and bums don’t work at all. “Hobos,” he said, “Are workin’ men who travel, who ride the rails between jobs.”
Dollar Dick was heading for Minnesota by way of Chicago. He said, “That rattler you rode in on is leavin’ here at 12:30. When the noon whistle blows we walk up the track a piece and away we go.”
Dick shared hard boiled eggs with Jackson and spent the wait and later the ride asking Jack about his life and taking him to school on how to ride the rails, find work in the city and just plain get along. They parted as friends in Chicago, Illinois.
Around suppertime, Jackson stood at the bar of a crowded tavern in a colored section on the south side of Chicago. He’d taken the edge off his hunger with free crackers, cheese and hard boiled eggs in the tavern. He had a cold beer in his hand and he was drinking with a friendly, big Louisiana man named Dupree. Dupree had a place Jackson could sleep and would help him get him work a loading dock.
Jackson could not believe his good luck. He wished Willie could see him. He wished his momma could see him. That caused him to wipe away a tear.
Dupree bought him a beer for the road. It was Jackson’s fourth. They strolled off toward Dupree’s place. They walked a few blocks and Jackson marveled at all the houses, buildings and people. They hit a dark patch and an alley in the middle of a block. Dupree suddenly rushed Jackson and knocked him down sprawling. The next thing he knew, there was a shiny revolver in his face and Dupree was snarling, “Gimme your money, you dumb Mississippi nigger.”
Jackson hesitated and then started to struggle. Dupree, shoved Jackson’s face with the heel of his hand and slammed him in the side of the head with the pistol. Things went red and dark in an explosion of pain.
The next thing Jackson clearly knew was that Dupree was gone and blood was rapidly oozing from a gash in the side of his head and down his neck. His satchel was there, its contents strewn on the ground. His shoes were off and that left him stunned and puzzled. Did Dupree steal his shoes?
He held a hand to his bleeding head and groped around with the other hand. His money was gone. His good hat was gone. But his shoes and every other possession were there. He thought to himself, ‘I’m still lucky. If he’d a took my shoes I would be in a real bind.’
Through the kindness of a stranger, his head was sewn up. Six nice stitches with red thread, done by a kind woman from Jackson, Mississippi. But she had children on her floor and no room for Jackson. He slept on her porch that night. Or tried to sleep.
He had no success finding any kind of a job that next day. He did not look or feel his best. Late in the day his stomach was gaunt and it sounded like it was calling him every bad name it knew.
He found a tin can for tips and stood in front of a shoe repair place near 35th and State Street. He played the cigar box guitar and the harps and made enough to eat that night and had twenty cents held back for breakfast.
Funny thing. Jackson still felt lucky.
* * *
Spanish Influenza was a nearly worldwide pandemic from 1918 to 1920. Approximately 25% of the world population was infected and about 3% of the world population died from the flu. Unlike most epidemics, most of those who died were young adults.
The Great Migration: 6 million blacks moved out of the southern United States between 1910 and 1970 ~ leaving the rural south for urban industrial cities of the northeast, midwest and later the west.