BTW: The photo art and prose included in any given post are separate creations having nothing to do with each other. Duality and such …
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The older man touched the younger one on the shoulder and shook him just slightly, just enough to bring him out of a shallow dream, just enough that his eyes jerked open. He said to him, “You wants to learn the guitar or not?”
The younger one nodded a couple times, wide-eyed.
“C’mon, then,” the older man told him, “It’s almost Midnight.”
They crept lightly from the shack, guitars strapped to their backs, past five sharecroppers in two rooms, sacked out, breathing deeply, or snoring softly, except one. Young Loretha, the one the younger man was wooing against her mama’s wishes, awake in the corner, watched them leave, the whites of her eyes seeming to glow in the dark, the younger man looking back at her, feeling guilty, but not stopping. There would be no stopping. Could be no stopping. By then, his determination had joined his consciousness awake. He would not be denied what he wanted, even by a woman.
They walked the dirt path between the half dozen other shacks, only a crescent moon and the stars to light their way. Past the shacks a few yards it crossed with another dirt path; straight ahead went to the fields, right went to the plantation houses. They went left, into the woods.
Left, fifty yards or so, to the cemetery.
The older man paused at the big oak tree that marked the entry into the little plot, listening intently. Not a sound. Even the insects were reverent. “Right Midnight,” he said. “Perfect”. Old and new tombstones sprinkled over the plot in only vaguely organized rows, some catching bits of starlight in their flakes and ridges, some so dim they looked like holes in the ground. The older man smiled back at the younger one, his white teeth bright against the dark. “Now the haints be comin’ out.” He moved between the stones and chose a couple way to the back, low for sitting, where they could face each other. They unslung their guitars, cradled them, strumming, and tuning with delicate caresses. The older man said, “This ain’t no devil stuff we’re doin’.”
The younger man said, “I know.”
“Listen to how quiet it is.”
The younger man nodded, large, trusting eyes.
“We tries to practice anywheres else, people come bothering us, sayin’ ‘play us this, play us that’. Ain’t no one gwon bother with us here.”
The younger man said, “I cain’t hardly see what I’m doin’.”
“Ain’t s’pose to see, that’s part of what I be teaching you. Got to feel that guitar like it’s part of y’all. Got to hear what your fingers touch.”
The younger man nodded. This was why he liked the older man and why, as he had drifted like dandelion into him, he clung to him now like burr against his pants cuffs. The older man was the best guitar player he had ever heard, shockingly better than he was and he had thought he was good. He would suck up everything he could learn from him like a kitten lapping milk. Everything the older man told him was like a language he knew but couldn’t quite access himself. A key to a universe within.
“Now play me something,” the older man said, and the younger one began strumming the Blind Lemon Jefferson song Loretha liked; he only needed to hear a tune once and he could recreate it on guitar. The older man taught him to apply a damping effect on the bass strings to create a rhythm. He showed him how a piano turnaround at the end of a normal twelve bars of music sounded more polished than simply returning to the starting chord of the standard twelve bars. He taught him to tune his guitar one fret lower when using open tuning, and to tune the second fret to match his singing voice. He taught him a high-note triplet riff to increase the drama in boogie patterns. A special trick: he showed him how to tune his low strings lower and his high strings higher, creating chords no one else had heard before. He showed him how to play bass, melody, and chords all at the same time making it sound as though two musicians and two guitars were playing. Tuning strategies and fingering techniques that enabled him to play the guitar like playing a piano, a skill so many guitarists had tried and failed to master. The guitar began to feel like a new creature completely in his power, and himself like a new man imbued with infinite control. Hours past, and as they grew weary the older man, looking approvingly, said, “Now all you be needing is more of this cemetery practice. That, and a little more confidence.”
They left the plot before the sun could rise, in the darkest part of the night, the haints whispering with the wind in the trees. “You head back near Memphis to that juke you play at, to those old musicians called you ‘kid’, think what they say now,” The older man said.
“I suspect they will say,” the younger man smiled, “They will say I met the Devil at the Crossroads.”
They moved along the dirt path a minute in silence, barely able to see through the darkness. The older man asked, “But you didn’t see no Devil, did you?”
The young man said, “Nope.”
“But you did pass a crossroads of sorts tonight, and they’s be too afraid to go near it,” the older man chuckled. “You just let ‘em think it.”
All my life I have had to learn to do things differently. To see the world differently.