Man, this Christmas day was busy. Several family members came over with homemade dishes and plenty liquor. We talked for hours about all the “Old Heads” that were deceased. I lost my mom a number of years ago. A number of my cousins had deceased parents. Uncles, aunts, grandparents and a host of others were now gone. We laughed and told stories. Some were true but others were a total fabrication. I finally sat in my office at about 10 pm. I gazed over at the corner and wiped a tear from my eye. It was my mother’s huge stereo system that caused the tear to roll down my cheek. I walked over to it and pulled out one of her favorites “Taxi” by J.Blackfoot. I remember that record being on repeat for at least three cycles on the record player. I opened up the cover, placed the record, and waited for the smooth voice to take me back to the mid-eighties in Louisiana. I inherited her massive music collection when she passed away. I had boxes of 45’s, albums, cassettes and 8 tracks. I had the system restored years ago. It was pristine and performed as well as it did over thirty years ago. Christmas was always special to me. My mother loved the holiday and cooked her magnificent holiday feasts on Christmas Eve. As I sat there I drifted back to one particular Christmas Eve when the Blues took center stage.
There she was swaying like a wind was pushing her from side to side. Blues poured out the speakers. The hollas of these men filled each crack in the home. The pictures rattled and juked with the music. I quit playing Atari to go in the kitchen. On Christmas, she played some special Blues songs, such as “Santa Need Sum Lovin” and “Back Do Santa”. She would stay up all night spewing cooking smoke into the atmosphere and singing each verse of her favorite songs.
She was beautiful. Her skin was like caramelized brown sugar and her hair flowed like a black river across her shoulders. Around the kitchen, she was like a magician. Effortlessly she had several dishes going at the same time. She saw me and said, “Hey Estacious, I was about to call you to help me in the kitchen.” It wasn’t like she needed my help but she wanted to teach me how to cook so, I had no choice but to help. If I refused that 5’5 Mississippian would make me wish I had listened the first time.
She went to the fridge and pulled out a huge bundle of green beans and placed them on the kitchen table. As I think about it now, I’m glad she taught me to cook. I didn’t see the importance of the skill then, but I appreciate it now. I sat at the table with her and began to snap beans, as “The Thrill is Gone” by B.B. King exploded like a musical hand grenade into the air. My mom began to sing at the top of her lungs each section of the blues classic. Word for word she belted out the tune precisely not missing a beat. I looked at her and wondered why this music was so important. This wasn’t the first time I thought about it, but now I was ready to ask the question.
“I have wondered for a little while now about why you play the Blues every day. You play really nothing else but this type of music.”
When I asked that question, a huge and beautiful smile spread across her face. It seemed she was waiting for it.
“I was wondering if you would ask one day about the Blues. Your Paw Paw exposed all his children to the Blues. Howlin Wolf and Muddy Waters are some of the classics my dad played in my youth. It was then that my love began. My home state of Mississippi is where a lot of these great musicians come from. I feel the music when I play it. Their stories about love and betrayal speak to me.”
“Really, so these songs tell stories?”
“Yes, son. This all began during slavery, our ancestors would sing about freedom, sacrifice and redemption using field hollas to tell stories about family members lost to the auction block. Wives, husbands, and kids were sold to the highest bidder. Music was a way to cope, so the Blues and Gospel became a way to release grief and carry on.” She walked over to the stove and stirred her gumbo.“I grew up during segregation. We were second-class citizens. Even the Bluesmen that white folks begged to perform in the South couldn’t walk in the front door. They had to enter thru the kitchen because of Jim Crow. They sang songs about the oppression of African Americans at the hand of the southern politicians. Plus, they escaped Mississippi and other southern states and were able to go places and do things their slave great-grandparents could only dream of.
“I didn’t know any of this, mom. They were some strong people.”
“Yes, they were. Bluesmen carried on even during the worst times in America. They continued to sing and perform. They didn’t lay down when they encountered the Jim Crow South. I want you, Estacious to understand this. Life is no cupcake. It’s often hard and takes a toll. However, I listen to my music for an uplift. It reminds me of where I come from and how to a carry-on. Do You understand, son?”
And I did understand. I looked at the stereo I inherited from my mom and thought about that Christmas. It was one of my fondest memories of my mother. Her explanation never left me. I shared this story with my kids and exposed them to a steady Blues diet as often as possible. Three of my late mother’s four sisters are dead. Three moved to the frozen Midwest and one remained in Mississippi but the Blues never left them. It tied them together and even in death, these Blues Sisters are still with their kids thru the music.
Dedicated to my cousins and family. We have lost much but as long as we live they live in us.