Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Hellhound 18: Me an' the Devil

((The fifth section begins here--the last act in this extended look at the harsh life of a Thirties bluesman. We begin, still in Dallas...))


This is the unused office which the record company ARC has converted for its schedule of "field" recording in Dallas. Two white women are seated on a moth-eaten couch talking listlessly. The sound of string band music comes from within the closed recording portion. Johnson enters, dressed in clean clothes. He is cold sober and now, unexpectedly on the morning after the previous scene, a stronger, more confident man, even quietly dignified. The women look at him with some distaste or dismissal, but he ignores them, standing quietly off to one side.


The closed recording room door opens, and Dawson escorts out the four-man string band in their Western clothing. The women rise to stand with their men.

DAWSON: Thanks, boys. A fine session. I think we'll all do well...

The players insist on each man shaking Dawson's hand as a goodbye. Then all exit, passing now on both sides of Johnson and giving him the onceover. Dawson nods at him coolly.

DAWSON: Well, Johnson, you ready now to work? I got you a replacement guitar.

The bluesman walks over to him, subdued and somehow a different man.

JOHNSON: Yes. I am.

Dawson looks at him in surprise. The change really is apparent. Guitar music begins on the track...


The set-up is different this time. Johnson at the mic is separated from Harry the engineer and Dawson by a glass office partition. They work the equipment and watch as he finishes his outspoken sexual blues called "Traveling Riverside":

Now you can squeeze my lemon till the juice run down my leg
Till the juice run down my leg, baby...
(spoken) You know what I'm talkin' about...
(and so on, to the end)

The song finishes, and Johnson relaxes in his chair, not bothering to turn and look at the white men.


Dawson speaks via the rigged-up intercom.

DAWSON: Whew! I said sexy, Robert--not pornographic. What do you call that, anyway?

HARRY (muttering again, but audible): Most disgusting thing I ever heard. Animals, that's what they are...


Now he turns to stare at the engineer through the glass. His answer is cold and proud.

JOHNSON: Call it "Mammyjammer Blues." In honor to you' frien' there.


Harry half-rises, not quite sure whether to be angry or "honored."

HARRY: What's that supposed to mean?

DAWSON: Shut up, Harry. You brought it on yourself.


As he points at Harry.

JOHNSON: If you is got any mo' discs, Miste' Engineer, I got two mo' songs...


Dawson signals his okay, proceed.

DAWSON: We're fine. Go ahead when you're ready.

Robert turns back to the mic, adjusts the bottleneck on his finger, and mutters to himself.

JOHNSON: Try this one on, white folks...

Then he plays/sings the haunted and paranoid (or guilty) blues--the film's title song--"Hellhound on My Trail," the awkward beginnings of which we saw early in the film.

I got to keep movin', got to keep movin', blues fallin' down like hail, blues fallin' down like hail,
Umm, blues fallin' down like hail, blues fallin' down like hail,
An' the day keeps on 'mindin' me there's a hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail...

Etc. The song plays through completely, the camera watching Johnson from a variety of angles, but always medium shots; intercut with these are the folllowing inserts:


The engineer is listening intently, but mechanically, doing his sound job, frowning.


The producer is surprised by the intensity of this song and performance.


He turns to fiddle with various knobs, adjusting the recording levels.


He has risen to his feet, unconsciously holding his breath, at pains to keep silent and not disturb the moment.


As he finishes in a final burst of of guitar notes. Dawson is visible, standing beyond the partition. Johnson turns to signal something as Dawson speaks.

DAWSON: Good God, man! Where did...

JOHNSON (interrupting): Keep rollin' it--I got 'nother one...

He turns back to the mic and launches immediately into his most chilling and evil blues of all, "Me and the Devil," all anger and despair:

Early this mornin' when you knocked upon my door (repeat)
I said, "Hello, Satan, I b'lieve it's time to go."
Me an' the devil was walkin' side by side
I'm goin' to beat my woman till I get satisfied...
You may bury my body down by the highway side

(spoken interjection:) Babe, I don' care where you bury my body when I'm dead an' gone
So my ol' evil spirit can get a Greyhoun' bus and ride

This time the camera concentrates on Johnson only--moving fluidly all around him, in tight on his face, tight on his hands on the guitar, angled down on his body and the mic (from above), etc. The bluesman's face shows all the intensity and searing pain of the song (and of his soul). Dawson can be seen in the background once or twice, pressed against the glass, intent and staring. By the last verse, tears are streaming down from Johnson's eyes as he looks deep into the abyss of his erratic life. He ends, slumped over, head bowed over the mic.


All are momentarily frozen, unwilling to break the silence. Then the engineer's voice sounds over the intercom.

HARRY: Goddam cylinders... useless as this nigger music...

Dawson turns to glare at Harry silently. Robert brushes the tears from his cheeks, then rises.


Johnson turns to face the control booth.

JOHNSON: Gimme my money, boss--time to shake the Dallas dust off'n my shoes...

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