Saturday, July 12, 2008
Johnson and three other black men on their knees shooting craps in a cluttered, lantern-lit garage. Two other men and the woman Johnson met on the street are watching. Robert is the shooter and the moneymaker; the girl is very pleased though most of the men clearly aren't. One of the kneeling losers is Johnny James, shorter and heavier than Johnson, more talkative and outgoing, and soon to become his good buddy and traveling companion.
JOHNNY: Damn! Don't you never lose?
ONLOOKER: Them bones doin' ever'thing for him but rear up an' walk.
WOMAN: Ohhh, daddy, bring it on home!
JOHNSON (big grin on his face): I like ta he'p y'all out, but this be it, las' shake. Git me if you can.
FIRST LOSER: I pass.
SECOND LOSER: How much?
JOHNSON: I leave it ride, whole nine an' change.
SECOND LOSER: All right, gunboats, you faded. Roll 'em. Le'ssee that devil jump up!
Johnson looks at his closed fist, touches his neck-bag, then lets fly almost casually, without any of the traditional jargon shouts. All bend down to peer at the results...
ONLOOKER: Lookee dat sebem from hebem!
JOHNNY: Jest as nach'rel as the blues...
SECOND LOSER: What the hell's heaven got to do wid it?
The second loser stands up in disgust, tears a ten from his pocket, and stomps off. Johnny is shaking his head in amazement; the girl is all over Johnson and his winnings. The first loser signals the heretofore silent onlooker with a head nod; the look they exchange bodes ill for Johnson. Johnny sees this and watches them depart but says nothing.
JOHNSON: Well, li'l gal, look like you my luck. You ready to party now?
WOMAN: All night, kin you do it.
They stroll on out together, the everpresent guitar in Johnson's hand again. Johnny and the talkative onlooker watch them go.
As Johnson and the woman move through patches of light and darkness. She clings to him, plying her wiles.
WOMAN: Come on, Robert. Lemme hold it. You said I'm your luck. I be good to you to home too...
JOHNSON (stuffing bills down her ample front): Keep 'em warm for me till I come for 'em.
He slaps her haunches and they amble on, squeezing and tickling each other, to the mouth of the alley. There under a dim light, she stops to rummage in her tiny purse, pulling out a lipstick and compact; she hands the lipstick to Johnson to hold while she powders her nose.
Suddenly, the first loser and his cohort run in from the shadows to attack Johnson. The girl doesn't scream and help him; she just flees the scene with his money. Johnson throws one man off his back, punches his other assailant with the fist still holding her lipstick tube.
As th first man comes back for more, Johnson clubs him with his already battered guitar--a loud clang but it doesn't crumple. Johnson tosses it aside, just in time to be jumped from behind by the second man, who holds tight this time. The first man moves in to punch Johnson in the face and stomach.
CLOSE ON FIRST MAN
As Johnny suddenly charges in and clobbers this guy from behind. The man collapses, and Robert takes heart, twisting free from the man pinning his arms. He gives this guy a stomach-crunching fist in the belly, then whirls him around and gives him a kick in the butt that sends him flailing into the row of garbage cans at the mouth of the alley. Now Robert spins around, ready to take on whoever's left. But it's just Johnny, who raises his hands in a comic gesture of surrender as he dances back out of range.
JOHNNY: Whoa back, Buck. Keep your winnin's an' your fists in your pockets. I'm the one that freed ya--jes' like Abraham Lincoln hisself!
Robert relaxes and straightens his clothes. The he grins broadly.
JOHNSON: You the black president, huh? Well, you save my bacon an' I thanks you. (holds out his hand) I'm Robert Johnson.
Johnny steps forward and clasps his hand firmly. Then he gives a comical half-bow.
JOHNNY: John T. James, "Johnny" to them's I rescues. A stranger to this charmin' place. How's your gittar? You playin' 'round here?
As Johnson bends down to retrieve his flung guitar. He holds it up, inspects it, then announces the verdict.
JOHNSON: Jes' passin' through, southbound. New dent here. But them Monkey Wards folks make guitars can take a lickin', looks like.
Now he peers both directions half-heartedly for the woman who left with his cash.
JOHNSON: Which is what I'd like to give that li'l hunk o' pigmeat that's got my money.
Johnny has been examining the fellow he cold-cocked, who has begun stirring feebly.
JOHNNY: What? You mean I laid this dude out for nothin'? You let her scat wid my loot too?
Johnson grins and holds up the lipstick.
JOHNSON: She lef' me some coins, an' this, I got a gal can use. Come on, my man John, let's us go find us a bottle an' a place to drink it.
JOHNNY: Don' mine if'n I do...
And the two new comrades amble off down the street.
NIGHT--EXTERIOR WATER TOWER--ZOOM OUT
As another song starts on the track, Johnson's "Walkin' Blues," serving as the upbeat bridge through the following lighthearted scenes--beginning with Johnny and Robert perched high atop the town's old-fashioned wooden water tower; they dangle their legs over the edge and pass a whiskey bottle back and forth.
As Robert and Johnny pantomime Robert's invitation and Johnny's shrugging decision to travel on together.
DAY--EXTERIOR DIRT ROAD
As Robert and Johnny amble along, a black farmer and his horsedrawn wagonload of hay stop to give them a ride. Johnny climbs up next to the farmer and Robert settles atop the hay.
As Johnny and the farmer talk a blue streak, Robert lies asleep in the hay, his guitar tucked nearby as a kind of sunshade.
DAY--EXTERIOR OLD PICK-UP TRUCK
Robert and Johnny are jammed into the small cab of this beat-up truck along with the black driver. The rear window is broken and the cargo--chickens in baling wire cages--makes so much racket that the driver and Johnny signal their inability to hear each other. Johnson, on the door seat, is silent but amused.
This time a white farmer in a slightly newer truck stops to give the two wanderers a ride--but now in the back among the boxes and crates of vegetables.
The farmer slows to let the two men jump off at a crossroads, with a very rural-looking town in the distance and farmlands all around. They wave their thanks as he drives off, then extract carrots and tomatoes from the nooks and crannies of guitar and clothes, nudging each other and laughing. The sun is low in the sky. "Walkin' Blues" ends at this point.
Johnson and his friend trudge along the cotton rows, heading for the town. They are eating the vegetables they "borrowed," with the sunset golden behind them.
JOHNSON: She's the purtiest li'l thing I ever see, an' the sweetes'. Reckon we be married, soon's I get chips ahead.
JOHNNY (dryly): Uh-huh. Tha's why you lef' your winnin's wi' that gal in Forest City--she's holdin' 'em for you...
Johnson doesn't respond, briefly embarrassed. Then:
JOHNSON: Well, it be diff'ren' when my name's aroun'.
JOHNNY (gesturing with a carrot): You come from 'roun' here?
JOHNSON: Longtime back. No family lef' now, 'ceptin' Betty Mae.
Robert suddenly stops and lets fly with the tomato he's been nibbling at--it splatters on a nearby fencepost and faded sign: "LUBBELL PLANTATION."
Thursday, July 10, 2008
DAY--INTERIOR RENTED ROOM
Back in the present, Johnson standing in front of the window again, moodily looking out. He mumbles, thinking out loud...
JOHNSON: Hellhound... On my trail...
Sound of footsteps mounting the wooden stairs outside, then a loud knocking on the door. Johnson listens but makes no move to open it. The knocking is repeated louder.
WOMAN'S VOICE: Mr. Johnson?
He doesn't answer. She punctuates her next speech with blams on the door.
WOMAN'S VOICE: I know you in there, Mr. Johnson. You can't hole up forever. You musicians all alike--think you can take a'vantage of a poor widda woman. Well, I'll have a week's rent by tonight, or you just get out!
Final blam followed by sound of her feet descending the stairs. Johnson lets his anger explode: he grabs up the empty whiskey bottle and hurls it towards the door, but it shatters the cracked dresser mirror instead, scattering glass in all directions.
That fast, Johnson's anger vanishes. Panicked by the bad-luck implications, he grabs the bag around his neck and rubs it hard. Then, calmer, he walks over to the glass shards and aimlessly stirs them with his feet, his thoughts elsewhere. His foot rolls over the unbroken neck of the bottle, and Johnson stoops down to take this up with his right hand. He tosses it in his palm for a moment, then slips it over the little finger of his left hand. He picks up his guitar and sits down on the edge of the bed.
CLOSE ON JOHNSON
As he holds the bottleneck finger vertically before his eyes. For the first time in the film, he smile is deep and wide, lighting up his whole face.
NIGHT--EXTERIOR WOOD CABIN
Another flashback, as Johnson (16 or so) approaches a tiny backwoods cabin; very nervous and cautious. (The scene that follows is played straight, serious rather than for humor.) Robert hesitates at the steps and calls softly...
JOHNSON: Mama Lion... Mama Lion.
An old black woman appears in her moonlit doorway; she is blind.
MAMA: Here, chile. Who call Mama?
JOHNSON (properly respectful): It's me, Mama. Robert Johnson.
MAMA: What chu want wid Mama?
JOHNSON (inarticulate): I needs... luck, good luck...
MAMA: Come here, chile. Let Mama see you close.
Johnson hesitantly steps up to her. The old woman peers into his face with her sightless eyes, runs her hands over his body and fingers, then nods her head.
MAMA: Yes, Robert, Mama kin he'p you. Wid music, ain't it.
She dips into her skirt pocket and throws some sort of dust over his head. Absolutely unnerved by all this, Robert sinks to his knees before her. Mama makes passes over his head with a "black cat bone," murmuring African/French patois chants. Then, talking as she works, she pulls another item from a different pocket, drops it and more dust into a minuscule cloth bag, and ties all this around Robert's neck.
MAMA: Goofer dust, Robert, t' hoodoo you' enemies. An' Li'l John the Conqueroo fo' you' stren'th an' you' music...
Then she steps back, signals him up with a gesture of her hands.
JOHNSON (standing up, unsure): What I kin pay you?
MAMA: Mama want no t'in' from you now, chile. Go on home.
Grateful, still nervous, Johnson looks back over his shoulder as he leaves. Mama Lion stands framed in the doorway, still watching him with her sightless eyes.
Flashback continues, but now some more time has elapsed since the earlier juke-joint scene. Here, chairs are bunched against the walls, with a few small tables; 40-50 black people of all ages, from tiny girls in braids to elderly men with canes, fill the hall with joyous dancing and high spirits. At the far end on a makeshift stage sit Son, Willie, a fiddler, and a man blowing jug--all smiles and sweat, stomping their way to to the end of a raucous jugband number.
Working his way through the crowd comes Robert, now 17 or so. Only six months have passed since his disastrous juke-joint experience, but he is no longer the awkward country boy; dressed in a snap-brim hat and city man's shirt, he seems older in confidence and movements. He carries a battered guitar in his left hand and pulls a beautiful young girl, Betty Mae, along with his right.
JOHNSON: Come on, Mae.
At the stage, Johnson stands looking up expectantly. Betty Mae watches the dancers, swaying her own body slightly.
As the musicians come to a ragged but happy conclusion. Willie then addresses the crowd.
WILLIE: Brothers an' sisters, we gotta break time. (Crowd groans, catcalls.) Sorry, and tha's a fact. But you-all is wearin' us down. Hold on, and we be back quick. Juice'll keep you loose, and you got each other for comp'ny!
The musicians lay their instruments aside and jump down from the stage, near Johnson.
They start to pass Johnson, not recognizing him.
JOHNSON: Hello, Son... Willie.
WILLIE: Hello you'self. Who you?
SON: I b'lieve it's the Rob'sonville boy, Johnson. You rec'lect him--five, six months back?
WILLIE: What? Don't tell me... you come to give us another lesson in the blues?
JOHNSON: I'm some better, I 'spect.
Willie looks him over, then talks as he eyeballs Betty Mae appreciatively.
WILLIE: Yeah, you do look some better... but I got a thirst tha's cryin' out somethin' fierce.
He starts to move on, but Johnson puts his hand on Willie's arm.
JOHNSON: How 'bout me playin' whilst you rest?
Willie looks at him speculatively, then grins from ear to ear.
SON: Now, you don't want...
WILLIE (interrupting): Whoa, Son. Who we to stand in the way o' this boy's kay-reer. If he's ready, let him do it.
He clambers back up on stage and calls out for the crowd's attention.
WILLIE: La-deez and gentamens! You is in luck. My pleasure to bring you that fine an' upstandin' young bluesman an' credit to his race, uh... (leaning over to Johnson, loudly) what'd you say that name was, boy?
JOHNSON (impervious to his taunts): Robert. Johnson.
WILLIE: Robert Jimsom! Treat 'um real nice now, folks.
Willie jumps down and heads off, not waiting to hear Johnson. But Son follows more slowly, lingering to listen.
Betty Mae hugs Robert and he smiles. He climbs on stage, lifting the guitar ahead of him and pulling a broken-off bottleneck from his shirt pocket. He sits down in Son's chair, dons the bottleneck, nods at the curious, milling onlookers, touches his neck-bag, does a little chording and tuning. Johnson then pauses momentarily, gauging the crowd one last time, before launching headlong into the stunning opening chords of his slide-guitar masterpiece "Preachin' Blues." Humming, talking, singing powerfully, indeed "preaching" in a way, his guitar work equally amazing, Johnson works through the number:
Woke up this mornin', blues walking like a man,
Woke up this mornin', blues walkin' like a man,
Worried blues, give me your right hand.
And the blues grabbed mama child, tore it all upside down,
Blues grabbed mama child, and they tore me all upside down,
Travel on, poor Bob, just can't turn you 'round...
Etc. The noisy restlessness of the crowd quickly becomes silence and evident interested respect. Men and women press forward eagerly, murmuring "Yes" and "All right." Betty Mae practically glows, swaying with the music.
The side door where Son leans, then jerks bolt upright, listening in amazement. He calls out the door.
SON: Willie! Oh man, come in here!
WILLIE (entering reluctantly): What is it?
Willie pays attention, hears Johnson's guitar, and his jaw drops; he too stands transfixed.
Over his shoulder, Johnson nearing the end, the crowd tensing and swaying and jumping. When he stops, the hall erupts in shouts and cheers. But he leaps down to grab Betty Mae and kiss her lustily. The people press forward to surround them; other young women cling to his arms. Johnson is relishing all the attention. He winks devilishly at Betty Mae, and she responds by holding on tighter to his waist, not about to be dislodged.
Son and Willie shoulder through to add their praise.
WILLIE (holding out his hand): Hey, Robert Johnson, knock me some skin!
ROBERT (suspicious, not understanding): What you say?
WILLIE: Shake, my man. I 'pologize to you.
SON: Where'd you learn to play like that?
ROBERT: Well, it's your song I learned watchin' you.
SON (shaking his head): Nosir. That ain't how I play, and no man I ever heard. Goddam, Robert, you musta sold your soul to the devil to play like that...
CLOSE ON JOHNSON
His reaction is slightly odd--his smile pleased, triumphant, yet somehow hard too. The glint in his eyes does seem slightly threatening.
DAY--INTERIOR RENTED ROOM
Back in the present, Johnson is still seated on his bed playing his guitar. With the bottleneck on his finger, he is trying to compose a song around the memory of his nightmare. The playing is ragged as he searches for a tune or pauses for a line.
JOHNSON (talk-singing): Got a hellhound on my trail, um, got a hellhound on my trail, and I got to... (trails off, thinks, starts again) Got a hellhound on my trail... Hellhound, hellhound on my trail, Couldn't no one go my bail... (stops again) Hell, anyway.
Johnson sets the guitar aside, gets up and moves around the cramped room, humming, stretching his muscles, tossing the bottleneck in his hand. Then he seems to reach a decision.
JOHNSON: All right.
Now moving swiftly, he rolls his few belongings into a bundle, fastens that with his belt, dons his skimpy jacket, picks up his guitar and bundle and hat, and crunching through the glass fragments on the floor, heads out, slamming the door behind him.
Music on the track has already begun, Johnson's "Rambling On My Mind." The song plays over the following montage of brief scenes:
DAY--EXTERIOR BOARDING HOUSE
Johnson clatters down the wooden stairs, slings the guitar over his back, and strides off into the morning.
Johnson cuts through fields heading for a distant railroad track.
ON MOVING TRAIN
Looking down from a flatcar as Johnson slings his gear aboard and clambers up after it.
As the freight train chugs past, Johnson aboard a flatcar near the rear of train, riding and playing.
BESIDE TRACKS--NEAR A TOWN
Further along, as Johnson swings down from the slowing freight and ambles on toward the town.
DAY--EXTERIOR STREET CORNER
In the town, Johnson playing for passersby, his hat at his feet to receive any donations. White folks pass him by, hardly glancing at him; some blacks linger to enjoy, especially one foxy young woman who is obviously interested. (Johnson concludes the last lines of "Rambling.")
The song ended, Johnson picks up his hat, counts the coins inside, winks at the last listeners, then offers his arm to the young woman, and the two of them saunter off.
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
Johnson is seated near the top of the ramshackle boarding-house stairs, idly picking bits of tunes on his guitar as he watches the neighborhood.
The black residential section of some small town. Two men stand on a distant corner, evidently arguing though their voices don't carry; in the weed-scraggly vacant lot near Johnson, black children are kicking a small rubber ball. Beyond them, a horse-drawn wagon heaped with coal stops in front of another house; the driver climbs down.
DRIVER (shouting): Hey, Miz Peters! Coal's here!
A black matron sticks her head out the door.
MRS. PETERS: Come back Satiddy, Mr. Jackson. We all right this mawnin'.
Johnson plays through all this.
As one boy comes chasing after the ball, to the foot of the stairs. Hearing the guitar, he stops and listens, looking up. The others yell for him to come back, then when he pays no attention, they come over to see too.
Johnson bows to his audience and plays them a sprightly tune. But the largest boy is antsy and drags the others off.
BOY: Aw, come on. Let's get that ol' coalman. I can play good's he can.
They charge off, the one curious boy taking a last look back. Johnson watches them go.
CLOSE ON JOHNSON
He smiles and nods, looking thoughtful...
NIGHT--EXTERIOR JUKE JOINT
A rickety wooden porch leads up and into the dim, noisy "Hoskins Place." Boisterous laughter from within, but not disturbing the two men, Son and Willie, who lounge on this porch idly plunking their guitars.
SON: Ready, Willie?
WILLIE: Jest about.
Willie sets his guitar aide and stands up stretching; he swaggers to the end of the porch and stands there inhaling the night air. Then he notices an indistinct figure standing off in the darkness.
WILLIE: Who is that?
The figure moves forward into the half-light; it is Johnson--nervous, awkward, about the same age as in the opening nightmare sequence. Willie looks him over.
WILLIE: Well, well. Wha' chu doin' here again, boy?
WILLIE (dryly): Uh-hunh. You learned yourself to play gittar yet?
JOHNSON (more eagerly): I been practicin' a lot, and...
Willie nods his understanding. Son has stopped playing to observe.
WILLIE: And you think you is ready to play us some blues, huh. What say, Son, do we let this here country boy strut his stuff?
SON (shrugging): Make no nevermines to me.
WILLIE: All right. Step up here, boy.
Johnson moves to the porch steps. Willie passes him a guitar, then sticks his head inside the juke-joint doorway where the din of drinking and laughter continues.
WILLIE: Hey! Hey now! Step on out here if you want some funky music to go 'long with what chu's already doin'.
He stands aside then, and several other men and women emerge; they all look like country folk dressed up for a night out. They spread out on the porch with Johnson below them on the ground, guitar in hand.
MAN: My, my. What we got here?
WOMAN: Does yo' Mama know where you are?
OLDER MAN: Don't I know you, boy? Miz Johnson's son, from over Rob'sonville?
Johnson doesn't answer, unnerved or unsure.
THIRD MAN: Well, kin you play that git'box or not?
SECOND WOMAN (shaking her hips and pelvis): I got some special rider music you can play...
Stung into action at last, Johnson strikes a tentative chord, then launches full-tilt into a spirited but pathetic attempt at some blues number like "The Moon Is Rising." His listeners react raucously.
WILLIE (laughing and slapping his knee): Whee-ough!
SECOND WOMAN (hands over her ears): Don't shoot, I give up!
Son is silent, eyeing Johnson's "technique" and shaking his head sadly. Someone gives a loud hog-call.
THIRD MAN: You th' original Miss'ippi Moaner fo' sho!
Johnson's thrashing and caterwauling halts. He looks at his mockers stolidly.
LOW ANGLE UP
Willie steps down and reclaims his guitar.
WILLIE: You best get on back wid your Mama, boy. Put your fingers where they belongs--on them cottonbolls!
The "jukers" on the porch bust out laughing again, then all--Son and Willie too--saunter back inside. Johnson stands silent and unmoving.
Sunday, July 6, 2008
A Mississippi cottonfield, green plants and white cottonbolls as far as the eye can see, many black workers stooped over picking and sacking the bolls. Some are sneaking looks back at something the camera pans to discover (sounds of whip strikes during the pan): two white men are grappling with a young black of about 14--our lead, Robert Johnson, but as a teenager--one holding him still while the other, plantation owner Lubbell, lashes his clothed back with some sort of riding crop.
LUBBELL (shouting as he strikes): Ain't no nigra ever fainted from workin' in the sun! But I'll whip you senseless if that's what you want!
ON THE GROUP
As last blows are administered, Lubbell steps back and the second man lets Robert fall to the ground. Lubbell gestures to this man, who strides over, grabs up water bucket from small black girl, and dashes its contents on Robert. The young man jerks and rolls over, and Lubbell looks down at him.
LUBBELL: Now you dog it in the fields one more time, boy, and you gonn' be runnin' for yoah life--I'll loose the hounds on you, bigger'n buck, you heah me?
CLOSE ON ROBERT
As he raises his head, pain on his features but defiance in his eyes:
ROBERT: Oh yassuh, Mist' Lubbell, I hear you good...
Robert (a man now) running for his life through heavy brush forest, branches clawing and whipping him. Sounds of pursuing hounds in the distance, baying and howling horribly. (Superimposed on this are strangely bright close shots of Robert asleep on a bed, tossing fitfully--i.e., we are seeing his nightmare).
Suddenly Robert breaks from woods and onto a rural dirt road. Now he can make better time, but the hounds seem to be drawing closer. Terrified, he looks back...
As the dogs appear on the road behind him--three huge and slavering monster hounds bounding rapidly over the ground, closer and closer.
CLOSE ON ROBERT
He is frantic, straining beyond human ability.
ANGLE BACK--OVER ROBERT'S SHOULDER
As the lead hound comes within striking distance and leaps into the air at his back... And the frame freezes.
As Robert Johnson struggles awake, shouting, thrashing atop his bed. He shakes his head to clear it, rubs his face, touches a small bag he has hanging on cord around his neck; and then rises, walking over to the window where dawn is breaking outside. As he stands, framed against the light, TITLE up: HELLHOUND ON MY TRAIL.
ANOTHER ANGLE ON THE ROOM--BRIGHTENING
Johnson, about 19 or 20, moves about the barren boarding-house room; his guitar propped against the wall, a spilled whiskey bottle on the floor, a cracked mirror and battered dresser near the door. (Main CREDITS are supered during this and following action.) He picks up the spilled bottle, looks at it, then upends to swallow the last mouthful. He peers at his face in the mirror. He picks up the guitar by the neck, then holds it against his stomach as he falls back on the bed. Without playing it, he lies staring at the ceiling.