Friday, August 1, 2008

Hellhound 10: Intermission

Last night, a serendipitous musical event occurred here on Vashon Island. Blues musician John (Paul) Hammond came to town to play a benefit concert... and the fact of that performance dovetails nicely with the on-going, gradual posting of my 1970 screenplay.

In the first place, his famous father, the other John Hammond of record producing/artist discovery fame, sought to include Robert Johnson in his seminal Spirituals to Swing concerts (December 1938), but learned instead of Johnson's then-unexplained death. He still chose to play Robert's music on stage before starting the concert proper.

And decades later, Hammond Sr. was closely involved, first in the issue of the great Robert Johnson single LPs, and then in the long-delayed creation and release of the bestselling Johnson CD box set. I actually spoke to him by telephone in the mid-Eighties, back in the heyday of my attempts to sell Hellhound to Hollywood, inquiring about the rights to Robert's music. (By the way, he blamed oddball researcher Mack McCormack and copyrights-grabber Steve LaVere for the confusion and costly delays.)

Son John probably heard Johnson's 78s in his father's home as a child; he's not sure about that, but from the beginnings of his own tentative fumbling with guitar and vocals, the younger Hammond did clearly have an affinity for Johnson. He has likely covered nearly all of Robert's 29 songs on one album or another over the years (the compilation shown above documents some of them). And he also "starred" in the Search for Johnson documentary made in the early Nineties.

Hammond's own first recordings were on the 1963 Blues at Newport album, which I latched onto in '64; when I heard his powerful performances of three songs, including Johnson's "Me and the Devil" and Chuck Berry's great "No Money Down," loudly welcomed and urged on by several elder black bluesmen, I thought there and then, "All right, a white man can play and even sing the blues!"

It helped me feel vindicated in my own mid-Sixties love for the country blues, and encouraged me to think seriously about writing a screenplay on Johnson and the hard life of a Depression Era bluesman. Over the next couple of years I researched as best I could--there wasn't much about Johnson specifically, but more and more stuff was appearing to detail the complex existence of other Thirties blues figures--and then wrote the script, revised and ready by 1970 for copywriting and a hoped-for quick movie sale. (No such luck, then or later.)

But that's one reason why I'm publishing my screenplay on line now... I'm asking you readers to remember one thing: I wrote Hellhound many years before Greenberg's surreal Love in Vain book or the excellent Searching for Johnson book by Peter Guralnick, not to mention the hit CD set, Hammond's solid documentary, and the later docudrama featuring Danny Glover and Keb Mo.

At any rate, I hereby acknowledge my long-standing debt to the brilliant, even heroic, example of the two Hammonds, whose separate efforts have enriched the lives of millions of listeners.

And by the way, last night's concert was great, with Hammond ranging freely over the history of the blues and thereafter--John Hurt to Howlin' Wolf, Billy Boy Arnold to Tom Waits, and his own originals to, of course, Robert Johnson's eerie and impassioned "Come On in My Kitchen."

We could hear the wind howl.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Hellhound 9: No Hiding Place


Johnson is ambling down a dusty road in the black section of Robinsonville, carrying his old guitar and even-more-battered valise. He glances about him as he walks, nodding his head often as though pleased by familiar sights of home. Some children run out to watch him pass, and an old man peers at him as though possibly half-recognizing him. Johnson smiles and nods at any whose eye he catches, though their responses are guarded.


As Robert nears his goal, Betty Mae's house (from earlier scene). The house looks about the same, save for a newly painted front door. Robert mounts the steps and knocks. Sounds of a tapping cane and muffled words from within.

MAN'S VOICE: Jest a minute, jestaminute...

A wizened old man hobbling and leaning on his cane opens the door.

MAN: Yes, yes, whut you want?


Robert is temporarily dumbfounded.

MAN: Well?

JOHNSON: Yeah, I 'uz... lookin' for Betty Mae...? Betty Mae Hen-dricks?

MAN (shortly): Ain' nobody here name' that.

JOHNSON: But she live here, her an' her mama, Miz Jewella Hen'ricks.

MAN: No, she ain't--place's empty when I come here from Jackson. Yessuh, so look out de way...

Aa he steps back and slams the door shut.


Johnson is briefly angry, then appears puzzled as he descends the steps. He looks around for someone else to ask, but now the area seems deserted. He starts walking dejectedly back the way he came.

WOMAN'S VOICE: Hello, son!

He turns to see...


A matronly woman scrubbing clothes in an old tin washtub. She comes towards him, wiping her hands on her skirt.

WOMAN: Don't I know you? (peering at him) 'Course. You Robert Johnson. Still lookin' th' image o' your Mama, Lord rest 'er.

Johnson mutters an embarrassed greeting, not recognizing this woman.

WOMAN: Elvie Brown, son. Don' you reco'leck me?

Now he does. He puts down the suitcase, removes his hat, and shakes her hand.

JOHNSON: 'Scuse me, Miz Brown. How you be doin'?

WOMAN: Well, jes' fine, Robert. Where you has been off to, all these years gone?

JOHNSON: Oh, you know. Ramblin'. Making' music. (shows his guitar)

WOMAN: Is that a fack. (touches the strings) Is you a travelin' preacher?


The question is so outrageous and unexpected that Johnson starts laughing.

JOHNSON (still chuckling): No ma'am, not pre-zackly. Reckon I plays jus' blues an' breakdowns.


Now the conversation begins to run at cross purposes as each pursues his/her own subject.

WOMAN: Aww, no, Robert, don' tell me you done lose the church. Now how your mama feel, in hebem where she be?

JOHNSON (ignoring that): Where's Betty Mae gone, an' Miz Hen'ricks?

WOMAN (surprised): Lord have mercy, Miz Hendricks passed, two years now. She with your mama an' the chosen ones on th' other shore. But blues is the devil's music, son--they swoll y'up with sin.

Johnson waves his hand in frustration.

JOHNSON: Nev' mine me--where'd Mae get to?

WOMAN (getting into it now): You mus' be up-lift, Robert. You don' need that sinful music an' that shameful life--God's holy word is all you needs. Let the Holy Sperrit fill your voice--give the Lord your life! He the one you got t' go by.

Johnson looks battered now, by the sultry heat and by her words.

JOHNSON: You right, I 'spect. But where is Betty Mae?

WOMAN: Betty Mae Hendricks 'uz one chile knowed her duty to her folks an' her God. (sniffs at Johnson) Not like some could be name'. She stay by her mama to the very end an' see she be give a decent Baptist fun'ral...

Robert's patience is exhausted and his temper flaring. He slings the hat he's been holding off to one side and shout-pleads with her.

JOHNSON: God dam, Miz Brown--where is Betty Mae gone?

WOMAN (calm but indignant, drawing herself up): Don't you be cussin' at me, Robert Johnson--I ain' no street woman. Cussin' and cryin' won't he'p you none. Betty Mae done marry herse'f a nice, fine Christian gentaman name' Ralph Curtis, come by down Greenwood way.


Johnson looks shattered by this news; each of her ensuing words strikes him like a blow, backing him up and away from her.

WOMAN (triumphant): They done move back south after the weddin'. A real church weddin', Robert Johnson!

Backing away, clutching at his neckbag, he stumbles over the valise and almost falls. Dazed and hurting, his hat and valise forgotten, he turns and hurries away from this determined harpy; he is practically running, guitar flapping on his back. A stray hound barks and bounds after him.


Looking back at the diminishing woman as she shouts a further warning:

WOMAN: You kin run, run to the rock! But the rock cry out, "No hidin' place!" Every-body got hisself a date!


Camera starts close on the "LUBBELL PLANTATION" sign, then gradually (as the scene proceeds) rises up and away to a high and wide angle, looking down on the vast field. The year's tending is over--the plants have been chopped, the rows are empty now. Staggering across these hilly rows comes Johnson, his hat and valise gone forever, the guitar bumping wildly back and forth. He is thoroughly drunk, with a half-empty bottle in his hand from which he drinks as he stumbles along, shout-singing loudly between gulps a few lines from his song called "Rambling on My Mind".

JOHNSON: I got ramblin', I got ramblin' all on my mind... I got mean things, I got mean things on my mind... Li'l girl, li'l girl, I will never forgive you no more...

All the while he is wandering across the field, coming towards the rising camera. Finally he trips and goes sprawling headlong in the dirt. The guitar clangs loudly and he rolls over, shoving it aside. On his back, not rising, lying in the middle of this vast and barren field, Johnson bellows out one last line from the song:

JOHNSON: I got the blues for Miss So-an'-So, an' the chile's got the blues about me...