Saturday, August 30, 2008

Hellhound 19: See That Lonesome Road


This is an East Texas "piney woods" logging camp with sawmill, board shacks, and an off-shift barrelhouse tavern right on site too; its flimsy sign has a handwritten "MUD'S." Both sawmill and barrelhouse are going full-tilt as Johnson wanders into camp, carrying his suitcase and the replacement guitar strapped across his back. He passes the working area with scarcely a sideways glance, arrives at Mud's just in time to stop, allowing two men, the one helping his drunk cohort, to stumble out from inside.

DRUNK (to Johnson): Good evenin', brother!

Robert looks up at the dawn sky, then grins and answers:

JOHNSON: Evenin' to you.

He walks on inside.


One long room filled with off-shift workers--a narrow bar, a few tables, a smoke-filled atmosphere, and a battered upright piano stuck off in one corner. An old juke joint/barrelhouse pianist named Henry sits noodling riffs and runs just about as tired as the workers all around the room. Robert skirts the bar and goes over to the piano.


Johnson sets his suitcase and guitar down, which attracts Henry's attention; he turns his head to the sound, revealing dark glasses and blind eyes. And he begins playing a more complete tune, some slow blues number.

HENRY: Who that?

JOHNSON (leaning on the piano): A weary man.

HENRY (playing throughout their talk): New man too, I'd say. The voice...

JOHNSON: Uh-huh. (about the music) Tha's nice 'n' peaceful.

HENRY: Slow drag for the end o' things. You play?

JOHNSON (looking over at the guitar): Gittar. Some harp when I 'uz a kid.

HENRY: That so? What'd you' name be?

JOHNSON: Robert Johnson.

Henry stops playing long enough to hold out his right hand.

HENRY: Henry Perkins. Calls me "Blin' Boy."

They shake hands and then he resumes the music.

HENRY: Seem like I hear talk of Robert Johnson. You him?

JOHNSON (shrugs): Depen's what you hear.

HENRY (smiles): Bad blues gittar, folks say.

JOHNSON: I get on.

Henry lifts one hand to reach for his beer mug atop the piano, finds it empty.

HENRY: Mebbe we try some piano-an'-gittar after 'while.

JOHNSON: Don' min'.


Henry turns to call across to the bartender.

HENRY: Hey, Mud. Two short'uns.

Robert walks over to pick up the two mugs. The room has gradually begun emptying out as the next camp shift makes ready to start. He returns with the beers, pulls up a chair, and sits down next to Henry. He sips from his mug, but Henry takes a deep draught, then sets his aside and resumes playing.

HENRY: Well, Robert Johnson, where be you boun'?


Robert shrugs silently, then realizes Henry can't see that motion.

JOHNSON: Wherever. Somewheres better than I been, hope to God.

HENRY (slaps his knee): Ain' that th' trufe! But you ain' soun' near old 'nuff to talk it.

JOHNSON (bitterly): How ol' you got t' be to be dead?

Henry absorbs this silently, segueing into another blues number; the talk ceases for a moment.

HENRY: Some better up North, folks say. Seem like they's movin' up there, anyway--Indiana, Chicago, an' such like.

Johnson absorbs this in silence, shaking his head gloomily.

HENRY: Yessir, that's black man's future, folks say. Mebbe I oughta roll on up that river myself.

JOHNSON (intensely): Blin' Boy, it ain't. I been there.


As he turns and answers Robert just as intently.

HENRY: Son, I be fo'ty-nine year old, near's I kin tell. Live my whole life in Arkansaw, Loo-zana, Eas' Texas--these ol' piney camps. It's damn got t' be better!


Johnson shakes his head but says nothing. He finishes his beer, and Henry resumes playing. Then:

JOHNSON: No better, jes' diff'runt.

Henry plays silently, lost in the music for a moment.

HENRY: Yeah, I 'speck you right. Hell, if'n I found it, I ain' know whut t' do wid it anyways.

Another silence as they both mull things over. Then the 6 a.m. steam whistle sounds loudly from outside; Robert is startled a bit, but Henry pays no attention.

HENRY: You hear 'bout Bessie?

JOHNSON: Hear what?

HENRY: She done pass on, coupla weeks back. Auto-mobile crash, over t' Mis'sip' or Alabam. Bled on out, folk say, try'na get inta the white man hospital.

JOHNSON (clearly shaken): God-dam, Blin' Boy. Bessie Smith cain't be gone like that.

HENRY: Well, she is. "Queen o' the Blues"? Don' make no nevermin's, it's the road we all gone down, fast or slow. (sings a line from a Smith record) "See that lonesome road, Lawd, it got to end..."


Now the midnight-shift workers begin streaming in, their first noisy stop the bar. Then they spread out heading for tables or the small open space meant for dancing.


Robert and Henry have to talk loudly now to hear each other.

HENRY: Know what the answer is, Robert? Get'cha a good woman. Not no bottle--Lord knows, not these blues lines. Jes' a sof' sweet gal ta hol' onta.

JOHNSON (doubtful): I don' know...

HENRY: I'm tellin' ya, ain't I? You ever have a gal like that?


Several of the new arrivals are ready to whoop it up now.

FIRST MAN: C'mon, Blin' Boy, put me in the dozens!

SECOND MAN: Kick 'em on down!

A third man is in the dance space, all set to step out.

THIRD MAN: I got to be movin', son--where you' Ma Grinder at?

Henry waves one hand in response.

HENRY: Comin' at ya.

Then he bangs into a high-spirited, gutbucket piano stomp.


Robert leans into make himself heard.

JOHNSON: One like that a long time ago, but she took up wid somebody else.

HENRY: Well, you young, ain'cha? Git 'er on back.

Now Henry really gets into the number, swaying and rocking on his piano stool.


The workers are whooping and hollering too, some of them leaping and dancing, beer mugs right in their hands. Johnson looks lost in thought.

HENRY (shouting): Yessir, that's the ticket! One good gal!


He finally accepts the notion, makes up his mind, nods his head, and speaks aloud but to himself.

JOHNSON: All right, I will then...

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...