20120905

Stephen C. Middleton



Chi non muore si rivede (Or: Twixt Vicksburg & Day)


E-mail: & so I am here again, in the footsteps of ourselves & Lil’ Son. I think if Gianluigi had given me more time to make the decision (“Carnevale is at its pinnacle that weekend – you could finish up here for 3 or 4 days, & see it all; the torches, the race of the Saints, everything…”)… & I think the fact we are on the verge of a (the! or just another – how dreary!) war, made a difference. A way to escape that madness, though the politicos here are no better, maybe even worse. (So the mad scheme was set up). Fly to Milan, train to Orta, on to Maggiore, Como, & Garda (do the Great Lakes Boogie) & then to Venice. Meet Antonella in Rimini, & down here for the Carnevale. I’ve managed to get to about a third of the places Lil’ Son played in 76, & have been keeping a sort of diary of impressions, so lots to tell you when I see you. For now I’ll just mention the curious fact that the forest above Torbole, on the approach to Lake Garda, is under deep water, like a mangrove swamp (if you’ve ever seen one), rather than a brief flood. When I asked some of Mario’s friends about this, one said that the area was drained in the 50’s, but often reverts. Another claimed, pleasingly but maybe not accurately, that the area reflooded mysteriously just as Bush was confirmed as U.S president, & has remained underwater ever since. I like that. More such Italian tales on my return, especially, no doubt, of Carnevale to come – after which money & medication run out!

“…I come up under Sonny Ford, you know, Son Thomas. Sonny Ford we called him,or Cairo ‘acos of the song…he made skulls, you know, he shown me lots, and he liked my birds. They had him play for all kind of folks, Son. I knowed him before he was famous and he used to like to show me things, tricks you know, on the guitar. I studied up some songs myself and learned him some. Good ones too. Some of em I never recorded myself. And he did! That’s right! He did. …course I recorded some I learned offa him.” - Anthony’s transcription of interview with Lil’ Son, 1976
…and it was into one of those stark lulls that he went to collapse. Initially to clear a fuzzy head, blurred around chill lines of neuropathic pain, and a strange sense of dislocation / disassociation that reminded him of the period between eating prawns and an incipient allergy attack as a child when he’d learnt of his sensitivity. Now he passed through narrow swirling streets, windblown – he thought he could hear one distant band, but it might have been a radio. Straw and discarded flagpoles, sticks and makeshift spears snapped beneath his feet and even the confetti, deeper as he reached the square, where it eddied in the freezing wind(s), seemed to echo as it shifted…(…as a particularly piercing gust sent waves of colour into his face he was reminded of the surreal sequence in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil when Robert DeNiro’s character (Tuttle? Buttle? – but that was the point) is suffocated by paper blown toward him and then vanishes leaving only swirling sheets and scraps) …he was cold and dizzy, and whilst not in great pain, certainly felt very uneasy – strange shudders were passing through him, emanating from his bruised nose and burnt eyebrows, resembling the juddering anaesthetic flashbacks he’d had after an operation that had seemed to him to have been a contributory factor in the complex construct that was his illness. These had continued for several years after the surgery and had added to his sense, and some cogent material evidence, that all had not gone quite as planned or reported. He huddled, arms wrapped tightly around himself, and nose weeping (he knew not what), into his costume and walked on up to the church on the rock, realising that he was becoming increasingly unsteady on his feet….I fold my arms / and slowly walk away, he thought, and wondered if it was sensible to be ascending to the plateau of an upturned pistachio kulfi, even if, like so many Italian churches (and the site thereof), there was a miracle inherent in Santa Therese della montagna’s presence. And could he discern the snowy outline of the Gran Sasso? So cold in Abruzzo, the birds can’t hardly sing. There was a bench up ahead. If it had been warmer and Sonny had been alive, or even Gianluigi well, they’d have sat on the bench. “If I could holler like a mountain jack…” And, now, is it, perhaps, like a battle, or, more so, a revolution, in which sporadic events occur and he is able to detach himself and returns at intervals to report to Gianluigi, who, is surely, Robespierre (?), somehow orchestrating events. And a blur, ectoplasmic, a man of the cloth. Your holiness. Or: the church, a real priest: or from the monastery, a Franciscan…and the juddering (now) almost audible, like the geese taking off from the campus lake, with the sudden whirling honking – it reminded him of the sound of a girl’s orgasmic cries in the room upstairs in Venice, or the current pulsing outwards, becoming discernable, on the cusp of pleasure and pain, as applied by the acupuncturist – and then he had fallen into the darkness, and knew at once that he was hurt, was barely conscious, was not going to be able to get up on his own, that the liquid pouring out of his nose was blood (he could taste it) and could surely hear the geese honking now. “Like a wild geese in the west” And a line from a song about Sebastian. He traced this, later, to the paintings of martyrs Antonella had shown him in Ascoli Piceno, across the border in Regione Marche; in several, St Sebastian, multiple piercings ever so evident, had a smile of, if not enjoyment, at least…mischief. (?) And then a face. Definitely, through the swirls – and, incomprehensible… - “Inglese”, he panted, and then forgot his lines… “prompt”…and ”Grand mal”, he gestured at his head, unsure if he was lying, exaggerating, to a priest, a Carnevale priest or not at all – the non English because any other possible explanation was beyond him in any event and something serious had certainly happened. One eye seemed…what? Closed? Blind? Cold, certainly – but Blind Lemon was part right only, birds were not singing, but honking, protesting wildly in convulsion and…”I speak a little English. I. Will. Get. Help. Do. Not. Worry.” “Wait”. He tried to grasp the figure, but everything was fading and he was never sure afterwards how much of this had happened – it seemed almost too glib, so he tended to feel that the final exchange, which was – “Are you a real priest / brother?” – and a dimly discerned smile “It doesn’t matter” (or “would it matter?”) – hadn’t. But it might have. (Or; had the final exchange gone like this? “…Are you a…what to say? Undercover brother” (a surrealist flicker on the edge of consciousness) ... Or was this an embellishment to a conversation that might not have actually occurred.). And he was sure he remembered wanting to adapt a blues line, to the effect that just because he was staggering, Padre, don’t you think I’m drunk.
        …drifting in and out of consciousness in bed. A certain amount of pain…a rubbery facial effect, akin to having had a football kicked point-blank into (your) face…and that lack of curiosity that tends to accompany returning consciousness, at least after a longish period away. Only gradually did he become aware that some of the staff were in costume other than that of nurses and doctors. It seemed unlikely (or; only in Italy) that Osama bin Laden was a top cuts man at Pescara hospital, but it was he who inspected the stitches that had been inserted while Anthony had been unconscious. When he told the story later he added an anecdote that a friend had told him about being knocked down by a car whilst drunk and waking up in hospital to find all the Doctors and nurses wearing red noses. Disorientated and concussed (and “possibly still pissed”) he’d been convinced that he was either dead or mad and took some persuading that he only had a “wee concussion”, would be “right as rain” shortly (“never”) and was merely an unwitting extra in (victim of) Red Nose Day. As his treatment unfolded, however Anthony lay largely mute and acquiescent, while doctors and nurses in various guises beamed reassuringly, adjusted bandages and to the fact of his rudimentary Italian, and advised him to sleep and that someone would speak to him “proper” soon. This “proper” conversation, when it arrived, came with a youngish intern, dressed sensibly, but frazzled ‘round the edges with the evidence of Carnevale excesses, and it was Anthony who did most of the talking, initially, explaining to this stranger the story of his hilltop collapse. The alley beating, with its ritualistic overtones, received a knowing sympathetic smile –
        “You should not have touch…if someone not chose to carry… Fiaccola…especially someone not from village, is like…rude, and they hit you, but not much, is not to hurt much…is respect.”
        Which was clearly what Francesca had been trying to say to him, and he remained pleased that he had not told Gianluigi this story, though he wasn’t sure exactly why, it wasn’t particularly inglorious – how much of a sap had he actually been, trying to help someone, inadvertently breaking the rules?…and Gianluigi would have to know he was here, but it seemed to be alright, enquiries had been made and Gianluigi (unimpeded as ever by being housebound) had learnt from someone who had spoken to one of the ambulance men that an injured Englishman had been brought to Pescara …he had been assured, as was Anthony now, of said Englishman’s eventual recovery.
     The young Doctor sat on the bed.
     “I am Daniele,” he said, “Dan…Dr Dan.”
     Dr Dan thought the collapse, which was perhaps a kind of seizure, was caused by a number of things. The lost medication may have been a factor, certainly (and was he taking the pills now provided? Good), but on his dosage? Well…
     “Può darsi,” a shrug, “but maybe together with your adventure with the Fiaccola, and not sleeping enough…you have I think, even then, a little concussion. Perhaps you are thinking you are still a young man in Italy with your blues musician…is it possible to have recordings of this person? I should like to listen…”

Items from Blues & Gospel.

Under Deaths; Eddie Turner – hca, Leland, Mississippi – reported to have died in Leland in late 2002. Worked with Lil’ Son & Malvina Williams (father & daughter)

Under Gigs; Clarksdale Festival line up confirmed - …Malvina Williams…
E-mail, to Gianluigi: does it then seem strange that someone all his life afraid / uneasy in crowds should feel so at home / ease on the march & at Carnevale, despite the occasional, shall we say, firecracker. I took your advice & dragged myself to the Conway Hall to hear Evan Parker, who is as you / they say, unbelievable, Spring Heel Jack, & Leo Smith, that other doyen of Leland, Mississippi. His (Smith’s) playing, it was / is obvious to me, was steeped in the blues, however avant or out he is or goes. He said that he had just been to Hajj, then added something that I couldn’t hear (didn’t catch). So I asked him. He sort of stooped at the edge of the stage at the close & people came up & had short, intense conversations with him. I felt something of a fraud, not being up to my ears & beyond in his back catalogue, so I told him I’d enjoyed his playing & asked him about Hajj & he said that it had been both wonderful & frightening – which struck a few chords. (One of which was with what Carla had told me about the Islamic idea of iqtibas – which to my meagre infidel understanding is something between an Arabic art of allusion & the passing on, maybe by (Koranic?) allusion, of the torch of knowledge. Not, you might say, in my case. Does not apply. Not Applicable. Or, strangely…) And that sort of crystallised it. So that when I was walking to the tube it came to me. Just go, you know? Where the music takes you. Pack up your pills in your old kitbag – which is probably what you were trying to tell me, no? On strange marches. Visions of Lil’ Son leading a column of bizarrely clad revellers from the penzione to the square. Your man Pino’s “megaphone musicality” at the head of a parade of master musicians. Leo Smith blowing the blues for Leland via Mecca at the Conway Hall; poor pilgrim travellers all. Leland smoking / Baghdad burning down. So Leland and / with Malvina seems as good a place to start as any. Look for me at festivals, on some cold rainy day, at Carnevale (though probably not the Fiaccola), when the wildflowers are in bloom on the Piano Grande, or between Vicksburg & day. & if you see my old moaning buddy, Dr Dan, on your forays to Pescara hospital, tell him an old blues fan says, “Chi non muore si rivede”

The period after returning, slightly swollen, from Pescara, was a bleak one. No humorous e-mail snippets emerged. It was a spell on the cusp of the complicated void that is depression, perhaps accentuated / occasioned by the medic(in)al onslaught that had followed the attack. There were also a couple of worrying side effects – a blizzard of floaters settled on his vision as soon as he awoke each morning, and, more than usual, he hated to see that evening sun go down, for all the usual / standard reasons, and because of an arc of light flashing at random in his peripheral vision, that was either only present, or only discernable, in the dark.
        The brief retreat was spent either lying in bed plagued with destructive thought patterns, or, on better days, acquainting himself with the Italian music that Gianluigi had taped / burnt for him. The Italian Instabile Orchestra, Pino Minafra, Daniele Sepe, etc, joined more blues orientated music on his radar, otherwise a Black Hole with peripheral lightning show. Trabeculae – a word and associated definition he’d seen (and then, disconcertingly, the word seemed to have vanished for a while – he had mis-remembered the spelling) – “flares across a void”, or similar. A good image for depression, he’d thought, even without a Fiaccola induced eye injury…
        The imperatives that brought this desolate reclusiveness to an end were the imminent invasion of Iraq and an e-mail invitation. Gianluigi was to be ‘marching in spirit’, pushed by Antonella; a bus to take them from the village to Rome. And an e-mail from a friend, which prior to Gianluigi’s maverick crash course of jazz indoctrination, might have been just another unanswered flare across the Black Hole, summoning him to the Conway Hall for a concert. A connection in the void.

And one seems younger abroad; more active (as well as the freedom that distance from routine and the familiar confers). Antonella, at least, treated him as a young man, still. And so the notion does not appear so ridiculous. And he is used, too, to people being impressed by his very Englishness. What is he doing here? And he has been before? 27 years ago. He has learnt to say it in Italian. And, in this café, he has the photograph to prove it. The waitress is busy, but has certainly smiled at his laboured Italian – three days running - and today knew his order in advance, giggling at his ‘perfecto’. It is, of course, her job to find him droll, but perhaps these pleasantries are more satisfying in an English accent and his obvious delight at finding the word, any word, a source of genuine shared pleasure. So he will wait until she is free, half rising on as many as 15 occasions, but Carnevale is on and people straggle in at random for coffee as they awake from the previous night’s festivities, and, in the end, he is an hour over his crodino, arriving flustered at the till, phrase book, Euros, and photograph in hand. Maybe it is the coffee machine behind, or, more likely, his accent, for, though he has learnt all the declensions this time (no ‘perfecto’ this) he cannot make himself clear as she turns away from the transaction. It is not the first time this has happened on his visit, and Italian friends report similar occurrences in Britain, based on strength of accent and variations of dialect, where seemingly correct sentences are met with incomprehension. The phrase eludes her, whatever the reason. ‘Non capisco’, and she glances only briefly at the photograph, clearly not recognising his younger self and then there are more people in the café, and perhaps it is just a picture of a little known second tier blues musician – a black man in a bar with a few Italians and an English ringer. Moving from the bar he waves ‘Ciao’ and gestures at the photograph, calls ‘domani’ to her distracted smile, but then isn’t sure if the café will be open the next day, Ash Wednesday, the day after Carnevale. In any case tonight is the Festival of the Fiaccola.

Sickness Blues by Lil’ Son Williams (Home of Blues CD 3025)

A CD reissue of the only full LP ever by the late Williams, a Leland based follower of Son Thomas (about whom he reminisces at the end of the CD in a bonus interview), with a similar, though less effective, sinewy guitar style & plaintive falsetto. A few singles recorded in Memphis turn up occasionally on compilations, but these songs, recorded at the end of a European tour in the wake of the American Folk & Blues extravaganza, comprise the bulk of his legacy. As he’d been hospitalised (with a perforated peptic ulcer) at the close of the tour, a decision was made to record (mostly) songs associated with illness (or, in the case of ‘Saint James Infirmary’, worse) – so we get a workmanlike ‘TB Blues’, Skip James’s ‘Hospital Blues’, which Williams fails to turn to his advantage (a personal song by a master like Skip was / is always going to be a challenge). He does better by ‘Goin Down Slow’, & on a couple of pieces co-written with one of the tour organisers (Anthony Collins), both based on earlier blues. ‘Breathless Blues’, about a debilitating symptom of the aforementioned peptic ulcer, takes its structural cue from Charlie Patton’s ‘Mississippi Boweavil Blues’, & benefits from an injection of real urgency in Lil’ Son’s vocals, whilst ‘Bell’s Palsy Blues’ & the only song not relating to illness (but based on a favourite Italian location on Lil’ Son’s 1976 travels) ‘Castelluccio Blues’ were recorded with UK traditional jazz musicians rather in the manner of those Sammy Price tracks with the Sandy Brown band (does anyone remember them?). ‘Bell’s Palsy Blues’ takes as its Ur-text Memphis Minnie’s ‘Meningitis Blues’, and is apparently based on a brief spell of paralysis suffered by trumpeter Jed Hargreaves, whilst ‘Castelluccio Blues’, a more successfully integrated performance, derives from Little Brother Montgomery’s ‘Vicksburg Blues’, though twisting it to Williams’s purpose. All in all a worthy, though not essential, retrieval from the deletions cupboard.
Tim ‘Sonny’ Perkins in Blues World # 357, Sept 2006
E-mail: Thought I’d share this (surreal) snippet with you. I am in a café on the Via Fiaccola (I’m unable to tell you whether this is its name outside of Carnevale, when Italy reverts to (only) its usual level of mayhem). The radio is on. I’m dressed for Carnevale. Actually, it has occurred to me that, with this curious robe, I’m probably dressed for hospital. And then a terribly familiar tune, with Italian words, & an agonized ransacking of the part of my brain where the songs live (The Music & Anorak Dept?). I get it, seconds before the final chorus is sung in English (presumably for people like me who recognize it as a British pop song, but can’t quite… I’m ahead of you (just)). Strange / peculiar to hear something so English, yet with alien intonation, & without the associative triggers that keep sentiment from straying into schmaltz, though it’s probably a fine line anyway, in this instance. Of all the songs to be hearing, at the heart of Carnevale, in the mountains of Italy. The Move. From Birmingham / The Midlands. ‘Blackberry Way’ on the Via Fiaccola.
He was slightly light headed, and wondered briefly if there was (a) danger of another collapse, and was very conscious of his mortality, inadvertently accentuated by Dr Daniele teaching him the phrase “chi non muore si rivede”, literally “if we do not die we will meet again” (which affected him in both a positive / get on with it sense and in a morbid way) but eventually put it down to his emergence into daylight after ten days of depression and attendant sub standard maintenance. Meals on wheels for depressed people had always struck him as an excellent idea. The rest of his disorientation he put down to the crowd and the slow, chain gang shuffle, progress, from which his legs were to ache for days. It was only as green and red confetti-like material engulfed him, reminding him of Italy, and a small Muslim boy stoutly clutching a banner smiled nervously at him, under a proud father’s eye, that he realised that, angry and, no doubt, unwell though he was, he was actually enjoying the sensation of being in a crowd - surely a legacy of carnevale. The old audience curmudgeon was gone. The noise here, coming in surges, was not about authenticity, or clarity. The point was to be heard, juxtaposed: reggae sound system, inchoate yell developing into chants, Buddhist drummers, endless whistles, Mexican ripples of noise as landmarks were passed, or helicopters spying overhead underestimating numbers. If he had thought to bring a Walkman he could have become the Alan Lomax of protest marches.

And there are the vignettes from his trip so far, that he relates to Gianluigi. The church Antonella had taken him into, talking loudly as she often seemed to in sacred places, though she crossed herself repeatedly. Mass had begun, like a 40’s broadcast, coming over a speaker, a tinny, unavoidably sinister voice. And only he, the atheist, had seemed disconcerted.
        Then there were the horses in the sea off the coast between Ancona and San Benedetto – young men galloping in the shallows of the Adriatic. Not, perhaps, as strange as the elderly women with Zimmer frames being helped to walk in the gentlest of surf, parallel to the coast off Grottammare “The air is famous” murmured Gianluigi. It had reminded him of Altman’s Three Women, a bizarre, shape shifting film, with old people drifting in swimming pools, and Shelley Duval and Sissy Spacek at their luminous strangest. Altman, he recalled, had said that he had dreamt the story. Gianluigi had played him what had seemed like an impossible amount of Italian jazz, field recordings and unclassifiable music, against a distant barrage of fireworks and competing confraternity bands. Daniele Sepe, humour, anger and excerpts from field recordings (and a resonant insertion of Allende’s final broadcast, in a programme of settings of songs by Victor Jara – this somehow evoking the metallic Mass, putting it to shame). Pino Minafra, trumpet, megaphone (he’d noticed the megaphone used in the Italian pop that Antonella watched upstairs), and settings of poetry, spoken mournfully, whatever it meant. And this had reminded him of a lugubrious voice, which he had finally identified as a bingo caller, that had kept him awake in a hotel at Lake Garda. And Gianluigi Trovesi (with notes, it had been stressed, by Umberto Eco),woody clarinet, resonant, melancholic with group or in duo with accordion, and steeped in the sweep of jazz, blues, and Italian folk and aria.

He is sitting, waiting to be collected by Antonella. Her sister Cecelia has stayed with him in the flat of a newly widowed old lady, while Antonella fetches the car. Talk is awkward and stilted – he has almost no Italian, she (the old lady) has no English. Then he sets eyes upon a small carving of a man with a guitar. He smiles. She smiles. She mimes strumming. Does she play? he asks Cecelia, whilst looking at the woman. No. Her husband. Poco, poco, but he loved the music of the ‘chitarra’. She looks enquiringly, mimes strumming. ‘Guitar’, he says, nodding. ‘Si, si’. They smile. Then she sighs – her eyes moisten. She glances at Cecelia, who says, ’C’est la vie’. They nod, the two women, and shrug. What sort of music did he like, he says into the ensuing silence (after what seems a suitable pause)? This is translated. It becomes apparent that she mimes sadness. Eventually it becomes clear it is the blues. She tries a name. ‘Muddy…’, she says. He supplies the salient. ‘She say to say some more’. ‘Howling Wolf’, he says. ‘Holy Wolf’, queries Cecelia, but the old lady has understood. She smiles. Then she sighs – her eyes moisten. She glances at Cecelia, who says, ‘C’est la vie’. They nod, the two women, and shrug. She mutters something from which he hears enough to take a stab at ‘Blind Willie McTell’. ‘Blind William Tell?’ says Cecelia, very puzzled, but before he can explain the old lady is on her feet beckoning him. ‘You come’, supplies Cecelia unnecessarily. And in another immaculate marbled and gilded room, among kitsch landscapes and devotional pictures, is the pièce de résistance — painted apparently by a cousin for the late husband, in characteristic pose, seated, with one foot slightly forward, wearing a cap – (he points this out – she and he mime (‘si, si’) the receiving of money) — a representation, in proper pride of place, of Atlanta’s finest, Blind Willie McTell.

Bad luck and trouble from the beginning. But he was booked (and bound to go). The Festival had run into financial difficulties and, at the last minute all the famous African American blues men (and women) cancelled, including, to his absolute chagrin Honeyboy Edwards, Otis Rush, Louisiana Red, Koko Taylor, Magic Slim, Big Jack Johnson, and Carey Bell and were substituted with what seemed to be, for the most part, local pub bands (some of them with the barest link to the blues), Trad Jazz, and tribute bands (The B------- Blues Brothers). The only reason for optimism amidst this dire shambles, indeed the only reason he hadn’t stalked off as soon as it became apparent that his considerable journey had been made under largely false pretences, was the continued presence on the bill (thankfully for the first day of the Festival – he was thus able to take his sorrows away for a long weekend’s walking) of the Southern New Talent Package. Much could be salvaged if this a) lived up to its name and b) was given a decent amount of time in the spotlight, especially since it included in its ranks the Malvina William Delta Blues Band (son of late blues master Lil’ Son William(!), said the publicity, also noting that she’s played in a sons and daughters blues band in Leland with Pat Thomas, son of…Son Thomas).
        It had been a deeply dispiriting day – dire acts, dreadful acoustics, and engulfed by absences – not only the invisible blues men of B----- (as he afterwards referred to them – “and those that were there were inaudible” – you pays yer money and…you pays yer money) but also, of course Lil’ Son himself. Most of the New Talent package had been demonstrably nervous, not helped by the dismal acoustic, and had stuck to fairly short versions of fairly obvious standards. Malvina’s voice hadn’t fared too badly, but her rhythm guitar had been hard to discern, with the drums and harp mixed too high, and she’d come off badly when she’d essayed harp / vocal unisons. A few punters (himself included) had tried to make these imbalances apparent during the course of the day, but the venue seemed unable or unwilling to alter things. That said, she too had disadvantaged herself by playing safe, robbing herself of much distinctiveness by sticking to unadventurous versions of warhorses like ‘Sweet Home Chicago’, ‘Dust My Broom’ and ’Smokestack Lightning’; perfunctory with repeated verses that wouldn’t matter in a juke joint with a rhythm percolating and dancers on the boil, but here things barely got together before a halt was called to each number. Perhaps, at an event where punters didn’t even seem too disgruntled to be hearing a Blues Brothers Tribute Band rather than Honeyboy Edwards or Carey Bell, she wasn’t hobbling herself too much with this repertoire, but it had made it hard to assess whether or not she had that spark to set her apart from the tired trillions (it seemed that day) also playing cover versions. Her last two numbers, though, had provided a glimpse, albeit the briefest, of package accuracy. A lively version of Memphis Minnie’s ‘Me And My Chauffeur’ and, to his great delight, with suitable clanging sinewy electric “bottom” a bizarre conflation of Melford / Cairo / Catfish Blues, with Rock Me Baby, almost like poppa used to do, ending on a trilled,”til my back ain’t got NOO bone” that, when he’d laughed about this to Eddie, the harmonica player had said, “way she sings that line, Muddy Waters could of taken it home and lived with it”.
        At the close of the New Talent Package he had tried to go backstage. He’d brought with him various mementos from meetings with Honeyboy and Carey Bell, which would now, of course, be unlikely to gain him access, not that he wanted to see anyone but Malvina. He did though have enough material relating to her father to get beyond the initial refusal and even to get a band member to come and talk to him. Drummer Duke Taylor explained that she’d “taken sick on the plane”, didn’t like travelling and was very tired. He’d asked, in desperation, if he could write her a note when she’d appeared at the dressing room door. Inside looked like mayhem anyway. “We’s all in there. Us Southern Talents,” she’d said wearily. Up close she did look tired, and about the 45 years of age she must then have been. She remembered Lil’ Son talking about him though, and told him that he’d always he welcome in Leland. She’d played on and off (alone and with bands, mostly with bands), all her adult life, but had only decided to “go all out with it, you know, since my daddy died. Carry on with the things he’s teaching me, specially when he was poorly – guess he knew I’d hafta carry it on. He was poorly quite a while, you know. Quite a while. I have some songs of my own I want to record”. And then she’d excused herself and Eddie Turner, harmonica player, father of the drummer, old friend of her father, harmonica player for father and daughter, and, it turned out, a cousin in Clarksdale, had been deputised to stand in the corridor, with a bottle of beer, chatting as bands came on and off stage and grim versions of John Lee Hooker could be heard from the hall.
        “…All right. For bout a week we was snowed up. I was, you know, with Malvina’s band and I was staying. Cain’t tell you what year it was, ‘cept we’d been playing in Texas so must have been nearabouts 94 or 95 I reckon. Anyhow, it’s like that song do say, you know – icicles hanging on the trees. And sometimes whole trees’d be falling. That’s right – I’m telling you. And sometimes just limbs come crashin’ down. Old Son he’d been pretty poorly for some time then, like Malvina was saying. And we was snowed in. Wasn’t no electric, and mostly wasn’t no water neither, cept the snow. And I reckon Lil’ Son knew that his time was, you know, coming. He kept telling Malvina as to how she wasn’t to worry. Seeing as how there was pretty much nothing she could do as none of them ambulances could’ve got through, or was mostly busy with other folks. And he just slipped away you know, round about some of the biggest crashes, and nobody noticed until after, cause the little ones they’s scarified by the noise. He looked mighty peaceful after such a struggle. Course, he’ll a told you how he was born in the great flood…”
E-mail: Sometimes I wonder how good Lil’ Son was (as well as whether he actually liked me). I said something like this to Gianluigi & he gave one of his / those great Gianluigi replies, taking in how Son wasn’t an ‘originator’, the expectations of European audiences by the mid 70’s (touching on what we call ‘cultural misunderstandings’ – I can’t remember the phrase he used) conditioned by the American Blues & Folk Tours, and everything else besides. He reminded me how Son became altogether more adventurous with other musicians, & wound up with something like, “Listen. He was as good as he had to be. Then. In Italy. And he always had (had always?) that, come si dice, buoyant”, - which I take to mean Delta bounce, buoyancy, sinew in his guitar lines, whatever. & then he was off again about Italian musicians I should hear, “because no one in this village does – unless I make them to listen”, and who I have been playing a lot since I got back. Like Pino Minafra, Giorgio Gaslini, Gianluigi Trovesi, & the wonderfully named Italian Instabile Orchestra. Do you know (any of) them? From aria to anarchy & back, via everything else.
Whether it was by Italian whispers or osmosis, he could pinpoint the moment, in the specially designated Carnevale bar (at other times a private club – open but clearly closed to all but a few, by some unspoken law), when he knew that her name was Francesca. From shouts overheard, by elimination… He’d been aware of her, costumed cynosure, at several festive events, her emotion raw, her features, it had taken him awhile to realise, reminding him of the actress Genevieve Bujold. And now she sat, weeping noisily, a few seats away from him, having shrugged off the attentions of female friends in identical costumes – there were strict confraternities and competitions at play that Gianluigi had just begun to explain to him. Antonella is busy with her costumed compatriots, so, sustained by his success as foreigner at Carnevale and notwithstanding the fiasco in the café earlier in the day he moves across and smiles, having first consulted his phrase book. By now the flood has passed and a wan smile greets his inept approach, his Englishness, his concern. She has, at any rate, some English, and a gentleman friend who did not come (as promised) to the Fiaccola, has been perfunctory in his attentions over Carnevale, does not it seems, recognise its importance to this particular small town, preferring to stay in his large town. But why is he here? And this time he finds it hard to explain, struggles with the concept in both languages (despite having a few ready – rehearsed - phrases that he had worked on). “You return for the memory of your friend” she suggests, which is close enough for a nod and a smile, but somehow unsatisfactory enough to leave him feeling bleak as her ‘troupe’, one of about half that are not masked, reclaim her, pleased that she is no longer distraught, and he manages the phrase that Gianluigi tells him means “I will see you later”. She smiles.
        And so it is, that, an hour later, detached from Antonella and friends, in the confusion of burning brands, shouting, accordions and brass bands, he comes upon her in one of the myriad narrow smoky side streets. She is seated on a step, burning Fiaccola in hand, rubbing her teary ash stained face. He smiles and waves. She manages a wintry grin. He has barely begun to tell her how she reminds him of the actress (in a clumsy attempt to cheer her), when 3 or 4 youths are upon them, barging into him as he stands over her, and snatching her torch. She shrieks. Unthinking he snatches it back and in a sparkling blur of embers and pain receives a clout across the face, from the back of a gloved hand, numbing nose and mouth, and sending him stumbling over her legs onto the cobbled ground, the torch vanishing from his grasp as he falls, and more people milling about yelling. She is on her feet, he sees, through watery eyes, grappling for her torch, but losing out. As he struggles to regain his feet, she glances his way, she speaks, but he cannot even tell in which language – the narrow street now full of people carrying her away in their rush. “You…alright?” he hears a call. “Yes,” though this is not the answer and he doubts that she can hear him.

Lil’ Son in Castelluccio singing for his supper, raunchy tales – mostly mimed, ribald, but carefully enunciating place, “now that was Natchez or nearabouts, I believe”, and more wine was poured – more laughter and figures sketched. Anthony had wandered outside to catch the chill air, brisk with a smell of almonds and the sound of animals strange to him. The roads, though they were really only paths, cars coming no further than the climbers’ car park, were narrow and precarious and the mountains barely visible against the night. The vast plain, though, was a huge brooding presence, speaking of pampas, Misfits, more countries he had not yet seen, perhaps never would. When he pushed his way into the bar, dawn was just visible over the shoulder of Mount Vettore. Son was ruminating grouchily – “far as I can recall it was twixt, twixt …Vicksburg and, and…”, he gazed rheumy eyed into space. Gianluigi gestured mildly through the tiny window at the palely glowing sky. “Day”, he said, quietly.



Chronology

1927    birth of Lil’ Son Williams

1976    Lil’ Son Williams tours Europe with other blues musicians – the Italian leg of the tour is
               separate, arranged by Anthony Collins and Gianluigi

1994    death of Lil’ Son Williams

1998    Malvina Williams plays the UK with New Blues Talent

2002    death of harmonica player Eddie Turner

2003    January trip to Italy, in the footsteps of the 1976 tour, by Anthony Collins.

               Late February - mid March — Carnevale. Iraq War. Eddie Turner’s demise reported in UK
               blues magazine

               Concert at Conway Hall by Spring Heel Jack with Evan Parker and Leo Smith.

2006    CD reissue of Sickness Blues by Lil’ Son Williams




Breathless Blues

Some people say the mountain bus
Don’t run, Lord (y) (x2)
Well, it run up the hill
To the other side of the sun, Lordy

Some people say
The breathless blues ain’t bad, Lord (y) (x2)
Well, (it) must not have been
The breathless blues they had, Lordy

Don’t the moon look precious
Shining in the trees, Lord (y) (x2)
Don’t the blood look precious
Dripping into me, Lordy

Sure looked pale without that blood
In there, Lord (y) (x2)
Got a woman to love
& to feel my care, Lordy

When it comes on
I sure do get scared, Lord (y) (x2)
(Sure) Ain’t no breath.
Out there in the air, Lordy.
(Williams / Collins)


Bell’s Palsy Blues

Woke up this morning
Couldn’t play the trumpet no more (x2)
Bell’s palsy come calling
And I fell down on the floor

Went to the Doctor
Said, “Can you help me with my complaint”? (x2)
He said, “You know I’d like to, son,
But I’m afraid I cain’t”

Said to my landlord
“I can’t play, so I can’t pay you no more” (x2)
He said, “That ain’t my problem, sonny,
You just get out my door”

Sometimes seem like this numbness
Lord, spreading through my head (x2)
You know what I’m scared, boys,
Scared it’ll kill me dead

Said to the Conjure Man
Please cure me quick as you possible can (x2)
Can’t kiss no woman
And, Lord, feel like a triflin’ man.
(Williams / Collins)


Castelluccio Blues

Castelluccio on a high hill
Piano Grande just below (x2)
(I say…)
Piano Grande up in Italy
Biggest piano that I know

Say it too hot in the summer
In the winter get too cold(x2)
Snow up in the mountains
Fields all coloured gold

Say this town it is so lonely
Feels like I’m about to die(x2)
All I see is the mountains
Piano Grande & the sky

Ain‘t no women in this town
& there ain’t too many men(x2)
Got so darn cold & lonely
They all upped & went

Castelluccio on a high hill
Piano Grande just below(x2)
Think I’ll go back to the U.S, boys
Near the Gulf of Mexico

(Or; Where the weather fits my clothes)
(Williams / Collins)


Stephen C. Middleton is a writer working in London, England. He has had five books published, including A Brave Light (Stride) and Worlds of Pain / Shades of Grace (Poetry Salzburg). He has been in a number of anthologies, including Paging Doctor Jazz (Shoestring), Troubles Swapped For Something Fresh (Salt, 2009) & From Hepworth’s Garden Out (Shearsman, 2010). For several years he was editor of Ostinato, a magazine of jazz and jazz related poetry, and The Tenormen Press, producing limited edition art books of illustrated poetry about music. He has been in many magazines, mostly in the U.K, but also in the U.S.A, Canada, Australia, and Europe. His live work includes poetry readings, performance pieces with musicians, stand up comedy, and storytelling. He is currently working on a number of projects (prose and poetry) relating to jazz, blues, politics, outsider (folk) art, mountain environments, and long-term illness.
 
 
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