I have never been BFFs with prose. Given the number of tears I shed trying to write the personal essay portions of my grad school essays, I’d say we used to be frenemies at best. Over the years I dabbled in prose—a (really wretched) screen play, the short story I blogged about here—but basically it was one bad date after the other. Then came grad school where many of the poets swung both ways, equally at home in the nonfiction workshops as the poetry ones. But it turns out that Richard McCann’s life-changing creative nonfiction workshops were a gateway drug. Next thing you know I was following my prose-writing friends into Kermit Moyer’s fiction workshop. I was still under the heavy influence of Chicago, which may have been how I happened to, instead of writing a blues poem, write a blues story. And, maybe, just maybe, I was also inspired by a serious crush on one of the professors in the college writing department.
Mighty Tight Woman
(originally published in Willow Springs)
Mama Sylvie and the Northside Blues are the house band at The Mill every Tuesday night. When I lived in Chicago, I’d go see them every week, getting there early so I could get the table right up front, lean into Mama Sylvie as she leaned into the mike, her big hips marking time as surely as Barenboim’s baton down at the CSO.
“My man don’t love me, he treats me so mean.” Mama Sylvie had this way she worked the notes so they sliced into you like paper cuts, each note working its way between layers of skin. You could see the audience shiver, especially the women, each song leaving the kind of cold sadness that begins at the bone, impervious to blankets or the large hands of men.
I could never quite make my notes sound like hers. I came close sometimes, but it was like I could never get past the point of keeping secrets. I couldn’t tell the whole truth, not like Mama Sylvie did. You can’t do the blues in a small way. I don’t mean you’ve necessarily got to holler-shout them, but you’ve got to let them all the way in to get them all the way out. You have to actually feel the silk of that no-good man’s shirt slipping through your fingers as you sing, really believing you want him to “skip that lipstick, don’t explain.”
I’ve been singing all my life, but I never wanted to sing the blues until I heard Billie Holiday slur her way through “Violets for Your Furs.” “You brought me violets for my ferrss.” Some folks will say she’s not a blues singer because she didn’t do that many twelve-bars, but on that song, at the end of each phrase, you can hear her voice shake, as if it’s counting each drop of whiskey and each needleful of smack she’s ever hungered. Her mouth sounds so heavy—with regret, with loss—that she can’t even manage the final short “u” sound.
Listening to her, I thought, “Here’s truth.” I decided to stop singing show tunes—each with its carefully assigned slot—and learn the blues.
I tried to start my own band with this kid Josh—Little V and the Kings—but all he wanted to do was play Stevie Ray Vaughn.
In rehearsal he’d always tell me, “Nah, that’s not how Stevie Ray does ‘Tin Pan Alley.’” Then he’d play some indecipherable solo on his pawn-shop guitar.
“But shouldn’t we be trying to get our own sound?” I’d protest, trying to get him to listen to Sippie Wallace and Little Esther. I was buying used discs of female blues singers by the armful, playing their songs over and over, trying to find my way into that heart-and-bone place Billie sang from. Josh just kept trying to sound like the record. Eventually, after sleeping with my friend Carrie a couple of times, he borrowed my Billie Holiday songbook and stopped showing up for rehearsals. I heard he works at TGIFridays now. Read the rest of this entry