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Saturday Crowd Scenes: III

Mobile Girl Blues


Naheola, Alabama. On the Tombigbee River. May, 1927.

Two trains running, never one my way.

Two trains running, never one my way.

I’m going to leave here walkin’ on the Sante Fe.

The lazy froth of the little Tombigbee River rolled by under the moonlight, as Scratch Wilkins sat on the west bank playing his harmonica and singing. Well past midnight, Scratch had come out here to be out of earshot of the town of Naheola and the sharecropper shacks that dotted the landscape of the fertile black belt of Alabama cotton country. Scratch liked to be alone with the sounds of the water and the woods. Here, he could play all that he wanted. Scratch did songs, sets, and even encores in the dark. There was no one telling him to "put that noisy thing away" or "you ain’t good enough to blow pussy willows, Scratch." He heard such things all of the time back home or at Clayton’s seed store. Sure, Scratch could make one hell of a racket on the harp, but it was what he loved best. He

dreamed of traveling the country as an Alabama bluesman like Jaybird Coleman or Barefoot Bill.

He’d seen old Barefoot come through town and knock those same folks, who had stymied Scratch’s own harmonica playing, over with his guitar. The whole town, it seemed, had applauded and cheered as Barefoot Bill was whisked off to Sadie’s for barbecue and sweet potato pie. "That’s the life," thought Scratch. For now, Scratch was just glad to be blowing Barefoot’s "Frisco Whistle Blues" to the owls and the catfish.

"That you Scratch?" a child’s voice peeked through the darkness. Scratch swallowed an E flat and sprang to his feet, coughing back a warning. "Who there? Stay back, I tell you! I ain’t nobody lookin’ for troubles here."

"It’s okay." The short grown pines, like turnstiles, pushed forth a small girl wearing a long, white nightshirt. She appeared to be maybe nine or ten years old in the Naheola moonlight. "Neither am I."

Scratch felt both relief and the ripples of shock as he took a step back towards the river. The pebbles that he scattered had nary an effect on the slow, old bullfrog watching fireflies at the waters edge.

Scratch stared at the girl, who had beautiful espresso skin and long black hair, and he realized that, even in this nocturnal light, it was impossible not to notice her glowing violet eyes.

", little one? How you know my name?"

"My name is Joan. Joan Dauphin. Of the Mo-BEEL Dauphins. That’s how my momma used to speak it. She didn’t want no mix up with those saloon Dauphins over east in NAW-lins." Joan laughed at her own feigned pretense. "My granny said the Wilkins down the road had a musical son named Scratch. I figured that to be you."

Scratch fumbled his dubious blues reputation around in his head for a minute. Maybe he was getting known , like Barefoot Bill or........"Yeah, that’s me. Scratch Wilkins. But I don’t really play very....Um, well....Mo-BEEL? That sure is far away. What you doin’ up here in Naheola? You run off from some relations or somethin’?"

Scratch thought about his own family, and how his daddy had whupped him all those years ago when he would sneak out after supper to play war with his friends on this same river. "You sure fixin’ for a mess of sorry if you out this late on most mammies....."

"My parents are gone. They went away back in two-five. My granny, Elsa, she looks after me now.

She lives right around here." Joan twirled her arms in large circles and leaned back to gaze at the starry sky.

"So get back to your granny. Go on then! It almost one in the mornin’ by now." Scratch worried about all of his chores in the morning. He knew how good his own bed would feel right now.

"Damn. No worry in getting good rest," he thought. "Let’s go child, I gotta..."

"I told you my name is Joan. And you’re here to play, ain’t you? You play up some tunes for us.

I bet you’re pretty good."

"Well, shoot...," Scratch felt his own shyness and Joan’s flattery wash over him like the wakes of the big riverboats he dreamed about taking up to Saint-Louis. His hand moved towards the harmonica that he had unconsciously put in the worn front pocket of his overalls. "Nobody done ever asked ME to play."

"Well, I just did. Please, Mister Scratch, sir... if you would regale us with your talents?" Joan’s fine Creole manners added a curtsy.

Scratch felt Joan’s eyes warming him with their blueberry glow. He exhaled and, tipping the brim of his sharecropper’s hat, he launched into "Squabblin’ Blues", another Barefoot Bill song.

And there it was. Scratch’s hands cupped over his mouth, breath and fingers flickering the rapt, violet gaze of Joan. The cool Alabama wind carrying the notes back towards town. This was how Scratch flat out burned the harp with his playing. The up and down eighth notes of the song’s intro seemed to stomp their way into the dirt.



Scratch’s voice rose from a low moan to rattle the forest.

My baby quit me, talk’s all over,

I said town,

My baby done quit me, talk’s all over town.

And I’m too good a man for to let that talk go round.

Scratch soared through the verses and into the chorus. He played the smoke and screaming whistle of the trains headed west. He played the churning CA-chug of the riverboat paddle. He cried the sharecropper pain of working for halves. He scalded fate with the boiling blood of his forefathers under the lash. Done wrong and facing forward, Scratch played on as the trees framed the most wonderful scene.

Joan seemed to be floating in a trance. Swaying to and fro with the beat, she held her palms to the heavens and mouthed the words of an ancient African tongue. Behind her, the moon gave way to sun and then moon again as all of the colors of sunrise and sunset collided in swirls. The roar of the lion and the clamor of the hunt could be heard against the cry of babies and the patter of rain. And the drums. The drums that rose up from the dances of warriors and priests, from witches and mothers, and surrounded and fed all of the other sounds. Scratch could see all of these sounds as dancing shapes and as he would tear into the music they would come and go in stretched tribute. It was the most beautiful thing that he had ever seen — Joan’s eyes explaining themselves.

The sparks of lightning that shot from Scratch’s song framed Joan like a crown . As Scratch pushed and pulled the last B flat of Barefoot Bill’s outro he felt a heat in his ribcage that warmed through his heart to his hands and feet and lips. Head down, chest heaving, Scratch caught his breath as if drowning in a hot spring. He looked up. Joan Dauphin was gone. All of the amazing glory had disappeared into the rolling SSSHHHHHH......... of the Tombigbee River.


* * *

Gennet Records Studios. Birmingham, Alabama. October, 1927.

The recording engineer leaned forward from his seat in he control room and spoke into the talkback microphone.

"All right Scratch, that was damn fine. I think we got a good one there. Let’s take ten and then try that original of yours."

In the corner of the studio, Scratch Wilkins looked at the booth and nodded in his dark, pinstriped suit. In the mechanical garden of cables and microphones and guitars, the other musicians present -piano, bass, and dobro- headed out to the street for a quick beer. Behind the drum kit, Walter Moss leaned back and lit a cigarette.

" Mercy, Scratch. I done never heard anybody blow the harp like THAT before. Like you POZ-essed or somethin’. Where you from again?"

Scratch was staring straight down at the ivory cameo of a little girl’s face that he held to his vest on a gold watch chain. In his hand, the cameo shot warmth through Scratch’s chest.

"Naheola." he answered back.

"Man, that sure is the sticks. Hell, I heard they got voodoo cults up there in them woods. You ever seen that out by the river some night, Scratch?"

Scratch just stared at the face in his hand. The image was trimmed with beautiful violet. "Nah, Walter. I never seen nothin’ like that."

Walter exhaled in laughter, " Well, I sure hope not. Wouldn’t want no spells and all that on me from your wild playin’. Sheeee-oot. What you doin’ next? You wanna show me them changes?"

Scratch rubbed his thumb across the girl’s eye. "Yeah...yeah, sure Walt. Real simple, see? This One’s called ‘My Mobile Girl Blues.’ Okay, here we go....."

Outside the studio, the other musicians smiled and smoked as the harmonica intro led them back indoors.

* * *

Note: Samuel Charters’ The Blues Makers (1991 ed.) inspired and fueled this story. You can find it in most music libraries and bookstores.

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