What rolls out steady from your local jukebox ain’t close to what we had in the good old bad old days. In this town, a few decades ago, there used to be a real dangerous element about. That didn’t make the insides much better, but we had a good reason for staying in. Of course you had to go out to go in, because nobody was sleeping at The Busted Blues.
The Busted Blues was a clawed up old shack tacked together on loaned lumber and gumption. And it stayed there, at the edge of the city limits, out of spite as much as pride. It was not an easy spot to get to and there was plenty of bad country between it and the nearest town, and enough good old boys parked on the road to civilization where the downtown proper was supposed to be situated. A black man – or let’s get real, a negro, also called a spook, a colored, a jigaboo and other such bestial, grandiose, popping, casually contrived epithets slung his way – was considered praying on a death wish to be caught at night in that town, least of all to attend a dance hall that didn’t open until sundown. But as he wasn’t treated so kindly in the daytime either, and sundown was about the time he got off work, that was where he went, if he was in the mood to hear something that didn’t sound like drudgery and the grumblings of men and women who hadn’t had a decent thing to caw at since Reconstruction.
It was a wicked place, The Busted Blues, where dangerous smoke filled the glasses of dangerous men when they sucked up liquor or ale and breathed back. Those were men who were built like steam engines, hard and guarded, who smoked stinking cigars and hunched waiting for a fight. And they fought. And they sang too. They danced. They laughed. They lived out a circus of hopes and vanities in that rotted timber palace, where the stage was hammered together anew every night or so it seemed. I heard music there I ain’t ever heard in my life, bands that had names that never showed up on the radio but whose songs, washed out, dolled up, emptied, played fast and regular. I mean the original blues, the swamp-flecked screams that still had the blood of honky-tonk wet on them, a place of feral pianos, where innocent women sang about the wrong, wrong things and the good, good way it felt.
I knew crazies and fools who died to get there, and worse that died there. It had to be wild, had to be grand and dangerous, otherwise where did the blues come from? I was there when it went up in the fire, too, in the middle of a blazing ragtime. The town said it was an accident. We all said it was a shame, but we weren’t in the place to argue.
I’d loved to have burned the town down, God’s truth, but I had to work Monday. And Sunday was ours to pray on.