UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
A Minor Blues
Robert ‘Bro’ Brown and Little Eddie Graham are sitting at a small wooden table in
Bro’s kitchen. Since it’s his apartment, he picks the tunes. They’re listening to Robert
Johnson’s recording of “Crossroads Blues”. Bro is leaning forward with his eyes
closed, short gray beard almost touching the table, as if he’s in a trance. Eddie,
wearing a black cowboy hat pulled low over his eyes, has his arms resting on the
table tapping time with his fingertips. Both are blues guitarists.
Bro was once a sideman with the great Howlin’ Wolf, and in the 1950s, he recorded
two solo albums, “A Minor Blues” and “Whiskey Talking”. Both of these albums are
now considered to be blues classics.
Now, mostly forgotten, he works as a street musician playing a traditional style of
blues shaped by the great Mississippi Delta players like Robert Johnson, Charley
Patton, and Son House-one man with an acoustic guitar-nowhere to hide.
Eddie and his band, “The Hellhounds” are blues-rockers, which essentially means
“balls to the wall.” Bro is black. Eddie is white. They are good friends.
“I’m standing at the crossroads, believe I’m sinking down…”
Bro opens his eyes and smiles across the table at Eddie, who smiles back. Neither
says anything for a few seconds then Bro says, “Can you believe that? Twenty-three
years old when he cut that. Cat was so hip, he glowed in the dark.”
“Sad as steady rain, deep as craters in the moon.” says Eddie. I’d crawl to the
crossroads on my hands and knees to be able to play like that.”
“Bullshit! Thought you were a Duane Allman disciple-middle class white boy.”
“There you go again with that same old tired crap. Just can’t be the real thing, if it’s
coming from a white man. Poor, pitiful redneck, trying to pass for blue.”
Bro’s wife, Marcy, walks into the kitchen holding a large plastic bottle. Ten years
younger than Bro, she still looks good in her blue jeans.
“Robert, you better call the landlord and tell him to get a plumber over here to
unstop that sink in the bathroom. This stuff ain’t doing a damn thing.”
“Can’t get no plumber on Saturday.” says Bro.
“Well then, don’t forget to call him on Monday.” says Marcy, stowing the bottle
under the kitchen sink.
“Hey Marcy, why don’t you drag Bro down to Shake Mama’s tonight. I’ll put you both
on the guest list.”
Marcy looks down at Eddie, gives a little sarcastic laugh, shakes her head, and walks
out of the room.
“Now, why would I want to walk into that bogus place? Shake Mama’s-with that
phony-ass highway juke joint look-bare pipes, wrapped with goddamn Christmas
lights, and those booths like something out of the 1950s. Peckerheads hang a black
and white picture of Sunnyland Slim on the wall, and have the balls to call that
shithole the ‘Home Of The Blues’.”
“Goddamn it Bro, you never let it rest. Just bring your ass down there tonight, and I
might let you sit in with my band.” says Eddie.
“And how the hell is anybody suppose to hear me and my box over those loud
“Don’t sweat it man, I’ll have the ‘Hounds’ turn down a little.”
“Shit Eddie, to those crazy hopheads, turning down means peeling one coat of paint
off the back wall instead of two. Besides, I’m going down to the subway, set up and
see if I can make a few bucks off the tourists-if they’re not all over at Shake
Mama’s listening to the real thing.”
“Okay, suit yourself, but I heard John Keyes was coming in tonight to check out the
“John Keyes? Ain’t he the guy who got the recording contract for ‘Big Time’ Billy
Felton a few years back?”
“One and the same.”
Bro hesitates a beat then says. “Maybe I’ll try to get there for the last set.”
At a little past 1:00 A.M., Bro, carrying his ancient guitar case, walks through the
front door of Shake Mama’s. He gives his name to the bald bouncer at the door, who
glances at the guest list, and waves him through. Bro walks slowly down the hallway
that leads into the club eyeing the assorted old photos of renowned blues performers
that line one side of the entranceway--smiling black faces from another time and
another place. On the opposite wall, a display of Shake Mama’s T-shirts, in various
designs and colors are displayed like masterpieces in a museum.
Inside, the bar is a fusion of neon beer signs, Christmas lights, and cigarette smoke.
The place is always packed on Saturday night--mostly well-heeled out-of-towners.
As Bro fights his way through people chatting in the aisles, Shaky Jake, one of the
club owners, is on stage with a microphone giving his usual between-set pitch to the
“Hey, hey, please put your hands together for the band! Right now they’re taking a
little pause for the cause, but don’t go anywhere, because they’ll be right back for
one more set! Ladies and gentleman I want to remind you to tip your waitresses and
bartenders, who are working real hard-and don’t forget to pick up a blues souvenir!
We have T-shirts, baseball caps, and jackets. We also have CDs and cassette tapes
by famous Chicago blues artists. In the meantime, sit tight, because the band will be
Bro manages to work his way backstage to the dressing room--a cheap panel and
plaster hangout for the band during breaks. Almost every inch of wall-space is
covered with graffiti left by the hundreds of unknown bar musicians that have passed
through over the years. On the wall next to Bro’s head, somebody has scrawled
“Blind Lemon Pledge-We’re still getting the blues and Clapton’s still getting
Usually, the tiny room is humming with friends of the band and other drunks who
stumble in claiming to be friends of the friends, but tonight only one voice holds the
floor. The band members are sitting and listening intently to John Keyes, who’s
directing his comments toward Eddie.
“Well to tell you the truth Eddie, I haven’t been this excited about a band in a long
“That’s good to hear John.” says Eddie, as he takes a pull off a half-pint of I.W.
Harper he keeps stashed in his guitar case.
“I’m absolutely sure I can score a recording contract for the band. I’ll have to sell
the bottom-line boys up in the ivory tower, but I definitely believe you guys are
bankable. I’ll build Little Eddie Graham as the next ‘blues messiah’.”
Suddenly, Eddie notices Bro standing just inside the door. He gets up, walks over to
where he’s leaning on his guitar case, and says, “John, if you want to meet a real
bluesman, here he is. This is my friend, Robert Brown, the best fucking blues player
in the city. And you’re gonna get a chance to hear him yourself, in a few minutes,
when he sits in with the ‘Hounds’.”
“Nice to see you, Mr. Brown. It’s a damn shame that there’s no audience for
traditional black blues guys anymore. Hell, I can’t even imagine trying to sell Robert
Johnson or Son House these days. No way."
Keyes turns back to Eddie and says, "Listen Eddie, I’m sure Mr. Brown is a great old
player, but I was hoping to hear the band play the last set. You know what I mean?”
Eddie looks over at Bro, who without changing expression says, “No sweat Eddie. I
can’t hang around anyway. I’m tired as hell. Besides, Marcy’s by herself at the
Bro stares directly into John Keyes’ eyes and smiles. For a few seconds, everything
in the room stops, as if somebody has pressed a giant Pause button. A white light
breaks like a wave over Bro’s brain, and stops just behind his eyes--a blurred
message. And then just as quickly it's gone.
Bro shakes Eddie’s hand, picks up his guitar, and walks out the door.
Outside the club, Bro leans against the front of the building and watches the cars
move up and down the boulevard. He puzzles over this strange new emotion he is
feeling. Why, all of a sudden, is he so enraged by the usual injustice? He’s always
managed to shake this kind of shit off and go on about his business. But this time it
hits too close to home. In the “death of a thousand cuts,” this may be number 1000.
And that goddamn arrogant asshole, John Keyes, slimy fuck doesn’t have a clue
about the blues.
Bro reaches in his coat pocket, pulls out a bottle, downs the dregs, and drops the
empty where he’s standing. The bottle doesn’t break. It just spins a couple of times
and comes to a stop pointing in his direction-“White Swan Gin - Bottled in Chicago.”
Next morning, Bro stashes his guitar in the bedroom closet. For days, he sits in
silence--drinking and smoking. If Marcy turns on the television or radio, he
immediately gets up and walks into another room. The only time he leaves the house
is to get cigarettes, or walk to the local “waterhole”.
When the money begins to run out, Bro gets a job working the graveyard shift at an
all-night gas station. But the job doesn’t pay enough to cover the bills, and Bro
and Marcy soon find themselves in dire straits. That’s when the arguments and the
accusations begin. When Bro starts selling items from the house, like his stereo and
some of the valuable blues recordings from his collection, Marcy packs her clothes
and leaves. Bro has no idea where she’s going, and he doesn’t try to stop her.
When Bro looks up to order another beer he notices the bar has begun to fill up with
the usual crowd. He tries to recall the fat bartender’s name, then gives up and calls
out: “Barkeep what about another one?”
The television above the bar is dialed into a college football game that nobody is
watching. He hates sitting here with all of these people he doesn’t know, forced to
listen to bits and pieces of their meaningless conversations, but anything’s better
than going home. He wonders about Marcy. Maybe, by now, she’s found someone
else. Somebody who can take care of her and provide some security--something she
deserves, but has never had.
“Excuse me man, but aren’t you Robert Brown, the blues musician?” someone was
saying over his left shoulder.
He glances back and looks into the face of a young black man. He has on a White
Sox baseball hat twisted to one side. Bro is certain that he’s never seen this man
before, but he manages a smile.
“Yeah, I guess I am.” says Bro. He wouldn’t want to admit it, but he’s pleased that
somebody has recognized him.
“I’m Stick James.” the man says, as if the name might mean something.
“How do you happen to know me?” asks Bro.
“Oh, I recognize the face from your album cover. You’re a little gray around the
edges, but I’d know you anywhere--a picture that’s burned into my brain.”
“Didn’t make but two records, and you don’t look like you’ve been alive long enough
to have owned either one.”
“I didn’t, but my father did. He had’em both-loved ‘em madly. And when he took to
the highway, those old records were all he left behind.”
Bro turns and looks back toward the bar-length mirror and says nothing.
“You know Mr. Brown, my mother played those two albums until the grooves were
smooth as a baby’s butt--the perfect background music for an alcoholic junky to
When he gets no reply from Bro, he continues his rant:
“Ain’t nothing sets the proper mood like some good ol’ chicken shack, chicken shit,
juke-joint nigger music. Mournful, slave-driven work songs-chain-gang sonuvabitches
slingblading Southern ditches. Man, all that hard living you sing about, I'm
surprised to see you’re still alive.”
Bro feels something inside coming unraveled. A blinding light explodes inside his
head, and this time the message is plain.
“Kid, if I were you, I wouldn’t push it any further.” says Bro.
Stick laughs and goes on talking. “Fact is, I’ve never known who to hate more, my
would-be father, or you and your blues crap. If my mother’s habit hadn’t finally killed
her, she’d probably still be drinking, shootin’ up, and playing those sorry ass records
Bro switches it all off, and moves inside himself. He no longer wants to hear what
this guy is saying. He slides his right hand down to his boot, pulls up his pant leg,
and finds the handle of the survival knife. Bro spins on the barstool quicker than
smokestack lightning and jams the blade all the way in and back out of John Keyes
A startled Stick James opens his mouth to scream, but nothing comes out except a
low groan. He is dead as hell before he hits the barroom floor.
Bro turns and lays the bloody knife on the bar. Oblivious of the sudden melee that
has broken out all around him, he takes a sip of cold beer, closes his eyes, and
waits, while the jukebox in the corner plays “Cold Shot” by Stevie Ray--a minor
D.B. Cox is a blues musician/poet, originally from South Carolina. After
graduating from high school in 1966, he did a four year stint with the U.S. Marines,
then moved to Boston to attend the Berklee School of Music, where he eventually
found the blues circuit. He loves writing for the same reason he loves playing
the guitar-a way to communicate how he feels at a given time, on a given day. He
now resides in Watertown, Massachusetts. His writing has been published online in
Zygote In My Coffee, Remark, Underground Voices, Dubliner Quarterly and others, and
in print in Aesthetica, Snow Monkey, My Favorite Bullet and Open Wide Magazine.
© 2007 Underground Voices