This seventh musical poem is based on two events that actually happened. The first is the story itself, the second being the story being told to me by a dear and late family friend – Cholly Downs. Cholly knew more stories about my family than those in my family. Heck, he was part of the family, worked in my Uncle Cy’s dry goods store for years. He rarely called me anything but “baby.”
The accompanying photo was taken of Cholly a few years before he passed away. He lived down in Fort Adams his whole life, save for 1951 and 1952 when he worked the docks of New Orleans as a longshoreman. He returned to work in my uncle’s store and never left Fort Adams again. There was no way to call Cholly as he had no phone. So, one of my biggest fears was to drive to Fort Adams to see him, and find him gone. I finally made that trip one day, finding I missed him by a couple weeks. He had already been buried. He worked tending cattle til the day he died.
This is a series of several musical poems chronicling the sharecropper era. Fernando approached me with the idea of a series of little stories that tell a larger one, all put to music. I loved the idea. I had these little poems about the sharecropper era and he thought he could make them work. I think you will agree he did a brilliant job.
I spent all my summers in a little country town in very rural Mississippi called Fort Adams. When I say small, I am talking two streets – Front Street and Back Street. Wembley Stadium is larger. There were no more than 50 people in town, others lived out in the country – farmers and fisherman. A little one-room school house still exists where the sharecropper children went to school, when they were not working in the field.
My Uncle Cy ran a dry goods store and fish house there. He had everything from canned goods, to Nehi soft drinks, feed and seed, to work clothes and boots, and to sewing implements. The fish house processed the fish and chickens that were traded to him. He was a furrier, bought baby turtles to sell to pet shops, anything to turn a buck.
So, as child growing up in the 60s (born in 1956) I got to witness the last vestiges of this sharecropper era. While there are still farmers who work on a share, I am not sure any suffer as these people did. They lived in little one-room shantys that lacked electricity and water. The only heat came from a woodstove that filled the shanty with a woodsmoke odor. The children seldom owned shoes and a second set of clothes was rare.
We would enter town down what was called The Mile Hill Road…a winding road with deep ravines on either side. At one point it travels straight down for a mile in a steep grade. At the bottom of the hill was a row of shantys pressed hard into the hillside. None had glass in the windows, or doors. The people who lived there sharecropped and lived hard-scrabble lives.
Hopefully these songs tell their story.
John Eagle (@marshmaster-1johneagle)
Lyrics & voice: John Eagle
Voice & guitar: Fernando Gonzalo
You ask me if I seen haints?
Well, I reckon I has.
Bloodshot eyes squint
Through the wood smoke
An over-grazed patch of land
Looks like black-eyed peas and okra
Been long time ‘go,
I wadn’tnothin’ but a boy.
Was livin’ with that gal, Mar’jane,
Up the hill next t’ the crick.
He ran an coarse hand
Over his black Irish potato face
Then pointed to a place
Where a building once stood
I come outta that jernt
That was right thar
And it was dawk, dawk,
Couldn’t hawdly see mahhaynd.
He closed his eyes as if to see
Opened them and spat
Found a red kerchief in his overalls
Wiped the wine from the corners of his mouth
Heard somethin’ back in the brush
Like two menstusslin’.
I say: “What is that? Who thar?”
Then I hear a pistol shot. A man gruntin’.
He leaned his neck back as if to peer at the sun
Then looked forward with moist, close-set eyes
And shook his head at the memory
Spat three times, crossed his heart
Mar’janecome out. “You hear that?”
“Yeah,” she say, “what’s that?”
“I seen it,” I says, “but I doan believes it”
Was ole man Strickershootin’ that one-arm man.
He laughed without his heart
A crow cawed in a high tree
He shuffled his feet on the dry dirt
And looked out through the wood smoke
I seen it. I knows as sure as you sittin’ thar.
Ole man Stricker kept him a black woman.
She was with that one-armed man. He black.
Ole man Stricker got what he wanted.
The wine was nearly gone
He spat, looked over in the brush
Tilted his head when the crow cawed
Braced his hands on his knees
That happen. It happen longtime ago.
Befo’ I was borned.
Ole man Stricker, he kilt that man
Befo’ I was borned.
You ask me if I seen haints.
Well…I reckon I seen ‘em.
© 2014 John Eagle, Fernando Gonzalo