by Terry Clark
Uncle John was a soul man. As long as I can remember, he played blues guitar. When he would sit down on the beat-up, old couch in the living room and begin to play and sing to me, Mamma would holler and complain from the kitchen, "Johnny! Quit fillin' that chile'shead with all that country stuff! He ain't being raised in the country. This is the city!" Uncle John would smile and snort, knowing she didn't mean any harm, would holler right back, "Boy's got to learn his roots, Sayra!" Then Uncle John would begin to wail on his twelve string.
The city. Yes, I was being raised in the city. Chicago--in a place known as Jew Town on Maxwell Street. Every since I could remember, I had always heard Uncle Johnny singing the blues and playing guitar. To hear Mamma tell it, Uncle John stood over my crib when I was a new-born and sang a soft blues to bless me and lullaby me to sleep. Mamma would get wind of what he was doing and come and run him out of the room. Uncle John had built quite a reputation and name for himself as a blues man around Chicago during the late forties, the fifties and the early sixties before he took ill and died in 1969. He would always say, when I got older, Son, the blues is yo' legacy. Don't neva let it go. It's yo' roots, the river that flows in yo' bloodline from here to Mississippi! Then he'd dip his snuff and spit into the old Crisco oil can he kept by the side of his easy chair.
Sometimes Uncle John would walk me home from school. We would always stop by Mr. Gibbons store and he would buy me candy and make me swear not to tell Mamma. I wasn't supposed to eat any type of candy before dinner time. Uncle Johnny, no matter how many times we would walk down the same block, past the same buildings, people, trees, businesses or lots, would find some interesting feature that I hadn't noticed the day before. Even though this was the city, he'd point out something about the way the sun shone that day or the kinds of weeds and grass that grew from the ground. And we'd always hear the soft and heavy blues sounds sifting out through someone's window. Or maybe the blues man would be sitting on the street corner strumming away. If he were his guitar case would always be open. Pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters would lay silently on the inside felt covering. No matter what, the blues man would stop playing and tip his hat towards me and Uncle Johnny with a certain reverence that seemed to pay Uncle Johnny tribute.
Uncle John had a sixth sense that was unmatched. He could tell so many things about people just by looking at them. It was as if he could read your mind. According to Uncle Johnny, "The peoples is the stories of my songs. I tell the troubling or the happy times in a man's mind just by looking in his eyes."
On this particular day he could sense that something was troubling me. Uncle John spoke, "What's on yo' mind, boy?" "Nothing!", I replied and kicked a can into the street. Uncle John placed his long thin hands on my shoulder and gripped it hard. He'd always nudge and dig the truth out of me. I finally gave in, "Well, Tommy...Tommy said that you never played the blues, you never traveled with Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. He said his daddy said so."
Uncle Johnny smiled and released his grip, "And what'd you say, Michael?" I frowned and clenched my fist, "I told him his daddy didn't know nothing and if he kept on talking..." Uncle John interrupted, Then Miss Lane got in between the both of you, huh?” Timidly I said, "Yeah." Uncle John took a deep sighing breath as we stopped and waited for the traffic light to change, "Listen, Michael, that's not the way to handle confic'. You hear what I'ma saying? You cain't make nobody b'lieve inathing if they don't wants to!"
Uncle Johnny began to chew on his cigar and continued in his old, familiar, deliberate way, I 'member one time, way back 'fore you was born. Me and yo' mamma had a conflic'. A conflic' 'bout that very thing, ‘blieving what peoples say is true. I couldn't been no older than 19. She was 25. I come running into the house one evening. High strung as a young colt. See, I'd met this young white fellah. He call' hisself a record man and said he liked the way I sings and wanted me to make one of them plastic records." "But why would you and Mamma argue about that?", I asked. "See, yo' mamma raise' me after Big Mamma--that's yo' grandma--passed away and yo' mamma was always looking out for my well-being. She promised Big Mamma when she was on her death bed that she'd look after me--keeping me outta trouble and such. But she knowed how much I liked playing the blues. I b'lieve she wanted me to do good, but she didn't want me to get hurt." To make a long story short, she didn't b'lieve me when I tole her that that man wanted me to sign that contrac' paper I held so tight in between my hands."
"What happened? Did Mamma believe you when you showed her the paper?" I asked.
Uncle John laughed and shuffled his feet, "Naw! She didn't b'lieve me. But she come around 'bout six months later when I came home off the road and showed her my record. Big as day, a picture of me an' my guitar on the front cover! Lawd, her mouf just dropped to the floor!" My mood brightened, "Did she believe you then?" Uncle John skipped stepped and clapped his hands, "Sho' she b'lieve me! See what I'ma trying to tell you, boy, is that sometimes you just have to make yo' say, put it in yo' own heart, know that it's true and gone on an' prove it to people. You gone on back to school in the morn' and don't pay no mind to what that boy say 'bout me. Long as you know what's the truth."
Later on that evening, I sat in my bedroom while the spring air swirled in from my window. I could hear Uncle John’s soft, moaning blues voice sound stream in from the kitchen. Like always, I knew he'd have a pot of coffee simmering on the stove, his pipe and tobacco lying on the table next to each other, the lamp light dimmed to his satisfaction and a blues prayer in his heart.
Years later I'd replay that walk home from school with him over and over in my mind. It was that piece of my roots that Uncle John told me to keep. I have kept it and never let it go. The blues was magic and Uncle Johnny walked in its golden light. He impressed upon me that our legacy is important and we can't afford to let it die.
As I stand over his coffin and look at his remains, these and other thoughts fill my soul. Mamma sits on the pew, wiping her eyes every now and then. But I know that there is joy inside of her tears. Uncle Johnny, she said, "Served his time and gone on home." I try not to cry but can't help it. I feel better after I let some tears flow.
There is no sadness in my heart. I think of Uncle Johnny as I always did, like a guardian angel. He'll never leave my spirit because he has left a part of his. Uncle Johnny's memory is like the unchanging portrait that hangs on the wall at home. And I know that he would be proud of me and Johnny Jr.