“Yeah. Yeah. You play real good.”
Harrison Felder wiped the line of foam from his upper lip and hunched his shoulders for the trudge back to work. Someday, he told himself, someday I will play at a bar I can afford to drink in. The musicians, the side-men, drank down on Bleecker Street, a wild scuttle between sets gulping fifteen-cent Ballantine ale surrounded by the guttering neon and sawdust floors of skid row. The Greenwich Village tourist bars were too expensive for the musicians who played in them. Mudman Pepper had been a disappointment. Harrison Felder didn’t know just what he had expected, but the Mudman was not it. The Mudman did not, as far as Harrison could tell, pack a gun or a knife. The Mudman traveled alone and read quietly in the kitchen between sets. No road manager — just a brown Samsonite overnighter, his guitar case and the baggy blue suit he stood up in.
Harrison had not expected the polished presence of a Motown superstar, but he had expected something. The Mudman had in tow no entourage of elongated, straight-haired blonde Swedes from Minnesota colleges, no black girls hung with dangles of tribal hodgepodge, there to get their consciousnesses raised. There was only The Mudman — no groupies, no dope.
Harrison had studied the Mudman’s early recordings, slowing them down to pick up the difficult passages. At the bottom of the grooves, struggling against a tidal roar of record noise, lay genius. These recordings, the Mudman’s grip on history, had been made at an Alabama prison camp in the 1920s. The Mudman had killed someone at a card game. With an axe handle.
When the Mudman played it was as though a light went on somewhere deep inside his being to become part of his songs. He soared, he flowed, he whispered, sobbed and screamed, his guitar an involved bird-voice beyond his control. When the Mudman stopped, the light went off. Diffident, self-effacing, he returned to the kitchen to read. Harrison snuck a look at the book. Mickey Spillane — Kiss Me, Deadly.
The bar over the basement coffee house where Harrison played guitar, a competing premises, was upstairs one flight to MacDougal Street and two doors uptown, the Kettle of Fish. Harrison drank espresso with whiskey there in the morning, eight o’clock, before the prices went up at noon. Downstairs at the Gaslight Café, Mister Horne had decreed liquor stayed in the kitchen; any bottles brought in were for the exclusive use of visiting celebrities. Like the Mudman — Mudman Pepper, Delta bluesman, a big black bull-frog from out of the past. The Mudman was in his seventies, a legend, and he did not drink.
The kitchen bottle stayed closed. Reefer was okay, but outside in the air shaft where a December drizzle soaked the joints and put them out even in the summer, New York magic. Barron, the dishwasher, an actor waiting for his big break, got off on the propellant from the cans of industrial whipped cream Mister Horne bought by the case for hot cider and cappuccino. It was nitrous oxide, laughing gas. Harrison had passed through the kitchen on the way to the air shaft for a toke and discovered Barron convulsed over a sink full of whipped cream, four empty cans on the floor and a detached nozzle in his nose.
Esme Zilko was the reason Harrison was playing at the Gaslight — Esme had an album and didn’t wear any underwear. Harrison was her accompanist. He sat perched atop a high stool wearing a black suit just out of a spotlight that shone on Esme and Esme alone. When she sang, she wobbled her head from side to side on a universal pivot like a broken doll. It looked like she had been in a car crash and, after six months in a cervical collar, was testing her doctor’s work. “I am feeling the music,” she explained. Hopefully she would remind him about her underwear or lack of same, challenging him to test the truth of her statement. The album she sold after each set.
Esme greeted him at the door of the cellar café. “Sold ten. Ten albums.” She was wearing what she called Her Record Hat, a military beret with a 12-inch LP glued to the top where the tam tassel would be. It looked like a mortarboard from somebody’s School of Cylindrical Studies, sliced thin. She put it on between sets to give the folks in the audience the idea that the hustle was on and they’d better buy. “Mister Horne wants you should get the Mudman out of the kitchen. He’s on next.”
The Mudman looked up from Kiss Me, Deadly. “Wanna play? You play real good, let’s jam.”
“Uh, sure,” an invitation from the legend. Harrison couldn’t refuse.
The Mudman’s guitar case was opened. With a dish towel, he fastidiously wiped the strings, settled himself on a crate of onions and snapped his E-string. The Mudman’s foot started pounding a measured beat. Harrison waited to see where the Mudman was going, then recognized the rhythm pattern and went up the neck, comping with three-note chord forms where the Mudman left him openings. It was a block-form blues in C. They played for ten minutes.
“Okay. There. Stop. Show me that,” said Mudman Pepper.
Esme poked the Record Hat in through the kitchen’s swinging doors. “Harry. Now. Mr. Horne is getting antsy.”
“What?” Harrison had been drawn into the music. He was playing an unaccented, simple form in stop-time, the accent note left out, a subtle implication.
Harrison played the passage again.
“Neat. Show me.”
Harrison showed him several times. The Mudman was a quick study. Soon he was flying with his own improvisations on the form.
“Yeah. Yeah. You play real good.” The Mudman was pleased with the new lick.
“For a white boy.”
“Heh. Heh.” The big, black bullfrog face produced an immense grin, “You said that, not me. where’d you ever learn that?”
“Off your old records.”
There was a silence between them that seemed to last longer than it really did.
The Mudman reached into the cabinet above the steam table and broke the seal on Mister Horne’s celebrity bottle.
“Haree! Puleeze!” Esme at the kitchen doors again.
The Mudman took a swallow and passed the celebrity bottle to Harrison. “I guess just this once. The Church, you know. I took the pledge.”
tapes of interviews with Skip James of Bentonia, Mississippi, done by
Bob Fass, Rob and Jane Hunter, and Bill Barth, on WBAI-FM, New York, ca.
1966. American Folklife Center — AFS 15,659-15,660]
NOTE: Mudman Pepper is many men, among them Mississippi John Hurt. “He was in his quiet way, a very great man.” — John Fahey.
copyright 2020 Rob Hunter