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He blew harmonica and he was pretty good with that,
but he wanted to play guitar.

                            —Son House on Robert Johnson


In November, it’s hard to know
a cherry tree is a cherry tree.
If it has any leaves left, they’re
raw as rust. The sound the wind
makes hustling through them’s
a wolf whistle, what Emmett Till’s
said to have done in Bryant’s
Grocery Store. The second story’s
fallen to Money mud. A magnolia
gives off a green heat between
two dilapidated buildings—inside
the vacant gas station it looks
like nothing’s been touched
for decades but for forlorn fingers
of dust. In August of 1955 how
heavy were those lamps, the tree’s
long bright white bulbs that are
a southern signature as ineluctable
as the creamy spit of cotton or
certain words we cannot say.

Some seventeen Augusts earlier
Robert Johnson sucked poison
and was planted, perhaps (at least
three gravesites claim him), under
a pecan tree just down the Money
road. His songs are sexy, secular
and we all know (or think we do)
his friendship with the devil, but
it’s his own hand that scratched
these words etched on stone:
Jesus of Nazareth, King of Jerusalem
I know that my Redeemer liveth
and that He will call me from
the Grave.

          In “Preachin’ Blues (Up
Jumped the Devil)” his picking’s
as mean as money, faster than
the trains he often sang about.
His voice keens like mothers
in mourning, rasps, growls, shouts,
slows, picks up, accompanies his
playing, overpowers it and rests
as the strings say what they have
to say.

          I don’t know why I say
these things, or if I have any right
to claim affliction, but I am burdened
by stories not my own
that tell me what my own stories mean
and a music sticks, and grows, and rages
like trees carrying, through winter’s paucity,
the violence of spring.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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