Black Water Blues

Each year the Atlantic awards prizes for the best short story, essay, and poem which have been produced in those college classes using the Atlantic in their English composition. Ihe prize-winning short story for 1949 is by MONTY CULVER, who wrote it in his senior year at the University of Pittsburgh and under the friendly stimulus of his teacher, Mr. Edwin L. Peterson. It pleases us that Ada McCormick, without knowing of the Atlantic prize, recognized the merit of “Black Water Blues.”She bought it, released it to be an Atlantic “First,”and will publish it in Letter, her magazine of research and recognition in Tucson.

His name was Rohrs. They called him the Lion, of course; they could not be expected to do much else. The name was out there with the others, on the big poster by the box office: Bump Roxy and his Famous Blue Band. Featuring Adelia Roxy, Step-Up Tate, “The Lion” Rohrs.

He sat in front of the dimly lighted hall and chorded lightIy with long knobby fingers on eightyeight keys. The hall Mas beginning to fill. Couples straggled through the door, circling timidly around the vastness of the bare dance floor, staring at the young white man who sat on the piano stool. A few Mere young: tall buck Negroes in high-hitched pants and bulging shoulder pads; girls in gay dresses, giggling up at their grinning escorts. But most of the early comers were the older folks, who came to listen only and not to dance. They came before eight o’clock to get the choice scats underneath or at the ends of the footlights. Often they sat without moving for the whole five or six hours, tapping iheir shoes along with the big bass, flashing grins that gleamed weirdly in their black and brown faces.

The Lion Rohrs sat alone on the big stage, playing gently, quietly, to the early comers. He had learned that it took the Negroes a little time to get used to the idea of a white man playing in a colored man’s band. He usually managed to get up on the stage while the others Mere unpacking the paraphernalia.

He looked up from the keyboard and into the eyes of a staring young couple across the lights. He grinned at them — a savage grin, a grin of joy born of the chords that chortled under the long hands. And the couple grinned back.

He pressed the loud pedal and did a sudden trick in the bass, watching an older couple sitting near the stage. As they jerked their heads up, he winked at them, into their startled faces, and heard their laughter, clear and relieved.

Tonight a few white men Mere out there to listen. That would be a nuisance. Bump Roxy hated to play to white men. But there was no sense worrying about it now.

Bump strode from the wings, nodding curtly to Rohrs. Stagehands followed him on and began setting up the traps on the platform in center stage.

“Here sits the Lion, warmin’ up the audience,” said Sam Lester. The others straggled in: Hadley the number one horn man, LeRoy Bunner with his guitar, Clarence Jackson, the incomparable Step-Up Tate. Tate and Willie Shepherd stopped beside the Lion. He cocked an eyebrow at them and rolled the treble playfully.

“M-m, mm,” Willie sighed. “That Lion, you just never know what he’s gonna do next.”

“Lion, he don’t know what he’ll do his damn self.” Step-Up chuckled and touched Rohrs lightly on the arm before moving away.

It was funny, the Lion thought, funny how easy it was to get along — with everybody but Bump, at least. All you had to do was smile most of the time and play music all the time. The music was the thing, of course; it sometimes thawed even Bump Roxy’s scowling distrust. He had sold himself to Bump by sitting on a piano stool and touching the keys as he talked.

“Man, it wouldn’t work,”Bump had said. “It wouldn’t work at all. I ain’t taking on no white man. . . . Man, play some more. Play that damn thing some more.”

Rohrs looked up at Bump, sitting up on the high chair behind the iraps, the sticks in his hands. Oh, Lord! thought the Lion, for Bump was glaring across the lights at the little knot of white men in the near corner of the floor. Most of them were all right — kids, college kids maybe, who paid their way into a colored dance hall to hear the music they wore out on records. But a couple of them, big smirking men in sport coats, looked mean. The lights distorted their faces, but Rohrs could see the coats mid the sport, shirts with the tight-buttoned, long-pointed collars—the uniform of the toughs.

It was bad enough when there were just decent white men out there for Bump to glare at. A couple of mean ones might spoil the whole show. They might make cracks at Adelia, and that would really be something. Bump usually tolerated a white audience, but it was different when his wife came into it. He had raised a lot of sand in St. Louis when a white man had just whistled at his wife. And he had snapped at the Lion for a week afterward.

The Lion watched Bump grip the sticks. Bump Roxy was a great drummer and a great musician, He told them when they overdid it or underdid it; he mapped the order of the solos. He held the band together.

If was worth holding together, the Blue Band. They were one of the few low-down outfits left in the country, perhaps the only great one. To Rohrs they were a way of life. He had left home to play piano against his family’s wishes. When he joined the Blue Band, a year ago, he had written of it to his father. There had been no reply.

He watched Bump drop his eyes to the drums, touch the sticks to the snare. The muttering roll grew slowly, rising, fading, then higher still. Rohrs, although he had heard the theme a thousand times, held his breath until he heard the alto wail, the shuddering note of Step-Up’s break.

It was a loafer for the Lion, nothing but rhythm and a couple of quick breaks, He glared from Adelia’s empty chair to the wings, wondering where she was, what the hell she was doing. Bump always got sore when she was late getting on, and Bump would be sore tonight as it was, with those two nasty-looking while fellows out there. Besides, she had to do It Ain’t Necessarily So in the first set.

Then, while he worried, Adelia came. She glided out of the shadows of the wings in her bold red gown, dazzling bund and audience with her smile. The dance hall sighed.

And she spoiled Bump’s big drum break. She walked on and grabbed at the eyes and minds of the audience just when they should have been fixed on the wooden blur over the tomtoms. The Lion thought, I wonder if she did that on purpose.

As she sat down, someone in the white corner whistled. Bump jerked his head up and stared dead-pan over the lights. Rohrs heard Clarence Jackson’s fingers stumble on the big fiddle.

They played a couple of pops for the dancers, and it was time for It Ain’t Necessarily So — the bawl of Hadley’s muted trumpet, Lester’s slim clear notes on the clarinet. And Adelia with her head bent a little to one side, Adelia calling to the lovers in her husky voice. When she finished and the band started another dance tune, she came and stood by the piano. As the saxes played, she leaned down and gave the Lion that brilliant smile.

“How was I?” she asked. “Better than usual?”

“There’s nothing better than your usual,” he replied, and she laughed and touched his shoulder. Even as she did it, as the brown hand rested there for a second, he saw her eyes flicker over his head, up to Bump on the high chair, looking for a reaction.

Damn it, Rohrs thought, I wish she’d cut that out. He gets sore at me often enough as it is. Aloud he said, “Why don’t you put that thing away?”

“What thing?”

“That needle you’re stickin’ in him all the time,” Rohrs said. She giggled, and he grinned at her. He went on, “No kidding, you better lay off him. There’s a couple guys out front he don’t seem to like the looks of.”

“He just frets about them on account of me,” she said. “If he ain’t got sense enough to know better, let him worry.”

She walked away and sat down in her chair; it stood at the end nearest the white corner, the Lion noticed. He shook his head, worrying.

He had been warned about that situation when he first joined the band. On the night of his first trip with them, he had ridden alone in the coupe with Sam Lester. He had asked questions by the dozen, anything about the band that came into his head. And naturally he asked about Adelia.

“Bump and Adelia married?”

Lester looked sidewise at him. “Yeah, they’re married. That’s a good thing for you to remember.”

“Jesus! Do I look like forgetting it?”

“Lots of white men do,” Lester grunted. “Lots of white men come to hear the band try to make her forget it. Lots of colored men, too. We had a horn player once, tried to fool around with Adelia. Bump damn near kill that man. Hard te tell what he’d do to a white man. Damn if I ever want to see.”

Rohrs had remembered that, He was friendly when he talked to Adelia, but he only did it when he had to, and he was always careful to avoid giving any impression of talking confidentially to her. Even then, Bump sometimes resented it.

Clarence Jackson once told the Lion that Bump had a sister who ran off with a white man. That would explain a lot. If Adelia knew that, she ought to have more sense than to dog him all the time.

Another time Step-Up Tate had said, “That man crazy about that woman. He ought to tell her so more often.” The Lion was still thinking about that as they wound up the fox trot. Bump Roxy shoved a handkerchief across his scowling face. He sat staring at the drums.

Rohrs was suddenly concerned. Bump always wanted to play loud when he was mad; he liked to hit the drums as he would hit the heads of the whistling white men; he liked to hear the horns open up and blast, maybe blow the leering faces off the floor.

That was all right, but they weren’t in shape to blast. It was nine o’clock and they had nothing but a few dance numbers behind them. They would blow their brains out on anything like High Low Jack or Shattered Slumber. . . .

Bump lifted his head and called if. “Shattered Slumber.”

The Lion said, “Hold it now.” He slid off the stool, grinning, seeing the startled faces of the band staring up at Bump. When he stood by the drums, he said, “Man, you know better than that.”

“Goddamn it, Lion . . .”

“Man, it ain’t ready, it ain’t ripe,” the Lion went on. “We ain’t ready and the audience ain’t ready. You got to build up to a thing like that. You know that.” It was true; the boys would kill themselves and the audience wouldn’t give a damn.

“That’s right, Bump,” Sam Lester said. “You know that.”

“I figured it was Lion’s time,” Bump said lamely. There was a long piano solo in Shattered Slumber. “I figured it was Lion’s time for a big one. Everybody else had one.”

“Crosstown, then,” said the Lion. “Crosstown, if it’s my time. It’s too early for the other.”

Bump’s face was sullen. Rohrs grinned at him and said confidentially, “Man, we can’t all warm up as quick as you do.”

He walked away, chuckling at the relief in the faces of Hadley and Step-Up, winking at Willie Shepherd. He wondered how mad Bump would bo.

They played the Crosstown Blues. Nobody would ruin himself on melancholy Crosstown, but it was something, just the same. The horns started: Hadley, Step-Up, and Lester, in turn, wailing the mournful one-bar phrase, then together. They held one, cut it off.

The Lion broke, with tingling chords. He talked to Step-Up for a while, piano and sax alternating and then mixing in dialogue. There were little appreciative chortles from the faces that crowded each other and peered over the edge of the stage.

The horns swept it up again and carried a chorus, fading, dying into silence. Bump took a rimshot. The Lion rolled one, high on the keyboard, held it, did tricks with it. He broke it, walked his hand down the board. With the left he reached deep down fur the boogie bass.

They said that the Lion had it; everyone who knew, who had ever heard him, said so. He had the touch, they said: the touch of the great ones that had gone before; the touch that twitched the muscles and boiled the blood. There is music that can grow only of the love of music, and its greatest and supreme thrill is in its playing. This the Lion knew.

He gave it back to the horns, and the yells at the solo’s end drowned even the trumpet, He wiped sweat from the corners of his eyes and swiveled on the stool to watch the boys finish it up. As his head swung, he saw the ugly smiles on the faces of the two white men who stared up at Adelia.

It was midnight, fourth intermission time. The Lion, alone, leaned against the wall outside the stage door and watched the rain drizzling into the alley. It pattered in the puddles and dribbled from the roof’s edge over his head. He knew that the puddles were dirty, black with the soot and grime of the mill town, and he grinned, singing his song to himself.

I wake up in the mornin
Black water drippin from the eaves
I wake up in the mornin
Black water drippin from the eaves
Its runnin in the gutters
Soakin down the grass and leaves

Bump Roxy said, “Move youh goddamn chair!”

The Lion jerked away from the wall. The voice was so close that he was sure it. spoke to him, but when he looked around the edge of the door he saw Bump and Adelia in the tiny vestibule.

“What you talking about?” said Adelia.

“You hear what I say. I say move that goddamn chair!”

“Why should I ?”

“You know why. You know I don’t like them men lookin’ at you,” Bump said, His fingers clenched.

“What harm that do you?”

“That’s all right. I don’t like the way you look at them, either!”

“How can you tell how I look when you sittin’ up there behind me?” Adelia was angry now, Rohrs realized. “You talk like you crazy. In the first place, I move my chair, those men move right with me if they want to. In the second place, I can’t move my chair anywhere without sittin’ right in front of somebody. You must be out youh head.”

She stalked back toward the stage. Bump, following, yelled, “And stay away from that goddamn Lion, too!”

Rohrs shook his head. He thought of Step-Up saying, “Crazy about her. Ought to tell her so more often.'’ He shrugged and walked back to the stage, flopping his hands loosely from the wrists, wriggling and drooping the fingers, trying to relax them. The last set was coming up.

The last set was the big one. It was mostly their own stuff, and it was all what they loved to play. The fox-trotters had heard their last ballad, and they knew it; they moved from the edges of the hall and crowded toward the stage.

The last set had Shattered Slumber — the shouting horns, the thunder of the drums, the hilarious vocal dialogue between Jackson and Shepherd. The last set had Basement Stuff, and High Low Jack, and Adelia singing the haunting Ride On. The crowd gulped it and howled for more. They groped over the edge of the stage with their hands, trying to pull more music from the grinning, sweating players.

Bump did a specialty. Rohrs turned and watched admiringly. That man is great, he thought, great enough that this white-audience business is going to hurt him some day. . . .

It was time for Adelia’s last song, The Man I Love. Hadley stood up and seatted it, and the bawl of the trumpet filled the hall, made the Lion shiver. And Adelia sang.

The guitar carried the accompaniment alone, and the Lion had turned to look. Oh, Jesus! he thought. . . .

She was singing it at the toughs, at the two leering white men who stood directly below her. She swayed her body, and smiled and flicked her eyes at the two men.

This is going to be bad, the Lion thought as he had to swing back to the piano. This is going to be hell.

And when, at the end of the number, he fearfully turned again, what he saw was so unexpected that he literally rubbed his eyes and looked again. The two men were gone.

He didn’t have much time to wonder about it. Bump called them into a huddle. He was wet all over; he wiped his eyes and cheeks as he talked. “Now Black Water,” he said hoarsely. “Black Water, and then we got to slack it off. We got to tone it down or they’ll never let us out of here.”

Black Water Blues was the Lion’s favorite specialty. He had written it himself, and it was a little poetry, and a lot of sadness, and all the old-time blues scheme and rhythm. It was the only thing he ever sang. He was no Cab Calloway, but he carried a tune well enough, and he could put the mourning in his voice.

Black water is somethin
Lord that I sure do hate
Black water is somethin
That I sure do hate
Fortune teller told me
Black water gonna be my fate

He stroked the keyboard and listened to the soft play of the band. The thing was his and theirs at the same time. They had taken it in; they played it happily, lovingly. And the audience strained forward oxer the lights.

I wake np in the mornin
Black water in my bed
I go to eat my breakfast
Black water in my bread
Well I believe
Believe I better go my way
Black water gonna haunt me
Until my dying day
I had myself a woman
She liked to dress in red
I found her in black water
Found her Ivin dead
Well I believe
Believe I’ll go far far away
Black water gonna dog me
Until that judgment day

The crowd yelled and clapped. The boys were grinning. Jackson leaned over and hit him on the back. Rohrs gave LeRoy the flat-hand sign of npproval for the guitar solo. It was all good: the joy of playing it and the sadness of hearing it; the way the crowd clapped and the boys grinned.

A stagehand stood in the wings, trying to get Adelia’s attention. She heard his whisper and walked to him. He said something, pointing offstage, and she nodded and went off, out of sight. The Lion watched her go out, wondering.

They played three more, quietly and sweetly, tapering-off tunes to calm the audience so that they could quit. Then it was closing time, theme time, and Adelia had not returned. Bump was scowling again. The Lion shook his head in disgust. She was going too far, not being on stage at theme time.

The drums rolled again, and Step-Up broke. He had finished, and Hadley was standing, when the terrified face of the stagehand appeared over the piano. “Man! Man, there’s trouble!” He was almost crying.

“What’s wrong?”

“End it! End it, man, quick!”

“Start the curtain down,” said the Lion, and called out, in the singsong, syncopated voice that they used for communicating during numbers, “Knock it off, right now! There’s trouble brewin’!”

They stared at him, but Hadley cut the solo, and they blew the final blare as the curtain fell.

Then everything happened fast. The stagehand cried out, “I didn’t mean nothin’! I didn’t know nothin’ was wrong!” and the manager, calmer, said, “Mistuh Roxy, I’m afraid youh wife hurt bad.”

Then they all charged off and wore in time to see two stagehands carrying Adelia through the hall backstage — Adelia with her red gown torn mostly off, and what was left smeared and dripping with the dirty water from the alley; Adelia crying in little gasps of amazement and horror. . . .

Bump Boxy roared and the stagehand gibbered and the manager soothed; a doctor followed the bearers into a dressing room, and Bump plunged after them.

“Two white men,” the guilty stagehand babbled to the frozen band. “Two white men told me ask Mrs. Roxy come out ‘n’ autograph . . .”

“You know you hadn’t ought to do nothin’ like that!”

“I didn’t know nothin’ was wrong! They gimme five dollahs. Jesus, I didn’t know nothin’ was wrong!” The manager guided him gently away.

There was an old piano in the end of the tiny hallway, near the dressing-room door. The Lion sat heavily on the stool. A stack of folding chairs was heaped against the wall; the band opened them and sat down, lined along the hall, waiting for the door to open.

Rohrs was staring at the keyboard when someone touched his arm. LeRoy Bunner’s face was grave. “You better get out of here, man.”

The Lion shook his head.

“Lion, you crazy. Don’t you know what them men done to Adelia? It ain’t gonna be safe out here for no white man.”

“You might be right,”said the Lion. He touched the keys softly, hit a B-ilat chord.

“I tell you that man like to kill somebody,” LeRoy said. He looked around for support.

“Let him be,” Step-Up said. “The Lion, maybe he know what he’s doin’.”

“Bump gonna go for the first white man he sees!”

“That’s all right,” the Lion said. “This way he won’t have to go out in the street and chase one.”Old Stcp-Lp, he thought, he sees it, he sees it like I do. He started to play quietly. He took a simple, four-note walking bass figure and worked over it gently, playing sadness. LeRoy looked around, licked his lips, and then sat down.

The Lion played, waiting.

It was for Bump, so that he wouldn’t go raging the streets and get arrested. But it was for more than that; Rohrs knew it and Step-Up had seen it. It was for the great Bump Roxy, who might never be able to face another white audience if this wasn’t handled right. It was for the music; for Crosstown and Shattered Slumber, and the Black Water Blues that might never be played again; for the grins and flat-hand signs when they finished one. It was for Adelia, and for himself. It was for Bump Roxy and his Blue Band.

He did not look up when the door opened and the footsteps came out slowly and then stopped. He heard Bump move toward him, felt him standing directly behind. He made himself stay loose when the huge hand touched his shoulders and the back of his neck.

The hand did not move; it lay there gently. He did not let himself sigh; he sat and played the blues. He did not look up even when the hand began to tremble and he heard the ugly, harsh sobs.

The chords rippled the stillness of the room.