Me and the Devil Blues:
Robert Johnson Vs. Charlie Trussle
In a Cutting-Heads Contest
near Itta Bena, MS, August 13, 1938
Robert Johnson, 27
Author of 29 Published Songs
Now I’m back here in the Delta having my fun and folly with the old fool, Charlie, and I called him a name just to bend his bones a bit but he got raw about it, pointed that fret-pressin’ knife at me—a simple threat from a simple man—and spoke out strong and stout and challenged me to run the guitar, ring notes from its neck, and I laughed and did a double-take, couldn’t hardly believe my ears let alone my eyes but my sight’s been bad since the day I’s born—reckon why I couldn’t recognize that white man for what he was, him standing there at the crossroads, the horizon moon made him a shade like a beast in black clothes, and he got me to hit the road and head out west to San Antonio, where I stood in a studio facing peeling wallpaper and singing so soft they had me record each tune twice and I put my soul in them songs too and he sold them by the thousands ’til they turned to tiny coffins holding dead tracks and when I'd play some roadhouse show people’d beg I do exact as on that wax, you know, like I’s a jukebox built just for they pleasing, but to me that’s like being in prison and I am dead-set against repeating myself like that damn clock ticking on the grade school wall above the picture of a lynched god, white as white cotton ever got, where I spent my days studyin’ how to jump a freight, didn’t wait to get put behind no mule, hoeing up a row just to plod on back, so I quit that school and I quit this land and hobo-ed a train north to Chicago, where I slept in cemeteries and sat on tombstones playing long enough that my fingers grew calluses so leather-thick I could grab a coal out the fire and light my cig before I’d even begin to feel its warmth and though I’m alive and quick I keep feeling the eerie notion that my life’s passing before my ears and eyes: so if I’m hell bound, Mama, I’m ready to go; let the devil’s hounds howl for me through the night.
So you wanna play, Chuck, I’ll play—but I’m gonna cut you so swift and deep you can spend the rest of your crippled days jaw-jacking ’bout how in this hell-hot weather you had your head severed by the damnedest bluesman ever.
Charlie “Trickle Creek” Trussle, 67
Paraplegic and Unrecorded Slide Guitarist (for Cedell Davis)
Say he done sold his soul to the devil but what could a whelp like this boy h’yer ever know about the real hell I been through, though I know good and goddamn well I ain’t got a snowcone’s chance to beat him—his fingers nimble as spiders on a web, perfect as a pocketwatch tick—still, what am I supposed to do: take raw guff off this bragging rouge, let him disrespect me, call me “Cripple Creek,” as if having polio and being wheelchair-bound makes me less a man than him? Ain’t I throbbing with the same desire as any other body? But boy if my hands could bloom, flower like a fetus in womb, I’d make the tunes I hear in my head and shame this cur, smiling in pinstripes and plucking away. Instead, I scraped out bar chords and bullied short runs with this rusted butterknife I stole from St. Anne’s Orphanage. And when he sings, “Hello, Satan, I believe it’s time to go,” I look down at the devil’s own doing: my claws, my fists curled tight into palsied balls, tight as me when I’d crawl drunk into Lila’s lap when we’d lay in my cot out back of Manning’s Autoshop before she left me on a Greyhound searching for someone to fill her with that baby she wanted; these same busted hands that could never hold still her steady rolling self, never mind the children we could not make.
In a dream I bust through my impotent rage and ram this blade through Bob’s thick skull, but then I’m awake sitting hangdog silent and listening to him strum and pick and sing so goddamn beautiful it makes me want to cry.
Lonnie Newhouse, 57
Witness, Owner of the Three Forks Saloon, and Cuckold
Hush up, y’all, and listen at him: “I don’t care where you bury my body, baby, once I’m good and gone.” This fool don’t know half the truth he sings yet I’m more the fool for bringing her ’round him in the first place, my old lady, and I should have reckoned that look in Bob’s eyes then same as I give them ol’ country gals—big thighs and jelly rolls—give ’em my rock and stroll home to sweet Irene—bathe till I’m fresh from beer and smoke and pleasure and flop by her in bed, where once I heard her call his name as she slept, though it sounded like his voice—thin and weak, eerie as ghost speak—as if some wanting haint from another world was tasting on her tongue the name of a distant love and at first I was spooked but then I grew howling mad as when Lou’s ole bluetick got in my coop and ate the day’s eggs, crushed them and licked they runny middle—which got me hot, sure as shit—but when I stepped out in the light of day and seen the dead chickens too, one after another littered about the yard, all murdered and twisted in bloody heaps, and knew he’d killed them just for fun, well man, I went buck wild and straight off to Johnson’s Druggerie and got me a hank of raw meat and stuffed it with strychnine and it was a pure joy to watch that mangy dog suffer, moaning and whimpering three days into death, and last night old Roustabout Tommy told me how this singing mutt here slicked my gal and tangled her hair too—and I pictured them twinning and hanking around on the bed where our baby was made—and I began to jabber and howl and plot—so tonight I’m gonna do this boy in with a hot spiked shot of gin and then he too gots to go, I guarantee.