Listen (16:21) Gatemouth Willie Brown on Guitar
atemouth Willie Brown coughed into the microphone on a boom that poke out horizontal from a chrome stand with a black painted metal base and he ease out smoke he breathed in from the lit cigarette in his left hand, his right hand gripping his battered Gibson electric guitar by the neck to keep it steady. A small easy-grab speaker at his feet amplified a short screechy inhuman sound.
Willie sat alone on a city bench in Jackson Square, on the Cabildo side. The grey sky blocked the sun and trickled a light misty drizzle, more relief from the heat than a pesky bother. Tourists were sparse. Willie quit playing until he might gather a crowd, make a few music lovers put a little something in his Cafe du Monde coffee can for playing something they thought was New Orleans special for them. But it wasn’t much New Orleans jazz what he play, it mostly Delta, some folk tunes, a lotta just strumming what he felt like at the moment. White tourists weren’t special to him and he didn’t really care what they thought about his music but he did care whether they might give up a little change, sometimes a one, and maybe even a five or a ten on a good day. But big bills like fifties was like charity, which he take but don’t like, and he don’t cotton to white folks treating him like charity. But this week he low on cash and he take anything. His wife bad sick and need a doctor.
Blacks rarely roamed around the French Quarter, except the punks; the punks don’t have nothing to give that wasn’t stolen. No, sir. Nothing for Willie from Blacks. Even Black got-the-stash never put out a dime for bro Willie. Willie’s life tied to the whites when it come to money. Piss him off too . . . ever since he first learn about whites when he about six years.
But this white dude come into his life. Arrogant son-of-a-bitch too, like he is superior.
This white guy all bearded and bushy-headed come toward Willie out of the Pirate’s Alley wearing pants with holes in the knees and a plaid shirt with buttons missing —like he come out of a Dumpster—and a wrinkled Panama hat with the brim down in the front so you only see his eyes when his head tilt back. He’d been in the alley for a while leaning against the cathedral-wall fence just staring. With all that hair on his face you never tell what he feeling, but he had these piercing eyes, cold like he don’t be liking black folk. He don’t say nothing, just hold up a harp, a “Big River.”
“Split the take?” the man say. He don’t talk like a crazy or even a down and out. He got some schoolin’. Probably be chased by the law.
“Don’t need no sidemen,” Willie say.
The dude sit down on the bench no more than a couple feet away.
“Said I don’t need no help,” Willie say strong.
“No law against me sitting here.”
“You on my spot, my man. This my spot for a long time.”
“Not on your ‘spot’. I’m on my spot next to your spot. And I’ll put my hat out in front of me to collect money if you don’t want to work together.”
“Look, my man. No playing. This is all I got.”
“Don’t bullshit me,” the man said.
“I’m straight with you.”
”You’re on welfare. Probably got social security. Maybe a pension. Maybe got a woman turning tricks. Living in the Treme and liking life just fine.”
“I don’t like you,” Willie said. “I be’s young, I whoop you ass.”
“Don’t think so,” the man said.
A tour group walk down from the corner of Charters and St. Ann. Willie turn the knob to up on his amp and began playing, kicking his money can out into the path. The white dude next to him put down his Panama a little farther out in front and a few feet from Willie’s can, turning the hat-hole to the top to make a place for coins and bills. Then the dude put on shades he take out of his shirt pocket; they sit crooked on his face cause they bent and cracked, like he sit on them.
Fucking honkie, Willie think.
So Willie’s got the thumb on the downbeat on the low string in open tuning, and he’s using his first and second fingers to carry an upbeat for rhythm, changed in with a little melody and a slap on the heel of his hand that with the amplifier sound like a gunshot. He ignore the white guy best he can but he see’d him out the side of the eye sucking in on a note here and there on his harp, getting the pitch. He change his harp then, taking another—a Horner blues—out of his jacket pocket. Willie start playing quick. The tourists is getting close. The crowd slow to a stop–like blackbirds swooping in for a roost–all gathered round looking at Willie, so Willie ups his energy a little. But the tourist be looking through Willie after one chorus, eyes jerking around like they lost where Willie was. So Willie sing a song, and for a moment the group look back at him . . . but not for long. A few people in the back of the clump of music lovers already start leaving with nothing in Willie’s can.
Shit, the white dude get ready to play; he going be blowing over Willie’s guitar and the white dude start tapping his foot hard so his beat crush out Willie’s faint slow pulse and the dude start wailing, sounding like a fast train’s wheels clacking at a spur crossing. Then he put in fill bending notes easy as a willow branch. Damn if them tourists don’t freeze like they wax figures in that fake history museum on Bienville. They stare at the dude. The folks that start off going away from Willie turn back, come to take in the dude. Now the tourists give bad looks to Willie, rattled at Willie’s sound chopping up the dude’s; those tourists looking like to bust Willie’s guitar and turn it to ash. Willie stop playing. The dude’s not bad, goddamn it, Willie think. Willie ain’t heard many like him. Piss Willie off, white man play a beat like that and make it sound joyful-sorrow with sound of a colored parade band coming back from a funeral. The white guy stop, then pick up a slower tune, tourists throw green into his hat like he collecting for the church. So Willie ain’t in tune with the guy’s harp, but he don’t like being outshined, and he start slapping out a rhythm on the strings with the heel of his hand, and in seconds he lay the guitar flat on his lap so he can use both hands to pound out a shuffle with that slow Mardi Gras Caribbean beat. He kick his can a little farther out.
Shit. The dude never look at him, never even give him no apperceived eye-glance. And the tourists still reaching out them arms and dropping paper into that dude’s hat. In two tunes Willie’s sure the guy make fifty bucks. Fifty! Some blimp of a woman drop two quarters into Willie’s can. Clunk, clunk on the bottom. No one else. Nothing more than two quarters for Gatemouth Willie Brown.
The dude play maybe a half hour making money. The crowd growing. Then he put the harp in his right side pocket, reach down to take the cash out of the hat and stuff it in his left pocket, then take off his shades, then put that hat on top his head and walk off. Goddamn if he don’t never look back. Not one time he give a wave or call thanks to Willie for backing him on a couple tunes. And Willie wants to drown that white man in the Mississippi, push him into the wheel of a paddle steamer. Yes sir, that dude don’t deserve no mercy.
Next day, Saturday, after the flow of drunk guys in town for the Saints’ game slow down a little, Willie slide around the corner onto Saint Ann where Tuba Fats playing with Henry Thibodeaux on clarinet and some sixteen year-old kid outta the ninth ward blowing a valve trombone. Stupid kid. Tourists don’t like no valve on a trombone. They like the slide, the growl, even when it sound like shit.
“You see that white dude on harp before?” Willie ask Fats. Fats shakes his head no.
“Well, he playing on my spot.”
“He fucking know how to blow that motherfucker,” Fats say.
“Well, he ain’t s’pose to be taking my tips.”
“He talk to you?”
“Maybe three words full.”
The next day the white dude back mid afternoon. The fucker sit the same place next to Willie’s spot. Willie kick his can a little farther out. Today Willie is bent on turning some bread when the dude playing; he going to back the white dude no matter what; keep him from hogging. So Willie pull out his bottleneck slide and slip out a little melody on a top string where he don’t need to change tuning, just slide on the string in the right place trying to make it sound good. The dude never look at him. Don’t even glance to say he like or don’t like.
After a half hour, the dude clear his hat and cram cash into his pants’ pocket Damn. Must be seventy-five dollars. But nothing for Willie. It be racist cash. White folk prying on the Black. No count ‘bout the dude’s playing. The dude is a fuckoff racist. Hating Negroes. Taking advantage. Playing to the white crowd like they his.
The dude come back three days in a row. After the first day Willie keep putting out his can. He get a little, but the tourists still giving most to the dude. And that ain’t the usual for a white guy crowdin’ in on a black man’s usual gig in the Quarter. Them tourists pity the blacks playing the street; they always give Willie plenty when he alone. Them tourists give to black music men like they give money to five year-old pickaninnies dancing and singing for coins. It’s about feeling sorry.
Dude still don’t talk much. Willie’s sister-in-law say the white man murder someone. Escape from prison. She think she seen it on television a year ago but don’t know nothing else. But Willie don’t see that in the dude. Maybe he steal, but Willie don’t see him killing nobody. Not a guy blow harp like that.
So Willie decide to talk the guy. “Hey, mister, how about you splittin’?”
“You said you didn’t split,” The dude say.
“I changed my thinking,” Willie say quick.
The dude shrug. But he don’t share nothing with Willie whose can still only get a few coins and rare green, nothing higher than a loner.
On a Friday, Willie take the wife to the doctor early in the morning. They got to ride the streetcar to City Park. “Come on, Hermonie,” he say but she staring out her wheel chair like her skull gone empty. “We going to the doctor,” he say. That git her and she begin wailing and moaning. She saying something like “Nah” but only Willie know she upset cause he been listening to her crazy talk for so long. She got “dimension” since hurricane Camille and that be hard to take care of cause Willie ain’t got money for the doctors she need.
But the next day Willie back on his spot. Well, the dude, he don’t show. And then Willie get confused ‘cause he like the dude’s playing, even though the honkie ain’t generous with his take. And in truth, Willie make more with his can when he’s playing next to the dude collecting with his hat than when Willie making all the sound himself with his tin coffee can.
After lunch crowd, Willie take a smoke break with Tuba Fats. “That hairy white guy ask ‘bout you,” Fats say.
“What you tell him?”
“I tell him you take Hermonie to the doctor.”
“None a his business.”
“He ask. Like he want to know you do drugs, steal from the church collection plate. Stuff like that.”
“What you say?”
“I tell him I don’t know you real good. But I tell how sick Hermonie be.”
“Don’t be telling him no more. He not like a bro.”
“But he blow good,” Fats say.
Well, the dude come back. Willie decide he’s going sing a song while the guy wipe out his mouth with a tissue over his finger before blowing his harp, like cleanin’ shit out the stable before puttin’ the horse in. Then the dude just sit back and listen to Willie, the dude’s hat still on his head down over his eyes, his legs stretch out.
Willie finish his song and light up a joint he been saving.
“Sing that again,” the dude say.
“I just done it.”
“Just sing it again.”
So Willie knock the glow off the tip of his joint and put the butt in his shirt pocket for later and start singing again. The dude’s got the right Eb harp out of his pocket and he play along cross harp, not like he want to solo, but like he toting a cotton bale delicate down a wharf with some wharf rat, bale be heavy and need to be tipped just right to ease the weight between them, and the feet need to set just right on each step testing the wood planks for cracks and holes to keep from falling on yo’ ass. It take feel can’t be learned. The dude’s got feel for the blues. And the tourists come like swarm of roaches drop off banana-leaf trees in the Garden District. And they looking at Willie who’s trying his best to look like a lead. Willie kick his can a little further out while he singing and the dude back Willie for maybe only the second time in as many weeks. Damn if the greens don’t start almost flowing over the side of Willie’s can. And from that song on, for many days, Willie sing and make money, and the dude back him. And when the dude leave, he divvy up equal the bills from his hat and give ‘em to Willie no matter how much them tourists put into Willie’s coffee can.
Every few day the dude come for more than a month, he might teach Willie a song, or tell Willie how to play one of his standards better than he doing. Tuba fats bitch at Willie making money cause it cut down on Fats’ take . . . Fats being the big draw on the square for more than a decade, and Fats don’t take to be second best.
A week later it still hot, and Willie hear the word pass and creep through the Quarter—through the artist vendors hanging them pictures on the fence around Jackson square, pictures of the cathedral and the Cabilldo, and them drawings of famous people that no one knows who they are ‘cause they all look drawed the same, and the tarot card readers, the living statues, the tap dancing seven year olds with beer can scraps sowed on the soles of their sneakers and scamming tourists for tips –“Hey, Mister, I bet you a quarter I can tell you where you got them shoes.” “Okay.” “They on your feet!” “Jesus.”
The whisper come through all them folks like a wind before one of them whiplash storm. “Undercover cops on Royal off Esplanade,” go around the square in a flash, then up and down Decatur, out to the park across the streetcar track. Willie and the dude hear the word. They look around. Few minute later Willie spot ‘em first. Then dude see ‘em too. The cops got jeans and open-neck shirts with a collar. Not tourists. And blue sports jackets with a bulge near the heart; they carring heat.
The dude take cash from his hat and put it in Willie’s can. Then he reach into his jacket inner pocket and pull out an envelope he give Willie. Willie hurry to hide the envelope in the lining of his guitar case so the cops don’t see nothing when they walk from the tarot-card reader who smiling like she ain’t never had dope in her possession since Christ be born in Bethlehem. In seconds, before the cops see him, the dude disappear in the shadows of Pirate’s Alley. The dude hold back long enough to see if the cops leaving. He can’t see them. He look to Willie. Willie give a thumb down and look down, shake his head when the two dickhead be asking him a question. They not locals. Feds maybe. Willie see the dude shoulder his pack and with a wave of his hand he’s gone when the cops move on to jaw on Tuba Fats. Fats just smile and say he don’t know nothing.
Willie never see the dude again. In the envelope is enough money to add to Medicare and welfare and get Hermonie into a nursing home where she be watched 24-7 so she don’t hurt herself. And Willie’s coffee can still doing good filling up on its own now without the dude, like the dude left some good vibes in Willie’s axe when he disappeared. And soon, Willie playing bring swarms of tourists that throw money his way, like he’s a healing cave at that Lord’s place in France he want to take Hermonie when she get better.