Dr. David Shevin photograph

The Train In The Air

November 1, 2000

Son House liked to talk of the decision to play the blues. He drove a bus in Rochester when the blues enthusiasts "rediscovered" the great musician and placed him back in the recording studio, after three decades of absence.  The press couldn't interview this legend enough, and Son's account of his legacy took him repeatedly back to Robert Johnson. "He sold his soul to play like that," was the simple statement.

Journalist Peter Guralnick has a powerful account of a conversation where fellow bluesman Tommy Johnson explains the learning of the craft. "If you want to learn how to play anything you want to play and learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where a road crosses that way, where a crossroad is. Get there, be sure to get there just a little 'fore 12:00 that night so you'll know you'll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece there by yourself.... A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar, and he'll tune it. And then he'll play a piece and hand it back to you. That's the way I learned to play anything I want."

That was solidly the tradition.  If you wanted to strike right bargain for the turn in your life, the crossroads was the place.

In West African cultures, the deity Esu was believed to be the guardian of the crossroads, and was an intermediary between gods and humans.  The introduction of Christianity meant the coming of interfering business between gods and humans; such pagan gods as the Europeans had were thought to be similar to the devil.  If anyone reading this is confident of the difference between gods and devils, then more power to yez.  More often, we find ourselves coming to the intermediary Esu, and try to make sense of the hard choices before us, when we remember that our circumstances are choices after all.

Robert Johnson had a pretty cushy deal.  He knew he was going to meet the devil.  When he wrote "Me and the Devil Blues", he documented just how personal the contract was.  Most of the time, we're watching that long highway as unbroken road, missing what crossroads we are passing as the years whiz by faster than the telephone poles,  residences more temporary than mayflies. How did Johnson see this transience?  "You may bury my body down by the highway side, so my old evil spirit can get a Greyhound bus and ride."

I think of one of those "facing eternity" moments, and it was a family event, back in college days.  Mom, my younger brother and I headed out to the grassy valleys and steep glens of Glenora, New York for a picnic.  We came through a wooded area to a small meadow and a railroad bridge over one of those straight-up-and-down gorges that the glaciers liked to cut through the central state.

Mom held back while brother and I had to explore the bridge.  What a view, what a glory those perpendiculars made!  We were probably over a hundred feet out over the gorge when the bridge hummed.  You could feel the coming train before it was audible, and as soon as the engine cleared the woods' edge, the engineer hit the whistle to warn the two kids on the track.  Whoop.  Whoop.

Of course, there was no escaping the bridge.  The directions were to fly up to heaven or crash to the rock and stream far below.  We were about to meet the iron horse, way in the middle of the air.  I moved before my brother, since I was lucky enough to locate the trestle before he did. I grabbed his shoulders and drew him to the platform that was oh-so-fortuitously nearby,  This sanctuary could not have been more than two yards square, and we stood rigidly upright.  We had to.  There was nowhere to go.

The engineer had hit the brakes for his small train.  He was pulling no more than four or five cars.  We must have taken a year off his life from the horror he was feeling at dooming two kids on the track.  The industrial song of metal plates in friction bounced off the rock walls. The train stopped on the bridge.  We were standing with air and space on three sides of us, a long fall below, and a train car to our noses.  The engineer leaned out of his cabin.  His red face started hollering at us. "Get off the bridge!  GET OFF THE BRIDGE!"

My mouth opened, and what came out was this:  "We can't sir.  Your train is in the way."

Commanding, eh?  Indeed, he moved his train and we both set about trying to calm mom.  I can still fill with gratitude that faced with a live or die choice, my brother and I chose to stick around.  The other curiosity that keeps recurring is that when a situation that fearful was before us, there was no time to be scared.  The fear was all in retrospect.  The moment was, well, what it was, and dealing with it surpassed any corresponding emotions.

The track was windy and shiny.

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