The Cumberland Post

The Cumberland Post
My Backyard, Six Miles from the Cumberland River

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

What's Wrong With You, Boy?

I used hear that sometimes when I was a teenager. And I remember how I felt and what I'd done (or mainly not done) to elicit those words.

What I felt was shame. "You big old lazy cow. Get your tail up and cut that grass. Take out that garbage. Paint that fence. What's wrong with you, boy?"

Yakety yak.

(play the music and keep readin')

Truth is, I didn't really want to do anything. Movement--except in a pickup game of basketball or sandlot baseball, or the occasional date--movement was the enemy. I had energy all right. Plenty. And my hormones were raging. I was angry, at least on the inside, but I didn't know what I was angry at. I wasn't a Rebel like the character James Dean played but I understood where he was coming from.

I didn't quite understand the anger and all the urges, or exactly where they were taking me, so I shut down. At least around my parents. I controlled all that turmoil by pulling the shades down. I sank down into the 3 L's: lethargy, languor, listlessness.

I guess I had the teen age White Boy Blues. When you're 15, 16, even 17, you're kind of in between. Not an adult and not an adolescent. You're out on the high wire that stretches between those two worlds. You're too far out to go back and moving forward is damn scary.

Many times out there in that No Man's Land, in that limbo, especially summertime when I was out of school, I just kinda lollygagged around, doin' nothing, sayin' nothin. Grunting when spoken to, talking only when necessary. I didn't sit, I sprawled. And I read. I read a lot. Science Fiction mainly. Escaping into some faraway world. And I watched a little TV.

But most of all, every night, I listened to my old Zenith.

The DJs were Gene Nobles, or John R, or Hoss Allen playing Rhythm and Blues stuff on clear channel, 50,000 watts powered WLAC. Maybe they were sellin' White Rose Petroleum Jelly (heh) or advertising special mail order deals at Ernie's Record Mart in Nashville, or Randy's Record Shop in "G-A-Double L-A-T-I-N. (I didn't know then that when I got older I would work in that town and see the old record shop most every day.)

They peddled stuff all right. But they also played music. The kind you couldn't hear anywhere else in the early '50s.

Rhythm and Blues.

I'm talking about these guys: Jimmy Reed, The Coasters, The Bill Black Combo, Little Esther Phillips, James Brown, Lavergne Baker, Chuck Berry, Jimmy Forest, The Dominoes, Ruth Brown, B. B. King, Lloyd Price, Jimmy Forrest, Bo Didley, Fats Domino, Little Walter, and lots more.

I didn't know it at the time, but the music was getting into this Southern White Boy's blood. Slipping on the sly around the edges of my already weakening Baptist barricades, it was finding its way into my still forming soul. I guess I liked it also because it reflected my inner confusion, my intestinal turmoil, my (heh) "teen angst."

There are quite a few songs that stick in my memory from that time, but one of them really stands out. Jmmy Reed's "Baby, What You Want Me to Do?" The guy in the song is going crazy. She's got him so messed up he doesn't know which way is up. Or down. This guy's brain is screwed up the way mine was back in those flattop days.

That muffled, repetitive, hammering rhythm on the bass strings in this thing knocks me out. And the harmonica, I really like the way it comes in on the break and at the end just kind of dies on out.

"Baby, What You Want Me to Do?" is the one song I heard played so many times on 'LAC that later when I was in junior college and got an old arch top guitar with the back half gone, I remembered it well enough to figure out how to replicate it on the bass strings.

Well, I finally got my ass up and got a job my junior and senior years. I was a curb boy at the old Eagle Cleaners on Dickerson Road. The angst ended. I worked hard. I made plans. I was going somewhere.

I left home and caught that "Night Train" myself (you know the one I'm talking about...the one that shakes, rattles and rolls, sounds like a saxaphone, seems slow, but moves like a rocket) and then I woke up one morning and found I was 72 years old.

Grad school, seminars, a rising tide of Freshman compositions, and early faculty meetings kinda distracted me and I lost my "blues" soul for awhile in my early 20s. But with Joyce's help and her love for music and a few other friends along the way, I eventually got it back.

As for that white boy teen angst stuff, I'm way past all that now. But old men still get the blues. And the music is always there.

Like that quote by Herbert Spencer on my side bar says...

"Music must rank as the highest of the fine arts--as the one which, more than any other, ministers to the human spirit."

I don't think Spencer was talkin 'bout Jimmy Reed or Jimmy Forrest, or the Coasters, but, hey, if he could've heard them when he was about 15, I bet they would've "ministered to his spirit," and his soul might have grown a little bit too. Mine did.


  1. They peddled stuff all right. But they also played music. The kind you couldn't hear anywhere else in the early '50s.

    Rhythm and Blues.

    Ah... late night radio. We both had the same experience, at the same age, with the same sorta radio station, but I was just slightly behind you in time.

    The blues stayed with me all these years but it was the Brits, specifically the Stones and Clapton, that really fired me up for the old, old bluesmen. What I heard on black radio in the late '50s and early '60s was essentially black POP; I didn't get to the real thing until quite a few years later. And then? We were off to the RACES!

    There's not a day that goes by where we don't hear some sort of blues, and most of the stuff I'm buying these days is in that genre.

    "Bolo Blues" was new to me... thank you for that! So many artists, so little time (left).

  2. Buck, I think you're absolutely right. By the late '50s, it really was Black Pop. From '51-'56 though, the music on 'LAC was pretty "rough," not the more polished up Black R and B or Rock of the late '50s (I suspect by then the white record producers, sensing that some big money was to be made, had moved in and pasteurized most of it.

    I'm glad you liked "Bolo Blues," I do too. But I actually plugged it in by mistake. I meant to put in Forrest's "Night Train," which I've done now, thanks to your calling my attention to it.

    1. Most excellent; that's the BEST version, by far. Didja see The Wiki's article on "Night Train?" Pretty interesting stuff there.

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