Prison Blues – November 1979

An excerpt from Said We Can Never Be by Linda M. Rowland-Buckley

Minnie held her breath at the request to gig at a prison. “My sister’s locked up, but she’s a big fan. It’d mean so much to her,” Heart Lace said.

“Let me see what the band thinks,” Minnie said as she returned from her set break to Rosa’s stage. Her gritty voice poured out the end of Johnny Cash’s song, But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die/ When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry.   She bid the audience good night.  Her hair hung long and loose tonight almost touching the floorboards when she bowed, eating up the extra attention.  Singing the blues always gave her a release. Up on the stage, under the lights, her voice ripped from her core, it was where she was most free; no fears, anxieties, or nerves chewed at her.

As she packed up the equipment with Blind Cat and Cowboy, she figured what worked for Johnny Cash and B.B. King could work for her. They both played in prisons, and a gig was a gig. If her fans couldn’t come to her, and she had the opportunity to go to them, wasn’t that her calling?

“Boys you interested in playing over at Heart’s sister’s prison?”

[pullquote]“Boys you interested in playing over at Heart’s sister’s prison?”[/pullquote]

Blind Cat wrapped wires from his elbow to his hand, “Prison, huh?”

“Interested? I could use a sax,” Minnie said.

“Count me in. I’ll bring my horn and give it a blow,” Cowboy volunteered.

Minnie whistled across the near empty bar, “Hey Heart…Hot House Band will play the prison.”

***

The clink of the metal door locked them inside the sparse cafeteria. Empty metal folding chairs lined up in rows like soldiers. After wiring the mike into the amp, Blind Cat cut into some riff on his sax when she suggested, “How about some Mamie and Bessie Smith?

“You like those ladies huh?” Cowboy asked.

“Yeah.” Minnie smiled.

Warden Shellster introduced them after the female prisoners were ushered in. Minnie welcomed them in her black flared pants, black blouse and black cowboy hat, a tribute to Johnny Cash, she said.  Blind Cat stood beside her in his leather-fringed vest. In flats, Minnie equaled his six-foot stature.

Minnie told stories of Mamie Smith recording Crazy Blues before many people had record players. They played her song Lovin’ Sam from Alabam and enjoyed the thunderous applause, then explained how her fame was achieved as a replacement singer. Heart and her sister, June, were the first that stood to Minnie’s story of Bessie Smith. Minnie eyed the warden through the half-seated crowd of inmates, and then she bent over toward Heart when two guards approached her, “Its okay boys,” she said. “Its just a xerox.”

She gave a faded picture to Heart to pass around. “This is Bessie Smith,” Minnie told the swaying assemblage and noted a beautiful black woman with upswept hair, the whites of her teeth and eyes, in contrast to her dark skin.

“She was beautiful and at the peak of her career, but she bled to death in a car accident a short time later.  She was 43.”

The last line of Bessie Smith’s song repeated in Minnie’s head. Like so many others, it stuck like wet grass on her shoe…’Cause if I get too wet I’ve got to go into the house and stay. She figured these women were in the house, some for a long time, some for serious crimes.

[pullquote]She figured these women were in the house, some for a long time, some for serious crimes.[/pullquote]

Already having Ma Rainey in her mind, she told them of a friendship enjoyed between the path burners. “A friend of Bessie’s was Ma Rainey.  My last song tonight will be a dedication.”  She ripped into See See Rider.  She raised her voice, took the microphone out of its stand so she could get the best volume. The din of the crowd was growing. Between verses, she bid June Lace a thank you for inviting them. All the women were standing. The band ended the song and said good night.

The air never seemed unruly, just controlled to Minnie. After the guards shuffled the prisoners out, Heart came up to Minnie and Cowboy, and said, “June loved it. She doesn’t love much. But you really hit home tonight. Thanks for coming.”

“It’s our pleasure,” said Blind Cat. “Not everyone knows what its like to be on the inside.”

Linda Rowland-Buckley

Linda Rowland-Buckley

Linda M. Rowland-Buckley was in publishing for thirteen years. She has six pieces of fiction on Buddy Guy’s website and is finishing the revision of her first novel Said We Can Never Be. An avid lover of blues, baseball, and dogs, she resides in South Hadley, Massachusetts with her family.

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