My wife was away, visiting her family, so I didn't have to explain myself as I rushed around our house turning on lights, sliding into my boots, trying to imagine what I’d need. Within ten minutes of Chap’s call I was backing my pickup down the drive, heading out into the cool night. I didn’t believe his kidnapping story at all, but I wanted to help, and to see how this night would unfold.
Soon I was flying south on the straight highway through cattle country, breathing rich hayfields and clover, and the roadsides of freshly mown grass. I loved the Mississippi prairie in May, and I’d always loved traveling to Chap Stewart’s place, which seemed a trip into the Southern past.
Ten miles from town he’d inherited land so vast he'd never seen it all. Chap was from the kind of family where this can happen—they'd owned the property since 1820, and the black families on his farm—he wouldn't use the word plantation—were descended from his ancestors’ slaves.
Butterfish Brown, the legendary bluesman, was chief among these people now. At 82, tall and gaunt and erratic, he’d come home to rule in the little community of Oak Hill. With his bad temper and bad heart, his fat wad of hundreds in one pocket and small pistol in the other, he acted as a kind of godfather to the people, helping those in need, threatening anyone who misbehaved. And he always had young women around, a mystery to me. He still picked well on some days, and he was Chap's special project. Chap drove him up and down the road, bought his groceries, took him to the doctor. And sometimes they played guitars together. I never lost a chance to sit and listen, when Chap invited me.
Chapman Forest Stewart was a heavy-set young man with hurt blue eyes, prominent in his full face. This created a startled and wild look, as if something had just been taken from him. In 1970 he’d entered Tulane University, down in New Orleans, and studied the history of jazz and blues. He’d discovered the incredible legacy of Mississippi blacks to world musical culture, and experienced a kind of spiritual conversion.
"You know what," he said to me on one of our rare visits, "white people in the South will be remembered for one thing only."
"They created slavery. And slavery created the blues."
He really believed this, and tried to live up to it by moving back home after college and devoting himself to the old bluesmen and women alive in our corner of the state.
I turned off the highway onto an old gravel track, and drove east toward the Tuckabaloosa. Chap's farm was the last broad expanse before the land sloped to the woods and swamps of the river’s floodplain. It was one o'clock by now, and I hoped Reinhart had just taken Butterfish out driving in his excuse for a car, and that I'd arrive to find them safe and home again. Reinhart was a thin humorless German, a young blues collector with some beautiful recording equipment small enough to lug around and set up on the front porches of shacks and in the living rooms of trailers. He was living hard, eating vienna sausages and sleeping in his car, but building a fine collection of master tapes that would make his reputation back home.
For all Reinhart's earnestness about the blues, Butterfish didn't like him much. The old man seemed jealous of other artists Reinhart had found and recorded, and they argued loudly about royalty arrangements on the tapes Butterfish had made. Butterfish had put down the tracks—but so far hadn't signed any releases. Reinhart couldn't use the material unless they came to terms, and his year in the States was almost over. Chap had used the words ‘Rheinhart’ and ‘kidnapping’ in his telephone call, but why hadn’t he called the police rather than me? At his insistence I’d brought an old revolver, but I was determined to keep it unloaded and under my coat.
I pulled into the muddy yard near Butterfish's cockeyed trailer. Beneath a yellow lightbulb, Chap and a young woman I recognized, Luleen Rice, stood slapping mosquitoes and waiting for me.
"No sign of him yet?"
"Surely is not," Luleen said. She was pretty, slightly plump, and she wore a purple tank top and jean cut offs. "Reinhart took him," she said. "Took him to the swamp."
"Maybe," Chap said.
"His guitar is gone. What else has Reinhart been talkin' about all spring 'cept before he leaves, he's going to record Butterfish, singin' with the bullfrogs down in the swamp."
"That's true," Chap added. "And—" he pointed to Reinhart's dusty brown Ford settled a short distance away, "the tape deck is gone."
Luleen's voice cracked as she said, "Reinhart warned Butterfish! Said he bettergive him that recordin’ in the swamp!"
"He can barely walk a block without heart pain," Chap added furiously.
"But I don't get it," I said, "Butterfish gives all the orders. He's the one with the money and the pistol."
"That's why I'm worried so," Luleen explained. "Butterfish wouldn't anymore go off like this. That German has pulled somethin. That's what I say, and that's what I know."
"You ready?" Chap asked.
Chapman led me across a short pasture and through an old barbed wire fence gap. Here the weeds grew thick and tall along the rutted road. "You know the way now don't you, down to the lake in the woods?" He wanted me to draw on memories from our hunting days, all the way back to high school.
"This old path?"
"That's where the bullfrogs are."
"Yeah," I said slowly. "We used to gig them all night."
He was silent and I remembered how he’d disliked the killing. For a moment we were boys again, with our different ways of loving his farm.
I led the way with my six-volt spotlight, and sure enough there were two sets of deep tracks in the soft grassy earth. We entered the woods, moving downslope, and the smell of strong plants and vegetable mud rose around us. Great Horned Owls hooted in the distance, mellow but sharp, and as we swished through thick reeds we heard creatures slither from our steps. The swamp was scary, and I remembered the cottonmouth moccasins we used to see. Already redbugs and mosquitoes worked my neck.
"Listen!" Chap said, pinching my arm.
Faintly, the clear notes of a guitar came sliding over crickets and cicadas.
"He's doing it!" Chap whispered. "Butterfish shouldn't be down here. I don't think he can get back up this hill."
We kept moving, and Butterfish's rasping wail rose up out of the night like he belonged down there, like he was kin to other screamers in the swamp. Then we reached a spot where the trail divided, and I remembered it well because we used to sneak along there to ambush mallards on the surface in the fall. "This way," I said, leading Chap to the left.
"Positive." I felt proud the map was still in my bones.
We eased between scratchy, broad-leaved plants and emerged on a bluff above the lake. A half-moon hung over treetops rising from the opposite shore, and its twin lay in a broken ribbon on the water. Lily pads in yellow bloom spread over the surface, and below us, beyond a tangle of muscadine vines, we saw shadowy silhouettes.
Butterfish finished his song, and Reinhart flipped on a small light and fiddled with his tape deck.
"Now!" he announced in a bark. "This is the moment, old man! Count down for I left Mississippi."
Butterfish chuckled. Then he coughed and it sounded bad.
"Two, Three, Four"...Click!
Butterfish began to play his most famous song, the one he’d recorded three times, his autobiographical song. He opened with a line of descending bass notes, repeated them again and again, and the frogs took notice. First the tiny ones set up an answering pulse, the little high-pitched peepers, and baby bullfrogs down in the moss. They sang in a joyful alternating 2/4 time, not quite matching Butterfish's beat but forming a weirdly responsive background. Then he added falling treble runs, keeping the bass notes going too, and the larger bullfrogs began to stir.
I left Mississippi in the dark of the moon, Butterfish sang so clearly he seemed younger than his frail 82 years. He answered himself musically down the neck of his National steel, repeating in guitar language his intonation and lament, and the bullfrogs knew the stakes were raised, and they lifted their volume to match.
I left Mississippi in the dark of the moon
Everybody said it was none too soon
Yeah none too soon
I left Mississippi
he answered himself on the steel again, a joyful three finger picking style suddenly, counterpointing his sad words,
Well I left Mississippi Lord, Lord it was none too soon.
He finished the first verse and chorus as the bullfrogs established themselves into matching choirs, one on each side of the lake to Butterfish's left and right, their amazing voices alternating with the pulse of an accordion or a bagpipe, creating a vast authorative bass ground for the treble cheeping of tree frogs and cicadas.
I left Mississippi in the middle of the night
Left Mississippi in the middle of the night
Said I done somethin wrong but it sho felt right
Yeah sho felt right
I left Mississippi, Left Mississippi
Yeah left Mississippi Lord, Lord yeah it sho felt right
Well a rich man raised his gun to me
yeah a rich man raised his gun to me
I hit him side the head Lord set him free
I set him free child
Left Mississippi, Left Mississippi,
Yeah left Mississippi Lord, Lord yeah set him free.
Now he played in earnest, mixing the high clear sliding notes that can break your heart with a raucous chording pattern that cried anger anger anger; as suddenly, he broke into the three finger picking again, that melodious, upbeat sound, and carried his break for a few sweet seconds.
Everybody try to steal the way I play
Yeah everybody try to steal the way I play
Added three mo strings, Make ‘em lose they way
Make em lose they way
I left Mississippi, Left Mississippi
Yeah left Mississippi Lord, Lord make ‘em lose they way.
The bullfrogs sang their hearts out, and the cicadas and crickets solidified into a massive silver sound like castanets in sync, while far across the water Great Horned Owls offered single piercing notes as pure as the steel guitar's shocking high sliders. Then Butterfish arrived at his last verse with a raging power I hadn't heard since his earliest records.
Some say when you travelin’ back?
Yeah Mama say when you travelin’ back?
Say soon as the blood seep to the bedrock
Seep to the bedrock
Goi’n back to Mississippi, Yeah back to Mississippi
Go back to Mississippi
When the blood reach the bottom of the world
Yeah I'll go back to Mississippi
when the blood reach the bottom of the world
and he slowed down like always for the finish
Said I'll go back to Mississippi when the
Blood reach the bottom of the world.
He brought his hand down the neck in a final run and cut off quickly with an E minor chord, a sudden Robert Johnson type of ending to leave you in surprise and full of energy and response.
Chapman and I held still, held our breaths until we heard that quiet expensive click of the recorder snapping off.
"Wow," I said.
"That bastard," Chap replied, already running ahead in the darkness. He tangled in the wild grape vines, came up slapping his arms, and waded down the grassy trail again. I was right behind him, shining my spotlight over his bouncing head.
In a moment we stood at the water's cool edge. Butterfish sat on a mossy log watching Reinhart pack his tape deck into its case.
"Ya'll hear me?" Butterfish asked, smiling. His speaking voice was raspy and chordal, a wheezing smoker's sound. "Hear them frogs? Man that was fine, fine. Wadn't that fine, Chapy?"
"Yeah, it was."
"Course, I ain't told Reiny he can use any of this," he laughed briefly and bitterly.
"I'm going back to Germany," Reinhart said in a cold tone. "If you want your legacy to continue, you had better come to an agreement quickly."
"Don't you tell me!" Butterfish cried. "You damn baby. All you babies. Don't tell me nothin’. I tell you, understand? I tell you."
"How'd he get you down here?" Chap asked.
"He brung up them frogs again. I told him how they sing with me when I want 'em to, and them horny owls, too. But he didn't believe me, did you Reiny?"
Reinhart was packed and rigid, ready to depart. "I must get the tape out of this dampness," he said. And with that he walked past us and up into the bushes of the trail.
"Stop him!" Chap commanded me. "He's not stealing Butterfish's work and taking it out of the country. Pull your gun!"
"Butterfish," I said, "don't you have a gun?"
"Not with me!" he fired."Get yours out!"
I slowly drew my unloaded Colt. It seemed my duty to point it at Reinhart.
"I have given him back his voice, and his glory," Reinhart said haughtily. "If I produce the record in Europe, I will restore his faded reputation. Will you shoot me for that?"
I felt unbearably foolish during the long moment that followed. Then, slowly, I slipped my revolver back into its holster beneath my coat.
"Don't let him leave," Chap said.
Reinhart gave us a final, contemptuous look. "You Americans—you don't even know what you have."
With that he vanished into the darkness, and the magical tape was gone.
We stood in silence, my spotlight shining on Butterfish's shoes for want of a better place, and he said, "help this old man up the hill."
He rose, steadying against the log. Then he handed me his guitar.
When I took it he held on, and gripped my wrist. He grinned wickedly into my face. "This what you want?"
"I'll be glad to carry it for you."
"Carry it for me, yeah, carry it for me. But this right here, this touchin' me, touchin' my National. And hearin' my song with those frogs—nothin' like it, is there?"
"No," I said, "there isn't."
"You heard those stories about the devil and me? You heard I met him one night and shook his hand?"
"I’ve heard that."
“Shook his hand and he tuned my guitar, have you heard that too?”
“And after that I had my gift. I could play any song, I could tune any way. And every time I played it was different. Always different. Have you heard that too?”
“But he’s got my soul. That’s what he wanted. And now it’s ‘bout collectin’ time. ‘bout collectin’ time. You heard that part as well?”
“Yes I have.”
"That's right, that's right. And you not sure what to believe about it, are you?"
"No," I smiled.
"But you half hopin' it's true. You hopin' I touched him, and you can come touch me some kinda way."
"Something like that, I guess."
"Yeah," he said, thrusting the National firmly into my hands. "That's what all ya'll want."
Then Chapman wrapped a meaty arm around Butterfish's thin body, and the old man laid one arm over Chap's shoulder, and they slowly made their way back up the hill. I came close behind, holding my spot high, shining it over their heads to light their way.
The National was heavy in my hand. It seemed full of its history, the recordings sessions in Chicago, and its life as a weapon in the jukes of Mississippi. Swamp smell was strong, blending the tannin of oak leaves in the springs that fed the lake with the rank weeds and mud and blossoming trees. They had to rest a few times, and Butterfish’s breathing was a delicate sound, shallow and quick. But we made the trailer and Luleen shoved Chap aside, and helped the old man into his bed.
He lay on the frayed patchwork quilt, with its faded yellow and lavender squares, and looked into the weak bulb overhead. After a moment he sucked air loudly and motioned for his steel guitar. I gave it to him, and when he held it tight it seemed to ease him.
"Chap’s a good man," he breathed. "You a good man too."
"Ya'll can go now," Luleen announced. She held a mason jar of gleaming ice cubes and whiskey and water. We glanced at Butterfish and he smiled. With his long fingers he shooed us away. His heavy-lidded and intense eyes were only for her.
Butterfish lived another year after that. Reinhart brought out his five-album set in Germany, and rode it to fame. I Left Mississippi, with the frog and cicada chorus, was the talk of the blues circuit on two continents. Reinhart sent no letters, and no royalty checks. That seemed mockery of a great man's art, and seemed to confirm what Butterfish had said about our desire to be near him, to take something from him. That's what all ya'll want, he’d said to me that night. Chap proposed to sue, since Reinhart must have forged the old man's signature on a contract, but Butterfish closed his eyes and waved his hand, said let it go.
Chap served Butterfish until he passed, on another spring night after he’d played for some Oak Hill neighbors in the packed-dirt yard of his trailer. Hundreds of people attended the funeral, and his obituary appeared in the New York Times. The writer described him as ‘an American legend who, like many before, had disappeared from the hearts of his aging audience’.
Chap rented out his farm to an agribiz corporation based in Chicago, and they sent down a team of young MBAs to manage to land. The company paid Chap a lot of money for a multi-year lease, and right away they bulldozed the old trailer and cut down the osage trees that had shaded Butterfish from the sun. They eliminated all the tenant families on the place, and farmed it with just two employees. These men rode air-conditioned machinery all day long, up and down the rows, wearing headphones while they worked.
Chap moved to Memphis and bought a recording studio. He hosted a late-night radio program, and taught courses in the blues at Memphis State. The last time I heard anything about him he’d written a review for Blues Journey magazine, in which he critized some young musicians for not knowing their own history.
And me, I went back to grad school in American Studies, and wrote a dissertation on the white blues-collecting movement of the 1960s and 70s. I read everything ever written about the collectors and the artists, and interviewed every one I could find. Of course I made my own story the lead chapter of my book. And when it came out it was well reviewed, and got me tenure in a northern university.
As time passes that night in the swamp becomes—for some reason—more important to me. I remember the broken moonlight on the water lillies with their yellow flowers, and Butterfish’s smell of tobacco as he gripped my wrist and smiled into my eyes. I dream of the bullfrogs and owls and peepers and even the insects singing with him, and in my dream I can feel the weight of his steel guitar. I wake up sometimes and lie there, and in the stillness I can feel it exactly as it was, when I carried it up that hill in the weedy dark.