7 Double Shift: A Short Blues Story by Bonni McKeown
The day of the Everley Soul Brothers concert, the staff moved the exercise cages to one side of the stockade and set up folding chairs in the prison yard. Mr. Blackwell kept glancing at the front row, where the warden sat with his suited entourage of deputies and department heads. The yard felt almost like an outdoor arena—except for the guards standing in each of the gun towers, bearing sniper rifles. Inmates in drab blue filed into the yard and sat on the grassy dirt. Luckily they had a warm, sunny day.
“They better get on with it,” one inmate muttered. “Ain’t got time to listen to bad music.”
The band set up in one corner of the yard, heavy electric cords snaking out of the wall to their amps and P.A. system. “Testing. Testing one two,” said Streeter, tapping the mic.
“Who’s that?” Ed adjusted his bass amp and leaned toward the drum set. He tapped Marcus’s shoulder and pointed to a bent, wild-haired figure in the third row.
Marcus shaded his eyes with his hand and squinted into the audience. “Looks like Lambert. Only not like him.” He looked again. The man’s mouth was twisted. He was trying to wave his arm, which was shaking and jerking as if in a seizure.
“Oh no,” said Ed. “They must have stuck him with prolixin.”
“God,” said Marcus. “How—”
“They do stuff,” said Ed. “A bunch of white supremist guards, and they know that nurse Biggers real well.”
“Marcus shuddered in horror. The iron-fisted, lion-hearted man whose sunny smile had kept him sane in an exercise cage had been turned into a spastic, lurching zombie. Would he be next? A raging pain seized the wrist that Detective White had cracked. The drumsticks shook in Marcus’s hands.
“Mama,” he cried. “The monsters. Mama, save me!”
Junior. His mother’s spirit settled like a warm towel around his quivering shoulders. Son.This is what they do to us. They did this to my grandmama, and my great grand grandma and daddy when they were slaves. Beat us til we think we nothing.
Marcus turned his head and wiped his eyes on the sleeve of the blue coat Mr. Blackwell had borrowed for him. His mother went on: But baby, you not nothing. You is somebody. Everybody gone before you is in you. We sing through you.
His dad broke in: That why we play our music. It speaks from our soul, when our people can’t speak.
“But it’s my fault. I started yelling ‘stop the pigs’ and that’s what got Lambert in trouble.”
From the teary fog in the front of Marcus’ brain glowed the vision of a huge black panther. Akbar’s voice: Look, Lambert fought for himself and for the people. He got wounded. Right now he can’t do much. But you can. Fight with your drumsticks!
“Showtime!” Richie waved his red cape in front of the drum set. “Marcus! You asleep or what? Get your ass up!”
Edward slapped an impatient bass string. “C’mon man. We can’t let Lambert down! Kick it off. Now!”
Marcus shook the gloom from his head, raised his drumsticks and felt the pain evaporate from his wrist. Down in his throat a rumble grew into a roar, the roar which had to take Lambert’s place: “Aghhhhhh! Johnny B. Goode! Here we go!” He clicked the drumsticks and shouted: “One-two-three-four!”
Raoul hit the opening chords, gritting his jaw into a hard-working guitar face. Jeremiah slid his hand down the keyboard and pounded, eight-to-the-bar. As the prison yard began to rock with the sounds of Chuck Berry, several inmates jumped to their feet, clapping to taste of freedom.
The spirits of the People were in the house! They were inside the musicians and the musicians were giving them back to the People.
The spirits sang in the sweet Everly Brothers harmonies of “Let it be me.” They bounced in the hot, demanding staccato of “Respect.” They made white-hot love in the Sam & Dave rave “Hold on, I’m coming!” Now half the prisoners were on their feet in the dusty yard, letting their voices out to roar and cheer. Standing up behind the drums, Marcus called the Muddy Waters tune: “I’m a MAN” and they responded “M! A! N!”
Marcus saw the prison administrators grow antsy. Pretty radical, singing about being men.
So they slowed it down. Streeter picked up a mic and walked over to Edward. They began to sing the bass riff to “Duke of Earl.” Every guard and inmate--country and city, black, white, brown, yellow and red--knew that refrain by heart. They hung on every line to see if the group would hit the harmony right. They did, because the spirits were in them. Duke Richie strutted in his glorious, if undersized, red cape and black top hat, belting the melody in falsetto.
By the end of the song, even the guards were singing along. Every one was a duke of earl, the prison yard was the paradise they shared.
Funky time! Marshall and Dugan brought their horns to the front, stepping in unison as Marcus and Richie burst out with the James Brown shouts. Inmates yelled back, “Get on up!” A sea of dusty prison shirts flapped and waved like scarecrows in the dry wind as the men jumped and danced.
As the shouting peaked, Richie ran across the stage, both hands high in the air. Marcus lifted his drumsticks and brought down the song, crashing the cymbals as the horns blared high, reaching for the towers. Inmates roared: “More! More!”
For their encore the band put down their instruments and gathered at the mic to sing “Amazing Grace,” a hymn written by the sea captain John Newton, repenting from the slave trade. Marcus heard his mother’s fine alto chime in from the spirit world. Well done, son, his father’s spirit declared.
The last chorus died away; the band took their bows. Guards herded the Inmates, joking and loose, back to the cellblocks. Marcus spotted Lambert flounder his arm, flash an awkward thumbs-up sign. Would Lambert ever get home? Would his family get used to living with a zombie? Suddenly sad and drained, Marcus dragged out the drum cases to begin the tedious takedown. Like the inmates, the drums would have to go back inside.
As the prison brass in the front row shook off the vibes, Mr. Blackwell said to the warden, “The inmates wore themselves out shouting. That’s what we want, isn’t it?”
The governor’s man said, “I love this!”
The warden said nothing.
Marcus had just unscrewed knobs on the drums and high-hat stand, when a black man with weighty gray sideburns extended his hand.
“Great job, son!” he said. “I’m Nathaniel Eldridge. I want to help you get out of here a little early.”
“Mr. Eldridge? Lambert told me about you.” Marcus inserted the sock cymbals into the round case.
Eldridge nodded at Marcus with urgency. “You’ve served enough time. You need to be outside. A piece of paper put you in prison, and the same will get you out. Meet me in the library Wednesday afternoon.”
For the next few days, guys waved and yelled, “There go a duke of earl!” as Marcus strode out of the chow hall and bopped down the corridor. Passing the music room on his way to the library the Wednesday after the concert, he spotted an ominous sign on the door: CLOSED. Did maybe Mr. Blackwell have the day off?
He looked closer. Down in the corner a small, primitive scrawl: “Niggers Go Home.” He ripped the insulting note off the door and carried it to the library.
Eldridge confirmed it: the administration had closed the music room, to great satisfaction of the racists and the cost-cutters.
Mr. Blackwell, it seemed, had done way too much good. Everley Prison was set up to kill souls and bodies, not to rear kings, dukes and earls. Marcus felt a new chill slice through the stale prison air. A shift in the wind.
The aging lawyer pulled a thick book off the shelf. “Read this, son. Learn your rights. I’ll help you file a petition for the court. Then you can take those bigots up on that note they wrote. They said go home. So do that. Go back to Chicago, play your music.”
Inside Marcus’s head, Akbar’s spirit buzzed. Lots for you to do and live, Little Brother. You’re a man.
“That spells M.A.N.!” Marcus repeated Muddy Waters’ words.
All power to you, said Akbar. And to the People.