New Novel in the works: DELTA SONG


A Novel under construction by Bonni McKeown 


Chapter 1: Two Brothers 

Marcus Sr., Mississippi Delta, October 1948 

Saturdays in October, the cotton bosses paid off. Marcus Manning and his younger brother Luther, guitars strapped across their backs, headed to Rendell to cash in. Just in their teens, the Manning brothers had built a musical reputation around the Delta. People pointed them out—Marcus, the tall, dark and rangy one; Luther, shorter, more rounded, a little lighter. 

“Sure easier to pick a guitar string than that damned prickly cotton,” Luther said as they plodded the dusty road from the family’s four-room white frame tenant house toward the crossroads. 

Marcus kicked a stone with the toe of his new sneaker. Back in the summer, they were still walking barefoot, having outgrown last year’s shoes. “You got that right,” he said. “Lotta hard work for practically nothin.’” 

Secretly Marcus felt proud he could pick nearly 100 pounds of cotton, ignoring the burning sun and prickly bolls, and stuff it in a sack in just a few hours. But he saw no future here. The Delta soil in northwest Mississippi was rich, and cotton was in demand, but the Black elders had nothing to show for years of work except stiff bones. Sharecropping was only a step above slavery. Plantation owners promised tenants a share in the proceeds of the crop, but the market price, and the share, always seemed to fall short. Good thing the Manning family knew how to raise a garden, skin a rabbit, catch a fish. Country folks can survive. 

Both Manning brothers had finished eighth grade, more schooling than most. One day when Marcus had ridden his bike over to the Clarksdale train station on an errand for his mother, a brakeman had handed him a copy of the Defender, a Colored newspaper from Chicago. It was full of ads wanting people to work in factories up North. The brakeman told him, “You oughta jump on the train and go, son. Go to Chicago, Detroit. Make you a lot of money.” 

As the road turned into hot black asphalt close to Rendell, he heard Luther grumble, “I wish Mama and Daddy hadna spent all our cotton money. I told them I wanted a pair-a good shoes. Something to look proper in a show.” 

“Me myself, I’m kinda glad they fixed the roof and bought us a refrigerator,” Marcus said. “You don’t see they got five more kids to worry about? ‘Sides, you be doing all right on your own. Always got a pocket of money. You’ll get them fancy shoes some ways. Real soon, if I know you.” 

Luther chuckled, not disagreeing. They trudged on three or four miles, passing flat, gray-brown fields with their green, white-flecked rows of cotton. Then he said, “Well bro, how much you plan on making today? You know we only have one more weekend before cotton season be over.” 

“I’d like to take home, like, ten dollars. That’ll get me a good strong guitar case. Put some in my jar toward a car,” said Marcus. 

“Around our house? You better hide that jar,” Luther ribbed. 

“No one in our family ever stole my money from it, not yet.” 

“Just wait. People always be after money when the pile get big enough. Me, I’m gonna up the ante. I’ll go for fifteen. And spend it before anyone find it.” 

They could hear Rendell before they could see it-- the crossroads where two thousand-acre plantations came together. Car engines cranked, wagons rumbled, mules brayed. Saturdays in cotton harvest season, the two-block main street turned into an African market bazaar, straight out of Marcus’s geography book. Truck farmers called out from wagons and pickups: “Sweet potatoes! Corn! Greens! Eggs!” 

Newly-paid field workers and sharecroppers were happy to tip a nickel or dime if you could sing their favorites with a feeling. Both brothers knew dozens of blues and popular country songs. Coins would soon pile up in their hats and tin cups. 

Pointing to the biggest group of potential tippers clustered around the general store, Luther declared, “I’m-a play down there.” 

Marcus set up his own guitar spot outside the same weigh shed where the Manning family had brought their wagonloads of cotton the week before. As sharecroppers got paid for their loads, some stopped to listen and give him a little tip. 

After two hours his fingers grew numb, and he went inside to take a break. The shed’s three corrugated metal walls and roof kept the sacks of cotton dry, but it felt no cooler than outdoors to the waiting line of sharecroppers. Black and white, they all dressed like Marcus in straw hats and blue denim overalls. As he leaned against a table in the corner, Marcus saw a wiry old farmer, a shade or two darker than himself, emerge at the front of the line. Squinting through thick cataracts in his eyes, the old man coughed and mopped his forehead with a faded blue bandana as he unloaded a cotton bale onto the scale. 

Marcus could clearly read the numbers as the old farmer stood waiting, sweat now pouring down his face. Almost ancient enough to have claimed his freedom during the Civil War, here the man was working hard like a youngster, still not getting paid right. The weighmaster, a stout white man with a sour, grizzled square face, called out, “76 pounds.” 

“Hey,” Marcus heard his own voice say. “Sir, I think that says 86 pounds.” 

The old farmer looked at the ground and shifted his weight to one foot. He looked like he wanted to run away. All the other sharecroppers’ eyes followed the weighmaster’s glare as it landed on Marcus-- guitar star with the big mouth. 

Marcus looked silently at the scale, then at the ground. He’d heard the stories of Colored people being whipped, even shot, trying to claim what they were rightfully owed. But the numbers didn’t lie. Eighty-six pounds. The definite number gave him strength. He stood quiet, feeling a cool spiritual breeze at his back. He did not need to say anything more. 

The weighmaster stared again at the scale. “Uh, it’s 80 pounds,” he conceded. Still lying, but a better lie. 

The old man’s face lit up as he held out his hand for the just-enlarged small handful of cash. The other farmers exchanged their looks in silence. 

The square-faced weighmaster called no one to move against Marcus. “Boy, you standin’ in the way,” he growled. “Take that guitar outside, and don’t let me see your face back in here.” 

Marcus shouldered his tan-colored Sears guitar and weaved through the crowd of people, cars, wagons and mules in search of a new guitar spot. At the general store he found Luther, finishing up a song: “Fannie Mae, baby will you please come home…” 

“I told the truth,” he recounted the story to Luther. “They put me out the weigh shed.“ 

“Fool.” said Luther. “Boy, for a big brother, you a Bi-ig fool! Next time they ain’t just gonna put you out, they gonna punch you out." 

Indeed I am a big fool, thought Marcus. To think my brother might be proud of me getting that old Pops a few extra dollars. But maybe he is right. A big risk for a very small victory. But that man was lying about the weight and stealing from people. And he'd keep right on with his tricks if no one spoke up. 

He continued to ponder as Luther gave him a sneering look, picked up his guitar, and began to walk away. "Just play here at the store. I’ll go someplace else.” 

Marcus looked around at the handful of people outside the store. They stood around and pointed to his guitar. They were waiting for songs, but Luther's comments had made him feel too foolish to even open his mouth. 

He tried clearing his throat, lifted his guitar, and took a breath. “I got the blues,” he willed himself to sing. His guitar trilled a few notes in response and then stopped. What was he going to sing for the next line? 

“Well, everybody here got the blues,” a woman wisecracked. 

But she had to step back. Words began to flow from Junior's mouth, almost to his own surprise, forming with a familiar tune. Making up a blues verse was easy. Think of a problem or situation for your first line, repeat it in the seccond line, and by that time you could think up a third line with a rhyme. 

“I got the cotton pickin’ blues, 

I got the cotton pickin’ blues, 

Headin’ north to Chicago, Windy City the place I choose. 

Gonna board the mornin’ train, 

Gonna board the mornin’ train, 

Gonna ride the Illinois Central, pickin’ cotton all in vain…” 

Judging from the rain of nickels and dimes into his cap on the ground in front of him , the people liked his new song. Marcus began to feel better. 

Later that afternoon, he took another break and walked back up from the store to the weigh station. There, in his old spot, he found his brother flailing his guitar as the boisterous crowd hollered for more songs: “Liza Jane!” “Comin’ round the Mountain!” “Saturday night fish fry!” 

Luther’s pockets now bulged with nickels, dimes and quarters. Back at the company store, the brothers traded their coins for crinkly greenback dollars. The weighing now done, people lounged on the store porch. Some of the men passed around a jug of moonshine. Kids hung from the railings while their mamas carried their purchases, sacks of sugar, flour and cornmeal. They gossiped and munched on hotdogs, candy, soda pop and ice cream until Mr. Cleve Hanson, the plantation owner, got ready to close the place. Some kept the party going on the street. They wanted more music. 

“Why don’t we play together?” Marcus suggested. But Luther wanted to split up again and compete for the money. He held his guitar upright on the ground, staking a personal spot in front of the store. 

Marcus crossed the street. The crowd was smaller there, but he had a good feeling someone would like his music. Sure enough, a woman in a bright green head wrap came dragging her main squeeze by the hand, a tall man with reddish hair. 

“Play us a grinding song. Wendell and me, we wanna dance!” 

Marcus, tired from playing all day, drew a blank. What song did he know about grinding? He could only think of coffee— one thing people had been buying all day at the store. He loved the smell when his mama perked it in their tiny kitchen at home. Words began to form, to a tune he’d heard the blues elders sing. 

“Grind my coffee, grind my coffee all night long,” he sang. 

“Man, you too young to grind coffee,” Wendell looked at Marcus with just a hint of a grin. 

“Oh, you don’t know about the young fellas these days,” his lady bantered back. She grabbed Wendell’s waist and put her hips right next to him. They swayed back and forth, up and down. 

Another couple joined them and the crowd gathered tighter as Marcus finished the line, “You can grind my black coffee, til I can’t do no wrong.” Laughs and cheers. Tips flew into his hat. 

“Where you get that coffee song?” quizzed Wendell’s woman in the green head wrap, who introduced herself as Margaret. Several of her family had joined the group, all laughing and smiling. 

“Uh, I made it up, just now,” said Marcus. “Part of it I heard somewhere, part of it just came into my head.” 

“That is one ba-ad blues tune!” said Wendell. 

“We gettin’ married in two weeks,” said Margaret. “Havin’ a party. I want you to come and play us some songs.” 

“Yay! I wanna hear more songs!” called a bright-eyed schoolgirl in long pigtails and a pink and yellow flour-sack dress, a younger version of Margaret. 

“This my baby sister GloryAnna,” said Margaret. “When she want something, she keep talking til she get her way.” 

“Babygirl, I think you got a good idea,” Marcus said. He playfully yanked little Glory's pigtail and she blushed under her chocolate-brown skin. 

Margaret told Marcus the address for the party. “Rolling Creek Road, last house on the right. We got stilts on the house ‘cause it next to the swamp. When it rains hard, we just throw out our lines and catch fish off the porch.” 

Marcus looked around the crowd, feeling a second musical wind from the sisters' vote of confidence. He started a one-chord pattern on his bass strings and built up to an insistent boogie. 

“Hey-hey-hey hey!” he sang, voice growing hoarse. “Gonna boogie, gonna boogie, all night long!” Folks stopped their conversations, put down shopping sacks, and began to clap their hands and stomp their feet. An old man nodded his head in approval. An old woman smiled as she patted her feet. Young people formed into couples and circles, leaping and bumping and grinding. “All night long!” 

As the music wound down and the crowd broke up, a few of the moonshine drinkers burst out from under a tree. They staggered and swore, not wanting to leave. Hanson shooed them away as he locked the store, grumbling, “Yall hangin’ around like a bunch of damn flies!” 

Marcus picked up the tips in his cup. He told Margaret, Wendell and Glory good night and looked for his brother to walk home. They had promised their mother they'd leave before dark when things could get wild. 

As they set out for the moonlit road, Luther asked, “How much you make today?” 

Marcus’s face fell as he pictured the face of the old farmer whose cotton the weighmaster had under-counted. 

Luther read his mind, “Why you open your mouth about that man’s cotton weight? Don’t you know, it’s good business to keep quiet? Go along, get along. That’s my motto.” 

Marcus said, “My big mouth paid off some way. Squareface had to give the old fella a few more dollars for his cotton. And oh, I still did all right for myself. Made me some new friends. Got ten dollars, enough for my new guitar case and some more to save in my jar. Couple more left over for Mama and Daddy.” 

“Well, I ain’t givin’ nothin to nobody,” Luther said. “I made sixteen dollar by myself, I’m-a keepin’ it all.” 

“The way I see, it ain’t all by ourself,” said Marcus. “God is what give us our music. Give it to our mama and daddy, and they passed it down to us.” 

“Goody two-shoes, that what you is,” Luther spat. “If there’s a God, he ain’t payin’ much attention to stuff here on earth. Can’t nobody get ahead being nice.” 

Marcus’s voice was tired. So were his feet. He had no energy left to dispute, and Luther was walking on ahead with no energy to listen. 


Chapter 2: Up the Mississippi 


Mississippi Delta 1958 

“Be good. I’ll see you real soon.” GloryAnna Manning kissed her new husband Marcus at the Clarksdale train station as three year old Marcus Manning Junior watched. For over four years, they’d gathered money, determination and wits to start their own household. It would be in Chicago, not Mississippi. You could more money working for a week in the city than a whole year of sharecropping a farm in the Delta. 

Tall, long legged Marcus had driven them from Rendell in a wagon drawn by Mel, the Hanson plantation’s most dependable mule. They stood on the platform next to a heavy suitcase and an olive green duffel bag. In two weeks, Marcus would have a car to bring all their things. She was leaving early to help her older sister Margaret, who’d broken her leg. 

“You be good, your own self,” she semi-scolded Marcus. “Don’t spend up all your money at Jukin’ Joe’s. And watch out for that crazy Zelda woman.” Zelda, the head waitress at Joe’s, was always chasing after Marcus, even after he’d made his choice clear. 

“I’m playin’ there to make money, not spend money.” Marcus Sr. held up her hand, with its shiny gold ring, and kissed it. Gotta make every dime I can here, I’ll need it for gas for the trip. Don’t you worry about Zelda neither. She ain’t nothin’ to me.” 

She teased Marcus to avoid showing her nerves. “Well, my relations gonna keep an eye on you. Just like they been keepin’ all their eyes on me. Don’t tell nobody, but I be glad to get away from ‘em.” 

She watched Junior look wide-eyed up and down the platform. This was going to be a big new world for him. People on the move, mostly with dark skins like himself, many of the men in overalls and women in the same loose skirts they used to pick cotton in the fields, carrying their sacks and suitcases. Glory had put on one of her slimmer skirts, ankle socks and saddle shoes. She wanted to get used to city clothes. 

Marcus Sr. put his arm across Glory’s shoulders and talked serious. “Tell Margaret I hope her leg gets better soon. I know she needs you now. I really do appreciate her putting us up. Tell her we ain’t gonna be moochers and stay too long.” 

“l tell her. She say I won’t have no problem finding us an apartment. I’ll get domestic work. I guess the music and the factory job, you just have to find for yourself.” 

“Don’t worry. Soon as Mr. Hanson pay me for our share of the crop this week, my cousin gonna sell me his car and I’ll load up and start rolling up the 61 Highway.” 

He picked up his fast-sprouting son and rubbed his head. “Junior, we be getting you some fine new clothes. You be good and help your mother out til I get there.” 

Glory watched Junior look into his father’s eyes, a mirror of his own. Dark brown, like chocolate. Full of sunshine. Full of bright future. “Okay,” Junior said. 

“Whoooo!” The whistle was Junior’s cue to wriggle out of his father’s arms and dash toward the track. He leaped and shouted. “Train! Train!” 

“Junior, you get back here!” Glory yelled. That engine big! It’s hot! You’ll get hurt!” 

Junior let her grab his hand. Hissing to a stop in the Clarksdale station, the smoking, huffing Illinois Central steam engine didn’t seem to scare him. The rhythm of the drive wheel reached out and grabbed him. Chuff! Chuff!. The engine bell clanged. The boy waved at the smiling fireman in the striped cap who had begun to shovel more coal into the barrel of the engine. The fireman’s skin was even darker than Junior’s, as black as the coal. 

Marcus set the suitcase on the baggage cart and handed Glory the heavy, olive-drab duffel bag—the one her brother had brought home from World War II. “Be there in no time! I love you,” he said, and kissed Glory. 

Glory felt a wave of love and fear. Fear she’d never see the sweet man again. How could that be, when he stood smiling at her? She was afraid to kiss him again; she might fall apart and start bawling in the middle of the platform. She gave Marcus a brave smile, grabbed Junior’s hand and helped him up the steps into the train. “Come on big boy! We goin’ to Chicago!” 

“All aboard!” called the conductor, and the engineer pulled the steam whistle: Toot, toot. They found a pair of seats in the “Colored” car. As the train pulled out, they looked out the window and saw Marcus, standing next to Mel and the wagon. She blew him a kiss. Junior watched his father and Mel and the station shrink in the distance and vanish. 

Warned about the whites-only diner, Glory had wrapped a round of freshly baked skillet cornbread in tin foil and stuffed it in the duffel bag, along with a peck of fresh peaches. The Colored car smelled of fried chicken and potato salad; many others had packed their dinners. She traded a peach and a piece of cornbread to the older gentleman across the aisle, in exchange for a slice of sweet potato pie which Junior quickly devoured. 

As she wiped the pie off her son’s face, the old gent asked, “You going North? Now they got machines to pick cotton, there’s more work up there than down here. Without so much of the yassah boss.” 

“That about right,” she said. “My husband and I, we wanna get away from all this mess. He play guitar, say there be a lot of work in Chicago.” 

“He gonna do just great. Everybody moving up there still wanna hear that down-home music. I wish you all the best. You got a fine boy there.” 

“Thank you,” said Junior. Decked out in a little blue sailor suit, he was swinging his feet over the edge of the seat. “Where you goin’?” he asked the old man. 

“Oh, I’m gettin’ off in Carbondale, visit my sister, then I’ll go back south. I spends a lot of my time ridin’ the train.” 

“I like the train,” Junior declared. He stood up and looked out the window. They could smell the smoke from the coal-fired steam engine. The train was stopped in a small town and the wheels were starting to drive forward again. He waved to a boy and girl, just a year or two older than he was and just a shade lighter, as they ran alongside the train. They waved back. He laughed out loud. 

“‘Scuse me,” the old man got up out of his seat. “Gotta go see about these games.” Using a cane, he poked and meandered to the back end of the Colored car to join three fellows who’d turned their seats to face each other and set up a makeshift table on top of a cardboard box to deal cards. Junior crept down the aisle to see what they were doing. Cards flipped; dice rolled. The air was filled with smoke from their cigars and words like “Time to fold’em… “I’ll see your Jack… you cheatin’! Loadin’ the dice!” Other words flew in the air, and Glory went to pull him back to their seat. 

As darkness fell, Junior stood up and looked out the window again. The green curves, the hills of southern Illinois, faded into into purple shadows. He sat down, captured by the lines of the telephone wires, one pole passing after another. He curled up in Glory’s lap. Soon she heard the sound of her baby’s sleepy breath. 

Later that night, the sounds of a fiddle drifted from the direction of the game table. Half asleep, Junior climbed over his mother and followed the music, toddling past the huge snoring forms of blanket-covered people, dodging their stocking feet that stuck out in the aisle. Half asleep, Glory, in automatic child-chasing mode, got up and followed him. At the far end of the train car a fiddler in overalls, a khaki work shirt and bowler cap sawed away with a long bow. The music flowed out of narrow curly holes in the shiny wood of his instrument. The old man with the cane pulled a harmonica from his pocket and began to huff and chug along like the train. 

Then they heard a rooster. No, it was the man with the cane. He was making his harmonica crow like the rooster in their yard down in Mississippi. He sang, “I got a little red rooster, he too lazy to crow for day…” After a few verses, Junior began to doze again. Glory carried him back to their seat and the train rocked them to sleep.

By morning they saw rows of houses and freight tracks, stockyards and factories roll by. The train slowed and crawled past the tallest buildings they had ever seen, with big windows, offices full of desks and file cabinets. Great big bridges spanned the river; people streamed across them, walking to their jobs. Cars and trucks lurched forward in the streets as traffic lights turned from red to green. Suddenly it rolled into a dark tunnel and lurched to a stop, exhaling steam in a loud hiss. Junior was startled and began to cry. 

Glory herself began to feel overwhelmed by the bigness. She calmed herself by talking to Junior. “Don’t worry honey. We in Chicago. It’ll be just a minute. We gettin’ off the train and goin’ outside.” 

“Where Daddy?” Junior wailed. 

“Daddy driving to Chicago next week,” she reminded him. “He gonna see you real soon. He gotta stay and pick up our sharecropping money and play guitar at Jukin’ Joe’s.” 

“Jukey Joe,” repeated Junior, fixing on the familiar word. 

They weaved their way up a wide stairway into a grand hall where hundreds of people streamed, carrying suitcases and briefcases. Outside they looked up at the massive Illinois Central train station. The clock on the tower showed quarter past ten. 

“We gotta find the Roosevelt bus. Carry this.” Glory, lugging the duffel and suitcase, handed him a flour sack to carry: “Your clothes in here. Stay with me boy, don’t go nowhere.” 

Junior slung the sack over his shoulder, just like he’d seen his daddy and mommy sling cotton sacks. His new life was going to be way different.


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