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The Alabama Musician, 1910

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John dreamed of living in San Francisco; he dreamed of new life and liberty; he dreamed much too often for his own liking. That was why, when he blew into his kazoo, he played the blues. He dreamed of moving to San Francisco, where he could go about his business freely every day, where no-one would rebuke him for the colour of his skin, and where he could fall asleep without fear of being carried off by the white supremacists of the Ku Klux Klan. He had not done much to offend anyone, aside from drinking water out of the public fountains reserved for his kind, sending his grandchildren to school, and taking his seat on public transport for coloured folks. There’d been a time when John didn’t have the right to do any of that; there’d been a time when he was a slave, working the cotton fields in the service of Master Lane. He would always remember the Lane mansion, but when the Lanes moved on to new horizons nobody wanted to keep up that vast colonial house. Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated, and the cotton fields were deserted or sold off. In the garden there had stood an oak tree, overrun with Spanish moss. He’d always thought it must be the most racist tree that ever grew. It wept and it towered over them like the Lanes who’d lived in that mansion and worked their slaves there, a hundred black men and their wives and children. Nothing remained of it now. The Lanes were gone and he, John, dreamed of San Francisco. The ancient oak wept still, to the sound of the blues and guitar strings. John blew harder into his kazoo. He was happy; time moved fast, and the wounds had scarred over. He may have mixed up his fountains one too many times, being ‘colored’ as they said. His grandchildren may have wanted to receive the same education as the whites, but they were still blacks. Here in Alabama, in the Deep South, John could not drink where he liked – he was obliged to use a public fountain for blacks in order to slake his thirst. And he thirsted for many things. He wanted to express himself; he wanted to sing of the prairies of this fine country, and to see his grandchildren playing on its hillsides. But hatred ran deep in Alabama. John lived under the rule of segregation, as did all blacks in this State. Rumour had it that in San Francisco the whites were kindlier to former slaves, and that there his kind could live freely and find jobs, if only for meagre pay.

John remembered the day that he had rowed in that huge boat up the river to New Orleans, how they’d whipped him and his back had glistened with sweat. Still, he had not looked too worn-down to work for a master in the cotton fields. It did not pay to look for trouble in New Orleans. The day rose, and the boat docked to unload the slaves newly arrived from the Caribbean. John played another blues riff on his kazoo. He had told his grandchildren the same story many times, about how the slaves were bought by a master. And as the saying went in New Orleans: “When master sings, the black man dance, when master whistle, the black man jump.” He told them about the sting of the whip in the tobacco fields. He told them of that which they, the young folk, would never know, but which would be passed on to them like a wound of the blood, an imperishable memory that had to live on, whatever should come after. Abraham Lincoln had fought long and hard for their cause and the abolition of slavery, and had died for it. John had cried, he’d prayed, and he had struck up an old slave song:

I never will go back to Alabama, that is not the place for me I never will go back to Alabama, that is not the place for me You know they killed my sister and my brother And the whole world let them peoples go down there free

I never will love Alabama, Alabama seem to never have loved poor me I never will love Alabama, Alabama seem to never have loved poor me Oh God I wish you would rise up one day Lead my peoples to the land of pea'

Alan Alfredo Geday


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