"For soon amid the silver loneliness
Of night he lifted up his voice and sang,
Secure, with only two moons listening,
Until the whole harmonious landscape rang --"
Alcohol and violence were a constant in the lives of virtually every member of the Caravan. It was not unique to them, it was a byproduct of one other constant, poverty. If your life circumstances are shitty, alcohol provides an escape from those circumstances. Not that all poor people drink - or drink to excess. Far from it. Problem is, when some people drink, shit happens. And usually it's not the shit that people want. Believe me, I know. 'Nuff said.
Booze and music have always been co-ingredients in a roaring good time. Musicians have had a firm grasp on the power of the interplay between those two elements as well as an appreciation for the transformative escape provided by both. From the old song lyric, "If the river was whiskey and I was a diving duck, I'd dive to the bottom and never would come up" to the modern song title, "There Stands The Glass" - it's the same lick. Alcohol takes us someplace else. Away from where we are. Music does the same. Together, they can be a veritable magic carpet. But sometimes that carpet lands on the wrong side of the wall.
Bukka White was the only member of the Caravan to have served time in a State Penitentiary. None of the members, however, were unfamiliar with jails or the police. Bukka's crime was manslaughter and he would lager confide that his visit to Parchman wasn't his only experience behind bars. He had spent time also in the Shelby County Jail in Memphis for a similar crime. He never gave a definitive figure on the number of men he had killed. It was at least two, possibly more. He claimed that each incident was in self defense and that he 'hated to do it.' Was he, or his victim, sober when these things happened? Probably not.
John 'Piano Red' Williams also had brushes with the law. While he never admitted to having been arrested, his conversation was rife with recollections of violent encounters. I remember one exchange in particular, sitting with Red at the dining room table in my house in Minneapolis, where red was engaged in one of his winding stories of stream-of-consciousness descriptions of incidents experienced during his 80 or so years.
At this telling he described an encounter with a 'devilish rascal' who had crossed him (hummm, was anyone having a drink?). Their exchange escalated into a full -blown confrontation, forcing Red to pick up an axe handle. At this point in the story, he asked if I knew how to 'han'el' someone through the use of such a weapon.
Pleasant and friendly, Red continued in his innocent-sounding, high-pitched voice. "Well, first you him in the one arm. Him sharp, comin' down at a angle. You break they arm. Then you him on the other side, and break they other arm." Red paused, making sure that his lesson was getting through, perhaps expecting a question. "Then you take the axe han'el," he continued, in the same sweet voice, "and you hits 'em in they haid."
Joe Willie Wilkins, a pacific and gentle soul, told me of a call he got from Muddy Waters in the late '50's informing him that he (Muddy) was was sending his guitar player at the time, Pat Hare, back to Memphis. The instructions were that Joe was to arrange for Pat to 'lay low' for a while and not return to Chicago until he was sent for by Muddy. Pat had recorded for Sun Records in its early years and released a side ominously titled "I'm Gonna Murder My Baby" (re-released on Rhino in 1990). A few years later, in a jealous drunken rage he killed a woman in Chicago and was under investigation for the crime, prompting the call from Muddy. Joe related that this was not the first time such a thing had happened to Pat Hare.
Hare's name was familiar to me as I remember reading an account of his crimes in the local paper years after his Memphis visit. Auburn 'Pat' Hare killed a woman in Minneapolis under similar circumstances. He also killed a policeman sent to investigate. Hare was roaring drunk at the time. Joe Willie allowed as Pat, sober, was a quiet and unassuming guy. Drunk, he was a homicidal maniac.
Auburn 'Pat' Hare died in Minnesota's Stillwater State Penitentiary in 1980. Had alcohol not taken him there, who knows where or when he would have died.
Whiskey and fried chicken fueled the Caravan in its years on the road. From management to performers, Jack and Jim were constant companions. Looking back through the haze, it's a wonder nothing more serious occurred than a pulled knife and some threatening words (both courtesy of Furry, but more of that later).
No injuries, no cops, no blood.
With a nod to E. A. & Mr. Flood...