South Side SlimSweetback Blues: The Twelve Bar Tale of South Side Slim travels the harrowing streets and plumbs the artistic soul of a modern day soldier for the blues. Far from some pat redemption yarn of "poor boy makes good," the protagonist here is as unsettling as his folk predecessor, John the Conqueror: unruly saint and endearing trickster. Beautifully written in twelve bar structure, complete with introductory riffs and turnarounds, this narrative nonfiction echoes the very music it celebrates. The bluesman typically sings his seven-stanza story in first person; likewise, these seven chapters get personal in the distinctive voice of Los Angeles blues veteran, South Side Slim. Over one hundred hours of recorded interviews were transcribed, verified, and distilled into eighty-eight bars, vignettes, of page-turning drama.

Hailed "the formidable guitar modernist" by Living Blues magazine, Slim has recently toured in Italy, Britain, and Germany.

 


 

Excerpts from Sweetback Blues


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Introduction: Layin' Down the Groove

Chapter One
Me and my cousin burned my grandma's house down. Three years old at the time. That's my earliest memory. I was born on September 7, 1957. But there was a controversy about that. The midwife who came out there to Mer Rouge, Louisiana, took a while to get over to Monroe to record my birth at the courthouse. My birth certificate has October 5th.

My dad says me and Michael was alone. Everyone was out on a Friday night in November of 1960. Michael was in charge, bein' he was five.

My mother had gone to California in June of that year. She says she doesn't remember ever hearin' about a fire. She went out there to find a job and a place to live. I can't picture my mother in any memories from Louisiana. In fact, I can't picture my dad in Louisiana either.

Me, my younger sister, Jessica, the baby, Dennis, and my two older brothers, Donald and Dwight, not from my dad, were stayin' with different relatives after my mother left.

Little scraps of memories of the fire are in my head. First I see myself passin' through a livin' room. Then I'm takin' hold of a waste basket full of paper with both arms, and I'm dumpin' it behind somethin' like a dresser, stuffin' the paper back there.

Next I'm standin' outside with a bunch of people. The house is on fire. The noise of fire trucks already bein' there. People are all mad.

I'm real cold, standin' next to someone, a woman, who is holdin' me. I'm scared to death. I see the flashin' from the fire trucks in the smoke, the smoke movin' like fog in the beams of light.

It was some years later when I would hear people say, "Henry burned the house down."

Mom came on the bus and got us in December that year. She said she told my dad he could come with her to Oakland, but the part about lettin' my dad come was just a way to put him off. To hear her tell it, she was itchin' to get away from him and out of the South. She hated spendin' her life in the fields.

She remembers how my dad saw her all sad, walkin' on the road, when she was havin' to go straight on home from choppin' cotton. Him and a bunch of guys were ridin' past, goin' out to party.

He calls to her, "If you marry me, you'll always be havin' a good time." So she married him.

All I know is she divorced him, and I used to hear her say, "I'll eat shit on a shingle and walk the road and beg bread before I let that man put his hands on me again."

 

Chapter Two
The first place us kids came to in California was an upstairs apartment in North Oakland on 52nd. Since then, the freeway took out that end of the street. We was livin' there for a couple of years.

When I was four, I did somethin' that made my mother real mad. No idea now what it was.

I ran up on the roof and laid down on my back, hidin' up there for a long time. I heard her, down below, real upset. Did I think she wouldn't find me? I don't know what I was thinkin'.

She finally calls up real nice-like, "C'mon down, Henry. I won't whup you."

I got down, and, sure enough, she tore my ass up.

 

Chapter Three
In 1962, when we was still livin' there in North Oakland, we used to go to church together all the time. My mom went to a church down on 32nd Street, near San Pablo Avenue. North Oakland Missionary Baptist Church.

She'd dress us up in suits and walk with us down the street, down the street with mom, every Sunday. I can see the white wood cross on the corner of the roof and the steps up to the door.

We'd be goin' to Sunday School down in the church basement with pictures of Christ with the sheep on the wall. The white Jesus. And the smell with that clean atmosphere.

The quietness of people teachin' us the Word of God. I loved that. My mother had us knowin' the Lord as a child.

When I started kindergarten, I'd walk to school by myself from that apartment. One mornin' I'm on the curb like I always was, and I slip and fall into the bushes, cuttin' my hand on a piece of glass in there. Cut it wide open. I come back home, cryin'. My mom wrapped me all up. I was layin' in bed almost dyin'.

 

Chapter Four
My dad would come visit us. I don't remember him comin' up and introducin' himself or nothin', just that he was there.

Probably was his first visit. I was real young. I had to reach up to the door knob. I go and open this one door, seein' it clearly in my mind, reachin' up.

I come walkin' in on 'em, my mom and my dad, havin' sex. I caught 'em. I saw 'em. It was real quick.

I went right back out. I guess I knew it was somethin' somebody didn't need to be watchin'. That visit is my first memory of my dad.

Even at five, me and my brothers were tryin to have sex with little girls. Must have been an abandoned house where we used to play. A shack with a little square door like one for dogs I was down on the ground watchin' my older brother, Dwight, layin' on top of some little girl.

Over the years I wondered, "Was he actually fuckin' her?" Because, you know, we was kids, man. He couldn't of been no more than six years old. Was he actually tryin' to get some pussy at that age?

Seems like a lot of controversy was goin' on with them, at that time, between my mom and my dad He probably came to California and got his heart broke because she found somebody else or whatever. She had such a pretty face. The picture of her when she was young that was always on the mantelpiece still shines in my mind.

It wasn't until 1963 when we moved to 92nd Street, out in East Oakland, a couple blocks off East 14th Street that I can really remember my dad. He migrated from Louisiana to Los Angeles like a lot of 'em did. He came in late '62 when he was twenty-seven years old. Him and Baker, who hung with him since back in Louisiana, would come up to Oakland from L.A. on their motorcycles.

I associate his visits with the smell after the street cleaners came through. Steam would come risin' up off the pavement for a few split seconds. I'd kneel down real quick and get my nose on the street to pull in the smell of the wet concrete. I loved breathin' in that wonderful freshness. Knowin' me, I probably licked it with my tongue once or twice.

One particular day when I was six, I'd just gone back inside the house full of the joy of smellin' the steam, when I heard the Harley Davidsons drive up. And the music blarin' from the radios with the eight-track players. Me and Dennis run out like crazy down the stairs to see our dad. And, of course, we want to get on and blow the horn and get a ride on their backs round the corner to the park.

Those basically were just visits when he’d come up there. He never lived with us, just come and visit. Before they leave, they'd always give us kids five bucks apiece.

One time with that money in my pocket, I was happy to be goin' to Food King when Mom went to buy groceries. It was only a few blocks down at 88th. We're in there, and she's at the long meat counter. I'm walkin' around all carefree on the red and white linoleum, and then I look up at my mother. It seems she has a tear in her eye. I think, "She’s worryin' about what she's can afford to get for us." I was wishin' she didn’t have to be like that. It was a good thing I saw that as a kid. It made me care about her.

I always end up, when I try to think how old I was, thinkin' about the Kennedy assassination. That was in 1963, and I was six, livin' on 92nd. I didn't know what had happened, but everybody was so upset and cryin' that I started cryin' too. Then I found out it was the Kennedy thing.

All my aunties and cousins, most black people, had a picture of President Kennedy, his brother, and Martin Luther King on the wall. You always saw those pictures in the houses. Those faces, floatin' around in your psyche as a kid.