Chapter Ten: Blues Valley Icons


 Heel Bolt

Blues Valley Icons

Things tell stories. Even though the music can move me, it is just a temporary sensation, and its qualities fade quickly. But fortunately with every great cultural river come the miscellaneous material objects that become symbolic fruits of human expression, that remind us immediately of things more ephemeral. Trans-Brazos blues, especially Texas country Blues has many.

Today when you hear the word blues you may imagine some musical instrument that you associate with the music you know about. You might think about Lightnin’ Hopkins’ characteristic hats. Or a boll of cotton, which might remind us of the effort made to produce a whole bale of cotton.  But the most precious icons of Trans-Brazos Blues are much deeper and more stirring than that. You will see what I mean.

Each of these souvenirs has a special meaning to me. Each is what it is and then each has become something that looms larger in the context of its story. Some of these things were retired when slavery ended, and are lost upon the casual observer, but now that you have waded in these rivers so many miles, you now qualify as an indoctrinated enthusiast. These simple things will touch you too. From now on, some of these items will put a lump in your throat, or at least make you perk up when you come across them, and feel as if the thing is speaking to you. 

When I behold them, streams of stories and restless souls and some eternal truths course through my arms and help me to never, ever forget what has gone before.

Conch:  A make shift job-whistle, it was the time-clock for each day. They started out as mere ballast on slave ships arriving from the Caribbean, bringing slaves into Galveston, Indianola and Velasco. They were often dumped at the loading docks when cotton bales and cowhides and other heavier cargoes replaced the slaves, and became just a mountain of stinking dead mollusks, rotting in the sun. Some were cooked and fed as a cheap food source during the voyage from the Caribbean, but somewhere the slaves learned to blow on them just right, after they were drilled and sufficiently cured, and made primitive horns out of them.  Soon they were distributed all over the Gulf Coast as cheap worksite signal devices.

The man that carried it was the crew boss, and he signaled when it was time to go to work, eat, or quit for the day. Sometimes one of the field hands themselves would be entrusted with this very prestigious instrument, or a cow’s horn, used for the same purpose. It became a symbol of status and respect, and a reminder of where many of the Negroes had come from on their journey to Blues Valley. Later, large plantation bells came with civilization, and can still be found on area plantations.
A Plantersville antique dealer, my mother once purchased one, brought  to her back door by an old black woman wanting to sell a few treasured things. Scarred and worn smooth, and painted and repainted over the years, we had no idea of what it was and were ignorant of its significance. It was many years later that I understood that the humble old matriarch was selling a once important status symbol and a relic of slavery days.


 Hoe: For hand cultivation of each cotton plant. A simple iron chopping blade, on the end of a pole, which was whittled to fit your height,the blade sharpened just like an ax. “Cotton chopping” was the dreaded chore once the seedlings were up, and occupied a good bit of a farm worker’s life.  The hoe could deftly remove a young weed, break up a hard clod of Brazos bottom clay, or behead a rattlesnake. It made a pretty good weapon as well.

Plowshares & Heel Bolt: To break the earth. These metal blades are attached to the bottom of the plow and make ragged furrows in the ground. In order for cotton or blues to be made, even the earth had to be violated, broken for the first time, gouged, raked and chopped. The whole world waits for the day predicted when warriors will beat their swords into these, and there will be no more war.

The large pig-tailed bolt, the “heel” bolt, which held the plow point in place, was often handmade by a blacksmith, and was easily tightened or loosened with a tap or two with a hammer, or a rock, or a wrench. This was because you never have the tool in the field that you need.


 Ox  Yoke: Often handmade out of an oak or pecan tree trunk. A pair of ox heads were put in these loops, to control and coordinate the team of oxen, and make them move in- sinc, by voice commands, “gee” and “haw.” This required a lot of training and patience. And a stiff rod. The yoke has been symbolic of slavery and forced labor since Biblical times. The rod the symbol of the master’s authority, and long reaching discipline used whenever necessary.


Mule Collar: This was the first apparatus placed on your mule before a whole network of leather straps were attached to him so that he could be steered and stopped somewhat promptly. Stiff-necked and sure-footed, humble mules were the main source of horsepower on the farm. If you rigged and operated it right, he might pull a plow for you all day.  Few “colored kids” ever got to ride a horse, but many were at home bareback on a mule.

 Dugout Wooden Trough: Where you ate your meals. There were no utensils. Everyone at the table ate from the same trough. Starving, exhausted and chief-like, the men ate first.  Women fended for themselves, as best as they could. Children ate the scraps.


Cotton Picking Knee Pads: To protect your knees from hours on the ground, walking on them, moving around often as if you had no feet, reaching down to the bottom of the cotton plant, getting every cotton boll you could reach, and making your humiliation bearable. It was a bad day for a cottonpicker when one of these straps broke, and they had to pick on one pad, the other knee limping along.


Cotton Basket, Cotton Sack: To store your picked cotton in, or your family’s, if you worked together. Often the very old and very young would drag a sack together. It was an instant measure of how much you were actually getting done. And how much you would be rewarded for your toils.

A handmade oak cotton basket, sitting on cotton sacks.

Wash Board: Often homemade of an old cypress board, your clothes and bedding were scrubbed up against these with very toxic lye water to clean them. When good and dry, they became wonderful percussion instruments in the right hands.



File Knife: If you could not afford the three dollars for a store-bought knife like the smaller one below, a very scary butchering knife could be fashioned out of a file, which would get you in or out of trouble for almost free. Many like this were taken into WWII.

Cigar Box: A discarded cigar box became a personal chest, a filing cabinet or a child’s toy. With wheels it became a tiny wagon, with a little modification, a small guitar. Most bluesmen remembered “playing” on little guitars made from one of these first.

Cigar Box Guitar

Saturday Night Special: Barely functional, unsafe and usually inaccurate, the cheap instrument of personal power that gave each field hand the notion that he was someone to be reckoned with. This of course was a completely false assumption in most cases, and often led to more trouble than it was worth. Which was about five dollars.


Police Nightsticks: The weapon of choice, and intentional symbol of legal authority and potential brutality for street policemen, these hardwood clubs were used freely and liberally on black suspects, male or female, especially if there was more than one of them. It was believed that blacks had extra hard heads, and any possible damage done to them was negligible.


Ball & Chain: What you got to wear and carry around while in prison when you got on the wrong end of one of the above. Only a very big, strong man can even trot with one of these shackled to his leg. And not for very long. If a prisoner tried to escape with one of these still attached, it was sure to drown him the first time he tried to swim across a body of water.

Okeh 78: In the beginning of the record industry, there were no multiple song compilations, collections or what later came to be known as “albums,” but large, fast spinning records with one song per side. They were just called “records,” and were made of hard, brittle plastic. Okeh was one of the first recording studios in the 1920’s that aimed at ethnic audiences with what was termed “race music.” An Okeh 78 RPM record by Texas Alexander might bring one or two hundred dollars from collectors today. There were many other blues recording studios in Texas, including Columbia, Peacock, Star Day, and Freedom.


Blues 45’s
In the early 50’s dozens of record labels produced blues and R&B music, and several were in Texas.  Technology had improved, and records were made of durable vinyl and played at 45 RPM’s. Soon recording studios were releasing “albums,” which included between eight and 12 songs. Only the most popular artists dared to release “singles,” which were inexpensive products aimed at a new and growing market; teen- agers . 
Lightnin’ Hopkins was probably the most recorded and best selling Texas-grown artist, and worked under several labels during his career. Other popular Texas artists during this period were T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulson(Texas-based), Ivory Joe Hunter, and Big Mama Thornton. Soon these artists were being covered by British bands, and rock & roll was born.  Quickly black artists like Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Chubby Checkers and Bo Diddley adapted to the trend, and made the transition from R&B to Rock. When these guys got cranked up, not even an expert could have sorted them into the various pigeon holes we have created since.  B. B. King has said that it was all blues.


These are just a few things that have blues written all over them. There are many more icons of the blues culture, and some are quite interesting.

Recently, in some kind of bizarre happenstance that had to be Providentially arranged, I came to know one of Mance Lipscomb's grandchildren, just as he was beginning to tear down his grandfather's home, which had been condemned by the City, as a danger and an eyesore. The tragedy of the situation was impossible to process at the time, and the family is still dealing with the problem, but before Richard Lipscomb knocked the studs out from under the sheet metal canopy, he allowed me to salvage a few items.
Hurriedly, I scrambled around the rotten, moldy house and picked out a few boxes of items that might have significance. We had wondered, asked for years if there were any things of Mance's left, that might be featured in our blues museum. There was always a shrug. But here suddenly I had a chance to retrieve a few items... and I did not ask any questions... And talking about ICONS!
Elnora's rolling pin. Mance's .22 rifle. His double bit broad axe. His fishing tackle box. Elnora's coffee cup. Her frying pan. Her tin of bag balm. A framed, darkened print of Jesus that Richard made sure we got, as he distinctly remembered it in their home. A way of life is gone. And places like this are disappearing fast. The items in them are gone forever. And along with them the stories they tell. The whole culture is fading, and most are glad those days are gone.
Some people would be just as happy if these reminders would be buried forever, never again to see the light of day. Some will still listen to the music, and try to imagine, whatever their reasons. I will continue to gather these things... because that is what I do. I feel like much of it has been handed to me, like Elnora's rolling pin... because I care. And because I have learned to listen to the music, and the things left behind. Somehow, it all fits into a grand puzzle I have been piecing together for a long time. A story that you are now a part of, and one you will have to deal with.
You can toss it back to the heap of unwanted information, as generations have done, and shrug off any or all parts of it, or any personal connection to it. Or you can make it your business. You can either follow the trend of history or make a new one. You can put the skin of relevance on the lost bones of history, or quietly rebury them. Either way, blues are relevant to you, if you are an American, whether you accept that or not.

Ignorance has flown, and now you are at your own crossroads, with a chance to face the music and all that it represents. All the great art forged through human striving, the music and culture, the souls of bluesmen and their voices have had their day and have found their Eternal home. What or who they were is no longer as important as what and who we are, and what we learn from their story.
So I dug this up, and packaged it for you, so you could imagine just what has been buried and ignored, in just one community, and in every community, the ignorance of which gave many of us a false peace and a sense of innocence. Bottom line, blues were terribly real, and black Americans deserve to be affirmed that their fears and indignation were absolutely justified. Till this very day. Their legacy of the unspoken... horrors and injustices will never come to an end until we finally treat them as well as our reconstructed enemies (Japan for instance). Admitting these things, to ourselves and as a culture, is the beginning of racial healing. And it starts by discovering and making room in our minds and ears for this genre of American music, still popular all over the globe, which changed music history. The choice is yours.



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