Pitchfork Pine

Part 1



Dogtown, Mississippi.  It’s late.  And out here driving through the wood, it’s dark.  The moon, waning up above is trying to slip its way through a canopy of half dead dogwoods below the pines to light the bloodleaf crawling down the shoulders of this old road.  Roads like this… they’re haunted.  Ghosts always looming in the tree line.  Tethered to the pine.  Whispering through the dust as they drink up every last drop of that moon.  If you turn on your radio you can hear them.  Between the static, moaning out the blues.  And when the dark hits pitch, some even drag themselves roadside and throw out a thumb.  Though, they never get far.  Leaving ain’t an option.

No, these woods will swallow you up.  The Chickasaw knew it.  Long before they ceded these lands they took care not to let their people go messing with the evil that walks these hills.   If they did, they believed their spirits was bound to wander for eternity in this “land of witches”, this Pitchfork Pine.  You see, the devil may go making deals over in Clarksdale but he files his papers in the pine.  And all debts are paid upon death. No exceptions.

I don’t think Will Dockery was privy to this when he cleared out some of the old growth for his cotton plantation.  Or maybe he was, and that’s why he chose Sunflower County as opposed to Lafayette.  Hell, you’d have to cut through Talahatchie and Panola just to reach the pine in Lafayette. Either way, the devil was never one to mind county lines.  So when Dockery Farms opened up, he was there like any good neighbor ready to offer up some ‘sugar’.

Besides, sharecropping was big business.  If any money was to be made, it was in the fields.  For most in the delta that meant they were heading back to the plantation.  All things considered, Dockery wasn’t the worst place for a young black man just loosed of his chains.  Still, it was hard to not be left… wanting.  Freedom it seemed, wasn’t really up for grabs.  In it’s place, a new set of shackles not of steel but of paper and the pen. Taking the form of an ever growing debt that rested on the whims of a new master.   Life remained bitter here, leaving most in need of a little sugar…


The blues hung heavy as the fog of Grand Banks over the delta and it’s neighboring hill country.  You couldn’t breath without taking it in, and it coloured everything in the pine.  But there were some in Dockery who were able to cut through the haze.  Conjure them blues and wrap ‘em in six strings and a song.  And under their spell, this thing that used to suffocate the men and women of the fields was somehow purified.  The blues was at once an exaltation and a condemnation of life and love and all that lies between.  An intercedent of the soul… a crossroads.

I guess that’s why I’m here.  “All roads lead to Rome” and I seek Caesar.  This is where it began and this is where it’s heart still beats.  I’ve spent a lifetime chasing the blues but always at a distance.  Until now I was just another pilgrim passing through.  I mean, it’s one thing to drive this road, everyone does.  You have to if you’re trying to get anywhere in Lafayette County.  It’s another to pull off and walk up into the haunt.  But tonight I’ve got this sliver of the moon hanging there like the damned devil’s thumbnail putting the pinch on me.  And between the static on the FM I hear the ghostly howls of what sounds like some long lost Skip James track.  What’s really making me crazy is I swear to Christ, when I rolled down the window a few minutes back I could hear it even clearer.  Even with the wind rushing in, that music punched a hole straight through and landed heavy in my gut.  Some siren song of the delta drug me down here and now its pulling me off this road.  


The lost bluesmen of the pine.  I’ve heard stories of their late night shows somewheres up in the hills (on the devil’s porch they say).  And for much of my life I took it as such, just stories.  The delta is rich with them.  But it’s becoming more and more apparent that tonight I’ve crossed some hidden threshold.  The moment I stepped out of that car it was like I had lapsed into some alternate reality.  Most people know about Robert Johnson and his dealings at the crossroads.  His story, brief as it was, became the stuff of legend.  But it wasn’t the first and it certainly isn’t the last of it’s kind.  Hell, Ike Zimmerman, Robert’s guitar teacher was said to have learned how to play by means of the ‘supernatural’ during late night trips to the Beauregard Cemetery.  The devil seemed to have a penchant for the blues and was more than happy to help wayward pickers in need of a tune up or a quick lesson.

Is that me?  A wayward picker?  Is that what drug me down here?


Static.  I left the car and the radio behind but I still hear it.  Beneath the rustling of the trees and the cracking of fallen branches under foot I can still hear it.  That and the song.  It’s like it won’t end.  Both keep twisting their way through me tying my insides up in knots.  And what little light I had back there on 334, it done tucked itself away once I crossed the tree line.


“When the moon has gone away

The ghosts come out to play

In the pines, in the pines, in the pines…”


I don’t know if I should be excited that the song is getting clearer but I’ll be damned if it ain’t.  And it ain’t Skip James that I’m hearing anymore.    

Always at a distance, remember?  Even tonight I came with trepidation.  The stories couldn’t be true.  And if they were, he only comes out in the pitch of a moonless night.  You see?  Distance.  I guess I didn’t factor in the possibility of the trees drinking up the last of that lunar juice to leave me high and dry after ditching my wheels.  It’s darker than dark and my eyes ain’t adjusting like they should.  Any sane man would turn around and yet here I am still dragging my ass through the thick of the pine.  Every step sinking a little deeper into the mire.   


“The dust and the dead

Fill up your head

In the pines, in the pines, in the pines…”


God it feels like I’ve been out here for hours.  The static, now just an ever present low hum like that of some huge bell calming it’s shake is droning on like a bass in the midst of this never ending song.  And the words keep pulling themselves up out of the muck in little bursts.  Clawing at my ears seeking salvation.  But my head is swimming.  There ain’t no solace for me or that song upstairs.  Gotta get out of here but which way do I go?


Silence.  Finally, a moment of silence.  For the last few minutes that song was up inside my head blowing my brains out my ears.  It was all I could hear.  I was ready to snap and then… silence.  Good or bad, it’s at least allowing me to pull some of my sanity up out the blender to unscramble my thoughts.  And through the tree line I think I can see the flicker of a flame.

Clearing the pine I can see at the end of a short drive an old wooden mailbox with an oil lamp hanging below.  In the soft glow of it’s flame I caught the name “Jonez” carved, quite ragged I might add into the side.  And just a little ways up, a small shack in the hollow of the woods.  God it looks like its been here for a hundred years or so.  Even in this dark I can see that it’s in shambles, looking like equal parts dry rot and moss.  A good breeze could tear it down but the air in the clearing is eerily still.  There’s something about this... seems a little too familiar.  Like I’ve been here before in a dream.  Like most episodes of deja vu, I’m not really comforted by this thought and once again I’m about ready to turn tail.  But I know if I turn back now the static would reappear and that song would hunt me down like a rabid dog and chew off my head.


“You must be lost.”  The silence broken by a voice that seems even more ancient than the shack it spilled out of.  In the dark I see out of nowhere a man appearing on the porch like the fabled Cheshire Cat.  Now I know I’ve slipped down some rabbit hole.  I’m praying that it’s just my eyes adjusting but something tells me that I seen what I saw just fine.  The one thought that is keeping me sane is that it's dark... he’s dark... and he's dressed all in black.

“I was having some car trouble up on the highway.”  A lie of course.

“So you thought, ‘I’ll just take a stroll through the woods’?”  He says with a smirk, calling my bluff.

Maybe it was his smile cutting through the night that made it seem as though he just appeared.  His lips slowly parting to reveal teeth that damn near glow in the shadows.  Either way the moon, slim as ever is once again shedding a little light on my situation.

As my eyes clear a bit more I get to studying this man.  He looks like he’s carrying as many years as that shack on his back.  His face, a long tired map of a river worn delta in drought, his eyes sharp beneath sagging lids and he’s got a terrible limp.  Honestly, it’s painful to watch him shuffle ‘cross that porch, one leg almost dragging.  But here he is, wide awake and dressed to the nines in his Sunday best, pork pie hat and all. 

On the porch I see a couple chairs, one of which he’s lowering himself into.  He seems pretty calm for someone who’s just been stumbled upon in the dead of night… in the middle of nowhere.  This thought once again sets my nerves on fire.

Reaching down, I see him come up with a guitar.  It looks to me like some old National.  Hard to really tell in this light but I can see the moon dancing cross it's metallic body, slipping in  and out of it's ornately pockmarked face plate.  For a brief moment I drop my guard and let the fear melt away.  Replaced instead with a longing to hold that guitar.  That's when I see leaning up against the window just behind the chairs another resonator, possibly it’s twin.  Is there someone else here?

“You play?”  He asks, dropping his strings into a tuning so low it's shaking me loose of my skin.  He motions to both the guitar and the chair that sit next to him (guess that answers my question).  The silence that hangs between his words is deafening.  No breeze.  No rustling of leaves.  Not one damned cricket dare speak over him or his guitar for that matter.  Is that reverence or fear?  I know which one I’m feeling and can’t bring myself to speak.  Still I climb the steps and make my way over.  Between the chairs I see a bucket, nearly rusting through.  It sits upside down with two mugs up top.  Steam pouring off them like smoke in the cool night air.  My God, he’s been waiting for me.  Even brewed up some fresh coffee for the affair.

I sit slowly and pick up the guitar.  It feels like home.  My insides having settled a bit has got that cup of mud looking like a welcome friend after my trek.  As I reach over to grab the coffee he sets his hand on mine, looks me dead in the eye and says, “Before we get started, can I offer you some sugar…?”

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