The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues
by Edward Kelsey Moore
CHAPTER 1 (excerpt)
It was a love song. At least it started out that way. The lyrics told the tale of a romance between a man and the woman who made his life worth living. Being a blues song, it was also about how that woman repeatedly broke the man’s heart and then repaid his forgiving ways by bringing a world of suffering down on him. The beautiful melody soared and plunged, each verse proclaiming rapturous happiness and gut-wrenching pain. Here, in a church, this piece of music couldn’t have been further outside its natural habitat. But the tune’s lovely mournfulness echoed from the back wall to the baptismal pool and from the marble floor to the vaulted ceiling and settled in as if the forlorn cry had always lived here.
As the song continued and grew sadder with every line, I thought of my parents, Dora and Wilbur Jackson. The blues was Mama and Daddy’s music. Nearly every weekend of my childhood, they spent their evenings in our living room, listening to scratchy recordings of old-timey blues songs on the hi-fi. One of those might have been as sorrowful as the dirge ringing through the church, but I couldn’t recall hearing anything that touched this song for sheer misery.
Mama preferred her blues on the cheerier and dirtier side—nasty tunes loaded with crude jokes about hot dogs, jelly rolls, and pink Cadillacs. The gloomy ballads, like this one, were Daddy’s favorites. I never saw him happier than when he was huddled up with Mama on the sofa, humming along with an ode to agony. He would bob his head to the pulse of the music, like he was offering encouragement to a down-in-the-mouth singer who was sitting right next to him, croaking out his hard luck.
Sometimes, before sending me to bed, my parents would allow me to squeeze in between them. They’ve both been dead for years now, but their bad singing lingers in my memory. And, because I inherited their tuneless voices, I remind myself of my parents every time I rip into some unfortunate melody. Whenever I hear a melancholy blues, I feel the roughness of Daddy’s fingertips, callused by years of carpentry work, sliding over my arm like he was playing a soulful riff on imaginary strings that ran from my elbow to my wrist.
I’d be ordered off to bed when Mama’d had enough of the dreariness and wanted to listen to a record about rocking and rolling and loving that was too grown-up for my young ears.
Even though the song rumbling through the sanctuary would have been a bit dark for Mama’s taste, she’d have loved the singer’s wailing voice and the roller-coaster ride of the melody. And she wouldn’t have let this song go unnoted. If she had been in the church with me, she’d have turned to me and declared, “Odette, your daddy would’ve loved this song. Every single word of it makes you wanna die. I’ve gotta write this in my book.”
My mother’s “book” was a calendar from Stewart’s Funeral Home that she kept in her pocketbook. The cover of the calendar showed a gray-and-white spotted colt and a small boy in blue overalls. They were in a meadow, both of them jumping off the ground in an expression of unrestrained bliss. Above the picture were the words “Jump for Joy,” and below, “Happy thoughts to you and yours from Stewart’s Funeral Home.” Whenever Mama ran into something that she felt was remarkable enough to merit celebration, she wrote a note on that day’s date so she’d never forget it.
Mama’s book first appeared on a Sunday afternoon about ten years before she passed. We’d just walked out of our church, Holy Family Baptist, and Reverend Brown stood at the bottom of the front steps saying good-bye to his flock. Mama strode up to him and said, “Reverend, you’re the best preacher I’ve ever heard. I’ve been thinkin’ about your Easter sermon all spring. It was truly a wonder; really opened my eyes. I want you to know that you can consider this here soul a hundred percent saved.”
Reverend Brown, who was more than a foot taller than Mama, bent over and took her hand. “That’s so kind of you, Dora,” he said. “I’m just doing what I can for the Kingdom.”
“I mean it,” Mama said. “You’ve won this battle for the Lord. And I wanted to make sure to thank you, since I won’t be comin’ back.”
Reverend Brown hung on to Mama’s hand and waited for her to deliver the punch line to what he assumed was one of the peculiar jokes she was known to tell. But Mama wasn’t kidding. She explained, “Remember how you preached that if we really wanted to be closer to God, we should look at the world around us and write down a little thank-you to Him for all the things He gave us? Well, I took your words to heart and I’ve been doin’ that ever since.”
Mama opened her pocketbook then and pulled out a rolled-up wall calendar. She flipped three pages back to Easter and showed the pastor where she had written, “Best Sermon Ever” in the little square for that date. Then she showed him how she had jotted brief notes on each day of the calendar since then.
“Reverend, you truly preached your ass off this mornin’. But, just like you said, it was nothin’ compared to the way I feel when I’m sittin’ alone, thankin’ God directly. So I’m takin’ your advice and skippin’ the middleman.” She waved her calendar in the air. “From now on, I’m goin’ straight to the source.”
She pulled a pen from her pocketbook and wrote an entry on that day’s date in her book that read, “Second-best sermon ever.” Then she patted Reverend Brown on his cheek and walked away from Holy Family Baptist forever.
Stewart’s Funeral Home came out with a new calendar each year. Since Mr. Stewart was notoriously cheap, he reused the same cover. Mama had a fresh “Jump for Joy” book every January.
Her habit of hauling that calendar out, scribbling on it, and reciting her observations to anyone nearby was just one of many odd behaviors Mama was content to display in public. I was uncomfortable with the additional stares and whispers that followed her newest eccentricity, but Mama was immune to embarrassment. She told me, “Folks can laugh at me all they want. But when the blues comes lookin’ for me, I’m gonna wave my little book at it and tell it to move along, ’cause I know how to jump for joy.”
She wrote in her book until her last morning on this earth.
As the sanctuary reverberated with the howling third verse of the astonishing blues singer’s lament, I imagined Mama beside me in the pew, writing, “Bluest blues in all creation.” With Mama in mind, I leaned toward my husband, James, and shared my evaluation of the music filling Calvary Baptist Church: “This is the saddest song I have ever heard.”
James said, “Your old man would’ve loved it.”
The singer who sat hunched over his guitar in a dark corner, crooning and roaring about loving and forgiving his cruel woman, looked to be about seventy. He was tall and skinny, and he had a white beard that swallowed his face from nose to neck. James was right. Daddy would have loved the way the blues man bent the pitches of the tune in such a bleak way that you knew love had brought him trouble and that there would be more bad news coming in the days ahead.
“The blues is what a love song turns into after the singer’s had his teeth kicked out,” Daddy once said. What kind of beating had life given to this bearded man, who stared at the floor and filled the room with gorgeous sorrow? How did he end up here, curled around his guitar, letting loose a heartbreaking cry for all the world to hear? Every line of this song brought to mind Daddy’s definition of the blues. There was no way this man had a single unbroken tooth left in his mouth.
Full of love, loss, passion, and bitterness, the song was made even more pitiful by the occasion. It accompanied a radiant bride as she made her stately procession down the center aisle toward her groom. She moved toward the altar with an ease and grace that were quite impressive, considering the character of the music and the fact that she had recently celebrated her eighty-second birthday.
The bride, Beatrice Jordan, was the mother of my best friend, Clarice. Miss Beatrice was a leading member of Calvary Baptist, the most no-nonsense church in Plainview, Indiana. She was a good Christian woman whose greatest source of pride came from being a better Christian than anybody else.
I loved Miss Beatrice, but she was so extravagantly and annoyingly devoted to the Lord and to making sure that everybody else was, too, that being around her for too long had a way of shattering my resolve to keep His Commandments. Over the years, she’d pushed me to take the Lord’s name in vain more times than I’d like to recall. And Miss Beatrice had driven everyone I knew to think about murder at least once.
The groom was Mr. Forrest Payne, the owner of the Pink Slipper Gentlemen’s Club, the only legally operating business in Plainview that had ever been called scandalous. The club had been known for on-site gambling, prostitution, and a flagrant disregard for all liquor laws. There was a time when reputations were ruined and marriages destroyed just because previously respectable men had been seen walking near the Pink Slipper’s door.
The club’s unsavory public image scared away many potential customers but served as effective advertising for just as many others. My aunt Marjorie swore that the Pink Slipper was the only place in town to hear the blues done right, as well as the only place to find corn liquor as potent as the killer brew she concocted at home. She was a Pink Slipper regular till the day she died.
And when I say “till the day she died,” I mean it. Aunt Marjorie had a fatal heart attack while disarming a man who’d pulled a knife on her during a fight at the club. At her funeral, Forrest Payne comforted Mama by telling her that her sister had passed with her opponent’s knife clutched in her fist and a satisfied grin on her face.
The brawls, overt prostitution, and gambling were now history, or so I’d been told. These days, the club was more likely to be spoken of as a respected music venue than as a low dive. Forrest had been rehabilitated, and his business had been purified along with him. The major reason for his rise from social pariah to elder statesman and philanthropist was, at that moment, serenely gliding his way, clutching a bouquet of pale peach roses and silvery-white chrysanthemums.
This love match had taken everyone by surprise. Over the years, Miss Beatrice had become famous around town as the nutty old woman who regularly stationed herself on a hillock at the edge of the Pink Slipper’s parking lot and yelled warnings of eternal damnation at arriving and departing patrons through a bullhorn. She blamed Forrest for facilitating the repeated infidelities of her first husband, my friend Clarice’s father. And it had become her life’s mission to keep other men from following that same sinful path. In spite of her softened feelings toward Forrest Payne, even nowadays she showed up at the parking lot occasionally to shout at patrons on evenings when the dancers stripped. She’d left the bachelorette party Clarice had put together for her the night before her wedding to do just that. But since romance had warmed her heart, instead of yelling, “The fires of hell await you, sinner!” at departing customers the way she used to, Miss Beatrice now hollered, “God bless you, fornicator! Drive carefully!”
Copyright © 2017 by Edward Kelsey Moore