Three Minutes of Darkness

Theo Tait

  • White Tears by Hari Kunzru
    Hamish Hamilton, 271 pp, £14.99, April, ISBN 978 0 241 27295 4

In 1903, W.C. Handy, the self-proclaimed ‘father of the blues’, was touring Mississippi with his band, the Colored Knights of Pythias, when he fell asleep at a railway station in Tutwiler, just south of Clarksdale, waiting for a long-delayed train. As he recorded in his autobiography, he woke with a start to hear the blues for the first time:

A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar next to me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularised by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly.

‘Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog.’

The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.

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