By J. Keith Haney
Erdelac, Edward M. Crawling Chaos Blues. Damnation Books LLC, 2010. 26 pp. USD $2.99. ISBN: 978-1-61572-257-0.
Thanks to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, most of the American viewing public is familiar with the legend of bluesman Robert Johnson. Specifically, they know the story of how he gave his right eye to the Devil at the crossroads for musical talent. You still hear that talent shining through the scratchy, surviving recordings of his music (including “All Your Love’s In Vain” and “Stop Breaking Down”, tunes later appropriated by the Rolling Stones). His guitar action was so fast that Keith Richards was convinced it was two guitars playing the first time he heard it. The fact that RL, as he was called (short for Robert Leroy), died just before breaking into the mainstream (How, exactly, is still a matter of speculation and debate) only adds to the legend’s power. But who did Johnson really make the deal with?
“Crawling Chaos Blues” gives a wonderfully-Lovecraftian answer to that question. The first thing that grabbed me was the cover. A bluesman’s crimson steel guitar sits center stage in front of an old Southern home. An indistinct shape stands behind the guitar, almost shaped like a man. But the blurb on the cover is what really sold me: “They say Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil. King Yeller made a deal with something worse.” Something that arresting warrants a closer look.
The story is told from the POV of Harpoon Elkins, a harp player from Quito, Mississippi, who met the aforementioned King Yeller in Chicago, circa 1964. Yeller is just barely scraping by, playing at the big spots strictly because Howlin’ Wolf (Yes, THAT Howlin’ Wolf) owes his father a favor. He’s not even using a bluesman’s favoured bottleneck for his slide, just a knife. Knowing how bad his licks on the guitar are, he decides to make the same deal Robert Johnson did at the same crossroads. With the help of a couple of last-minute sacrifices (rednecks who think they have a pair of easy targets), something dark pops up on the crossroads and gives King Yeller what he’s after. But there’s a price heavier than any soul-taking to be paid before it’s all over. At a certain juke in Mississippi, Yeller gives a performance that literally brings down the house.
Mr. Erdelac does an excellent job capturing the period speech and atmosphere. I especially approve of his choice of 1964, the proverbial high noon of the Civil Rights Movement, as opposed to the classic blues period of the 1930s. It catches the country at a critical moment when the comforting lies of the 50s are being overtaken by the reality of black enfranchisement and the nightmare of Vietnam. Considering we live in a similar time, with the gay rights movement and the neverending entanglements of Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent, Iraq, it’s an easy period for the reader to relate to.
There’s also a subtext of rebuke running through the story. Love them or hate them, Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and who knows how many more bluesmen, laid the foundations of rock’n'roll. Most of them wound up dead, in poverty, or just forgotten about, while Elvis, the Beatles, and the Stones took what they had built to make billions of dollars. The fact that mainstream America neither reveres, nor even remembers most of them today, is an insult to their life’s work, pure and simple. All that blood, pain, and tears should count for something. It’s enough to make me wonder if original pioneers of rap are destined to be put in the same trash bin. Everybody knows Public Enemy and Tone Loc, but how many would recognize Melle Mel, the Sugarhill Gang, or Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five?
Of course, the Lovecraft references are worked in for those who know where to look (which puts Mr. Erdelac several steps ahead of Brian Lumley’s gratuitous referencing in his Titus Crow novels). First, the title of the story alone should tell you who King Yeller made his deal with. Erdelac gives us plenty of clues during the crossroads scene, describing a black shape coming from total darkness and strange piping in the night. Harp even gets a look at its face: “He wasn’t white, but he wasn’t no black man neither. All I got was a good look at his bald head and them big black eyes, sort of foreign lookin’.”
Next, the name King Yeller, while a believable-enough name for a light-skinned bluesman, is a reference to Robert Chambers’ “The King In Yellow”. In particular, his fate seems to have been inspired by Cassilda’s Song which is referenced at the front of Chambers’ collection. Just add blood and guts and you get this story.
Finally, there are the new songs themselves that Yeller plays after his deal, suggestive titles like “Space Dog Blues”, “House Underwater”, and “Black Goat Blues”. There’s even a humdinger of a quote from one song, called “Cut Through You Sleepin’”, that should sound VERY familiar to regulars of this site:
“What ain’t dead can keep a’layin’- yas
And come the judgement day, even death might pass.”
Frankly, I am completely blown away by this story. Mr. Erdelac manages to come up with a moving piece that salutes the bluesmen of old and still make no bones about the circumstances that they lived through. Lovecraft himself would have been stunned by this one’s audacity.
Purchase Crawling Chaos Blues from the publisher.