About 13 or 14 years ago, an opening line for a new song came to me one night when I picked up my 1976 Alvarez acoustic in a bit of a somber mood: “Papa’s out there on the front porch and the sun’s gone down.” Sometimes when you write a song, you know exactly where you want it to go. In this case, I had set the table for a new song without any idea where I was going with it at the time, but when I wrote the second line, “Old hound dog’s howlin’ out on the edge of town,” I knew the song was bound for someplace as dark as the islands in the Mississippi River. After that, the river in one of its moody cycles carried me back to an ugly time of rampaging racism and a reign of terror that threatened Black sharecroppers in the Arkansas Delta. Suddenly, it was 1919, the year of the Elaine Massacre, and there I was in a Phillips County cabin with a shotgun and a guitar. The rest of the lyrics to “Evil in the Delta” just flowed like the river current itself.
A few months ago, the University of Arkansas Press published a collection of essays edited by Michael Pierce and Calvin White–Race, Labor, and Violence in the Delta: Essays to Mark the Centennial of the Elaine Massacre. I’m quite pleased that historian Michael K. Honey, who wrote an epilogue for the published essays, chose as its title, “Evil in the Delta” and used some of my song lyrics to set it up. Below are two links. Here is an audio recording I did of “Evil in the Delta” with the Mudcats. It’s on my CD, My Daddy’s Blues, published in 2010. For those who prefer LIVE performances, I have also included a link to a YouTube performance at Cheatham Street Warehouse (San Marcos, Texas) in 2009 with Mudcats Sterling Finlay (bass), Kyle Schneider (drums), and guitarist Big John Mills.
“Papa's out there on the front porch, and the sun's gone down; old hound dog's howlin' out on the edge of town. Elaine, Elaine, get the children inside; there's evil in the delta here on the Arkansas side. Quick, go fetch me that shotgun down off the cabin wall; it's nightriders up from Hoop Spur, hear that hoot owl call. Look away, Elaine, yeah, you better hide your eyes. There's evil in the delta here on the Arkansas side. Yeah, something's burning there in the backwoods off near the Johnsons' shack. There are demons riding those horses, burning up the tracks. Elaine, Elaine, keep the children inside; there's evil in the delta here on the Arkansas side. Something floating in that river washed up there last night; kind-a looked like Junior Johnson's boy, face all swole up tight. Elaine, Elaine, that river's deep and wide; the devil's loose in the Delta tonight, here on the Arkansas side; Elaine, Elaine, yeah, you better hide your eyes; the devil's loose in the Delta tonight here on the Arkansas side, the Phillips County side."
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