Plantation of the Mad
~Blues for Buddy Bolden
First photograph I ever saw of the East Louisiana
State Asylum was a postcard sent from Jackson
in September ’09 by a guard, like it was a holiday
resort, an idea with all the charm of a cottonmouth
in the kiddie park. He was already there, you see,
after a third arrest for insanity. His wife and sister
said they couldn’t stand his rage, and yeah, I came
to know Buddy right well. Lost my gig slabbing
|plaster, so I got my cousin Bone to call in a favor.
I hired on as a ward watcher. By the end I’d seen
every inch of that sorrow farm. In the picture mailed
back to the Crescent City the ante-bellum façade
and Georgia columns said Big Master, the cupola
said Money, and sometimes he would climb up
and play on that nickel-flaking cornet they kept
locked away—“Make Me a Pallet,” “The House Got
Ready,” “Didn’t He Ramble”—like the yard was full
of dancers thick as fleas. Me, I’m black as a spike
on the graveyard fence and ugly with some scars,
but Buddy was a beauty, a creamed coffee man,
dapper even in a crazy house homespun smock,
and when I’d come whispering to haul him down,
he’d say “Sebe”—that’s my name, Sebe Brabham—
“don’t you want to slow drag to ‘Funky Butt Blues’?”
His signature. Dementia praecox, the chief doctor
wrote down, but Buddy could be plain straight,
and he blew that horn clear as death. You know
he was Kid Bolden before they crowned him King,
and he smoldered on the circuit, parks and halls
like down on Perdido Street, The Flying Horses,
Mystic Babies, crewes like Ladies of Providence,
Knights of Pleasure. On day off, I’d slip down
to barrel houses in the swamp and get the skinny,
though even his running mates had half the stories
wrong. He smoked up a legend. Listen, he never
kept that scandal sheet The Cricket, and even his dear
sister was convinced he’d once been a barber.
Now, I have seen him eye a razor on shaving day,
but that look never meant to trim any man’s hair.
Tending him in the asylum—you wouldn’t buy
what I could tell you about inmates throwing
shit or ripping at their own eyes, gnashing teeth
like a junkyard bitch—well, I came to savvy no
soul truly knew Buddy Bolden at the center where
the demons hatched. But plaaay! And he turned
pure in the gazebo, riffing a solo—he would not
work with the madhouse band. Called them that,
he did—“Madhouse Band”—and laaaugh. Jesus!
I came later to hear Bechet, Armstrong, Kid
Ory, and they had finesse, embellishments
like pastrie bought hot on the levee, but couldn’t
a one Gabriel out like Buddy. Folks called him
High Note Man for a reason. He blew Judgement,
and I’ve seen him while ragging a hymn blast
the tuning slide across the room like a rocket.
Some say women did him in, a whole harem struck
hard by his star—that chippie Leda Chapman,
Hattie Oliver, some Emma, some Ella—and even
being sort of hitched to Nora didn’t slow his note.
He liked their sashay, their candy voices and flesh,
I reckon, but his breath was born for rowdy music,
smoke, cutting contests and the Delta wildcat scream.
The ladies toted his bowler, his watch, his satchel,
but Big Whistle, who was his bank man, swore
no gal ever touched that brass horn. He carried
it like some will tote a baby or others hold a pistol,
the treasure. Red cigarettes and a taste for chicory
marked him as eccentric, a dog fox and a dandy.
Outside, he loved funerals and cockfights equal,
and the wags say he was all piss and whiskey.
One night my first year—moon full, air musky—
he freed a trumpet from the band’s locker. Buddy
was meant to be locked in, sure: I turned the key,
but strange things pass for normal in such a place.
Buddy slipped to the garden—June, world magnolia
rife and summer sumac running all over. He spit
in that kiss piece and woke everybody like End
Time. Joseph in the morgue said a corpse sat up.
I jumped off my bench like a man stuck in the belly.
Mostly, though, he just drifted quiet, doing what
the doctors called crazy, following a ritual of touch
and stroke—door frame, chair arm, a special spot
on the ward floor, all the while working a scuffle
slide like a man dancing inside. Lightning, I always
thought, was flashing red in his mind. He brought
a whole Fat Tuesday float of ghosts for company,
and he’d say names over and over, you know—
Willie Cornish, John P. Robichaux, Butterfoot
and Bang Zang, Alcibiades Jeanjacques—I expect
you’ve met a few, down to Willis Spillis, Mumford,
the boys from the Silver Leaf, Baptiste Delisle.
He’d rave till we strapped him in the cold pack.
Poor bastards. Crazy ain’t anybody’s holiday.
It’s likely he was haunted, but he had no hanker
to get back to the city. I asked, and even on those
ice cream days when he’d bear to speak: no word
on that matter. One day he told me the vanilla
in Jackson was better than shrimp. He winked:
“Know what I mean? The pink shrimp.” Honest!
When his orchestra of ghosts thiefed in, no solid
man could claim his attention, and he spoke
often in bird to the local birds or passing pelicans
and gulls. They’d strap him up again whenever
he’d start tearing at his shirt. Yeah, it’s true he’d
up and babble like one of the others. But I guess
I loved him a little, the way he’d strut and funk-step
when he wasn’t sick or bedeviled. I was never
tempted to preach him Jesus, a sport like that,
a man with style and a genius lip. That smile
would cut you at the knees, but he played it hot
with the brass, red sauce and peppered oysters,
no mercy, hardcore, jazzy with the fury of a man
driving a horse to Hell, B flat, flat out, making
the sound fresh by sheer scream. They say
his mother wept on visits at first, and he’d calm
and promenade her. She brought him peaches,
but by the end, I couldn’t get lick sense from him,
just gobble-gabble, bobbing like a walking crow,
his color gone ashy, drab skin hanging on him
like wattles. And I never could quite suss out—
so don’t get me started—the big mystery, why life
hurt him so, why he fell from King Bolden
to pure misery. I could rattle on about how maybe
the music in his mind was cold and running wild
in a circle he couldn’t shake out, but that would be
a guess. Don’t get me started. They say he broke
his cherry, I mean gigged out for public hearing,
down on Liberty and Perdido streets, which could
supply the closest clue we’ll come to an answer,
as perdido in the old tongues always meant lost.
Print this poem