What you should be afraid of is what people don’t know, and they know it.  For that is what they act superior to.  The happiest feeling you can have, and your worst fear, the knowledge of your unimportance—what people don’t know about you.  Nobody acts superior to that—to what they really don’t know, only to what they know they don’t know.  You are neither threatening nor threatened in what people really don’t know.  And David Threnody had something.  He had something in his art, his music, but you only knew that if you listened.  Then you knew.  You knew what didn’t know.  You knew the music, but you didn’t know the man who played it.  This anonymity David had sometimes like a warm blanket, other times leaving him felt out in the cold.  And David was learning the difference.  He was learning about the pressure in recognition.  The recognition of having a talent and then learning to live with it.  That slip into feeling you’re important because of something you created, because of something you have.  David had made a few songs, and sung them.  There was blessing in that.  There was blessing in having created something and knowing that it was good.  The curse was in having others know it, what you have to sell of yourself to get them to listen, and then having no control over how they respond.  David was glad that maybe now somebody would listen, somebody would listen and hear his voice, but he was also glad if they didn’t.  For then he could still hide.  He could hide from the judgment of what they heard.

A man named Otis Redford heard.  He heard the first song I heard, the first recording I heard of David waiting at that crossroads in the American Bottom.  He heard and was afraid of what he knew he didn’t know, and so he acted superior, and threatened.  He didn’t hear David’s voice and embrace it as a fan, for he had his own musical aspirations, and rather than seeing a colleague, a fellow musician he could play with in time—he saw a threat to his own importance.  And this is the deadliness in all hopes for fame and fortune, in the pressure of dreams to be loved not for who you are, but in what you do.  In this case what you do as an artist.  And so when his friend, the sound engineer sitting in on David Threnody’s first recording, shared the demo record and allowed Otis Redford to hear David’s voice and his soulful frets on that guitar he stole from Mississippi, Otis listened.  And that’s the first step to any fame as an artist—getting someone to listen.  But getting someone to listen and like it.  Getting someone to tell others to listen as well.  Well, in a perfect world, maybe—maybe this would happen and all your dreams of your own importance would come true.  But in this world, a world Bethany Labeau learned about in her mother’s revelations of a Mardi Gras when she was a girl, about how you really win, how you win first place—you learn it pays to be humble.  You learn to aim low, and if you meditate on anything, it’s not in how to win others love, but in concentrating on your ever-present goodness in loving others.  Anything else is inevitably doomed to depression and frustration, being crushed under pressures self-created, and any aspirations you have for your art, talented or otherwise, are destined for failure.

And so we almost don’t have it.  Those first recordings of David Threnody.  Because Otis Redford, a decent guitar player in his own right, asked his friend to corrupt it.  To corrupt the sound and damage the recordings.  He paid him to keep the impurities in the sound, the phase distortion.  Phase distortion a type of undesirable sound alteration that comes from certain frequencies going out of time with other frequencies.  It adds a certain harshness to the feedback, a dissonance to the signal.  And this was how it was cut—David Threnody’s first record.  Otis Redford hoping the record company wouldn’t play it due to the quality of the sound.  The funny thing about it, the funny thing is—people liked it, the record label producers liked it.  Even David liked it, which is why they allowed it to be distributed even after discovering how the sound engineer dropped the ball, and why.  And so in way Otis Redford helped David Threnody, even in his thwarted efforts to stop his sound, to keep people from listening.  And that unique sound, that harsh quality to David’s voice, that haunting slide to his guitar, was what made people listen.  It’s what made me listen the first time I heard him on KDHX community radio waiting on a train at a crossroads in the American Bottom.

And other people listened as well, which gives me this story, the next story—how Popovitch came back in the picture, and Bethany Labeau supporting her husband’s drug habit from the war in a deal gone bad set up by her uncle, William Bloodwood, involving her grandmother, Bridgette, and their previous mule habits with her past lover, Denny.  It gives me the story of how David Threnody and Bethany Labeau met, not just over a song, but in a bad trade over several pounds of marijuana that almost got Johnny Tribout killed.  And you can’t—you just can’t—I can’t act superior in fear of what I know I don’t know.  I am happy in realizing my own unimportance in telling you this story.  How I’m not selling you anything in trying to get you to listen.  And who knows?  Maybe just like with David Threnody, what tries to thwart people from listening becomes the very thing that makes them listen.  And you can’t be afraid of this—what you know you don’t know.  Sometimes embracing the chaos of fate what makes you a happy man.  In the governing bodies of physical and spiritual worlds.  What makes you a pilgrim on your way to what you don’t know.  And maybe David knew this without knowing, and without being afraid.  It hides there in that first song.  That first song, that first recording, in that song where I first heard his voice, in how it tells how sometimes there’s more than one way to get something done.  There’s more than one way to get to where you’re going…

 

Black cat’s got nine lives

I only got one…

Yeah, gypsy woman say she got nine lives

I only got one…

There’s more than one way to skin a cat

But there ain’t nothin’ new under the sun…

 

They say there’s lots a fishes

Under the sea…

Yes, they say there’s lots a fishes

Under the sea…

Catch one or the caught one

Still seems like déjà vu to me…

 

Black cat’s got nine lives

I only got one…

Gypsy woman told me she loves me

Boys, ain’t that fun?

There’s more than one way to skin a cat

But there ain’t nothin’ new under the sun…

 

She moves me in the way she moves her body

Got me all twisted up inside…

Honey bee knows how to make honey

I ain’t the only man she’s tried…

And memories now is all I have

Cause she done took my pride…

 

Black cat done crossed my path

Bad luck mirror says she got nine lives…

I done counted down from eight

But havin’ trouble with the math…

(Lord knows my hands can’t do the sum…)

Do know somethin’ though, boys

There’s more than one way to skin a cat

And there ain’t nothin’ new under the sun…

 

–Black Cat Moan…  written by David Threnody: first track recorded at Piety Street Records, New Orleans: Aug 9, 1945

Advertisements