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  • Field Holler, and: Work Song, and: Bob Wills: A Childhood Album, and: Levee Camp Moan Blues, and: Swing Low, and: Holy Roller
  • William Woolfitt (bio)

Field Holler

Because the field was galled, blotched with yellow hardpan,tobacco-worn, gravel-pocked, flood-scoured,

he had to fork and spread pond ooze and manure and soot,his feet splayed, his body strong as the fibrous

stems of trumpet vine, burdened with song, upwelling,he cried Bring Me Cool Water, I Want

Blackstrap on Ash Cake, the notes like food,he said he tasted the words he sang.

Because scrub choked the gullied jack lot, she had to stoop,and yank, and uproot loblolly, frostweed,

broomsedge, baby cedars, she rose and sang Rock My Soul,Tree of Life, her voice carrying like pine seeds, winged

and wind-flung, crossing meadows, hedges, osage orange,living fence, he turned his head as he salved

the earth, let out a whoop that rang,and she cupped her ear, she hallelooed. [End Page 9]

Work Song

Black workers and prisoners often spoke to the sun directly, addressing it as “Old Hannah.”

In swelter, in muddy oozethat slops their legs,in salt-sweated clothes,the fathers and mothers

hack apart the stubbornpuzzle of cypress roots,dig out stumps, ash and gum.Parched mouths call go down,

old Hannah, rise no more.Old sun woman drives a cartpulled by roan ponies, toothlessgranny in a kersey dress

she’s dyed turkey red.The fathers and mothersfry like meat scraps,wilt like ferns

under Hannah’s sticky heat.With groaning backs,cries in their bones, they singagain at gray dawn, horn blow,

gong strike. Hannah, don’t riseso fast. The sun a thorn-prick,nail wound, streaky pink ragthey slow, dim, can’t sing out. [End Page 10]

Bob Wills: A Childhood Album

He is eight, living in cotton shacks, in a burrowin the ground, ceiling fringed with grass roots,sowbugs that fall onto his face: he jerks awake,can’t sleep, he slips out and follows the strains:trumpet arpeggios and guitar licks,

black cotton pickers gathered around small fires,inventing jig-tunes and laments that he drinks in:he’s sluggish picking the next daywhile the night musicians speed down the rows,smooth and quick, they hum and sing,

call out and fill sacks with bolls. At twelve,he plays mandolin at ranch dances, Stone Ragand Waltz in D. Sixteen, he wants to hearBessie Smith and Her Jazzoway Dandies singGulf Coast Blues: he rides a horse to a nightclub

forty miles away. He hobos on a flatcar,eighteen, sharing gritty water and biscuitswith unwashed men, he sways, passes out,and comes to in a field of longhornsunder the stars. One day, he will know two-steps,

the Texas Playboys, Vocalion, medicine shows,stomps, Lawd, Lawd. He will make songs,fold and shake together all the scales, hues,rhythms, and tones he knows, wailing,exclamatory, raucous, gleeful, blue. [End Page 11]

Levee Camp Moan Blues

Clay-spatters dry on his arms,    crumb from his hands. Ike Antoine picks,        sifts, and wheels away loads of earth,

tells his crewmen to stake and trench    the grave mound while Peabody records        his acquisitions in chinaberry shade, shirking

the July sun. Cutting through the sod line,    the loam, the kinds of clay, buckshot and gumbo,        Ike starts each day deeper in the long groove

of dirt, further from the sun, the sky narrowing,    a hot seam, a blister of light. Down and down,        he descends through strata of discs and potsherds,

flint points, snail shells, blue ash. I can’t find    a big boat, Ike sings. Can’t find a mule        with her shoulder well. He cradles and counts

bones and the splinters of bones, Indian bones,    bundles of bones, bones crushed, the doubled over,        scissor-splayed, the hundreds. [End Page 12]

Swing Low

The spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was reportedly written by Wallace Willis, an enslaved man who survived the Choctaw Trail of Tears.

He angles the lever, strains his back,    pushes the stuck wagon, and slips        in wet mud, stinking marl.

Bluecoats with bayonets    drive them...


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