Blues Guitar: Sammy “Blue” Bellhorn’s Bridge-side Bait Shack
Aunt Ada says Sammy Blue was simply there one day, an intelligent young black man wearing a new hat, coming from nowhere in particular, without a history, without a family, carrying an expensive Martin guitar, appearing so natural that no one thought to question his presence until it no longer mattered and wasn’t worth the asking. How he would fish when he wasn’t playing the guitar, catching smallmouth and sauger, mooneye, drum, and rock bass, then release them in the water, letting them go in an era when fish were for eating, smiling as he watched each one swim away, then sitting on a rock and playing, finger-style, Sammy’s own songs of lost love and loneliness; songs which some people say he wrote for a girl, songs even he hadn’t understood until she left, abruptly, without explanation, so long ago, yesterday. Sammy singing, his voice blending with the instrument as if they were made of the same material, the same way the girl had felt about him once; a 1931 000-45 Martin acoustic that cost four months’ wages, purchased new somehow, somewhere, now grown old with him, and there’s hardly a day in the summer when someone doesn’t offer to buy it, Sammy laughing and saying no, no, he expects he’ll keep it a while longer yet, thinking he’d just as soon sell his soul and that perhaps it’s the same thing. It’s wonderful to hear Sammy in the mornings through the fog, or at night when the town has settled, his voice scratchy like an old 78, mournful and sad, but somehow pleasing and reassuring at the same time. On quiet nights I can make out his voice as I lie in bed.
He has a bait shack near the bridge; sells minnows and crawdads caught from the creek, nightcrawlers collected in yards after a rain. Folks think nothing of seeing Sammy cross their lawn on a wet night, his bait box hanging from a strap, a flashlight in his hand. He has a room in the rear of his shack: a cot, bookshelf, table, gas lantern, a cupboard for some canned goods, a shotgun hanging from its strap on a nail. He keeps his money in an empty mayonnaise jar on the table, just enough to buy the few things he can’t provide for himself, though most nights someone in town invites Sammy for dinner. Job Tucker gives him guitar strings as often as he needs them – says it’s the least he can do for keeping the townsfolk entertained – and Big Bull Burson supplies him from the hardware store: nails, paint, tools, and seeds for his garden.
There was a man who came to town many years ago wanting to record Sammy, Pap said he was a folklorist all the way from the Library of Congress, wanted to record only the guitar and Sammy, still a young man of eighteen or so, the guitar nearly as fresh and raw as he was, but Sammy wouldn’t sing for the man, saying music should be heard, appreciated, and let go; how he couldn’t understand what would make a person want to keep it, as if you could capture the soul of a song on celluloid or the scent of your first love in a bottle. So the man drove away disappointed and found Leadbelly, Sammy smiling and shaking his head as he left, knowing something the stranger with dreams of new discoveries and the recorder in his trunk might not live long enough to realize. Sammy Blue, who could’ve been a star maybe, like Leadbelly or Mississippi John Hurt, but doesn’t care as long as there are fish to fool in the creek, hills to toss the echoes of his lonely songs back and forth, and one or two people with time to listen.