Sammy Blue

Sammy “Blue” Bellhorn, born the son of a sharecropper in a hot, dusty corner of Georgia, is the richest man in Sycamore Shadows. He must be, because he’s the only person in town who doesn’t want anything.

He owns the bait shack near the covered bridge, sells minnows and crawdads caught from the creek and nightcrawlers collected in yards after a rain. Sammy lives in a room in the rear of the shack, sleeps on a cot, drinks from a pickle jar, eats from his one plate with his one spoon and knife, and wears one of two changes of patched and worn clothing. Other than a shotgun hanging next to the door, everything else Sammy owns is in a wooden box at the foot of his bed: some faded photos, a quilt made by his mother, and a few other mementos. He keeps his money in an empty mayonnaise jar on the table, next to his Bible and a box of ammunition. Sammy never locks his place; folks who need bait know to put the money in the jar.

Sammy plays blues guitar and sings his own songs of lost love and loneliness, songs that he wrote for a girl but didn’t understand until she was gone. When Sammy sings, his voice blends with his guitar as if they were of the same material, the same way it had been with the girl. Hardly a summer day passes that a stranger doesn’t offer to buy the guitar, a 1938 Martin 000-45. Sammy laughs and answers, no, he expects he’ll keep it a while longer yet, thinking he’d just as soon sell his soul. For Sammy, maybe it’s the same thing. 

It’s wonderful to hear him singing at night when the town has settled, his voice sounding scratchy and sad like a 78-rpm record, as mournful as a weeping thrush, yet pleasant and reassuring. On quiet summer evenings I open my windows and listen to Sammy Blue as I lie in bed.

A man came to town a few years ago, a folklorist from the Library of Congress, wanting to record Sammy and his guitar. Sammy wouldn’t sing for the man, saying music should be heard, appreciated, and let go. Sammy couldn’t understand why a person would try to catch it, as if you could capture the soul of a song on a disc or the scent of your first love in a bottle. Sammy laughed as he watched the man drive away disappointed. He shook his head and laughed because he knew something that the stranger with dreams of discoveries and the recorder in his trunk might never realize.   

Sammy Blue, who can’t help smiling because he’s the richest man in Sycamore Shadows, who could have been a star like Leadbelly or Mississippi John Hurt, but doesn’t care as long as there are fish in the creek to catch, hills to toss the echoes of his heartfelt songs back and forth, and friends with time to talk and listen.

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