Like love, fate has its own
groove, an invisible third rail
between those we think we toil
and ride. Fate defines us with its
yearning for distant shores;
it’s as if we were the horse
fate chose to ride, and
the storied beach is forever
taking shape beneath our feet.
Fate steers us through events
that sometimes don’t take
our breath away for years,
so heavily burdened we are
with the peripheral freight
we’re told is so important
and all we think we know.
Perhaps we don’t grow up
as much down,down into the
third and deepest realm
in us, getting to the
heart of things not
through our own mastery
but by learning how to surrender
adequately enough to allow the
daimon room to sing.
The road in and down
is one of trials and descants,
rigors of soul in servitude
to its calling. We’re all
naturals in that calling’s
singular way, hopeless buffoons
in the rest. Many artists make
love a halcyon of strings
but few can weave their
own heart-strings with another’s.
“Easy to play but hard to feel”—
that’s how Jimi Hendrix described
his love and fear of the blues,
as if his Strat carved depths
too wild for his unformed heart,
as if art were both shield
and blade were the bliss
of something too true to be real
or too real for anyone to
master, much less survive
after one glimpse of its depth.
Stevie Ray Vaughan didn’t
live much longer than Hendrix
but he swam just as deep
with his beat-up guitar
and thick voice like molasses-
laced Everclear, his licks
like wild broncos galloping
so fast away he never caught up.
His own heart this tumbleweedy
whirl booze and coke kept
still enough while his hands
blew off rooftops with their wind.
Others are played the blues
as fresh as their first kiss
well into their 80s – BB King,
for example, or Muddy Waters,
who once said “I been in the blues
all my life. I’m still delivering
’cause I got a long memory.”
I believe it’s the lumbering
elephant of fate that makes
us remember so, holding on to
the hardest images of
heart – loneliness, betrayal,
settling for settling for –
because that the stuff
that the heart is built on,
the pain that makes us real.
How else do we know what to choose
if we’ve never first sung its blues?
I say all this as preface to
a tale about a singer and song
that shined a light far down
these ears a few weeks ago
when I first heard her sing it,
teaching this old fool
something new about fate.
Let me recede to the wings
while a woman takes center stage–
pretty and young and wielding
a wickedly-hooved blues guitar.
It’s a story about how fate opens
a mouth wide to sing
something so soft that
new doors opened in my ears …
Taking a break off the eternal road
of journeywoman blues, Samantha Fish
spent two days last spring taping
at Ruf Records’s studio in Germany
– a label reknowned for its stable
of new female blues artists–
layin down ten tracks (eight original)
for her first real album Runaway
(her first was a live performance)
inlaying mother-of-pearl frets
in those songs the conversation
between a soft articulate voice
reaching for blue’s register
and searing a blues guitar
that grows hotter with every mile
touring on the road distills.
Fish is young – just 23 – but the itch
came to her early, falling in love
with the Black Crowes at 10, starting
on drums at 13, and then, tired of
the restricted hours in her parents’
basement, switching to guitar at 15.
Every young peer playing guitar
wanted to play like Slash and she started out
that way, learning to play loud and fast,
fingers racing to catch up with the
smoking hooves of what raced in her.
Then one summer on vacation at a
beach-house in Southern California
with her aunt and uncle, she was stuck
by the ocean with one record by Stevie
Ray Vaughan and the blues caught her
up in its muddy, whiskey-wistful wave
and she found her calling in
that boy-man’s wild-horse groove.
Not many woman play lead guitar
and few attempt white lightning blues—
belting licks that nail the sound
of a heart outmanned by devil dames –
but Fish proved a natural.
With Stevie Ray’s daimon pouring a
Texas flood of tejas in her inner ear
she changed the way she held her guitar,
leaning into it like she was
somehow riding her last name.
Soon she was giddayapping
screaming notes into the stampede
of a much older heart on fire.
In a few months Fish would end
her nights delivering pizzas
to join bands onstage at
Knuckleheads in Kansas City,
a kid wonder like Derek Trucks with a
difference, you know, all those
nasty licks pouring from rather
innocent-looking young chick
who wore a cocktail dress.
After just a whiff of what only
could be found in the third set’s
smoky, sweat-drenched stein
of well-lubed blues did
she realize she was ready
to begin and how.
So at 18 Fish moved to Chicago
and soaked in Southside brine,
learning to bend the notes of
her blonde Bluesmaster T-style
like Howlin’ Wolf, getting drunk
on wicked sevenths and leaping
from ghetto balconies
into the arms of bum lovers
without ever straying from the frets.
(Her personal life’s her own;
her songs tell everything important
without offering a single clue.
Persons don’t sing the blues
as much as personas, perhaps
more than any other form of song;
perhaps that’s why its the
purest, rawest, truest way
to sing the sloshing heart.)
After that she hit the road and has
remained out there for the past five years,
touring, touring, touring, leaning
all the road only can teach, jamming
with all the current greats
of that rich if vagrant cousin
to other negligibles of song like
folk, straight jazz and polka.
I mean, who adores the blues like pop?
Who reads “Inferno” when you can
watch “Twilight”? Music is consumed
most by the young; they are gripped
in its klieg dream; and yet,
good blues – the kind that slays
exactly what it rarifies — is
something rare to find distilled
so well without the years.
Alberta Hunter, who sang right up
there with the likes of Bessie Smith
in the speakeasies of the Prohibition ‘20s,
once said, “Blues means what milk does
to a baby. Blues is what the spirit
is to the minister. We sing the blues
because our hearts have been hurt,
our souls have been disturbed.”
At 23? It’s possible but not likely
but then sometimes something
rides a person there so fast
you wonder how such fires can build,
how they can ever last.
Fish recorded “Feelin Alright”
at the end of that 2-day recording
marathon, the tune played in
a diminished, lower key, Mike
Zito’s rhythm guitar keeping
to the low end of the neck finding in
that cellar region a strange sweet
hallow – “a swampy, Delta, caveman-
style of music” Fish called it in
recent interview. Her licks are
hot-mournful, undistorted, tinny
like the sound of glassware in
the next roomm or shredding in
her parents’ basement after curfew;
but her voice is pure smoky reverie,
singing in a register so low
that she whispers as much
as sings of what’s only found in
the last inch in the whiskey bottle.
Substitute guitar with piano and
“Feelin’ Alright” is pure Ray Charles
channeled back through a young woman’s
heart of guitar hearts, a jazzy lowdown
after-hours downtown or on-the-beach
low blues, soft like a slow dance
half in blackout or that post-orgasmic
float to sleep beside the lover
who’s always gone by first light.
I heard the song for the first time
a few weeks ago, driving home
from Orlando after speaking at my AA club
about my eternal love of whiskey
and bad women, of what raw cups
of hootch can do to a life and its loves.
Blues poured straight without
the song’s twelve bars to round
its player home can drown a man
faster even than bad love found,
deeper than a good one lost.
My car radio was tuned to a blues
show on the local PBS affiliate
I hadn’t listened to since I was
separated from my wife ten years ago,
eking long nights of relapse
where no one ever knew my name.
The songs were unfamiliar yet
tasty – you never forget good BBQ –
and then they played a request
for Fish’s “Feelin’ Alright” and
the song slowly swam from the
speakers through me, Fish’s
sultry vibe seducing me into its
swooning end-of-night reverie.
What immediately struck me iwas
how it was soft low voice in
China White groove reached in
and sprung all the spirit-cages
of my bad-lovin’ past,
allowing every one-night lover
notched on the bedpost of my need
to whisper in one voice
please don’t go in my heart’s ear.
The song moved me so much that
I bothered to go online the next day
to find the show’s website and playlist
for that Saturday night until I found out
who sang it, downloaded the song on iTunes,
watched some videos of Fish perform
on YouTube, and read a couple interviews,
all of it translating into the
lathe and mortar of this poem.
In one interview Fish said she
was reluctant to record “Feelin’ Alright”
at first, protesting “I don’t play that way.”
The song’s a sore thumb in the LP’s
sassy-loud-blues mix; she knocked it off
quickly to end the session
and didn’t think much of it
til the album came out and everyone
begain talking about
that eerie darksweet swing
almost beyond the album’s end.
A gift from precincts unknown yet to Fish,
the surest inkling of fate’s call.
Asked if she would start performing
more songs in that sultry vein
she replied, “Who knows what the future
will bring? “I’m probably going
to head down that route later.
I’m open to any direction of music,
as long as it’s progress for me.”
A gift perhaps for the rest of us
as well to dream along with the
song’s ebbing-surf blues, to imagine
what’s out there showing new
depths inside. “Feelin’ Alright”
lingers in my ears that way, hanging
there like the post-coital croon
on a beach’s moonlit sands
long after midnight, baptising
me with the salt of old tears
and awakening a fresh, almost fatherly
ennui for all those Nereid beds
I passed through at the bottom
of my youth’s sea of desires.
(Who knows, maybe that voice
channels one of my aborted daughters—
they’d be about her age.)
For me the song chansons something
other than lust, something inside that
old jones for pussy, something deeper.
In her voice’s bittersweet wash
I hear the my own voice singing back
over all those beds with love and respect,
wishing well all those fleeting
lovers the song is the chorus of
because in one frame, for one
everlasting moment it was all
about Feelin’ Alright, if just for
a few minutes before sleep, booze
having opened a door for two
to strip their persons with nakedness,
inducing us into the motions of
a love neither of us could do more
than linger in for those few hours
between closing time and moving on.
That road led me here to what
took me off the road for good,
my own guitar parked for a decade in
the closet near our bed where
each night my wife and I lay in
darkness holding hands drifting
our way toward sleep, blue night
rocking a our marriage’s timbers,
a cold November half-moon up in
the steeple of the sky tolling
the ancient cry for love
before leaving this world for good
while wild horses and tumbleweeds
course up and down the panhandle
of this black skillet of a night,
Fish performs “Feelin’ Alright”
Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, Samantha Fish.
Submitted for d’Verse Poets Open Link Night #19.