(after the painting Árbol de Blues by Roberto Valadez)
The hands of this telling tree pull
him from the cobalt bowl sky,
bring Jimmy back to the ruins
of Maxwell Street hunched in dusk.
He stood where strings intersected
frets like tracks meeting ties
on the Illinois Central’s passage
from the Mississippi Delta,
then followed the bread crumbs
of troubadours to this steel city.
Twelve-hour shifts beckoned
mexicanos north on the Union Pacific
from Piedras Negras
to Pilsen, Back of the Yards.
How many grandparents, mothers and fathers,
pounded stake into soil,
snuck or were shoved into boxcars,
leapt onto the train’s iron rungs
as it shuddered along the rails
to foundries where they poured
molten metal, faced hot licks
of the blast furnace’s growl and hiss?
How many lugged themselves north
to slaughterhouses that drooled
rank puddles at their feet? This,
so sons and daughters might step off
into another era, choose instruments of wood and metal,
axes of their own timbre.
This so Jimmy might mix his own palette—
tune each turquoise pitch and purple tone
into an electric blues old as corridos,
but new to the mexicanos who came each
Sunday to the market at Maxwell.
New to the ears of Roberto, a boy, who would keep
his ranchera rhythms close
as a pair of old jeans but grow
into the blues as he listened
to the heirs of Papa Jackson—
Johnny Young, Howlin’ Wolf, Nighthawk
and Maxwell Jimmy. Now Roberto sits in overalls
at an easel, splits
the hairs of his brush over how to compose
this ofrenda, this homage. How
to take Jimmy back in time to the market
whose merchants once hustled
with tricks for trade ancient as Africa, as Toltec Mexico,
Maxwell, whose live blues bands
and car radios belting norteño mixes made
every Sunday a session.
How to take Jimmy back
to Maxwell’s gathering spot where he guzzles
from an aluminum garden blooming atop his amp,
swings his ax—
fingers climbing its trunk, plucking twigs—
while our feet tap the roots
of this wailing tree. Notes skip through alleys
of his voice like gravel
pinging off windshields, lift a pitch
high enough to singe the autumn sky—
cousin to the red and green gritos of the barrio
only blocks away. Twelve bars spin
like metal rims, stack like hubcaps,
chords crackling in the tin barrels of his laughter.
When the people gather, he sputters,
What did the one-eyed woman say?
and waits for them to peer into the devil’s draw
of his eyes before he roars,
Where is my one-eyed man?
But we barely get to the punch line, to the end
of a set, before the mayor swings his ax,
a claw that rips this árbol de blues up by its roots;
before Chicago swings its wrecking ball
to level homes, stores, restaurants, bars;
before troops graffiti-blast, scrub and cinch-sack it
all, but one empty wall
where someone has scrawled Jimmy’s name
among the others in this hall of fame:
Willie, Hound Dog, Honey Boy, Sal,
the many legends who’ve shared the marrow
of their music, of Santana’s hearty
soup with the bones still in it steaming with sabor
and sometimes weeping.