I WAS coming up with sweet tunes, poetic dainties, and marzipan cakes, when I wanted simple American cherry pie and "don't walk away from me, babe" heavyweights. Like all serious young men, I was fond of the blues.
I loved their humorous cadences of sorrow, their lightnings of love. I wanted to be a knight of the 12-string guitar. I could copy other singers, but I took myself seriously and was beginning to compose. I was practicing for the woman who would come into my life, "take my money, my Cadillac (if I had one), and leave me" - just so I could write more great songs. I loved the blues. But I was too complicated and theoretical. I knew too much.
I was a student in England waiting around to get shipwrecked so I'd have something to write home about. I needed a "vital wound" so I could be a knight left for dead and dragged into the castle by missionary girls-in-waiting.
I messed around with my roommates at Cambridge, making up songs with them. My American blues were much appreciated, and loosened them up. But they were too English, and life was too ordered there for me to get really inspired. A Sunday off meant getting a shoe shine, buying the London papers, having tea, and playing Frisbee at a local inn.
Where was I going to get some raw material for my coveted "vital wound" I didn't have yet - that would earn me a place singing the blues on a stage?
Some friends offered me a house-sit down in the wilds of Suffolk. The cottage was full of recording equipment, so I decided to stay there alone for a few weeks at break, get some country into my throat, and find inspiration in front of some recording equipment with my knee-held 12-string. I'd make a demo tape for a label I knew in London.
It was wild. Rural damp, with lush foliage, and a mouse on every leaf. Yew Tree Cottage was an artist's retreat, thatched. There was a pond with ducklings and long field rats swimming after them. It was thick with echoing life, a comedy or a tragedy next to every tree root.
The sun, hidden all day, made the place mystical in gray, then came out angelically on the button at 5:30 for 15 minutes, then disappeared. There were blues down there, I could feel it. You'd have to hold up your guitar as a shield and pick it against the brooding sky and create your own tapestry of color. I imagined Shakespeare might have gone to such a cottage to dream up his three plays a year in iambic beat.
I kept the coal-fire stove going in the kitchen against the damp. In the mornings I'd compose on the back porch overlooking the life-and-death struggles of the pond. In the afternoons I went for deep rural walks. When the angelic light broke through the swirling clouds and gave the landscape a golden cast, I'd know it was time to walk home and make my supper.
One evening I came across a wild swan in a roadside ditch. Its head was up, watching me soberly, until I approached and saw a wing was injured. Then it tried to run.
I THOUGHT I'd pick up the poor creature and put it in a warm place in the kitchen. I'd have someone to sing to. But no blues song had ever told me the strength of a hurt wild swan. I picked him up the wrong way. The cobra-stab of his bill went right through my jacket and just about took out my right lung.
I keeled over, letting him go, hands protecting my head. I was shot, killed, mortally wounded by a thing of beauty, at last! No woman had ever been interested in slapping me that hard. I could sing the blues now! I laughed. But it smarted. "Vital wounds" hurt.
I didn't know who to call about the beautiful white swan. So I walked across the cloddy fields to the nearest farm. There I met Mrs. Crossland, my neighbor, who lived with her brother. He got a burlap sack and went out after the beautiful and injured. The kind old lady farmer boiled water and gave me a cleanup.
"So you're up from Cambridge. Aye?"
"Lonely in these parts." A question.
"I'm writing songs, ma'am. I came here to be alone."
"Mrs. Allen has me over to do for her sometimes at the cottage. Rosie, my niece, does it when I'm busy. If you'll be needing anything...."
"Oh, no thanks, ma'am."
"... Don't we, Rosie?" she said to a girl, tall and thin, who came in through the back with a carton of eggs. "We can come over and see about you. If you need a meal cooked. And you can get on with your composing, then. That's a nasty peck."
I hadn't realized I'd made contact in a big way with people who hardly ever saw a stranger and spent extra egg money collecting pretty china for company they hope for. Because of my solitary rambles, it was known by everyone but me that there was a mysterious handsome young man about.
"He's the one so stupid he tried to pick up a swan?" said Rosie, with perfect joyful contempt.
"Really, ma'am. I don't think I'll be needing...."
"I'll send something for your supper tonight. Rosie or I can look in on you. You'll need that bandage changed."
When I came down the stairs to make breakfast, the kitchen was already warming the house. Mrs. Crossland and the girl were sitting at my table. Mrs. C. jumped up and went to the skillet. Fresh eggs and a loaf of bread were on the counter, wrapped in a towel.
The girl, who had long stringy hair that looked like it was smoked by charcoal, looked sullen.
"So yer still alive," said the girl in a farm jacket too big for her.
"How's the swan?" I asked, and she brightened.
"It's a mother. You don't fetch near them this time of year. You're lucky you didn't lose your eyes."
I knew whose side she'd be on in a fight with a mother swan.
"Well, you saved me."
That brought color to her pale cheeks. It seemed to gratify her in the most simple way. Compared with last night's querying repulse, I thought the girl and her aunt must have had some fun with the non-versed-in-country-ways stranger who seemed so aloof; and now she had me in hand.
I was going to kick them out after breakfast. Nice people, but I had work to do.
"Rosie's a singer, you know. Sings through the woods. Sings to her pets. You know when Rosie's coming."
Then I knew what they had come for. It was all right. I'd lay some blues on them. Show off the recording equipment. Then kick them out.
"It's a pretty song," said Rosie in a new voice. The music had animated her staring eyes. "You could put something else in there."
"I didn't want it pretty. It's supposed to be bluesy. Do you know the blues?" I felt my temperament rise under the spell of my work.
"Nay. But go on."
Then the little intruder had the audacity to start humming. A little harmony hum-hummm as if deciding on a particular choice of ice cream.
"Hey, that's not bad."
"They say she sings well in school too."
"I don't know which words."
I didn't care any more about blues authenticity and "true pain." I let her accompany me on a song. I let fly the recording reels, a thrill for her, I figured; and the tape picked up her missionary silver thread of rescue to my half-blues, half-contrived ballad. She improvised naturally between beats, making a counterpoint between my "genuine" American rhythm. She laid a throaty bouquet of rural flowers around words quite foreign to her:
"You be the duck and I'll
Keep you safe from
... But babe..."
"Babe!" she repeated, as if she had never heard the sense of that word. It was fresh and indifferent. Her voice carried authority like that brief angelic light at 5:30, spreading color and gold. Her "babe" was what a girl in the woodlands knew about life and death, rats and ducklings, swans and eggs. It was a girl's happy blues.
I didn't escape the cottage without an invitation to tea at Mrs. Crossland's. Rosie and I sang the one song she knew again in the parlor. We ate saved-up, half-stale marzipan cakes, and tea was served on hardly used cups and saucers with little animals on them.
"I like the blues," said Rosie.
Back at Cambridge, I got an ominous package in the mail. My demo tape was returned. "Superficial," was the reply. "Good artwork but a little difficult to categorize. Who's the girl? She's very good. A natural 'blues' woman. A student? Would you care to send us her name and address?"
It was some time before I returned to Yew Tree Cottage. I had graduated and was returning to the states.
"Whatever became of Rosie?" I asked my friends, the Allens.
"Oh, that was big news for a while. She was getting little checks from a studio in London for singing lessons. Mrs. C. and she even went down to the city. First time for Mrs. Crossland."
"Rosie? She's getting married. To our tree-pruner."
"The village organist took her on for a while."
"But she's a natural. She can sing the blues!"
That night at a candlelight farewell dinner in the garden by the pond, where three of the ducklings had survived to become the big brown ducks on the lawn, I could see through the trees to the light at Mrs. Crossland's. Talent was in the most obscure place, I thought. It was everywhere. I knew now Rosie was doing what she wanted with hers.
"Oh," she had said that day, to my question. "What did I do with the money they sent me?" Mischievous smile. "I bought a frock, a hat, and I got myself a real canary."
"And she sings to it," said her beau, who was at the house.
"But, Rosie. You could have a career. Singing the blues."
"We're going to take over the farm for my aunt," she said, happily.
I dashed inside for my guitar.
I had to entertain my friends on the lawn anyway. And I'd just got an idea. I thought about Rosie, inadvertently, teaching a canary to sing the blues. What an idea.
I'd make up a song about a "country woman who could teach a canary" ... a good woman? A mean woman? A soul woman? Nay, a song by my genuine self about a girl of the woodlands who had a throat of raw magic. So what if it sounded marzipan? Folksy? Pretty?
There might be something true in it.