WAXAHACHIE — From the cotton fields of Georgia and toiling slaves in the 1700s to the urban jungle of Harlem, New York during the New Negro Movement in the 1930s and beyond, the connection between faith and music has been pervasive throughout black history.
Amidst the 48.88 square miles that make up Waxahachie, the sweet soulful blues music of “Blind” Aaron Greenwood and brothers Henry and Lincoln Caldwell help link the blacks of today to those long since passed.
“It reaches in and touches the soul,” said Henry, a Blues guitarist who doubles as a fiercely passionate preacher. “It’s been around since the Bible and there’s a whole book of Psalms about it. It’s funny that it would be out in the fields where blacks were working, but once it gets inside you, you can’t stop it. It makes you want to work when you can’t work and do things you shouldn’t be able to do.”
North Getzendaner Street, the road that cuts through the heart of the city’s east side was bathed in the sweet and sultry riffs of the trio’s lyrical translation of the faith of the community that surrounds them.
A musical form originated by blacks in the southern United States toward the end of the 19th century, Blues incorporates spirituals, work songs, field hollers, shouts, chants and rhymed simple narrative ballads. The Blues form, which is ubiquitous in Jazz, Rock and Roll and Hip-Hop and Rap, frequently took the form of a loose narrative, often relating the troubles experienced in African-American society in its earliest stages.
Greenwood and the Caldwells’ are part of a musical line that harkens back decades to the melodies by B.B. King, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf that floated out of clubs and dive bars in Chicago, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas.
“I’m 62 years young. Don’t want to get any older than that, but I’m going to have to,” Greenwood said with a loud but poignant laugh. “I’ve known him (motioning toward Henry with a wave of his slender but time-worn hand) since I was 15 years old. We’ve played everywhere, a lot of places black people wouldn’t. Wherever and whatever he played I played and wherever, and whatever I played he played.”
Despite being stricken with blindness at the age of 9 because of detached retinas, music has always been a way to speak the words of God, Greenwood said. It’s been that way since he was a little boy sitting on his father’s lap, listening to elders play the keyboard.
“I’ve been blind since 1964, ever since my mother died, but I’ve been playing music since the second or third grade,” he continued. “My daddy used to play keyboard before he died. My grandmother used to play, too, back in the old days when you used to have to pump the pedal to get the air to come out. I guess you can call my music inherited.”
He learned the art of music through the keyboard, but learned to play the alto saxophone at the Austin-based Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and taught himself to play strings on a broken five-string guitar that only had four strings.
“Texas, Oklahoma, California, Louisiana — we’ve been a lot of places together in 47 years,” Greenwood said, his grainy voice seeming to crack under the weight of age, time and experience. “We’ve been entertaining for a long time in Waxahachie, too. We played from uptown, the Rodgers Hotel, Paco’s, the courthouse square and the cheese steak house up there on Main Street to the barbecue pit in Reagor Springs on 287. Music means everything to this community — and me.”
Everything about the man with the shaded glasses and the guitarist sitting next to him spoke from memory the journey the duo took around the globe, the pain of loss and the love and message that is the driving force behind their music.
While both have been down and out, each said music saved them in its special way. Henry, only a handful of years ago, was told by a dozen medical specialists he’d never see, walk or use his hands again after suffering a severe stroke.
“They told me that I’d never play, walk or see again,” Caldwell said. “All I cared about was my hands. I couldn’t imagine not being able to play again. That’s what I asked God for. Instead, he gave me more than what I asked for. That’s why I play for the glory of him. I asked him to heal one thing and within a week he healed me whole.”
Greenwood, though, has been robbed of natural beauties those with sight may take for granted for more than 50 years. It’s that deficit in sight that is a benefit to his soul, Henry said.
Henry quoted John 20:29: “Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed,” softly strumming the third string of his guitar, Lucille.
Faith and music are one in the same and have the power to save and comfort souls and make the unbelievers believe, he said. Henry added the idea that most people believe that they can see and not what they can’t, making his friend unique and pure and able to walk by faith and not by sight.
Greenwood laughed the notion off humbly, saying he’s just doing the best with the gifts the Lord has given him. That’s the way it is and the way he’s going to be until the day he dies because he doesn’t know how to be anyway else, he said.
“I play because it’s something that should be passed on,” he continued. “It shouldn’t be trapped prisoner to yourself. It should be free. It’s an inheritance of life and the culture of our people. I’m always playing music, even when I’m by myself. Because when I’m playing music, I’m never alone.”
Marcus S. Marion can be reached at (469) 517-1456. Follow him on Twitter @MarcusMarionWNI.