Linthead Stomp, Act Three

 

ACT THREE

Scene One

 

Setting is a drab sparsely-furnished millworker house in Leaksville. On the wall is a 1930 calendar and a poster for The North Carolina Rovers featuring Jimmy Shepherd. There is a phonograph in the corner and a guitar hanging on the wall. 

Mrs. Watson is washing sitting in a rocking chair, sewing. Johnnie Watson bursts into the room, excited, holding a 78 rpm record in his hands. 

            JOHNNIE: It’s here! I got it! The new Rovers record!

He rushes over to the phonograph and begins taking out the record from the sleeve.

MRS. WATSON (puts down her sewing and says sternly): Johnnie Watson! Now where’d you the get money for such foolishness at that? We ain’t got enough for you to be wasting it on records!

JOHNNIE (protesting): Aw, Ma! I done saved up for it. I ain’t used nothing but the money I made my own self!

Johnnie puts the record on the phonograph and cranks it up.

MRS. WATSON (resumes her sewing): Just plain foolishness if you ask me. Young folks nowadays ain’t got no sense when it comes to money. When I was a girl…

She is interrupted by the record playing “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues.” Johnnie is beaming and dancing around as he listens. Mrs. Watson continues to sew and pretends not to be listening, but the audience can see her toe tapping and her feet beginning to move as if she’s dancing.

            JOHNNIE: Ain’t it the best song you ever heard, Ma!

MRS. WATSON (indifferently): Oh, pshaw!

Johnnie cues up the record again and Mrs. Watson steals a glance, revealing that she wants to hear it again too. As the song begins to play Billy Herndon enters the room. 

            BILLY: What’s that noise?

JOHNNIE: Oh shut your mouth, Billy.  It’s the new record from the Rovers!

BILLY (grunts): I hear that Jimmy Shepherd ain’t nothing but a total drunk now.

JOHNNIE (bows up): That just shows that you don’t know nothing! You hear that right there? (gestures to the record player) Does that sound like a total drunk to you? The Rovers are famous! They’re all millionaires!

BILLY: Just sounds like some linthead moonshiners to me.

JOHNNIE: That just proves you ain’t nothing but an ignorant hick! Go on and leave if you don’t want to hear it.

Johnnie turns his back on Billy and continues listening to the record and dancing around. Once Johnny can’t see him, Billy starts bobbing his head and weaving with the music. Mrs. Watson glances up at him, smiles, and continues her sewing, still tapping her foot to the music. 

            BILLY: Well, since you want me to leave, I reckon I won’t tell you what I heard about the Rovers coming to town.

Johnnie turns suddenly toward Billy, excited look on his face. Mrs. Watson looks up from her sewing, pleasantly surprised. 

            JOHNNIE: What? Coming here to Leaksville? When, Billy? What have you heard?

BILLY: I heard it from Joe-Bob Watkins. His mama is married to Wesley’s cousin. Joe-Bob says they’re here coming next week.

JOHNNIE: Really?! Hot dog! The North Carolina Rovers back in Leaksville! Ain’t that the best news ever, Ma?! I’m gonna go find out if it’s true!

Johnnie rushes from the room, exiting stage right. 

            MRS. WATSON: Is it true, Billy?

BILLY: Yep. I just heard it, but the news is running across Leaksville now like a wildfire.

MRS. WATSON: Well it’s about time the folks here had something to make ‘em happy.

BILLY: That ain’t the only news that’s spreading, Miz Watson.

Mrs. Watson looks up, apprehensively. 

            BILLY (grimly): More lay-offs. Another pay cut. Another stretch-out. (pauses) There’s fixing to be a vote on a strike.

Mrs. Watson resumes sewing, but her hands are trembling. 

            BILLY: We got to stand up to them sometimes, Miz Watson.

Mrs. Watson says nothing, continuing to sew. Billy walks over and kisses her on the top of the head. 

            BILLY: It’s gonna be all right.

Mrs. Watson nods. Billy puts on his hat and exits. Mrs. Watson begins to cry, softly. 

CURTAIN

  Scene Two

 

The setting is Mrs. Shepherd’s millworker house in Leaksville. She has aged since we last saw her. The house is sparsely furnished, but clean. She is sweeping the floor. 

WESLEY (voice offstage): Yoo hoo! Anybody home?

Mrs. Shepherd looks up, startled, then shuffles over the door and opens it. Wesley rushes in and grabs her in a hug, lifting her off the ground. Wesley is wearing the suit we last saw him in. It’s worn. 

            MRS. SHEPHERD (giggling): Wesley Pritchett, you rascal! Put me down! (He sets her down and kisses her on the top of the head). I’ve been expecting you boys all morning. Where’s Jimmy?

WESLEY: He’ll be along directly, I reckon. You can’t do nothing with Jimmy Shepherd.

MRS. SHEPHERD: Let me fix you a biscuit, Wesley.

WESLEY: Much obliged, Miz Shepherd.

He sits at the table and she brings over a biscuit and a glass of milk. Wesley begins eating eagerly. 

            MRS. SHEPHERD: When did y’all get here?

WESLEY: (eating) Just a little while ago. I come straight over. Matt’s gone to his mama’s house and Jimmy said he had to go see a man about a dog.

A concerned look comes over Mrs. Shepherd. Wesley notices.

MRS. SHEPHERD: Has it gotten worse, Wesley?

WESLEY (concerned): I don’t know about worse. It ain’t never been good. (pauses) He ain’t well, Miz Shepherd.

MRS. SHEPHERD: Lordy mercy. (pauses, looking troubled, then brightens) I’ll get him straightened out now that y’all are home. Everybody’s real excited to see you boys. It’s been so long! And to think y’all done got famous! We’re all just as proud as we can be.

Wesley smiles nervously and keeps eating.

WESLEY: How is everything here? Don’t sound good from what I heard over at the station.

MRS. SHEPHERD: Just terrible, Wesley. Just terrible. The union went out on strike after they cut pay and stretched out the hours again. But the company is bringing in scabs from out in the country and we can’t keep ‘em from crossing the picket line. There’s been a lot of trouble down there lately. (Pauses) To tell the truth though, I feel kinda sorry for them scabs too. Folks around here is just all poor and hard up these days. There ain’t no jobs no more.

WESLEY: It ain’t just here Miz Shepherd. Folks is hurtin’ all over these days.

MRS. SHEPHERD: It’s such a blessing that y’all got out of the mill. When Jimmy said he was going to New York City I thought he was crazy. But look at y’all now! (pauses) I’m going to make sure that Jimmy gives some money to the relief fund. If we can keep food on the strikers’ tables just a few more weeks, we might be able to win.

Wesley wipes his mouth and pushes back his chair.

WESLEY (uncomfortably): Jimmy ain’t got no money, Miz Shepherd. We’re all flat broke. To tell the truth, I was hoping to get my old job back.

MRS. SHEPHERD (stunned): What?? Everybody’s says y’all are all millionaires now, with all your records and such.

WESLEY: It’s true we sold a lot of records, but they didn’t give much of the money to us. (hesitates) And, to tell you the truth Miz Shepherd, Jimmy pissed away the little they did give us. He didn’t do right by me and Matt.

MRS. SHEPHERD (hurt and troubled): Oh, Lordy. That just breaks my heart.

WESLEY (reaches over and takes her hand): Miz Shepherd, Jimmy’s gonna kill hisself if he don’t stop drinking so much.

There is a commotion from outside the house. Someone hollers, “It’s Jimmy Shepherd!” and others cheer and shout. 

Jimmy throws open the door and enters. He’s drunk and disheveled, wearing a worn-out suit. He looks unhealthy. Mrs. Shepherd rises to meet him. Jimmy sets a mason jar of moonshine on the table and gives her a big hug. Matt follows him into the house along with several others, including Johnnie. 

            JIMMY (laughing and hugging Mrs. Shepherd): Howdy, Mama! Are you glad to see me?

MRS. SHEPHERD (smiling and choking up): Oh Jimmy, my boy. Welcome home you scoundrel.

JIMMY (cheerfully): It’s good to be home! In good ole Leaksville, North Carolina!

He releases Mrs. Shepherd and she composes herself and wipes away a tear. 

Matt takes off his hat. 

            MATT: How do, Miz Shepherd?

MRS. SHEPHERD: Tol’able, I reckon.

Matt steps to her and gives her a hug. 

            MRS. SHEPHERD: Well, Matt, you don’t look no worse for the wear. I wish I could say that same about Jimmy.

Jimmy grins and takes a drink from the Mason jar.

WESLEY: I hope you didn’t go get some of Sam Bugg’s rotgut. That stuff ain’t never been fit to drink.

JIMMY (takes another drink): Linthead champagne. Nothing finer.

Wesley shakes his head. 

            MRS. SHEPHERD (looks at the crowd that has followed Jimmy in): Did you bring the whole town of Leaksville with you Jimmy. I ain’t got enough biscuits for everybody.

Jimmy turns around as if noticing them for the first time. He smiles.

JIMMY (laughing): Seems like I picked up some cockleburs.

The crowd all crowd forward, speaking simultaneously. 

            PERSON ONE: Hey, Jimmy…

PERSON TWO: Mr. Shepherd!…

PERSON THREE: Jimmy…. 

Billy enters the room, pushing his way through the crowd, just as Johnnie presses forward and gets Jimmy’s attention. He is holding a sleeved record. 

            JIMMY (chuckling): Hey young man. What you got there?

JOHNNIE (thrilled): It’s the latest Rovers record, and I think it’s the best record ever! I’m your number one fan!

JIMMY (rubs Johnnie on the head): Well all right then!

JOHNNIE: Can I have your autograph please sir?

Johnnie hands a pen and the record sleeve to Jimmy, who seems embarrassed and tries to look away as if he doesn’t see him. A few of the others show the awkwardness of the situation too. 

            JIMMY (making eye contact with someone else in the crowd): Morris Nale! How you been. (the man grins and nods) 

            JOHNNIE (insistently): Please, Mr. Shepherd? May have I have your autograph?

Wesley steps up to Johnnie.

WESLEY (warmly): How ‘bout I sign it for you?

JOHNNIE (beaming): Oh, thank you Mr. Pritchett! I want all the Rovers to sign it.

Wesley signs the record as Jimmy moves away.

            JOHNNIE (voice raised): Now will you sign it for me, Mr. Shepherd?

More awkward glances.

WESLEY: Young fella….

JIMMY (turns around angrily, steps toward Johnnie and interrupts): Can you make a hit record? Huh? Can you do that? Can you play banjo like me? Well, can you?

JOHNNIE (confused): Uh, no, sir.

JIMMY: There’s plenty of things I can do that you can’t do! A man can’t be expected to be able to do everything.

Wesley puts his arm around Johnnie and tries to lead him away. 

            JOHNNIE (confused and hurt): I didn’t mean no harm, sir. I just wanted you to sign my record.

JIMMY: Well I ain’t gonna sign it and that’s that.

Jimmy pushes his way through the crowd toward the other side of the room. 

            WESLEY (to a still confused Johnnie): Jimmy ain’t never learned to how to read and write. He’s a little sensitive about that.

JOHNNIE (troubled): I didn’t mean no harm. I didn’t know that.

WESLEY (smiling reassuringly): Don’t sweat it. He won’t remember it five minutes from now.

They are interrupted by a commotion at the door. It is Billy trying to push his way in. 

            BILLY: Give me a little room y’all. I need to speak to Jimmy Shepherd.

WESLEY: Let me go see what this is about.

JOHNNIE: That’s my cousin Billy.

Wesley didn’t hear him, as he was already pushing toward Billy, intercepting him as he reached Jimmy.

BILLY: Mr. Shepherd. I hope y’all are going to do something to help us strikers! We’re having a bad time of it here.

JIMMY (turning around): Huh? Say what?

Mrs. Shepherd has had enough.

MRS. SHEPHERD (yelling): I want every one of y’all out of my house right now!

Everyone falls silent and looks at her.

MRS. SHEPHERD: This is my house daggumit and I ain’t had a minute yet to talk to my boy that ain’t seen in over a year! Now y’all git on out and leave us be for a while!

The people start leaving, muttering apologies.

JIMMY (smiling and gesturing to the crowd): I’ll catch up with all y’all later! (he takes another drink out of the jar)

Once only Wesley and Jimmy are left in the room, Mrs. Shepherd speaks.

MRS. SHEPHERD: Jimmy, it ain’t right the way you treated that boy! You was raised better than that.

JIMMY (shrugs dismissively): What’s the deal with the strike?

MRS. SHEPHERD: The union went out a few weeks ago. The mill’s been cutting pay, stretching out hours and laying folks off.

JIMMY: How’s it goin’?

MRS. SHEPHERD: Bad. The mill is bringing in scabs to cross the picket line and they got the law busting heads if we try to stop ‘em.

JIMMY: What you reckon that fella wants us to do about it?

MRS. SHEPHERD: They’re about out of money for food for the strikers’ families. I expect he wants you to make a contribution.

JIMMY (looks concerned, then smiles): Well, I ain’t got a dime to give them. (pauses, thinking) But how ‘bout we make ‘em a record, Wesley? Does Josh Sims still have his recording studio?

WESLEY (reluctantly): Yeah, but Jimmy we ain’t got no money to pay for studio time.

JIMMY: Mr. Sims don’t know that and he’ll let us do it on credit.

WESLEY: What kind of record are you talking about?

JIMMY: I got just the record in mind. Something to give them a little inspiration.

WESLEY: I don’t believe you’ll be able to get old Josh Sims to let us use his studio on credit.

JIMMY (takes a drink): It won’t be no problem. (Grins broadly) You just got to be smooth.

 

                                                                        Scene 3

 

The action occurs in Josh Sims’ recording studio. Josh, Jimmy, Wesley and Matt enter. The Rovers are carrying their instruments (cased). 

JOSH: It’s sure an honor to have y’all cut a record here. I know it ain’t a fancy studio like you’re used to up in New York.

JIMMY (looks around): It’s just fine, Mr. Sims. Just what we need. Since you and Wesley done dialed everything in, we’re just going to go straight into it. Probably won’t need but one take.

The men start removing their instruments from the cases and tuning them up. 

            WESLEY (to Josh): If you’ll just keep the levels balanced like I showed you, Mr. Sims, we’ll be out of here in a flash.

JOSH: Oh, that ain’t no worry. Y’all just take all the time you need.

Josh exits. The men finish tuning and they adjust the mic stands. Josh’s voice comes from offstage, through an intercom. 

            VOICE OF JOSH: Lemme know when you’re ready and we’ll start rolling.

JIMMY (looks around): What do you say boys? Ready to cut a hit?

MATT: Let’s do it.

Jimmy takes a flask out of his coat pocket and takes a drink. He gestures to the others with the flask and they shake their heads.

JIMMY: Suit yourselves, boys. (Raises his voice) Let ‘er rip Mr. Sims.

VOICE OF JOSH (through the intercom, from offstage): What’s the name of the track fellas?

JIMMY: “Cotton Mill Colic.”

VOICE OF JOSH: Got it. (after a pause) The North Carolina Rovers. Cotton Mill Colic, take one.

Jimmy looks at Wesley and Matt. They nod. He begins to play and they join in. They perform “Cotton Mill Colic.”

When the song ends, the men look around at each other. Satisfied. Jimmy takes another drink.

VOICE OF JOSH: Give me a few minutes boys and I’ll play it back for you.

JIMMY (looking ill): Boys I gotta go. We ain’t gonna need no more takes. (raises voice) Mr. Sims, please cut us 300 and we’ll come get ‘em tomorrow.

VOICE OF JOSH: Yessir, will do. Umm… I reckon we need to discuss the fee.

JIMMY: That ain’t no problem Mr. Sims. We’ll settle up with you in a few days.

Matt and Wesley shuffle their feet and look uncomfortable.

MATT: Jimmy…

JIMMY: I need to go see a man about a dog, y’all.

Jimmy exits.

VOICE OF JOSH: OK, y’all. Here it is.

Cotton Mill Colic begins playing over the intercom as curtain falls.

 

Scene 4

 

The action occurs in Mrs. Shepherd’s house.

She is sewing and dipping snuff. Wesley enters. Mrs. Shepherd stands up anxiously. 

            MRS. SHEPHERD (worried): Where is Jimmy, Wesley?

WESLEY (looks tired and worried): I ain’t sure, Miz Shepherd. Some fellas said they seen him playing for nickels down by the river. Some others said he was down at Sam Bugg’s trying to get some more likker.

MRS. SHEPHERD: When he left here he was throwing up blood, Wesley.

She begins to cry. 

            WESLEY: Did he say where he was going?

MRS. SHEPHERD: Same as he been saying for the last week. He said he was going to California to make music for the picture shows.

Wesley shakes his head. Matt enters, hurriedly. Mrs. Shepherd and Wesley speak at the same time. 

            MRS. SHEPHERD: Did you find him?

WESLEY: Where is he, Matt?

Matt seems confused at first. Then answers. 

            MATT: What? Jimmy? Dogged if I know. Likely passed out somewheres. (sheepishly) Begging your pardon, Miz Shepherd.

Mrs. Shepherd again begins to cry softly. 

            MATT: He might be in jail. (Pauses, looks concerned) If he is, me and you might be joining him soon, Wesley.

WESLEY: What do you mean?

MATT: That record we cut. The mill owners done got a warrant taken out on us for “inciting a disturbance.”

Mrs. Shepherd and Wesley look incredulous.

WESLEY: A warrant for making a record? You gotta be shittin’ me.

MATT: I wish I was. And they got a court order to seize all the records and lock up anybody playing it. They done gone and shut down Josh Sims’ studio too. I feel mighty bad about that.

WESLEY: What the hell?

MATT: Seems the strikers have been playing it on the picket line. There’s been a lot of trouble down there the last few days and the law is blaming it on the record. They’re saying we’re reds and agitators.

MRS. SHEPHERD (worriedly): You boys need to get on out of town right now. I’ll find Jimmy and send him along directly. 

There is a knock on the door. They look nervously at each other. 

            BILLY’S VOICE (from outside): It’s Billy Herndon, Miz Shepherd. I need to talk to you.

Wesley pulls the curtain aside and peeks out the window. Then he opens the door. Billy steps in, removing his hat as he does. He glances at Wesley and Matt. They all nod. 

            BILLY: Ma’am, I’m mighty sorry to say that they done took Mr. Shepherd to the hospital.

MRS. SHEPHERD (alarmed, gasps, puts her hand over her mouth): Lord, Jesus! Is he… Is he….all right?

BILLY: I can’t rightly say, ma’am.

Mrs. Shepherd grabs her bonnet and exits. Billy turns to leave, but Wesley stops him.

WESLEY: What happened?

BILLY (reluctantly): He was awful drunk and talking foolish. He got to throwing up real bad, then he passed out.

MATT: Oh, Lord.

BILLY (reluctantly, looks behind him to assure that Mrs. Shepherd is gone): He won’t breathing when they took him away.

WESLEY: We need to get down there.

BILLY: Sir, I’ll go with her. If y’all go down there, they’re gonna lock you up. Maybe, if you don’t mind my saying so, y’all ought to make yourselves scarce around here for a while.

MATT: He’s right, Wesley. Them company thugs will bash our heads if we give ‘em a chance.

Wesley puts his head in his hand, as if thinking hard. After a few moments he lifts his head and looks at Billy. 

            WESLEY: Billy, please tell Miz Shepherd we done gone over to Winston for a few days till things cool down.

Billy nods.

WESLEY (to Billy): Jimmy is dead, ain’t he?

BILLY (reluctantly): Yessir, I think he is.

Wesley drops his head, shaking it. After a few moments, Matt speaks.

MATT: Come on, Wesley. Let’s get going.

Curtain

 

     Scene 4

 

The action occurs on the picket line. Strikers are carrying signs and shouting. Johnnie comes running up, with a record and a record player. He waves the record over his head and the strikers cheer. He starts up the record player, playing “Cotton Mill Colic.” The strikers are shouting and singing along. 

Cops arrive, push through the crowd and try to take the record. Johnnie tries to keep them from it. In the struggle a cop pushes Johnnie down, grabs and breaks the record. Billy rushes up and hits the cop over the head with his sign. A brawl erupts. Billy is clubbed over the head from behind, and falls to the ground . As the fight continues, we hear sirens and see Billy being handcuffed, his head bleeding. Johnnie is screaming and kicking at the cops. One of the strikers picks him up and runs away with him.

 

Scene 5

 

The action occurs at the Watson house. Johnnie is in the corner, playing “Goodbye Booze” on his record player. Mrs. Watson is sewing, distractedly. Billy enters, his head bandaged. Mrs. Watson puts down her sewing and walks nervously toward him. Johnnie lifts the needle off the record and looks at Billy.

 

            BILLY (dejectedly): It’s over.

MRS. WATSON: The strike?

BILLY: The strike, yeah. That’s over. We lost. The company wins. Same as always. But that ain’t all that’s over. Everything else is over too. The union will be busted. Our spirit is all gone. They done knocked us down, kicked us, then spit on us. Same as always. There ain’t no point in none of it now. We just have to do what they say, take what they’ll give us, lick their boots when they tell us to, and smile and say we like it.

Billy sits down and rubs his head. He glances over at Johnnie. 

            BILLY: And we ain’t even got the Rovers no more. That’s over too. We don’t even get to decide what kind of music we want to listen to. “You sorry ass lintheads get back to work. And we won’t allow no more of that goddamned hillbilly music y’all like neither.”

MRS. WATSON (consoling, puts her arm around Billy): Come on, Billy. Let me fix you a bite to eat. We’re tough and they ain’t starved us yet.

Billy and Mrs. Watson walk to the other side of the house. Johnnie stands up and seems to be deep in thought. He walks over to where the guitar is hanging on the wall, takes it down and straps it over his shoulder. He meekly strums a chord. Then he turns and faces the audience. With a defiant look, he strums a chord loudly and the curtain falls.

 

THE END

 

 

 

 

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Linthead Stomp, Act Two

ACT TWO

SCENE ONE

 

Facing the audience in stage center is the front porch of a mill house. The door is open, but the screen door is closed. There are two cane bottom chairs on the porch. Jimmy is sitting on one of them, leaning it back against the wall, with his feet propped on the porch rail. There is a mason jar with moonshine in it, under the chair. He has his hat pulled down over his eyes and he is picking a banjo. 

In the distance the mill whistle blows. Jimmy stops playing when he hears it. He takes his feet down, and sits up in the chair. He reaches underneath it and takes out the jar, unscrews the top, takes a long drink, puts the top back on, places the jar back beneath the chair, then leans back and resumes his previous posture. He chuckles, then starts picking the banjo again. 

Mill workers returning home from work begin to pass by, some greeting him as they do. Each time, he smiles, nods and continues to play. 

Matt and Wesley approach from stage left. 

MATT (annoyed): Well if ain’t his majesty himself.

WESLEY (sarcastically): Don’t mind us working folks, Mr. Shepherd. We sure don’t want to bother you while you’re so busy.

JIMMY (cheerfully): Well howdy boys. Come on and have a drink and let’s play some.

WESLEY: If you spent all day working in a goddam cotton mill like we just did, you wouldn’t be feeling like playing right now.

MATT: You keep on laying out of work like this Jimmy and they’re gonna fire your ass. It’s a wonder they ain’t done fired you already.

Jimmy takes down his feet, sits upright in the chair and leans his banjo against the wall. 

JIMMY: Fire me? You reckon they would do that? Why boys, that would just break my heart.

Jimmys laughs as he hands the jar to Matt, who takes a drink from it.

WESLEY: Go on and laugh if you want to, Jimmy. But you’ll be singing a different tune when the law comes and kicks you out of this house and you ain’t got nothing to eat. They might even take that banjo of yours if you ain’t paid your bills.

Jimmy was smiling dismissively until the last sentence, which caused him to furrow his brow. Matt hands the jar to Wesley, who takes a drink. 

 JIMMY (seriously): Ain’t nobody taking this here banjo.

Wesley hands the jar back to Jimmy. He and Matt sit down on the porch steps.

WESLEY: I ain’t joking Jimmy. You keep this up and they gone fire you and put some other hillbilly sucker in this house.

JIMMY (dismissively): A man can’t go to work every damn day. I sent word that I was too sick to work this morning. They wouldn’t want me down there dropping dead on the floor. And I could have been catching.

MATT: Only thing wrong with you this morning was on account of too much corn liquor in your belly.

JIMMY (cheerfully): Now ain’t that a damn fool thing to say? How can a man have too much liquor in his belly. (Laughs.) 

Wesley and Matt grin and shake their heads. 

WESLEY: You can’t do nothing with Jimmy Shepherd.

JIMMY: You got that right! (Takes another drink)

MATT:  I suppose you ain’t worked the still today neither. I reckon we’re gonna have to do that too.

JIMMY: Like I said, fellas, I been feeling too low today to do any work.

WESLEY: I see you ain’t been feeling too low to drink it up though.

MATT: Lately you been drinking more than you been selling.

JIMMY: Damn, boys. Y’all ought to go easier on me, seeing as how I’m not feeling well.

He smiles and hands the jar to Matt, who tips it to take a drink, then startles, snorts out his drink and hurriedly hands the jar back to Jimmy.

MATT (excitedly): Yonder comes the boss!

Wesley and Matt seem concerned. Jimmy does not. Jimmy caps the jar and slides it back under the chair. Mr. Tinsley approaches from stage left. He stops in front of the porch.

MR. TINSLEY: Congratulations, Jimmy.

JIMMY: What for, Mr. Tinsley?

MR. TINSLEY: I believe you have earned the distinction of being the sorriest and most unreliable employee in the history of the Leaksville Cotton Mill.

JIMMY (grinning): So I reckon that means this isn’t a good time to ask for a raise.

MR. TINSLEY (shaking his head): You are one of a kind, Jimmy Shepherd. Believe it or not, I didn’t come here to fire you, even though that’s what you deserve.

Jimmy, Matt and Wesley look at him inquisitively.

MR. TINSLEY: I’m sure y’all have heard about the Schoolfield Mill’s orchestra.

They nod.

MR. TINSLEY: Well the owners don’t like Schoolfield having something that Leaksville doesn’t.

Mr. Tinsley pauses, the men keep looking at him, unsure where he’s going. 

MR. TINSLEY: The owners figure that we need to start having some dances and concerts too. Might help us recruit better. (Pauses again.) But they don’t figure the lintheads here would really want an orchestra. What they like is that old-time hillbilly music like you boys play.

Jimmy starts to perk up, smiling slightly. 

MR. TINSLEY: So, we want to start us up a Leaksville Cotton Mill String Band. Y’all know of any clod-kicking hicks who might be interested in that job?

JIMMY: Yeah, I might have some fellas in mind.

MR. TINSLEY: Jimmy, you ain’t worth a damn inside a cotton mill, but there’s no denying you can play the hell out of a banjo.

JIMMY: You’re telling the truth now, boss.

MR. TINSLEY: Alright then, here’s the deal. You three will get reassigned to some kind of light work. But your main job will be to be play whenever and where ever we say—to make the workers happy when we tell you to. Is it a deal?

Wesley and Matt are nodding, but Jimmy looks skeptical. 

JIMMY: Seems like we’ll be needing raises then, Mr. Tinsley.

MR. TINSLEY: Don’t push your luck. Take the deal I offered, or you’re all three fired.

JIMMY: I reckon we’re gonna need to think on it some.

Wesley and Matt are looking at Jimmy, incredulous. 

MR. TINSLEY: Have you lost what little sense you had? This is your lucky day. We’re offering to pay you to do what you like best, and you want to “think on it some”?

JIMMY: Whatever “light duty” you have in mind, it needs to be real light. And on days we play, we don’t do no other kind of work.

MR. TINSLEY: Fair enough.

JIMMY: And the owners of the Leaksville Cotton Mill wouldn’t want the boys in their String Band to look hicks that just fell off the turnip truck, would they? So, I reckon we’re gonna need us new suits and shoes, for when we play.

MR. TINSLEY (frustrated): We’ll take care of that.

JIMMY: Last thing—the band is me, Wesley and Matt. Nobody else unless we agree to it.

MR. TINSLEY: All right.

Jimmy stands up and reaches his hand across the porch rail, smiling.

JIMMY: You got yourself a deal, Mr. Tinsley.

Mr. Tinsley shakes his hand, but doesn’t release it immediately. 

MR. TINSLEY: And I’m going to do one other thing for you boys too.

JIMMY: What’s that?

MR. TINSLEY: I’m going to let you keep running that still of yours.

The men begin to protest and deny. Mr. Tinsley is still gripping Jimmy’s hand. He raises his left hand up in the air signaling them to stop. 

MR. TINSLEY: Don’t bother. I know all about your little moonshine business. For now, I’m going to keep quiet about it, as long as you don’t cross me. (Pauses.) And provided a couple of gallons of your best show up at my office once a month. Discreetly, of course.

The men nod, but don’t answer.

MR. TINSLEY: So, now. Do we have a deal?

Jimmy pumps his hand a couple of times.

JIMMY: Deal.

MR. TINSLEY: All right boys, come on by my office in the morning and we’ll talk about your new assignments.

Mr. Tinsley begins to walk away, stage left. He stops and turns back to Jimmy.

MR. TINSLEY: One more thing, Jimmy. No more coming down and playing during dinner break. You’re distracting the workers and causing some of them to be late.

Mr. Tinsley turns and walks away, exiting stage left. Jimmy is grinning. Wesley and Matt look at each other, amazed. 

MATT: Well, I’ll be doggoned.

Jimmy pulls the jar out from under the chair.

JIMMY: Let’s have a drink, boys.

Jimmy takes a drink and passes the jar to Matt.

WESLEY: How in hell did you manage that, Jimmy?

Jimmy grins widely. He picks up the banjo and begins playing.

JIMMY: You just got be smooth is all. Smooth.

Wesley and Matt shake their heads, chuckling.

 

Curtain

 

SCENE TWO

 

Center stage, facing the audience, is a stage/bandstand. Above it is a banner that reads “Leaksville Cotton Mill Spring Dance. May 20, 1928. Featuring the Leaksville String Band.” 

A bunch of men, women and children (millworkers) in their best clothes are in front of the stage. Give the appearance that there are many more outside of the audience’s view. 

Mr. Tinsley enters from stage rear, onto the bandstand. The crowd quiets down and looks up at him. 

MR. TINSLEY: Welcome all to the first ever Leaksville Cotton Mill Spring Dance!

The crowd seems unimpressed, indifferent to him.

MR. TINSLEY: The owners asked me to tell y’all how much they appreciate your fine work.

A VOICE FROM OFFSTAGE (shouting): Tell them to stick it up their asses!

Laughter. Mr. Tinsley looks uncomfortable, while trying to remain composed. 

MR. TINSLEY: We have a special treat for y’all tonight.

DIFFERENT VOICES FROM OFFSTAGE (shouting): Better pay? Less hours?

More laughter. Mr. Tinsley tries to ignore them. 

MR. TINSLEY: Thanks to the generosity of the owners, and in appreciation of all your hard work, we are pleased to present our very own (pauses for effect) Leaksville Mill String Band!

Jimmy, Wesley and Matt enter from stage rear, wearing new suits, holding their instruments, and waving to the crowd. The crowd is cheering and hooting. Jimmy is obviously drunk. Mr. Tinsley eagerly shakes their hands and waves back at the crowd, then exits stage rear. 

The men check the tuning of their instruments, then Jimmy steps up the mic. 

JIMMY: Well, howdy y’all! (Crowd hollers back) Like the bossman said, welcome to the Linthead Stomp! (Laughter from the crowd, Wesley and Matt look annoyed) We’re supposed to take y’all’s minds off how bad you’re getting screwed by the mill, and I reckon we can do that. So, come on! Shake off the cotton dust! It’s time for y’all rednecks, hillbillies and clodkickers to cut a rug.

Jimmy begins playing, the others join in and the crowd begins to dance. They play “Take a Drink on Me.” Costumed actors dance in the aisles with the play’s audience, whooping and hollering.

 

When they finish the crowd roars. Jimmy, Wesley and Matt are smiling. They play “If the River was Whiskey.”

When they finish, Jimmy pulls a flask out of his pocket, tips it toward the crowd, then takes a drink. The crowd laughs and a few men whoop and holler.

JIMMY: What do y’all want to hear next?

A MAN IN THE AUDIENCE: (hollers) Cotton Mill Blues!

The audience cheers.

JIMMY: What do you say, boys?

WESLEY (quietly): I don’t think we ought to play that one, Jimmy.

JIMMY (laughing. To the audience): What is it y’all want to hear?

Several different people call out for “Cotton Mill Blues.” The audience cheers.

Jimmy laughs, shrugs and begins playing. The others reluctantly join in. The audience is enjoying themselves immensely. Mr. Tinsley enters stage left and approaches the bandstand, glaring at the band. Wesley and Matt look concerned, Jimmy seems to be enjoying it. Mr. Tinsley walks off, exiting stage left.

When the song ends, the crowd cheers. The band starts another song and the curtain falls.

 

SCENE THREE

 

The setting is backstage after the show. 

Jimmy, Wesley and Matt enter stage front, through a curtain. The audience is cheering and chanting off stage center from behind them. The men are laughing and cheerful. They set down their instruments and pass around a flask.

JIMMY (grinning): Woo-doggie. That right there is what I’m talking about. Ain’t nobody in three states can play like us, boys.

Mr. Tinsley enters from stage left, angrily.

JIMMY (cheerfully): Well how do you like that Mr. Tinsley? We lit ‘em up tonight, didn’t we? Just like you wanted.

MR. TINSLEY: Jimmy Shepherd, you’re so sorry you can’t even hold an easy job.

JIMMY: Now come on, Mr. Tinsley. That ain’t no way to talk to the leader of the Leaksville String Band.

MR. TINSLEY: The Leaksville String Band just played their last show. You’re fired. (He points at Wesley and Matt.) You two are welcome to come back to work in the weave room. (He turns to Jimmy) Jimmy, you ain’t just fired. I want you off mill property by tomorrow night. If you ain’t gone by then, I’ll have you locked up.

Jimmy just grins, and takes another drink.

MR. TINSLEY: You mind what I said, Jimmy Shepherd. I will see you behind bars if you ain’t out of here by this time tomorrow.

Mr. Tinsley marches off, exiting stage left. 

WESLEY: Dammit Jimmy. Now look what you done gone and done. You screw the pooch every damn time. We was on Easy Street.

JIMMY: Oh hell, boys. This here is the break we needed. It’s time for us to blow this joint anyhow. We don’t belong here in the middle of nowhere.

MATT: Wesley’s right, Jimmy. We had it made. Now what are we gonna do?

JIMMY: What are we gonna do? What we oughta done a long time ago! We’re going to New York City!

 

CURTAIN

Linthead Stomp, Act One

The Cast:

  • Jimmy Shepherd
  • Wesley
  • Matt
  • Mrs. Shepherd
  • Mr. Tinsley
  • Mrs. Watson
  • Johnnie Watson
  • Billy Herndon
  • Josh Sims

 

 

ACT ONE

 

The action all occurs inside a log cabin that is furnished sparsely and simply. There is a horseshoe over the door on the outside and a shotgun hanging over the door on the inside. A 1927 calendar is tacked to the wall. There is a portable wind-up gramophone in the room. A banjo is hanging on the wall. 

A late middle-aged woman is sitting in a chair, shelling peas. 

She hears the voices of men approaching outside, shouting and laughing. She stands up, wipes her hands on her apron and walks toward the door. Just before she reaches it Jimmy, Wesley and Matt burst in. Wesley walks with a bad limp. Jimmy rushes over, laughing. He grabs the woman in a hug and lifts her off the floor. 

            MRS. SHEPHERD: Put me down, you durn fool!

Jimmy, laughing, puts her down and kisses her on the top of the head. Wesley and Matt laughing while they watch. 

            MRS. SHEPHERD: Jimmy Shepherd, you ought to be ashamed of yourself. Coming home all liquored up in the middle of the day and acting like you ain’t got good sense.           

            JIMMY: Aw, Mama. We’re celebrating! (Looking at the other men) Ain’t we boys?

WESLEY (jolly): That’s right!

MATT (jolly): Yes, ma’am. We are.

MRS. SHEPHERD (skeptical): Celebrating? What in tarnation could y’all be celebrating?

JIMMY (pulls a wad of bills from his pocket, beaming, and shows it to her): Nothing but this here $300! (teasingly) I bet that’s more money than you done ever seen at one time in your whole life.

MRS. SHEPHERD (surprised): How in the Sam Hill to you get that much money?

WESLEY (excited): We all got that much Miz Shepherd! (takes his money out and shows it to her) Me and Matt got us $300 too!

Matt nods, smiling, and then pulls a wad of bills out of his pocket too. 

            MRS. SHEPHERD: Well, I know doggone well that y’all didn’t get all that money by doing no honest labor.

JIMMY (cheerfully): Honest? We was honest, won’t we fellas? (Wesley and Matt laugh and nod) We just honestly run us a load of first rate liquor up to the fine thirsty citizens of Winston and the man there just honestly gave us one thousand United States dollars for it and we just honestly thanked him kindly and drove honestly back home with his money in our pockets.

MRS. SHEPHERD (scoldingly): Y’all laugh all you want to, but you’re lucky you didn’t get yourselves shot by the revenuers. You don’t know them people down there and you take a mighty big risk when you run across the state line like that. (pauses) Y’all all gonna end up in prison if you ain’t careful.

JIMMY: Careful? Careful is our middle name, ain’t it boys? (they nod and laugh)

MRS. SHEPHERD: Well, what happened to the rest of it?

JIMMY: What do you mean?

MRS. SHEPHERD: You said y’all got paid one thousand dollars and if y’all each got three hundred then that leaves another hundred dollars. What happened to the other hundred?

The men squirm and seem to grow a little nervous. 

            JIMMY: We give the other hundred to Daniel Everett, for letting Annie Mae help us.

MRS. SHEPHERD (incredulous): Annie Mae? Annie Mae?? Annie Mae ain’t nothing but a child! How in the world did she “help” you?

JIMMY (trying to stay cheerful, but a bit uncomfortable): She ain’t had to do nothing but just right by me in the front of the truck.

MRS. SHEPHERD: You took that child with you?!

JIMMY: Just for looks, Mama. Ain’t nobody gonna stop a truck with a little girl sitting in the front seat. (smiling) Who ever heard of a moonshiner taking a little girl with him on a liquor run?

Mrs. Shepherd slaps Jimmy on the shoulder.

MRS. SHEPHERD (indignantly wagging her finger at them): Shame on you Jimmy Shepherd! Shame on all y’all! Putting that little girl in danger like that! Y’all ought to be ashamed of yourselves!

The men squirm uncomfortably.

JIMMY (protesting): Aw, come on Mama. Won’t nobody in no danger. Annie Mae was just there for looks. That’s all. All she knew is that she got to ride the truck to Winston and back.

MRS. SHEPHERD: Three scoundrels, that’s what y’all are. And riding on the highway to hell.

When Jimmy begins to put his money back in his pocket, Mrs. Shepherd reaches out and snatches some of it away, then stuffs it down the front of her dress. Jimmy starts to object, then thinks better of it and says nothing. The other two men are snickering. 

            MRS. SHEPHERD: I’ve got to go milk. If y’all want something to eat, there’s some biscuits and fatback on the stove. Just help yourself.

Mrs. Shepherd exits. The men laugh nervously. 

            MATT: Your mama is more dangerous than the revenuers.

JIMMY (dismissively): You notice she didn’t mind taking the money though. Her talk don’t bother me none. Our family’s been running liquor since before she was born.

WESLEY: Good thing you didn’t tell her everything. She mighta took a frying pan to your head.

MATT: I don’t mind saying I was scared shitless. Would you have shot him Wesley? I mean, if he had looked in the back of the truck? Would you?

WESLEY: I don’t know. I reckon so. My heart was beating a hundred miles an hour.

JIMMY: Aw, y’all quit. That fool won’t gonna look in the back of the truck. Not after he saw Annie Mae looking all sweet-like.

MATT: How come he stopped you then?

JIMMY: He must notta seen her.

MATT (dubious): I don’t know, Jimmy. Seemed to me like he was fixing to search the truck.

WESLEY: He was! And he woulda found the liquor and us both if he hada took off that tarp.

JIMMY (dismissively) Everything was under control boys. Everything was smooth.

Jimmy takes a bottle from his inside coat pocket, takes a swig and passes it to Matt. 

            WESLEY: You ain’t fooling me Jimmy. I heard it. “What you hauling?” “Got me a load of watermelons.” “Mind if I have a look?”

Matt hands the bottle to Wesley, who takes a drink. 

            JIMMY (confident and nonchalant): See why it pays to be smooth? “Sure, go on and have a look,” I told him. “They’re three for a dollar if you want some for yourself.” (laughs)

MATT (sarcastically): Mr. Smooth. Well, you wouldn’ta felt so damn smooth up under that tarp holding the shotgun.

WESLEY: We can thank the good Lord that Annie Mae started squalling about having to go to the bushes.

JIMMY: All part of the plan, boys. Like when I told him I’d need his help strapping the load back down, seeing how it took an hour to do it. (laughs)

WESLEY: Seems to me like we got lucky.

JIMMY (smiling): Seems to me like we got a thousand dollars.

Wesley shakes his head, chuckling.

MATT: I’ll hand it to you, Jimmy. You bluffed him good.

JIMMY (cheerfully): Enough of all that boys. We’re in the clear now and with a pocketful of money.

Jimmy takes another swig and passes the bottle around again. 

JIMMY: Let’s celebrate with a number boys. Yonder’s Mama’s fiddle and my old guitar.

Jimmy takes down the banjo on the wall and begins playing, while Wesley picks up the fiddle and begins tuning it. Matt steps across the room and comes back with a guitar, tuning it as he walks. 

They play “Shootin’ Creek,” obviously enjoying themselves greatly.

When done they all laugh and back slap, then pass the bottle around again.

JIMMY (cheerfully): Woo-doggie, boys! Ain’t nothing I like better than some good whiskey and some good music!

They all put their instruments back. 

            JIMMY: This doggone cash is burning a hole in my pocket, boys. What y’all gonna do with y’all’s?

MATT: Mine was spent before I got it. I reckon it’s gonna be just about enough to pay my bills and keep food on the table a little longer.

WESLEY (seriously): Mine’s spent too. I’m going up to Baltimore to the hospital there and get my foot fixed. I’m praying that my clubfoot days will soon be over.

Matt nods. Jimmy looks back and forth and both of them, then starts laughing. 

            JIMMY: Well, now! Y’all can just go and waste your money if you want to, but I’m gonna put mine to good use!

Matt chuckles and rolls his eyes. 

WESLEY: This ought to be good. So what are you gonna do with yours, Jimmy?

JIMMY: I am going to go to Lynchburg and buy me the fanciest banjo in the store, that’s what I’m going to do.

WESLEY: Can’t you think of something better to spend it on than a banjo?

JIMMY (laughs): No, I can’t. Not a thing in the whole damn world.

MATT: You might want to save a little of it, Jimmy. I know you got bills that needs paying.

JIMMY: Oh hell, boys. There’s plenty more where this came from!

Jimmy takes another swig from the bottle. 

            JIMMY: Just as soon as the good folks of Winston are thirsty again, we’ll run ‘em some more.

WESLEY: Not me.

Jimmy looks at him, surprised. 

            MATT: Me neither.

Jimmys turns and looks at Matt, then back at Wesley, seemingly bewildered.

JIMMY: Y’all must be pulling my leg. It’s easy money.

WESLEY: I ain’t pushing my luck, Jimmy. As soon as I get my foot fixed I’m gonna get me a regular job.

MATT: Me and Wesley are going to Leaksville. Done signed up the whole family.

JIMMY: Y’all done lost y’all’s minds!

WESLEY: It’s done got too dangerous here, Jimmy. And the mill pays pretty good money.

JIMMY: It don’t pay squat! Not compared to what you get from selling liquor. You been making whiskey since you was old enough to walk. Why you wanna quit now?

WESLEY (slyly): Who said anything about quitting?

JIMMY (intrigued): Y’all done lost me, boys. Didn’t y’all just say you was fixing to move to Leaksville to work in the mill?

MATT: Yep. Contract is for the whole family.

WESLEY: But I reckon them mill workers get thirsty too.

Jimmy seems to be in thought for a few seconds, then breaks into a big smile. 

JIMMY: I reckon you wouldn’t have to haul your liquor 80 miles no more to sell it, would you?

WESLEY (smiling): I reckon not.

MATT: And once all them hardworking folks gets to drinking good liquor, what they gonna want next?

JIMMY (pauses in thought, then laughs and slaps Matt on the back): Well, I reckon they might enjoy some good music then, wouldn’t they?

MATT (smiling): I reckon they sure might.

WESLEY: They got a dance hall there, Jimmy. And plenty of other places to play. We won’t have to hoof it all around the country trying to find an audience. And we’ll make us good money playing there too.

JIMMY (laughing): Well shut my mouth, boys. Y’all done got it all figgered out. Music and moonshine—them’s my two favorite things. Music, moonshine and a milltown—that right there might be just the right combination.

MATT: Go on and sign up too, Jimmy. We’ll paint that town. And it won’t hurt us none to have respectable jobs too.

WESLEY: Yeah, come on with us Jimmy. The world is changing. It’s time to move on from here.

JIMMY: It’s mighty tempting. Let me think on it, boys.

WESLEY: Alright. I’m going home fore Ma sends somebody out looking for us.

MATT: Good idea. We’ll see you soon Jimmy.

Matt and Wesley shake Jimmy’s hand and exit stage left. 

Jimmy seems deep in thought. Then he suddenly laughs. He picks up his banjo, takes a seat and plays “Moving Day.” When he finishes, he takes a long drink from the bottle, finishing it.

 

CURTAIN

Linthead Stomp

This past summer I wrote a three act play, loosely based on the life of Charlie Poole. Having had no luck finding anyone interested in producing it (and admittedly not having tried very hard), I’ve decided to just go ahead an publish it here, on the off chance anyone may want to read it.

I was inspired to try this after a delightful evening listening to the great Kinney Rorrer tell stories of the North Carolina Ramblers and the music that emerged from the mill towns of the South. Mr. Rorrer is Charlie Poole’s biographer and is a leading expert on the music of the era, as well as being an accomplished banjo player himself. My play, while based on true stories, conflates the story of Charlie Poole and the Ramblers and the role some of the music played in labor unrest at the mills during the 1930’s. Having said that, my characters are all fictional, and the play doesn’t deserve to be called historical.

As anyone who reads it will see, it is a type of musical that requires the actors to also be musicians–and able to perform a particular style of music that isn’t well-known today. Obviously bringing something like this to stage would be challenging. At this point I think it very unlikely to happen. One of the advantages of using this blog as a platform for it, is that I should be able to embed recordings of the songs themselves into the script. We’ll see.

In any event, look for the first act of Linthead Stomp soon.

Bill