Yank Rachel

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Yank Rachel, Bluesman

Meeting Yank Rachell

By Ron Hacker

My girlfriend was on welfare, I was playing on the streets and in the coffee houses when I could get it. We lived in a two room flat that you might have to step over a junky or two to get into. We also had a six month old boy. My cousin had a rock and roll club in Indianapolis and he asked me to come back to help him run it. The thought of a steady job and help in finding a place to live was very inviting, so I took it. I didn't know it at the time but it was a move that would change my life in a very profound way.

It only took a few months to get into the swing of things. My cousin had me tend bar, so I got to know most of the bands that came through and the ones that were into the Blues would let me play a number or two with them. We had a killer R & B band one week and the last night they were there, I got to jam with them. What a time we had. After the show, a DJ from the soul station in town came up and asked me if I knew who Yank Rachell was. I said "sure" and he said "do you want to meet him," and I said "well of course I do."

I really didn't have any idea who he was but the DJ talked to me about him and I realized that I had been hearing him on my Sleepy John Estes records. I was very excited. I was about to meet a man who played on the original "Going To Brownsville." It took about a week to get up the nerve to call him. He must have been used to scared, young, white boys because he put me right at ease. He said that him and his friend, Mr. Adams, would be making some music Sunday afternoon and would I like to come by.

When you think of Indianapolis, the first thing to come to mind isn't mean streets and living the blues. You think of race cars. But let me tell you Mr. Adams was living the blues on a very mean street. At the time, downtown Indianapolis had a ring of ghettos. To the south and west, poor whites, to the north and east, poor blacks. It's all convention centers, sports complexes and freeways now, but back then, that ring was a tough place to live.

Mr. Adams lived close in on the north side. His neighborhood was in the path of the "urban renewal" about to take place and it was like a war zone. Vacant lots with stripped-down cars, once grand old homes with front porches big enough for a one bedroom apartment standing like skulls with their broken window eye sockets.

When Yank gave me the address, I had no trouble finding the place. My first memory of the Blues happened in the same neighborhood. I had an older friend, he was twelve and I was eleven. He lived down the block in an old three story red brick apartment building, since demolished. His mom was a divorcee three or four times and she liked black guys. I didn't know it at the time, but she was turning me on to the blues when her and her gentleman callers were sitting at the kitchen table drinking whiskey, laughing and listening to their music. My mom didn't know any of this or she wouldn't have let me stay with them the weekend that the woman's son and I got put in the juvenile center for breaking into parking meters. Heroes

Almost all the counselors in the center were young black guys in their twenties and thirties. They loved their music like most young dudes do. In 1956, their music was Elmore James, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and the like. I fell in love with it too.

It was a warm, sunny, Sunday afternoon, but the neighborhood didn't seem very sunny. There were too many holes torn in it. Mr. Adam's house sat on a corner with vacant lots on either side. It was one of those you might see in a thirties movie with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, grandma and grandpa, three kids, a cook and maybe old aunt Nell. And Jimmy seems to be able to take care of all of them on what he makes, down at the five and dime, selling shoes. Now in it's last days, it was a rooming house.

I had a hard time parking when I got there, my hands were sweating so bad the steering wheel was slipping. If I had gotten out of the car as soon as I was parked, I would have broken into a dead run, screaming , " yes I want to play the blues with you guys!" So I sat for a minute and finished listening to the Slim Harpo tape on my boom box. With all the cool I could pool, I eased out of the car, walked around to the back of the car, took my National out of the trunk and proceeded to stroll up the walk. It was a long walk to that front porch, big enough for a one-bedroom apartment, and I was bad and in total control, until I was about half way there.

It came rolling down those worn and broken steps like sweet maple syrup over a stack of pancakes. The sound of those two old men playing the purest blues I'd ever heard. It made my heart rush so hard my legs almost gave out. Any further attempt at cool was out of the question. My only goal now was to make it into the house, fall down on my knees and thank them for letting me come by.

Yank didn't give me the room number when he gave me the address, but it wasn't going to be hard to find. I walked up the front steps, through the missing front door, past the five foot wide stairway and down the hall to the door at the end. I was trying to be quiet as possible so they wouldn't stop playing. I'd been standing there a minute or so when I heard someone, creeping down the stairs.

Coming up the walk, I had seen the curtains move in the upstairs window. It dawned on me that I might be making someone nervous sneaking into the house and not knocking on any doors, so I knocked. The music stopped, the footsteps on the stairs went back up and the door swung open in what seemed like the same breath. When the door opened, there stood a giant of a man, the color of a priceless black pearl, with features like the wisest Indian chief. I was more than surprised. Yank Rachell's voice is warm and sweet like butter and honey. He put me right at ease when he said, "Hello, I'm Yank. You must be Don Hackerman?" I said, "Uh, no, that's Ron Hacker." He said "ah right. Come on in and meet Mr. Adams."

It was a one room place with a kitchenette on one side, bay windows on the other and the only furniture was a bed and some straight-back chairs. Mr. Adam's clothes were hanging most everywhere. We walked over to the bay window where they had been playing and he introduced me to Mr. Adams. He didn't introduce me to the couple standing in the kitchenette, drinking whiskey and whispering. When the introductions were over, there was no small talk. Yank said to play him something, so I took out my National and laid down a twelve bar blues. They thought it was real nice and wanted to know what else I could do.

I did a real weak job on the delta classic "Goin' to Brownsville" that Yank and Sleepy John Estes recorded in 1929. I had the pattern down and I wanted him to see that my interest was in the old stuff. His eyes lit up like diamonds. Then we tried playing a few numbers together, but their guitars were so far out of pitch, it wasn't working. I was trying to tune up to their E, but if I kept going, I would've been tuned in open L.

That's when I saw the flash of metal in the kitchenette and heard the guy whisper, real loud "put that away." Mr. Adams had already gotten up, whispered with them and they had left, but they had come back , the woman was toasted and I still hadn't been introduced. It was time for me to go. Yank asked for a ride home. We packed up and Mr. Adams walked us to the car.

Yank was living with his lady friend Mary and it was a long ride out to her house. On the way, we talked about the blues (woman, whiskey and hard living). He didn't say anything about the couple in the kitchenette and I didn't ask.

I stayed in Indianapolis for two more years. Yank took me around and introduced me to his jammin' buddies. It was great because he could show them the real old blues with me putting down the pattern and him tearing it up on the mandolin. Mr. Adams moved soon after that afternoon. He got a nicer place but he still met us at the porch when we got there and walked us to the car when we left.

I'm glad he never had to pull his right hand out of his back pocket. He always had it there when he saw us off. It's been twenty seven years since that Sunday afternoon, Yank has passed away and I miss him. When we were driving to Mary's place, Yank said, "you better take these blues, I'll sure be going away." I'll always love him for that priceless gift.

Read more Blues Heroes Stories
from the bookTouched By the Blues

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