To sing the blues: a light in the darkness

For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in this darkness.

James Baldwin

It started with a date I didn’t know how to get out of, a coffee at noon on Saturday with the friend of a friend. I was 26 years old, had just moved in to my own West End bachelor apartment, and was ready to cut a swath through the city life that was right on my doorstep. I skipped down Davie Street to meet at the appointed hour.


It was like any other Starbucks, and any other conversation. He hadn’t offered to buy, though I had the cheapest drink on the menu. Mostly I recall that I didn’t see it going anywhere, and that I also didn’t know how to end it. I could have excused myself, of course. I could have said thanks and turned on my heel at the door. I just couldn’t formulate the words, couldn’t string the thought together. So, I dodged
and weaved, and hoped for some intervention. After two hours in the café and some small-talk outside: “let’s go for a walk.” I think it was me who suggested it, staggering myself in disbelief.


Wandering aimlessly downtown as the wintry afternoon fell ever-darker, I enjoyed exploring the city; commenting on the architecture, on the people, on anything, bought me distance which I still couldn’t figure out how to extend enough to end it. Then I saw the sandwich board across the street:


Afternoon Roots Jam, 4:30 – 7:30.


Music! The perfect salve and the buffer, where I could lose myself even if I couldn’t lose the date. I’d never been to the Railway Club before – a great oversight, in hindsight – and I didn’t know what to expect. But the strains of blues and rockabilly poured fourth, calling me up the stairs to the second-floor space. I was always on my terms, anchored in belonging, when the band played live, and somehow I
knew this was where I needed to be.


The long, narrow room was bisected by a long, gleaming hardwood bar, its bulkhead a holdover from the days when railway workers stashed private bottles at their workingman’s club. Most of the club was at the back, but the cozy space between the short end of the bar and the stage had become a legendary place to see live music, those well-trod boards graced by all manner of talent, and sometimes just the hope of it.


The banquettes on both walls were packed, as were the round-top tables peppered in between, but standing room only suited me fine. The scene was jumping, and it wasn’t long before I was part of a makeshift dance floor in front of the stage. My erstwhile date found some work friends at a banquette – but I had found my people.


I’m not sure if we ever talked again, and that suited me fine. The jam ended at 7:30pm, but the evening’s bands took the stage soon after, and I was swallowed up by the thrill and delight of what poured forth. It was well after two in the morning when I finally walked myself home. How had I not known about this place before? And how soon can next Saturday get here?


Next Saturday I brought Megan, my best friend and singing partner, and this quickly became a favourite mutual respite from dreary winter afternoons and our workaday woes. Megan was perfect company, as a tailor, for observing the sartorial displays, which ranged from elaborate 1950s pin-up and rockabilly styles through the uniquely personal, like Button Bill, whose vest and bucket hat proved he never met a
badge he didn’t like. My kohl-lined eyes, and Doc boots and dress, seemed positively low-key. Yet no one was ostentatious; they were simply being themselves. The music made room for us all.

Megan and I would claim the banquette on the left side of the room whenever we could, right next to the stage and the dance floor. The right banquette, across the room, was Old Bob’s seat, tacitly reserved as it was; those who didn’t know better were quickly advised to find another place to sit. Old Bob was a roots jam legend, pre-dating our time there. He stood all of five-foot-four-inches tall, and walked with a shuffle, but that didn’t keep him from inviting the ladies to join him for a turn on the dance floor. He even asked me once: “Would you like to dance?” are the only words I remember hearing Old Bob utter, but his enthusiasm was pervasive. He never missed a week.


It is said that Old Bob first came to the jam because his grandson Scott’s electric blues power trio rotated hosting duties with a few other regulars: Jimmy Roy on pedal steel guitar, Mike on honky-tonk keyboards, and Joe and the Modelos playing rockabilly and surf. Giving each week a different flavour, the house bands warmed up the crowd, and encouraged jammers to take a turn, with the band or without them. The Modelos are Megan’s favourite, and Scott’s blues trio is mine. It is a thundering, all-enveloping, electric, and deeply emotive experience, offering a kind of knowing beyond their youthful appearance. These old souls work their alchemy, melding passion and precision and delivering a sound that utterly transfixes, transporting me entirely into the song. The feeling is everything.


There are occasional drop-in jammers, but it’s the regulars who we come to know and love during our afternoon sessions. Rupert and Barbara are a couple who sing country-flavoured rock n’ roll with sweet harmonies and cheeky lyrics: “she’s a mean mother-trucker / she’s got truck-driving in her soul / she’s a lean, mean, mother-truck-driving-machine / roll, mother-trucker, roll.” Robin gets up for a solo set, accompanying herself on the guitar and singing her own original folk songs. I think she’s so brave! Peter plays a mean rockabilly guitar with the band, and although his singing sometimes falls a little flat, it is full of heart. Simon adds a mean harp to any assortment of players, and it’s a real treat when the guy with the tenor saxophone shows up. There’s the silver haired guy who sings deeply sad songs; the stout, long-haired lady with a fierce blues tenor; and so many others whose familiar voices we love, even if we don’t really know them. Through their songs, we feel like we do.


Megan and I held residency at the roots jam for many years and many Saturdays. We’d often as not bring friends, but we were never without friends in that room regardless. We became part of the texture of the place, just as I jokingly started to call the Railway, “my other living room.” The variety of sound and the range of talent – or sometimes, aspirations to it – never disappointed. Each performer told a story, through the words of the songs they had chosen or written, along with the story in their voice, their face, their instrument. Some rang out in complex harmonies, and others made you want to cry into your beer. It was real: you knew these people, just a little bit, even if you didn’t know them at all. I was sure we could get up and sing one day, too.


Time passed and life took me away from Vancouver for a number of years. I followed the news: The Railway shuttered under declining management, a mighty fall for a legendary club, and hearty blow. It was finally picked up by a corporate owner with a reputation for turning stages into sports bars. I held my breath from afar.


When I returned to Vancouver seven years on, I was anxious about the idea of revisiting the Railway. It had changed, surely, and maybe it would be better to keep old memories intact. Yet I had to know, its pull too strong. So, I took myself with trepidation up those familiar stairs, through those wooden double doors, and into a room that was updated but faithful. The banquettes were gone, and with them, untold years of spilled beer and sweat, but the original tables remained, scorch marks and all. The bulkhead over the bar was gone, making the room feel airier, but the bar itself was the original. The stage had been built out, and the red velvet curtains removed. A couple of discrete TVs showed sports, but music was still the principal draw for the venue. I exhaled in relief.

More importantly, the afternoon roots jam had also returned, and much of the community with it. Scott, Joe, Jimmy Roy and Mike still alternating hosting duties. Rupert and Barbara still singing harmonies, Barbara having grown her hair long, and still so fashionable in pinup dresses and tan ankle boots. Robin still performs solo, and remembers me despite her early-onset dementia. Someone told us that the
sliver-haired man of the sad songs had topped himself. Peter still sings a bit flat but full of heart, as he plays rockabilly guitar. And the dance floor is just as hopping, even if it’s smaller for the expanded stage. Old Bob has died, although I am certain he is still fixed in the chair where his banquette seat used to be. No one seems to know the whereabouts of Button Bill.


It wasn’t long before Megan and I resumed our Saturday tradition, adapting to the strange changes including friendly table service; staff in earlier times were endearingly salty. Sometimes, one of us will saddle up to the bar for old time’s sake. But mostly we revel in the delight of our community and in the music, the familiarity even as it has changed – and so have we.


Megan developed as a singer over the years, gaining confidence and experience through a choir. We quickly resumed singing together and realized that we were finally both ready to get onstage ourselves. We’d only be up as singers and would have to trust the house band to back us. But we had three simple cover songs in mind that we knew they could handle. It was just a question of when.


Enter the pandemic. Singing is one of the most high-risk activities for the spread of airborne viruses, so just as we had to suspend our own rehearsals, the club shuttered its operations. As we isolate socially, we have lost two fundamental tools for supporting our own well-being. For the real enjoyment of song is in the give-and-take, in the togetherness with others through song, through its co-creation in a
moment in time. Musicians talk wordlessly to each other as they play, subtle gestures, easily missed, unfolding the song before us. Listeners feel this conversation through the notes, the melody, the pauses. The audience feeds the musicians with energy and encouragement, through clapping, cheering, dancing, and the musicians feed us back with a rhythm, pulse, tone and emotion, a perfect cycle. And, just as the
musicians wordlessly commune in telling their story, so the audience does in hearing it, each of us feeling the song in a unique way, together with these strangers who aren’t strangers at all, if only through song.


It has been a year since the Railway’s initial closure, and six months since its last sputter of life in the effort to run socially distanced events. I think about my stranger-friends and wonder how they are managing. I wonder if the Railway will re-open, though I remember it has been in this place before. I wonder if we will be separated from the stage by plexiglass, for safety’s sake, and what this would mean
for the music. It’s not the same if the stage is a fishbowl, if the makers are segregated from their listeners, the energy from the conduit.


I wonder these things as I write from my one-bedroom apartment, outside of downtown in Vancouver’s leafy Kitsilano area. My partner, whom I met through a musicians’ group while I lived away, practices guitar in the other room. I listen, noticing how much he’s improved during this year of veritable lockdown. Perhaps he will join Megan and me on the Railway stage one day; he knows our three songs
already.


I live with this hope because I must. Suffering informs song, informs the truth that connects us. We will persevere through these dark times, and we will gather again to sing the blues.


My other living room awaits.

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