Story by Katie Prout
Music by Mary Lane

I was looking for Mary Lane because I owed her twenty dollars: ten for the CD, and another ten to apologize for the year it took me to get the first ten to her.

It started one winter night in 2015, at Rosa’s Lounge in Chicago. I was there on accident; came for a storytelling show, stayed for the whiskeys, and danced for Mary, whom I’d never before heard sing, and her husband, Jeff Lebon, whom I’d never before heard play. Mary came down off the stage and began working the crowd, limping slightly. She shouted flirty, dirty things back and forth with the men, hugged the women, and reminded both that she had a CD for sale. Later, after the show, Mary sat at a table with Jeff, drinking water and counting her cash. I went over and told her how much I’d liked her voice. “Thank you, baby,” she said, “but why don’t you buy my CD?” She pressed a copy of Appointment With the Blues into my hands, even after I told her I had no cash. It was a quick decision on her part, and I saw it go down on her face: the smile while I gushed, the drop of that smile when I asked if she took card, the bare exhaustion beneath her bones and skin. Then she looked at me and turned her light back on.

When I woke up the next morning and remembered her face, I felt bad. Work is done for pay, and Mary had worked. “Lemme get closer to you,” she’d said the night before, and then she had. The band was good and her voice was great, but it was the sharp heat of Mary herself—getting right down and dirty with the crowd, calling us baby, calling us other names too and laughing, asking if we wanted it and how bad, talking just enough shit about her band to make them play harder, faster, just because they loved her so—that compelled me up and out of my seat. “I said, do you want me to tell you all about it?” Mary asked, holding the microphone to her face like a bouquet of roses, peering out into the dark of the bar with a slight lift in her mouth and eyes as the crowd hooted and whistled and stomped and gave her the answer she already knew. “Tell us, Mary!” a woman to my right begged. And so, for the next two hours, she did.

I could not stop thinking about that moment when she gave me her album for free: the hesitation, the take-it-anyway vibe, and then her request. “Just tell your friends about me,” she’d said. I promised her I would, and when I scrolled through my texts, I could see that, on my bus ride home, I had. Hungover at work, I Googled her, hoping to find a way to pay online, but I was more surprised by what I didn’t find than what I did. A Chicago Tribune article from 1997 popped up, as did a Facebook page for Mary Lane and The No Static Blues Band. But there was no website, no email, no other way to track her down.

On my lunch break, I called Rosa’s, and when the manager, Tony, picked up, I could hear his frown through the phone. “You want to leave cash for Mary Lane?” he asked.

“Like, in an envelope,” I said.

It wouldn’t work, Tony said. He’d been manager since 1984. Mary was too unreliable, too hard to pin down, tough even to book. “I don’t know when she’ll be back next,” he said. She was “like the wind,” blowing in and blowing out. And no, he didn’t have a number or an address. He wished he could help me. He sounded sincere. I made him take down my number anyway, just in case she did come through.

“But let me tell you something,” Tony said. “She should be famous.” If she wasn’t so unreliable, he said, she would be.

For the next five years, I’d hear this over and over from every man of any race I talked to about Mary—that she should be famous, that she was one of the greats, and that the reason she wasn’t better known outside of Chicago was because she was difficult, ornery, domineering, paranoid, impatient, afraid of flying, afraid of trains, afraid of travel, and generally getting in her own way. They’d lay out examples, almost as many examples as there are men in her orbit: club owners and bouncers, harp players and drummers, Grammy-winning producers and blues magazine writers, band members.

A year later, I took a bus back to Chicago from Iowa, where I had moved for grad school, to find Mary and pay what I owed, plus interest. Her band aligned behind her in the shape of a C, Mary moved on and off the stage, a little older, a little more tired than I remembered. During a break in the show, I gave her the money and she gave me another thing free. This time it was a shirt, fire truck red. On the front, in black letters:

THE NO STATIC BLUES BAND

On the back, in the same:

MARY LANE
AIN’T NO MAN TELLING ME WHAT TO DO

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This is the part of the story of Mary Lane that gets mentioned most often in the write-ups that have peppered Chicago papers over the last few decades she’s been singing: how she knew or knows Junior Wells, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, and other near-mythic Chicago bluesmen. Mary is from the Arkansas Delta. Before Howlin’ Wolf made his 1952 move up to Chicago, he sang every week for years at The White Swan in Brinkley, Arkansas, where Mary’s uncle worked. Eventually, her uncle asked if Wolf wouldn’t mind giving his niece a listen. Or maybe Wolf had heard her before, one slow afternoon when he came by for a beer and passed Mary out front, singing for money, something she learned to do before she learned to read. No one now remembers exactly how the beginning began, but soon, while Wolf sat back and wailed on his harp, Mary Lane went up onstage to sing. She wasn’t yet thirteen years old.

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This is the part of the story that goes Discovery and Authenticity, then Hardship, then Grit and Survival. If you get all five in, you’ve got a Blues Article Bingo. At sixteen, Mary sang while Robert Nighthawk played slide guitar at her side. She followed Howlin’ Wolf up from Arkansas, during the second wave of The Great Migration, before she was twenty. She landed in Waukegan, then Chicago, living and singing in the Blackest parts of the city’s south and west sides. She had eight kids. She sang with Elmore James just before he died. She sang with James Cotton. She tended bar at the legendary Theresa’s, under the table, while a young Buddy Guy played guitar and Theresa herself reportedly kept a gun in the fur she sometimes wore to work. She is repeatedly, proudly, described as “a staple” who has worked so hard and has nearly made it so many times. Always, this litany of men’s names, of men who became famous after their death, a lucky few famous in their life, provided as the backstory to her backstory, proof of her Authenticity, her Grit. Except for Buddy Guy, Mary’s outlived them all.

Writing about, and appreciation of, Blues music—especially, I think, when it is written about and appreciated by white people, and when the singer or musician is Black—praises suffering. The writer / reader / listener wants details of the pain as proof of the “realness” of the blues, but they also want to know that the artist is okay, at least okay enough for them to read or listen without discomfort or guilt.

There is a format to these stories, as standard as the blues song itself. Popularly, the blues are sung in three-line stanzas. In the first line, you mean it; in the second line, which is roughly the same as the first, you really mean it, and throw your voice a certain way to open up new understanding to the listener’s ears. In the third line, you bring it home. Like so:

Bad luck and trouble, they run hand in hand
I say bad luck and and trouble, they run hand in hand
You got to treat me right, if you wanna be my man

Many of the stories that have been written about Mary over the years, the stories I’ve been able to find in the Harold Washington Blues Archive, have this arc—they tell about the blues artist’s pain in the first third, repeat that pain in the second. The final third is the twist, where the theme is survival, and words like “perseverance” are used. For example, write-ups on Mary mention her picking cotton, a signifier of pain and a particular kind of Southern Blackness, without going into the suffering, or without asking if she did suffer. It’s uncomfortable to wrestle with the real pain that, like bad luck and trouble, comes hand-in-hand with the pleasure blues artists provide. White listeners want enough pain to prove it’s real, but not enough to implicate us.

I’m not trying to shit all over other writers or lovers of the blues, or claim that, in this sentence, I am doing the writing and appreciating right. I started writing this essay four years ago and have more than forty thousands words in various files with various names, all dormant. I’ve pitched this story, had it accepted, and let that acceptance die, because the version I pitched followed the format I’ve described above, and it didn’t feel true or fair to the Mary I know. Writing the truer version would be harder, and scarier, and would require me to engage with Mary in all her complexity and pain, by which I mean it would require me to practice a kind of love, and I wasn’t sure if I was strong enough to do it. But last year, I moved back to Chicago and thought of Mary every time I saw her shirt folded in my drawer, as tucked away as a secret, as red as a fire truck wailing an alarm. I wanted to be braver for her. I needed to try again.

I tried again because of guilt and love, death and money, the stuff of the blues itself. I also tried because, years after hearing Tony say “she should be famous,” I still had questions to answer about that, and as it turned out, when we did speak again, so did Mary. “I can’t live on my name,” she told me. “I’m Mary, I’m good at this, I did that, but I got to eat.” What is the profession of ongoing love from a community worth if it doesn’t come with ongoing money?

A few months ago, Mary and Jeff’s old mattress finally busted. Now, he sleeps on the couch in their humid apartment, and she sleeps in a recliner. And so the question that needs asking, amid all the accolades, is this: What is appreciation worth if it doesn’t come with cash? Why, at eighty-four, can a musician who is universally admired, who has been called the “real deal” and “the voice of experience,” not afford to buy a new bed?

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Since I came back to Chicago to find Mary, four years ago, I’ve spent a lot of time with her. I started by helping her hawk CDs for money, and explaining to white women my age and demographic that no, Mary’s music doesn’t come on vinyl, and no, the shirt doesn’t come in small. Sometimes I slept over on the couch at Mary and Jeff’s overheated Melrose Park apartment. The first time I did that, she told me a little bit about her childhood in Arkansas, a place she’s only been back to three times since moving north more than sixty years ago.

On summer mornings, back then, Mary woke up slow. Before opening her eyes, she’d stretch her child limbs across the side of the bed recently vacated by her sister, Mary Helen. Across the room, Mary Helen might be up and at the stove, eating the biscuits their father left for them, made each morning when it was still dark. The kids knew the rule: they were to stay in the house and play with each other “til the dew dropped off the cotton and the train that run from Elaine to Helena came by and blows.” That was their signal: once the whistle sounded and the dew was dry, Mary, Mary Helen, and their brother, Charlie Jr., headed out to join their father, Charlie Sr., in the field to pick. It was the early 1940s in the Deep South, and, from what I understand, the family worked together for a sharecropper. Over the years, it’s possible the kids were joined by any of Mary’s other siblings, of which there were eventually twenty in total.

“[Charlie Sr.] was a great father,” she said to me one summer day in 2016. I was painting her toenails before a show. Her right ankle—broken in 1985 and never set right due to Mary’s phobia of hospitals—tends to swell, making her foot hard to reach. “He used to sing all the time. And he was funny, because every time it would start stormin’, he would put his boots on, overcoat and everything, and he would go out and sit on the porch. And when there was a high wind blowing, he’d be still out there, holdin’ onto the pole…He would sit out on that porch and sing gospel.”

Following the 2019 release of Mary’s second album, Travelin’ Woman, more than twenty years after Appointment With the Blues, NPR wrote: “Lane remembers her earliest days performing in Arkansas, where she would sing for the workers in the cotton fields. ‘I used to go to the field and all the people were out there picking cotton and everything. I’d always be behind. I’d be back there just singing and everybody say, ‘Come and sing, Mary. Go on and sing.’ And I kept on doing it for years and years as I came up.”

Mary is a professional singer, a businesswoman. She knows what stories sell, what lines of her life people want to hear. She also knows that sometimes, it doesn’t matter what she says—people will hear what they want to regardless, taking what they find inspirational or appealing and leaving the rest.

Besides stories about her dad, Mary rarely shares specific details with me about what her life was like growing up sharecropping in the Arkansas Delta. Even questions I think are banal are met with with a kind of rebuke. “What did it look like?” Mary said to me, incredulous, the first time I asked her to describe the house she grew up in. “It looked like a house. Sittin’ on the ground.” Later, when I ask her to describe the land she’s from and farmed: “You always asking what it look like, what it feel like. It was the country; wasn’t nothin’ there.”

Maybe she isn’t used to being asked how she feels, maybe she finds the questions boring, maybe the world taught her a long time ago to put her feelings somewhere deep inside of herself, where no one, especially not a nosey white writer, can reach. As a writer, it’s my responsibility to walk an uneven line between minding my business and asking questions that allow Mary to make herself a little more known, if she wants. For example: cotton harvest in Arkansas continues through at least late fall. If Mary Lane was singing, or picking, in the field, how did she go to school?

The three times Mary’s been back to Arkansas: to bury her mother, Ada; to bury one of her brothers; and, in autumn of 2019, to sing at the King Biscuit Blues Fest in promotion of Travelin’ Woman. Mary is terrified of flying and was reluctant to go in the first place, so she, her manager Lynn Orman, and the rest of the No Static Blues Band rented a van and made the trip from Chicago in a day. When Charlie Sr. died years back, Mary—grief-stricken, sick, and broke—decided not to make the trip back for his funeral. “Up here,” Mary told me, “I never say yassir or nossir to no white person or nobody. See, when I was down there, you had to do that. It’s a big difference. It’s like I say: I don’t wanna go back down there.”

That’s what singing “for the workers in the cotton fields” means. There’s the version that offers Grit and Authenticity for a white audience, and then there’s the story of a child working so much in a cotton field in the Jim Crow south that she never did have the chance to finish elementary school. That’s a little harder to comfortably bear.

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One night, in 2017, I was in Chicago, at Buddy Guy’s club Legends, watching Mary sing, when Buddy himself showed up. He joined Mary onstage; this wasn’t long after his seventh Grammy, so more tourists were in on a Tuesday than usual. Within seconds, iPhones shot up. “NO RECORDINGS,” shouted a bouncer. Mary was grinning so hard I worried the top of her head was going to fall off. Buddy put his arm around her and, after a brief, profanity-laden banter, the two began to sing, tossing verses back and forth as lightly as silk scarves. Buddy was tall and comfortably, perfectly dressed.

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Halfway through, Buddy held up his hand and pointed to the tip jar. The band went quiet. Buddy turned to Mary. “Mary,” he said conversationally, “What does that look like to you?” Mary squinted into the jar, where a few bills floated, and then looked away as though she had just witnessed someone doing something rude and probably unsanitary. “It don’t look like shit to me,” she said, and shrugged. The crowd, pressed close to the stage now, giggled nervously.

“Well,” said Buddy, as he slowly opened his wallet and pulled out some green. “Ain’t that a motherfucking shame.” The crowd collectively looked at its hands. “People these days don’t have the decency”—and here, his voice grew louder—“to pay”—the bill dropped into the bucket—“a hardworking artist. But they’re happy to take.” With each emphasis, the crowd squirmed. Then, a rush: folks pressed forward, and money came out. Later, after the show, I asked Mary how she was doing. She sighed. “It just feels good,” she said, “to have some bills in my hands.”

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After my second visit, in 2016, Mary called and asked if I’d be visiting her for Mother’s Day, though, she said, she’d “understand” if I was going to spend time with my own mom. I could do neither, seeing as I was a broke grad student in a different state than either woman, but our calls continued, and the visits when I could. One hot night, we watched movies in her bed in front of a fan as she dozed. One day, I ran across the street to buy her lotto tickets and helped her fill them out via a complicated system of numbers she keeps written out on cardboard scraps. “When you find somebody, I want you to find somebody with some money, ‘cause you can starve by your goddamn self,” she said to me. It’s one of her favorite bantering lines to sing out from the stage, because it always brings in a laugh—and with that laugh, tips.

I watched her sell her food assistance card for cash. I bought her groceries. She hates most of the food I like, but I like all the food she does, so it worked out. She wouldn’t let me cook, but she would let me do the dishes. We mopped the floor. I held her hand while we walked down her apartment stairs. Her eyes aren’t great, so when her son Elvis sent her letters from prison, I read them to her. She dictated her replies to me, and I mailed them. She asked me about my mom, my dad, my brothers and my sister. She asked me to describe our yard. “I’d like to visit them sometime,” she said. Another time, looking up and at me sideways as she set food on the table: “Do your parents know you have a Black friend?”

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We talked about sex, and love. I asked her about having her first child at thirteen. The father was twenty-six, twenty-seven. “He was an asshole,” she started, then stopped. Sometimes, Mary told me never to have kids if I could help it. Other times, my phone rang and it was one of her daughters on the phone, introducing herself to me, Mary shouting in the background with pride.

Jeff has been with Mary since the early nineties. They met at a show where he was playing bass and she was looking fine. “I love that woman,” Jeff said to me. “We fight, we argue, but I have never hit her and I’d walk out before I ever would. That’s not what love is.” Besides “that woman,” I only ever heard Jeff call Mary by her first and last name both: “Mary Lane, ain’t you doing an interview? Mary Lane, ain’t these your earrings?” I asked him why, and he winked. “That’s what they do when you’re famous.”

Mary Lane rarely drinks, except for a single shot of whiskey sometimes, before a show if her throat is sore, but she gave me tallboys before I asked. Also beads, signs printed with prayers, statues of angels. Her favorite words are “motherfucker,” “money,” and “I don’t need that pressure.”  She believes in God but doesn’t go to church. She still dreams about Ada, her mom, especially when it storms—and when it storms, even now, she lays shaking on her floor until it passes. She talks about what she calls her “nervous,” about getting so “jitterous” that she can’t sleep, can’t breathe. I asked her once if she’d ever been diagnosed with anxiety, depression, PTSD. “No,” she said.

It was probably after my second visit that we started ending our phone calls with “I love you,” though I don’t remember who said it first. It was around the same time she started asking to borrow money until she got paid after a show. The first time or two, she paid me back, insisted on it. After that, if I had it, I gave it; if I didn’t, I couldn’t. It didn’t feel good. Each time she asked, there was such pain and urgency in her voice that my heart jumped; each time I couldn’t pay, I felt guilty, and her disappointment dropped into me like a stone.

She talked a lot about her death, about how it was coming, soon, she just didn’t know when and that terrified her. Sometimes when she called me and asked to borrow money, she was crying. Sometimes she said I didn’t love her. Sometimes she said no one did, that the whole world had screwed her round, and proceeded into such a fiery litany of accusations against everyone she knows that I grew to dread her calls, feeling like I already had mother figures in my life I disappointed, like all I wanted to do was write about a woman I admire whose music I like. It’s too hard to witness her pain, sorrow, fear, and rage, or to know what I’m responsible for. Our boundaries are all tangled. She told me she hoped that, when this story finally got published, I could split the check with her. I didn’t think she was wrong, but I need money, too. It was too hard to parse what I felt, so I started to shrink.

Our calls got fewer as the years passed, and our visits. She stopped calling me, though later she’d say I stopped calling her. When I did call, every few months, she yelled “Oh my god, I thought you forgot all about me! You ain’t gone and got married or anything, did you?” and ended every call with how she might die before I see her again, but if that’s that, that’s that. One time, I couldn’t take it anymore. “For fuckssake, Mary,” I said, “stop threatening to die! I hate it!” There was silence, then her laugh, amber and low, started up. For a little bit, it felt like it used to.

In the fall of 2018, she told me about recording her new album, due out early the next year. She was happy but worried, and concerned that everyone else who was part of the album’s production was already making money on it and hiding it from her. (Later, I interviewed the team, and they showed me numbers that demonstrated losses in the record production.) Money from a GoFundMe for the album’s production went to costs associated with the production, not to Mary, and she felt betrayed. “I’m still broke,” she said, “trying to make it day to day.” And then: “it’s been a long time since I heard from you. I was starting to think you’d forgot me.”

It would be a year and a half before we spoke again.

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One day, during a rainy fall visit, I asked Mary where she got her ideas for her songs. Mary shrugged. “From my own mind,” she said. “Things that have happened.”

Mary’s first songs were recorded in Chicago in the early sixties. After that, there was a near thirty-year gap. When I asked one Chicago blues historian why he thought Mary wasn’t more well-known, more successful, he pointed to this gap with a shrug in his voice. It wasn’t like she was out there recording music all the time, performing much, he told me. This was at odds with Mary’s own recollection of hustling and playing in the late Seventies and early Eighties, even with the time she took off to raise her eight children. When I pointed this out to the historian, he shrugged. Well, I never saw her, he said. She recorded with Morris and disappeared.

Morris Pejoe originally hailed from Louisiana, and brought some of that brassy Cajun sound with him: you can hear it on his recordings with Cobra Records, a short-lived but influential label run out of Chicago’s west side from 1956-1959, and Chess Records. Morris never featured with Chess, but is credited with guitar on a number of tracks to come out of their recording studio on South Michigan Avenue: he recorded more regularly with Checker, a Chess subsidiary. In the early sixties, Mary and Morris recorded two jump tunes together, “He Don’t Want My Lovin’ No More” and “I Always Want You Near.” On the tracks, Mary’s voice shocks me. She sounds so young.

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I didn’t hear about those tracks, or about Morris, until one afternoon when she mentioned his name in passing. Tell me about Morris, I said. “He was jealous, Morris, he was so jealous, girl, I couldn’t talk to nobody, not even women.” For the next few minutes, I listened in silence as she spoke.

“He used to jump on me all the time, he the one who used to keep my face all swolled up, black-eyed and everything. I couldn’t go to the club; if I go to the club and go to the bathroom, he be sending somebody to the door, knocking on the door, telling me to come out, and anybody who say anything to me, when he come down off the stage? He be ready to fight. And the kids? He had the kids so afraid and everything, ‘cause when we go out and when we come to the house and knock on the door at night, they all start running to the closet, runnin’ up under the bed and hidin’, cause they knew we were gonna be fightin’ when we come home.

One night, I got tired of him jumpin’ on me, you know. He had me really afraid of him: ‘If you leave me, I’m gon’ kill ya, if I catch you with—’ he wasn’t gonna catch me doing nothin’ ‘cause I know how he was! And then he lost two jobs, he was so jealous. He would go to work, come back to the house, ease in the key in the door and everything—this is the God’s truth, I wouldn’t lie to ya—he’d come on in the house, and then he’d keep on through to the back door, talkin’ about somebody run through, run out the door, somethin’ like that? Girl, I went through treacherous, I went through hell, for a long time.

One night he jumped on me, had me up in the little closet, in the pantry, and he was beatin’ me. I had a big old long kitchen fork, you know, one of these forks you turn the chicken over with, and I grabbed that fork and I stuck it in him like that [motions to her abdomen] and blood shot out and everything, and then he grabbed his side and run, and fell on the bed, and I just took that fork and stuck it in his ass.”

Their relationship had lasted eight years, and brought about three children, but after that, it was over, no matter how much Morris cried. He never hit her again.

Mary writes her own lyrics, or rather, she sings them out until she’s got them down and until Jeff has found the right tune to go with them, because her cataracts make it hard for her to read and write. One of my favorite songs of hers is “Candy Yams.” On Appointment With the Blues, it’s about four minutes, but live, Mary lets it linger for longer. It’s a song, to my ears, that’s about oral sex:

I’ve got brown candy yams to slap across his face
They tell me when you feed ‘em like that, girl,
You don’t have to worry about him going no place

But also, for one line at least, it’s about violence:

Shot my man five times to make sure he was dead
But when I raised my leg, that man, he raised his head

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Mary’s never asked me why we stopped talking. When I called her in May 2020, and told her it was me, there was a beat, and then she said my name.

Mary and Jeff haven’t worked since March. Coronavirus has cancelled all their gigs in the city, and with them, all of Mary’s album promotion. Touring is key to promotion, and thus to sales, and because she’s so afraid of travel, it would’ve been difficult to make money even without the pandemic sweeping clubs and bars shut, some for good. But still, what money could’ve been made is gone.

In the last year, Mary’s been on local television, been nominated by The Blues Foundation for the Traditional Blues Female Artist Koko Taylor Award, and been inducted into The Chicago Blues Hall of Fame. “A white girl won [the Koko Taylor Award] over me,” she said. “They don’t want an older person. They want a young person, somebody they can put in and make a lot of money on. They don’t think we been out here putting the blues how they supposed to be.” But she doesn’t care, she tells me, about awards. I ask her what she needs to be okay. “I need some money, I need some food, and I need a peace of mind,” Mary said, “and I don’t have it.”

Before COVID-19, Mary’s manager had been constantly promoting her, setting her up for interviews. Travelin’ Woman has gotten a few good reviews in blues mags. Mary’s profile is arguably higher than it ever has been, but she’s poorer. “I done gave interviews. I don’t understand why they be, you know, telling the inside of your life, give them interviews, and when you go to them for somethin’, they can’t even reach out and help you. I don’t understand that one,” she said.

Mary believes she should get paid for interviews, for every time she tells the inside of her life, and the more I think about it, the more I think she might be right. Praise and appreciation don’t pay the rent. Her job, all her life, has been to craft her story in such a way that other people want to hear it, on repeat, when they’re dancing and drinking and holding someone close, or when they’re sitting on their porch wondering where to go from here. By detailing the blues of her life, Mary’s lyrics and voice guide other people safely through their own swampy feelings. In her company, they don’t have to move through their pain alone. Why should she?

“You know how I been doing all these interviews, dealing with the peoples, that wasn’t right. If I live to see November, I’ll be eighty-five years old, and I ain’t got nothing to show for it. Nothing [but just] a name out here for doing music,” Mary said. “But I’m still broke.” Once again, she had brought up the possibility of her death, but this time it wasn’t funny or aggravating. She’s right: she doesn’t have forever left, and should be able to spend that time, after working so hard all her life, sleeping at night in a good bed. Before we hung up, she asked me if I was in a spot where I could give her some money. I’m not, but I emailed some friends who were and asked her if I could apply to some COVID relief grants on her behalf. She said yes.

The blues are not linear; they circle around the listener like smoke or spiral stairs, returning again to the same rounded corner, or what feels like the same. For that, they can sound repetitive, deceptively simple. But it’s not the same stair; you and your ghosts are one floor up. It’s not the same line; there’s a stronger chord, an “I said” where there wasn’t one before, which acts as a streak of lightning in the same dark and illuminates, briefly, the world around you and your place in it.

After all, Mary and I have been here before. This isn’t the first time a year has passed where she and I didn’t talk. It happened the year after I first saw her at Rosa’s, tried to pay her for her CD, failed, moved to Iowa. Then one day, her Facebook page, which I’d messaged before with no luck, flicked back on. A post sharing information about another blues singer’s death referenced Mary and her band; the band shared information about a show they were playing at Buddy Guy’s Legends; and so I decided to be there, too. I took a Megabus that later caught on fire to watch Mary sing to a room two-thirds empty and drowning in a dark blue light. When I walked to the bathroom, I passed more than a hundred framed photos of blues artists, Chicagoan and otherwise, spanning a timeline ninety years long. All these artists were men. Everyone in Mary’s band was a man. Everyone in Mary’s band wore a t-shirt with her name on it, and soon, though I didn’t know it, I’d be wearing one too. Mary was also wearing a t-shirt with her name on it, along with glittering, ruby-red pumps on her feet that would make it impossible for her to stand in the morning. But that night, she turned carefully and smiled as I approached her on her break.

“Miss Mary Lane,” I said, a letter and a twenty clutched in my right hand. “My name is Katie, and I’ve been looking for you. I owe you.” ■

Friends of Mary Lane have organized a GoFundMe campaign to raise financial support. You can find the landing page here.

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Katie Prout is a freelance writer in Chicago. Her work has appeared in Longreads, LitHub, and elsewhere.

Cover image of Mary Lane, courtesy the artist.

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