Woody Sings the Blues
Ron Stander left his office near midtown at 5 PM on a sunny, pleasant Wednesday afternoon. As an executive in the music industry, his interest in R & B and the delta blues belied his conservative, button down looks. People often assumed he was a WASP, but his ancestry also included an Afro-Caribbean mix on his mother’s side, though he looked like the English/Welsh descendants on his father’s side. A man in his mid 40’s, he often wore horn rimmed glasses, and was partial to three-piece suits. Though he lived in Manhattan for over twenty years, his musical tastes were influenced by his childhood in northwestern Mississippi, and he still retained a trace of a southern accent as evidence of his origin. He turned the corner on West 59th Street and took the N train downtown. His destination station at Times Square often featured street musicians hustling a few bucks on the platforms. He sometime tipped them on his way out the station, but rarely stopped to listen. The music almost never matched his tastes, but this time was different. There was an elderly, heavy set black man who appeared to be in his 80’s playing a perfect delta blues composition with the most soulful voice that Ron ever heard. It harkened back to his days in Mississippi where he would sit by the side of the pier and listen to the often-elderly bluesmen sing the songs of their youth, using an art form that was sadly dying out as urbanization came to even his small, mostly rural town. Ron stood on the platform for several minutes transfixed. After the end of the piece, he walked over and dropped a bill into the guitar case just as the musician seemed to take a break. “Wow,” he said. “I haven’t heard the delta blues played like that since I was a kid in Mississippi. That was amazing. What’s your name?” The man said, “Woodrow Wilson Robinson, but people just call me Woody.” A smile came across Ron’s face as he continued. “I guess that’s a controversial name now. You know people have been protesting Wison’s name and statue being used because he was supposedly a racist and segregationist.” Woody smiled back in return and replied. “Yeah, I heard about that. My folks emigrated here from St. Lucia when Woodrow Wilson was the president. They were proud to be American, so I guess they wanted to name their first-born son after their first American president.” “That makes total sense,” Ron replied. “I hope you stay at this spot for a while. I have to go now, but I hope to hear you another time.”
The next day Ron stood on a crowded N train on his way back home when an announcement blasted on the PA system. “Attention passengers. Due to emergency construction work on the tracks, all N trains will be making stops on the R train tracks. We are sorry for the inconvenience.” The passengers groaned as the subway made the usual startup croaking sound and gradually made its way to the Times Square station. Ron did not find Woody even after searching the entire station, and something somehow seemed different about the station. The billboard advertisements seemed different from the ones he remembered, and even some of the brand names were not ones he recognized. “Funny, I never heard of a fast-food franchise called ‘Burger World,’ he thought to himself. Nor did the tagline, “Taste a World of Difference,” sound familiar. Ron stepped off the curb at 8th and 42nd and caught the name of a shop that sold vintage vinyl records. The prominent name above the door used to say “Rick’s Records,” but now it “Bob’s Vintage Recordings.” Ron stepped into the shop and asked the young woman who was cashiering by the entrance, “Didn’t this place used to be called ‘Rick’s Records’? I swear I saw that sign just yesterday.” The young woman shook her head. “No, I’ve been working here ten years and it was always called ‘Bob’s Vintage Recordings.’ Ron shrugged and proceeded to browse the aisles. His gaze was captured by an album with the title “Woody Sings the Blues.” The man pictured on the cover appeared to be a much younger version of the man he had met the day before. Maybe 60 years younger and much thinner. He had a goatee that gave him a different look, but the same features and shape of the face. Ron caught the attention of a nearby clerk, picked up the album, and asked, “I think this artist is named Woody Robinson. Do you have any other albums by him?” The young male clerk’s eyes lit up. “Of course,” he said. “Woody is one our biggest sellers. That is his first album which came out in 1961. It caused a sensation and it is responsible for the revival of the delta blues in the early 60’s. He came out with three more albums in quick succession and all of were certified platinum.” “Wow,” said Ron. I’m in the music industry and I had no idea. I saw Woody playing on the Times Square subway platform yesterday.” The clerk looked at Ron like he was crazy. “That’s impossible,” he replied. “Woody tragically died of a drug overdose in 1987 at the height of his fame.” Ron turned ghost white, but said nothing. He took the album to the checkout line, purchased it, brought it home, and carefully placed it on the top of the upper drawer of his dresser. It was late, and he was tired after a long day. He would play the album the next day when he could give it the full attention it deserved.
The next day Ron again did not see Woody on the N train platform. The strange advertisements he saw the previous day were gone, replaced by the more familiar ones. Indeed, the record shop name reverted back to “Rick’s Records.” He could not find any albums by Woody when he searched the stacks. The manager noticed his frantic search efforts and walked over to Ron. “Can I help you?” he asked. “Yes,” replied Ron. “I was here yesterday and you had an album called ‘Woody Sings the Blues’. I want to buy some other albums by the same artist, but I can’t find any now. Maybe you sold them.” “Come with me,” the manager said. “If we had it yesterday it would be in the computer. I log every album that comes in.” The manager led Ron to the back office and started tapping the computer keys. After a while he said, “No, we never had that album here.” Ron had a puzzled look on his face. “That’s odd. I’m certain I saw it here yesterday.” “Well, tell me the name of the artist,” the manager replied. “Maybe we can order it.” “The artist’s name is Woody Robinson, short for Woodrow Wilson Robinson. After some more tapping on the computer keys, the manager replied, “there is no record of such a recording artist and there has never been an album released with that title. Maybe you saw a bootleg album somewhere, but we never sell those kinds of albums here.”
Ron went home and opened the drawer where he had placed the album the day before. It was not there. He decided to go to the station to look for Woody. Ron found him on the platform on the opposite side where he arrived earlier. “Hey Woody,” Ron said when the musician took a break. “Have you ever had a recording contract?” Woody had a wistful look on this face as he replied. “I once signed a contract with Columbia Records when I was young. But I was strung out on smack at the time. You know I was young and foolish and all my friends were doing it. I had to complete an album by a certain deadline and I couldn’t do it so they voided the contract. I never got offered another contract so I spent the rest of my life playing at small clubs across the country. In a way, not getting that contract worked out because without that pressure of producing an album I was able to kick the habit and go straight. It also freed me up to do what I really wanted — travel and play intimate, small clubs where I could connect with the audience. It worked out for the best.” “Just out of curiosity,” Ron replied, “did you have a goatee back then?” “Why yes,” Woody replied. “How did you know that?” “Just a lucky guess, I suppose,” said Ron. “Did you have a title selected for the album that you never completed? Woody’s face brightened as a memory came back to him. “I was thinking of calling it ‘Woody Sings the Blues.’”
When Ron got back home, he went to his laptop and googled the term “Many Worlds Theory.” It was a term he remembered from a long-ago college physics class. He read the opening lines of the first hit: “The Many-Worlds Interpretation (MWI) of quantum mechanics holds that there are many worlds which exist in parallel at the same space and time as our own.” He further read the explanation given on a physics journal website: “In its most familiar guise, the many-worlds interpretation (MWI) suggests that we live in a near-infinity of universes, all superimposed in the same physical space but mutually isolated and evolving independently. In many of these universes there exist replicas of you and me, all but indistinguishable yet leading other lives.” The last part of the sentence really struck Ron. “Replicas of you and me, all but indistinguishable yet leading other lives,” he replayed to himself. Maybe the N train wasn’t supposed to go down a different track yesterday. By doing so, maybe it entered a portal to an alternate universe which was almost indistinguishable from the universe where we are living, but events unfolded slightly differently, but different enough to have a profound effect on some lives. For some reason, he had a glance into how things might have been if different choices were made. It’s not supposed to happen, but if the Many Worlds Theory is true, how can we certain that there can’t be instances when one can jump from one world to another? In one world Woody achieves fame, but at the cost of an early, tragic death. In the other, fame eludes him, but he achieves a productive, long life.
Ron had to take a walk to clear his mind. There we so many thoughts going through it. He had always agonized over difficult choices on his life. Did he do the right thing in moving from his small town in Mississippi to New York? There were a lot more opportunities here, but he also gave up a lot in terms of family and the close nit community one develops in a small southern town. What would his life be like if he stayed in his hometown? We never know where we would end up if we take another path. However he did come away with one lesson from his experience. Sometimes what feels like a bad break at the moment can turn out to be blessing when you look back at it years later.