The Spleen Brothers

The folklorists knew the stories—had heard them for decades, from animal tamers, radio station managers, sidemen, preachers, hucksters—but had never written them down. Even among the real histories of musicians, the blindnesses, the missing limbs, the lives spent in mines distilled into a five-note scale and a voice like a buzzsaw, they seemed like too much. Yet the telling was so consistent. Twin brothers Earl and Orville Spleen, everyone said, were born on a roadside in 1908, the mother leaning against the side of a truck and dropping her kids together into the sand. Twenty-nine years later, they were found dead in the back of a wide car outside a farm at the end of a long, jagged road spiked with unstrung fenceposts. Earl stretched across the back seat, Orville across the footwell. All their instruments in the trunk. They’d seen their parents burn in a house fire when they were children, were homeless from then on. Traveled with revival tents, circuses, medicine shows, from Texas to North Carolina, following the strands of county highways across the rural South. Filled the ears of the Delmores with their music, the Anglins, the Bolicks, the Monroes, who walked away in a stupor, as if still sleeping, still held by dreams that did not settle them. I thought I knew a little about the guitar when I was younger, Alton Delmore said once, but then I heard them pick it and knew I didn’t know a thing.

They could both play fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin. Sang in high, eerie tenors, rising and falling together, crossing, as only brothers’ voices can. Could do blues, gospel, hymns as sweet as any in church. Even rags, a little jazz. Whatever people wanted to hear. But when they played for themselves, they did fiddle tunes they must have written. Evil little things, Clayton McMichen said once. I couldn’t play a single one of them. Can’t forget them, either, though. Wish I could. They were like Death coming through the keyhole. Music to slaughter animals by. A pharmacist who said he saw them in 1932 told the folklorists how a woman miscarried while hearing them, and that night, it rained dead crows; when he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1964, he blamed it on Earl and Orville Spleen. I could feel them taking my brain apart even then, he said.

They’re like your boogeymen, the folklorists said to a choir of shape-note singers, who told them how the Spleens had joined them for one afternoon, left them all better than when they started. Better and humbled, a little afraid.

No, said the choir director. They’re yours.

Some of the folklorists thought they were being fed a line. They just want us to leave, they’re hoping we’ll bite and go chase them, they said. As if the Spleen Brothers were the biggest fish, bigger than Son House, bigger than Skip James. But for so long, there were only the stories, and no way to make the historical record match them. Oh, some of the folklorists tried. Tried to find the Spleens’ kin, birth certificates, records of house fires. Anything. Found nothing. See? the skeptics said. They don’t exist.

How do you know? said a mechanic.

Nobody gets born without someone knowing about it. It’s the way this country’s run, the folklorists said. And the mechanic who heard them say this just smiled, shook his head. Coming down here, talking like that, he thought to himself. You have no idea how this country’s run.

And then there was the story about the folklorists themselves, how one of them had tried to capture the sound of Earl and Orville Spleen. Knew they were working with the C.C. Candelabra Circus then, were somewhere in Alabama. Liked to set themselves down on two stools, knee to knee, among the animals after they’d gone to sleep, close their eyes, and play until dawn. The story went that it took the man a week of driving around the state, asking after a circus, until he found them at last on a fairground in Marengo County. Drove up while they were just sitting down. Waited for hours while they fell into a trance, then turned on his machine. He only got a minute into it before they woke up, destroyed the recording equipment, set the car on fire. The folklorist woke up in a vet’s office the next morning, splints on both his legs and his right arm. The smell of horse all around. They beat you pretty good, the vet said. You’re lucky the noise woke up their boss. According to him, they would have killed you, except the boss said he’d fire them if they did.

I should go back there and thank him, the folklorist said.

No, you shouldn’t, the vet said.

That never happened, the other folklorists said. If it did, we’d know about it. Wouldn’t the researcher have said something?

Maybe not, a truck driver said. You never know what people won’t tell you.

Then the recording was found, in a filing cabinet salvaged from the 2010 flood in Alcorn County, Mississippi. It had come down from Tennessee, a single pressed 78, unlabeled. The owner hadn’t even known it was there. The folklorists sent it around among themselves. A queer thing. Not a tune any of them recognized, a tonality that didn’t seem Southern. The banjo too loud to discern the true notes. The style too modern to be from the 1920s or even the 1930s, they said. And why had someone made a 78 of it? An unspoken agreement among them to talk about everything but the last few seconds, the sounds of violence. It’s a fraud, the skeptics said. Someone trying to make us believe. They said it with such conviction in the daytime. But at night, driving on the interstate, they could not get the brutality out of their heads. Wondered just how much was still hiding from them. Waiting for them to get home.

{Listen to the Spleen Brothers 78}

Brian Francis Slattery is an editor, writer, and musician. He is the author of the novels, Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America and Spaceman Blues: A Love Song. His ethnomusicological studies were most recently supported by a grant from the J. A. Lomax Wandering Spirit and Rural Resources Exploitation Foundation.