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.