Catbelly Heat on My Knees

I came across this song lyric from 1883, in a file marked “Blind Bobbybaby Jax.” Indeed, records show an old black man living in Macoupin County, an itinerant laborer, fruit picker and two-finger banjo plucker.

“I done scratched away my fleas/a little sour mash if you please/I wouldn’t mind a woman to squeeze/I got catbelly heat on my knees.”

Mr. Jax (an orchard owner back in the day dubbed him Bobbybaby) was renowned for his ability to pick perfect apples even though he was blind. He would stand on a ladder against a tree, and his hand would touch apples as if they were targets. Local white children would visit just to watch the apple picker. They would place dollar bills at the foot of the tree, so Jax tolerated them.

“Oh, them chi’dren how they bleat/they tiny hands clappin’ a beat/Don’t feel like singing—sheeet/Little white kids at my feet.”

Come the night, Jax would hold court outside the barn where he lived and slept, white folks and the other two black residents of Macoupin County, Mr. Chas and Miss Gospelette, brother and sister servants in a mansion in Jerseyville, gathering to hear the signature “Mis’ssip” growl of the bluesman as he sang remembered songs from the Delta of his youth.

The referenced catbelly belonged to an enormous Maine Coon cat named Auntie Plato, a feline which adopted Jax and spent much of its life on the blues man’s lap. Auntie Plato was a legendary mouser and had birthed, by the orchard owner’s estimate, over two hundred cat mutts with grotesque body shapes.

Auntie Plato, Jax told anyone who would listen, had cured him of arthritis purely by the feline’s intense body heat. The cat spent much of its daytime hours straddling the shoulders of a bull, riding about the pasture and looking queen-like.

Rumor has it that the first blues man to ever be recorded, Charley Patton, on his way to Chicago from Memphis and hearing about Blind Bobbybaby Jax, stopped by the orchard and communed with Jax for part of a day. Patton was known for his guitar style, which would influence the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and his voracious appetite for women and booze.

We will never know if Blind Bobbybaby Jax was discovered that day, because Auntie Plato the cat attacked Patton, knocking him off a milking stool and angrily ripping the musician’s hands to bloody shreds. (Robert Johnson posited in Blues Magazine that the Auntie Plato shredding might be responsible for Charley Patton’s frenetic fretwork.) Curiosity didn’t kill the cool cat, but we do know that Patton drove away, and Jax wrote a song, “Ol’ Cat Done Ripped My Heart.”

“Dang ol’ catty ain’t you smart/Jealous pussy from the start/No more spooning in the dark/Ol’ Maine cat done ripped my heart.”

Blind Bobbybaby Jax died in 1935. Still picking apples, he reached for what he thought was a ripe fruit but was in fact a hornet’s nest, his hand stuck inside the nest and the hornets stinging the old man hundreds of times. Mr. Jax was buried next to the long dead Auntie Plato in a grove of oak trees.

Bluesmen tell an anecdote about Charley Patton backstage at a concert in Atlanta, who, upon hearing of the death of Jax, supposedly said. “Goddam coon.” He meant the cat, of course.

If you’re driving east on Route 16, just a mile past the hamlet of Piasa, you will see a historic plaque along the shoulder of the highway.

“In memory of Blind Bobbybaby Jax, blues man and apple picker. ‘I got catbelly heat on my knees.’”

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