Little Boy Blues and the Busy Box

It is 1995.

It is a warm Spring evening in Louisville. Outside, the fireflies dance in the heavenly Scratchingscent of magnolia blossoms. My brother, Scott, my young nephew, Charles, and I are in the living room of a 150-year-old Greek Revival-style mansion. The room is filled with antiques, the perimeter of the ceiling marked by dental block molding. Cardinal Hill was once the manor house of a vast plantation. Now it’s ‘just’ an amazing house.

We listen to NPR, which is playing blues music. Scott and I are talking. Charles sits in a high chair with his ‘Busy Box’, an updated version that uses computer chips containing prerecorded sounds of fire engines, animals and even a generic ‘Mommy’ saying “It’s time to go home now”.

Charles happily works the buttons, making different sounds. Scott and I listen to the music. It’s real blues, black blues from the soul of the South. It’s hypnotic. I nibble a little Blanton’s. We are, after all, in Bourbon County.

Gradually I become aware something’s happening with the music. Not the music on the radio. I’m listening to an old black blues singer turning his soul inside-out, when it dawns on me that Charles isn’t randomly hitting the buttons on his ‘toy’.

‘Scratching’ is using a recording to create a rhythm by playing just part of it, over and over. Charles is ‘playing’ the sound samples, but cutting them off in such a way that he is scratching with his Busy Box. He alternates the fire engine with the police siren in perfect time with the music as the singer tells us about his hard life.

Then Charles switches it up and Mommy takes over. As the blues riff starts again, she begins to chant.

“Time- “

He hits the button again, cutting off the sample. Then he hits it again.

“Time- “

The guitar completes its phrase and Mommy comes back around.

“Time – “

And then Charles lets it go.

“Time to go home now.”

He looks up at me, grinning. This is no accident.

He knows exactly what he is doing.

He is three.