The Moves That Matter Part 5: The King Ain’t Got No Hustle


Jonathan Rowson writes, “I have a friend who never reads or watches anything recommended by only one person, but acts almost immediately on the advice of two or more. He enjoys looking out for such signals and waits for the world to reveal to him what he should do. He says he appreciates books and films all the more when he senses that they are meant for him, and while I am charmed by his methodology, I fear for his sanity. I thought of him when I started watching The Wire

on DVD in 2011. ( The series is a gritty and sometimes harrowing take on the urban drug scene in Baltimore, USA, and is awash with swearing and violence. From that kind of description, I found it hard to imagine I could like it, yet with so many trusted friends telling me I would, I relented, and was pleasantly surprised.”

The opening theme music for HBO’s series The Wire is a song written by Tom Waits titled “Way Down in the Hole” (1987). Each year, during the series’ five-season run, the producers selected or solicited a different version of the song. As a series, The Wire is often interpreted as lacking a space for representations of Black spirituality. Each of the five seasons features complex institutional characterizations and explorations of the Street, the Port, the Law, the Hall (i.e., politics), the School, and/or the Paper (i.e., media). Through these institutional characters and the individual characters that inhabit, construct, and confront them, The Wire depicts urban America, writ large across the canvas of cultural and existential identity. For all of its institutional complexity, The Wire then serially marginalizes Black spirituality in favor of realism, naturalism, and some may argue, nihilism.1 “Way Down in the Hole” is a paratextual narrative that embodies this marginalization and creates a potential space for viewers (and listeners) of the show, one that frames each episode and the entire run, through literary and spiritual Black musical contexts. The multiple versions of “Way Down in the Hole” ultimately function as a marginalized repository for the literary and spiritual narratives that are connected to the series—narratives that become legible via intertextual analyses and in turn render visible The Wire’s least visible entities: Black spirituality and the Black Church.2 (

Something similar happened to me some years after Jonathan decided to invest the time watching what has come to be on everyone’s short list of the best series to grace a screen. For many years I considered the best television series of the genre commonly known as ‘Cops and Robbers’, to be Homicide: Life on the Street

The Wire rivaled Homicide and may have even superseded it. Ironically, both series are set in Baltimore, Maryland, USA.

“The characters are raw and compelling and their dialect electrically authentic. I remember being irritated to find that audiences in America watched some films set in Scotland, like Trainspotting, with English subtitles, but the street language of The Wire is also so far from conventional English that I initially had to do the same. Still, in an early episode I knew I had made a good decision to watch when I saw one young drug dealer – D’Angelo – teach two others – Bodie and Wallace – how to play chess.

“Ya’ll can’t be playing checkers on no chessboard yo!” – D’Angelo Barksdale

this particular scene is an extraordinary work of art; a beguiling mixture of social commentary, existential despair, youthful hope and dark humour.”

“D’Angelo describes the king as ‘the kingpin’ and says that the aim of the game is to protect your own king and get the king of the other side. He says the king can move one square in any direction but that he doesn’t have ‘hustle’.”

“There are many worlds within that word: hustle. As a noun and a verb, hustle hints at a relationship between a setting and a plot, a juxtaposition that defines the moral ambiguity of characters in The Wire. Describing the king’s lack of hustle is a succinct way to say that the king is rarely out on the streets; in professional terms he does not have to solicit clients. The expression also means the king does not directly display force, he’s not typically aggressive, he’s not illicit, not in a hurry, but equally he doesn’t have what you might need to get things done. ‘Hustle’ is sometimes admirable, not least when it seems necessary; the word conveys the spirit of entrepreneurial transgression needed to survive.”

“The king

may not have hustle, but nonetheless he survives for longer than the other pieces by definition. Checkmate – from the Persian Shah Mat – literally means the king is dead. ‘The man’ is therefore the ultimate target of attack, but he is surrounded by people who will give their lives to protect him, and often do. Most chess endgames when few pieces remain, are characterized by the king suddenly becoming emboldened, partly because with fewer enemies around it is relatively safe to come out ‘into the street’, but also because there are fewer allies left to do his hustling for him.”
“The realization that life-and-death chances are not fairly distributed is what makes the chess scene from The Wire so poignant.”

D’Angelo (center), explaining chess to Wallace (left) and Bodie (right), triangulated in a
way as to distinguish a hierarchy within the Barksdale crew

“As the rules of the game are described by D’Angelo, Wallace and Bodie can see their own lives in the game’s metaphors, giving rise to an open question of who or what exactly they are living in service of, and why.”
“Bodie, himself a pawn in the drug wars, points to the pawns, and asks about ‘them little baldheaded bitches’. D’Angelo explains that they are like soldiers and shows how they move, saying they are out on the ‘front lines’. Bodie gets excited by the possibility of pawns getting promoted, about becoming ‘top dog’ if he can ‘get to the end’. D’Angelo is quick to disabuse him of the probability of that happening, implying that they often get ‘capped’ (shot) quickly.”

‘The queen ain’t no bitch. She got all the moves.’

“Bodie shoots back that this may not happen if they are ‘smart-ass pawns’, which he himself later proves to be, surviving and rising through the ranks until series four. Wallace, on the other hand, proved as vulnerable as most pawns do, and died a few episodes later when he was just sixteen after trying to leave the drug scene. Bodie, Wallace’s friend, was also his assassin.”

“The writers loop back to this scene in series four when Bodie is speaking with Detective McNulty and considering his next move. Bodie is resolute about not being a snitch and conveys that he has done everything he was told to do by his bosses since he was thirteen, including killing his friend Wallace. McNulty know the context and has clearly grown to admire Bodie, calling him ‘a soldier’, as D’Angelo called the pawns earlier. At that moment, after years of imagining he might somehow escape or transform his fate, Bodie sees the truth of being a pawn more clearly, and realizes he is still ‘one of them little bitches on the chessboard.’ McNulty clarifies: ‘Pawns.'”

“In an early chess manual published around the middle of the sixtenenth century, Francois-Andre Philidor

describes pawns as ‘the soul of chess’, and this line is widely quoted by chess teachers and commentators because we know and feel its truth. Pawns are not the most powerful pieces, and they are mostly at the mercy of events, but they have a certain amount of hustle and they both set the scene and shape the narrative.
What occurred to me while watching The Wire is that most of us are pawns to a greater or lesser extent. We have our moments of power, fame and glory, but we are always potentially alone and vulnerable to forces beyond our control. We are the soul of the game of life, and our lives are precious not in spite of our fragility, but because of it.”

The Discman Part Deux

After reading an article in Rolling Stone magazine, “Between the Bars: 20 Great Songs About Prison,” you know what I did. “OK Discman, offa the toppa your noggin’…Name the best prison song of all time!”

This time a reply was received from the Discman so soon it left me wondering if he, too, had read the article and had an answer prepared for me!
“Here’s my top 25 plus some Honorable Mentions:

1) Folsom Prison Blues (Johnny Cash)

2) Jail House Rock (Elvis Pressley)

3) Ellis Unit One (Steve Earl)

4) You Never Even Call Me By My Name (David Allan Coe)

5) Hurricane (Bob Dylan)

6) Wichita Jail (Charlie Daniels Band)

7) Fish in the Jailhouse (Tom Waits)

8) Care of Cell 44 (The Zombies)
9) Jailbreak (Thin Lizzy)

10) 30 Days in the Hole (Humble Pie)

11) I’m In the Jailhouse Now (Webb Pierce)

12) Life in Prison (Merle Haggard)

13) County Jail Blues (Eric Clapton)

14) Jailer (J.J. Cale)

15) Riot in Cell Block #9 (Johnny Winter)

16) Prison Blues (Guitar Slim)

17) Judge Boushay Blues (Furry Lewis)

18) Cincinatti Jail (Ronnie Earl)

19) Maxwell’s Silver Hammer (The Beatles)

20) Murder in My Heart for the Judge (Moby Grape)

21) Give My Love to Rose (Johnny Cash)

22) Prison Trilogy (Joan Baez)

23) Christmas in Prison (John Prine)

24) 25 Minutes to Go (Johnny Cash)

25) I Got Stripes (Johnny Cash)

Honorable Mention:

Good Morning Judge (Furry Lewis)

30 Days in Jail (Bessie Smith)

Jail House Blues (Bessie Smith)

Death Cell Blues (Blind Willie McTell)

The Cell (Leslie West)

What a Lowdown Place this Jailhouse Is (Blind Blake)

Prison Bound (Sonny Boy Williamson & Memphis Slim)

Tijuana Jail (Kingston Trio)

Go To Jail (R.L. Burnside)

The Wall (Johnny Cash)

Greystone Chapel (Johnny Cash)

Rusty Cage (Johnny Cash)

The Cage (Elton John)

Doin’ My Time (Johnny Cash & Marty Stuart)

Weighted Down (Skip Spence)”

The man knows his music! A little later another email arrived from the Man of the Disc, “You should take a listen to Ellis Unit One by Steve Earl – it’s a haunting song about capital punishment and the electric chair told from the perspective of a jailer guarding murder row.”

To which I replied,
“I have and it is…I’m a HUGE fan of Steve Earl. I’ve caught him on Austin City Limits and various other programs on the tube…”
To which he replied, “Yeah I’m with ya – LOVE Steve Earle.”

After informing the post had been published, he sent me this:

One of the benefits of the internet is virtually unlimited space – there are no arbitrary restrictions like you have with printed media…

On another note, I was listening to Disc #190 yesterday and ran into a great Jail song I neglected to include on my list: Trudy by the CDB off the outstanding 1975 album Fire On the Mountain.

Definitely would have been in the Top 10, as it combines Jail and Poker.

I assume you know what a “mechanic” is at the card table – it’s somebody who is very good at shuffling/dealing to give himself (or somebody else) specific cards (i.e. CHEATING). A good mechanic is always good at “base-dealing” (i.e. dealing from the bottom of the deck…)

Now Johnny Lee Walker was a card mechanic…

and how good is this lyric:

Then I took off a running like a motorcycle
Heard the bullets whining and sirens wail
But it took half the cops in Dallas County
Just to put one coon-ass boy in jail


Call up Trudy on the telephone
Send a letter in the mail
Tell her I’m hung up in Dallas
And they won’t let me outta this jail

And if she asks you how I’m fairing
Tell her I’m just about to lose my mind
Worried about old Johnny Lee Walker
And the girl I left behind

Now Johnny Lee Walker was a card mechanic
Had a hand for trouble and a eye for cash
Luckiest man in Dallas County
He had a gold watch chain and a black mustache

And he loved his whiskey and he loved his women
Drove a big long Cadillac limosine
Kept a big fine fancy townhouse in Dallas
And a hotel suite in New Orleans

Carried a switchblade knife in his left hip pocket
And a .44 hog leg up under his coat
Cut you down in a New York minute
If he catch you cheating that was all she wrote

So call up Trudy on the telephone
Send her a letter in the mail
Tell her I’m hung up in Dallas
And they won’t let me outta this jail

If she asks you how I’m fairing
Tell her I’m just about to lose my mind
Worried about old Johnny Lee Walker
And the girl I left behind

I just got to town last Friday evening
Sure as hell didn’t mean to stay
I was on my way back to Louisiana
Had a powerful thirst and six months pay

I met a peroxide blonde in a bar on D-ville
I was flying high and feeling mean
Poured down a bottle and a half of red eye
I dropped 35 dollars in the slot machine

And the boys in the back was dealing 7 card
I set down and won me a 110
I was raking in chips like Grant took Richmond
Till big Johnny Lee come a strolling in

He ripped off the table like a 707
Pretty soon he done won all of my bread
I accused him of cheating he reached for a pistol
I grabbed a chair and went upside of his head

Then I took off a running like a motorcycle
Heard the bullets whining and sirens wail
But it took half the cops in Dallas County
Just to put one coon-ass boy in jail

So call up Trudy on the telephone
Send her a letter in the mail
Tell her I’m hung up in Dallas
And they won’t let me outta this jail

And if she asks you how I’m fairing
Tell her I’m just about to lose my mind
Worried about old Johnny Lee Walker
And the girl I left behind