In the opening scene of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Seth talks to his wife, Bertha, in the kitchen of their boarding house. Looking out the window at Bynum, one of the house’s boarders, Seth narrates the old man’s strange actions, voicing his disapproval of the spiritual ritual Bynum is undertaking in the garden. Bynum is a “conjure man,” or a man who practices folk magic. A pragmatic craftsman who spends his time making pots and pans, Seth is suspicious of Bynum’s superstitious ways, but Bertha tells him to leave the old man alone. As their conversation continues, Bynum comes inside and sits down for breakfast. Together, Seth, Bertha, and Bynum talk about a young man named Jeremy, who also lives in the boarding house. Apparently, Jeremy spent the previous night in jail, a fact that unnerves Seth, who wants to keep a respectable household. When Bynum stands up for Jeremy, saying he just has “a lot of country in him” that will fade away, Seth says, “Ever since slavery got over with there ain’t been nothing but foolish-acting niggers. Word get out they need men to work in the mill and put in these roads…and niggers drop everything and head North looking for freedom. They don’t know the white fellows looking too.”
Eventually, a white man named Selig enters the kitchen and sells Seth aluminum. The two men agree that Seth will make dustpans out of the aluminum, which Selig will retrieve the following week and then sell door-to-door. Selig is known as a “people finder” because he can track people down for a small fee while going town to town selling his wares.
Bynum asks about a man he paid Selig to find, a “shiny man” he once encountered while walking on a long unfamiliar road. Bynum explains that this “shiny man” told him to follow along because he wanted to show him something, claiming that if Bynum came with him, he’d show him the secret of life. Eventually, the two men turned a corner in the road, and suddenly the strange man rubbed blood all over himself and instructed Bynum to do the same. Then this man was shining all over until, abruptly, he vanished. At this point, Bynum came upon the spirit of his dead father, who told him he was going to show him “how to find [his] song.” His father then taught him this “song” and told him that if he ever sees a shiny man again, he’ll know his song has been accepted, at which point he can lie down “and die a happy man.” Finishing his story, Bynum explains that his “song” is the “Binding Song,” meaning he can join people together.
Jeremy comes home from the jailhouse and sits down to eat a large breakfast under Seth’s scornful gaze, and Selig departs. Jeremy explains that the only reason he got arrested the night before is because the police officers found out he’d just been paid two dollars for working on the town’s new bridge, and they wanted to confiscate this money for themselves. Meanwhile, a strange man and his daughter arrive in the doorway. The man’s name is Herald Loomis, a shady looking character. Loomis asks if he and his eleven-year-old daughter, Zonia, can rent a room in Seth’s house, and Seth haggles with them until they reach an agreement. Loomis then asks if anybody in the room knows a Martha Loomis, his wife, whom he’s trying to find. Nobody can answer this question, but Bynum suggests Loomis pay Selig to find Martha.
Seth brings Loomis and Zonia upstairs to get settled, and when he returns to the kitchen, he says he doesn’t like the looks of Loomis. “Something ain’t right with that fellow,” he says. He explains that he realized while talking to Loomis upstairs that the woman he’s looking for is somebody he himself knows as Martha Pentecost, who lives near a church just outside town. However, he says that he didn’t tell Loomis about Martha Pentecost because he doesn’t trust him; “The way that fellow look I wasn’t gonna tell him nothing. I don’t know what he looking for her for.” At this point, a young woman named Mattie Campbell appears looking for Bynum, who she asks to work his magic to bind her to her lover, Jack Carper, who has recently left her. Bynum tells her that if Jack has left, it’s probably better not to bring him back. Instead, he gives her a small cloth that supposedly brings luck. Jeremy then starts talking to Mattie, telling her she ought to spend some time with him while she waits for Jack. The two decide to go to a guitar contest that night, where Jeremy plans to win money with his beautiful playing. During this time, Zonia goes outside and meets a young boy, Reuben, who lives next door. When Reuben asks where her mother is, Zonia says that she and her father have been wandering and trying to find her. Reuben asks why she left in the first place, and Zonia says, “I don’t know. My daddy say some man named Joe Turner did something bad to him once and that made her run away.”
The following week, Seth and Bertha are in the kitchen, where Seth again insists that there’s something suspicious about Loomis. Bertha tries to dissuade him of this notion, and when Bynum enters, he too tries to convince Seth otherwise, saying, “He just a man got something on his mind.” Not long thereafter, Selig arrives and pays for the dustpans Seth has made. Loomis then comes into the kitchen and pays Selig to find his wife, and the two strike an agreement that Selig will try to find her before he returns to the boarding house the following Saturday.
The next day, as Seth and Bertha get ready for church, Jeremy reveals that he won the guitar contest the previous night, and that he and Mattie had a great time together. As such, she’s going to move into his room, so he pays Seth the extra cost of feeding her. After Bynum and Jeremy talk about the difference between lust and love—a distinction Jeremy seems to have trouble understanding—a young woman named Molly Cunningham knocks on the door and asks Seth if she can rent a room. A remarkably attractive woman, she tells Seth she likes to have “company” from time to time, which he says is acceptable as long as she isn’t disrespecting the house by working as a prostitute. When Molly leaves to go to the outhouse, Jeremy jumps up from his chair and watches her through the window.
Later that evening, as the boarders are eating dinner and chatting, Seth suggests that Jeremy get his guitar, and they all start doing the “Juba,” a collective song performed in a call-and-response style “reminiscent of the Ring Shouts of the African slaves.” They jump around and drum the table, chanting about the Holy Ghost until Loomis storms in and screams at them, telling them to stop. “You all sitting up here singing about the Holy Ghost. What’s so holy about the Holy Ghost?” Working himself up, he laments, “Why God got to be so big? Why he got to be bigger than me? How much big is there? How much big do you want?” Saying this, he starts unzipping his pants, and Seth yells at him to stop. Loomis then begins speaking in tongues and dancing around the room, saying, “You all don’t know nothing about me. You don’t know what I done seen. Herald Loomis done seen some things he ain’t got words to tell you.” Just as he’s about to exit, he collapses, petrified by a vision. Bynum crouches over him, asking what he’s seen, and Loomis fitfully explains that he’s seen “bones rise up out the water. Rise up and walk across the water.” Bynum helps him along, repeating his words and asking him questions. Loomis says that he suddenly found himself in a place with “water that was bigger than the whole world.” As he watched the bones walking on the water, they suddenly sank, and then an enormous wave carried them to the shore, breaking over the banks, at which point the bones inexplicably had “flesh on them,” and black people washed up on the sand and simply lay there, along with Loomis himself. Loomis then says that he couldn’t stand up, although the other people (the ones who just washed up on the shore) were standing and saying goodbye to one another and “walking down the road.” “I got to get up!” Loomis screams, and as he tries to stand (in real life), he collapses right as the lights go out.
The following morning, Seth tells Loomis he can’t stay in the boarding house anymore because of his antics the previous night, but Loomis reminds him that he’s already paid for the full week, so Seth agrees to let him remain until Saturday. After this conversation, Jeremy comes home and says he’s been fired from his job working on the bridge. Apparently, the white bosses went around to the black employees and demanded they pay fifty cents to keep their jobs. Jeremy refused, and so he was fired. Seth thinks Jeremy’s decision is absurd, but Jeremy shrugs it off, saying, “Don’t make me no difference. There’s a big road out there.” Eventually, everybody but Jeremy and Molly file out of the kitchen, and although Jeremy has already started living with Mattie, he makes plans to run off with Molly.
While Seth and Bynum play dominos, Bynum sings a song about Joe Turner that brings Loomis into the room. Hearing the song, Loomis demands that Bynum stop singing, and it eventually comes to light that Loomis himself was captured by Joe Turner, the brother of the Governor of Tennessee. Apparently, Joe Turner hunts down black men and essentially enslaves them for seven years at a time. One day, Loomis explains, he was walking down the road and saw a group of men gambling. Because he was a preacher at the time, he stopped to try to convert these sinners, at which point Joe Turner descended with his men and captured Loomis, separating him from Martha and Zonia for seven years. When he was finally released, he went looking for Martha, but only found Zonia living with her grandmother. Since then, he has been traveling everywhere to find Martha. “I just wanna see her face so I can get me a starting place in the world,” he says.
When Saturday finally rolls around, Seth kicks Loomis out before Selig arrives. As such, Loomis stands at the end of the road, waiting to see if Selig has found his wife. Sure enough, Selig enters the kitchen along with Martha. Seeing this, Loomis comes back and greets his wife, who desperately explains that the reason she left Zonia behind was because she was traveling north in order to find financially viable living options, since after Loomis was captured she couldn’t sustain the family. Because the journey north was dangerous, she left Zonia with the girl’s grandmother. “Now that I see your face I can say my goodbye and make my own world,” Loomis says. He then instructs Zonia to go with her mother so that she can grow up having learned from both male and female role models. At this point, Bynum reveals that he bound Zonia to Martha, but didn’t bind Loomis to Martha because “you can’t bind what don’t cling.” This sets Loomis off, and he says, “Everywhere I go people wanna bind me up.” Martha, in response, insists that Loomis needs to find his way back to religion, and urges her estranged husband to return to the church. She tells him that Jesus bled for him, but he contends that he can “bleed for [him]self.” She tells Herald he needs “be something,” and to find meaning in life, but Loomis is not persuaded. Instead, he cuts himself across the chest and rubs the blood on his face, saying, “I’m standing! I’m standing. My legs stood up! I’m standing now!” As he walks outside, Bynum calls after him, saying, “Herald Loomis, you shining! You shining like new money!”