Somebody Else, Not Me (Bert Williams)

Bert Williams, the most popular black entertainer of the early 20th century, recorded this in 1919 as a sequel to his huge hit, “Nobody.” It was credited to Williams and James F. Hanley, with lyrics by Ballard MacDonald, and I learned it from Dave Van Ronk, who added the third verse and made it the title song to his second Philo Records LP, following Sunday Street.

Born in Nassau in 1875, Williams came to the United States as a child and started out singing around the saloons of San Francisco, before joining a touring minstrel company and teaming up with the dancer George Walker in the 1890s. Williams and Walker became the most popular team in African American theater when they wrote, produced, and starred in the groundbreaking Broadway show In Dahomey, the first “legit” New York hit to feature an all-black cast. They went on to write and star in more shows, and after Walker died in 1909, Williams embarked on an even more successful career as a solo act, featured in the Ziegfeld Follies. Though best known as a live performer, he was also by far the most successful African American recording artist before the blues wave of the 1920s.

That sounds like a pretty wonderful career, but in later years Williams has been remembered almost as much for his trials as for his successes. A brilliant man, he was never happy with the options presented by U.S. show business, where he became famous as a shambling, slow-talking clown in blackface make-up. His fellow Follies star W.C. Fields famously described him as “the funniest man I ever saw – and the saddest man I ever knew.” As he put it himself, with typical understatement: “I have never been able to discover that there was anything disgraceful in being a colored man. But I have often found it inconvenient in America.”

 Though Williams was a decent singer, his best-known performances were comic recitations, sometimes with a sung chorus. Through the early twentieth century there was a lot of overlap between recitation and song — many of the lyrics now recalled as cowboy songs, for example, were routinely performed as recitations, and an evening of saloon entertainment was as likely to include recitations of Rudyard Kipling or Robert W. Service as the songs of Stephen Foster or “She’s Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage.” My father, who was born in 1906, was an inveterate singer of  pop songs, but also had some favorite recitations, such as a Yiddish dialect version of “The Face on the Barroom Floor” called “Jake the Plumber.” And one of my favorite Greenwich Village memories is waiting in line to hear Dave Van Ronk at Folk City, and having an aging and somewhat toothless gentleman come up  and, after a memorable introduction, recite “The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck,” with suitably dramatic gestures. (His introduction was to point to the missing letter in the club’s sign and announce: “I can remember when there was a C in the Folk City marquee… that was twenty years ago, when I was a young alcoholic.”)

van-ronk-somebody-elseDave was a great fan of Bert Williams and had been thinking about recording “Nobody” for years, but Ry Cooder beat him to it, so he went with this one instead. The only problem was that it was too short, and he solved that by writing the third verse — an excellent example of his much-overlooked talents as a lyric doctor, which I’ve already discussed in reference to his reworking of Blind Blake’s “That’ll Never Happen No More.” (Which, incidentally, is another song that walks the borderline between melody and recitation.)

Texas Blues (Bill Morrissey)

This is another song I did at that Passim Coffeehouse show in March 1983. I had just got my first mention in the Boston Globe, where Jeff McLaughlin called me “a superb fingerpicker and distinctive singer” — “distinctive” being a word reviewers use when they’re aware of problems but trying to be nice. It was part of an article on the Nameless Coffeehouse, jeff-mclaughlinwhere I was playing regularly by then, and Jeff was being nice because he was a friend. I’d met him through Bill Morrissey, whom he’d interviewed a few months earlier, then invited to stay in the upstairs room of his apartment on Appleton Road. Bill brought me around, and Jeff arranged for me to do some record reviews for the Globe, which started me on a second career as a writer.

I was staying with my folks at that point, and they lived just a few blocks from Appleton, so I spent a lot of time in that apartment, hanging out with Jeff and Bill, talking about music, listening to music, and playing music. I was also learning a lot of Bill’s songs, often just by osmosis, since they were so well written that after I’d heard them a few times I would realize I knew them. “Texas Blues” was special, in part because I worked up a guitar arrangement I particularly liked — Bill briefly considered switching from his arrangement to mine, which would have been a mistake but was nonetheless a high compliment.

Better than that, though, the song was a love story that for a while at least had a happy ending, and we all got caught up in it. Bill was single at that point, which was never his favorite state of affairs, and thinking back to a girl named Lisa who’d moved to Arizona, and he wrote “Texas Blues” about going out west to try to win her back. My memory is that he never actually saw her, but ended up in Los Angeles living in a garage and doing the starving artist thing, but I could be bill-morrissey-lisa-griegcombining a couple of different stories.

Anyway, Bill wrote the song and I picked it up, and meanwhile he had called Lisa in Phoenix and they started talking pretty often, and eventually she decided to fly back and visit over Christmas. The visit worked out, and soon she was living at Jeff’s as well. She and Bill were like a matched set, hip and funny, with the kind of private language couples sometimes manage, and I don’t think I ever saw Bill happier or more optimistic. They were both huge fans of the beats, and Bill was writing at the peak of his powers and taking lots of chances, and it seemed like he could go in all sorts of directions — he was messing with jazz and blues, and thinking about what kind of instrumentation he’d use when he had the chance to work with some horns and a rhythm section. Tom Waits was a touchstone, along with the Beatles and Dylan, and Mose Allison.

If I’ve got my chronology right, that all was happening around the time I did this gig at Passim, and I’d just worked up my arrangement of this song and was performing it for the first time. So I told the story and played it as pretty as I could,  and by the end a couple of people in the audience were actually crying. I never had that happen at a gig before or since, but we were young and it was a good story and an emotional time.

Lisa Glines adds:
I was in Arizona going to school for engineering while Bill and Grieg were chief cook and bottle washer on a commercial fishing boat out of Ketchikan, where he picked up his tale of the topless laundromat…. Those days in Cambridge were the best… of course it all began at Advance Auto Parts in Allston. He was the delivery boy and I was the inventory girl…

Cormac McCarthy adds:
Bill visited me 3 times or so in 75 and 76 when I lived in Steve Noonan’s garage in Santa Cruz, Ca. In 77 he and Grieg came by to another garage I lived in in LA. They had come down from Alaska and stayed with me till my savings were depleted. Then Grieg sold a Gibson F4 mandolin and bought a car and drove back to NH. Our friend Wes visited for a while and they soon left and their hitchhiking adventures were chronicled in the song “Barstow.” It was a “close to the bone” existence that did produce it’s share of songs. “Texas Blues” was the result of another trip to Gulf Coast we took to look for jobs on the oil rigs and related industry.

Oil Money (Bill Morrissey)

In the early 1980s, I rarely played a set that didn’t include a Bill Morrissey song, and this was the one I sang most frequently — in part because Bill didn’t do it all that often, so I could kind of lay claim to it. bill-morrissey-lpUnlike a lot of Bill’s songs, which were beautifully written but didn’t have much in common with my own experience, this one felt familiar to me – not in the details, but I appreciated the prosaic way it evoked homesickness and the sense of losing track of who you are and where you come from. I was doing a lot of traveling, and trying to figure out where and how I might fit in, and in the process had gradually become aware that I liked places that felt like New England — it didn’t have to be exact, but I wanted some mountains, and I wanted them to be low enough to have trees on them. So this one worked for me, and I played it a lot.

In 1987, I took a break from writing and playing the clubs to hitchhike down and around the coast from Boston to Mexico, and I made a point of going through Morgan City, mostly because of this song. I was coming from New Orleans — that was my first visit, and I’d put in a few days playing for tap-dancers on Bourbon Street with an amp borrowed from David and Roselyn, who are wonderful street singers and twenty years later would marry me to Sandrine (who will show up playing clarinet at some point in this project). I hitched down route 90, coming into Morgan City over a bridge that the driver said was where Dennis Hopper got shot in Easy Riderold-90-morgan-city-bridge which I believed until I just looked for a picture of the bridge and learned that Hopper was actually shot near Morganza, about a hundred miles inland, west of Baton Rouge.

Anyway, the driver was kind enough to take me home to the trailer park where he was living with his wife and two small kids. He was a big fan of the Texas songwriters and I played him some Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Joe Ely, and he was happy with that, so I figured we were on the same page and played “Oil Money.” He’d come down from Michigan to work on an oil rig, so it was pretty much his story, and I expected it to blow him away. But it didn’t work for him — not enough Texas, I guess.

That was briefly disappointing, but ever since this song has reminded me of that guy in Morgan City. I went back a few months later, and he’d left town — his wife and kids were still there, not sure where he was or what they’d do next, and thinking about heading back  to Michigan. It was the sort of story Bill told in song after song, though in real life it was just depressing, not romantic.

I don’t know if there’s a lesson to that story, but it marks a kind of break for me because by that time Bill was changing directions as well, writing fewer songs about working class guys from New Hampshire, and I was doing fewer gigs and often got through them without singing his stuff. I still do this one now and then, and still think it’s one of his best – though almost forty years later, a couple of generations of listeners probably won’t understand the ending, because it’s been almost that long since you could call anyplace and get a local operator. Which, for me, makes the song work better than ever, because time is the most unbridgeable form of distance, and I miss things like that.

Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me (John Hurt/William Myer)

Another favorite from Mississippi John Hurt, with a wonderful lyric by William E. Myer, a lawyer and briefly a record company owner in the late 1920s. Myer’s tastes were decidedly uncommon but have extravagantly stood the test of time. He started his company, lonesome-ace-labelthe Lonesome Ace — with a biplane pictured on the label and the promise “Without a Yodel” — in his home town of Richlands, Virginia, in 1928, largely as a forum for his own compositions. To find artists, he contacted record companies asking the address of singers he hoped would do his material — notably including the banjo player Dock Boggs, who lived about sixty miles east in Norton, Virginia, and John Hurt in faraway Avalon, Mississippi.

Boggs made four sides for Lonesome Ace, accompanied by the Kentucky guitarist Emry Arthur, who recorded two more on his own. Then the label folded, but Myer still had hopes for his songs, writing to Boggs that he had contacted the OKeh label “about the compositions that John Hurt, Colored, has on hands….” Myer had apparently sent Hurt a sheaf of 22 songs, and Hurt set three of them to music: a sentimental parlor ballad titled “Waiting for You,” the gently bawdy “Richlands Woman,” and “Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me.”

john-hurtAs Hurt told the story in an interview for the Library of Congress: “He sent me these songs and half a dozen records to tune ‘em by — if I liked them. And if I didn’t, why I’d tune them my own tune. So I didn’t like the tune of the records, and I got my own melody and fixed them up.”

By other accounts this song was the exception: Hurt set it to the tune of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waiting for a Train” — though with some personal variations — and at times said Myer had suggested that record, though it seems an odd choice considering Myer’s distaste for yodeling. In any case, that’s how it worked out.

Unfortunately, Myer fell sick, the Depression sharply curtailed recording by rural artists, and all three songs would presumably have been forgotten… but they’d caught Hurt’s fancy, and when a young man named Tom Hoskins turned up at his door in 1963, were among the first pieces he played into Hoskins’s portable tape machine.

hurt-lp-with-mermaidsAnd that, long story long, is how I came to hear this, which I worked up with a few variations of my own and played to begin my sets throughout the 1980s. It was a perfect diagnostic opener: sometimes people drifted on the pretty tune, sometimes they laughed at the clever lyric, sometimes they just went on talking — whatever the reaction, it gave me a sense of who they were, and helped me get over my initial nervousness, and then I’d try something more flashy and upbeat and see how that worked.

My first surviving set list, from a show at the Nameless Coffeehouse in February 1983, starts with this, which is notable because that set happened to be mentioned in an article by Jeff McLaughlin in the Boston Globe. He described me as “a superb fingerpicker and distinctive singer” — “distinctive” being one of those words reviewers use when they’re aware of problems but trying to be nice. Another set list, from Passim Coffeehouse that March, shows I opened the second night with “Richlands Woman,” so I clearly I owe a lot to William E. Myer. Not as much as I owe John Hurt, but enough.

My Baby and Me (Bill Morrissey)

My baby and me, we know a good time when we see it,
Mid-November — So long, fall — as warm days go, this is last call.

One of the things I loved about Bill Morrissey’s songwriting was his sense of place. I’d grown up in a world bill-and-lisaof New England folksingers who adopted southern accents and sang about Texas and Kentucky — and so had Bill, but somewhere along the way he decided to write about New England instead, and to treat it as an equally interesting region. He lived in New Hampshire for much of his career, and a lot of the songs were based in the area around Newmarket, but several were set in Maine and others just had a general northeastern feel. His first was called “Drifting Back to Boston,” and one of my favorites began “Opening day at Fenway Park in 1968/ Walking home from school, we all agreed this will be the year our hearts don’t break…”

Bill’s most memorable New England songs tended to be precisely observed slices of small-town, dead-end lives, but the one I’ve tended to sing most frequently over the years is this perky evocation of a night out in late fall. Bill would often introduce this with a disquisition on the pleasures of winter in New Hampshire: playing “Space Invaders” (“You can’t win; all you can do is stave off impending doom a little longer, before the aliens destroy you and all your loved ones”); listening to Leonard Cohen; reading Baudelaire… “We know how to have a good time.”

I liked this the first time I heard it, though I didn’t understand one of the best lines. I was used to learning old blues songs off records and singing them as I heard them, even if I didn’t understand what I was singing about, and I learned this the same way. I’d heard Bill do it, and sang it myself around the folk clubs in Cambridge and similar collegiate settings, but it wasn’t till I performed it in a bar in the woods near Libby, Montana, that I heard an audience crack up laughing at the first minor-key section:

Baby’s wearing make-up, got on Chanel Number 5,
Put on a dress with a little frill.
I’ve got a jacket and a tie, I slapped on some Hoppe’s Number 9,
I guess you could say I was dressed to kill.

no-9I had no idea what Hoppe’s No. 9 was, any more than I knew why the singer was trading his Hawken .50 for a lightweight .20-gauge. Bill knew that stuff — he’d built his own Thompson Center Hawken black powder muzzle-loader from a kit — and he enjoyed singing those lines for oblivious city folks who didn’t laugh (but would never admit they didn’t know what he was singing about) almost as much as he enjoyed singing them for rural bar audiences that got the references.

I wasn’t a hunter or fisherman, and close as we got, Bill never invited me along — I was a city friend, and that was fine, but not like being one of his friends from up north. That was one of the things bill-fishingI appreciated about him, along with his love of the woods and the workroom where he spent long winter evenings tying his own flies. I had the sense he was happiest in that world, and I don’t think he ever found a musical scene he liked as much as the New Hampshire bar circuit, when it was going well. It didn’t satisfy him, but he liked the people in the rooms a lot more than he liked the people in the bigger, better-paying rooms he played after he began recording, and to me he was at his best when he was writing for them.

I’ll get into a lot more Bill Morrissey — we were friends and sometimes partners for a few years in the early 1980s, and I rarely played a set that didn’t include one of his songs — but for now, take this as a taste of fall in Northern New England.

Waiting Round to Die (Townes Van Zandt)

I first heard Townes Van Zandt on his live double album, which I borrowed from my sister’s erstwhile boyfriend, Kevin, who turned me on to a wide range of music I might otherwise have missed in the early 1980s: Public Image Limited’s Flowers of Romance, Rachel Sweet’s Protect the Innocent, the Cramps “Goo townes-van-zandt-liveGoo Muck,” Johnny Rivers’ …and I Know You Wanna Dance (my introduction to Mose Allison’s songwriting), and Townes’s Live at the Old Quarter. If memory serves, I was first attracted to that one because Townes did Van Ronk’s version of Cocaine Blues, and then by the low-key, down-beat feel of the performance — including the jokes, which over the years I would hear pretty much every time I saw him. The same couple of jokes, decade after decade, which shouldn’t have worked, but Townes was an unusual performer and his shows were reliably riveting.

He was not barrel of laughs, though I recall him on a bill with Eric Anderson and another singer-songwriter referring to himself as “the comic relief.” As far as I could tell, he meant it, but his affect was so blank that a lot of us figured he’d burnt himself out and was pretty much brain-dead at that point, recycling the same songs and jokes in a monotone, with no clue that the mind that had produced those songs was still in his body. Then, the next year, he came back through with a bunch of new songs that were just as good as the old ones, written by that mind, which clearly was very much still present, somewhere in there.

townes-van-zandtI think that may have been the year I went to see him with Bill Morrissey at Passim Coffeehouse, and we both sat, fascinated and devastated by the quality of his writing and the hypnotic power of his quietly mournful performance — and, later, Steve Morse, my editor at the Globe, told me about interviewing him back in the dressing room, with Townes apologizing as he spat blood into a paper cup. He’d been mythically killing himself since day one — Kevin spent an evening with him back when I borrowed that first album and reported Townes was drinking Pernod with Ouzo chasers, apparently because he liked watching the alcohol get cloudy as he poured water into it. At Passim he had a new joke: he’d been playing a Unitarian Church coffeehouse and the minister offering him a glass of sacramental wine, and he responded, “Father, I’m from Texas, and in Texas we don’t drink in church.”

I learned a bunch of Townes’s songs, and tried several of them out onstage, and mostly they didn’t work for me. When he sang “Kathleen,” the first verse was devastating:

It’s plain to see the sun won’t shine today,
But I ain’t in the mood for sunshine anyway.
Maybe I’ll go insane, I’ve got to stop the pain,
Or maybe I’ll go down and see Kathleen.

When I sang that first couplet, the couple of times I tried it, people giggled. Not everybody, but enough to throw me off and convince me I couldn’t make it work. Same with “Waiting Round to Die,” and with age and hindsight I’m beginning to think they were right, not only about me but about the song and that whole Baudelaire-Bukowski drunken depressed death trip, which seems so romantic to a lot of us when we’re 18 or 23.

And yet… Townes always made me believe, and not just me, but everyone in the room. I particularly remember townes-van-zandt2-copyseeing him on the main stage at the Vancouver Folk Festival, with Monte Jones, a close friend who is suitably acknowledged in a later post. Monte was an Indian ex-rodeo rider from the wilds of Calgary and Northern British Columbia, and Townes devastated him. He said Townes had to be half Indian, was obviously alcoholic and dying, looked just like his father, and part way through the show he had to leave because it was too painful.

There’s a smart, powerful documentary about Townes, Be Here to Love Me, and an earlier documentary about Texas songwriters, Heartworn Highways, in which he sings this one and explains that it was the first song he wrote. They’re both worth watching, and I still sing this sometimes for myself, though I haven’t tried it onstage since the early 1980s. I recorded Townes’s “Mister Mudd and Mister Gold,” which is fast and wordy and optimistic. I used to sing “Pancho and Lefty” with Monte, me singing Pancho’s part and him singing Lefty’s. The last time was at what was supposed to be our last gig, but he was too weak to play, so I just sang it for him. Great song, and I’ll put it up here when I get to that part of the story.

Meanwhile, here’s this one, as best I can do it. If it makes you giggle, I understand. I’m not Townes, and I don’t think anyone would want to be. But I sure wish I could see him do another show.

Three Western songs by David Omar White

I ran into David Omar White pretty frequently when we were both knocking around Cambridge, and every time I’d make him sing me these three songs. He made them up in the 1940s, during his youth in North Dakota and points west, and sang them unaccompanied — he was a visual artist, best known for a John Fahey album cover, the murals in the  Club Casablanca, and the White Rabbit comic strip, and never fancied himself a singer or musician. He’d just knocked these off for fun, didn’t think much of them, and as far as I can tell most of his friends never heard them.

I happened to get lucky the first time I met Omar. It was at the Idler, a long-lamented club in Harvard Square, where I was playing thanks to Dave Van Ronk — he’d told the owner, Len Rothenberg,  that I was an up-and-comer, and Len booked me for a couple of opening acts, one with Spider John Koerner and the other with Paul Geremia. (I played a third time, alas, among the many performers at the Idler’s farewell concert in 1982.)

The Idler had a front room for drinking and talking, and a back room for drinking and listening to music, which meant you could go to hear your friends or favorites play, and if you got bored or just wanted to chat, you could go out to the front room and have a conversation without interrupting the music — and to make it even better, the music was piped into the front room, so if it got interesting, you could head back and pay attention. As a result, a lot of local musicians hung out there even when we weren’t working.

Bill Morrissey was a regular performer there, and the Koerner gig was notable because Bill came up and introduced himself after my set, beginning an enduring friendship and sometime partnership described in other posts. And at the Geremia gig I met Omar.

My recollection is that Omar was there to hear Paul, but he may have just dropped in for a drink. In any case, he sat down at our table and at some point was inspired to sing his three songs: “The Cowboy Song,” “Great Northern Line,” and “The Gondola Song.” david-omar-whiteI was entranced, partly because it’s the first and last time anyone has sung me three personal compositions I instantly wanted to learn, and partly because he was “the real thing,” an old guy from the West with some authentic Western folklore.  I was used to hearing easterners like myself pretending to sing like cowboys, and hearing Omar sing these in his dry, understated way, I felt like John Lomax… so, in that spirit, I decided to record him for posterity, and eventually did, though only on a cheap cassette recorder.

The songs are, in their way, typical cowboy/hobo fare, but Omar had a light and philosophical touch that carried over into every aspect of his art. He also kept that western feel through all his years in Cambridge: his White Rabbit comic strip was conceived in the spirit and tradition of Will Rogers, and I wish he was around now to comment on the political craziness — though, wry and pessimistic as he could be at times, I don’t think he would have enjoyed it much.

white-david-omar-1927-2009-usa-the-white-rabbit-political-car-3025769

Along with his three songs, Omar would recite a pair of poems that he’d written in 1948 or ’49. The first went:

Last night in Washington DC
A young man from Kansas blew up the Capitol building,
And when they asked him why he did it,
He said he was just tired of the same old news day after day.
Now, I don’t know what they’re gonna do to him,
But I think they oughta give him
A good cigar, a kick in the ass, and three days in the pokey,
Because if there’s one thing this world needs
It’s for someone to smarten everybody up,
And although he may have gone too far
He sure had the right idea.

Now, way down in Arizona or New Mexico
There’s an Indian tribe that lives
Way down in the Colorado River Canyon
Where it ain’t even been charted yet,
And whenever any poor, stupid son of a bitch
Comes walking in with shoes on his feet,
They all stand around and shoot arrows at him.
I don’t know what it is,
But that sounds funny as hell to me.

The second was shorter:

I bought myself a bushel of beagle pups
Down at the five and dime,
And I put ’em behind the stove to incubate for a while.
And when they grew up
They had long ears and soft eyes,
And bit.

One white-casablanca-muralof the great pleasures of living in Cambridge was hearing those again, during an accidental meeting on the sidewalk or over a cup of coffee. And looking at the murals in the Casablanca and knowing the guy who painted them. I didn’t know him well, but I liked him a lot, and he was always pleased to sing his songs one more time and recite his poems, and seemed pleased that I appreciated them and wanted to preserve them. So here they are.

For more about Omar, check out the online remembrance by David Wilson, publisher of the legendary Broadside of Boston.

Long as It’s Green (George Gritzbach)

I’ve rarely found songs that give equal play to my political and musical tastes, so I was thrilled to hear this one from George Gritzbach. I spent a weekend opening for George at the Caffe gritzbach-lpLena in 1982 or thereabouts, and when I played Leon Rosselson’s “We Sell Everything,” he countered with this one off his Sweeper album. It was a similar piece of writing, a wittily worded satire of capitalist marketing and conspicuous consumption — except that it was cast in a blues framework. Aside from Mose Allison, I hadn’t heard any contemporary artists use blues to comment on political conditions, so I took to it immediately.

I took to George as well. He was a tall, solid, handsome guy who wrote well, played well, talked well, ate well, and drank well, and we hit it off because both of us were similarly cranky about the state of the folk scene, which was increasingly dominated by singer-songwriters — which is to say, generally sub-par poetry readings with guitar accompaniment. Gritz was a solid ragtime-blues guitarist, knew his Gary Davis backwards and forwards, but was also a smart writer who didn’t want to be known as just another blues revivalist. He was feeling inspired by what Waylon and Willie had done in Austin, and wanted to start an “outlaw folk” movement, and he seemed to think I might fit in as a kindred spirit. I was more than happy to go along with that, and he tried to get me booked on a bill with him at the Iron Horse in Northampton, which didn’t work out, then got me a gig opening for Odetta at the First Encounter, his home base on Cape Cod, which was a pleasure.

Along the way I learned a couple more of his songs — “The Sweeper and the Debutante,” a shaggy dog story complete with shaggy dog, and “American Car,” which I still think could have been a hit if he’d done gritzbachit with an electric band, or gotten it into the hands of someone with connections. It was a wryly patriotic rock ‘n’ roller, with the catchy tag line, “Got to go fast, not far — need an American car.”

That came out on Gritz’s next album, All American Song, but with acoustic backing that didn’t do it justice. I sang it for a while, along with yet another topical offering, “Off the Wall Street Blues,” which started, “Wall Street fell again today — look out below!” Then I lost track of him. He was still on the Cape, as far as I could figure out, but there were problems of one kind and another, and my attempts to reconnect hit some dead ends, and that was that.

Thirty-some years later, I still play this song and still recall George with affection and admiration. I just looked up his fan page on the internet, and he seems to be going strong, fronting an electric rhythm & blues band and working regularly on the Cape. I wonder if he still does this one… it sure hasn’t lost any of its timeliness.

 

We Sell Everything (Leon Rosselson)

In a world full of stolidly written, didactic, and generally plodding political songs, it is a wonderful thing to come rosselson-love-lonelinessacross an equally didactic leftist song that is clever and funny, and even has interesting chords. When I discovered this one, on an album called Love, Loneliness, Laundry, I instantly made it part of my repertoire, shortly followed by a bunch of other songs by its author, Leon Rosselson.

That would have been in the summer of 1982. I hitched from Seattle to Vancouver and settled in for what would be the first of many long stays with Maggie Benston, one of my favorite people ever. Maggie was a professor at Simon Fraser, the identical twin sister of one of my mother’s friends and collaborators back in Cambridge, and a member of a maggie-benstonpolitical singing group called the Euphoniously Feminist and Non-Performing Quintet. She drove a red sports car, juggled boyfriends with alacrity, baked a chicken dish with forty cloves of garlic, and let me stay in her guest space for weeks at a time, sometimes with her around, sometimes on my own with the cats.

I learned a lot of good music in Vancouver, and Maggie was responsible for more than her share of it. She was the first person to turn me on to Hawaiian slack-key guitar, the first person I knew who had Eric Bogle records, and the first person to mention Leon Rosselson. Leon was completely unknown to me, and to most everyone else in the United States — as I recall, he’d made his first Canadian appearances only the previous year, including the Vancouver Folk Festival. He was the most brilliant lefty political rosselson-songbooksongwriter I’d heard in ages, and one of the cleverest writers of any sort, and Maggie had two or three of his albums, as well as his first songbook.

I taped the former and xeroxed the songs I liked from the latter, and I see from my surviving set lists that I was playing three or four of them at shows during the following year. This song was by far my favorite, because it was smart and funny and had so many words in such quick succession — from “The Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me” to “I’ve Been Everywhere,” I had an affection for fast patter songs, and “We Sell Everything” is still the most cogent tongue-twister I’ve found.

I had the pleasure of meeting Leon a couple of years later in Saratoga Springs. I’d been booked for a weekend at the Caffe Lena, and Leon was there the night before with Frankie Armstrong, a wonderful British balladleon-rosselson singer, so I went up early to catch their show and hang out. We got along fine, and the next couple of times he came through Boston, he stayed at my place. I also stayed one night at his place in Wembley, London, a few years later, when I was researching my Josh White book. By then he was devoting most of his efforts to children’s books, but he continues to perform and remains a singularly intelligent and reliably leftist voice. I recommend checking out his website, which has plenty of information on his recordings, books, and upcoming gigs.

As for Vancouver, I’ll get back to that subject shortly, but to wrap up one story line, Maggie died in 1992, and I see from her Wikipedia page that Simon Fraser now has a building dedicated to her memory — which is nice, in its way, but no consolation. She was wonderful, and I loved staying with her, and I miss her.

Lord, Got Tomatoes (Blind Blake Higgs)

This song was first recorded by the Bahamian Blind Blake  and his Royal Victoria Hotel Calypsos, but a couple of the verses were current when I was in elementary school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. blind-blake-higgs-and-bandActually, to be strictly accurate, one of his verses (the sheep one) was current in my school, and another (the bear one) was current in my school but not on Blake’s recording, and I added it, because it fit.

Dave Van Ronk often argued that the only true example of folk music in his repertoire was “Shaving Cream,” a mildly dirty ditty he’d learned as a kid in Brooklyn, because unlike all the songs he’d learned from recordings or his fellow folksingers, it had been learned informally through the oral tradition in his home community and was the sort of music people in that community (in particular, pre-teen boys) sang for their own pleasure and entertainment.

When I’ve taught folk music classes, I regularly ask the students to sing or recite lyrics they’ve learned from friends and never heard on a recording or seen in print or video. Almost everybody has a few, and they tend to be mildly dirty — or sometimes not so mildly — in part because dirty lyrics are fun, and in part because the clean children’s rhymes get disseminated by other means.

I first heard this song from a Seattle street musician named Baby Gramps. It was the summer of 1982, as best I can figure, and I’d hitchhiked out west and was wending my way to Vancouver, Canada, including a week or so playing on the street in Seattle. I did ok, and met a surprising number of people I’d known elsewhere (including a woman I’d known in Pakistan and one from Cambridge who’d almost led me astray in my innocent youth), but baby-grampsnothing to the crowds Gramps gathered. He was a local phenomenon, and I recall several dozen people sitting on a patch of grass and listening as he sat on a chair and ran through something like a full set.

That set included this song, and I loved it and went up to him afterwards and asked if he could give me the words. He grumbled, “No, I think of that as my own song and don’t want other people doing it.” I replied that it sounded to me like a Blind Blake song — Gramps had kept the basic Bahamian rhythms, and it reminded me of the Blake songs I’d heard from Van Ronk (“Yas, Yas, Yas“) and Paul Geremia (“Jones, Oh Jones“). He grumbled, “Yeah, maybe that’s where I heard it…” but continued to demur.

Which, in the long run, may have been a good thing, since it pushed me to hunt up the Blind Blake record. Blind Blake bahamanBut at the time I thought he was being an asshole, and ever since have made a point of cheerfully passing on any song I know to anyone else who wants to learn it. Because, much as I may like having a great song associated with me, if I can’t make my version special that’s my own fault, and I didn’t write any of this stuff, so what possible right do I have to treat it like my personal property? Which said, Gramps is a good musician and did a really nice version of this, and that’s where I first heard it, and it’s a charming little ditty if ever there was one, and I found the Blake album easily enough, and all is well. So hats off to him, and thanks.