Georgia Rag (with advice from Dave Van Ronk)

In 1976 I graduated high school and headed off to New York University — it was the only college I applied to, because it was the only college in Greenwich Village and I was only going to college to take guitar lessons from Dave Van Ronk, who lived in an apartment on Sheridan Square.

I showed up for my first lesson and Dave asked me to play something that would give him a sense of what I knew, and I played this song. I had learned it from my favorite blues guitar book,six black blues mann Woody Mann’s Six Black Blues Guitarists (later republished as Six Early Blues Guitarists), which was beautifully curated, with particularly accurate and clearly written transcriptions. That was where I learned Blind Blake’s “Early Morning Blues,” Scrapper Blackwell’s “Kokomo Blues,” Big Bill Broonzy’s “Long Tall Mama,” and Tampa Red’s “Boogie Woogie Dance,” but at age seventeen “Georgia Rag” was far and away my favorite.

So I played it for Dave, and he chuckled and said, “That was very nice — you played the wrong chord in the bridge, just like McTell did.” We hadn’t even started the lesson, and already he’d provided a revelation: that something Willie McTell played might be “wrong,” and by extension that it was OK to critique the old masters rather than simply accepting them as gospel. I didn’t have the nerve to ask what he meant, but a few months later when my chord sense had improved I figured it out: McTell (at least as transcribed by Woody Mann, whom I tend to trust) starts the bridge with an E chord, then goes to F, adds the sixth, moves that up a fret to play an F#6, then goes to C — dave van ronk3and the F#6 is actually a half-assed substitute for a B.

Of course, there are all kinds of right and wrong, and I was used to McTell’s version and liked it and I’ve stuck with it. But that was a good introduction to the way Dave thought about old blues recordings, which was that they were often good, sometimes great, and occasionally works of genius, but that didn’t mean they were above criticism. Nor was anything else — he would listen to Lester Young or Louis Armstrong, and make a funny expression when they hit a “clam” (wrong note), and I won’t swear he was always right, but it was always worth considering. He was the same way with visual art or literature: “The trouble with Shakespeare is he wrote so beautifully that when he ran out of things to say, he kept writing.” Again, the lesson was not so much the specifics, but the idea that you could find fault with Shakespeare — and, more than that, that if you were serious about music, or art, or literature, it was your duty to examine it carefully and seriously, and figure out what worked and what didn’t, and why.

Getting back to “Georgia Rag” — I already Blind Willie McTell LPhad one Willie McTell LP before I left home, and this song was on it, but as far as I can tell I made no attempt to learn how he actually played and sang the song. Part of the reason was probably that he was playing a 12-string guitar tuned down to Ab, so there was no way I could get my guitar in the same pitch, but in any case I basically ignored his version and just learned what Mann had written, then came up with a way to sing the lyric over what I was playing, and called that Willie McTell’s “Georgia Rag.” Which is to say, the wrong chord Van Ronk noticed may be the only accurate thing in my version… but what the hell, I’ve been playing it this way for forty years.

And while we’re on the subject of revealing mistakes… McTell’s recording was a quicky attempt to capitalize on the success of Blind Blake’s “Wabash Rag,” and apparently Blake’s song was still in his head when he made the record, so at one point he slips up and sings “doing that rag, that Wa-Georgia rag.”

Anyhow, I Love You (Guy Clark)

I came to Guy Clark relatively late, after I was already familiar with Townes Van Zandt, and Joe Ely, and through Joe had discovered Butch Hancock and Jimmy Dale Gilmore. I’d probably heard a few of Guy’s recordings, maybe “Homegrown Tomatoes” on the radio, but I was more of a folk and blues (and rock, and jazz) fan than a country fan, and his major labelKerrville LP records sounded like mainstream country to my uneducated ears. So the first time I recall focusing on him was a solo performance of this song on a two-LP set of Texas songwriters playing at the Kerrville Folk Festivals of the early 1970s, which came out on the Adelphi label in 1983.

I was blown away by the lyric’s blend of dry humor, sincerity, and tenderness, and the way the words fit so neatly into the curves of the melody, and I learned it immediately, and played it in some fairly rough bars, and it tended to quiet them down, which is the highest praise possible. And, of course, my girlfriend liked it, which, of course, was the point.

But more important in the long term, it introduced me to Guy as a songwriter and singer, and I went out and bought Old No. 1Old No. 1and what more need be said? Over the years I’ve learned at least half the songs on that record, and if they didn’t all stay in my repertoire that was mostly because I liked Guy’s versions so much that I preferred to listen to him than to sing them myself. But I’ll be getting around to “Rita Ballou” before this project is over, and for historical purposes will have to do “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,” and there’ll be at least one or two more of Guy’s later songs as well.

All of which was supposed to happen in a couple more months, when this project gets up to what I was singing in the 1980s, and I wish it could have waited, because I wanted the context to be what they meant in my life, not that he was gone and I wanted to do something about that… and of course what I’d really like to do about that is pretend he’s still around, but I can’t, so like a lot of other people I’ll do the next best thing, which is to keep singing his songs and reminding people to go back and listen to him.

Banks of the Ohio (Joan Baez)

As a teenager I rarely found anyone my own age who had the slightest interest in the music I liked, but towards the end of high school I discovered that one of my classmates, Perian Flaherty, sang folk songs, and we went out a couple of times and sang on the street together — at least, I remember singing with her once on Palmer Street in Harvard Square, outside Passim Coffeehouse. joan baez songbook Perian’s repertoire was mostly from Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell, and at that point I didn’t know any Joni Mitchell, so Baez was where we overlapped.

I had never really been a Baez fan. There was something about her voice that didn’t work for me — except when I saw her live, which was always magical and made me a believer — but my parents had Joan Baez in Concert, pt. 2, and my sister was a fan and got her songbook, and one way and another I picked up quite a few things from her repertoire. This is the one I remember singing with Perian — she sang the verses, and I echoed her lines on the chorus: “And only say (and only say) that you’ll be mine (that you’ll be mine)…

I later heard it by the Monroe Brothers and the Stanley Brothers, whose music is more to my taste, and I would have said I now did the Stanleys’ version — but listening back I find I still pretty much sing Baez’s verses. I don’t recall singing this with anyone but Perian and that was almost forty years ago, but I still hear her voice and miss chiming in with her on the choruses.

City of New Orleans (Steve Goodman)

I was born in 1959, so I missed the height of the “Great Folk Scare,” and by the time I was a teenager this music was very much out of fashion. I suppose, in retrospect, that may have been part of its appeal to me, but in any case I was living in my own musical world and felt completely out of sync with what was on the radio — in fact, I tended to have no idea what was on the radio, since my parents only listened to news and I didn’t have one of my own. So this may well be the only song I ever learneArlo Guthried after hearing it on the radio.

It was a hit for Arlo Guthrie in 1972, and of course I was ready to be interested in Arlo because of Woody, and it was a good song. I never bought the record, but when Sing Out! published the lyrics and chords, I learned it.

I must have seen that it was composed by Steve Goodman, but the name meant nothing to me — which was true of pretty much everybody outside Chicago when this song hit. I saw him in concert in 1976-77, though, and he was magic. The only thing I remember distinctly was a Supremes medley, which shouldn’t have worked for one little guy on stage with an acoustic guitar, but did — and I’m pretty sure he also played the “Chicken Cordon Blues.”stevegoodman In any case, everything worked, and the songs were terrific and he was very funny.

The story of this song has been told a million times, but to recap: Steve wrote it after taking a trip with his wife to see her grandmother, riding the City of New Orleans, the day train running from Chicago to the title city. (The night train at that point was still the Panama Limited, immortalized by Booker White in the 1930s.) When he got back, a friend mentioned that Amtrak was planning to discontinue the train, so he wrote the song as an elegy — which may have contributed to the fact that a train of this name is still running today (though now it’s the night train). Steve described the lyric as pretty much straight reportage, a list of what he saw out the window, except for the third verse, which he had to make up since he was only going to southern Illinois: “I figured I couldn’t write a song about a train that went 900 miles through the center of the country and stop the song in Mattoon because I was getting off.”

Finally… for young folks who don’t understand that line about “The passengers will please refrain…” I offer Oscar Brand’s version of the widespread and impressively scatological lyric to Humoresque, which will clarify this historical lacuna.

Roll On, John (Greenbriar Boys/Palmer Crisp)

I always enjoyed bluegrass, but rarely loved it — the precise and phenomenally fast banjo solos and impeccably close harmonies tend to sound too clean and mechanical for my taste, and it made perfect sense that so many greenbriar boysof the bluegrass musicians I met seemed to be expert mechanics or technological wizards of non-musical kinds… But I loved the Greenbriar Boys’ Ragged But Right album. It was partly John Herald’s voice, and the way Ralph Rinzler and Bob Yellin played mandolin and banjo, and partly the exceptionally varied repertoire — bluegrass, and old-time country, but also ragtime and old-time pop tunes — but mostly it was the energy and humor. They were fine musicians, but also sounded like they were having a terrific time and weren’t worrying about getting everything perfect — the title summed it up, as well as being a great song that I later used as my regular opening number when I was playing bar gigs.

Along with the upbeat, ragtimey tracks that first caught my ear, that album had one of the loveliest mountain ballad-blues-type songs I’ve ever heard, called “Roll On, John.” It hadn’t been recorded anywhere else, as far as any of us knew, and although they credited it on the record, a lot of us paid minimal attention and remembered it as possibly original to them. But Ralph Rinzler, along with playing fine mandolin (and, in other situations, banjo and guitar), was a prolific folklorist and researcher — as scout for the Newport Folk Festival, he was instrumental in getting Doc Watson into the folk scene and reviving Bill Monroe’s career, a story told in an excellent interview/bio by Richard Gagné — and he had found this while burrowing in the archives.

It was recorded in 1946 by a singer and guitarist named Palmer Crisp, and seems to be the only song hePalmer Crisp ever recorded (though he also appears on a half-dozen recordings accompanying a fiddler named Sam Leslie). Even this one was captured more or less by accident, in a long series of sessions Margot Mayo (founder of the American Square Dance Group in New York, and hence of the whole idea of urban square dancing) conducted with his father, Rufus Crisp. A selection of these recordings was finally released by Folkways in 1972, including Palmer’s lone solo venture (mis-credited to Rufus on the Smithsonian/Folkways website), and is still available and well worth hearing. I wish I’d heard it back when I was learning this song, though I’ve got to say the Greenbriar Boys did a fine job.

Interestingly, in her liner notes Mayo points out exactly the thing that seemed strangest to me while singing this song, the way the melody lingers on words like “and,” “to,” and “that.” She writes, “In his singing Palmer holds certain words which are not ordinarily held or stressed in song or poetry. This is typical of genuine mountain folk singing.” Although I’ve been singing old-time music since I was a kid, this felt strange enough that I experimented with other ways to sing the lines — I’ve been on a personal mission to try to stop singing in a southern accent and to rephrase lyrics to fit my own speech, but in this case I decided I should leave it the way it was, and now I’m glad I did.

Where Were You, Baby? (Josh White)

Josh White was one of my first musical heroes, and when I began to try to play blues, his songs figured prominently in that effort. That was one of the things that endeared me to Dave Van Ronk, who was heavily influenced by Josh’s work — though if memory serves, we didn’t actually get around to discussing Josh until we were already pretty close, since by the mid-1970s his work had generally fallen out of fashion. Josh White Song BookThe 1960s generation of white urban blues fans tended to consider him too slick, and to prefer performers who sounded more rural, or who had had the grace to die back in the 1930s, or — perhaps most significantly — whom their parents hadn’t heard of.

Josh was slick, indeed. His guitar work was smooth and clean, with a vibrato unequaled by anyone this side of Lonnie Johnson; his voice was light and sexy; his diction was immaculate; and he was an expert urban cabaret performer, the model for Harry Belafonte among many others.

As I wrote in his biography, Society Blues, my parents used to have regular arguments about the first time they saw Josh. It was at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and my father always remembered him as an earthy, masculine performer, glistening with joshcovfsweat as he sang rough blues and work songs. My mother, by contrast, remembered his elegant silk shirt, and the second shirt he changed into during the intermission. They agreed about the sweat, but my mother did not associate it with work songs — like most of Josh’s female admirers, she thought of him as suited to a more intimate environment.

Josh did sing a lot of traditional blues and work songs, but he also sang pop songs, and British ballads, and some unique nightclub confections composed for him by professional Manhattan tunesmiths. I’m guessing “Where Were You Baby” is in that latter category — he is generally credited as the composer, but I’d bet anything the lyric was written to order for him by one of the pop lyricists who were bringing him material during his glory days as a cabaret star. Be that as it may, it suited him perfectly, to the point that it seems kind of silly for anyone else to do it…

…but what the hell. I’ve loved this song since I first heard it, and very few people know it (except a coterie of hardcore Don McLean fans), and it’s a great piece of work. It also played a vital part in my musical education, since it was the first song I ever learned that required a diminished chord. (Thankfully I had the Josh White Song Book, or I wouldn’t have known that, and God knows what I would have played instead.)

My Creole Belle (John Hurt/meanings of Creole)

Like everyone else, I got this from Mississippi John Hurt, and for all any of us knew it was his composition. He sang it in that lovely, gentle voice, evoking a sort of charming Best of Mississippi John Hurt“old South” nostalgia, and I thought of it as kind of a companion piece to “Goodnight, Irene.” It was also one of his most basic guitar arrangements, in the key of C, and particularly easy for those of us who already had “Freight Train.” So I learned it early and kept playing it, despite the fact that the lyrics didn’t go very far.

It was probably another twenty years before I heard the original, a ragtime composition published in 1900 by the Danish-born violinist Jens Bodewalt Lampe, and recorded in 1902 by a presumably ad hoc outfit billed as the Edison Concert Band. Lampe’s version had several sections, the second of which is what Hurt played, and Lasse Johansson, who has recorded a lovely guitar arrangement of the full rag, informs me that the original lyric was close to what Hurt sings:

My Creole belle, I love her well,
Around my heart she has cast a spell.
When stars do shine I call her mine,
My dusky baby, My Creole belle.

I always assumed the Creole belle of the title was African American, given Hurt, and ragtime, and this lyric confirms that assumption.Creole Belles But judging by the damsels adorning the cover of the sheet music for the instrumental version of the rag, at least some people thought of the titular belle as Creole in the original American sense of the term, which did not indicate race. In both French and Spanish, the word was used primarily for European-Americans born in the colonies, and only secondarily and by extension for African-Americans born on this side of the Atlantic.

That usage was continued in Louisiana, where Creole meant anyone of French heritage. After the Haitian revolution, thousands of French Creoles immigrated to Louisiana, many of them bringing their slaves and/or servants, who became a sort of in-between class in New Orleans, not white but also not black, and were racially designated as “Creoles of color” to distinguish them from white creoles. In recent decades, the term’s meaning has shifted yet again, being adopted by the African American Francophone population of rural south Louisiana, who were previously just known as black French. In linguistic terms, this shift is confusing, because the black French did not in general come from Haiti, but are descended from people bought as slaves by Francophone planters, and speak their own dialect, which is closer to Cajun French than to the Creole French of black New Orleans.

For a taste of the difference, compare the language of any Francophone zydeco song with a song like “Mo Pas Lemme Ca” (a unique orthography, but that’s what they wrote) on the wonderful Jazz a la Creole session featuring Danny Barker and Albert Nicholas, and sung in Creole French. A simple clue is the use of moi or mwa (or, in the LP orthography, mo) for the active first person singular, which is standard in Haitian Kreyol or New Orleans Creole, whereas a French, Cajun, or Black French speaker of non-Haitian heritage would use je.

Black Mountain Blues (Dave Van Ronk)

I got this from Dave Van Ronk’s first album — once again, it was the kind of violent, bragging song that perfectly suited the tastes of a teenage boy who was getting into blues.Scrapper_Blackwell and Bessie Smith Dave had learned it from Bessie Smith’s recording, and had the bright idea of combining her lyric with the guitar part from Scrapper Blackwell’s “Down South Blues” — I didn’t make that connection until very recently, because when I used to listen to Dave’s first record I had not yet heard the Blackwell song. Dave introduced me to that one as well, when he recorded it on Sunday Street in the 1970s, and toward the end of his life he tended to use it as his regular opening number. And, when I got my hands on some live recordings from the 1950s, I found he’d already been singing it back then — but for his album debut he apparently decided to come up with something unique by melding the Smith song with the Blackwell chart.

That exegesis is not particularly germane to my version, since I sing it in a different key, and in any case I didn’t know about Blackwell at the time — I just knew it was a deep, dark, exciting blues, and the title song of Dave’s album (not, as it happens, of the original issue, or even the second issue, but Van Ronk first LPFolkways kept repackaging that baby, and I got the Black Mountain Blues version). Of course, I became a big fan of Blackwell later on, and should have made the connection, but Dave always spoke so poorly of that album — he referred to it as “Archie Andrews Sings the Blues” — that I didn’t go back and listen. Which was stupid, because I liked it a lot when I was a kid and there were good reasons for liking it. Dave had not yet formed his mature style, on either guitar or voice, but  at his best he was already very effective on both, and had good taste in songs, and some of the performances hold up just fine.

Others hold up less well… but who am I to talk? I am forever grateful that I don’t have a recording of me doing this song at age fourteen, because I remember the ferocious, shouting passion I used to summon, and prefer to recall that feeling rather than hearing the undoubtedly ridiculous reality… and, forty years later, it’s still a lot of fun to do.

(Incidentally, the over-the-neck move I do in the last line is pure Josh White, and much of what I play elsewhere is impure Josh White. Dave and I shared an enduring debt to Josh, and affection for his playing and singing.)

Too Much Monkey Business (Chuck Berry)

Another from the brilliant Chuck Berry — I first heard it from Tom Rush, but quickly hunted up the original, and it started me on a  never-ending Berry binge. I eventually had every album he made between 1957 and 1964, which is testimony in itself, because the fifties was not a decade of great rock ‘n’ roll albums. Rock ‘n’ roll was teen music, which at that point meant singles, since teens were assumed not to have the money for LPs. chuck berry after schoolRock ‘n’ roll LPs were either hit anthologies or teen-idol pin-up souvenirs, destined to be mooned over by adoring fans, not listened to as serious collections of great tracks. (A few rockers also made LPs for the adult market, separate from their teen hits, but they were people like Connie Francis and Pat Boone.) Or they were simply attempts to cash in on transitory popularity, with a couple of hits and a lot of filler.

As a result, Chuck Berry’s first album, After School Session bids fair to being the first great rock ‘n’ roll auteur LP. Released in 1957, it included none of the hits that had already made him a breakaway star: “Maybelline,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” or “Rock and Roll Music.” Apparently Chess figured that putting the big hits on an album would cut into singles sales, so instead they pulled together a bunch of B-sides and singles that hadn’t hit big — in other words, filler… but at that point Chuck Berry was so prolific that his filler beat virtually anyone else’s best work, whether your standard is quality, variety, or just plain entertainment.

After School Session has blues instrumentals, country music, the pseudo-Caribbean novelty “Havana Moon,” and several of Berry’s greatest compositions: this one, “No Money Down,” and his “black is beautiful” masterpiece, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” with the unforgettable verse:

Milo Venus was a beautiful girl,
She had the world in the palm of her hand.
She lost both her arms in a wrestling match
Over a brown-eyed handsome man.

Who the hell else ever wrote like that? Or, in this one, check out the way he inverts “working hard” and places the “yet” in the first verse:

I’ve been running to and fro,
Hard-working at the mill,
Never fail, in the mail, yet
Come a rotten bill.

The rhythm of his lines is perfect, propulsive, and feels like natural speech, but when you look at them closely, he is constantly inverting and inserting words in unlikely places to get that effect — and it never feels strained or calculating, because his ideas and phrases are so fresh and surprising, and yet so simple and accurate. The litany of complaints in this one range from school to work to the army to marriage, to the phone company. Who ever composed a more compact and instantly relatable narrative than:

Pay phone, something wrong, dime gone, will mail…

He was simply the best.

Silhouettes

This is another I learned thanks to my sister Debbie and Sha Na Na. When she was 12 and I was 14, or maybe a year before, we got together with a couple of grad students in Woods Hole, Bill and Paul, who were enough older that they knew the songs from the first time around, and held regular doo-wop sessions we called “rock concerts” on Gansette Beach at night, banging rocks as percussion and singing our various parts, just the four of us — then stripping off golden goodiesour clothes and swimming, our bodies outlined by glowing bio-luminescent creatures (the motion of your swimming sets them off, and it’s like you were surrounded by fireflies).

This was one of our favorites — the chorus is great for singing, and the trick ending never got old. One of the cleverest teenage romance songs of a period notable for clever teen songs, “Silhouettes” was written by Bob Crewe with Frank Slay, and recorded for their own XYZ label (though when it took off they quickly licensed it to Cameo), and great as that record is, it is probably most notable for launching Crewe’s career as a songwriter and producer.

Crewe and Slay had written a couple of previous songs for the Rays, including the bizarre “Moo Goo Gai Pan,” but “Silhouettes” was their breakthrough, and they Bob Crewewent on to have hits with Billie and Lilly and Freddie Cannon…

…but Crewe really hit his stride in the 1960s, when he teamed up with Bob Gaudio and wrote a bunch of Top Ten hits for the Four Seasons, then “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” for Frankie Valli, produced Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, and all in all, racked up a formidable resume that eventually included LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade.”

There’s lots more about Crewe online, plus a good capsule bio of the Rays and their lead singer, Harold Miller, but enough history… I had my fun singing this, now and many times in the past (and take a perverse pleasure in the fact that I forgot to close my closet before filming the video, underlining my essential kinship with the song’s hapless protagonist), but check out the Rays’ original: