Long Tall Mama (Big Bill Broonzy)

That year I lived in New York was a very rich time for me musically — not in other ways, since I basically spent it in my room listening to records and playing guitar, when I wasn’t contemplating the next record buy at Dayton’s or schlepping over to Van Ronk’s place for a lesson, meal, and lecture… but there’s clearly a “before” and “after” in my musical life, with that year in the middle.

Which said, in retrospect I have somewhat mixed feelings about the way I was learning, and the way a lot of musicians of my generation and broonzy yazoo lpafterwards have approached the music of the early 20th century. For example, take Big Bill Broonzy’s “Long Tall Mama.” It was on a Yazoo collection of early Broonzy songs, and also in Woody Mann’s book, Six Black Blues Guitarists, and when I first got the book it was beyond my abilities, but by the end of that year I had a rough approximation of the accompaniment and two solos that Mann had transcribed, and a few years later I worked out the introduction, and it’s the one Broonzy guitar part that I still have more or less in playable shape — rusty, but serviceable.

The mixed feelings come in because, first of all, it’s not the song I would have picked out of Broonzy’s repertoire if I hadn’t had tablature handy for it, so I was following Yazoo’s and Mann’s tastes rather than my own. And second of all, as best I can tell Broonzy was just playing and singing a song he had recently composed and improvising guitar breaks in his usual C-position style, and if he’d recorded the same song a second time he would have played different breaks. It wasn’t a composition, per se, it was just the way he happened to play it that one time. And if Blind Willie McTell or Blind Blake, or  Eric Von  Schmidt or Dave Van Ronk had wanted to play the song, they would have worked out their own guitar parts — maybe close to Broonzy’s, maybe not — and sung it in their own styles.

By and large, all the generations of musicians before me who played this kind of music also heard the musicians who originated it, playing it live, and understood it as a living form that changed from minute to minute and day to day and person to person. They had some recordings, but typically not many, and records were in any case secondary to musicians, so they mostly used them as sources for songs, not like formal scores.

By the time I came along, all but a handful of the older players were gone and companies like Yazoo had done beautiful reissues of their early recordings. So to a great extent the exercise of learning acoustic blues had become learning what the old guys recorded back in the 1920s and ’30s on particular records, as closely as possible. When I was lucky enough to meet other people who played prewar blues, we’d show one another the secrets we’ve managed to figure out — how Mississippi John Hurt fingered a particular chord; how Blind Blake played that syncopated bass figure.

There’s a whole world of us, and by now we’ve been doing this for decades, and we teach at guitar camps, make instructional videos, and even record our careful transcriptions of guitar solos that people like Big Bill Broonzy happened to play once, improvising in front of a microphone, eighty or ninety years ago.

It’s a great exercise, and I’ve learned a lot by doing it, but I’ve also spent a lot of years trying to unlearn that process — trying to stop singing in a southern accent, to stop singing words I don’t understand, to stop trying to duplicate licks that will never really feel like they are my licks, even if I can execute them cleanly.

This isn’t about originality vs. imitation. I play plenty of songs that do feel like mine, though they were written by someone else, and play plenty of licks that do feel like my licks, though I know more or less where I learned them — and so did Big Bill Broonzy. But I was recently listening to geremia hard lifePaul Geremia’s version of “Long Tall Mama,” off his second album, which is an attempt to recreate Broonzy’s recording, pretty much solo by solo, and he did it better than I ever could, but it’s still a lot less interesting than what he was playing a few years later, when he had assimilated the music and was generating solos in the moment, the way Broonzy did — even if they were solos in Broonzy’s style. And even back then, the singing sounds like Paul, not Broonzy, which to me makes it a lot more interesting than the guitar playing.

The thing is, I have the Broonzy record, and when I listen to someone try to recreate the solos, all I’m thinking about is how well or badly they are managing to sound like Broonzy. If they do it well I admire their expertise, but it’s still just an exercise and I’d still rather hear him do it.

All of which said, it’s a great exercise, and I love the experience of hearing some of Broonzy’s licks come out of my fingers, and if someone else wants to learn this, it may be helpful to see what my fingers are doing, since we don’t have any video of Broonzy playing these breaks… and I’m glad to have learned it, and will undoubtedly learn more licks off more records before my last go round… and, since I haven’t played this in a while, it feels good to get it more or less up to speed.

So here it is, with no apologies and no regrets… but if you like it and don’t already know it, listen to Broonzy’s version, too.

Incidentally, there’s a dig at Memphis Minnie in the last verse that some folks may miss — she’d established her recording career with a song called “Bumble Bee,” about a boyfriend with a particularly effective “stinger,” and Broonzy is suggesting that he’s got something more substantial to work with.

Bully of the Town (May Irwin and others)

I picked this up from the Holy Modal Rounders, presumably in my late teens, since I’d had enough training from Dave Van Ronk to hear that it included a diminished chord. I don’t remember what appealed to me about it at the time, but when I got deeper into the history of American popular music, it was unavoidably significant. Depending on one’s definition, it was arguably the first nationally popular ragtime or “coon” song — an offensive term that became generic in the early 20th century, though the original lyrics of “The Bully Song” (as it was originally titled) used a more offensive term.

It was a huge hit in 1895 for a Scots-Canadian singer namedBully Song2 May Irwin, who performed it in a stage play called The Widow Jones — which is also notable because a brief scene in which she kisses one of the other actors was filmed by Thomas Edison in 1897 and hence is one of the first movie love scenes. Irwin followed with other songs about African American badmen, generally performed in exaggerated dialect — though, unlike most white singers who specialized in that sort of material, she did not wear blackface make-up — and was one of the few pop stars of the late 19th century to record some of her hits, including “The Bully Song.”

All of which said, the song seems to have predated Irwin’s involvement. W.C. Handy wrote that he heard it in the early 1890s and its success inspired him to try his own hand at writing “a ditty fit to go with twanging banjos and yellow shoes”:

Songs of this sort could be tremendous hits sometimes. On the levee at St. Louis I had heard Looking for the Bully sung by the roustabouts, which later was adopted and nationally popularized by May Irwin. I had watched the joy-spreaders rarin’ to go when it was played by the band…

The most assiduous researchers of turn-of-the-twentieth-century black popular music, Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff, have turned up an early mention of the song in the Leavenworth Herald from 1894, which also seems to be the first printed appearance of the word rag to mean a kind of music: “Kansas City girls can’t play anything on pianos except ‘rags’ and the worst ‘rags’ at that. ‘The Bully’ and ‘Forty Drops’ are their favorites.”

Like much other black music of that period, this song had mostly fallen out of favor with African American musicians and listeners by the time they began recording in large numbers in the 1920s — though some fragmentary verses were recorded by significant black performers, including Henry Thomas, Lead Belly, and the Memphis Jug Band — but remained popular white rural musicians. It was recorded by some two dozen “hilbilly,” “old time” and “country” players and groups (up to and including the Everly Brothers), whence the Holy Modal Rounders, whence me — and I learned it knowing none of this history, or even that the bully and his antagonistic narrator were originally supposed to be African Americans.

Final note: In the early 1980s I did a six-show weekend at Passim Coffeehouse opening for Norman Blake and the Rising Fawn String Ensemble. The dressing room inNorman Blake Passim was tiny, and they were the headliners, but I had to get my guitar in tune and my fingers warmed up, so despite the fact that Norman was sitting two feet away from me, I had to play something. I had been fooling around with this song, and didn’t remember that he had recorded it, so I started picking it as a warm-up exercise… and, without saying a word, he picked up his guitar and began backing me, quietly and perfectly, not taking over but just playing back-up and making me sound better, until I nodded to him for a solo, and he played something simple and pretty, then went back to playing rhythm. He had never met me, never heard of me, and it was the nicest thing he could possibly have done, and I’ll love him forever.

Wild About My Good Cocaine (Dick Justice)

One of the records I bought during that year in New York forever changed my understanding of the world. Like much of what I was buying, it was a reissue of recordings from the 1920s and 1930s on the Yazoo label, but this one had a particularly strange cover and a title cribbed from a James Baldwin novel: Mr. Charlie’s Blues. Its concept was to collect recordings by white rural musicians who played similar materialMr Charlie's Blues in a similar style to the many black musicians on Yazoo’s other LPs, presenting them as blues musicians rather than as hillbilly, country, or old-time musicians.

What was life-changing about that was not the idea of white musicians playing blues — obviously, I was in New York to study with Dave Van Ronk, so I was familiar with that concept. Nor was it that the musicians on the Yazoo LP were particularly adept or skilled white blues musicians — their skills and my appreciation for their work varied, as with the white blues revivalists in Cambridge and New York.

What was different about them was that, at least to my ears, they were not trying to sound black. Some of them were playing guitar parts clearly imitated from records by black players, and a lot of them would have called their style “n—er picking,” a standard term for fingerstyle guitar in the rural South that was later cleaned up to “Travis picking.” (A change that removes the derogatory racial term while shifting credit for the style from its African American originators to one of its most expert white practitioners — a familiar message from white America to black America: “Heads I win, tails you lose.”) But they were singing in their own voices, sounding like white rural southerners, and in general choosing material that fit their own lives and perspectives.

Take Dick Justice, my favorite artist on that collection: he had two songs, both of which I instantly added to my repertoire, and sounded completely natural singing them. I’ve recently learned a lot more about Justice, having assembled a chapter about him for the book that will accompany the American Epic film series, which we all hope will be published/broadcast this fall, and which includes lots of new information about him. (And some very nice photographs, which I’m currently not at liberty to reproduce here.)

Justice was a coal miner and something of a hell-raiser in his youth, in a community with a small clique of exceptional musicians, and apparently this song was very popular with them. His children don’t recall him singing it, but the son of Bill Williamson, whose father was a friend of Justice and recorded with the Williamson Brothers and Curry, recalls it as a favorite number of his dad’s, saying: “He could get on the piano and play blues like crazy, you know. He used to do a song called ‘Cocaine’, but it had a verse in it about the furniture man, so he liked to the call it ‘The Furniture Man’. And he would just do it like a comedy skit, and just crack everybody up.” (For more on the comic implications of furniture men with particular relevance to this song, here is an interesting post from another blog site.)

“Cocaine” was the title of Justice’s record as well, and he’d learned the song off a record called “Cocaine Blues” by a black guitarist and singer from Virginia named Luke Jordan — which is why, when Dave Van Ronk recorded a completely different song called “Cocaine Blues” it was initially credited to Jordan… and why I and others have chosen to give it a title that differentiates it. Jordan is another wonderful artist, and his record is very similar to Justice’s, and if I’d heard it first I’d credit him as my source… but I didn’t…

And frankly it was a better lesson for me to hear Justice, because, as I began to write above, he didn’t try to sing with a “black” voice, and over the years I have tried to assimilate that lesson, and also to try not to sing with a “southern” voice. I don’t always succeed, by any means, because those voices have been in my head all my life — and there are some lyrics that don’t work in my accent, because the words don’t rhyme or scan — but I’m trying, because I was struck by something Martin Carthy told me when I asked why he didn’t sing a Scottish ballad in Scots dialect:

I won’t try and put on a Scottish accent or put on an Irish accent or put on a regional English accent, cause I think that’s nonsense, I think it’s silly actually. It makes the whole thing into a pantomime. It’s much more serious than that for me. And much more fun, as well. You’re actually being able to concentrate on the song, to concentrate on the job at hand, instead of wondering whether you’ve got the accent right. It’s like you’re playing a character, but that’s not how I see singing.

I had never thought of it quite that way, and I don’t think it necessarily applies to all songs and styles, but in general it made sense to me. I still like to sing some songs in character, and think they work well that way — acting is just as valid artistically as music or poetry, though in a different way — but in general I think it’s a good idea to try to sing like yourself, especially if you’re singing something like blues, where the whole point is direct communication. So as best I can I’ve been  trying to figure out how to do that — for better or worse, and for what it’s worth.

Send Me to the ’Lectric Chair (Bessie Smith)

Among the records I assembled during my year in New York, combing the second-hand bins at Dayton’s, were all five volumes of bessie smith lp2Bessie Smith’s complete recordings, with their comprehensive notes by Chris Albertson. That set was an oddity of the LP era: the records were issued with the notion that they could be stacked and played in order, all ten of them, so volume one had Smith’s first and last recordings, and the subsequent albums narrowed to volume five, which was the only one to include four sides of music from a single period…

I listened to all those records at least once, but my guess is there were some sides I heard only that once. I knew how important Smith was, and in particular what a major influence she was for Dave Van Ronk, who had come to blues from trad jazz, so I wanted to immerse myself in her work. But, for one thing, I was a teenage boy with a guitar, and had come from Woody Guthrie rather than Louis Armstrong, so I was more inclined to the rural blues guitar guys. And, for another, the completeness of those records did not serve her well, particularly in the early period, where she tended to just be accompanied by piano and the songs tended to be straight twelve-bar blues, one merging into the next, all slow, majestic, and somber. Some had great lyrics, but after a while I just tuned out.

So call me a lightweight, but my favorite Bessie Smith sides were the ones that mixed blues inflections with more vaudevillian or ragtime pop settings. Of course, Dave had already turned me on to “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon,” and I loved “Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle,” and then there was this gory little confection. It was a great recording, with Fletcher Henderson on piano, Charlie Green on trombone, and Joe Smith on cornet — much as jazz fans love Louis Armstrong’s accompaniments, Bessie Smith herself apparently considered Joe Smith a more sensitive sideman, and she sounds terrific in this company.

The composer credit on this song was to George Brooks, apparently a pseudonym for Henderson, but I’m dubious — the lyric is pretty ornate for someone who was not generally known as a lyricist, and bessie smithI’m guessing Henderson hired someone else to do those  duties. Since another song at the same session was “Them’s Graveyard Words” and six months later Smith recorded another Brooks song called “Dyin’ By the Hour,” it seems to have been a pretty doom-laden period for whatever lyricist was involved.

I have been singing this now for forty years, and keep going back and forth on the gender pronouns. Dave tended to sing Smith’s songs from the point of view of a woman, as they were written, and Mississippi John Hurt did the same when he did songs learned from blues queens, so at first I did that. Then I switched and began singing it from a male point of view, because it’s in the first person and that suited me as a protagonist… and then I switched back, because I decided I’d rather not be the protagonist of this particular story and was happier presenting it as a story about a woman striking back against a man, regretful though she might be afterwards.

Nobody Knows the Way I Feel This Morning

I got this from Dave Van Ronk, who presumably got it from Clara Smith’s, Alberta Hunter’s, or Margaret Johnson’s recordings — he Clara Smithsings a somewhat different lyric, but that may just be a quirk of memory or he may have decided to do some rewriting, which he often did when he found an old song he liked. I have to say, though, now that I’m going back and listening to their versions, I’m a bit startled that he would have softened their final verse, which goes:

I even hate to hear your name this morning,
I even hate to hear your name this morning,
I even hate to hear your name,
I could kill you quicker than an express train.
Nobody knows the way I feel this morning.

Be that as it may, it’s a good song, and a great guitar arrangement. Dave recorded it on his Sunday Street LP, so it was fresh when he taught it to me, and he was particularly happy with the way it adapted techniques he had honed in his ragtime arrangements to frame and support the singing.

Of the many things I owe Dave, one that has endured was his fondness and appreciation for the work of the early blues queens. Most of the blues revivalists of his generation — or at least the white, male, guitar-playing blues revivalists — shied away from the blues queens as too formal, or too jazzy, or not rootsy enough, or maybe dave van ronk8just too female. But Dave loved their singing, and the piano or small combo arrangements that framed their singing, and he also had a keen appreciation of professional songwriters — he thought the folk scene’s tendency to praise products of the oral tradition over the products of people like Cole Porter and Duke Ellington was basically a middle class affectation — he liked to use the French term, nostalgie de la boue, a yearning for the mud. Dave thought of himself as a professional musician and liked the company of professional musicians, and he took particular took pride in having known Clarence Williams, who had organized the Hunter, Smith, and Johnson recording sessions.

Dave also tended to credit Williams with writing this song, but it was actually by a prolific blues songwriter and pianist from Charleston named Tom ClarenceWilliams-1Delaney, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the confusion dated back to Dave’s time hanging out with Williams, who was notorious for making a buck of other people’s material — he credited Delaney on the records he produced, but the fact that he used this song with multiple artists suggests he probably owned the publishing, and maybe a cut of the composer royalties as well. In any case, it’s a nice example of the sort of song Dave loved and that I probably wouldn’t know if he hadn’t done it… though it was way more popular than the country blues songs I favored, and when I started playing on the street with my friend Rob Forbes in the summer of 1977, this was one his mother always requested because she had performed it as a band vocalist in the 1940s.

Mamie’s Blues (219 Blues)

In his notes to this song, Dave Van Ronk wrote, “Jelly Roll Morton, certainly the greatest jazz composer before Ellington and a singer of incredible subtlety claimed to have invented jazz in 1906. There is little point in argument.”

jelly roll morton commodoreThis was one of Morton’s most subtle efforts, and one of Dave’s. Dave stripped the spare piano accompaniment down to an even sparer guitar arrangement, and sang it simply and directly, just telling the story.

On his recording, Morton recalled, “This is the first blues I no doubt heard in my life. Mamie Desdunes, this was her favorite blues. She hardly could play anything else more, but she really could play this number.”

Desdunes (sometimes written Desdoumes) was a well-known singer and pianist in “the District,” as black New Orleanians called the area now generally remembered as “Storyville.” Bunk Johnson recalled playing numerous dates with her and told Alan Lomax: “She was pretty good looking — quite fair and with a nice head of hair. She was a hustling woman. A blues-singing poor girl. Used to play pretty passable piano around them dance halls on Perdido Street. When Hattie Rogers or Lulu White would put it out that Mamie was going to be singing at her place, the white men would turn out in bunches and them whores would clean up.”

The song title is often given as “2:19 Blues,” as if the number was for a train time, but Charles Edward Smith recalled Morton explaining that the 219 was the train that “took the gals out on the T&P [Texas and Pacific railroad] to the sporting houses on the Texas side of the circuit… [and] the 217 on the S.P. [Southern Pacific] through San Antonio and Houston brought them back to New Orleans.” I can find no confirmation that those numbers matched trains on that route, and another scholar has the same trains running between New Orleans and Chicago — so I’m dubious, especially since the matched numbers would make more sense for trains going back and forth on the same line, but Morton assigned them to different lines.

My guess is BasinStMorton was improvising an explanation to match the lyric, and very likely shifting the location: there was a 219 train that ran from Memphis to Little Rock, with the 220 returning, and this couplet may well be from Memphis, another strong blues town. On the other hand, another famous blues lyric that mentions the 219 is “Trouble In Mind” (“Gonna lay my head on that lonesome railroad line/ Let the 219 ease my trouble in mind”), by Richard M. Jones, who was also from New Orleans. So I don’t know the answer, and if anyone can clear this up, please write me an email.*

*My address is just my first name at my full name, dot com.

 

Buddy Bolden’s Blues (Jelly Roll Morton)

Dave Van Ronk had numerous musical heroes,  but Jelly Roll Morton was number one. Over the years, I got used to the idea that if I stayed late enough at his place we would likely end up listening to Morton records (often back to back with Phillipe Koutev’s Bulgarian ensemble), and it was an addiction I was happy to share. We often listened to the Red Hot Peppers records, but in terms of Dave’s repertoire the most significant Morton record was one made in the 1940s for the Commodore label, one side of which consisted of solo vocal and piano tracks. There were five songs on that side, and Dave played all of them, and eventually I learned them as well, in roughly equal parts from Dave and Morton.

“Buddy Bolden’s Blues” was a descriptive title, given by Morton to a song he recalled hearing Bolden play when he was first listening to music in “the District,” as New Orleans musicians called the red light district historians recall as Storyville:

This is, no doubt, is the earliest blues that was the real thing. That is a variation from the real barrelhouse blues. The composer was Buddy Bolden, the most powerful trumpet player I’ve ever heard or ever was known. The name of this was named by some old hunky-tunk people. While he played this, they sang a little theme to it.

Buddy_BoldenThat theme, “funky butt, funky butt, take it away,” has generally been glossed as a reference to farting, but everything I’ve seen and heard suggests that is less an established fact than a testimony to the higher comfort level many white jazz scholars have with pre-adolescent naughtiness as opposed to adult sexuality. Bolden was famous for the audience of prostitutes who patronized his dances, and there is no reason to associate the “funk” in his lyrics with farting rather than the strong smell of female bodies after a long night’s work — or, indeed, of male bodies after a long day’s work. Dude Bottley, whose brother sponsored many of Bolden’s dances, recalled:

Lots of folks would faint and pass out from the heat and the strong body odor, ‘cause there wasn’t many colored people who had bath tubs in those days. In fact, very few white folks owned one. Lots of times when the crowd would be jammed in front of Bolden he would stop blowing, take his hat and fan the air in front of him and holler loud:
“MY CHILLUN’S HERE. I KNOW IT ‘CAUSE I CAN SMELL ‘EM.”
That used to tickle the crowd, and everybody would clap, scream, laugh and holler. I’m tellin’ you, when that odor used to rise it smelled like burnt onions and train smoke…

This was a key song in Dave’s history, because he used to play it in the late 1950s (though the only recording was unissued until the Mayor of MacDougal Street CD), mayor cd then expanded it in the early 1960s into his full guitar transcription of the classic ragtime instrumental, “St. Louis Tickle.” Morton always insisted that the main strain of “St. Louis Tickle” was stolen from Bolden, and I’m guessing it was this connection — and the fact that he’d already worked out an arrangement for that strain — that led Dave to think of working out the rest of the more complex composition as his first venture into classic ragtime arranging.

The Pearls (Jelly Roll Morton/Dave Van Ronk)

I arrived on Dave Van Ronk’s doorstep just as he reached the high-water mark of his interest in ragtime guitar, Davis-Van-Ronk 11so I emerged from my year of study with “St. Louis Tickle,” “Maple Leaf Rag,” “The Entertainer” (which was so overdone that I quickly forgot it), and Jelly Roll Morton’s “The Pearls.” (I don’t think Dave had yet composed his own contribution to the genre, “Antelope Rag,” but it followed in the next couple of years.)

“The Pearls” may have been my favorite — though audiences never got as excited about it as they did about “Maple Leaf,” so I played it a good deal less. I was not familiar with Morton’s piano version at the time, so Dave’s guitar arrangement was the first way I heard it, and it was so damn pretty, with neat chords and interesting harmonies. Morton was jelly roll mortonDave’s favorite composer and one of his favorite musicians, alongside Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.

Dave would later say he worked out these piano rags as research projects to improve his understanding of the guitar, and that was certainly part of it, but there was also some pride involved. He was trying to get off the road and make his living from teaching, and he wanted to feel like he was the kind of guitarist an ambitious young student might want to study with, even in the musical mecca of Manhattan — and, damn it, he was the acknowledged pioneer of classic ragtime guitar and wanted to justify his reputation.

That had gotten a lot harder by the mid-1970s, because like many pioneers he had inspired a wave of followers who didn’t have to labor under his handicaps — starting with his own lack of predecessors, but also a clumsy right hand that kept tripping him up, since he was a natural lefty. Dave Laibman and Eric Schoenberg had credited him on their debut LP, which was the first full album of ragtime guitar instrumentals, but soon a bunch of players came along who were only marginally aware of his contribution. He was particularly taken with the Dutch guitarist 104 final bookletTon Van Bergeyk, and also Leo Wijnkamp, and then I introduced him to Guy Van Duser’s work, which led him to begin musing about the unique affinity Dutch and Dutch-American guitarists seemed to have for ragtime… until his lady, Joanne, broke in to point out that he had about as much Dutch ancestry as he had Cherokee.

I later got to know Leo, met Ton a couple of times, and took one lesson from Guy, but I continue to particularly like Dave’s arrangements, because they both feel and sound like something a guitarist would naturally play. Most classic ragtime guitar arrangements sound to me like attempts to play piano compositions on an instrument that has too few strings — like Dr. Johnson’s hind-leg-walking dog, one is impressed that it can be done at all, not because the results sound particularly pretty. Dave’s arrangements always sounded pretty — and when I finally heard Morton’s piano recording, I was struck by how much of it he had managed to translate into guitar language, and reasonably simple guitar language at that.

Random Canyon (Peter Stampfel/Dave Van Ronk)

Dave Van Ronk always took pride in the fact that, having started on the folk scene as part of the traditionalist wing (which he dubbed the “neo-ethnics”), he became at least equally known for his van ronk polydorinterpretations of material by the new wave of songwriters who emerged in the 1960s. For a while in the latter half of that decade he had some major label money behind him, and hopes of getting hits and breaking out of the coffeehouse scene, and his prospective tickets were interpretations of songs by friends like Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, or Bertolt Brecht, or Jacques Brel, or Randy Newman, or… Peter Stampfel.

Dave was an early and avid supporter of Mitchell, but it is rarely noted that the album on which he first recorded one of her songs also had a stampfelStampfel song, and his most solidly singer-songwriter album of the 1960s had  two Stampfel songs. He thought Peter a transcendent genius, and although this rococo Roy-Rogers-on-mescaline cowboy song was the only item of Stampfeliana that remained in his repertoire in later years, that was because the others required more accompaniment than his guitar — for example, the avant-garde art-rock cacophony of “Romping Through the Swamp” (the link is to a live recording with the Hudson Dusters, even weirder than the LP version). He kept singing “Random Canyon” throughout his career, often as a concert closer — the obvious place for it, since it rose to a raucous, howling finale, ending with a shouted, sustained note that was so perfectly, magnificently, painfully off-pitch that it was a work of art and invariably left the crowd pleading for an encore.

The only time I heard Dave sing this near the beginning of a set, it was a disaster and one of the greatest shows I ever heard him do, because as he hit that final note, he broke the D string on his guitar, and he didn’t have a spare. It was second set, the stores were closed, the opening act had gone home, so he had no choice but to do the rest of the concert a cappella. He sang blues, he sang Brecht, he sang children’s songs from his Brooklyn youth… it was one of the most varied and fascinating performances I’ve ever seen.sagrada familia

As for me, I learned “Random Canyon” because how could anyone hear this lyric and not want to learn it?

It is to  ordinary cowboy songs what Antoni Gaudí’s Catedral de la Sagrada Familia is to a clapboard country church.

The Gambler (a country hit and a Dave Van Ronk story)

That year of 1976-77 was a hard time in Dave Van Ronk’s life. The sixties were over and he’d had some good times but hadn’t caught the brass ring. He’d done two albums on Mercury, two for Verve, one for Polydor, one for Cadet, all putting decent money behind him and Dav van ronk 9hoping for at least a modest hit, but the last of those had been in 1973 and now he was on a small Vermont folk label, Philo, and although he was proud of the music he was making, it was clear he wasn’t going to get out of his one-bedroom apartment with its windows on an airshaft, and not entirely clear how he’d manage the rent on that.

He was also overweight and drinking a lot of whiskey, and by the second bottle he had a tendency to get depressed and angry. As I recall, it was in one of those moods that he first played me Don Schlitz’s demo cassette of “The Gambler.” He’d heard the song, picked it for a hit, and asked for a recording hold on it — the right to do the first record of it, or at least the first single. But he hadn’t been able to get anyone interested. Philo didn’t do singles, and the majors had written him off as a has-been or almost-was.

Honestly, I couldn’t blame them: it wasn’t the kind of song I associated with Dave, and I forgot about it until he reminded me a couple of years later, after Kenny RogersTheGamblerAlbumCover sold a gazillion records with it.

It still wasn’t the kind of song I associated with Dave, but that was about me, not him. I preferred him with just a guitar and wasn’t wild about his orchestrated recordings of Randy Newman and Leonard Cohen songs, which was why I was still coming around, and why he was stuck in that tiny apartment.

Herewith I must interject a story that includes some raw language:

One of the first times I met Dave, he was playing at Passim Coffeehouse, and during the break a reporter from the BBC asked for an interview, and we went to the quiet bar at the nearby Chinese restaurant, and it was going fine until the reporter said, “Dave, one thing I’ve always admired about you is that you never sold out.”

There was a long pause, and then Dave leaned into the mike and growled, “Listen: I’ve been standing on forty-second street for twenty years, bent over with my pants around my ankles… it’s just that nobody’s fucked me.”

He knew how the business worked, and was sure that with the right song and the right production and the right promotion from the right record company he could get a hit — and it hadn’t happened. He’d tried forming a rock band; he’d tried recording with strings. He had ideas about what he did best and what music he preferred, but also saw himself as a craftsman and a professional who could have more than held his own with the likes of Kenny Rogers.

Maybe he was right and if all the pieces had come together, “The Gambler” could have done it for him. He certainly dave van ronk6had the requisite world-weariness, and was a good actor and storyteller, and I can imagine his gruff whisper being perfect for this role.

The reasonably happy ending to that story is that he eventually bit the bullet, pulled himself together, lost the weight, switched to wine, got some European and Japanese tours, managed to keep paying the rent, made a lot of fine music, lived another 25 years, and hosted many more long evenings of great conversation with good friends. He never got a hit, never got out of that apartment, but he settled into being the eminence grise of the Village folk scene and made the best of it. Like the man said: “Every hand’s a winner, just like every hand’s a loser.”