Te Recuerdo Amanda (Victor Jara)

The Chilean coup was a palpable force in my house. My father was excited by Salvador Allende’s election and spent several weeks in Chile, meeting Pablo Neruda and others. So when the coup shattered that dream, it was a direct blow. Then I went with Eqbal Ahmad, a family friend who had fought in the Algerian revolution, to a concert/benefit for Chile featuring Joan Baez where Orlando Letelier, a friend of Eqbal’s, was the guest of honor, and spent most of the after-party hanging out with them… and a few weeks later Letelier was assassinated by Chilean government agents in Washington.

The Victor Jara albums came into our house during that period, as an expression of solidarity, though I don’t recall listening to them often before I spent some years in Europe and learned Spanish. Meanwhile, in 1974 Phil Ochs Victor Jara LPhad organized a Chile benefit concert in New York that included Bob Dylan and Dave Van Ronk, and asked Dave to sing “He Was a Friend of Mine” in memory of Jara. And then in 1976 Phil died, and Dave started singing the song in his memory, after telling the story of Jara’s murder in the football stadium in Santiago.

Thousands of people were rounded up in the days after the coup, and held in that stadium, and on the second or third day Jara was recognized by an officer, and publicly tortured. Descriptions differ as to whether the soldiers smashed or cut off his fingers before breaking his wrists with rifle butts, then asking sarcastically if he could still play and sing for them… and he responded by calling on the other prisoners and leading them in a song, before he was beaten to the ground and shot over forty times.

Dave told that story for years before singing “He Was a Friend of Mine,” and when I got back from Europe and booked a first gig at the Nameless Coffeehouse, I told it as well, then sang “Te Recuerdo Amanda.” It was the only song I sang in a language other than English, and I would first recite a translation:

Victor Jara LP2“I remember you, Amanda; the wet streets; running to the factory; where Manuel was working.

“Your wide smile; the rain in your hair; it didn’t matter; you were going to meet him.

“Just five minutes; life is eternal in five minutes; the siren blows; time to return to work; and you walking along; you light up everything; those five minutes; have made you flower.

“I remember you, Amanda; the wet streets; running to the factory; where Manuel was working.

“Your wide smile; the rain in your hair; it didn’t matter; you were going to meet him.

“Who went away to the mountains; who never harmed anyone; who went away to the mountains; and in five minutes was destroyed; the siren blows; time to return to work; many did not return; among them Manuel.”

For anyone who doesn’t know the history: the Chilean coup was actively supported by the CIA, part of the ongoing US policy of destroying any democratic government that potentially threatened the profits American businesses were extracting from the developing world. My father recalled with bitter amusement a huge sign outside the American Screw Company’s compound in the Chilean countryside: “American Screw Chile.”

Jara was one of the founding figures of the Latin American nueva cancion, or “new song” movement. And although he was murdered over forty years ago, that story goes on: in June a Florida court handed down a civil judgment against a Chilean military officer for his murder — like many henchmen of the right-wing dictatorships that decimated Latin America in that period, he is now a US citizen — but the US Department of Justice continues to reject the Chilean government’s requests for his extradition.

Brand New Tennessee Waltz (Jesse Winchester)

I remember knowing in a vague sort of way that this was by Jesse Winchester, but I didn’t know anything more about him and don’t have any memory of hearing him sing it, or indeed of hearing anyone sing it. I obviously must have heard it somewhere — most likely numerous somewheres —  performed by various someones at various coffeehouses and on various street corners… but I have no recollection of the experience.

Which said, I clearly remember how  I learned it. The Cambridge Public Library had a subscription to Sing Out! magazine, and Abbie Sing out (Jesse Winchester)Hoffman’s Steal This Book had a great tip about library subscriptions: libraries typically keep only five years of back issues, and if you ask them to give you the old ones when they do their annual cull, they are happy to oblige. As outlined in previous posts, I had become an habitué of the CPL’s music room during high school, and I put in a request for their discarded Sing Out!s each year, along with a guitar magazine whose title I have since forgotten.

That went on for three or four years, and then sometime in the late 1970s I got a call saying, “We’ve discontinued our subscription to Sing Out! — do you want the back issues?” I did, of course, and hurried over to get them, which gave me a complete run through the decade.

That was not as exciting as a full run through the 1960s would have been, because the magazine’s aesthetic and mine had gradually diverged. They were increasingly focused on singer-songwriters, and even their tastes in traditional and international music tended to differ from mine. But they still had occasional blues tablature, and once in a while a current composition separated itself from the pack.

Like, for example, this one. Winchester always said it was the first song he wrote — Jesse Winchestera daunting thought for anyone who wants to be a songwriter — and he later described it as “cryptic,” saying he stopped writing this way because he wanted to be more clear and direct. I understand what he meant, but by Dylan/Mitchell/Cohen standards it never seemed particularly cryptic — I took it as a modern variation on the gallows farewell ballad, sung by an outlaw facing execution, and what particularly caught my attention was the wry perfection of the unpoetic word “literally” in the phrase, “literally waltzing on air.”

So I learned it, and although I don’t ever recall performing it, I continue to sing it now and then for my own pleasure, and here it is. Hell of a good piece of writing.

The Band Played Waltzing Matilda (Eric Bogle)

There were a couple of anti-war songs floating around Europe in the late 1970s that were so striking that if you heard them once they stuck with you: “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” and a song variously called “The Flowers of the Forest,”  “No Man’s Land” and “The Green Fields of France.” I heard them over and over, from amateurs and professionals throughout northern Europe, though I don’t think I learned either until I got back to the States and found the lyrics to this one in Sing Out!

At the time I had no idea that both were written by the same man, a Scottish singer based in Australia named Eric Bogle. In the 1970s Bogle hadn’t yet made his first record* and pretty much everyone learned his songs from recordings by Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy, June Tabor, Priscilla Herdman, or other more familiar figures, and passed them along without any sense of the writer — an example of the enduring oral tradition in the days of phonographs and radio, but before the internet.

I finally heard an album by Bogle himself, in Eric Bogle LPVancouver, Canada, around 1982 or ’83 and was startled to find that he was ridiculously, raucously funny — I recall in particular a song mocking serious folksingers, “You’re a Bloody Rotten Audience (Whilst I am very good).” He was acutely aware of the discrepancy: when I eventually saw him live, I remember him singing an incredibly moving, heartbreaking song, followed by stunned silence, then a thunderous ovation… after which he mopped his brow and remarked: “I think I’ll stop writing songs and just hit myself over the head instead.”

All of which is by the way, because this song speaks for itself: a simple, brutal story that remains painfully relevant.

 

*A German reader, Manfred Helfert, corrects me, noting that three Bogle records were recorded and released there following his 1976 tour, on the “seedy” Autogram label. Helfert  quotes Bogle’s opinion:
“These… were recorded during my first tour of Germany in 1976. Only the first one [Live in Person] was authorised, the other two are bootleg. Some of the songs were recorded ‘live’, the rest are obviously quite dead. If you ever come across a copy of any of these L.P.s, melt it down and fashion an ashtray out of it.”

Traveling Man (Pink Anderson/blues comedians)

I’m pretty sure I first heard this done by Paul Geremia, who recorded it on his first LP, and got some version of the lyric from Sing Out! magazine. I’m guessing Paul got it from pink anderson bluesville lpPink Anderson, but that’s just a guess, since it was recorded by numerous blues and hillbilly performers in the 1920s, including Jim Jackson, Luke Jordan, Coley Jones, Henry Whitter, and Prince Albert Hunt.

The original lyric/title seems to have been “Travelin’ Coon,” which was how Jordan sang it — Anderson changed that to “a man named Coon” — and that’s an apt reminder of how much early blues overlapped minstrel and ragtime traditions. I was aware of that, but was still startled  recently by the details, outlined in an upcoming book by Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff, The Original Blues: The Emergence of the Blues in African American Vaudeville.

Based on decades of research in African American newspapers, they trace a history of blues performers who were nationally famous in black theaters before the dawn of recording. Among their more startling revelations is that the earliest stars who were advertised or described as singing blues were men, and specifically male comedians in blackface make-up — the pioneer was Butler “String Beans” May, and his followers included artists like Charles Anderson, a yodeling female impersonator, who was the first to feature “St. Louis Blues.” (Ethel Waters mentions this in her autobiography, writing that after Anderson made it famous, she was the first woman to do the song.)

Another startling fact is that virtually all the great southern singers we remember as “blues queens” were advertised as “coon shouters” in their early years. Perry Bradford, who went on to compose and produce the first blues record by a black singer, celebrated Bessie Smith as “the best coon shouter I ever heard,” and Ma Rainey’s husband, advertising their touring troupe, wrote: “Mrs. Gertrude Rainie [sic], our coon shouter, never fails to leave the house in an uproar.”

Abbott and Seroff trace an evolution over the course of the 19-teens, from blues being regarded as comedy or a new kind of ragtime to a majestic style performed by “queens” in gorgeous gowns.

Meanwhile, in rural minstrel and medicine shows, on street corners, in barbershops, and wherever else black guitarists and banjo players worked throughout the rural South, influences from touring shows and vaudeville mingled with influences from local, vernacular traditions… including vernacular traditions that drew on earlier minstrel and theater performances that were based on rural vernacular traditions…geremia folkways LP

None of which I knew when I heard Paul Geremia sing “Travelin’ Man” and picked it up as a fun, upbeat number about a clever trickster who could outrun falling water, outswim sharks, and magically vanish from the docket.