This is one of the rarest songs I know; to the best of my knowledge, it has never been publicly available until now. Which is truly weird.
I heard it on a reel-to-reel tape in the position of Amy Cohen, the friend who introduced me to Dave Van Ronk, sometime in the mid-1970s. The tape was by Erik Frandsen, a terrific guitarist, songwriter, and performer, whom I later saw numerous times at Folk City and the Speakeasy, usually with Dave nodding approvingly at my elbow. I recall Dave explaining that Erik got so good by practicing in front of the television during all the Mets games, so I tried that for a while (albeit with the Red Sox), but never came close to his precision and virtuosity… and that’s not to mention the songwriting.
I don’t know how Amy came to have the tape, which seems to have been recorded in Chris Smither’s apartment circa 1970 or thereabouts, but I was mightily enamored of it. The songs included a sixties counterculture rewrite of “He’s in the Jailhouse Now”; a brief a cappella interlude celebrating the virtues of Bromo-Seltzer; Erik’s signature song of the time, “Drowning in Beer”; and this masterpiece of tongue-in-cheek Americana.
For a while I didn’t bother to learn this, because I thought of it as Erik’s song and didn’t see the point. But here we are, more than forty years later, and as far as I know it has never been recorded except for that stray tape. Erik never made an album — I have no idea why, and would encourage any producers out there to contact him and try to change that — though he did a few songs on the Speakeasy’s Fast Folk LPs and now has a bunch of videos online. But by the time I met him in the early 1980s, he’d dropped this from his repertoire.
So I started doing it, citing Erik as its originator, and only recently checked with him and learned that it was written by Tom Hobson — a name I had never heard, despite a lifetime burrowing around the folk and blues scenes. Hobson is no longer among us, but some friends have mounted a nice website in his memory, with several albums of his music and encomiums from associates and students including Jorma Kaukonen, Dan Hicks, and Steve Mann — and that’s another story worth investigating.
Hobson was a legendary Bay Area character who played brilliantly, was known and admired by all the musicians, but never really made a go of it as a performer (a description shared by my friend Perry Lederman, on whom more in a forthcoming post). And to make the story even crazier, none of Hobson’s albums includes “Fancy-Pants Gambling Man,” nor do any of the remembrances even hint at its existence.
How the hell could a song like this be in the ether, performed by musicians of the quality of Hobson and Frandsen (and who knows, maybe a bunch of other people), and never get recorded? As best I can tell, I’m currently the only person on earth who knows it, and that just doesn’t seem right. So here it is.
(Incidentally, one of the reasons Erik is not better known as a musician is that he has dedicated most of his professional attention to acting — you’ve likely seen him in movies and on the Daily Show — and wrote an off-Broadway show, and all in all has kept pretty busy doing other stuff. Which said, I’m still waiting for that album.)