Fancy-Pants Gambling Man

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. rememberingtomHobson 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.

erik-frandsen-headshot(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.)

Frankie and Johnny

A common delusion among young artists is that if you get within range of some potential discoverers, you’ll get discovered. I spent much of my late teens and early twenties subscribing to this delusion, and shortly after returning from Europe in 1979 I attempted to give fate a nudge by dropping off an audition cassette at the Folkways Records office in New York. I figured if I went there myself I might run into the legendary Moe Asch and charm him into recording me…

held frankie and johnny…and as a perfect example of just how delusional I was, one of the items on that audition tape was my version of one of the most over-recorded songs in the American folk pantheon: “Frankie and Johnny.”

Of course, I wasn’t just singing any old version of “Frankie and Johnny” — I had found a racy version in a book illustrated by the New Yorker cartoonist John Held, Jr., that included explicit lines about Frankie working in a crib house and Johnny spending her money on parlor house whores. I figured the gritty realism of this lyric would catch Asch’s attention — that is, I figured Asch, who had recorded Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, would be impressed by the gritty realism of a lyric learned from a New Yorker cartoonist. Or to put the issue more plainly, I was a pretentious young idiot.

So I went by the Folkways offices, and of course Moe Asch was in a back office to which I never penetrated, but I dropped off the tape and the nice woman in the front office promised he’d listen to it. I noticed a lot of African art around, so I went home and studied up on that, figuring if I managed to meet him the next time I could make an impression by having an intelligent conversation about Dogon masks and Senufo birds. held-woodcutAnd a month or so later I went back, and the nice woman gave back my cassette — I don’t know if Asch had listened, but if not he’d at least had the decency to fast-forward it to the end of side one, as if he’d listened. And that was that. I never got to meet him, and had to start my own record label a few years later to inflict my music on the world.

So that’s my story, and now I’m a considerably older idiot and suitably embarrassed by my youthful naivete, but I still like this lyric and love Held’s woodcuts. I recently checked the book and find that I cut the lyric down quite a bit and forgot some of the goofier verses, but I still do it pretty much the way I did then.

If I were to try to do an authentic version today I Frankie Baker, of Frankie and Albertwould take a different tack, tracing the court records of the historical murder and at least singing the male protagonist’s name as “Albert,” the way John Hurt did, or maybe even “Allen, which was his real name. He was Allen Britt, shot by Frankie Baker in St Louis in 1899, and there are myriad websites detailing the story in more or less garish detail. But what the hell… I got it from John Held, and I’m ready to confess the fact and recommend his book. It’s been reprinted at least once, and is well worth tracking down, if only for his wonderful illustrations.

Bidin’ My Time (John Miller’s influence)

I’m pretty sure it was the late fall of 1979 that Dave Van Ronk played Passim Coffeehouse with a younger guitarist named John Miller as the opening act. Dave knew John already, and I had seen John’s two albums on the Blue Goose label, though I hadn’t heard them. Both consisted mainly of country blues, and in the cover photos John looked like a bearded student type, an impression john miller lpreinforced when I learned that he was based in Ithaca.

None of that fit the man and music I heard at Passim. John had shaved his beard and was playing songs off his latest album. It was called Biding My Time, and consisted entirely of George Gershwin songs, some performed as instrumentals and others sung. Dave and I stood in the back of the room and exchanged sympathetic glances as John redefined our understanding of how a guitarist could negotiate that material. He had none of the kitschy Chet Atkins style, his rhythm was impeccable, and his singing was understated but consistently tuneful and beautifully phrased.

I particularly remember Dave’s expression as John sang the opening verse to “Of Thee I Sing,” treating the lyric with graceful sincerity,  and then, where the melody makes a tricky key change, plucked a bar chord, reached up with his right hand to shift the capo from the second to the fourth fret, and went on playing in the new key. Dave made his most mooselike moue. He wanted to call it cheating, but was also consumed with regret that he hadn’t thought of it first.

I bought the album, enjoyed it, and was inspired to learn the title song — not John’s arrangement, which was way beyond my skills, but taking his performances as a model. I worked out my own chart for this, and then for “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” and — getting away from Gershwin — “Taking a Chance on Love” which was my moment of victory, because when I played it for Dave he thought it was John’s. A few years later I found John’s book of the Gershwin arrangements and struggled with it for a while, but they never felt smooth under my fingers. swing-songs-for-the-moderate-fingerpickerSo I stuck with my own charts, and even self-published a book of them, Swing Songs for the Moderate Fingerpicker.

Four decades later, I only play a couple of those arrangements, but this one stuck with me, and always reminds me of seeing John that night at Passim. I’ve met him since and taught alongside him at the Port Townsend Blues Week, and he continues to be best known as a scholar and adept of rural blues guitar styles, but I still think of him as the master of Gershwin.

Manu Kai (Hawaiian Slack Key)

It must have been the winter of 1979-80 when I was browsing through a music store and came across Keola Beamer’s instruction book, Hawaiian Slack-Key Guitar. Keola Beamer bookI’d never heard of the style — an extension of the parlor guitar style of “Spanish Fandango,” favoring a variety of open and other “slacked” string tunings — but it looked approachable and there was a little plastic record included, so I picked it up and learned two or three of the pieces. This one in particular caught my fancy, and I recall practicing it in Dave Van Ronk’s living room one afternoon when he was in the kitchen cooking dinner, and him coming in and saying, “If you don’t watch out, you might play something pretty” — which was his way of saying he was pleasantly surprised.

I was still playing it when I ended up in Vancouver for the first time a few months later on my first extended stateside hitchhiking trip, and my hostess there turned out to have spent a lot of time in Hawaii and had records by Ray Kane, Gabby Pahinui, and Pahinui - Isaacs LPAtta Isaacs. I taped them all, listened to them quite a lot for a couple of months, and then moved on… it was pretty, indeed, but I had the same problem with it that I later had with bossa nova — I bought a couple of Baden Powell records and some Joao Gilberto, enjoyed them for a while, and then I wanted to hear something grittier.

Many years later, I was writing for the Boston Globe and got the first releases from George Winston’s Dancing Cat record label, a half-dozen Hawaiian slack-key CDs, and called Winston to do a story on them, and he was so excited that anyone at a major newspaper knew anything about slack-key that he sent me a box of about thirty cassettes, of everything currently available in Hawaii. And then I got to interview Ray Kane, who was wonderful, and Ledward Kaapana, who blew me away both as a guitarist and as a live performer. And around the same time I happened to be back in Utah Phillips’s dressing room, and he was warming up by playing a slack-key instrumental and said that was the first way he learned to play guitar.

So I had a second wave of interest in the style. Ray Kane convinced me that the singing was a big part of the tradition, and the traditional singing, unlike the guitar playing, was not a pretty sound that non-Hawaiians could embrace as background music. Like, for example:

But I wasn’t going to start singing in Hawaiian, and even to play the instrumental style, by that time I’d realized I should have used Beamer’s tablature as a starting point for my own explorations, rather than just learning “Manu Kai” note for note. So that was that, for me… but it’s still a pretty little guitar piece.