Shame and Scandal

This semi-feminist calypso is a rewrite of a song with completely different verses and a somewhat different title by the Trinidadian singer Sir Lancelot. He performed it in the movie I Walked with a Zombie (1943), then recorded it with Gerald Clark’s Caribbean Serenaders on Keynote Records, the leftist New York label known for the Almanac Singers, Josh White, and various jazz artists. Lancelot’s version was recorded by Odetta in the 1950s, on an album my parents had… so I’m guessing that’s where I first heard it…

…but the version I sing has completely different verses, on the same theme as Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Johnny Be Fair.” Apparently this version was composed by another calypsonian, Lord Melody, who recorded it in 1962 as “Wau Wau” (as in, “Woe, woe is me”). That version was shortly retitled “Shame and Scandal in the Family” and recorded by the Puerto Rican actor Shawn Elliott, who sang it to a modified ska backing, followed by a British ska recording by Lance Percival and versions in various styles by everyone from the Kingston Trio to Trini Lopez to Peter Tosh with the Wailers.

I don’t remember hearing any of those versions, and may well have learned the lyric from Sing Out! magazine, attaching it to my rough memory of Odetta’s melody.

In any case, I started performing it in the early 1980s as an experiment in fingerpicking Caribbean rhythms. I’d gotten interested in Congolese guitar — an interest that later took me to Lubumbashi and lessons from Jean-Bosco Mwenda — and Perry Lederman and I were jamming pretty regularly on “Jamaica Farewell,” so I was looking for a way to fit that kind of picking into my performing repertoire, and this lyric was an obvious winner — though I later switched to playing “Iko Iko” with a similar arrangement.

If you want to hear Lancelot’s original verses, here’s a televised duet by Odetta and Johnny Cash — which I never knew about till I was researching this post.

The Cowboy Fireman; or, The Trusty Lariat

Originally recorded in 1929 by Harry “Haywire Mac” McClintock, this is a mock heroic, shaggy dog response to the incursion of steel rails on the open range.

In her book, Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle, Katie Lee recalls that Mac had been a cowboy, railroad man, hard-rock miner, and hobo before becoming a recording artist and radio star on San Francisco’s KFRC station. Best known as composer of “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” and “Big Rock Candy Mountain” (featured in an earlier post with attention to its expurgation), he sang a varied repertoire of cowboy, hobo, and IWW union songs, as well as oddities like “Circus Days,” “When It’s Time to Shear the Sheep (I’m Coming Ba-a-a-ack to You),” and this little masterpiece.

Lee prints a considerably longer lyric for “The Trusty Lariat,” apparently copied from Mac’s Songs of the Road and Range, a song folio published in 1932, but I sing it roughly as he did it on that earlier record.

Like another favorite cowboy singer, Glen Ohrlin, Haywire Mac enjoyed the romance of the cowboy legend but also understood that it was a romantic myth — as an IWW man, he was well aware of the lousy working conditions on most ranches. Like “Pat Works on the Railway,” this is an example of the kind of wry humor that often spiced western folklore, and working class folklore in general.

Incidentally, for the young folks (myself included) a “fireman” was the guy who shoveled coal into the firebox of a steam engine to heat the water, making the steam that powered the damn thing. It was the worst job on the railroad, and often done by African Americans — so if anyone wants to think of this as a song about black cowboys, there’s some evidence to support that reading.

Even more incidentally, “lariat” is an English corruption of la reata, Spanish for the lasso. “Lasso,” in turn is an English corruption of lazo, a Spanish cognate of “lace” — as in shoelace, not lace doily.  Atar is the verb “to tie,” reatar is to retie, so the reata has been doubly tied. I’m not sure exactly how, but that’s the etymology.

Fishing (Blues) (Chris Smith/Sweetie May)

A feminist ragtime cheating song from 1911, which is now known almost entirely in a highly abridged and non-feminist revision by the Texas hobo Henry Thomas — an excellent example of how recordings have muddled our understanding of the past. Thomas turned it into a ditty about fishing that lost the original sense of the chorus:

You say you’re going fishing all the time,
Well, I’m going fishing too.
Bet your life your loving wife
Will catch as many fish as you…

The original was written by Chris Smith, a songwriter and pianist best remembered for “Ballin’ the Jack.” Smith later formed a successful vaudeville duo with the singer/monologuist Henry Troy, advertised in 1923 as “perhaps the best known and most popular Colored artists on the Keith circuit,”* but back in 1911 he was writing for one of the most influential acts in the history of black show business: Butler “String Beans” May, whom Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff convincingly present in their new book The Original Blues as the first major blues star and a dominant figure on the southern theater circuit.

String Beans seems to have hired Smith to produce special material for his act, for example penning the lyrics to “There Never Was and Never Will Be a String Bean Like Me,” and also for his wife and partner, Sweetie May, a New Orleans singer known on the southern circuit as Sweetie Matthews until they married in 1910. This song was presumably written for her — their act, adapted with great success on records by Butterbeans and Susie, typically involved domestic disputes, often won by the woman — and Abbott and Seroff quote a 1911 newspaper review saying “Miss May sang ‘Fishing’ very good, and was well received.”

String Beans and Sweetie May were major stars, widely imitated and familiar to African American theatergoers throughout the country, but he died in 1917 and they never recorded. As a result they have tended to be left out of blues histories — which in general rely far too much on recordings — and Sweetie May’s hit is remembered almost exclusively from a 1928 record by the hobo singer Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas, who had likely learned it at several removes since he didn’t sing the verses and seems not to have understood the original theme.

Thomas’s record was included on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, and is a wonderful performance with breaks played on reed panpipes. It became a blues revival standard, recorded by Mike Seeger, Jim Kweskin, Taj Mahal, and dozens of others, and is still widely played… I love it and mean no disrespect when I suggest it’s a pity that so few later performers have been aware of Thomas’s source.

As best I can tell, the only person who remembered Chris Smith’s original song was Sam Chatmon of the Mississippi Sheiks, a quirky singer with a phenomenal memory who recorded a  playful version of it in the late 1970s. I learned it off his album, sang it regularly in my touring days, and everybody seemed thrilled to learn the back story of what was now commonly known as “Fishing Blues…” but the Thomas version is still the only one most people are aware of. I eventually hunted down sheet music, thanks to Lynn Abbott, and Chatmon’s lyrics are very close to Smith’s, with the up-to-date addition of miniskirts. So here it is, with hopes that some other singers — especially some women — may start doing this version and talking about Sweetie May and the early vaudeville blues stars.

*I did a fair amount of research on Smith because his song “Don’t Slip Me in the Dozen, Please” is the first thorough description of the African American insult game known as the dozens (or capping, snaps, yo’ mama jokes), so I wrote about it and him in my book The Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama (now retitled Talking ‘Bout Your Mama: The Dozens, Snaps, and the Deep Roots of Rap) — which, as it happens, also includes some great verses from Sam Chatmon. It was amazing how many disparate threads came together in that book.

Statesboro Blues (Willie McTell)

I’m not sure exactly how I learned “Statesboro Blues” — of course I listened to the original recording by Blind Willie McTell, and I know Woody Mann’s tablature played a part, but I don’t recall playing it much until I was touring in the early 1980s, and even then I tended to play it only as a request, because a lot of other people were already doing it. It was a pretty frequent request, presumably due to the Allman Brothers’ version, which I thought they got from John Hammond,* though more knowledgeable people cite Taj Mahal. Either way, the source for all of them was presumably Sam Charters’s groundbreaking anthology, The Country Blues. Like “Walk Right In” and “Stealin’, Stealin’,” this was not a big hit when it was first released, but that Charters LP was a foundational text for the blues revival, so for my generation those songs were standards.

We came to blues as part of the folk revival, and tended to focus on guitarists and think of singers like McTell as “roots” blues artists, from an older tradition than the more urban stars like Bessie Smith, with their pianos and jazz bands. In fact, this song is an excellent example of the extent to which that influence went in the opposite direction — in his book on McTell, Michael Gray traced the sources of this song and concluded that the lyric was compiled from several different recordings by female blues singers. The most significant was Sippie Wallace’s “Up the Country Blues,” which starts:

Hey, mama, run tell your papa,
Go tell your sister, run tell your auntie
That I’m going up the country,
Don’t you want to go?

And ends:

My mama’s got ’em, my papa’s got ’em, my sister’s got ’em,
My auntie had ’em,

Said, I woke up this morning, papa, had up the country blues,
When I looked over in the corner, my grandma had ’em too.

Other verses come from Bessie Smith’s “Reckless Blues” and Ivy Smith’s “Cincinnati Southern Blues” — none of which is surprising, since guitar players like McTell grew up playing a mix of rural dance music, religious songs, ballads, ragtime, and whatever else they heard from neighbors, local musicians, traveling performers, and by the late 1920s records and radio. Most seem to have added blues to their repertoires as it was popularized by tent show and vaudeville singers like Smith, Wallace, Ma Rainey, and Ida Cox.

None of that diminishes the brilliance of McTell’s performance, or the originality with which he wove his sources together into a unique creation. Statesboro, Georgia, was his home town, so he gets full credit for that reference, and the version I do is thoroughly copied from his playing, though I make no attempt at his singing style. As Dylan wrote, “nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie Mctell.” I don’t play a lot of his songs, but when I’m in the mood for pre-war blues, he is still the artist I listen to most frequently, and I always hear something new.

 

*These days a lot of people think of Hammond as an acoustic blues player, but after first recording this one solo acoustic on his Country Blues album, he did it again on Mirrors in 1967, which had most of The Band, plus Mike Bloomfield and Charlie Musselwhite. Hammond was a good friend a jamming partner of Duane Allman’s, and also had Jimi Hendrix as his guitarist for a while.

Sweeney Todd, The Barber

I learned this from a Folkways album of London pub and music hall songs recorded in 1962 by a young Englishman named Derek Lamb, but don’t recall performing it until I found myself playing in a mock English pub called the Horse Brass in Portland, Oregon. They had bangers and mash, lukewarm beer, and even a London telephone booth in one corner, so this seemed like the right piece of material. It turned out to be the perfect barroom sing-along, guaranteed to engage the noisiest room, and I made it a staple of my repertoire through the early 1980s, eventually recording it on my deservedly rare LP.

Recitations like this were once as popular as songs with both barroom amateurs and stage professionals — American counterparts would include comic gems like Bert Williams’s “Somebody Else, Not Me.” The Sweeney Todd story had already been fodder for plays, Victorian penny dreadfuls and  silent films before being immortalized in this manner by R.P. Weston and Bert Lee, who apparently composed some three thousand songs during their twenty-year career. (I’ve done the math and am dubious, but The British Music Hall: An Illustrated History reports that they had a strict daily writing routine, and I guess it’s possible.) Several of their creations were made famous by the wonderful Stanley Holloway, including “My Word, You Do Look Queer,” “Brahn Boots,” and “With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm.” Holloway likewise premiered this one, performing it in a 1935 film called Play Up the Band and recording it in 1956 — though I know him best for recitations, he does “Sweeney Todd” as a song rather than a recitation, except for the extended third verse.

There are plenty of internet sites with information on the  Sweeney Todd legend and associated urban folklore, so I’ll just note here that in Martin Chuzzlewit Charles Dickens suggests both the ubiquity and the dubiousness of the story when he describes a lad adrift in London as fortunate that his evil genius “did not lead him into the dens of any of those preparers of cannibalic pastry, who are represented in many standard country legends as doing a lively retail business in the Metropolis; nor did it mark him out as the prey of ring-droppers, pea and thimble-riggers, duffers, touters, or any of those bloodless sharpers, who are, perhaps, a little better known to the Police…”

It may be worth mentioning what barbers mostly did in those days, since the word is now rarely used in its original sense. It comes from the French barbe, or beard, and the most frequent reason to see a barber used to be for one’s morning shave. When I was in New Delhi circa 1980 there were still men who set up in the park or would come around to the cheap hotels and shave customers for a small fee, using a straight razor stropped on a leather strap every few strokes, and barber shops served lines of gentlemen every morning, with the added luxury of hot towels to finish. I only indulged occasionally, but must say it was a pleasure — though I had to get used to the sensation of someone stroking my throat with a long, sharp blade. (For further mentions of straight razors, check out another bloodthirsty classic, the Bahamian “Jones, Oh Jones.”)

And finally, I must append this photo, done for a presentation of British ballads that I was roped into by a local professor, David Ingle, who came regularly to a semi-open-song-night I hosted at the Bookcellar Cafe in Porter Square, Cambridge, for a year or two in the 1990s, and thrilled me by bringing Derek Lamb, who lived just a few blocks away. A lovely man, Derek had gone on to a highly successful career as a director and producer of animated films and documentaries in Canada and the U.S. (winning an Oscar and producing cartoons for Sesame Street, among  other things) and he came down to the Bookcellar a few times, still sounding much as he had in the 1960s.

Soldier’s Pay (Bill Morrissey)

Bill Morrissey wrote this around 1982, but it never worked the way he wanted onstage, so he pretty much left it to me, and I only performed it  occasionally when I had the right audience. It’s like a Raymond Carver story set to music, the kind of songwriting Bill did best, but not, as he liked to say, “perky.”

It worked best late at night,  sitting around with people who were the right age and had the right experiences. I particularly remember a night in Lincoln, Nebraska, with Paul Moss and my ex-half-sister-in-law Hazel. Paul and Dixie Moss had hosted a concert for me in their Sears-Roebuck southern mansion gone to seed, but I didn’t play this until afterwards, when the whiskey was gone and just the three of us were still up, and Paul listened in rapt silence, with tears running down his cheeks.

So I put it on my LP, which Bill produced (we had a record company together and produced each other’s records, though the producing was mostly just a matter of moral support). But, much as I liked it, it didn’t fit with the other stuff I was doing, so I don’t think I performed it after that recording, and Bill never recorded it, and the result is that virtually no one has heard it, and that bothers me, because I still think it is some of his best writing.

In hindsight it’s at least partly about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but we didn’t know that term back then. Back then it was just a sketch of a couple in a trailer park or a guy Bill saw sitting in one of the bars in Newmarket, a sequel to his masterpiece about veterans from the previous war, “Small Town on the River.

Thirty-plus years later, it feels to me like it’s also about Bill, and I have to assume he thought of it that way at some level, or at least was aware of his kinship with George. He hadn’t been in the Marines, but he had some of that deep hurt and the urge to sit quietly with a beer — though in his case it didn’t keep him from working. When he wrote this he was living with Jeff McLaughlin a few blocks from me in Cambridge, or maybe had just moved out to Bedford with his first wife, Lisa, and and he would get up every morning and sit at the typewriter for several hours writing, and every couple of weeks would come up with a song he thought was good enough to play for anybody. He’d write and write, and edit and edit, and he was a damn good writer and a ruthless editor, and I admired his work ethic as much as his talent.

We’d all grown up on Hemingway, and knew that you wrote in themorning and didn’t have a drink until you were done for the day — for Hemingway, that was lunchtime; for Bill, when The Waltons came on in the afternoon. And maybe I’m projecting backwards when I suggest he felt a strong kinship with the hero of this song, because I don’t actually remember Bill being quietly sad in those days. He’d get bitter sometimes, because he’d been working at music for a dozen years and knew how good he was and was still pumping gas to pay the rent. But he had plenty of energy and was funny as hell, and those were good times.

(If you want another taste of Bill around that time — actually, a couple of years earlier, but it overlapped — check out the reminiscence by Ann Joslin Williams, his partner back when we started hanging out — though she was in New Hampshire and I was in Cambridge, and I don’t think we ever met.)

I Know What It Means to be Lonesome (Bill Williams)

I learned this off a lovely album by a little-known guitarist and singer from Kentucky, Bill Williams, who recorded a couple of LPs for the Blue Goose label in the 1970s. Williams was presented as a blues artist, but his music ranged all over American music, from old rural music to pop songs and ragtime instrumentals.

I heard “I Know What It Means to Be Lonesome” as a rural ragtime song on the borderline between blues and country music, and was not surprised when I later learned that it had been recorded by Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs and before them by the Carter Family. What did surprise me, when I began researching this post, is that before that it was a Tin Pan Alley pop number, with sheet music published in 1919 and recordings by pop recording stars like Henry Burr on cylinders and discs. The pop song had a verse that the rural artists didn’t sing, and I’m guessing Williams probably got it through the Carters, but the chorus is close enough that there’s no doubt it’s the same song.

I liked this song a lot, and even recorded it on my first album, but had pretty much forgotten about it till I looked at old set lists and noticed how often I played it in the early 1980s. So I worked it up again, adding some faster runs than I could have played back then — my time with Perry Lederman got me interested in the kind of single-string runs Reverend Gary Davis used to play, leading to a brief and unsuccessful attempt to play Doc Watson-style leads with my fingers, which resulted in this kind of picking as a compromise.

World’s Last Truck Drivin’ Man (Shel Silverstein)

I’m not sure how or when I first became aware of Shel Silverstein, but I’d already heard a bunch of his songs. “Cover of the Rolling Stone” was all over the radio when I was in high school, and of course I’d heard “Boy Named Sue,” and at some point during those high school years there was a big television special on venereal disease that included Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show singing “Don’t Give a Dose to the One You Love Most…”

…but I didn’t make the connection back then, and I’m guessing it was Vince McCann in Paris who played me a full Dr. Hook album and pointed out Shel’s skills as a songwriter — not just for twisted novelty songs, but also things like “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan,” which I heard again in 1981, when Marianne Faithful sang a tear-your-heart-out version on the soundtrack of an amazing film, Dušan Makavejev’s Montenegro. And then there was Loretta Lynn’s “One’s on the Way”:

They say to get her hair done Liz flies all the way to France
And Jackie’s seen in a discotheque doing a brand new dance
And the White House social season should be glittering and gay,
But here in Topeka, the rain is a-fallin’
The faucet is a-drippin’ and the kids are a-ballin’
One is a-toddlin’ and one is a-crawlin’
And one’s one the way.

Then I found the children’s books — Where the Sidewalk Ends and Lafcadio, the Lion that Shot Backand the brilliant anti-children’s book, Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book for Good Little Boys and Girls. And then Dave van Ronk turned me on to Shel’s Playboy cartoons — his favorite was the cover drawing of Shel’s cartoon book (at left).

So I went on a binge and bought a bunch of Dr. Hook albums, and hunted up most of Shel’s own LPs, which tended to showcase the twisted novelty songs — “I Saw Polly in a Porny with a Pony” comes to mind — and then I found that Bobby Bare was including at least a half-dozen of Shel’s songs on every album he made, so I got those as well. I don’t know how many of Shel’s compositions I learned over the years, because most of them were birds of passage, coming and going rather than sticking in my repertoire, but on my first cross-country tour in 1983 I started playing this one for the bar crowds and my ex-half-sister-in-law, Hazel, who was traveling along as my road manager, declared it her favorite song.

Hazel and I toured across country and back a couple of times a year for the next three years, so I played this pretty often. I’ve never heard anyone else do it, except Bare on that record, and Bare’s records weren’t selling particularly well, so I don’t think a lot of other people know it… which is more testimony to Shel’s prolific versatility, because it’s a nice piece of writing, but just a footnote to his oeuvre — of which more in future posts.

Lovesick Blues (Hank Williams/Emmett Miller)

Like virtually everybody, I first heard this as a Hank Willams song, though I’m not sure when or how. As I’ve mentioned, my Cambridge folk scene upbringing initially made me resistant to mainstream Nashville country music, Williams included, but by  the early 1980s I was gradually coming to my senses and figuring out that I liked a lot of country, and on my first tours I was playing this one pretty often — the ragtime/pop chord changes made it a natural bridge between my usual ragtime-blues repertoire and a more straightforward Nashville sound.

The tricky part was Williams’s yodeling vocal, which I attempted to imitate at home but never got under control. This forced me to find alternate approaches that to some extent echoed or hinted at the virtuosic yodeling that made the original a country classic.

A few years later I heard the even more virtuosic, even more original recording Williams himself was imitating, by the blackface minstrel entertainer Emmett Miller, backed by a jazz group featuring the Dorsey brothers. At that point, there was only one Miller album, released by a small record collector label in a plain white sleeve — Paul Geremia had a copy, and was kind enough to play it for me — but in the 1990s Sony issued the same material on CD and Miller’s work is now far better known. His work has all the  questionable racial politics of the minstrel stage, but minstrelsy was a major influence on country music, and Miller in particular influenced not only Williams, but Tommy Duncan, the lead singer of Bob Wills’s Texas Playboys (Wills reportedly auditioned Duncan by asking him if he could sing in Miller’s style), and Merle Haggard, who recorded a tribute to him in New Orleans with a jazz band.

The story of yodeling in American pop is a further fascinating sidelight, including not only Miller and Williams, but also black singers like the early blues star (and female impersonator) Charles Anderson, who was the first singer associated with W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” Then, when I got to Africa, I got interested in Kenyan yodeling cowboys, a whole other story. Anyway… I still love Williams’s version, and sing my variant of it, and it led me into a long and ongoing love affair with his work.

Drowning in Beer (Erik Frandsen)

A classic that somehow has not appeared on the internet yet, as far as I know — though I’m sure there are at least a few dozen people who know it, and far more who love it. It was written by the munificently multi-talented Erik Frandsen, and I learned it off the same homemade tape on which Erik played Tom Hobson’s epic masterpiece, “Fancy-Pants Gambling Man.”

I got to hear Erik live a year or so later at Folk City, with Dave Van Ronk at my elbow, grumbling about what a great guitarist Erik was and explaining that he practiced while watching the Mets — which led to a brief period when I practiced while watching the Red Sox, until the salt from my tears wore the varnish off my J45. (Those were the days before the Sox became a rich and winning team and I lost interest.)

I heard Erik again a few years later at the Speak Easy on MacDougal — not a full set, but he’d drop across the street from his apartment now and then, and I recall a night when a typically maudlin young singer-songwriter performed a typically solipsistic paean to his deeply meaningful angst, and Erik took the stage immediately afterward and sang a tender saloon ballad with the self-explanatory title, “I’m So Fucking Sensitive.”

Anyway, Erik is still a terrific guitarist, but far more successful as an actor, and you’ve probably seen him on television, one way or another. Which is all well and good, but damn… he also wrote “Drowning in Beer,” and I would have thought someone would have erected a monument in his honor by now for that alone. And, by the by, why hasn’t Willie Nelson recorded this?

(Incidentally, it strikes me that this would be an excellent companion piece to one of my few legit bits of family folklore, my father’s Yiddish dialect parody of “The Face on the Barroom Floor,” which I really need to film and post at some point in this Songobiography, because the written text does not do it justice.)