I’ve Been Everywhere

So, to start off with, I I have hitchhiked out of Winnemucca, Nevada. I don’t remember if I was picked up by a semi, but I’ve had rides from a lot of truckers over the years, in a lot of places, both in and out of the United States. Which said, I’ve never been to Ombabika, nor have I been to Jellicoe* — both in Ontario, and pretty far north, though not as far as Schefferville, Quebec. Nor have I been to Barranquilla, Colombia, or Tocopilla, Chile, and I have no idea what ether is doing in this song, much less Diamantina, which seems to be in Brazil.

The Canadian place names make sense, because Hank Snow, who put this together, was from Brooklyn, Nova Scotia–which sounds like a joke to me (and more so because it’s in Queens County), but apparently is real, though not included in the song. Actually, I should say Hank Snow put this version together, because I just learned that the original was Australian, by a fellow named Lucky Starr, who sings it significantly faster than Snow or I do.

I’ve always taken pride in my ability to memorize and remember song lyrics — that’s partly what this whole project is about — but this was undoubtedly and incontrovertibly the toughest lyric I ever memorized. I still have a perfectly clear picture of the evening I spent on it, walking back and forth across my bedroom floor, reciting it till I made a mistake, checking the lyric, starting again, walking some more… I always recommend memorizing last thing in the evening, because then your brain keeps churning in your sleep — and it clearly worked, since that was almost 35 years ago and it’s still stuck in those cerebral crenelations… which admittedly might have been better used for other purposes.

I was spurred to learn this by my friend Monte in Vancouver, a Canadian ex-rodeo rider and wonderful harmonica player discussed in earlier posts. I used to hitchhike back and forth across the US every few years, and once across Canada, and Monte figured if I were going to make that part of my stage persona I’d better know this one.

Incidentally, I last hitched across country in 2006, on the book tour for Riding with Strangers, which was about the previous cross-country trip in 2005… so I guess I’m about due for another…

…and finally I’m forced to recall Dave Van Ronk telling me apologetically that despite my fine example he just couldn’t bring himself to pick up hitchhikers, because they always insisted on chatting, and they were almost always boring… and I guess this song is a pretty good example of what he was complaining about.

 

 

*I find there is also a Jellico, California, and a Jellico, Tennessee, but I’m betting Snow meant the one in Ontario, which was his turf — but what do I know?

Lone Star Beer And Bob Wills Music

I forget who loaned me the Red Steagall album with this as its title song, but I know it was in Vancouver, BC, and I taped all the songs I liked–which was most of them–and learned this one and “Someday (You’ll Want Me to Want You),” which remains a staple of my repertoire.

At the time I barely knew who Bob Wills was and had never tasted Lone Star, so I’m in Steagall’s debt for introducing me to Western Swing, one of the most exciting and influential byways of American music.

That first album also spurred one of my rare and abortive ventures into songwriting. Under its influence, I composed a pseudo-western swing number called “The Beer Stain on the Counter Looks Like Texas.” I don’t remember the first and only verse, but the chorus went:

That beer stain on the counter looks like Texas,
The peanuts are El Paso and the ashtray’s San Antone.
Yeah, that beer stain on the counter looks like Texas,
And I wish that I was back there now, down in my Texas home.

Which may explain why I don’t do more songwriting. Around the same time I wrote half a George Jones-style weeper called, “If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home by Now.” I tried to get Bill Morrissey to collaborate on that one, but he wasn’t biting.

I don’t think I’ve heard another Red Steagall album, but along with Willie and Waylon — particularly Waylon, who composed a parallel song, “Bob Wills Is Still the King” — he focused my attention on Texas music, and I’m duly grateful. I’ve since spent a fair amount of time in the state, hitching and driving around and across it, and I won’t claim I know it well, but I’ve certainly developed a deep respect for its musical offspring. I’ve spent many interesting hours immersed in Wills’s canon, and that took me to Spade Cooley and Milton Brown, and then the long line of honky-tonkers following Ernest Tubb, Dave Dexter, and the marvelous Floyd Tillman, and later-generation songwriters like Terry Allen, Jo Carol Pierce, Joe Ely, and Lyle Lovett. Not to mention all the Mexican and Chicano music that’s come out of there, and all the blues, and jazz — Flaco Jimenez, Little Joe, Steve Jordan, Lemon Jefferson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, T-Bone Walker, Ornette Coleman… it’s a big state, but still disproportionately rich and generous in terms of its music.

And while I’m touching on this subject, I should plug a wonderful book that never got enough attention: Lone Star Swing, by Duncan McLean, a Scottish novelist who won a literary prize that had to be spent on travel outside the UK and, having never been further than London, decided to spend it hunting up Wills’s surviving bandsmen. It’s a very funny book, with a wonderfully off-kilter view of the American southwest, and an affectionate primer on the music. McLean’s Scottish rewrite of “That’s What I Like About the South” is worth the price of admission by itself, notably overshadowing my own half-assed efforts in that direction.

Sioux City Sue (The Donlins and Passim Coffeehouse)

This one always makes me think of Rae Anne Donlin, who was from Iowa, which I didn’t know until I sang it one night in the club she ran with her husband Bob, and she told me it made her think of home and asked me to do it again next time I played there. The club was Passim Coffeehouse in Harvard Square, and it’s not easy to explain how important it was to me, or in how many ways. For one thing, that’s where I met Dave Van Ronk, who appeared there twice a year for weekend residencies, and where I saw him play dozens of times. For another, it was the first club that booked me for paying gigs, starting with six weekend shows opening for Norman Blake, then a weekend with Tony Bird, a split-bill weekend with Geoff Bartley, and eventually weeknight shows on my own.

The Donlins knew me before all of that, though, because my grandmother used to go to Passim every Sunday afternoon for coffee and pastry with her brother, reliving their past lives in Vienna, and I sometimes went along. And then in high school I started going once a week with a small group of friends to talk about deep, personal matters that required serious discussion. It was a good place for talking, because it was quiet and on a weekday afternoon we could sit as long as we liked, and the pastries were wonderful.

Bob was a legendary character — he’d been a  beat poet and running buddy of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy, mentioned as “Bob Donnelly” in a couple of Kerouac’s novels — but that was a long time before Passim, and by the time I came around he was notoriously taciturn and curmudgeonly. Beyond that, he was a reformed alcoholic and particularly crabby with performers who drank — he loved Dave despite the drinking, but never really warmed to Bill Morrissey, and the lack of affection was mutual. But he was always nice to me, asked about my family, booked me for good showcase gigs, and even smiled and laughed his creaky laugh at some of my jokes.

As for Rae Anne, she was nice to everybody, despite the headaches of running a coffeehouse, music club, card shop, and whatever else it took to keep the place afloat. She loved Bob and he loved her, and they provided a home for folk and acoustic music in the tough years between the collapse of the 1960s folk revival and the arrival of the singer-songwriter scene. Those six-show weekend residencies were my school, a chance to study Dave, Rosalie Sorrels, Utah Phillips, Townes Van Zandt, oddities like Leon Redbone and Martin Mull, and interesting newcomers like Claudia Schmidt and Greg Brown — I remember one weekend when Greg did six hour-long sets of original songs without repeating himself.

As for “Sioux City Sue,” I learned this off the Willie Nelson/Leon Russell double album, which was the first album I had by Willie, and the only one for quite a while. I loved the first record, which had more western swing on it, and learned a bunch of the songs, but this is the only one that stuck with me. It was originally a hit for its composer, Dick Thomas, and then for Gene Autry and Bing Crosby, but I don’t recall hearing any of those versions, and I don’t think I’ve performed it since Bob and Rae Anne finally gave up the coffeehouse. The room is still there, now run as a non-profit (it was at least as non-profitable in their day, but not officially) under the slightly altered name of Club Passim, and I’ve played there a bunch of times since, and it’s still a nice gig… but I miss them.

Readin’, Ritin’, and Route 23 (Dwight Yoakam)

The first time Dwight Yoakam’s “Guitars, Cadillacs” came on the radio, I was driving through eastern Montana and it was the perfect soundtrack. That was 1986 and it was getting played pretty often, though not as often as his version of “Honky Tonk Man,” and as soon as I got home I ran out and bought the album, which had one of my favorite titles of all time: Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.

A few months later Dwight made his Boston-area debut at a small club called Nightstage, drawing an impressively mixed crowd of old-line country fans in work shirts who’d driven down from New Hampshire and green-haired punk rockers who’d probably never been to another country show.

Dwight was impossibly thin and edgy, in skin-tight cowboy duds, with Pete Anderson playing brilliant honky-tonk guitar and Brantley Kearns in overalls, sawing away at the fiddle. “This next song, it’s what I call ‘High Jones’; ‘Orthodox Jones,'” Dwight announced before singing “The Grand Tour.” “The radio programmers say this kind of stuff is too country, that it’ll offend their audience — well, come on, Brantley, let’s offend somebody!” He sang the old George Jones weeper like he believed every word, then introduced “one by the Hillbilly Cat — you know who the Hillbilly Cat was?” And tore up Elvis Presley’s “Little Sister.” It was one of the hottest shows I’ve ever seen.

I was reviewing for the Boston Globe that night — I’m not sure why I got the assignment, since there were at least three other Globe critics there, at least three of whom outranked me — but anyway I was in the newsroom, typing it in on deadline, and Susan Wilson wandered by. Susan was one of my favorite writers, a sharply witty lesbian who wore gold cowboy boots — and her sexual preference is relevant because when I asked how she’d liked the show, her three-word review was: “I’d fuck him.”

So he was terrific, and then a year or so later his second album came out, with this song on it. And around the same time Smithsonian Folkways brought out their Vision Shared album, a tribute to Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly, with everyone from Taj Mahal to Bruce Springsteen to Willie Nelson on it, and another Globe writer was writing a feature story about the enduring power of the American folk tradition and the new generation of folksingers, like Suzanne Vega… and I said, “Have you heard Dwight Yoakam’s new album?”

He said, “No, why?”

I said, “Because he’s from Kentucky and writes songs about coal miners and is a lot closer to Woody than Suzanne Vega will ever be…”

And he said, “But Dwight Yoakam’s a country singer; I’m writing about folk music.” Or words to that effect.

I probably went on arguing, because I was even more pigheaded then than I am now — which is going some — but in retrospect the conversation was already over. Anyway, I learned this song and still think its one of Dwight’s best and fits well into Woody’s tradition.

Tennessee Birdwalk (Blanchard & Morgan)

One of the pleasures of touring across country was country radio. This was back in the days before national networks had taken over, and you still had local stations playing mixes of current hits and oldies, varying from region to region. The Boston area station was pretty lame, so it was always a relief to get out west, and in 1986 there was a definite shift toward a more rootsy sound — I particularly remember Merle Haggard’s “I Had a Beautiful Time” and Dwight Yoakam’s “Guitars, Cadillacs, and Hillbilly Music,” both playing pretty regularly as Hazel and I drove through eastern Montana and on across North Dakota. We were somewhere in the middle of the badlands when this came on the radio.

Neither of us had heard it before, and it flew by, and we instantly fell in love with it… but that was long before the internet and we didn’t know the artists’ names and weren’t even sure what the title was. It was clearly an obscure and minor oldie, so we marked it down as one of those once-in-a-lifetime pleasures and rolled on into Minnesota.

Maybe six months later, my friend Jeff McLaughlin asked if I would give him a hand organizing his records — he was an arts writer for the Boston Globe, the man who got me into writing, and he had a lot of LPs, mostly stacked randomly on the floor, and he could never find anything when he wanted to hear it. I had free time and was interested in looking through the records anyway, so I punched a hole in the wall and moved a light switch out of the way to give him more space for shelves, and began pulling albums off the old shelves and the floor, and piling them in categories for reshelving — and halfway through I hit Blanchard & Morgan’s Birds of a Feather, with a sticker on it saying “Featuring Tennessee Bird Walk.” So I put it aside, and when Jeff got home I asked him where he’d got it… and he said, “I’ve never seen that record before in my life.”

So it was kismet. I took the record home and learned the song, and the next year I gave up on the US touring circuit and headed back to Europe for another couple of years of hitchhiking, which meant I had a lot of time by the roadside to do picking exercises, and somehow this ended up being my exercise tune for fingerpicking flatpick licks. Then, when I got back to the States, I started playing it at gigs and recorded it on a cassette, and as a hidden track on my CD, and the rest is history.

My Mind Is Trying to Leave (Percy Mayfield)

Percy Mayfield is one of my favorite singers of all time, and favorite songwriters. Most people put that the other way around, but much as I love his songs, I love his singing even more, and not just on his own songs —  his version of “Black Coffee” is still my favorite take on that standard. So it’s odd that the only song I do of his was learned off an Albert Collins record — but that’s how it goes. (Or maybe it’s that after hearing him sing something, I steered clear of it.) Not only that, I wrote my own third verse, because for some reason I didn’t feel comfortable singing the original one and needed a substitute. And not only that… my verse was probably inspired by Paul Simon’s “Duncan” — which is a hell of an admission, but we’re all friends here, right?

So anyway, Percy Mayfield…

He was called “The Poet Laureate of the Blues,” and is probably best known for the songs he wrote while Ray Charles had him on payroll: “Hit the Road, Jack,” “Danger Zone,” “But On the Other Hand, Baby,” and a bunch of others. Good as those are, though, his masterpieces were on his own records. First, “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” his biggest hit, which has one of the greatest opening verses ever written:

Heaven, please send to all mankind
Understanding, and peace of mind.
And, if it’s not asking too much,
Please send me someone to love.

How great is that? “If it’s not asking too much…”

Then he could turn around and write:

If you would be so kind, to help me find my mind,
I want to thank you in advance.
Know this before you start: my soul’s been torn apart.
I lost my mind in a wild romance.

So okay, on second thought maybe I love his songwriting as much as his singing. That one’s called “Lost Mind,” and then there’s “The River’s Invitation,” and “Life is Suicide” — not always the most cheerful themes, but he had a tough life and wrote what he knew. After a brief run of R&B hits in the early 1950s, he was in a car accident that almost killed him and left his face brutally disfigured. He kept writing, and recorded a half-dozen albums in the 1960s and 1970s, including a couple on Ray Charles’s Tangerine label, and toward the end of his life there was a nice documentary about him, filmed mostly at a relaxed party with friends, singing the old songs with Mark Naftalin playing sensitive piano… which, tragically, seems to be out of print, and someone oughta fix that.

Anyway, I don’t know why this is the only Percy Mayfield song I do — and the only Albert Collins song, for that matter. It just worked out that way, and I recorded it on my LP, and here it is.

Mail Myself to You (Woody Guthrie)

This is one of my favorite Woody Guthrie songs, and also one of the mysteries of my life on the folk scene, because… why do people keep saying it’s a kids’ song? Haven’t they read Woody’s books and looked at his drawings? Don’t they know a love song when they hear it?

I must have first heard this on Pete Seeger’s We Shall Overcome LP, since that was the first recording of it. That album came out in 1963, and Pete published it in Sing Out! magazine around the same time, along with five other previously unknown compositions from Woody’s huge horde of unpublished tapes and jottings.  As Pete explained in the accompanying article, a New York publisher had gotten excited when the Weavers got a hit with “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh” (the romantic revision of Woody’s old dust bowl ballad, rewritten by Woody himself in hopes of getting a hit), and asked Woody if he had any more songs. Woody said yes, the publisher gave him a tape machine, Woody spent a few weeks singing into it, and when Pete heard the tapes he recalled being “thunderstruck to find sixty or seventy songs among them that I had never seen before in my life.”

This was one of them, and Pete introduced it at Carnegie Hall as a song Woody had written for his kids — which I suppose I have to believe, since Pete knew Woody and Woody’s quirks a hell of a lot better than I do… but on the other hand, Pete was an enthusiastic father and a one-woman man, while Woody was an enthusiastic father with a lot of other enthusiasms, including pretty much every pretty woman who crossed his path. Which is not to say Woody wouldn’t have sung this song for kids — I’m sure he did, and I’m sure they loved it. I’m just guessing he sang it in some other situations as well, with equal success.

Anyway, I recorded this on my LP back in the 1980s, with the result that a local record company asked if I wanted to do a children’s album… which I didn’t, because when I was a kid I liked cowboy songs, sea shanties, and murder ballads, and that wasn’t what he had in mind. He was thinking of other songs like this — and as far as I’m concerned, there aren’t any. It’s unique, and one of Woody’s masterpieces.

Cow Cow Blues (Charles Davenport)

Charles “Cow Cow” Davenport’s business card claimed he was “The Man that Gave America Boogie-Woogie,” and as Dave Van Ronk used to say, there’s no point in argument. He had as good a claim as anyone, and better than most. In 1925, before any of the other great blues piano players got on record, he recorded a fine version of this piece with a vocal by Dora Carr, his longtime partner on the black vaudeville circuit. It wasn’t titled “boogie woogie,” but that’s what the style would be called after a fellow named Pine Top Smith hit three years later with a piece called “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie,” and Davenport always claimed he helped Smith arrange and title that record. (The facts are murky, and Peter Silvester, who writes this up in A Left Hand Like God, remains agnostic while seeming to confirm that Davenport helped Smith get the record gig.)

Be that as it may, Davenport was a terrific pianist — check out his “State Street Jive” if you want to hear a truly amazing bassline — and a fine singer, but he will always be remembered for his namesake piece. It quickly became ubiquitous, and every blues and honky-tonk piano player had to work up a version. The Mississippi Delta player Louise Johnson did a nice one titled “On the Wall,” with comments by Son House, who apparently had stolen Johnson’s affections from Charlie Patton during the ride north to record, and there’s a classic reworking by Ray Charles as “Mess Around,” which was also memorably recorded by Professor Longhair.

Along with pianists, it was picked up and reworked by players of other instruments — there’s a kind of sappy big band version by Bob Crosby (Bing’s brother), and two of my favorite versions are by the Mississippi mandolin player Charlie McCoy, one an instrumental titled “Jackson Stomp” and the other a vocal blues called “That Lonesome Train Took My Baby Away.” That was the first piece I ever worked out on mandolin, and I’m pretty sure my guitar version came out of it — though it may have happened the other way around. Either way, I worked it up in the early 1980s and was very happy with the arrangement, because it’s so simple. I came out of a ragtime blues tradition, and Dave Van Ronk had taken me further down the piano ragtime road with some diversions into swing, but this is just some simple riffs in E, inspired by piano but falling naturally on the guitar.

Jack, You’re Dead (Louis Jordan)

I don’t remember when* or where I got my first Louis Jordan album, but I sure remember a lot of the songs on it, and on the next: “Choo-Choo Ch-Boogie,” “Reet, Petite, and Gone,” “Knock Me a Kiss,” and particularly “Jack, You’re Dead.” I fell head over heals for this one, and got a good tip from Dave Van Ronk: I told him I was interested in working up an arrangement, and after laughing and nodding through Jordan’s version, he said, “You oughta keep that descending bass line.” So I did, and recorded it, got some local radio play–not much, maybe just on one station, but enough that for the next few years people would occasionally show up at gigs and ask me to play it.

I need to thank Dave as well for the bridge to the second verse–not because I got it from him, but because I learned from his example that it was OK to rewrite a song if it needed rewriting. Jordan’s version used the same bridge for both verses, which was not only repetitive but repeated the weakest couplet in the lyric. So, following Dave’s example on songs like “That’ll Never Happen No More” and “Somebody Else, Not Me,” I wrote a new lyric for the second bridge… and then Dave let me down, because he liked my new bridge, complimented me on it, promptly forgot about it, and when he recorded his own version used  Jordan’s repeated bridge.

Anyway, Louis Jordan…

It’s crazy that I didn’t know about him before the 1980s, because he was one of the most influential figures in 20th century popular music, and specifically in blues and R&B. Whenever I heard B.B. King sing “Let the Good Times Roll,” he was covering Louis Jordan. Chuck Berry said he based his songwriting and performance style on Jordan, and Bill Haley and the Comets were arranged as a white version of Jordan’s Tympany 5. James Brown got his start doing Jordan covers, and was still doing them in the 1960s. But all of that’s just the ripples.

Jordan was a sax player in Chick Webb’s band, one of the greatest bands of the swing era, and coupled for a while with Ella Fitzgerald, but in the late 1930s he had a brainstorm: amplification was coming in, money was tight, jukeboxes were all the rage, and he realized that records could actually sound hotter with a small group, while amplification meant small bands could play halls that had previously needed big bands. So he hit the road with a tight, swinging, fun little outfit that he called the Tympany 5, though it almost always had at least six members. He wrote or bought a bunch of hot, funny jive songs, starred in comical low-budget movies, made entertaining radio appearances… and by the mid-1940s was the most popular recording star in black America, with millions of white, Latino, and Asian fans thrown in.

There is much, much more to be said about Louis Jordan, but for now I’ll just add that he is also a contender for the first major rap star, based on his hit “Beware” in 1946. It is not exactly rap as we now know it, but the lineage is pretty clear. You can catch him doing it at minute 3:50 of this clip from his film of the same name:

*Though I don’t know when I first got into Jordan, it must have been by 1981, since I clearly remember my irritation when Joe Jackson released his Jumpin’ Jive album and it included “Jack, You’re Dead.” I had a horrible moment of fear that people would think I’d learned the song off a Joe Jackson album and was faking my attachment to Louis Jordan… but fortunately no one seems to have bought Jackson’s disc, or at least none mentioned it. (For what it’s worth, I loved Jackson’s Look Sharp album, and even worked up a couple of the songs on it, though not to the point of performing them.)

Antelope Rag (Dave Van Ronk)

In the early 1960s, when other people on the folk scene were learning rural string band and blues music, Dave Van Ronk recorded the first fingerstyle guitar arrangement of a formal, multi-part rag, “St. Louis Tickle.” As I wrote in the “Tickle” installment (and others),  that piece spawned a small ragtime guitar scene that by the mid-1970s had produced a dozen or so albums and spread to Europe. Dave meanwhile had been concentrating on other things. He took a second crack at arranging classic rags on his Ragtime Jug Stompers LP, but handed over the instrumental leads to Danny Kalb, Artie Rose, and Barry Kornfeld, and then he got into modern singer-songwriter styles, formed a rock band, recorded with larger ensembles, and put the fancy guitar work on the back burner.

The hiatus lasted till about 1975, by which time the folk boom was over, he hadn’t managed to cross over to a pop audience, and he was forced to give guitar lessons to pay the rent. For better or worse, that meant he had to think long and hard about his guitar playing, and he reached the conclusion that he was fundamentally an arranger rather than a picker. That, in turn, led to the thought that he should create some more complex arrangements, and he worked out beautiful charts of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” Jelly Roll Morton’s “The Pearls,” and a bit later Joplin’s “The Entertainer.”

Dave was haunted, though, by a comment he had made back in “Tickle” days to the effect that solo guitar wasn’t really suited to piano rags and it would be better either to arrange them for two guitars or write new rags specifically for solo fingerstyle performance. So, around 1980, he finally wrote one. I remember the first time he played it for me, sitting on his huge and sagging couch. He was very pleased with how it had turned out, and explained that he’d titled it “Antelope Rag” because a friend had commented that his left-hand movements in the the third section looked like a leaping antelope.

By that time I’d gotten over my own flirtation with classic ragtime, and although I liked the piece I probably wouldn’t have learned it… but a few years later Dave hired me to do the tablature for his guitar instruction book. That meant learning all the arrangements, and this was one of them, and was really fun to play, so I kept playing it. I even played it for Leo Wijnkamp in Antwerp, who was one of Dave’s modern models of a ragtime guitarist, and although Leo was tired of ragtime by then and composing modernist pieces for multiple guitars and clarinets, he said some nice things about the use of dissonance in the fourth section, which made Dave very happy.

(Dave’s guitar book is long out of print, and there don’t seem to be any plans to reissue it, but Dave’s wife is willing to sell tab sheets for this piece — so if you want a copy, get in touch with me.)