Joshua Gone Barbados (Eric Von Schmidt)

This is Eric Von Schmidt’s best-known composition, thanks in a large part to Tom Rush, whose version I heard first and still echo in my guitar arrangement. Eric was a marvelous singer, a distinctive guitarist, a varied and brilliant songwriter, and one of my favorite people. I met him when some folks organized a Club 47 reunion at Johnny D’s Uptown Lounge in Somerville and someone arranged for Eric and Jack Landrón (known in his 47 days as Jackie Washington) to stay at my place. We got to jamming, and I played harmonica with Eric, and the next thing you know I was onstage with him at the reunion show.

That was what Eric was like — he was loose and improvisatory at all times, not just when he was playing, and I did my best to capture his zest and flavor in a profile I wrote for the Boston Globe. By that time I was playing with him more regularly, mostly adding harmonica but also some guitar and even occasional button accordion, and he was staying at my place and I was sleeping on the couch in his studio in Westport, surrounded by his amazingly varied paintings — one would look like a Remington western scene, the next like a Toulouse Lautrec, the next like a  Picasso, and then there’d be a few that looked nothing on earth but a Von Schmidt.

If you want my take on Eric, the Globe piece has more than I can fit here — suffice it to say, I loved playing with him and learned a lot from him, and I miss him.

As for “Joshua Gone Barbados,” it’s a great song and shows a deep sympathy for cane field workers inspired and then abandoned by their leader… the only problem being that Eric seems to have turned up on the island of St. Vincent just in time to hear some angry rumors, wrote the song, and split before getting a more complete story.

Ebenezer Theodore Joshua, the title character, was a dedicated labor leader and a significant figure in the movement for pan-Caribbean independence. Founder of the Federated Industrial and Agricultural Workers Union, he then went into politics and became St. Vincent’s first chief minister when the island gained regional autonomy. He organized the plantation and mill workers and in 1960 — or 1962, depending on your source — they went on strike. Eric’s details are pretty much right: no one was killed, and Sonny Child was a plantation owner rather than an overseer, but he was indeed beaten with a “cutlass” (what we know in the US as a machete) and hospitalized.

It is also true that Joshua left the island for Barbados during the strike, but it was to attend a vital meeting of Caribbean independence leaders, and he shortly was back and remained the head of the government until 1967 and the leader of the left-wing opposition party for many years after that. A writer in 1969 described him thus:

Ebenezer Theodore Joshua is the most controversial political figure on the island of St. Vincent. He is adulated by the thousands who follow him; for these people, largely poor, rural farm workers, Joshua is the liberator. For others, mainly the white, wealthy planter class, “Josh” is a demon, “an irresponsible leader who has told his people to cut our throats like sheep.” To the small number of Vincentian intellectuals, the teachers and economists in the Civil Service, “Josh is a good man to have in the opposition, a man of people, but not a very good Chief Minister.”

So there you have it. It’s still a great song, and I play it more or less like I heard it from Tom Rush, with some touches of my main man Joseph Spence, because I sing it in D and it’s from the islands, so Spence was the obvious way to go.

Candlepin Swing (Bill Morrissey)

One of the things I liked about Bill Morrissey’s songwriting was how regional it was — other New England folksingers often seemed like they’d rather be from somewhere more romantic, but Bill was writing things like “Small Town on the River” about Newmarket, New Hampsire; “My Baby and Me,” about fall, love, and hunting season; and “Candlepin Swing,” the only jive jazz number ever written about candlepin bowling.

Some of you may not know what candlepin bowling is, so I should start by saying that for most of my youth I hardly knew there was any other kind of bowling. Our local emporium of the art, Lanes & Games on Route 2, did have a few duckpin lanes, but I don’t remember seeing anyone using them and certainly never was with anyone who suggested we might try that strange and foreign variant of normal bowling. Many years later, I tried it, once, using those weird balls with the three holes in them, and sprained my index finger so I couldn’t play guitar comfortably for a month… which never happened with normal-size bowling balls.

So anyway, I was charmed when I heard Bill sing this, because it was such a wonderfully ridiculous example of regional pride. Unlike me, Bill was a man of the world, familiar not only with our sport but also with what is apparently known as bowling in the  rest of the country; hence his knowledgeable reference to Carmen Salvino and Ray Bluth — names I know only from this song, and knew wrong until I researched this post, which is why I pronounce the former’s name “Carmine” in my video.

Bill always introduced this with a reference to Slim Gaillard, one of our favorite musicians. Gaillard was a fine guitarist and decent pianist who made some legendary recordings with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie — or, as he referred to them on “Slim’s Jam,” Charlie Yardbird-o-rooney and Diz MacSkivvin-vout-o-rooney — as well as Bill’s favorite nonsense number, “Cement Mixer, Putti-Putti,” and a perky track I recall mostly for Slim’s spoken introduction:

We’re going to cook up a fine dish now, real groovy: wrap up some fine grape leaves and chip up a little lamb-o-rooney; sprinkle on a little fine rice-o-rooty and a little pep-o-rooney, a little pep-o-vouty, sprinkle on a little salt-o-rooney to put the seasoning in there, make it really mellow. Then you nail an avocado seed up in the ceiling and let it vout for a while.

Bill loved Gaillard’s surreal hipsterisms and would frequently lard his speech with o-vouties and o-roonies, and Slim’s influence was palpably present in his jive masterpiece, “King Jelly’s Good Morning Irene Song.” But the song he specifically cited Gaillard on was always this baby — partly, I suppose, because the juxtaposition was so unexpected. So anyway, here it is, in honor of Lanes & Games, and Bill, and my insufficiently misspent youth.

Incidentally, Bill never recorded this, and neither did anyone else, so I have to wonder whether at this point I’m the only person alive who knows it… if so, that’s tragic and I hope others pick it up.

King Jelly’s Good Morning Irene Song (Bill Morrissey)

So there I was opening for Mose Allison at Palms Playhouse in Davis, California, back in 1983, and I wanted to play something appropriate for his audience and obviously couldn’t fall back on “Everybody Cryin’ Mercy…” so I turned to Bill Morrissey.

Bill was one of my closest friends at that point, and I was doing at least one of his songs in pretty much every set — usually “Oil Money” or “Texas Blues,” but there were plenty of other options, because his lyrics were so well crafted that I would hear him sing something a couple or three times and find I knew it all the way through, without making any effort to learn it. (The most striking example being his early masterpiece, “Small Town on the River.”)

In the early 1980s Bill was becoming pretty well known as a singer-songwriter in the post-Dylan mode, but one of the things that brought us together was his affection for old blues and jazz. He could play decent clarinet, sax, and even a bit of trumpet, and he’d fronted a ragtag aggregation in Newmarket, New Hampshire, (sometimes called the Mental Retreads) that played a unique country/jazz/folk/hipster pastiche. He’d been influenced by Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Beatles, but also by Slim Gaillard,  Dan Hicks, and Tom Waits — not to mention Dave Van Ronk, whose shared friendship and mentorship originally brought us together.

Until he died in 2011, I’d get a call from Bill every year or so complaining about how bored he was by the folk scene and announcing that his new album would have jazzier stuff, including some of the old New Hampshire jive numbers — maybe “Sweaty Woman” or “Morrissey Takes a Dive” (which he recorded with the Retreads, and I’ve posted from their very lo-fi cassette), or his regional vout masterpiece, “Candlepin Swing.” He’d be practicing clarinet and talking with horn players who could sit in — his last album included a song he wrote for a collaboration with a sax player he’d found who’d toured with Billie Holiday, “He’s Not From Kansas City” — but then the album would come out, playing it safe again, with a mellow singer-songwriter or soft rock vibe.

I loved and admired Bill, and I’m glad he had some success on the singer-songwriter scene, but I wish he’d taken more artistic chances after the early days, and written more stuff like “King Jelly’s Good Morning Irene Song.” I’m guessing this was written under the influence of Dan Hicks, whom we both liked, and our friend Geoff Bartley recorded a fine version with Mike Turk on harmonica.

I have lots more about Bill in other posts, but meanwhile, getting back to my story, I played this for Mose’s crowd and it went over gangbusters, as well it should have:

I’m standing on a corner thinkin’ ’bout all the women in France
On Guggenheim grants,
When a guy come struttin’ down the street
Like he was tryin’ to shake loose
A broken roll of change from the leg of his pants…

Everybody Cryin’ Mercy (Mose Allison)

Having recently proposed Dave Van Ronk’s “Losers” as our new national anthem, allow me to suggest an alternate and more serious contender: Mose Allison’s “Everybody Cryin’ Mercy.” Mose himself proposed “When My Dreamboat Comes Home,” but that was in more optimistic times. Nowadays, this downbeat masterpiece seems more appropriate.

I don’t recall whether I first heard this done by Mose himself or by Bonnie Raitt or John Hammond, but I was already performing it regularly during my first cross-country tour in 1983, along with “They Always Told Me There’d Be Days Like This” and some of his more upbeat pieces: “Your Molecular Structure,” “Fool Killer,” and “Your Mind’s on Vacation.” Which is to say, I was going through a heavy Mose phase.

One of the highlights of that 1983 tour was opening for Mose at Palms Playhouse in Davis, California. I loved that room, because the booker would hire me to open for crazy headliners: Mose and his trio that year, the Chambers Brothers the next, and finally Sonny Terry and his electric band, right at the end of his life, though that last gig got cancelled.

Opening for Mose was one of the most frustrating and exhilarating experiences of my touring days — exhilarating because his audience was perfect, listening in rapt attention, laughing in all the right places, and giving me encores both sets (unbelievably, since that meant delaying Mose’s arrival, but they did it); frustrating because they were the best audience I ever worked for, and would never have come out to see me under other conditions. They were not a folk, folk-blues, or acoustic guitar audience, and much as they liked me that night, there was no way I was going to reach people like them on a regular basis.

But damn, it was nice working for Mose’s audience, and finding that they liked me. He even said a couple of nice words himself, though he’d spent most if not all of my set in the green room, so I assume he was just being polite.

As for this version of “Everybody Cryin’ Mercy”… I loved Mose’s records, but could never figure out even a decent approximation of his hip chord changes. For a while, that meant I didn’t play his stuff, but I really wanted to do this one, and after a while I came up with a half-assed rationalization for doing it the way I do it. To whit: Mose did all sorts of old three-chord blues songs, reharmonized with his hipper chords, so why couldn’t I reverse the process and do his hip tunes with old-fashioned blues changes?

There may be a good answer to that, but if so, don’t tell me, because I’ve been playing this with these changes for forty years and I’m settled in my ways. Honestly, I think it sounds nice this way — and whatever the chord changes, it’s such a great lyric. All too timely, alas…