Tennessee Birdwalk

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 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. And when I got back to the States I started playing it at gigs and recorded it on a cassette, then 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.