Wolfman of Del Rio

Terry Allen’s masterpiece of corrosive American dreaming, from his Lubbock (On Everything) LP. I’ve written in a previous post about my discovery of Allen’s work, but at first I thought of him as a quirky novelty writer and it took a couple of years before I immersed myself in that album. Thirty years later, it’s still a relatively little-known (though widely acknowledged) classic, and anyone who hasn’t heard it should just go out and buy a copy.

This song is Allen at his best, sketching simple lines that evoke the power and pitfalls of the romantic myths that underpin much of my life and the music I love. It opens on a stretch of western highway familiar from a million movies, the “blue asphaltum line,” beloved of James Dean and Chuck Berry, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, Thelma and Louise. The soundtrack is late-night radio, blasting across the Texas-Mexico border on the 250,000 watts of XERF, 1570-AM, punctuated by the dark growl of the midnight master, the Wolfman of Del Rio.

By the time I first heard Wolfman Jack, he was a chubby self-parody cruising through a second career courtesy of American Graffiti, so it took a while for me to connect him with the werevoice haunting Allen’s song. But it was the same guy. Born Robert Smith in Brooklyn, reborn as the Wolfman in Shreveport, he began broadcasting over XERF in 1963 and in the early years concealed his identity, refusing interviews and photographs. Station promos showed a drawing of a hip wolf, or photographs of a hirsute face of uncertain ethnicity, eyes hidden behind dark shades. He broadcast from midnight till 4am, and could be heard all over the Central and Western United States, and sometimes as far away as Europe. He played current hits, deep blues, grinding R&B, howled along with favorite records, sometimes called a lady friend live on the air, and was worshiped by millions of teenagers as a mysterious creature of the night.

It is hard for those of us who came along later and were introduced to Jack and that music as nostalgic “oldies” to imagine how they sounded and what they meant to millions of listeners who heard them as the sound of a wild new world, of infinite possibilities, of escape from dead-end towns and dead-end lives.

But it is all too easy to recognize the hangover: a world of people raised on those fantasies, yearning to be daring individualists but trapped in the decaying badlands of late industrial capitalism, fighting to hold onto poisoned dreams. That’s the theme of Allen’s song, and it’s one of my favorites.

Years after I learned this, I was working on a project called River of Song with a sound crew from the Smithsonian, and one of the guys had recently finished a project about early R&B radio. One of the guys they’d planned to interview was Wolfman Jack, and he showed up at the studio ready to talk. So, they asked him, “How did you come up with your Wolfman persona?”

“It was kind of a Lord Buckley thing,” he replied.

“Who was Lord Buckley?” asked the interviewer.

“You never heard of Lord Buckley?”

The interviewer shook his head.

“Then we got nothing to talk about,” the Wolfman said, and walked out.

Rivers of Texas

This was one of my standards in the late 1980s, because I loved the sound of a room full of people singing the chorus. I learned it from volume two of the Everybody Sing! LPs I had when I was a little kid,  where it was sung by Ellen Steckert and Milt Okun, and for a long time I forgot about it because after I  got into Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, and blues I tended to dismiss the songs on those albums as pseudo-folk juvenalia. I don’t remember when or why I revised my opinion — maybe I heard someone like Ian Tyson sing it — but anyway it became one of my favorites, especially when Peter Keane was around to sing harmony.

Steckert learned this song from Sam Hinton, who has cropped up before in these chronicles, and he presumably learned it from Vance Randolph’s monumental collection Ozark Folksongs. Randolph recorded it in 1942 from a woman named Irene Carlisle in Fayetteville, Arkansas, who had grown up in the area and was herself a folklorist with several academic articles and an MA degree on her resume.

Sandy Paton writes on the Mudcat folksong website that he thought this sounded like a composed song rather than something from the oral tradition and asked Randolph, and Randolph said he’d had similar suspicions and asked Carlisle if she’d written it herself. She said no: “I learned it in 1921 from a hired man. He’d come up from Texas, cutting timber here in the Ozarks, and was boarding at our place. We courted a little, and he taught me that song. Then he went back to Texas.” Whether the hired man had composed it or learned it from someone else, he must have been close to the source, since no other version has ever been collected.

Another poster on that Mudcat thread cleared up a long-running geographical conundrum: the list of rivers in Randolph’s lyric includes the Natchez, which isn’t a river and isn’t in Texas, and Hinton, who was a Texan (born in Oklahoma, but raised in Crockett, TX), adapted that to Nacogdoches, which is in Texas but still isn’t a river (and doesn’t scan with the melody). However, the Mudcatter points out that there is a Neches River which flows through more than 400 miles of Texas. So the hired hand presumably sang “Neches” and Carlisle, being more familiar with Mississippi towns than Texas rivers, misheard it as “Natchez” — which doesn’t explain why Hinton, who grew up 30 miles from the Neches and would have had to cross it to reach Nacogdoches, didn’t make the correction.

Anyway, it’s a pretty song and I just wish Peter was around to sing harmony.

Shake Sugaree (Elizabeth Cotten/Peter Keane)

I learned this song from Peter Keane when we were exploring material to play as a duo. I had met Peter sometime in the early 1980s, by lucky happenstance: I was playing a street pitch on Holyoke Plaza in Harvard Square, he was a freshman in Harvard Yard, he’d been working on “St. Louis Tickle” in his dorm room and walked out of the yard, and I happened to be playing it. So he came over and introduced himself, said he was playing a set at the Nameless Coffeehouse that week or the next, I went down and heard him, and he was great. So I introduced him to Bill Morrissey and he became one of the gang, hanging out with me and Bill at Jeff McLaughlin’s house and various other places.

Bill and I both picked Peter to be a star, because he was young and handsome, sang real pretty, and had an instantly engaging stage presence. When he played at the Nameless there would be couple of rows of young women screaming, which was not normal on the local folk scene. He also had a interestingly varied repertoire, notable touchstones being Mississippi John Hurt and Buddy Holly — who I wouldn’t have thought of mixing till I heard Peter — as well as Hank Williams, Bruce Springsteen, and a gorgeous version of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”

Within a year or two Peter was running the folk music programming at WHRB, the Harvard radio station, which led to me having a deejay show, irritating some listeners with my definition of folk music, which included Fats Waller playing “Oh, Susannah” and Aretha Franklin, but not the contemporary singer-songwriter stuff other people tended to play. (Other listeners were happy to go along with me, including Jim Kweskin, who called out of the blue one day to say how much he enjoyed the show.) And one summer Peter and I did a live half-hour show following the long-running Saturday morning favorite, Hillbilly at Harvard. Our model was the Maddox Brothers and Rose, whose old radio broadcasts had recently been reissued by Arhoolie. We’d kid around and play songs, which meant working up new material every week, and we didn’t set the world on fire, but it was good practice.

We also did some gigs together, where I’d do a set, Peter would do a set, and we’d do one as a duo. It was a good mix, since we had somewhat different tastes and very different voices, and the guitars blended beautifully. The only disaster was a suburban bar gig where they wanted us to sing Simon & Garfunkel and the bartender ended up calling the owner to come fire us halfway through the evening. Then Washtub Robbie Phillips scored a Monday night residency at the Plough and Stars and we put together a band, the Streetcorner Cowboys, with Robbie, Peter, me, Mark Earley on harmonica, and Matt Leavenworth showing up pretty often to sit in on fiddle. And then Peter moved to Austin, and the rest may be history, but not this history.

So that’s where I learned “Shake Sugaree.” I knew it was by Elizabeth Cotten, the left-handed guitar player famous for composing “Freight Train,” but it wasn’t on the one LP of hers I had and I don’t think I’d ever heard her version. The story behind it is charming:  Cotten worked up the guitar part first and played it for her great-grandchildren, who made up the lyrics:

The first verse, my oldest great-grandson, he made that himself, and from that each child would say a word and add to it. To tell the truth, I don’t know what got it started… but it must have been something said or something done. That’s practically how all my songs I pick up.

Cotten’s recording had her great-granddaughter Brenda singing the lyrics, and I just listened to it and noticed how many verses I didn’t know and how many of the ones I sing are different from hers. I don’t know if Peter edited it down and made the changes, or if he got it from some interim version, or if I just altered it over the years without noticing. Either way, it’s a nice song.

As for Peter, he’s still in Austin and still playing great. Check out his website. And I’m overdue for a visit.