All posts by Elijah Wald

Urge for Going

The ultimate fall-into-winter song, by Joni Mitchell, arranged by Dave Van Ronk. I tend to be more optimistic about this season, so my standard autumn song is Bill Morrissey’s “My Baby and Me,” but I always loved the way Dave did this — plus, my Vancouver buddy Monte Jones had a gorgeous harmonica part for it, which he played often with me and a couple of times with Dave… and I wish he was around to play it now.

This was one of Mitchell’s early masterpieces, though she only recorded it as the b-side of a single and a lot of her fans have never heard it. Tom Rush recorded the best-known version as the title song of one of his albums, and it’s nice, but Dave’s is the killer. He recorded it for Polydor, on an album that had some of his most ornate production and greatest song choices, but didn’t sell and soon went out of print, though it’s now available for digital download (thanks to  the hoopla around the Coen Brothers’ movie). He also recorded a solo version, which is even better, as the last song on his final album, …and the Tin Pan Bended and the Story Ended. A perfect, elegiac ending.

When I was studying with Dave in the mid-1970s, not many young people were aware of his work, but Joni Mitchell fans sometimes recognized his name because she had said he was the only person who sang her songs better than she did. None of them agreed, of course, but I think I understand what she meant: Dave’s rough growl counteracted the prettiness of the melodies, forcing listeners to hear the power of the poetry.

Dave first met Joni, then still named Joni Anderson, when they both appeared on a television program Oscar Brand was hosting in Winnipeg, called Let’s Sing Out. It was 1965, nobody south of the border had yet heard of her. He used to tell a funny story about that meeting, which is in our book, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, but the short version is that he was blown away by her writing, her singing, her playing, and her brilliance. He saw her again in Detroit, working in a duo with her husband Chuck, who was one of the few people on the folk scene other than Dave doing Brecht/Weill material, and then she moved to New York and they became fast friends.

Dave thought Joni was the greatest songwriter to come out of the folk revival — not necessarily more talented than Dylan, but in his class for talent and much more serious about the craft. For a while he recorded at least one of her songs on every album, including a version of “Both Sides Now” that was supposed to be his big radio hit but couldn’t compete with Judy Collins. (It may not have helped that he insisted on calling it “Clouds” — when Joni first sang it for him, he told her that was the dominant image and should be the title. She compromised, keeping her song title, but calling the album Clouds.)

I liked all of Dave’s performances of Mitchell’s material — one of the great pleasures of compiling the CD to go with our book was that I could include a solo version of “Both Sides Now” — but this was always my favorite. So I suggest everyone check it out, and also… there’s now a clip of Joni on the Oscar Brand show singing it, and it’s wonderful. I may even like it more than Dave’s version…

Tequila Sheila (Shel Silverstein/Bobby Bare)

An absurd western outlaw ballad with a trick ending, from the nimble pen of Shel Silverstein, thanks to Bobby Bare. I’ve already paid tribute to Shel’s work in a previous post, so now on to Mr. Bare…

Honestly, I’m not all that wild about Bare’s singing–he’s a solid country singer but not an exceptional one–but damn, did he have great taste in songwriters. I first bought one of his albums because I was on a Shel binge and it had a bunch of Silverstein songs I hadn’t heard, which was true of something like a dozen of Bare’s records. He’d been mostly a singles artist until he recorded a double album of Shel’s songs in 1973, Lullabies, Legends, and Lies, which included “Rosalie’s Good Eats Cafe,” a small-town, late-night classic that clocks in at over eight minutes — maybe still a record for a country song without instrumental solos.

I listened to that first album, and it had a couple of songs I wanted to learn, so I bought another, and then another… and after a while I noticed that along with the Silverstein songs were some great ones by other writers, like Bob McDill’s “Song of the South”:

Cotton in the road, cotton in the ditch,
We all picked the cotton and never got rich.
Daddy was a veteran, a southern Democrat,
Said, “They ought to kill a rich man to vote like that.”

So then it turned out Bare had a whole album of McDill’s songs, and eventually I learned he’d been Billy Joe Shaver’s publisher and persuaded Shaver to stick with the business when no one was recording his songs–though also taking a substantial cut of Shaver’s earnings when Waylon did Honky Tonk Heroes… which, OK, that’s a somewhat ambiguous legacy, but let’s go back from there to his first big hit, “Detroit City,” by Danny Dill and the pre-stardom Mel Tillis; and a couple by the pre-stardom Tom T. Hall, “Margie’s at the Lincoln Park Inn” and “How I Got to Memphis”; and a couple more by the pre-stardom Kris Kristofferson, like “Come Sundown”; and Tompall Glaser and Harlan Howard’s “Streets of Baltimore…” Basically, if you’re looking for good country songwriting–the best of that golden era when writers like Kristofferson and Hall were reinventing the genre–his albums are a good place to find some classics and — more to the point — a lot of less familiar but equally great material.

Which said, he also did all those Shel Silverstein songs, some of which are classics, some profound, some dopey novelties, some just dopey, some outright dumb… and some walk a bunch of those borderlines, like f’rinstance, “Tequila Sheila.” I’m a fluent Spanish-speaker and deeply engaged with Mexican culture, but there’ s something gloriously silly about rhyming “Sheila” with “Pancho Villa…” and the rest feels to me like an absurdist Western in the same tradition as Cat Ballou… and it always worked well in the bars.

(As for the print behind me in the video, it’s a Maillol my parents bought in their courting days and I usually get it out of the way when I’m filming videos, because it’s distracting… but by chance I forgot when I was filming this one, and it felt kind of appropriate.)

Someday (You’ll Want Me to Want You)

This is another I learned off Red Steagall’s Lone Star Beer and Bob Wills Music LP, and the odd thing is I’d never heard it before and have rarely heard it since, though it has been recorded by dozens of major artists, from Elton Britt, Gene Autry, Vaughan Monroe, and the Mills Brothers in the 1940s up through Patsy Cline, Ray Charles, Dean Martin, Della Reese, The Drifters, Brooke Benton, Brenda Lee, Ricky Nelson, Willie Nelson… and so on and on.

The songwriter, Jimmie Hodges, is virtually unknown except for this song, which apparently hit as he was turning sixty after a long career as a producer of musical comedies. He did write some others, but I have been unable to find any recordings of them. From the titles, most sound pretty generic — “Dear Old Girl Of Mine” — or eminently forgettable — “Blackberry Jelly Nellie” and “Ding Dong Dell (The Belle of Chinatown).”

Hodges was apparently born in 1885 and shows up in a few show biz journals in the teens and twenties as a producer of musical comedies, for example 1920’s All Aboard for Cuba, which was presumably a lighthearted reaction to the passage of Prohibition. (A more famous relic of that moment and inclination is Irving Berlin’s “I’ll See You in C-U-B-A.”)

Anyway, I’ve noticed over the years that there are songs you like and then there are songs that like you — sometimes I love a song but it doesn’t work for me as a performer, and sometimes a song that didn’t particularly strike me when I heard someone else play it just feels right to me when I do it myself. This one liked me from the first time I played it: the guitar part fell comfortably under my fingers, the lyrics flowed, and it always got a good response. So I’ve been playing it for over thirty years and that’s that.

I’m Moving On (Hank Snow/Ray Charles)

In the mid-1980s I was looking for songs in the wide area of overlap between blues and country, and Ray Charles’ terrific version of this Hank Snow hit made it an obvious choice. In that period I was touring across country twice a year, with most of the gigs in bars around Montana and the Idaho panhandle. The patrons in those rooms ranged from blues fans to country listeners to folks who were just down for a drink in their local bar, and I was trying to find material that suited their tastes and also fitted with the rest of my repertoire and guitar style. If I hit the right balance, they’d even get up and dance, which never happened in the folk clubs back east.

I don’t remember whether I heard Ray’s version before or after Hank Snow’s, but it was definitely my main influence, though I also listened to Snow’s a bunch. I had only one Hank Snow album, a greatest hits set I bought after reading Peter Guralnick’s chapter about him in Lost Highway. He and Guralnick didn’t hit it off in person, but Peter clearly admired his musicianship and I checked out every artist in that book. In Snow’s case the exploration ended with that one album, but I liked his guitar playing and learned several songs off it. I still do “I’ve Been Everywhere”  and though I don’t remember all the words to “Rumba Boogie,” can never forget the verse that goes:

When Madame Lazonga was teaching the conga
In her little cabana in old Havana
We were doing the charleston and balling the jack
And that old black bottom till they started the jitterbug rag…

That’s about all I have to say about this song, except that when I was working it up for this video I started playing the banjo roll from Sam McGee’s “Railroad Blues” for the final V-chord section, and then added McGee’s full “train coming into Nashville” break . And I need to credit Steve James here, because I worked out a version of that guitar part from McGee’s record, but when Steve and I did a split bill at Johnny D’s in Somerville, Mass, I played it for him in the green room and he straightened me out. He’d actually spent time with Sam McGee, and showed me a couple of cute tricks, like the way McGee played the bass on the E section of that break — instead of alternating between the 6th string and the 5th (actually, the 5th and 4th together), he played the 6th for the first beat, then stayed on the 5th for the next three: 6-5-5-5, 6-5-5-5. I hadn’t noticed that, and it’s a great sound.

As for the rest, it’s just basic acoustic fingerstyle honky-tonk and a lot of fun to play.

I’ve Been Everywhere (Hank Snow)

So, to start off with, 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 pretty far north in Ontario, though not as far north as Schefferville, Quebec. Nor have I been to Barranquilla, Colombia, or Tocopilla, Chile, and I have no idea what either is doing in this song, nor yet Diamantina, which seems to be in Brazil (or, my old traveling partner Jasper Winn suggests, Australia).

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 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 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 couldn’t bring himself to pick up hitchhikers, because they always insisted on chatting and were almost always boring… and I guess this song is a 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.