All posts by Elijah Wald

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.

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.)

Ragged, But Right (Greenbriar Boys, etc.)

I’ve testified in a previous post about my love of the Greenbriar Boys, and in particular their album with this title track. It was one of the formative records of my early teens, in a large part because it was so much fun — kind of like the Kweskin Jug Band, though with more country flavor. This song in particular became one of my standbys, because it was a great way to introduce myself. I’d start my first set with something quiet and pretty — usually “Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me” — and then, when the audience was lulled into thinking I was that kind of guy, I’d hit them with a burst of fast ragtime picking and launch into this:

I just came here to tell you people, I’m ragged, but I’m right,
A thief and I’m a gambler and I’m drunk every night…

Which was stretching the truth a bit, but I was in my early twenties and feeling hot — those were the days when I’d start out wearing a cowboy shirt, then strip down mid-set to a tight black t-shirt with a gaudy picture of Madonna on it. Take that, you folky purists and sensitive singer-songwriters…

The Greenbriars presumably got this from Riley Puckett’s 1934 recording, though I’d been doing it for years before I even knew who Puckett was. That was kind of odd, because he was one of the first major stars in old-time country music, already known throughout the South before Jimmie Rodgers entered a recording studio.

I think I missed him because by the time I came along the revivalist scene had segmented, with blues fans like me on one side and old-time fiddle and string-band folks on another. Since he made lots of records singing ragtime and blues-flavored material, there’s no reason aside from race why Puckett couldn’t have gotten filed on my side along with people like John Hurt and Mance Lipscomb… but race was a major demarcator, plus the fact that he was the guitarist for a fiddle band, Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers. That’s how I first heard him, and I assumed he was mostly a sideman, but Tony Russell quotes the Skillett Lickers’ virtuoso fiddler, Clayton McMichen, saying that in commercial terms Puckett was the star: “Riley proved the people wanted to hear singin’, and if he didn’t sing on the records, why, they didn’t sell much.”

“Ragged But Right” had previously been recorded by an African American group led by brothers Rufus and Ben Quillian, who like Puckett were from Georgia, but their version was sufficiently different that it presumably wasn’t his source. The song dates back at least to 1905, when Abbott and Seroff quote the Indianapolis Freeman describing a popular comedian “cleaning up with one of Bob Russell’s latest songs, ‘Ragged, but Right’.” There was a prominent black theatrical producer named Bob Russell in that period, and I assume this was him, but I have no other evidence that he wrote songs, so it may have been something he bought from the actual composer, and a reference from 1909 credits it to a performer known only as Shoe Strings. (Handily for this research, Abbott and Seroff titled their book Ragged but Right.)

As for the guitar twirl in the last verse, I got that from Andy Cohen, and it came in handy when I worked with Howard Armstrong, who liked me to do it in sync with his mandolin twirl.

Gimme A Ride To Heaven, Boy (Terry Allen)

When I was writing for the Boston Globe I would sometimes drop by Rounder Records to see what was new, and one afternoon I stopped by George Thomas’s desk and he handed me Bloodlines by Terry Allen and the Panhandle Mystery Band. I’d never heard of Allen, and  George was so horrified by my confession of ignorance that he also handed me Smokin’ the Dummy and Lubbock (On Everything). So he’s to blame for me becoming a stone Terry Allen fan, and I’m forever grateful.

To be honest, it took a while for me to understand what I was hearing. I got “Gimme a Ride…” immediately and started performing it, but it took another year or two before I recognized the transcendent genius of the Lubbock set and started doing “Wolfman of Del Rio,” which may still be my favorite evocation of what it is to be American, or at least some kind of American. (I’ll get that one up here in a while, but meanwhile I recommend picking up the whole album.)

For those who don’t know his work, Allen is a sculptor and multimedia installation artist, a playwright, a songwriter, a singer and a five- or six-finger pianist. He grew up in Lubbock, where he and his future wife Jo Harvey were the oldest of a high school musical rebel crew that  also included Jo Carol Pierce, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and a bit later Lloyd Maines, who ended up playing a lot of the instruments in Allen’s backing group, the Panhandle Mystery Band.

Allen’s father ran the Jamboree Hall, where all the top black acts played on Fridays and all the top country acts on Saturdays, and Buddy Holly played guitar for the local country band. Allen’s mother was a honky-tonk piano player and accordionist.

So, out of that, Allen ended up as kind of a prairie Randy Newman, if you had to compare him to anyone, except his music doesn’t sound much like Newman’s and his frames of reference are very different. The music is a lot more minimal, for one thing, maybe because he’s a pretty limited pianist but also because that’s clearly how he likes it. It’s sometimes dry and sometimes Brechtian, and sometimes conceptual like the visual art it sometimes accompanies, and sometimes straight-up country but with weird twists.

None of which is particularly helpful, but I owe him several debts — a later album, Human Remains, arrived just when I was going through a bad break-up and I listened to it over and over for several weeks, interspersed with early Ornette Coleman, which sounds like an odd combination, but it got me through.

And then there’s this song, which speaks for itself.

Because of the Wind (Joe Ely)

I first heard Joe Ely in 1979-80, when I was visiting my erstwhile washboard player, Rob Forbes, in Ithaca  and a friend of his played me Honky Tonk Masquerade. Rob’s friend introduced it as a fusion of new wave rock with country music, but I didn’t hear anything new wave about it — the country sounded country and the rock sounded like Jerry Lee Lewis. Which said, the band had a unique mix of high-powered electric guitar and steel with accordion, and the songs were my first taste of the new Texas scene, which was a huge relief from the singer-songwriter stuff I was hearing back east. (I later learned that the new wave connection was kind of guilt by association: the Clash were huge fans and took Ely on tour with them, so a lot of people first heard him in that context.)

I bought that album, listened to it over and over, learned more than half the songs on it, picked up Ely’s next couple of records as well as his first, which preceded Masquerade, and eventually had the luck to see him live and solo. I saw him a few times with bands as well — a loud rock group with Bobby Keyes on sax and then the reunion of his old Lubbock/Austin band with Lloyd Maines, Ponty Bone, Jesse Taylor, and the addition of a Dutch flamenco guitarist named Teye — but the shows that blew me away were the solo ones. He would come onstage with just an acoustic guitar and I swear he rocked harder than I ever saw him do with a group. His charisma was incredible, his guitar work was as effective as anybody’s this side of Lightnin’ Hopkins — ok, that’s an exaggeration, but in context it was terrific — and I can’t think of any concerts I’ve loved more.

I sang a lot of Joe’s songs in my touring days, and ended up recording one of them, “West Texas Waltz,” because it gave me a chance to play diatonic accordion (of course that song was written by Butch Hancock, Joe’s sometime partner with Jimmie Dale Gilmore in the Flatlanders, but I’m one of the many people who mostly know Butch’s work through Joe). I rarely played this one onstage, because I had other quiet songs and was looking for something else when I went to him, but I always loved it and did it when I had the right crowd, and almost recorded it on my LP… and I still think it’s one of the simplest, prettiest lyrics I’ve ever heard. Pure Texas, without any mythic posing or overstatement.

Incidentally, my own experience of “the breeze that blows from Corpus Christi” is a good deal less romantic. I hitchhiked through there in early December, 1987, as the temperature dived to freezing, with nothing but a light wool jacket. Fortunately  a friendly bum had an extra sweater, but it was still damn cold.

Honky Tonk Heroes (Waylon Jennings)

I owe this song and my further acquaintance with Waylon’s ouevre — and much else — to Peter Guralnick. I first became tangentially aware of Peter when I got into blues as a kid and my mother mentioned that Dr. Guralnick’s son wrote about blues. Dr. Guralnick had removed her impacted wisdom teeth and later dealt with my impacted canines, and he recently celebrated his 102nd birthday. But being a pigheaded kid I didn’t follow up on this first clue and only discovered Peter’s work in my late teens — I don’t remember whether I read Lost Highway or Feel Like Going Home first, because I immediately read the other and in my memory they are merged into a single book.

I learned a lot from those books, but the most important thing was that you didn’t have to sort music into categories — that you could like Waylon Jennings and Howlin’ Wolf for the same reasons, and think of them as singing variations of the same kind of music, along with Hank Williams, Skip James, and Elvis Presley. I didn’t necessarily share all of Peter’s tastes — though I shared a lot of them, and  later found we share many others that didn’t get into those books — but I hunted up every record he mentioned and many of them became central to my understanding of music and led me down the paths I’ve followed ever since.*

Peter described Waylon’s Honky Tonk Heroes as his “landmark album,” so I went right out and bought it, and it sure was a landmark for me. I had tended to dismiss contemporary country music, but that album got me on a kick that extended through another eight or ten Waylon albums, a couple of Willie Nelson’s, at least one of Tompall Glaser’s, and then I connected to Joe Ely and Merle Haggard and worked my way backward to Hank Williams and Bob Wills and forward to Lacey J. Dalton, John Anderson, Dwight Yoakam, and so on and on.

I learned at least a dozen songs off Waylon’s records, but most of them didn’t really suit me — I could never sing “The only two things in life that make it worth living/ Is guitars are tuned good and firm-feelin’ women” with a straight face. This one became a regular in my repertoire, not because it suited me in an autobiographical way but because it suited my ragtime-based guitar style. I learned it one afternoon, played it at the Nameless Coffeehouse in Harvard Square that evening, and got applause for the guitar break, which had never happened before, so I kept playing it.

I only saw Waylon live once, and he was as good as I’d hoped — he still had Ralph Mooney on steel, and the rest of the band was loose and powerful, and he seemed natural, charming, and wild, just like in Guralnick’s piece. His records were mostly spotty, and when I listen back these days I tend to put together my own mixes, but there’s still something in his voice that I can’t get anywhere else, and I still enjoy fooling around with a lot of those songs:

The highway is hotter than nine kinds of hell
The rides are scarce as the rain
When you’re down to your last shuck, with nothing to sell
And too far away for the trains

Like “Honky Tonk Heroes,” that one was penned by Billy Joe Shaver, who wrote most of that landmark Waylon album and deserves his own entry. I saw him a bunch of times over the years, interviewed him a couple of times, love his writing, and he’s a whole other story.

 

*In an earlier post I credited Doug Sahm and Band with setting me on that path, and that record probably hit me at about the same time as Guralnick, though I don’t think I made the connection at the time.