All posts by Elijah Wald

Bye and Bye Blues (Tommy Johnson)

The first trip I made after getting  back from Africa was to the Mississippi Delta, where by a series of unlikely coincidences I ended up as part of the band for the dedication of Robert Johnson‘s grave marker. I’ve told that story in my book, Escaping the Delta, but the short version is that Washtub Robbie Phillips was invited by Skip Henderson, a New Jersey guitar dealer who had arranged the event at Mt. Zion church near Morgan City, Mississippi; then Robbie won the Massachusetts lottery and said he could pay for gas if I drove; our friend Kenny Holladay decided to drive up from New Orleans to meet us; and the local musicians who had been invited didn’t show up. So Kenny sang “Terraplane Blues” at the dedication, with Robbie and me backing him, everyone enjoyed it, and we were invited back a few months later for the dedication of a Charlie Patton marker, sharing a stage with Pop Staples and John Fogerty…

…all of which meant I spent a fair amount of time driving around the Delta, and brought along a lot of classic Delta recordings to play while driving. Mostly I just listened and didn’t try to play that music myself, but Tommy Johnson’s songs kept tempting me. It was something about the way he played and the way his voice fitted with the guitar, a lightness I didn’t hear in people like Patton. So when I got home I worked out a bunch of his arrangements, including his most popular chart, “Big Road Blues,” and this one, his reworking of Charlie Patton’s “Pony Blues,” which became a staple of my repertoire. The record label called it “Bye Bye Blues,” but that was a mistake — it’s a warning, not a farewell.

Speaking of warnings… Tommy Johnson recorded very few songs, and is not well-known beyond the hardcore pre-war blues scene, which has led to an odd mistake: in an interview with the blues scholar David Evans, Johnson’s brother Ledell said that Tommy told him a story about getting his musical skills from the Devil:

You take your guitar and you go to where the road crosses that way, where a crossroad is. Get there, be sure to get there just a little ’fore midnight that night so you’ll know you’ll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece there by yourself . . . A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar, and he’ll tune it. And then he’ll play a piece and hand it back to you. That’s the way I learned to play anything I want.

Anyone familiar with blues has heard versions of that story, but almost always connected not to Tommy but to the unrelated, younger Robert Johnson — to the point that when the Coen Brothers put a version of this legend in the mouth of a character named Tommy Johnson in their movie O Brother, Where Art Thou, the New York Times critic glossed it as a reference to Robert…

…which is neither here nor there, except as one more reason to check out Tommy Johnson’s music. Devil or not, he was a fine player, beautiful singer, and one of my all-time favorite artists.

One Way Gal (William Moore)

Another song by William Moore, whom I first got excited about in the mid-seventies when I worked up a version of his “Ragtime Millionaire.” I kept that in my repertoire, but didn’t pay much attention to the rest of his work till I got back from Africa. Then I began looking around for blues songs with interesting bass rhythms, and found this about the same time I got into Blind Blake’s “Southern Rag.”

It may be coincidence, but Blake connected those rhythms to the “Geechie” culture of the Georgia Sea Islands and Moore grew up near Savannah — a largely unexplored area for blues guitar research, which I’m tempted to relate to the Bahamian traditions of Joseph Spence and the Bahamian Blind Blake. In any case, Moore recorded this song during his only session in 1928 and it has some of those nice rhythmic touches. I simplified his guitar part  and came up with different lyrics, because that was how it felt right to me, but the essential framework is his.

When I started doing this, all I knew about Moore was that he had been a barber in Eastern Virginia, and the main clue for that was a guitar-backed monologue called “Barbershop Rag.” Then, in the early 2000s, I heard from a fellow named Ryan Croxton, who passed along notes from an interview with Moore’s son, William Edsel Moore, by a librarian named Gregg Kimball, who has since published a brief online bio of Moore. It explains that he was born in 1893 in the country outside Savannah, where his father was farming, and moved to Tappahannock, Virginia, around 1920 after marrying a woman from that area.

His son recalled that Moore lived in New Jersey before going to Virginia, and apparently met his wife there. ““It seemed like he roamed, he moved around… I guess traveling and playing music and doing things like that.” Like many musicians of that generation, Moore abandoned secular music as he grew older, getting involved in his local church and mostly playing violin, and his son only recalled him singing blues on a couple of occasions.

“On the third of April in Tappahannock [Emancipation Day], that would be the only time I would see him… He would be on the corner with his guitar and people would be sometimes dropping money in a cup or hat, whatever they had, and sometimes he would play with some other guys, I never knew who they were.”

Moore’s son recalled his father as a “soft spoken,” self-educated man who attained a high level of erudition, writing poems and short stories, and a portrait painter.  He enjoyed fishing and hunting, was a crack shot, but apparently overloaded his shotgun one day and blew off the little finger on his left hand, somewhat limiting his chording.

And that’s all I know about William Moore… aside from the music, which still sounds great.

Blind Blake’s Southern Rag

Blind Blake was one of the greatest guitarists of the early blues era, distinguished not only by the speed and precision of his playing, but by the fact that he was known for instrumental showpieces. Blues was generally considered a singing style, so even Lonnie Johnson — the consummate virtuoso who can lay claim to being father of both blues and jazz lead guitar — was advertised as a singer and his few instrumental recordings sold poorly and seem to have had little influence. (They are now widely admired, but I’ve never seen or heard anyone before the 1970s mention them.)

By contrast, Blake first hit with an instrumental called “West Coast Blues,” and it quickly became a kind of test and showpiece for guitarists across the South. Gary Davis learned it in the Carolinas, and could still play an accurate version in the 1960s. Even in the Mississippi Delta, which is known for a distinctively different guitar style, Blake was greatly admired, and I’ve got a story about that:

Blues scholars, like Western academicians in general, tend to get wrapped up in taxonomy and categorization, and by the 1970s many were  filing the wonderfully varied singer-guitarists who recorded in the 1920s into Delta, Texas, and Piedmont styles — the latter meaning the style popular around Georgia and the Carolinas, exemplified by Blake.

Delta blues was generally enthroned as the deepest and greatest style, and Robert Johnson in particular was hailed as the King of Delta Blues — and there was this terrific musician named Robert Lockwood who grew up in the Delta and got his start as a protégé of Johnson’s, then went on to explore jazz chording and became a foundational figure in the electric style  often called Chicago blues. Although he was a unique and important innovator, in later years Lockwood was constantly presented as a follower of Robert Johnson and asked to play the songs Johnson taught him… and since he had grown beyond that style by his teens, he eventually acquired a reputation among blues scholars and interviewers for being grumpy and uncooperative.

Fortunately, one day I was chatting with Steve James — a fine and knowledgeable musician — and he mentioned that Lockwood’s great musical love was Blind Blake. That surprised me, because Lockwood’s playing didn’t sound at all like Blake’s and although I was dubious of categories, Blake’s light ragtime seemed like the antithesis of the Delta style.

So when I finally got to meet Mr. Lockwood, I started out like everyone else, talking with him about Mississippi and Chicago blues, and he was typically taciturn — polite, but nothing more — so I thought what the hell, and mentioned Blind Blake…

Lockwood’s face broke into a broad smile, and he sounded genuinely eager as he asked, “You can play Blind Blake’s stuff?” I said yes, a bit, and he told me to get my guitar. So I did, and played him a bit of this, and he took the guitar out of my hands and played a much better facsimile of “West Coast Blues” than I will ever manage.

Frankly, I like Blake’s playing but my touch is nothing like his — not to mention my speed, grace, and virtuosity. So I’ve tended not to attempt his instrumentals, but when I got back from Africa I was looking for moments when blues players hinted at Congo-Angola rhythms (what folks in the US call Latin or Caribbean), and Blake’s “Southern Rag” has a section he calls “the Geechie dance” — a reference to the deeply African culture that survived on the Georgia Sea Islands — with some nice off-center bass figures.

So I worked up a version of this, which led to another treasured memory: Paul Geremia sold me the guitar I’m playing in this video, but continued to feel kind of protective about it, and one day he was fooling around on it and announced it needed a fret job — which, in this context, meant I should come to his place in Newport and he would refret it. So I did, and Paul got to work, and then Ramblin’ Jack Elliott pulled his mobile home into the yard…

…and for the next five hours Paul refretted my guitar and Jack talked — which is what Jack does, brilliantly, and is why they call him Ramblin’ Jack — and then Paul handed me the newly fretted guitar and I played some ragtime licks, and Jack asked, “Can you play Blind Blake’s ‘Southern Rag’?” So I started playing this, and damned if Jack didn’t start doing Blake’s spoken routine from the record, word for word:

Now we’re goin’ on an old southern rag. Way out there on that cotton field. Where them people plant all that rice, with sugarcane. And peas and so forth grow…

Africa to Appalachia

I compiled this instrumental either while traveling through Africa or shortly afterwards, using “Wanjiru Wanjiru” by the Kenyan guitarist Francis Macharia as the unifying theme. I was struck by how much the guitar on that track felt like the kind of fingerpicking played in the Appalachians, so I combined  it with two favorite southern mountain showpieces: “Buckdancer’s Choice” by Sam McGee and “Doc’s Guitar” from Doc Watson. (To be strictly accurate, McGee was from central Tennessee, not the mountains, but I didn’t know that when I named the piece.)

I’d heard Macharia’s song on a wonderful album, The Nairobi Sound,  released by a wonderful record label, Original Music. It was the brainchild of John Storm Roberts, a freelance musicologist and all-around-charming fellow whom I had the pleasure of meeting when I interviewed him for the Boston Globe in 1989 — I was preparing for the Africa trip, and that seemed like a good way to get a bunch of free records and meet someone who could put me in touch with useful people all over the continent.

I had also read Roberts’s Black Music of Two Worlds, a wide-ranging and insightful history of the ongoing cross-fertilization between musicians and musical styles in Africa and the Americas. It explained, for example, how Cuban recordings by groups like the Trio Matamoros had influenced Congolese music, and touched on the role of US country music throughout sub-Saharan Africa — which prepared me for conversations about cowboy singers everywhere from Zimbabwe to Kenya. In fact, it was an offhand comment by Roberts that named my band and CD (both of which I’ll get to in future posts): he was telling me about the influence of Jimmie Rodgers, saying he’d collected Rodgers imitations in 24 African languages, and mentioned an early reference in print to “the streetcorner cowboys of  Zanzibar,” which instantly struck me as a great name for a band. (When I got to Nairobi, after hitching through the forests of Zaire and up through Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda, there was still a program on the radio every Sunday of “old Kikuyu music,” which consisted largely of Kikuyu yodeling cowboy songs by folks like Sammy Ngako.)

I think of this piece as kind of a tribute to John, since he was the person who made me aware that any discussion of overlaps and similarities between African and American music has to consider not only the huge influence of African traditions on the music of the Americas, but also the huge influence of Cuban, Argentine, French Caribbean, and US styles on African musicians all over the continent. Even before records became common, minstrel shows and Negro spirituals were imported and adapted into African traditions. (The banjo, for example, is originally a West African instrument, but was introduced to new regions of Africa — and reintroduced in West Africa — with minstrelsy.)

To finish this musicological tribute, I recommend listening to a couple of key examples: “El que siembra su maiz” by the Cuban Trio Matamoros, which is a classic example of Afro-Spanish-Caribbean string band music, and  the same song performed by Joseph Kabasele “El Gran Kalle” and his orchestra L’African Jazz. (As an added fillip, let’s note the generic use of “jazz” in the names of dance bands all over Africa in the mid-20th century, whether or not they played anything resembling jazz.)

Lwa Kiyeke (Edouard Masengo)

While studying with Jean-Bosco Mwenda in Lubumbashi, I was fortunate to also spend some time with one of the other important local musicians, Edouard Masengo. Bosco and Masengo were cousins and had recorded together in the late fifties and early sixties, but their later lives had followed very different paths. Though famous as a guitarist and singer, Bosco earned his living as a businessman, working for a bank and the local mining company, managing local bands, and at the time I met him was in the process of opening a hotel on the Zambian border.

Masengo, by contrast, had little if any career outside music, and his period of success was long in the past. He had gone to Kenya in the late 1950s, apparently as a member of Je-co-ke (short for Jeunes Comiques du Katanga), a touring group of musicians, singers, and dancers from Lubumbashi (then still known as Elizabethville). An advertising agency in Nairobi heard him, took him on, and he soon became a popular radio and recording artist, sponsored by Coca-Cola.

After a few months he brought Bosco — whose records were well-known throughout Swahili-speaking East Africa — to join him, and although their acoustic style was supplanted by electric bands in the mid-1960s, they remained familiar as “oldies” artists at least into the 1990s. When I hitchhiked from Lubumbashi to Nairobi I found their cassettes still on sale, and had an interesting afternoon at a local record company trying (unsuccessfully) to get Masengo some royalties. One of the cassettes included a half-hour interview with Masengo in which he told his life story interspersed with relevant songs (which I’ve now uploaded to Youtube), and I was surprised to hear him speaking fluent English, since by the time we met his only European language was French.

As I understand it, Bosco returned to Lubumbashi after a year but Masengo remained a dozen or more years in East Africa and that was the high point of his career. In 1990 he was going through hard times and talked sadly about how much better things had been in Nairobi, saying he might still be popular if he could only get back there.

Instead, he was living in a spare room in a small house belonging to his sister — who had a good job at the mining company — in a village outside town. He was remembered as a notable musician, and I had the pleasure of performing with him at a local hotel and on a national television special. But he was also considered a bit of a sad story, down on his luck and too fond of the local beer.

To me, he was always gracious and inspiring, a supple guitarist and beautiful singer with a gentleness that reminded me of Mississippi John Hurt. I only met him three or four times, but he was consistently encouraging, teaching me songs and exclaiming over my playing — the Congolese guitarists used only their thumb and index finger to pick, and he kept exclaiming over my using two more fingers, saying, “If I had only seen that when I was young…”  I recorded one long session in his room, with my friend Dominic adding percussion and me playing lead guitar on a couple of the less distinctively Congolese tunes. (I’ve uploaded one, “Mujinga ni nani.”)

He was also a fine composer, and sang a haunting tribute to his old friend, the blind guitarist Losta Abelo, with tears running down his cheeks. My favorite of his songs was this little gem. The guitar part (played with the low E string tuned up to F) is simple as can be, and the lyric even more so, referring to his and Bosco’s ethnic group, the Bayeke:

I used to have a bicycle, but now I go in the Kiyeke way.
I used to have a bicycle, but now I go in the Kiyeke way.

In the Kiyeke way, sir, in the Kiyeke way—
In the Kiyeke way, that is to say, on foot.

Kuolewa (Jean-Bosco Mwenda)

Each lesson with Jean-Bosco Mwenda would focus on a particular song — “Masanga,” “Bibi Teresa,” “Kijana Muke” — and after I’d learned the guitar parts to three or four of these I asked if he could write out the lyrics for me.

Polite as always, Bosco got out a pen and started writing, but he was clearly puzzled. “Do people in the United States understand Swahili?” he asked.

I said no, in general they didn’t — obviously I didn’t either, since we were talking in French.

“Then why would you sing to them in Swahili?”

The question took me aback. I’d assumed if I was learning his songs I would sing them with his words, and that would be what he expected and preferred. But he was genuinely puzzled, and the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. He described his own music as an adaptation of the cowboy songs and “Spanish” music (meaning Cuban) he’d heard on records as a youth, and he had taken those influences and created a style that was distinctively his own, performed in Swahili and occasionally Kiyeke, the languages of his listeners.

Bosco took pride not only in his musical skills, but in his role as a teacher: while European singers tend to sing about romance and adventure, African singers have traditionally used their songs to educate and admonish. Bosco had composed some love songs, but also many songs intended to make his listeners think about social conditions and improve their way of living.

This is a typical example, bemoaning the follies of unmarried motherhood:

You say you don’t want to get married.
Every year you have a new baby.
This baby has no father
.
It is very difficult to find food for it.

Another thing is the young man,
He makes you pregnant and he runs away.
Money for milk to feed the baby,
It takes a lot of effort to find.
In the baby bottle, you put beer
To feed to the baby.
That is wrong, mother.

(Note for non-Congolese Swahili-speakers: the second time through, instead of singing pombe for beer I sing simba, which is a popular local brand. Bosco would also namecheck tembo, a darker, stronger brew from the same company.)

(Note for guitarists: for this song, Bosco tuned his low bass string up to F, allowing him to get an open F when he wanted, but more importantly to get the low G by wrapping his thumb around at the 2nd fret, which is more comfortable than stretching up to the 3rd.)

Bibi Theresa (Jean-Bosco Mwenda)

This is another I learned from Jean-Bosco Mwenda during the month I spent studying with him in Lubumbashi. It is a song of love and longing, which would make it pretty standard fare in a lot of places, but is less common in the Congolese repertoire, where a lot of songs give advice on proper behavior (Bosco’s “Kuolewa” is a good example, and I’ll have that up next week) or address such unlikely subjects as lacking a bicycle (a song by Bosco’s cousin Edouard Masengo, which I’ll post in a couple of weeks).

The lyric roughly translates as:

Darling Theresa, darling Theresa,
We shared so much.
You are going home to the village.

You return my letters,
I do not see your letters.
You do not remember me anymore, truly.

Your picture, when I look at it,
I remember many things.
Your picture doesn’t speak.

As I recall, this was the first composition of Bosco’s I tried to sing, since it was relatively simple to play the guitar part and I liked the words, which I learned with the help of my friend and host, Dominic Kakolobango. I met Dominic through Mario, a local medical student, whom I met through Steve Ott, a young Methodist missionary… which is kind of a long story, but the part that matters is that Mario said he had a friend who played music and was kind of unusual, almost like a European, and this friend had said I could stay in his house while I was in Lubumbashi.

That seemed very generous, since we hadn’t met — but I had no idea how generous until I saw the house. It was a single room, 3×3 meters square, which was actually pretty luxurious when you consider that the room next door was the same size and housed a whole family. Still, it was tight when you consider that Dominic had all his possessions, and a stove, and a bed… if you look at the picture, you see my bed folded outside, which is where I had to put it first thing in the morning so there would be enough floor space for him to get up. And that was before he got married, which happened while I was staying there…

Anyway, it worked beautifully. Dominic is one of the nicest, funniest, and most extraordinary people I know — Mario’s description of him as being like a European was just a way of saying he didn’t seem like anyone else in Lubumbashi, and that held equally true when he moved to Brussels, and everywhere else I’ve been with him. He’s also a fine musician — he was the only young guitarist in Lubumbashi to be seriously interested in the older local style, having accompanied Bosco’s blind peer, Losta Abelo, for some years, and he also had a broad repertoire of French chanson — among the many things I owe him is an enduring love of Georges Brassens.

I’ll have more about that Lubumbashi period in the next couple of posts, but for now I’ll just add that I went on to co-produce a CD of Dominic playing in the classic Congolese style and accompanied him on a few tracks, and he’s got a bunch of videos online, including one we did together in Brussels almost ten years ago of the Kenyan classic, “Malaika”:

Kijana Muke (Jean-Bosco Mwenda)

I’ve loved a lot of musicians, but only twice made serious pilgrimages to study with anyone. The first was Dave Van Ronk, for whom I spent a year in the wilds of Greenwich Village; the second was Jean-Bosco Mwenda, for whom I traveled to Lubumbashi, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

As I wrote in my post on Bosco’s masterpiece, “Masanga,” I discovered his music on the Guitars of Africa LP in the Cambridge Public Library, but the two tracks on that record had been recorded in the 1950s and there had been no news of him since he appeared at the Newport Folk Festival in 1969.*

Then in the 1980s an English guitarist named John Low published a book called Shaba Diaries about traveling to Zaire and studying with Bosco and two of his contemporaries, Losta Abelo and Edouard Masengo. I’d been thinking about a trip to Africa since my teens, and a South African woman I’d met in Italy provided further temptation… so I spent six months busking on cafe terraces in Antwerp,  caught an Aeroflot plane from London to Zimbabwe, and after a couple of months hitchhiking through Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa, and Namibia hitched up through Zambia to Lubumbashi. I had written to Bosco when I arrived in Zimbabwe and received no reply, but he was an important man and easy to find: I just asked a cab driver to take me to his house. He welcomed me cordiallyme and bosco with picture, I played him my inaccurate version of “Masanga,” and he said he would be happy to teach me to play it right and show me some other songs. So for the next month I went over to his house twice a week, had lunch with him, and got a guitar lesson. (The letter I’d sent two months earlier finally arrived a week or so after our meeting.)

“Kijana Muke” (also issued as “Muke Mzuri” and “Nimemukuta”) is one of the half-dozen songs he taught me, along with “Bibi Theresa” and “Kuolewa.” The lyric is in the local dialect of Swahili, one of at least four languages Bosco spoke fluently, along with French, Lingala, and his “village language,” Kiyeke:

I met a girl, very beautiful, oh, mama
I said to her, “Hi, darling,” she replied, “Hello.”
I said, “Where are you going?”
She said, “Tomorrow.”
I went home to sleep, I dreamed of her.
Early next morning I went to her place to see that lady.
Just the same way she told me, “tomorrow.”
I went home to sleep, I dreamed of her.

*All three of Bosco’s sets from Newport are now on-line.

He’ll Have to Go (Ry Cooder/Jim Reeves)

I spent a month or so hitchhiking around Scotland in the summer of 1989, partly because I was headed to Africa and wanted to familiarize myself with the work of Jim Reeves. I’d heard that Reeves was hugely popular in both places, but all I knew of his music was this song, which I’d learned off a Ry Cooder album. So I figured I should know more, and Scotland was the place to go.

That proved to be theoretically but not practically right: Reeves was indeed popular in Scottish country-western bars, but I got distracted and ended up visiting castles, hitchhiking north to Orkney, and sleeping in stone circles rather than learning his music. I also spent a pleasant few days visiting Belle and Sheila Stewart, the great Scots traditional singers, but their tastes in country ran more to Hank Williams.

So I fell back on the Cooder version, which fitted well with my plans to study African guitar, because he played it in a sort of Caribbean rumba rhythm.

That was probably the high point of my interest in Cooder, and I have to say it was always more interest than love. I loved the idea of his albums, especially in the Chicken Skin Music period when he was mixing odd assemblages of musicians from disparate traditions and choosing unlikely material to do with them. That was my first taste of Hawaiian slack-key guitar, and also my reintroduction to Flaco Jimenez, whom I’d first heard on my treasured Doug Sahm and Band album. Flaco played on this song, and Bobby King was singing gospel back-up, and it was a really nice arrangement… but there was something kind of emotionally flat about it. I listened to those albums a bunch of times and recall them with appreciation, but my heart is with other stuff.

As for Jim Reeves, I clearly listened to his version of this, since I just checked and find I sing his lyrics rather than Cooder’s variant, as well as that great low note (which he sings gorgeously and I attempt with infinite pleasure). But I don’t recall any of his other songs, which just proves how out of step I am with a lot of parts of the world, because for a lot of people Reeves was the greatest singer the US ever produced, and they live in some surprising places. For instance Norway, Kenya, South Africa, and India… and I’ve got a story about that:

In 1981 I was hitchhiking from Bombay (now Mumbai) to Madras (now Chennai), and somewhere out in the middle of nowhere I got stranded and was walking along a hot, dusty road beginning to wonder where I’d get some water. Eventually I saw a little village, but it was just a cluster of houses and a bit off the road, so I was debating whether to go over, and then a little boy came running out to me. I had my guitar slung over my shoulder, and he’d spotted it and said I had to come meet his father. So I went along with him, and his father invited me into their house and gave me a cup of tea. Then he proudly showed me his record collection: it consisted of pretty much every record Jim Reeves had made, and nothing else.

So that’s that. Wherever I went in Africa, I played this song, and people always recognized and enjoyed it, though by the late 1980s the fave was Don Williams. They like pretty singers over there.

Oh, and one more thing… I went to Africa in a large part to learn how to fingerpick these kinds of rhythms, and I’m very happy with how that worked out, and how nicely that style fits songs like this.

Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone

This was my regular post-bottling song when I was busking terraces in Antwerp — “bottling” being the technical term for going around asking for money. I would typically play three songs, make a circuit of all the tables requesting tips, and then, if they’d been generous enough to deserve another song, I’d do this as a farewell number.

People have often asked if I was really able to make a living that way, and the honest answer is I’ve never lived better than during that period in Antwerp. I was staying in my girlfriend Miet’s apartment, paying some utilities and buying food, but I think she covered most if not all of the rent, which in any case was low. I could make the equivalent of about ten dollars per terrace, which took about fifteen minutes, and on a sunny weekend I could go across the Schelde to the cluster of cafes on the other side and often made two or three hundred dollars. If I felt like working some more, I could do the restaurants and bars in the evening, but after I came up with a regular terrace circuit I usually took the evenings off.

There was a good library within walking distance, and I spent my voluminous free time reading through the history of English literature. My friend Robin Gillespie had sent me off with a complete Shakespeare, and I read that and then worked my way through the other Elizabethans in the British Council Library in Seville, and by the time I got settled back in Antwerp I was ready to dive into Chaucer and the other Middle English writers — not because I felt an overwhelming need, but because I had lots of time and it was fun.

I was doing a lot of traveling as well, because it was easy — wherever I went, I could make food money with my guitar, there were always people ready to provide a bed or couch, and the Antwerp earnings provided a cushion. I hitched up to the north of Scotland and caught a ferry to Orkney, hitched down through Italy and caught a ferry to Tunisia (I remember reading Tom Jones on that trip), and rambled through Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey with my buddy Jasper (I was reading Piers Plowman, or rather not reading it, because that one was unreadable — and also impossible to trade away once I gave up).

Then I decided I wanted the experience of traveling at the speed of the books I was reading, so walked the thousand kilometers from Antwerp to Brittany. (The literary high point of that trip was finding myself at nightfall near the battlefield of Agincourt and realizing I had a copy of Henry V in my pack. I camped out in the middle of the battlefield and memorized Henry’s exhortation to his troops by flashlight — I’ve forgotten most of it by now, but had it in my head for a few years.)

All those literary references probably sound pretentious, but the point is that I was young and eager and enjoying myself — I memorized lots of poetry and never recited any of it for anybody; it was just a way to pass the time as I walked or camped or waited for rides. And yes, I’m nostalgic for those times and overdue to get out again and see how it feels — but more than that, I’d urge anybody who has some free time to go out and give it a shot. There are always people who’ll give you a ride, a couch, or a meal, especially if you have music to trade. As the poet said, “world enough, and time…”