All posts by Elijah Wald

Big Road Blues

Spending the winter of 1987-8 fronting a blues band in Sevilla got my chops up like never before, and also got me back into pre-war blues (or country blues, fingerstyle blues — the kind of blues that shaped my understanding of the guitar). I’d never stopped playing that music, but for a few years I’d been working on broadening my repertoire into other styles. For one thing, it seemed both stupid and presumptuous to present myself as a blues musician — presumptuous because I was a fair guitarist but there’s a lot more to blues than good guitar playing, and stupid because even if I had been a lot better, there wasn’t much work for acoustic blues players.

In Sevilla, though, I had a band that wanted to play traditional acoustic blues, and we were doing three or four sets a night. So, perforce, I had to come up with a large and relatively varied repertoire that fit the bill, which meant revisiting a lot of material I’d messed with over the years and shaping the rough sketches into performance pieces.

One piece I worked on that winter was Tommy Johnson’s “Big Road Blues,” or at least my approximation of it. I always loved Johnson’s singing, and at times have named him as my favorite of the classic Delta blues guitarists in the circle around Charlie Patton. His music has a lightness I don’t hear in other Delta players, while retaining the rhythmic complexity and emotional depth.

“Big Road” was Johnson’s most influential arrangement, covered and reworked by numerous other artists. The Delta blueswoman Mattie Delaney did it, Big Maceo Merriweather did a nice piano version, the Mississippi Sheiks used the guitar part for their great “Stop and Listen,” and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup did an electric version as “Dirt Road Blues,” which he reworked as “That’s All Right,” made more famous by Elvis Presley. There was also a spectacular version on Yazoo’s Jackson Blues anthology, by an obscure Delta musician named Willie Lofton who called it “Dark Road Blues” and out-did Johnson at Johnson’s own style, playing with ferocious speed and power and punctuating his vocal lines with a gorgeous falsetto.

All of which said, I only learned the song after hearing Jim Brewer play it. Brewer was a blind street singer, born in Mississippi but known from many years playing at the Maxwell Street market in Chicago. My friend Andy Cohen toured with Brewer off and on over the years, and one year he brought him to my place in Cambridge for dinner. At that point I was dating a woman who played concert harp, and my fondest memory of that evening is Brewer seated at her harp, exploring its possibilities and eventually picking out some gospel tunes. Later we got out guitars, and he played a blazing version of “Big Road,” using a technique I’ve never seen before or since: where I (like everyone else) snap the low 6th string, he reached into the soundhole with his thumb and snapped the 5th and 6th, in that order, in a roll with the 4th picked by his index finger. I tried and tried, but can’t get that move up to any kind of speed — when he did it, it was like a drum-roll, and the power was incredible.

So I can’t play this like Brewer or Lofton, but they inspired me, and I came up with my own variant of Johnson’s version, with a bunch of different verses I assembled here and there — and I’ve kept his title, but sing the lyric as “New Road Blues.”

Seaboard Train (Larry Johnson/my Seville blues trio)

Celebrating one of the main railroad lines out of the South, this is another song I got from Larry Johnson, who presumably got it from Jim Jackson. I don’t recall when I started playing it with this arrangement, but by the late 1980s it was my regular set-closer.

I also played it pretty regularly during my 1987-88 winter residency in Sevilla, Spain — unquestionably my hardest-working period as a blues player. I was in Sevilla with some friends from Antwerp, Vera Singelyn, her toddler son Liam, and a Dutch girl named Tim,  and lucked into regular work thanks to a local harmonica player named Juan Guerrero.

I met Juan at a bar gig by the Caldonia Blues Band, a local outfit that played electric Chicago style. I’d brought my guitar, hoping to connect to the local scene, and Juan got excited because he was a Sonny Terry fan but had been stuck playing amplified because no one in Andalucia played acoustic blues. We jammed during the break, he asked how long I could stay in town, I said I could be there all winter, and he asked how many nights a week I wanted to work. I said six, figuring there was no way that would happen, and he said, “OK, check back with me in two weeks.”

Two weeks later I checked back with him and he’d found a bass player, Juan Arias, and booked us as either a duo or trio six nights a week for the next three months. We played every Monday in one bar, every Tuesday in another, and so on. He’d also named us the Mississippi Sheiks, which felt weird to me since I’d never been in Mississippi and that name was already taken by one of the great groups of the 1920s… but Juan liked it, and he was the boss.

The gigs were all full-night residencies, typically three one-hour sets with half hour breaks between, and sometimes a fourth set if the bar was still jumping. For the smaller places we worked acoustic, for the larger ones or when we had the bass we used a couple of small amps. It was great practice, and forced me to get back into blues, which I’d been moving away from over the previous few years as my tastes expanded. It also led to some interesting connections with local flamenco players, — Sevilla was a center of flamenco-blues fusion, thanks to a pair of Gypsy brothers who’d formed a band in the 1970s called La Pata Negra, mixing flamenco with Jeff Beck-style electric leads. (For a taste, check out their “Blues de la frontera.”) So I worked out a trade with a flamenco guitarist, during which he learned the basics of American fingerstyle blues and I learned I didn’t have the chops to play flamenco.

I’ll continue the story of that winter in the next post, but the longterm result was that fifteen years later I was back in town and dropped by La Carboneria, there was an acoustic blues duo onstage, and the guitarist got all excited because he had been inspired to learn blues as a kid by hearing me with the Sheiks.

As for the Seaboard railroad lines, they were part of a network that reached down to Florida, over to New Orleans, and up to New York. In The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson writes about the Seaboard as one of the main engines of the Great Migration, which adds another dimension to the song.

Goodnight Loving Trail (Utah Phillips)

I started singing this regularly for a very small audience of one, and before getting to the song and its composer, a few words about that…

In the mid 1980s Vera Singelyn was running a place in Antwerp that provided cheap rooms and dinners for street people and buskers, and she had a four-month-old son, Liam. He was a pretty tranquil kid but one evening he started crying just as she was trying to dish out food for a couple of dozen people, so I picked him up and bounced him, and when he kept crying I asked Vera if I could carry him around the block…

…and that became a regular evening ritual. I’d walk around the block with Liam in my arms, singing “Goodnight-Loving Trail,” and if he was still awake I’d move on to “Goodnight Irene” — he seemed to like waltzes — and then maybe to Rosalie Sorrels’s angry baby-rocking songs (“Today is the day we give babies away, with every packet of tea…”), and then, if necessary, back to “Goodnight-Loving Trail.”

So we got to be friends, and when Liam was feeling perky and cheerful I’d keep him on my lap through dinner and try out new foods on him. (That was when I discovered that babies like to eat lemons. Apparently their taste buds are not fully developed, so lemons taste to them kind of like oranges do to us.) After a while, the relationship got more formal — Vera provided me with a room in a house she had in the red light district, and I’d take Liam for a few hours in the afternoon. And that winter Vera and Liam met me in Madrid and we joined up with a Dutch girl named Tim and spent the winter in Sevilla.

I got regular gigs around town with a blues trio (about which more in the next posts), and Vera and Tim worked as street clowns. That meant I had Liam most afternoons and watched him learn his first words of parakeet — there was one hanging in a cage outside our parlor window and he picked its language up more easily than English, Flemish/Dutch, or Spanish. Spain was a good place to be with a baby — you could walk into any bar and before the bartender asked what you wanted to drink he’d hand the kid an olive or some candy. When Vera and I hitchhiked back to Antwerp that spring we spent a few days in Barcelona, and one night in a nice restaurant the waiter took Liam back to the kitchen shortly after we sat down and they kept him there for two hours, occasionally bringing him out so we could see he was enjoying himself.

That was also where Liam made his debut as a clown — by then, he knew that when Vera put on make-up she would be going out, so he would start screaming, and that afternoon we dealt with the situation by making him up as well and bringing him along. I waited till Vera had a crowd around her, then released him, and he ran over to her hat, picked it up, carried it around the circle, and made a small fortune in coins… then went back to the center of the circle, dumped the coins on the ground, picked up two handfuls, and started distributing them to the other children in the crowd.

As for “Goodnight-Loving Trail,” it’s by U. Utah Phillips, the Golden Voice of the Great Southwest. I met Bruce (as his friends called him) at the Caffe Lena in Saratoga, and he stayed with me whenever he was in Cambridge, and I stayed with him in Spokane and later in Grass Valley. He was genuinely a gentleman and a scholar, and one of his fields of scholarship was the old west. This song was inspired by the name of one of the major major cattle trails out of Texas, pioneered by Charlie Goodnight and Oliver Loving in the 1860s, which went up through New Mexico to Colorado and eventually Wyoming.

It’s a tribute to the camp cook, typically a retired cowboy who would be joshingly called the “old woman.” For those unfamiliar with cowboy lore:

  • Ride on the swing: The swing riders on a cattle drive are the next men back from the point rider, who leads, and their job is to stay close on either side and keep the cattle together.
  • The Triangle: The cook would typically beat on a big iron triangle to call the men to meals.
  • French harp: A harmonica. The term harp was being used for what we now call harmonicas as early as the 1820s, in analogy to the Aeolian harp, which makes music as wind blows through it. Curiously, the term “harmonica” was not yet being used at that point, but the first citation for the Aeolian harp derivation is in a music periodical called the Harmonicon, published in London in 1829. The first surviving use of “French harp” is in a poem from 1876, and soon after that the Carl Essbach company was using the term as a trade name for some of its harmonicas.
  • Snake oil: a common quack remedy, still popular in some places — on a bus in southern Mexico a few years ago, I had the pleasure of watching a salesman marketing aceite de vibora.

Incidentally, there is one more verse for this song, but I could never remember it and since I tend to trust the editing process of memory, I stopped trying.

Some of These Days (Antwerp/busking/Van Ronk)

I first visited Antwerp in the late 1970s, found it was a great town for busking, and in the 1980s I made it my base of operations for several years. That was largely thanks to Vera Singelyn, whom I met when she was running a sort of flophouse and soup kitchen that was a dinner stop and occasional lodging for much of the itinerant musical population. I don’t remember how I first met Vera, but it was probably at Den Billekletser, because that was where a lot of us called home during the daytimes. It was a bar on the Hoogstraat, near the banks of cafes surrounding the Cathedral, and we would start drinking coffee there in the morning, graduate to beer around noon, and continue through the evening between sorties to play the cafes, restaurants, and bars. Some people got their mail delivered there, and for ten years or so I would go there first whenever I hit town and find out who else was around and where they were living.

That’s where I met Derroll Adams, Jack Elliott’s old traveling partner, and the dazzling ragtime guitarist Leo Wijnkamp, and a charming English drinker and artist named Frank Allen who gave me a lovely wooden pipe he’d carved, and all sorts of other people.

It’s also possible that I met Vera at the Musik Doos, which was in a couple of different locations over the years and had a stage and microphones for whoever wanted to play a set and pass the hat. Etienne, the owner, was always good to me and I made a lot of friends there. Or maybe someone just brought me over to the place Vera was running to have some dinner.

Anyway, I became a regular and began minding her newborn son Liam while she dealt with cooking and riding herd on the mixed crowd of waifs and wastrels, and shortly she was letting me live in an apartment on the third floor of a house she had at Huikstraat 5, in the red light district. As I recall, Irish Tony and Jimmy were on the second floor, and Montana Bob and his daughter were on the fourth – or maybe Bob and his daughter had the other side of the third and my rock ‘n’ roll partner David Greeley was on the fourth.

I settled in and worked on learning three-row diatonic accordion and sometimes babysitting Liam, who gradually graduated from lying on his back to turning over, and then to crawling — and who seemed to be the only person who enjoyed my accordion playing.

The most musically educational experience of that period was working in a swing duo with Nick Boons, an excellent fiddler in the style of Stéphane Grappelli and the Hot Club de France. I’d work the cafe terraces in the daytime, and then Nick and I would get together and do the nice restaurants. We’d typically warm up by playing a standard in all twelve keys, and “Some of These Days” was one of our favorites, along with “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Blue Skies,” and “Marie.”

This was composed by Shelton Brooks, whom I’ve written about in my post on another of his enduring hits, “Darktown Strutters Ball” — which I’m sure we played as well. I always liked this song, but don’t recall performing it without Nick until I heard Dave Van Ronk’s version on his second swing CD, Sweet and Lowdown. As was his way, Dave wrote a great new introductory verse, and that got me singing it again, usually with my wife Sandrine on clarinet. Now I need to get back to Antwerp and try it again with Nick, whom I haven’t played with in almost thirty years — but see on Youtube looking exactly the same and sounding better than ever.

Hello, Mary Lou (rock ‘n’ roll busking)

By the later 1980s I was tired of scuffling on the US folk scene and headed back to Europe, where I could make a decent living as a busker — and for a change I spent a few months mostly playing  rock ‘n’ roll, first on the trains of the Paris Metro and then in the sailor bars of Antwerp.

I prepared for my return to Europe by learning to play alto saxophone — not well, heaven knows, but it was significantly louder than a guitar and a lot rarer on the busking scene. So I hit Paris, dropped in at Le Mazet to see who was around, then played some trains with the sax. I did ok, but didn’t stick with it because on my way home that evening a young American got on the train singing Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al,” we got to talking, I went over to his place the next day, and we formed a duo.

His name indeed was Al, and he was fresh from New York, escaping a future of merchant banking. He’d worked a few months as a waiter, but now was on the trains, and he played guitar and fiddle. Al had a strong voice and a lot of energy, and I found us a good bottler (hat passer) at Shakespeare & Company. I don’t recall her name, but she was Irish, with bright red hair, and also had a strong voice. So we put together an act: as we boarded a train car, she’d jump onto a seat and announce “Mesdames et Messieurs! Un vrai show du rock ‘n’ roll americain!” I’d be in the middle of the car playing rhythm guitar and harmonizing on the choruses, while Al rushed up and down the aisle, singing lead and engaging directly with everyone — if someone tried to ignore him by reading a magazine, he’d sit next to them, reading over their shoulder as he sang. We alternated “Bye Bye Love” and Buddy Holly’s “Oh Boy,” and then Al would climb onto a seat, standing up with his fiddle, and play “Orange Blossom Special” while almost falling off, and the Irishwoman would pass the hat. We made good money, and our rule was that however much we made, we had to spend half of it on dinner, and it was Paris…

So that was a couple of weeks, and then I headed up to Antwerp. As I recall, I spent part of that summer playing older pop standards, sometimes with Nick Boons on violin (about which more in the next post), then put together another rock ‘n’ roll show with an American named David Greeley, a good singer who had made a couple of albums in the 1970s with a contemporary gospel band called Life Unlimited. Our show was designed for the tough bars where the sailors hung out, which usually didn’t allow buskers. We’d go in and ask if we could play, and they’d say no, and we’d make a deal: we’d do one song, and if they didn’t want to hear another we’d leave without bothering the customers for money. So they’d grumble a bit, but give us a chance….

We’d open with the theme from Rawhide, which had been popular in Europe thanks to Clint Eastwood, and on the chorus I’d crack a bullwhip (actually, it was a leather dog lead, but it cracked fine), and they were ours. So then we’d do something together — “Bye Bye Love” or Buddy Holly — and then David would take the guitar and start singing “When a Man Loves a Woman” while I went outside and assembled my sax, and I’d come through the door playing a low-range obbligato under his second chorus. We’d finish with “Let’s Twist Again,” with a sax solo I played while standing on a table or walking the bar in my black cowboy boots, then I’d jump off and we’d do the bridge with tight choreography for the “round and round and up and down” part, and they’d give us lots of money and a round of drinks and we’d move on to the next bar.

There were occasional variants: I recall one bar where the jukebox was playing John Denver’s “Country Roads” as we arrived, and we did our set and it went fine, and then they asked if we could sing “Country Roads.” We could and did, and they liked it enough that they asked us to sing it again, and gave us some more money. And then we left, to the sound of the jukebox playing “Country Roads.”

None of which connects directly to “Hello, Mary Lou,” except that I was working on my rock ‘n’ roll oldies repertoire and when I went out alone I played this as well as the Everly and Holly songs, and had a nicer guitar arrangement for it. I learned it off a record by Gene Pitney, which I picked up at a yard sale for next to nothing back in my teens — the hit version was by Ricky Nelson, but Pitney wrote it and I liked his version. It wasn’t as fancy as “Town without Pity” or “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” but more fun.

Wolfman of Del Rio (Terry Allen/Wolfman Jack)

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.

Brownskin Girl (Joseph Spence)

I’ve been fascinated by the Bahamian genius Joseph Spence since I was a kid, and by 1986 I’d worked out rough and inaccurate approximations of a few of his pieces. This was one of my favorites off his Folkways album, and it came in handy when I hitchhiked down through Mexico, up through Guatemala, and wound up in Belize.

My ride dropped me in Belize City around mid-afternoon, and I wandered the streets looking for someplace cheap to stay. In those days the town looked like a rundown Caribbean port in an old movie: lines of battered, close-packed houses with carved wooden balconies sagging in the tropical heat. I was directed to a Chinese hotel that was like the place Bogart met Tim Holt and Walter Huston in Treasure of the Sierra Madre — the “rooms” were just cubicles separated by chicken wire, each with a cot and not much else. It looked thoroughly uncomfortable, and a fan at the end of the hall was doing nothing to combat the heat, so I gave it a pass.

The alternative was to find someone who would put me up, and since I didn’t have a clue where that person might be, I wandered over to the port. The fishing boats had come in and young men were sorting fish into baskets and hawking them to customers, cleaning them on the stones and tossing the guts over a low wall into the water. I walked by with my guitar, and a couple of them called me over. I don’t remember what I played first — probably some blues followed by a country song, since the nearby bar was decorated with posters of Bob Marley and Willie Nelson and I didn’t play reggae. Anyway, they enjoyed it and  then, after a bit, I played this song and a couple of them began singing along.

I’d never known the words, since I’d only heard it done by Spence, who tended to mumble more than sing. So that was a nice surprise. They sang:

Brownskin girl, stay home and mind the baby.
Brownskin girl, stay home and mind the baby
.
If you go away in a sailing boat,
And if you don’t come back,
Please take that damn baby.

I later learned this was a variant of the usual words — “Papa’s gone away in a sailing boat/ And if he don’t come back/ Stay home and mind the baby.” Obviously, an improvement.

Anyway, I ended up spending the night with one of the fish cleaners. He had a tiny place, just a shack big enough for a stove and a bunk bed, and he let me sleep in the top bunk. He explained that a young woman often slept there, but she was a prostitute so probably wouldn’t need it during the night.

He took me to a nearby restaurant where I played and got us a meal, then we joined some friends of his, drank some beers, and ended up back at his place. His roommate did come in later that night and offered to join me, but everyone was tired so instead she split the lower bunk with my host, we all got some sleep, and the next morning I hitched north to Mexico.

As for Spence, I’ve written about him in posts for “Glory of Love” and “Sloop John B,” and on the page for my instructional DVD on his guitar style. I got more serious about working out his arrangements in the 2000s, and the DVD includes a fairly complete exploration of “Brownskin Girl,” along with “Glory of Love,” “Coming In On a Wing and a Prayer,” “That Glad Reunion Day,” “Oh, How I Love Jesus,” and “The Lord is My Shepherd.”

Gritenme Piedras del Campo

Hitching along the Gulf Coast from Louisiana, I planned to spend a couple of weeks in Texas, but I got hassled by the cops in Galveston and it was freezing in Corpus Christi, so I scampered down to Mexico. They wouldn’t let me across the border without a bus ticket to someplace, so I picked Ciudad Victoria and spent my first evening roaming the local cantinas as third man in a norteño trio.

I spent the winter of 1985-6 hitchhiking around Mexico, with a brief swing through Guatemala and Belize, and it was great. I had maybe a hundred dollars when I crossed the border and eked that out by playing for tips and food. Sometimes I did the strolling minstrel thing, including a very pleasant week matching songs with the mariachis and norteño trios at the portales in Veracruz; sometimes I played for tips in tourist restaurants; I got an actual club gig in Antigua, Guatemala, which led to a bizarre evening as guest of Sgt. Barry Sadler; and a lot of times I just traded songs for tacos from street vendors — a good deal for all concerned, since a gringo singing for tacos tended to draw curious onlookers who also bought tacos.

I’d prepared for the trip by learning some Mexican ranchera songs, mostly from Flaco Jiménez albums: “Ni el dinero ni nada,” “Tu nuevo cariñito,” “Besos y copas” (though that one came from Chavela Ortíz), and “Gritenme piedras del campo.”

Like much of the classic tejano or norteño repertoire, this was actually a movie mariachi standard, which was good because it meant I had some repertoire for the older generation in central and southern Mexico who thought of the border accordion style as low-class — fans of classic ranchera despised it almost as much as Sinatra fans of the same generation despised rock ‘n’ roll.

I got my first taste of those older tastes one evening in Guanajuato. I was walking around with my guitar slung over my shoulder, and a kid started following me and eventually struck up a conversation. I played him a couple of songs, and he said I must come to dinner at his father’s office. Since he was only eleven years old, I doubted his father would second that motion and tried to politely decline, but he declared: “If you do not come, it will be an insult to my honor.” So what could I do?

As it turned out, his father was a coffin maker whose hobby was taxidermy, and his “office” was filled with wooden coffins, stacked on metal shelves up to the ceiling, and stuffed birds of prey. The boy introduced me and started cooking — his mother had died when he was small, and the two of them were the family. He was, as it happened, an astonishing cook — when he learned I liked chiles, he went to the freezer and pulled out bags with a dozen different varieties and explained what each contributed to a good sauce. Meanwhile, his father was horrified to learn that I liked norteño and proceeded to play me records of the “real” Mexican singers: Amalia Mendoza, Lola Beltran, the Trio Calaveras… I don’t remember who all he played, but one of the women sang this song and he was very pleased that I knew it.

This was written by Cuco Sánchez, a fine singer, guitarist, sometime actor, and terrific composer. I never listened to him much, but there are plenty of clips from his movies on Youtube. This is among his most famous songs, a classic of ranchera heartache:

Speak to me, mountains and valleys,
Shout to me, stones of the countryside.
When have you seen [anyone] in life,
Love as I am loving,
Cry as I am crying,
Die as I am dying?

In the end, I am in this world like the feather in the air
Without direction I go through life,
Without direction I go through life,
For this, you are guilty…