All posts by Elijah Wald

Tennessee Flat-Top Box (Johnny Cash)

This was the first guitar solo I ever learned, through an odd confluence of coincidences. I got Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire LP in Falmouth, Ring_of_Fire_-_The_Best_of_Johnny_Cashwhere the record store on Main St. had a discount bin and I could easily persuade my mother to take chances on unfamiliar material. Cash was definitely that, for us, and when we got home and listened, my mother was instantly turned off — she didn’t like his hyper-macho voice and the overblown arrangements, and her dislike was cemented by the lyrics of “Remember the Alamo”: “Hey, Santy Ana, we’re killing your soldiers below/ So men wherever they go/ Will remember the Alamo.”

Seth ShulmanBe that as it may, I listened to it sometimes, and then I was over at Seth Shulman’s house — the one time I ever recall visiting him. Seth had blown me away in fourth grade by bringing his guitar for “show and tell,” and performing a Beatles song. I don’t remember which Beatles song, but it was way beyond my abilities, as was the whole idea of performing anything on guitar — I had one already, but could barely pick out simple melodies. Seth and I were not super-close friends, but we were always friendly and I had huge respect for his guitaristic abilities, which is probably why I was invited over to his house.

I think I was only there once, and we went up to his room and played guitar, and he had the Newport Folk Festival Songbook, which I had never seen. We were going through it, and it had Newport songbook“Tennessee Flat-Top Box” — not only the words and melody, but the guitar solo. It was just an extension of a basic bass run in C, and I could read enough music to figure it out, so I did. Seth and I played together for an hour or so, and then we went downstairs and played for his mother, and then I went home, and that was that — except that almost fifty years later, I still know the damn thing.

Incidentally, Seth is now a respected science journalist, with multiple books to his credit, and he lives in Western Mass, and we really should get together one of these days. I have no idea if he still plays guitar.

I Just Don’t Want to Be Rich

This is another I picked up from Sam Hinton’s Song of Men LP — I don’t recall listening to that record much, but when I look back at it, I remember a surprising number of the songs — which I guess means I didn’t love his performances, but appreciated his taste.

sam hinton as hoboThis is one of many funny hobo songs that circulated in the early 20th century, of which the most famous were “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” and “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” I haven’t found any earlier source for this song than Hinton, who wrote that he’d learned it from his uncle Bubba in Oklahoma, around 1928. [Later: see below*]

Hinton was a popular left-wing folksinger on the West Coast, more or less in the Pete Seeger mold, and I honestly don’t know much about him, except that he was a Marine biologist and a good harmonica player, and happened to lend his guitar to Bob Dylan for the morning ballad workshop at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963.

I grew up on stories of bright lads leaving home to seek their fortunes, as did Dylan and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Woody Guthrie before them. A lot of people enjoyed those stories without following through on the urge to live that life, and when I took it up for about a dozen years I discovered that respectable people with good jobs often picked me up hitchhiking and went into long soliloquies about how they wished they could pack it all in, hit the road, and be free like me. This lyric exemplifies that attitude, while simultaneously poking fun at it, and is a nice antidote to all the songs about the loneliness of the open road — which is not to say it is more accurate.

As for the line about eating from a tin can — during my wandering years I often carried a can of baked beans in my pack for nights when I got stuck out on the road and wanted something in my stomach. So, during my brief period of riding the rails, I ended up on the yards in Pasco, Washington, with some old hobos, and got out my can of beans, and offered to share, and they were all horrified that I wasn’t taking the trouble to make a fire and heat the can, because they didn’t see why anyone would want to eat cold beans. I’m not sure what the moral of that story is, and hadn’t thought about it in years, but this song reminded me.

* More than a year after I first posted this, Paul Stamler alerted me to an online discussion I’d missed, which sent me to the original recording by Carson Robison, titled “Naw! I Don’t Wanta Be Rich.” Apparently this was also released as “You Wonder Why I’m a Hobo,” though I can’t find any solid evidence of that version… and listening to Robison’s 1930 version on Youtube I find that most of the lyrics are different, so maybe he also recorded a different version, or maybe Sam Hinton’s uncle got it from a different source, or maybe Hinton or his uncle did some lyric doctoring.

The Miller’s Will (Sam Hinton)

One of many songs about the rapacity of millers, notorious back to Chaucer’s time and probably long before.

Along with the singers who became my personal models and heroes, there were some  I just happened to see in concert, or who recorded a song or album that caught my fancy. I think I first heard sam hintonSam Hinton on a Newport Folk Festival LP, where he did “The Arkansas Traveler,” playing the fiddle part on harmonica. (I later learned that he held the harmonica in his mouth without a holder, while simultaneously playing guitar.) Then I picked up his Song of Men LP, and learned a few songs from it, including “The Miller’s Will” and a minor masterpiece called “It’s a Long Way from Amphioxus” — Hinton worked at the Scripps Institute of marine biology in San Diego, and the song was apparently composed at the Woods Hole Marine sam hinton LPBiological Laboratories, where my parents worked in the summer. It was the kind of thing college students composed to amuse one another, back when they were making up silly songs rather than silly raps, and was full of ornate scientific terminology: “A fishlike thing appeared among the anilids one day/ It hadn’t any parapods or cetae to display…” and so forth, as I recall, though I may not recall very well.

Hinton wrote that he learned “The Miller’s Will” in East Texas and its melody resembled “the fine old fiddle tune known as ‘The Pigtown Hoedown.'” I like its critique of filthy capitalists, and also the rhyme of “Ralph” with “half,” a British pronunciation that has died out except among old-school traditionalists like Ralph Fiennes, and which I can’t sing without it sounding weird.

Iko Iko (David & Roselyn/ African guitar)

maskedIt’s Mardi Gras, so chronology be damned…

The first time I went to New Orleans was in 1987. I hitchhiked down the east coast, hugging the shore most of the way, and it took a few weeks, during which I fronted a country band in Southport, North Carolina; played oldies in a biker bar in Myrtle Beach; jammed with a Dixieland band in Charleston; painted a house in the Georgia Sea Islands; slept in a park in Savannah until the sprinklers came on; had my first taste of boiled peanuts at a roadside stand outside Boston (the Boston near Waycross); sang the requisite Jimmie Buffett songs in a bayside bar in Choctaw Beach, Florida; and don’t remember anything about the rides through Alabama or Mississippi.

In New Orleans, I cadged a bed from my sister’s partner’s mom’s apartment-sitter and hit the streets in hopes of making a little money from the tourists, only to discover how hopeless it was to work the French Quarter solo with an acoustic guitar. Fortunately, I met David and Roselyn…

David and Roselyn cassetteThey were living in a Dodge van with their two youngest kids, Autumn and Stormy, and taking showers at the apartment their middle daughter, Arlee, was renting in the Quarter. They knew nothing about me except that I had just got to town and was stuck, but loaned me a battery-powered amplifier so I could compete with the noise on Bourbon St., and I teamed up with a pair of tap dancers who figured live music might be a good gimmick, and we did OK.

That was the first of many visits — the next time was for Jazzfest, sleeping in a tent in a vacant lot owned by Alan Toussaint, next to the van where Toussaint’s juggling teacher slept.  Then David and Roselyn got a house in the Upper Ninth ward, and that’s where they are still, except when they’re on tour or visiting one of their kids. They celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary a half-dozen years ago, and when Sandrine and I decided to get married, we figured it would be good luck to have them officiate, and they were kind enough to come up to Boston and do the honors.

wedding photo

We’re long overdue for the next visit, and so is everyone else who doesn’t live there — especially today, when David and Roselyn are riding with Rex in the Mardi Gras parade.

If you’ve got the money or the connections, hire them! They’re great! There’s lots more about them on their website.

dixie cupsAs for “Iko, Iko,” I’m pretty sure the first version I heard was by the Dixie Cups, and I’m pretty sure it’s still my favorite. This is also the song that sent me to the Congo to study with Jean-Bosco Mwenda — I spent many roadside hours on that hitchhiking trip trying to figure out how to fingerpick this rhythm, and decided I needed help.

Hard, Ain’t It Hard (Woody and Cisco)

This was one of the many songs Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston recorded together, with Woody typically singing lead. My mother was good about buying me records, and among the first I persuaded her to get were the Woody and Cisco albums issued in the Archive of Folk Music series, a budget series mostly made up of old Woody archive of folkStinson recordings, from which I also got the Sonny Terry, Memphis Slim, Pete Seeger, Josh White, Leadbelly, Jack Elliott, and Champion Jack Dupree LPs.  The crediting often had little to do with who was singing lead on them — the Sonny Terry, I later learned, was an album called Chain Gang, with Woody in charge–and the Woody and Cisco albums both had songs with both of them, so I had to check to see which this was on. It was Woody’s, which may well have been the first LP of his I ever owned, and he’s the voice I hear in my head, but the verses I sing are from Cisco’s songbook.

Those guys were kind of like my imaginary friends, and I was far from alone: when I met Bill Morrissey many years later, we could harmonize on all the Woody and Cisco songs, and that was also the repertoire Bob Dylan and Jim Kweskin sang when they did gigs together in the early 1960s. In the new millennium, it seems to have become fashionable to refer to Harry Smith’s anthology as the Bible of the folk revival, but in breadth of influence that set never came close to Woody and Cisco.

Most of this material — Woody and Cisco knocking out old songs they both knew — is now available on Smithsonian/Folkwawoody and ciscoys, sounding better than ever, and I wish it was getting more attention. These days Woody seems to mostly be appreciated for his songwriting, and I don’t hear a lot of people talking about his recordings of old-time country music. Of course he was a great songwriter, but what changed my life was his singing and playing — not just guitar, but harmonica, mandolin, and fiddle — and the way he and Cisco worked together.

Pay Me My Money Down

I play this in an African-influenced guitar style I developed much later, but it is one of those songs I “always” knew. My original source was Phyllis Switzer (later Goldstein), who led a folksong singalong for kids at the MBL (Marine Biological Laboratories) Club in Woods Hole every summer. Phyllis’s repertoire was overwhelmingly Phyllis Switzerdrawn from Pete Seeger, so she probably got this from him or the Weavers. They presumably got it from Alan Lomax, who recorded a version from dock workers in Georgia in the 1940s for the Library of Congress, or from Lydia Parrish’s book, Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands, or both.

I don’t remember how much Phyllis told us about the song, but she would have connected it to broader labor issues, and very likely to civil rights. I can still picture her standing in the MBL Club, with all of us sitting in a semi-circle on the floor around her, acting the part of the giant in Pete’s story of “Abiyoyo,” or leading us in “Everybody Loves Saturday Night” — an internationalist children’s ditty, consisting of the title phrase sung in various languages, of which my unreliable memory has retained only one verse, which mutates from Japanese into French…

Phyllis also teamed up with Liz Davis to produce annual Gilbert and Sullivan operettas — the one time I took part, I was part of a Japanese chorus in The Mikado, wearing a black stocking to simulate a pigtail. Not a particularly fond memory, though I still remember a lot of the lyrics, but I owe Phyllis the rest of my life because she took a few of us kids to see a concert by Seeger and ClearwaterPete and the crew of the sloop Clearwater when they docked in Woods Hole for a couple of days. I remember Lou Killen singing a song about soccer (I’m guessing it was “Footba’ Crazy”) and Jimmy Collier and the Rev. Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick singing “Everybody’s Got a Right to Live.” I don’t remember what Pete sang, but seeing him onstage was what made me decide to be a professional folksinger.

In my memory, I was seven when Phyllis took us to that concert, and it was what first got me into folksinging, but according to the history books it must have been 1969, which means I would have been ten and had already been playing guitar for a couple of years. Maybe Phyllis knew that, and that’s why she took me? In any case, it changed my life, and I am forever in her debt.

Frozen Logger (James Stevens)

 

What better song for a wintry February day than a doleful waltz about a lonely waitress lamenting the tragic death of her sweetheart, on his way home from their final tryst…

Frozen LoggerThis is another I got from Cisco — I’d heard it before I discovered him, sung by Oscar Brand on Everybody Sing! Songs for Juniors, and vaguely recall a verse in which, after the logger freezes to death, they stick him outside as a hitching post — but the version I learned was from Cisco’s songbook, and I still picture the accompanying illustration when I think of it.

I always enjoyed the story, but never gave a thought to who might have written it or why until now — and I’m pleased to find that the author, James Stevens, a self-described “hobo laborer with wishful literary yearning,” actually spent some of his youth working in the logging camps of the Pacific Northwest, wrote multiple books about Paul Bunyan, and became the public relations director for the West Coast Lumberman’s Association.

JamesStevensIn “Bunk Shanty Ballads and Tales,” a talk for the Oregon Historical Society, Stevens explained that  he composed “The Frozen Logger” for a radio program of Paul Bunyan stories in 1929. The talk also includes a nice example of who the anti-immigrant crowd was targeting back in the 1920s, recalling an editor friend in Oregon receiving “a triumphal poem on the fact that a bunch of dusky foreigners had been fired from a sawmill, leaving only one-hundred percent Nordic type Caucasoid millhands on the pay-roll.” The last verse boasted:

Now our mothers and wives can go and get themselves a seat
In our motion picture show without setting next to a Greek.

Rambling, Gambling Man (Cisco Houston)

Cisco again. I sang this one constantly as a kid, which must have sounded pretty funny. As an interesting commentary on how the standards of the folk song scene have changed, Cisco referred to this as a traditional song, but Guy Logsdon, in his notes to the Smithsonian/Folkways CD of Houston’s work, describes it as Cisco’s composition, or at least adaptation, noting that he recorded it for a commercial label, Decca Records, in the early 1950s and it was also published as sheet music in 1952.

My battered and coverless copy of Cisco’s songbook.

These days, we are more likely to hear people criticizing Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and others for “stealing” traditional melodies and lyrics, so it’s worth remembering that there was a time when folksingers were at least as likely to pawn off their compositions or adaptations as “traditional.” John Jacob Niles famously presented several of his own compositions as traditional, then got very irritated when other folksingers copyrighted “Black is the Color,” for example, as a Public Domain song they had collected and arranged.

Be that as it may, this is another romantic Western ballad, based on an older song called “Roving Gambler,” and a good example of the sort of middle ground between what cowboys sang out west and what cowboy folksingers sang back east.

Great July Jones (Cisco Houston)

As I’m picking songs to include in this project, one criterion is if no one else seems to be doing them. This one clearly makes the cut on that basis, since as far as I can tell no one but Cisco and I has ever sung it. Also because it’s one of his few original compositions, apparently co-written with Lewis Allen, the pen name of Abel Meeropol, who is better known for writing “Strange Fruit” and “The House I Live In.” When folk music became a pop commodity, first on the New York cabaret scene and then on the national hit parade, Meeropol was among the professional tunesmiths who tried his hand at writing pseudo-folk material such as Josh White’s “Apples, Peaches, and Cherries,” later a hit for Peggy Lee.

I had no idea Meeropol had a hand in this song, much less that it had been issued in sheet music with a mustache-less, matinee idol photo of Cisco on the cover, suggesting it was intended for the broader pop market. I thought it was just Cisco’s attempt to craft  a feminist cowboy song, and learned it in that spirit, since I was growing up in a feminist household and there weren’t many cowboy songs tailored to that audience.

 

Zebra Dun (Jack Thorpe)

This is another cowboy song from Cisco Houston, off that first American Folk Songs album, which I’ve kept singing pretty regularly as a kind of apologia pro vita mia. Growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as the child of two professors, it was obvious that my roots were different from Woody’s or Cisco’s, or from all the heroes of the pirate and western sagas I liked to read. So this ballad about someone who looks like a city dude and talks educated English, but is nonetheless an authentic cowboy, had a special appeal.

thorpsongs
Dust jacket of the 1921 reprint by Houghton Mifflin

I’m clearly not the only one who felt that way, since a lot of other singers have recorded this over the years, starting with Jules Verne Allen in 1928. Allen was one of the first genuine cowboys to record, and his name suggests the literary tastes that sent a lot of boys (and some girls) west in search of adventure. One of them was N. Howard “Jack” Thorpe, who first collected this song from someone named Randolph Reynolds on New Mexico’s Carrizozo Flats in 1890, and included it in Songs of the Cowboys, the first issued collection of cowboy songs, which he self-published in 1908.

jack thorpe
Jack Thorpe on his horse, Lark

I recently picked up a copy of Thorpe’s memoir, Pardner of the Wind, which explains that he was born in New York in 1867, the son of a wealthy lawyer, and grew up between there and summers in Newport, honing his riding skills by playing on a polo team with Theodore Roosevelt. He went west in his teens, and by 1890 was a full-fledged cowboy, working as an “outside man,” which meant his job was to travel beyond the home ranch in search of cattle that had strayed into other herds. In the process, he was visiting all the other ranches and camps in southern New Mexico, and along the way he picked up a lot of songs — though he explains that most came it bits and pieces, a verse here and a verse there, and “many of the songs had to be dry-cleaned for unprintable words before they went to press.” He refers to this song as “The Educated Feller,” and writes, “It’s as typical of the range as ants in chuck wagon biscuits.