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…”

Ain’t You Sorry (Mance Lipscomb)

This is a favorite from Mance Lipscomb which I learned in Antwerp after that winter fronting a trio in Sevilla. Within the first week or so of getting back to Belgium I got together with a very nice woman named Miet and over the next month or so gradually moved from the third floor of Vera’s building in the red light district to Miet’s apartment on the Vogelmarkt. That became my European base for the next couple of years and was a good place for a busker to be living, a block from the cafe terraces in front of the Rubens house (I never liked his painting, never went in, but the terraces were great for busking and there was a good used bookstore next door) and an easy walk to the cafes by the central station in one direction and the cafes near the Groenplaats in the other.

As noted in previous posts, the residency in Sevilla had gotten me back into country blues, and there were a few people in Antwerp who were good fingerpickers and knew that repertoire. The first I’d met back in the 1970s: a guy named Marc Chaltin who played Gary Davis style with just his thumb and middle finger, a fingerpicker from Liverpool named Les Clague, who killed me with his Blind Blake stuff, and Leo Wijnkamp, one of the great Dutch ragtime players. Now I met a younger player, Dirk Poel, who as I recall had studied flamenco with the Flemish guitarist and songwriter Wannes van de Velde.

I only got together with Dirk a couple of times, but he turned me on to this song: my memory is that he was trying to figure out how to play it, asked me on his first visit, and I listened and figured it out, then showed it to him on his second — but it may be that he had already figured it out and showed it to me. Either way, I owe him because it’s a great guitar part and made me go back and pay more attention to Lipscomb’s playing, and singing, and song selection.

I had not fully appreciated Lipscomb’s music, because it was so relaxed and understated. I was charmed by his versions of old pop songs and had learned his arrangement of “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” but had never paid much attention to his blues — which was stupid, because he was both a very quirky and a very tasteful musician. This song is a good example, with its unusual bassline kicking the rhythm along. I mostly do different verses than he recorded and play different breaks, but the basic chart is his and started me on a Mance kick that lasted through the next few years.

As for Dirk, he’s still going strong, playing with my old friend and sometime partner Ludo Beckers — who also used to play harmonica with Les back in the 1970s. Anyway, they’re both still playing great — and Ludo sent me some corrections to an earlier version of this post — and here’s a video from a show in November or them doing a favorite from Bo Carter:

Castration of the Strawberry Roan

This is an excellent example of the kind of material that has always been popular in all-male environments — cattle drives, merchant and naval ships, army barracks — except a lot of that material is sexual or misogynist, while this is just brutally realistic, matching its language to the setting and circumstance. (Which is to say: WARNING! Raw language ahead.)

I heard this from Glenn Ohrlin, a legit cowboy and one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, and recall singing it for my traveling companion, Jasper Winn, as we rambled through Hungary in 1988. I’d known Jasper for ten years at that point and traveled with him over much of Europe, but as far as I recall he’d never horses, so it was startling to discover that he was an accomplished rider even by Hungarian standards, which are about as high as it gets. We were hoping to get horses and do some traveling that way, which didn’t work out, but we did visit a bunch of cowboys out on the puszta, the Hungarian prairies. They used a kind of saddle that was just a pad with stirrups, with no cinch under the horse’s belly. If you put your foot in one stirrup to mount, you pulled the saddle off the horse’s back — which meant I couldn’t mount, period. Jasper’s solution was to raise one leg and flow onto the horse, a technique he’d picked up for riding bareback. The Hungarians considered this to be cheating — their technique was to reach across the horse’s back and grab the opposite stirrup leather, balancing the weight of their foot in the near stirrup — but they were impressed.

So anyway, we were talking about horses a lot, which reminded me of this song, and I sang it for Jasper, and he declared it the most realistic cowboy song he’d ever heard, which was good enough for me. (He went on to spend years traveling to horse cultures around the world, riding and writing about them, and I wish he’d do a book about those adventures. Instead, he’s been doing books on paddling a kayak around Ireland and negotiating the English waterways.)

This song was written by Curley Fletcher as a parody of his own poem, “The Strawberry Roan.” Some Hollywood writers had added a chorus to the poem, which he hated, and he responded by writing this sequel using their chorus, which then got recorded as a “party record” by the Sons of the Pioneers. Their version is somewhat different from Ohrlin’s, and I have no idea which is closer to Fletcher’s original. In any case, the castration version quickly became popular in oral cowboy culture — the combination of raw humor, clinical detail, and the boss’s final comeuppance were irresistible.

In his anthology of cowboy lyrics, The Whorehouse Bells Were Ringing, Guy Logsdon explains that Fletcher wrote the original poem in 1914 and although he was known for writing dirty parodies of his own songs, no one recalls hearing this one until the 1940s. Before that he was apparently doing a different parody, a sixteen-verse saga that graphically reworked the original theme of a cowboy confronting a particularly vicious horse, ending:

I lays in the mud, its the end of the trail,
Old Strawberry turns and he lifts up his tail,
For I was the loser, went down in disgrace,
And now that it’s over, he shits in my face.

In case anyone finds this material offensive, I would note Jasper’s comment when I first sang it, which is that he knew an older horsewoman back in Ireland who was thoroughly respectable and would never tolerate bad language, but had supervised enough gelding operations that she would enjoy this song. Cowboys were romantic enough, in their way, but it was in their way… and Fletcher addressed that issue in another poem, variously called “The Open Book,” “The Open Ledger,” and other titles. You can find it online, but the opening verses kind of sum up the theme:

You’ve been tamped full of shit about cowboys,
They are known as a romantic band,
Bold knights of the saddle, who herd the wild cattle,
And roll cigarettes with one hand.

Now according to song and to story,
He’s a sheik in a ten-gallon hat.
All he knows of romance is the crotch of his pants.
What the hell do you think about that?

For other, less graphic, versions of the cowboy legend, check out my pages on “Zebra Dun” and “The Killer.” Or to dig deeper into the issue of folklore censorship, check out “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Meanwhile, here’s a picture Jasper took of me with my standard traveling rig during that trip through Hungary.

And, to finish up…

Jasper writes:
Several years later I went back to the Hortobagy and met the same horsemen…. The big changes in Hungary have brought big changes to the traditional life of the Hortobagy, and it’s getting harder and harder to interest youngsters – even the sons of herders and horsemen – in a life which mostly revolves around being too hot or too cold for long days and sitting around watching a bunch of animals eat grass. The shows of old horsemen skills liven up life for them a bit and bring in some money but the traditions are becoming pretty showbiz at that point. Then again, what showbiz. The Puszta Five – a whip-cracking guy standing on the back of two galloping horses whilst driving another three in front of him – the Roman riding of circuses – had grown into the Puszta Twelve when I was last out there doing stories on that kind of thing.

Big Road Blues (Tommy Johnson)

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.

Revisiting the songs that have made a home in my head