Drowning in Beer (Erik Frandsen)

A classic that somehow has not appeared on the internet yet, as far as I know — though I’m sure there are at least a few dozen people who know it, and far more who love it. It was written by the munificently multi-talented Erik Frandsen, and I learned it off the same homemade tape on which Erik played Tom Hobson’s epic masterpiece, “Fancy-Pants Gambling Man.”

I got to hear Erik live a year or so later at Folk City, with Dave Van Ronk at my elbow, grumbling about what a great guitarist Erik was and explaining that he practiced while watching the Mets — which led to a brief period when I practiced while watching the Red Sox, until the salt from my tears wore the varnish off my J45. (Those were the days before the Sox became a rich and winning team and I lost interest.)

I heard Erik again a few years later at the Speak Easy on MacDougal — not a full set, but he’d drop across the street from his apartment now and then, and I recall a night when a typically maudlin young singer-songwriter performed a typically solipsistic paean to his deeply meaningful angst, and Erik took the stage immediately afterward and sang a tender saloon ballad with the self-explanatory title, “I’m So Fucking Sensitive.”

Anyway, Erik is still a terrific guitarist, but far more successful as an actor, and you’ve probably seen him on television, one way or another. Which is all well and good, but damn… he also wrote “Drowning in Beer,” and I would have thought someone would have erected a monument in his honor by now for that alone. And, by the by, why hasn’t Willie Nelson recorded this?

(Incidentally, it strikes me that this would be an excellent companion piece to one of my few legit bits of family folklore, my father’s Yiddish dialect parody of “The Face on the Barroom Floor,” which I really need to film and post at some point in this Songobiography, because the written text does not do it justice.)

Another Time and Place (Dave Van Ronk)

One of Dave Van Ronk’s loveliest compositions, this recalls his longtime lady, Joanne Grace, and also takes me back to my brief connection with the Speak Easy club on MacDougal Street. Joanne was a smart, dark, funny, and encouraging presence throughout my early years with Dave. The mid-to-late 1970s was a tough time for him, but there were also a lot of good moments and she stood the gaff and always welcomed me into their place on Sheridan Square, hung in as long as she could, and never complained when we stayed up drinking and arguing for long hours after she had wandered off to sleep.

I don’t remember the exact chronology, but assume Dave wrote this either during or immediately after the break-up, which I recall as happening over a few years. Then she was gone, and I’ve had no news of her since. There were rumors that she turned up at Dave’s memorial, but I didn’t see her, and I’ve asked various people and searched the internet with no success. Part of the fault may be mine: when I wrote my memoir of Dave in The Mayor of MacDougal Street, she was in the first several drafts, but somehow in the editing process those parts got cut–his part of the book ended before her arrival, and my part was where she fitted, and then she got left out of my telling as well. I wish I could do that over, because Joanne was a big part of my time with Dave, and of his life.

I was back and forth through New York during those years, and in the early 1980s turned up pretty regularly because a new club had opened and Dave thought I should be part of it. It was called the Speak Easy, and is best remembered for its connection with a regular LP/newsletter called Fast Folk, which documented the performers who performed there. I came in for the weekly open mike a few times over the course of several months, did a “new faces” showcase, and generally hung out at the bar with Dave, who was its eminence grise–or one of them, at any rate. Another was Cynthia Gooding, a regal presence who was also a regular at the bar (her daughter Leyla was the bartender), joking with Dave and critiquing the breath control of the young singers onstage.

It was a good time, and I met a lot of interesting people there: The one time I met Shel Silverstein, he and Dave spent a couple of hours at the bar planning a duet album — Shel wanted to record it in Sweden, and the only song they agreed on was a duet of “My Dolly Playmate.” Erik Frandsen tended to drop around, since he lived across the street, and David Massengill, Frank Christian, Constance Taylor… a bunch of talented people, and a bunch who weren’t so talented, some of them running things and being obnoxious to newcomers and outsiders…

My favorite denizens included a sax player named Chuck Hancock, who joined me for a couple of open mike performances, and Hollywood Dick Doll, who performed wonderfully odd songs with back-up by a lissome blonde who went by the name of Doll Baby. (Chuck still plays with an astonishing range of bands around New York, Dick has become a legendary Seattle busker known as PK Dwyer, and Doll Baby is now a writer, Rebecca Chace.) I had some fun nights there, and then I went out touring and when I got back things had changed, or I had, and that was that. Another time and place…


Come Back, Baby (Walter Davis)

Walter Davis’s masterpiece is a good example of the disconnect between blues in its time and the way the music’s history has been reshaped and misunderstood: one of the biggest hits in the genre, by a major recording star, it has often been treated as an anonymous folk song and its composer all but forgotten.

Davis was one of the most successful of the wave of blues ballad singers who followed Leroy Carr to the pinnacle of the “race” recording market in the 1930s. Record sales had fallen off due to the Depression, but were reinvigorated by the rise of jukeboxes, and these moody, piano-backed balladeers perfectly suited a late-night saloon atmosphere.

Born in Grenada, Mississippi, just east of the Delta region, Davis was one of the most influential artists to come out of the region–Muddy Waters, in his first interview for Henry Work and Alan Lomax, named Davis as his favorite recording artist, and Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” likely reached later listeners largely due to Davis’s version (issued as “Don’t You Want to Go”), which was followed by Roosevelt Sykes and Junior Parker, becoming a Chicago band standard.

Davis was a brilliant and prolific songwriter, most notable for darkly poetic lyrics like “Ashes in My Whiskey” and “Can’t See Your Face,” but also capable of rowdy hokum numbers like “I Can Tell by the Way You Smell.” His biggest hit, “Come Back Baby” appeared in 1940, and when the Lomax-Work team surveyed Clarksdale jukeboxes in 1941, it was the only song that appeared on every single machine.

Ironically, the song’s ubiquity probably helped some blues historians to ignore its source — coming to the music decades later, unfamiliar with the popular hits and regarding blues as black rural folk music, they found it had been recorded by everyone from Sonny Terry and Snooks Eaglin to Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, and concluded that it was just “out there,” an anonymous folk creation. (Other popular hits that underwent this metamorphosis include Richard M. Jones’s “Trouble In Mind” and Leroy Carr’s “When the Sun Goes Down.”)

To be fair, the song underwent a good deal of mutation and “folk process” in the hands of other artists, few of whom sang many of Davis’s lyrics — as was common in blues, they would typically sing his opening verse, then just string together favorite couplets that seemed to fit the theme. One of those artists was Dave Van Ronk, and like most later arrivals on the folk scene, I learned the song from his 1962 recording and still sing mostly his verses. I’ve also retained some elements of his guitar arrangement, which he credited to his friend Dave Woods, who was studying with Lenny Tristano and based it heavily on 9th chords — a fairly unusual choice, but appropriate, since Walter Davis’s playing was also distinctive for its harmonically advanced chording.

All of which means my version is a lot closer to Dave’s than to Davis’s — though without those nice 9th chords — but it led me to Davis and I’m forever grateful for that. He was a fine songwriter, a distinctive and inventive pianist, and should be much better known.


Any Old Time (Jimmie Rodgers)

Living with the vagaries of the folk scene, I came late to Jimmie Rodgers — not because he was obscure, but on the contrary because his albums were available on a major label, RCA, at a time when I was buying reissue records on labels like Folkways, Yazoo, and Arhoolie. I’d learned a couple of his songs off records by Pete Seeger (“T.B. Blues”) and Cisco Houston (“Mule Skinner Blues”), but the song that made me go out and find one of his own albums was “Any Old Time,” after hearing Maria Muldaur’s version.

Muldaur recorded it on her first solo album, which I heard on my first day of high school, thanks to a couple of fellow freshmen, Beth and Woodley, who reacted to the fact that I played guitar by taking me back to Beth’s place and putting it on. I was tangentially aware of Muldaur from the Kweskin Jug Band, but had missed “Midnight at the Oasis” because I wasn’t a radio listener, so it took Beth and Woodley to educate me–they played me that LP, and then Geoff and Maria’s Pottery Pie–and her album started with “Any Old Time,” with Ry Cooder (whom I’d never heard before) playing fingerstyle guitar.

I’m not sure I ever owned the Muldaur record, but I liked the song and eventually picked up a couple of Rodgers’s RCA albums, and then the superbly programed Smithsonian set, which remains my gold standard for his work.

I liked Rodgers’s singing, of course, and his guitar work, and having come to him as “the Father of Country Music,” I was struck by the variety of musical settings he used. This song is a good example, featuring a kind of hotel jazz group with clarinet, cornet, and violin — all played by anonymous musicians, none of them very distinctive, but with a nice light swing.

For me, tracks like this were a revelation, since my folk scene education had led me to think of Rodgers as a sort of “roots” artist, defined as the opposite of a pop musician. Hearing him with this kind of band, and in his collaboration with Louis Armstrong, connected his records to Bessie Smith’s and then Bing Crosby’s, and thence to the recognition that in the 1920s and 1930s country and jazz still regularly met at the blues. That was part of my evolution into a fan of both country and jazz, and when I hit the club circuit in the early 1980s this song exemplified my overlapping tastes, and I played it a lot. (It had the added advantage of satisfying requests for Jimmie Rodgers material without requiring me to yodel — an art I didn’t pursue with even faint success until the following decade.)

Joshua Gone Barbados (Eric Von Schmidt)

This is Eric Von Schmidt’s best-known composition, thanks in a large part to Tom Rush, whose version I heard first and still echo in my guitar arrangement. Eric was a marvelous singer, a distinctive guitarist, a varied and brilliant songwriter, and one of my favorite people. I met him when some folks organized a Club 47 reunion at Johnny D’s Uptown Lounge in Somerville and someone arranged for Eric and Jack Landrón (known in his 47 days as Jackie Washington) to stay at my place. We got to jamming, and I played harmonica with Eric, and the next thing you know I was onstage with him at the reunion show.

That was what Eric was like — he was loose and improvisatory at all times, not just when he was playing, and I did my best to capture his zest and flavor in a profile I wrote for the Boston Globe. By that time I was playing with him more regularly, mostly adding harmonica but also some guitar and even occasional button accordion, and he was staying at my place and I was sleeping on the couch in his studio in Westport, surrounded by his amazingly varied paintings — one would look like a Remington western scene, the next like a Toulouse Lautrec, the next like a  Picasso, and then there’d be a few that looked nothing on earth but a Von Schmidt.

If you want my take on Eric, the Globe piece has more than I can fit here — suffice it to say, I loved playing with him and learned a lot from him, and I miss him.

As for “Joshua Gone Barbados,” it’s a great song and shows a deep sympathy for cane field workers inspired and then abandoned by their leader… the only problem being that Eric seems to have turned up on the island of St. Vincent just in time to hear some angry rumors, wrote the song, and split before getting a more complete story.

Ebenezer Theodore Joshua, the title character, was a dedicated labor leader and a significant figure in the movement for pan-Caribbean independence. Founder of the Federated Industrial and Agricultural Workers Union, he then went into politics and became St. Vincent’s first chief minister when the island gained regional autonomy. He organized the plantation and mill workers and in 1960 — or 1962, depending on your source — they went on strike. Eric’s details are pretty much right: no one was killed, and Sonny Child was a plantation owner rather than an overseer, but he was indeed beaten with a “cutlass” (what we know in the US as a machete) and hospitalized.

It is also true that Joshua left the island for Barbados during the strike, but it was to attend a vital meeting of Caribbean independence leaders, and he shortly was back and remained the head of the government until 1967 and the leader of the left-wing opposition party for many years after that. A writer in 1969 described him thus:

Ebenezer Theodore Joshua is the most controversial political figure on the island of St. Vincent. He is adulated by the thousands who follow him; for these people, largely poor, rural farm workers, Joshua is the liberator. For others, mainly the white, wealthy planter class, “Josh” is a demon, “an irresponsible leader who has told his people to cut our throats like sheep.” To the small number of Vincentian intellectuals, the teachers and economists in the Civil Service, “Josh is a good man to have in the opposition, a man of people, but not a very good Chief Minister.”

So there you have it. It’s still a great song, and I play it more or less like I heard it from Tom Rush, with some touches of my main man Joseph Spence, because I sing it in D and it’s from the islands, so Spence was the obvious way to go.

Candlepin Swing (Bill Morrissey)

One of the things I liked about Bill Morrissey’s songwriting was how regional it was — other New England folksingers often seemed like they’d rather be from somewhere more romantic, but Bill was writing things like “Small Town on the River” about Newmarket, New Hampsire; “My Baby and Me,” about fall, love, and hunting season; and “Candlepin Swing,” the only jive jazz number ever written about candlepin bowling.

Some of you may not know what candlepin bowling is, so I should start by saying that for most of my youth I hardly knew there was any other kind of bowling. Our local emporium of the art, Lanes & Games on Route 2, did have a few duckpin lanes, but I don’t remember seeing anyone using them and certainly never was with anyone who suggested we might try that strange and foreign variant of normal bowling. Many years later, I tried it, once, using those weird balls with the three holes in them, and sprained my index finger so I couldn’t play guitar comfortably for a month… which never happened with normal-size bowling balls.

So anyway, I was charmed when I heard Bill sing this, because it was such a wonderfully ridiculous example of regional pride. Unlike me, Bill was a man of the world, familiar not only with our sport but also with what is apparently known as bowling in the  rest of the country; hence his knowledgeable reference to Carmen Salvino and Ray Bluth — names I know only from this song, and knew wrong until I researched this post, which is why I pronounce the former’s name “Carmine” in my video.

Bill always introduced this with a reference to Slim Gaillard, one of our favorite musicians. Gaillard was a fine guitarist and decent pianist who made some legendary recordings with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie — or, as he referred to them on “Slim’s Jam,” Charlie Yardbird-o-rooney and Diz MacSkivvin-vout-o-rooney — as well as Bill’s favorite nonsense number, “Cement Mixer, Putti-Putti,” and a perky track I recall mostly for Slim’s spoken introduction:

We’re going to cook up a fine dish now, real groovy: wrap up some fine grape leaves and chip up a little lamb-o-rooney; sprinkle on a little fine rice-o-rooty and a little pep-o-rooney, a little pep-o-vouty, sprinkle on a little salt-o-rooney to put the seasoning in there, make it really mellow. Then you nail an avocado seed up in the ceiling and let it vout for a while.

Bill loved Gaillard’s surreal hipsterisms and would frequently lard his speech with o-vouties and o-roonies, and Slim’s influence was palpably present in his jive masterpiece, “King Jelly’s Good Morning Irene Song.” But the song he specifically cited Gaillard on was always this baby — partly, I suppose, because the juxtaposition was so unexpected. So anyway, here it is, in honor of Lanes & Games, and Bill, and my insufficiently misspent youth.

Incidentally, Bill never recorded this, and neither did anyone else, so I have to wonder whether at this point I’m the only person alive who knows it… if so, that’s tragic and I hope others pick it up.

King Jelly’s Good Morning Irene Song (Bill Morrissey)

So there I was opening for Mose Allison at Palms Playhouse in Davis, California, back in 1983, and I wanted to play something appropriate for his audience and obviously couldn’t fall back on “Everybody Cryin’ Mercy…” so I turned to Bill Morrissey.

Bill was one of my closest friends at that point, and I was doing at least one of his songs in pretty much every set — usually “Oil Money” or “Texas Blues,” but there were plenty of other options, because his lyrics were so well crafted that I would hear him sing something a couple or three times and find I knew it all the way through, without making any effort to learn it. (The most striking example being his early masterpiece, “Small Town on the River.”)

In the early 1980s Bill was becoming pretty well known as a singer-songwriter in the post-Dylan mode, but one of the things that brought us together was his affection for old blues and jazz. He could play decent clarinet, sax, and even a bit of trumpet, and he’d fronted a ragtag aggregation in Newmarket, New Hampshire, (sometimes called the Mental Retreads) that played a unique country/jazz/folk/hipster pastiche. He’d been influenced by Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Beatles, but also by Slim Gaillard,  Dan Hicks, and Tom Waits — not to mention Dave Van Ronk, whose shared friendship and mentorship originally brought us together.

Until he died in 2011, I’d get a call from Bill every year or so complaining about how bored he was by the folk scene and announcing that his new album would have jazzier stuff, including some of the old New Hampshire jive numbers — maybe “Sweaty Woman” or “Morrissey’s Night on the Town” (which he recorded with the Retreads, and I’ve posted from their very lo-fi cassette), or his regional vout masterpiece, “Candlepin Swing.” He’d be practicing clarinet and talking with horn players who could sit in — his last album included a song he wrote for a collaboration with a sax player he’d found who’d toured with Billie Holiday, “He’s Not From Kansas City” — but then the album would come out, playing it safe again, with a mellow singer-songwriter or soft rock vibe.

I loved and admired Bill, and I’m glad he had some success on the singer-songwriter scene, but I wish he’d taken more artistic chances after the early days, and written more stuff like “King Jelly’s Good Morning Irene Song.” I’m guessing this was written under the influence of Dan Hicks, whom we both liked, and our friend Geoff Bartley recorded a fine version with Mike Turk on harmonica.

I have lots more about Bill in other posts, but meanwhile, getting back to my story, I played this for Mose’s crowd and it went over gangbusters, as well it should have:

I’m standing on a corner thinkin’ ’bout all the women in France
On Guggenheim grants,
When a guy come struttin’ down the street
Like he was tryin’ to shake loose
A broken roll of change from the leg of his pants…

Everybody Cryin’ Mercy (Mose Allison)

Having recently proposed Dave Van Ronk’s “Losers” as our new national anthem, allow me to suggest an alternate and more serious contender: Mose Allison’s “Everybody Cryin’ Mercy.” Mose himself proposed “When My Dreamboat Comes Home,” but that was in more optimistic times. Nowadays, this downbeat masterpiece seems more appropriate.

I don’t recall whether I first heard this done by Mose himself or by Bonnie Raitt or John Hammond, but I was already performing it regularly during my first cross-country tour in 1983, along with “They Always Told Me There’d Be Days Like This” and some of his more upbeat pieces: “Your Molecular Structure,” “Fool Killer,” and “Your Mind’s on Vacation.” Which is to say, I was going through a heavy Mose phase.

One of the highlights of that 1983 tour was opening for Mose at Palms Playhouse in Davis, California. I loved that room, because the booker would hire me to open for crazy headliners: Mose and his trio that year, the Chambers Brothers the next, and finally Sonny Terry and his electric band, right at the end of his life, though that last gig got cancelled.

Opening for Mose was one of the most frustrating and exhilarating experiences of my touring days — exhilarating because his audience was perfect, listening in rapt attention, laughing in all the right places, and giving me encores both sets (unbelievably, since that meant delaying Mose’s arrival, but they did it); frustrating because they were the best audience I ever worked for, and would never have come out to see me under other conditions. They were not a folk, folk-blues, or acoustic guitar audience, and much as they liked me that night, there was no way I was going to reach people like them on a regular basis.

But damn, it was nice working for Mose’s audience, and finding that they liked me. He even said a couple of nice words himself, though he’d spent most if not all of my set in the green room, so I assume he was just being polite.

As for this version of “Everybody Cryin’ Mercy”… I loved Mose’s records, but could never figure out even a decent approximation of his hip chord changes. For a while, that meant I didn’t play his stuff, but I really wanted to do this one, and after a while I came up with a half-assed rationalization for doing it the way I do it. To whit: Mose did all sorts of old three-chord blues songs, reharmonized with his hipper chords, so why couldn’t I reverse the process and do his hip tunes with old-fashioned blues changes?

There may be a good answer to that, but if so, don’t tell me, because I’ve been playing this with these changes for forty years and I’m settled in my ways. Honestly, I think it sounds nice this way — and whatever the chord changes, it’s such a great lyric. All too timely, alas…

Losers (Dave Van Ronk)

Dave Van Ronk intended this to be the title song of the album we ended up calling Going Back to Brooklyn — he was proud of the song and thought as a title it would be suitably ironic, especially considering his economic situation at the time. However,  his manager thought calling his first album of original songs “Losers” was asking for trouble, and then his wife Andrea did the beautiful stained glass of a red moon rising over the Brooklyn Bridge, and that was that. In any case, this song is a fine example of his lyrical gifts, along with “Sunday Street” and “Gaslight Rag.”

Dave wrote this around 1980, and I see from old setlists that I played it at the first gig on my first national tour. That was at the Mill in Iowa City, a nice bar run by a nice man named Keith Dempster, who booked me for two nights, not mentioning that it would be the first big football weekend of the season. It was a baptism of fire, my chance to prove what I could do in a noisy, rowdy bar, and I failed the test — though no harm was done, because no one was listening.

I don’t have much more to say about this song, because it speaks for itself — except to note that Dave had a deep and broad love for the English language. How many songs use the word “whosis,” or the phrase “groan bin”? I’d never run across “groan bin” before, and was charmed when I looked it up in Google and the only reference was to a Donald Duck comic in which “Donald warns Huey, Dewey, and Louie that their lack of outdoor survival skills will lead to a ‘trip to the groan bin’.” As it happens, Dave was an inveterate reader of Donald Duck comics, had a collection of vintage Disney books he sold for a pretty penny in the late 1970s, and bemoaned what he regarded as my undeserved good luck by calling me “Gyro Gearloose,” a reference to Donald’s ridiculously lucky cousin. “HoJo,” for the young folks, is the Howard Johnson’s restaurant chain. And according to Eric Partridge’s dictionary of slang, “Sneaky Pete” was a term for cheap wine, in use among hoboes in the 1930s.

I always thought “Losers” was one of Dave’s funniest songs, but given the current president’s proclivity for the word, and the state of the nation in his singularly incompetent hands, I am not only beginning to take it seriously, but proposing it as our new national anthem.

Framed (Robins/Leiber & Stoller/racism)

Thanks to cell phone videos and Black Lives Matter, it has become a lot harder for white Americans to ignore how badly black Americans are routinely treated by the US legal system… though that doesn’t mean everybody now gets it, or wants to get it. One way people don’t get it is to treat the recent spate of killings of young black men by police as something new — what is new is the videos, not what they show — or to treat those killings as isolated events rather than the normal, day-to-day experience of young black men in the United States.

Obviously, rappers have been talking about this subject for years, and this song is a reminder of just how many years. It was recorded in 1954 by the Robins, a group of young black men in Los Angeles, several of whom shortly moved to New York and became the Coasters (as in West Coast).

The songwriters were a pair of young white (to be specific, Jewish) men who had fallen in love with blues and R&B: Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. They recognized the comic storytelling possibilities of the Muddy Waters/Willie Dixon “Hoochie Coochie Man” arrangement, reworked and expanded it, and as Stoller told Dave Ritz in their dual memoir: “We can’t and won’t claim credit as the inventors of rap, but if you listen to our early output, you’ll hear lots of black men talking poem-stories over a heavy backbeat.”

Their first hit along these lines was “Riot in Cell Bock #9,” and they shortly followed with this prequel. As Leiber told Ritz, “We called it ‘Framed’ and gave it a subtext that, despite the humor, refers to the legal brutality that impacted the black community.”

When I started singing “Framed,” I didn’t give a lot of thought to that subtext. I was in my early twenties, a product of the sixties counterculture, and  just thought of the lyric as a comic exaggeration of the way the court system railroaded people — not specifically black people.

These days it’s impossible for me not to think of this as a protest song, and the joke seems a lot more bitter than it did when I was singing this onstage in the early 1980s. Which said, it remains a great piece of writing, and I’m a strong believer in the power of comedy the worse things get, the more we need to be able to laugh at the situation, because unlike despair, laughter is energizing.

Anyone who hasn’t heard this before should check out the original by the Robins, and of course “Riot in Cell Block #9,” featuring the wonderful Richard Berry — as well as the earlier and jokier “Ten Days in Jail.” A few years later Leiber and Stoller wrote “Jailhouse Rock” for Elvis Presley, but  that was lightweight fluff compared to what they did in their early R&B days, when they were working with singers whose daily experiences mirrored the dark humor of the lyrics.

(For a later variant, check out the Coasters’ “Shopping for Clothes,” from 1960, a down-beat rap about the difficulties of getting store credit.)

Revisiting the songs that have made a home in my head