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.

The Killer (Cisco Houston/ Katie Lee)

This gaudy gunfighter ballad is from the singing of Cisco Houston. When I decided I would grow up to be a rambling musician, my heroes cisco houstonwere Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston, and if I’d had to pick one of them, it would probably have been Cisco. Part of the appeal was the warmth of his voice and the easy lope of his guitar, but more than that it was the songs: he liked songs that told stories, and he had an actor’s gift for making those stories come alive.

Cisco Houston Sings American Folk Songs was my favorite album for quite a while, and I still can sing literally every song on it — not necessarily every verse, but pretty close. It was the first place I heard “St. James Infirmary,” “Midnight Special,” “Cisco Houston Sings American Folk SongsPallet on the Floor,” and “I’m Going Down the Road Feeling Bad,” but “The Killer” was my favorite . It was like a four-and-a-half-minute cowboy movie, and I remember spending an afternoon acting out the story as Cisco sang, with my best friend, Sarah Carter — I’m guessing she played Dobie Bill, since I would have wanted to do the death scene, but we may have traded off. It is also where I learned the phrase, “the vagaries of fate.”

Cisco learned this song from Katie Lee, whom I’ve talked with a few times over the years, since she was a close friend of Josh White’s, Katie Leeas well as writing a good book of cowboy songs and verse, Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle, and making a bunch of recordings, and just being a hell of a fascinating person. She’s still very much around at age 95, and it’s well worth checking out her website, www.katydoodit.com, and browsing through her interviews, and film clips, and book projects.

Talking Union (The Almanac Singers)

talking union“Talking Union” was the title song of the Almanac Singers’ most popular album (back in the days when “album” meant literally that: a bound album of 78 records). As I mentioned in the last couple of posts, my first records included a bunch of left-wing 78 albums, including Talking Union, though that one was missing its cover and I only learned what it looked like about forty  years later.

Almanac Singers
The Almanac Singers: Woody Guthrie, Millard Lampell, Bess Lomax Hawes, Pete Seeger, Butch Hawes, Sis Cunningham

It was the first “talking blues” I ever heard, though thanks to Woody and then to Bob Dylan, there were a lot around in the 1960s. They were all distant descendants of a blackface minstrel comedy number recorded in the 1920s by a fellow named Chris Bouchillon. Woody did that version, then spun it off into songs about pretty much anything he wanted to talk about, and Pete picked up the pattern and wrote this one with Millard Lampell.

I was eight or nine years old when I first learned this, and a lot of it was obscure to me — What’s a “straw boss”? What’s a “steering committee?” I’m still not clear on straw bosses, but globeprotestfI helped form a steering committee when we put together the Boston Globe Freelancers Association under the auspices of the National Writers Union and led a walk-out of three hundred freelance writers, photographers, and designers who refused to sign a new and confiscatory contract. I was sorry to go, because I liked writing for the Globe, but I figured that after thirty years of singing union songs it was time to step up and be counted.

Get Thee Behind Me, Satan (Almanac Singers)

This is probably the first blues song I learned, though at the time I just thought of it as another union song. talking union (ew's copy)It was on the one Almanac Singers’ album my grandparents had, which I eventually learned was called Talking Union — I didn’t know the title at the time because the cover had fallen off before it came into my hands.

I learned most of the songs in that set, and this was a particular favorite — it had an upbeat, swinging rhythm  and the guitar part was great. josh white, cafe society2Many years later, when I was researching a biography of Josh White, it occurred to me that he must be the leader on this one, so I went back and listened with fresh ears. As it turned out, Lee Hays was singing lead — and very likely wrote it, since he was a specialist in adapting gospel songs for union organizing — but Josh’s guitar was unmistakable. I don’t play it like he did, mostly because I do it in a different key, but I’ve kept a couple of his licks in there.

UAW-CIO/Sally Don’t You Grieve (The Union Boys)

When I was maybe six years old, my parents bought me a little portable record player. It was about a foot square, closed up like a suitcase, and had four speeds: 1first Elijah guitar pic6, 33 1/3, 45, and 78. They wouldn’t let me play their records on it, but I had a few children’s folk LPs — one by Tom Glazer, and a couple of Everybody Sing!  anthologies — and somehow I also ended up with my grandparents’ 78 albums.

My mother’s family were refugees from Nazi Vienna and old-line Communists — till the day he died, my grandfather had the complete works of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin in his home office, in German. (Also the complete works of Joseph Conrad, Jack London, and Mark Twain.) I don’t think they were politically active after coming to the United States, Union Boysbut along with dozens of classical albums, they had the classic Communist record collection of the early 1940s: Paul Robeson, the Red Army Chorus, the International Brigades from the Spanish Civil War, Josh White, the Almanac Singers, and the Union Boys. The Union Boys wasn’t actually a group — it was just a bunch of singers who got together to record an album’s worth of songs about union organizing and the war effort, among them Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, Tom Glazer, Josh White, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, plus one side by Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston.

sally don't you grieveI played those records constantly and learned most of the songs, and these two were particular favorites. I suppose part of the appeal was the war — despite my parents’ pacifist leanings, I played with toy soldiers and dug trenches and all that kind of stuff, and it was exciting to sing about rolling into Berlin with your buddies from the union and going after Hitler. I didn’t understand all the words, of course — I don’t think I knew the meaning of either UAW or CIO — but thirty years later, when I helped organize a freelancer’s group at the Boston Globe under the auspices of the National Writers Union, I was particularly pleased that we were a subsection of the UAW. It kind of brought everything full circle, and felt like I’d stayed true to my early friends.

Sunday Street (Dave Van Ronk)

Dave Van Ronk was a close friend, mentor, and kind of a second father to me–aside from guitar, he taught me about literature, history, politics, food, jazz, the ins and outs of New York, and the vagaries of the music business. When I was studying with him in 1976-77, he had recently released Sunday Street, his first solo album since the 1960s, and one of his best. Sunday StreetThe title song was his own composition–he was always trying to come up with new approaches to old blues styles, and this is a perfect example: the humor and language are a mix of his modern sensibility and the kind of street lingo he enjoyed in songs and books from earlier eras, in keeping with the tastes of a man who named his rock band the Hudson Dusters after one of the Irish street gangs in Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York. For example, to be in tap city is an extension of “tapping out,” or going broke at poker.

The guitar part is in dropped-D tuning, Dave’s favorite, which he probably used more than any other player aside from Joseph Spence–a kinship that gives me even more pleasure than it gave him.

Walking Blues (Robert Johnson/Son House)

When I wrote Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, the original idea was just to go through Robert Johnson’s complete recordings, listen to each of them carefully, and figure out what I could say about them–his sources, his playing, his singing, and how they might have fitted into his life and the process of recording. Part of that project was to figure out how he was playing, which was kind of a departure for me, because I’d never worked out any of his guitar parts, and had never really tried to play slide. For a while I got fascinated with the style, and tried to go on and learn some Kokomo Arnold, Tampa Red, and Casey Bill Weldon arrangements as well, but somehow it just didn’t feel like me… Son House lpso I settled for playing a couple of Johnson’s pieces, with some licks from Son House, who seems to have been the main source for his slide style, and this is the one that stuck with me.

House has always been one of my favorite blues artists–I had his Columbia album by my early teens, and it remains one of my favorite records–he was such an astonishing singer, and the vibrato he got with his slide continues to stir me in a way I could never explain and no one else ever equaled (Muddy Waters probably comes closest). He played this guitar part for a song called “My Black Mama,” and used a different accompaniment for his recorded version of “Walking Blues” — but it’s perfectly possible that he was comfortable singing either lyric with either guitar part, and just happened to record them the way he did on those particular days. In any case, I love his work, prefer Johnson’s verses, and think of this as kind of my dual tribute to both of them.

Revisiting the songs that have made a home in my head