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.