Thanks to my father, I grew up on pop songs of the teens and 1920s, but I don’t know if I would have performed any in public if I hadn’t heard Mance Lipscomb. I was coming from a background of Woody Guthrie, followed by old blues, and although the Kweskin band had proved to me that a blues-related group might play goofy pop songs as novelties, my reference point for the more serious or sentimental pop of previous eras was people like Frank Sinatra, Al Martino, or whichever middle-aged warbler was currently warbling — which is to say, neither I nor anyone my age had the slightest interest in that stuff. Nor, I must admit, did I initially appreciate Lipscomb’s blues work — it was too subtle for me, and I didn’t get into it until considerably later.
Where the two intersected, though, I was entranced — for example, his live recording of “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” or his Berkeley Blues Fest recording of “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” which provoked my father to come downstairs and sing along, then tell a shaggy dog ghost story about a disembodied head appearing out of a dank swamp, delivered in suitably spooky tones until the head breaks into “I ain’t got no body…”
In any case, I didn’t learn that song at the time, but did learn “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” more or less the way Mance played it. Dave Van Ronk, who had a strong sense of right and wrong in such matters, would have disapproved, because Mance didn’t play the right chords — and I understand Dave’s feelings, because if I pull this out when I’m playing with people who know old pop songs, they know it the way it was written, not the way Mance did it, and if they try to join in, the result is a musical train wreck.
On the other hand, there is a long tradition of vernacular musicians reshaping material to fit their own approaches, and Mance in particular had an unusual and lovely chord sense. When he did an old pop tune, he didn’t just flatten it out or try to sing it over three chords like some rural musicians of his generation; he came up with variations that were different from the written versions but often more interesting — for instance, in this arrangement, the chromatic ascent from D to E, and the move from the F to an F# bass, then a bass run in G. I recently listened back and found that I’ve further altered his version, adding a couple of chords he didn’t play, changing a couple he did, and substituting my own bass lines for his monotonic dance beat, but I still hear his version in my head and like it better than any other.
Once I’d learned this, it opened the door to working out my own arrangements of a lot of other old pop songs — though, city boy that I am, I got my hands on some fake books and learned the “right” chords. And, honestly, that was a good thing, because Mance had a unique ability to make anything he touched sound pretty. He was kind of like Mississippi John Hurt that way, except he went in for fancier pop songs than anything Hurt recorded, in terms of the chords, and even wrote a few himself, like “So Different Blues,” which lives up to its name, and which I’ll get to in another couple of months.
To finish up, my appreciation of Mance’s work has grown steadily over the years — he was a wonderfully imaginative guitarist and had an uncanny ability to synthesize versions of traditional or familiar songs, coming up with lyrics drawn from multiple sources and somehow always compiling a better selection of verses than anyone else had. I love listening to him sing blues, or old play-party songs, or anything else, and if someone asked me today to recommend a couple of tracks to give them a sense of his music, I would start with “Ain’t You Sorry,” or “So Different Blues,” or maybe his version of “Take Me Back”… and yet and still, even now, when I think of Mance it is the pop songs that first come to mind, with this one vying for top honors.