Rob and I finished our summer in Harvard Square with savings of about $700, and Freddie Laker had just started his budget flights to London from New York for $100, so we hitched down, caught a flight, and arrived in London with $500 between us and plans to spend the winter busking in Spain. That plan almost got derailed because the British immigration authorities were convinced the Laker flights were bringing a bunch of American bums eager to get on the British dole, and Rob’s washboard instantly caught their eye… but, as it happened, a distant cousin of his was about to be sworn in as Lord Mayor, and Rob was invited to the ball, so they sent us to a little room and left us for four hours, trying to figure out whether it would be worse to bother the new Lord Mayor with our ridiculous story (assuming we were lying) or to send the Lord Mayor’s cousin back as Yankee riff-raff (if we weren’t), and finally realized they had to call him, so did, and he vouched for us, and we were in.
We caught a train into the city, checked the folk club listings, and headed over to the Cecil Sharpe House, which was having its monthly club night. I don’t remember who the featured act was, or if there even was one, but I do remember that they gave me two songs, and I played “Wild About My Good Cocaine” and “Sporting Life Blues.” The weird thing was, those were two fairly obscure songs, and I certainly hadn’t planned them as sing-alongs, but there was this middle aged man sitting at the edge of the stage who sang along with both of them. It threw me off a bit, but I muddled through as best I could, and a bit later the middle-aged man got up with a fiddle, and turned out to be Tom Paley, of the New Lost City Ramblers…
That was a pleasure, and he had brought a young American fiddler who told me one of my all-time favorite busking stories: He had just arrived in London the previous week, and on the weekend had gone out to find a good street pitch. After trying a few places, he found a busy corner near a market, set out his case, and began to play. It was going well, with passersby throwing coins and some sticking around to listen, and after a while he noticed a bobby standing on the sidewalk on the other side of the road, chatting with someone and apparently enjoying the music. So, when the bobby crossed the street in his direction, he thought nothing of it and continued fiddling. The bobby was furious, told him to stop immediately, and gave him a stern lecture: “When a British policeman approaches you, you stop playing, you put away your instrument, you leave the area, and you do not come back for at least ten minutes.”
None of which has much to do with “Sporting Life Blues,” except that it’s one of the few times I remember playing this on stage. I learned it from Dave Van Ronk, who would record it a couple of years later, and he got it from its composer, Brownie McGhee. McGhee, of course, is best known as half of a long-time duo with Sonny Terry, which is fine as far as it goes, but obscures what a hip musician and songwriter he was. He and Sonny had a solid career as acoustic folk-blues artists, but he also did some great R&B sides, most famously working with his brother Stick McGhee on “Drinking Wine, Spo-dee-o-dee,” but also writing “Blues Had a Baby and They Named It Rock ‘n’ Roll” and a bunch of other songs, including this one. Dave changed it some, adding new lyrics on the turn-arounds, and it’s his version I still hear in my head, but he always credited it to Brownie, telling a long, funny story that is one more good reason to buy his final recording, …And the Tin Pan Bended, and the Story Ended.
I came up with my own guitar part, mostly because Dave hadn’t yet recorded it, so I learned it from hearing him live and I didn’t have the ears to work out his part from memory.