Songobiography — a musical memoir

Welcome to my “songobiography,” a mix of musical performance, memories, history, and whatever else seems appropriate. Starting in January 2016 I posted six months of daily performances of songs, continued with weekly posts for another year, and now am posting occasionally (if you want to be alerted to future posts, there’s a subscription button to the right). All are “old friends” — songs I have learned and played over the years, with musings on their histories, how I learned them, and what they mean to me. I made only one rule: I’ve researched some of the writing, but the songs are all played as I recall them, with the inevitable additions and deletions of time and the quirks of memory.

When I was eight or nine years old, I read Woody Guthrie’s memoir, Bound for Glory, and decided that when I grew up I would be a ramblin’ hobo folksinger. I had previously toyed with the usual dreams of being a fireman or a bank robber, but this one stuck–I never varied from that goal, and bent all my energies over the next thirty years to making it come true.

I learned to play guitar and began to assemble a repertoire with Woody and Cisco Houston as my models, along with Pete Seeger, Josh White, Paul Clayton, Leadbelly, and the various singers on a series of Riverside children’s albums, including Oscar Brand, Jean Ritchie, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott–plus a couple of songs in German and Spanish from a 78 album of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. Years later, Dave Van Ronk would approvingly refer to me as having a “classical education,”  the folk revival equivalent of a literary foundation in Greek and Latin — despite the twenty-year gap in our ages, I had grown up with roughly the same models as his generation, knowing Woody’s songs before I heard Bob Dylan’s, and Josh White before I heard Robert Johnson.

As for the ramblin’ part, I hitchhiked across country for the first time — more or less by accident — when I was sixteen, doing the whole trip in eighteen-wheelers, and I was hooked. I spent the next year in New York studying guitar with Dave, then at eighteen I headed off to Europe, where I’d heard they liked American folksingers. That turned out to be true, and I stayed for over two years, hitching south to Morocco and north to the Arctic Circle, making my living playing in bars and on street corners, and sleeping on couches and under bridges. It was an adventure and an education, and set the pattern for the next dozen years.

Back in the States, I hitched back and forth across the country a bunch of times, hopped some freight trains, and eventually started booking tours of bars and coffeehouses — but I never could make enough to live on, so through the early 1990s I would try a year or two in the States, then head back to Europe, with side trips to Asia and Africa, including some concerts for the US Information Service and hotel gigs playing Elvis covers. (Actually, it was one hotel gig, and I didn’t get it, though a local promoter in Columbo, Sri Lanka, thought I had a good shot. Instead, I ended up as the pet guitar player for a freighter of Filipino sailors.)

I started writing occasional pieces for the Boston Globe in the early 1980s, but through the turn of the 21st century I still described myself primarily as a musician, with writing as my day job. Then I got more interested in book projects, and the gigs were drying up, and what with one thing and another I have spent the last fifteen years doing more writing than playing, at least in public.

I kept my chops up, more or less, teaching at blues camps, demoing Robert Johnson and Dave Van Ronk songs at book readings, and doing occasional gigs. Then my wife Sandrine began gigging on clarinet, we started thinking about what we could do as a duo, and I realized it was past time to get music back at the center of my life.  Hence this project–the idea is to take stock, looking back at a repertoire developed over close to fifty years, sort out what I like to play and how I like to play it, and give people who know me as a writer a chance to hear where I come from.

Before we had the internet or mp3s, we often had to fall back on our memory.  I first put together a list of all the songs I knew in 1977, while I was living in Spain, and I’ve revisited it every decade or so since then, adding and subtracting as necessary. This is a glimpse at the current list.

Revisiting the songs that have made a home in my head