Iko Iko (David & Roselyn/ African guitar)

maskedIt’s Mardi Gras, so chronology be damned…

The first time I went to New Orleans was in 1987. I hitchhiked down the east coast, hugging the shore most of the way, and it took a few weeks, during which I fronted a country band in Southport, North Carolina; played oldies in a biker bar in Myrtle Beach; jammed with a Dixieland band in Charleston; painted a house in the Georgia Sea Islands; slept in a park in Savannah until the sprinklers came on; had my first taste of boiled peanuts at a roadside stand outside Boston (the Boston near Waycross); sang the requisite Jimmie Buffett songs in a bayside bar in Choctaw Beach, Florida; and don’t remember anything about the rides through Alabama or Mississippi.

In New Orleans, I cadged a bed from my sister’s partner’s mom’s apartment-sitter and hit the streets in hopes of making a little money from the tourists, only to discover how hopeless it was to work the French Quarter solo with an acoustic guitar. Fortunately, I met David and Roselyn…

David and Roselyn cassetteThey were living in a Dodge van with their two youngest kids, Autumn and Stormy, and taking showers at the apartment their middle daughter, Arlee, was renting in the Quarter. They knew nothing about me except that I had just got to town and was stuck, but loaned me a battery-powered amplifier so I could compete with the noise on Bourbon St., and I teamed up with a pair of tap dancers who figured live music might be a good gimmick, and we did OK.

That was the first of many visits — the next time was for Jazzfest, sleeping in a tent in a vacant lot owned by Alan Toussaint, next to the van where Toussaint’s juggling teacher slept.  Then David and Roselyn got a house in the Upper Ninth ward, and that’s where they are still, except when they’re on tour or visiting one of their kids. They celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary a half-dozen years ago, and when Sandrine and I decided to get married, we figured it would be good luck to have them officiate, and they were kind enough to come up to Boston and do the honors.

wedding photo

We’re long overdue for the next visit, and so is everyone else who doesn’t live there — especially today, when David and Roselyn are riding with Rex in the Mardi Gras parade.

If you’ve got the money or the connections, hire them! They’re great! There’s lots more about them on their website.

dixie cupsAs for “Iko, Iko,” I’m pretty sure the first version I heard was by the Dixie Cups, and I’m pretty sure it’s still my favorite. This is also the song that sent me to the Congo to study with Jean-Bosco Mwenda — I spent many roadside hours on that hitchhiking trip trying to figure out how to fingerpick this rhythm, and decided I needed help.

Hard, Ain’t It Hard (Woody and Cisco)

This was one of the many songs Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston recorded together, with Woody typically singing lead. My mother was good about buying me records, and among the first I persuaded her to get were the Woody and Cisco albums issued in the Archive of Folk Music series, a budget series mostly made up of old Woody archive of folkStinson recordings, from which I also got the Sonny Terry, Memphis Slim, Pete Seeger, Josh White, Leadbelly, Jack Elliott, and Champion Jack Dupree LPs.  The crediting often had little to do with who was singing lead on them — the Sonny Terry, I later learned, was an album called Chain Gang, with Woody in charge–and the Woody and Cisco albums both had songs with both of them, so I had to check to see which this was on. It was Woody’s, which may well have been the first LP of his I ever owned, and he’s the voice I hear in my head, but the verses I sing are from Cisco’s songbook.

Those guys were kind of like my imaginary friends, and I was far from alone: when I met Bill Morrissey many years later, we could harmonize on all the Woody and Cisco songs, and that was also the repertoire Bob Dylan and Jim Kweskin sang when they did gigs together in the early 1960s. In the new millennium, it seems to have become fashionable to refer to Harry Smith’s anthology as the Bible of the folk revival, but in breadth of influence that set never came close to Woody and Cisco.

Most of this material — Woody and Cisco knocking out old songs they both knew — is now available on Smithsonian/Folkwawoody and ciscoys, sounding better than ever, and I wish it was getting more attention. These days Woody seems to mostly be appreciated for his songwriting, and I don’t hear a lot of people talking about his recordings of old-time country music. Of course he was a great songwriter, but what changed my life was his singing and playing — not just guitar, but harmonica, mandolin, and fiddle — and the way he and Cisco worked together.

Pay Me My Money Down

I play this in an African-influenced guitar style I developed much later, but it is one of those songs I “always” knew. My original source was Phyllis Switzer (later Goldstein), who led a folksong singalong for kids at the MBL (Marine Biological Laboratories) Club in Woods Hole every summer. Phyllis’s repertoire was overwhelmingly Phyllis Switzerdrawn from Pete Seeger, so she probably got this from him or the Weavers. They presumably got it from Alan Lomax, who recorded a version from dock workers in Georgia in the 1940s for the Library of Congress, or from Lydia Parrish’s book, Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands, or both.

I don’t remember how much Phyllis told us about the song, but she would have connected it to broader labor issues, and very likely to civil rights. I can still picture her standing in the MBL Club, with all of us sitting in a semi-circle on the floor around her, acting the part of the giant in Pete’s story of “Abiyoyo,” or leading us in “Everybody Loves Saturday Night” — an internationalist children’s ditty, consisting of the title phrase sung in various languages, of which my unreliable memory has retained only one verse, which mutates from Japanese into French…

Phyllis also teamed up with Liz Davis to produce annual Gilbert and Sullivan operettas — the one time I took part, I was part of a Japanese chorus in The Mikado, wearing a black stocking to simulate a pigtail. Not a particularly fond memory, though I still remember a lot of the lyrics, but I owe Phyllis the rest of my life because she took a few of us kids to see a concert by Seeger and ClearwaterPete and the crew of the sloop Clearwater when they docked in Woods Hole for a couple of days. I remember Lou Killen singing a song about soccer (I’m guessing it was “Footba’ Crazy”) and Jimmy Collier and the Rev. Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick singing “Everybody’s Got a Right to Live.” I don’t remember what Pete sang, but seeing him onstage was what made me decide to be a professional folksinger.

In my memory, I was seven when Phyllis took us to that concert, and it was what first got me into folksinging, but according to the history books it must have been 1969, which means I would have been ten and had already been playing guitar for a couple of years. Maybe Phyllis knew that, and that’s why she took me? In any case, it changed my life, and I am forever in her debt.

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.

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.