We Sell Everything (Leon Rosselson)

In a world full of stolidly written, didactic, and generally plodding political songs, it is a wonderful thing to come rosselson-love-lonelinessacross an equally didactic leftist song that is clever and funny, and even has interesting chords. When I discovered this one, on an album called Love, Loneliness, Laundry, I instantly made it part of my repertoire, shortly followed by a bunch of other songs by its author, Leon Rosselson.

That would have been in the summer of 1982. I hitched from Seattle to Vancouver and settled in for what would be the first of many long stays with Maggie Benston, one of my favorite people ever. Maggie was a professor at Simon Fraser, the identical twin sister of one of my mother’s friends and collaborators back in Cambridge, and a member of a maggie-benstonpolitical singing group called the Euphoniously Feminist and Non-Performing Quintet. She drove a red sports car, juggled boyfriends with alacrity, baked a chicken dish with forty cloves of garlic, and let me stay in her guest space for weeks at a time, sometimes with her around, sometimes on my own with the cats.

I learned a lot of good music in Vancouver, and Maggie was responsible for more than her share of it. She was the first person to turn me on to Hawaiian slack-key guitar, the first person I knew who had Eric Bogle records, and the first person to mention Leon Rosselson. Leon was completely unknown to me, and to most everyone else in the United States — as I recall, he’d made his first Canadian appearances only the previous year, including the Vancouver Folk Festival. He was the most brilliant lefty political songwriter I’d heard in ages, and one of the cleverest writers of any sort, and Maggie had two or three of his rosselson-songbookbalbums, as well as his first songbook.

I taped the former and xeroxed the songs I liked from the latter, and I see from my surviving set lists that I was playing three or four of them at shows during the following year. This song was by far my favorite, because it was smart and funny and had so many words in such quick succession — from “The Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me” to “I’ve Been Everywhere,” I had an affection for fast patter songs, and “We Sell Everything” is still the most cogent tongue-twister I’ve found.

I had the pleasure of meeting Leon a couple of years later in Saratoga Springs. I’d been booked for a weekend at the Caffe Lena, and Leon was there the night before with Frankie Armstrong, a wonderful British ballad singer, so I went up early to catch their show and hang out. We got along fine, and the next couple of times he came through Boston, he stayed at my place. I also stayed one night at his place in Wembley, London, a few years later, when I was leon-rosselsonresearching my Josh White book. By then he was devoting most of his efforts to children’s books, but he continues to perform and remains a singularly intelligent and reliably leftist voice. I recommend checking out his website, which has plenty of information on his recordings, books, and upcoming gigs.

As for Vancouver, I’ll get back to that subject shortly, but to wrap up one story line, Maggie died in 1992, and I see from her Wikipedia page that Simon Fraser now has a building dedicated to her memory — which is nice, in its way, but no consolation. She was wonderful, and I loved staying with her, and I miss her.

Lord, Got Tomatoes (Blind Blake Higgs)

This song was first recorded by the Bahamian Blind Blake  and his Royal Victoria Hotel Calypsos, but a couple of the verses were current when I was in elementary school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. blind-blake-higgs-and-bandActually, to be strictly accurate, one of his verses (the sheep one) was current in my school, and another (the bear one) was current in my school but not on Blake’s recording, and I added it, because it fit.

Dave Van Ronk often argued that the only true example of folk music in his repertoire was “Shaving Cream,” a mildly dirty ditty he’d learned as a kid in Brooklyn, because unlike all the songs he’d learned from recordings or his fellow folksingers, it had been learned informally through the oral tradition in his home community and was the sort of music people in that community (in particular, pre-teen boys) sang for their own pleasure and entertainment.

When I’ve taught folk music classes, I regularly ask the students to sing or recite lyrics they’ve learned from friends and never heard on a recording or seen in print or video. Almost everybody has a few, and they tend to be mildly dirty — or sometimes not so mildly — in part because dirty lyrics are fun, and in part because the clean children’s rhymes get disseminated by other means.

I first heard this song from a Seattle street musician named Baby Gramps. It was the summer of 1982, as best I can figure, and I’d hitchhiked out west and was wending my way to Vancouver, Canada, including a week or so playing on the street in Seattle. I did ok, and met a surprising number of people I’d known elsewhere (including a woman I’d known in Pakistan and one from Cambridge who’d almost led me astray in my innocent youth), but baby-grampsnothing to the crowds Gramps gathered. He was a local phenomenon, and I recall several dozen people sitting on a patch of grass and listening as he sat on a chair and ran through something like a full set.

That set included this song, and I loved it and went up to him afterwards and asked if he could give me the words. He grumbled, “No, I think of that as my own song and don’t want other people doing it.” I replied that it sounded to me like a Blind Blake song — Gramps had kept the basic Bahamian rhythms, and it reminded me of the Blake songs I’d heard from Van Ronk (“Yas, Yas, Yas“) and Paul Geremia (“Jones, Oh Jones“). He grumbled, “Yeah, maybe that’s where I heard it…” but continued to demur.

Which, in the long run, may have been a good thing, since it pushed me to hunt up the Blind Blake record. Blind Blake bahamanBut at the time I thought he was being an asshole, and ever since have made a point of cheerfully passing on any song I know to anyone else who wants to learn it. Because, much as I may like having a great song associated with me, if I can’t make my version special that’s my own fault, and I didn’t write any of this stuff, so what possible right do I have to treat it like my personal property? Which said, Gramps is a good musician and did a really nice version of this, and that’s where I first heard it, and it’s a charming little ditty if ever there was one, and I found the Blake album easily enough, and all is well. So hats off to him, and thanks.

Perry’s March (Perry Lederman)

I met Perry Lederman for the first time at my brother Dave’s house in Oakland. He showed up with two bags of groceries, mentioned that he’d just talked a storekeeper out of them, and hung out for a while talking about this and that. He was a guitarist, seemed to know every musician I’d ever heard of, and had studied sarod for eight years with Ali Akbar Khan. So I was interested, and when I got back from India, flying via Bangkok to San Francisco, I asked if Perry was around… perry_headonly to learn that in the interim he’d sold four hundred tabs of acid to a cop and left the state. Dave thought he was in upstate New York someplace, but wasn’t sure.

That was the spring of 1981, and I spent the first part of the summer hitchhiking across country and hopping freight trains back, then wound up spending a few days on  Dave Van Ronk’s couch in Greenwich Village. Walking down MacDougal Street one warm evening, I saw a guy playing guitar in a doorway. “Wouldn’t it be weird if that was Perry Lederman,” I thought to myself. Of course, it wasn’t — but I still had the thought in my mind when I turned onto Bleecker and passed a couple of guys sharing a joint in a doorway, and one of them was Perry.

He didn’t recognize me at first and was paranoid about being spotted, but I explained that I was Dave’s brother, and he told me he was crashing in SoHo, in a loft with eleven junkies, and wanted to get out of town. His total worldly possessions at that point were the clothes he was wearing — a pair of blue jeans, sneakers, a t-shirt, and a sweatshirt — and a Gibson J-185 (vintage guitar folk will note the craziness of that). I was thrilled to have found him, and said if he could get to Cambridge he was welcome to come stay at my folks’ place.

teenage-perry-in-washington-sqThen I went back to Dave’s and told him who I’d met. “Oh, man! I remember Perry,” Dave said.” He came to me for a guitar lesson around 1958. He was a little skinny teenager, and said he’d been walking through Washington Square Park and saw Tom Paley playing, and wanted to learn to play like that, and Tom had suggested coming to me. So I asked what he wanted to learn, and he said, ‘Well, Paley was playing something like this…’ and played me a very fair version of ‘Buck Dancer’s Choice.’ I told him, ‘You don’t need lessons from me.'” Then Dave added, very seriously: “Don’t bring him here.”

A couple of weeks later, Perry turned up in Cambridge. He stayed with us for about a month, and the thing I remember best is that my grandmother liked him. My grandmother was suspicious of anyone outside the family, and especially anyone she thought might be taking advantage of me, and there was Perry, this little wizened character in a dirty sweatshirt and jeans who looked like a junkie… but she was a serious musician, and somehow — although she was deaf by then and our music was a long way from Chopin — concluded that he was also a very serious musician. She would watch us playing together, and she could see he was giving me something special and important, and she liked him.

After a month or so, Perry went up to visit friends in Vermont, then down to Woods Hole to stay with my ex-half-sister-in-law, Hazel (discussed in a previous post). He got a job with a local carpenter/contractor, Tom Renshaw, who was also a serious music fan. Hazel’s current boyfriend worked for Tom as well, and described the scene when a new guy would come on the crew: they’d be working on a roof in the hot sun, and Perry would be sitting under a tree in the shade playing guitar, and the new guy would ask, “Why is he getting paid to do this work, when he’s spending half his time playing guitar?” To which a more experienced crew member would reply: “He’s Perry Lederman.”

None of that gives a sense of what a great player Perry was, or how many people admired and learned from him over the years. The list would include John Fahey, Michael Bloomfield, Bob Dylan, and Jerry Garcia, to start with, and could go on and on — he was one of the great offstage guitarists of the 1960s, hanging out and playing at parties with friends who were more career-oriented. He was a particularly subtle virtuoso, going deeper and deeper into pieces he lived with throughout his life, largely drawn from Mississippi John Hurt, Elizabeth Cotten, Sam McGee, and other early rural fingerstylists. Everyone remembers his tone and vibrato — he had unbelievably strong hands and could hold a bar chord and get shimmering vibrato on one string with his little finger. I don’t know how much of that came from his Indian classical music studies and how much he had from the beginning, but I’ve never heard anyone play like him.

perry-lederman-cdPerry never made a formal album — he was a perfectionist and never felt quite ready — but in his final months we compiled a CD of his informal recordings, which has been issued by his wife Joan, with notes by the poet Al Young (and my song notes). I highly recommend that everybody pick up a copy — hearing me play Perry Lederman ain’t nothing to hearing Perry play Perry Lederman.

As for “Perry’s March,” it was one of his more approachable pieces, from my point of view, because it didn’t demand his incredible vibrato. The first part is adapted from Sam McGee’s “Franklin Blues,” and the main section was inspired by the Reverend Gary Davis’s take on a Sousa march. Perry didn’t have a name for it, so when I recorded it on my LP in 1984, I called and asked him how I should title it. He said he didn’t have a name for it, so I said I’d call it “Perry’s March,” and he said, “Yeah, that’s what Bloomfield called it.”

Michigan Water (ironies of the Great Migration)

This year’s award for the most glaring irony in American folklore goes to the title line of this song:
“Michigan water tastes like sherry wine.”

jelly roll morton commodoreJelly Roll Morton’s lyric metaphorically summed up the central dream of the “great migration” — that black Americans could escape bad times down south for good times up north. It was not all that different from the dream that made a lot of poor Irish, Italians, and Eastern Europeans brave the dangers of steerage in search of streets paved with gold — or that made Okies leave the dust bowl for California, where you could pluck peaches off the trees.

Of course, none of those destinations were as pretty as they were painted, and racial discrimination made migration a more effective solution for some people than others. But for a lot of black southern expatriates, for quite a few decades, working for Ford or Chrysler provided a hell of a lot better life than sharecropping in Mississippi.

These days, things aren’t so clear. I recently heard an NPR interview with James Young, the james-youngblack mayor of Philadelphia, Mississippi, where the civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were lynched during the Mississippi Summer of 1964, and it sounds like a lot has changed down there. Meanwhile, up in Michigan, the news has mostly been about water that by no means tastes like sherry wine.

I first heard this song either from Dave Van Ronk or on a Jelly Roll Morton album I borrowed from Dave. At the time, I doubt I gave much thought to its historical context, but looking through the program of the educational concert I gave at the India Institute of Technology in New Delhi back in 1981, I find that I juxtaposed the black and white southern working class experience in the early 20th century by playing this back-to-back with a version of Jimmie Rodgers’s “California Blues” that included a similar verse comparing the water in Georgia and California.

I hadn’t been playing this much in recent years, but the Flint situation jerron-paxton-pianobrought it back to mind, and I was pleased to hear Jerron Paxton, my favorite current folk/blues/pop artist, sing it this summer with a new verse referring to the news… which, of course, I promptly stole. He plays it on piano, like it should be played, and if you don’t know his work, I strongly recommend checking him out, because he’s a monster on numerous instruments and a singularly compelling and entertaining performer.

Dock of the Bay (adventures in India)

I was back in the US for a year in 1979-80, then headed off to Europe again, busked up the money for a plane ticket to Pakistan, and flew Aeroflot from Paris to Karachi. I hitchhiked north to Lahore and Rawalpindi, then across the border to Amritsar, India…

…or, actually, to the road to Amritsar, where a Frenchman who had managed to get his Citroen 2CV all the way from France to India had the misfortune to let me take the wheel and I promptly totaled it in a head-on collision with a truck. The story is a bit more complicated than that, and it wasn’t entirely my fault, but the damage was done. So we spent a few days recovering in Amritsar, then I took a train to Delhi.

In Delhi I got a cheap bed in a shared room with a half-dozen dissolute hippies — among them the co-founder of Celestial Seasonings teas, which he’d started as Rocky Mountain Herbals, gathering the herbs himself.* He’d sold out to a partner and headed for Nepal and parts east, aiming to become an expert in opium. I don’t know how expert he was, but he took me along on one of his local buys, explaining that you shouldn’t smoke the Indian stuff because it was cut with plastic. So we ate it, and it was a very pleasant, low-key high…

…which is, more or less, how I would characterize my stay in Delhi, until the morning I woke up to find that someone had extracted all my money from the pocket of my jacket, despite the fact that I always rolled up the jacket and used it as a pillow.

That presented a bit of a problem, since none of the local hotels or restaurants would hire me to play unless I had a work permit, and the couple of times I tried busking the populace seemed to find me mildly amusing but did not subsidize my efforts. times-of-india-reviewSo then I got the bright idea of going to the US embassy and offering my talents to the United States Information Service as a cultural emissary who was already there, and hence cheap.

Oddly enough, they went for it. I designed a concert-cum-lecture in which I provided a capsule history of American music, from ballads and field hollers through blues, country, swing, rock ‘n’ roll, and a couple of hits of the 1960s — notably Otis Redding’s “(Sitting on) The Dock of the Bay.”

I’d worked out this guitar part more or less by accident: I was playing around with the idea of fingerpicking while slapping a steady rhythm on the downbeat, and it seemed to fit Redding’s song — which meant I practiced this a lot as an exercise but virtually never played it in public, because who needed another version of “Dock of the Bay”?

Answer: my audience at the India Institute of Technology. The concert went well, I got my first review ever, praising my “zest” and “educative quality,”** crashed for a few days with some students there, then played a second concert at a girls school, was paid a few hundred dollars by the USIS, and caught a train to Bombay (now Mumbai). In Bombay I did one more embassy-sponsored concert, picked up some work as an extra in Bollywood movies — that was me among the tourists on the runaway bus rescued by Mithun Chakraborty — and as a British policeman in Gandhi, standing on the dock with my back to the camera, restraining the surging crowds as the Mahatma arrived from South Africa.

Meanwhile, I spent my evenings on another dock, looking out towards the fort and playing for whoever wandered by — which, once again was unremunerative, but I met a lot of nice people, got stoned when interested, and even found a bed now and then.

As the song says, with allowances for distance:
“Eight thousand miles I’d roamed, just to make that dock my home…”


*I cannot vouch for the accuracy of that Rocky Mountain Herbals/ Celestial Seasonings story, nor do I remember the guy’s name. He did keep a voluminous scrapbook of philosophical quotations like the ones on the tea boxes, but that’s not exactly proof. I lost touch with him, aside from one postcard a year or so later, sent from a jail in Thailand.

**I take no responsibility for the odder bits of history in the review, or the description of African American work songs as expressing “a joy which no adversity could repress.”