Somebody Else, Not Me (Bert Williams)

Bert Williams, the most popular black entertainer of the early 20th century, recorded this in 1919 as a sequel to his huge hit, “Nobody.” It was credited to Williams and James F. Hanley, with lyrics by Ballard MacDonald, and I learned it from Dave Van Ronk, who added the third verse and made it the title song to his second Philo Records LP, following Sunday Street.

Born in Nassau in 1875, Williams came to the United States as a child and started out singing around the saloons of San Francisco, before joining a touring minstrel company and teaming up with the dancer George Walker in the 1890s. Williams and Walker became the most popular team in African American theater when they wrote, produced, and starred in the groundbreaking Broadway show In Dahomey, the first “legit” New York hit to feature an all-black cast. They went on to write and star in more shows, and after Walker died in 1909, Williams embarked on an even more successful career as a solo act, featured in the Ziegfeld Follies. Though best known as a live performer, he was also by far the most successful African American recording artist before the blues wave of the 1920s.

That sounds like a pretty wonderful career, but in later years Williams has been remembered almost as much for his trials as for his successes. A brilliant man, he was never happy with the options presented by U.S. show business, where he became famous as a shambling, slow-talking clown in blackface make-up. His fellow Follies star W.C. Fields famously described him as “the funniest man I ever saw – and the saddest man I ever knew.” As he put it himself, with typical understatement: “I have never been able to discover that there was anything disgraceful in being a colored man. But I have often found it inconvenient in America.”

 Though Williams was a decent singer, his best-known performances were comic recitations, sometimes with a sung chorus. Through the early twentieth century there was a lot of overlap between recitation and song — many of the lyrics now recalled as cowboy songs, for example, were routinely performed as recitations, and an evening of saloon entertainment was as likely to include recitations of Rudyard Kipling or Robert W. Service as the songs of Stephen Foster or “She’s Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage.” My father, who was born in 1906, was an inveterate singer of  pop songs, but also had some favorite recitations, such as a Yiddish dialect version of “The Face on the Barroom Floor” called “Jake the Plumber.” And one of my favorite Greenwich Village memories is waiting in line to hear Dave Van Ronk at Folk City, and having an aging and somewhat toothless gentleman come up  and, after a memorable introduction, recite “The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck,” with suitably dramatic gestures. (His introduction was to point to the missing letter in the club’s sign and announce: “I can remember when there was a C in the Folk City marquee… that was twenty years ago, when I was a young alcoholic.”)

van-ronk-somebody-elseDave was a great fan of Bert Williams and had been thinking about recording “Nobody” for years, but Ry Cooder beat him to it, so he went with this one instead. The only problem was that it was too short, and he solved that by writing the third verse — an excellent example of his much-overlooked talents as a lyric doctor, which I’ve already discussed in reference to his reworking of Blind Blake’s “That’ll Never Happen No More.” (Which, incidentally, is another song that walks the borderline between melody and recitation.)

Texas Blues (Bill Morrissey)

This is another song I did at that Passim Coffeehouse show in March 1983. I had just got my first mention in the Boston Globe, where Jeff McLaughlin called me “a superb fingerpicker and distinctive singer” — “distinctive” being a word reviewers use when they’re aware of problems but trying to be nice. It was part of an article on the Nameless Coffeehouse, jeff-mclaughlinwhere I was playing regularly by then, and Jeff was being nice because he was a friend. I’d met him through Bill Morrissey, whom he’d interviewed a few months earlier, then invited to stay in the upstairs room of his apartment on Appleton Road. Bill brought me around, and Jeff arranged for me to do some record reviews for the Globe, which started me on a second career as a writer.

I was staying with my folks at that point, and they lived just a few blocks from Appleton, so I spent a lot of time in that apartment, hanging out with Jeff and Bill, talking about music, listening to music, and playing music. I was also learning a lot of Bill’s songs, often just by osmosis, since they were so well written that after I’d heard them a few times I would realize I knew them. “Texas Blues” was special, in part because I worked up a guitar arrangement I particularly liked — Bill briefly considered switching from his arrangement to mine, which would have been a mistake but was nonetheless a high compliment.

Better than that, though, the song was a love story that for a while at least had a happy ending, and we all got caught up in it. Bill was single at that point, which was never his favorite state of affairs, and thinking back to a girl named Lisa who’d moved to Arizona, and he wrote “Texas Blues” about going out west to try to win her back. My memory is that he never actually saw her, but ended up in Los Angeles living in a garage and doing the starving artist thing, but I could be bill-morrissey-lisa-griegcombining a couple of different stories.

Anyway, Bill wrote the song and I picked it up, and meanwhile he had called Lisa in Phoenix and they started talking pretty often, and eventually she decided to fly back and visit over Christmas. The visit worked out, and soon she was living at Jeff’s as well. She and Bill were like a matched set, hip and funny, with the kind of private language couples sometimes manage, and I don’t think I ever saw Bill happier or more optimistic. They were both huge fans of the beats, and Bill was writing at the peak of his powers and taking lots of chances, and it seemed like he could go in all sorts of directions — he was messing with jazz and blues, and thinking about what kind of instrumentation he’d use when he had the chance to work with some horns and a rhythm section. Tom Waits was a touchstone, along with the Beatles and Dylan, and Mose Allison.

If I’ve got my chronology right, that all was happening around the time I did this gig at Passim, and I’d just worked up my arrangement of this song and was performing it for the first time. So I told the story and played it as pretty as I could,  and by the end a couple of people in the audience were actually crying. I never had that happen at a gig before or since, but we were young and it was a good story and an emotional time.

Lisa Glines adds:
I was in Arizona going to school for engineering while Bill and Grieg were chief cook and bottle washer on a commercial fishing boat out of Ketchikan, where he picked up his tale of the topless laundromat…. Those days in Cambridge were the best… of course it all began at Advance Auto Parts in Allston. He was the delivery boy and I was the inventory girl…

Cormac McCarthy adds:
Bill visited me 3 times or so in 75 and 76 when I lived in Steve Noonan’s garage in Santa Cruz, Ca. In 77 he and Grieg came by to another garage I lived in in LA. They had come down from Alaska and stayed with me till my savings were depleted. Then Grieg sold a Gibson F4 mandolin and bought a car and drove back to NH. Our friend Wes visited for a while and they soon left and their hitchhiking adventures were chronicled in the song “Barstow.” It was a “close to the bone” existence that did produce it’s share of songs. “Texas Blues” was the result of another trip to Gulf Coast we took to look for jobs on the oil rigs and related industry.

Oil Money (Bill Morrissey)

In the early 1980s, I rarely played a set that didn’t include a Bill Morrissey song, and this was the one I sang most frequently — in part because Bill didn’t do it all that often, so I could kind of lay claim to it. bill-morrissey-lpUnlike a lot of Bill’s songs, which were beautifully written but didn’t have much in common with my own experience, this one felt familiar to me – not in the details, but I appreciated the prosaic way it evoked homesickness and the sense of losing track of who you are and where you come from. I was doing a lot of traveling, and trying to figure out where and how I might fit in, and in the process had gradually become aware that I liked places that felt like New England — it didn’t have to be exact, but I wanted some mountains, and I wanted them to be low enough to have trees on them. So this one worked for me, and I played it a lot.

In 1987, I took a break from writing and playing the clubs to hitchhike down and around the coast from Boston to Mexico, and I made a point of going through Morgan City, mostly because of this song. I was coming from New Orleans — that was my first visit, and I’d put in a few days playing for tap-dancers on Bourbon Street with an amp borrowed from David and Roselyn, who are wonderful street singers and twenty years later would marry me to Sandrine (who will show up playing clarinet at some point in this project). I hitched down route 90, coming into Morgan City over a bridge that the driver said was where Dennis Hopper got shot in Easy Riderold-90-morgan-city-bridge which I believed until I just looked for a picture of the bridge and learned that Hopper was actually shot near Morganza, about a hundred miles inland, west of Baton Rouge.

Anyway, the driver was kind enough to take me home to the trailer park where he was living with his wife and two small kids. He was a big fan of the Texas songwriters and I played him some Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Joe Ely, and he was happy with that, so I figured we were on the same page and played “Oil Money.” He’d come down from Michigan to work on an oil rig, so it was pretty much his story, and I expected it to blow him away. But it didn’t work for him — not enough Texas, I guess.

That was briefly disappointing, but ever since this song has reminded me of that guy in Morgan City. I went back a few months later, and he’d left town — his wife and kids were still there, not sure where he was or what they’d do next, and thinking about heading back  to Michigan. It was the sort of story Bill told in song after song, though in real life it was just depressing, not romantic.

I don’t know if there’s a lesson to that story, but it marks a kind of break for me because by that time Bill was changing directions as well, writing fewer songs about working class guys from New Hampshire, and I was doing fewer gigs and often got through them without singing his stuff. I still do this one now and then, and still think it’s one of his best – though almost forty years later, a couple of generations of listeners probably won’t understand the ending, because it’s been almost that long since you could call anyplace and get a local operator. Which, for me, makes the song work better than ever, because time is the most unbridgeable form of distance, and I miss things like that.

Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me (John Hurt/William Myer)

Another favorite from Mississippi John Hurt, with a wonderful lyric by William E. Myer, a lawyer and briefly a record company owner in the late 1920s. Myer’s tastes were decidedly uncommon but have extravagantly stood the test of time. He started his company, lonesome-ace-labelthe Lonesome Ace — with a biplane pictured on the label and the promise “Without a Yodel” — in his home town of Richlands, Virginia, in 1928, largely as a forum for his own compositions. To find artists, he contacted record companies asking the address of singers he hoped would do his material — notably including the banjo player Dock Boggs, who lived about sixty miles east in Norton, Virginia, and John Hurt in faraway Avalon, Mississippi.

Boggs made four sides for Lonesome Ace, accompanied by the Kentucky guitarist Emry Arthur, who recorded two more on his own. Then the label folded, but Myer still had hopes for his songs, writing to Boggs that he had contacted the OKeh label “about the compositions that John Hurt, Colored, has on hands….” Myer had apparently sent Hurt a sheaf of 22 songs, and Hurt set three of them to music: a sentimental parlor ballad titled “Waiting for You,” the gently bawdy “Richlands Woman,” and “Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me.”

john-hurtAs Hurt told the story in an interview for the Library of Congress: “He sent me these songs and half a dozen records to tune ‘em by — if I liked them. And if I didn’t, why I’d tune them my own tune. So I didn’t like the tune of the records, and I got my own melody and fixed them up.”

By other accounts this song was the exception: Hurt set it to the tune of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waiting for a Train” — though with some personal variations — and at times said Myer had suggested that record, though it seems an odd choice considering Myer’s distaste for yodeling. In any case, that’s how it worked out.

Unfortunately, Myer fell sick, the Depression sharply curtailed recording by rural artists, and all three songs would presumably have been forgotten… but they’d caught Hurt’s fancy, and when a young man named Tom Hoskins turned up at his door in 1963, were among the first pieces he played into Hoskins’s portable tape machine.

hurt-lp-with-mermaidsAnd that, long story long, is how I came to hear this, which I worked up with a few variations of my own and played to begin my sets throughout the 1980s. It was a perfect diagnostic opener: sometimes people drifted on the pretty tune, sometimes they laughed at the clever lyric, sometimes they just went on talking — whatever the reaction, it gave me a sense of who they were, and helped me get over my initial nervousness, and then I’d try something more flashy and upbeat and see how that worked.

My first surviving set list, from a show at the Nameless Coffeehouse in February 1983, starts with this, which is notable because that set happened to be mentioned in an article by Jeff McLaughlin in the Boston Globe. He described me as “a superb fingerpicker and distinctive singer” — “distinctive” being one of those words reviewers use when they’re aware of problems but trying to be nice. Another set list, from Passim Coffeehouse that March, shows I opened the second night with “Richlands Woman,” so I clearly I owe a lot to William E. Myer. Not as much as I owe John Hurt, but enough.