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.”

Fancy-Pants Gambling Man

This is one of the rarest songs I know; to the best of my knowledge, it has never been publicly available until now. Which is truly weird.

I heard it on a reel-to-reel tape in the position of Amy Cohen, the friend who introduced me to Dave Van Ronk, sometime in the mid-1970s. The tape was by Erik Frandsen, a terrific guitarist, songwriter, and performer, whom I later saw numerous times at Folk City and the Speakeasy, usually with Dave nodding approvingly at my elbow. I recall Dave explaining that Erik got so good by practicing in front of the television during all the Mets games, so I tried that for a while (albeit with the Red Sox), but never came close to his precision and virtuosity… and that’s not to mention the songwriting.

I don’t know how Amy came to have the tape, which  seems to have been recorded in Chris Smither’s apartment circa 1970 or thereabouts, but I was  mightily enamored of it. The songs included a sixties counterculture rewrite of “He’s in the Jailhouse Now”; a brief a cappella interlude celebrating the virtues of Bromo-Seltzer; Erik’s signature song of the time, “Drowning in Beer”; and this masterpiece of tongue-in-cheek Americana.

For a while I didn’t bother to learn this, because I thought of it as Erik’s song and didn’t see the point. But here we are, more than forty years later, and as far as I know it has never been recorded except for that stray tape. Erik never made an album — I have no idea why, and would encourage any producers out there to contact him and try to change that — though he did a few songs on the Speakeasy’s Fast Folk LPs and now has a bunch of videos online. But by the time I met him in the early 1980s, he’d dropped this from his repertoire.

So I started doing it, citing Erik as its originator, and only recently checked with him and learned that it was written by Tom Hobson — a name I had never heard, despite a lifetime burrowing around the folk and blues scenes. rememberingtomHobson is no longer among us, but some friends have mounted a nice website in his memory, with several albums of his music and encomiums from associates and students including Jorma Kaukonen, Dan Hicks, and Steve Mann — and that’s another story worth investigating.

Hobson was a legendary Bay Area character who played brilliantly, was known and admired by all the musicians, but never really made a go of it as a performer (a description shared by my friend Perry Lederman, on whom more in a forthcoming post). And to make the story even crazier, none of Hobson’s albums includes “Fancy-Pants Gambling Man,” nor do any of the remembrances even hint at its existence.

How the hell could a song like this be in the ether, performed by musicians of the quality of Hobson and Frandsen (and who knows, maybe a bunch of other people), and never get recorded? As best I can tell, I’m currently the only person on earth who knows it, and that just doesn’t seem right. So here it is.

erik-frandsen-headshot(Incidentally, one of the reasons Erik is not better known as a musician is that he has dedicated most of his professional attention to acting — you’ve likely seen him in movies and on the Daily Show — and wrote an off-Broadway show, and all in all has kept pretty busy doing other stuff. Which said, I’m still waiting for that album.)

Frankie and Johnny (John Held, Moe Asch)

A common delusion among young artists is that if you get within range of some potential discoverers, you’ll get discovered. I spent much of my late teens and early twenties subscribing to this delusion, and shortly after returning from Europe in 1979 I attempted to give fate a nudge by dropping off an audition cassette at the Folkways Records office in New York. I figured if I went there myself I might run into the legendary Moe Asch and charm him into recording me…

held frankie and johnny…and as a perfect example of just how delusional I was, one of the items on that audition tape was my version of one of the most over-recorded songs in the American folk pantheon: “Frankie and Johnny.”

Of course, I wasn’t just singing any old version of “Frankie and Johnny” — I had found a racy version in a book illustrated by the New Yorker cartoonist John Held, Jr., that included explicit lines about Frankie working in a crib house and Johnny spending her money on parlor house whores. I figured the gritty realism of this lyric would catch Asch’s attention — that is, I figured Asch, who had recorded Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, would be impressed by the gritty realism of a lyric learned from a New Yorker cartoonist. Or to put the issue more plainly, I was a pretentious young idiot.

So I went by the Folkways offices, and of course Moe Asch was in a back office to which I never penetrated, but I dropped off the tape and the nice woman in the front office promised he’d listen to it. I noticed a lot of African art around, so I went home and studied up on that, figuring if I managed to meet him the next time I could make an impression by having an intelligent conversation about Dogon masks and Senufo birds. held-woodcutAnd a month or so later I went back, and the nice woman gave back my cassette — I don’t know if Asch had listened, but if not he’d at least had the decency to fast-forward it to the end of side one, as if he’d listened. And that was that. I never got to meet him, and had to start my own record label a few years later to inflict my music on the world.

So that’s my story, and now I’m a considerably older idiot and suitably embarrassed by my youthful naivete, but I still like this lyric and love Held’s woodcuts. I recently checked the book and find that I cut the lyric down quite a bit and forgot some of the goofier verses, but I still do it pretty much the way I did then.

If I were to try to do an authentic version today I Frankie Baker, of Frankie and Albertwould take a different tack, tracing the court records of the historical murder and at least singing the male protagonist’s name as “Albert,” the way John Hurt did, or maybe even “Allen, which was his real name. He was Allen Britt, shot by Frankie Baker in St Louis in 1899, and there are myriad websites detailing the story in more or less garish detail. But what the hell… I got it from John Held, and I’m ready to confess the fact and recommend his book. It’s been reprinted at least once, and is well worth tracking down, if only for his wonderful illustrations.

Bidin’ My Time (John Miller’s influence)

I’m pretty sure it was the late fall of 1979 that Dave Van Ronk played Passim Coffeehouse with a younger guitarist named John Miller as the opening act. Dave knew John already, and I had seen John’s two albums on the Blue Goose label, though I hadn’t heard them. Both consisted mainly of country blues, and in the cover photos John looked like a bearded student type, an impression john miller lpreinforced when I learned that he was based in Ithaca.

None of that fit the man and music I heard at Passim. John had shaved his beard and was playing songs off his latest album. It was called Biding My Time, and consisted entirely of George Gershwin songs, some performed as instrumentals and others sung. Dave and I stood in the back of the room and exchanged sympathetic glances as John redefined our understanding of how a guitarist could negotiate that material. He had none of the kitschy Chet Atkins style, his rhythm was impeccable, and his singing was understated but consistently tuneful and beautifully phrased.

I particularly remember Dave’s expression as John sang the opening verse to “Of Thee I Sing,” treating the lyric with graceful sincerity,  and then, where the melody makes a tricky key change, plucked a bar chord, reached up with his right hand to shift the capo from the second to the fourth fret, and went on playing in the new key. Dave made his most mooselike moue. He wanted to call it cheating, but was also consumed with regret that he hadn’t thought of it first.

I bought the album, enjoyed it, and was inspired to learn the title song — not John’s arrangement, which was way beyond my skills, but taking his performances as a model. I worked out my own chart for this, and then for “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” and — getting away from Gershwin — “Taking a Chance on Love” which was my moment of victory, because when I played it for Dave he thought it was John’s. A few years later I found John’s book of the Gershwin arrangements and struggled with it for a while, but they never felt smooth under my fingers. swing-songs-for-the-moderate-fingerpickerSo I stuck with my own charts, and even self-published a book of them, Swing Songs for the Moderate Fingerpicker.

Four decades later, I only play a couple of those arrangements, but this one stuck with me, and always reminds me of seeing John that night at Passim. I’ve met him since and taught alongside him at the Port Townsend Blues Week, and he continues to be best known as a scholar and adept of rural blues guitar styles, but I still think of him as the master of Gershwin.

Manu Kai (Hawaiian Slack Key)

It must have been the winter of 1979-80 when I was browsing through a music store and came across Keola Beamer’s instruction book, Hawaiian Slack-Key Guitar. Keola Beamer bookI’d never heard of the style — an extension of the parlor guitar style of “Spanish Fandango,” favoring a variety of open and other “slacked” string tunings — but it looked approachable and there was a little plastic record included, so I picked it up and learned two or three of the pieces. This one in particular caught my fancy, and I recall practicing it in Dave Van Ronk’s living room one afternoon when he was in the kitchen cooking dinner, and him coming in and saying, “If you don’t watch out, you might play something pretty” — which was his way of saying he was pleasantly surprised.

I was still playing it when I ended up in Vancouver for the first time a few months later on my first extended stateside hitchhiking trip, and my hostess there turned out to have spent a lot of time in Hawaii and had records by Ray Kane, Gabby Pahinui, and Pahinui - Isaacs LPAtta Isaacs. I taped them all, listened to them quite a lot for a couple of months, and then moved on… it was pretty, indeed, but I had the same problem with it that I later had with bossa nova — I bought a couple of Baden Powell records and some Joao Gilberto, enjoyed them for a while, and then I wanted to hear something grittier.

Many years later, I was writing for the Boston Globe and got the first releases from George Winston’s Dancing Cat record label, a half-dozen Hawaiian slack-key CDs, and called Winston to do a story on them, and he was so excited that anyone at a major newspaper knew anything about slack-key that he sent me a box of about thirty cassettes, of everything currently available in Hawaii. And then I got to interview Ray Kane, who was wonderful, and Ledward Kaapana, who blew me away both as a guitarist and as a live performer. And around the same time I happened to be back in Utah Phillips’s dressing room, and he was warming up by playing a slack-key instrumental and said that was the first way he learned to play guitar.

So I had a second wave of interest in the style. Ray Kane convinced me that the singing was a big part of the tradition, and the traditional singing, unlike the guitar playing, was not a pretty sound that non-Hawaiians could embrace as background music. Like, for example:

But I wasn’t going to start singing in Hawaiian, and even to play the instrumental style, by that time I’d realized I should have used Beamer’s tablature as a starting point for my own explorations, rather than just learning “Manu Kai” note for note. So that was that, for me… but it’s still a pretty little guitar piece.

Te Recuerdo Amanda (Victor Jara)

The Chilean coup was a palpable force in my house. My father was excited by Salvador Allende’s election and spent several weeks in Chile, meeting Pablo Neruda and others. So when the coup shattered that dream, it was a direct blow. Then I went with Eqbal Ahmad, a family friend who had fought in the Algerian revolution, to a concert/benefit for Chile featuring Joan Baez where Orlando Letelier, a friend of Eqbal’s, was the guest of honor, and spent most of the after-party hanging out with them… and a few weeks later Letelier was assassinated by Chilean government agents in Washington.

The Victor Jara albums came into our house during that period, as an expression of solidarity, though I don’t recall listening to them often until I’d spent some years in Europe and understood Spanish. Meanwhile, in 1974 Phil Ochs Victor Jara LPhad organized a Chile benefit concert in New York that included Bob Dylan and Dave Van Ronk, and asked Dave to sing “He Was a Friend of Mine” in memory of Jara. And then in 1976 Phil died, and Dave started singing the song in his memory, after telling the story of Jara’s murder in the football stadium in Santiago.

Thousands of people were rounded up in the days after the coup and held in that stadium, and on the second or third day Jara was recognized by an officer and publicly tortured. Descriptions differ as to whether the soldiers smashed or cut off his fingers before breaking his wrists with rifle butts, then asking sarcastically if he could still play and sing for them… and he responded by calling on the other prisoners and leading them in a song, before he was beaten to the ground and shot over forty times.

Dave told that story for years before singing “He Was a Friend of Mine,” and when I got back from Europe and booked a first gig at the Nameless Coffeehouse, I told it as well, then sang “Te Recuerdo Amanda.” It was the only song I sang in a language other than English, and I would first recite a translation:

Victor Jara LP2“I remember you, Amanda; the wet streets; running to the factory; where Manuel was working.

“Your wide smile; the rain in your hair; it didn’t matter; you were going to meet him.

“Just five minutes; life is eternal in five minutes; the siren blows; time to return to work; and you walking along; you light up everything; those five minutes; have made you flower.

“I remember you, Amanda; the wet streets; running to the factory; where Manuel was working.

“Your wide smile; the rain in your hair; it didn’t matter; you were going to meet him.

“Who went away to the mountains; who never harmed anyone; who went away to the mountains; and in five minutes was destroyed; the siren blows; time to return to work; many did not return; among them Manuel.”

For anyone who doesn’t know the history: the Chilean coup was actively supported by the CIA, part of the ongoing US policy of destroying any democratic government that potentially threatened the profits American businesses were extracting from the developing world. My father recalled with bitter amusement a huge sign outside the American Screw Company’s compound in the Chilean countryside: “American Screw Chile.”

Jara was one of the founding figures of the Latin American nueva cancion, or “new song” movement, and although he was murdered over forty years ago, that story goes on: in June a Florida court handed down a civil judgment against a Chilean military officer for his murder — like many henchmen of the right-wing dictatorships that decimated Latin America in that period, he is now a US citizen — but the US Department of Justice continues to reject the Chilean government’s requests for his extradition.

Brand New Tennessee Waltz (Jesse Winchester)

I remember knowing in a vague sort of way that this was by Jesse Winchester, but I didn’t know anything more about him and don’t have any memory of hearing him sing it, or indeed of hearing anyone sing it. I obviously must have heard it somewhere — most likely numerous somewheres —  performed by various someones at various coffeehouses and on various street corners… but I have no recollection of the experience.

Which said, I clearly remember how  I learned it. The Cambridge Public Library had a subscription to Sing Out! magazine, and Abbie Sing out (Jesse Winchester)Hoffman’s Steal This Book had a great tip about library subscriptions: libraries typically keep only five years of back issues, and if you ask them to give you the old ones when they do their annual cull, they are happy to oblige. As outlined in previous posts, I had become an habitué of the CPL’s music room during high school, and I put in a request for their discarded Sing Out!s each year, along with a guitar magazine whose title I have since forgotten.

That went on for three or four years, and then sometime in the late 1970s I got a call saying, “We’ve discontinued our subscription to Sing Out! — do you want the back issues?” I did, of course, and hurried over to get them, which gave me a complete run through the decade.

That was not as exciting as a full run through the 1960s would have been, because the magazine’s aesthetic and mine had gradually diverged. They were increasingly focused on singer-songwriters, and even their tastes in traditional and international music tended to differ from mine. But they still had occasional blues tablature, and once in a while a current composition separated itself from the pack.

Like, for example, this one. Winchester always said it was the first song he wrote — Jesse Winchestera daunting thought for anyone who wants to be a songwriter — and he later described it as “cryptic,” saying he stopped writing this way because he wanted to be more clear and direct. I understand what he meant, but by Dylan/ Mitchell/Cohen standards it never seemed particularly cryptic — I took it as a modern variation on the gallows farewell ballad, sung by an outlaw facing execution, and what particularly caught my attention was the wry perfection of the unpoetic word “literally” in the phrase, “literally waltzing on air.”

So I learned it, and although I don’t ever recall performing it, I continue to sing it now and then for my own pleasure, and here it is. Hell of a good piece of writing.

The Band Played Waltzing Matilda (Eric Bogle)

There were a couple of anti-war songs floating around Europe in the late 1970s that were so striking that if you heard them once they stuck with you: “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” and a song variously called “The Flowers of the Forest,”  “No Man’s Land” and “The Green Fields of France.” I heard them over and over, from amateurs and professionals throughout northern Europe, though I don’t think I learned either until I got back to the States and found the lyrics to this one in Sing Out!

At the time I had no idea that both were written by the same man, a Scottish singer based in Australia named Eric Bogle. In the 1970s Bogle hadn’t yet made his first record* and pretty much everyone learned his songs from recordings by Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy, June Tabor, Priscilla Herdman, or other more familiar figures, and passed them along without any sense of the writer — an example of the enduring oral tradition in the days of phonographs and radio, but before the internet.

I finally heard an album by Bogle himself, in Eric Bogle LPVancouver, Canada, around 1982 or ’83 and was startled to find that he was ridiculously, raucously funny — I recall in particular a song mocking serious folksingers, “You’re a Bloody Rotten Audience (Whilst I am very good).” He was acutely aware of the discrepancy: when I eventually saw him live, I remember him singing an incredibly moving, heartbreaking song, followed by stunned silence, then a thunderous ovation… after which he mopped his brow and remarked: “I think I’ll stop writing songs and just hit myself over the head instead.”

All of which is by the way, because this song speaks for itself: a simple, brutal story that remains painfully relevant.


*A German reader, Manfred Helfert, corrects me, noting that three Bogle records were recorded and released there following his 1976 tour, on the “seedy” Autogram label. Helfert  quotes Bogle’s opinion:
“These… were recorded during my first tour of Germany in 1976. Only the first one [Live in Person] was authorised, the other two are bootleg. Some of the songs were recorded ‘live’, the rest are obviously quite dead. If you ever come across a copy of any of these L.P.s, melt it down and fashion an ashtray out of it.”