Brownskin Girl (Joseph Spence)

I’ve been fascinated by the Bahamian genius Joseph Spence since I was a kid, and by 1986 I’d worked out rough and inaccurate approximations of a few of his pieces. This was one of my favorites off his Folkways album, and it came in handy when I hitchhiked down through Mexico, up through Guatemala, and wound up in Belize.

My ride dropped me in Belize City around mid-afternoon, and I wandered the streets looking for someplace cheap to stay. In those days the town looked like a rundown Caribbean port in an old movie: lines of battered, close-packed houses with carved wooden balconies sagging in the tropical heat. I was directed to a Chinese hotel that was like the place Bogart met Tim Holt and Walter Huston in Treasure of the Sierra Madre — the “rooms” were just cubicles separated by chicken wire, each with a cot and not much else. It looked thoroughly uncomfortable, and a fan at the end of the hall was doing nothing to combat the heat, so I gave it a pass.

The alternative was to find someone who would put me up, and since I didn’t have a clue where that person might be, I wandered over to the port. The fishing boats had come in and young men were sorting fish into baskets and hawking them to customers, cleaning them on the stones and tossing the guts over a low wall into the water. I walked by with my guitar, and a couple of them called me over. I don’t remember what I played first — probably some blues followed by a country song, since the nearby bar was decorated with posters of Bob Marley and Willie Nelson and I didn’t play reggae. Anyway, they enjoyed it and  then, after a bit, I played this song and a couple of them began singing along.

I’d never known the words, since I’d only heard it done by Spence, who tended to mumble more than sing. So that was a nice surprise. They sang:

Brownskin girl, stay home and mind the baby.
Brownskin girl, stay home and mind the baby
If you go away in a sailing boat,
And if you don’t come back,
Please take that damn baby.

I later learned this was a variant of the usual words — “Papa’s gone away in a sailing boat/ And if he don’t come back/ Stay home and mind the baby.” Obviously, an improvement.

Anyway, I ended up spending the night with one of the fish cleaners. He had a tiny place, just a shack big enough for a stove and a bunk bed, and he let me sleep in the top bunk. He explained that a young woman often slept there, but she was a prostitute so probably wouldn’t need it during the night.

He took me to a nearby restaurant where I played and got us a meal, then we joined some friends of his, drank some beers, and ended up back at his place. His roommate did come in later that night and offered to join me, but everyone was tired so instead she split the lower bunk with my host, we all got some sleep, and the next morning I hitched north to Mexico.

As for Spence, I’ve written about him in posts for “Glory of Love” and “Sloop John B,” and on the page for my instructional DVD on his guitar style. I got more serious about working out his arrangements in the 2000s, and the DVD includes a fairly complete exploration of “Brownskin Girl,” along with “Glory of Love,” “Coming In On a Wing and a Prayer,” “That Glad Reunion Day,” “Oh, How I Love Jesus,” and “The Lord is My Shepherd.”

Gritenme Piedras del Campo

Hitching along the Gulf Coast from Louisiana, I planned to spend a couple of weeks in Texas, but I got hassled by the cops in Galveston and it was freezing in Corpus Christi, so I scampered down to Mexico. They wouldn’t let me across the border without a bus ticket to someplace, so I picked Ciudad Victoria and spent my first evening roaming the local cantinas as third man in a norteño trio.

I spent the winter of 1985-6 hitchhiking around Mexico, with a brief swing through Guatemala and Belize, and it was great. I had maybe a hundred dollars when I crossed the border and eked that out by playing for tips and food. Sometimes I did the strolling minstrel thing, including a very pleasant week matching songs with the mariachis and norteño trios at the portales in Veracruz; sometimes I played for tips in tourist restaurants; I got an actual club gig in Antigua, Guatemala, which led to a bizarre evening as guest of Sgt. Barry Sadler; and a lot of times I just traded songs for tacos from street vendors — a good deal for all concerned, since a gringo singing for tacos tended to draw curious onlookers who also bought tacos.

I’d prepared for the trip by learning some Mexican ranchera songs, mostly from Flaco Jiménez albums: “Ni el dinero ni nada,” “Tu nuevo cariñito,” “Besos y copas” (though that one came from Chavela Ortíz), and “Gritenme piedras del campo.”

Like much of the classic tejano or norteño repertoire, this was actually a movie mariachi standard, which was good because it meant I had some repertoire for the older generation in central and southern Mexico who thought of the border accordion style as low-class — fans of classic ranchera despised it almost as much as Sinatra fans of the same generation despised rock ‘n’ roll.

I got my first taste of those older tastes one evening in Guanajuato. I was walking around with my guitar slung over my shoulder, and a kid started following me and eventually struck up a conversation. I played him a couple of songs, and he said I must come to dinner at his father’s office. Since he was only eleven years old, I doubted his father would second that motion and tried to politely decline, but he declared: “If you do not come, it will be an insult to my honor.” So what could I do?

As it turned out, his father was a coffin maker whose hobby was taxidermy, and his “office” was filled with wooden coffins, stacked on metal shelves up to the ceiling, and stuffed birds of prey. The boy introduced me and started cooking — his mother had died when he was small, and the two of them were the family. He was, as it happened, an astonishing cook — when he learned I liked chiles, he went to the freezer and pulled out bags with a dozen different varieties and explained what each contributed to a good sauce. Meanwhile, his father was horrified to learn that I liked norteño and proceeded to play me records of the “real” Mexican singers: Amalia Mendoza, Lola Beltran, the Trio Calaveras… I don’t remember who all he played, but one of the women sang this song and he was very pleased that I knew it.

This was written by Cuco Sánchez, a fine singer, guitarist, sometime actor, and terrific composer. I never listened to him much, but there are plenty of clips from his movies on Youtube. This is among his most famous songs, a classic of ranchera heartache:

Speak to me, mountains and valleys,
Shout to me, stones of the countryside.
When have you seen [anyone] in life,
Love as I am loving,
Cry as I am crying,
Die as I am dying?

In the end, I am in this world like the feather in the air
Without direction I go through life,
Without direction I go through life,
For this, you are guilty…

La Porte en Arrière (D.L. Menard/Cajun)

I followed the coast from Charleston and the Sea Islands to Savannah, where I failed to find any art students with floor space and ended up sleeping in a park until the sprinklers came on. From there I cut inland through Waycross and Valdosta to Tallahassee, then out the Florida panhandle, busking in bars for a few bucks, drinks, and occasionally beds. In New Orleans, I had a connection with a spare room and stayed a few days, meeting the wonderful David and Roselyn, who loaned me an amp so I could back a couple of teenage tapdancers on Bourbon Street and became lifelong friends. (There’s more about them in my post for “Iko Iko,” which I worked up during that trip, while waiting for rides).

From New Orleans I hitched down through Morgan city (as told in my post for “Oil Money“) and on to Lafayette. I arrived late in the afternoon, asked where I could hear good Cajun music and was sent down the road to Breaux Bridge, where there was a club called Mulate’s.

Talk about good directions! Dewey Balfa was playing fiddle with his band, and the food was good, and everybody was dancing — eventually including me, since women kept coming up and offering to show me how. I guess I was a pretty obvious foreigner, since I had a backpack and guitar leaned against my chair, and sometime later a couple of young women asked me if I needed a place to stay and offered me a spare room, and I said yes, and we drank more beer, and then Ricky Skaggs and D.L. Menard came in — Menard was opening for Skaggs at a concert somewhere in the area and brought him down afterwards.

I spent close to a week in Breaux Bridge, staying with Amanda LaFleur, having Thanksgiving dinner at her friend’s parents’ house, where everyone spoke French (but not the kind of French I spoke) and taking a side trip to Mamou, where I ended up playing in a zydeco duo with an accordionist named Ray Fontenot. That night had a kind of comical ending, because Ray’s wife wasn’t comfortable with a “drifter” staying at their place, so he took me to a motel out in the countryside where they explained they had no clean rooms but could give me a dirty room for ten bucks. I took it.

I don’t think I saw D.L. Menard again that week, but I met him a bunch of times over the years, up in Boston and down in Louisiana. When we did the PBS series River of Song, I insisted he be the featured Cajun musician and we filmed his band playing at a crawfish boil in his backyard. A few years later, when Sandrine and I were living in New Orleans, I brought her to see him because she’d been hearing Cajun announcers on the radio who weren’t native speakers and needed to be convinced that it was a real language, not just Americans speaking bad French. We drove out to D.L.’s place in Erath, and he met us in the yard with his chihuahua named Taco, and waxed eloquent, as always. He was playing every weekend for one of those dopey comic wedding dinner theater things, “Boudreaux and Thibodeaux’s Cajun Wedding,” and loved it — his particular phrase of approbation was, “C’est fast, Jack!”

D.L. had a lot of great phrases. One was: “I got a real good memory, but it’s short.”

Another: “They say it takes all kinds to make a world, but that’s not true. Some of ’em are just there.”

Anyway… he sure did speak fluent Cajun French, and wrote a lot of great songs in that language, and recorded terrific versions of them with his band, the Louisiana Aces. “La Porte en Arrière (The Back Door)” is his most famous, and probably the best-known Cajun song after “Jole Bon.” As he explained to me:

I put the story in my mind and I took it from the everyday procedures; every once in a while I hear or see that people would get drunk and was too ashamed to go in the front door, that they’d come in through the back door so that nobody could see them….

The everyday procedures, that’s what makes the best songs. Because you don’t pay no attention to what you do every day… Just like water: You wash your hands or wash your face and take your shower, you don’t think nothing of it. But let that water run dry. Where you going to take a shower? See if you don’t notice it right away….

I recorded that song in 1962, and it’s still a hit. That’s a standard now, and I only wish I could write another one like that — front door, or side door, or something.

D.L. was known as “the Cajun Hank Williams,” and he patterned “The Back Door” on Williams’s “Honky Tonk Blues.” He only met Williams once, in 1951, but that night changed his life.

I studied that man, I stayed with him from nine till — well, I left the dance hall at fifteen to one, he played from nine to one, and I stayed in front of that bandstand almost all the time, and I studied that man from head to toe…

I talked with him for about ten minutes.  And he told me, he said, “You’ve got to sing a song from the heart.”  I said, “What you mean by that?” I didn’t know what in the hell he meant.  And “region music,” he talked to me about region music.  I didn’t know what region music was.  I was nineteen years old.  So more or less half of what he told me went inside here and out the other side….

D.L. particularly remembered Williams telling him he should play his own music:

I said, “Hank,” I said “I never — it’s French music.”
He said, “It’s yours, huh?  It’s your music.”
“Well,” I said, “yeah.”  I said, “Well, that’s what I grew up in…”
What he said: “It’s good.  It’s good music.”  He said, “No matter what kind of music you play, if it’s your music,” he said, “it’s good.”

At a Georgia Camp Meeting (Kerry Mills)

By some measures the first major hit of the ragtime era, “At a Georgia Camp Meeting” was played by brass bands, mandolin orchestras, banjo virtuosos, pianists, and everyone else who tried their hand at the ragtime style.

It was composed in 1897 by the violinist, music teacher, orchestra leader, and publisher Frederick Mills, who wrote under the name Kerry Mills and published it under his own imprint. One of the first writers to publish syncopated melodies, Mills was inspired by African American cakewalk melodies, and titled this piece to evoke the Black Christian camp meetings that were already famous worldwide thanks to groups like the Fisk Jubilee Singers, as well as from parodies circulating on the blackface minstrel stage. Notably, the sheet music for this pioneering hit described it as a “Characteristic March which can be used effectively as a Two Step & Polka” — the term “ragtime” would not become popular for another year or two.

This is by far the best remembered of Mills’s 19th century ragtime hits, but at the time, it was not significantly more successful than his “Whistling Rufus,” another title capitalizing on the rage for cakewalks and “coon songs.” He would soon follow these up with other hits, most memorably his tribute to the 1904 World’s Fair, “Meet Me In St. Louis, Louis” and the pseudo-Native American love song, “Red Wing,” which is probably best known today as the melodic source for Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid.”

As I say in the intro to my video (recorded back in 2009, to promote my pop music history How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll), there are no recordings of this kind of classic ragtime on fingerstyle guitar from the ragtime era — though plenty from the 1960s and ’70s, as noted in my posts for “St. Louis Tickle,” “Maple Leaf Rag,” and “The Pearls” — but that doesn’t mean much, since most music of that early period went unrecorded. It seems safe to assume that some guitarists came up with settings, and as evidence in favor of this assumption, the cover of “Whistling Rufus” showed an African American guitarist apparently playing fingerstyle — an offensively stereotyped image, but all the more suggestive of a familiar tradition of black instrumentalists who played this sort of tune.

As further evidence, check out the New Orleans guitarist and banjo player Johnny St. Cyr playing his solo arrangement of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Original Jelly Roll Blues,” recorded circa 1940 as an example of how they used to play such music earlier in the century:

Winin’ Boy / Winding Ball (Jelly Roll Morton)

I learned this from Dave Van Ronk, who got it from Jelly Roll Morton, and it’s at this point in the Songobiography because my trip south in 1985 included a brief stint with a trad jazz band in Charleston, SC.

I hitched down from Southport via Myrtle Beach and don’t remember where or who I asked, but I was looking for people who were interested in acoustic blues and someone put me in touch with Michael Tyzack. He was a painter, prominent in the art department at the University, and also played trumpet in a trad band. At that point he was living in a big old house where he let me sleep in a spare room, and getting around in a wheelchair because he’d broken up with a woman who did not take kindly to the situation and smashed him into a wrought iron fence with her car, breaking his legs in multiple places. Unsurprisingly he was feeling rather down, seemed to like having company, and said nice things about my guitar arrangement of “At a Georgia Camp Meeting.” So I stayed two or three days and got to see a bit of Charleston.

I also guested on an outdoor gig with his band, at which my abilities can be judged by the fact that halfway through the first set one of the other musicians leaned over and whispered, “I think you just played one of the right chords.” That was not entirely fair, but fair enough — my only defense was that I did my best to play the wrong chords quietly. Michael and the band’s clarinet player (or maybe trombone?) also set me up with a bar gig that night and played a few songs with me, and this was one of them.

This is generally known as “Winin’ Boy,” but that title is a mistake. Morton sounds like he could be singing those words, so I don’t blame the record folks for getting it wrong, and after they issued it Morton wrote the title that way himself in a couple of letters — but if you listen to him talk about it on his Library of Congress recordings, he clearly says “Winding Ball.”

It apparently was his theme song and I assume he added some verses, but the basic lyric was floating around the South a good while before he committed it to disc. W.C. Handy recalled that he was inspired to start composing blues after a rag-tag trio of mandolin, guitar, and bass played a few songs during a break at one of his concert dances in Cleveland, Mississippi, and made more money in tips than his nine-piece band was getting for the whole night. In the published version of his memoir, Father of the Blues, Handy didn’t mention what tunes they played, but in an early typescript he recalls one was called, “I’m a Winding Ball And I Don’t Deny My Name.”

That would have been in the first decade of the 20th century, and a few years later an amateur folklorist in Alabama heard the same line sung by a group of men working in a field. Neither he nor Handy transcribed any other words, so we’ll never know if it was the song Morton recorded or just shared that chorus line, but it confirms what I hear him saying on the LOC sessions.

“Wining Boy” became a ’60s blues revival standard thanks to versions by Eric Von Schmidt, Dave Van Ronk, and Ian Buchanan, who recorded a nice guitar version on the Elektra Blues Project LP (which he calls “Winding Boy”), inspiring Jorma Kaukonen’s version with Hot Tuna, which made it even more of a standard. All of those people sang Morton’s cleaned-up version, without the filthy verses that only surfaced later, when daring little record labels began exhuming the material that had been censored in earlier LOC releases. I sing the clean version, too, because those verses really are nasty, though historically illuminating.

As for Michael Tyzack, he was English and his son is also a musician and has a nice page dedicated to his memory. One story he told me that I’ve treasured ever since: he was speaking at a British university and afterwards a woman came up and said she’d loved his lecture, admired his art, and was hoping he could help her with a problem. She was a painter herself, and was working on a still life, and she couldn’t figure out what color the tea pot should be. Mike assumed a thoughtful expression and, after an appropriate pause, said: “Paint it green.”

The woman thanked him and wandered off, and before she got out of earshot he heard her telling a friend: “He said, ‘Paint it green…’ What a genius!”

I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am (Merle Haggard)

This is another I learned for my trip south in 1985-86, though I particularly remember playing it after getting back to Cambridge, at one of my all-time favorite bar gigs. The venue was Jack’s on Mass Ave., and I know I played this because one of the local folkies asked if it was by Woody Guthrie.

Jack’s was a legendary blues and rock venue, with pictures of previous acts including Spider John Koerner, Bonnie Raitt, and George Thorogood on the walls. Somehow they booked me, and I figured I needed some help and pulled in a bunch of friends — John Lincoln Wright came over from the Plough & Stars to sing “San Antonio Rose,” Kenny Holladay jammed on a version of “Mustang Sally” along with a trombone player from the audience, Tom Ghent sang a couple, and I think Peter Keane was there, and Robbie Phillips on washtub bass. I passed Tracy Chapman playing on the street in Harvard Square that afternoon and invited her, but alas she didn’t show.

It was a terrific night, we had a good crowd, they drank like they were supposed to, and the manager was ecstatic, talking about how it was like the old days with Koerner. So they signed me up to host a regular weekly “Elijah Wald and Friends” event. Then, a couple of days later, Jack’s burned down, and that was that.

As for this song, it isn’t by Woody Guthrie; as any damn fool oughta know, it’s by Merle Haggard. It wasn’t one of his biggest hits — which is to say, he had four number one country hits in a row before it and four after it, but this only made it to number 3 — but it fitted the romantic notion of hobo life I was chasing, and I love the line about “this mental fat I’m chewing.”

That trip south was one of my longest solid stretches of bumming around the US and had a lot of memorable moments. Unlike Europe, this country doesn’t put a premium on American guitar players, so it was much harder to make ends meet on the road. I ended up sleeping outside a lot of nights and even taking gainful employment, painting a house in the Georgia Sea Islands in return for a couch, meals, and maybe eight bucks an hour.

That was all fine, because I didn’t need a lot of money. I was young and happy to sleep outside and go without food for a day if necessary, and there were plenty of bars where a guitarist didn’t have to buy his own drinks. I quickly learned that the way to find those bars was to ask advice from the locals, then go wherever they told me I shouldn’t go. That included a biker bar in Myrtle Beach where I broke three strings playing a Bo Diddley request over the general pandemonium, and a lot of country bars, and some places along the Florida panhandle that required Jimmy Buffett, and a great night with an accordion player named  Ray Fontenot in a zydeco bar outside Mamou, Louisiana. (As a footnote for students of American racial weirdness, that bar was notable for the fact that I was the only white man in the place and the bartender was the only black woman. Darryl Davis later told me he’d been in places like that all over the South.)

As Merle wrote, you learn things hoboing that they’ll never teach you in a classroom, and if any bright young folks are reading this, I recommend getting out there and seeing what happens. Despite what everybody seems to be saying, it’s not more dangerous now than it used to be. It was always chancy, but most people are pretty decent if you approach them right; the real world isn’t like the movies or the internet.

Swinging Doors (Merle Haggard/a honky-tonk gig)

My first trip through the South was in the fall of 1985. I started hitchhiking from Chapel Hill, planning to hug the coast till I reached Mexico. That afternoon I saw my first roadkill armadillo while walking the last five miles into Southport, North Carolina. On the edge of town I passed a gas station and a skinny old guy came running out, gestured to the guitar I had slung over my shoulder, and asked, “Can you play that thing?”

I averred as to how I could, and he hired me to play at his bar that night. Actually, “hired” is a bit of an exaggeration, but he said if I wanted to play he’d fix me up with a band and give me a few bucks along with a meal and a place to sleep. So that was my first country bar gig. The band was a local guy who played Chet Atkins style guitar and his son on drums, and there may have been a bass player as well by the end of the night. They were all pretty good, and I sang every country song I knew, then got out a harmonica and played “Bright Lights, Big City,” and that tore up the room–apparently they’d ever seen anybody play amplified harp live in a bar.

It was a kick for a kid from Cambridge, Massachusetts — I was way out of my home turf, but they treated me like a country singer, I played the part, and it worked fine. A bunch of guys were there from the military base, an older man offered to take me out fishing on his boat the next day, and sometime around midnight the waitress gestured at the half-dozen tired-looking forty-something-year-old women at the bar and said, “You could have any of them, if you want…” Which I didn’t, but it felt honky-tonk.

I’d gotten into Merle Haggard thanks to Bill Morrissey, who considered Merle one of the greatest songwriters around, and his songs were the foundation of my country repertoire. I’d picked up a greatest hits set, and it was a thrill to play songs like “Swinging Doors” in their native habitat and be accepted as legit. This was Merle’s first top five country hit back in 1966, and I also recall playing “Silver Wings” and “Emptiest Arms in the World,” along with some Johnny Cash, and maybe a couple of Lefty Frizzell numbers.

I crashed on the waitress’s couch that night and considered sticking around a few days, but figured I’d had the best time I was likely to have in Southport, so the next morning I said my goodbyes and hitched on down the coast to Myrtle Beach.

A few years later, I got to meet Merle when we were filming a segment on Jimmie Davis for River of Song, a documentary about music along the Mississippi River. By that time I was a hardcore fan–I’d actually cemented a multi-year relationship by responding to my date’s query, “What do you think about Merle Haggard?” by saying, “Merle Haggard is God.” And I’d amassed a pretty fair collection of his LPs. But nothing prepared me for how good he was live. It was a comfortably loose show, with great playing and singing, and Merle doing imitations of other singers, and Bonnie Owens adding harmony, and since the gig was in Shreveport, James Burton was hanging out backstage. It was a night to remember, and he’s still one of my all-time favorites.

Urge for Going (Joni Mitchell/Dave Van Ronk)

The ultimate fall-into-winter song, by Joni Mitchell, arranged by Dave Van Ronk. I tend to be more optimistic about this season, so my standard autumn song is Bill Morrissey’s “My Baby and Me,” but I always loved the way Dave did this — plus, my Vancouver buddy Monte Jones had a gorgeous harmonica part for it, which he played often with me and a couple of times with Dave… and I wish he was around to play it now.

This was one of Mitchell’s early masterpieces, though she only recorded it as the b-side of a single and a lot of her fans have never heard it. Tom Rush recorded the best-known version as the title song of one of his albums, and it’s nice, but Dave’s is the killer. He recorded it for Polydor, on an album that had some of his most ornate production and greatest song choices, but didn’t sell and soon went out of print, though it’s now available for digital download (thanks to  the hoopla around the Coen Brothers’ movie). He also recorded a solo version, which is even better, as the last song on his final album, …and the Tin Pan Bended and the Story Ended. A perfect, elegiac ending.

When I was studying with Dave in the mid-1970s, not many young people were aware of his work, but Joni Mitchell fans sometimes recognized his name because she had said he was the only person who sang her songs better than she did. None of them agreed, of course, but I think I understand what she meant: Dave’s rough growl counteracted the prettiness of the melodies, forcing listeners to hear the power of the poetry.

Dave first met Joni, then still named Joni Anderson, when they both appeared on a television program Oscar Brand was hosting in Winnipeg, called Let’s Sing Out. It was 1965, nobody south of the border had yet heard of her. He used to tell a funny story about that meeting, which is in our book, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, but the short version is that he was blown away by her writing, her singing, her playing, and her brilliance. He saw her again in Detroit, working in a duo with her husband Chuck, who was one of the few people on the folk scene other than Dave doing Brecht/Weill material, and then she moved to New York and they became fast friends.

Dave thought Joni was the greatest songwriter to come out of the folk revival — not necessarily more talented than Dylan, but in his class for talent and much more serious about the craft. For a while he recorded at least one of her songs on every album, including a version of “Both Sides Now” that was supposed to be his big radio hit but couldn’t compete with Judy Collins. (It may not have helped that he insisted on calling it “Clouds” — when Joni first sang it for him, he told her that was the dominant image and should be the title. She compromised, keeping her song title, but calling the album Clouds.)

I liked all of Dave’s performances of Mitchell’s material — one of the great pleasures of compiling the CD to go with our book was that I could include a solo version of “Both Sides Now” — but this was always my favorite. So I suggest everyone check it out, and also… there’s now a clip of Joni on the Oscar Brand show singing it, and it’s wonderful. I may even like it more than Dave’s version…

Tequila Sheila (Shel Silverstein/Bobby Bare)

An absurd western outlaw ballad with a trick ending, from the nimble pen of Shel Silverstein, thanks to Bobby Bare. I’ve already paid tribute to Shel’s work in a previous post, so now on to Mr. Bare…

Honestly, I’m not all that wild about Bare’s singing–he’s a solid country singer but not an exceptional one–but damn, did he have great taste in songwriters. I first bought one of his albums because I was on a Shel binge and it had a bunch of Silverstein songs I hadn’t heard, which was true of something like a dozen of Bare’s records. He’d been mostly a singles artist until he recorded a double album of Shel’s songs in 1973, Lullabies, Legends, and Lies, which included “Rosalie’s Good Eats Cafe,” a small-town, late-night classic that clocks in at over eight minutes — maybe still a record for a country song without instrumental solos.

I listened to that first album, and it had a couple of songs I wanted to learn, so I bought another, and then another… and after a while I noticed that along with the Silverstein songs were some great ones by other writers, like Bob McDill’s “Song of the South”:

Cotton in the road, cotton in the ditch,
We all picked the cotton and never got rich.
Daddy was a veteran, a southern Democrat,
Said, “They ought to kill a rich man to vote like that.”

So then it turned out Bare had a whole album of McDill’s songs, and eventually I learned he’d been Billy Joe Shaver’s publisher and persuaded Shaver to stick with the business when no one was recording his songs–though also taking a substantial cut of Shaver’s earnings when Waylon did Honky Tonk Heroes… which, OK, that’s a somewhat ambiguous legacy, but let’s go back from there to his first big hit, “Detroit City,” by Danny Dill and the pre-stardom Mel Tillis; and a couple by the pre-stardom Tom T. Hall, “Margie’s at the Lincoln Park Inn” and “How I Got to Memphis”; and a couple more by the pre-stardom Kris Kristofferson, like “Come Sundown”; and Tompall Glaser and Harlan Howard’s “Streets of Baltimore…” Basically, if you’re looking for good country songwriting–the best of that golden era when writers like Kristofferson and Hall were reinventing the genre–his albums are a good place to find some classics and — more to the point — a lot of less familiar but equally great material.

Which said, he also did all those Shel Silverstein songs, some of which are classics, some profound, some dopey novelties, some just dopey, some outright dumb… and some walk a bunch of those borderlines, like f’rinstance, “Tequila Sheila.” I’m a fluent Spanish-speaker and deeply engaged with Mexican culture, but there’ s something gloriously silly about rhyming “Sheila” with “Pancho Villa…” and the rest feels to me like an absurdist Western in the same tradition as Cat Ballou… and it always worked well in the bars.

(As for the print behind me in the video, it’s a Maillol my parents bought in their courting days and I usually get it out of the way when I’m filming videos, because it’s distracting… but by chance I forgot when I was filming this one, and it felt kind of appropriate.)

Someday (You’ll Want Me to Want You)

This is another I learned off Red Steagall’s Lone Star Beer and Bob Wills Music LP, and the odd thing is I’d never heard it before and have rarely heard it since, though it has been recorded by dozens of major artists, from Elton Britt, Gene Autry, Vaughan Monroe, and the Mills Brothers in the 1940s up through Patsy Cline, Ray Charles, Dean Martin, Della Reese, The Drifters, Brooke Benton, Brenda Lee, Ricky Nelson, Willie Nelson… and so on and on.

The songwriter, Jimmie Hodges, is virtually unknown except for this song, which apparently hit as he was turning sixty after a long career as a producer of musical comedies. He did write some others, but I have been unable to find any recordings of them. From the titles, most sound pretty generic — “Dear Old Girl Of Mine” — or eminently forgettable — “Blackberry Jelly Nellie” and “Ding Dong Dell (The Belle of Chinatown).”

Hodges was apparently born in 1885 and shows up in a few show biz journals in the teens and twenties as a producer of musical comedies, for example 1920’s All Aboard for Cuba, which was presumably a lighthearted reaction to the passage of Prohibition. (A more famous relic of that moment and inclination is Irving Berlin’s “I’ll See You in C-U-B-A.”)

Anyway, I’ve noticed over the years that there are songs you like and then there are songs that like you — sometimes I love a song but it doesn’t work for me as a performer, and sometimes a song that didn’t particularly strike me when I heard someone else play it just feels right to me when I do it myself. This one liked me from the first time I played it: the guitar part fell comfortably under my fingers, the lyrics flowed, and it always got a good response. So I’ve been playing it for over thirty years and that’s that.