Losers (Dave Van Ronk)

Dave Van Ronk intended this to be the title song of the album we ended up calling Going Back to Brooklyn — he was proud of the song and thought as a title it would be suitably ironic, especially considering his economic situation at the time. However,  his manager thought calling his first album of original songs “Losers” was asking for trouble, and then his wife Andrea did the beautiful stained glass of a red moon rising over the Brooklyn Bridge, and that was that. In any case, this song is a fine example of his lyrical gifts, along with “Sunday Street” and “Gaslight Rag.”

Dave wrote this around 1980, and I see from old setlists that I played it at the first gig on my first national tour. That was at the Mill in Iowa City, a nice bar run by a nice man named Keith Dempster, who booked me for two nights, not mentioning that it would be the first big football weekend of the season. It was a baptism of fire, my chance to prove what I could do in a noisy, rowdy bar, and I failed the test — though no harm was done, because no one was listening.

I don’t have much more to say about this song, because it speaks for itself — except to note that Dave had a deep and broad love for the English language. How many songs use the word “whosis,” or the phrase “groan bin”? I’d never run across “groan bin” before, and was charmed when I looked it up in Google and the only reference was to a Donald Duck comic in which “Donald warns Huey, Dewey, and Louie that their lack of outdoor survival skills will lead to a ‘trip to the groan bin’.” As it happens, Dave was an inveterate reader of Donald Duck comics, had a collection of vintage Disney books he sold for a pretty penny in the late 1970s, and bemoaned what he regarded as my inexplicable (and generally undeserved) good luck by calling me “Cousin Gladstone,” a reference to Donald’s ridiculously lucky cousin, Gladstone Gander. “HoJo,” for the young folks, is the Howard Johnson’s restaurant chain. And according to Eric Partridge’s dictionary of slang, “Sneaky Pete” was a term for cheap wine, in use among hoboes in the 1930s.

I always thought “Losers” was one of Dave’s funniest songs, but given the current president’s proclivity for the word, and the state of the nation in his singularly incompetent hands, I am not only beginning to take it seriously, but proposing it as our new national anthem.

Framed (Robins/Leiber & Stoller/racism)

Thanks to cell phone videos and Black Lives Matter, it has become a lot harder for white Americans to ignore how badly black Americans are routinely treated by the US legal system… though that doesn’t mean everybody now gets it, or wants to get it. One way people don’t get it is to treat the recent spate of killings of young black men by police as something new — what is new is the videos, not what they show — or to treat those killings as isolated events rather than the normal, day-to-day experience of young black men in the United States.

Obviously, rappers have been talking about this subject for years, and this song is a reminder of just how many years. It was recorded in 1954 by the Robins, a group of young black men in Los Angeles, several of whom shortly moved to New York and became the Coasters (as in West Coast).

The songwriters were a pair of young white (to be specific, Jewish) men who had fallen in love with blues and R&B: Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. They recognized the comic storytelling possibilities of the Muddy Waters/Willie Dixon “Hoochie Coochie Man” arrangement, reworked and expanded it, and as Stoller told Dave Ritz in their dual memoir: “We can’t and won’t claim credit as the inventors of rap, but if you listen to our early output, you’ll hear lots of black men talking poem-stories over a heavy backbeat.”

Their first hit along these lines was “Riot in Cell Bock #9,” and they shortly followed with this prequel. As Leiber told Ritz, “We called it ‘Framed’ and gave it a subtext that, despite the humor, refers to the legal brutality that impacted the black community.”

When I started singing “Framed,” I didn’t give a lot of thought to that subtext. I was in my early twenties, a product of the sixties counterculture, and  just thought of the lyric as a comic exaggeration of the way the court system railroaded people — not specifically black people.

These days it’s impossible for me not to think of this as a protest song, and the joke seems a lot more bitter than it did when I was singing this onstage in the early 1980s. Which said, it remains a great piece of writing, and I’m a strong believer in the power of comedy the worse things get, the more we need to be able to laugh at the situation, because unlike despair, laughter is energizing.

Anyone who hasn’t heard this before should check out the original by the Robins, and of course “Riot in Cell Block #9,” featuring the wonderful Richard Berry — as well as the earlier and jokier “Ten Days in Jail.” A few years later Leiber and Stoller wrote “Jailhouse Rock” for Elvis Presley, but  that was lightweight fluff compared to what they did in their early R&B days, when they were working with singers whose daily experiences mirrored the dark humor of the lyrics.

(For a later variant, check out the Coasters’ “Shopping for Clothes,” from 1960, a down-beat rap about the difficulties of getting store credit.)

Talking Wolverine 14 (Utah Phillips/Rosalie Sorrels)

I came to this song by way of two of my favorite people, Bruce “Utah” Phillips and Rosalie Sorrels. I met both of them through Dave Van Ronk, and saw them often over the years — I crashed at Bruce’s place in Spokane and then in Grass utah-and-rosalieValley, and at Rosalie’s cabin up in the mountains above Boise, and both of them stayed with me in various places, and they both told a lot of good stories and made a lot of good music. When I wrote my book on hitchhiking, Riding with Strangers, Bruce gave me a nice blurb and Rosalie put together a little tour of bookstores in Idaho, driving around with me and trading songs and stories — I’ve never been so damn honored in my life.

In his audio songbook, Utah called this “Wolverine 14 Talking Blues,” but I learned it off Rosalie’s album, so I stuck with her title. Bruce co-credited it to another good friend, Andy Cohen, but Andy says it wasn’t really a collaboration — Bruce just heard him fooling around with a ragtime blues and matched the lyrics to his memory of what Andy was playing.

I’ve tended to think Rosalie’s records were a poor substitute for hearing her live — she typically recorded with spare acoustic backing, the same way she played live, and the power and personality of her extraordinary voice overwhelmed the understated accompaniments — but onsorrels-travelin-lady Travelin’ Lady Rides Again she was backed by a top-notch band, including Mad Cat Ruth on harmonica, Winnie Winston on steel and banjo, and a solid rhythm section, and it has a nice, full group sound. This song in particular has a great feel, ending with Jeff Gutcheon quoting Meade Lux Lewis’s “Honky Tonk Train” piano boogie — in general I haven’t been steering readers to other versions of these songs, because one of my aims in this project is to showcase my versions, but Rosalie’s should be heard.

In the  aforementioned audio songbook, Utah explained that he made this up while waiting at the train station in Buffalo, dog tired and pissed off at the world, and the crankiness reflected his mood rather than a general disapproval of Amtrak. He liked pretty much any kind of trains — he did a whole album about them — and was glad the government was keeping them running, though he’d have liked to see a lot more of them and a lot more people using them. (As for the line about bringing back coal-fired engines, I’d say that’s his nostalgia overriding his politics, though he might have had a more complex explanation.)

The term “red ball” was obscure to me — in the old days, freight trains with priority routing were marked with a red disc, and hence called “red balls.” And I’d never thought about getting sidetracked literally, the way the term is used here, meaning to be shunted off on a side track to let another train pass. That was one of the pleasures of knowing Utah — he always peppered his conversation with obscure terms and was more than happy to discourse upon them if asked.

Richlands Woman (Mississippi John Hurt)

Another collaboration between Mississippi John Hurt and William E. Myer, the team responsible for “Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me,” this song has a wonderful lyric backed by one of my favorite guitar arrangements. Myer was from Richlands, Virginia, and apparently had mixed views of the town’s female population — at least, that’s what I make of the ebulliently polyamorous voice of the female protagonist alternating with the chorus warning her man to get home fast before she puts her words into action.

Aside from Hurt, the singers of this song have tended to be female, in part because  this is one of the few rural, guitar-centric songs in an explicitly female voice — and in part, I suppose, because some men feel weird singing about wanting red lipstick and pink shoes. For myself, I fell in love with the lyric at first hearing, and when I look back over old set lists, I find that I did it a lot in the early 1980s — probably more than any other Hurt song except “Mermaids.”

Which said, in my touring days I hadn’t yet learned Hurt’s guitar part properly, and just played a generic pseudo-Hurtian accompaniment. It wasn’t till the 1990s, after spending a year in Africa, that I was visiting my friend and sometime picking partner Dominic Kakolobango — a dedicated fan of Hurt and Mance Lipscomb* — in Brussels and decided to explore the quirks of Hurt’s playing, with this and “Satisfied and Tickled Too” as my maiden efforts.  I’ve since delved fairly deeply and taught classes in his unique musical language, and often start with “Richlands Woman,” because the first quirk is so simple and charming… so here goes, for the guitar players (everyone else will find this boring and/or confusing, but trust me, in context it’s fun):

Hurt plays this in C, and the opening melody riff is a twiddly alternation between the open high E string and the second string fretted on the fourth fret — an E and D#. The way I’d always played that was to just hold a C chord and stretch my little finger up to the D#, which is no great feat and sounds fine. But Hurt’s playing exemplifies economy of energy, and he apparently felt that stretch would be just a little too much trouble, so he doesn’t bother to hold the root chord at all. He just holds down the D# note, and leaves all the other strings open, which means he is playing open A and D basses under the treble D# and E. Which, if you want to analyze it in more or less formal terms, is kind of the “blue note” gone crazy — a major 3rd played against a minor 3rd, with a double-flatted 3rd in the bass, plus that bass A, which is the 6th, which I suppose you could think of as a double-flatted 7th. Or you can just ignore the theorizing and play it, which is presumably what Hurt did. If you play it slowly, it sounds kind of terrible, but up to speed it’s great. And then, at the end of each verse, Hurt plays the same damn riff again, but tends to hold the normal C basses and just plays a D rather than the D#.

That’s the unique pleasure of this chart, but there’s a more typical touch a bit further on: When playing in C, a lot of guitarists vary the alternating bass by moving their ring finger back and forth between the 5th and 6th string for a nice, loping C – E, G – E, C – E, G – E. That’s how I used to play Hurt’s songs, and thought he played them. But he pretty commonly does something quirkier: he starts with C – E, like all of us, then plays G – E, like many of us… and then he just stays with G – E until it’s time to switch chords, though C is the root of the damn chord and anyone else would want it there in the bass. In some songs that quirk just feels capricious, but in “Richlands Woman” it comes in handy because it puts him in position to slide the G bass up to an A along with the G-to-A he wants to play on the treble — likewise by sliding up from the third to the fifth fret.

Which is all very well, but… obviously the great pleasure of this song is the lyric, which, as I said at the beginning, is one of my all-time favorites.

*For a taste of what Dominic does, check out his version of Mance Lipscomb’s “Take Me Back” with a Congolese soukous band and a bilingual lyric in English and Swahili: