Lovesick Blues (Hank Williams/Emmett Miller)

Like virtually everybody, I first heard this as a Hank Willams song, though I’m not sure when or how. As I’ve mentioned, my Cambridge folk scene upbringing initially made me resistant to mainstream Nashville country music, Williams included, but by  the early 1980s I was gradually coming to my senses and figuring out that I liked a lot of country, and on my first tours I was playing this one pretty often — the ragtime/pop chord changes made it a natural bridge between my usual ragtime-blues repertoire and a more straightforward Nashville sound.

The tricky part was Williams’s yodeling vocal, which I attempted to imitate at home but never got under control. This forced me to find alternate approaches that to some extent echoed or hinted at the virtuosic yodeling that made the original a country classic.

A few years later I heard the even more virtuosic, even more original recording Williams himself was imitating, by the blackface minstrel entertainer Emmett Miller, backed by a jazz group featuring the Dorsey brothers. At that point, there was only one Miller album, released by a small record collector label in a plain white sleeve — Paul Geremia had a copy, and was kind enough to play it for me — but in the 1990s Sony issued the same material on CD and Miller’s work is now far better known. His work has all the  questionable racial politics of the minstrel stage, but minstrelsy was a major influence on country music, and Miller in particular influenced not only Williams, but Tommy Duncan, the lead singer of Bob Wills’s Texas Playboys (Wills reportedly auditioned Duncan by asking him if he could sing in Miller’s style), and Merle Haggard, who recorded a tribute to him in New Orleans with a jazz band.

The story of yodeling in American pop is a further fascinating sidelight, including not only Miller and Williams, but also black singers like the early blues star (and female impersonator) Charles Anderson, who was the first singer associated with W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” Then, when I got to Africa, I got interested in Kenyan yodeling cowboys, a whole other story. Anyway… I still love Williams’s version, and sing my variant of it, and it led me into a long and ongoing love affair with his work.

Drowning in Beer (Erik Frandsen)

A classic that somehow has not appeared on the internet yet, as far as I know — though I’m sure there are at least a few dozen people who know it, and far more who love it. It was written by the munificently multi-talented Erik Frandsen, and I learned it off the same homemade tape on which Erik played Tom Hobson’s epic masterpiece, “Fancy-Pants Gambling Man.”

I got to hear Erik live a year or so later at Folk City, with Dave Van Ronk at my elbow, grumbling about what a great guitarist Erik was and explaining that he practiced while watching the Mets — which led to a brief period when I practiced while watching the Red Sox, until the salt from my tears wore the varnish off my J45. (Those were the days before the Sox became a rich and winning team and I lost interest.)

I heard Erik again a few years later at the Speak Easy on MacDougal — not a full set, but he’d drop across the street from his apartment now and then, and I recall a night when a typically maudlin young singer-songwriter performed a typically solipsistic paean to his deeply meaningful angst, and Erik took the stage immediately afterward and sang a tender saloon ballad with the self-explanatory title, “I’m So Fucking Sensitive.”

Anyway, Erik is still a terrific guitarist, but far more successful as an actor, and you’ve probably seen him on television, one way or another. Which is all well and good, but damn… he also wrote “Drowning in Beer,” and I would have thought someone would have erected a monument in his honor by now for that alone. And, by the by, why hasn’t Willie Nelson recorded this?

(Incidentally, it strikes me that this would be an excellent companion piece to one of my few legit bits of family folklore, my father’s Yiddish dialect parody of “The Face on the Barroom Floor,” which I really need to film and post at some point in this Songobiography, because the written text does not do it justice.)

Another Time and Place (Dave Van Ronk)

One of Dave Van Ronk’s loveliest compositions, this recalls his longtime lady, Joanne Grace, and also takes me back to my brief connection with the Speak Easy club on MacDougal Street. Joanne was a smart, dark, funny, and encouraging presence throughout my early years with Dave. The mid-to-late 1970s was a tough time for him, but there were also a lot of good moments and she stood the gaff and always welcomed me into their place on Sheridan Square, hung in as long as she could, and never complained when we stayed up drinking and arguing for long hours after she had wandered off to sleep.

I don’t remember the exact chronology, but assume Dave wrote this either during or immediately after the break-up, which I recall as happening over a few years. Then she was gone, and I’ve had no news of her since. There were rumors that she turned up at Dave’s memorial, but I didn’t see her, and I’ve asked various people and searched the internet with no success. Part of the fault may be mine: when I wrote my memoir of Dave in The Mayor of MacDougal Street, she was in the first several drafts, but somehow in the editing process those parts got cut–his part of the book ended before her arrival, and my part was where she fitted, and then she got left out of my telling as well. I wish I could do that over, because Joanne was a big part of my time with Dave, and of his life.

I was back and forth through New York during those years, and in the early 1980s turned up pretty regularly because a new club had opened and Dave thought I should be part of it. It was called the Speak Easy, and is best remembered for its connection with a regular LP/newsletter called Fast Folk, which documented the performers who performed there. I came in for the weekly open mike a few times over the course of several months, did a “new faces” showcase, and generally hung out at the bar with Dave, who was its eminence grise–or one of them, at any rate. Another was Cynthia Gooding, a regal presence who was also a regular at the bar (her daughter Leyla was the bartender), joking with Dave and critiquing the breath control of the young singers onstage.

It was a good time, and I met a lot of interesting people there: The one time I met Shel Silverstein, he and Dave spent a couple of hours at the bar planning a duet album — Shel wanted to record it in Sweden, and the only song they agreed on was a duet of “My Dolly Playmate.” Erik Frandsen tended to drop around, since he lived across the street, and David Massengill, Frank Christian, Constance Taylor… a bunch of talented people, and a bunch who weren’t so talented, some of them running things and being obnoxious to newcomers and outsiders…

My favorite denizens included a sax player named Chuck Hancock, who joined me for a couple of open mike performances, and Hollywood Dick Doll, who performed wonderfully odd songs with back-up by a lissome blonde who went by the name of Doll Baby. (Chuck still plays with an astonishing range of bands around New York, Dick has become a legendary Seattle busker known as PK Dwyer, and Doll Baby is now a writer, Rebecca Chace.) I had some fun nights there, and then I went out touring and when I got back things had changed, or I had, and that was that. Another time and place…


Come Back, Baby (Walter Davis)

Walter Davis’s masterpiece is a good example of the disconnect between blues in its time and the way the music’s history has been reshaped and misunderstood: one of the biggest hits in the genre, by a major recording star, it has often been treated as an anonymous folk song and its composer all but forgotten.

Davis was one of the most successful of the wave of blues ballad singers who followed Leroy Carr to the pinnacle of the “race” recording market in the 1930s. Record sales had fallen off due to the Depression, but were reinvigorated by the rise of jukeboxes, and these moody, piano-backed balladeers perfectly suited a late-night saloon atmosphere.

Born in Grenada, Mississippi, just east of the Delta region, Davis was one of the most influential artists to come out of the region — Muddy Waters, in his first interview for Henry Work and Alan Lomax, named Davis as his favorite recording artist, and Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” likely reached later listeners largely due to Davis’s version (issued as “Don’t You Want to Go”), which was followed by Roosevelt Sykes and Junior Parker, becoming a Chicago band standard.

Davis was a brilliant and prolific songwriter, most notable for darkly poetic lyrics like “Ashes in My Whiskey” and “Can’t See Your Face,” but also capable of rowdy hokum numbers like “I Can Tell by the Way You Smell.” His biggest hit, “Come Back Baby” appeared in 1940, and when the Lomax-Work team surveyed Clarksdale jukeboxes in 1941, it was the only song that appeared on every single machine.

Ironically, the song’s ubiquity probably helped some blues historians to ignore its source — coming to the music decades later, unfamiliar with the popular hits and regarding blues as black rural folk music, they found it had been recorded by everyone from Sonny Terry and Snooks Eaglin to Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, and concluded that it was just “out there,” an anonymous folk creation. (Other popular hits that underwent this metamorphosis include Richard M. Jones’s “Trouble In Mind” and Leroy Carr’s “When the Sun Goes Down.”)

To be fair, the song underwent a good deal of mutation and “folk process” in the hands of other artists, few of whom sang many of Davis’s lyrics — as was common in blues, they would typically sing his opening verse, then just string together favorite couplets that seemed to fit the theme. One of those artists was Dave Van Ronk, and like most later arrivals on the folk scene, I learned the song from his 1962 recording and still sing mostly his verses. I’ve also retained some elements of his guitar arrangement, which he credited to his friend Dave Woods, who was studying with Lenny Tristano and based it heavily on 9th chords — a fairly unusual choice, but appropriate, since Walter Davis’s playing was also distinctive for its harmonically advanced chording.

All of which means my version is a lot closer to Dave’s than to Davis’s — though without those nice 9th chords — but it led me to Davis and I’m forever grateful for that. He was a fine songwriter, a distinctive and inventive pianist, and should be much better known.


Any Old Time (Jimmie Rodgers)

Living with the vagaries of the folk scene, I came late to Jimmie Rodgers — not because he was obscure, but on the contrary because his albums were available on a major label, RCA, at a time when I was buying reissue records on labels like Folkways, Yazoo, and Arhoolie. I’d learned a couple of his songs off records by Pete Seeger (“T.B. Blues”) and Cisco Houston (“Mule Skinner Blues”), but the song that made me go out and find one of his own albums was “Any Old Time,” after hearing Maria Muldaur’s version.

Muldaur recorded it on her first solo album, which I heard on my first day of high school, thanks to a couple of fellow freshmen, Beth and Woodley, who reacted to the fact that I played guitar by taking me back to Beth’s place and putting it on. I was tangentially aware of Muldaur from the Kweskin Jug Band, but had missed “Midnight at the Oasis” because I wasn’t a radio listener, so it took Beth and Woodley to educate me–they played me that LP, and then Geoff and Maria’s Pottery Pie–and her album started with “Any Old Time,” with Ry Cooder (whom I’d never heard before) playing fingerstyle guitar.

I’m not sure I ever owned the Muldaur record, but I liked the song and eventually picked up a couple of Rodgers’s RCA albums, and then the superbly programed Smithsonian set, which remains my gold standard for his work.

I liked Rodgers’s singing, of course, and his guitar work, and having come to him as “the Father of Country Music,” I was struck by the variety of musical settings he used. This song is a good example, featuring a kind of hotel jazz group with clarinet, cornet, and violin — all played by anonymous musicians, none of them very distinctive, but with a nice light swing.

For me, tracks like this were a revelation, since my folk scene education had led me to think of Rodgers as a sort of “roots” artist, defined as the opposite of a pop musician. Hearing him with this kind of band, and in his collaboration with Louis Armstrong, connected his records to Bessie Smith’s and then Bing Crosby’s, and thence to the recognition that in the 1920s and 1930s country and jazz still regularly met at the blues. That was part of my evolution into a fan of both country and jazz, and when I hit the club circuit in the early 1980s this song exemplified my overlapping tastes, and I played it a lot. (It had the added advantage of satisfying requests for Jimmie Rodgers material without requiring me to yodel — an art I didn’t pursue with even faint success until the following decade.)