Sweeney Todd, The Barber

I learned this from a Folkways album of London pub and music hall songs recorded in 1962 by a young Englishman named Derek Lamb, but don’t recall performing it until I found myself playing in a mock English pub called the Horse Brass in Portland, Oregon. They had bangers and mash, lukewarm beer, and even a London telephone booth in one corner, so this seemed like the right piece of material. It turned out to be the perfect barroom sing-along, guaranteed to engage the noisiest room, and I made it a staple of my repertoire through the early 1980s, eventually recording it on my deservedly rare LP.

Recitations like this were once as popular as songs with both barroom amateurs and stage professionals — American counterparts would include comic gems like Bert Williams’s “Somebody Else, Not Me.” The Sweeney Todd story had already been fodder for plays, Victorian penny dreadfuls and  silent films before being immortalized in this manner by R.P. Weston and Bert Lee, who apparently composed some three thousand songs during their twenty-year career. (I’ve done the math and am dubious, but The British Music Hall: An Illustrated History reports that they had a strict daily writing routine, and I guess it’s possible.) Several of their creations were made famous by the wonderful Stanley Holloway, including “My Word, You Do Look Queer,” “Brahn Boots,” and “With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm.” Holloway likewise premiered this one, performing it in a 1935 film called Play Up the Band and recording it in 1956 — though I know him best for recitations, he does “Sweeney Todd” as a song rather than a recitation, except for the extended third verse.

There are plenty of internet sites with information on the  Sweeney Todd legend and associated urban folklore, so I’ll just note here that in Martin Chuzzlewit Charles Dickens suggests both the ubiquity and the dubiousness of the story when he describes a lad adrift in London as fortunate that his evil genius “did not lead him into the dens of any of those preparers of cannibalic pastry, who are represented in many standard country legends as doing a lively retail business in the Metropolis; nor did it mark him out as the prey of ring-droppers, pea and thimble-riggers, duffers, touters, or any of those bloodless sharpers, who are, perhaps, a little better known to the Police…”

It may be worth mentioning what barbers mostly did in those days, since the word is now rarely used in its original sense. It comes from the French barbe, or beard, and the most frequent reason to see a barber used to be for one’s morning shave. When I was in New Delhi circa 1980 there were still men who set up in the park or would come around to the cheap hotels and shave customers for a small fee, using a straight razor stropped on a leather strap every few strokes, and barber shops served lines of gentlemen every morning, with the added luxury of hot towels to finish. I only indulged occasionally, but must say it was a pleasure — though I had to get used to the sensation of someone stroking my throat with a long, sharp blade. (For further mentions of straight razors, check out another bloodthirsty classic, the Bahamian “Jones, Oh Jones.”)

And finally, I must append this photo, done for a presentation of British ballads that I was roped into by a local professor, David Ingle, who came regularly to a semi-open-song-night I hosted at the Bookcellar Cafe in Porter Square, Cambridge, for a year or two in the 1990s, and thrilled me by bringing Derek Lamb, who lived just a few blocks away. A lovely man, Derek had gone on to a highly successful career as a director and producer of animated films and documentaries in Canada and the U.S. (winning an Oscar and producing cartoons for Sesame Street, among  other things) and he came down to the Bookcellar a few times, still sounding much as he had in the 1960s.

Soldier’s Pay (Bill Morrissey)

Bill Morrissey wrote this around 1982, but it never worked the way he wanted onstage, so he pretty much left it to me, and I only performed it  occasionally when I had the right audience. It’s like a Raymond Carver story set to music, the kind of songwriting Bill did best, but not, as he liked to say, “perky.”

It worked best late at night,  sitting around with people who were the right age and had the right experiences. I particularly remember a night in Lincoln, Nebraska, with Paul Moss and my ex-half-sister-in-law Hazel. Paul and Dixie Moss had hosted a concert for me in their Sears-Roebuck southern mansion gone to seed, but I didn’t play this until afterwards, when the whiskey was gone and just the three of us were still up, and Paul listened in rapt silence, with tears running down his cheeks.

So I put it on my LP, which Bill produced (we had a record company together and produced each other’s records, though the producing was mostly just a matter of moral support). But, much as I liked it, it didn’t fit with the other stuff I was doing, so I don’t think I performed it after that recording, and Bill never recorded it, and the result is that virtually no one has heard it, and that bothers me, because I still think it is some of his best writing.

In hindsight it’s at least partly about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but we didn’t know that term back then. Back then it was just a sketch of a couple in a trailer park or a guy Bill saw sitting in one of the bars in Newmarket, a sequel to his masterpiece about veterans from the previous war, “Small Town on the River.

Thirty-plus years later, it feels to me like it’s also about Bill, and I have to assume he thought of it that way at some level, or at least was aware of his kinship with George. He hadn’t been in the Marines, but he had some of that deep hurt and the urge to sit quietly with a beer — though in his case it didn’t keep him from working. When he wrote this he was living with Jeff McLaughlin a few blocks from me in Cambridge, or maybe had just moved out to Bedford with his first wife, Lisa, and and he would get up every morning and sit at the typewriter for several hours writing, and every couple of weeks would come up with a song he thought was good enough to play for anybody. He’d write and write, and edit and edit, and he was a damn good writer and a ruthless editor, and I admired his work ethic as much as his talent.

We’d all grown up on Hemingway, and knew that you wrote in themorning and didn’t have a drink until you were done for the day — for Hemingway, that was lunchtime; for Bill, when The Waltons came on in the afternoon. And maybe I’m projecting backwards when I suggest he felt a strong kinship with the hero of this song, because I don’t actually remember Bill being quietly sad in those days. He’d get bitter sometimes, because he’d been working at music for a dozen years and knew how good he was and was still pumping gas to pay the rent. But he had plenty of energy and was funny as hell, and those were good times.

(If you want another taste of Bill around that time — actually, a couple of years earlier, but it overlapped — check out the reminiscence by Ann Joslin Williams, his partner back when we started hanging out — though she was in New Hampshire and I was in Cambridge, and I don’t think we ever met.)

I Know What It Means to be Lonesome (Bill Williams)

I learned this off a lovely album by a little-known guitarist and singer from Kentucky, Bill Williams, who recorded a couple of LPs for the Blue Goose label in the 1970s. Williams was presented as a blues artist, but his music ranged all over American music, from old rural music to pop songs and ragtime instrumentals.

I heard “I Know What It Means to Be Lonesome” as a rural ragtime song on the borderline between blues and country music, and was not surprised when I later learned that it had been recorded by Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs and before them by the Carter Family. What did surprise me, when I began researching this post, is that before that it was a Tin Pan Alley pop number, with sheet music published in 1919 and recordings by pop recording stars like Henry Burr on cylinders and discs. The pop song had a verse that the rural artists didn’t sing, and I’m guessing Williams probably got it through the Carters, but the chorus is close enough that there’s no doubt it’s the same song.

I liked this song a lot, and even recorded it on my first album, but had pretty much forgotten about it till I looked at old set lists and noticed how often I played it in the early 1980s. So I worked it up again, adding some faster runs than I could have played back then — my time with Perry Lederman got me interested in the kind of single-string runs Reverend Gary Davis used to play, leading to a brief and unsuccessful attempt to play Doc Watson-style leads with my fingers, which resulted in this kind of picking as a compromise.

World’s Last Truck Drivin’ Man (Shel Silverstein)

I’m not sure how or when I first became aware of Shel Silverstein, but I’d already heard a bunch of his songs. “Cover of the Rolling Stone” was all over the radio when I was in high school, and of course I’d heard “Boy Named Sue,” and at some point during those high school years there was a big television special on venereal disease that included Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show singing “Don’t Give a Dose to the One You Love Most…”

…but I didn’t make the connection back then, and I’m guessing it was Vince McCann in Paris who played me a full Dr. Hook album and pointed out Shel’s skills as a songwriter — not just for twisted novelty songs, but also things like “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan,” which I heard again in 1981, when Marianne Faithful sang a tear-your-heart-out version on the soundtrack of an amazing film, Dušan Makavejev’s Montenegro. And then there was Loretta Lynn’s “One’s on the Way”:

They say to get her hair done Liz flies all the way to France
And Jackie’s seen in a discotheque doing a brand new dance
And the White House social season should be glittering and gay,
But here in Topeka, the rain is a-fallin’
The faucet is a-drippin’ and the kids are a-ballin’
One is a-toddlin’ and one is a-crawlin’
And one’s one the way.

Then I found the children’s books — Where the Sidewalk Ends and Lafcadio, the Lion that Shot Backand the brilliant anti-children’s book, Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book for Good Little Boys and Girls. And then Dave van Ronk turned me on to Shel’s Playboy cartoons — his favorite was the cover drawing of Shel’s cartoon book (at left).

So I went on a binge and bought a bunch of Dr. Hook albums, and hunted up most of Shel’s own LPs, which tended to showcase the twisted novelty songs — “I Saw Polly in a Porny with a Pony” comes to mind — and then I found that Bobby Bare was including at least a half-dozen of Shel’s songs on every album he made, so I got those as well. I don’t know how many of Shel’s compositions I learned over the years, because most of them were birds of passage, coming and going rather than sticking in my repertoire, but on my first cross-country tour in 1983 I started playing this one for the bar crowds and my ex-half-sister-in-law, Hazel, who was traveling along as my road manager, declared it her favorite song.

Hazel and I toured across country and back a couple of times a year for the next three years, so I played this pretty often. I’ve never heard anyone else do it, except Bare on that record, and Bare’s records weren’t selling particularly well, so I don’t think a lot of other people know it… which is more testimony to Shel’s prolific versatility, because it’s a nice piece of writing, but just a footnote to his oeuvre — of which more in future posts.