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.