Stop That Dancing Up There!

I first heard Harry “The Hipster” Gibson on a Stash records anthology of drug songs, performing “Who Put the Benzedrine In Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine” — and my initial reaction was that it had to be a put-on because no one could have been singing something like that in 1947.

I was wrong, of course, but that got me interested, so when an

oldies label issued a full LP of his early work I snapped it up. Thus I discovered “Handsome Harry the Hipster,” “4-F Ferdinand, the Frantic Freak,” “Who’s Goin’ Steady With Who?” and this masterpiece, which soon became a highlight of my repertoire.

I’m pretty sure I started doing this solo, as a shout-along, which is like a sing-along but requires no singing — I just encourage the audience to shout along with the title line. I found it was easier to get compliance with shout-alongs, or at least with this one, and it always worked well in the bars. Then, when I hooked up with Robbie Phillips, Peter Keane, and Mark Earley as the Street Corner Cowboys, I found it worked as a band number, and when I recorded a cassette in the mid-1990s Mark played a nice harmonica break, which he replicated onstage at the release party at Passim Coffeehouse (in photo).

As for Harry the Hipster… a brief self-penned memoir tells his story. A blond Jewish piano prodigy from the Bronx, he started hanging out in Harlem, picked up the current jazz styles, and was promoted as a white teenage protege of Fats Waller, whom he had never met. Then, as he recalled, one night he was playing his usual gig and…

A big guy came over, put five dollars in the kitty and asked for “Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.” I could almost play that tune, note for note, like the Waller recording. The big man laughed and asked how I learned to play that way. I went into the high jive about how I was Fats’ star pupil. The guy just about broke up, stuck out his hand and said, “Sonny, say hello to your old professor, Thomas Waller.”

Waller booked young Harry Raab as an extra at the Yacht Club on 52nd Street, the main drag for small-band jazz, and over the next few years he changed his name to Gibson and became a local institution. The Hipster played with everybody from Charlie Parker to Mae West, co-leased a nightclub with Lord Buckley, and in 1944 Musicraft Records — a classical label that had pioneered the idea of selling folk-blues albums to the New York intelligentsia with Leadbelly and Josh White releases — signed him as their first jazz artist. That was still a novel idea, since jazz was considered jukebox pop music and sold almost exclusively on singles.

As Gibson recalled, the Musicraft guys saw him at the Three Deuces playing a substitute set for Billie Holiday and asked if he could record the next morning. Ben Webster was the other act on the bill, so he asked Webster’s rhythm section — Sid Catlett on drums and John Simmons on bass — if they could make the gig. They said sure, and that was that. The only problem was that Musicraft wanted eight original compositions to fill a four-disc album, and he only had seven… so they rehearsed the seven, and then:

While the drummer and bassman went out to the all-night eatery, I came up with “Stop That Dancing Up There.” I had it finished by the time John and Sid came back from breakfast; it turned out to be the hit of the album.

Gibson had a long and varied career, albeit with some gaps due to substances and so forth, and was still working in the 1980s with a blues/rock combo, still writing, still doing his hipster schtick. Unfortunately I didn’t know that at the time… I would have loved to have caught his show, met him, heard more stories.

There are a few videos on Youtube from his first heyday, which convey some sense of his oddball appeal. They don’t include one I saw someplace that included a “stop chorus” of silly facial expressions, but this is a pretty fair taste:

Nadine (Chuck Berry)


This is my favorite Chuck Berry lyric, which is saying a lot. He was a phenomenal writer, with a gift for fitting words together so they scanned, rhymed, and still felt like normal human speech spiked with flashes of wry humor:

As I got on a city bus and found a vacant seat
I thought I saw my future bride walking down the street.
I yelled to the driver, “Hey, conductor, you mus’
Slow down, I think I see her — Please let me off the bus!”

Berry is usually classed as a pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll, which of course is true, as far as it goes. His most influential moment was the mid 1950s, when he recorded “Maybelline,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Memphis,” and a string of other hits, as well as lesser-known masterpieces like “Too Much Monkey Business” and “No Money Down.” But that was only part of the story: he kept developing as a writer over the next decade, and some of his greatest lyrics were penned in the early 1960s (maybe during his year and a half in prison on a racist Mann Act conviction): “Nadine,” “Promised Land,” “No Particular Place to Go,” and “You Never Can Tell.”

After that, he pretty much cruised as an oldies artist — his only number one hit came in 1972 with “My Ding-a-ling,” but that was a naughty novelty he’d been performing at live shows for years. There was another prison stint for income tax evasion and some unpleasant stories… but whatever the complexities of his personal life, his songs changed the world. It is impossible to imagine Bob Dylan writing “Subterranean Homesick Blues” without Berry’s example, and no one ever turned street language into poetry as naturally, at least until the classic era of rap.

I only saw Berry twice, at the Cape Cod Melody Tent circa 1970 and a quarter century later at the one-off Newport R&B Festival. That was an incredible line-up, two days of music with Dr. John’s band backing everybody on day one and Allen Toussaint’s band backing everybody on day two. Chuck played with Toussaint, and it was the weirdest and most memorable set of the weekend.

I won’t say it was good, exactly — but it was real music, not canned, not the hits, not going through the motions… which was noteworthy, because Chuck was by then notorious for just playing the hits and going through the motions. As far as I could tell, that was his plan at Newport as well, but he came out and there was Allen Toussaint on piano — a giant in his own right — playing the piano parts off Chuck’s old records, note for note, like he’d assimilated every note in his youth and been waiting forty years for the chance to play them with the master… which I’m guessing is exactly right.

Chuck responded by getting into the instrumental breaks, trading licks with Toussaint, and they weren’t the rote licks off his records — his guitar was out of tune, and they were strange licks, and some folks thought the whole set was a disaster, and I’m not arguing, but… Berry and Toussaint were both giants and they were so obviously enjoying themselves that it felt like a privilege to be there.

This version of “Nadine” is sort of an accidental tribute to that afternoon, since I do it as a rumba in the style of Snooks Eaglin, who was Toussaint’s guitarist in the Flamingos, their first band, back in their teens. I’ve loved Eaglin’s playing since I was a kid, but frankly ended up with this arrangement because I couldn’t play Berry’s straight-ahead 8-to-the-bar for three minutes without getting cramps in my right hand…

Hey Now, Baby (Professor Longhair)

I first heard Professor Longhair on a terrific album of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival — also the first place I heard Allen Toussaint and Earl King — and it was love at first listen. So I began acquiring his albums, and the more I heard, the more I wanted to hear. He tended to rework the same songs, but every version was different, and it’s up with Joseph Spence as the most virtuosically happy music I know.

Longhair was a big part of my interest in Congolese guitar styles. I wanted to be able to play those New Orleans/ Caribbean rhythms, and people like Jean-Bosco Mwenda and Edouard Masengo had come up with a fingerstyle approach that felt to me like a bridge between rumba/mambo and Mississippi John Hurt. My first attempt was the Mardi Gras Indian war song “Iko Iko,” which I play in a clearly Congolese style, but I kept being fascinated by Longhair’s piano and puzzled about how to get some approximation of it on guitar.

Then, thanks to Washtub Robbie Phillips, I ended up with a band and a weekly gig at the Plough and Stars in Cambridge. We were called the Street Corner Cowboys — inspired by John Storm Roberts‘s mention of East African country singers as  “the street corner cowboys of Zanzibar” — and consisted of Robbie on one-string bass, Peter Keane and me on guitars, and Mark Earley on harmonica (plus, a lot of the time, Matt Leavenworth on fiddle by last set). Peter was singing pretty country songs, Mark was deep into Chicago blues, and I took the opportunity to do all sorts of stuff that suited the band framework, from Nat King Cole’s “Call the Police” to “Great Balls of Fire.”

That gave me a chance to break the habits of solo fingerstyle, the concept of thumb playing bass while fingers play melody. I played a lot of single-string lead, and also came up with this arrangement, which is an attempt to play something like a standard Longhair left-hand pattern. Since Mark and Peter were there to play fills and solos, it was fine if I just played the left-hand part, and ok, there isn’t much to the lyric but it was fun to work around the rhythms.

The Cowboys faded into the mists of time, but I kept fooling around with this and eventually came up with some kind of instrumental break, and it’s still a lot of fun to play. Which is not to say I’ve come up with a way to capture Longhair’s piano rhythms on guitar…

…because Longhair was a unique genius and no one has ever captured his piano rhythms… much less me, much less on guitar…

…which seems like a good moment to mention that a great DVD, Fess Up, was recently issued that combines Stevenson Palfi’s documentary Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together, featuring Longhair, Tuts Washington, and Allen Toussaint, with an hour-long interview with Longhair. And there are all those great records (a personal favorite is his version of “Jambalaya,” with Gatemouth Brown on fiddle), and some rocking videos on the internet, and the wonderful chapter about him in Dr. John’s memoir… if you’ve never been on a Fess binge, I can recommend no greater musical pleasure.

Ragged and Dirty (William Brown/Sleepy John Estes)

No one knows anything about William Brown, the versatile singer and guitarist who recorded two songs (or maybe three) for Alan Lomax in 1942. All we have is the music, and it is startlingly distinctive, including two masterpieces of acoustic blues — both inspired by recordings, with guitar parts that adeptly capture the feel of other instruments. One is the haunting “Mississippi Blues” (a generic title presumably slapped on the record by Lomax), which has a guitar part adapted from the pianist Charlie Spand’s “Hard Times Blues.” Piano and guitar have very different strengths, but Brown somehow manages to keep all the basic licks and feel of Spand’s playing — both the backing part for the vocals and the instrumental break — while creating a guitar arrangement that falls comfortably on the instrument and is one of the loveliest I’ve ever learned.

“Ragged and Dirty” is likewise adapted from a recording, Sleepy John Estes’s “Broken Hearted, Ragged and Dirty Too,” and for this one Brown capoed his guitar around the seventh fret to get the high, chiming sound of the mandolin played by Estes’s longtime accompanist Yank Rachell. I picked it up after getting back from Africa, which was fortunate because that trip convinced me some guitar arrangements demand to be played with just the thumb and index finger, and this is decidedly one of them.

Estes was one of the great blues songwriters and although Brown stuck fairly close to his lyric, some of the continuity and subtleties were lost — so I’ve mostly gone back to what Estes sang in 1929. Where a lot of blues singers just sang whatever verses came to them in the moment, he tended to created cohesive compositions, and this is a good example: setting up the story, telling what happened, then saying how he felt about it. I’m particularly fond of the detailed description of the moment the singer discovers his lady is cheating on him: “I went to my window, couldn’t see through the blinds/ I heard the bed springs humming, I heard my baby crying.”

Lomax wrote an evocative account of the recording session with William Brown in The Land Where the Blues Began, portraying him as a thoughtful man who had decided to leave Mississippi and was headed for a better life up north. The general feel of the story — which includes a nasty interruption from a couple of racist cops — rings true, but readers should be aware that Lomax did not take notes and the dialogue was reconstructed from memory decades afterwards. That is relevant because some people have given too much weight to a footnote suggesting this was the same William Brown who played for many years with Son House, including a session Lomax recorded… and virtually all other evidence suggests it was not.

The other William (or Willie) Brown was an associate of Charlie Patton and a terrific guitarist and singer in what is now often called the Delta blues style — meaning the style of Patton, House, Brown, and other guitarists who played with or learned from them, notably Tommy Johnson and younger artists including Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. He likewise recorded only a couple of tracks, both of which are classics — I’ll get to his “Future Blues” in a few weeks — but they are classics of that particular style. The players around Patton learned from one another directly, picking up licks and tunings in an oral and visual process that predated recording (Tommy Johnson’s “Bye and Bye Blues” is a good example), and I’d bet anything that the Brown who so adeptly reworked recordings of piano and mandolin was at least ten years younger, from the generation of Robert Johnson and Robert Lockwood. The arrival of recording dramatically changed the process of musical transmission, and this is the sound of the transitional generation.

Bye and Bye Blues (Tommy Johnson)

The first trip I made after getting  back from Africa was to the Mississippi Delta, where by a series of unlikely coincidences I ended up as part of the band for the dedication of Robert Johnson‘s grave marker. I’ve told that story in my book, Escaping the Delta, but the short version is that Washtub Robbie Phillips was invited by Skip Henderson, a New Jersey guitar dealer who had arranged the event at Mt. Zion church near Morgan City, Mississippi; then Robbie won the Massachusetts lottery and said he could pay for gas if I drove; our friend Kenny Holladay decided to drive up from New Orleans to meet us; and the local musicians who had been invited didn’t show up. So Kenny sang “Terraplane Blues” at the dedication, with Robbie and me backing him, everyone enjoyed it, and we were invited back a few months later for the dedication of a Charlie Patton marker, sharing a stage with Pop Staples and John Fogerty…

…all of which meant I spent a fair amount of time driving around the Delta, and brought along a lot of classic Delta recordings to play while driving. Mostly I just listened and didn’t try to play that music myself, but Tommy Johnson’s songs kept tempting me. It was something about the way he played and the way his voice fitted with the guitar, a lightness I didn’t hear in people like Patton. So when I got home I worked out a bunch of his arrangements, including his most popular chart, “Big Road Blues,” and this one, his reworking of Charlie Patton’s “Pony Blues,” which became a staple of my repertoire. The record label called it “Bye Bye Blues,” but that was a mistake — it’s a warning, not a farewell.

Speaking of warnings… Tommy Johnson recorded very few songs, and is not well-known beyond the hardcore pre-war blues scene, which has led to an odd mistake: in an interview with the blues scholar David Evans, Johnson’s brother Ledell said that Tommy told him a story about getting his musical skills from the Devil:

You take your guitar and you go to where the road crosses that way, where a crossroad is. Get there, be sure to get there just a little ’fore midnight that night so you’ll know you’ll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece there by yourself . . . A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar, and he’ll tune it. And then he’ll play a piece and hand it back to you. That’s the way I learned to play anything I want.

Anyone familiar with blues has heard versions of that story, but almost always connected not to Tommy but to the unrelated, younger Robert Johnson — to the point that when the Coen Brothers put a version of this legend in the mouth of a character named Tommy Johnson in their movie O Brother, Where Art Thou, the New York Times critic glossed it as a reference to Robert…

…which is neither here nor there, except as one more reason to check out Tommy Johnson’s music. Devil or not, he was a fine player, beautiful singer, and one of my all-time favorite artists.

One Way Gal (William Moore)

Another song by William Moore, whom I first got excited about in the mid-seventies when I worked up a version of his “Ragtime Millionaire.” I kept that in my repertoire, but didn’t pay much attention to the rest of his work till I got back from Africa. Then I began looking around for blues songs with interesting bass rhythms, and found this about the same time I got into Blind Blake’s “Southern Rag.”

It may be coincidence, but Blake connected those rhythms to the “Geechie” culture of the Georgia Sea Islands and Moore grew up near Savannah — a largely unexplored area for blues guitar research, which I’m tempted to relate to the Bahamian traditions of Joseph Spence and the Bahamian Blind Blake. In any case, Moore recorded this song during his only session in 1928 and it has some of those nice rhythmic touches. I simplified his guitar part  and came up with different lyrics, because that was how it felt right to me, but the essential framework is his.

When I started doing this, all I knew about Moore was that he had been a barber in Eastern Virginia, and the main clue for that was a guitar-backed monologue called “Barbershop Rag.” Then, in the early 2000s, I heard from a fellow named Ryan Croxton, who passed along notes from an interview with Moore’s son, William Edsel Moore, by a librarian named Gregg Kimball, who has since published a brief online bio of Moore. It explains that he was born in 1893 in the country outside Savannah, where his father was farming, and moved to Tappahannock, Virginia, around 1920 after marrying a woman from that area.

His son recalled that Moore lived in New Jersey before going to Virginia, and apparently met his wife there. ““It seemed like he roamed, he moved around… I guess traveling and playing music and doing things like that.” Like many musicians of that generation, Moore abandoned secular music as he grew older, getting involved in his local church and mostly playing violin, and his son only recalled him singing blues on a couple of occasions.

“On the third of April in Tappahannock [Emancipation Day], that would be the only time I would see him… He would be on the corner with his guitar and people would be sometimes dropping money in a cup or hat, whatever they had, and sometimes he would play with some other guys, I never knew who they were.”

Moore’s son recalled his father as a “soft spoken,” self-educated man who attained a high level of erudition, writing poems and short stories, and a portrait painter.  He enjoyed fishing and hunting, was a crack shot, but apparently overloaded his shotgun one day and blew off the little finger on his left hand, somewhat limiting his chording.

And that’s all I know about William Moore… aside from the music, which still sounds great.

Blind Blake’s Southern Rag

Blind Blake was one of the greatest guitarists of the early blues era, distinguished not only by the speed and precision of his playing, but by the fact that he was known for instrumental showpieces. Blues was generally considered a singing style, so even Lonnie Johnson — the consummate virtuoso who can lay claim to being father of both blues and jazz lead guitar — was advertised as a singer and his few instrumental recordings sold poorly and seem to have had little influence. (They are now widely admired, but I’ve never seen or heard anyone before the 1970s mention them.)

By contrast, Blake first hit with an instrumental called “West Coast Blues,” and it quickly became a kind of test and showpiece for guitarists across the South. Gary Davis learned it in the Carolinas, and could still play an accurate version in the 1960s. Even in the Mississippi Delta, which is known for a distinctively different guitar style, Blake was greatly admired, and I’ve got a story about that:

Blues scholars, like Western academicians in general, tend to get wrapped up in taxonomy and categorization, and by the 1970s many were  filing the wonderfully varied singer-guitarists who recorded in the 1920s into Delta, Texas, and Piedmont styles — the latter meaning the style popular around Georgia and the Carolinas, exemplified by Blake.

Delta blues was generally enthroned as the deepest and greatest style, and Robert Johnson in particular was hailed as the King of Delta Blues — and there was this terrific musician named Robert Lockwood who grew up in the Delta and got his start as a protégé of Johnson’s, then went on to explore jazz chording and became a foundational figure in the electric style  often called Chicago blues. Although he was a unique and important innovator, in later years Lockwood was constantly presented as a follower of Robert Johnson and asked to play the songs Johnson taught him… and since he had grown beyond that style by his teens, he eventually acquired a reputation among blues scholars and interviewers for being grumpy and uncooperative.

Fortunately, one day I was chatting with Steve James — a fine and knowledgeable musician — and he mentioned that Lockwood’s great musical love was Blind Blake. That surprised me, because Lockwood’s playing didn’t sound at all like Blake’s and although I was dubious of categories, Blake’s light ragtime seemed like the antithesis of the Delta style.

So when I finally got to meet Mr. Lockwood, I started out like everyone else, talking with him about Mississippi and Chicago blues, and he was typically taciturn — polite, but nothing more — so I thought what the hell, and mentioned Blind Blake…

Lockwood’s face broke into a broad smile, and he sounded genuinely eager as he asked, “You can play Blind Blake’s stuff?” I said yes, a bit, and he told me to get my guitar. So I did, and played him a bit of this, and he took the guitar out of my hands and played a much better facsimile of “West Coast Blues” than I will ever manage.

Frankly, I like Blake’s playing but my touch is nothing like his — not to mention my speed, grace, and virtuosity. So I’ve tended not to attempt his instrumentals, but when I got back from Africa I was looking for moments when blues players hinted at Congo-Angola rhythms (what folks in the US call Latin or Caribbean), and Blake’s “Southern Rag” has a section he calls “the Geechie dance” — a reference to the deeply African culture that survived on the Georgia Sea Islands — with some nice off-center bass figures.

So I worked up a version of this, which led to another treasured memory: Paul Geremia sold me the guitar I’m playing in this video, but continued to feel kind of protective about it, and one day he was fooling around on it and announced it needed a fret job — which, in this context, meant I should come to his place in Newport and he would refret it. So I did, and Paul got to work, and then Ramblin’ Jack Elliott pulled his mobile home into the yard…

…and for the next five hours Paul refretted my guitar and Jack talked — which is what Jack does, brilliantly, and is why they call him Ramblin’ Jack — and then Paul handed me the newly fretted guitar and I played some ragtime licks, and Jack asked, “Can you play Blind Blake’s ‘Southern Rag’?” So I started playing this, and damned if Jack didn’t start doing Blake’s spoken routine from the record, word for word:

Now we’re goin’ on an old southern rag. Way out there on that cotton field. Where them people plant all that rice, with sugarcane. And peas and so forth grow…

Africa to Appalachia

I compiled this instrumental either while traveling through Africa or shortly afterwards, using “Wanjiru Wanjiru” by the Kenyan guitarist Francis Macharia as the unifying theme. I was struck by how much the guitar on that track felt like the kind of fingerpicking played in the Appalachians, so I combined  it with two favorite southern mountain showpieces: “Buckdancer’s Choice” by Sam McGee and “Doc’s Guitar” from Doc Watson. (To be strictly accurate, McGee was from central Tennessee, not the mountains, but I didn’t know that when I named the piece.)

I’d heard Macharia’s song on a wonderful album, The Nairobi Sound,  released by a wonderful record label, Original Music. It was the brainchild of John Storm Roberts, a freelance musicologist and all-around-charming fellow whom I had the pleasure of meeting when I interviewed him for the Boston Globe in 1989 — I was preparing for the Africa trip, and that seemed like a good way to get a bunch of free records and meet someone who could put me in touch with useful people all over the continent.

I had also read Roberts’s Black Music of Two Worlds, a wide-ranging and insightful history of the ongoing cross-fertilization between musicians and musical styles in Africa and the Americas. It explained, for example, how Cuban recordings by groups like the Trio Matamoros had influenced Congolese music, and touched on the role of US country music throughout sub-Saharan Africa — which prepared me for conversations about cowboy singers everywhere from Zimbabwe to Kenya. In fact, it was an offhand comment by Roberts that named my band and CD (both of which I’ll get to in future posts): he was telling me about the influence of Jimmie Rodgers, saying he’d collected Rodgers imitations in 24 African languages, and mentioned an early reference in print to “the streetcorner cowboys of  Zanzibar,” which instantly struck me as a great name for a band. (When I got to Nairobi, after hitching through the forests of Zaire and up through Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda, there was still a program on the radio every Sunday of “old Kikuyu music,” which consisted largely of Kikuyu yodeling cowboy songs by folks like Sammy Ngako.)

I think of this piece as kind of a tribute to John, since he was the person who made me aware that any discussion of overlaps and similarities between African and American music has to consider not only the huge influence of African traditions on the music of the Americas, but also the huge influence of Cuban, Argentine, French Caribbean, and US styles on African musicians all over the continent. Even before records became common, minstrel shows and Negro spirituals were imported and adapted into African traditions. (The banjo, for example, is originally a West African instrument, but was introduced to new regions of Africa — and reintroduced in West Africa — with minstrelsy.)

To finish this musicological tribute, I recommend listening to a couple of key examples: “El que siembra su maiz” by the Cuban Trio Matamoros, which is a classic example of Afro-Spanish-Caribbean string band music, and  the same song performed by Joseph Kabasele “El Gran Kalle” and his orchestra L’African Jazz. (As an added fillip, let’s note the generic use of “jazz” in the names of dance bands all over Africa in the mid-20th century, whether or not they played anything resembling jazz.)

Lwa Kiyeke (Edouard Masengo)

While studying with Jean-Bosco Mwenda in Lubumbashi, I was fortunate to also spend some time with one of the other important local musicians, Edouard Masengo. Bosco and Masengo were cousins and had recorded together in the late fifties and early sixties, but their later lives had followed very different paths. Though famous as a guitarist and singer, Bosco earned his living as a businessman, working for a bank and the local mining company, managing local bands, and at the time I met him was in the process of opening a hotel on the Zambian border.

Masengo, by contrast, had little if any career outside music, and his period of success was long in the past. He had gone to Kenya in the late 1950s, apparently as a member of Je-co-ke (short for Jeunes Comiques du Katanga), a touring group of musicians, singers, and dancers from Lubumbashi (then still known as Elizabethville). An advertising agency in Nairobi heard him, took him on, and he soon became a popular radio and recording artist, sponsored by Coca-Cola.

After a few months he brought Bosco — whose records were well-known throughout Swahili-speaking East Africa — to join him, and although their acoustic style was supplanted by electric bands in the mid-1960s, they remained familiar as “oldies” artists at least into the 1990s. When I hitchhiked from Lubumbashi to Nairobi I found their cassettes still on sale, and had an interesting afternoon at a local record company trying (unsuccessfully) to get Masengo some royalties. One of the cassettes included a half-hour interview with Masengo in which he told his life story interspersed with relevant songs (which I’ve now uploaded to Youtube), and I was surprised to hear him speaking fluent English, since by the time we met his only European language was French.

As I understand it, Bosco returned to Lubumbashi after a year but Masengo remained a dozen or more years in East Africa and that was the high point of his career. In 1990 he was going through hard times and talked sadly about how much better things had been in Nairobi, saying he might still be popular if he could only get back there.

Instead, he was living in a spare room in a small house belonging to his sister — who had a good job at the mining company — in a village outside town. He was remembered as a notable musician, and I had the pleasure of performing with him at a local hotel and on a national television special. But he was also considered a bit of a sad story, down on his luck and too fond of the local beer.

To me, he was always gracious and inspiring, a supple guitarist and beautiful singer with a gentleness that reminded me of Mississippi John Hurt. I only met him three or four times, but he was consistently encouraging, teaching me songs and exclaiming over my playing — the Congolese guitarists used only their thumb and index finger to pick, and he kept exclaiming over my using two more fingers, saying, “If I had only seen that when I was young…”  I recorded one long session in his room, with my friend Dominic adding percussion and me playing lead guitar on a couple of the less distinctively Congolese tunes. (I’ve uploaded one, “Mujinga ni nani.”)

He was also a fine composer, and sang a haunting tribute to his old friend, the blind guitarist Losta Abelo, with tears running down his cheeks. My favorite of his songs was this little gem. The guitar part (played with the low E string tuned up to F) is simple as can be, and the lyric even more so, referring to his and Bosco’s ethnic group, the Bayeke:

I used to have a bicycle, but now I go in the Kiyeke way.
I used to have a bicycle, but now I go in the Kiyeke way.

In the Kiyeke way, sir, in the Kiyeke way—
In the Kiyeke way, that is to say, on foot.

Kuolewa (Jean-Bosco Mwenda)

Each lesson with Jean-Bosco Mwenda would focus on a particular song — “Masanga,” “Bibi Teresa,” “Kijana Muke” — and after I’d learned the guitar parts to three or four of these I asked if he could write out the lyrics for me.

Polite as always, Bosco got out a pen and started writing, but he was clearly puzzled. “Do people in the United States understand Swahili?” he asked.

I said no, in general they didn’t — obviously I didn’t either, since we were talking in French.

“Then why would you sing to them in Swahili?”

The question took me aback. I’d assumed if I was learning his songs I would sing them with his words, and that would be what he expected and preferred. But he was genuinely puzzled, and the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. He described his own music as an adaptation of the cowboy songs and “Spanish” music (meaning Cuban) he’d heard on records as a youth, and he had taken those influences and created a style that was distinctively his own, performed in Swahili and occasionally Kiyeke, the languages of his listeners.

Bosco took pride not only in his musical skills, but in his role as a teacher: while European singers tend to sing about romance and adventure, African singers have traditionally used their songs to educate and admonish. Bosco had composed some love songs, but also many songs intended to make his listeners think about social conditions and improve their way of living.

This is a typical example, bemoaning the follies of unmarried motherhood:

You say you don’t want to get married.
Every year you have a new baby.
This baby has no father
It is very difficult to find food for it.

Another thing is the young man,
He makes you pregnant and he runs away.
Money for milk to feed the baby,
It takes a lot of effort to find.
In the baby bottle, you put beer
To feed to the baby.
That is wrong, mother.

(Note for non-Congolese Swahili-speakers: the second time through, instead of singing pombe for beer I sing simba, which is a popular local brand. Bosco would also namecheck tembo, a darker, stronger brew from the same company.)

(Note for guitarists: for this song, Bosco tuned his low bass string up to F, allowing him to get an open F when he wanted, but more importantly to get the low G by wrapping his thumb around at the 2nd fret, which is more comfortable than stretching up to the 3rd.)