Big Road Blues (Tommy Johnson)

Spending the winter of 1987-8 fronting a blues band in Sevilla got my chops up like never before, and also got me back into pre-war blues (or country blues, fingerstyle blues — the kind of blues that shaped my understanding of the guitar). I’d never stopped playing that music, but for a few years I’d been working on broadening my repertoire into other styles. For one thing, it seemed both stupid and presumptuous to present myself as a blues musician — presumptuous because I was a fair guitarist but there’s a lot more to blues than good guitar playing, and stupid because even if I had been a lot better, there wasn’t much work for acoustic blues players.

In Sevilla, though, I had a band that wanted to play traditional acoustic blues, and we were doing three or four sets a night. So, perforce, I had to come up with a large and relatively varied repertoire that fit the bill, which meant revisiting a lot of material I’d messed with over the years and shaping the rough sketches into performance pieces.

One piece I worked on that winter was Tommy Johnson’s “Big Road Blues,” or at least my approximation of it. I always loved Johnson’s singing, and at times have named him as my favorite of the classic Delta blues guitarists in the circle around Charlie Patton. His music has a lightness I don’t hear in other Delta players, while retaining the rhythmic complexity and emotional depth.

“Big Road” was Johnson’s most influential arrangement, covered and reworked by numerous other artists. The Delta blueswoman Mattie Delaney did it, Big Maceo Merriweather did a nice piano version, the Mississippi Sheiks used the guitar part for their great “Stop and Listen,” and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup did an electric version as “Dirt Road Blues,” which he reworked as “That’s All Right,” made more famous by Elvis Presley. There was also a spectacular version on Yazoo’s Jackson Blues anthology, by an obscure Delta musician named Willie Lofton who called it “Dark Road Blues” and out-did Johnson at Johnson’s own style, playing with ferocious speed and power and punctuating his vocal lines with a gorgeous falsetto.

All of which said, I only learned the song after hearing Jim Brewer play it. Brewer was a blind street singer, born in Mississippi but known from many years playing at the Maxwell Street market in Chicago. My friend Andy Cohen toured with Brewer off and on over the years, and one year he brought him to my place in Cambridge for dinner. At that point I was dating a woman who played concert harp, and my fondest memory of that evening is Brewer seated at her harp, exploring its possibilities and eventually picking out some gospel tunes. Later we got out guitars, and he played a blazing version of “Big Road,” using a technique I’ve never seen before or since: where I (like everyone else) snap the low 6th string, he reached into the soundhole with his thumb and snapped the 5th and 6th, in that order, in a roll with the 4th picked by his index finger. I tried and tried, but can’t get that move up to any kind of speed — when he did it, it was like a drum-roll, and the power was incredible.

So I can’t play this like Brewer or Lofton, but they inspired me, and I came up with my own variant of Johnson’s version, with a bunch of different verses I assembled here and there — and I’ve kept his title, but sing the lyric as “New Road Blues.”

Seaboard Train (Larry Johnson/my Seville blues trio)

Celebrating one of the main railroad lines out of the South, this is another song I got from Larry Johnson, who presumably got it from Jim Jackson. I don’t recall when I started playing it with this arrangement, but by the late 1980s it was my regular set-closer.

I also played it pretty regularly during my 1987-88 winter residency in Sevilla, Spain — unquestionably my hardest-working period as a blues player. I was in Sevilla with some friends from Antwerp, Vera Singelyn, her toddler son Liam, and a Dutch girl named Tim,  and lucked into regular work thanks to a local harmonica player named Juan Guerrero.

I met Juan at a bar gig by the Caldonia Blues Band, a local outfit that played electric Chicago style. I’d brought my guitar, hoping to connect to the local scene, and Juan got excited because he was a Sonny Terry fan but had been stuck playing amplified because no one in Andalucia played acoustic blues. We jammed during the break, he asked how long I could stay in town, I said I could be there all winter, and he asked how many nights a week I wanted to work. I said six, figuring there was no way that would happen, and he said, “OK, check back with me in two weeks.”

Two weeks later I checked back with him and he’d found a bass player, Juan Arias, and booked us as either a duo or trio six nights a week for the next three months. We played every Monday in one bar, every Tuesday in another, and so on. He’d also named us the Mississippi Sheiks, which felt weird to me since I’d never been in Mississippi and that name was already taken by one of the great groups of the 1920s… but Juan liked it, and he was the boss.

The gigs were all full-night residencies, typically three one-hour sets with half hour breaks between, and sometimes a fourth set if the bar was still jumping. For the smaller places we worked acoustic, for the larger ones or when we had the bass we used a couple of small amps. It was great practice, and forced me to get back into blues, which I’d been moving away from over the previous few years as my tastes expanded. It also led to some interesting connections with local flamenco players, — Sevilla was a center of flamenco-blues fusion, thanks to a pair of Gypsy brothers who’d formed a band in the 1970s called La Pata Negra, mixing flamenco with Jeff Beck-style electric leads. (For a taste, check out their “Blues de la frontera.”) So I worked out a trade with a flamenco guitarist, during which he learned the basics of American fingerstyle blues and I learned I didn’t have the chops to play flamenco.

I’ll continue the story of that winter in the next post, but the longterm result was that fifteen years later I was back in town and dropped by La Carboneria, there was an acoustic blues duo onstage, and the guitarist got all excited because he had been inspired to learn blues as a kid by hearing me with the Sheiks.

As for the Seaboard railroad lines, they were part of a network that reached down to Florida, over to New Orleans, and up to New York. In The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson writes about the Seaboard as one of the main engines of the Great Migration, which adds another dimension to the song.

Goodnight Loving Trail (Utah Phillips)

I started singing this regularly for a very small audience of one, and before getting to the song and its composer, a few words about that…

In the mid 1980s Vera Singelyn was running a place in Antwerp that provided cheap rooms and dinners for street people and buskers, and she had a four-month-old son, Liam. He was a pretty tranquil kid but one evening he started crying just as she was trying to dish out food for a couple of dozen people, so I picked him up and bounced him, and when he kept crying I asked Vera if I could carry him around the block…

…and that became a regular evening ritual. I’d walk around the block with Liam in my arms, singing “Goodnight-Loving Trail,” and if he was still awake I’d move on to “Goodnight Irene” — he seemed to like waltzes — and then maybe to Rosalie Sorrels’s angry baby-rocking songs (“Today is the day we give babies away, with every packet of tea…”), and then, if necessary, back to “Goodnight-Loving Trail.”

So we got to be friends, and when Liam was feeling perky and cheerful I’d keep him on my lap through dinner and try out new foods on him. (That was when I discovered that babies like to eat lemons. Apparently their taste buds are not fully developed, so lemons taste to them kind of like oranges do to us.) After a while, the relationship got more formal — Vera provided me with a room in a house she had in the red light district, and I’d take Liam for a few hours in the afternoon. And that winter Vera and Liam met me in Madrid and we joined up with a Dutch girl named Tim and spent the winter in Sevilla.

I got regular gigs around town with a blues trio (about which more in the next posts), and Vera and Tim worked as street clowns. That meant I had Liam most afternoons and watched him learn his first words of parakeet — there was one hanging in a cage outside our parlor window and he picked its language up more easily than English, Flemish/Dutch, or Spanish. Spain was a good place to be with a baby — you could walk into any bar and before the bartender asked what you wanted to drink he’d hand the kid an olive or some candy. When Vera and I hitchhiked back to Antwerp that spring we spent a few days in Barcelona, and one night in a nice restaurant the waiter took Liam back to the kitchen shortly after we sat down and they kept him there for two hours, occasionally bringing him out so we could see he was enjoying himself.

That was also where Liam made his debut as a clown — by then, he knew that when Vera put on make-up she would be going out, so he would start screaming, and that afternoon we dealt with the situation by making him up as well and bringing him along. I waited till Vera had a crowd around her, then released him, and he ran over to her hat, picked it up, carried it around the circle, and made a small fortune in coins… then went back to the center of the circle, dumped the coins on the ground, picked up two handfuls, and started distributing them to the other children in the crowd.

As for “Goodnight-Loving Trail,” it’s by U. Utah Phillips, the Golden Voice of the Great Southwest. I met Bruce (as his friends called him) at the Caffe Lena in Saratoga, and he stayed with me whenever he was in Cambridge, and I stayed with him in Spokane and later in Grass Valley. He was genuinely a gentleman and a scholar, and one of his fields of scholarship was the old west. This song was inspired by the name of one of the major major cattle trails out of Texas, pioneered by Charlie Goodnight and Oliver Loving in the 1860s, which went up through New Mexico to Colorado and eventually Wyoming.

It’s a tribute to the camp cook, typically a retired cowboy who would be joshingly called the “old woman.” For those unfamiliar with cowboy lore:

  • Ride on the swing: The swing riders on a cattle drive are the next men back from the point rider, who leads, and their job is to stay close on either side and keep the cattle together.
  • The Triangle: The cook would typically beat on a big iron triangle to call the men to meals.
  • French harp: A harmonica. The term harp was being used for what we now call harmonicas as early as the 1820s, in analogy to the Aeolian harp, which makes music as wind blows through it. Curiously, the term “harmonica” was not yet being used at that point, but the first citation for the Aeolian harp derivation is in a music periodical called the Harmonicon, published in London in 1829. The first surviving use of “French harp” is in a poem from 1876, and soon after that the Carl Essbach company was using the term as a trade name for some of its harmonicas.
  • Snake oil: a common quack remedy, still popular in some places — on a bus in southern Mexico a few years ago, I had the pleasure of watching a salesman marketing aceite de vibora.

Incidentally, there is one more verse for this song, but I could never remember it and since I tend to trust the editing process of memory, I stopped trying.

Some of These Days (Antwerp/busking/Van Ronk)

I first visited Antwerp in the late 1970s, found it was a great town for busking, and in the 1980s I made it my base of operations for several years. That was largely thanks to Vera Singelyn, whom I met when she was running a sort of flophouse and soup kitchen that was a dinner stop and occasional lodging for much of the itinerant musical population. I don’t remember how I first met Vera, but it was probably at Den Billekletser, because that was where a lot of us called home during the daytimes. It was a bar on the Hoogstraat, near the banks of cafes surrounding the Cathedral, and we would start drinking coffee there in the morning, graduate to beer around noon, and continue through the evening between sorties to play the cafes, restaurants, and bars. Some people got their mail delivered there, and for ten years or so I would go there first whenever I hit town and find out who else was around and where they were living.

That’s where I met Derroll Adams, Jack Elliott’s old traveling partner, and the dazzling ragtime guitarist Leo Wijnkamp, and a charming English drinker and artist named Frank Allen who gave me a lovely wooden pipe he’d carved, and all sorts of other people.

It’s also possible that I met Vera at the Musik Doos, which was in a couple of different locations over the years and had a stage and microphones for whoever wanted to play a set and pass the hat. Etienne, the owner, was always good to me and I made a lot of friends there. Or maybe someone just brought me over to the place Vera was running to have some dinner.

Anyway, I became a regular and began minding her newborn son Liam while she dealt with cooking and riding herd on the mixed crowd of waifs and wastrels, and shortly she was letting me live in an apartment on the third floor of a house she had at Huikstraat 5, in the red light district. As I recall, Irish Tony and Jimmy were on the second floor, and Montana Bob and his daughter were on the fourth – or maybe Bob and his daughter had the other side of the third and my rock ‘n’ roll partner David Greeley was on the fourth.

I settled in and worked on learning three-row diatonic accordion and sometimes babysitting Liam, who gradually graduated from lying on his back to turning over, and then to crawling — and who seemed to be the only person who enjoyed my accordion playing.

The most musically educational experience of that period was working in a swing duo with Nick Boons, an excellent fiddler in the style of Stéphane Grappelli and the Hot Club de France. I’d work the cafe terraces in the daytime, and then Nick and I would get together and do the nice restaurants. We’d typically warm up by playing a standard in all twelve keys, and “Some of These Days” was one of our favorites, along with “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Blue Skies,” and “Marie.”

This was composed by Shelton Brooks, whom I’ve written about in my post on another of his enduring hits, “Darktown Strutters Ball” — which I’m sure we played as well. I always liked this song, but don’t recall performing it without Nick until I heard Dave Van Ronk’s version on his second swing CD, Sweet and Lowdown. As was his way, Dave wrote a great new introductory verse, and that got me singing it again, usually with my wife Sandrine on clarinet. Now I need to get back to Antwerp and try it again with Nick, whom I haven’t played with in almost thirty years — but see on Youtube looking exactly the same and sounding better than ever.