I’ve loved a lot of musicians, but only twice made serious pilgrimages to study with anyone. The first was Dave Van Ronk, for whom I spent a year in the wilds of Greenwich Village; the second was Jean-Bosco Mwenda, for whom I traveled to Lubumbashi, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).
As I wrote in my post on Bosco’s masterpiece, “Masanga,” I discovered his music on the Guitars of Africa LP in the Cambridge Public Library, but the two tracks on that record had been recorded in the 1950s and there had been no news of him since he appeared at the Newport Folk Festival in 1969.*
Then in the 1980s an English guitarist named John Low published a book called Shaba Diaries about traveling to Zaire and studying with Bosco and two of his contemporaries, Losta Abelo and Edouard Masengo. I’d been thinking about a trip to Africa since my teens, and a South African woman I’d met in Italy provided further temptation… so I spent six months busking on cafe terraces in Antwerp, caught an Aeroflot plane from London to Zimbabwe, and after a couple of months hitchhiking through Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa, and Namibia hitched up through Zambia to Lubumbashi. I had written to Bosco when I arrived in Zimbabwe and received no reply, but he was an important man and easy to find: I just asked a cab driver to take me to his house. He welcomed me cordially, I played him my inaccurate version of “Masanga,” and he said he would be happy to teach me to play it right and show me some other songs. So for the next month I went over to his house twice a week, had lunch with him, and got a guitar lesson. (The letter I’d sent two months earlier finally arrived a week or so after our meeting.)
“Kijana Muke” (also issued as “Muke Mzuri” and “Nimemukuta”) is one of the half-dozen songs he taught me, along with “Bibi Theresa” and “Kuolewa.” The lyric is in the local dialect of Swahili, one of at least four languages Bosco spoke fluently, along with French, Lingala, and his “village language,” Kiyeke:
I met a girl, very beautiful, oh, mama I said to her, “Hi, darling,” she replied, “Hello.” I said, “Where are you going?” She said, “Tomorrow.” I went home to sleep, I dreamed of her. Early next morning I went to her place to see that lady. Just the same way she told me, “tomorrow.” I went home to sleep, I dreamed of her.
I spent a month or so hitchhiking around Scotland in the summer of 1989, partly because I was headed to Africa and wanted to familiarize myself with the work of Jim Reeves. I’d heard that Reeves was hugely popular in both places, but all I knew of his music was this song, which I’d learned off a Ry Cooder album. So I figured I should know more, and Scotland was the place to go.
That proved to be theoretically but not practically right: Reeves was indeed popular in Scottish country-western bars, but I got distracted and ended up visiting castles, hitchhiking north to Orkney, and sleeping in stone circles rather than learning his music. I also spent a pleasant few days visiting Belle and Sheila Stewart, the great Scots traditional singers, but their tastes in country ran more to Hank Williams.
So I fell back on the Cooder version, which fitted well with my plans to study African guitar, because he played it in a sort of Caribbean rumba rhythm.
That was probably the high point of my interest in Cooder, and I have to say it was always more interest than love. I loved the idea of his albums, especially in the Chicken Skin Music period when he was mixing odd assemblages of musicians from disparate traditions and choosing unlikely material to do with them. That was my first taste of Hawaiian slack-key guitar, and also my reintroduction to Flaco Jimenez, whom I’d first heard on my treasured Doug Sahm and Band album. Flaco played on this song, and Bobby King was singing gospel back-up, and it was a really nice arrangement… but there was something kind of emotionally flat about it. I listened to those albums a bunch of times and recall them with appreciation, but my heart is with other stuff.
As for Jim Reeves, I clearly listened to his version of this, since I just checked and find I sing his lyrics rather than Cooder’s variant, as well as that great low note (which he sings gorgeously and I attempt with infinite pleasure). But I don’t recall any of his other songs, which just proves how out of step I am with a lot of parts of the world, because for a lot of people Reeves was the greatest singer the US ever produced, and they live in some surprising places. For instance Norway, Kenya, South Africa, and India… and I’ve got a story about that:
In 1981 I was hitchhiking from Bombay (now Mumbai) to Madras (now Chennai), and somewhere out in the middle of nowhere I got stranded and was walking along a hot, dusty road beginning to wonder where I’d get some water. Eventually I saw a little village, but it was just a cluster of houses and a bit off the road, so I was debating whether to go over, and then a little boy came running out to me. I had my guitar slung over my shoulder, and he’d spotted it and said I had to come meet his father. So I went along with him, and his father invited me into their house and gave me a cup of tea. Then he proudly showed me his record collection: it consisted of pretty much every record Jim Reeves had made, and nothing else.
So that’s that. Wherever I went in Africa, I played this song, and people always recognized and enjoyed it, though by the late 1980s the fave was Don Williams. They like pretty singers over there.
Oh, and one more thing… I went to Africa in a large part to learn how to fingerpick these kinds of rhythms, and I’m very happy with how that worked out, and how nicely that style fits songs like this.
This was my regular post-bottling song when I was busking terraces in Antwerp — “bottling” being the technical term for going around asking for money. I would typically play three songs, make a circuit of all the tables requesting tips, and then, if they’d been generous enough to deserve another song, I’d do this as a farewell number.
People have often asked if I was really able to make a living that way, and the honest answer is I’ve never lived better than during that period in Antwerp. I was staying in my girlfriend Miet’s apartment, paying some utilities and buying food, but I think she covered most if not all of the rent, which in any case was low. I could make the equivalent of about ten dollars per terrace, which took about fifteen minutes, and on a sunny weekend I could go across the Schelde to the cluster of cafes on the other side and often made two or three hundred dollars. If I felt like working some more, I could do the restaurants and bars in the evening, but after I came up with a regular terrace circuit I usually took the evenings off.
There was a good library within walking distance, and I spent my voluminous free time reading through the history of English literature. My friend Robin Gillespie had sent me off with a complete Shakespeare, and I read that and then worked my way through the other Elizabethans in the British Council Library in Seville, and by the time I got settled back in Antwerp I was ready to dive into Chaucer and the other Middle English writers — not because I felt an overwhelming need, but because I had lots of time and it was fun.
I was doing a lot of traveling as well, because it was easy — wherever I went, I could make food money with my guitar, there were always people ready to provide a bed or couch, and the Antwerp earnings provided a cushion. I hitched up to the north of Scotland and caught a ferry to Orkney, hitched down through Italy and caught a ferry to Tunisia (I remember reading Tom Jones on that trip), and rambled through Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey with my buddy Jasper (I was reading Piers Plowman, or rather not reading it, because that one was unreadable — and also impossible to trade away once I gave up).
Then I decided I wanted the experience of traveling at the speed of the books I was reading, so walked the thousand kilometers from Antwerp to Brittany. (The literary high point of that trip was finding myself at nightfall near the battlefield of Agincourt and realizing I had a copy of Henry V in my pack. I camped out in the middle of the battlefield and memorized Henry’s exhortation to his troops by flashlight — I’ve forgotten most of it by now, but had it in my head for a few years.)
All those literary references probably sound pretentious, but the point is that I was young and eager and enjoying myself — I memorized lots of poetry and never recited any of it for anybody; it was just a way to pass the time as I walked or camped or waited for rides. And yes, I’m nostalgic for those times and overdue to get out again and see how it feels — but more than that, I’d urge anybody who has some free time to go out and give it a shot. There are always people who’ll give you a ride, a couch, or a meal, especially if you have music to trade. As the poet said, “world enough, and time…”
This is a favorite from Mance Lipscomb which I learned in Antwerp after that winter fronting a trio in Sevilla. Within the first week or so of getting back to Belgium I got together with a very nice woman named Miet and over the next month or so gradually moved from the third floor of Vera’s building in the red light district to Miet’s apartment on the Vogelmarkt. That became my European base for the next couple of years and was a good place for a busker to be living, a block from the cafe terraces in front of the Rubens house (I never liked his painting, never went in, but the terraces were great for busking and there was a good used bookstore next door) and an easy walk to the cafes by the central station in one direction and the cafes near the Groenplaats in the other.
As noted in previous posts, the residency in Sevilla had gotten me back into country blues, and there were a few people in Antwerp who were good fingerpickers and knew that repertoire. The first I’d met back in the 1970s: a guy named Marc Chaltin who played Gary Davis style with just his thumb and middle finger, a fingerpicker from Liverpool named Les Clague, who killed me with his Blind Blake stuff, and Leo Wijnkamp, one of the great Dutch ragtime players. Now I met a younger player, Dirk Poel, who as I recall had studied flamenco with the Flemish guitarist and songwriter Wannes van de Velde.
I only got together with Dirk a couple of times, but he turned me on to this song: my memory is that he was trying to figure out how to play it, asked me on his first visit, and I listened and figured it out, then showed it to him on his second — but it may be that he had already figured it out and showed it to me. Either way, I owe him because it’s a great guitar part and made me go back and pay more attention to Lipscomb’s playing, and singing, and song selection.
I had not fully appreciated Lipscomb’s music, because it was so relaxed and understated. I was charmed by his versions of old pop songs and had learned his arrangement of “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” but had never paid much attention to his blues — which was stupid, because he was both a very quirky and a very tasteful musician. This song is a good example, with its unusual bassline kicking the rhythm along. I mostly do different verses than he recorded and play different breaks, but the basic chart is his and started me on a Mance kick that lasted through the next few years.
As for Dirk, he’s still going strong, playing with my old friend and sometime partner Ludo Beckers — who also used to play harmonica with Les back in the 1970s. Anyway, they’re both still playing great — and Ludo sent me some corrections to an earlier version of this post — and here’s a video from a show in November or them doing a favorite from Bo Carter:
This is an excellent example of the kind of material that has always been popular in all-male environments — cattle drives, merchant and naval ships, army barracks — except a lot of that material is sexual or misogynist, while this is just brutally realistic, matching its language to the setting and circumstance. (Which is to say: WARNING! Raw language ahead.)
I heard this from Glenn Ohrlin, a legit cowboy and one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, and recall singing it for my traveling companion, Jasper Winn, as we rambled through Hungary in 1988. I’d known Jasper for ten years at that point and traveled with him over much of Europe, but as far as I recall he’d never mentioned horses, so it was startling to discover that he was an accomplished rider even by Hungarian standards, which are about as high as it gets. We were hoping to get horses and do some traveling that way, which didn’t work out, but we did visit a bunch of cowboys out on the puszta, the Hungarian prairies. They used a kind of saddle that was just a pad with stirrups, with no cinch under the horse’s belly. If you put your foot in one stirrup to mount, you pulled the saddle off the horse’s back — which meant I couldn’t mount, period. Jasper’s solution was to raise one leg and flow onto the horse, a technique he’d picked up for riding bareback. The Hungarians considered this to be cheating — their technique was to reach across the horse’s back and grab the opposite stirrup leather, balancing the weight of their foot in the near stirrup — but they were impressed.
So anyway, we were talking about horses a lot, which reminded me of this song, and I sang it for Jasper, and he declared it the most realistic cowboy song he’d ever heard, which was good enough for me. (He went on to spend years traveling to horse cultures around the world, riding and writing about them, and I wish he’d do a book about those adventures. Instead, he’s been doing books on paddling a kayak around Ireland and negotiating the English waterways.)
This song was written by Curley Fletcher as a parody of his own poem, “The Strawberry Roan.” Some Hollywood writers had added a chorus to the poem, which he hated, and he responded by writing this sequel using their chorus, which then got recorded as a “party record” by the Sons of the Pioneers. Their version is somewhat different from Ohrlin’s, and I have no idea which is closer to Fletcher’s original. In any case, the castration version quickly became popular in oral cowboy culture — the combination of raw humor, clinical detail, and the boss’s final comeuppance were irresistible.
In his anthology of cowboy lyrics, The Whorehouse Bells Were Ringing, Guy Logsdon explains that Fletcher wrote the original poem in 1914 and although he was known for writing dirty parodies of his own songs, no one recalls hearing this one until the 1940s. Before that he was apparently doing a different parody, a sixteen-verse saga that graphically reworked the original theme of a cowboy confronting a particularly vicious horse, ending:
I lays in the mud, its the end of the trail, Old Strawberry turns and he lifts up his tail, For I was the loser, went down in disgrace, And now that it’s over, he shits in my face.
In case anyone finds this material offensive, I would note Jasper’s comment when I first sang it, which is that he knew an older horsewoman back in Ireland who was thoroughly respectable and would never tolerate bad language, but had supervised enough gelding operations that she would enjoy this song. Cowboys were romantic enough, in their way, but it was in their way… and Fletcher addressed that issue in another poem, variously called “The Open Book,” “The Open Ledger,” and other titles. You can find it online, but the opening verses kind of sum up the theme:
You’ve been tamped full of shit about cowboys, They are known as a romantic band, Bold knights of the saddle, who herd the wild cattle, And roll cigarettes with one hand.
Now according to song and to story, He’s a sheik in a ten-gallon hat. All he knows of romance is the crotch of his pants. What the hell do you think about that?
For other, less graphic, versions of the cowboy legend, check out my pages on “Zebra Dun” and “The Killer.” Or to dig deeper into the issue of folklore censorship, check out “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Meanwhile, here’s a picture Jasper took of me with my standard traveling rig during that trip through Hungary.
And, to finish up…
Jasper writes: Several years later I went back to the Hortobagy and met the same horsemen…. The big changes in Hungary have brought big changes to the traditional life of the Hortobagy, and it’s getting harder and harder to interest youngsters – even the sons of herders and horsemen – in a life which mostly revolves around being too hot or too cold for long days and sitting around watching a bunch of animals eat grass. The shows of old horsemen skills liven up life for them a bit and bring in some money but the traditions are becoming pretty showbiz at that point. Then again, what showbiz. The Puszta Five – a whip-cracking guy standing on the back of two galloping horses whilst driving another three in front of him – the Roman riding of circuses – had grown into the Puszta Twelve when I was last out there doing stories on that kind of thing.
Revisiting the songs that have made a home in my head