Me and Billy the Kid (Joe Ely)

I’ve already written about my introduction to Joe Ely and my affection for his work, and I’m happy to revisit the subject, because I owe him a lot. Beyond the great songs I learned off his records, and the records themselves, it was a whole attitude toward music. Along with Doug Sahm and Peter Guralnick, Joe was one of the people who taught me that genre categories are just a barrier to listening. If I listen rather than filing, what I like about Willie McTell may be the same thing I like about Buffy Sainte-Marie, what I like about Merle Haggard may also be what I like about Chuck Berry, what I like about Belle Stewart may be what I like about Pablo Casals playing the Bach cello suites.

Which said, since I mostly worked as an acoustic single I tended to limit myself to to the more countrified or singer-songwriter songs in Joe’s repertoire — until I got together with Robbie, Peter, and Mark as the Street Corner Cowboys and had an opportunity to play rock ‘n’ roll with an electric guitar in my hands and a solid bass kicking me. That was a chance to try a bunch of songs I’d always loved but never played solo, among them this smart reimagining of the western outlaw ballad.

I interviewed Joe several times, and in one of our conversations he explained that he got the idea for this one when he was driving home to Lubbock from California and happened to pass through the town of Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where Billy the Kid was killed:

They had a museum and we stopped in to look and it had nothing to do with Billy the Kid. It was old wagon wheels and spurs and stupid old western stuff and they had made this museum and there are two known photos and that is all they know about him, and all the legends and the stuff that Pat Garrett had written about. He couldn’t known him that well — I mean, he shot him, but he just heard stories too.

I got to thinking that he is one of those legends nobody knows much about, so I figured I could say anything I wanted to, and I just put myself as one of the guys that ran with him. Some of these movies make him out to be an outlaw hero type, and I wanted to put that completely down and say what a lowdown guy he was, and add some humor to it.

So from between Fort Sumner and Clovis, New Mexico, which is about 70 or 80 miles, I wrote the entire song. I wrote it down verse-wise, didn’t have a guitar, came back to Austin and put a few chords to it that seemed to work. It was one of those things that came without a whole lot of struggle — it pretty much just rolled out.

Goin’ Down Hill (John Anderson)

In the early 1980s there was a decent country radio station in the Boston area and I kept my radio tuned to it, with the result that I picked up on Rosanne Cash, Lacy J. Dalton, and John Anderson — also lots of other people, but those are the three that inspired me to buy their LPs and learn some current hits. Anderson became a brief but fierce passion, thanks to his hardcore country voice and some unusual songs.

The first Anderson album I bought was All the People Are Talking, which had a hot rocker called “Black Sheep” and my nominee for the most horrible C&W lyric ever written, “Mama, Look What Followed Me Home” — which I know is quite a claim, but it’s truly dreadful, and I know it by heart and sing it in appropriate circumstances:

Mama, look what followed me home.
Ain’t she so pretty, and mama, she’s all alone.
I’d love her forever if she was my own.
Aw, Mama… Can I keep her? Look what followed me home…

(I know you hope he was singing about a dog, but he wasn’t.)

So anyway, I then bought Anderson’s previous album, Wild & Blue, which had spawned three top ten singles: the title track, “Swingin’,” and “Goin’ Down Hill.” The first two were fairly generic and hugely popular, but this song is a quirky oddity built on a pop-ragtime chord progression with an onomatopoeic chromatic descent underpinning the protagonist’s downhill slide. It’s a fun tune to pick, and I particularly like to pull it out when I’m playing with people who are comfortable on swing-era standards, because the music and lyric are so perfectly matched and I think more people should be doing it.

This is co-credited to Anderson and his touring bass player — which usually means the sideman did most of the writing, and I particularly want to believe that because the bassist was named Aries X. Lincoln, known to his friends as X. I just spent a pleasant half-hour researching him, and find he was born with the more prosaic name of Billy Lee Tubb, in San Antonio, and worked for a while as a guitarist for his uncle Ernest — yup, that one — as well as in a rockabilly trio with his brother Glenn and cousin Justin, later notable for writing “Waltz across Texas.” Then he went solo and cut some rocking singles as Ronny Wade, including an answer song to Hank Ballard’s “Work With Me Annie,” called “Annie, Don’t Work.” None of them took off, so he signed on as a sideman to a long list of Nashville stars, changed his name to X Lincoln, cut a few more singles that went even less far, and spent the last twenty years of his life playing with Anderson. He apparently wrote some other songs along the way, but this is the only one I can find… which is a pity, because it’s damn good.

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.