Lucky Man (Eric Von Schmidt)

One of my great honors and privileges in the 1990s was being able to play a bunch of gigs with Eric Von Schmidt. I’d been playing his “Joshua Gone Barbados” for twenty years, and met the man himself when he came to Cambridge to play a Club 47 reunion show and needed a place to crash. (I also hosted Jack Landron–better known to the Cambridge folkies as Jackie Washington–for the same show, which led to me writing Josh White’s biography, but that’s another story.) This story is that we were jamming in my living room and Eric invited me to play harmonica with him onstage for “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” and then a year or so later I did a big piece on him for the Boston Globe Magazine, and that led to more jamming, and he started using me and Washtub Robbie Phillips, along with his daughter Caitlin, as his backing group.

Eric was an amazing performer, always 100% in the moment, and his recordings only hint at how great he could be when the spirit descended — which said, the best recordings are pretty great. This song was on his final CD, produced by Sam Charters in the mid-1990s, and written as part of his immersion in the story of the battle of Little Big Horn. He had painted an epic canvas, “Here Fell Custer,” for which he became something of an expert on the battle and events leading up to it. In an article about that project, he wrote that he never really understood the story until he went to Washington, DC, and looked at the original drawings of the battle by the Sioux warrior Red Horse, who had fought there:

I was struck by page after page of carefully drawn tipis. Nothing but tipis. I guessed that they had never been reproduced before because they were repetitious–boring? Old Red Horse was trying to tell us something. We weren’t quite getting it….

Custer didn’t get it either. It wasn’t until I got back down to my studio that I finally got it…. Considering that the village was over three miles long, there would have been a whole lot of tipis, a thousand, give or take a few. Red Horse was telling us in pictographic terms what Custer himself had refused to believe….

One of the interpreters, Mitch Bouyer, reckoned that Custer and the whole command, himself included, were as good as dead. “Lonesome Charlie” Reynolds (“Lucky Man” was one of his Indian names) had expected as much and had given away his belongings the previous night….

Eric added some colorful details in this song, but when I came across a photostat of Reynolds’ diary leading up to the battle, I was pleased to find that it begins just where Eric did, with a notation on May 17, almost forty days before the final confrontation: “Left Fort Lincoln…” I assume Eric had read the same pages, and it was a good feeling to be following his trail.

Eric was a magnificent madman, a true Bohemian, and also the son of a famous painter of Western scenes. He grew up with cowboy and Indian stories and I got the impression he mostly tended to side with the Indians. He identified with Reynolds, who presumably had spent a lot of time absorbing Native culture, but also with the people who turned the tables on Custer’s murderous cavalry, and this song shifts between those viewpoints with wry and angry humor.

Tennessee Dog (Jimmie Strothers)

I loved this from the first moment I heard it, and worked up an arrangement a few years later because I was regularly singing “Mole in the Ground” and wanted an alternative song that would fill the same slot in my sets. This fit the bill perfectly: banjo-style guitar part, goofy animal lyric. Then came the barking, but I’ll get to that in a minute..

This was recorded in 1936 by a banjo player and singer named James or Jimmie Strothers, a wonderfully versatile musician whose one recording session included blues, work songs, a ballad, and this unclassifiable masterpiece.

Strothers was born in Virginia in 1883, which makes him one of the oldest black rural musicians whose work got preserved on records, and his music reaches back before the blues era, to styles that a lot of people now associate with Euro-American country music. By the time southern rural music began being captured on record a lot of Afro-American musicians and listeners had moved on to other styles, and the selective processes of both folklorists and commercial recording companies further cemented the idea of separate ethnic traditions.  So it’s worth underlining that the kind of banjo playing Strother (and Bascom Lamar Lunsford, and Uncle Dave Macon) did was originally associated with black musicians and African traditions.

Getting back to Strothers, he apparently became blind in a mining accident sometime around the turn of the century and lived much of his life in Baltimore. He was recorded for the Library of Congress by John Lomax and Harold Spivacke while serving a second degree murder sentence in the Virginia State Penitentiary, and a collection of correspondence related to his parole includes a letter in which he explains that since becoming blind he had traveled widely on his own and “I am also a musician and can easily earn my money for living expenses.” Those were the good old days.

So anyway, I started playing this around the house, getting the guitar part the way I wanted. At that point I was living with Suzannah, who had been raised as an only child in a house full of dogs and tended to prefer them to people. She naturally approved of me adding a dog song to my repertoire — and, one afternoon as I was playing it, began barking along in appropriate places.

That was obviously the missing ingredient, and I persuaded her to perform this with me a couple of times — I’d introduce her as the second vocalist and she would sit demurely on a stool until the appropriate moment, then bark. It brought down the house… but we only did it a couple of times, then life intervened and that was that.

I kept doing the song, of course, but it never occurred to me to do my own barking until I was recording this video. Then the spirit descended upon me, and the result is before you.

Johnson City Blues (Clarence Greene, Ida Cox)

Along with all the great African American blues artists who recorded in the 1920s, there were also some interesting Euro-American players who came up with distinctive styles. The most famous was Jimmie Rodgers, but the best guitarists tended to come from around the mountain communities of Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, and the Carolinas. I’ve already paid tribute to Dick Justice, who deserves to be a lot better known, and this song is from an even more obscure artist, Clarence Greene. Greene was born in North Carolina in 1884 and recorded a  scant dozen songs, including some on fiddle with Byrd Moore’s Hot Shots. This is by far the best known, and with good reason: his other recordings are in more standard white country styles, but this is a unique and brilliant guitar blues.

Greene’s playing is admirably quirky, and shows the clear influence of one of the greatest early blues recording stars, apparently learned first-hand. As his friend Walter Davis recalled:

“Me and Clarence Greene was in Johnson City, Tennessee, and there was an old colored fellow, blind man, that was playing down there on the street, and I thought he was the most wonderful guitar player that I had ever heard. He could really play the blues… Blind Lemon Jefferson. And he was really good… I stayed there two or three days, trying to pick up some of his chords and some of his tunes.”1

Greene’s playing is very different from Jefferson’s, but made up of distinctly Jeffersonian components – the way someone might play if they spent two or three days watching Jefferson, then went home and came up with a guitar arrangement based on what they’d seen That’s very different from sitting down with a record, because Greene doesn’t sound like he’s imitating any particular Jefferson piece and some of the ideas he uses seem based more on how Jefferson’s hands moved than on how the results sounded. At least, that’s my take on this arrangement, based on admittedly limited evidence – but it makes sense.

As for the song, it’s a close adaptation of a 1923 recording by Ida Cox titled “Chattanooga Blues.”2 Cox has been overshadowed by Bessie Smith in the history books, but was at least as influential among rural musicians and listeners. She couldn’t match Smith’s power and virtuosity, but had a more straightforwardly conversational style and terrific taste in material, much of which she seems to have written herself. She was also a very astute businesswoman and continued to tour with her own company of musicians, singers, and dancers through the 1930s, invested her profits in real estate, and retired comfortably to Knoxville, where she died in 1967.

As for my version: one of the things I love about both Jefferson and Greene is the way they casually add or subtract a couple of beats now and then to fit their singing, rather than keeping within standard European measures. I started playing this song before I got seriously into Jefferson’s music, and it was an education in freedom — it comes out a bit different every time, and that’s fun and relaxing.

Row of Dominoes (Butch Hancock)

Yet another I learned from Joe Ely. Among the many debts I owe to Joe is that he introduced me to Butch Hancock’s songwriting. Joe and Butch had teamed up way before I heard of either of them, in a band called the Flatlanders, which also included Jimmie Dale Gilmore — another songwriter I first learned about through Joe’s records. They were and are a terrific trio, but Joe was the first one to hit nationally and internationally, so most of us learned about the others from him.

If it hadn’t been for Joe, I would probably still have learned about Butch, because Dave Van Ronk heard him someplace in Texas — maybe the Kerrville festival — and was blown away. I recall Dave telling me he had tried to persuade Butch to come to New York and insisted he’d be the biggest thing to hit the local folk scene since Dylan… which is the kind of advice Butch probably was wise to ignore.

As best I can tell, Butch never cared to tour much anyway. The only times I’ve seen him are once with the Flatlanders at Newport and once when Dick Pleasants, a wonderful Boston folk radio programmer, got the chance to program a city-sponsored Fourth of July concert at the Hatch Shell on the Charles River. Dick brought in Odetta, Rosalie Sorrels, Riders in the Sky, and several other people — and brought Butch’s entire band up from Texas. As I recall, it was a ten-piece group, with back-up singers, a horn section, and a musical saw.

All of which said, I got this from Joe’s Live at Liberty Lunch album and recorded it on my cassette, Street Corner Cowboy in the early 1990s, and again almost ten years later on my CD, Street Corner Cowboys. (Note the subtly different titles.) The first version had Mark Earley playing lonesome prairie harmonica, and the second had Matt Leavenworth playing lonesome prairie fiddle, and I miss both of them… but I kept playing it on my own, because it’s such a great lyric.

To my way of thinking, Butch’s one major handicap was that he often overwrote — he’d come up with a great chorus and some great verses, but then he’d write more verses and pretty soon he’d have a six minute song that would have been a lot stronger if it were shorter. That’s not a rare disease for writers — I’m sure I’ve succumbed to it myself on occasion — but anyway, Joe seemed to act as a kind of brake: the songs of Butch’s he did were mostly shorter and a few of them were damn near perfect. This one, for example, is just four short verses and two choruses (actually, I just went back and listened, and Joe and Butch sing a different line on the first chorus — so apparently I did a bit more editing.

Anyway, this grabbed me from line one, and just kept getting better: “They say a fool never knows what he misses/ And a wise man never misses what he knows.” That’s damn good.