La Tumba del Mojado (Paulino Vargas/Migration)

Paulino Vargas was  the defining master of the modern Mexican corrido and “La tumba del mojado” is one of his masterpieces. Though most famous for his outlaw corridos, he was a brilliantly versatile chronicler of Mexican life, and composed some of the mostinsightful and poetic songs about immigration and other social issues. This song is the testament of a  Mexican  who has crossed to the United States without official documents, describing the difficulties of his situation, and is as relevant today as when he wrote it in the 1980s. (Note: the Río Bravo “the fierce river,” is the Mexican name for what Anglos call the Rio Grande, and espalda mojado translates literally as “wetback,” but does not have the same pejorative connotation in Mexican Spanish.)

I couldn’t cross the line, the Rio Bravo was in my way.
They taught me harshly when I lived on the other side,
Dollars are pretty, but I am Mexican.

I didn’t have green card when I worked in Louisiana.
I lived in a basement, because I was a “wetback.”
I had to bow my head to collect my weekly pay.

Then the beautiful, tragic chorus:

The Mexicali Rose and the blood in the Rio Bravo
Are two different things, but in color they are siblings,
And the borderline is the wetback’s grave.

I spent a year traveling around Mexico in the late 1990s, doing research for  Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas, and met a lot of fascinating people, but Paulino was far and away the most intriguing and impressive. He had several careers, first with his partner Javier Núñez in Los Broncos de Reynosa, the most popular norteño duo of the 1960s, then as the most  influential composer in the reinvention of the corrido. He was deeply versed in older traditions, both the folkloric corridos of the countryside and the popular corridos that had become radio hits in the 1940s, and he combined the classic form with a cinematic sense of action, new layers of poetic language, and a keen sense of social justice. He is probably best known for his journalistic songs of drug smugglers, especially “La banda del carro rojo,” a huge hit for los Tigres del Norte, and “El corrido de Lamberto Quintero,” a hit for the movie star Antonio Aguilar. Both were adapted into popular movies, spawned numerous sequels, and along with “Contrabando y traición” (discussed in a previous post), started the wave of modern narcocorridos.

I was fascinated by Paulino’s sense of history. He had grown up in a mountain rancho between Durango and Mazatlan, and was deeply versed in the folklore of Mexico and the songs and legends of the revolution He had a photograph of Pancho Villa on his wall, and explained that Villa had bought some horses from his great-grandfather and the boy leaning against a tree in the background was his grandfather, who had gone along to mind them. (I have no idea how much of that is true; Paulino was creative in many ways.)

He linked the outlaws of the present with that history, and at times with broader issues of national and international politics, ranging from thrilling urban shoot-outs to songs like “Los super capos,” which took the narcocorrido theme to a higher level, accusing George Bush’s presidential administration of hypocritically profiting from the drug trade while claiming the right to decertify and punish Latin American countries for supplying US consumers’ insatiable demands. He wrote a powerful song about the unsolved killings of dozens of women in Ciudad Juarez, and in “La cronica de un cambio” questioned the new administration of Vicente Fox with witty and intricate wordplay. (I discuss “Los super capos” in my book and translate and discuss the latter songs on my Corrido Watch webpage.)

“La tumba del mojado” moves from the personal to the political, first giving the undocumented immigrant’s experience, then contrasting it with the way foreigners are treated on the Mexican side:

The tortilla curtain is an offense to the people.
Through Mexico travel French, Chinese, and Greeks,
And some Americans are bosses in the towns.

Along with admiring his writing, I loved spending time with Paulino. I visited him multiple times and was amazed at the range of his interests and the poetry and humor of his conversation. Rereading my chapter about him, I still chuckle over favorite comments: for example, when I asked if he was ever annoyed by other songwriters copying his style, he adopted the tone of a priest, saying: “Blessed be my imitators, for they shall inherit my faults.” He could go on like that for hours.

I worked up a guitar part for this song based on the accordion licks Jorge Hernández played on the Tigres’ recording, though I’ve only performed it in the context of a talk/concert that goes along with my blog on borders, migration, and nationalism. In some ways it feels strange to sing such a specifically Mexican story in my voice, but as the son of immigrants and refugees I feel a connection to its message… and what gorgeous songwriting.

Promised Land (Chuck Berry/Freedom Riders)

I’ve been playing Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” for years, and always loved it, but I recently learned that it had a deeper level of meaning, related to a historic moment in the Civil Rights movement. Berry isn’t usually thought of as a political or protest songwriter, but that’s one of the many ways he has been underestimated. In 1956 he got a national R&B hit with a witty paean to Black beauty, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” and this song about a cross-country journey is apparently a celebration of the dying of Jim Crow transportation with a nod to the Freedom Riders.

In the first verse, Berry is traveling by Greyhound bus, and sings that on the way through the Carolinas they “stopped in Charlotte, but bypassed Rock Hill.” I had never heard of Rock Hill, and since it made no sense to me I used to sing “stopped in Charlotte for a quick cup of coffee…” but a couple of years ago I read an article by W.T Lhamon that gave the historical background: in 1961, the bus carrying an interracial group of Freedom Riders made it safely through Virginia and North Carolina, but when it stopped in Rock Hill, South Carolina, John Lewis, one of most effective civil rights warriors of the century, was beaten to the floor of the bus station by a white mob.

Berry recorded this song in 1964, after serving a year and a half in prison on a Mann Act charge — the trial and sentence had stopped him at the height of his professional career, but he emerged to find the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and their British compatriots enthroning him as a founding genius of rock ‘n’ roll. That was a somewhat mixed blessing, since it placed him in a pantheon of past greatness, though he was at his artistic peak.

That’s not to dis his earlier work–I’ve already paid tribute to several of his many masterpieces from the 1950s, “No Money Down,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” and “Memphis.” Berry was one of the most brilliant wordsmiths of the 20th century, on a par with Cole Porter in his ability to conjure perfect rhymes where none had previously existed — and  in a class by himself when it came to making normal speech flow in perfect meter and rhyme, with every word falling in perfect rhythm and witty bits of assonance, alliteration, and internal rhymes giving every line a unique verve and snap. Great as his early songs were, he hit a new level with this one and “Nadine,” and for effortless manipulation of language, there’s nothing that touches them.

It’s the little stuff, and it’s everywhere:
The t’s in “Right away I bought me a through train ticket.”
The internal rhymes: “that hound broke down and left us all stranded…”
The assonance and alliteration: “Sure as you’re born they bought me a silk suit, set of luggage in my hand.”

Until I did some research for this post, I also credited this song with giving the phrase “cool your jets” to the English language… but just checked and found that Berry actually sings “cool your wings.” Ah, well… I’m sticking with jets, and still like to think he sang it that way, even if not on the record.

Finally, I have a thing about songs that use the old telephone exchanges: I did “LOnesome 7-7203” a few hundred songs back, and here we’ve got TIdewater 4-1009. If you don’t know what a telephone exchange was, or why the second letter is capitalized, ask any American of sufficient age, and they’ll bore you with stories of their long-departed youth. My childhood phone number was UNiversity 8-7748, appropriate for a kid growing up a few blocks from Harvard Square.

Addenda: After I posted this, Andy Schwartz pointed out some further parallels between the song lyrics and that Freedom Ride:

We had motor trouble, it turned into a struggle halfway across Alabam’ / And that ‘hound broke down and left us all stranded in downtown Birmingham…”

Upon arrival in Birmingham, the bus was attacked by a mob of KKK members aided and abetted by police under the orders of Commissioner Bull Connor. As the riders exited the bus, they were beaten by the mob with baseball bats, iron pipes and bicycle chains

Right away I bought me a through train ticket, ridin’ ‘cross Mississippi clean / And I was on that Midnight Flyer out of Birmingham, smokin’ into New Orleans…
Greyhound clerks in Montgomery AL said the bus drivers were refusing to drive any Freedom Riders anywhere. Recognizing that their efforts had already called attention to the cause and wanting to make the rally in New Orleans, the Riders decided to abandon the rest of the bus ride and fly directly to New Orleans from Birmingham.

Night Shift (Bill Morrissey)

“Night Shift” was probably the first song I ever heard Bill Morrissey sing, the first time I went to hear him at the Idler in Harvard Square. It was around 1981, and he typically used this semi-autobiographical picture of dead-end life in a fading northern mill town to open his first set. He would do it quietly, like he was picturing the situation, and when he finished there would generally be a hushed silence, then people would begin to applaud and he would grin and say, “I like to start off with something perky, to get everybody in a party mood.”

I’ve written about how I met Bill and the shock of seeing him perform for the first time in my post for “Small Town on the River,” which in those days was generally agreed to be his masterpiece — an opinion I haven’t changed, despite the decades of songwriting that followed. It was another Newmarket song, honed on what northern New England musicians called the Amy-Shanty circuit, because of the regularity with which barroom audiences would request “Amie,” by Pure Prairie League (the women’s choice), and Jonathan Edwards’s “Lay Around the Shanty” (the guys’) — I don’t know if Bill invented the term, but I heard other people use it as well, and it was accurate: I never got an “Amie” request, probably because I was insufficiently romantic-sounding, but every time I played a New Hampshire bar gig some guy requested “Shanty.”

I don’t know if Bill ever worked in a shoe mill, but he certainly drank with a lot of guys who did, and they turned up at his shows and drank harder when he sang songs like this. By the time I knew him, in the early 1980s, the Timberland factory was closed or closing, and apparently the buildings have since been turned into condos. It was a long time ago, and Bill was in his early thirties, ten years older than me. He looked a  lot younger — almost like a teenager — but his voice was craggy enough to convey the sense of life passing him by.

We met at the Idler, a terrific bar where he played regularly and I opened for Paul Geremia and John Koerner — we met when he came to one of those gigs, on Dave Van Ronk’s advice, and then I went to a bunch of his. The Idler closed in 1983 and Bill shifted from playing the Idler to playing Passim — from a bar full of folks who liked to drink and listen to blues, to the coffeehouse where Susan Vega and Nanci Griffith would soon be holding court. Those were significantly different scenes, and in Passim I’d sometimes hear hisses at the line in this song’s second verse about the wives who “run their families but make it look like they do what they are told.” Having grown up in a Cambridge feminist household, I had my own misgivings about that line, but one night I happened to be at one of Bill’s shows with a friend who’d grown up in a small town near the New Hampshire border and when he sang that line she whispered, “He really understands this stuff.” I assume Jack Kerouac would have agreed, and could have been one of the guys calling Bill names in French. It wasn’t a world I knew, but I think Bill felt more at home there than he ever would again.

(About the French part: people unfamiliar with northern New England may be surprised at how much of the older working class population is French, and it was not something I was consciously aware of as a kid, but when I think back, a lot of the North Cambridge kids I thought of as Irish — their families were Catholic and lived in the same neighborhoods — had names like Leger, Benoit, Martel, and Versoy.)

Anyway… now I’m more than twice as old as Bill was then, and he’s been gone for years, and I don’t know if many younger singers are even aware of his work — in particular the early work, when he was still very much a regional writer. I still do “Oil Money” pretty regularly and others from time to time. I’ve posted a bunch of them, with memories of those times: “Small Town on the River,” “Soldier’s Pay,” “Texas Blues,” and funny ones like “Candlepin Swing,” “King Jelly’s Good Morning Irene Song,” and “My Baby and Me.” I’ll get around to more of them eventually, including a couple that may no longer exist outside my memory. I miss him and still love a lot of his work, especially that early stuff from when he was a bar singer, writing for and about the folks who worked in those small New England towns.

Jamaica Farewell (Harry Belafonte, Perry Lederman)

Like pretty much everyone born in the 1950s, I can’t remember not knowing “Jamaica Farewell.” I never learned the words, but could sing all the verses — and still can, though I more often play it as an instrumental. By the time I got seriously interested in guitar, I was into folk and blues and thought of this as a kind of lightweight pop song. A lot of people in my generation were reacting against the pop-folk wave pioneered by people like the Weavers, which had reached its apex with Harry Belafonte’s “calypso” recordings, and tended to dismiss this song as “not real calypso,” and I probably would have continued to ignore it if I hadn’t started playing with Perry Lederman.

I’ve written about Perry in a previous post, so here I’ll just say that he was one of the most dedicated, tasteful, and virtuosic musicians I’ve ever heard, and a huge influence on my playing. I was fortunate to spend many hours playing with him over many years, and one of his quirks was that he tended to stick to a very small repertoire. He was deeply influenced by Indian classical music — he studied sarod for many years with Ali Akbar Khan — and his thing was digging deeply into a few familiar pieces, often playing a single tune for fifteen or twenty minutes. Most of his favorites were old-time, three-chord fingerpicking classics from artists like Mississippi John Hurt and Elizabeth Cotten, but they included a couple of pop-folk hits: he often played Donovan’s “Colours” and when I got into Congolese guitar, he responded to my interest in African rhythms by suggesting we play “Jamaica Farewell.” I’ve been playing it ever since and still play one of Perry’s licks in it, though mostly I just improvise variations loosely based on the style I learned from Jean-Bosco Mwenda and Edouard Masengo.

I later went back and listened to a lot of Belafonte’s work — or rather, watched a lot of it. For me, the records don’t capture his magic — though “Matilda” in particular is irresistibly catchy — but I always enjoy watching him, and when I was writing my history of popular music (“How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll“), I was struck by the ways he reshaped and exemplified a range of new attitudes and approaches to popular music, and his central role in the cultural shifts of the 1950s and 1960s. I don’t think he has received anything like the attention he deserves from folk music historians in particular, and more broadly from cultural historians, not only in the US but around the world.

I had already filmed this video and was planning to post it when I got the news of his death, and have since been rewatching his old performances, along with many of his interviews and speeches. I mostly just play “Jamaica Farewell” as a pretty tune with a nice rhythm, and associate it with Perry, and with Masengo, who also played it. But by sad coincidence, this week it also feels like a bit of a tribute to Belafonte, and a reminder of how deeply his music and presence permeated the world in which I grew up.



Victorina Mpenzi (Edouard Masengo)

This is another song I learned in Lubumbashi, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), when I was there in 1990 to study guitar with Jean-Bosco Mwenda. I’ve already posted a bunch of songs I learned from Bosco (“Masanga,” “Kijana Muke,” “Bibi Theresa,” and “Kuolewa“), and this is another — but I learned this one from his cousin, Edouard Masengo.

I wrote about Masengo in a previous post, with his song “Lwa Kiyeke.” He was a lovely singer and a sweet man, though down on his luck by the 1990s, and he should be better known. Bosco has become the only name most people know from the Congolese acoustic scene of the late 1950s and 1960s, even if they are pretty deep into African guitar, but he was one of three terrific and widely recorded artists, along with Masengo — who likewise had a second career in Kenya — and Losta Abelo, who died the year before I got there.

The guitar part for this song is similar to “Bibi Theresa,” so I added a lick from that arrangement. The lyric confused me for a while. It translates as:

Victorina, Victorina, my love,
My father told me, “You will marry Victorina.”

Albertina, Albertina, my love,
My father told me, “You won’t marry Albertina.”

Victorina, Victorina, I am lying in bed,
My soul and my thoughts are of Victorina.

Albertina, Albertina, my love,
My father told me, “You won’t marry Albertina.”

Having been raised in the Euro-American romantic tradition, I was baffled by this, because in all our standard romances, if a young man has to choose between two women and his father tells him he must marry one of them and not the other, the natural course of the story is for him to realize he truly loves the one his father has forbidden — so why was this guy lying in bed dreaming of the woman his father said he should marry?

I eventually called my friend Dominic Kakolobango, whom I’ve written about in previous posts (we shared his tiny room in Lubumbashi, and I recommend his videos and recordings, as well as this duet version we did of “Malaika“) and asked him to explain what was going on in this song. It took a while for him to figure out what was confusing me, but then he explained that in his culture it was normal to respect and trust one’s father’s advice, and to marry the woman he recommended.

My favorite performance of this was during my journey from Lubumbashi to Burundi — I don’t remember my route, but it started with catching a ride in a jeep taking the wife of a local Peace Corps manager for two days, then hitchhiking to someplace on Lake Tanganyika, where I caught a ferry for Bujumbura… but between the jeep and the hitchhiking, I stopped off to visit a Peace Corps volunteer who was living in a small village on the banks of the Congo River. That involved walking along some railroad tracks for about ten miles, then down a dirt road for a few miles, then continuing along a path through the forest for another few miles — I have no recollection of how I found my way — and the village had no electricity or plumbing, or much of anything. The food was basically bukari (like Kenyan fufu) made from cassava flour, flavored with cassava leaves, and sometimes some tiny fish the locals boiled into a sort of mush. Fortunately, they also distilled a pretty decent hard alcohol. Anyway, there wasn’t much in the way of entertainment, so everyone was very glad when I showed up with a guitar, and the whole population shortly gathered for a concert. As often happened, they were not much interested in my US repertoire, so I ran through all my Congolese songs, and this was the big hit, because the village leader’s wife was named Albertina.

So there it is. I’ve posted Masengo’s version, which he just called “Victorina,” on Soundcloud. I’ve also posted a nice interview with Masengo from a Kenyan cassette, and a couple of his songs, including his tribute to Losta Abelo. Bosco’s version of this song was called “Victoria Mpenzi” (he sang the name Victorina, so I’m guessing the record company got it wrong, or maybe the person who labeled my tape) and I’ve never heard a clean copy of the 78, so if anyone finds one, please let me know.

I Double Dare You (Jimmy Mazzy and Sandrine)

I grew up on old Tin Pan Alley pop tunes, thanks to a father who was born in 1906, knew all the hits of the 1920s, and was ready to perform them at the drop of a hat. I began working a few of them out on guitar in the 1970s, thanks to Dave Van Ronk, made a good part of my living in the 1980s playing them in restaurants and on cafe terraces in Antwerp, sometimes in the company of a fine fiddler, Nick Boons, and have already posted quite a few in this project… but honestly, I didn’t really immerse myself in this music until my wife, Sandrine, got serious about playing clarinet, hooked up with Billy Novick for lessons, and Billy sent her to the Concord Inn, to hear Jimmy Mazzy and his gang — which led to a year or so of her playing with them every week (and with me, in between).

I went every week and was consistently blown away by Jimmy’s musicianship and memory — I thought my father knew a lot of songs, but Jimmy is superhuman. Night after night, he would come up with things that were not only unfamiliar to me, but to the other musicians, some of whom had been playing trad jazz and swing for more than half a century. He also played wonderful, idiosyncratic banjo, and sang with a wry tunefulness that captured the humor and sentiment of lyrics that I might otherwise have considered throw-aways.

Sandrine and I often came home from those sessions saying, “We have to try that one,” but I learned a long time ago that there are songs I like and there are songs that like me, and it’s nice when those categories overlap, but all too often they don’t. Which is a fancy way of saying a lot of songs that sounded great when Jimmy sang them with the band didn’t fall comfortably into my repertoire.

This one was an exception — I had never heard it before Jimmy sang it one night, but tried it with Sandrine the next day, loved playing and singing it, and have been doing it ever since. I know nothing more about it, though a glance at the artists featured on various versions of the sheet music suggests it was played by damn near everybody in the late 1930s.

Anyway, it was great being able to hear Jimmy and the gang every week, and then the Concord Inn changed their booking policy, Jimmy no longer had a regular venue for his jam sessions, and Sandrine and I moved to Philadelphia… which we love, but I miss those nights.

Contrabando y traicion (Los Tigres del Norte)

I first heard Los Tigres del Norte while hitchhiking around Mexico in 1986. I was sitting in a park in Oaxaca one evening, playing guitar and waiting for something to happen, and some young guys came over and requested “Rock de la cárcel” (Jailhouse Rock), so I played that, and a medley of “La bamba” and “Twist and Shout,” and then one of the guys asked if I could play “La banda del carro rojo” (The Red Car Gang). When I said I didn’t know it, he borrowed my notebook and wrote out the whole lyric, then invited all of us over to his place. When we got there, he had a poster of Los Tigres on the wall — or maybe a movie poster for La banda del carro rojo, with a picture of Los Tigres; I don’t remember clearly, which may mean the beer was flowing, or just that it was almost forty years ago, or both.

Anyway, that was my introduction to Los Tigres, and before I left Mexico I bought an LP of their greatest hits and a Guitarra fácil booklet with lyrics and chords to a bunch of their songs, along with LPs and booklets of Los Bravos del Norte, Los Cadetes de Linares, and some other norteño  groups, and an LP of Los Teen Tops, who did “Rock de la cárcel.”

That was the beginning of a long journey…

…the short version being that I ended up writing a book called Narcocorrido, which traced my immersion in the modern corrido style and included interviews with Paulino Vargas, who wrote “La banda del carro rojo,” and a half-dozen other composers who worked with Los Tigres, and along the line the Tigres flew me to Mexico City for a massive concert on the Zócalo, then to Los Angeles for a meeting with Fonovisa records, and I’ve seen them many times since, and had a couple of meals with their leader, Jorge Hernández, a brilliant and fascinating man…

…and from time to time I’ve worked up versions of their songs. “La banda del carro rojo” was the first, but I never performed it and don’t remember all the words. I’ve enjoyed playing ranchera songs — an earlier post has my version of “Gritenme piedras del campo” — though I rarely performed them, because I rarely had audiences that understood the words.  But in the mid 2000s Narcocorrido was translated into Croatian and I arranged to do a book tour and figured I should play something at the readings.

After fooling around with a few options, I settled on “Contrabando y traición,” the song that started it all in the early 1970s. I tell the whole story in my book — or rather, let the song’s composer, Angel González, tell the story. He normally wrote socially conscious or romantic songs and had mixed feelings about the success of this one, which is about a female drug trafficker, Camelia la texana, who makes a successful run to Los Angeles with her car tires full of marijuana, learns that her lover and partner, Emilio Varela, is leaving her for another woman — so shoots him and disappears with the money.

The song was originally recorded by a mariachi singer named Joe Flores, but the Tigres’ version was definitive and made them into international stars, as well as spawning a string of low-budget action movies: first Contrabando y traición, then Mataron a Camelia, El hijo de Camelia, Emilio Varela vs. Camelia la texana… and who knows how many more. Los Tigres also made almost twenty movies, some of which are pretty interesting — for example La jaula de oro, about the tribulations of an undocumented Mexican immigrant raising a family in California.

There is plenty more to be said about all of this, which is why I wrote a book and I’ll probably write more, because Los Tigres and the corrido world continue to fascinate me. Meanwhile, this is how I began.

West Texas Waltz (Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, accordion)

This is kind of a ringer, since I haven’t filmed a live video to go with it, but “West Texas Waltz” was the only song I ever performed on diatonic accordion, which kind of required a band, and for a moment I had the band… so I’m posting that version. I recorded it for my Street Corner Cowboy cassette, with my regular partners Washtub Robbie Phillips on one-string wombat bass, Peter Keane on guitar and “yee-hah,” and — for this project only, because he was recording and co-producing, Orrin Starr on mandolin. The photo in the video is from my only live show with that line-up, the cassette release party at Club Passim, which also included Mark Earley and Cormac McCarthy. A good bunch, and I get nostalgic listening to this.

I’ve written in previous posts about the band I had with Robbie, Peter, and Mark, also called the Street Corner Cowboys, and about Joe Ely, who was a huge influence on my musical taste and remains one of my favorite performers, and about Butch Hancock, who wrote this along with a bunch of other great songs.

As for the accordion… I was captivated by the records Flaco Jimenez put out on the Arhoolie label, got a taste for Cajun and zydeco when I hitched through Louisiana in 1986, and got heavily into norteño when that trip continued into Mexico. I learned a few songs from Flaco’s albums for that trip, playing them on guitar, and didn’t really think about picking up an accordion until I was living in Antwerp a few years later. At that point I was making a good living on the cafe terraces, and Hohner accordions were significantly cheaper in Europe than in the US, and I met a local musician who agreed to give me lessons, so I picked up a Corona II — the three-row diatonic instrument Flaco played–and drove my neighbors crazy for the next few months.

My teacher was Geert van den Elsacker, a terrific musician and composer with a deep knowledge of traditional Flemish accordion styles — his main instrument, pictured on this lesson book, was the two-row diatonic — and French musette, which he played on a chromatic button instrument that looked fiendishly complicated, and when I was studying with him he was in the process of learning to play bandoneon and the Argentine tango repertoire. It was an education just being around him, and he was very patient with me — and I wish I could steer you towards his own performances, but he was tragically killed a year or so later in a stupid accident, hit by a car while bicycling through town.

I enjoyed playing the accordion, but was only comfortable with waltzes, so my repertoire was basically limited to  “Goodnight Irene,” Utah Phillips’s “Goodnight Loving Trail,” and this song,” As I wrote in the post about Utah’s song, I was frequently babysitting Vera Singelyn’s son Liam, then about six months old, and had discovered that waltzes worked perfectly as lullabies, and Liam was also the only person who enjoyed my accordion playing — though he kept trying to push the buttons with his toes — so that worked out fine.

None of which has much to do with the song… but honestly, all I have to say about the song itself is that I’ve tried to break myself of the habit of singing southern songs with a southern accent, because that’s not how I normally talk, but I still have to sing this with at least a partial Texas twang, because the rhymes demand it — for example, “horse” and “waltz” — which is kind of a stretch even for Texans, but they come a lot closer than Cantabridgians, and it’s the capper of my favorite verse.

Philadelphia Lawyer (Woody Guthrie)

“Philadelphia Lawyer” is another song I’ve known forever, but never fully appreciated until I heard someone else sing it. The someone else in this case was Peter Keane, who sang a really nice version when we used to do gigs together in the 1990s, and he gave me a new appreciation of it, but I still wasn’t tempted to sing it myself…

…and then I moved to Philadelphia, fell in love with the city, and this naturally became part of my repertoire.

The phrase “smart as a Philadelphia Lawyer” (or “clever as…,” “keen as…”) was proverbial by the early 19th century, generally traced to a case from 1733 in which a Scottish-born, Philadelphia-based lawyer named Andrew Hamilton defended a German immigrant printer named John Peter Zenger who was accused of printing several “low ballads” in his New York Weekly Journal, which, it was charged, contained “many things tending to sedition and faction, and to bring his Majesty’s government into contempt, and to disturb the peace thereof.” The judge did not accept the argument that the ballads were justifiable if they could not be proved false, and ordered the jury to convict, but Hamilton’s eloquence persuaded them otherwise and Zenger was acquitted — thus establishing a right to freedom of the press which was later codified in the US Constitution.

Despite its noble beginnings, the phrase was most often framed in uncomplimentary terms, to suggest a smooth-talking rascal. That’s how Woody Guthrie understood it, and his ballad was a canny confection combining two popular stereotypes: the eastern scalawag and Reno’s reputation as “the divorce capital of the world.”

I have a personal connection to that story as well, because in 1958 my father went to Reno for the divorce that allowed him to marry my mother. He had to stay six weeks to establish residency, and spent the time learning to ride western style — dude ranches were a Reno specialty, catering to divorce exiles — and developing an enduring affection for horses and blue jeans.  When he got back east, he wore jeans for the wedding, which was performed by the postmaster of Durham, New Hampshire.

I benefited from those six weeks in multiple ways: first off, it’s how I got here; second, my father’s affection for western horse culture led to a couple of family trips to ranches, where we all learned to ride, and to a horse trip through the Canyon de Chelly, and a few other opportunities to play cowboy; finally, I have a feeling my father’s affection for the west played a part in his accepting my choice to become a rambling folksinger.

I think of this song as a companion piece to The Zebra Dun, another cowboy song with a prominent dude and a surprise ending. Woody Guthrie has been remembered more for his political songs than for his commercial songwriting savvy, but he was part of the Western music boom, a radio personality who got hits for his cousin, Cowboy Jack Guthrie, with “Oklahoma Hills,” and for the Maddox Brothers and Rose with this one. He was a competent hoedown fiddler and mandolin player, and I’ve always loved this picture of him as a cowboy-suited member of what appears to be a pretty slick Western show  band:

One Dime Blues (Lemon Jefferson)

I love Lemon Jefferson’s singing and playing, and for a while immersed myself in his guitar style, but he was such a distinctive and quirky player  that most of my efforts just sounded like half-assed imitations of what he happened to play on a given day. I’ve kept playing his “Black Horse Blues,” since it is a fully composed arrangement, and used his “Bad Luck Blues” arrangement for my version of “Keep It Clean” — but otherwise I’ve let well enough alone…

…except for this one, which is a special case, because I originally learned it as a Woody Guthrie song. He called it “New York Town,” and I had it on a Cisco Houston LP — as noted in earlier posts, Cisco was my first musical hero, and I played dozens of songs from his records. At some point I got the idea that Woody got this song from Lead Belly, which seems very possible, and then, probably quite a few years later, realized that all of them got it from Jefferson.

The point of that digression is that when I started messing around with Jefferson’s music, this one had that extra connection, and when I figured out I couldn’t do it like he did, I could fall back on what I’d picked up from Cisco and Woody. So that’s kind of what I’ve done. I think the lyric I sing is mostly Jefferson’s, and the guitar part is based on his, with some licks borrowed from Sam McGee’s “Railroad Blues,” and a bit of Mississippi John Hurt. And, honestly, aside from the final verse, I’m not aware of anything specific that came from my earlier heroes…

…except that having first learned it from Cisco, as a Woody Guthrie song, I  was used to singing it as a cowboy/western song rather than as a blues, or maybe it makes more sense to say I sang it as a cowboy/western blues, since there were plenty of Black cowboys and Lead Belly sang Western ballads as well as blues, and Jefferson often marked time between verses with a kind of boom-chang strum that comes from the same place as Woody’s style, and Woody played lots of blues. Not to mention the verse about robbing trains like Jesse James, an outlaw hero they all sang about.

That’s a good example of how mixed up and multifarious the US folk tradition is, and the funny thing is that I learned this long before I was playing any blues, never thought of it as blues, and dropped it from my repertoire when I got into blues… and then I had that Jefferson period, which was fun and challenging but mostly left no trace on my repertoire… except to send me back to Cisco and Woody. Which is fine, and I snuck in a couple of Jefferson’s guitar licks, and the result feels like a nice summation of that journey.

Revisiting the songs that have made a home in my head