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.

Hang Me, Oh Hang Me

It’s about time I got around to “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” another song I’ve known forever. I would guess I first heard it sung by Sam Hinton, who recorded it in 1961 on the Folkways album that was my source for a bunch of songs, including “The Miller’s Will” and “I Just Don’t Want to Be Rich.” He wrote in the notes that he got it from Sam Eskin, a self-educated folklorist and singer who was born in 1898 and began traveling around in the 1940s, recording singers all over the US and Mexico.  I can’t say for sure where Eskin got this, but a likely source was David McIntosh,  an Illinois folklorist who began working in the Ozarks in the 1930s and sang a virtually identical version at the National Folk Festival in 1937, which he apparently had collected from a Mr. Jones who lived south of Carbondale. (I have put this first recording online, thanks to the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress.)

I don’t recall paying much attention to Hinton’s performance, and  — like virtually everyone else — I probably learned the song from Dave Van Ronk’s recording. It was on his 1963 Folksinger LP, and at one time or another I probably learned every song on that record.

That said, never really understood it until I heard Bill Morrissey sing it. Bill mostly sang his own songs, but back in the early 190s he also had some older songs he performed pretty regularly, and I was blown away by the way he dug into this lyric and made it come alive — I can still picture him onstage at the Nameless Coffeehouse in Cambridge, and see exactly the expression on his face as he sang, “I got so goddamn hungry, I could hide behind a straw.” He was acting as much as singing: a raw, skinny outlaw staking his final, wry testament.

This is a laconic variant of a ballad that seems to have been known throughout the South. One of the first printed versions was collected in 1917 from Minnie Doyal of Arlington, Missouri, who called it “The Gambler.” Her version used the “Hang me, oh, hang me” verse as a chorus and had the same final verse, but was otherwise quite different, and didn’t have the “I’ve been all around the world” tagline. Another version was collected that year by Vance Randolph from a man named Billy Laws in Argenta, Arkansas, who explained that it was originally a much longer ballad about a murderer who was hanged at Fort Smith, Arkansas, in the 1870s.

I didn’t know any of that until I began working on this post; I just liked the song and played it more or less like Dave and Bill did, but I rarely performed it became my versions always seemed to drag. Then it was featured in Inside Llewyn Davis, and a whole bunch of new people did it, and my version felt even more superfluous, so I decided to leave it out of the Songobiography… until a few months ago it occurred to me that I could play it more like someone like Buell Kazee would have done it, with the guitar keeping a quick banjo rhythm and the vocal line expanding and contracting to fit the mood of the lyric.

Now, going back over the song’s history, I find that several early recordings of the longer ballad were played that way. Alan Lomax recorded one from Justis Begley, the Sheriff of Hazard, Kentucky, in 1937, which can be heard on the Lomax archive website as “I’ve Been All Around This World,” and a similar variant was recorded under that same title in the mid-1940s by Grandpa Jones. They sang quite different lyrics from the McIntosh/Eskin/Hinton/Van Ronk song, with only a couple of overlapping verses, and their versions have a very different feel, but that’s the oral tradition.

So that’s pretty much the story, except for a mystery  that continues to puzzle me and a credit I need to add. The mystery is where Dave got the song — I have not found a published or issued version of the McIntosh/Eskin lyric that would have been available in the late 1950s, when he was learning this kind of material. A parallel mystery might be how it got to Bing Crosby, who recorded it in 1960 on a Life magazine set of Western songs featuring him and Rosemary Clooney, but Sam Hinton was also on that set, so could easily have been Crosby’s source. Dave was a big fan of Crosby’s jazz singing and I’d love to think Dave got the song from his recording, but Crosby left out the “Got so goddamn hungry” verse, so there must have been another intermediary. (Which said, I still kind of love the fact that Crosby seems to have made the first issued recording of this variant.)

As for the credit: the McIntosh/Hinton version has “Got so awful hungry, I couldn’t work my under-jaw,” rather than the bitter humor of “I could hide behind a straw.” That line seems to be Van Ronk’s addition, borrowed from another old Ozark folksong, “The State of Arkansas.” As I’ve written in previous posts, Dave routinely adapted, combined, and rewrote songs when he thought they could be improved — and, without exception, his changes were always improvements. Along with being a fine guitarist and singer, a matchless friend and mentor, and a brilliant talker, he was the best song editor ever.

 

Somebody Stole My Gal/All of Me

I’ve written before about my father, who was an indefatigable singer of pop songs from his youth in the 1920s, and also about Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band, who were my source for “Somebody Stole My Gal” and over a dozen other songs. I learned this by ear off a Kweskin album, years before my ears were up to the task, and only realized how far off I was when I had the opportunity to open a concert for Guy Van Duser and Billy Novick and Billy very kindly offered to play clarinet on one of my songs. I suggested this one, we tried to run through it, and he informed me that I had the chords completely wrong. I think he may even have tried to learn my version, because he’s a really nice guy, but it was a complete mess, so we did something else.

I eventually got the right chords out of a fake book — a genuine fake book from the old days, illegally printed for cocktail lounge pianists , with 1,000 popular songs, three to a page, and no royalties paid to the songwriters or publishers. By that time, though, I wasn’t playing a lot of old pop tunes, so the song kind of languished in the hinterlands of my memory until I had the good fortune to marry Sandrine Sheon and she decided to pick up the clarinet she had played back in high school, and suddenly I needed a repertoire of early jazz and swing.

It’s also thanks to Sandrine that I discovered the key of Bb. Guitarists don’t naturally gravitate to what jazz players call the “horn keys,” but clarinet is a Bb instrument and when she first got back into playing she was most comfortable in the flat keys, so I had perforce to explore them — and discovered that Bb is a great guitar key because that nice, comfortable F shape is right in the middle of the neck, so you can make it your home base and go up or down as the mood strikes you.

As for “All of Me,” I have no idea where or when I first heard it, or from whom. I know I had learned it by the mid-1970s and enjoyed playing it in appropriate circumstances, but I tended not to perform it onstage because it was also one of the tunes everyone else had learned and enjoyed playing, and there were plenty of less familiar standards to choose from. However… one day Sandrine and I were fooling around with “Somebody Stole My Gal,” and after a few choruses I felt like shifting to another song, and it occurred to me that the narrative could lead into “All of Me,” putting a new twist on the lyric. So here it is, or they are.

Malaika (Fadhili William)

In 1990, I hitchhiked from Capetown to Nairobi, stopping for several months in Lubumbashi, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), to study with two giants of African acoustic guitar, Jean-Bosco Mwenda and Edouard Masengo. In Nairobi, I met Herbert Misango, a story I’ve told in another video, who introduced me to John Nzenze, “John Guitar,” one of the pioneers of Kenyan electric guitar. John took me around to hear a couple of other bands and gave me Fadhili William’s phone number in the United States, explaining that William had moved there some years earlier, pursuing royalties for his world-famous song, “Malaika,” and was currently working in a gas station in New Jersey.

By the times I got back to the US and called the number, William was no longer there and they could not tell me how to reach him, but in 1997 he was booked in a short-lived club in Roxbury with the band Virunga, and I leapt at the chance to interview him.

Like most people outside Kenya, I did not know anything about him except this song, which was popularized throughout Africa and the US by Miriam Makeba. I’d heard his original version on an album issued by John Storm Roberts, and also played it with my friend Dominic Kakolobango — the guitar part I play is an expansion of the accompaniment I played for Dominic’s version, which we worked out while I was living with him in Lubumbashi and have expanded in various directions over the last thirty years.

When I finally had the chance to talk with him, William told me how he came to write this song:

I had schooling in Nairobi, I used to go back to my place of birth, which was Mombassa. And when I went there I used to go around and see people playing music… I used to look at what they are playing, and when I came back from the vacation I asked my mother to buy me a guitar, and she bought me a box guitar and I started learning by myself, without a teacher, just by going to a place where they are playing and sitting quietly and look how he is running his fingers…

I went into a studio and they said “OK, play us what you know.” I played a few songs from my country, because I’m a Taita by tribe. Back there, people love music. So I started recording those traditional songs and ones I composed by myself. After they were released, they were hits, but I didn’t know exactly what I was doing, I was just doing it for people to know who is Fadhili. I didn’t know whether there was money involved in this thing….

When I left school in 1959, that’s the time I composed “Malaika.” When I was in school I had a girlfriend, to me she looked like an angel. Her name was Fanny, but I nicknamed her Malaika. I wanted to get married to her, but you had to pay dowry to get married and I didn’t have that kind of money. So she was married by somebody else who had the dowry, the parents. Now, the only thing I could make her remember me is by playing that song. Even though there was her husband at home, listening to the radio, she could hear that song, because she knows her nickname, and the husband won’t know who is this Malaika, to portray that message to her that I still love her.

That song says, “Malaika, I love you my angel, but the only thing I’m lacking is money, because if I had money I could have got married to you. I keep on thinking about you every now and then, but nothing I can do since now you are married.” So I said “The only thing which is bothering my heart is money, otherwise you could have been mine….”

Now, during our independence, that was ’63, Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte were invited to come and celebrate. When they came, they asked their public relations, and they sang that song Malaika, I gave them the lyrics and we shared the stage. People thought it was funny for the foreigners to sing Swahili….

Numerous other artists have recorded this song over the years, and, despite William’s lovely story, at least two other Kenyan songwriters have been credited with composing it. I’m not here to adjudicate those claims; whoever composed it, it’s a beautiful song and one of my favorite pieces for improvising extended variants of the African guitar styles that inspired that journey.

Windy and Warm (Doc Watson/ John D. Loudermilk)

When I was busking around Europe in the late 1970s, “Windy and Warm” was pretty much obligatory–particularly in France, which I assume means Marcel Dadi recorded it. I didn’t know it when I left the States, and for the first year or so I satisfied requests for it by playing Bert Jansch’s version of “Angie,” which was a somewhat similar instrumental in A minor and tended to fit the bill. Then I spent a couple of weeks in Antwerp in the summer of 1979, staying with a guy named Marc who played terrific guitar using just his thumb and middle finger — I have no idea why he didn’t use his index finger, but he didn’t — and he had Doc Watson’s recording and I learned a half-assed version of it.

“Windy and Warm” was composed by John D. Loudermilk, and I read somewhere that he composed it because Chet Atkins wanted something that sounded kind of old-fashioned, in a Merle Travis bag. Be that as it may, everyone I knew learned it from that same Doc Watson album, and to this day I’ve never heard either Loudermilk’s or Atkins’s versions — though I recently saw a nice video of Tommy Emmanuel playing it, which presumably is close to the Atkins version.

Doc played it with only his thumb and index finger, but I played it with thumb and two fingers, because I couldn’t figure out how to get the rolls otherwise — and frankly never worked it up into anything worth playing. Then I went to Africa and got into playing with just thumb and index, and a dozen years later Ernie Hawkins showed me how Rev. Gary Davis got those rolls… and I worked out how to play this, mostly as a finger exercise. I wasn’t happy with how it came out, because I never had a touch like Doc Watson, much less like Travis, Atkins, or Emmanuel… but after trying to play it like them for a few years, I finally decided to just play it like me, and enjoyed it, and here it is.

I still think of this as a Doc Watson piece, in part because I have no sense of John D. Loudermilk as a guitarist. He has always been a name I saw in song credits, probably first for the Lou Rawls version of “Tobacco Road,” and I don’t think I’ve ever heard him play or sing. There’s also another problem–

The only other Loudermilk composition I ever learned is a teen novelty song “Norman,” which was a hit for Sue Thompson in 1961 (which I see is also when Atkins recorded W&W). I probably learned “Norman” as a joke when I was in my teens, and almost fifty years later I’m still stuck with it:

Billy asked me to a show, but I said no, cannot go,
There’s a dress that I’ve got to sew,
And wear for Norman…
Jim invited me on a date, he wanted to take me out to skate,
But I told Jimmy he would have to make
Arrangements with Norman…

I may have those names and a few words wrong, and briefly considered listening to Thompson’s recording to check them, but there might be some verses I’ve managed to forget, and, if so, I don’t want them back in my head.

Fortunately, “Windy and Warm” has no lyrics.

Monday Morning Blues (Mississippi John Hurt)

“Monday Morning Blues” was a late arrival in my John Hurt repertoire. I always loved and played his music, but only began to study it carefully after I got back from Africa in the 1990s. In previous posts I’ve told how I became fascinated with the odd chord positions in “Richlands Woman” and the rhythmic trickeration of “Satisfied and Tickled Too,” and finally learned the thick E7 chord he uses in “Candy Man.”

That last development only happened when I began to get teaching gigs at guitar camps and decided I wanted to do a John Hurt class. That meant not only figuring out what he was doing, but putting together a group of his pieces in a way that would be helpful to students who only had a week to assimilate what I was showing them, and I learned “Monday Morning Blues” and  “Trouble, I’ve Had It All My Days” to show how Hurt used the same fifth position partial D chord in both, with somewhat different effects. As it happens, I then started using the riff from this song in the breaks of Hurt’s “Coffee Blues,” and later realized that Dave Van Ronk and Gary Davis used it in “‘Bout a Spoonful,” which is a version of that song…

…all of which may be of some fleeting interest to people who want to play Hurt’s style…

…but I’m going over this story because that process transformed the way I thought about learning other people’s guitar arrangements. I started playing Hurt’s songs in my teens, and like a lot of people, I thought of his style as relatively simple and straightforward. I learned to play nice, regular versions of his stuff, and they sounded enough like his versions that it was at least twenty years before I realized that he played those songs quite differently and his way was more interesting.

That was when I began thinking of vernacular guitarists as having their own individual languages, and trying to learn their styles the way I would study a language. People like Hurt, Davis, Lemon Jefferson and Joseph Spence worked out their arrangements by playing songs over and over, using techniques that felt comfortable and natural to them. I had approached those arrangements as unique compositions, trying to figure them out note by note and often twisting my hands into difficult positions to get the sounds I thought I was hearing — but if you actually work out how any of those musicians played a piece, you find that all the moves fell naturally under their hands.

That doesn’t always mean all the moves are easy — Davis and Spence in particular were virtuosos, and knowing how their hands moved doesn’t mean you can make your hands move the same way. But, as with learning a language, you can play their arrangements much more comfortably if  your hands get a general fluency in their ways of moving than if you try to learn their pieces as separate compositions.

At least that’s my take, and I made John Hurt my first test case, learning a couple of dozen of his pieces and assuming that when something felt uncomfortable I was doing it wrong. In the process, I learned a lot of songs I had passed over in the past, including this one. I learned this as an exercise, and the more I played it, the more I loved it. I like the way the lyric limns a story in short phrases, I like the quirky additional measure in the E section — and, most of all, I love the way it feels.  Once I got my hands to do what his hands did, it felt like walking down a well-worn path — not working to sound like him, just ambling along in his footsteps

Coffee Blues (Mississippi John Hurt)

Mississippi John Hurt always explained that this song was about coffee; specifically Maxwell House, because it was “good to the last drop, just like it says on the can.” He’d say just one spoonful of Maxwell House coffee was as good as two or three cups of any other brand. Then he’d tell how he used to know a woman who made him that good Maxwell House coffee every morning, but one day she went away — some said to Memphis, some said to Leland — and he wrote this song about her. That’s what he was thinking about when he sang that he wanted her “loving spoonful.”

Later on, a rock band named themselves after this song, presumably because they were coffee fanciers.

In an earlier post I sang and wrote about another song called “’Bout a Spoonful,” which was probably related to this one. I learned that song from Dave Van Ronk, Gary Davis, and Mance Lipscomb, and in my post I kind of hinted that it was about something other than coffee. I apologize for that; John Hurt would not have lied to us.

When I started to play fingerpicking guitar, John Hurt pretty much defined that style — after Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train,” we all learned his version of “Creole Belle“; the first song I learned from tablature was probably his version of “Stagolee“; the first song Dave Van Ronk taught to new students was his “Spike Driver Blues…”

I don’t remember when or how I learned “Coffee Blues,” and for at least forty years I played it pretty much the way Hurt did. Then, a few months ago, it occurred to me that I could play breaks using his fifth-position riffs from “Monday Morning Blues.” Seemed obvious once I thought of it, and fell neatly under my fingers.

I’ve previously posted at least another half dozen songs I learned from Hurt’s records, and that well is far from dry. His guitar arrangements are disarmingly simple and endlessly complex, and his songs have a quiet charm and humor that give me endless pleasure, whether I’m listening or playing. Someone recently asked which of his songs was my favorite, and the only possible answer was that I’m glad I don’t have to choose.

Joseph Spence Medley

Anyone who has followed this project knows how much I love Joseph Spence’s guitar style. I’ve already posted my versions of his  “Coming In on a Wing and a Prayer,” “Happy Meeting in Glory,” “Brownskin Girl,” “Sloop John B.,” and “Glory of Love,” and written about how I fell in love with his music, first on record, then seeing him in person, and finally immersing myself in his style and filming an instructional video to help other players get a sense of what he was doing.

I recently was re-inspired by a wonderful new set of Spence recordings made by Peter Siegel in the 1960s and released this year on Smithsonian Folkways, so I put together a medley of some of his classic arrangements of Bahamian hymns.

I have written before that I think of Spence’s style as a language — he almost always played in the same key and tuning (drop D) and used the same partial chord shapes — and I think of this medley as a kind of primer in that language. Rather than taking one arrangement and exploring how he would improvise brilliant variations on it, which was what I tried to do in my previous posts, this is a journey through five of his basic arrangements, with each song using some licks that show up differently in the next.

The first three are two-part pieces, with a  verse and a chorus: “Victory is Coming,” “Face to Face That I Should Know Him,” and “Happy All the Time.” Spence sang with his relatives, the Pindar family, and one of the key aspects of his playing is that he harmonized like a vocal quartet, with two lead lines in parallel sixths punctuated by a bass part. In these songs, the bass mostly goes along with the lead on the verses, then becomes a separate voice in the choruses, providing a call to which the treble voices respond. The fourth song, “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, When I Lay My Burden Down,” has only one section and I play his basic version and a typical variation.

Finally, “The Lord Is My Shepherd” is what I think of as one of Spence’s classical guitar arrangements. These are in the same language as his other pieces, using the same variety of positions and techniques, but rather than creating a basic arrangement and improvising variations, he intricately arranged them, with bass and treble lines sometimes moving  in opposite directions, and varied them very little from chorus to chorus.

I have to again give credit to Guy Droussart, who was kind enough to explain many of Spence’s favorite moves to me. One of the fascinating things about learning the style of any vernacular guitarist — meaning players who work out arrangements by playing pieces over and over — is that their arrangements flow logically out of the way they use their hands, and are comfortable to play if you can figure out how they are using their hands. Guy gave me the clues I needed to get this close to what Spence was doing — not all the intricacies, subtleties, and virtuosity of his playing, but the basic style.

As I wrote up top, I think of this medley as a kind of primer, which means I would encourage any guitarist who loves Spence’s style to give it a shot. None of us will ever speak his language accentlessly, but the basic vocabulary is not complicated and just teaching my hands to play his kind of punctuating and moving basslines rather than keeping a regularly alternating  bass changed my own playing forever.

All the tunes are in drop D tuning and use the same left-hand shapes. The distinctive thing about Spence’s left hand is that he never has more than three fingers on the fretboard, and often just two — for example, for a basic D chord he holds either the first and third strings on the second fret or the second and fourth strings on the third and fourth frets, where most players would hold all of those at once to make a full chord. As for his bass, when it is not moving, the standard bass for those D shapes would be an open D string with the first, and the fifth string, second fret for the second — which is kind of odd, because it adds a 6th in the bass, but is one of the harmonies that distinguishes his sound.

Bloody Mary Morning (Willie Nelson)

I’ve always liked Willie Nelson’s singing and guitar playing, and wish his records had more guitar solos. Until I saw him live I had no idea how quirky and inventive his playing could be. I’ve only had that pleasure once, at a great old club called Lupo’s in Providence, Rhode Island. It was a relatively small venue to see someone like Nelson, and he had Billy Joe Shaver opening, and it was a terrific show.

I was particularly struck by how much Willie was enjoying himself — he had that great band, with his sister on piano and Mickey Raphael on harmonica, and he just kept playing and playing, then finally ended, came back for an encore, and played at least another half hour. The band looked exhausted, but he clearly didn’t want to leave, and neither did I.

I didn’t listen to his records all that often, but over the years I learned a bunch of his songs, more or less by osmosis. I rarely played them onstage, because my favorites tended to be too familiar — nobody needs to hear me sing “Crazy” after they’ve heard Patsy Cline, or “Night Life,” after all the great versions of that one, or “Funny How Time Slips Away,” or… well, a bunch of them. But somehow relatively few people have done “Bloody Mary Morning,” and it’s a fun one to pick and sing, and I love the weird formality of the language: “with forgetting her the nature of my flight,” and “with temptation and deceit the order of the day.” Chuck Berry sometimes used those kinds of locutions, and this song has always rested in my memory next to Berry’s “Promised Land” — it’s hard to come up with a third writer in the country or rock pantheon who was as skillful about mixing standard vernacular and high literary phrases in the same song.

I heard this on an LP called  Honky Tonkin’, which I picked up in a cut-out bin for a buck or so — a good deal, since it also had Willie’s gorgeous version of “Crazy Arms,” and Gary Stewart doing “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles),” and Guy Clark doing “Rita Ballou,” and Waylon, and Bobby Bare — but honestly, until I just checked, all I remembered was that it had this one, bizarrely listed on the jacket as “Bloody Merry Morning.”

Revisiting the songs that have made a home in my head