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 its 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 out 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.

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.

Revisiting the songs that have made a home in my head