Blues on My Ceiling (for Hazel)

By a quirk of memory, this urban, late night, heartsick song always makes me think of a sunny afternoon on a grassy hillside in Tuscany.

Like “Miss Brown to You,” this Fred Neil composition was one of the three songs Judy Roderick sang on a Newport Folk Festival collection, backed by John Hammond on harmonica. I loved her version, included it on my homemade cassette of contemporary folk songs, and had just figured out how to play it during the few days I spent in Annecy.

From Annecy, I hitchhiked east and slept by the side of the road near Chamonix. I woke up wet and cold, stood for a couple of hours with my thumb out in a grey, steady drizzle, then got a ride through the Mont Blanc tunnel and emerged on the other side of the Alps, in warm, sunny Italy.

I hitched down to Rome for a week or so, then up the coast togabellino Grosseto and inland to Gabellino, the smallest town I’ve ever seen on a map. It was only on the map because it had been a way-station for travelers between the coast and Siena since the middle ages, and it was still just one building, an inn with a few bedrooms and a restaurant.

I was there to visit my ex-half-sister-in-law — she had been married to my half-brother Dave, or actually was still married to him, but hadn’t seen him in over a dozen years — who was living on a mountaintop a few kilometers from Gabellino in a small stone house with no electricity, raising sheep and chickens. Her postal address was:

Someone pointed me in the right direction and I walked up to her house and she was out back feeding the chickens. A while later we were sitting on a grassy hillside with a bottle of local wine and I was playing songs for her. This was one of them and she particularly liked it, and since I never played it much after that, it always reminds me of that afternoon.

Which, I grant, is not much of a story… but a few years later Hazel came back to the United States and when I booked my first cross-country tour she came along for the ride, and we had so much fun that she rode along on each tour I did after that, twice a year for the next three years. I drove, and she smoked endless cigarettes, cooked incredible meals, and kept annotated set-lists of every show with stars next to the songs she liked and instructions on what to do differently on the ones she didn’t. By the end she was living in California and I’d drive out there on my own, pick her up, and we’d head up to Vancouver, east through Montana, eventually end up in Boston, and she’d catch a train back to the West Coast. She was one of my favorite people ever, and it’s strange to think that when I met her on that mountaintop she was just 35 years old, and now it’s damn near forty years later and she died in Lucca, about a hundred miles from Gabellino, a few years ago.

So, this one’s for Hazel.