I ran into David Omar White pretty frequently when we were both knocking around Cambridge, and every time I’d make him sing me these three songs. He made them up in the 1940s, during his youth in North Dakota and points west, and sang them unaccompanied — he was a visual artist, best known for a John Fahey album cover, the murals in the Club Casablanca, and the White Rabbit comic strip, and never fancied himself a singer or musician. He’d just knocked these off for fun, didn’t think much of them, and as far as I can tell most of his friends never heard them.
I happened to get lucky the first time I met Omar. It was at the Idler, a long-lamented club in Harvard Square, where I was playing thanks to Dave Van Ronk — he’d told the owner, Len Rothenberg, that I was an up-and-comer, and Len booked me for a couple of opening acts, one with Spider John Koerner and the other with Paul Geremia. (I played a third time, alas, among the many performers at the Idler’s farewell concert in 1982.)
The Idler had a front room for drinking and talking, and a back room for drinking and listening to music, which meant you could go to hear your friends or favorites play, and if you got bored or just wanted to chat, you could go out to the front room and have a conversation without interrupting the music — and to make it even better, the music was piped into the front room, so if it got interesting, you could head back and pay attention. As a result, a lot of local musicians hung out there even when we weren’t working.
Bill Morrissey was a regular performer there, and the Koerner gig was notable because Bill came up and introduced himself after my set, beginning an enduring friendship and sometime partnership described in other posts. And at the Geremia gig I met Omar.
My recollection is that Omar was there to hear Paul, but he may have just dropped in for a drink. In any case, he sat down at our table and at some point was inspired to sing his three songs: “The Cowboy Song,” “Great Northern Line,” and “The Gondola Song.” I was entranced, partly because it’s the first and last time anyone has sung me three personal compositions I instantly wanted to learn, and partly because he was “the real thing,” an old guy from the West with some authentic Western folklore. I was used to hearing easterners like myself pretending to sing like cowboys, and hearing Omar sing these in his dry, understated way, I felt like John Lomax… so, in that spirit, I decided to record him for posterity, and eventually did, though only on a cheap cassette recorder.
The songs are, in their way, typical cowboy/hobo fare, but Omar had a light and philosophical touch that carried over into every aspect of his art. He also kept that western feel through all his years in Cambridge: his White Rabbit comic strip was conceived in the spirit and tradition of Will Rogers, and I wish he was around now to comment on the political craziness — though, wry and pessimistic as he could be at times, I don’t think he would have enjoyed it much.
Along with his three songs, Omar would recite a pair of poems that he’d written in 1948 or ’49. The first went:
Last night in Washington DC
A young man from Kansas blew up the Capitol building,
And when they asked him why he did it,
He said he was just tired of the same old news day after day.
Now, I don’t know what they’re gonna do to him,
But I think they oughta give him
A good cigar, a kick in the ass, and three days in the pokey,
Because if there’s one thing this world needs
It’s for someone to smarten everybody up,
And although he may have gone too far
He sure had the right idea.
Now, way down in Arizona or New Mexico
There’s an Indian tribe that lives
Way down in the Colorado River Canyon
Where it ain’t even been charted yet,
And whenever any poor, stupid son of a bitch
Comes walking in with shoes on his feet,
They all stand around and shoot arrows at him.
I don’t know what it is,
But that sounds funny as hell to me.
The second was shorter:
I bought myself a bushel of beagle pups
Down at the five and dime,
And I put ’em behind the stove to incubate for a while.
And when they grew up
They had long ears and soft eyes,
One of the great pleasures of living in Cambridge was hearing those again, during an accidental meeting on the sidewalk or over a cup of coffee. And looking at the murals in the Casablanca and knowing the guy who painted them. I didn’t know him well, but I liked him a lot, and he was always pleased to sing his songs one more time and recite his poems, and seemed pleased that I appreciated them and wanted to preserve them. So here they are.
For more about Omar, check out the online remembrance by David Wilson, publisher of the legendary Broadside of Boston.