The musical education I got from Dave Van Ronk was by no means limited to guitar lessons, or to his own work. By the third or fourth week, he shifted my lesson to the end of the day, and when it finished he would cook dinner, then we’d break out the whiskey, and along with discoursing knowledgeably and at length on an astonishing range of subjects, he would play records – and not only that, he would loan me records to take back to my room, and listen to over and over, and tape. They may have included some blues or folk records, but I don’t recall any. The ones I remember were by Groucho Marx, Jerry Colona, and Hoagy Carmichael. Colona was a passing fancy. Marx was wonderful, and I still know all the words to “Show Me a Rose” and “Omaha, Nebraska,” but there’s no point to anyone but Groucho performing that material.
Carmichael, though, was a revelation and has remained one of my favorite singers and a model I keep going back to after forty years of listening. He didn’t have a great voice in formal terms, but he made that a strength: he always sounded like he was talking directly to you, telling a story, while phrasing with a jazz musician’s rhythmic command and reshaping his melodic lines in surprising ways that never interfered with the lyric and always sounded completely relaxed.
For me, he epitomizes that much over-used term “singer-songwriter,” and his version of “Georgia on My Mind” is typical of what made me fall in love with his work. The lyric is ambiguous, perhaps about the state, perhaps about a girl (Carmichael’s sister was named Georgia), and it expresses longing for a special someone as easily as a special place, her memory echoing “as sweet and clear as moonlight through the pines.” (On one recording, he addresses that particular line to “Georgia, my honey.”) On the record I borrowed from Dave, Carmichael sang this accompanied only by a piano trio, in his understated Indiana murmur, dry and wistful, lonesome and resigned, like he was reminiscing with a friend over a final glass of whiskey before calling it a night — maybe with Lauren Bacall, in that bar where she worked as his chanteuse in To Have and Have Not. (Other versions have full band backing, and they’re fine, but not what I hear in my head.)
I was lucky that was the way I got to know this song – I’d heard Billie Holiday’s version before, but as far as I can recall, no others. Sometime later that year I was sitting with Dave in Folk City and the Ray Charles version came on the sound system, and I asked him, “Who’s that singing?” He looked at me like I was a Martian – exactly the reaction I would have now if someone asked that question – and told me. And of course I’ve now heard Ray Charles’s version innumerable times. But if I’d heard him first, I wonder if I would ever have felt like I could sing this, because how can anybody attempt it with that version in their head? I’ve rarely performed it, for exactly that reason – I figure as soon as I sing the first notes people think of Ray, and compare me to him, and I know where that leaves me. But in my own head I hear Hoagy, and if I’ll never sound as relaxed as he did, it’s at least a reasonable aspiration.