This was the one Van Ronk original on Dave’s first album, and another song I’d brought to Europe on cassette. I don’t remember where I took the time to figure out the guitar part, but in my memory it is forever linked to my first performance at a rock festival. (Which was also my last, but why mention that?)
I was hitchhiking out of Salzburg, Austria, and it was getting late when a van pulled over and a bunch of long-haired guys said they weren’t going far, but if I needed a place to sleep I could come with them. They were members of a rock band, headed for a house in the country where they all lived together. Of course I said yes, and we spent the evening playing music, and it turned out they were having a rock festival on their land in a couple of weeks and offered me a spot on it. So I traveled around a bit, came back to their place, and did the gig.
There was nothing particularly memorable about the festival itself — aside from the moment when I went into the house to use the bathroom and interrupted the guitarist’s lovely lady friend shooting up — but the headliner was a Scottish singer and guitarist named Les Brown, who was living in Austria at the time. He was a fair blues fingerpicker and knew Van Ronk’s repertoire, so we hit it off and he took it upon himself to give me some tips on playing around northern Europe.
His two main tips were that there was lots of work in Germany and I shouldn’t take a gig for under 200 Deutschmarks (about a hundred dollars). That sounded like a lot to me, but I headed west and spent a month or so wandering from Tübingen up to Münster, and booked a half-dozen gigs for a couple of months in the future — my first tour of anyplace, ever. At that point American folk-blues guitarists were an easy sell in Germany: I’d just walk into a club with my guitar case, say I wanted to book a gig, and they’d book me. Not a single manager asked to hear me before giving me the job.
It was also very easy to find places to sleep — if I was playing on the street I’d put a sign on my guitar case saying I needed a bed for the night, or if I didn’t feel like playing I could go into a pub that catered to young people and ask the bartender for advice. I remember one giving me the address of a student commune, and I went over and rang the bell, and a young woman opened the door, stark naked. I explained what I wanted, and she took me to a big room with several mattresses on the floor and pointed out which one I could have for the night. It was like that in the 1970s. (And no, I didn’t sleep with her. She was on another mattress, and we both were there to sleep.)
There are plenty of other memories of that month or so — a run-in with the cops while sleeping in a park in Dusseldorf, for example — but to finish up for the moment, I had the good fortune to wangle a guest set followed by a gig at the legendary Folkclub Witten, the oldest folk club in that part of Germany (maybe in all of Germany), run by a force of nature named Hildegard Doebner. I don’t remember much about the gigs, but she was wonderful, and when I later met and worked for Lena Spencer at the Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, I was instantly reminded of Hildegard.
One other thing: Les performed a song at the Austrian rock fest that has stuck with me ever since, and I just hunted it up on the internet and present it for your delectation. He wrote out the words and recommended learning it for the US soldier bars, and I didn’t want to do that circuit, so never learned it completely, but I got the chorus just by hearing Les sing it through. It turns out to have been recorded in 1961 by a Germany-based country singer named Eddie Wilson, and the chorus went:
Dankeschön, Bitteschön, Wiedersehn,
Noch ein Bier, kommen sie Hier.
Grosser und kleiner und nicht verstehn,
I wish I could sprechen sie Deutsch.
None of which has anything to do with “If You Leave Me, Pretty Mama,” a lovely example of Dave Van Ronk’s early style, except that I played it that afternoon for Les and remembering it triggered the chain of memories.