It was perhaps ten PM. Sitting in the back of the cafe Rienzi, my girlfriend practiced her version of “A High flying Bird” for about the fifth time. The song had been written by Billy Ed Wheeler a few years previous, but Judy Henske had recorded the version that became popularized. So half of Greenwich village was singing the song and basing their takes on Judy’s performance filtered through dozens of derivations.
There is an appropriate quote for this: “If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.” This spin on things could get a bit iffy with some trying to make it like a Joan Baez or Peter Paul and Mary thing, which didn’t fit with the pure power of Judy Henske’s voice. But everyone wanted to make some “unique” change or shift in characterization that marked it as theirs.
But it still had to resonate with the stew bums, tourists, druggers, uptown slummers, and straight non-hip pedestrians who were our regular clientele. So it was tough on the street.
A white shirt and tie type was hustling Susan. He insisted that he could get her better gigs in places like Pocatello if she allowed him to come on to her. Susan was stringing him on to annoy me. I was busy trying to stretch out a new G string before my next set at the Dragon’s Den. The waiter passed by and gave me a shrug in apology for letting this straight midtown type through the door into the music room.
By the way, in those days, the word straight meant someone who wasn’t hip. Susan and I were hip. Most of the outside world was straight, or L 7, as some of the older hipsters stated. And, no, a hipster was not some rich dude with a beanie, playing with being different while dreaming of starting a craft brewery in Brooklyn.
At about eleven, I headed over to Dragon’s Den, leaving Susan to dispose of Mr. Pocatello head. In the morning, she’ll call me and regale me with what happened after I’d left.
I started my set with my take on what other Folkies in the Village were doing with Van Ronk’s song borrowed from old Bessie Smith recordings – You’ve Been A Good Old Wagon.
It was hard to be original on a Monday night.