Blueser

When I emerged from the egg and arrived in Greenwich Village as a newly minted folksinger, the streets were filled with juvenile Joan Baez wannabees and their male kindred. It was Childe ballad here and soulful lament there on the part of the young women. The earnest young men thought they could get along with old Limelighters, Kingston Trio, and the like. Each train in from Long Island and each subway car from Uptown held a new draft. 

You didn’t need Delphic wisdom to know that most of the trains heading back were equally filled. The new drafts soon realized their peers were doing the same material. All the women with ironed straight long hair like Baez and the earnest young men in chambray shirts soon returned to the burbs and the Bronx, casualties of the mass production of vinyl long-play albums by artists who’d commercialized a specific brand of folk music years before.

I survived out of luck. At that moment, there were not tons of “bluesers” in the Village, and my style was raw enough that I eeked out an existence in the second and third-tier coffeehouses. I was thrilled to do so and didn’t care that I was on the lowest wrung in the Village. Once you were a regular habitue, the real world of life in the Village opened for you. It was a round-robin of singing and playing sessions that went on all night and poetry readings in friends’ apartments. There were potluck suppers, impromptu music lessons, long conversations on Zen and the art of guitar, and plots to flee the East Coast for the raptures of LA or San Francisco.

So why leave all this? Well, the Village was always a big pot of Stone Soup. New additions are continually being made. And then, some of us would leave for other venues, experiences, and lifestyles. We graduated.

I have not returned for over a generation, but I’m sure the pot is still churning somewhere. Radically different because the additions have changed, but still a sort of Bootcamp for creativity.

It was a great place to be from.

Well spent

Funny, isn’t it how you remember where you were at certain times. You recollect right down to the greasy calf D-ringed engineer boots on your feet, going clump, clump, clump on the stage. You can recall in great detail the set list taped to the top of the guitar and how you wished they’d killed all but the single spot you’d requested. But the one thing you wish you could recall was who she was, waiting off stage with that big grin on her face and her pose and movements hinting at all the pleasure to follow.

Now, this was no joke. I’m sitting here finishing tuning my old guitar, the one I played that night, and my hands start slipping into fingering the ” Black and Tans” :

There’s one thing about my woman. I can’t understand. Hey, hey, Lord, I can’t understand.

Every night we go to bed…she wants to do that old black and tan.

She stands out with a bare hint of a shimmy starting up, and the effect is electric.

I pop back into the present tense like I touched a live wire. These flashbacks are fun, but they can be brutal too. My heart is pounding, but there is an internal ache too. What we’d had was good; it’d burn out within a week of that performance.

I try to approximate the instrumental break, but my fingers seem too fat these days. So I start the last verse knowing in advance how it all ended:

” There’s one thing I sure do hate.

Hey, Hey, Lord, I sure do hate.

Ever since my woman learned the Black and Tan, I can not keep her straight.

I put Charlie, my guitar, back on the stand. Sometimes on hot summer evenings, I can almost touch the sweet fruit of my well-spent youth.

I touch the neck of my guitar, ring an e string, croon it out, and phrase it like the final line of a 12-bar blues – “I can almost touch the sweet fruit of my well-spent youth.”

Jug

I was preparing to take out the recycle bin when this “dead soldier” caught my eye. The bottle is an empty jug of spiced rum that powered my don’t drink and then drive fruitcake. Momentarily I was transported to my early days. I took the cap off and began blowing an accompaniment to Washington at Valley Forge, a perennial favorite of 1960’s jug bands.

So if I could see you now, I’d see questioning faces, incomprehension, and a bit of”what the hell is he going on about now? Jug bands?” for those of you without doctorates in American folk music, the jug band was a phenomenon of the American south in the ’20s and ’30s. The primarily African-American groups played jazz, blues, and ragtime music. Among the music’s key elements were the unique instuments used. It couldn’t be a jug band if there weren’t a player on the jug; the bigger and more profound the sound as it got blown, the better. Other instruments could include: 

  • the spoons, 
  • washboard, 
  • stovepipe, 
  • kazoo
  • the washtub bass. You made the bass from a galvanized washtub, pole, thin rope,
  •  Finally, it could include whatever else musicians could improvise to play music with.

As both a type of music and an orchestral form (snicker), the jug band came back in the ’60s. Many folk musicians toyed with membership in a jug band, but only one or two groups succeeded in making it work. It was a sort of unicorn – unique and seldom seen as a form. But it has a kind of landmark status among us survivors of the folk music revival of the 1960s.

And yes, I did belong for about a month to one of those unfortunate groups seeking to explore the outer limits of folk music. But I didn’t play the jug. The jug player had to get the proper plosive eruptions from the instrument. Since the jug player needed a lot of wind and the cheeks to shape the blow into the jug, it was a strangely maximal instrument to play. So instead, I played guitar and kazoo. The great Louie Lefkowitz played harmonica, and the rest of the group was picked up for whatever gig we had to play.

This band was not exactly a huge success. At the base level, most jug bands followed closely in the footsteps laid down by the best-known group – the Kweskin Jug Band. So with similar material, we were not the most inflammable act trying to blaze a path to fame in Greenwich Village. I can’t even remember the name of our group.

But there I was at six in the AM blowing on the jug, stomping my foot, wearing my fuzzy LL Bean winter PJ’s. If the neighbors saw me, it only confirmed what they already knew – whacko, pure 1960’s whacko.

Songs Your Mother Never Sang to You

I had moved to Portland to get away from Boston. In those days, the late 1960’s, Portland was a hike from Boston and was in an entirely different cultural world. Growing up in New York City and being traveled, I felt that my “urban sophistication” and guitar playing ways would shine there. That was when I met Mrs.P.
Portland came well equipped with a small church-run coffeehouse that I could habituate when not working. The Gate Coffeehouse became the center of my social life. After work in the afternoon, I’d go there for coffee. Again in the evenings, I’d be there.
I filled out a small group of folk singers from the area that also centered parts of their life on the Gate. Round Robin song sessions were the norm, and it felt as good as it gets.
One afternoon my friend Jim started singing a slightly salacious bit of doggerel. I began to respond with selections from my not insignificant repertoire of the semi-obscene. Up to this point, I had behaved in consideration of it being a church-sponsored coffeehouse; but once started my history as a ribald Folkie was exposed. About ten minutes into my singing about cheating, violent drunk men, improbable erotic acts, and loose women, Mrs. P walks over.
I figured I had done it now. I’d get expelled from paradise. Instead, she sat down and asked me, ” have you heard this one?” What followed was five minutes of what she informed me was bawdy British Music Hall tunes from her “Salad Days.” I was humbled and mumbled something along the lines of ” I never expected that from a church lady.” She winked at me and said, ” if you like mollynogging ( running around with fast women), you should remember what’s good for the gander is also good for the goose.” with that, she got up and swept away.
After that, when we were alone in the coffeehouse, I’d start with, ” have you heard this one?” and she’d respond in kind.

Bright, Hot Lights

The guitarist spent time warming up while I prepared my video and audio recording equipment. Finally, a chord rang out. ” Your high E is just a bit sharp,” I said, not thinking for a moment that I had not performed for about fifty years. She grinned and checked that string; ‘just a bit sharp,” she agreed.
We were recording in the old Meeting House. They designed the buildings as centers for religion and to be the center of Town government – in those days, in much of New England, religion and Town government were the same. Being that a significant part of the Town population might squeeze in, they designed for good acoustics: no microphones, no amplifiers, and no speakers in those days. These days it’s used mostly for weddings and performances.
Acoustics aside, air currents, hot lights, and temperature differences create problems. The lower end of your guitar lives in one temperature zone, and the tuning heads at the top of the neck live in another. The lower tension, more heavily wound bass E, A, and D strings seem less affected. The treble strings are under more strain and are thinner – they seem to be the source of most issues.
For a while, I am back in the music room of Rienzi’s Coffehouse in the Village. The wound G string rather than breaking on my classical guitar always let’s go gradually as its outer wrapping unwinds. I am hurriedly placing a new string and stretching it out as carefully as I can – new strings have lots of excess stretch, and will go out of tune at the worst possible moment; in the middle of a song. The B and high E both need replacement, but that will have to wait until I buy new strings. Being that I am pretty busy at the coffeehouses this spring, that means almost every week.
When I get to my gig at the Dragon’s Den, I can almost feel the treble strings go out of tune as I step into the hot lights that shine down on the performer’s little stage. Our “green room” for preparation is a barely heated cubby with a draft. You know that any tuning you do here is a waste of time in February.
I am back in 2020, the guitarist and I discuss how capo’s change tuning and how you have to retune after placing it and after taking it off. Capo’s are little adjustable bars that fit over your guitar’s neck. They help change the key while staying in a fingering style you prefer. but there is a cost to everything. Your tuning ican be affected. Even more so if the neck of the guitar is not absolutely straight.
It is pleasant to just for a moment, step back, and realize that some things have not yielded to either technology or years.

Baltimore

When I go down to Baltimore
Ain’t no carpet on the floor
Come along and follow me
We’ll go down to Galilee
.

<p class="has-drop-cap" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">Well, I used to go down to Baltimore, lots.<br>My friends Bob and Chris had a place on Saint Paul Street, back in the day. It was nothing but guitar playing, singing, and arguments about folk music all night, every night. The music would get started as soon as dinner got cleared off. Sometimes you could hear the sound of the music out in the street. We all sat in a circle and went round-robin until everybody needed a break, and at that point, it would be storytime. I remember telling the story about Bill and I going on pilgrimage to a Trappist monastery, and the dismay that had caused among the monks. Bob and Chris told about how their son Robby had flummoxed the Kindergarten teachers by singing the alphabet song as a twelve-bar blues. Then Robby would come in because we had woken him up, and we all quieted down until he went back to sleep.<br>Some of us would roll on until about two in the morning. Then those of us who had jobs would go to bed. Diehards would be strumming and arguing till later.Well, I used to go down to Baltimore, lots.
My friends Bob and Chris had a place on Saint Paul Street, back in the day. It was nothing but guitar playing, singing, and arguments about folk music all night, every night. The music would get started as soon as dinner got cleared off. Sometimes you could hear the sound of the music out in the street. We all sat in a circle and went round-robin until everybody needed a break, and at that point, it would be storytime. I remember telling the story about Bill and I going on pilgrimage to a Trappist monastery, and the dismay that had caused among the monks. Bob and Chris told about how their son Robby had flummoxed the Kindergarten teachers by singing the alphabet song as a twelve-bar blues. Then Robby would come in because we had woken him up, and we all quieted down until he went back to sleep.
Some of us would roll on until about two in the morning. Then those of us who had jobs would go to bed. Diehards would be strumming and arguing till later.

After a few days, Bob and Chris would sweep us out of the house if we hadn’t already crisped our welcome by arguing too loud at four in the morning.
And, we’d leave singing to Chris:

Hooka tooka, my soda cracker
Does your mama chaw tobacker
If your mama chaws tobacker
Hooka tooka, my soda cracker.
When I go by Baltimore
Chris needs no carpet on her floor
You come along and go with me
We’ll go down to Galilee.

Wishes

I ‘ve wished for lots of things and never gotten them. Hard work, study, more hard work, and an occasional bit of serendipity; yeah, that did it. Wishing for the impossible was deceit I couldn’t afford.

e all take a tumble sooner or later. Something you can’t resist comes along – you drop a hundred on lottery tickets and win. Right away, you blow it on more tickets half expecting to lose, but maybe you’re on a streak? No such luck. Snake eyes

For me it was Jean. In the town she grew up in, outside of DC, the driveways were a quarter-mile long. There were no driveways in the Heights where I grew up. She’d held my guitar while I finished a bar fight I hadn’t started, and somehow we became inseparable.
I have a reputation for never starting a fight, but always finishing them. It was the way my father taught me. Either I won, or he beat me. It was a hard school, and it means that I only have two settings on my switch: on or off. I can’t do subtle. Jean never understood that, but it was why I avoided fights if at all possible. She just thought I was luring jerks in.

A few weeks before Thanksgiving, she began agitating for me to come to join her family during the holiday. I was having trouble just making the rent on my room. She got enterprising and found some extra jobs so I could get bus fare together. She didn’t want her parents to see me let off from my last ride in their driveway.
The long Greyhound bus trip from Maine to suburban DC was non-repeatable. She flew.

We all see what we want to see in our partners, and what I saw in her was a bit more like a quiet steadying force. A sea anchor to help me resist the storm. She saw a rebellious rule-breaker, always in trouble. I guess it was glamorous and fun. She wanted a bad boy, and I was not bad, I just looked that way, and had an unruly life.
Thanksgiving was, of course, “interesting.” Her father and I became acquainted. Friday evening, he openly discussed with me the string of disastrous bad boys who had preceded me. He expressed the hope that I represented a maturing on her part. By Saturday, she was ignoring me, and by Sunday, I was out of their house by 7 in the morning. I conspicuously stuck my thumb out where anyone in the house could watch. I no longer thought Jean was so sweet. By Tuesday afternoon, I was back at my regular table at the Gate coffeehouse picking out a tune with my friend Jim.
I didn’t see her again till the weekend. She walked into the Gate and ignored me while flirting with someone she picked up on the spot, casually whispering, and then looking my way. I suppose this was supposed to incite a riot, fight and result in someone getting knocked about. I won’t lie; I was mad, but habit made me wary. Eventually, the pretty boy got up and sauntered over a grin on his face. “Jean tells me you’re a coward.” I smiled; ignoring him I got up with my guitar in my hand, and walked to the stage, thinking this is pretty much how my last fight started. I mounted the stage, sat down and announced my first song: Drop Down Mama.

Drop down, mama, let your daddy see
You got something really worrying me
No my mama she don’t allow me fool around all night
Fool around all night, all night long
I may look like I’m crazy but least I know right from wrong

Some of these women sure do make me tired.
Gotta a hair full of “gimme,” mouth full of “much obliged.”
No my mama she don’t allow me fool around all night long.
Fool around all night, all night long

Listen, candy is sweet too, but you can’t make a steady diet of it.

Setlist

Well, here it is. It took about an hour of digging around to locate. It’s a list.
A setlist. It contains a listing of the songs that I regularly performed when I composed the list. It’s very late, probably around 1977. But, the first 28 songs all date from sets I did from the 1960s in the Village. Some I still know, and could play blind drunk on the floor of an apartment on Christopher Street. That happened, not to me, but a very famous performer who passed out in 1964 in said apartment. I think it might have been Van Ronk or Havens who said: “put his ax in his hands, and I bet he’ll start playing.” He did. In those days, almost everyone knew lots of performance material cold. Coffeehouse playing wasn’t necessarily lucrative, but it was a living. We all had setlists, and mine was neither distinguished nor as expansive as some.
So whether he was giving us all a rise or not, we all howled at the result. And we respected how professional the performance was under challenging circumstances.

This one was more of a reference list of stuff I could put together in different ways depending on mood or need. Narrower ones might get taped to the top of my guitar. Depending on what I was playing, it might be my nylon string old friend “Charlie,” or the speed necked Gibson “I.O.U.”
The spill on the list looks like beer.

Van Ronk once put together a song of all the Towns on the Garden State Freeway – Garden State Stomp. Most of us could have composed similar material of all the coffeehouses, bars, cheap clubs, street corners, and parties that we frequented while keeping it all together. We knew this stuff better than we knew our girlfriends’ names, and that may explain why we had so many bad relationships.

The Alley Coffeehouse

My friends described the backside of Beacon Hill in the ’60s as a working-class slum. Not at all an accurate description. Worn at the heels, seen better times, shabbily genteel; those were better descriptors. The populace were refugees from Boston’s urban renewal in the West End, healthcare workers from the Mass General and Eye and Ear, and Folkies. The neighborhood had many charms for its residents. It was cheap, convenient to transportation, had a 24-hour drugstore, and you could roll down the Hill into the Emergency Room at the MGH. Being that most of us did not have things like medical coverage or primary care physicians. The ER was were we routinely got treated for everything from drug overdose to pediculosis. Power users of these services rarely paid. Many had no fixed abode, and the bills would go into mailboxes and from the mailboxes into the trash.


Legal, illegal, and dubious commerce flowed freely along the main thorofare of Charles Street. Coffeehouses, restaurants, antique dealers, clothiers, and head shops flourished. Habitues of both sides of the Hill had to do their business there.
On any given Friday or Saturday night, there was an influx from the suburbs of teens. Most were wanna be Folkies, proto-hippies, and the hungry eyed drugsters from the burbs that knew that they might find their need satiated here.
Some haberdashers catered to the need for just a better cut of a chambray shirt, embroidered jeans, or hat. Then there were also people satisfying other needs. Afterward, quite a few of those wound up in the ER at MGH.


The inhabitants of the third floor Grove street flat occupied by the Teahouse of the August Moon, myself, and my friend Billie had a more genteel racket. We sent Bill, a natural carnie if there ever was one, out befriend the starry-eyed and bring them back to an actual wall to wall Folkie paradise. There we would ply them with Narragansett beer, folk music, and entrust them with confidences about how life really was on Wild Side. In the process, they provided reimbursement for their tuition. They received a more humane fleecing than our friend Dutchie was providing down the street. Many returned in subsequent weeks for graduate work.
Weekday evenings we could be found at the foot of Grove street in our booths in the back of the Harvard Gardens. The table in front of us littered with twenty-five cents 8-ounce glasses of beer that the Evie, our waitress, brought to us by the dozen. One night I was a nasty drunk. I had been told by a coffeehouse owner that I had auditioned for that I wasn’t “sexy” enough. My friend Bill, always the one for wild solutions to problems, looked at me and said, “shit, we’ll open our own coffeehouse in the alley behind his. That began the Alley Coffeehouse in it’s one and only incarnation. The Teahouse of the August Moon gathered some folding chairs. Bill invested in paper cups and a bottle of cheap Chianti. I brought my guitar. Like a rapid guerrilla operation, we set up in the alley just behind the Charles street coffeehouse location. As soon as we had everything set, I began to play. Free Chianti and music began to attract customers. Bill, with waiters, folded napkin over his arm, greeted each and every new arrival and showed them to a seat. The sound of musical notes penetrated into the building in front of us. We were joined soon by one of the performers at the coffeehouse and some of the clients. Soon a screaming proprietor emerged with threats to call the police. Having achieved our goal, we began a procession down the alley towards home singing a bawdy rendition of the Kweskin Jug Bands “Washington At Valley Forge.”
Later back at the Gardens, we celebrated a successful raid upon the Establishment.

Folkie

I sat down to watch the movie ” a Mighty Wind” with some trepidation. Within moments I was groaning at the portrayals of people who were almost that of Folkies I had known. The movie cut, in a humorous way, just a little too close to the bone. The preoccupations of the performers opened to public view. The jealousies, and innuendos, it was all there. We took it so seriously, and the movie exposed how mundane we were.

It was tough to watch because I know friends who either never picked up a guitar again after their last gig or those who practiced endlessly for a gig that will never come. Think of it; thousands of folkies, male and female, practicing in their basements waiting for the Folkie Apocalypse to come. Do you think I’m joking? We may be getting old, but, Folk Music is a powerful drug.

I have not been able to watch the movie ” Inside Llewyn Davis.” Just watching the trailer gave me bad flashbacks. Don’t get me wrong. I loved Greenwich Village, and I loved my life there. But, to get shoved back inside it again. No. Much too much crazy stupidity. But oh for the beautiful afternoons, evenings, nights, and entire weeks of playing that music.

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