Freak Folk Origins
Michael Hurley & Jeffrey Lewis illustrations
by Peter Stampfel, Part III
This is where my article stood in April of 2009. Now it's early November. Jason Gross asked to reprint it in Perfect Sound Forever, and I wanted to bring it up to date, since helpful coincidences have cascaded, enhancing much of what's described above.
For instance, whistling. Two people I play with told me about Emily Eagan, who has won the title of World Whistling Champion twice at the above mentioned Whistling Convention in North Carolina (Google it!). I heard her whistling at one of the ukulele parties and was instantly charmed, delighted, and enthralled. Rather than having a particularly loud or piercing tone, Emily's whistle has a compelling sweetness and clarity that draws you in, and a wide range, high to low. After hearing her, I asked if she always had that vast a range, and if her technique could be taught. She told me she gave lessons. I asked how many lessons it would take to teach all she could show me. She said about six. I also asked if she gave group lessons, and again, she did. Getting our schedules together has been hard, but so far there's been a one-on-one lesson, and a group lesson.
She told me when deciding to develop her whistling, she thought she wanted to avoid cliché techniques, like a heavy vibrato. She quickly found that all the cliché techniques were used because they all worked, really well. She embraced them instead of avoiding them, and her whistling took off. Happily, she is also interested in the many possibilities of group whistling, and loves working with whistlers who are also musicians. Two people I've met recently told me that there indeed is a whistling trio tradition in the south of France, with people alternating singing and whistling in harmony. A number of people in our group are interested in whistling together, and I've discovered that two friends, one old and one new, are first rate whistlers. I've been whistling every day and am about twice as good as I was a year ago, although my vibrato/trill needs a lot of work. When I practice various instruments, I practice whistling along, melody and harmony. Banjo and whistling is a particularly cheerful sound.
I would love more people getting into whistling, and large groups of people whistling together. The only time I've heard that happen, besides the Swift's Premium Franks commercial, is that powerful scene in the movie Bridge Over the River Kwai, when the British prisoners of the Japanese march into the prison camp jauntily whistling the "Colonel Bogie March," aka "Horseshit, It Makes the Grass Grow Green." As a signifier of unbroken spirit and grace under pressure, it is hard to beat.
I've been hearing more whistling on recordings, as well as live performances. Lots more is coming. Pucker up.
Spawn of music and cartoons
Another interesting coincidence involved music and cartoons. MoCCA, New York City's museum of Cartoon and Comic Art, has a yearly comic convention, in which alternative cartoonists bring their work to sell. Two of the museum people, Bill Kartalopoulos and Mark Newgarden, thought it would be interesting to, as a part of the convention, put on a program of cartoon music, and asked me if I would like to become involved. Talk about an ideal project! The idea was to do songs written about the comic strips, a genre that was wildly popular in the early part of the 20th century. At this point, the only one most people remember from back than is "Barney Google (With His Goo Goo Googly Eyes)." However, well over a hundred songs were written about comic strip characters before World War Two. Far fewer were written after that. The last comic strip hit was "Alley Oop."
One of the reference books for the show was Walt Kelly's Songs of the Pogo, a collection that came out in the '50's. Many of the songs were recorded on an LP. I didn't know that Kelly had written music as well as words to some of the songs. Songs like "The Hazy Yon" firmly establish him as the originator of owff. It has the feel of Euphoria and the Tea Song, but it got there first. In fact, the 1968 reissue of Songs of the Pogo had a new cover design, with Pogo riding a guitar-shaped boat called the Hippy Hooligan, a reference to the early 20th century strip Happy Hooligan. The bonds grow ever tighter.
It was a great show. The performers shared the stage with a screen, upon which was shown the various cartoon characters being sung about. The grand finale was a strip called "Them Days Are Gone Forever." It was a four-panel strip, and each panel had a staff of music on top, with the same tune every day. The words and stories, of course, would change, except the for last panel, which was always them days are gone forever. Many strips had two characters, so we had different people sing the different characters, as the four-panel strip scrolled across the screen. The show was filmed and recorded, and a video will soon be released.
There's more at the door
Even with eight people in the band, I keep meeting more and more people I want to play with. And there's a density of coincidence going on the level of a really bad novel. For example, Sam Shepard got back into town, and wanted to try out some new songs in front of an audience. He asked someone in Matt Uminov's guitar store where to do this, and was told to go to Roots and Ruckus night at Jalopy, in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. He asked me if I wanted to go with him. I had been meaning to anyway because Eli Smith (who I've been playing with for a couple years) ran the open mike on Roots and Ruckus Night. The afternoon of the day we were going to play, Pat Conte came to Jalopy to set up his an art show there, and heard we were playing that night. He then went to visit Richie Shulberg, aka Citizen Kafka, and told him. So Kafka called me to ask if he and Pat could come and play with us.
I said sure. I had played with Sam and Pat, and I had played with Kafka, but the four of us had never played together. We weren't able to rehearse anything; we just got on stage and did a bunch of songs. As it turned out, as we were playing, there was an eclipse outside. Sometimes it's neat to live inside a bad novel.
It was a great night, but my favorite part was when Kafka started playing another song in the middle of what we were playing. That was OK, whatever we had been playing was getting real close to enough. So Kafka launched into "Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag" and "Smile, Smile, Smile," and everybody joined in. By the third go-round, I sang what I remembered of the lyrics, filling in what I couldn't remember off the top of my head:
Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag, and smile, smile, smile
Kiss all it's bleeding piles good-by, sorrow ain't worthwhile
What's the use worrying, you'll never be in style. So,
pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile
After I sang the verse, we all understood that we would play one more instrumental verse then stop. After we finished, Sam commented, "I was wondering how we were going to get out of that one." The line about "kissing bleeding piles good-by" was from an ad in the back pages of a '30's pulp magazine. "Kiss those bleeding piles good-by," was the lead line advertising an alleged remedy for piles, which is what they used to call hemorrhoids. I never saw the ad, my old long-gone friend Larry Janifer told me about having seen it. That line's had my jaw dropped for over 40 years, and I even stuck it in one of my songs long ago. Surely, one of the finest sentences in the English language.
I have since found what the song really said in the second line was, "While there's a Lucifer to light your fag sorrow ain't worthwhile."
I called Kafka the next day, and we talked about what a good time we had. We both agreed that 'the old kit bag' was our favorite part. Kafka was delighted that I knew some words, he always loved tossing new tunes into the middle of old ones. The folks he played with tended to know the tunes, but not the words, or if they did, they wouldn't sing them. I always loved knowing the words to songs.
The four of us played together a few more times, but Kafka suddenly died. He was just in his 60's, but had been debilitated by years of working with toxic art materials in poorly ventilated places. I really wanted the four of us to record together, it was a fine and singular sound. Too late now. That's one reason I want to play with more people- so many of them are dying. There's a number of dead friends I could have played with but didn't, to my eternal regret, foremost among them Dave Van Ronk.
If you don't know anything about Kafka, go to mandolincafe.com/forum/showthread.php?t=49444. You'll find far more on the facebook site: facebook.com/group.php?gid=56144257950.
Concerning playing with more people, I didn't expect that to include a member of my family, but my daughter Zoë and I are now a duo. They Might Be Giants asked me to open for them on a tour, but the logistics didn't work out, except for the first two dates, which were within driving distance.
Zoë had been playing drums ever since she told me she was beating a guitar case along with her friend's jamming, and they all loved it. She now plays drum.
I asked Zoë if she could keep me company and do some drumming when the They Might Be Giants gig came up. She asked if she could sing backup too. I said sure, so we got to work, chose a bunch of my songs (and one cover), and had ten rehearsals. We opened the shows in Ithaca and Albany, and it went better than I had hoped. We got ourselves synched real tight, like the Carter Family or Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two, and our voices have that lovely genetic blend. We're going to make a homemade CD as soon as we can.
Also see our intereview with Peter Stampfel and PS's article on 'Go' songs
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