Every two weeks, I try to collect the words that are going through my head and put them on paper. It is to write. I do just enough to know how hard it is to do well.
But putting the words in order and pairing them with the music to make a song? It’s so beyond me that it seems mystical. Music touches a deeper part of our brain than words alone. Singer-songwriters are a gift that way.
There are many great types of music. Now we can listen to music from all over the world on our phone or computer which is amazing. In a day on the tractor, I could spend time with country, pop and old age. (KNUJ Dinnerbell Hour!) My fallback has always been folk music. “Popular” is a big universe. This includes ballads, ethnic, roots, bluegrass, blues, depending on who you talk to.
Death has taken more than its share in the past two years. It was especially difficult for my favorite musicians. We have their songs, it’s a beautiful legacy they leave us.
John Prine was one of the first victims of COVID in the spring of 2020. Prine was a boy from Chicago who had a job as a letter carrier after a stint in the military. He wrote songs on the side, and it became his gig. The Twin Cities were a regular stop. I was able to see him several times, the last being at Northrup the summer before his death.
No one there knew that was the last time we would see him. Of how these things happen, Prine was introspective that night, telling stories and reflecting. It was as if we were sitting listening to an old friend. Learning of his death, it was a goodbye that made sense. During the final song, the 72-year-old gray-haired man put down his guitar and danced a little jig as his band played, and he left the stage. It’s a perfect last memory.
Prine’s music wasn’t necessarily something you heard on the radio, but he was highly regarded, winning a Grammy for lifetime achievement. Johnny Cash called him one of his favorite songwriters. Toby Keith said it was like Prine had fourth gear when it came to songwriting.
It was said that Prine had a “old soul.” His words gave voice to those who were on the margins, often the elderly. “Hello in there” is a hymn of sadness:
“You know old trees grow stronger,
“And the old rivers grow wilder every day,
“Older people just get lonely,
“Waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello'”
Prine has written many fun and funny songs. But he had a gift for heartbreaking lyrics. In “Souvenirs,” Prine voices someone who looks at things that have disappeared:
“I hate graveyards and old pawnshops,
“For they always bring me tears,
“I can’t forgive the way they robbed me
“From my childhood memories.”
A few months after Prine’s passing, Jerry Jeff Walker left the Earth scene. Again, I was blessed to have seen him one last time. In the summer of 2018, uber-fan Denny Lux secured tickets to see him at the Minnesota Zoo Amphitheater. It’s a beautiful setting if the weather is good, and it was that evening.
In her later years, Walker battled throat cancer. The night we saw him, he was struggling to walk to a stool on stage. Throat surgery hadn’t been kind to Jerry Jeff’s voice. Anyway, most of us sang together. I think we knew it was goodbye. It was forty-three years earlier that I had first seen him in a smoky bar 20 miles west of there.
Jerry Jeff came to me through the Sleepy Eye Berdans. Ron the plumber passed on his musical affection to my classmate Jerry. In 1975, Jerry took a drive to see Walker at the Caboose Bar in Minneapolis. It was an epically crazy good time. Right after, I bought the Viva Terlingua album and listening to JJ Walker ever since. Sadly, Jerry Berdan died much too young. But I’m still grateful to him for that night.
Walker wrote a few, but he became known for songs written by friends of his. “LA Highway” by Guy Clark, “London Homesick Blues” by Gary P. Nunn, “Against the Wall Redneck Mother” by Ray Wylie Hubbard are among the greatest songs in the history of the world. OK, maybe that’s overkill. They are certainly fun to sing after a few beers.
A song Walker wrote has become part of the American music lexicon. “Mr. Bojangles” is a true story based on a night in a New Orleans prison in 1965. It has been covered by singers of all types. Few lines are more familiar than these:
“I knew a man, Bojangles and he danced for you,
“In worn shoes,
“Silver hair, a tattered shirt and baggy pants,
“He made the old soft shoe.”
A few weeks ago, I had another tinge of sadness that one feels when one learns of the death of an admired person. Bill Staines passed away this winter from cancer. He wasn’t as well known as the others, but I feel blessed to know his music. I first saw it at Coffeehouse Extempore on Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis, when it was old sofas and chairs arranged around a small stage.
Staines was the definition of “folk singer,” traveling thousands of miles every year, performing in small, often intimate venues like the Exptempore. He grew up in Massachusetts, coming of age in the early 60s when folk music was briefly in vogue. While others turned to rock, Bill continued to strum his guitar.
Staines drove the country with his guitar in the back seat, a modern-day minstrel. During his travels he wrote about the people and places he encountered. It was a chance inspiration. If you give yourself an hour on YouTube, you’ll be humming along. One of my favorites is simply called “River.”
“River, take me under your sun, sing me a song,
“Always in motion, sinuous and free,
“You who roll old river, you who change old river,
“Let you and me, river, flow to the sea.”
Music takes words, sculpts them like poetry and fixes them to a melody. You probably have other favorite music creators. The singers I listed here have left us. Others will follow. I will close with another verse from Bill Staines. If you’re a parent, you’ll know how it feels “My child.”
“You have the hands that will open doors,
“You have the hopes this world is waiting for,
“You are mine but you are so much more,
“You are on the wing tomorrow, my child.”