Archive for June 6th, 2007

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In the late fall or early winter of 1946 I was told of a party for Lead Belly. I don’t remember who tipped me off but my dorm mate Bruce Sagan seems like a good bet. I do remember that the hostess’ name was Ruth Kaplan and that the address was either 3300 North Sheridan or on that block. She and much of the audience were, without doubt, political leftists who had pretty much “captured” Lead Belly around that time. It was a “welcome to Illinois” party – the explanation being that Illinois had a law dating back to the Capone era prohibiting felons guilty of homicide in other states from entering the state (NB: I have not been able to verify this – rpk) and the governor or somebody had just waived this restriction in Lead Belly’s case. 

Lead Belly and his 12-string box


Kaplan’s apartment was a ground-floor railroad flat with the entrance on the side of the building in the middle of the very long hallway. I arrived somewhat late, was able to get in the door but unable to move from that spot, which turned out to be fortunate because all the performers simply came in the door and did their singing right there. So, throughout, I was about three feet from the musicians. 

It was a remarkable congress of American folk music talent: Lead Belly, of course; Woody Guthrie; Josh White and his traveling companion Josephine Premice; two local figures, Win Strache, who was one of Studs Terkel’s circle, and Bernie Asbel who was working for the CIO PAC in a promotional capacity. Pete Seeger showed up, said he was starting on a cold and could not risk damaging his voice – and left. (I don’t know why but I never quite believed that excuse. Seeger’s behavior seemed a bit odd, his voice sounded OK and he could have stayed without performing – but I couldn’t and can’t imagine why he might have been dissembling … )

 Being as close as I was, I could see into the round hole in Guthrie’s guitar. The box contained a change of socks and shorts and a pint of whiskey. It was his musical instrument, suitcase and traveling companion. Acknowledging Asbel’s presence, he said he had been approached by the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the CIO PAC and asked to write an anthem for them. He said he thought about it and thought about it and the best he could do was: 

Oh, the Ladies’ Auxiliary

Is the best auxiliary.

If you want an auxiliary,

Call the Ladies’Auxiliary. 

It is interesting to note that even as famous a liberal as Guthrie was, by today’s standards he was a complete MCP. Today he would be condemned for the patronizing attitude implicit in this joke. 

I don’t remember what Asbel sang – some union songs, without a doubt. There are a couple of recordings of that sort still available. There is surprisingly little information about Asbel on the Web. Unless it was somebody else, I remember seeing his name on NBC TV shows in the 60s and 70s, in the managerial or production areas. I think he wound up as a VP of some sort. Maybe someone can fill in the missing pieces here.

Win Strache was a local favorite. He had a rich ballad baritone voice and a good stage presence and sense of humor. His favorite joke was about the world-famous basso profundo who ends his concerts with a song specially written for him which ends in the lowest note ever sung. When he finishes the audience is dumbstruck – then a voice from the balcony says “Bravo!” – a full octave lower. Strache did this using his lowest register. He sang his signature song, “Puget Sound” in which a sucker is conned into buying tidal land. The refrain goes “Acres and acres of cla-ams, acres and acres of cla-ams …”  Josh White did several songs from his repertoire at that time – may have been “Strange Fruit” and “House of the Rising Sun.” Josephine Premice did not perform.  Lead Belly sang some of his standards. The only one I have a distinct memory of is “Rock Island Line” – he may have done “Irene” or “Midnight Special”, “Bring a Little Water, Sylvie” – I just don’t remember. 

When almost all of the crowd had left, the remaining twenty or so of us all crowded into the medium sized kitchen. (I’m one of those guys who never leaves a party until the last dog is hung – sometimes it pays off with unexpected rewards, as in this instance.) We were jammed in, pretty much unable to move (as I had been in the hallway earlier) – I was pressed up against Lead Belly’s back, with my face over his right shoulder. I began to worry about my eyes when he strummed too vigorously. There was a bucket-brigade-like delivery of whiskey being carried overhead, so that then I began to worry about his famous flammable temper. He and White started an amiable contest, trying to “top” each other by exchanging songs and then stanzas in the same song. At one point Josephine was stretched across the kitchen table, signing an autograph for one of the guests. White looked down at her rear end and started singing “Backwater Blues” (“Hello, baby, I had to call you on the phone …” the refrain goes “Jelly jelly, jelly’s all on my mind, Jelly roll killed my papa and made my mama blind” – it’s a song about STDs). Exchanging verses in “Outskirts of Town”, Lead Belly used one that occurs in several of his other songs: “Sugar’s in the gourd, gourd’s on the ground, you want to get the sugar, you got to roll the gourd around.”, which caused White to close out.  

I only saw Lead Belly once after this. It was at the CentralPlaza, a Jewish catering facility on the Lower East Side that hosted jazz performances on week-ends. He was playing the breaks between sets by the band. His voice was weak and cracking. The young audience, clearly not knowing or appreciating who they were seeing, half drowned him out with talk. He died shortly after that.  


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