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Archive for June 20th, 2007

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Starting in 1955 or ’56 my first wife, Terry, and I started going to the Hungry i, perhaps to see Irwin Corey who was a favorite of ours in our Greenwich Village days. Corey was a regular at the Village Vanguard which we went to on occasion. I do not know exactly when the following story took place but I can at least box it in from other indicators. I know that at the time Lou Gottlieb was still a doctoral candidate at UC and that he got the degree in 1958. So I conclude that the following occurred in 1956 or ’57. Someone may be able to narrow the date down by knowing the date of the record mentioned toward the end. (Chantal Ni Laoghaire of Gateway Singers on CD tells me that the record with Puttin’ on the Style on the first side and Midnight Special on the flip side, was published in 1957.)

 

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Without doubt on this occasion we went to hear some comic, perhaps Corey, perhaps Mort Sahl. There was a new “folk music” quartet performing between sets by the featured performer. I put the quotes in because we folk song cognoscenti turned our noses up at these nightclub acts, they were faux folk, too slick, lacking the authenticity, the grittiness, etc., etc. This group, called the Gateway Singers, was, nonetheless, very entertaining and the comic patter by their bass fiddle (!) strumming leader, Lou Gottlieb, showed that they were not taking themselves too seriously which was disarming.

The four musicians were Lou Gottlieb, Jerry Walter who played banjo (and, I think, guitar in some pieces), Travis Edmondson who had grown up in Mexico and could play elegant Spanish guitar as well as the less intricate styles required for most of their pieces and Elmerlee Thomas, a woman with a big gospel style contralto – not Mahalia size to be sure, but big and clear, a real pleasure to listen to. All the group sang as well as played their respective instruments and were good at that too – and very enthusiastic.

One of the pieces they sang that night was Lead Belly’s Midnight Special. I don’t remember if they sang the “Down come Miss Rosie…” stanza first, as Lead Belly often did. They may have started with

When you gets up in the mornin’, when that big bell ring
For they march you to the table you see the same old thing.
Knife and fork are on the table and nothin’s in my pan
When you say anything about it, have trouble with the man.

Let the Midnight Special shine her light on me,
Let the Midnight Special shine her ever-lovin’ light on me.

Then they attempted the “If you ever go to Houston …” stanza. They had the first two lines correctly done but the next two were a mess – not quite Bing Crosby’s bubba bubba doo but not much better either.

Banducci required his performers to go to the bar and mix with the audience in the intermissions – a nice idea. So, in the first intermission I approached Gottlieb and Walter and asked them if they knew what the Houston stanza meant. They admitted that they picked up the words from a record and could not make heads nor tails of that verse. (Just to give them credit for trying: I looked at lyrics in at least two dozen websites these last couple of days and not one of them had the right words for this stanza. Some of them verge on the bizarre in their senselessness.)

I told them that Sugarland was operated as a huge cotton farm with the labor supplied by the prisoners. The arrangement the state had with the county was that the state paid a minimum daily allowance for feeding and maintaining the prisoners, something like a dollar (or less) per prisoner per day. The county grew, harvested and sold the cotton. From the proceeds the county was to repay the state for as much as they could. If there were any excess, it went to the county (or perhaps the sheriffs and judges involved – I am not clear on that).  The result was that the prisoners were underfed and brutally overworked. When enough of them were inconsiderate enough to die, the sheriffs would go into the black district and recruit as many as were needed and the judges would give them nice long sentences so they could have steady life-long jobs.

The names of the sheriffs were Bass and Brocker. The names of the judges were Peyton and Boone. The correct verse is:

If you ever go to Houston, boy you better walk right,
And you better not squabble, and you better not fight;
Bass and Brocker will arrest you, Peyton and Boone will send you down.
You can bet your bottom dollar that you are Sugarland bound.

I told them that all of this could be confirmed, particularly the correct verses, in John Lomax’s Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly. Gottlieb had the UC library available to him so that he would have no trouble getting the book.

While I was imparting all of this to Lou and Jerry there was a young, quite drunk Beat sitting on the edge of his barstool next to us, eavesdropping on the whole conversation. He then started on the line “What difference does it make? The audience won’t know all that crap” and so on. When I protested that the singers at least should know and understand the meaning, he started getting hostile. Gottlieb stepped between us and that was the end of the whole affair.

******

A few months later we went to the Hungry i again. There were three aisles in the auditorium, one down the center from the entryway, and two coming in at right angles from the sides ending at the front edge of the stage. The performers entered from the right side of the house. I was sitting on that aisle with Terry to my right. The Gateway Singers were announced, the house lights turned down and as they entered Gottlieb gave me a firm pat on the left shoulder. When they were in place their first selection was Midnight Special and when they got to the Houston verse the instruments were silenced, Gottlieb sang the stanza as I gave it to them a capella while looking at me. A nice gesture.

In the bar later Lou and Jerry told me that maybe the audience didn’t know the difference but they sure did and that as soon as they started singing the right verse it sort of clicked, it went over better.

A few months later they made a single record with Midnight Special on the second side. It sold very well and one of them told me that they thought people were buying it more for the second side than the first (Puttin’ on the Style).

Postscript: In the fall of 1976 I did my first three week stint for The Institute for Software Engineering, one week in Elmsford, New York, one week in Washington D.C. and the final week in Atlanta. In Washington I was put up in a small, third rate hotel on M Street (we were just starting out and had to economize). In the elevator with me was a young man with a guitar case. I exchanged pleasantries with Travis Edmonson, told him how much I had liked his work at the Hungry i. That was the last time I ever saw any of the group.

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