Weeds: Songwriters leave a legacy

Every couple weeks, I try to corral words that are running around in my head and herd them onto paper. That’s writing. I do just enough of it to know how difficult it is to do well.

But to put order to words and have them partner with music to make a song? That is so far beyond me as to seem mystical. Music touches a deeper part of our brain than words alone. Singer-songwriters are a gift in that way.

There are many great types of music. Now, we can listen to music from around the world on our phone or computer, which is amazing. In a day on the tractor, I might spend time with country, pop, and old-time. (KNUJ Dinnerbell Hour!) My fall back has always been folk music. “Folk” is a large universe. It includes ballads, ethnic, roots, bluegrass, blues music, depending who you talk to.

Death has taken more than its share this last couple years. It’s been especially tough on favorite musicians of mine. We have their songs, which is a nice legacy they leave us.

John Prine was an early victim of COVID in the spring of 2020. Prine was a Chicago boy who had a job as a mailman after a stint in the Army. He wrote songs on the side, and that became his gig. The Twin Cities were a regular stop. I got to see him a few times, the last being at the Northrup the summer before his death.

No one there knew it was our last time seeing him. In the way these things happen, Prine was introspective that night, telling stories and reflecting. It was as if we were sitting around listening to an old friend. Upon hearing of his death, that it was goodbye made sense. During the last song, the 72-year-old with the flop of grey hair set his guitar down and danced a little jig as his band played, and he shimmied off the stage. It is a perfect last memory.

Prine’s music was not necessarily stuff you hear on the radio, but he was highly regarded, winning a Grammy for lifetime achievement. Johnny Cash called him one of his favorite song writers. Toby Keith said it was like Prine had a fourth gear when it came to song writing.

It was said that Prine had an “old soul.” His lyrics gave voice to those on the margins, often the elderly. “Hello in There” is an anthem of sadness:

“You know that old trees just grow stronger,

“And old rivers grow wilder every day,

“Old people just grow lonesome,

“Waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello'”

Prine wrote many fun and funny songs. But he had a gift for heart-aching lyrics. In “Souvenirs,” Prine voices someone looking back at things that are gone:

“I hate graveyards and old pawn shops,

“For they always bring me tears,

“I can’t forgive the way they rob me

“Of my childhood souvenirs.”

A few months after Prine’s passing, Jerry Jeff Walker left Earth’s stage. Again, I was blessed to have seen him a last time. In the summer of 2018, uber-fan Denny Lux got tickets to see him at the Minnesota Zoo Amphitheater. That’s a beautiful setting if the weather is kind, and it was that night.

In his later years Walker battled throat cancer. The night we saw him, he had difficulty walking to a stool on the stage. Throat surgery had not been kind to Jerry Jeff’s voice. No matter, most of us sung along. I think we knew that was goodbye. It was forty-three years before that I’d first seen him in a smoky bar 20 miles west of there.

Jerry Jeff came to me by way of the Sleepy Eye Berdans. Ron the plumber passed his music affection to my classmate Jerry. In 1975, Jerry took a carload 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 have been listening to JJ Walker ever since. Sadly, Jerry Berdan died much too young. But I’m ever grateful to him for that night.

Walker wrote some, but he became known for songs written by friends of his. “L.A. Freeway” by Guy Clark, “London Homesick Blues” by Gary P. Nunn, “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother” by Ray Wylie Hubbard are among the greatest songs in the history of the world. Okay, that might be an exaggeration. They sure are fun to sing along with after a few beers.

One song Walker wrote did become part of the American music lexicon. “Mr. Bojangles” is a true story based on a night in a New Orleans jail in 1965. It’s 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 out shoes,

“Silver hair, a ragged shirt and baggy pants,

“He did the old soft shoe.”

A couple of weeks ago, I got another tinge of sadness that one gets when you hear of the passing of someone admired. Bill Staines died this winter from the effects of cancer. He was not as well-known as the others, but I feel blessed to know his music. I saw him for the first time at the Coffeehouse Extempore on Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis, when that was old couches and chairs set around a small stage.

Staines was the definition of “folk singer,” traveling thousands of miles each year, performing in small, often intimate venues like the Exptempore. He grew up in Massachusetts, coming of age in the early Sixties, when folk music was briefly the rage. While others shifted to rock, but Bill kept strumming his guitar.

Staines drove the country with his guitar in the back seat, a modern-day troubadour. As he traveled, he wrote about people and places he encountered. It was inspiration by chance. If you allow yourself an hour on YouTube, you will be humming along. A favorite of mine is called simply “River.”

“River, take me along in your sunshine, sing me a song,

“Ever moving and winding and free,

“You rolling old river, you changing old river,

“Let’s you and me, river, run down to the sea.”

Music takes words, sculpts them like poetry, and sets them on a melody. You no doubt, have other favorite music-makers. The singers I’ve listed here have left us. Others will follow. I’ll close with one more stanza from Bill Staines. If you are a parent, you will know the feeling in “Child of Mine.”

“You have the hands that will open up the doors,

“You have the hopes this world is waiting for,

“You are my own but you are so much more,

“You are tomorrow on the wing, child of mine.”


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