Showing posts with label folk music. Show all posts
Showing posts with label folk music. Show all posts

27 May 2019

Bob Dylan Crime Writer

by Steve Liskow

Last Friday, Bob Dylan turned 78, so a bunch of my friends (Yes, I have friends; I pay them) got together to celebrate.

Jane, our hostess, with the whole motley crew
Everyone brought wine or pizza or dessert, and seven of us brought instruments. The hostess assembled a playlist of Bob Dylan songs to play in honor of the occasion, and she stipulated that we would play a few songs by The Byrds, too. I'm the only one of the invitees who has a 12-string, and never one to let good hubris go to waste, I tried to learn "8 Miles High."

I have four books of Dylan songs on a shelf with my other music.
One tome contains over 350 songs, about a quarter of his output. His Wikipedia bio lists 40 albums and CDs, not including collections, and I didn't count how many songs have been recorded or covered by other artists. I first became aware of him through Peter, Paul & Mary, who had the same manager in the early sixties.

Like most artists learning their craft, Dylan borrowed or stole lyrics from other work, some in the public domain, some not. So did Paul Simon, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and a host of others. Some blues lyrics show up so often I could fill in evening performing songs that use a few repeated lines.

Dylan's first album is traditional folk covers, one of which is "The House of the Rising Sun." He copied Dave Van Ronk's version, not long before Van Ronk planned to record the song himself on another label. Their relationship became strained. He kicked Phil Ochs out of his limousine in midtown Manhattan traffic after the latter told him one of his songs would never be a hit. In the 70s, Joan Baez wrote "Diamonds and Rust" as a kiss-off to the guy who dumped her after she helped him get his own foot in the Hootenanny door. Hey, Richard Wagner and Mozart made enemies, too. No one's perfect.
Me (left) with Paul McCarron and Paul Stevens, maybe the 2 best
musicians there. McCarron's wife is one of my former students

Dylan took a huge risk in the mid-sixties when he left folk behind and turned to electric instruments for his more personal and experimental songs. He was booed at the Newport Folk Festival, among other places. One of the "Bootleg" album collections captures his 1966 concert in Manchester, England, where his backing group is the musicians later called The Band. It's a tense affair with a hostile crowd, culminating in someone from the audience shouting "Judas!"

Dylan responds with a line from one of his own songs. "I don't believe you. You're a liar." Then he turns to the musicians and an open mic captures his command. "Play f#*%ing loud." They launch into their encore, "Like a Rolling Stone," and leave the stage in silence so thick you can chew it.

In the early 1980s, Dylan became a born-again Christian, having already explored his Jewish roots (His real name is Robert Allen Zimmerman) in earlier work. He has never stopped exploring his identity and his world--or ours. I've used his work for two of my own titles. Blood on the Tracks is one of my favorite albums, and it's the title of the first Woody Guthrie novel. Postcards of the Hanging, a line from "Desolation Row," became the title of one of my standalones.
Jim Roger and his wife, Dylan fans

Dylan's early protest songs told great stories, many of them true crime sagas. "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" recounts the case of a black server in a Baltimore club who was fatally beaten by a drunk wielding a cane. The wealthy white man served six months in jail (Sentence deferred so he could harvest his tobacco crop) and paid a $500 fine. Dylan's song showcases his trademark sarcasm, fueled with righteous rage.

"A Pawn in Their Game" is about the shooting of Medgar Evers. Both that song and "Who Killed Davey Moore?" about a boxer who died in the ring after suffering brain damage, use the common folk device of asking questions and having a series of people claim their innocence by passing the buck. Dylan revisited the genre a decade later in "Hurricane," about middleweight Ruben Carter, jailed for the shooting of a clerk during a liquor store hold-up.

My favorite crime song is made up, though. "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts" features overlapping plots and a cast of characters taken from Western lore to tell of an unfortunate love affair, an unhappy marriage, a bank robbery and murder in about nine minutes (Sixteen verses). The backing band on that song includes the musicians who dubbed the music for the film "Deliverance." If you don't know the song, it's worth checking out on Youtube.

Over the last several years, I've played 25 or 30 Dylan songs live and several titles still fill my list of possible story titles for when I need them.
Former Hartford police officer Jim Howard also plays harmonica

It's just a matter of time.

(Thanks to Maureen McFarland for the pix of the whole group and me with the Pauls)

17 January 2018

Train songs, Train story

Shirt courtesy of Joann Lopresti Scanlon
by Robert Lopresti

I am thrilled to bits to have the cover story in the January/February issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  I also have a piece up on Trace Evidence, the AHMM  blog site, about the Orphan Train movement, which is the fact  behind my fiction. Today I want to discuss how I found out about it.

It goes back to the 1970s, when my future wife and I attended our first-ever folk  festival.  This was in Middletown, New Jersey and it had more than  a dozen performers, none of whom we had ever heard of.  (Honestly, I think the only folksingers we could have named back then were Dylan, Baez, Seeger, and Guthrie - Arlo, not Woody).

At one point Marlene Levine, the MC, said, "We had this man  here a few years ago and we think we've recovered enough to have him back.  Here he is, a legend in  his own mind, U. Utah Phillips, the Golden Voice of the Great Southwest!"

Out came an old man (ha, younger than I am now) with a gray ponytail under a cowboy hat.  When he left the stage twenty minutes later my wife and I were committed lifelong folkies.

Utah Phillips was a singer-songwriter, raconteur  and performer.  He shared a body with Bruce Phillips, who was a veteran, a pacifist, an anarchist, a Wobblie, and a railroad nut.

One day, a decade after I first heard him, Phillips was touring in the midwest.  He came back to his hotel and saw a sign that read ORPHAN TRAIN REUNION.  Considering what I told you about him, you should realize that Bruce could no more walk past that sign than he could have flapped his arms and flown past it.

Of course he went in and asked "What's an Orphan Train and why a Reunion?"  The answer led him to writing one of his best songs.  I can't find a recording on Youtube of Utah performing it but there are several good covers and here is one.  (Hi, Jim Portillo!)



That song introduced me to the Orphan Train.  It led me to read a couple of books on the subject and that inspired me to write a song of my own.  Mine is based on the true story of the Woodruffe family of Trenton, Missouri.  I rearranged some of the facts but the main events really happened to Phyllis Weir, later Phyllis Woodruffe.


But after writing that song I still wanted to say more about the Orphan Train.  So being the kind of writer I am I asked: Is there a way to write a crime story about this phenomenon?  The result is "Train Tracks."  I hope you like it.

05 June 2013

George Jetson, to the white courtesy phone

by Robert Lopresti

Last week I demonstrated my new webcam with a tune, but I didn't actually purchase it to fill your lives with the glories of music.  I had an ulterior motive, which I shall now reveal.

There is a group of folk  music fans in New Jersey called the Folk Project, and they have retreats twice a year where people go to a camp and play music together.  Good times.

Well, recently they added a new feature to these weekends: a book club. The coordinator chooses a book related to folk music and you can guess the rest.

A few months ago the title was announced for the spring retreat: SUCH A KILLING CRIME, a mystery set in Greenwich Village during the great folk music scare of 1963. 

One member of the Folk Project is Lori Falco, and she and I have been friends since we met while waiting for a bus on the first day of high school. quite a few years ago.  Lori asked the coordinator: "Do you know the author of that book used to be a member of the Folk Project?"

The coordinator had not known that.  But I was promptly invited to come to the retreat for the discussion.  That wasn't possible but I got a webcam and a skype account and made a virtual appearance.

It was a lot of fun.  Oh, the usual technical hiccups (no matter how long Lori and I spent prepping before the show started).  Interested people asking good questions.  My favorite: "What was it like putting words in Phil Ochs' mouth?"

My answer: not as scary as putting words in the mouth of Tom Paxton.  After all, Tom is still alive.  Therefore I was extremely careful to make him a sympathetic character.  (Even though he offered to be the murderer.  And he graciously gave me the following blurb:  "Spooky. If I'd have known he was watching us so carefully, I would have been MUCH  better."

Well, I had a good time and I would like the chance to chat with ALL the folk music book clubs in the world.  Unfortunately, I suspect I just did.

On a related note, Kearney Street Books informed me this week that SUCH A KILLING CRIME is now available on Kindle, for those who don't care to read their books, uh, acoustically.  

Not the future anyone was expecting in 1963, huh?

18 July 2012

Respect Your Elders


by Robert Lopresti
 
My last blog was about writing in a laundromat in Port Townsend.  We go there every year for the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes.  (The festival is in the city, not in the laundromat.  Just in case you were wondering.)

The first time we attended, about a dozen years ago, the highlight for me was a guy named Bob McQuillen.  As I recall the story, his hobby for many years had been playing piano for contra dances (think New England square dances) in Maine.  After retiring he decided to try his hand at writing a fiddle tune suitable for dancing and by the time I heard him he had written hundreds.  (Note for non-folk music fans.  Trust me, we WILL get around to mystery fiction.)

I remember thinking it was great to get to see the old guy, because who knew how long he would be around? 

Jump ahead to the 2012 Festival and there he is, the iron man, age 84 anf still performing.  He now as fifteen volumes of Bob’s Notebooks, each of which contains 100 original fiddle tunes.  As near as I can tell the only concession he has made to his age is asking his collaborators what key they want to play the tunes in, and then writing them down so he gets it right.  



One day I saw him lifting tablecloths, peeking at the spaces where people had stored instrument cases, obviously hunting for something.  He noticed me watching and grinned.  “Lookin’ for my coffin!”  What a character.

But Bob was not the oldest teacher at the festival.  I think that honor went to 94-year-old fiddler Elmer Rich.  In this video you will see him, somewhat  younger, playing the mandolin.  He switched to fiddle when someone stepped on his mando long ago.



Now here’s the kicker, Elmer lives in West Virginia.  To come to Washington state for the festival he flew for the first time.  Well, why not?  I mean, if you don’t fly at ninety-four when will you fly?

Respecting our elders

And now to the point of the story.  Those of us who write fiction are lucky, like musicians, that in many cases we can keep going way past retirement age.  I decided to take a look at some of our elder statesmen.  I’m sure you can add some I missed.  Each of the numbers below indicates the author’s age (within a year) when the last novel was published. 

ED MCBAIN 79

GLADYS MITCHELL 83

AGATHA CHRISTIE 83

ERLE STANLEY GARDNER 84

NGAIO MARSH 87

REX STOUT 89  
 
DICK FRANCIS 90 (but his last few books are co-credited to his son Felix.)

Stout deserves special honors, I think, because his last novel was one of his best.  How often does that happen?)

 And ELMORE LEONARD is still going strong at 86.  Can anyone beat that?  .