Saturday, February 18, 2006

A Pendant of Jerry Jeff

I remember my introduction to Jerry Jeff Walker. It was in some sort of crash pad in Fort Worth, Texas, attached to a club called The Mad Hatter. It was the early 90s, but there was an eight-track player with two Jerry Jeff tapes -- Ridin' High and Viva Turlingua. We listened to them several times over the course of the evening. I fell in love with "Red Neck Mothers," "London Homesick Blues" and "Backslider's Wine." All great songs. It was one of those times when the music fits the scene, the mood and the moment. The night got better because the owner of the club had boxes of records that he'd found at a flea market from Ornette Coleman's short-lived record label. He gave me a couple unusual albums. I got lucky.

Since then I've grown a little suspicious of Jerry Jeff. There's something too Jimmy Buffett-like about him. I suspect that he never quite got over the fact that he wasn't Kris Kristofferson or Willie Nelson. I once got into a semi-drunken conversation about country music with Seymour Stein. I mentioned Jerry Jeff, who Stein, a serious country songwriting encyclopedia, dismissed with a look of disgust and contempt. Still, I've always loved the craggy cowboy simplicity of "Nightrider's Lament" from Ridin' High. As it turns out, Jerry Jeff didn't write this one. He did't write "Red Neck Mothers" or "London Homesick Blues" either. And I've heard that there's dispute about whether he penned "Mr. Bojangles."

At any rate, maybe it takes some genius like Nina Simone to salvage a tune like "Mr. Bojangles." When Jerry Jeff and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band do it, there's no real getting around the hint of racism or at least laughing derision at the down-and-out subject of the song. But Nina had an immense capacity to inject pathos into even the most surprising places, and she gives the song some surprising dignity. This is from her Here Comes the Sun record, on which covers "Just Like a Woman" and "Angel of the Morning," among others. I can't fully recommend the record, and it should be noted that while she could wring tears from all kinds of material, Simone was also known for crassly covering whatever was put in front of her (I had high hopes for her cover of Hall and Oates "Rich Girl" on her Baltimore record, but it too disappoints.)


ssellery said...

I am sorry that you and Mr. Stein have such an opinion of JJW. As one who both knows him well, and knows his music, he is both a remarkable performer and artist. He DID write "Mr. Bojangles" and if you have ever spent any time with Jerry Jeff you would know that his music is the kind that lingers and stays with you.
Lastly, I might suggest looking at some of the other songs he did write (Morning Song To Sally, Woman In Texas, Hill Country Rain, Bathing Suits and Cowboy Boots) they are quite good, yet its not simply writing them, its how he has lived them too. Maybe you might take the time to see it from that point of view as it translates quite well. said...

please remove this blog!! You dont know what the hell your talking about.Bojangles,Stoney,Curly and lil,My Old Man,Some Go Home,Shell Game,little Bird,Leavin Texas,The Wheel,That ol Beat up Guitar,The Artist,Derby Day,Morning Song to
Sally,Are all brilliant songs Jerry Jeff wrote.Most of them have been recorded by other people.How could you be so ignorant of this?

Anonymous said...

Careful, your ignorance is showing. What's this about the racism you see in "Mr. Bojangles"? Are you aware that the Bojangles person/character that JJW met in jail and wrote the song about happened to be a white guy? It's not about Bill Robinson, the black tapdancer portrayed by Gregory Hines in the movie of the same name.