Saturday, September 19, 2009

Say Uncle, Part Two: Here's Johnny!

     A while back I wrote this post about Uncle Bill, an old family friend (my parents just visited him and his wife in Germany, and they had a great time).  On a recent visit to NYC and VT, I found this record (I still have some in my old apartment in the city, where my brother and his wife reside) and it made me think of another uncle--Uncle Johnny, my mom's younger brother.  He was an erstwhile folk-singer back in the '60s and '70s--the kind that scoffed at Neil Young's success with "Heart of Gold".  More of an amateur ethno-musicologist, I guess.  He'd come up to visit us in his orange VW bus (which eventually caught fire somehow and burned up) and at some point he would haul out his hammered dulcimer--the big guns. He played guitar too, and wrote some pretty clever songs--there was one which gently lampooned the back-to-the-land types:
                         Marvin tills the soil, he's livin' naked out on the land
                         He only eats what he can grow, they call him Organo-Man
                         The strangest thing about Marvin is, I'll never understand
                         I saw him out just the other day with an ice-cream in his hand
     There was a time when Uncle Johnny was breeding Siamese cats, and he brought a couple with him.  One of them got so freaked out that it ran up in the rafters of our still-unfinished house and refused to come down.  So, we ended up with a pet Siamese cat by default.  In short, a real character:  Tall, with long black curly hair, glasses and eyes that always seemed to be bugging out of his head.  But a really good-hearted person.  He would always send us records at Christmas, and they were invariably by people we had never heard of--obscure folkies, primarily.  That's how we got the Joe Hickerson disc.  I'm not sure how it ended up at my brother's apartment.  (He gave us a couple of records by a guy named Ed Lipton, who did children's songs--"Fly, Hippopotamus, Fly" and "Jump, Elephant, Jump" are two song titles that spring to mind.  I don't think he ever experienced Raffi-type success).  
     My brother and I were always inclined to make fun of the music on the records Uncle Johnny sent us (then again, we were inclined to make fun of just about anything), but I eventually grew to like some of Joe Hickerson's stuff.  It probably requires growing up and becoming interested in music of the old, weird America.  Hickerson's delivery is a bit stilted--he really sounds like the folk scholar that he is--but there's something sort of charming about that.  Anyway, the songs don't suffer too much from it.  I like Rolling of the Stones in particular.  It has a really haunting melody and lyrics that leave you scratching your head (I'm pretty sure it's a Child ballad).  Shingling the Rum-Seller's Roof is funny--it's both an anti-alcohol tune and a good drinking song, and it's a metaphor I want to start using more often.  The record came out in 1976, on the Folkways label (appropriately enough).


No comments: