‘Uncle’ Eric Whitehouse has fronted many local blues combos but he also has an ear for a story…
On the back of the CD, there’s a small picture of a guy sitting on the tailgate of a Transit type van, strumming a guitar, whilst, behind him, a yellow road disappears into a distant horizon, probably somewhere in Alabama. The CD I am listening to is from 1993 and by Eddie Hinton (the ‘white Otis Redding’), but it’s the artwork that has caught my attention…I know what you mean, Eddie.
It’s a cold winter’s Saturday night, a couple of years ago, and the side door of Paul’s van slides open to reveal a black hole, occupied by faces topped by a variety of eccentric hats, overcoats and warm grins. The only thing missing is the glow from the cigarettes (jazz and straight) of previous years. I turn to my constant companion, the lovely Annie, and say “ I f****** love this!”
It’s a short journey tonight, but the talk follows a familiar pattern: who’s done what, who’s been where, who ain’t going nowhere, what’s new and, of course, old times.
“Fire bread rolls!” the cry goes up as we remember the days when, to relieve the boredom of a long journey, we would buy a large bag of bread rolls from a baker’s and, as we passed in the van, slide back the side door and bombard an unsuspecting cyclist mercilessly. The stories tumble out endlessly and we laugh and laugh at things we have heard many times before. This is a private world, a club that is the true refuge of the outsider in society, someone who by their action of mounting a stage declares their difference.
My fascination with the weird world of the travelling musician goes back to the early sixties, when many young British musicians cut their teeth by going to Germany, and specifically Hamburg’s red light district where there was a thriving rock scene, including a young band called The Beatles who were doing quite well.
From Northampton Gayeway Club, owner Ron Stanley sent bands over and ex-Screaming Lord Sutch sideman, ‘Freddie Fingers Lee, went with Ian Hunter, Rog Green and my friend, the legendary Tony Marriott on drums. It was from Tony I learned the mayhem of Hamburg ( brilliantly catalogued in ‘Hamburg: The Cradle of British Rock’ by Alan Clayson).
The Northampton crew had played at all the top clubs, particularly the ‘Top Ten’ and the ‘Star Club’. They sometimes didn’t get paid and were witness to random acts of violence and general criminality.
“Top Ten’ owner, Bruno Kechmider wanted his bands to put more effort into entertaining the punters and took to waving a pistol around and crying, “Mach Schau” at the top of his voice. Tony didn’t take too well to this, and to the other antics in Germany; for the rest of his life, he was loathe to leave his native Northampton.
When a gig needs pepping up a little, to this day, I exhort the band to ‘Mach Schau’. I did make it to Germany by the end of the decade and, probably predictably, finished up coming home on the train. I finally got to the red light district in the 1980’s, but this was Amsterdam! It is indeed a hard road.
And a ‘hard road’ is what we young people of the post war baby boom wanted to travel. We were on a trek to the promised land, every step punctuated by the exhortations of Chuck Berry from the juke box of ‘The Mitre’, stacked with records supplied by the G.I.’s from the nearby US air bases.
American is good – British old fashioned, stuffy, bad. America produced jazz, blues, country and multi-racial rock’n’roll, and the heroes of this music were on a journey: Louis Armstrong from New Orleans to Chicago, Woody Guthrie from Oklahoma to California, Robert Johnson never still around the deep south and Texas, and Leadbelly from prison to Carnegie Hall.
Bob Dylan would provide a global dimension to this wanderlust. Oh, and Eddie Minton’s Transit reminds me of mine! In England, pre Beatles, only the great Lonnie Donegan and crusader Chris Barber were singing from the same song sheet.
To say that the United States is a big country is stating the patently obvious. Travelling is, therefore, a large subject and the focus of many songs, and much folklore. In particular, the railway. The railway opened up the west and aided the migration, both legal and illegal, of thousands of workers required in construction, in fruit picking, in northern stockyards, and in the new car factories in the first half of the 20th Century. This created a new breed of transient casual workforce, a member of which became ‘the hobo’.
The hobo influence leaked into music via Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger et al, and became romantic via Dylan. The album cover of ‘The Freewheeling Bob Dylan’ is the apotheosis of this concept.
In literature, Kerouac, Steinbeck and Walt Whitman built the legend, in the same way others fuelled the wild west and red indian folklore. I hitch-hiked to Scotland and Cornwall, with nary a boxcar in sight.
It was the romantic element that made ‘hard travelling’ attractive. Laurie Lee, contemplating a hike to Spain, said that one of his major motivations was to ‘be free from work at 11.30 on a Tuesday morning’.
As we know though – ‘freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose (Kris Kristofferson).
But that was it, the incessant urge to travel was a longing to be free and unshackled which all these social and musical strains feed from.
The romantic strain is encapsulated in the voice of Jimmie Rodgers – ‘The Singing Brakeman’ – whose overalls show you straight away his blue collar credentials. For full on ‘Utopian Bravura’, step forward the Industrial Workers of the World and Joe Hill, author of their ‘little red song book’ – organiser, agitator and executed by the State of Utah for killing a grocer in a hold-up in Salt Lake City in 1914, becoming a martyr of american labour in the process.
The IWW an organisation 200,000 strong in 1917, led by Big Bill Heywood, and consisted of itinerant organisers who travelled the country ‘riding the blinds as hobos , rallying workers to their cause, which was nothing less than the abolition of capitalist system! They were construction workers, miners, farm workers, and all manner of unskilled labourers.
They exhorted the workers to ‘work, pray, and live on hay, for you’ll get pie in the sky when you die’.
Joe Hill explained his lyrics, the preacher’s message to the ‘starvation army’, as to divert them from ideas of gaining the world and its wealth.
Joe Hill is still referenced in the songs of Bruce Springsteen, Ry Cooder and many blues artistes.
To me, live performance is the heart and soul of music and, to this end, my kit is stacked in the hallway by the door, waiting for that call to Bristol or Long Buckby, to the Cardigan at Moulton…or to Amsterdam just one more time.
‘Didn’t he ramble, didn’t he ramble, he rambled ‘til the butcher cut him down’.
(Traditional New Orleans song)