CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR

lyrics here

            I’m one of those people who love trains. I’m not one of those bonifide, well-versed train buffs who collects tickets and schedules and talks about routes and signaling and mechanics and stuff. My love is simpler and less sophisticated. I’m more of a let’s-go-on-the-choo-choo kinda guy.  My beloved, Sabrina, is the same way. We’ve been on a lot of trains together.

            It’s sort of mandatory that every folky songwriter has a train song in the repertoire. I’ve written a few and they’re all quite different, despite sharing the same genre. I first heard this baby-birthing story about the California Zephyr while watching a documentary. I was surprised it hadn’t been memorialized in song already.

                                          (For more California Zephyr history, click here.)                                       (for Hank William's California Zephyr song click here.)

                                          (For more California Zephyr history, click here.)

                                      (for Hank William's California Zephyr song click here.)

            Even without the wonders of childbirth, the original California Zephyr was a train worthy of song.  It’s high on the cool factor; sort of neo-art-deco meets airstream trailer on rails cool. The CZ or “Silver Lady” made it’s first journey in spring of 1949. It was marketed as luxurious, stylish travel, designed to lure passengers back from cars and airplanes. Amtrak still runs a California Zephyr between Chicago and San Francisco, but she's not the Silver Lady she used to be. . (to get a real sense of what it was like, watch this promotional film.)

            The story of the birth of Peter Zars is absolutely true. In some accounts he is referred to as Reed Zars. The song pretty much sticks to the facts. I changed Inspector Donovan’s name to “Inspector James” to cut down on syllables. I don’t usually like to bellow on into a fourth verse, but I couldn’t leave out the birthday party; literally the icing on the cake.  I wish I were that kid!

                                         For some Zephyrette history, click here.

                                         For some Zephyrette history, click here.

            The closest I’ve ever come to riding in a Zephyr car was thanks to songwriter Michael McNevin. He operates his Mudpuddle Shop in Niles California, a charming little train town that’s home to the Niles Canyon Railway, which runs between Niles and Sunol.  Michael generously got myself and many other folkies gigs on the holiday train, all decked out in Christmas lights, a Santa on board, the works. It was one of the funnest gigs EVER.  Lots of kids; everyone in a festive mood. It was hard work busking the train too. An hour up and an hour back, two round trips per night. The train has cars from different eras, and one of them was this silver beauty from the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway, circa 1951. Instead of a Vista Dome, it has a “Pleasure Dome”, very much in the same style as the original CZ. It was a blast to ride along, playing up in the dome. (and if you like train songs, you should check out this gem written by Michael, “Two Feet Ahead of the Train.” )

                              For info on the legendary U Utah Phillips, click here

                              For info on the legendary U Utah Phillips, click here

            My fondest memory of singing California Zephyr was at the Breakfast Club at Strawberry Music Festival. The Breakfast Club is an all ages, sing for your grub, early morning hootenanny. After playing the song,  the legendary U Utah Phillips approached me and paid me shared some kind words, but best of all, he had questions. "Did the California Zephyr used to go through Feather River Canyon?" "Well, yes Utah, that was the original route." (Normally I would have no idea, but I had done my homework on this one.)  If you don’t know about Utah, he was a genuine train tramp. The real deal. This was the equivalent of talking batting stance with Babe Ruth.. For one brief moment I felt like the bum I always wanted to be. “Hallelujah, I’m a bum, Hallelujah, bum again. Hallelujah, give us a handout to revive us again. “

 

MICHIGAN ROLL

lyrics here

                I found the idea for Michigan Roll while browsing through an old Dictionary of American Slang:

Michigan roll (Also Michigan bankroll, Cincinatti roll) noun

1.   a large roll of paper money in small denominatons

2.   a roll of counterfeit paper money or a roll of money-sized paper surrounded by one or more genuine bills.

               The term was first found in use between 1930-1935. ( the date is probably earlier; in the 1850s, Michigan bankers outwitted auditors by taking barrels of nails, with a thin top layer of silver coins, from bank to bank ahead of them]

This is also a Michigan Roll:

The Michigan roll is a variation of the spicy tuna roll. It consists of spicy tuna with smelt roe spicy sauce, and avocado and it is rolled as an outside thick roll. The addition of avocado makes it milder then a regular spicy tuna roll.  

The Michigan roll is a variation of the spicy tuna roll. It consists of spicy tuna with smelt roe spicy sauce, and avocado and it is rolled as an outside thick roll. The addition of avocado makes it milder then a regular spicy tuna roll.

 

But I digest….

             A Michigan roll is the stuff of con artists, used to bamboozle,  flim flam, chisel and fleece. There’s something slightly fun and alluring about the con in its many forms. It makes me think of the movies The Sting and Paper Moon. In these period pieces, the con benefits from the distance of time. The old “art of the con” has a certain charm that the current run-of-the-mill internet scam does not. In any form, it’s never fun for the person who gets swindled. You’ve got to be a real piece o’ work to be flashin’ a Michigan roll.

              So I feel a little bad for Janey in this song. But she rings true for me, in that most any time I’ve done anything solely for the money I’ve tended to have some regrets. Chasing after money has often had some powerful karma attached, in my limited experience. Greed sets the hook. Your mileage may vary.

                  A word about the music; this is very much like the chords and melody of the classic St. James Infirmary. This was not intentional on my part. It’s not the first time that I have subconsciously “borrowed” from the American songbook. Unlike con artistry, it is perfectly legal. It’s called the “folk process.”  It’s a bonafide license to steal. 

 

TAKE ME BACK DELILAH

lyrics here

         I am a California boy to the bone.  Though my native roots are just accidents of birth, I still say it with pride. I identify with the golden state.  To loosely quote one of my favorite children’s books (The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Pinkwater), “My home is me and I am it. My home is where I like to be, and it looks like all my dreams.”

         California and dreams go hand in hand. Perhaps more than anywhere else in the west, it’s a place where people have traditionally come while wearing their dreams on their sleeves.

          From big dreams like being discovered on Hollywood and Vine, to little dreams like buying a little farm where you can pet the rabbits, California’s made room for them all.  Historically, the original dream magnet centered upon staking your claim, striking it rich, and filling your pockets with gold. The stuff was just lying there in the bottom of the stream.  You’d be crazy not to go get it.

         The main character in Take Me Back Delila is lucky to have come out the other side of that dream.  He’s on his way home with seemingly nothing to show for his efforts.  Of course that was true for the vast majority of 49ers. But more importantly, he’s smartened up considerably. He’s on his way back to something more precious than gold. Now he knows that “Money can’t buy ya love”.  Good for him!

         Despite the reality of the gold rush, I grew up with a deep love of the fantasy. It’s still the bulk of the focus of California history in fourth grade. When we studied the gold rush, we got to go to Knott’s Berry Farm, ride the Calico Mine train, pan for gold and eat rock candy and licorice.  When I was in high school, Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush was released. (still one of my all time favorite albums.)  So one of the first songs I ever wrote was called “The Miner Song”.  The romance of the Gold Rush has deep roots in my psyche.

         I thought I was done writing about the California Gold Rush, but Delilah snuck up on me. She was trapped in a banjo, waiting to come out. (my Ramsey Chanterelle.) The song also pays homage to another song of the west, Deep in the Heart of Texas. I’m a sucker for the hand claps. Especially these ones

                    As I write this, I’m about as far away from my California home as I can get. We’ve spent the last couple of years living a different dream in Singapore. My musical dreams are still cherished,  albeit scaled down and somewhat modified. And I daily dream of returning home and playing some new tunes in the golden hills for any ears that will listen.  “I’m gonna see the folks I dig, I’m gonna kiss a sunset pig…”

        

         

GRAVEDIGGER'S BOY

lyrics here

            I’m a sucker for a waltz. I gravitate toward ¾ time at the drop of a hat. I’m not much of a dancer, but a waltz I can handle with joy and abandon. I first learned to waltz in the Mendocino Redwoods, at the Lark In The Morning Music Camp. Soon after that I met Sabrina and took her for a spin at the Great American Music Hall. We waltzed to Peter Rowan singing Free Mexican Airforce, with the legendary Flaco Jimanez on accordion. I’ve been hooked ever since.

old_victorian_cemetery_by_estruda-d5g1bjo.jpg

         I call Gravedigger’s Boy my gothic waltz. It’s a little dark, but hopeful. That’s Chojo Jaques playing the fiddle. I’m nuts about his unorthodox playing style. And I love the fiddle so much that I’ve got one of my very own. You probably shouldn’t ask me to play it unless you like the sound of cats in pain. Don’t make me do it.

         I should mention Gravedigger’s Boy won best song at the NewSong Contest in West Virginia some years ago. Many people find song contests to be a bit odiferous, but I was grateful for the opportunity just to play at that festival, with it’s fireflies and it’s octagonal barn.  It was held at an old farm built by George Washington’s nephew, Bushrod Washington. They don’t name ‘em like that anymore.

         The highlight of the fest was when a thunderstorm broke during Nickel Creek’s set. They had to shut down the stage, so Nickel Creek took refuge in the big farmhouse and played acoustic while the rest of us squeezed in as best we could. I’m still grateful to Gravedigger’s Boy for putting me there at that moment in time. Unforgettable.

         My friend Caren Armstrong who sings harmony on this tune doe a great rendition herself.  And my young buddy Jaime Michaels covers it on his Crooked cd. I’m honored that such great writers would give one of my songs legs. Won’t somebody dance?

MAKIN' MY OWN

lyrics here

                The outlaw bootlegger is an iconic figure. Nobody in my family ever had a shack back in the trees, but my Grandpa Mac made his own wine and beer. My Grandparents used to wax poetic about the good old days of prohibition. My mom often reminisced about making an illegal delivery with our Auntie Anita and her boyfriend Gino Rolandelli. She was no more than 10 years old at the time. It wasn’t the hills of Tennessee, but it was Baghdad by the Bay. They never went without. They had their hooch.

         I do break into a fake yodel in this tune (my “faux yo” as I like to call it.) Long before I stumbled upon the Blue Yodeler, Hank Williams, I was won over by the yodeling of the great Peter Rowan. He lives in our county, so I’ve had ample opportunity to enjoy his music. He often plays with Paul Knight, who plays upright bass on this song and throughout the record.

         A few words regarding the verses: Jesus makes a surprise wedding guest appearance. He pops up uninvited in a lot of my songs. I’m not entirely sure why, but he’s always welcome.

         The verse with the old Gray Goose is actually a nod to a much older song from England about brewing ale. John Barleycorn taught me that a song can be about two things at once. It’s about both making beer and death and resurrection.  After the barleycorn is cut down and is “served most barbarously”, suffering through verse after verse of it’s own unique stations of the cross, we come to this; “They have worked their will on John Barleycorn though he lives to tell the tale. Now they pour him out of an old brown jug and they call him home brewed ale.”  Awesome! Praise Jesus!

         My homage says “Somebody killed the old grey goose. Threw her in the ruckus juice. She came back as Happy Sally. Sweetest moonshine in this valley. So you see, I am a deeply religious man. 

         And lastly, there is one seldom sung verse that usually only gets trotted out on my home turf. In California, our number one cash crop has long been stigmatized and has suffered a failed prohibition of it’s own. That verse goes: Way out in Cal-i-forn-eye-yay, That’s where they say crime truly pays. Just plant yerself a couple seeds. Kick back beneath the redwood trees….

"We’re makin’ my own….Just growin’ our own… We’re makin’ our own way through this world~ "

PUMPKINTOWN

lyrics here

            Pumpkins are about my favorite things to grow. We even grew some big ones in our front yard one year. But we live close to Drake High School. High schoolers are very attuned to the aerodynamics of pumpkins.  We all had fun while they lasted.

         I wrote about how growing up in the suburbs makes one yearn for the country in Applesauce. One of my sole “rural experiences" as a kid was going pumpkin picking in beautiful fields north of Santa Barbara. It was a couple of hours drive, speeding out of L.A. in the back of Mrs. Funaro’s T-Bird. She would crank up Tom Jones on the radio. And Engelbert Humperdink too.

         I like to joke that this tune has everything you want in a song.; adventure, sex, and cannibalism. One of my finest moments as a songwriter came when Eric Schwarz (one of the true guardians of questionable taste) approached me after hearing this song. “Did you really f*** a pumpkin?” he asked.

I beamed with pride. Wouldn't you?

SIMPLE PLEASURES

lyrics here

          When pondering Simple Pleasures, at first I thought I was going to write about roots. This guy’s left his simple pleasures behind, severed his roots,  and clearly regrets letting them go. But I’ve changed my thinking about what this song is about.

         As I write this I’m living in Singapore, about as far from my home as I can possibly be. One of the things I like to do while exploring this part of the world is visit temples, but not because I’m deeply religious or anything. I like temples for the same reason that I like listening to old “folk” music. It’s about vibe. So since I’ve been visiting a lot of Buddhist temples, I’ve been boning up on Buddha a little. Not enough to make me Buddhist, but enough to affect my way of thinking.

                  This is really a song about impermanence.  Buddhism basically teaches that it is our clinging to impermanent things that trips us up. The person in this song regrets not appreciating the simple pleasures he once took for granted. But the truth is, those days he took for granted when he lived with his family are gone. There’s no going home again.

         So I like to think that the message of this song isn’t really about regret for the roots we gave up. It’s more about living in the moment, to appreciate the simple pleasures that we have while we have them. “For once they are gone they will never come back.” So at this very moment, I’m about to go indulge in one of the simple pleasures that bored me in my youth. I’m going to go take a good little nap.

         

HOME TO JESSE

lyrics here

                     Home to Jesse is a murder ballad. The murder ballad is an old tradition that is well past it’s prime. Now we get plenty of juicy murder and mayhem on TV, in movies and the daily news. Supply is exceeding demand. Most folks already have their fill of this stuff. They don’t need it in the form of a song.

         But because I have a taste for tradition, I thought I’d take a stab at this lost art (pun intended.) I was inspired by Gillian Welch’s song Caleb Meyer. One of the things I love about her take on the murder ballad is the blood. “I pulled that glass across his neck as fine as any blade, and I felt his blood run fast and hot around me where I laid. “  Oh man, that’s entertainment!

         One of the things Jesse has in common with Caleb Meyer is that they both had it comin’.  I had to figure out who I wanted to kill before I made him up. In old murder ballads it’s interesting to note that this is often not the case. They’re more true to life that way, with senseless murder existing without rhyme or reason or any sense of apology. But writing about a senseless murder indeed seems senseless in these modern times. It amounts to beating a dead horse.

         Here's a quick story about the first time I played this song. When it was new, I didn’t realize that an audience would react to the subject matter as a “downer.”  And to add insult to injury, that downer would be delivered by banjo. Not a recipe for a “crowd pleaser.”

         The first time I played Jesse for an audience was on the Wildflower Stage at Songschool. (I previously wrote about the Wildflower here.) The audience at the Wildflower is about as supportive and enthusiastic as they come. So I felt a little bummed when I finished the song to less the usual enthusiasm.

         As I was walking away after performing, feeling a bit funky about it (looking for a hole to crawl into)  I was stopped by one of our beloved instructors at the Song School. I think he could tell how I was feeling. He took  my face in his hands and looked me right in the eye.  He told me that the audience didn’t know what hit them; that he appreciated what that song was aiming for, and that it was very much like a Childe Ballad.  

         I don’t share this to toot the song’s horn. But it was a powerful moment for me and it taught me something about the nature of a compliment. As a schoolteacher, I had misgivings about giving students compliments. I was afraid that they would make students dependent upon validation outside themselves. But that compliment at that particular time was a real gift that came when I needed it. I’ve carried it with me ever since. I doubt that the instructor would even remember it, but it’s something I’ll never forget. It reminds me to be generous with encouragement. I aspire to give to others what that teacher gave to me.  That’s something even a banjo can’t kill. 

LONESOME HILLS

lyrics here

            The story of Lonesome Hills is fiction, grounded in reality. I’ve never been that guy lost in his lonesomeness who can’t find his way home. I would hate that. That’s the fiction part. The real part is that this song is inspired by the hills I call home, a place that I dearly love and will always be able to find. My Lonesome Hills are the hills of Marin County, California.

         I grew up in the suburbs of L.A, that flat concrete expanse where the only things that separate one town from another are man-made signs and boulevards. For me, the closest thing to the natural world was a vacant lot.  There are some wonderful hilly areas around L.A., The Whittier Hills were nearby, Topanga Canyon wasn’t far away. But we never went to any of those places. We were provincial suburbanites. My parents would occasionally take us to Newport Beach, and they took us to the San Gabriel Mountains a couple of times that I can’t remember, but that was it. Except…once (and sometimes twice) a year, we would drive to my grandparent’s house just north of San Francisco, to San Anselmo. It was surrounded by those golden hills (green as Ireland on the rare springtime visit), streams to play in, a more natural world to explore. It’s where I got my Huck Finn on.

         I loved it so much that I moved there soon after high school, and that area’s been my home ever since.  Walking and hiking are just about the only form of exercise that I love unconditionally, and for me, walking those lonesome hills are pure paradise. Most often I walk there alone. The solitude is the best possible form of lonesome. When I go for a long walk there, my mind takes a walk of it’s own. A lot of songs have been worked out along those trails.

         I feel particularly suited to these hills because they’re so mild, often referred to as “gently rolling”.  You never get caught in a blizzard, just a friendly downpour.  You seldom need more than a light jacket. There’s the occasional rattlesnake to watch out for, and poison oak is a nasty beast. But the coyotes and bobcats pretty much leave you alone, and the scorpions are generally no worse than bee stings.

         And the best part about these hills is that they are so close to the Pacific. Even when you can’t see the ocean, you can feel it in the air. The fast, low flying clouds blow by not far above your heads They hit the tops of giant redwood trees, causing them to drip and sustaining them through droughts.  It’s a magical landscape, to be sure.

         Sabrina and I are missing our home these days. There are some lovely places to walk here in Singapore, but the tropical heat is a bit too brutal for my taste. I can only take it in short bursts.  When we think about going home, walking these hills is the first thing that comes to mind. If you ever come visit us there, it would be our pleasure to show them to you. We’d appreciate your company in our Lonesome Hills. 

SACRED HEART

lyrics here

              I have never attended Catholic school. I’m a product of public school (and public education is still an ideal I believe in, despite it’s flaws.) My mom, on the other hand, went to Catholic School at Saint Anselms, from kindergarten through high school. That school’s still going strong in the town where I live, and I have 3 nephews that go there. I grew up hearing tall tales about Catholic school adventures. It’s ain’t all nuns and rulers.

         I did not, however, chase after wild girls in uniform in my youth. I had too big a chip on my shoulder about having to go to Catechism on Saturday mornings (and having to miss all the good cartoons) to go anywhere near Sacred Heart.

         But I did go through a period in Jr High and early high school where I chased after girls who were a bit on the wild side. Of course they would never wanna have anything to do with a mild-mannered Mort Meek like me. I think that’s why I chased after them. I lusted for the unattainable. It’s safer that way.

         But that’s one of the funnest things about writing songs. You can rewrite your own history and create any old alternate universe.  I can’t tell you how many women have told me that they attended Sacred Heart. I like to think maybe they see a little of their younger selves in this song.

         And like I’ve said about many of my other songs, I seem to be compelled to take a friendly swipe at religion every now and again. Still workin’ it out with Jesus. When I first played this song at the Wildflower, I was backed up by guitar slinger Arthur Lee (who plays lead on this whole album) and bassist Jim Colbert. We were introduced as The Soggy Bottom Catholic Boys. I get my digs in where I can.

 

Bring You Home

lyrics here

               Bring You Home is a bragging song. Bragging is a complicated behavior. On the one hand, the ego seems to want to do it in order to influence how others see us. It’s a manipulative device used to reaffirm our self-worth. “Look how wonderful I am.” On the other hand, it’s socially taboo and so often counter productive. The other person is most often thinking “Look how pathetic you are.”

         But we have a grand tradition of bragging. It is one of the staples of American folklore. Our beloved Tall Tales, like Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill, are stories built around exaggeration (bragging’s main ingredient.) It’s believed that these stories sprung from the bragging contests that served as entertainment for frontiersman around the campfire.

         Bragging and bluster in the form of a song is also a cultural tradition. It crosses many genres: folk songs, cowboys songs, blues songs, etc.  It serves as a culturally acceptable way of saying things we probably wouldn’t normally say. (Unless of course you happen to be a millionaire and president of the United States. Then all bets are off.)

         I got the idea I wanted to write my own bragging song after singing someone else’s. I was playing the Steve Earle song, “Graveyard Shift” at an open mic in Cotati once. I found myself a little distracted by a couple of younger-hipper singer songwriters who were snickering in the audience. Yes, they were laughing at me. The incongruity of this fat old-fart singing: “I drive a Cadillac, rides just like a dream All the Pretty girls wanna ride with me. Cus I got what all the women want. I never say I do, when I really don’t.” Oh you whippersnappers think that’s funny? Think I’ll write one myself then.  I’m gonna rub some of my own braggadocio in your face.

         So Bring You Home is my way of participating in the grand tradition of folk bluster. I think most songs benefit from a little bit of “attitude”. It’s my way of bragging without the mess. Beats hell out of that other odiferous music business alternative. (called “self promotion”.) I still don’t have the stomach for that one.

HE TAKES THE TRAIN

lyrics here

             He Takes the Train is the last song on the album Gravedigger’s Boy. The first song, California Zephyr was also a train song. This is it’s matching bookend.  The whole record is a train sandwich.

         I thought I was finished with the record at Bring You Home. But then I wrote this and played it for Sabrina, and we figured it had to be included. I busted it out in an afternoon with my co producer, master-of-the-machines, Christopher Krotky. He owns Soundwire Studios in Fairfax. I love that guy. You should record there.

         My songwriting buddy Scott Taylor from Oklahoma, does a bang up cover of this song. My favorite cowboy is a reverend. My favorite reverend is a cowboy. Both those guys are Scott Taylor.

         This song is about my son Nate. A couple of minor details are conjured from thin air, but the rest is all him. He’s always loved taking the train. He had recently left home by train to go to college in Washington. We were missing him big time, and this song popped out easy as pie. Sometimes they come lucky that way.

                  Nate is our oldest son. We have another son, his little brother Matthew. It rankles me a little to have a song about one son and not have one about the other. My muse tells me not to rush these things, but I’m getting impatient. Matthew is equally song worthy.  I’ve been working on it.

         If Nate is my Train nut, Matthew is my beer nut. We are in a golden age of brewing, and Mathew has developed a deep appreciation for high class swamp water. While he was nursing this taste for the finer things, it grew more and more difficult to keep the fridge stocked sufficiently to meet my own meager needs. This prompted a song for Matthew that is still fermenting.; a cry-in-yer-beer tune inspired by the bitter disappointment of opening the refrigerator door. It’s called “Every Beer Disappears (Whenever I’m With You).

                                           The 3 Stooges: Beer Nut, Dad Nut, and Train Nut

                                           The 3 Stooges: Beer Nut, Dad Nut, and Train Nut

         I think that one of the reasons that I’ve had a hard time finishing this tune is because He’s Take The Train has a heartfelt, tear-jerky sentimental moment in the third verse, and no such moment has bubbled up in Matthew’s song.

         I can picture a time down the road where Matthew might say, “Hey, where’s MY tear-jerky sentimental moment???” To which Nate would probably respond with, “Hey, where’s MY beer???” I can answer that for you Nate. Matthew drank it.