I'm a Stern Old Bachelor
The Young Musicologist

If You Can Blog A Better Post ...

Still thinking, from yesterday, about Tom Waits and his adaptation of old folksongs ...

He doesn't really adapt them or arrange them to suit his style — as many a folksinger does — he strips them down to their "idea" and their "feel" and then writes an entirely new piece, beginning there, with the song's essence.

During the years in which I followed and contributed heavily to a Tom Waits discussion list, I was always finding examples — ad nauseum, as was occasionally pointed out to me. Often, the connection was interesting but flimsy.

Among the more convincing examples I found was "Swordfishtrombones." It's the title song of the 1982 album in which Waits finally left behind the drunken beatnik routine (which he'd grown to dislike), and began to reach for something more explicitly artful. I think he and his wife Kathleen Brennan sought direction the way everybody else does — by digging up the roots.

Before the Dylan Era, the song "Swordfishtrombones" might have been called a play-party nonsense song, while today it's impressionistic. It relates the wildly shifting fortunes and apparently supernatural misadventures of a soldier just back from a war:

He went to sleep at the bottom of Tenkiller Lake
And he said, "Gee, but it' great to be home."
. . .
He packed up all his expectations
He lit out for California
With a flyswatter banjo on his knee
A lucky tiger in his angel hair
And benzedrine for getting there
They found him in a eucalyptus tree
Now, I've witnessed people coming home from wars, and this sort of behavior looks sorta familiar. Certainly, half a pint of Ballentine's each day is on the moderate side.

Anyway, in the end, the song acknowledges the far-fetched character of some of its claims by drawing attention to itself as a piece of writing. It's just a tall tale:

Now, some say he's doing the obituary mambo
Some say that he's hanging on the wall
Perhaps this yarn is the only thing
That holds this man together
Some say that he was never here at all

Some say they saw him down in Birmingham
Sleeping in a boxcar going by
And if you think that you can tell a bigger tale
I swear to God you'd have to tell a lie.
When I first heard the woundrous Bascom Lamar Lunsford sing "On a Bright and Summer's Morning," I decided I knew where "Swordfishtombones" had come from. It turns out Waits' soldier was once a hunter, and is now imbibing in some sex and alcohol, but the song is essentially the same sort of travelogue. Some stanzas from Lunsford, the guy who wrote "Mountain Dew":
The money that I got for the venison and skin
I hauled it to my daddy's barn
It wouldn't half go —
It wouldn't half go in

I went upon the mountain
Beyond the peak so high
The moon come round with lightning speed
"I'll take a ride," says —
"I'll take a ride," says I.

The moon come around the mountain
It took a sudden whirl
My feet slipped and I fell out
And landed in this —
And landed in this world
The clincher, of course, is the last stanza, which Waits has changed only slightly:
The man that made this song and tune
His name was Benny Young
If you can tell a bigger lie
I'll swear you oughta be —
I'll swear you oughta be hung

There are a lot of versions of this song, under a lot of names, so I can't say what Waits was listening to — but he got it from one of em. I can come up with boat loads of these, given some time, but if my fellow Waits fans quickly got their fill, I'd imagine you would too.

Maybe, if you wanted a moral to this story, we could remember all the hand-wringing that went on about Bob Dylan's supposed plagiarism of Junichi Saga and Henry Timrod, and wonder aloud whether there's anybody left who hasn't decided all that kurfluffle was a lot of horseradish.


Editor's Note: This is the ninth installment of my attempt to post something half-way Monochordy every day for the whole month of February.

How's it going? Am I slowing down here? ... well, the important thing is that I'm still standing! Boo-ya! As T-Model Ford said, "I been shot! And I been cut! I been kicked in the head! I been hit with a chair! Nobody gets me down!"



Lucy Kemnitzer

Those liars' songs go a long way back and all out to hell and gone. I think they're the best when they're sung with a really spine-chilling creepy tune, as with anything by Bascom Lamar Lunsford, or Jean Ritchie's rendition of "Nottamun Town" (as opposed to the rollicking kind which can be wonderful but not nearly as much so). It's a coincidence for me to come home and find you mentioning Lunsford: I was thinking about him all the way home, with his "Dry Bones" as an earworm to keep me going.

Which gets me to this — when the nonsense songs are sung like they're gospel tunes or heavy ballads, they do a thing that gets at the basic meaning-making activity of the human brain. It shows us that meaning is handmade by the observer, and also that it's both delicate and resilient (or do I mean ephemeral and recurring?)

I can't attest to the long haul, since I just discovered your blog a couple of days ago, but I'd say you're doing magnificently and you should keep going.

Jerome Clark

You seem a tad oversensitive about the views of some Tom Waits fans, who (unlike Waits himself) know little about folk music and are content to remain clueless. Screw 'em.

I know a whole lot about folk music, not so much about Waits. What you say in your posting is quite interesting to me, and I suspect that your readers, whose minds strike me as big and open, must feel the same way. More, please, and this time without the apologies.

Alex G.

Seeing Lucy's comment encourages me to step forward and say that I too am enjoying your recent spate of posts. And I'm especially looking forward to hearing about the battle of the jug bands. These two posts on Tom Waits have especially interested me. I've been a fan of his for as long as I can remember, and a fan of scratchy American music (old time/blues/folk/whatever) for several years. But stupidly, I've never made the connection that seems incredibly obvious now that you've made it for me. Thanks.

The Celestial Monochord

Many thanks, Alex, Jerry, and Lucy ...

Jerry, I guess I'm mostly playing the discussion list thing for laughs. To be more truthful, the VAST majority of those folks were fabulous, and the main tensions on the list about my work were my own doing. The discussion list stopped being satisfying after a couple years, but I nevertheless hung on for a couple years more, and badgered people for not being sufficiently interested in what I was saying. It's one reason I started the Celestial Monochord -- so I could start corresponding with people like you!

I don't know if you've heard the album, but some of the cuts on Swordfish might appeal to you. Town With No Cheer, In the Neighborhood, Gin Soaked Boy, A Soldier's Things. That's some good stuff, firmly in the folk tradition, as I see it.


Hey now Kurt,
I always enjoyed whatever you posted on RD about folk/TW. Every once in a while I notice a few references in Waits songs to ol' blues & R&B stuff - folk not exactly being my forte (although I did spot some "Barbara Allen" references in the Black Rider). 't would be nice to compare notes sometime. In the meantime, I do hope you pass on whatever references you find to the Tom Waits Library (previously Supplement). Keeping things centralized, you know.
Some other TW tunes that should appeal to folk cognoscenti would be Murder in the Red Barn and A Little Rain from Bone Machine. Truly "Smith country" or however you wanna call it, and more naturally so than whatever exercises in folk sensibilities he did on Mule Variations.

Jim Newman

Hi there - this is my first time reading your blog and I'm finding it extremely refreshing to actually read a blog about something i myself find interesting.

I've been aware of the Tom Waits / folk link for a long time now and I'd like to hear him do a straight folk album at some point - but the real reason I'm posting is that I think you've missed a trick here in terms of a reference to this exact same song; the final line, "if you think you could tell a bigger tale" etc... is in fact lifted wholesale from a song called "I buyed me a little dog", of which I have a version by none other than Dave Van Ronk, of whom I know for a fact Waits is quite a fan (Tom wrote an introduction for Van Ronk's memoir, "the mayor of macdougal street").

Regrettably, I don't know exactly where Van Ronk got the song from, and I don't know of any other direct versions, before or after.

The comments to this entry are closed.