Yesterday was one of those very rare Sunday’s where we sat and watched an all-day YouTube movie marathon. A beautiful sunny afternoon in Windsor Ontario was met with a plethora of options. Sure we could hit Balloonapalooza down on the waterfront but you know how that goes: overpriced water, long line-ups, too many frustrated parents, and those annoying hot-air balloon enthusiasts who all look like they just rolled out of a Jimmy Buffett concert. Yeah, I’ve seen a version of Balloonapalooza before and the attendees adequately passed for less affluent Parrot-heads. Let’s just say I noticed a lot of waxed tipped mustaches of the Colonel Sanders variety fashioned into spiraling masterpieces enough to make any Shriner extremely proud.. The only thing seemingly missing were the clown shoes and prospectors hat. In fact, I believe I heard one gentleman use the word “hornswaggled” to his wife upon learning that his 500 ml bottle of Nestle Pure Life Water was a paltry four dollars.
“Oh hell baby…we’re getting hornswaggled! First they want ten bucks to get in, seven bucks for a hot dog and four bucks for a thimble full of water! We should have stayed a Miss Kitty’s Saloon dagnabbit!” Ok….that’s not what I heard exactly, however, it was what I imagined this character to be saying. All of this to say that while Remax and Royal Lepage hot-air Balloons were floating around down at the carney grounds, my brother and I decided to ‘kick it old school’ to an all day movie marathon. Oh the joy of being single and without kids! To have a complete day of rest and recovery from a party weekend is one of life’s simple pleasures.
Before we embarked on the marathon we had to cover the key essentials.
Snacks: We’d start with some afternoon stove top Orville Redenbacher, Coca-Cola on ice, and some Twix Candy bars. We’d interrupt the proceedings at five o’clock for some spaghetti and meatballs. Easy – done. Now we had to pick a movie genre (not so easily done when you’re rivaling Tarantino in the b-movie viewing department.)
“What do you think Jay? 70’s Action? Western? I’ve been getting into John Wayne’s back catalogue lately and loving his stuff from the 40’s.”
“Yeah that’s cool but I’m thinking more along the lines of Blaxploitation today. Maybe that or some hillbilly cabin in the woods type of thing?”
You see, my brother and I have long been on the hunt for the ‘worst (best) movie ever made’. It started with the collection of VHS Tapes acquired while we were collecting records.. The collection has some incredible hard to find gems in all genres and it was well used until the internet came along and blew the doors off the entire concept.Suddenly we could find any movie we wanted – read the reviews and ultimately find it streamed somewhere for free. YouTube has been an incredible source for this. Cue it up – attach our Dollarama cable to the big flat screen and viola – who needs Balloonapalooza anymore? (And we wonder why the new generation of kids aren’t flocking to live concerts these days? Except of course my concerts, which boast sold-out crowds every single night with the core demographic being that coveted 16-30 year old female CD buying market who really dig middle-aged folk songwriters! But then again, I’m one in a million!)
Yep so our previewing conversation went like this:
“How about the old college graduates get away for a weekend in the woods and become tormented by some twisted hillbillies? You know, that old chestnut!”
“Hmmm…I don’t know if I’m feelin that one today. We’ll stick with American for sure. How about some good old Blaxplotation from the mid-seventies. Breadbasket kind of stuff. I’m kind of feeling that after speaking with Fred Sr. yesterday.”
“That’s a good call amigo. You enjoyed meeting Fred yesterday eh? Helluva a nice guy. He’s 80 years old you know. He’s had a wild life.”
“I know,” I said, “We spent about an hour talking after you went in for dinner yesterday. It was mind blowing brother!”
You see, during Saturday afternoon we decided to slow cook some ribs in the back yard with a new (used) smoker my brother had picked up in his travels. An incredible amount of prep time and research went into learning how to use the cooker – the chips – how to prepare the ribs etc…We started them early and after about an hour we gave up. The smoker fire would not stay lit and the chips were not really smoking. We quickly moved them over the gas BBQ and slowly but surely neighbors drifted by and suddenly we were having an impromptu backyard party. A rum and coke here, a beer there…and before you know it, there’s about ten people sitting around a table generally all talking at once.
I was introduced to an eighty year old man name Fred Sr. Fred has been living here in this nice working class neighborhood for over forty years. He lost his wife to cancer when she was a mere twenty-eight years old. She gave him an adequate brood before she passed on and he had a few more down the line with the second love of his life. (I believe 7 or 8 in total)
“So Fred, I hear you do a little salvage work these days?”
“Yeah they jokingly call us Sanford and Son! If you need it we just might have it!”
“How long have you been doing that?” I asked.
“Oh, we’ve always been doing that on and off.”
“So what was your stock and trade growing up?”
Just then, my brother joined us at the table and I stood up to riff on some Red Foxx. (I couldn’t help myself) With hand over heart, gazing to the sun I screamed out “I’m coming to join you Elizabeth!” It was a subtle way of letting Fred know that I was dialed into his world – if only in a pop culture kind of way.
And with that, we continued on with a conversation that took us all the way back to the early 1930’s when Fred was born. He walked me through his childhood in foster homes, the sadness, the fear, the rebelliousness that comes along with that empty feeling. How he continuously ran away. How at fourteen years of age he ran away for good and found himself doing just about any job to stay alive.
“I picked a lot of tomatoes near Leamington. I was sure good at picking those tomatoes for a while. Tobacco in Tillsonburg. Did a lot of that too. That road was endless. I always said that no matter what happens to me in the end, I would never ever allow my children to be taken away from me. They would not have to live in foster homes! After my wife passed away, it was hard for a few years but I always took care of my children! It wasn’t easy for us back then either. Always being accused for things we didn’t do because of our skin colour.”
And with that we had a simple conversation about the way it was. There wasn’t a whiff of discussion about Obama or MLK yet just true to life stories about how it actually was.
Our conversation led to Fred asking me about my music and influences. After exhausting my list of influences (many of which he loved as well – from Ray Charles to Hank Sr. to Leadbelly to Mavis Staples etc…)
“You know my first wife was a gospel singer son? We sang a lot of gospel in our house!”
And with that, my brother appeared with another rum and coke for me, some more beer for the table and a guitar. Now you know the way it goes. After about 100 shows in the past five months, sometimes looking at a guitar reminds me of work on these weekends. I am one of those artists that require a complete break from the creative endeavor at hand. I need to shift into reading, writing, conversation mode. The beauty of visiting two of my brothers now residing in Windsor (and family in general) is that I can decompress in the comfort of family without having to worry about performing, driving, meeting strangers with my ‘game face on’, finding my next meal, my next bed and so on. Needless to say, the guitar can interrupt the flow of these occasions. More often than not, I find when the conversation is rolling along nicely, a musical interlude is not warranted. I mean, who want’s to interrupt what Socrates claimed are the best moments of the human experience “When engaged in meaningful conversation!” Yet for some reason, in the hot sun under a canopy of grapes, with the smell of slow cooking ribs in the background talking to my new buddy Fred, his son, his buddies, my brothers, some other neighbors…playing some songs not only felt right…I really felt like doing it. Not to mention, I wasn’t shackled to my own songs here. Now I could search my memory bank for those songs I’ve always wanted to play for just this occasion.
Yeah, I would tailor a set just for Fred Sr. For the underdogs. For all of us. So without giving it much thought, I ran through these songs:
Busted (Ray Charles version), Sail Away (Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee version), That’s Alright Mama ( “Big Boy”Crudup… well Elvis I guess) I Don’t Want Your Millions Mister (Pete Seeger version), That Lucky Old Son (any version – Fred remembered it as Sachmo’s song) and on and on until I finished off the concert with ‘The Midnight Special’ for everyone to sing-along to. It was with this song that I noticed Fred tear up a bit.
The prison song popularized by Leadbelly was being sung well over one hundred years after it’s creation by a bunch of guys sitting around a table on a hot sunny afternoon – free to do so on our own accord. Think of that! Freedom is a concept we can’t truly appreciate until it’s taken away from us. Sing a song like the Midnight Special to a man who’s had his freedoms restricted, and you might even learn to understand just a fraction of what real pain is. I could feel it.
We continued on the backyard for much longer than Fred was likely intending. He kept up the pace with us – what an unbelievable trooper. Relaxing in the shade with this cane, we kept the cold beer coming until the ribs and salads made their way onto the table. It was at this point that Fred leaned in and told me about the time the ‘law’ had brought him downtown with a very big accusation. Without getting into the details of the story, let’s just say it was heartbreaking. There was not one ounce of exaggeration detected in Fred’s tale and it simply highlighted how far we have truly come in respect to racial divisions in North America. He ended it with him saying how great it was to have me singing these old songs for him. I assured him it was my privilege.
“Hey Fred, don’t forget, my own father is 91 years old now. Makes you look like a spring chicken. I was the youngest of eight kids you know. He had me in his late forties which makes me a rarity I guess! One of kind buddy! Oh and I’m humble too …lol. But that said, my dad loved all of the old standards. The swing era Jazz from Louis to Nat King Cole. He had great taste. It was my oldest brother Bob who came along and picked up on Miles Davis and Coltrane. Then it was all guys like Bob Dylan taking old the old stuff and reworking it. The Beatles reworking Chuck Berry! You know what I’m saying! Elvis copping Crudup – that kind off stuff! I guess you could say The Beatles brought me in, Dylan made me think differently about it – he introduced me to Pete and Woody and they introduced me to guys like Leadbelly and Robert Johnson. I moved forward from there into Chess and Atlantic stuff. Full circle stuff man.”
And with that, we went back and forth discussing our collective experiences. For good measure I told him one of my all-time favourite ‘racial-divide’ stories which caught the attention of the entire table. On how my publicist and friend, Richard Flohil eventually made his way Chicago to a bar called Smitty’s (?) to catch Muddy Waters and how he would eventually become a promoter and publicist for so many international blues acts. A story I could not do proper justice to, however, enjoyed by all just the same.
After hearing this story, Fred said “Hey play one of YOUR favourite songs before I go!”
“Well Fred, here’s one that seems to be at the top of my list these days. It’s an old song by Kris Kristofferson called ‘To Beat the Devil’. It hits home because I’m often singing singing songs I wrote to people who might be talking. I think, what’s the point of even doing this if no one’s really listening? Anyway here’s the song.”
“If you waste your time a-talking to the people who don’t listen to the things that your are saying who do you thinks gonna hear!” (To Beat The Devil (The story behind the song)
That was that. It was an afternoon for the ages. Fred left me a few final words of wisdom.
“Hey son, no matter what you do in this life, don’t let them drag you into one of those nursing homes. I was in one on and off for four years and it almost killed me. One day I just walked out. What were they gonna do? Been taking care of myself ever since! Take care of yourself son – nobody else is going to!”
“Yup…paddle your own canoe Fred! I get ya man. It was a real pleasure meeting to you!”
And with that Fred was driven home and the rest of us sat out back to watch the dusk descend upon the city. “Hey,” I said, “You know guys…I play music across this damn country about five nights a week and I never ever get the chance to go listen to some live music! Let’s say we hit the town and find some live music and single girls. What are we doing here? Let’s go be somebody!”
And so we did. The night went late but the laughs were loud. I woke up the next morning vaguely remembering a half-hearted promise to a girl and her friends that we might meet them down at Balloonapalooze at 2pm on Sunday afternoon. Easy come easy go. She likely forgot all about it and besides we had a full day of movies ahead of us.
It started with Trick Baby and ended with Nightmare in Badham County. Interestingly, both of these movies explore the black meets white buddy concept in very distinct ways. There I was, laughing a bit on the inside as I watched these movies through the eyes of Fred. They were fantastic in a great low-budget B-movie kind of way.
I woke up this morning and walked over to the record collection (can you say 5000 records to chose from – and this is half of our collection). Morning coffee in hand, I reached in to pull out a record and as god is my witness out came Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys. From “Rednecks – to Rollin” I enjoyed that 1974 breakthrough over my cup of java like no man.
Nothing more beautiful than the company of old and new friends, a hot cup of coffee and beautiful music. Every once in awhile, the events seem to be more than coincidence. They seem to have a purpose. From the south-side of Chicago through to the deep south. From the eyes of Huddie Ledbetter and Fred Sr. in Windsor ON to my father’s music and the movies of my own generation. Occasionally it all comes together and within a split second everything you’ve thought about crystallizes into one perfect vision. You know, the simple things like: We’re all created equal; we all bleed red; and singing along to “Birmingham” on a beautiful Monday morning.
Got a wife got a family
Earn my livin’ with my hand
I’m a roller in a steel mill
In downtown Birmingham
My daddy was a barber
And a most unsightly man
He was born in Tuscaloosa
But he died right here in Birmingham
The greatest city in Alabam’
You can travel ‘cross this entire land
But there’s no place like Birmingham
got a wife named Mary
But she’s called Marie
We live in a three room house
With a pepper tree
And I work all day in the factory
That’s alright with me
Got a big black dog
And his name is Dan
Who lives in my backyard in Birmingham
He is the meanest dog in Alabam’
Get ’em Dan