Jerry Jeff Walker
The Godfather of Cowfolk
by Susan Barton
Jerry Jeff Walker is known worldwide as the writer of "Mr. Bojangles." He's known in his adopted home state of Texas as the loose, crazy, honky-tonk hero who made the hill country hamlet of Luckenbach famous as one of the spiritual centers of the progressive country movement. Today, Jerry Jeff is still working hard and is receiving just recognition. He leaves his comfortable Austin, Texas hilltop frequently, with nothing but a guitar and a golfing buddy, to play old and new songs in venues from coast to coast. With the exception of the golf and the means to travel, his style is remarkably like that of his early performing life as a roving '60s folkie.
Jerry Jeff grew up in a small town in upstate New York, the grandson of a square dance caller and a woman who played piano for grange meetings. His childhood was filled with dances and family picking-and-singing sessions. Soon he was playing a guitar his grandmother bought him, picking up chords from a local pizza entrepreneur and getting together with high school friends to work out hits by Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers. When he graduated from high school in 1960, folk music was booming, and Jerry Jeff hit the road.
JJW: I hitchhiked to New Orleans. There were a lot of legitimate street singers there, but there were also college kids, hitchhiking around and learning from blues people. We would meet, maybe share a room in the same hotel in the French Quarter, we'd talk about different guys we'd met in the Quarter, maybe some lick they'd shown us...I traveled around with an old bluesman named Dave Stovall on and off for a couple of years. He showed me some fingerpicking styles and how to play with a little flair.
Mostly it was fun. There were a lot of artists hanging around, with the kids learning from the old guys, and we were going to these discussion groups with old bearded painters talking about the Renaissance era. And there were painters talking about making a living on the street painting portraits, but then taking you back to their lofts and showing you what they were really painting...
What was nice was that although I was still learning, I was able to go to the streets and play and pass the hat and make my living while I was learning. It seemed to be really practical. I could make a living and learn each day, too.
It all gave me a sense of freedom. I would hitchhike out to California, look around, maybe there was a coffeehouse...I would drop in, play something I had learned on the streets of New Orleans that they hadn't learned, learn a song from a guy there, then hitchhike back to New Orleans and play the song I'd learned in California. I was on the move and it was working. So I was enjoying the learning and the playing at the same time. I was seeing the country and playing music and writing down what I saw. It was very exciting. I did that for five years [from 1960 to 1965].
SO: Did you make a conscious decision to always do your own material, or did you make a gradual progression?
JJW: I did some other singers' material and I looked up some stuff that was entertaining to me as well. Cisco Houston, who ran around with Woody Guthrie, had a song called the "Guitar Talkin' Blues," kind of a funny song about how he learned to play the guitar. I used to do that in my show. I think I probably did a couple of the early Bob Dylan songs, a couple of Woody Guthrie's, a song that Dave Stovall taught me, a couple I'd written...that might be a typical set in 1964. I did a lot of Jimmie Rodgers, I did some yodelin' and singin'. But mostly I did things that suited my philosophy. I used to sing "Hobo Bill" by Jimmie Rodgers: "While ridin' on a freight train, goin' through the night, Hobo Bill the railroad bum..." I could picture myself meeting him on the road or something, kind of a lonely guy...So, I picked things that were interesting to me philosophically. That was my approach. It was either write and say something myself, or choose material that said something I might have said.
SO: How did this evolve into a career for you?
JJW: I got a gig at a place where I stopped off. Later, I called to see if I could come back and play, and the guy said, "Yeah, and I know another place you can play on the way, in Kansas City, on your way back to Dallas." Then I said, "That's kind of like show business." I'd never gone anyplace to play a gig before. If I was actually going to go places to play for hire, then my venturing must have been over with. I was getting into the business. I thought, "Instead of going to Kansas City, why don't I go to New York or L.A., where the business is?"
I didn't know as much about the West Coast as I did about the East Coast, since I was from upstate New York. In New York City, I might not need a car, I knew there were coffeehouses in the Village that were centrally located...that's why I went to New York.
About 1966, I put together a group called the Lost Sea Dreamers (with jazz bassist Bob Bruno, guitarist Pete Traunter and another singer). We figured that the lost sea was where all the bounced checks and lost equipment went. We were all writing stuff, but we didn't know if we could put it together and make a band out of it, you know, to learn to count off and sing harmony on the choruses.
While we were working on the first part of a recording, we went to the Electric Circus, and the owners were knocked out by our outrageous looseness. They wanted to make us the house band. There was talk of them opening up a chain of 'em and we'd play them all. We decided to change our name to something that would fit with Electric Circus, so Bruno decided on Circus Maximus. That became the name for our first album.
SO: Could you talk a little about "Mr. Bojangles?"
JJW: We played at the Electric Circus for about six months (in 1967), and one night while we were there, I went to the WBAI radio station in New York with David Bromberg. We did "Mr. Bojangles" on the radio show. I kind of forgot about it and went back to the Electric Circus. I was playing there one night about two weeks later, and a whole bunch of people came up to the stage and said, "Which one of you wrote 'Mr. Bojangles?'" We weren't doing it at the Electric Circus because our stuff was much heavier for the crowd. I remember leaning down and saying "I did, why?" They said, "Well they're playing it every night on that radio show." It was being broadcast all over Manhattan. Here I was beating my brains out in this club, and this song was passing me by. The next morning, I went back to the place that took our messages and they said, "Arlo Guthrie, Judy Collins, and Harry Belafonte are all calling about this song. Could they record it?" I said, "Well, I'd like to record it, too."
So, I contacted Vanguard and said I wanted to do it, but I wanted to do much more of a country sound than Circus Maximus, which had a jazzier, heavier metal sound. I wanted to do it more acoustically...so I went off to Atlantic Records to record an album of folkier stuff that I'd written on the road. I helped finish up the second Circus Maximus album, so I owed Vanguard one more album down the road of something I cared to do.
I cut three albums in one year (one for Vanguard, two for Atlantic). Actually, I cut them all in four months. I was almost able to go off on a solo career, which was kind of nice. I'd been bogged down in the logistics of getting around with the band; now I had the success of "Mr. Bojangles," and there were coffeehouses and concert halls that were pretty popular around the country at the time...I took that as a chance to go. Then about halfway through the last album with Atlantic, I decided it was time to get out of New York and away from the whole East Coast, so I bought a car and drove to Texas [in the early 1970s].
This time I thought if I put a band together, I'd make it a little looser. While I was gone, there were a lot of bands doing good covers of other people's songs, but they weren't doing many original tunes. Here we came, Willie Nelson (who'd just moved back to Texas), Steve Fromholz, Rusty Weir, and me - we were all writing songs. It was a perfect combination. I had a record contract, so I said, "Let's all get together, I'll play the songs the way I do them, and we'll work 'em up."
After my experiences in New York, with my own band and studio bands, I felt it was important not to get too hung up on the technicalities of recording, just try to get as good a recording as you can: the songs should have some life to them - played live, not stacked tracks.
I kept thinking, my favorite old records are blues, country blues...cut live or from radio shows. Records have to have a life of their own, like a party or event captured on vinyl.
I've always said, "What's the song say?" After you pull the bass track off, and the drum track off, and the piano track off, and the click track off, what does the song sound like? I still basically work that way.
The guys that I came here with were all self-conscious about going into the studio. I said, "I don't want you to worry about that part. I want us to have fun." They said, "Can he do that?" I said, "Well, we'll see. It's my deal. I've already got a deal. You play, and they'll tell us when to stop." We just played and had fun, and we put out two or three records that did well. 'Viva Terlingua' went gold, and 'Ridin' High' was pretty close to it; we were selling 400,000 - 500,000 copies and just having a great time. We were getting away with murder.
SO: How did you end up where you are now, with a solo career and independent recordings?
JJW: Since about 1982, I have been just doing my own independent label [Tried and True Music, Inc.], doing basically what I was doing for large labels, making my own music with my friends and putting it out. Then about '85 or '86, it was dawning on me that it was getting very expensive to take the band around, and there were lots of alternative places to play besides the big halls that I could get to more readily by myself. I'd already toured a few times with the band, through the late seventies, so I felt it would be nice for the audience just to see me by myself. That's what I've been doing for the last three years.
I had to be a little more on my toes, too. With a band you can go out there and be a little hung over and kind of stumble your way through it. When you go out there by yourself, you're just there. And you'd better be ready to go. First song ends and there you are. You're standing there, just you and your guitar, you'd better be ready to say something, talk some and get on with the next one. So, it's been good like that.
It doesn't bother me to think I'm not on the cutting edge of it all right now. You need to be happy with the place you're at, be it creatively, family-wise, or your own time...Your relationships with your friends and family get kind of thinned out because you're on the road. Then you look up, five years have gone by and you're surrounded by a bunch of strangers.
Most people don't see the business side of it. I wasn't very business-oriented, but I think in the long run I started to say to myself, "Wait a minute, my music's getting me into trouble." It used to be a way to get out of trouble, or away from frustration. So maybe now I won't go so much, I'll pull back or slow down, maybe I'll write more songs. It suits me better because I'm in control and I won't spin my wheels so much.
I've already had that sort of fun. Chuck Berry has a line..."It's okay to make mistakes, just don't get bit by the same dog twice." Well, maybe even if it's been successful, you don't want to do the same thing twice. Just because it's there to do, does not mean that you really feel like going through it again.
I like performing in front of an audience, playing my songs, making a couple of hours feel real good to them. I sing about the characters and the places I've been in my life, and the songs still do the job. People still come out saying, "Boy, that was great."
SO: You don't mind if they want the same songs over and over again?
JJW: Well, no, because they're all the songs that I've written. I don't mind going back and visiting those places, since they are my memories. If you had a hit song that was given to you by a producer, you didn't know where it came from, you weren't really quite sure what it was talking about when you cut it...now you gotta play it every night for the next fifteen years, and every time you play it you're thinking, "Why am I playing this song? I still don't know quite what it's about." That'd be a problem. But when I do "Mr. Bojangles," I'm back on the streets of New Orleans, I'm 19 or 20 again, and I'm seeing the old character and the period of time.
SO: How did you move from traditional folksinging to songwriting?
JJW: I had listened to those songs and said, "All they did was write about their experiences." So I started singing about things that I'd experienced, like meeting Mr. Bojangles in jail. I was taking what they did and adapting it for myself. I figured that since the audience didn't know an old song from a new song, what was the difference? I might as well play them a new one.
And that kept me closer to what I was doing. It was nice to write one that afternoon, play it that night. It was immediate feedback...that was fascinating to me.
SO: How do you feel about traditional singing versus original songwriting?
JJW: I think the true artist does both. He learns the tradition and he writes a new one. And then he's aware of where he's coming from and he knows where he's going. I always felt that I wanted to write a song to fool everybody - to write a song today that sounded like it was 200 years old. I felt it would sound as good today, tomorrow, or to somebody who grew up on music 50 years ago. I hope Bojangles was a good attempt at making it sound like it had been around a long time. What I learned is that the process gave me an individualism, but it also gave me the ability to write in a style that I felt was timeless.
SO: Did you have anything in particular in mind when you wrote that one?
JJW: I was into internal rhymes, and I was also into descending lines at the same time. It was also a case of me waiting for the right song to come along. I wanted to write about something that was a true experience, so I made sure I didn't fool around.
I think it's important to write about things that are within your experience. The audience that you're going to play it for needs to have had some of the same experience as well. It's hard to go out and play for some 15-year-old kids who basically worry about acne and getting dad's car keys. But I think that's why it's important for each artist to write about things within his frame of reference. 15-year-olds should write songs for 15-year-olds, 20-year-olds for 20-year-olds, and 30-year-olds for 30-year-olds. It's kind of neat that you're chronicling what you know about, and then people can say, "Yeah, he's talking about that things that I've been going through," and know that someone else made it.
I could have been writing at a songwriting company, and a guy could have walked in and said, "That's pretty good, but you know Tammy Wynette's cuttin' over here, and she needs a song now for her record album, so write about 'Pearls, curls, and pretty girls...'." But I wasn't - I was allowed to delve into my own personal experiences. I had the luxury to write what I wanted to write about, not something that they were waiting for at a session.
There's something about creating a new song and seeing all the pieces go together. There's a little rush of feeling, like you've done something, stretched your boundaries a little bit. Somebody once said that writers write to understand something more. They don't write to set down what they already know, they do it to discover more about something that's sort of vague to them. I'm talking about people who write to express themselves, not people who write just to do something tricky. But if you compose songs to express yourself, then you feel good you're looking at things from different angles.
It's a general feeling. When you delve into it, something may charm you, or make you glad you looked at it a little closer, and then when you share that with other people and they get a feeling from it, it's kind of nice that the whole circle's complete. I think as a songwriter, you write for yourself first. Once it's made sense to you, then you're done.
SO: How does that work with a specific song?
JJW: Sometimes the meat of it will appear to you quickly. You'll get a picture of it - maybe the opening line of a chorus. Then you'll elaborate a little bit, fool around with it, and find the essence. I think you start with a general grazing approach, then zero in on something that catches you. After that I'll make sure I get all the other areas. It's like having the first and last chapter of a book. You know you have to get from here to there, and you see it as it comes.
SO: Is your songwriting changing as you get older?
JJW: I think you have a higher standard of satisfaction. You want more. As you get older, you use up some of your choices, but if you have children, then there's new people in your life. You go to new places, and meet new people. There are relationships. Most people write about either getting into a relationship or getting out of one. They don't spend time staying in it, enlarging on it, seeing the different ways it grows and changes.
SO: How does your guitar playing work into your songwriting?
JJW: I'll think of a melody and my fingers'll just jump over there. I think I basically just play. I call it "no bumps in the groove." You write so there's nothing really complicated to stop the flow of where you want to go. If something sounds too weird or jars you, you probably don't want it in there.
That's the way I am when I'm learning somebody else's song. I don't sit down and learn it the way they do it. If they'll play it for me a couple of times, I'll watch and listen to them. Then when they leave the room, I'll play it the way I saw them do it, but my ears will pick out things a little differently. I let my own arrangement take its shape. I do it my way, the way it suits me. And I think every other singer's allowed to do that with my songs - to play them the way they feel comfortable with them.
SO: What allows you to write that way?
JJW: I play a little bit every day. I tell my kids that. I tell them that everything we do can be better with a little practice on it. I've always played the guitar a little bit every day. Whether I accomplish anything isn't the point. I like to hear the sound of the guitar. I like to see what's on my mind, musically. I'll play a little piece of something I'm working on; other times I'll put the guitar in a certain tuning just to hear it ring. I make up a lot of melodies in dressing rooms before I go on, just to loosen myself up. I don't want to play what I'll play that night, but I'll be getting ready to go, fooling around with changes and stuff, and hear something come out. I'll make a mental note of it and use it later on.
SO: Any parting words?
JJW: Be careful what you intend to be, because what you intend to be may be exactly what you are. I often hear musicians who finish a show, and then go down to a bar to play what they really wanted to play. "We had to play all that music for this crowd, because that's what we do for a living, but we really go there to play for our own amusement." Why can't they do both?
Working my way is much more rewarding, because I'm busy, my energy's much more into it, I'm satisfied as I go along, and the amount of money I make is beside the point. The point is to express yourself, to work out things that you'd like to do. If you set yourself up to do that, you'll have a much better chance of achieving it.