Hobo’s Lullaby – Songs for My Father

Posted on May 27, 2011

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When my father died in 2002, I made a compilation of music to play and give out at his memorial service.  I never did explain why I chose the songs I did, although I always intended to get around to annotating the list.  I finally have.

1.  Leadbelly – Goodnight, Irene.  My earliest memory of my father is of him in 1954 sitting in the parlour of my grandparent’s house in Port Essington playing his guitar and singing this song.  My sisters Marylou and Irene also remember this happening.  While Irene basked in the glory of it, Marylou and I were wondering why Dad didn’t sing a song about us. Leadbelly – Goodnight Irene

2.  Lightnin’ Hopkins – Penitentiary Blues.  My father once said, “I wish I could sing the blues the way those old blues guys could.”  This is one of those old blues guys he meant.

3.  Georgia White – Trouble in Mind.  Dad used to love to hear Haisla sing acapella versions of this song and “Summertime.”  One of the last No-Thanks Givings[1] he was around for, he had to miss.  When he phoned to say he couldn’t come, he said he was most sorry that he couldn’t hear Haisla sing just one more time.

4.  Louis Armstrong – (What Did I Do to Be So) Black & Blue.  Louis was always one of my father’s favourite singers and musicians.  The anti-racism slant of the song would have particularly appealed to him.  Hear it here: Louis Armstrong – Black & Blue (1929)

5.  Louis Armstrong – Fireworks.  The night my father died, we put a Louis Armstrong disc to play in his room.  This was the last song he would have heard.

6.  Big Bill Broonzy – Black, Brown & White Blues.  An authentic blues by an authentic bluesman about racism, which my father deplored.  Big Bill Broonzy – Black, Brown & White Blues

7.  Leadbelly – In the Pines.  This is a song which Haisla with Nasty, Brutish & Short performs, but I’ve been playing a version of it for a long time prior to the band existing.  Along with my nephew Ken on lead guitar, I performed this song for Dad.  He said to me, “You can sing like those old blues guys.”  That was an exaggeration, I think.  Leadbelly – Where Did You Sleep Last Night (a.k.a. In the Pines)

8.  Doc & Merle Watson – Summertime.  Dad loved Doc Watson, and this song was one of two—the other was “Trouble in Mind”—which Haisla sang for him in the hospital room where he died.  Doc & Merle Watson – Summertime

9.  Woody Guthrie – Ship in the Sky.  My father sang Woody Guthrie songs most of his life.  The lyric to this one, meant to teach children how things are accomplished by ordinary people working together, would have been especially appealing to him.   Woody Guthrie – Ship in the Sky

10.  Jimmie Rodgers – Daddy & Home. Here’s a rare filmed version of this song. Jimmie Rodgers – Daddy & Home

11.  Jimmie Rodgers – Waiting for a Train.  My father often performed songs by the Singing Brakeman, and could do a creditable blue yodel himself, something I have personally never managed. Jimmie Rodgers – Waiting for a Train

12.  Carter Family – Wildwood Flower.  I grew up with this song, always wondering about the eccentric lyrics which old JP Carter, in appropriating the song, kind of mangled.  I heard this song first when my father played it on his mandolin.  Another version of this song: Carter Family – Wildwood Flower

13.  Leonard Cohen – The Partisan.  Although this was recorded too late to be one of them, this is just the kind of song of revolution which we sang with my father.

14.  Taj Mahal – Bourgeois Blues.  When Alan Lomax and Huddie Ledbetter were in Washington DC in 1938, they ran hard up against Jim Crow.  “Well, it’s a bourgeois town,” Lomax remarked.  Leadbelly wrote this song.  Hear Taj here: Taj Mahal – Bourgeois Blues

15.  Phil Ochs – I Ain’t Marching Anymore.  My father was always part of the peace movement of which this singer and song were an important part.  Hear it here:  Phil Ochs – I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore

16.  Phil Ochs – Ballad of William Worthy.  Okay, perhaps the least musically interesting of all the songs on this playlist, but the lyrics about a guy in trouble for traveling to Cuba parallel an incident in my father’s own life where he had trouble with US border authorities because of a stamp on his passport which indicated he’d visited Cuba.  It is, of course, perfectly legal for Canadians to do so.

17.  Buena Vista Social Club – Chan Chan.  Dad liked to tell about how he wandered away from his tour group in Cuba and was sort of adopted and fussed over by some humble Cuban folk he met.  Hear this song here:  Buena Vista Social Club – Chan Chan

18.  Mahotella Queens – Mbube.  This is a song in its original language which was also performed by the Weavers under the title “Wimoweh.”  Mahotella Queens – Mbube

19.  Ivangeli Loxolo – Isikhalo.  I loved sharing music with my father.  This song and the previous two I once placed on a world music tape compilation called “Uptown Top Ranking.”  Dad left a message on my telephone answering machine saying how I kept him up past his bedtime because he felt compelled to listen to the whole 100 minute tape twice.

20.  Weavers – Banks of Marble.  One of the few pieces of vinyl I ever remember my father buying included a Weavers record.  Pete Seeger and crew had good city folk and left wing credentials, as this song makes clear.  During the McCarthy red scare of the 1950s, the Weavers were blacklisted.  The Weavers – The Banks of Marble

21.  New Lost City Ramblers – Private John Q.  My father liked downhome, authentic music, and the proletarian viewpoint of this lyric would have appealed to him.

22.  Pete Seeger – Old Time Religion.  My father was an atheist who wasn’t fond of the old time bigotry which accompanied so-called “old time religion.”  This sarcastic take on the old standard would have tickled him.

23.  Pete Seeger – If I Had a Hammer.  This song co-written by Pete and his compadre from the Weavers, Lee Hays, was a central part of the sixties freedom movement which my father participated in.  Here’s a version with Arlo Guthrie: Pete Seeger & Arlo Guthrie & friends – If I Had a Hammer

24.  Sinead O’Connor – Foggy Dew.  The Irish fight against British colonialism was always regarded by progressives on our side of the pond as an important part of global movement against colonialism.  I remember singing this song at eleven or twelve years old.  Sinead O’Connor & the Chieftains – Foggy Dew

25.  Weavers – Which Side Are You On.  An iconic union song.  My father was always strongly pro-union.  Here’s a Pete Seeger solo (plus crowd) version of the same song.  Pete Seeger – Which Side Are You On

26.  SNCC Freedom Singers – We Shall Overcome.  I remember singing this song at home and at Ban the Bomb rallies that I attended with my father in the early 1960s.  SNCC Freedom Singers – We Shall Overcome (live)

27.  Emmylou Harris – Hobo’s Lullaby.  For a lot of the first half of his life, my father was too poor to travel in conventional ways, but he still wanted to see what the world was like, so he did a lot of hoboing and rode a lot of boxcars.  He liked to talk about one time riding the freights across America carrying Will Durant’s History of Philosophy in his bag.  This song always reminds me of him.  Another version of the song from a documentary about Woody Guthrie: Emmylou Harris – Hobo’s Lullaby

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[1] No-Thanks is a family gathering the same as Thanksgiving except we give a jovial and sarcastic “no thanks!” to Columbus and the Pilgrim Fathers.

Posted in: autobiography, music