“The theme for April is Work Songs, meaning ones that one sings while working (lifting anchors and sails, driving railroad spikes, pulling barges, shoveling coal, weaving, spinning…)”
They were the guidelines for April at the BONN FOLK CLUB. Not songs about the misery of the working class. Worksongs, and not just any old Worksongs either: Not songs about working, but ‘Songs sung whilst working’. It was a theme evening after all. So ‘Ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more’ was out and I was wondering how many songs there actually are in existence made to build railroads and dig ditches to? I suspected that this month’s Folk Club might just turn out to be twenty variations on ‘Take This Hammer’…
It wasn’t the Mississippi Delta by any means heat-wise, but the sun was still out, and it was light for the first time in a long while at 7pm when I arrived at Haus Müllestumpe. Despite the lack of posters advertising the event at the venue itself it seemed that the little ‘Whats On’ paragraph in the General Anzeiger hadn’t gone unnoticed and by the first field holler of “Ladies & Gentlemen” seats were filled, beer was ordered and a busy round of meals on gleaming white plates was being digested.
John Harrison was also keen that we digest some Folklore, and hit the evenings worksong theme with harp running to tell the story of ‘Another Man Done Gone’. For all readers who didn’t serve time on Parchment Farm it’s a typical song, structured to keep rhythm whilst breaking rocks or building railroads across America:
John begins calling out three times “Another man done gone”. Steve then calls back “What was his name?” For John to answer five times with short breaks between “I didn’t know his name” – and so the song continues through call and repeat of its verses.
Of course it wasn’t that easy for the original interpreters of the song. The break between each line was deliberately timed to bring down your hammer on the cold hard steel of the Great Western Railway, spikedriving as it was called, and there were a lot of spikes required. It was all about rhythm. Some couldn’t bear the relentless work, or the heat, and they collapsed – or maybe succeeded in running away, hence the title ‘Another man done gone’. Something for the pick/shovel/hammer/axe wielders to dream about, and indeed to actually sing about in The next number ‘Take this Hammer’, where the weary prisoner (Researcher Alan Lomax recorded versions at Virginia State Penitentiary) accuses his captors of feeding him endless corn and peas, bemoaning that “They hurts my pride” and finally boldly tells his fellows “I’m gonna bust right past that shooter” to freedom. it’s actually quite a user friendly worksong for its time, incorporating as it does an extended break after the last line of each verse. Good for the prisoners, but bad for the audience tonight. “Perhaps someone could lead them into it?” suggested John Harrison, peering challengingly over his spectacles at me. Which is how I came to be standing opposite the Man himself clapping and shouting ‘Huh!’ as my imaginary hammer pushed it’s spike into the imaginary baked earth. It all looks so authentic when Leadbelly sings it (see below). I like to think that by songs end we had a decent crew of spikedrivers in the audience that made up for any lack of muscle by way of sheer energy and enthusiasm. We could quite easily have extended the tramline from Josefs-höhe to the Clubhouse door with the right materials I’m sure.
So how would that prisoner who had ‘bust right past that shooter’ make his getaway? Well, ‘Riding on a Donkey’ of course, which was Johns final worksong of the evening. ‘worksong’? I remember it as a childrens’ favourite alongside such masterworks as ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ but just like ‘Puff’ it’s a song of surprising depth, as a little research revealed that “Donkey Riding” is in fact a traditional work song sung by sailors of Celtic English origin whilst loading timber on the decks of ships in Canadian harbours. Rather surprisingly the ‘donkey’ in the song isn’t the braying kind but in fact a type of steam engine. The quarter-note rhythm actually imitating the sound of the engine. The lyrics though suggest a clip-clopping donkey of the hairy variety, which explains John borrowing a couple of desert spoons and showing us the sort of dexterity on them that made Hendrix a legend on guitar. I was waiting for him to play them behind his back – alas in vain.
John’s donkey riding should have synched nicely into Lothar and his Crew singing about travelling ‘Further on up the Road’ but as it turned out a crew member was still stuck somewhere on the road to Müllestumpe so a man listed only as Bob stepped slightly up the bill which turned out to be a decisive event for him in that he got his duet with Steve Perry of the ‘Banana Boat Song’ out before Lothar managed to. So yes, the doubling of material did occur as I had suspected, but with a song I had forgotten was a worksong.
Indeed, just as with John’s donkey not being what it seems, or Wally Whyton’s dragon, Harry Belafonte’s famous ode to a fruit isn’t about climbing and cutting bunches of bananas but derives from loading those bananas at the docks and that moment late at night when all the exhausted loaders wanted was for the crates to be counted and be paid – “Daylight come and I wanna go home”. Bob’s low key delivery was bolstered by audience participation on the remainder of his set, two songs which were strictly speaking more about work than doing it – ‘In those old cotton fields back home’ and ‘Proud Mary’ that just snuck in under the work radar with it’s chorus of ‘Working on the river’.
When Lothar Heinrich and Crew as they were billed finally got ‘Further on up the Road’ in full swing, Bob’s quiet onstage presence made the usually lively Lothar seem even more of a livewire than ever. His waving hands always remind me a little of Al Jolson and I keep expecting Lothar to fall to his knees and sing ‘Mammee’. Sufficed to say that his version of ‘Banana Boat Song’ was a tad more energetic than the earlier one or even Mr Belafonte’s. It’s easy to focus on those waving hands and forget that there is some excellent music going on behind him in the form of guitar, piano and particularly saxophone. There’s no doubting though that if this was a regular band it would be called the Lothar Heinrich Band. I do love Lothar’s enthusiasm and wish it abounded in more of the so-called name musicians who charge a lot of money for a little effort.
Gerd Schweizer radiates enthusiasm too, but without windmill hands. His joy instead shows in the smile that radiates from him almost rhythmically throughout his set. Nicely crafted German Folk songs are Gerd’s trick in trade such as Hannes Wader’s ‘Heute Hir Morgen Dort’ Gerd actually took us into the heart of European Folk Music with ‘I Sing a Liad für di’ a dialect song from Austrian Folksinger Andread Gabalier and the distinctly un-worksong ‘Eine Woche auf Mallorca’ in Kölsch. When I tried to trace the origins of which I discovered there are dozens of Germans back from Ballerman holidays begging for help in tracing those wonderful songs they heard in their local bar but were presumably too drunk to enquire about for their entire stay. A scary segment of the music industry indeed.
It seemed as if we’d left the ‘Worksong’ track in the course of the evening although John’s opener in part two was arguably still in the right context. Fred Wedlock’s ‘The Folker’ is the perfect worksong about folksinging to the Simon & Garfunkel tune ‘The Boxer’ with it’s sad lament that “I am a Folk musician, though my songs are seldom sold…”
Fred Wedlock does rather get at the heart of the maligned Folkmusic spirit in his parody. Lots of work, lots of talent and lots of obscurity really is the true existence of the wonderful musical form that is presented each first Friday of the month. Jutta Mensing and Mario Dompke’s delightful set was a reminder of the work that goes behind keeping the music alive. Jutta as organizer of the FiF Club and Mario as longtime organizer of the Bonn Open Mic evenings could both sing a song or two about putting on a show. Instead they sung fine Folk Songs that reminded us of why we love the music, as did Renate (a part of the band Joker) and her friend Elke who claimed a walk-in spot. Steve Perry brought some of his colleagues from Ferner Liefen to lead the enthusiastic audience in some traditional German melodies that were new to the untraditional non German that I am but included (I know because I still have the songsheet) ‘Der Hamborger Veermaster’ a sea shanty in the best tradition emploring the crew to ‘Blow boys blow, for Californio…!’ to which I could imagine weatherbeaten sailors splicing mainbraces and shivering timbers in the best worksong tradition. It was also a cunning way of telling us to set sail for home – daylight was coming and we wanna go home…
A chance to continue ‘spikedriving’ with the Master himself – Leadbelly: