DATE June 26, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Singer/songwriter Steve Earle talks about his latest
CD and his first book, a collection of short stories called
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
After releasing 10 albums, my guest, singer/songwriter and guitarist Steve
Earle has published his first book. It's a collection of short stories called
"Doghouse Roses." Several of the stories are based on Earle's own life.
Steve Earle moved to Nashville at the age of 19 and recorded his first album
in 1986. In the '90s, he developed heroin and cocaine addictions. In '94, he
was convicted for possession of narcotics. While serving several months in
prison, followed by rehab, he gave up drugs. His 1995 comeback album "Train A
Comin'" launched what Nick Hornby described in The New Yorker as one of the
most creatively successful careers in contemporary American music. Hornby
says, `Who else has recorded five good to great albums in six years?'
Earle has also established himself as a record producer. He started his own
company, E-Squared, and has produced albums by Ron Sexsmith and Lucinda
Williams. Later, he'll read from his book. Let's start with a title song
from Steve Earle's latest CD, "Transcendental Blues."
(Soundbite of "Transcendental Blues")
Mr. STEVE EARLE: (Singing) In the darkest hour of the longest night, if it
was in my power, I'd step into the light. Candles on the altar, penny in your
shoe. Walk upon the water, transcendental blues.
GROSS: Steve Earle, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
When did you start writing fiction?
Mr. EARLE: Oh, let's see. There's a story in here called "Wheeler County"
which I actually started in '89 or '90, thinking it was going to be a novel.
But the truth of the matter was my drug habit was getting out of hand by that
time, and I was having trouble even finishing records by that point. And I
started pawning everything that wasn't tied down in my house, including the
computer that the book was in, and I never backed it up. So that's gone
forever. And when I got clean and got out of jail, I hadn't written a song in
four and a half years, and I wrote another record fairly easily, but I guess I
was a little paranoid and it seemed to me like I had all this time and energy
on my hands simply because I didn't have to wake up and find $500 worth of
So there wasn't always a melody lying around, so I started writing fiction
to--just to write something every day, as an exercise. I'm not even sure I
ever really thought about publishing it at first. And the first thing I did
was I reconstructed "Wheeler County" from memory and found out it was only a
short story after all.
GROSS: All right. Well, now when you write, you have your choice of fiction,
non-fiction or lyric.
Mr. EARLE: Well, I also write poetry and I'm writing a play. I write all
the time, and I think writing in a lot of different, you know, areas, you
know, I mean, I think the last record that I made, "Transcendental Blues"--I
think the writing changed quite a bit, and I think it's a direct result of
writing prose and writing poetry.
GROSS: How do you think it changed?
Mr. EARLE: I think--it's more poetic. I think, you know, doing this,
writing stories is pretty close to what I do as a songwriter anyway, and as a
songwriter the long-story songs, the songs that are basically narratives that
rhyme, that's the easiest thing for me to do. It's always tougher for me to
do something that's a lot less words and a lot more emotionally driven than it
is, you know, something that's a story with a beginning and a middle and an
GROSS: I'd like to take a subject about which you've written a song, a short
story and an non-fiction piece, and the subject is witnessing an execution.
Before we hear it--we'll start with the song, but before we hear it, tell us a
little bit about the person whose execution you witnessed.
Mr. EARLE: His name was Jonathan Wayne Nobles, and he was one of several
people that I corresponded with on death row around the country. And at one
time I think that was what the extent of my activism was, was I knew some guys
on death row. They wrote me; I wrote them back. And I probably got a little
too close and Jon was in Texas, and he eventually got a date and he wasn't
innocent. He was guilty. For some reason, innocent guys don't write me. All
my guys are guilty. But he asked me to witness his execution, and I was
totally unprepared for that and didn't know how to say no, so I said yes. He
just wanted one person there that didn't hate him.
GROSS: What was he guilty of? What was he convicted of?
Mr. EARLE: A really, really heinous double murder. Jon was probably by--I
mean, in his own estimation, he was an escalating sexually driven serial
killer that happened to get caught the first time.
GROSS: How did you end up corresponding with people on death row?
Mr. EARLE: I wrote a song in 1990 called "Billy Austin," and I've always
been opposed to the death penalty. I grew up in Texas in a home that was
opposed to the death penalty, and it just was what I was taught. I was just
taught that that's probably not a good thing for us to be, as a people and for
our government, to be involved in doing for a lot of reasons. Then I wrote a
song called "Billy Austin" that sort of deals with the subject, and then
people from the movement started calling and writing me and then inmates
started writing me.
And over the years it sort of--you know, then my life got out of hand, and
when I came back shortly after I started making records and being visible
again, Tim Robbins called me, and he had just finished "Dead Man Walking" and
he asked me to write a song for that soundtrack. And that was "Ellis Unit
One," and then all of the cast members of that soundtrack record did a benefit
here in LA for Murder Victims' Families For Reconciliation, and meeting those
people was a mind-blower because they're murder victims' family members who
are opposed to the death penalty and go out and work against the death penalty
Bud Welch, who's daughter was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing, is a
member, and they changed my life and the way that I approach my activism
against the death penalty in this country.
GROSS: So tell me something about what you saw or what you felt when you were
witnessing Jonathan Wayne Nobles' execution that ended up in a song that you
Mr. EARLE: Well, I think the deal with Jon is he wasn't--he was suspicious
of abolitionists, and his first priority, I think, was the victims' family
members, including--in fact, he met with, two weeks before he was killed, he
met with the mother of one of his victims. It was--you know, Jon had changed.
They didn't kill the same guy that they locked up. He still was very confused
by what he did, but he converted to Catholicism and he was a third-order
Dominican by the time he died. And he was a huge supporter of other people on
death row. He stood up with Cliff Bogus, who was executed a year before him,
who was another one of my correspondents, as his godfather at, you know, his
baptism. He started out being one of the most hated people by inmates and
guards alike when he got there and, you know, 12 years later when they killed
him, he was loved by everyone at Ellis.
In fact, I spent most of the day the day after he was executed delivering
flowers and other gifts to people, a long list of people that worked for the
prison system that Jon wanted to make sure that they knew that he appreciated,
you know, what they'd done for him.
GROSS: Yeah. In your song there's a line about who he wants--What?--his
radio and his fan given to.
Mr. EARLE: Yeah. Jon was--they've moved the guys in Texas now. Back then
they were on Ellis One Unit which wasn't air conditioned and it's Texas. And
the fact that a year before Jon was executed, a diabetic death row inmate died
in his cell from heat exhaustion. So fans are, you know, a real commodity,
and you don't have a fan unless somebody in your family can buy it for you.
So there were lots of guys that didn't have fans. And so Jon left a fan. He
left a radio. He left--his dictionary I've got. You know, I spent two days
planning for the funeral of a living--you know, helping a living, breathing
man plan his own funeral and the distribution of what goods he had.
GROSS: Anything else you want to say about this song before we hear it?
Mr. EARLE: You know, it was part of a process that I'm probably still going
through, of processing, having--it's not a political song. My other death
penalty songs are. They deal with my opposition to the death penalty as an
idea. This is simply me processing the fact that I witnessed a horrific act.
GROSS: OK. This is Steve Earle, his song "Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song)."
(Soundbite of "Over Yonder")
Mr. EARLE: (Singing) I suppose I got it coming'. I can't ever pay enough.
In all my rippin' and a runnin', I hurt everyone I loved. And the world'll
turn around without me. The sun'll come up in the east. Shinin' down on all
of them that hate me. I hope my goin' brings 'em peace. And I am going over
yonder, where no ghost can follow me. There's another place beyond here,
where I'll be free. Yeah, that's what I believe.
GROSS: And that's "Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song)" from Steve Earle's latest
CD, "Transcendental Blues."
We talked about how, in writing the song, you felt you were still processing
having witnessed the execution. When did you write your short story in your
new book that's about witnessing an execution?
Mr. EARLE: I went to Galway in Ireland right after Jon was executed on
October 7th, not quite three years ago. And I--well, I guess I left the
country around the 15th or so, you know, within a week after Jon was executed.
And I went to Ireland for several months, and part of it was, you know, to
just sort of get away for a while because I'd been working pretty hard and
then I witness an execution and I needed the rest. And also to work on this
book. By that time, I had a publisher and had an editor and, you know, I was
trying to write enough stories for a collection so I could publish this
someday. And I wrote two stories. I wrote "Over Yonder" and finished a
couple stories I was working on, and I sort of laid out this story, "The
Witness," which is fiction. It's actually got a whole 'nother sort of plot
going on in it, but it definitely draws very heavily from what I saw that day.
GROSS: My guest is singer/songwriter and guitarist Steve Earle. He has a new
collection of short stories called "Doghouse Roses."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Steve Earle, and he's a
singer/songwriter and guitarist with many CDs. He also now has his first book
of short stories. It's called "Doghouse Roses."
Before I ask you to read an excerpt of your short story, "The Witness," about
witnessing an execution, I want to ask you what you were most unprepared for
when you witnessed the execution of Jonathan Wayne Nobles.
Mr. EARLE: My own empathy for the people that had to participate in that
execution. Jon was really incredibly well-prepared, and it was hard to watch.
He was genuinely remorseful and, you know, he was just trying to die the best
that he could. But the other people--I don't know where it came from; I
didn't see anything from them to--that would normally evoke empathy, but it
just dawned on me that what I was looking at was people protecting a
relatively low-paying job with halfway decent benefits. It's the only
industry in Huntsville, Texas, and--is the prison system. And, you know, this
damages everybody that touches it.
My objection to the death penalty is not about what it does to the guys on
death row as much as it is what it does to all of us. I object to the damage
it does to my spirit if I kill somebody, and if my government kills somebody,
then I'm killing somebody.
GROSS: Well, let me ask you to read an excerpt of "The Witness," and this
story is told from the point of view of a corporate attorney whose wife was
murdered and the man convicted of murdering his wife is about to be executed.
The corporate attorney is there to witness the execution. And at this moment
in the story, the man being executed has just picked up his head and stared at
the observers. You want to pick it up from there?
Mr. EARLE: Yeah.
(Reading) `He mercifully turned away. Staring straight up at the ceiling, he
took a long, ragged breath, closed his eyes and began saying a Hail Mary in
Spanish. Gordon noticed that Chaplain Meeks(ph) was resting his right hand on
Camocho's leg just below the knee. For some reason that he couldn't explain,
the contact offended him. Now more than ever, Gordon wanted the whole
horrible business over with, finished. What Gordon didn't know was that the
Hail Mary was the signal that Camocho had agreed to so that Warden Larken(ph)
knew when he was ready. And Gordon had missed the warden's subtle hand signal
to the unseen executioner behind the one-way glass. Therefore, he had no way
of knowing that the poison had already made its way down the plastic tubing
and was racing through Andres Camocho's(ph) body.' (Spanish spoken) `Andy's
prayer was interrupted by a sound from his own lips, a low-pitched bark, a
startling incongruous sound like a small child with whooping cough. His air
was suddenly forced from his lungs and his head pitched forward until his chin
lodged on his chest. It was as if an invisible anvil had been dropped on his
chest from a great height. It was much more violent than Gordon had ever
imagined it would be. He had somehow convinced himself that this would be
different somehow. On paper, it was efficient and clinical. Instead, there
was the unmistakable sense that he was witnessing a soul being brutally and
unnaturally ripped from a human body.'
GROSS: Now you know that kind of barking that you're describing, that the
executed man goes through...
Mr. EARLE: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
GROSS: ...at the moment of death? Is that something that happened in the
execution you witnessed?
Mr. EARLE: Yeah. And it varies. I mean, some people--I mean, I know people
that have witnessed executions. I wasn't fortunate enough to have a lady
named Karen Sebung(ph), who had witnessed an execution before me who I was
friendly with in Houston. That prepared me to some extent for what I was
going to see, and it's different. I mean, some people yawn and some
people--there's a gasp of--basically, it's a massive dose of penabarbital
which that--we're told that that's to put them to sleep before the second
chemical collapses their lungs. And the truth of the matter is a massive
overdose of penabarbital collapses your lungs. The second one makes sure that
they don't inflate themselves because people have different tolerances to
What I saw in Jon's execution was--it was so--Jon was singing when he was
executed. His signal was--he sang "Silent Night." And when he got to the
line, `mother and child,' the sound was so loud it was like `Haa!' And then
he didn't make another sound and he didn't move. But as he expelled that air,
his head pitched forward violently enough that his heavy, plastic prison
glasses fell off of his face, bounced off of his chest and landed on the
GROSS: You didn't take notes at the execution, did you?
Mr. EARLE: No. I couldn't have if I'd wanted to. I mean, the press can do
that, but I couldn't have done that.
GROSS: You mean you weren't allowed to?
Mr. EARLE: No. I wasn't allowed--you're not--Texas is one of the most
restrictive death row--there are no contact visits on death row, you can't
take any writing instruments into death row or into the walls, which is where
the executions actually take place.
GROSS: Why did you want to write a story about this?
Mr. EARLE: Well, I wanted to do it because it's how I process things. I've
been writing all my life and, you know, I mean, I had Jon's permission,
explicitly, which I didn't ask for. I spent--the last time I saw Jon where I
could talk to him was at 12:30 right before he was taken over to the walls the
day of his execution. Texas executes people at six in the evening.
So one of the last things he said to me was--he said, `You have my permission
to use anything that you saw here against the death penalty or, you know, for
artistic reasons.' And that wasn't something that I asked him for. And I
probably--if he hadn't said that, I probably wouldn't--I probably would have
written it down, but I probably wouldn't have published anything.
GROSS: One of the observations that you make in your short story about the
execution is that, you know, a lot of convicts have been junkies, and for a
former junkie who's getting executed, it harder to find veins for the lethal
Mr. EARLE: Yeah.
GROSS: ...IV. How did you learn about that?
Mr. EARLE: Well, I mean, it's not--I've been doing work against the death
penalty for a long time. You know, I've watched states change over from--you
know, we keep track of, you know--Florida had the electric--has had, you
know--held on to the electric chair longer than anybody. But a lot of states
have recently switched over to lethal injection. And in the early days of
lethal injection, there had been botched executions by that method as well.
And one of the problems that they run into is that there's--80 percent of the
people we have behind bars in this country for any reason are there for
drug-related charges. A lot of those people are IV drug addicts. That's the
main reason the--you know, that AIDS is so prevalent in our prison system.
You know, I've been through having to have medical procedures myself and had
them have trouble finding a vein. Sometimes I wanted to--I've been to the
dentist a few times and I wanted to--I had to have a lot of dental work done
right after I got clean. And a couple of times I've wanted to just take
needles away from people because I felt like I could do a better job than they
could. But it's a common problem and, you know, these are stories that
unfortunately pass around among people that have witnessed executions and just
people around the movement in general.
GROSS: Steve Earle will be back in the second half of the show. This is
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of song)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Remember last election, everybody was in action
trying to find themselves a president...
GROSS: Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward on three blues musicians, Blind
Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Boy Fuller. Maureen Corrigan reviews
the new novel "bel canto" and we continue our conversation with Steve Earle.
Unidentified Man: (Singing) My brother was a voter, also a great promoter,
going around giving advice. They go down to the poll and vote, made us vote
and once we voted twice. He's in their jailhouse now. He's in their
jailhouse now. We got him downtown in jail, no one to go his bail. He's in
their jailhouse now.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Back with singer/songwriter/guitarist and record producer Steve Earle. He's
just published his first book, a collection of short stories called "Doghouse
In 1994, Earle was arrested for possession of narcotics. He spent several
months in prison and then went into rehab. He launched a successful comeback
in 1995 which has included five albums, three Grammy nominations and founding
his own record label, E-Squared.
The last time we spoke, it was pretty shortly in your comeback after you gave
up dope. How easy or hard has it been to stay clean? I mean, your career has
really been doing well. Your records, as far as I can tell, have been doing
Mr. EARLE: Right.
GROSS: And you're been producing records by other people. Your comeback has
been pretty successful. But how hard has it been to keep healthy?
Mr. EARLE: Well, I mean, it hasn't been easy, but it's been simple. I know
what to do. I tried everything else, and I still do exactly the same things
that I was doing when we last spoke. I may be even more dedicated to that way
of life now. It is my way of life. It's my spiritual system. And I really
didn't have one before, so--and I've watched people with more time than I have
relapse, and that's happened a couple of times recently. I mean, I've got not
quite seven years. I'll have seven years in September if I keep doing the
right stuff. And I've seen a few people with 12 and 14 years clean relapse
recently. And that's terrifying.
But it doesn't have to happen. I know that, too. I've seen other people--you
know, relapse is not necessarily a part of recovery, and if I keep doing the
right things, I really do believe that it'll continue to work for me.
GROSS: Now that you've been writing a lot, how has writing affected what
you're reading? Are you reading more than ever?
Mr. EARLE: Well, I read a lot. I mean, I've got an eighth-grade education so
I'm sorry I had to educate myself, and I've always read a lot. I read a lot
more non-fiction than I do fiction. I read a lot of non-fiction and I read a
lot of poetry. And I read some fiction. I read--I go through--I read all the
time, but I go through periods of, you know, I'll discover a writer, and I
have a tendency to discover a writer and then read absolutely everything
they've written in a relatively short period of time. I was that way--I
discovered Graham Greene in my late 20s and read absolutely everything, and I
read and re-read Mark Twain to this day. I mean, God knows how many times
I've read "Huckleberry Finn," and I completely and totally agree with Ernest
Hemingway when he said that don't bother to go write the great American novel
because it's already been written and it's called "Huckleberry Finn."
Lately I've been reading--Michael Ondaatje probably wrote my favorite book.
It's called "Coming Through Slaughter," and it's--you know, I guess it's his
first novel, but I guess it was published in '79, somewhere in there. He's a
great poet and, of course, he's known more for novels that he's written since
then. But "Coming Through Slaughter" is like a form of literature that, as
far as I know, didn't exist before then. It is poetry and it is prose and it
is history. It deals with a person who really lived, Buddy Bolden, who was a
cornet player in New Orleans at the turn of the century, who's somewhat of an
enigma just because no one knows what he sounded like because he never made
records. His career existed before electronic recording, but everyone that
came out of New Orleans heard him play. Louis Armstrong knew what Buddy
Bolden sounded like. So in a way we've all heard Buddy Bolden's influence.
GROSS: Steve Earle is my guest, and he's a singer/songwriter/guitarist with
several CDs and now he has a new book of short stories which is called
You've been producing records by other people, including Lucinda Williams and
Mr. EARLE: Yeah.
GROSS: Why have you gotten so involved in producing other people's music?
Mr. EARLE: I think--for me it's about teaching. I also teach a course at
the Old Town School of Folk Music And I do that for the same reason that I
produce records. Teaching is really important. If you teach and you do it
right, then you learn so much, and I still--just shamelessly from younger
bands that I produce and sometimes it's contemporaries. I mean, we're working
with Lucinda, that's someone that I've known since I was 17 years old and we
sort of came up together and--in the same circles in Texas, but my favorite
thing is producing baby bands that have never made a record before. You know,
Ron is a great writer. Ron's like--I've known him for a long time, and he was
kind of a protege at one point, years ago, but he's grown up into this--you
know, he's as good as most people are lyrically, and he has no peer in pop
music melodically nowadays. I don't think anyone else writes melodies like
that. But the thing that's really fun is producing records on bands like 6
String Drag and finding bands like Marah and, you know, young bands that have
never made a record before. That's fun. That's when--you know, if you're
doing it right, you know, you learn a huge amount.
And hopefully, you can make it easier for people to concentrate on what's
important, you know, when they're--you know, when they're in a studio, when
they're in an uncomfortable environment and help them learn their way around
that environment and how to make records for the rest of their lives.
GROSS: Influences that you've recently gotten deeper into include bluegrass
and The Beatles, and there's a lot of harmony in both of those, although the
harmonies are different.
Mr. EARLE: Yeah.
GROSS: Have you gotten more involved in singing harmony?
Mr. EARLE: Yeah. I mean, I think I've gotten--I write--the main thing is
changing my writing because I write more chick songs.
GROSS: More chick songs. What does that mean?
Mr. EARLE: Yeah. It means I write a lot more pretty songs which serve
several purposes. I've become more interested in melody and it also prevents
my audience from getting exponentially hairier and uglier as time goes on
because I have to look at them, too.
GROSS: Wait. So let's get back to harmony.
Mr. EARLE: Harmony's like something that's been a weak suit for me, and I
was always a really bad harmony singer. But from singing with people that
were good harmony singers over the last few years, I've gotten better at it.
And so I don't automatically break out when someone, you know--people'll very
casually ask you to come sing harmony on their record as a guest, and that
used to cause me a lot of consternation. And now I feel a lot more confident
when I'm asked to do that because I think I understand how harmony works a
little bit better.
GROSS: The title story in your new book, "Doghouse Roses," is about somebody
who's kind of leaving town or starts off with somebody who's leaving town
after a relationship...
Mr. EARLE: Right.
GROSS: ...has fallen apart. And you know, we've been talking a little bit
about how you've been writing about similar subjects in your songs and in your
stories. The idea of being on the road or hitting the road is--well, it's one
of the oldest subjects certainly in country music and in rock music and the
blues. And even on your new CD--on your most recent CD, "Transcendental
Blues," there's two songs about the road, and one of them is about the person
threatening to hit the road and burn the house down.
Mr. EARLE: Right.
GROSS: And then the other, the person has been on the road and they're
thinking about giving up the road and hanging up their highway shoes.
Mr. EARLE: Right.
GROSS: And they're both--they're really good songs that are opposite sides...
Mr. EARLE: Right.
GROSS: ...of the same coin. I'm wondering if that's been a theme in your
life, a desire to hit the road and a desire to get off the road.
Mr. EARLE: Sure it has. But, you know, I mean, I'm dealing with it right
now. I'm getting towards the end of the tour. I'm in the best relationship
I've ever been in my life. I like to be home a lot better--you know, a lot
more than I used to. And Sara is sort of like, well, you know--like almost
everybody else I've ever been with. Say, `Well, I knew you toured, but I
didn't know you toured.' And this tour has gone on longer than I intended it
to. So I'm ready for it to be over with.
At the same time, I am--I have to admit that I do--when I'm home for any--for
an extended period of time, I start wondering what it'd be like to be back on
a bus. I like to roll after the show and spend the night on the bus and wake
up in another town. I've been doing it for most of my life.
But things are slowing down a little bit, and actually "Another Town" was
written--the one about burning the house down, was written--I was using tools
that I'd been using in writing songs about leaving towns all my life and
trying to lend somebody else a voice because that song was written for Sara to
sort of lend her a voice when we first met and she was in a situation where I
think she needed to make a move, and I was just sort of being a cheerleader
there, whereas "Steve's Last Ramble" is a little bit more just me.
GROSS: Well, I thought maybe we'd play the beginning of those back-to-back...
Mr. EARLE: OK.
GROSS: ...and compare these two instincts. Steve Earle, I want to thank you
so much for talking with us about your music and your stories.
Mr. EARLE: Thank you.
(Soundbite of "Another Town")
Mr. EARLE: (Singing) One of these days when my mind's made up and I'm sick
and tired of hangin' around, I'll be on my way in a cloud of dust, on the road
to another town. Once upon a time I loved this house, now I'm thinkin' 'bout
burning it down. And I'll be long gone when the fire burns out on the way to
another town. See another city in another light...
(Soundbite of "Steve's Last Ramble")
Mr. EARLE: (Singing) I'm thinkin' 'bout givin' up this ramblin' round and
hangin' up my highway shoes. Lately when I walk they make a hollow sound, and
they carry me away from you. Every night I lay my body down, and my empty
arms just leave me blue. So I'm thinkin' 'bout givin' up this ramblin' round
and find my way back home to you.
GROSS: Two songs from Steve Earle's latest CD, "Transcendental Blues." His
new collection of short stories is called "Doghouse Roses."
Coming up, Ed Ward on three blues musicians, Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller and
Blind Lemon Jefferson. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: Three blind blues musicians
TERRY GROSS, host:
In today's celebrity culture, we expect to learn every little detail of stars'
lives. But as rock historian Ed Ward shows us, by contrasting three blind
blues men, some famous musicians of the past have been complete enigmas while
less famous ones were sometimes better documented.
(Soundbite of "Matchbox Blues")
Mr. BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON: (Singing) I've ...(unintelligible) matchbox on my
soul. I've ...(unintelligible) matchbox on my soul. I ain't got so many
matches but I've got so far to go.
ED WARD reporting:
Perhaps no single blues song has had such a odyssey as Blind Lemon Jefferson's
"Matchbox Blues." It was a huge hit when it was first released in 1927,
copied by dozens of other blues singers at the time. And from them, went into
the repertoire of Carl Perkins, the rockabilly singer and guitarist who
learned his music from the black sharecroppers his family lived and worked
with. From there, it went to The Beatles who recorded it early in their
career. But of Lemon Jefferson we know next to nothing. We know he was from
the countryside outside of Dallas, that he got a reputation as a great guitar
player and its black honky-tonks and that he recorded for Paramount Records,
becoming its first blues star and selling countless records for them. We
don't know for sure how old he was when he died in December 1929, or how he
died, despite a legend that he froze to death in the snow in Chicago.
(Soundbite of "See That My Grave's Kept Clean")
Mr. JEFFERSON: (Singing) Want a one-time favor I ask of you. Want a
one-time favor I ask of you. Lord, it's one-time favor I ask of you, please
see that my grave is kept clean.
WARD: His song "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" became a huge hit, again
getting recorded in various versions over the years and remaining one of the
most mystical of all blues recordings. But even his name, Lemon, remains a
(Soundbite of song)
WARD: He's not the only one. Perhaps the greatest guitar virtuoso to record
in the '20s was Blind Blake, who also recorded for Paramount starting in 1926.
He was the only one of Paramount's artists who outsold Lemon Jefferson, no
doubt because his guitar style spanned the era of ragtime and blues and thus
appealed to a wider audience. He left behind dozens of records and continued
recording until Paramount went out of business in 1932. His songs, too, have
survived to the present day.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. BLIND BLAKE: (Singing) A gangster shot his pal today as they carried him
away, he said, `Diddy-wah-diddy.' He say, `Diddy-wah-diddy. I just find
out what diddy-wah-diddy means.' Police walked right up to him, local jail,
old two-gun Jim, Mr. Diddy-wah-diddy. Mr. Diddy-wah-diddy. I just find out
what diddy-wah-diddy means. They took him to jail...
WARD: Incredibly, only two things are known about Blind Blake. First, that
his name was Arthur. Second, that he was blind. Paramount claimed he was
from Florida, but nobody knows for sure. When was he born? When did he die?
We don't know. We're far more likely to find out definitively what
Part of the problem of dealing with these men is that they recorded for
absolutely the worst record company of its time. Paramount was a subsidiary
of a furniture company which made phonographs and only made records to give
customers something to play on them. They recorded blues men, loads of them,
because it didn't cost much. And they used the cheapest possible shellac so
that the few Paramount records which survive are in terrible shape. They
didn't care a bit who their artists were, or unless they sold as well as
Jefferson and Blake if they ever came back.
But this wasn't the case with other record companies.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. BLIND BOY FULLER: (Singing) Say I'm going uptown, hat in my hand, looking
for the woman ain't got no man. This is where we're looking for a needle in
the sand, looking for a woman ain't got no man. Oh, rag. Rag. Rag. Say, do
that rag. Oh, rag. Oh, rag. Rag. Say, do that rag. Says I wouldn't have
thought my gal...
WARD: We know that Blind Boy Fuller was born on July 10th, 1907, and that his
real name was Fulton Allen. In 1925, he married a 14-year-old girl named Cora
Mae, and it was at this point that his eyes started to fail him. He and his
wife moved to Durham, North Carolina, and he began playing guitar. He took
lessons from the Reverend Gary Davis, the reigning guitar champion of the
area, and before long the local record store owner brought him to the
attention of the American Recording Company.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. FULLER: (Singing) I've forsaken my sister, forsaken my brother, I've
forsaken my daddy and ma, ...(unintelligible). I had to do that,
(unintelligible) woman a name. But now she's fixing to leave me, ain't this a
crying shame. If she...
WARD: His first record, "Ain't It A Crying Shame," became a hit and soon he
was making regular visits to New York to record often with Gary Davis and
another guitarist named Bull City Red, whose real name was George Washington.
Fuller's recordings pretty much defined what is called Piedmont blues and made
it possible for a new generation of blues men, including Sonny Terry and
Brownie McGhee, to get heard. Fuller took sick in 1940 and was in and out of
the hospital until he decided to die at home and let Cora Mae nurse him. He
died on February 13th, 1941.
There's an interesting coda here, too. Not far from Fuller there lived a
tailor whose son was very interested in music. He obviously had a deep
understanding of the blues, but he was only 15 when Fuller died. We'll never
know. Did John Coltrane ever hear Blind Boy Fuller?
GROSS: Ed Ward currently lives in Berlin. Here's more from Blind Boy Fuller.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. FULLER: (Singing) I woke up this morning about half past four, somebody
knocking on my back door saying that's my rattle-snakin' daddy. That's my
rattle-snakin' daddy. Got my rattle-snakin' daddy wants to rattle all the
time. Yes, he rattle this morning about half past three, half past four he
wanted to rattle some more, because that's my rattle-snakin' daddy. That's my
rattle-snakin' daddy. Got my rattle-snakin' daddy, wants to rattle all the
time. I got a range in my kitchen, big bad, nice and brown, get my
rattle-snakin' daddy turn the damper upside down. 'Cause I'm a rattle-snakin'
daddy. 'Cause I'm a rattle-snakin' daddy. I'm a rattle-snakin' daddy, wants
to rattle all the time. Rattle now, boy.
GROSS: Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Ann Patchett's new novel, "bel
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Ann Patchett's new book "bel canto"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Novelist Ann Patchett, whose earlier books include "The Patron Saint Of
Liars" and "The Magician's Assistant," knew next to nothing about opera
before she began researching her new novel, "bel canto." Writing "bel canto"
turned Patchett into an opera buff, and reading it turned book critic Maureen
Corrigan into a Patchett fan.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
I've sat through exactly one opera in my life, "Aida," which was put in in
Central Park at night one summer when I was 18 or 19. I went with a
girlfriend and I dimly remember our motivations had nothing to do with culture
and a lot to do with getting away from our parents, drinking some bad wine and
meeting boys. That's how clueless I was. I thought you could meet boys at an
About opera I remained clueless, although I'm much more intrigued by its
attractions after reading Ann Patchett's haunting novel, "bel canto." For
those familiar with operatic plots and techniques, the novel must offer a
witty, insider reading experience. But even a bumpkin like me can thrill to
the sheer flamboyance of "bel canto's" melodrama, its gracefully interwoven
plot lines, its looming intimations of tragedy. The narrative premise of "bel
canto" owes a lot to those Agatha Christie-type mysteries where a baroque
cast of strangers gathers together on an island or in a manor house, only to
have their lives put in peril.
In Patchett's novel, the remote locale is the vice president's mansion in an
unnamed South American country. Wealthy businessmen and dignitaries from all
around the world have been invited to a birthday celebration in honor of Mr.
Hosokawa, the founder of a Japanese electronics company. The host country
hopes that Mr. Hosokawa will be so softened up by gratitude that he'll be
induced to build a factory there. The rest of the guests hope that they can
hop aboard this gravy train. Of course, Mr. Hosokawa wouldn't fly halfway
across the world just for some free champagne. So the hook has been lavishly
baited. Since Mr. Hosokawa is an opera nut, the famous diva, Roxanne Coss,
has been induced at an exorbitant price to come and sing six arias for the
assembled guests. She's just concluded her party piece when the lights go out
in the cavernous drawing room and an army of gun-toting terrorists leaps from
the air conditioning vents. The terrorists had planned to take their
country's president hostage, but he stayed home to watch his favorite soap
More irony: Mr. Hosakawa never considered investing in the host country. He
accepted the invitation in bad faith, simply because he wanted to breathe the
same air as his idol, Roxanne Coss. Except for Roxanne, all of the women and
the workers are released. Everyone else is stuck for the duration, and
slowly, Patchett's story takes on the sheen of the utopian fantasy where
people who initially came together out of grimy self-interest begin to forge
deep emotional bonds as a result of proximity and of the uplifting influence
of Roxanne's daily musical performances.
An alternate world develops inside the mansion that no one struggles to leave.
Here's how Patchett affectingly describes the `be here now' bliss of one of
the terrorists, a country girl named Carmen.
(Reading) `None of her family left behind in the mountains could have
understood that there was a house made of bricks and sealed glass windows that
was never too hot or too cold. In addition, there was food that came every
day. Yes, the generals wanted something better for the people, but weren't
they the people? Would it be the worst thing in the world if nothing happened
at all, if they all stayed together in this generous house? Carmen prayed
that God would look on them and see the beauty of their existence and leave
Of course, every man, prisoner and captor alike, falls at least a little in
love with the dominative, dazzling Roxanne described as a pocket Venus. Mr.
Hosokawa's overworked personal translator, Gen Watanabi, translates the
babble of all their multilingual tributes into English for Roxanne to
demurely accept. In a Shakespearean turn, she and Mr. Hosakawa become lovers
while Gen and Carmen, who masquerades as a boy for much of the novel, find that
passion needs no translation.
It's all hokey as heck and so very affecting. I imagine that Patchett's lithe
writing style and her tone, by turns rye and teasing and mournful, does for
this creaky plot what a great singer's voice does for a moth-eaten libretto.
"bel canto" soars above its narrative cliches and revels in them.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "bel canto" by Ann Patchett.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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