I had been playing the open mic at The Hub Bar & Grille downtown on Tuesday nights steady for a few months, with my lady by my side. We were good drinking buddies, and we called it our ‘date night’.
Every week I’d come up with a half-dozen or two new cover songs to comprise a set, and try to have some fun with the regulars. I’d play stuff like “Hard Times”, “Catch The Wind”, “Chimes of Freedom”, “The Unwelcome Guest”, “Arthur McBride”, “Ragpicker’s Dream”, “I and Love and You”, “Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis”, “Standing Outside A Broken Phone Booth”, “Goin’ To California”, “Nothing But The Wheel”, “Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay”, “Gold Dust Woman”, “Mandolin Rain”, “Hard To Handle”, “Green Tambourine”, “Mother’s Little Helper”.
Songs like “Take It Or Leave It”, “Ride On Baby”, “Desperadoes Under The Eaves”, “That’s How I Got To Memphis”, “Waiting On A Friend”, “It Must Have Been The Roses”, “All The Young Dudes”, “Changes”, “Downtown Train”, “Blowin’ In The Wind”, “I Could Have Lied”, “Slipping Away”, “Running Down A Dream”, “Whiter Shade Of Pale”, “October Winds”, “At The Bottom Of Everything”, “Racing In The Streets”, and “Only A Hobo”… hundreds of songs (it’s true, once I even counted), and the sets were always at least a little bit interesting in their cohesion of mental association or lack thereof in their thematic stringing-together.
One of the best nights I had was on a ’90s set when we all sang Weezer, Green Day and Red Hot Chili Peppers songs together.
Ah, memories .. and oh, the hangovers!
Now this open mic had mostly acoustic pop cover singers; you wouldn’t call them ‘folk’, ‘cus they didn’t really sing too many folk songs, and you wouldn’t call ’em ‘country’, ‘cus they weren’t really at all country and they didn’t hardly ever sing country songs.
Although, some were, and did. I remember one older guy who was totally country, a real cowboy who owned his own ranch, and he sang the most beautiful old country cover songs on a black Takamine acoustic guitar that was studded with abalone and lined with rhinestones. Man, I’d love to sit and drink a cold beer just listenin’ to him again!
And to have my girl with me again, in those days, back by my side …
But often it was the usual college crowd, and they would have fun little toy bands that they had dreamed up in their dorm rooms or sororities. And they were usually pretty good, too, not bad anyway, and some outright very talented musicians, too. Some very good jazz guitarists and female singers would come through, maybe return for a few weeks’ stint, and really entertain us.
I remember one kid, a foreign exchange student at the aviation school, turned his violin into a fiddle and played a fun, lively rendition of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’.
So imagine my impression when one Tuesday night arrives this lanky kid in a torn hooded sweatshirt, and with him a black dog. He’s carrying a mandolin, followed by a tall, lanky guy with a violin in dirty hay stained overalls, and they start playing some of the best old-time dance music I had ever heard!
“Reminds me of a boy I used to know,” my girl told me that night. “Just like Little Bobby.”
They had a sound that was forceful, with the strong treble of that mandolin cutting through the joint, setting a rhythm, and the violin playing a dance smooth and beautiful across the top of it all.
They played songs I thought I knew, so many of the melodies sounding so much the same, yet every one so immensely different. I knew “Turkey In The Straw” when I heard it. And “The Irish Washerwoman” was another one from my guitar lesson books! The world of song was getting richer evermore for me.
When they were finished, I told them I thought their music was absolutely world-class, and I meant it.
The mandolin player said his name was Fen, and the fiddler was Charlie. The black lab’s name was Dixie. They were from Appalachia, and were in town following Fen’s girlfriend Sarah, who was on a reporter’s internship with the local newspaper.
I would hear them a few more times, and soon would be playing with them too, on Tuesday nights, and we would even make recordings over at my apartment. Songs like “Over The Waterfall”, “Bonaparte’s Retreat”, “Needle Case”, “Red Wing”, “Red Haired Boy”, “West Fork Gals”, “Turkey In The Straw”, and one of my favorites I remember, one of Fen’s originals, “Prairie Dog In The City”. I figured he wrote that one about Dixie.
The Gal I Left Behind Me” by Rosa Blanda String Band. Released: 2015. Genre: Folk.
We became great friends, and my lady and I would go to Fen’s house that he rented with Sarah, a flat with just two rooms and a kitchen, and Dixie would be jumping on the sofa, her wild bull claws digging into our laps, her tail knockin’ at the dim candles as the wood floors creaked and we basked in the dust, and Sarah would open jars and the toaster would burn from the kitchen, Fen would rinse out a dirty coffee cup and we’d spill on the papers, and we’d swap and listen to old records of pickers and fiddlers, records by Roy Acuff & the Smokey Mountain Boys, Sam & Kirk McGee and The Crook Brothers, Chubby Wise & the Rainbow Ranch Boys, The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, The Stanley Brothers & the Clinch Mountain Boys, Carl Story, Red Sovine, Johnny Bond, Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, Leon McAuliff, Pete Drake on steel guitar, Bill Clifton & his Dixie Mountain Boys, Lew Childre, The Carter Family, “Fiddlin'” Arthur Smith and the Dixieliners, Bashful Brother Oswald, and many, many others.
One of the songs I learned from Fen and Charlie was called, “The Gal I Left Behind Me”, an upbeat melodic pickin’ tune that sounded like it was made for Confederate soldiers to march off to in a parade. I could manage to pick along with those boys on that one, and it had a nice ‘B’ part where I was finding my own little additional nuance to add to the licks, so we played it a lot, and it’s still one I sometimes play to this day.
I hear it every time I think of her, my girl, who I left behind me …
Well, it wasn’t too long a time before Sarah finished her internship at the newspaper, and was headed to a “real”, full-time job in St. Louis. And of course she took Fen and Charlie and Dixie with her. I was left behind with the songs I could remember, the melodies and titles, if I could recall them and keep them straight.
Of course I would always remember “The Gal I Left Behind Me”. I guess you might say that was my favorite one.
That’s when the trouble hit. Old trouble, rising up out of the past. The kind of trouble you thought you had left behind, thought you had forgotten. But it hadn’t forgotten me.
I had to leave, or face the sure prospect of bringing a whole world of trouble, strife and woe like a dark cloud down upon all the ones I loved. Especially my girl. It was catching up with me, and I had to split. It wouldn’t be fair to her and them to mess up everything in their lives just because of some dumb stuff I had done before any of us had ever even met.
I ducked out, hopped a train, and was vanished like I hadn’t even been there at all.
When I left, I told myself I would write home to her just as soon as it was safe and I got the chance. Time just seems to go by so fast, you know? It got away from me, I guess… maybe I let too much time pass…
Well, one day, a couple years after I left and the whole world had changed several times over, and they had all gone to a world of memories I had escaped in my mind, and the pressure was down, skies were blue, I was layin’ kicked back, reading the Lomax’s book, “American Folk Song”.
It’s a beautiful, strange book filled with the songs of the raw American birth, a time that to me felt so distant, yet was only just behind us in the past, the times that brought us forth, and if I thought about it long enough, the songs that truly make us up as people. Folk songs. Songs made by people, real people, about real life, songs made to help you survive through everything life would throw at you. Songs that relate one’s experience to another, experiences that we might share, that maybe we’ve been through ourselves.
I was turning the pages, thinking about so many of these experiences people had put into song and passed down to one another, and found the lyrics and melodic notation to one, “Gal I Left Behind Me”.
“There were words to this song?!” I thought to myself, and absorbed every word of every line, listening inside my head to the memories of that tune, and of Fen and Charlie, and Sarah, and Dixie.
And my girl. Would she remember me?
Such a fine song, and now to know that it has words! And that it is known to others, throughout this land, and throughout time! It made me feel a little less sore, just knowing there might be others out there who felt the same way I did.
Now, Fen might say that I’m wrong, that I bastardized this song by changing the words and the melody, but I don’t think so. I call it an alternative arrangement of the song, and all I did to the words was changed ’em a little to fit my situation, and bent the chords just a bit to make ’em fit the way I was feeling.
I’ll be playing it the next time I can ever get back to that Tuesday night open mic…
I think Alan Lomax would maybe even celebrate what I did, as a tradition of the American folk song, to keep the living thing alive and breathing new life, to be accepted and handed down, passed from one human being to another. A true folk song.
I think Fen really would understand, too.
And she would, too … the gal I left behind me.
I hope you will, too, when you hear it.
The track is currently available as part of my album Fallin’ Through The Sky, but as a thank you for being one of my subscribers I want to give it to you for free – no strings attached.
If you like the track you might also consider checking out Fallin’ Through The Sky. It’s my latest album and it’s full of original alt-country tunes, and even features some lead vocals by my old buddy Fen.