Sunday, December 19, 2010

Pops Farrar, the son of the speakeasy songster

Sparked by the recent inaugural Uncle Tupelo tribute show in St. Louis, I am posting some chapters from my unpublished musical memoir that deal with those guys. This is Chapter 120, which follows immediately upon my previous post, "The way the music dies" and concludes the book.

The son of the speakeasy songster
By Chris King

One night that spring, 1997, I went to see a local folk rock band, One Fell Swoop, at Focal Point. The venue, with its wooden school chairs bolted to the floor, had a claustrophobic atmosphere. During a break between sets, I stepped outside to feel the evening and have a smoke on the sidewalk. I was greeted there by the wife of the drummer, who pointed me toward an old man smoking a homerolled cigarette.

“This is Pops Farrar,” she said to me. And to him: “Chris is really into folklore-type stuff.”

“Well, I got considerable of that dern folklore,” Pops bust right out the gate and said, and it certainly looked like that was true. He was wearing a soiled fishing hat on which he had pasted a Route 66 sticker. His long face had all the cracks of a well-traveled road. Actually, this face was too animated for that comparison – it had all the twists and eddies of a river.

“Yeah, my old bandmate Chris Bess told me about you,” I said. “You know, Chris plays accordion.”

“I know it!” Pops enthused.

“He said you play Cajun accordion.”

Like the rest of us, Chris Bess always looked up to Jay Farrar of Uncle Tupelo. More than most of us, Chris made actual inroads into befriending him. Chris had at least learned that the whole Farrar family was musical, starting with the old man, Pops. One of Jay’s older brothers, Dade, played stand-up bass in One Fell Swoop, the band on the bill tonight, which explained Pops’ presence at the show.

“Oh, I guess I stagger around on the accordion,” Pops said. “But not only that Cajun stuff. I do a little bit of everything. And I got my old concertina I picked up in France, while I was out with the Merchant Marine. I do chainsaw sculptures, too, of Civil War generals and old Geronimo. I got lots of interests.”

Pops’ face bloomed with smoke, and a big smile. Folklore was opening another new trail for us, one that circled around to where we began. I asked for the old man’s phone number, saying I wanted to come over to his house and record his accordion and concertina, and maybe take a look at those chainsaw sculptures.

“Don’t just talk about it, old Chris,” Pops practically shouted, gesturing with his homerolled cigarette. “Do it!”

We did it. Elijah took a break from his work in the Nashville power pop underground, packed up a portable studio, drove to St. Louis, and we trekked across the Mississippi River to record Pops Farrar.

Pops lived on the outskirts of Belleville, Illinois, a town Uncle Tupelo put on the map, in what he called “the Belleville rainforest”. The jungle image was conjured by the ravine next door, which was overgrown and noisy with the calls of birds and frogs. Pops lived just above the bluffs separating the American Bottom, where Granite City sprawled, from towns like Belleville nestled in the hills that smoothed out gradually into corrupted prairie and plains.

Pops’ house was built into the side of a hill. He stepped out from the basement at the bottom of the hill to greet us. I could see chainsaw sculptures of Civil War generals and Indians standing woodenly around the bushy yard, but Pops steered us inside so he could hook up his laser karaoke.

“I like the sound I get out of this,” he said.

His karaoke rig sat at the foot of a recliner, which was bent almost completely out of shape by God knows how many years of Pops at rest. Tobacco smoke formed a solid brown smog in the room.

Pops plopped down on a saggy couch. He had to clear off a flattened foam pillow and threadbare sheet for us to join him – it looked like this little couch was serving as his improvised bed. “Stag beer’s in the garage,” he announced, gesturing toward a door between the recliner and a dingy bathroom.

I sprang for a round, admiring his set-up. This old guy was completely cocooned in his basement studio, cooled by the Earth of the hill and shade trees, with walk-out access to his own rainforest sculpture garden.

“I'm like a crawdad down in here,” Pops said, jiggling the input jack on his karaoke rig, which made the echoey sounds of space junk. “Now that I’m alone, I just crawdad down in here, and snap up a claw.”

I popped a Stag into his snapped-up claw, and said, “Pops, let’s not with the karaoke machine.” I implored Elijah for help with my eyes.

“Let’s just put you on the couch with the accordion,” Lij said. “Let’s try everything raw first. We can add effects later, if you like that echo.”

“That cocksucker,” Pops said, turning his back on the karaoke rig. “Crapped out on me, anyway.”

Elijah set up the equipment, and I joined Pops on the couch. I had to tense my legs to keep from sliding toward him in the middle, which was hollowed down from the nightly weight of his sleeping body. We bantered as he wheezed dust off his accordion and finagled a coat hanger, which clasped a harmonica, around his scrawny neck. On his head was a filthy fishing hat, pasted with a label from a bottle of Jaegermeister.

“I first picked up music from my dad down in Salem, Missouri, in the Ozarks,” Pops said. “He played a pretty good guitar, and would sing. The Farrars had been influential down around there, because they had the contract franchise for the freight delivery. My dad had these trucks, and he would pick up goods at the train station and distribute them around town. But then with him being a musician during Prohibition, he used to play those speakeasies, the little places outside of town with the big jug of whiskey. My dad was an alcoholic, and that cut into his business. Then he lost that contract with the railroad, and we started to go down. I remember living down in my grandma’s basement in zero weather. Then we just had my dad’s music – that guitar was the only thing between us and starving to death.”

I thought of my jug of white whiskey in the trunk of the Birthplace, and sipped Stag. Pops had hardly touched his beer.

“See, we didn’t have no radio then, and we didn't have no TV. So in this little town, why all the people would gather of a Friday or Saturday night, and my dad would play. One song I always remembered and always liked the best was ‘Railroad Bum’.”

Pops pulled big chords on his baggy accordion, and opened up in a sad hobo voice. The song is the soliloquy of a cold and hungry man a thousand miles from home. I heard the ghosts of Jimmie Rodgers, Bascom Lamar Lunsford (“Railroad Bum,” in fact, was in his Memory Collection), and the brother of Marvin Faulkner, his hobo fiddle tune cut short by the wheels of a train. I guessed Pops was remembering his alcoholic dad, and lying down cold and hungry as a boy, and feeling a thousand miles away from home in the middle of the sea as a Merchant Marine.

“So, here’s another one he played,” Pops said, as he shut down the “Railroad Bum” with a flourish. “This one's about a slave situation down in Kentucky. The singer lost his old Nellie Gray. She’s been sold off to the slave trade. They been together on one plantation, but things have changed, and they didn’t need help around the big house no more. So they sold her off. And he’s real mournful.”

With his long, lined face, finished with a scraggly gray goatee, Pops was the man for mournful. I waited for the corn pone, the minstrel shtick, to accompany the slave song, but it never came. Pops had one voice for sadness of whatever sort, but it was an enormous one. There was room inside it for any kind of mourning.

I thought, again, of Bascom Lamar Lunsford, who not only sang this song (without a hint of condescension), he also wrote a parody of it. Spurred by the unexpected celebrity of “Mountain Dew”, Bascom had adapted “Darling Nellie Gray” into “Nos Pros Nellie”, mountain lawyer slang for “No Prosecution Nellie”; Nellie was getting off easy because she brewed a potent mountain dew that was fancied by the judge.

Now I did need a nip of my Mississippi moonshine, which Pops also accepted, though barely a thimble full, and he insisted on coffee afterwards. He poured his coffee from a thermos that looked scorched from wars. Then his accordion roamed off in search of other sadnesses.

Pops’ dad would have been Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s exact contemporary, so it’s no accident the old man’s songs overlapped so much with the Memory Collection. When their repertoires diverged, Bascom looked toward old England and its ballads, and Pops looked south to the Civil War and west to cowboys and Indians.

In his songs, Pops was a Union man and friend to the Indian. Besides “Darling Nellie Gray”, he sang “Red Wing”, about an Indian maid mourning her brave, who died at the Little Bighorn. But he didn’t disguise his admiration for the flinty Southern generals, some of whom I had glimpsed outside in the rainforest, or the gutsy footmen of the U.S. Cavalry.

Pops came up with a transition that connects the laments “Red Wing” and “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (a symbol a Cavalry widow wore to remember her fallen soldier). By making them a medley, he made the sorrows of an Indian maid and a Cavalry widow bleed together. Maybe it was my Mississippi moonshine, maybe that mournful Ozark voice, but Pops seemed to speak up for every heartbreak in American history.

Pops must have seen the mooniness in my eyes.

“You bringing that dern illicit liquor into my house,” Pops said. “Sinner! You make me look like my dad down there, playing in them speakeasies. And that was real church people country, let me tell you. He’d be at some Friday night sing-out doing his honky tonk songs, and people would be drinking their homebrews, and he’d go into this little routine. He’d say:
You know, I was coming into town tonight, and there was a revival outside of town, with this big tent. They were inside singing all this beautiful church music. I thought I’d walk up and listen awhile.

So I walked in, and this old fire and brimstone preacher was preaching one of the most godawful sermons against whiskey and drinking and sinning and doping.

And he said, “Now I tell you tonight, if I had it to do here tonight, I’d take all the wine, and I’d take all the whiskey, and I’d take all the beer, and I’d take it down to the river, and I would dump it in, amen.”

Now, shall we sing,

Shall we gather at the river ...”
Pops jumped up at the punch line, and took a fresh smoke out to the rainforest. He smoked, and stretched his neck, freed from his homemade harmonica harness, and showed us hulks of old sports cars, rusting in the grass. “My boys say I need to clear them out of here,” Pops said. “They say I got too many interests. That I’m all over the place.”

“It’s because of a car that we know your boy Jay,” I said, “or a van, mostly. Our band bought their old van, the old Uncle Tupelo van.”

“That old blue van?”

“Old Blue,” I said. “Good van.”

“Did you know that was my old van?” Pops asked.

I sized him up with a funny feeling. I won’t pass this one off on white whiskey. I think everyone, with whatever patience for religion or tendency toward superstition, at some time feels a tingle, and knows the hand of fate just goosed them on the ass.

Uncle Tupelo and then their old blue van had put me out on the rock & roll road for years of adventures, which we only left behind for different adventures in music, pursuing the older ways. And now the pursuit of the old ways had brought me to the home where one of the Uncle Tupelo guys grew up, and I was swapping songs and moonshine with his father – with the source of that old blue van. I couldn’t have known it at the time, though I might have guessed, that Pops and I were just starting down a new road together that day while we smoked homerolled cigarettes surrounded by chainsaw sculptures of Indians and generals.

That road would take us up and down the Great River Road, down to a hippie commune in the Ozarks with a stone age African clown, to Georgia to reclaim my possessions from a previous life. Eventually it would bring remnants of my old rock & roll band back here to the Belleville rainforest to record our skuntry mishmash of world folklore and American folk music in Pops’ living room.

I couldn’t have known it at the time, though I might have guessed, that just like Enormous Richard took Old Blue out for one last set of wild rides after Uncle Tupelo had put the van to pasture, I would be taking Pops Farrar out for an unexpected journey near the end of the road – the last great adventures for this son of a hobo songster who had set foot on every continent on Earth as a Merchant Marine, keeping the music of the Missouri Ozarks and the world alive on a harmonica he kept in his pants pocket.

Pops was staring off into the thickets of the Belleville rainforest with his pale eyes. Maybe his intuition was also telling him we were onto something here. Something new. Something old. He breathed in some smoke from his homerolled. “You know, I maintained that van for those little guys in Uncle Tupelo – they beat it to hell! – until the day they give it away,” Pops said. “Or sold it, I guess. Sold it to you. You ended up with it. And now here you are, come to me. Well, I’ll be.”



Railroad Bum
Darling Nellie Gray
Red Wing
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
Shall We Gather at the River?

All songs traditional.
All performances by Pops Farrar.
Produced by Chris King
Released on Pops Farrar, Memory Music: Songs and Stories from the Merchant Marine (1999).


Previous posts in this series

In the hothouse basement
The allure of the ever-elusive exposure gig
Opening for Uncle Tupelo
A meeting in Old Blue
Strangers in the village
Managing your religion
A farewell to Old Blue
Trading horses
No Chris Bess
Jamming with the dead
Fruits of the tunes
Picking and grinning
Math problems and cluck tracks
The way the music dies

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