by Marco Perella
The Ramblers had a gig. You remember the Ramblers? Our little folk music trio THE MELANCHOLY RAMBLERS? Of course you do. Anyway, this gig was an event because we don’t play that many gigs these days onacounta Frances, our girl singer, has gone back to college. She got accepted into the University of Texas music school where she gets to study piano and music history and composition all day. And you know what happens when middle aged people go back to school. They get scholarship fever and have to get straight A’s in everything or they slit their wrists.
So Frances does homework and practices her 88’s all night and that leaves very little time for the Ramblers to play gigs. Brady and I (the other two members of our trio) need our chanteuse and accordionist to fill out our sound so the Ramblers are an occasional thing right now. When we do get to practice Frances is pulling all these arty chords on us and lecturing us on flatted fifths and relative minors. We say “But Frances, it’s a Johnny Cash song!” No effect. If Frances is going to slum with a honky tonk band we are at least going to go strictly by the book. I got her all distracted the other day when I wrote a song on my hummel that actually has a C9th in it. She couldn’t get over that. “God damn! You’re right! It IS a C9th!” I mean the shock of it. That a musical cretin like me could put an arty chord in a country song. So anyway, as long as we can titillate her with this kind of musical hyperbole she will play a gig or two.
We usually play down at the Saxon Pub or Jovita’s where our same 80 drunken friends come down and yell at us to play Long Black Veil. But the other day we get a call from a nursing home. They want us to play in their Alzheimer’s ward.
We like to play nursing homes since most of our songs were written in the thirties and nursing home patients are our most appreciative audience, having actually been alive when these tunes were hits. So we sign up to do a Wednesday afternoon gig at the home.
The Melancholy Ramblers feel a real kinship with Alzheimer’s sufferers because as middle age tightens its crusty grip around our ever-hardening arteries we forget songs at an accelerated rate. We must have learned 200 songs but we never have more than forty on hand because if we learn a new one and then don’t practice for a week we find we have forgotten the whole damn thing and have to start from scratch. So we usually say the hell with it and play Long Black Veil again. It’s the short term stuff that gives us trouble you see. We remember all the stuff we learned in 1967. Deep grooves in the cortex.
We tend to assign the responsibility of memorization in a very democratic way. For instance, Brady is responsible for all Hank Williams song lyrics. He learned them when he was 16 and those things are stuck in there good.
If they opened Brady’s skull and poked various areas of his brain with one of those lab pokers his mouth would flop open and he’d sing the third verse of Cold Cold Heart. Frances and I never remember the third verse of Cold Cold Heart so when we are on stage we start staring at Brady’s mouth about half way through the second verse searching for clues. Brady tries to reassure us by exaggerating his pronunciation so we can read his lips. Other times those two are staring at me to feed ‘em lines. Nobody EVER watches Frances for words because we KNOW she doesn’t have a clue. Frances takes a music stand up on stage to hold the lyrics of her own SOLOS.
Despite these precautions accidents do happen. We were playing a wedding one time and Brady completely blanks out the last verse of his big yodel number, “Cattle Call”. Luckily some idiot woman has crashed the stage with a pair of spoons so Brady keeps saying “Play those spoons, Lady!” while we try to figure out the words. I think the spoon woman had three straight solos.
We do this call and response number called “What About You?” from 1949:
Brady sings “It’s hard to belieeeeeeve” and I talk-sing (“it’s hard to believe”) in response. Brady goes on…”That you are the same one!” (echo) “I once loved so much!”…”That I loved so true”…and on like that. But this one time Brady forgets the lyrics and of course I’m trying to echo him in response so it comes out…”It’s hard to Belieeeeeve!” (it’s hard to believe) “It’s hard to belieeeeeve!” (it’s hard to believe?)…”It’s hard to believe” (it sure is hard to believe) “So hard to believe!”…(damn hard to believe).
That spooked Brady pretty good about that song for awhile so the next time he blanks on it he decides to forge bravely on. He puts on this big smile and SELLS the sucker except the words come out “It’s hard to belieeeeve!…You florted my love spoooge!…My flenjing cavert spool!…..Go videy biddaaaay!” …I think I might have given up my dutiful echo responses by this time and am closing my eyes as if overcome with poignant emotion. Right.
This is one of our favorite techniques for hiding the fact that we
don’t have a clue. Act like you’re grooving and sell it. I tend to
close my eyes in a fake soul swoon. Brady tends to smile real big. One
time Brady forgets his whole part on “House of the Rising Sun” and
it’s an ACCAPELLA three part harmony. Frances and I suddenly notice
that there is a peculiar hole in our sound and we look at Brady and he
is lip-synching with this big smile on his face. The son of a gun is
ACTING like he’s singing so nobody will know that the reason we
suddenly sound like caca is because of him. Frances is a smiler too.
Except when she screws up Brady and I always point at her so everyone
knows whose fault it is.
We have one song that no one in the whole band knows the lyrics to and sometimes we sing it just for the adrenaline rush. It’s called “The Whale Song” and it’s a real fast fiddle reel and some of the words are…”See her spout high as the spray flies casts raaaaiiiinbows cross the sails, as you dance through the colors you’ll dance with the whale, grab a deck hand he’s a fine man to jig with round the sail, and you’re dancing yes dancing you’re dancing with the whale…” All three of us sing different words in three part harmony. We consistently screw it up so completely that we kind of relish doing the song now and gleefully adapt lyrics at will…”See the shoe fly as your dog dies and jiiiiibber guppy bails….” Eventually unmentionable things happen to that poor deck hand.
Meanwhile, back at the Alzheimer’s ward…. We arrive on the day and they usher us in to the back wing where all the doors are locked and they let us in and lock the doors behind us and we enter a room full of PINK naugahyde easy chairs with old ladies tied up in them. I know this sounds incredible but could I (even I!) make something like this up? I mean PINK for God’s sakes! Some of these ladies look very intelligent and pleasant and sweet. It’s just that they have restraining straps around their bodies. So we start playing and they love it. Soon enough it becomes obvious why these people are tied up. They start thrashing about, whether in joy or torture we’re not sure. There’s lots of vocalizing too. Whoops seem to be very popular.
The Ramblers finally assume that we are indeed driving our audience to the hot pink edge of ecstasy. The older the song the better they like it so we launch into our famous rendition of “Banks of the Ohio”. You know, where the guy murders his date. (I held a kniiiiiiife, against her breahhhhsst!) Much thrashing and whooping. Out of the corner of my eye I notice an extra hand helping me fret my hummel. The Ramblers are standing in a corner of the room and our audience in bondage is pretty close to us and one lady seems to like me and wants to help. An occasional atonal ‘sproing’ livens up the tune.
the back of the crowd one gentleman is tied up; the lone representative
of his sex. He slaps his forehead constantly, like he’s saying “OY!
Vey!” over and over. As we strike up “I’ll Fly Away”, I notice
that his repetitive head slapping has latched on to the rhythm of our
tune. That’s when I know we’ve got ‘em. A surge of enthusiasm
rocks the room as we pound out the primal two step. Frances is singing
real high and Brady is jutting his chin, a sure sign that he’s into
it. The little old lady hand that reaches out to caress my fretboard
waves delicately above the strings. That’s when the nurse unleashes
Beulah has been sitting right in the front row beaming at us from her restrained position in her pink armchair. Her whoops are among the most spirited of the afternoon. She’s so happy that the nurse decides to let her run wild and free and when she unclips the bondage belt, Beulah does. She lurches to her feet and charges. Instantly we ascertain her musical tastes. Not much for guitars or fiddles or accordions. Beulah likes hummel players! Luckily I have my hummel strapped to a stand and I am able to fend her off with the legs of it. She reaches her arms out to embrace me but by then nursie has caught up with her and it’s back to the straps for Beulah. She resumes her whooping.
After this incident the Ramblers confer. We decide to eliminate the hummel from the mix for now and do some western songs. The hummel is obviously too stimulating. We give ‘em a little Tumbling Tumbleweeds to soothe them. Head slap Harry slows down his forehead rhythm and our audience settles. The whooping takes on a more plaintive if lonesome quality. A couple of Sons of the Pioneer songs later and the ward has quieted considerably. Better than thorazine.
We decide to chance it and pick up the fiddle and hummel and launch into The Whale Song. Here comes Beulah. Nurse must have emancipated her again. I am concentrating on inventing ribald lyrics and don’t spot her until too late. She reaches out to grab my head and crush it to her bosom. Brady and Frances modulate into a love song as they drag my one true fan away.
The other patients, still bound, are resentful of Beulah’s forays onto the stage. We decide to come to them. We abandon accordion and hummel and go into our walking version of “Roll Along Prairie Moon”, going to each chair and serenading a lady. When we get to Head Slap Harry we all join in with him on a clapping chorus. I wind up sitting on the arm of Beulah’s chair, holding her hand and singing…”far away, shed your beam, on the girl of my dreams…tell her too I’ll be true, Prairie Moon…”.