Archives for the month of: May, 2022

From the time Johnny and I got together in 2012 we spent our dutifully-spaced nights together at my mother’s house where I lived, with occasional overnights at friends’ houses when we played an out-of-town gig or went to a party far from home.

In December 2012 we made our one and only appearance as a couple at Camp Harmony, a multi-day New Year’s camp-out put on by the San Francisco Folk Music Club. I had been a club member for decades and often spent five days at camp in late December and early January.

One of the features of Camp Harmony was a swing dance or rock and roll dance that took place in a rotation of contra dances, French dances and other dances during the week. In 2012 somehow I got wind of the fact that some of the people who had traditionally led, managed and played for the Swing Dance would not be attending camp. This gave Johnny an opportunity to put himself forward as the bandleader/organizer for a Rock and Roll Dance (I wanted Johnny to go to camp with me and I knew it would sweeten the pot if he got to bring his Telecaster and amp and lead the band, a volunteer group of musicians — you never knew who would show up to play keyboards or bass, to sing back-up, to lead a song).

Johnny corresponded with the powers that be, collectively known as Ralph, and convinced them to give him a try. He hired his friend Sunnia Eastwood to bring us and our gear to camp. I gave him a rundown on how camp usually functioned. We bunked in a cabin with friends from the Ballad group and Joe Offer from the Mudcat Cafe, who had been a kitchen crew buddy of mine in years past.

Johnny threw himself into the job of managing the rock and roll band, as he always did, recruiting players he knew that were on site. I don’t remember too much about the actual dance except that Bob Reid and Art Peterson sang back-up parts on “The Weight” and Johnny and I reprised our duet on Springsteen’s “Fire.” People danced and sang and played and Johnny helped people have a good time and kept things moving.

Sunnia came to pick us up from camp after our two nights there. She was to take us to another party for the night, but just as we left camp we got into a car accident. Air bags deployed, gear moved about, and all three of us got thrown around and battered. Johnny’s friend Dale came to get us, to take us to his house for his party and to bring us back to camp the next day. At that point, my long-time friend Deborah, who was leaving camp to attend a choir rehearsal, offered to drive Johnny and me back to Kensington. I called ahead to tell Mom we had been in an accident and were shaken up and she kindly allowed us to stay the night on New Year’s Eve, the night before her birthday.

We did not stay up until midnight to ring in the New Year: I retreated to the bathtub to soak my bruises and scrapes from the accident after setting Johnny up at my computer to check his email. We did, however, begin to talk about the coming year, during which we planned to move in together. I thought I would move during the summer after I got back from a meditation retreat in France, while Johnny advocated for my moving in in February, our mutual birth month. I pointed out that, although I had been to his house, usually for rehearsals, that I had never seen the bedroom or stayed overnight there: whenever I had been to Marcella St. the door to the bedroom was closed and I had taken to referring to it as “The Forbidden Zone.” He assured me, as he often did, “Soon come,” saying he thought the bedroom would be ready for me to visit in February 2013. I didn’t think I would be able to begin visiting and move in the same month — we had Valentine’s Day and two birthdays to celebrate, there was a President’s Day holiday as well, and it was the shortest month of the year besides. It turned out that neither of our predictions were correct: it would be January 2014 before I moved to Johnny’s house.

Recently I started singing transatlantic duets with my friend David, who lives in Yorkshire. He mentioned “Scarlet Town” by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and I was keen to try it. David sent me some lyrics which didn’t jibe with how I heard the song, so I listened to the recorded track from “The Harrow and the Harvest,” running it back a few times to check particular words or phrases.

When I had done the best I could, I emailed a new version of the lyrics to David. Then I hunted up live performances by Welch and Rawlings on YouTube and watched Welch’s mouth, trying to lip-read as well as listen: was she singing “Cairo on a bet?” or “Cairo on a bend?” And was it “holly on the mountainside?” or “Polly on the mountainside?” Although I could hear no clear “n” or “t,” I put my trust in “on a bend.” Just to be sure, I listened to several other performers sing the song and found support for “on a bend” and “Polly.” Along the way I heard several clear enunciations of another phrase “a lean old time,” which I had heard as “leavin’ town” and David had heard as “a little town.” Welch and Rawlings do not include their lyrics in their liner notes or on their website so listening and comparing is the only way to approximate their songs.

In the folk world, misheard words are called “mondegreens” because someone once heard “They have slain the Earl of Murray and Lady Mondegreen” for “They have slain the Earl of Murray and laid him on the green.” Johnny, whose hearing for both words and chords was better than mine, laughed at some of my “mondegreens” in songs by The Eagles. I had interpreted “Life in the Fast Lane” as “I do the best thing” (I only ever heard it on the radio on a poor stereo system) and thought the phrase “a heartache tonight” was “a party tonight” under the same conditions.

When Johnny was alive, no matter what was going on between us I could ask him, “Hey, Johnny, what do you think Gillian Welch is singing here?” I could also ask him “What is that chord progression? I can’t figure out the third chord.” I could ask him, “What is Tracy Chapman playing in the intro to ‘All That You Have Is Your Soul?’” I could ask him to listen to any song and come up with a credible version that I could play, tailored to my skill-level as a guitarist. I marveled that he could listen to a recording and determine whether the guitar-player was using a capo or playing in an alternative tuning and also identify each version of each chord used. He had honed his skills by listening to music and teaching himself to play anything he wanted to play, playing along with recordings until his ears told him he matched a part note for note.

Within the first six months we were together, Johnny showed me how he drew a box chart for an arrangement of a song: each 4-beat measure got a box with a chord written in it. If the chord changed on the third beat, he drew a diagonal line from the upper right corner to the lower left corner and put one chord in each half of the box. Sometimes Johnny would draw groups of musical notes, quarter notes and dotted eighths, for example, and write the letters of the notes above them: he wrote out the introduction for Richard Thompson’s “Just the Motion” for me in this way and used blank spaces on the page to draw chord symbols for “Fsus2” and “Gsus4” before I learned how to count up the scale and create my own suspended chords. I responded to the chart with enthusiasm, writing him to say that having the chart made practicing fun rather than frustrating because it mapped how to get where I wanted.

Before I met Johnny, I devised most of my accompaniments impressionistically: for simple songs I could hear the chords, or hear chords that would do — chords that would go with the melody. I didn’t try to copy the arrangement on a record: what I did was learn the song by singing along with the record repeatedly, then singing the song as I walked around and went about my day and then finally picking up my guitar and fitting chords to the song I had now learned. For some things — like Joni Mitchell songs — I consulted songbooks, which featured tortured chord changes in standard tuning. None of this is necessary now: you can often find specific lessons for playing particular songs on YouTube where the guitarist breaks the whole arrangement down for you, and you can find a list of songs in each of Joni’s custom tunings on her website, but when Johnny and I started to play in the ‘50s and ‘60s the internet did not exist. I approached songs as a singer rather than as a guitarist (Feel free to insert derogatory music jokes here).

If I had met Johnny in my youth, I might be a better guitar-player today. By the time I met him I had my own ways of doing things; specific cheats for getting around barre chords, for example, and idiosyncratic chord changes to a few well-known songs. I had just a few formal lessons in some basic arpeggios, a few tips from other players. Although I started out playing exclusively in standard tuning without a capo, I soon employed a capo to move any song into a singable key with easy chords. My hands were never strong enough to master a full barre chord, except for a blurred-sounding F# minor. A fall I took in my fifties broke my left hand in two places below the index and ring fingers, temporarily destroying what hand strength I had and forever impairing my reach. I went to hand therapy, did every exercise I was given, wore strange contraptions of wire and rubber bands designed to stretch my bent ring finger, brought my guitar in to show the hand therapist what I would need to do in order to play. When I started busking shortly after Johnny and I got together, my left hand would sometimes cramp while I was playing, leaving me unsure whether I could make the next chord change.

I tried guitar lessons with Johnny a few times, but they frustrated both of us: with forty-some years of playing behind me I was not a beginner, but I was not a conventional player either. Eventually, we figured out that it worked better for me to consult him when I wanted to learn a specific lick or skill or “the right chords” to something. Johnny always obliged these requests from me no matter what the state of our relationship was and I always honored his skill and generosity in doing so. I miss his ears today as I forage forward on my own.

Johnny loved time travel stories: he would read any book or watch any movie that involved time travel. He loved watching “Outlander,” every Sunday night, seeing Claire and Brianna go through the stones to Scotland and America.

I have been to the house he lived in for many years: I know that his things are no longer there and I know where some of them have gone. And yet, persistently, for the last couple of days my mind has constructed a different world.

In the world that I see, Johnny inhabits the Marcella Street house. He sits in his folding chair in his living room, plugs his red Telecaster into his Marshall amp and plays and sings. He does not sing to us anymore. He does not go to Zoom music sessions. Students do not come to his house. You cannot call him up “any time,” as he always encouraged people to do. You cannot reach him by email and if you go by the house he will not answer the door.

I cannot explain this, but I see Johnny playing guitar, watching T.V., listening to music. He is not unhappy or lonely and he still has his stereo, his records and books. For me it is like watching someone in a life-sized doll house: I can see into the interior. I do not think he sees me.

In this self-contained world he orders food-to-go: beef stew from the Hof Brau, barbecue from E.&J, crawfish etouffee from Angeline’s. He may make ghostly visits to the Bay Fair Farmers’ Market where he bought corn and strawberries and pumpkin pie. He can bring home the strawberries, but he cannot have conversations with the vendors. He moves through a world where he cannot talk to anyone, but he can get what he needs.

There is no alcohol in this world — no whiskey, no vodka, no beer. He does not need it anymore. He is not partying or drinking to overcome some pain or shame. He plays his music and listens to music and is contented.

It is almost like Johnny lives in the world of an ofrenda for the Day of the Dead, surrounded by the things he loved most: music, books and food. Johnny liked to go to the Oakland Museum to see the exhibited altars every November.

I do not see him walking around in New Orleans or having conversations with other dead musicians. I do not see him reunited with his brother David or departed friends. I do not see him playing gigs. I do not see him in his office using his computer. I only see him in his living room where he taught and played and rehearsed and Zoomed. I see him in the house we sometimes lived in together, but I do not see myself there — we do not pass in the night like ghosts as I water the garden or cook in the kitchen. I am not there at all.

I do not know why I have this particular vision unless it is that the house is where Johnny died and his spirit is hanging around until such time as it is ready to move on, sitting quietly in a spirit version of his most-used room with his beloved music for company. I feel strongly that he is there. And I accept that I cannot call him up or visit him — I do not feel that as a pang. Instead I feel glad to know that he is safe: the sensation I have is that I am in this world over here and he is in that world over there.

Do any of you see Johnny anywhere these days? Do any of you understand what I am describing? Do any of you have a felt sense of where he is?

One of the things I brought back from Johnny’s house on Marcella Street was a binder of charts and set notes, most from two gigs we played in Kensington in 2012-2013. Johnny always typed up large-print set lists with the name of each song and the key he would play it in.

Johnny certainly knew how to put together sets: he had been a bandleader for decades and a D.J. at Berkeley’s KPFA radio. But when I look at the set lists for our first two duet gigs they look crazy to me: the song choices don’t hang together, the order of the songs doesn’t make sense. Each set looks like a tug-of-war between two sensibilities.

I had gotten us our first gig for December 21, 2012 at the Arlington Cafe in Kensington where I lived. We would play for tips and food and would have to bring our own P.A. if we wanted one. Johnny had spent six weeks in October and November producing records for Edie O’Hara and John McCord. Before I confirmed the booking I asked Johnny if he was sure he wanted to play it. He said, “I don’t have anything else going and it’s better to play than not to play.”

I remember our first rehearsal: Johnny came over to my house with a small Marshall amp, his Telecaster, a clipboard with pen, pencil and paper. We sat in the living room and started to talk about what to play.

“Honey, the gig is only four days before Christmas,” I said. “I think we should play some Christmas songs.”

“Sure. We can do that,” Johnny agreed.

I envisioned some kind of Christmas set, traditional carols interspersed with a few popular songs. I had grown up singing in a church choir and loved sacred Christmas music. In my burgeoning busking career I sang “River” by Joni Mitchell, “Hot Buttered Rum” by Tommy Thompson and “Blue Christmas.” I knew many Christmas carols and asked if we could do “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” — I knew that Johnny could come up with gorgeous chord voicing to my favorite carol, which ends with the poignant plea


“True man, yet very God,
From sin and death now save us
And share our every load.”

While I no longer believed the doctrine behind this, the wish to be relieved of suffering resonated with me: how wonderful it would be to be rescued from our errors and have our burdens shared.

Johnny wrote “Lo, How a Rose” into our first of two sets, but he did not group it with our other Christmas offerings. Instead he gave it the penultimate position in the set, followed by his original funk number “Work With What You Got,” which had the effect of erasing the touching carol, radically altering the tone of the end of the set.

Similarly, Johnny began the set with Robbie Robertson’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight,” which he sang lead on, and followed it with a solo blues number, “Kind-Hearted Woman.” The set ricocheted between Christmas numbers and songs that Johnny might have played in a solo show and my acoustic original songs and low-key covers.

I remember that Johnny suggested that I play Hazel Dickens’ “Working Girl Blues” and that he encouraged me to sing it in a lower key than I preferred. I acquiesced to that: it was only a matter of moving my capo down a few frets and losing a couple of high notes. He originally thought he wanted to do Bob Coltman’s “Before They Close the Minstrel Show” together, but I balked when he wanted to cut out choruses and elide middle verses.

“I don’t want to sing it that way, Johnny. The chorus is the heart of the song.”

When Johnny left the Coltman song was in the set list that I sent him via email, but his penciled note on a sheet of paper in the charts binder says “Think We Sh’d Drop.”

We dropped it. Johnny phoned to say he wasn’t feeling it: if he couldn’t arrange the song the way he liked, he didn’t want to play it at all and he didn’t want me to play it either.

Not wanting to fight, I said, “That’s okay. I can always sing it on the day job.”

We never sang it again.

More penciled notes indicate songs Johnny had considered adding to our set: “Frankie and Albert,” “St. James Infirmary,” “Visions of Johanna,” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” all of which would have fit in with my folkie repertoire, but, in the end, Johnny chose to pack the last set with a parade of Johnny Harper hits: “Suzy Q,” “If the Good Lord’s Willin’,” and “This Land Is Your Land.” It’s almost like he had gotten tired of pretending it was a duet gig and wanted to turn the evening into a Johnny Harper show. I had parts to sing, scripted on “If the Good Lord’s Willin’” and my own part on “This Land Is Your Land.”

When we played The Arlington again in the spring of 2013 the sets didn’t hang together any better. Johnny reprised “Kind-Hearted Woman,” “Work With What You Got” and “If the Good Lord’s Willin’” in the first set, along with “Belle Starr” and “My One Desire.” I added “Finger Ring,” and “Buckets of Rain” plus Mary O’Brien’s “We Can’t Pay That” at Johnny’s request. But the beginning of the second set whipsawed between Johnny’s opener of “King Harvest” by The Band and “Ingenue,” a tender love song I had written for him.

We followed that with a run of love songs that concluded with me singing an a cappella folk song in Scots called “The Lea Boy’s Lassie.”

And then what happens? Johnny leads the room in a roaring sing-along of Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-In-Law.” I doubt that these two songs had ever been heard on the same bill before, much less in the same set. After that I sang “Sitting on Top of the World,” Johnny added a medley of “Spoonful” and “Smokestack Lightning” and we closed once again with “This Land Is Your Land.”

If I had it to do over again I would have refused to sing in Scots, which general audiences don’t understand. An American blues ballad such as “Poor Lazarus” or “Little Sadie” would have been a better choice, both livelier and more comprehensible to the listeners. In the early days of our musical collaborations, I deferred to Johnny more than perhaps I ought to have, awed by his musical skills and flattered when he praised or requested songs in my repertoire. While I did not care for a couple of Johnny’s original songs I sang parts on them and would never have suggested removing them from the sets (I, too, was playing some original songs). My model for collaboration was something like sex columnist’s Dan Savage’s dictum: partners should be “good” (skilled), “giving” (generous) and “game” (willing to try things, to take risks). I believed that Johnny would use his skills to create good shows for us, but these set lists belie that.

What was going on, I wonder now. Was Johnny too burned out from his production jobs to focus seriously on our gigs? Did Johnny expect me to defer to him completely, expect to tell me what to sing and how to sing it? Did Johnny, who had been saying he wanted to play duet gigs with me, not have his heart in these gigs, perhaps because he would rather play solo or with his band?

I think Johnny and I could have come up with better sets had we taken a lot of time to discuss the actual sets, rather than to slot in songs piece by piece, had we discussed our individual concepts of the gigs, had we explored the subsections of music that we shared (Bob Dylan songs, Afro-American blues ballads, white mountain gospel music). I would have had to speak up and say, “Honey, I don’t think these sets are working” and risk Johnny’s reaction. Imagining that conversation, I can imagine everything from the snide (“Oh. You are the one with the thirty years of professional experience.”) to the passive-aggressive (“Alright. You plan the sets. I need them in forty-five minutes.”). I can imagine him deciding he didn’t want to play the gig after all, leaving me to either play a solo gig or cede the gig to him.

Perhaps I could have been more honest earlier in our musical relationship, differentiating between things I liked to hear Johnny play or sing with his band that I did not want to sing on, and things I would like to sing with Johnny, or have him sing at my gigs. I could have stuck up more for songs I loved to sing. Johnny loved music so much, had such strong feelings about it, that he could get upset over differences in musical tastes: he identified with the music he played. If I didn’t like a song, singer or arrangement, he would often take this as a personal criticism and jump to the conclusion that I didn’t like him, that I didn’t understand him, whereas I was willing to say, “It’s just a difference in aesthetics. People like what they like.”

It would take Johnny and me another six years to develop shared repertoire. I learned to play “The Weight,” “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Highway 61 Revisited.” He played “Raised on Robbery” and sang with me on the intro. We worked up Richard Thompson’s “Walkin’ on a Wire” and “Wall of Death” and Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown” at my suggestion and crafted a duet of “Pancho and Lefty.” He learned David Rawlings’ “Ruby” for me and Linda Allen’s “Love Song for the Hard Times.” Unfortunately, the Johnny Harper train derailed again in October 2019 before we got to record or perform those songs.