Archives for posts with tag: Sharyn Dimmick

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.

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.

When Johnny and I got together I had been unemployed for over two years, let go from my recreation job with the City of Berkeley in the aftermath of the 2009 national recession. I had been unable to find another recreation job or similar position and I had only had one interview in two years. I had sold a few watercolor paintings and a few music CDs, weeded my bookshelves and CD collections for things I could take to used stores, worked as a poll worker. I had tried working with a coach to help me attract writing practice students and planned to offer a free introductory evening in January 2013, but by October 2012 I was pretty desperate for money. I was heard to mutter things like, “I don’t need a job, I just need an income.”

I had done some work with Maia Duerr and her Liberated Life Project, focusing on right livelihood. Late in the fall she sent me a reference to a post of two by Chris Guillebeau about how to make cash to pay the bills. He mentioned holding a garage sale and selling infrequently used items, but he also mentioned busking or performing in public. “I can do that,” I thought, “I can sing and play guitar. What have I got to lose?”

I told Johnny I planned to investigate playing at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market where I had shopped for years. I found out that I could sign up for three spots a month to play two and a half hour shifts. He said, “That’s great, honey. Think of it as getting paid for practicing” and asked me to let him know when I was scheduled to sing there.

Buoyed up by Johnny’s encouragement and some future busking shifts at the market, I decided to try busking at Berkeley BART during the morning commute. I went one day early to check out the situation and decided to catch the bus at 7:19 on weekday mornings starting October 15th, 2012. I would walk to the BART station, take up a spot against a brick wall opposite the escalator leading to the rotunda, salt my open case with a few bills, tune my guitar and sing for two hours, playing whatever I could think of to play. At the end of the shift I would collect my earnings and pocket them, pack up my guitar and reverse my steps to the bus stop to go home.

I learned to carry a couple of quarts of water and set them next to my guitar case within easy reach. Singing is thirsty work and goes better if your vocal cords are well-lubricated. I learned to start off with songs in the middle of my range so as to warm up on the job and to save more challenging material for later in the shift: I sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” ascending on the chorus, but I never sang it first thing. Better to begin with something like Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train” or a Chris Smither/Dave Van Ronk hybrid of “Green, Green Rocky Road” or “Sittin’ on Top of the World.”

I learned to group my songs by what fret I played them on: playing on first fret without a capo tires my once-broken left hand. Dropped D tuning eases it a bit, but when I started I couldn’t count on being able to hold the strings down on first fret by the end of my two-hour shift. I played continuously so as to keep my spot, stopping only to drink water, pocket any large bills or answer a question from a passer-by. When people liked what I sang they smiled, gave me a thumbs up or tossed a coin or a small bill into my case. My first busking shift netted me five dollars profit after I covered my bus fare.

I learned to value songs that allowed me to fingerpick their melodies in between some verses because they gave my voice time to rest. Singing solo for two or two-and-a-half hours is a lot, especially if you don’t play many guitar solos. Even opera singers don’t sing continuously for hours.

The hardest thing about busking is keeping your spirits and energy up on a low-tip day. My years of zen practice helped with this: I saw my job as to show up, to sing and to accept whatever I was given — if I earned anything at all, it was more than I would have earned sitting at home. Of course, I preferred days when the tips piled up in my guitar case and lots of people praised my voice, my repertory, even my guitar playing, just as I preferred cash tips to the days when people gave me cookies, bananas and business cards. I did appreciate it when fans bought me coffee, tea, or bottles of water, especially if they asked me what I would like.

I wryly termed my busking shifts “the day job” because they took place during daylight hours and I began busking to bring in money rather than purely for the love of singing. I developed a habit of phoning Johnny after my morning shift at BART to report my earnings for the day — it became one of our rituals.

“How’d you do?,” he’d ask.

“Pretty good,” I’d say when someone had thrown me a twenty. Or, “Today was tough” when a young woman playing the harp set up in front of the coffee stand and the escalator was broken so that fewer people filed past me. “The good news is that I played my whole shift.”

“That’s show business,” he’d say. “Good for you.”

Pretty quickly I decided that I needed to earn ten dollars a day minimum and that if I didn’t earn my ten in the morning I would return to Berkeley after lunch to play a limited one-hour shift. To encourage myself to do the second shift I made a rule that I would only play whatever I most wanted to play. But, in the main, I liked busking better than anything else I had done (I had wanted to be a folksinger from the minute I heard my first Joan Baez record in fifth grade) and here I was playing folk songs five days a week in public and making a little money doing it.

I declared my feelings for Johnny to Johnny on August 25th and he visited me overnight for the first time on the 28th. Shortly after that he announced that he had the entire upcoming Labor Day weekend free and that he could spend it with me.

I didn’t know then how rare it was for Johnny to have a free weekend, one with no lessons, no studio sessions, no gigs, no rehearsals, but I was excited to have more time with him, a couple of nights with no travel in sight, no early morning departures. I didn’t think to check with my elderly mother and my younger brother about Johnny’s impending visit: I was in my mid-fifties, felt I was in charge of my own social life, saw no need to say anything other than “Johnny’s coming over.” I had told my Mom previously that Johnny and I had known each other for a couple of years at the ballad group.

Johnny and I made a plan to meet in Berkeley to see “Beasts of the Southern Wild” at the California Theater. Then he would come home with me, stay the night. He would go home briefly on Saturday before meeting me again at a Saturday afternoon singing session in Albany. Then we would attend a birthday party for one of Johnny’s friends in the Berkeley hills and go back to my house again.

I remember standing outside the California waiting for Johnny. I remember buying a yogurt from the nearby deli and eating it before the movie so that I wouldn’t spend money on expensive movie snacks. I finally spotted Johnny on the far side of Shattuck Avenue, wearing his trademark black leather jacket and carrying a guitar.

We bought our tickets separately and Johnny stopped at the concession stand for a hot dog and a cup of coffee. I asked him where he wanted to sit and held his coffee while he arranged his gear in the aisle.

Then we watched the film, which focused on the relationship between a little girl and her dying father. They yell and scream at each other and push each other away. He drinks and tells her again and again she is not allowed to cry. Parts of the movie pained me to watch and Johnny laughed at lines I didn’t think were funny. For all that, it was a good film, a film that made me think and feel (I later learned that it was based on a novel by Doris Betts, whose novels I generally enjoy, but I have yet to track it down and read it).

Gathering up our stuff and walking to the nearest bus stop, Johnny and I continued a silly tradition based on a New Yorker cartoon he told me about: in the panel a young woman holds up a batch of envelopes. The caption reads, “Darling, our first bills!” As we walked, we declared, “Darling, our first movie.” “Darling, our first bus ride together.”

When Johnny and I arrived in Kensington, I fed him whatever leftovers we had at the house and he and I retired to my bedroom to talk and cuddle. We stayed up almost all night again, spending a lot of the time telling each other stories. We got up early enough for him to have coffee and scrambled eggs with peppers and cheese. We sat in the breakfast room holding hands whenever we put down our forks, gazing at each other across the table. He sang to me in the kitchen again and I walked him to the bus stop and waited until his bus came. We kissed goodbye, but would see each other that afternoon.

Johnny showed up at the singing session that was utterly new to him, sat down next to me and proceeded to charm the room. He played “our song,” Allen Toussaint’s “New Love Thing,” getting everyone to sing along. He played “Dark End of the Street” for me to sing lead. As the session broke up our hostess offered to drive us to our next destination.

I knew no one at the party, but agreed to go because Johnny wanted to introduce me to some people. We entered a two-story house in the hills. A glorious buffet featured salmon, salad, savory pastries and cheeses. We were directed to the deck to get drinks: Johnny started with red wine and I drank sparkling water.

I remember loading up a plate and finding a seat in the living room. Johnny and I were trading on the story of how we met. I remember sitting next to a woman older than I, who told me the story of the last time she had fallen in love and how she didn’t regret a moment of it. Johnny sat listening, laughing, occasionally interjecting something and introducing me to people. John McCord and Lyuba came in — I knew them from Down Home Music in El Cerrito where I had bought many records. Johnny introduced me to Chris Strachwitz, who started the whole shebang, and to the filmmaker Les Blank, who looked ill and tired.

We bummed a ride home from John McCord and spent our second consecutive night together, about which I remember nothing. I’m sure that we talked, told each other more stories, held each other, kissed and cuddled. We may have stayed up until the light appeared in the morning sky, for we did that many a night in the early days. After some weeks, we became so tired that we slept at least three or four hours: it made me happy when Johnny slept because it was rare for him to get enough sleep.

After that second night, my Mom suggested that we might want to go out for breakfast so we strolled down to Inn Kensington for our next meal. After the third night, my mother smiled at Johnny and took his hand and read me the riot act the moment the door closed behind him.

“I am uncomfortable in my own house,” she said. “You are behaving just like Kevin.”

My deceased older brother had lived in a small downstairs room with an outside entrance and brought girlfriends to the house when he had them. Both of us were serial monogamists. My mother had not objected to previous boyfriends of mine or their visits.

I explained that Johnny usually taught or rehearsed or gigged on weekends and that we had seized a rare opportunity to spend the long weekend together. She didn’t care about that.

“What do you want me to do?” I asked, cutting to the chase.

“I don’t want him here consecutive nights,” she said. “And he can’t be here the night before Christmas or the night before Thanksgiving.”

I conveyed the new rules to Johnny on the phone. While I lived in my mother’s house I had to follow whatever rules she made. Accepting such restrictions in my fifties felt odd and lent resonance to a Karla Bonoff song that Johnny liked me to sing: “I never really was a bad girl, but you got me in trouble again.”

After three nights of long phone conversations, Johnny called me early the next morning, leaving me the message to call him if I had a minute.

I called. “I have a minute,” I said, “Or two or three, but then I have jury duty in Richmond. What’s up?”

“I just wanted to hear your voice. I need to see you. I think I can come tonight if I can move a student.”

Johnny taught guitar lessons in his living room.

“What happened to ‘We’ve got time’? Can we decide this later? I’ve got to go.”

I felt bad about cutting our conversation short, but I couldn’t be late to court. I grabbed a lunch and hopped on the first bus. If I got put on a jury at least I’d have jury duty pay to add to my income.

I did not get put on a jury. I went home and resumed correspondence with Johnny by email. I told him if he decided to come over we had options, that we had rooms in the house where either of us could sleep if we wanted to get some sleep and he wouldn’t have to make the long journey home in the middle of the night (Neither Johnny nor I drove: I relied on buses and BART, while he took combinations of buses, trains and cabs and sometimes hired drivers for gigs).

I gave Johnny bus directions to get to my house and planned a dinner for us to eat. I decided to sit outside in the front yard so that I could meet him when he came and bring him into the house where I lived with my mother and brother. I asked him to bring a robe or something to maintain modesty in our upstairs hallway.

Johnny missed a bus and arrived close to sunset, wearing a black leather jacket and carrying an acoustic guitar and a satchel. He bent down to kiss me and I smelled beer on his breath. In my world, you brush your teeth before a date. In what kind of world do you have a drink before visiting your girlfriend?

I introduced Johnny to my mother and brother, then got us some food. We sat in the small breakfast room where my family usually dines to eat, adjourning to my upstairs room after taking our plates to the kitchen.

Johnny hung his jacket over the back of my desk chair and sat down his satchel and his guitar. He drew a short robe from his bag and I hung it on a hook in my closet.

I lit candles and put some music on my computer. At some point I excused myself, went to the bathroom and changed into a robe. Johnny wanted more light than the candles provided so I turned on my closet light, turned off the overhead light and got into my side of the bed.

Johnny sat to remove his shoes and socks and then stood to remove his black jeans. He came to bed wearing only his black shirt, habitually rolled above the elbows to expose his muscular forearms. We rolled toward each other and nestled together, my head on his chest, his arm around my shoulders. I could hear his beating heart.

We cuddled and talked most of the night, joined cautiously by my cat, Fiona, who was at first spooked by Johnny’s height and his big feet (from a cat’s perspective). Once Johnny lay down, Fiona crept up to investigate him and made friends rather quickly when she discovered he was warm.

To keep my family comfortable, I made strict rules for appearances outside my bedroom: for trips to the adjoining bathroom we needed to be clothed and to appear in the public rooms of the house we needed to be completely dressed: shirt, shoes, etc. When we were in my room I played music on my computer to create a sound-screen for our conversation.

Alas, Johnny’s Labor Day visit blew away any good will I had garnered with these strategies…

Another weekend I followed Johnny up to a north bay folk festival to hear him play, tagging along with Marlene, who was going. I made a Greek salad for the potluck dinner and baked a big apple pie. I wore a plunging halter top, an art deco rhodium-plated necklace that had belonged to my paternal grandmother and my habitual black jeans. I brought my guitar, hoping to get a chance to play a couple of new songs for Johnny in the evening sing-around that followed the concert performances.

After singing a gospel-inflected song and a political piece, Johnny said “We’ve been talking about spiritual things, but now it’s time to talk about the carnal, y’all…” He went on for awhile and I have always wished I had a recording of that introduction to his rocker “Burnin’ Up.” The crowd danced and smiled.

When Johnny came off stage I came to say hello to him before returning to my seat at the edge of the stairs. He sat in a chair behind me for a bit, nudging me and poking me like a schoolboy with a forbidden crush on a girl while I bantered with him, saying things like “It’s too bad you don’t know any nice people.”

“I know, darlin’,” he said, shaking his head. “But I got you, babe,” he added, putting his arm around me for a minute.

I had had misgivings about Johnny after attending a previous gig of his. I was singing back-up for him on a tribute to Woody Guthrie as part of a group he called the Hard Times Choir. The event manager had offered every musician two drink tickets for beer or wine. I didn’t plan to use mine. Johnny came to me after he had drunk his two beers.

“They only give you tickets for two beers,” he said. “Would you buy beer for me?”

“I don’t think I could do that,” I said, not wanting to break the rules, thinking two beers should be enough for anyone, not wanting to procure alcohol.

“It’s not a problem,” he said, going off to ask someone else.

That request was my first indication of Johnny’s thirst, his capacity and his willingness to bend the rules to get what he wanted. Trying to avoid heartbreak, I had gone home and written a song called “The Werewolf” about the fear I had felt growing up in an alcoholic family. In the song after describing the atmosphere around my father, my older brother and my sister-in-law, the breath-holding and the scenes, I address Johnny directly:

And then there’s you, I like you a lot.
I dream of sharing everything we’ve got.
Don’t know you so well that I’d know for sure
If that old werewolf is knocking at your door.

There is no room in a heart to share
If you’ve got a werewolf already living there.
I’d give you my love, but it won’t get through —
The werewolf will get it, and then he’ll turn on you.

Just a story, just a song,
Just between friends while we’re getting along,
Just one thing that you should know:
If I see the werewolf, then I have to go.

At the Cur-Ville Festival, I saw Johnny drinking prodigiously, filling cup after cup from a keg on the porch, but remaining lucid, jovial, funny, steady on his feet. And everyone I talked with loved Johnny: they told me he was a great guy, generous, how helpful and encouraging he had been to them, what a good friend.

Mid-afternoon, Johnny gathered together “the ballad gals” and his friend Reid, who was visiting, for an impromptu round of singing on the porch. I got my friend Mary to sing “Peggy Gordon,” a song she owns, in my opinion. For the first time ever, Johnny took a harmony on the chorus, rather than simply listening. I sang “Poor Lazarus,” a blues ballad about an outlaw — Johnny would know — he always kept a record of what people sang. Reid sang a song about falling over drunk.

We would have continued to sing in our small group, but some of the other musicians were anxious to start a song circle and asked us to join them. I got out my guitar, planning to sing “The Werewolf” or “Ingenue,” which I had written about falling in love with Johnny, but it was not to be. Every time I got ready to open my mouth and strike my chord some other gal with a guitar would launch into an original song. Johnny and Marlene did a duet on the hilarious “Third Rate Romance,” which I had never heard before, before Johnny left the circle, crossed the yard and began playing duets with Beth, a striking woman with big blue eyes and waist-length brown hair that I had seen with him at the Woody Guthrie gig. I watched them from afar.

When Marlene signaled that she’d like to go, I collected my dishes from the potluck table and told her I’d be just a minute. I walked over to Johnny to say goodbye and a bystander asked who I was.

“This is the fabulous Sharyn,” Johnny said with a smile.

“The fabulous Sharyn,” brown-haired Beth echoed softly, trying it on and raising her eyebrows. I bade Johnny goodbye and turned to leave with Marlene and Reid, helping pilot us all back to the East Bay by way of Petaluma.

* * *

When ballad group came around the next month I brought my guitar and got there early. Johnny arrived early as well. Looking at the clock, I asked the hostess if I could play an illegal song before the meeting started at two o’clock, in about ten minutes.

“Yes,” said Johnny. The others nodded.

“Sweet song or scary song?”

“Sweet song first,” Johnny said, always ready to lead.

I sang “Ingenue,” a song about the experience of falling in love, watching my thoughts, moving helplessly under love’s spell. It ends, “But my heart is singing like an ingenue/Singing and falling, falling for you.”

Johnny enthused over “Ingenue.”

“I could hear Bonnie Raitt doing that song.”

“That would be great,” I said, “As long as she doesn’t mess it up.”

“Now, play the scary song,” he said.

I glanced at the clock again.

“Go ahead,” said the hostess.

So I sang “The Werewolf” before we switched to the traditional ballads we had come to sing. I don’t remember what else happened that day, but tall, long-legged Mr. Harper offered to walk me back to BART.

“I’m slow,” I said, being more than a foot shorter than he was, carrying a heavy guitar case and walking with a limp.

“That’s fine,” he said.

We walked the seven or eight blocks saying little of consequence.

Johnny told me later that when I sang “Ingenue” he had the thought that I must be falling in love with someone and a twinge of regret that the song wasn’t about him. He also registered the desire to kiss me for the first time.

I felt no hint of this in the BART station as we paid for our tickets and descended the stairs to the single platform. We stood together, waiting for the trains that would take us in opposite directions. He looked down at me and said, “You’re a captivating singer. That song … well, both songs.”

I looked up into his light eyes and said, “I had good inspiration for those songs.”

He nodded.

I drew a deep breath.

“You know those songs are about you, right?”

“No, I did not know that. ‘The Werewolf,’ too? I need to hear those songs again.”

Just then my train pulled alongside the platform.

“That’s my train,” I said.

“I might call you,” he said, as the doors opened and I stepped through them.

That day on the BART platform was the day I got on the Johnny Harper train. It arrived with a chance meeting, a couple of songs and then I was gone, over the moon, madly in love. He fell hard in love with me, too. We began talking on the phone that evening, spending hours talking like love-struck teenagers.

Johnny said he didn’t want a casual relationship, only a serious one. My heart leapt at those words. We began to pledge ourselves to each other over the next three nights of phone conversations.

One night while conducting our relationship entirely on the phone, I said, “Sing me a lullaby.”

He hesitated.

“There will be no firing squad,” I said, “Just sing me something.”

I know I ought to remember what that first lullaby was. I don’t. Johnny would have known. He probably kept a list somewhere. From that night on, it became a tradition for Johnny to sing me a lullaby every night that we were not together in person.

I met Johnny fairly late in the game. He had jettisoned a marriage and a band. When we met, I was fifty-one and he was sixty-three. In 2009 our mutual friend Marlene McCall brought him to a monthly session I had started where we sang traditional ballads at a home in Berkeley. This man that I had never seen before walked in one day, parked his Marshall amp next to an electrical outlet and told me “Move over, darlin’,” usurping my customary place at the foot of the table. I was not primed to like him, neither his electric guitar nor his take-charge attitude. I grudgingly shifted my chair over about a foot, maintaining a semblance of my space.

But when the session started I saw how he listened to the singing, his expression rapt, following every nuance, every ornament of the long Scottish and American ballads we sing. I saw his eyes riveted on each singer’s face, his right hand scribbling singers’ names and song titles on white paper that he kept in the breast pocket of his long-sleeved black dress shirt.

I fell in love with Johnny’s versions of blues ballads: “Frankie and Albert,” “Stagolee” and “St. James Infirmary.” I got used to his long introductions (The man liked to talk…). Gradually, over two years, after one incident where he flirted with me for a minute, I began to fall for the man himself. I contrived to be places he might be. I missed him when he wasn’t at a Ballads session — he was prone to disappear every once in while for a month or two.

In July 2012, just back from a meditation retreat, I decided to email Johnny about getting together to swap songs. I paid out a lot of rope, saying I didn’t know how busy he was or if he would be interested. I offered to invite Marlene so that we would have the possibility of singing three-part harmony.

He called me up, we jostled schedules for a week or so, and then fixed a date. I would go out to meet him at his house in San Leandro. I remember fussing about what to wear on the warm Saturday afternoon.

After taking a bus, a BART train and a moderately long walk, I arrived sweating slightly. I walked into his living room, furnished with a couple of oak chairs, a worn blue love seat, a cheap oblong table and three entire walls of record albums, CDs and music books. His red Telecaster and vintage 00018 Martin waited on their music stands.

Johnny did not offer me refreshments. Instead, he directed me to lay my guitar case across the oak chairs and unpack. He sat in a black padded folding chair near his teaching table, a beer at his right hand, plugged in, tuned up.

Early on he sang me Allen Toussaint’s “New Love Thing,” which would become our song: “I lost my job and I don’t care — I got me a new love thing.”

When he finished playing that one, I said “Tell me you didn’t write that song.”
“I like that song,” he said.
“I like it, too, but it is a catalog of disasters. You’re inviting misery.”

He told me I didn’t understand, that in New Orleans where Toussaint lived, people celebrated every good thing even if they lost their jobs, wrecked their cars, etc.

Our music exchanges were less than stellar. Johnny assumed that we would play everything together, jam; I thought we would take turns singing solo. Since breaking my left hand in two places in 2006 I haven’t had much stamina for playing in first position, which tires my damaged hand. I usually play capoed up to 5th or 7th fret. It is not easy for me to play with others: I can’t just watch their left hands for the chords, or play the chords as they are called because I am fingering the songs in whole different keys and have to transpose on the fly. Johnny could have played along with anything I played, but I don’t remember that he did. He accepted my wish to trade songs instead. He sang me an original song, “Work With What You Got,” rich in rhythm and groove and light on melody. He sang me a Buck Owens tune. I sang him love songs: Si Kahn’s “Queen of the Cowboy Cafe” and Kevin Welch’s “Something ‘Bout You.”

I didn’t see anything of Johnny’s house that day other than the living room and the bathroom. I remember a ragged deep pink towel hanging on a towel rack. Johnny took my empty water bottle and refilled it from the kitchen, bringing it back to me.

As the afternoon wore on I found myself hoping Johnny would suggest having dinner. He didn’t. I left his house thinking, “I want to sleep with him, but I don’t want to clean his house.” I bought a Drumstick from a passing ice cream truck to tide me over until I could arrive home on the last bus.

As it happened, the Ballad group met the next day. Johnny settled into his chair next to me and I said, “Guess which song I can’t get out of my head?”
“Work With What You Got,” he replied promptly.
“You’d like that,” I said, “But it’s ‘Got Me a New Love Thing.’”

Dear Readers,

Unfortunately I have pinkeye and can barely see to type, but I wanted to let you know that my song, “The Border Song” is featured in the Women of Substance podcast today. If you see this after today, you can still hear it by looking for show #996.

Here are some links. Please listen if you get a chance. Thanks, Sharyn


Birthday greeting

Birthday card.

My fifty-sixth birthday finds me at home, taking a rare day off the day job (busking in the Berkeley BART station and the Berkeley Farmers’ Market), spreading sheets of newspaper around parts of the backyard, weighting it down with rocks and bricks and whatever I can find. My friend Celi at thekitchensgarden recommended this method of composting after we determined that I could neither keep chickens nor build and turn a compost bin. Underneath the newspaper are used coffee filters and eggshells. The other vegetable and fruit scraps get buried in big pits. My birthday present requests have included bales of straw, seeds, plants and child-sized garden tools — I garden on my knees or sitting on the ground: I am slightly obsessed with the garden and the possibility of growing some of our own food.

I ate oatmeal for breakfast, graced with dried cherries and maple syrup: our kind friend Mary Katherine treated us with a gift certificate to Trader Joe’s as a housewarming present and we bought ourselves a hoard of delicious cheeses, salmon steaks, grass-fed beef steaks and lamb tips as well as the breakfast goods. We are not eating our meat and fish bounty yet because I am still on a soup or stew kick: this week we ate curried yellow split pea soup with spiced yogurt, taken from the Green’s cookbook, along with loaves of Mark Miller’s Cumin Orange Bread and some Asian cucumber salad provided by my friend Elaine. We also went out to Angeline’s in Berkeley for Johnny’s birthday, where we ate voodoo shrimp (me), crawfish etouffee (him) and banana bread pudding with caramel sauce and whipped cream (we split it). Also, on Valentine’s Day we ate a very spiffy dinner at Zatar, featuring lamb and crab salad and a fish tagine, cardamom ice cream and red wine-poached pears. I know, I know: we are a celebrating couple of people in February — it’s a good month to be us. But when I am not dining finely, out or at home, I am grubbing in the dirt,  or putting containers out in the yard to catch water. I have planted my first Sun Gold tomato plant, plus three red cabbages, three chard plants, one kale and one parsley. The parsley did not survive, soaked by the copious rain of the last few days, but the other things are doing fine: my mint plant is glorious and green, thanks to the local abundance of sun, followed by the welcome rain in my drought-stricken state. It was supposed to pour all day, they said. We did have showers in the morning, but I haven’t seen any real rain today yet.

detail from watercolor garden painting.

Detail from “Garden 101” painting.

My covetousness knows no bounds: I want to put in a Meyer lemon tree and a Bearss lime, a Gravenstein apple, maybe a green fig and a persimmon. Apricots and walnuts are supposed to grow well here, too: the neighbor’s have an old walnut — maybe one will grow itself! Fortunately, my thrift is intact: I cart home bags of leaves from parking lots and gutters to enrich our soil and I bought a mixed bean soup mix to plant in the backyard: legumes are good for the soil, breaking up hard dirt with their roots and fixing nitrogen to nuture future plants. If we get some shelling beans, so much the better. I plan to broadcast black-eyed peas as well, which are delicious fresh from the pod, particularly when prepared an Indian way.

It’s getting onto lunch time: I will probably have some more homemade bread and some cheese, a pear and a pot of tea. Johnny is taking me out for dinner, to Ajanta, my favorite Indian spot, where we will taste the new tasting menu. A garden, a blog, a painting, a nice meal with my true love. What else could I want? (Don’t get me started…)

painting depicts backyard garden.

Garden 101. Sharyn Dimmick 12″ x 12″ Gouache and watercolor pencil

Painting shows ingredients for turkey-apple stew, plus a border collie.

Turkey-Apple Stew. 12″ x 12″ gouache and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick

Thanksgiving Day found me with my family in the house where I grew up, preparing traditional Thanksgiving dishes with my mother. At eighty-three Mom still does the heavy lifting, so to speak: she makes the dressing, stuffs it into the turkey. She makes her never-fail pie crust, which we fill with pumpkin, eggs, evaporated milk, brown and white sugars and spices and with sliced Pippin apples (The Gravensteins are long gone by Thanksgiving Day). I make rolls from my Grandmother’s recipe, only pausing to sneak a half cup of healthy whole wheat flour into the dough. Wednesday afternoon we peel potatoes and snap the ends off fresh green beans from the Bay Fair Farmers’ Market and boil and peel chestnuts for the dressing, cook whole cranberries with a little sugar and water. Thursday afternoon I make salad dressing and whip cream while Mom prepares a simple brown gravy from pan drippings, flour and water. We roast yams in the oven after the pies come out, cook the green beans in the microwave and the potatoes on the stove. I scoop the dressing from the bird. Bryan carves the turkey and lays slices on a platter.

Original watercolor painting shows ingredients for apple pie

Gravenstein Apple Pie. 8″ x 8″ gouache and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

At two o’clock we sit down to a bountiful table, the three remaining Dimmicks and our guests Johnny Harper and Art Peterson, who will play music in the living room after they have eaten their fill. This year I am struck by how long this has been our family tradition, how many years Mom and I have made this meal together, dividing our tasks and cooperating to get the food on the table in a timely fashion. We do have skirmishes: I am a careful baker, sifting the flour into a cup on a flat surface, heaping it high and leveling it off with my hand, but I find that I cannot sift easily with my recovering wrist. When I ask Mom to sift, she holds the cup in the air, occasionally shaking it to settle the contents, and hands me cups that I don’t think are full enough to level. We laugh about this later, after I have told her how much I like making this meal with her every year. We are the last two generations of our family and we do not know how much longer we will get to do this together. I enjoy the simplicity of a day spent preparing a feast and the routines we have developed.

The day after the holiday finds me with many fall tasks undone, due to a thirteen-week hiatus with a compromised right hand. My winter sweaters need hand-washing. It is time to start making cookies for Christmas and for an early Chanukah party. Add to my schedule three hours of hand and wrist exercises per day and I wonder, like many of you, how I will ever get everything done. The only answers I can come up with are to keep it simple and to just do the next task, to jettison things that seem too much for this year, as I work to transform my injured hand and wrist to new strength and health.

At the same time as I celebrate old family traditions, a new opportunity has arrived: my friends Maia Duerr of Liberated Life Project and Lauren Ayer of Quilts of Change have put together a Virtual Holiday Faire for 2013, where you can purchase my Paris CD and two original watercolor paintings, plus notecards, quilted bags, coaching services and other offerings. Please visit the Faire to have a look for yourself. Your purchase will help support independent artists and consultants.

Last, but not least, Susan of Susan Eats London, kindly sent me a care package to raise my spirits: she went to her favorite bulk bins and picked out aleppo pepper, dukkah, farro, Puy lentils and Nigella seeds, none of which I have ever used, plus blue cornmeal, fresh fig jam and three kinds of chocolate! I shall be having some cooking adventures in the future. If any of you want to provide suggestions or links for using these ingredients, the Comments field is open. I am thankful for all who enjoy reading The Kale Chronicles and grateful that my hand will allow me to type a blog post for you.