Folk music has been good to me.
Although best known as a jazz devotee, and possibly not as well known as the aficionado that I am of classical Indian music, classical European music, African, Latin, and 300 or so other genres, it’s folk music that has opened doors when I needed doors opened. When on the road, for example, with no money, food, or place to stay.
Jazz clubs tend to be cliquish. Concert halls are not much use when you’re broke and probably not great places to hang out and meet chicks, anyway. As for other forms of music, unless you run into a band of gypsies (which does happen) you’re not likely to fall in with a group of sympathetic and generous strangers who’ll buy you drinks, feed you, sleep with you, etc.
Out the window of the Portland bus I spotted a little club with “Folk Music” painted on the window in extra-large white letters. I memorized the rest of the trip ending up at the bus depot so I could find my way back there. It was about 11 PM — the place pretty much deserted when I arrived. Three or four people at a table as a guy on stage strummed his guitar and sang
If you miss the train I’m on, then you’ll know that I am gone,
You can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles.
Lord I’m one, Lord I’m two, Lord I’m three, Lord I’m four
Lord I’m 500 miles from my home.
Five hundred miles nothing, I thought. I’m five thousand miles from home. The set ends, it’s closing time, and pretty soon everyone’s at my table saying hello. It was my rucksack on the chair beside me. When I explained I was bumming my way around and heading back to Canada, and that I started out in Montreal, they acted like I was the greatest adventurer and free spirit they’d ever met. I really was five hundred, or thousand, miles from home. I don’t think they even knew my name yet when it was decided a party in my honour was in order. We piled into someone’s car and headed to someone’s house, phone calls were made, and by the time I passed out, with sunlight creeping through the windows, there’d been another great night of beer, guitars, pot, girls, cars pulling up with yet more of these items. All because I had the brains to walk into a folk club late one night in a city I’d never been to before where I didn’t know a soul.
Noon the next day the guy who’s place it was cooked me up some coffee and eggs and drove me out to the highway where once again I put my pack down on the gravel beside me, stuck out my thumb, and continued my life.
Even better is the time I stood in front of the bus depot in Seattle very early one morning. I had been turned back at the US border the night before for hitching rides. They made me go back to Vancouver and buy a round-trip bus ticket, just to make sure I had a way to get out of their goddam country, so here I was again getting off a bus. I was standing there without a thought as to where to go or what to do, which was not unusual. Things always just happen. Like that orange Karmann Ghia that pulled up in front of me. A good looking guy gets out on the passenger side and pulls a guitar case out of the back of the car, and an even better looking girl . . . blonde, blue eyes, beautiful . . . gets out the driver side, gives the guy a little hug, and he heads off into the bus station. I’m still standing there.
“Is that guy a folksinger?”
“Uh . . . yes, he is.” She’s taken a little aback, but not too much.
“I saw the guitar case so just wondered.”
She looks at me a minute. I couldn’t have looked too good, just getting off the bus and all . . . scruffy, unshaven, etc. But I guess I didn’t look too bad either because next thing she’s asking me if I could use some breakfast and I’m in that beautiful car and were driving off. (To this day I can’t see a Karmann Ghia without remembering that day. It’s my favourite car, though I’ve never owned one.)
“Is he your husband?”
Back in her kitchen we’re having coffee, she’s at the stove cooking us bacon and eggs. I don’t remember much of our conversation but it was easy and never flags. She’s sympathetic and curious and wants to know everything. She asks me if I’ve read James Baldwin. Maybe we were talking about writers, or maybe I said I was or wanted to be a writer. I said I’d read Another Country and added, stupidly, that Baldwin’s a homosexual. Was I trying to prove how smart I was? She ignores that and tells me she met him at a writer’s workshop or a reading somewhere; that she went up to speak to him afterwards and that they went for coffee; and how nice he was.
A baby wakes up crying in another room. I thought we were alone. She has a baby about a year old, a girl named Eve. Her own name is Jane. Jane fetches the baby, sits at the table, unbuttons her blouse, and feeds Eve. I’m an 18 or 19-year old horny guy who’s never seen this before, but it’s all so beautiful I’m cool as can be, though my mind is all over the place. I think I will marry this Jane. Together we’ll raise young Eve, live in Paris where I’ll write books and we’ll hobnob with James Baldwin.
“My husband’s asleep in the next room.”
I should have been relieved to find she hadn’t left her baby alone when driving her brother to the bus station but that wasn’t my first thought. Jane explained the marriage was falling apart. Her husband wouldn’t care who he found in the kitchen when he finally got up, which he soon did, grabbing a coffee on his way out the door with hardly a word to anyone, least of all me.
Maybe it took some courage to set out in an almost random direction, without money, not knowing anyone, taking any ride and winding up anywhere. I sure couldn’t do that now. But at the time I never thought about it as courage or anything else. But I know this . . . when it came to women I hardly knew I was faint of heart. I was imagining all the possibilities there with beautiful Jane whom I knew less than an hour or two. There was no doubt in my mind we’d wind up in her bed but I regret I must disappoint you if that’s what you’re expecting. There was certainly no sign that she was thinking anything like what I was thinking. When I was done eating and Eve was playing on the kitchen floor Jane suggested we go for a drive. We spent the next few hours hanging out in the university district, walking around, poking around bookstores, stopping for coffee, and just talking talking talking about everything and she obviously loved me and was so sure of my life and my future and also her own and Eve’s life and future despite everything and the sadness of her marriage. Maybe it was me that gave her hope. I know that it was her that gave me hope, and a day I’ll never forget, thanks to folk music.