The Testimony of Harmonica Frank Floyd

I promised a return of Dave Moore earlier this month, and here he is, presenting a story that frames itself three ways. In today’s piece Dave reads a short passage from Greil Marcus’ 1975 book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock’n’Roll Music,  which in turn includes this story 20th century musician Frank Floyd told about himself. Marcus uses the not-quite-a-footnote career of “Harmonica Frank” to outline a grand story of American music forming itself from disparate sources, and Dave’s selection focuses on something particularly disparate and desperate in Floyd’s story, the diversity of work musical and otherwise that Floyd knitted together into a life. That litany of Floyd’s gigs is the coat of arms on the flag of “The old weird America” that Marcus’ famously invoked.

Beside the trick of playing harmonica like it was some stogie, all the while singing, Floyd would play two at once using both his nostrils and his mouth. Getting attention in those old weird America gigs wasn’t easy.


Way back early in this blog I had some fun with how my reading of Marcus’ conception had me misinterpreting a song my like-named great-grandfather had reportedly liked. And so, let’s not take Floyd’s claim to have invented rock’n’roll too comprehensively—America invented rock’n’roll out of its own needs and resources, which is essentially Marcus’ over-arching thesis in his seminal book.

I’m over half-way in watching Ken Burns’ Country Music  16-hour documentary series. I’ve got a few hours left to go, so please no spoilers, I don’t want to know how it comes out. It has drawn some criticism for being an overview with Burns’ characteristic trope of excerpting some figures to represent the greater points and leaving out or footnoting others. I suppose the later problem is inevitable but will also always be a fertile ground for argument, and the former, the survey course pacing that keeps moving forward with short excerpts of songs and talking heads (and yes, those won’t stay still pictures’), is something I’ve come to accept with anything that tries to tell a more than century-long story.*  We currently live in a world where much of the once rare and physically bound-up resources of our history, our cultural histories told by example, are widely available, constrained only by time and our levels of interest. Overviews, just as pieces about obscure figures, can inspire one to use those resources to find out more.

Decades ago, when the Internet was still young and more text-based, I was enormously frustrated by Burns’ similarly-scoped Jazz.  Some rare film clip or unheard recording would play for 10 or 15 seconds, and then a talking head would be cut to, telling us how important this one was, how we should pay attention to it, while the filmmaker was doing exactly the opposite.

Country Music  does exactly the same thing, but in a great many cases the whole thing is available fairly easily now. And in the middle episodes, where the “Country and Western” era played out for 20 years or so, I hear the music of part of my father’s life, one of the gigs he knitted together to make a living. I hear the songs that would play on his transistor radio sitting on the metal dash of his bread van, racks now empty and rattling after tray after tray of loaves had been carried into small-town grocery stores via his drives over two-lane roads. Over that insistent chorus of bare-rack snare-taps, the steel guitars and keening vocals cut through readily where we never talked.

Burns’ doesn’t have to play the whole song for those. I know it and I don’t know it instantly.

Well, there I go, off onto something else, talking over consideration of Dave’s presentation of Harmonica Frank Floyd and the many gigs Floyd did while trying to do his “something different,” songs and earn his daily bread. I think you’ll find Dave does a nice job of presenting Floyd’s story. The player to hear him tell it is below.





*You can’t win department: the criticism that you didn’t include everybody is the opposite side of you didn’t go deep enough on any one thing. As long as you accept that there’s some value in these survey-course/overviews then you are committed to not delving the depths on a particular issue, style, or person. Of course some get left out, just as the canon of poetry leaves some out—but as we do here with some of our pieces over the years, as Marcus’ did by including the obscure figure of Harmonica Frank, as to some degree Burns did by including another harmonica player: DeFord Bailey in his survey, that should just inspire other, corrective and extending work.

Frank Eli Hudson and Rye Whiskey

It’s election day in the United States, a day of great hope and fear. Yesterday I was on the shore of a great lake and the sunrise was a perfect unbroken horizon of a bright line with pink above that, and then graduations to blue rising up over our heads as high as we wished to look. At our feet, the lake waves came from wherever they come from and broke on the stone ballots cast on the beach.

We are riding a great wave of change sweeping from wherever it comes from to wherever it goes. I feel our country has become both more perceptive and more blind,  in what is too close to equal amounts. I do not know what part of that proportion of blindness is mine or yours. Perhaps until we see, if we ever see, we will not know.
We’ve talked about myths here before, our big stories that explain ourselves. When Homer sang his myths he was said to be blind, and myths are often blind. When John Keats read Homer in Chapman’s translation, he wrote about it in a fine sonnet almost exactly 200 years ago, but oops! he put the wrong explorer on that Pacific-viewing peak. So clearly a mistake that a friend pointed it out to Keats immediately, but in the end, it harms the poem in only that simple and clear “wrong guy, Johnny!” way. People who know about these things might note that Chapman’s translation of Homer, published 400 years ago this year, is a bit loose as well. Homer’s music is always very hard to translate, but they say that Chapman added some additional material dear to his own philosophy.

Let’s just leave it at this for now: little or big deviations from the truth make up many, perhaps all, myths, those explanations of ourselves. We grow blind and perceptive at the same time.This piece, Frank Eli Hudson and Rye Whiskey, is as much true as my proportion of blindness and perception can make it now.

My appreciation of what was called “folk music” in the US in the mid 20th Century was founded on an appreciation for “authenticity.” “Authenticity” is a particularly hard to define myth. If I can distill it briefly, “Authenticity” believes that certain emotions and feelings are more perceptive, closer to the truth of things. So, to portray those emotions and to share them through art allows one’s audience to see and share the truth of things. The 20th Century American folk music circles search for authenticity is not much different from hard-core punk later in the century (the two musical movements have many parallels).

I saw the folk song Rye Whiskey though that shared myth of authenticity, just as the piece recounts. On the page, and as performed by many folk-revival singers, Rye Whiskey seems to call on harrowing emotions. However, for a time this year it occurred to me to see what I could find out about my great-grandfather for whom I was named, A decade-old report from an uncle that he liked the song Rye Whiskey was one thing I knew.
Around this time a co-worker thought my son, who likes math, would be interested in some sets of numbers relating to a deck of playing cards. I told the co-worker that some of that material was used in a hit song of my youth, The Deck of Cards. Turns out The Deck of Cards was a hit not once, but several times, and that Tex Ritter had been one of the earliest to have a successful cover recording of it.

On the other side of Tex’s A Deck of Cards was Rye Whiskey, a  that song that was part of Tex’s repertoire for a long time, going back at least into the 1930s. I can’t say for sure where Frank Eli Hudson heard Rye Whiskey, but Tex Ritter would be an odds-on favorite.

The Deck of Cards was not “authentic” folk music. Robyn Hitchcock once did a parody of it that is hilarious. And Tex’s version of Rye Whiskey?  Well, listen to the piece as played by the LYL Band to hear what I found about how my great-grandfather, authentically living in that “Old Wierd America” that Greil Marcus writes about, might have experienced this song. The gadget to play Frank Eli Hudson and Rye Whiskey should appear below.



After you’ve heard my tale, here are some versions of Tex Ritter singing this authentic American folk song.