He was a protege of Dave Van Ronk, studied with the legendary Congolese guitarist Jean-Bosco Mwenda, and spent many years touring the US, Europe and Asia before getting into writing as a day job. He accompanied the black string-band master Howard Armstrong for over two years, playing gigs like the Chicago Blues Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and recently filmed an instructional video on the guitar style of the Bahaman virtuoso Joseph Spence for Stefan Grossman's company. He has also produced or co-produced recordings by Josh White, Bill Morrissey, Perry Lederman, Snooks Eaglin, Dominic Kakolobango, the soundtrack of River of Song, and anthologies for Arhoolie and Yazoo.
This CD covers a wide range of music, from American folk and blues to Swahili pop, but the swinging acoustic roots band gives it a cohesive sound. It features Paul Geremia on harmonica, Matt Leavenworth on fiddle and mandolin, and Robbie Phillips on one-string wombat bass. (And a cover painting by Howard Armstrong.) The liner notes are below, but first a few quotations about Elijah's music, garnered over the years:
"Some of the best songs, hottest licks, and prettiest shirts on God's green earth" --Dave Van Ronk
"Elijah Wald is a gentleman adventurer who wears his music like a sultan wears his turban" --U. Utah Phillips
"That's some real fine playing." --Robert Lockwood Jr.
The idea behind this album was pretty simple: Get together with a few of my favorite musicians, pick a bunch of my favorite songs, and turn the former loose on the latter. Robbie Phillips and I have been playing together for years, and his gutbucket swing has become so integral to my music that I feel half naked when I don't have him kicking me along. Matt Leavenworth was a regular guest during the summer that the original Street Corner Cowboys (me, Robbie, Peter Keane and Mark Earley) were playing at the Plough and Stars in Cambridge, and I never stop being impressed by his chops and taste. As for Paul Geremia, he is my favorite contemporary acoustic bluesman.
"Duncan and Brady" is one of the great badman blues. I first heard this version on a record by Tom Rush, but the original source seems to be Paul Clayton, who recorded it on the same album as "Who's Gonna Buy You Ribbons When I'm Gone," the song Bob Dylan turned into "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right."
"Black Horse Blues" was recorded by Blind Lemon Jefferson, the first male blues star, in 1926. Jefferson was one of the greatest singers in American music, and one of the most eccentric guitarists. As Son House put it, he was a great player, "but couldn't nobody hope to dance to his music." This guitar part is pretty close to what he played, and I love the way it seems to run up, down and sideways, but always comes out right. I make no attempt to sing the song like Blind Lemon did; as they say in Spanish, soy tonto, pero no tanto.
"Old Blue" is a folk standard, but I never really heard it until I heard Dave Van Ronk's version. My guitar part is adapted from Dave's (which he says is adapted from Guy Carawan's), though I've messed around with the timing some.
"Row of Dominos" was written by the Lubbock/Austin songwriter Butch Hancock, and recorded by Joe Ely. Joe's band of the late 1970s helped reshape the way a lot of us thought about music.
In 1990 I went to eastern Zaire to study with Jean-Bosco Mwenda, the most popular African acoustic guitarist of the early 1950s. Bosco fused Cuban and cowboy movie music with the guitar style coming up from western Zimbabwe, and "Masanga" was his masterpiece, composed at age 16. "Masanga" is the Lingala word for beer, but the song is in Swahili and doesn't mention beer; the main lyric is, "If you are going to Jadotville, go by Bayeke and see Bosco, and tell him to go to home to bed."
"Stop That Dancing Up There!" comes from Harry "The Hipster" Gibson, a 1940s stride pianist best known as composer of "Who Put the Benzedrine in Mr. Murphy's Ovaltine?"
"Pick Poor Robin Clean" was recorded a couple of times back in the 1920s and 1930s, but I learned it from Fast and Funky, a record by Larry Johnson that is one of the masterpieces of acoustic blues (it has been reissued on CD by the Baltimore Blues Society).
"Africa to Appalachia" combines "Wanjiru Wanjiru," by the Kenyan guitarist Francis Macharia, Sam McGee's "Buckdancer's Choice," and Doc Watson's "Doc's Guitar."
"That'll Never Happen No More" was originally recorded in 1927 by Blind Blake, but I learned it off Dave Van Ronk, who substantially changed and expanded the lyric. Dave has not received nearly enough credit for his reshapings of earlier material, partly because he never draws attention to them. Suffice it to say, no song ever passed through his hands without gaining something.
"East Virginia" is one that I have known for so long that I can't remember not knowing it. I probably got it off a record by my first musical idol, Cisco Houston.
"Happy Meeting in Glory" is from the playing of the Bahaman master Joseph Spence, my personal guitar hero and folk music's answer to Thelonious Monk. Spence sings this one, and anyone who has heard him knows why I do not follow suit.
Townes Van Zandt's writing used to drive me crazy. I would hear him sing some desperate, haunting ballad, and I would learn it and try to sing it onstage, and somebody in the audience would always start giggling. So I surrendered, and instead of doing "Kathleen" or "Waiting Round to Die," I sing "Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold." There are moods in which all I want to do is listen to Townes; it's a whole other kind of blues.
"Someday (You'll Want Me to Want You)" was a big hit for Gene Autry, which I learned off a great album by Red Steagall. I used to sing this all the time when I was making my living playing old pop tunes on cafe terraces in Antwerp.
"Ain't We Crazy" was recorded back in 1928 by Harry "Haywire Mac" McClintock, the IWW anarcho-syndicalist hobo singer and agitator best known as composer of "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum."
"Bad Luck Blues" is another Lemon Jefferson song. I usually do it fast and four-square, but Paul suggested that I play it like an African piece. Everyone agreed with him and ganged up on me, and I tried it, and liked it.
Woody Guthrie's "Hard Traveling" was the last song we recorded at this session, and everybody was feeling good.
Check out the artist's website:
1. Duncan and Brady
2. Black Horse Blues
3. Old Blue
4. Row of Dominos
6. Stop that Dancing Up There!
7. Pick Poor Robin Clean
8. Africa to Appalachia
9. That'll Never Happen No More
10. East Virginia
11. Happy Meeting in Glory
12. Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold
13. Someday (You'll Want Me to Want You)
14. Ain't We Crazy
15. Bad Luck Blues
16. Hard Traveling
17. hidden track