It all started with Leonard Cohen.
“Hey,” Mom said. “I heard this amazing k.d. lang song, and I want to play it for you. The lyrics are like…la di dah, and every chord she played was hallelujah…”
“Mom,” I said. “You don’t mean the Jeff Buckley song, do you?”
“Uh,” said Sam.
“K.d. lang did it at the Olympics,” said Mom.
“Okay,” I said, “but everybody knows the Jeff Buckley song, I mean I can’t believe—”
“It’s a Leonard Cohen song,” said Sam.
“I don’t care,” said Mom. “The lyrics were so great. And every breath she drew was hallelujah…”
“Mom,” I said. “You are freaking me way the hell out here. All the songs I always assumed that everybody knew…I mean. Do you know—have you heard—my god man, have you heard of Warren Zevon?”
“Who?” said Mom.
And that is how it began. We made a pact. We’d swap playlists, made up of “great songs that everybody should know.” It was okay if they were songs we thought the other person had already heard. They just had to be great.
A few months went by, la-la-la, and I forgot all about the pinkie swear I’d made with my mom. Maybe I forgot about it because it involved Sam being right about music, an event that occurs with such depressing regularity that it all fades into a grey sameness.
Until Mom came for another visit, and she had a piece of ruled legal paper, much folded, and written upon (and scratched out, and written again) with ballpoint pen.
“It’s my playlist,” she said. “Let’s put it together now! I want to see how you do it.”
“Mom,” I said. “I’m making dinner. I’ll just go and buy these from iTunes when I have a spare second.”
HAH HA HA HA HAH.
I’m not saying it didn’t go smoothly at first. Track one, Hank Snow, “Golden Rocket.” Plug it into the iTunes search feature, ninety-nine cents, badda bing, badda boom.
Track two, “Sweet Sunny South,” Smith Lester. (Smith Lester?) Nope. Not happening. iTunes has some versions of the song, but none by that artist—in fact, given that I can’t quite make out Mom’s handwriting, I’m not sure that “Lester” is the last name at all. But there’s no likely matches either on iTunes or Amazon.
So I put that one away and move on. (By this time, Mom’s gone back home, so she’s not available for an immediate consultation.)
Track three, “Hard Times,” Geyser Stshhh….—… (Mom’s handwriting is illegible.)
At this point I start to suspect that I’m being outright trolled. I call Mom. “Hey,” I demand. “What’s this supposed to say, on track three? Geyser what?!”
“Geyer Street Sheiks,” she says promptly. “They’re a local band. They’re famous in St. Louis.”
This is my introduction to Music Hipster Mom.
“The Geyer Street Sheiks? Oh, you’ve probably never heard of them.”
After some time talking through the playlist, researching things, and digging through various obscure bands’ obscure discographies, I’ve got a clearer picture. First, it wasn’t Smith Lester. It was the “Smith Sisters,” and the song Mom wants is from their album “Mockingbird,” never released in digital format, but available on vinyl for like five bucks.
“I have that on vinyl.”
Meanwhile: the Geyer Street Sheiks tune was never released at all. They were famous in St. Louis, yeah: but then they broke up, and apparently had some kind of acrimonious dispute over the rights, such that none of their music is currently available in any format whatsoever.
Except. Except that…there’s some kind of sketchy eastern European pirate site…and they’ve got Great Dreams by the Geyer Street Sheiks for download, if I’m only willing to give them a credit card number, which I am not…
Several hoops jumped through later (it involved buying a one-time-use PIN number from an ever-so-slightly more reputable third party site) I have the Geyer Street Sheiks’ Great Dreams, and also the Smith Sisters’ Mockingbird, but the former doesn’t have the track Mom wanted and the latter is still only on vinyl. (The record arrives, and I put it on our bedroom dresser. “Gaah!” says Sam. “I think those women are witches! I think they are trying to magick me from that album cover! They might already have my soul!”)
“Mom,” I said. “On this Geyer Street Sheiks album, I’m seeing ‘Sweet Sunny South.’ And in iTunes, I’m seeing the Smith Sisters covered ‘Hard Times.’”
“No!” said Mom. “You’re kidding! Well, that’s probably fine, then, just switch ‘em.”
(It wasn’t actually that easy, of course. We discussed first whether maybe it was the Red Clay Ramblers’ version of “Hard Times Come Around No More” that she’d actually meant? In the end I executed editorial control, and went with the version that plucked most deeply at my subconscious. I must’ve heard the Smith Sisters track a lot as a little girl: once I finally had it playing, every single note sounded familiar.)
OKAY. GOOD. We can move on. Track four, Gillian Welch, track five, Bob Dylan, no problemo. Track six, W.C. Handy performing his “St Louis Blues,” takes no more than a moment of searching. Track seven, “Marcia Ball — C.C. Rider.”
You’d think that would be easy. I’ve got a couple Marcia Ball albums on my iPod already. Not that particular track, but…you’d think…
“Oh,” says Hipster Mom. “Didn’t she ever put that on any of her albums? I just remember she used to play that song when I went to see her at the Split Rail or the Broken Spoke or something like that—it had a fence or some sort of a wooden part—”
“Mom,” I said. “This doesn’t help me find the track on iTunes.”
“This was in Austin,” she said. “It would’ve been ’72 or ’73…”
“Okay,” I said, “THAT explains why it’s not on iTunes.”
“I was into Marcia Ball before she was cool.”
So, a little more digging—my Google-fu is pretty strong—and I’ve got it. It was the Split Rail all right, in Austin, but it wasn’t Marcia Ball: not yet. This was before her solo career. She was playing in a band called Freda and the Firedogs. They made an album, and it included a version of the song: “EZ Rider.” There are used copies of the Freda and the Firedogs album for sale on Amazon for $49.99, but you can also get it directly from Bobby Earl Smith if you Paypal him fifteen bucks. When I do so, he sends me a very nice email thanking me for the order and asking how I heard about the band, and I’m kind of blown away. I tell him it was because he was track seven on Mom’s handwritten playlist of songs everybody should know.
It was the Split Rail, confirms Bobby Earl Smith. He says it’s always nice to hear from a fan of the old band.
Track eight, Emmylou Harris, I’ve got that one already. In fact the rest of the list is just about that easy. I’m thrown for a second by track fourteen: Jimmy Buffett? Really? I mean, I enjoy the occasional Jimmy Buffett tune myself, but I’m not under the impression that it’s anything but shameful.
“This is not irony. I’m absolutely sincere about Jimmy Buffett.”
Okay, Hipster Mom. If you say so.
Of course, after I’d gotten Mom’s playlist together, I had to finish my own. So here’s the final Mother/Daughter playlist:
Hank Snow — The Golden Rocket
The Geyer Street Sheiks — Sweet Sunny South
The Smith Sisters — Hard Times
Gillian Welch — Elvis Presley Blues
Bob Dylan — Boots of Spanish Leather
W.C. Handy — St. Louis Blues
Freda & The Firedogs — EZ Rider
Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson — Gulf Coast Highway
Martin Simpson — Sammy’s Bar
James Taylor — My Traveling Star
Sharon Shannon and Steve Earle — The Galway Girl
Taj Mahal — Candy Man
Jorge Drexler — Al Otro Lado del Río
Jimmy Buffett — A Pirate Looks at Forty
Amy Rigby — Dancing with Joey Ramone
U2 — One
Sinéad O’Connor — The Emperor’s New Clothes
Talking Heads and John Goodman — People Like Us
Thomas Dolby — I Love You Goodbye
Warren Zevon — Accidentally Like A Martyr
Jeff Buckley — Hallelujah
Crash Test Dummies — Superman’s Song
The Mountain Goats — Going to Georgia
Emmylou Harris — Going Back To Harlan
Guy Clark — Sis Draper
The Waterboys — The Raggle Taggle Gypsy
Linda Ronstadt — Willing
Scott Miller & The Commonwealth — The Way
Warren Zevon — Mohammed’s Radio
Bruce Springsteen — My City Of Ruins
You can see there’s some similarities. We both put Emmylou on our playlists—she’s my favorite singer, probably not least because I grew up with her music. We both have a weakness for Irish bands and rootsy Americana. I limited myself to fifteen songs because that’s what Mom did, but I put Warren Zevon on twice, because he’s Warren Zevon.
Anybody who wants a copy, leave your mailing address in the comments and I’ll burn you CDs of both mixes. Old skool, baby!