Danny and Johnny meet Samuel Clemens

posted March 21st, 2010

That’s Johnny (on the right in the photo) playing the piano, I’m the one trying to keep up with him on the guitar. I’m not bad, but he’s great.  Jack, taught us both just about everything we knew about music at that point. He still plays that old stride style like a legend.

Besides my guitar, the one possession I most prize in the world is the old Edison cylinder you’re listening to. It’s a sound recording.  Amazingly, a replica of a real event. Listening to it, I’m able to look inside of that moment in time. It’s scratchy, and crude, but I can hear the voices, the sound of that piano, the vibrancy of those hands on the keys. Like something trapped in amber, it’s music played in another day preserved in wax.

This recording was made by Samuel Clemens – the man we know as Mark Twain. It was one of Mr. Edison’s machines and Mr. Clemens had made quite a few recordings. He played the piano, too, although I’ve never heard a recording of him playing it.

I learned recently that he had a Martin guitar that was made in 1836. That’s the year he was born, although he didn’t get the guitar until he was in his twenties. He took it with him on his lecture tours, and sometimes played it. I’d never heard his recorded voice, or had any sense of him other than the printed page.

The first time I saw one of these cylinders, was when Mr. Clemens gave me this one, in October of 1900. I have since had the studio engineers make a copy for me on a record to try to preserve its precious sound. Of course, I was only a boy, nineteen myself, and Johnny too.  Pretty typical dead end kids, denizens of what was left of the old ‘Five Points’ district. Rough times, but we didn’t know anything about that, except that the folklore was all about sacrifice, the recession, the war in the Philippines.

On the night we met Mr. Clemens, he played for the assembled guests and the response was very enthusiastic. You might say that was partly because he was a famous person, still, there was an undeniable joy in his playing. But then, Mr. Clemens would seek out the great players, and would learn their tunes as best he could. It reminded me a lot of our dad’s style of piano learned in some of the most disreputable places. So much of the best foot tapping music had that kind of history. It’s like the old saying, “The devil has all the good tunes.”

If Mr. Clemens had lived another twenty years, he would have loved the music of James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Art Tatum, George Gershwin, Bill Basie, Bessie Smith, Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti, Bix Beiderbecke, Tommy Dorsey, Lonnie Johnson, Billie Holiday and so many more. So much was unfolding in those first years of the new century.

He had a real ear, and an appreciation of the rhythm music that was coming out of the blending of cultures. There were traditions, and musical styles brought together by migration from the South and the arrival of European immigrants. It was a wild time, probably at it’s wildest during the period we think of as Prohibition when the honky-tonks and speakeasies fostered a wide open feel-good era.

Back then we were just a couple of scuffling players, but Johnny was getting a reputation that was starting to open some doors to us. That night, all we knew was that we were booked to play for a homecoming party in a very beautiful town house at 14 W. 10th Street.  As it turned out, it was rented by none other than the famous author, just back from seven years of traveling in Europe.

He said, “I’m Sam Clemens, and this is my friend, Dan Beard.” Well, you could have blown me over. Impulsively I said, “It’s a great honor to meet you, Mr. Beard. I know the Handy Books by heart, really” And then, realizing that I was slighting our host, I said, “Of course, we’ve read your books too, sir.” “And, Mr. Beard, your illustrations of the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Tom Sawyer, they’re wonderful.”

What an exciting time we had.  Playing for a party can be lonely, like being at a wedding for someone you don’t know. But this was very different. Mr. Clemens made us feel welcome right away. He was a playful and brilliant jokester. We all shook hands and when he got to me he said, “Well my friend, it’s quite an old hand, but shake it if you must. Shake the hand that shook the hand of the man that shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln.” He didn’t explain at all, just smiled mischievously.

Mr. Beard had a violin that he had made himself. He said, “Of course, the neck’s been broken, somebody sat on it, and I had to make a new top.” Mr. Clemens said, “That’s just like my grandad’s old axe, we’ve replaced the handle a couple of times, and it’s got a new blade, but it’s still my grandad’s old axe.”

At one point when Mr. Beard was explaining that he enjoyed playing the violin, Mr. Clemens interjected, “But the bow! The bow! The most unaccommodating device. To put that contrivance between the player and his instrument is a cruel insinuation.” Then he added, “But having begun the journey, you’ve no choice but to continue. Follow the bow; it will lead you into strange lands. It will test your strength and your sensitivity at the same time.”

Chapter Four:

We didn’t know it then, but he and his wife, Olivia, had rented the house in New York, and purposely not returned to their home in Hartford because that was where a great tragedy had befallen them while they were in Italy. Their daughter, Suzy, much beloved, was stricken with Spinal Meningitis, and succumbed while staying alone in the house three years earlier. Mrs. Clemens had returned at that time, but Mr. Clemens stayed on in Europe unable to cancel important engagements that were just beginning to rescue the family from the financial crisis that had followed from some very bad investments.

All of this was unknown to us, and only years later did we come to realize how much history had touched our lives on that night. After food, and the music and more food and drink and more music, and cigars and stories, we felt so comfortable we had no sense of the time passing.

Johnny too was affected by the conviviality, and in his turn told the group about his father’s early life in Hadleyburg, and how he had been driven out of the town in disgrace, never to go back.  I had heard the stories about Jack’s past, but it was interesting to hear Johnny tell it in his own way. Both of us had learned so much from Jack about music and life in general.  Mary was also a great influence, but with more emphasis on the classics.

Learning to play the guitar from a man who plays the piano has given my guitar style some odd quirks, and not just a little frustration, but that stride left hand has been the heartbeat of my playing for as long as I can remember.

The guitar is really a drum, anyway. It’s true that changing the position of the fingers on your left hand, you can make that drum seem pretty musical. I can keep two or three voices chunking along in the pocket till the cows come home, but I’m always looking for ways to sail off with the melody and beyond. Over the last forty years or so, I’ve heard some wonderful players take that search into some interesting territory.

Jack was an old barrelhouse player. Politeness forbids me mentioning some of the other places he played, but the piano was the thing that rescued him from starvation and pulled his life back together after a shaky start as orphan, and runaway, sailor, and briefly, a convict.

Johnny’s mom had a lot to do with rescuing Jack from a bad end. She worked in a library (only men were librarians then) but as a Quaker volunteer she worked with prisoners trying to extricate themselves from the iron fist of the military tribunal.  Johnny’s dad had refused orders in some complicated goings on in Central America, what Mr. McKinley called, “Gunboat Diplomacy.”

Jack didn’t mind playing for the officer’s club dances, but suppressing rebellious Hondurans with a Gatling Gun didn’t seem to him to be something he should be asked to do. For him the Halls of Montezuma were kind of a personal labyrinth.  I think he felt he had obeyed one too many orders. He probably didn’t realize the consequences of taking such a stand. But then, he didn’t have the advantage of much worldly wisdom.

We’ve always celebrated his birthday in April, it didn’t matter which day since they never knew his real birthday. Everybody always said that they thought he was born around the time of the fall of Fort Sumpter in April of 1861.  During the conflagration that followed he was found by a widow woman who took in several orphans. She was able to keep body and soul together and put the little ones to work on a tenant farm on the land that used to belong to her slave masters.

She taught Jack to play some of the ’sacred’ songs on an old pedal organ rescued from the ruins of the home place.  She was an octoroon. She had been raised by her masters, the Saxons, as one of the family, which I suppose she really was.

She had been married to a free black man, who only survived emancipation by two years.  The Emancipation Proclamation left some things to be desired. It didn’t abolish slavery; it only threatened to free the slaves in the states that were in rebellion. In an article from that time, the London Spectator said, “The principle is not that a human being cannot justly own another, but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States.” People scrabbling to put lives back together in the wake of events like Sherman’s March, starvation and disease, weren’t concerned with such distinctions.  February 1865 is the only month in recorded history not to have a full moon.

The ‘Widdy Murra’ was known to all as a quiet, practical woman who could be a mama tiger for her chargelings.    There were half a dozen little foundlings that would follow her around like chicks. One of these was Jack’s first love.

Though none of them were really related, the little family of castaways pulled together, and truly did scratch at the earth to survive. It was a sharecrop sustenance, overseen by the landlords, young Mr. Saxon and his brothers. As Jack got into his teens he was especially fond of one little brown eyed beauty that they called Amber. They stuck up for each other, and played hide and seek in the thicket, and when they started to discover more tender feelings, it just made sense to everybody that they would be together.

Everybody except the younger Saxon brother, Terrence.  Jack was just an orphan chore boy, he had nothing to offer a wife, and he had a formidable rival. Terrence was saying that it wasn’t right for Jack to be forcing his affections on his own sister, but nobody who knew the young folks took that point of view.  Heck, they’d known them all their lives.

One day, Terrence and a couple of the mill boys stopped Jack on the road. They beat him up pretty bad and put him in a boxcar with a strong rope. They put a little tar at the knots and feathers in his mouth and ears to discourage him from thinking about coming back.

He always said it was a brand new boxcar, smelled like fresh cut pine. Other than a few burns and a couple of broken bones in his right hand he wasn’t hurt badly. It was mostly the sadness that stayed with him.

He had quite a lot to contend with just keeping alive. Those were terrible times in this country. There were lots like him, hoe boys down on their shoes, hungry and hopeless. He finally landed with a tent revival show playing the gospel tunes. From there he drifted through traveling shows, the gin mills and the bawdy houses. It was a judge in Panama Beach who suggested that he take off some time to go to the finishing school that was run by the U. S. Navy, and that took him to lots of interesting places.

1870’s Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the WCTU began to be force in social affairs.  But their influence was more to be felt in the major cities.  Jack’s teen years were spent in the most deplorable and at the same time colorful surroundings.  The driving rhythm of his left hand was as valuable as a boxer’s jab in providing for him, and he learned to take command of any opportunity to fill the space with music wherever he found a piano.

I’d love you to hear him play. He’s ragged, but right. Like the sound comin’ out of a beat up old silver saxophone with a few rattles and a proud old tone. He never quite grew up, life kicked him around quite a bit, but he landed well.  He and Mary always let Johnny know that together they had made the world a better place and they put us two boys right in the center of it all.  I’m sure they saved my life.

Chapter Five:

Mr. Clemens had been everywhere, and had seen so much of history. He said, “The forty-niners were chumps. It was the forty-eighters who got the gold. There was no law in California. The Klondike was different. The Canadian government required every miner to have two thousand pounds of supplies. They didn’t want a bunch of starving, freezing honyocks dying all over the place.

The merchants made all the money. They mined the miners and never even got their hands dirty. Another thing he told us was that the gold mining in California provided reserves in the banks that helped make the North victorious in the Civil War.

When he heard Johnny’s story about his dad, he told him that he should go to Hadleyburg, if nothing else to scatter some of the crows that had haunted their lives for all these years. “If I were you,” he said, “I would tell those folks in Hadleyburg that there is forty thousand dollars in your knapsack, a reward for the kind citizen who did some extraordinary good deed some time ago.”

“I’ll bet you’d have those people falling all over themselves trying to prove how kind and thoughtful they can be. But watch out that you don’t get a taste of the same old tar and feathers.”

We had seen the article in the paper when Mr. Clemens had returned to New York just the week before. I said, “We read what you said about the Treaty of Paris, is that where you were, in France?”
“The Treaty of Paris has nothing to do with France, it’s just the document that purports to settle three years of the Spanish American War.  Still it rages on. Should I say ‘wages on’. We still have unconquered territory to subdue in the jungles of the Philippines. I just can’t accept that the people we’ve claimed to liberate must now fall under our heel. We’ve made a Faustian bargain. Twenty million dollars we paid to join the sceptered society of thieves.” By that he said he meant Spain and Germany and France with their colonial possessions.

“To defend one’s country, yes, but never to defend empire. It’s nothing more than tyranny with a price to earnings ratio. Empire is immoral.”  He said, “People are being killed right now, and I can’t personally take the responsibility of doing nothing.”

“But,” we said, “You have so much power.” “No,” he said, “only the words, and only if the words have power.” Years later, I read what he had said about the importance of finding just the right word, and how the difference between the right word and the almost right word was like the “difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

“Livy, my wife, that woman will argue both sides.” he said, “It doesn’t matter which one I agree with, I’m wrong either way.”

I asked Mr. Beard about how he became a painter. He said, “My father was a painter, a very good one. I like to think I inherited his talent. I know I got my first opportunities because of his reputation. He knew Daniel Boone.  He named me after the great man.  He knew Dickens too.  I met Charles Dickens when he came to our house. ‘Course, I was only two years old.”

Mr. Clemens volunteered, “My father died when I was eleven, of pneumonia.” We said, “But we thought that you wrote that your father had learned so much between the time that you were fourteen and the time that you were twenty-one.” He said, “Well, I’ve been through a lot of terrible things in my life, and some of them actually happened to me.”

Mostly we talked about the music. Mr. Clemens was so pleased by Johnny’s playing and kept talking about the prospects for a “young man with his talent.” We all agreed that there was something about this emerging rhythm music that was fascinating. It was joyful, it was conspiratorial, it was also dangerously sexual and threatened to challenge the racial status quo.

Mr. Beard called it “Boogie Woogie. He said there’s a phrase, “Mbuge – Mvuge, I believe it’s from Africa.” “What does it mean?” We asked, “It’s the sound of the marriage bed.” “Oh.”

We got so much attention and praise in the early days we thought it was because we were great. We never dreamed it might be because we were young.  But we were great; we just didn’t know how great we could be. It was for us to learn from the greats, and grow beyond our youthful energy, and work for the rest of our lives on the thing that we loved, the thing that carried us through on wings of inspiration. It’s the thing that has captivated people for thousands of years, and we were privileged to be making our living at it.

Running home that night so many years ago, we could not contain our excitement. The faint roseate glow over the East River let us know that it was already the next day.  Time to be whom we would become.

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