‘Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognise that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.’ (Viktor Frankl)
‘I was leaving the south to fling myself into the unknown … I was taking a part of the South to transplant … To see if it would grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns and, perhaps to bloom.’ (Richard Wright)
‘It took me a whole week one time when I wasn’t doing anything, and I made the thing I call the Fotdella in my back room. I just got the idea lying’ in my bed one night, just like I write songs. I lie down on the bed and write songs at night. I thought about doing’ something like that (the Fotdella) so that I could have something to go along with me and help me out instead of another fellow. I just took some Masonite, heated some wood in hot water and rounded it off around a wheel. I learned that in the barrel factory where I used to work – that the way they do the staves. I tried to use bass fiddle strings, but they don’t sound so good, they stretch out of tune so I use piano strings. My wife named it the Fotdella because I play it with my foot, like, ‘Foot diller’ (Jesse Fuller)
There are very few jobs that I have really and truly coveted in my life. But, I have to say that I deeply envy the Director of the august institution that is the Smithsonian Museum. Obviously the museums comprise one of world’s great scholarly centres and acts as the custodian of millions of scrupulously catalogued treasures illuminating our understanding of human history in innumerable field of endeavour – so heading it up would be a major task.
To fortify myself each morning, before drowning in emails and meetings, I would take a tour of the popular culture exhibits. I would linger over Dorothy’s ruby red slippers from the Wizard of Oz and gaze longingly at the Fonz’s leather jacket and just stop myself from sitting down in Archie Bunker’s chair. But, I would stop and look longest at Jesse Fuller’s Fotdella – his unique foot operated percussion bass that added so much to his signature one man band sound. I would then go back to my office and play very loudly (for who is going to tell the Director to keep it down!) Jesse Fuller’s, ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’ and know for certain that I would be able to keep smiling all day!
You will probably, if you’re anything like me, want to play the above track several times in a row until you’re word perfect and have figured out how to do the correct buck and wing steps to accompany your own and Jesse’s vocals. It’s now too late to warn you that Jesse Fuller’s music is seriously addictive. Nothing for it but to ask your preferred record dealer to rush you a copy of the CD, ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’ on the Original Blues Classics label from 1963 which is a beautifully compiled programme of his front rank repertoire.
Jesse didn’t make a record until 1958 when he was all of 62 years old. But from then on he brought to his records, before he died in 1976, songs and performances filled to the brim with dignity, quizzical humour, instrumental virtuosity and sheer effervescent love of life. He also brought the lessons he had learned from a life abundant with such trial, tribulation and adventure that it would take a movie starring a black Charlie Chaplin to do justice to it!
Jesse was born in Jonesboro, Georgia in 1896. Before he settled in Oakland California in 1929 he had worked, rambled and hoboed all around the country working in a bewildering variety of jobs to keep body and soul together. He had left the Jim Crow South as soon as possible in search of safety, independence and the promise of a better future. His early experiences had been very harsh as he had been farmed out to brutal, abusive ‘foster parents’ following the death of his mother before he was 10.
Hitting the road he worked in the circus, on the railroads, in back breaking quarries, turpentine and levee camps and the aforementioned barrel factory. All the while he was learning and performing songs gleaned from vaudeville and medicine shows, camp meetings, store front churches and the army of itinerant bluesmen and songsters who always appeared anyplace where black folks had a spare dollar to spend on booze and entertainment.
Jesse performed as a one man band because it meant he did not have to rely on anyone else to make a show happen. He performed with a 12 string guitar and a neck rack incorporating a kazoo, harmonica and microphone as well as a hi-hat cymbal and his own Fotdella to create a true full band sound coming from a single individual.
Similarly, his repertoire was a virtual compendium of the black musical heritage of the mid twentieth century to which he added his own distinctively intelligent and charming songs. So, Jesse performed Jazz tunes, children’s songs, work songs, spirituals, vaudeville recitations, hillbilly heartbreakers, instrumental party pieces and just about any kind of music that would hold and win an audience long enough for them to realise they should definitely put something substantial in the hat once he had finished.
Listen here to his wonderfully articulated guitar work on, ‘John Henry’ one of the staples of the black tradition and you will understand that though there were novelty act elements to Jesse Fuller that did not mean that he was anything less than a very fine musician and a performer who winningly brought his own thought through style to every number he took on.
Jesse knew how to work an audience. Maybe he had learned a little of that from his improbable time in Hollywood. It seems that in the early 1920s he had operated a shoe shine or hot dog stand outside the film studios and he had been befriended by none other than Douglas Fairbanks Jnr who managed to get Jesse some work as an extra on, ‘The Thief Of Bagdad’ and, ‘East Of Suez’ (honestly I’m not inventing this to spice up a life that’s rich enough already!).
For many years after his move to Oakland he worked in the ship yards with music a useful side line. It wasn’t until 1950 or so with work drying up that he gave music his full attention. He soon found an enthusiastic audience in the Bay area not least among sharp eared young folk/blues revivalists like Rambling Jack Elliott who would carry songs like, ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’ to the nations’ clubs and coffee houses where legions of would be Woody Guthries listened and learned.
As the 50s progressed he began to widen his circuit and venues like the Ash Grove in LA resounded to his music. By 1959 he had made his first record and featured at the Monterey Jazz Festival which led through the good offices of England’s Chris Barber to an enthusiastically received tour of the United Kingdom and Europe. He would tour the UK very successfully again in 1966 even playing at the top of the newly opened London landmark the Post Office Tower. Everywhere that Jesse played he took everything in his stride – a lone cat with sharp senses and a true sense of self worth.
Below, with his exuberantly thoughtful and comical song, ‘The Monkey And The Engineer’ you can hear Jesse play with his audience to rousing effect.
Jesse Fuller’s songs with their relaxed yet jaunty authority were manna for the young roots musicians coming up in the early 1960s. It’s clear that the young Bob Dylan’s harmonica style was influenced by Jesse and Dylan faithfully tipped his sailor’s cap by featuring Jesse’s, ‘You’re No Good’ on his 1962 debut album. Eric Clapton, Paul MacCartney, Richie Havens and The Grateful Dead have all doffed their headgear in similar fashion.
I am always planning, in some part of my mind, the cultural, ‘must- sees’ on my next American trip. One flag that’s firmly pinned into that itinerary is Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland where I plan to make my own salute to the late, great Lone Cat – Jesse Fuller thanking him for the joyous life affirming music that was his gift to us all.
I think I would at first hear in my head his lovely version of ‘Where Would I Go But To The Lord’ as heard below which would seem appropriate to the setting.
However, I’m sure before I bid my last farewell I would have to launch into my own ebullient version of, ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’ with a little soft shoe shuffle thrown in as my own tribute to a wonderful artist.
One more time, ‘Walking with my baby down by the San Francisco Bay ……’