“He rode easy in the saddle, he was tall and lean,
At first you thought nothing but a streak of mean
Could make a man look downright strong,
But one look in his eyes and you’d know you was wrong.
He was a mountain man and I want you to know,
He could preach hot hell in the freezing snow.”
I called Jerry Leiber and I said, “I’ve got this idea and I’m getting chills up my spine.” I recited it as I’m reciting it to you, and when I got to the bit about the lonesome valley, Jerry said, “Oh yeah baby, bring that one in.” I had a song that was about eight minutes long by then, it was an epic. It had to be boiled down to about three minutes and a half minutes because nobody was going to record an eight minute song. It was a great songwriting experience for me because I found out that you can strengthen songs by making them shorter and still not miss any of the story.
Jerry and Mike liked the song so much that when they had demoed it they put a guy on a plane to the west coast where Voyle Gilmore was producing the Kingston Trio. Their song plugger played it for them and the Trio recorded it that same afternoon and it was my first big hit. The Jed Peters on the record label with me is Jerry Leiber using a pseudonym.
And was it always your intention to have the verses half spoken.
Yeah, that influence came from Phil Harris and his talking type songs: “Phil Jackson was a poor old dub, Who joined the Darktown Poker Club, And he cussed the day he told them he would join.” I did a couple of those songs in a variety show in high school and it was ingrained in me. I liked the tempo, it was early rap.
And then you did Desert Pete for the Trio.
Yes, that was the follow-up. It did okay, but it was not a big hit like Reverend Mr Black which was in the Top Ten on the Billboard charts and got a lot of pop play. I love Desert Pete. I was reading the West Virginia Hillbilly, which was a weekly newspaper out of Richwood, West Virginia and I saw a piece about Desert Pete who built a well on the edge of a desert so people could get a drink of water. He cautioned them by saying, “To prime this pump, you have to pour in some water and pump like hell but have faith – there is water down there.” The idea was that you have to give in order to receive. I’ve met people who preached sermons on that song.
One of your early songs that has had a long life is High Flyin’ Bird.
When I was an alumni director, I would sometimes sit in my office at midnight and this particular night when the moon was really bright and I had the lights off, I had my guitar and everything was quiet. I started playing High Flyin’ Bird, remembering how I would sit down between those mountains in West Virginia looking up at the sky and seeing those birds flying up and over the mountains, going up to Appalachia out into America and across the ocean. It became a symbol of freedom for me.
I wanted to get out of those mountains as I wasn’t happy with my stepfather and so that bird is a very personal symbol. I wanted to play a rocky bluesy type lick on the guitar and I faked it somehow and wrote the song. When Dave Guard left the Kingston Trio, he formed the Whiskeyhill Singers and Judy Henske was the lead female singer. She recorded it and put it out and it was the featured song on her album. Then Richie Havens picked it up and it became his signature song. Truthfully I didn’t like the way that he did it – it was too monotonous – although I was thrilled that he did it. I don’t care how you do my songs as long as you do ’em! It is flattering and it helps me to eat.
If you’d asked me a few years ago, how many people had done High Flyin’ Bird, I would have said, “About ten.” There was the Association, We Five, Gram Parsons and one or two others. Now there’s the internet and when I looked at www.allmusic.com, I found out that there were 50 different versions and I was overwhelmed.
I was in the Bahamas with my wife Mary and I was taking a shower and she said, “Billy Edd, you had better come and listen – there is a band by the pool doing your song.” I put a towel round me and went to the window and sure enough, they were doing High Flyin’ Bird but with lyrics that had been moved from the coal mining area to the sea: “I used to have an old man and he lived by the sea.” They had changed the locale to the Bahamas.
Lonnie Donegan did several of your songs. Was he first to record After Taxes?
I wrote that with Jerry Leiber, who was a workaholic. He and Mike Stoller would write and publish songs on Broadway during the day and at night Jerry would invite me to his house which thrilled me to death because he would give me a decent meal! We wrote that and Jerry and Mike produced a demo with me singing and the Coasters on background vocals and I think it came out on Kapp, but it could have been United Artists. That’s the version you hear on Milestones CD. So I had the first version and then Lonnie did it. Johnny Cash did it several years after that.
You had your own hit with Ode To The Little Brown Shack Out Back. Was that a song you had intended for someone else?
Again it’s autobiographical as I was 13 or 14 years old before I experienced indoor plumbing. That song was considered scatological as you didn’t write about people going to the bathroom. I was on Kapp Records by then and Dave Kapp was a sophisticated New Yorker and he looked down his nose at it and said, “No, Billy. We would like to have a hit song with you but not about outhouses.” Well, I sang it at a hootenanny in West Kentucky and I didn’t know that someone was running a tape recorder in the next room. I was there for an outdoor drama and when I returned the next year, this guy played me his recording. I don’t play the guitar very well so all the clunkers where I hit the wrong string were there but there was also the natural laughter and applause of the audience. It was a rural area and the song hit a chord with them. He gave me a copy and I sent it to Dave Kapp and told him that if he wouldn’t release the song, then he should allow me to record it myself.
When he heard the tape, he wired me back and told me that he had changed his mind. Kapp Records released it and it was banned in Boston. There was a big station in Atlanta, Georgia that thought it was a good novelty to feature. The darn thing took off and it had taken six months. It was a minor hit, I suppose, but it was a major hit for me as it put me on the map. I’ve even written a book called Outhouse Humour. I never had a single that high again. I did try ballads and all kinds of things but I never did click. I got in 70s or 80s on the country chart from time to time.
How did Blistered come about?
I was living in Brooklyn Heights in a dinky little one-room apartment and Tom Paxton had introduced me to Dick Rosmini’s mother. She had a boarding house and she put up a whole lot of people, mostly folk singers. Dick was a fantastic guitarplayer and when I met him, he had been on the road with Bobby Darin and he hadn’t slept in two days. I played him a couple of songs and rather than going to bed, he picked up the guitar and started to accompany me and I was dumbstruck because he was so good. I went back to my little room and I was really inspired. I wrote three songs – one was Blistered, which Johnny Cash recorded, and another was Anne and there was a third song, but I can’t remember what that was. Do you know Anne? (Sings)
“I know I’ll never meet another hunk of woman like my Anne,
She makes me feel like a great big man.”
It has been recorded by Glen Campbell and a whole bunch of people. People for years thought my wife Mary’s real name was Anne.
The really big song you wrote for Johnny Cash was Jackson.
That song was inspired by Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Wolff by Edward Albee. I didn’t have enough money at the time to go and see it on Broadway but I had the script. It starts off with profanity and then the couple are going at each other the whole time, fighting back and forth. I thought that on a lighter level, there is a song there, but not as mean-spirited as Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Wolff. I based Jackson on that and Jerry Leiber once again helped me finish that song, although the other name on it is Jerry’s wife, Gaby Rogers. He sometimes did that.
Jerry wrote maybe one line but his contribution was in making me rewrite the song. He told me that my four verses sucked. I should throw them away and start with the last verse which was “We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout.” I thought the last verse was the climax and that I couldn’t improve on it. He said, “Oh yes you can” and I did. He and Mike Stoller were great song doctors. They also fixed up that Drifters’ hit On Broadway by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.
I was invited to be one of the minor acts at New York Folk Festival at Carnegie Hall and Johnny Cash was headlining. He told me, “If I ever think I’m losing the audience, I whistle for June and she comes out and we do Jackson and it brings them right back up.” Normally a star will record your song and then go out and promote it, but he was trying it out on the road for at least a year before he got round to recording it.
And why Jackson?
Because it is snappy and they are hard consonants. I tried more mellifluous titles like Nashville at first but I didn’t need a pleasant sound, I needed something snappy. (Sings) “Jackson, Jackson, Jackson.” That’s the way Nancy and Lee do it at the end of their version and I love that. I have heard a Scandinavian version of the song and because no one will know Jackson, they sing, “I’m going to town.” (Laughs) That song really built our house – it’s The House That Cash Built. (Laughs)
How well did you know Shel Silverstein as I would think you two would get on well?
I met Shel at an ASCAP party in Nashville when I got an award for something or other and Shel gave me a big hug, and said, “When I decided to write songs, I started studying every song you ever wrote.” He could sing me songs that I had forgotten myself.
About a year later, I took two musicians from Nashville, a guitarist and a feller who played viola, and we went to the Quiet Knight in Chicago and I followed a rock act. I am very soft spoken, I don’t play loud and I don’t sing loud and I was as nervous as an outhouse rat. My mouth was dry and right in the middle of the first show, I heard this voice, “Hey, Billy Edd, tell them about Edsel Martin,” and it was Shel who was with Dr Hook. He was trying to get them started.
I took my break and before the second set he spoke to me. He said, “Billy Edd, you are pushing too hard. You don’t have to race. You want to walk and if you want to walk, the audience will walk with you. Walk – and talk, tell them about Edsel Martin. They want to hear these colourful stories as it helps them realise who you are and it will relax you. They will laugh and be with you.” Boy, what great advice. I went out for the second set and I started telling them about this wood-carver I knew, Edsel Martin and from then on, the gig was really fun.
Elvis Presley did a couple of your songs. Let’s take the ballad It’s Midnight, the B-side of Promised Land. Was he the first to record that song?