This album is both a return and a debut. The return is of Jackie Washington, VanGuard Recording Society artist and one of the most popular performers at Cambridge’s legendary Club 47 in the heyday of the 1960s folk revival. The debut is of Jack Landrón, an Afro-Puerto Rican actor, singer, and songwriter who has appeared in theater, film, and television and written several musical shows, but never made a record. Both are the same person, from Juan Candido Washington y Landrón, but if this album brings back memories for Jackie Washington’s old fans, it will also bring surprises. Washington was known for his onstage wit and charm, and his sensitive reshaping of ballads and songs from a wide range of folk traditions, but not primarily as a songwriter.
This time, Landrón is putting his songs front and center, and framing them not only with his guitar but with piano, strings, reeds, and Latin percussion. “The idea was to look at what I do from a different perspective” he says. “These are recognizably art songs, written to be modern-sounding, not folk-type songs, though the themes are treated from a folksinger’s viewpoint. They are the experiences, observations, and points of view that I have as a result of being a disciple of Pete Seeger, who profoundly touched me with the idea that life really is a shared experience and people can sing together, we can have a good time together, we don’t have to kill each other, we don’t have to put each other down. Those sentiments continue to mean a great deal to me, even though in other ways I’m not like Pete Seeger, I don’t want to wear work boots and hang out in union halls and stuff like that – I want upholstered furniture and Italian shoes.”
Landrón notes that he had a very different background from most people on the sixties folk scene. “I’m a Puerto Rican black man, and folk music was not something I discovered at Club 47. It was part of my daily life and the lives of my family and neighbors. I’d heard gospel music and R&B hits blared from speakers in the record stores where they sold tickets to those artists’ shows. I was familiar with the music of people like Clara Ward and the Ward Singers, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and the Blind Boys of Alabama. At the parties I attended, I heard records of Johnny Ace, the Clovers, and Ruth Brown. At home we listed to Ramito, Tito Rodriquez, and Los Panchos. I listened to the Grand Ole Opry religiously, and my mother’s kitchen radio brought the music of Bing Crosby, Kate Smith and Vaughan Monroe into the house.”
“I loved folk music, but I also liked Dean Martin and Bing Crosby. I loved Harry Belafonte. I loved Eartha Kit. I loved Pearl Bailey. And I could listen to all of that at the same time. I did not think I had to be separated or pigeonholed. I sometimes got labeled as being too “slick” because I liked the fact that Harry Belafonte looked good and all the women wanted to sleep with him. I liked the fact that black people didn’t have to be exotic trifles. And that thinking influenced the persona of Jackie Washington, the folk singer.”
Landrón enjoyed Club 47 and the people he was meeting around Harvard Square, but he never really felt at home there, and he found a new direction when he traveled to Mississippi in 1964 as part of the Civil Rights movement. Many folksingers went south to sing for rallies, but he chose to stay, joining the movement and helping to form the Free Southern Theater, with which he toured as an actor. He made his last record in 1967, then moved to New York, reclaimed Landrón as his professional name, and concentrated on his acting career.
Ironically, though he made fewer appearances as a singer, Landrón was continuing to grow as a songwriter. Many of the songs on this album were created in the 1970s as part of Thirteenth Street Suite, a musical portrait of his block in New York. “I had hepatitis and I didn’t have anything to do except to get better, so I moved a chair out onto the fire escape and I would sit there and look at the street life, and songs would come to me. I’m not a musician, but things sing to me. I see poetry and music in everything and some of that gets written down.”
Though Landrón never stopped singing and writing, he says he is as surprised as anyone to find a new album coming out in 2012. The catalyst was filmmaker Todd Kwait, who became a fan while making a documentary on the Cambridge folk scene, For The Love of The Music: The Club 47 Folk Revival. “I discovered that Jack was the big gun at the 47” Kwait recalls. “So I tracked down his four Vanguard LPs and interviewed him for the film. And the instant I met him I realized that he is a one-of-a-kind entertainer and I wanted to record him.”
Landrón was initially hesitant because he did not want to make another quickie, self-accompanied folk album. “I told Todd I want back-up singers. I want violins playing, trumpets blowing – I want a real record.” And when he said, ‘OK’, I was just floored because I thought I was going to die without ever hearing these songs done this way.” Kwait assembled a crew of skilled musicians, including the Afro-Puerto Rican percussionist and bandleader Leopoldo Fleming, who is not only a terrific musician but also one of Landrón’s spiritual guides as a fellow follower of the Santeria religion. “I was thinking, when I talk to Todd about who I would like on the album, we should see if we can find Leopoldo.” Landrón says. “But that conversation never happened. And then I arrived in Woodstock and they told me, ‘We’ve got Leopoldo on percussion …’ so God gave me Leopoldo without my having to ask. And he was so helpful to me and to all the musicians. They all were excellent players, but he had a particular kind of ethnic thing to give them, and there was a special spiritual thing he brought to the group.”
All in all, Landrón exults, “It was a magic, magic, magic – can I say magic again? – session. Everybody was wonderful. We have the piano genius of Joel Diamond, Professor Louie on organ and accordion. Tony Aiello on flute and piccolo, Bobbie Van Delta on bass and guitar, the unmistakable guitar stylings of John Sebastian, and Gary Burke on drums and Gary also wrote all the charts, including those for the string quartet, which he conducted as well.”
The result is an album that is musically rich and satisfying, and lyrically represents an intensely lived, deeply personal statement. More than a collection of songs, it is a journey through one man’s life and vision – something increasingly rare in a time of internet radio and mp3 players set to endless shuffle. “I didn’t realize that that was an antiquated thought until we got into the session” Landrón says. “I am an actor, and I think in terms of shows. I have always thought that when people pay money for what you do, you should entertain them. You should transport them somewhere, if only for a moment. So this is a show about what I have seen, and thought, and felt over the years.”
Comments on the songs, by Jack Landrón
ONE MAN SHOW was written as an opening to say what it is I do. “I always wanted to be a star, but I never made it until I picked up my guitar and I created / A one-man show / The most important thing is what the show’s about. And so there won’t be any doubt, let me point it out. It’s about ME.” Whatever I have done onstage has always been about me, what I think, how I look at things, my particular sensibility. The way I say that here is intended to get a laugh – but something a lot of people don’t seem to understand is that just because something’s funny doesn’t mean it ain’t true.
CURBSIDE COTILLION. I believe that everybody is selling it. Hookers are selling a commodity, but we’re all selling a commodity. It’s not a coincidence that Jackie Kennedy fell in love with two of the richest, most influential men in the world. She sold it. Life is a nightly coming out party, a cotillion, and we’re all doorway debutantes – it’s just that some of us stand in fancier doorways.
WAITIN’ ON YOU addresses an imaginary amalgamation of all the audiences I knew years ago. People who remember me from Club 47 often times react to me with some variation of, “Oh! I thought you were dead?” And no, I’m still around. So it’s saying, “Hey, I’m the same person. I haven’t changed. Time to grow is all I needed, and time is up. So here I am. I’m old and new and I’m waitin’ on you.”
TRAVELING MUSIC was inspired by my daughter Vida, when it was clear that my marriage was ending. She was three years old, and she was playing on the floor of this one-bedroom apartment we had on 86th Street, and I knew I was going to leave, so I was sad and I was watching her and thinking of life as a journey. That’s where this came from. “Take this song of love, a little bit of traveling music for your journey through life.” Then I stuck it into Thirteenth Street Suite, because one of the hookers I saw there had a husband who would come every afternoon and bring her lunch. He had dreadlocks, and he played a trumpet which dangled in its case from the handle of the stroller in which he pushed their little baby. They would sit on the stoop across the street and eat together and play with their kid. It was a family thing, and nobody thinks of prostitutes as having a family life, and that touched me. I thought, they would sing this song to that kid.
THIRD FLOOR WINDOW was written when I was living on the corner of 13th Street and 3rd Avenue in a wonderful apartment on the third floor. It was next door to a whore-house and I could see the whole block from my window. It was a largely Hispanic neighborhood, but it was all mixed up. It was New York. Walking towards 2nd Avenue, I would see these kids playing around the cars and whatnot, and there was this one little brown skinned girl, with curly hair and big eyes, a pretty little thing. I’d see her playing and as the years went by I saw her get gangly, as girls do, and start experimenting with lipstick and more grown-up clothes. I felt like I knew that girl, even though I never spoke to her, and the way the song goes is exactly what I saw happen over a period of years. I saw her grow from a child into a grown up hooker addict. I felt the frustration of seeing this person fall into this hole, and that’s the chorus. “Hey, don’t you know the way the wind blows? Hey, up here, in the third floor window, why don’t you think about it…”
DIP THEM IN THE HOLY HEALING STREAM. From my window I could see the Grace and Hope Mission. It was run by two white lady missionaries, and they had that scrubbed, scrubbed skin stretched over their skeletal frame and you could see the tiny network of blue and red veins, and the skin was shiny and clean, and thin lips, and they wore drab, forgettable clothing – there was this mysterious, abrasive sound when they walked and made you wonder what was under there, but you really didn’t want to know… They would wheel out the pump organ that the older, chubby one played and the tall thin one played trumpet and they would play hymns. I knew those songs, and one time I was walking down the street and I started singing along. I was having a good time and it annoyed them because apparently God’s work is not supposed to be fun. So I was eighty-sixed from the corner of 13th Street and 3rd Avenue. But I would watch them from afar, and they had this totally unfriendly, humorless approach, and I said, “I bet they’re thinking something completely different than what they’re singing.” So that’s what this was about.
MAN WITH HALF A BURNING FOOT OF PASSION OR SIX INCHES OF LOVE. Downstairs from me on 13th Street, there was a woman with two grown sons, and one of them was a raging alcoholic. He was always drunk, and he carried a little transistor radio, and it was always turned to country music. I thought it was interesting that this black man loved country music so much. I too love country music, but I never thought I’d be accepted singing it seriously (Charlie Pride notwithstanding). But I was working on a program for NPR and they needed a country song for this one scene – they only needed a tiny bit of music for atmosphere, but I wrote a whole song. I had worked on an educational television program in Kentucky, and the crew would sit around at lunch time and they would say things like, “You could sit with one foot in the fire”, or “You had to tape your toe to keep from going crazy.” I loved those things and I wanted to put them in a song, and I did. I wrote it as a serious country song, but the title is also a joke, of course. Humor is a great tool because it hides a multitude of embarrassing emotions.
WARM SUMMER BREEZE. There were all kinds of people on that block, and I made up stories about them. There was one married couple, and I imagined them sitting home of an evening, away from the problems outside, thinking “Life is so sweet when it’s peaceful. I wish people all over the world could be blessed and caressed by the warm summer breeze that makes the white curtains billow and fall.”
LIKE PAVAROTTI. This is the most recent song on the album, and it is directly about me. I do what I do regardless of whether I get paid – I want to get paid, I want to be successful, but, like I do it regardless. So, “Look inside your heart until you find your greatest passion. Then, my friend, indulge it till you cash in cause age is just a state of mind, until it kills you… So make the music of your life a song that really thrills you. And sing it loud.”
BENEDICTION was the final song in Thirteenth Street Suite and is something I want to say to all my audiences. I myself have had many a “dark and desperate day” and it’s not fun. So the song is wishing “May the music of laughter always be in your key.” Those lyrics are directed to an audience, but I am also in the audience, listening.