John Herald in Brighton
"Now I've seen John play live, it makes total sense that you'd like him." That's Sean Guthrie, John's Scots driver on this, his first UK tour in at least two decades.
"I thought it was strange when I heard you were coming along, you're hardly what I'd call a blues buff, but now I understand. It's like when he goes for one of his bluegrass solos or high-pitched yodels, he doesn't care whether he hits a few bum notes or not, he just carries straight on with the song regardless."
What could I say to my old pal? That I'd first heard of John Herald only three days before, that I knew nothing of his heritage in one of the USA's first bluegrass groups from the Northeast, the Greenbriar Boys, formed back in 1958, but rather had listened to his album Roll on John because I liked the tilt of his hat on the sleeve, and trusted his imprint Spit & Polish? I just nodded my head sagely and let out a couple of gospel-style harmonies on cue as Herald directed us through a lively version of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say." Around me, in the tiny pub, men with beer-splattered white beards and women with hard eyes and too much makeup followed suit.
Not caring to let on the gaps in my knowledge to my chum, I expressed pleasant surprise at his insight and continued to yodel along slightly tunelessly to a rousing rendition of "I Heard the Bluebirds Sing." "You should have a chat with him, Everett," my friend continued. "He has a thousand stories. He has really lived it."
So I did, in the interval between Herald's two 45-minute sets: he asked whether there was anywhere along the Brighton seafront a man could get a swim, and tried to sell me a copy of his first album in 18 years for 10 quid. Sadly, I had to disappoint him on both fronts. Instead, I informed Herald of the English pub patron's fondness for the Ancient & Modern hymnal, and blow me sideways if he then didn't go back on the cramped stage and ask how many of us had been to church last Sunday.
"How-DY!" he yelped, to general bemusement. "Ah, I guess you don't see that show over here. Well, it's like this. I say, 'Howdy,' and you all answer back, 'Howdy.' How-DY!" he repeats, his voice cracking on the high note. "HOWDY!"
You'll forgive me if I don't trace the exact note sequences Herald followed during some of his purer Chicago blues and bluegrass moments: not my fault, but he'd clearly torn up the rulebook and smoked the dampened remnants in a big fat stogie a long time before. "I used to lie," he yelled on a torrid version of "Saved," his voice a cheeky, high-pitched beast somewhat at odds with his weathered face. "I used to cheat! I used to lie/cheat/step on people's feet?" We don't need telling a second time. "Lie/cheat/step on people's feet," we roar back in our best Sunday voices. This is such rare fun, the landlord has to shut all the doors and flick the lights down low simply so we can get the man back for a few well-deserved encores past closing time, and of course sell some of those vital CDs.
"I have a new album out," he reveals. "This label phoned me up and offered me a thousand dollars and I thought why the hell not?"
Why the hell not indeed? Here's something I've since learnt about Mr. John Herald: he first met fellow Woody Guthrie fan Bob Dylan when the latter was playing fiddle on MacDougal St. in New York. They were both in awe of Rambling Jack Elliott, and in later years Dylan would pop over to Herald's house in Woodstock to bone up on some Deep Ellum ghetto music. Dylan has called him the "country Stevie Wonder," and I don't see it myself, but I certainly do appreciate Herald's sheer vivacity of spirit.
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