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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Episode 32 - Dig Infinity: A Passion Play in 4 Acts

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Act the First - His Royal Hipness

My lords and ladies of the Royal Court here assembled, let me lay on you some history.

Some thoughts, ruminations, correspondence, prose and poesy, cerebration, consideration, contemplation, deliberation, meditation, reflection, speculation, and cogitation upon one cool cat. A cat who would be at the ripe old age of 101 come this April 7th, 5th in the Year Of our Lord 2000 and 7.

So lend me your lobes, fellow Dreamers. Because I'm not making this scene to bury this hipster. No. but to dig him and to have him dug.

I'm talking about Buckley. Not William F. but the Lord. Lord Buckley. Richard "Lord" Buckley. Author and performer of "The Train" that so gently graced your shell-likes in Episode 45 of Theme Time Radio Hour.

Lumberjack, vaudevillian, master of ceremonies for - Yowza, Yowza, Yowza - those crazy dance marathons of the `3os. Disc jockey. Unlikely friend of Ed Sullivan, whose show he would appear on 11 times. And an even more unlikely court jester to Al Capone. "He was the only man who could make me laugh," Capone said.

But that was at the start of the Good Lord's career before he had donned his royal apparel. For years he was just "Dick Buckley," doing a standard comic nightclub act. But by 1950, at the urging of his wife, an ex-chorus girl named Elizabeth Hanson, he had fully adopted a persona that incorporated equal parts Louis Armstrong and Lord Kitchener, developed a patois he termed hipsemantic, began telling the stories he had previously only told backstage, and became the person it was so obvious he was always meant to be. His Hipness, Lord B.

It would be next to impossible for anyone to claim to be anything close to hip and not encounter Lord Buckley at some point in their life.

Maybe, if you were lucky enough, you caught one of his performances of "The Nazz," a hipsemantic retelling of the life and times of that cool carpenter cat from Nazarene. Maybe you found some reference to His Royal Hipness from some other artist you respected - Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Bill Cosby, Jonathan Winters, Hunter Thompson, Ken Kesey, Henry Miller - and you decided to check out this hero of your heroes. Maybe some late night as you were half asleep a bored deejay decided it was time to wig out the night watch and this oratory floated from the radio speakers...
"Hipster, flipsters and finger poppin' daddies:
Knock me your lobes;
I came here to lay Caesar out, not to hip you to him.
The bad jazz that a cat blows wails long after he's cut out,
the groovyare often stashed with their frames;
so don't put Caesar down.
The swingin' Brutus hath laid a story on you that Caesar was hooked for
power: If it was so it was a sad drag, and sadly hath the Caesar cat answered it..."
Or maybe you were at a friend's house one soft, lazy Sunday and she says , "you have to dig this," and the next thing you know you were listening to what sounded like a half-crazed Baptist preacher crossed with a tea-smokin juke joint jazz baby except he's also got this upper-class British accent and he's talking about how the ol' Marquis de Sade couldn't get enough ballin' to satisfy, but it was a bad rap 'cause he was just following his nature. His naaaaaaaaatuuuuuuuuuuuuuuur, dig?

And you go "What?" and you go, "Who?" and your friend's got this half-smile on her face, 'cause she knows you've just taken up permanent residence in the Royal House of Buckley.

Act the Second: Black Cross

When Bob Dylan stepped out of a four-door Impala and onto the New York city streets in January of 19 and 61, Lord Buckley was already two months long gone from the scene, passing away at Columbia Hospital on November 12, 1960. He was 54 years old.

Dylan knew of him, of course, knew of him before he ever arrived in New York. Dylan mentions Buckley in his little-known 1963 poem that uses the same title as the famous song, Blowin' in the Wind, originally published in Hootenanny Magazine...

an Moondog's beatin his drum an sayin his lines -
Lenny Bruce's talkin
an Lord Buckley's memory still movin
... and again in his prose/poetry book, Tarantula which he began in the early `60s.

Look closely and you'll find The Best of Lord Buckley album displayed in the center on the mantelpiece in the cover shot of Bringing It all Back Home.

And then there's "Black Cross."

The poem "Black Cross" was published in 1948 by a Joseph S. Newman in a collection of poems entitled It Could Be Verse. The poet was not Paul Newman's grandfather, as Buckley mistakenly states in his recording, but Newman's uncle, and was 57 and a columnist for the Cleveland Press at the time the book was published. Newman would die at age 68 on November 10, 1960, just two days before Buckley's own passing.

Whether Newman and Buckley ever met and exactly how Buckley discovered Newman's poetry is a mystery, but it's obvious Buckley liked and admired Newman's work, recording three other of his poems besides "Black Cross," and performing it straight, an unusual move for a man who liked to put his own spin on all words. Here's Lord Buckley with "Black Cross."

Black Cross

by Joseph S. Newman,
as performed by Richard "Lord" Buckley

It's a beautiful thing.

It was written by Paul Newman's beloved grandfather, in Cleveland,
a Cleveland poet. It's "Black Cross."

There was Old Hezekiah Jones, of Hogback County.
He lived on a hill in a weatherbeaten hovel.
And all that he owned was a two-acre plot
with a bed and some books and a hoe and a shovel.

Old Hezekiah, black as the soil he was hoeing,
Worked pretty hard to make both ends meet.
Raised what he ate, with a few cents over
To buy corn likker that he drank down neat,

And a few cents more that he put in the cupboard
Against what he called "de rainy season,"
But he never got to save more'n two or three dollars
Till he gave it away for this or that reason.

The white folks around knew old Hezekiah...
"Harmless enough, but the way I figger
He better lay off'n them goddam books,
'Cause readin' ain't good fer an ignorant nigger."

Reverend Green, of the white man's church,
Finally got around to "comin' ovah
To talk with you-all about the Pearly Kingdom
An' to save yo' soul fer the Lawd Jehovah!"

"D'ya b'lieve in the Lawd?" asked the white man's preacher.
Hezekiah puckered his frosty brow,
"Well I can't say 'yes,' so I ain't gonna say it,
Caze I ain't SEEN de"

"D'ya b'lieve in Heaven?" asked the whiteman's preacher,
"Where you go, if you're good, fer yer last rewa'hd?"
"Ah'm good," said Hezikiah, "good as Ah'm able,
But Ah don't expect nothin' from Heaven OR the Lawd."

"D'ya b'lieve in the Church?" asked the white man's preacher.
Hezekiah said, "Well de Church is divided;
Ef they can't agree, than Ah cain't neither...
Ah'm like them....Ah ain't decided."

"You don't b'lieve nothin'," roared the white man's preacher.
"Oh yes Ah does," said old Hezikiah,
"Ah b'lieve that a man's beholden to his neighbahs
Widout de hope of Heaven or de fear o' hell's fiah."

There's a lot of good ways for a man to be wicked...
They hung Hezikiah as high as a pidgeon,
And the nice folks around said, "He had it comin'
'Cause the son-of-a-bitch didn't have no religion!"

From Way Out Humor, World Pacific, 1959. Recorded live at the Ivar Theatre, Los Angeles, 1959. Re-released as Lord Buckley in Concert, Demon Verbals, 1985

Act the Third - Hezekiah Jones

Dylan performed his version of "Black Cross," often labeled on bootlegs under the title "Hezekiah Jones," or simply "Hezekiah" publicly for about about a year according to Oliver Trager's "Bob Dylan Encyclopedia," Keys to the Rain (this is the same person who wrote the Lord Buckley biography, Dig Infinity!, by the way). Less than a year after the release of Bob Dylan, he had stopped performing the song, probably because Dylan was more focused on developing and performing his own material, possibly because he was already becoming uncomfortable with what he would later term, "finger-pointin' songs."

The book cites only two known extant Dylan recordings of "Black Cross" - both appearing on various bootlegs - the first originating from the so-called "Minnesota Hotel Tapes" recordings of 1961 - and the second from the "Gaslight Tapes" of 1962 (the song does not appear on the officially released Live at the Gaslight 1962). It's interesting to compare the Buckley and Dylan versions, one by an artist in his fifties who had built his career on delivering monologues, one by an artist barely in his twenties, still learning how to get the most effect from pacing, rhythm and words.

[Hezekiah Jones/Black Cross - from The Minnesota Hotel Tapes]

Act the Fourth - Finale

Lord Buckley would close his show with this thanks to his audience,

"People are the true flowers of life, and it has been a most precious pleasure to have temporarily strolled in your garden."

It's been my pleasure to have been allowed to stroll through your garden. This has been Fred Bals. Thanks to Dreamtime listeners Richard and Geoff for the idea for this show, and thanks to all of you for listening.

Sources: There's only one place to start on the web if you want to learn more about Lord Buckley, and that's

The lynching photo is real and is from a postcard depicting the lynching of Lige Daniels, Center, Texas, USA, August 3, 1920. The back reads, "This was made in the court yard in Center, Texas. He is a 16 year old Black boy. He killed Earl's grandma. She was Florence's mother. Give this to Bud. From Aunt Myrtle." - reproduced under a Creative Commons license from Wikipedia.

This show would not have been possible without the October 2002 episode of Give the Drummer Some, Doug Schulkind's WFMU radio show. The 3-hour show includes rare Buckley recordings, the "other" version of Dylan's "Black Cross," and an informative free-wheeling interview with the Royal Biographer, "Prince" Oliver Trager who certainly knows what the phrase "labor of love" means as well as I do. If he comes across this episode of Dreamtime, I hope he'll listen to it in that spirit. Thanks, Doug and Oliver!

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