John Herald in Brighton

Written by Everett True on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

"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.

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!"

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.