I expect I’d just as well go ahead and own up, right off the bat, to the fact that this little morsel of writing has but one ambition, which is to provide a vehicle that will allow me, at readings like this one, to inflict upon the public weal—be warned--the only three songs I’ve ever written, rendered up, strictly Acapulco, in–be doubly warned--my very own inimitable singing voice. I implore you all, however, to take the opportunity to sweeten this bitter dose of salts by adding your own voices to the second and third
choruses of each song.

That said, let’s betake ourselves way up to the upper-left-hand corner of the country, where I am lumbering along a Montana freeway in a cumbersome, sway-backed old white whale of a ’65 Chevy van named Moldy Dick, headed east, into the very first sunrise of July 1976. At my back is a U-Haul trailer and, receding into both the distance and the past, the town of Missoula, Montana, which until this morning I’ve called home for most of the past three years. Ahead of Moldy Dick and me is my new bride
Cia, piloting our ageless VW microbus, the McClanavan, and ahead of her are a couple of thousand miles of eastbound highway, at the far end of which is a tumbledown four-room tenant house on a high bank above the Kentucky River, near the hamlet of Port Royal, in Henry County, Kentucky. In Moldy
and the U-Haul are two-thirds of our worldly possessions; in the VW, with Cia, is the other third. Yet, as must ever be the case with nearly-newlyweds, our hopes are high. We are nesters, homesteaders, a weird little wagon train in the Eastward Movement, pioneers seeking our earthly paradise.

Ten months earlier, Cia and I had set out from Missoula on the same highway, in the same direction, on what has to be one of the most feckless adventures in the history of human endeavor, a quest for—to borrow Tom Waite’s title—the Heart of Saturday Night; we were going to write a book
about honkytonks.

To that dubious purpose, we drove 14,000 miles over the next six months or so, honking and tonking relentlessly, from Montana to Louisiana to Kentucky and, by way of northern Mexico and Bakersfield, back to Montana … but of course the book never happened, though I did get a chapter--“Drowning in the Land of Sky-Blue Waters”—of Famous People I Have Known out of it. Which is good, because it means I won’t need to rehash here the intrepid details of our travels. Suffice it to say that we contracted a severe case of the honky-tonk blues, compounded by a touch of motion sickness. But it’s all in the book, dear hearts, and said book—again, for those of you who are, like me, a trifle hard-of-hearing nowadays, that’s Famous People I Have Known—is still available at fine booksellers everywhere.

Back to our story: Midway in our travels, Cia and I had taken a breather for a couple of months in that abandoned tenant house by the Kentucky River, on the farm belonging to my longtime friend Wendell
Berry’s uncle, Jim Perry, just down the road from Wendell’s and his wife Tanya’s own farm, in the tiny community of Port Royal. In February, when we hit the road again on our return trek to Missoula, we already knew that we were coming back, and that our ultimate destination was right there at Uncle Jimmy’s sweet little tenant house on the riverbank. We made it back to Missoula in time to fulfill our final obligations there--and now, three months later in the early summer of ’76, we are setting forth once again, bound for Port Royal.

These old bangers of ours cruise at about forty-five, flat-out, which makes for a long, lazy day at the wheel. Any other time, lollygagging along all by myself like this, I’d pop the top of a cold Grain Belt and tune in the nearest call-in show on the radio. There are problems, though: For one thing, it’s a little early in the day to dip into the beer cooler; for another, Moldy Dick, which we bought for four hundred bucks just for this trip, came with a gaping hole, like a missing tooth, in the middle of the dash where the radio should have been. So, left to my own devices, too uncoordinated to twiddle my thumbs and steer at the same time, I’m casting about for something to occupy the vasty fastnesses of my mind for the next few hundred miles. And that’s when I remember the Elbow Room, and the Born in the Land of Sky-Blue Waters sign.

The Elbow Room is a nondescript bar in a nondescript building which squats nondescriptly amid the used-car-lot ghetto on the south-side of Missoula. It has a pool table, a good country jukebox, and a peremptorily amiable bartender, but by and large the atmosphere is pretty businesslike, and the business at hand is alcohol. (THE DOCTOR IS IN AT SICKS A.M. discreetly advises a small sign taped to the back-bar mirror.) The clientele is mostly trailer-court working class—day laborers and millhands and motel maids and Granny Goose salesmen and tire recappers and Korean War widows and Exxon pump jockeys—and it includes a sizable contingent of full-time, dedicated alcoholics.

Now, for all my inabstinent ways, I have never counted myself among that happy number; but when we lived in Missoula I did like to fall by the Elbow Room every now and then for a nightcap or three, just to clear my head after a hard day at the thesaurus or some trifling domestic impasse or a particularly egregious outrage on the evening news. The glum, podiatrist’s- waiting-room anonymity of the place seemed to cool me out somehow, and many’s the midnight hour I’ve whiled away sitting there nursing a shot of Brand-X bourbon and meditating upon the electric Hamm’s Beer sign behind the bar, the one that bears the legend “Born in the Land of Sky-Blue Waters” beside an animated picture, which follows a rushing mountain stream down past a campsite with a red canoe, on down a riffle and over and
over a waterfall and around an island and past a campsite with a red canoe and down a riffle and over a waterfall and around an island and past a campsite with a red canoe and down a riffle and … The Hamm’s sign, with that mad little river rushing eternally up its own fundament, has always seemed to me an ineffably profound representation of spiritual isolation, a sort of horizontal electric mandala for contemplative drunks, and I have long aspired to write a country song about it.

Why not now? Sure! I’ll call it “Drowning in the Land of Sky-Blue Waters;” it’ll be my personal anthem, an old honky-tonker’s swansong. Within the next ten miles of freeway I’ve got the opening lines—“I’ve lost
my way again / Out in this neon wilderness … “—and something that passes, at least to my tin ear, for a rudimentary tune. By lunchtime I have the first verse all wrapped up, and by our afternoon beer break, somewhere in Wyoming, I’ve made it through the chorus. And before the sun goes down that evening, I am singing—if you can call it that—at the top of my inharmonious voice, the very first song I’ve ever written. No doubt there will be those who say that it should be the last as well, but that’s their problem.

So, as Roy Rogers used to put it, “Now don’t you worry, folks, we’re a-gonna git them rustlers. But first, lemme sing ya a little song. It goes … kinda like this … “


I’ve lost my way again
Out in this neon wilderness,
Where the rivers run in circles
And the fish smoke cigarettes;

Where the only things that give me
Any peace of mind
Are a jukebox and a barstool
And a strange electric sign.

’Cause I’m drowning in the land of sky-blue waters
Since I lost the way home to you.
Yes, I’m drowning in the land of sky-blue waters;
I need you to see me through.

I’ve seen that peaceful campsite
A hundred times tonight,
Where the campfire’s always burning
And everything looks right.

But across that crazy river
In this godforsaken place,
A man is going under;
He could sink without a trace.

For he’s drowning … (etc.)

The Elbow Room is closing now,
And I must face the street,
Where the only rushing rivers
Are rivers of concrete.

There’s no way I can cry for help;
My pride has got its rules.
But at last call for alcohol
My heart calls out to you:

Oh, I’m drowning … etc.

Well, so much for my formative years in show biz. My marriage survived my singing—for a while—, and we lived in Uncle Jimmy’s little house for the next four years, until our burgeoning family obliged us to seek more spacious accommodations. Our fortunes had improved by then to the point that we were able to buy a rickety but roomy old farmhouse up on the hill, a little closer to Greater Downtown Port Royal. I mention this otherwise-irrelevant transition merely to demonstrate that at this stage in my life, I was interested a lot less in being a rolling stone and a lot more in (pardon the mixed metaphor) becoming a moss-gathering stick-in-the-mud. Yet my late-blooming homebody propensities hadn’t by any means
overcome my still-urgent need to honkytonk from time to time. And so, one Saturday night not long after my family and I had moved into our commodious new digs, I found occasion to sneak off down the road to Carrollton with a buddy of mine to our favorite local dive, the B&M Disco & Bait Shoppe, to tip a few cold ones. On the jukebox in the B&M was a song called, cross my heart, “You Fuckin’ Jerk, You Piss Me Off,” at which I, in my newly assumed role as a stuffy, huffy country squire and man of property, took huffy, stuffy umbrage.

So-o-o … I went home and wrote--yes, folks, that disquieting premonition you’re experiencing means you do feel a song comin’ on—I went home and wrote the song which some critics, in their wisdom, have
called my Greatest Hit. I suppose I should apologize in advance for the fact that all two of my songs (so far) take place in joints called the Elbow room, but what the hell, why should I? They’re my songs, aren’t they? That said (I love to say “that said”!), here, for your listening pleasure, is:

(A Kentucky Derby Lullaby)

Rose came from Porter County,
Where she worked at Fruit of the Loom;
Hung out for a while down on Two Street,
In a place called the Elbow Room.

Took up with a trucker from Fargo,
Went out west for a while,
Danced topless in a bar in Chicago;
Came back showin' the miles.

All the roads in the world lead to home, sweet home;
They all lead the other way, too.
Some have to go, and some have to stay;
And some are just passin' through.

Wayne was a drifter from Denver;
Blew in for the Derby, and stayed.
Took a job as a back-up bartender
The day of the Derby Parade.

Rosie was sippin' Sweet Lucy,
Watchin' the parade pass her by;
She stole Wayne’s heart down on Two Street,
When he saw the tear in her eye.

All the roads in the world … etc.

Wayne took out his pay in Sweet Lucy,
Right there at the scene of the crime;
Told his life story to Rosie,
And they danced till closing time

They were lost till they found each other;
Tonight they know where they are.
For two rocky roads came together,
In a place called the Elbow Room Bar.*

All the roads in the world … etc.

Well, that pretty much got the songwriting bug out of my system, an apparent miracle cure that was no doubt welcomed by my adoring public. But it turned out that the condition was chronic, and the long-dormant symptoms would return in 1986 to put me through one more bout with the terrible reality that I can’t sing a lick.

That fall, my friend Ken Kesey called to say that he was about to publish his memoir, Demon Box. There would be a book tour, Ken said, and he was planning to take a break during his travels and come to visit us and the Berrys for a few days. This was exciting news for my then-nine-year-old daughter Annie, who had never met Ken, but had heard Wendell and me talk about how much he loved kids, how entertaining he was with them, how he always had an assortment of magic tricks and songs and jokes and stories for them. For Annie, it was love even before first sight; she could hardly wait.

Okay, I told her, yielding to my old vice one more time; howzabout I write us a little song, and when Ken comes, you and I will sing it to him. So that’s what we did; I wrote a song called “Jack the Bear”—it’s dedicated to Ken, of course--, and Annie and I rehearsed it together for days, and when Ken arrived we sang it for him. He loved it, by the way—though I daresay he might have enjoyed it even more if he could’ve traded me for, say, Mario Lanza—or, for that matter, for Daffy Duck.

Here I’m going to interrupt myself briefly to remind you that in 2003, two years after Ken’s death, I edited the seventh and final issue of Ken’s old self-published literary magazine, Spit in the Ocean, and when Viking Penguin published Spit 7 (subtitled “All About Kesey”), a band of a dozen or so superannuated but still serviceable surviving Pranksters, myself among them, put together a modest book tour for ourselves. We got Ken’s famous bus, Furthur, out of mothballs and hit seven bookstore venues from Portland to Eugene to the Bay Area, doing readings from the book and skits about
Ken, singing some of his favorite songs, and just generally paying tribute to his genius and his imperturbable spirit. We had a grand time, and played to full houses at every stop, and I invariably finished off my portion of the program by singing “Jack the Bear,” once a welcoming greeting, now, sadly, a fond farewell.

Our final show was on a Saturday night at Moe’s Books in Berkeley, where, by then, the lovely and talented Annie was (and is) a candidate for a Ph.D. in English literature at UC. And of course she was, by paternal injunction (and possibly even by choice as well) in our audience that evening, and of course I drafted her—paternal injunction again—to join me onstage for “Jack the Bear.” Annie isn’t nine years old anymore—indeed, she got a wolf-whistle when she came forward—but I’m here to assure you that, as far as I’m concerned, our Moe’s Bookstore rendition of “Jack the Bear” was, for me, the very best moment in the whole adventure.

(for Ken)

He comes on like Jack the Bear;
He ain’t no hippie and he ain’t no square.
He’s Jack the Bear of world renown;
He’s Jack the Bear from out of town.

Hey hey, Jack the Bear,
Hey hey Jack the Bear.

Jack the Bear is in cahoots
With big galoots in pin-striped suits.
Jack the Bear ain’t got no roots
Except the ones inside his boots.

Hey hey, Jack the Bear,
Hey hey, Jack the Bear

Jack the Bear has heard the news;
He says that when you snooze you lose.
He says you reap just what you sow.
Now Jack the Bear has … gotta blow.

Hey hey, Jack the Bear.
Hey hey, Jack the Bear.
Hey hey, Jack the Bear,
Hey hey, Jack the Bear.

Copyright © 2005 - 2012 Ed McClanahan. All rights reserved.