Recitation of a Country Picker
Years ago there was a old blind man in Harvey County everyone called Popeye. Popeye was very matter of fact about his eyesight and coined his own nickname. He often traveled with a hot Tele man named Roger. Roger was a mechanic. He’d say from the stage he kept up Popeye’s car, but didn’t bother to change the windshield wipers ’cause Popeye didn’t need ’em when he drove in the rain; he couldn’t see anyway!”
Popeye owned a country store near Harvey High. We’d sneak over there and buy a soda pop and a pack of nabs and pick the blues with him after school. I kept up with him all the way through medical school and he became one of my early patients when I set up shop as a Doc.
Every year at Christmas he’d call me and banjo man Moose Dooley to play a gig with him and Roger. It was for the Lion’s Club party for the blind. We always went. My boy played the bass for several of them when he was in high school. I told him we’d better go. Popeye was a good man, and besides I was afraid God would strike down a man who wouldn’t help out Popeye. The man didn’t own much besides his beat up Hummingbird guitar, but he said a lot of his friends weren’t as lucky as him and he was gonna go entertain ’em.
Popeye knew a lot of county songs, but I thought he was at his best when he did a recitation. You don’t hear ’em much now. They were those sad stories about someone who lost their girl and then got drunk and wrecked their car or some such thing. They’d drone on and on as we played some somber back-up, and would get sadder with each verse. Often me and Moose and Roger would hum a three part harmony in the background. Popeye’s voice would take to quavering and he’d wring every bit of emotion out of the tune.
One year he did one about an old Preacher whose boy had gone bad. I can’t recall the name of it; this was years ago. It was a prodigal son type of story where the boy had been in prison and was about to be released. His old father the Preacher had prayed for him for many years.
One day the Preacher got a letter from the boy. He was gonna get out on parole and wanted to come home but was scared to ask. After all the cussing and gambling and fighting and drinking and so on he knew he was the black sheep of the family. By the time Popeye got half way through everyone was choked up. I looked over at the Moose. The boy is an ex-All State football star and a genuine tough guy but he could barely hold back the tears. Later we agreed it was the saddest thing we’d ever heard.
At one point the Prodigal son’s letter said he was gonna ride the train home and if he saw a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree he’d know he was welcome. If there was no ribbon well, as Popeye would recitate; Well Papa I’ll just keep moving on… because I know….yes I know papa I’m not worthy ….. and yes I know I’ve sinned…. oh and I’m so sorry Papa….
Some kid in the audience began to cry. He had a sax with him, and and jumped on the stage with us and wailed away on it. By the time Popeye got to the part when the train rounded the bend and the boy could see all those yellow ribbons tied to every branch of the tree even the most cynical human being in the room was tore down.
Popeye is long gone, but I still think of him every so often. Any man that can bring together a mechanic who plays Telecaster guitar, a banjo man who is an ex-football star, a young doctor mandolin picker, his middle class teen-aged boy bass player, and an African American saxaphonist and move them all to tears… well that man is an artist, even if he wasn’t famous.
The only guy I know who as good with a recitation as Popeye was Hank Williams. There is no more authentic a country artist than Hank, but on a recitation Popeye was near his equal. I’m glad I got to be a part of those old gigs. Popeye was a salt of the Earth old soul and you don’t meet many like him along the way.
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