The WastelandThe albums that time forgot
The Value of a Song
By Bill Glahn, Big O
Back in 1972, Bob Frank released his first record, a fantastic piece of Southern folk music on Vanguard Records. Although several Vanguard executives requested that he play material from the album at the record release showcase concert, he refused, stating that he only wanted to perform his newer material. Vanguard subsequently “tanked” the record, refusing to promote an album by a songwriter who wouldn’t use his concert performances to “sell” material that they now owned.
Was this an act of self-sabotage by an artist with a fear of fame? Or was it the act of a songwriter who viewed his songs in different terms than purely commercial ones? This week I got my answer.
Bob Frank isn’t totally unknown. John Hiatt tells of an obscure Memphis folkie named Bob Frank, who was the driving influence for Hiatt to pursue a career as a songwriter/performer. In Robert Gordon’s book, It Came From Memphis, Jim Dickinson tells of a song called “With Sabers In Our Hands”, recorded by Jerry McGill at Sam Phillip’s studio. “If the South had had that song, they would have won the war.” Gordon assumed the song was an old traditional piece, and Dickinson didn’t mention that it was actually a song written by Bob Frank. So Bob Frank got no mention in Gordon’s widely-read book. Apparently, Bob Frank is just destined for obscurity.
Others in the Memphis area have referred to Frank as “the Bob Dylan of the South.” But any comparisons with Dylan can stop with such testimony and Frank’s Vanguard album. Bob Frank wouldn’t release another record for 30 years. No fame. No fortune. No accolades from the critics. Just a lingering and uneasy thought among anyone who had ever heard his Vanguard record… “Whatever happened to Bob Frank?”
Several years ago a tape trading buddy sent me a 1973 recording of Bob Frank performing at The Old Quarter in Houston. Like at the album release concert, Frank paid little attention to the songs from the self-titled Vanguard album (although several do appear in the set). Instead, he performs a batch of (then) new material, including a fascinating unreleased tune called “The Face on the Barroom Floor.” I had written about that song several years ago in Live! Music Review. The last verse in that song described how a painting of a woman was viewed by some as the face of beauty and by others as the face of a whore. The impression left by Frank’s song was that it was probably the face of both. I compared the song to the music industry in my essay.
On the occasion of the release of Keep On Burning, Frank’s first album in 30 years (produced by Jim Dickinson and featuring members of the North Mississippi Allstars), I exchanged some emails with Frank. I mentioned “The Face on the Barroom Floor” as being one of my favorite Bob Frank songs. Frank replied: “I was in this bar in Deadwood, South Dakota, back in, oh, say 1970, I think it was the Old Number Ten Saloon, the one Wild Bill got killed in, this place has so much shit hanging off the walls, you can’t even see the walls. Buffalo heads, musical instruments, pictures, weapons, I don’t know what all. And hanging up there among all this stuff was what looked like a portion of a floor that had been ripped up and nailed on the wall. It had this picture of a young girl on it, in red paint. Very pretty young girl, long curly hair, and the wood it was painted on was sort of a rust colored brown. It was the face on the barroom floor, cut out of the floor and hung on the wall.
“Well, me being drunk, as was my wont back in those days, immediately a song came to mind. Now, I knew there was already some poem about the Face on the Barroom Floor, but I didn’t exactly recall what that poem was about… obviously a woman… but I didn’t remember any of the lines… so I took it upon myself to do it my own way. And so, as me and my lady friend drove around Wyoming, drinking sherry and taking in the scenery, I wrote that little poem about Tolliver and the face he painted on the barroom floor. I actually mailed it back to the Saloon from somewhere down in Arizona a few months later, but that was the end of it….”
I told Frank that after my essay had been published I heard from one of the other writers for Live! Music Review. He had never heard of Bob Frank, but he had been to that saloon in the mid ‘70s, and the painting of “The Face” was hanging on the wall and right next to it was a framed paper with handwritten lyrics.
Frank: “I just figured they (the Saloon) read it and threw it away. Man, that is something like exactly what I wanted, but I never knew it. I never knew exactly what I wanted when I sent them the lyrics. I just wanted them to see the song. But that’s it. That’s exactly where those lyrics belong. On the wall next to the painting. Man, this is one of those weird things in life that really makes sense. I mean, nobody will ever know about this, but it just is sitting out there in Deadwood. A painting on the floor hung on the wall, and a song in handwritten lyrics in a frame beside it. This is poetry turned into reality, or vice versa… This is the kind of shit I used to live for. And the mystery of it is what makes it so enticing… Who painted that picture? Prob’ly somebody just like the guy that wrote those lyrics…”
Frank’s response is the perfect illustration of why artists create. For great art, the rewards are never measured in money. The reward is measured by the artist’s ability to communicate his feelings. And if those feelings are communicated best on the wall of a saloon in South Dakota rather than on a tape rotting away in some record label’s vault, that is reward enough for Bob Frank. So my question was answered. Bob Frank’s refusal at his Vanguard showcase wasn’t an act of self-sabotage. Like Tolliver’s painting, it was the act of an artist who really did know the value of art.
The Song: Face on the Barroom Floor