Photo: Courtesy Anne Edwards
Segregation. Equality. Government corruption. Urban renewal. The Vietnam War.
These are issues not typically associated with Texas music icon Jerry Jeff Walker, who celebrates his 76th birthday on Friday.
But when he first hit the road from his upstate New York hometown 55 years ago, Walker was confronted with a segregated America and its brewing, ugly political forces. And he wrote songs about what he saw.
Newly discovered and restored audio recordings from 1964 and 1965 reveal a folk artist much different than the good-timin’ wild man who shaped Austin’s music scene during the Nixon era.
This was before Walker wrote “Mr. Bojangles,” the touching tale that so resonated with Sammy Davis Jr., Nina Simone and Harry Belafonte.
He wrote the song while drifting through Austin in late 1966, and it became his first solo record in 1968. It would take five more years for the hitchhiking street singer to become a bona fide Texas sensation.
A glimpse of his roots is found in the unpublished songs “Talkin’ New Orleans Destruction Blues,” “The Quorum Raid” and “I Look for That Day Today,” which recall Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.
RELATED: Listen to “I Look for That Day Today” and “The Quorum Raid” below.
“It was sort of an unwritten rule that you could borrow any melody you want to tell your story,” Walker said in a telephone interview. “A lot of this is happening real fast.”
For example, “The Quorum Raid” is about an infamous incident in New Orleans in late July 1964 when 73 people were arrested at a coffee house where blacks and whites openly mingled.
Walker, who was a regular at the gathering place for actors, musicians, poets, professors, intellectuals and gays, was performing his new song days later.
“The Quorum Raid” takes on the Citizens Council of Greater New Orleans, also known as the White Citizens Council.
Such organizations, which Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer Hodding Carter Jr. once called “the uptown Klan,” arose throughout the South to oppose desegregation.
For Walker, it was eye opening.
Born Ronald Clyde Crosby in Oneonta, New York, on March 16, 1942, he was a rebellious product of the rock ’n’ roll, folk music and beat poetry scene of the late 1950s and ‘60s.
RELATED: Listen to more by watching the video below.
He performed under various aliases early in his career. He took “Walker” from Harlem jazz pianist Kirby Walker, a recording artist of the 1940s and ’50s he befriended.
Jay and Anne Edwards, both originally from the north, met the drifter Jerry Jeff Walker in 1963 in New Orleans. The husband-and-wife team were the first to record him and transcribe his songs.
Jay Edwards recalled that Walker once was arrested for performing with the black blues musician Babe Stovall.
“We shared the perspective of how damn racist New Orleans was,” Edwards said. “He was no social reformer but he was a pretty interesting musician. I don’t think that the songs about the racial problems were his best songs. He was trying to find himself.”
Anne Edwards recalled that “Jerry Jeff had this empathy.”
“He was a poetic soul, a very sober, very thoughtful, sensitive person,” she said.
The couple frequented The Quorum, too, because it was integrated.
“Coming from the north, (New Orleans) was almost like another country in terms of the black-and-white issue,” Anne Edwards said. “It was, like, are we still in America? It was bizarre.”
Walker recently talked about those heady early days.
Q. When you first came to the South, were you shocked by the racism?
A. The first time I came to New Orleans, I was hitchhiking. I got a ride from a woman. She said, “Where you from?” I said, “Well, I was born in New York State but I’ve been hitchhiking around the country.” She said, “You ain’t coming down here to tell us what to do with our (racial epithet) are you?” That was pretty shocking.
Q. Was that attitude acceptable in your hometown?
A. No. But I had been warned back there that I was spending too much time with blacks.
Q. The raid on The Quorum outraged you?
A. It’s something you gotta talk about, you gotta do. That’s sort of what folk music was supposed to be about, current events or mining disasters or union things. I could be free with the music.
Q. What was the so-called White Citizens Council?
A. I’d never heard of it before, a White Citizens Council? For a guy from upstate New York, you’re seeing it all for the first time. I said, “What’s a White Citizens Council?” And they let me know it was a group of pretty influential white men who were keeping an eye on how things were rolling in New Orleans.
Q. How politically active were you?
A. I marched in an anti-war (rally) in New York, down one of the avenues. I remember somebody hollering, “You’re all going to be in the FBI file.”
Q. Is there a danger being an issues-oriented artist?
A. You do it at a rally or someplace where you can. But it’s not what people bought a ticket for. I couldn’t even play some of my ballads in the clubs because they didn’t have a beat.
I’m going from a coffee house where it almost demanded to have some social subject to a place where nobody wants to listen. Nobody wants to hear a four-minute song about (racial injustice).
Q. Are you proud of your civil rights stance?
A. I wanted to say something. I wanted to say something to myself.
Q. When did you realize you had to move on as a singer-songwriter?
A. The folk scene was changing when I got over to Texas. I had a lot of problems because I was playing songs I wanted people to listen to in clubs that had huge dance floors right in front of the stage. (But) I was playing songs that had meat in it.”
Hector Saldaña is curator of the Texas Music Collection at The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University, which is featuring the exhibit “¡Viva Jerry Jeff! The Origins and Wild Times of a Texas Icon.”