The Ballad of Spider John

 In Music, University of Houston

The other night I force fed several story songs to my 4381 class. I was trying to point out narrative structure in songs. I inundated them with things the most likely didn’t care for or want to hear. I was determined to obtusely make a point. But one song was missing. One was nagging at me the entire evening. I played too many songs trying to think of that song that was kicking around my brain.

I remembered it a few hours too late. Back about 46 years ago, Willis Alan Ramsey released his self titled album. 11 songs and a run time of 40 minutes and it made the man a legend. You see, it’s been 46 years and his total number of albums released is one. That’s it. One album, 11 songs, 40 minutes and one legend. There are rumors of a second album coming out this year, but no one really knows if that will happen. No one that is except for Mr. Ramsey.

Willis Alan Ramsey

The New York Times had a piece on him and the writer Ben Ratliff has this to say about that album, “his cozy, orderly, tiny-detail songs expressed a willful turnabout from hippie chaos, a visceral reaction particular to the early 1970’s. They are sweet, emotionally guarded and often musically complex, fitting strains of melody together that seem as if they ought not connect, expertly using rhythmic displacement as the words and chords unspool.”

He ends the article by saying, “Perfection is terrifying, and some of these songs felt spooky.”

If you ask Mr. Ramsey when he’s going to record his next album his response is always, “What’s wrong with the one I have?”

Just one look at the cocky grin on the face of that 20 year old Texas based Alabama transplant and you realize this is a man who knows something the rest of us don’t and he’s not sharing.

The first song is The Ballad of Spider John and it is a wonderful and tragic tale. It would make a great film.

I’m in between freights, and I sure would be obliged
If I could share your company

I’m on my way to nowhere
I been runnin’ from my past
Runnin’ from the things I used to be

Now I know my words sound strange to you
But if you’ll wait till my song is sung and my story’s told
You might come to understand
Why I’m old and bent and devil’s been runnin’ out of time
When I long ago held a royal flush in my hand.

Oh, I was a super market fool, I was a roll-the-bank, a
Stool pigeon
Robbing my hometown
I thought I’d lost the blues, yes, I thought I’d paid my dues
I thought I’d found the life to suit my style

But here I sit ol’ spider john
The robber man
Long, tall and handsome
Yes, ol’ spider john with the loaded hand
Taking ransom

Then one day I met diamond lil
She was the sweetest thing, I declare,
That the summer breeze ever blown my way
But, lady, she had no idea my illustrious occupation
She thought I was a saint, not a sinner gone astray
But you see that word got around and lily left town
Never saw her again
Tossin’ and turnin’, causin’ my heart to grieve

Oh, I was a super market fool, I was roll-the-bank, stool pigeon
Robbing my hometown.
I thought I’d lost my blues, thought I’d paid my dues
I thought I’d found the life to suit my style.
But here I sit ol’ spider john,
The robber man
Long, tall and handsome
Yes, ol’ spider john with the loaded hand
Taking ransom

That is all my story
Been these thirty years since I took to the road
Find my precious jewel one
If you see my lily, won’t you give her my regards
Tell her ol’ spider got tangled
In the black web that he spun

You can tell her that ol’ spider got tangled
In the black web that he spun

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