may 2009

Get flash player to play to this file

Bun Wright's Fiddle Band plays "Soldier's Joy" at FDR's request on the lawn of the President's Warm Springs, GA, 'Little White House'

Then & Now

Champagne Charlie, a Dutch string band, serves up vintage songs about the FDR era in Waitin' On Roosevelt, and touches a nerve in the Obama era

By David McGee

Photo:Jan van den Berg
Champagne Charlie (from left): Peter Lenselink, Peer Bout, Theo de Koning, Sjef Hermans, Gait Klein Kromhof, Geert de Heer: Not content with merely praising Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Dutch septet offers a broad sampling of opinion, pro and con, on the man and his policies, originally written and recorded during the President's time.

Not many music fans in America have heard of Champagne Charlie, but maybe it's time more got turned on to what this Dutch string band sextet is up to. Last month, out of the blue, via snail mail, received a plain white envelope bearing a return address in Holland. Inside was a true delight—a CD by this Champagne Charlie outfit titled Waitin' On Roosevelt and featuring a cover photo of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at his Warm Springs, Georgia, Little White House retreat, sitting in the midst of a six-man string band—two fiddles, three banjos and a fellow playing an exotic Gibson harp-guitar. FDR's daughter Anna stands behind her father. The band is identified as Bun Wright's Fiddle Band. The triple gatefold package opens up to reveal photos and IDs of the various CC members as well as some background on the band ("Champagne Charlie is a blues & roots band from the Dutch delta.") One of the inside gatefold sleeves shows the band seated in front of a mansion in Middelburg, the Netherlands, that bears some resemblance to FDR's Little White House. Also in Middelburg are the Roosevelt Study Center (RSC) and the Roosevelt Stichting Foundation. As per the liner notes, "The RSC is an academic research institute specialized in modern American history and European-American transatlantic relations." In addition to its staff teaching at Ghent University and the Roosevelt Academy in Middelburg, the RSC is home to a wealth of research materials on all aspects of 20th Century American history. Important to its mission is the presentation of awards every other year honoring the Four Freedoms President Roosevelt articulated in his State of the Union address on January 6, 1941, to wit: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The awards, given as grants, are presented to (again quoting from the liner notes penned by Kees van Minnen, Director, Roosevelt Study Center; and Karla Peijs, Chair, Roosevelt Stichting), "laureates from diverse cultures and religions, from different countries across various continents. The laureates receive their award for dedicating themselves to fulfilling FDR's four freedoms." As well, the Roosevelt Stichting encourages other organizations to hold festivities in conjunctions with the Four Freedoms awards that "may link with the work of the laureates themselves, or may evoke the four freedoms in other ways. Through these initiatives the values of the freedoms are brought to the attention of a wider, especially a younger, audience. This CD perfectly illustrates that goal" in bringing attention to "the contemporary meaning of the four freedoms."

Champagne Charlie does not cheat the listener, with 21 songs clocking in at nearly an hour and 14 minutes cumulatively. CC's lead vocalist Sjef Hermans has penned, in a scholarly but breezy prose, an entertaining, informative annotated guide through the songs and the history surrounding each one, and should be applauded for his egalitarian choice of material—as the liner booklet says on its front page, these are "Songs about Franklin Delano Roosevelt." Not songs simply "in praise of" FDR, but reflecting a broad sampling of opinion about the man and his policies as both were regarded in their own time. Today we may see FDR as, for all intents and purposes, America's savior during the Depression years, but this album uncovers a number of songs expressing a populist restlessness and impatience with the President for failing to deliver quickly enough on his promises to struggling Americans. The poet Langston Hughes, whose resentment boiled over in his poem "Ballad of Roosevelt," which was set to music by Alan Lomax, suggests violence may rear its head soon if the disenfranchised remain under the radar. Josh White's "Low Cotton" chronicles the struggle of backbreaking work for below-subsistence wages. John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson's "Welfare Store Blues" articulates a poor black man's resistance to shaming himself by accepting government provisions ("I told her, 'No, baby! I sure don't wanna go'/I say, 'I'll do anything in the world for you/I don't wanna go down to that welfare store"); Slim Smith's "Breadline Blues"...well, the title speaks volumes. There are songs of jubilation over the promise and hope FDR's election engendered, by far the most familiar being Yellen &  Ager's "Happy Days Are Here Again"; country singer Bill Cox, recording "Franklin D. Roosevelt's Back Again" following FDR's re-election in 1936, had his own definition of exactly what those "happy days" meant to him: "Since Roosevelt's been elected/Moonshine liquor's been corrected/We got legal wine, whiskey, beer and gin," and concludes with a rousing, "You can laugh and tell a joke/You can dance and drink and smoke/We've got Franklin D. Roosevelt back again." Lead Belly's 1942 "President Roosevelt" extols the Commander in Chief's fortitude and courage in facing down Hitler and the Japanese Army in WWII, before the full story was known of the President's reticence to enter the conflict in a time of isolationist fervor. Roosevelt's death spurred another round of reflections on the man's time in office, ranging from Big Joe Williams's elegiac "His Spirit Lives On," in which he essentially attributed Christ-like powers to FDR ("He helped the crippled, boys, and almost healed the blind") to Woody Guthrie's touching eulogy addressed to the President's widow, "Dear Mrs. Roosevelt" ("I voted for him for lots o' jobs/I'd vote his name again/He tried to find an honest job for every idle man/This world was lucky to see him born")—a bit of change of heart for Woody, who had earlier in Roosevelt's term expressed a caustic view of the Administration's handling of the economic crisis in "I'm Looking For That New Deal Now" (not included on this album).

Throughout the album the members of Champagne Charlie play with spirit and vibrant emotion; lead singer Sjef Hermans, having done extensive research on Roosevelt's era, sings with deep conviction and idiomatic precision, from inside the songs, not like an outsider going through the motions as if these are but forgotten curios of a bygone era. His Dutch accent rarely reveals itself, his personal warmth infuses each track, and his mates play with both impeccable technique and deep feeling for the varied musical styles. Why it takes a Dutch string band to return this music to us here in the States is another matter entirely, but given the temper of the times, Waitin' On Roosevelt is an illuminating and delightful journey with powerful resonance in President Barack Obama's first term. The parallels between the views of FDR then and Obama now are at times utterly uncanny, at times disturbing, but always fascinating food for thought and debate.

This impressive effort of Champagne Charlie, with the support of the RSC, demanded further investigation. We reached out to lead singer Sjef Hermans via email for the following exchange. Currently recuperating from what he describes as a "full metal hip operation," he responded to our first inquiry with, "I have all the time in the world to answer your questions" about CC's tribute to America's 32nd President. At the end of the interview are a couple of YouTube videos, one of the group performing "Breadline Blues" live, the other a montage of band clips and photos over the recording of the Langston Hughes-penned title song, "Waitin' On Roosevelt." A link to the band's website is also included for those who would like to order the album online.


Photo:Jan van den Berg
Sjef Hermans, Champagne Charlie's lead vocalist: 'When I was working on this project I could not imagine that soon a new Depression was coming. Now a lot of these songs seem to refer to 2009 instead of 1932.'

What's the background on Champagne Charlie and its various members?

Sjef Hermans: Champagne Charlie started in June 1988. But the roots of the band are much older. In 1977 my cousin Theo de Koning (guitar, harmonica and vocals) and I (vocals, guitar and banjo) started a duo after hearing Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Big Bill Broonzy. Later on we formed a jug band, The Down Town Jug Stompers, and in the early '80s we had a string band called The Down Home String Band that focused on country blues and old time country music. In that band we were joined by multi-instrumentalist Geert de Heer on dobro, mandolin, banjo and guitar. The three of us started Champagne Charlie. The original line up had a tuba player and a drummer. In the early '90s our current drummer, washboard player and percussionist Peter Lenselink joined in. After a few different bass players, we invited our current double bass player. Peer Bout, in 2006. At the same time, harmonica ace Gait Klein Kromhof joined; we had worked with him off and on, but he liked our musical collaborations so much he wanted to be a CC member. Since that moment we have been a six-pack!

Gait played in many blues bands and studied the styles of the old harmonica masters like Noah Lewis, Jed Davenport and DeFord Bailey. Geert and Peter played together in a bluegrass/country band for years. Peer played bass in a Zydeco/Cajun band and in a blues band. Theo and I studied pre-war blues and old time country. All these influences came together in Champagne Charlie and helped give us a distinctive sound. Our repertoire consists of many American roots music styles from the pre-World War II years: blues, ragtime, gospel, old time country, calypso, western swing, folk, jug band, Cajun, work songs, bluegrass and so on. Apart from playing and singing, I collect pre war music and I've studied the lyrics and background for more than 35 years.

Why the interest in Roosevelt-related music? Did the economic crisis in the U.S. and the endless comparisons to the Depression, and with it talk of FDR's leadership during that time, have anything to do with your searching out the music of an earlier era when similar economic and political conditions prevailed?

Sjef Hermans: That I am a school teacher (in fact, so too are Theo, Peter, Geert and Peter) maybe explains my interest in history.

The interest in the backgrounds of the old songs we heard came very quickly. I got interested in the facts behind the names, places and events that the old musicians sang about. Who were Railroad Bill and Stackolee? Which train was meant by the Yellow Dog? Why did Gus Cannon sing "Going To Germany"? I started to collect and read books about these subjects and books about different styles of American roots music. I started to transcribe the lyrics myself, which at first was very difficult because the singers all used their own slang. Through the years I developed a good ear for it. Theo tried to figure out the guitar parts. So all the time it was a combination of playing and singing and collecting and studying. The first song about Roosevelt that we played was "We've Got Franklin D. Roosevelt Back Again," a song by Bill Cox we found in the late Seventies on an old Old Timey (Arhoolie) record. We (Theo and I) were attracted by the first line: "Please hand me my old Martin." Later I discovered that he recorded the song when FDR was re-elected in 1936. The next was "FDR in Trinidad" that we learned from a Ry Cooder record. It's a calypso song, and like many old blues and country songs, it tells a story. It is almost a sung news item about how a common man thought about big or small events. Oral history. Later on I tried to figure out what all these abbreviations—W.P.A, N.R.A., C.C.C., P.W.A., etc.—meant in blues and country songs. That again lead me to FDR. And I got hooked! I had a roots radio program for more than eight years on a local station called Omroep Zeeland. Every week I had a certain theme and I used all the knowledge I had collected through the years. About six years ago in Middelburg the Roosevelt Academy started. I thought it was a good moment to make a CD with FDR songs. But at that time they were very busy with what they called their core business, so I put my plans on the shelf until two years ago, when I met some one who worked for the Roosevelt Study Centre. He arranged a meeting with Kees van Minnen, the director, who was very enthusiastic about the idea and passed it through to Louis van Vlaanderen of The Roosevelt Foundation in Middelburg. Through them we got the commission to realize our plans. I started to write the booklet and we practiced the songs. We started with about 30 FDR songs in October 2007. So when I was working on this project I could not imagine that soon a new Depression was coming. Now a lot of these songs seem to refer to 2009 instead of 1932! Because of all those years of playing American roots music it was not too difficult for us. We almost instinctively knew how we wanted to arrange these songs. It was great fun putting all the pieces together. We are also working on a musical theater program about the Depression/FDR period.

Now that I have the time, I'm working on a new project. I've selected about 40 songs from the period 1928-1941 for an album with the working title of Laughing To keep From Crying—Songs From the Depression and FDR Years 1928-1941. Songs with (wry) humor and sometimes a positive vision on hard times. I'm looking for sponsoring right now, but the same hard times are not really helpful.

The 21 songs you chose reflect a diversity of opinions, pro and con, about Roosevelt, and some specifically address FDR, or the situation at the time, through a racial prism. Is this an accident of the song selection, or in going through the many FDR songs you found, did you see this contrast developing and shape the album to reflect these contrasting and contrary opinions of the man?

Sjef Hermans: When I started the project I wanted to give a broad view on FDR. Of course, in 1932, not everybody was happy with the new President. I tried to use as many different opinions as possible. But a CD has its limits. I could have easily made a double album and still have good songs left. After FDR's death there were songs by black singers that almost made him a Saint. Big Joe Williams even compared him with Jesus Christ in "His Spirit Lives On," when he sang, "Well you know the President Roosevelt he was awful fine/he helped the crippled, boys/and almost healed the blind." This was a bit strange: black Americans voted for the Republicans ever since Lincoln ended slavery. For some reason Roosevelt succeeded in getting a lot of them to vote for him. Guido van Rijn, a Dutch researcher, wrote a book called Roosevelt's Blues in which he analyzed more than a hundred blues lyrics to find out why FDR was so popular among blacks. His conclusion was that FDR could superbly act a father figure. The black minority was comforted by the hope he radiated. On the other hand people like the black poet Langston Hughes criticized the unfilled promises that FDR had made to the poor: "And when we all get hungry and cold, gonna stop believin' gonna get hard to hold/we stop waitin' on Roosevelt" ("Waitin' On Roosevelt"). Most of the white songs about FDR and his administration were quite positive. Woody Guthrie at first was very positive about FDR too, but later on he wrote songs like "I'm Looking For That New Deal Now."

What did the songs teach you about FDR and his era that you hadn't known before you got so deeply involved in the research? Did you learn anything that surprised you about the man and/or his administration?

Sjef Hermans: Before I started to study FDR's live I didn't know of his illness and that it was an open secret. Even on the cover of our CD he holds a big hat in front of his legs. A President has to be strong. I found it very interesting to learn that Roosevelt was the first to recognize the power of radio. He used it for his "fireside chats" in which he talked directly to the people at home. And the common man was sitting in his living room and really thought that the President was directly talking to him! Barack Obama copied him in a modern way: he used YouTube for the same reason. I was very surprised that there were so many parallels between FDR and Obama—the use of modern technology to make contact with the common man, their charisma, their energy to counter the crisis. Even the slogan New Deal was used again. A song like "On To Victory Mr. Roosevelt" could have been written about Obama and the current situation. History repeats itself.

Of the FDR-related recordings you studied in assembling your collection, can you single out any that you found especially moving and/or illuminating from the standpoint of music mated to these topical and heartfelt lyrics? That is to say, which of the songs did you find most personally moving, and why?

Sjef Hermans: Otis Jackson's two-part "Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt" is one of my favorite songs about FDR. It tells the story of his life and times. Woody Guthrie's "Dear Mrs. Roosevelt" does the same from a different point of view. But I also like the heartfelt way Sonny Boy Williamson I sings about his dislike of going to the welfare store in "Welfare Store Blues." Memphis Minnie's "Sylvester And His Mule Blues" tells the story of a poor black farmer who telephones the White House for help—a great song that didn't make it to our FDR album. Gid Tanner & The Skillet-Lickers recorded a superb two-sided 78 record called "Prosperity And Politics" in which they discuss FDR's administration and play some excerpts of their greatest hits. I was also very surprised by the wonderful lyrics of two calypso songs: "Money Is King" by The Growling Tiger) and "Poor But Ambitious" by Wilmoth Houdini, which I didn't use for this project because the link with FDR was too thin. They are high on my list for the next project! The American Roots Songbook is so rich!

You mentioned that Guido van Rijn analyzed many blues lyrics to find out why FDR was so popular among blacks. Do you have even a ballpark estimate of the number of FDR songs exists from that time? I'm not sure Americans today realize that he inspired this cottage industry of music, which continued even after his death, albeit in a smaller scale.

Sjef Hermans: Guido van Rijn studied more than a hundred songs about Roosevelt. He focused on black blues and gospel records. And he analyzed several black jazz records too. Some of these songs were recorded several times by different singers, sometimes with different lyrics. I've collected six different versions of Jackson's "Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt." Big Joe Williams changed the lyrics of his FDR obituary "His Spirit Lives On" a bit when John F. Kennedy was shot. For our project I have collected white old time country records, western swing and folk music, and calypso. For example: Pete Seeger also recorded songs about FDR. His "Dear Mr. President" is outstanding. I'm not really sure how many FDR-related songs exist; every now and then I run across one I didn't know. I think there must be more than 250. But sometimes you have to read between the lines to see the connection.

You've pointed out, and the lyrics attest to, some striking similarities in Roosevelt's time and ours. And some of the songs on your album articulate expectations about Roosevelt that many people now hold for President Obama. This really has nothing to do with your album or your research, but from the perspective of one who's studied so much roots music and knows how topical it's been over time, what's your opinion as to why present-day artists don't address the hopes—and fears—arising with the election of this new President in such precarious times? Or is it too early in the game to make such an assertion?

Sjef Hermans: Before Obama was elected, a lot of musicians supported him with homemade clips on YouTube. And a lot of musical styles—from rap to bluegrass—were represented. Obama's first 100 days are behind us and there still are not so many musicians who want to vent their disagreements with him. But yes, they can, and yes, they will!  Of course Obama can't keep all the customers satisfied. Not everybody wants the change he represents. FDR had his supporters and detractors, Obama certainly has his opponents, too, and there will be more in the future. So probably we only have to wait for songs like "Waitin' On Obama" or "No He Can't!" But I hope that the songs of praise will have the upper hand!

Photo: Photo:Jan van den Berg
Champagne Charlie (from left): Sjef, Gait, Peer, Theo, Peter, Geert: 'I was very surprised that there were so many parallels between FDR and Obama—the use of modern technology to make contact with the common man, their charisma, their energy to counter the crisis,' says Sjef Hermans. 'Even the slogan New Deal was used again. A song like 'On To Victory Mr. Roosevelt' could have been written about Obama and the current situation. History repeats itself.'

How are your fellow countrymen viewing the election of President Obama?

Sjef Hermans: Obama is very popular in Holland. An official inquiry had as result that 90 percent of the Dutch people—if they were allowed—would have voted for him to be the next President of the United States. But now that he is America's President, everybody is very anxious to see how he will manage to make his words come true. Action speaks louder than words, according to a popular Dutch proverb. But he has a lot of credibility here.

What's the timetable for your American Roots Songbook? When will we hear the fruits of those labors? And are you going to be looking specifically for topical songs for that project, or more for songs that tell America's story in the way Johnny Cash did with his concept albums in the early '60s?

Sjef Hermans: Right now, there is a lot of interest in our FDR project. We want to give that all the attention it deserves. But we are working on the new project. We still love to fish in the rich pond of pre-war roots music. There are so many great songs that deserve to be heard again and again! 

In this issue we are also profiling one of America's finest songwriters, Jesse Winchester, who has a new album out. In 1974, Jesse recorded "Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt." Are you familiar with his wonderful version of that song?

Sjef Hermans: I have always admired Jesse Winchester's songwriting skills. He will be always remembered for his "Brand New Tennessee Waltz," but he also recorded that very personal version of  "Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt." He refused to go to Vietnam and went to Canada, and in his version he mentions Canadian former presidents Pierre Trudeau and Lester B. Bowles. One verse of his version goes as follows:

'Cause in the year of nineteen and sixty-seven
I was a somewhat younger man
The call came to bloody glory came
And I would not raise my hand
'Cause I'm baptized by water
So I'll pass on the one by fire
If you want to fight
Go on and fight, if that be your desire

Jesse's surname is the name of a gun! A strange name for a pacifist! It is a great honor to be profiled together with him in the same issue of

Any plans for Champagne Charlie to bring its music to our shores?

Sjef Hermans: The Roosevelt Foundation is interested in bringing us over to the USA, maybe to play during the presentation of The Four Freedom Awards in New York. They also want to let us perform on a nationwide radio show. As soon as these plans are confirmed, you'll be the first to know!  

How can our readers buy Waitin' On Roosevelt?

Sjef Hermans:The album can be ordered through our website,

How's your hip?

Sjef Hermans: Sometimes I feel like Peg Leg Howell, mostly I walk like Stick McGhee. But I don't have to hide my handicap like FDR did, and that gives me a good feeling!

Champagne Charlie performs live on YouTube:

Get flash player to play to this file
Champagne Charlie performs Slim Smith's "Breadline Blues," which Smith wrote and recorded twice in 1931. According to the liner notes for Waitin' On Roosevelt, the original version of this song "was recorded with the versatile Hawaiian guitarist King Bennie Nawahi." Though the song mentions no politicians by name, it unambiguously advances the notion that, as the liner notes say, "Hoover's Republicans had made a mess of the United States," and describes a "long-eared mule" putting a "big mouth elephant" squarely in his place. Sjef Hermans is on lead vocals.

Get flash player to play to this file

"Waitin' On Roosevelt"
Not everyone was happy with the pace of relief the FDR administration had promised. Poet/playwright/novelist Langston Hughes, with whom today's right wing lunatic fringe would have a field day, since he was a Socialist and published his work in magazines that were friendly to liberal and Communist causes, articulated this unease and growing resentment eloquently in his poem "Ballad of Roosevelt." In his oh-so-timely verses Hughes unsparingly described a family losing its home, being unable to pay for health care, and finally running out of patience with their President, as expressed in the veiled threat, "when we all get hungry and cold/Gonna stop believin', gonna get hard to hold." The poem became a song when Alan Lomax set Hughes's words to the slow, country blues arrangement of the Mississippi Sheiks' "Sitting On Top Of the World," and published it in his songbook, Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (center) and daughter Anne (standing behind him) at his Warm Springs, GA, 'Little White House' in 1936 with Bun Wright's Fiddle Band.

Buy the album at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024