february 2011

Champagne Charlie (from left): Geert de Heer, Gait Klein, Sjef Hermans, Theo de Koning, Peer Bout, Peter Lenselink. Sjef Hermans notes: 'The Dutch popular music has always been influenced by the American models.' (Photo: Jan van der Beek)

Greetings From The Dutch Delta

Holland’s blues and roots masters Champagne Charlie are examining American hobo life in song on their next album. In an exclusive international preview, the band’s lead singer, Sjef Hermans, discusses the new project and how his countrymen are viewing America at the Obama administration’s halfway mark.

By David McGee

In April 2009, out of the blue, via snail mail, I 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 performs Bill Cox’s ‘Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Back Again’ from the band’s Waitin’ on FDR album (2009)

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 was 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.

Champagne Charlie, ‘Hobo’s Lullaby,’ a sensitive reading of the Goebel Reeves song at Spiegel Theater in Middleburg, the Netherlands

In January 2011 I received more unanticipated news from Champagne Charlie: a new album is in the works, again being done with an assist from the Roosevelt Study Center, and again focusing on a particular aspect of American roots music: hobo songs.

The release indicates the Zeeland blues and roots band from the Dutch delta is getting ready to begin production on Hobo Signs & Railroad Lines, an album of songs that follow the stories of hobos who traveled around the U.S. on freight trains. Unlike the FDR album, which drew on songs from President Roosevelt’s own time, Hobo Signs & Railroad Lines will be comprised of both vintage and contemporary ballads, producing “a musical journey through the wide American landscape, either on board a slow moving train, or traveling next to endless, dusty dirt roads,” as the release states.

Hobo Signs & Railroad Lines will be presented at the Roosevelt Study Center’s 25th anniversary on September 19, 2011.

As was the case in our May 2009 issue, so it is in this month’s issue. Upon receiving the news of the new CC project, I reached out to the band’s lead singer, Sjef Hermans, for an email Q&A about the particulars of the new album. As he did before, so did Hermans do this time: provide thoughtful, in-depth and insightful answers to each question. Herewith, then, the international preview of Champagne Charlie’s Hobo Signs & Railroad Lines. That is to say, you read it here first.


Champagne Charlie’s Sjef Hermans:The more we became interested in American roots music the more we found out that there are many songs written about hobos and even more about trains. And they are represented in both white and Afro-American music. Singers as diverse as Jimmie Rodgers, John Lee Hooker and Louis Armstrong sang about the subject.’

Your previous album explored songs from the FDR era, which of course was the Depression years in the U.S. One of many interesting aspects of that project was the number of songs you found that were critical of FDR not doing enough to ease the peoples' suffering. Given that President Obama was then and now facing the same criticisms, it was another lesson in how the more things change, the more they stay the same. I wonder what the content of this record is going to be and whether you're finding a binding thematic concept arising out of the song choices, or indeed by design?

That's a good question. The FDR project became a soundtrack of the Depression that started a few years back. The lyrics of a few of the songs we used, originally from the 1930s, sounded really up to date in 2008. And then there was Obama. History repeated itself in a different way. When we started the project we could not have imagined what the world would look like when the CD came out. Some critics spoke about prophecy, but to be honest, we did not have a clue! The hobo project is different and in this stage of the project—I just started writing the liner notes—there are too many loose ends. The first week of March we are invited to play in Switzerland and there we will have time enough to dot the i's and cross the t's.       

Can you give me a preview of some of the songs and artists represented on the project and why those were chosen? Along the same lines, whereas the songs on the FDR album were from that era exclusively, it sounds from your press release that this album will feature a combination of vintage and new songs. Correct?

In fact the starting point of the CD is a quote from a song that John Prine recorded in 1978: "The Hobo Song.”  He wonders "Where have all the hobos gone to?" I am afraid that the answer is neither "Hobo's Heaven" or "The Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Prine sings that he "heard of their sad story written in the words of dead men's songs.” A large number of long deceased singers made songs about hobo life and if their words were true all hobos that "caught the Westbound" (which is Hobo lingo for being dead and gone) were buried beside some railroad so they could hear the trains roll by. We have collected a great number of hobo related songs. Most of them are from the twenties and thirties, but later got new names or parts of them were integrated in songs by others. For instance: Ry Cooder's "Boomer's Story" (1972) was originally named "Railroad Boomer" and recorded by Bud Billings & Carson Robinson in 1929. A year later Goebel Reeves recorded it as "Railroad Bum.” So the same song got three different names and there are many more examples of this. You cannot do a project like this without the songs of Harry McClintock, Goebel Reeves, Blind Willie McTell, Jimmie Rodgers, Woody Guthrie or Hank Williams, but we want to include lesser known material also. This month we are going to decide which songs we are going to record. We can use some extra songs that will not appear on the CD, because we are planning to do some theatre shows in which we tell the musical story of the hobo.  

Champagne Charlie perform the Langston Hughes-penned title tune from the Waitin’ On Roosevelt album.

I know from our previous article how diligent you and the band are in researching your material and its historical background. Did you get into studying hobo culture for this project? I'd be interested in knowing what you learned about this lifestyle, if you will, that either you didn't know before starting it or that surprised you to learn.

The first encounter with hobo life was when we were kids. On the Dutch television we saw the silent movies of Ben Turpin, Charlie Chaplin and others. And I remember those scenes of people hunting after each other on top of moving freight trains. People in box cars riding through the vast American landscape, ducking and dodging the "bulls," a name the hobos gave to the police or private security personnel employed by railroads. Much later we heard Bob Dylan sing about hobos and through him we discovered the music of Woody Guthrie who really opened up the door to hobo life for us. The more we became interested in American roots music the more we found out that there are many songs written about hobos and even more about trains. And they are represented in both white and Afro-American music. Singers as diverse as Jimmie Rodgers, John Lee Hooker and Louis Armstrong sang about the subject. The greatest surprise was to learn that hobos were not the same as tramps and bums. They were wandering workers and they had their own hobo language and code. Another fascinating thing about hobo culture is the use of hobo signs to help fellow hobos. Such a sign could warn you not to go to a certain neighborhood because their were dangerous dogs or cruel people. Another sign told hobos that religious talk would give them a free meal or that a certain place was a good one to catch a train. During the Depression years America counted numerous hobos, also women and kids. There are many books written about the subject and though hobo life seemed to be adventurous and romantic it was a hard struggle. Tom Paxton really made a point when he gave the advice to "nail your shoes to the kitchen floor" when you had the wish to be a hobo too in his great song "I Can't Help But Wonder Where I Am Bound." But there are still hobos in America and even nowadays it is possible to board a train at a rail yard.

Are the songs specifically and exclusively about people—hobos, that is—or do you also include bonafide train songs, a subgenre with a long and distinguished history in country and bluegrass music here (check out the logo of this publication for an authentic photo of the mighty Wabash Cannonball)?

A lot of the hobo songs contain lines with names of certain trains. And many train songs mention hobos. Even the song  "The Wabash Cannonball" about the train in the logo of The Bluegrass Special contains a line a bout hobos: "Hear the rush of the mighty engine hear the lonesome hobo's call, he's riding through the jungle on the Wabash Cannonball." At first we had the idea to include what you call bonafide train songs, but right now we think we can better do a special train project in the future. The train has really a special place in American roots music. It's really a metaphor for freedom. But the train is also very prominent in religious songs. And maybe that makes a good "hook" for a future album.

You mention the Roosevelt Study Center in your press release. It of course figured prominently in your FDR album. How did the Center's resources prove valuable for this project?

The Roosevelt Study Center is a pre-eminent research institute, conference center and library on modern American history and European-American relations in the Netherlands. The research library contains a collection of historical documents and books on modern U.S. history not available elsewhere in Europe. The RSC is situated in Middelburg, the town where three of the members of Champagne Charlie, including myself, live. We can use their library and they support us in all kind of ways. In fact it is just around the corner from where I live and it is very accessible.

A fine ‘n’ mellow treatment of Casey Bill Weldon’s 1936 ‘WPA Blues,’ live at Spiegel Theater in Middleburg, Netherlands

I think there will surely be readers who will wonder why you have focused exclusively on American issues in these albums as opposed to singing music from your own country? Care to enlighten them as to the method of your madness?

Holland does not really have an extensive own musical culture as far as popular music (as opposed to classical) is concerned. There are of course some folk songs, but they were never a great and national thing. The Dutch popular music has always been influenced by the American models. Since our early childhood we heard American and British music on the radio. We did not understand much about it at first, but in Holland in secondary school you learn other languages: English, French and German. Nowadays English is even included at primary schools. Not so long ago, the Dutch prime minister got critical remarks because of his use of many English expressions. Before Rock and Roll was introduced Frank Sinatra, Doris Day and many other great American singers of that era were very popular in Holland. Even the Hawaiian music that was very popular here in the fifties and sixties of the last century came from the people of Indonesia who introduced it in our country. After the first R&R songs were heard on radio, everything that would follow came mainly from English speaking countries: the United States and Great Britain. For example: people like Ry Cooder and Randy Newman were pretty big in Holland long before they got some recognition in the United States. So for us it was quite natural to start playing American music and to sing in English. We did record a few albums in Dutch. In Zeeland, the Delta region where we live, we had to travel with ferries to reach the other parts of our province. When they made a tunnel under the river, the ferries disappeared. We made an album with songs about of the good old days when a person could park his car inside the ferry and get a cup of coffee in the caboose and watch the river flow. These songs were in Dutch but the music was inspired by American roots styles. It was quite difficult to sing in our own language, which is not so fluent and expressive as yours.

Have you started sessions yet?

Right now we are rehearsing and the recordings will take place in the first weeks of April. Because of the huge amount of material it is a lot of work to make a good song selection. The coming months we will also be working on the cover and the booklet that will give background information on the Hobos and the songs about them. The album will be released on September 19, the day that the Roosevelt Study Center has its 25th anniversary.

We're at the halfway mark of the Obama administration. How is America looking to your countrymen these days?

Obama is still very popular in Holland. I think—according to what I hear and read—that most of the people here still have much confidence in him. There was much attention for His Health Care Reform over here. In Holland we have one of the best health care systems in the world. So for us Dutch people it was self-evident that everybody in America would embrace the new system with great enthusiasm. But not everybody did. We were surprised. I wish Woody Guthrie was still among us and I would love to hear his opinion about this. The title song of our last album "Waitin' On Roosevelt" was based on a poem by Langston Hughes. It contains an appropriate line: "Sister's low sick and the doctor won't come, 'cause we can't pay him the proper sum, we are waitin' on Roosevelt, waitin' on Roosevelt, son." I think that Hughes would have been very satisfied with a president like Obama. And the American hobos too.

For more information, visit the Champagne Charlie website at www.champagnecharlie.nl

TheBluegrassSpecial.com’s May 2009 profile of Champagne Charlie, centered on the group’s Waitin’ On Roosevelt album, is at http://thebluegrassspecial.com/archive/2009/may2009/champagnecharliefeaturemay09.php.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024