They go from town to town, following a tradition that reaches back to medieval times. Usually with a stringed instrument, they sing originals and old folk tunes, blends of humor and social commentary. They express wisdom, self-expression, heartbreak and loneliness, sharing both the weariness and joy of living.
Some still exist today in this ethos of technocratic and digitized music. Over the decades I have been fortunate enough to catch some acts. Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour in the mid-1970’s involved performers dressed like gypsies, joining or dropping out of the tour as the caravan pulled into town. It was star-studded to some extent, yet had the atmospherics of traveling minstrels.
I’ve been in small clubs, with 100 or less in attendance, and enjoyed such blues legends as Fenton Robinson, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and James Cotton. Their path was the rich vein of suffering, loneliness, heartbreak and survival, performed in a most intimate setting and with compelling virtuosity.
Recently, I was fortunate to attend a concert of the inimitable Kinky Friedman on his current tour titled “Resurrected.” The 72-year-old, self-proclaimed “last of the Texas Jewish cowboys” had no back up. It was only his guitar, him and a couple hundred of us in rapt attention. Without a doubt the man is an original character. His works are humorous, politically incorrect, and wistful, but a singular theme is loneliness. His new stuff offers tender, mournful stories of a long, wandering and lonely life.
The night’s highlight, though, was when he told us how he had felt extremely honored and humbled to have been informed that the languishing Nelson Mandela, then in prison in apartheid South Africa, listened to his song “Ride ’em Jewboy.” Kinky considered it the high point of his career and ended his soliloquy with “if you can reach even just one person.” He then proceeded into song, a mournful, soulful rendering of the Holocaust. Sung with that weathered voice of his, one couldn’t help but be affected.
It’s true that the societal role of the itinerant troubadour has virtually become extinct in contemporary times. Theirs is a form of sage-ing and a powerful one at that. If a rare opportunity should arise, I highly recommend the experience.