The recording was unearthed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in January 2018, more than a half century after it was made. The audio captured on the portable reel-to-reel tape machine – a German-made UHER 4000 Report-L popular in the early 1960s – is still clear and crisp.
“I’m gonna do the whole thing,” announces Jerry Jeff Walker to no one in particular. The date is August 20, 1964. The locale is the Quorum, an integrated coffeehouse and nightspot in segregated New Orleans on Esplanade Avenue.
Jerry Jeff Walker, the Texas music icon who died October 23, hasn’t been invented. But he is about to make his first recording.
In these early days, he is drawn to the offbeat French Quarter gathering place for free thinkers, intellectuals, artists, musicians, poets, educators and outsiders. Because the Quorum is frequented by gay patrons, African Americans and political free speech advocates, it is also a target for harassment, complaints and a notorious undercover raid.
Walker – who is working under the name Jerry Ferris – is 22. He has befriended Jay and Anne Edwards, a young married couple who are smitten with the cowboy vagabond and are recording him for a proposed songbook of folk songs. The songbook, which was to be called “Dust on My Boots,” is never published.
As the tape rolls, the young singer-songwriter nimbly begins a fast-strummed song on his steel-string acoustic guitar. At first, playing high on the neck and sliding down to the traditional hammered-on chords and blues figures in the style of Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown.”
Its lyrics reflect his hitchhiking lifestyle since he left his hometown Oneonta, New York — and his youthful naivete. Walker taps out a beat on the floor with his boots. It feels intense, homesick.
I’m going to be back home someday
I’m going to be back home someday
That’s if wandering
You know, if wandering drifter don’t lose my way
It’s a rough road, that I ride
It’s a rough road, rough road that I ride
No one but lonely
No one but lonely is standing by my side
The world’s a hill, I’m a rolling stone
The world’s a hill, lord
And I’m a rolling stone
But I got rambling
I got running, drifting, rambling in my bones
Oh, it’s great, lord
When you’re moving on
Yes, it’s great when you’re moving on
When you come back
When you get back home and places are gone
Yeah, I’m going to be back home someday
I’m going to be back in my home someday
But I got a feeling
Got a feeling in my bones ain’t gonna stay
I got a feeling, in my bones, I just ain’t gonna stay
He slides back up the guitar neck to bend and slur a blues note and then clears his throat. It’s a good take. Thus begins the earliest known recording of Jerry Jeff Walker.
He’s clearly absorbed the syncopated, finger-picking strokes of the blues and folk journeymen. He’s mastered the “My Trials” stroke and “Peggy-O” stroke.
During this era, New Orleans is the closest thing to home base for Walker. He discovered the place in 1963 and wrote a Woody Guthrie inspired song about it, “Talkin’ New Orleans Destruction Blues.”
He is singing songs he’s learned around campfires on the road like “Whippowill” (sic) and working on original songs like “Long Time Man” and “Lonely Walk Through Sorrow.” They reveal a young man who is maybe worried about his future and the path he’s chosen.
Walker laments not getting any letters from home in “Long Time Man.” In “Lonely Walk Through Sorrow,” he sings that he “broke an old man’s heart.” Its final verse sounds like it’s Walker’s ambitious heart that’s breaking and unsure.
Done nothin’ right so far
Left an ugly scar, my life
Every night in bed, think of what’s ahead