Thursday, October 30, 2014

TERRELL'S TUNE-UP: Songs of the Vanishing Hitchhiker

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican 
October 31, 2014

“A strange voice drew me to the graveyard. I stood in the dark and watched the shadows wave.”

That line, which opens the final verse of Dickey Lee’s 1965 hit “Laurie (Strange Things Happen),” was one of the first songs to ever truly spook me. When I first heard it at the age of 11, it creeped me out purely because of the tale it told and — what was then — its surprise ending.

Laurie’s story was new to me at the time, but even back in 1965 it wasn't a new story. The plot is a basic variation of what’s known as a “vanishing hitchhiker” tale, a term popularized by folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand in The Vanishing Hitchhiker, his 1981 book of urban legends. The basic tale of regular folks encountering friendly — if sometimes odd or bewildered — characters who turn out to be ghosts has roots that go back centuries and is found in many cultures.

Under different names the spirit of Laurie has haunted many songs. In honor of Halloween, let’s take a look at some of them.

First, there’s "Laurie." In case you weren’t around back in ’65 or if you were in an asylum that didn’t allow radios, the song tells the story of starry-eyed Dickey meeting a girl — an angel of a girl — at a dance. He’s falling in love as he walks her home. But when he asks if he can see her again, Laurie asks for his sweater, saying she’s cold. He obliges. He gets a kiss good night at her door, but as he’s leaving, he remembers his sweater.

This is when it starts to get creepy.

Laurie’s dad answers the door and informs Dickey that he wasn't with Laurie. He assumes the young Romeo is pulling a cruel prank. Laurie died on her birthday, a year ago that day. Dickey follows a strange voice to the cemetery, where he finds his sweater, “lying there upon her grave.”

As Brunvand and other scholars have said, these vanishing-hitchhiker stories are ancient. There are many similarities between “Laurie” and an old British folk song, “The Suffolk Miracle,” a variation of which appeared as early as 1689 in London, though it’s probably much older. (Instead of a sweater on a grave, the 17th-century song ends with a handkerchief on a corpse’s head.)

Back to 1965. Just a couple of months after Lee’s graveyard adventure hit the charts, a bluegrass band called Country Gentlemen released a song about Laurie’s country cousin, Mary — “Bringing Mary Home.”

The singer sees a little girl in the middle of a lonely road on a dark and stormy night. He stops and the girl gets into the back of the car and introduces herself. The narrator drops a big clue: “There was something strange about her. Her face was deathly white.”

He drives her home, but when he gets out to open the door for her (remember, this is Country Gentlemen), the little hitchhiker has vanished. Mary’s mom comes out, and unlike Laurie’s dad, she understands. She patiently explains that her daughter died in a car wreck exactly 13 years ago. “Thank you for your trouble, the kindness you have shown, you’re the 13th one that’s been here bringing Mary home.”

“Mary” was covered by several bluegrass and country artists. One was Red Sovine, whose specialty was truck-driver tales. In 1967, he recorded a classic that was a twist on the vanishing-hitchhiker mode.

In “Big Joe and the Phantom 309,” Sovine’s narrator is a hitchhiker who gets a ride from a big, friendly truck driver. He yaks with Big most of the night until the trucker stops and drops him off in front of a truck stop. Joe tosses the hitchhiker a dime and says, “Have yourself a hot cup on Big Joe.”

But once inside the truck stop, the happy-go-lucky narrator says, “Big Joe set me up,” and the place goes silent. The waiter explains that Big Joe died in a wreck about 10 years before, jackknifing the Phantom 309 to save a busload of kids. And he lets the hitchhiker keep the dime as a memento of the weird incident.

I've known this song for years, ever since I first heard The Last Mile Ramblers play it at New Mexico’s Golden Inn in the mid-1970s. But I didn't realize until recently that, except for the supernatural aspect, “Big Joe and the Phantom 309” is based on a true story.

A Sept. 14, 2014, article in the New Hampshire Union Leader tells of that state’s town of Troy honoring John William “Pete” Trudelle, the real-life Big Joe, by installing a monument in his memory in the town common.

“On Jan. 29, 1963, he was driving a tanker truck carrying 4,600 gallons of gasoline from Boston to Keene,” the article says. “Along his route in Saugus, Massachusetts, he drove the truck into a bridge abutment to avoid hitting a school bus that was parked in the road under the bridge. ... His act saved six children and the bus driver.”

Last month, “Big Joe and the Phantom 309” was played at the ceremony in Troy for Trudelle.

In the ’70s, Big Joe became a more familiar figure in a tune by outlaw country warrior David Allan Coe. In his song “The Ride,” Coe sings of a hitchhiker, thumbing to Nashville with his guitar on his back, who gets picked up by the “half-drunk and hollow-eyed” ghost of Hank Williams, who drives “an antique Cadillac.”

The “ghost-white pale” driver has some professional advice for the young buck: “If you’re big star bound, let me warn ya its a long, hard ride.”

Skip ahead to the mid-1980s, and Big Joe changes from a truck driver to a Marine. “Camouflage,” from Stan Ridgway’s first solo album, The Big Heat, is a war story. The narrator is a young Marine who gets separated from the rest of his company. He’s alone and the enemy is nearby, and a big Marine named Camouflage appears to help.

Next thing you know, he’s swatting bullets with his bare hands and “pullin’ a big palm tree right up out of the ground and swattin’ those Charlies with it from here to kingdom come.” The narrator gets back to camp and tells everyone about his helper, but a medic tells him that Camouflage died the night before. Been there all week. The medic even shows him the body.

“But before he went, he said, ‘Semper fi,’ and said his only wish was to save a young Marine caught in a barrage. So here, take his dog tag, son. I know he’d want you to have it now.”

Leaving a token — Camouflage’s dog tag, Big Joe’s dime — is a frequent motif in vanishing-hitchhiker stories. For us mortal listeners, the hitchhiker has left a token in the form of these amazing and spooky songs.

The Vanishing Hitchhiker on video

Happy birthday, Laurie!

Glad that Mary made it home

Big Joe set me up!

Are you sure Hank done it that way?

This was a very strange Marine.

And just for the hell of it ...

Beyond The Monster Mash: A Handy Guide to Halloween Music

Hosting a Halloween party and don't know what to play?  Here's some suggestions.

Greatest  all-around Rock 'n' Roll Spookmeisters:  Roky Erikson. Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Screaming Lord Sutch, The Cramps, Alice Cooper, (especially his early stuff), Rob Zombie, Angry Johnny & The Killbillies.

Best album to use when greeting trick or treaters at your door: Blood by Stan Ridgway & Pietra Wextun. (This is instrumetnal music that's a hundred times creepier than your typical "haunted house" soundtracks.

Best Vampire Song: "Bloodletting" by Concrete Blonde

Best Werewolf Song: Warren Zevon would rise from the dead and  rip my lungs out, Jim, if I didn't say "Werewolves of London" (though "I Was a Teenage Werewolf" by The Cramps is up there too.)

Best Ghost Song: "Ghostriders in the Sky" (So many artists have done this one I did a Tune-up column on it a few years ago. My favorites still are the versions by Lorne Greene and New Mexico's own Last Mile Ramblers.

Best Frankenstein song: "Frankenstein Conquers the World" by Daniel Johnston & Jad Fair. Honorable Mention: "Frankenstein Meets the Beatles" by Dickie Goodman.

Best Satan Songs: Tie: "Satan's Bride" Gregg Turner and "I Lost My Baby to a Satan Cult" by Stephen W. Terrell. (The Devil loves cheesy self-promotion. See video and Soundcloud post at bottom of this post)

Best Country spook song besides "Ghost Riders": "Long Black Veil" written by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin,  originally recorded by Lefty Frizzell and later recorded by The Band, Johnny Cash and many others. Honorable Mention: "(It Was a) Monster's Holiday" by Buck Owens.

Best Classic Blues Halloween song: "Haunted House Blues" by Bessie Smith

Best Halloween Jazz Vocal: "Halloween Spooks" by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross

Best Voodoo Rock : Gris-Gris by Dr. John, The Night Tripper (1968). Honorable mention: "Papa Legba" by The Talking Heads from True Stories. (Seek out the version with Pops Staples on vocals.)

Classic Halloween albums from this Century: Mondo Zombie Bugaloo by The Fleshtones, Southern Culture on the Skids and Los Straitjackets; Zombified by Southern Culture on the Skids; Rob Zombie presents Captain Clegg & The Night Creatures (haunted honky-tonk performed by Texas country singer Jesse Dayton); Buy a Gun, Get a Free Guitar by Deadbolt (an earlier version of this album was called "Voodoo Moonshiner"); Garage Monsters: The Best of the Garagepunk Hideout Vol. 9.

My own (free!) online Halloween contributions: On my monthly Big Enchilada podcasts, I've been doing annual Spooktaculars since 2008. Find them all HERE And for users of Spotify, check out my Halloween Spook Rock playlist.

Here's the latest Big Enchilada Spooktacular

And here's some other Satanic madness

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Spookiest Song Ever

In this season of Halloween, there's much debate about what is the spookiest song ever recorded.

It certainly ain't "The Monster Mash."

I believe in my heart that honor belongs to The Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes For You.” This is a ‘50s classic that I first heard as a very young child.

Its ghostly but gorgeous melody and the harmonies are nothing short of otherworldly. But even more strange are the do-wop nonsense syllables that sound like jungle chants Are they saying Beelzebub at the end of every line in the verses? Or are they just singing "she-bop she-bop" ? You decide.

Back in 1994 when reviewing Rhino Records' first Doo-Wop Box, Here's what I said about this song:

... one night last winter I was driving alone on a rainy night, listening, for reasons I don't remember, to an oldies station, which happened to play "I Only Have Eyes for You" by The Flamingos.

There's a strumming of three guitar chords, followed by the steady beat of a piano. Singer [Nate Nelson] comes in singing effortlessly, "My love must be a kind of blind love/I can't see anyone but you," as if he's got to justify what he has to say.

Then the group responds with unintelligible, almost discordant syllables, like some kind of eerie voodoo chant. All this before Hunt starts the first verse, invoking celestial bodies.

By the end of the song, all five Flamingos are gushing the beautiful melody, the falsetto going nuts as if possessed by the loa of high register. It almost seems that the group is having the aural equivalent of a simultaneous orgasm, right there in the echo chamber.

But way before the song got to this point on that rainy Santa Fe night, I was transported into the past, reliving a buried memory of being a 5-year-old kid, listening to a radio late at night to a sound that was alluring and forbidding at the same time ...

The official Flamingos web site describes how the arrangement for this song came to be:

 [Singer and guitarist Terry Johnson] lamented to Nate Nelson about what to do with the song, to which Nate suggested incorporating the Russian anthem “Song of the Volga Boatmen.” Nate, whose nickname was “lips,” was known for his snide jokes and wry sense of humor. Terry disregarded the remark and went back to his room at the Cecil [a hotel in Harlem] to try to figure out an arrangement on his guitar. Laying in his bed with the guitar across his body, he fell asleep. “By the time I awoke,” Terry recalls, “God had given me the arrangement in a dream.” A few chords Terry had been strumming before he dosed off, a bass-line variation of the “Volga Boatmen” song and an ethereal vocal background idea came together quickly after Terry had woken his colleagues to muster for an impromptu rehearsal. The evolution of Terry’s arrangement of “I Only Have Eyes For You” was at first met with ridicule from the other Flamingos, then mild reluctance from the record label, but shortly after release, the record began to garner airplay in Philly. If any other recording by any other artist had been claimed to come from God, in a dream, the story would likely be quickly dismissed. Listening to The Flamingos’ version of “I Only Have Eyes For You,” its origin almost seems obvious.

As for the songwriters, "I Only Have Eyes for You" was written by the team of Harry Warren and Al Dubin, who are best known for Broadway show tunes. The two also are responsible for "Lullaby of Broadway" and “We’re In the Money.”

Warren also wrote “That’s Amore,”  “Chattanooga Choo Choo,”  “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” (with Johnny Mercer) and, for television, “The Legend of Wyatt Earp.”

Dubin, back in the 1920s,wrote "Tiptoe Through the Tulips."

Wherever it came from, "I Only Have Eyes For You," as performed by The Flamingos still gives me the shivers.

Sunday, October 26, 2014


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Sunday, October 25, 2014 
KSFR, Santa Fe, N.M. 
10 p.m. to midnight Sundays Mountain Time 
Host: Steve Terrell
101.1 FM
email me during the show! terrell(at)

Here's the playlist below

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Subscribe to The Big Enchilada Podcast! CLICK HERE

Friday, October 24, 2014


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Friday, October 24, 2014 
KSFR, Santa Fe, NM 
10 p.m. to midnight Fridays Mountain Time 
Host: Steve Terrell 
101.1 FM
email me during the show! terrel(at)

Here's my playlist below:

Like the Santa Fe Opry Facebook page 

Subscribe to The Big Enchilada Podcast! CLICK HERE
Steve Terrell is proud to report to the monthly Freeform American Roots Radio list