I moved to Pennsylvania in 1992. I decided it was time to read John Updike. I began with Rabbit, Run and it knocked me out. Maybe it was my age at the time (close to Rabbit’s) or something else but I’d never encountered a character that felt so real to me. I was eager to continue with the rest of the Rabbit Tetralogy but got this funny idea that I should wait ten years between books, just as Updike does in terms of describing Rabbit’s life.
I stuck to the plan for a little while. But, then, I decided in anticipation of the third bi-Annual John Updike Society Conference (of which I’ve been a card carrying member since its inception in 2010) that I’d re-read the first three Rabbit books (Run, Redux, and Rich) and then go ahead and read Rabbit at Rest even though I hadn’t waited the requisite 10 years. I was trying to grow up with Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom somehow (to be sure, I didn’t want to be like Harry!).
Anyway, after reading the entire Tetralogy, I got this idea that I’d try to write a song that might capture something of the books and what’s drawn me to them and to Updike. I got the idea from Woody Guthrie. Most of you know who Woody is but in case you don’t: he was born in 1922, he wrote hundreds if not thousands of songs, he was a man of the people. He wrote “This Land is Your Land” which some folks (including myself) consider this country’s real national anthem.
On his “Dustbowl Ballads” record, Woody did this crazy song called “Tom Joad” where he attempted (successfully, I believe) to encapsulate all of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath in one long ballad. I always loved the song. In fact, I got kicked out of a club once in Austin, Texas for singing all 32 verses of it at an open mic. It was too long, they said. Mighta been my rendition!
In any case, when I wrote “Talkin’ Rabbit”, I certainly had Woody’s “Tom Joad” in mind. Since the Tetralogy is longer than The Grapes of Wrath, my song is even longer than Woody’s. It’s also more deranged and depraved – again, check the source!
The song itself is in what is called a “talking blues” format which follows an AA BB type rhyme scheme followed by a spoken comment back on each verse. I first heard of a talking blues on Bob Dylan’s self-titled debut lp. It included only two original compositions: “Song to Woody” (which was the first time many of us ever heard of Guthrie) and “Talkin’ New York” (a humorous look at Bob’s first weeks in NYC performed in the talking blues style).
As an aside, there is an entry for “John Updike” in Michael Gray’s Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (2006) but there is no “Bob Dylan” entry in Jack DeBellis’ John Updike Encyclopedia! Gray snarkily writes of Updike in the former volume, “Eminent American writer, born March 18, 1932, Shillington, PA; he reviewed concerts in Ipswich, Massachusetts, 1961-1965. Of a Joan Baez concert of 1964, he wrote: ‘[in] the unkindest cut of all, Miss Baez yielded the stage, with a delight all too evident, to a young man, Bob Dylan, in tattered Jeans and a black jacket, three months on the far side of a haircut, whose voice you could scour a skillet with. Miss Baez, this admirer was pained to observe, visibly lit up with love-light when he came on to the stage, and even tried to force her way, in duet, through some impenetrable lyrics that Dylan composes as abundantly as poison ivy puts forth leaves.’ This (in contrast to Dylan’s impenetrable lyrics) was the consummate word-craft of America’s great novelist, short-story writer and poet, a Pulitzer prize-winner with a reputation as a ‘keen observer of modern American life’ in fiction ‘as versatile as it is prolific.’ Before Baez started having Dylan perform at her concerts (after his success at the Newport Folk Festival of 1963) she had given a similar guest-slot to Flatt and Scruggs and to the Greenbriar Boys. How were their haircuts, John?”
I actually borrowed the melody of Dylan’s “Farewell Angelina” and set Jill’s lyrics which appear in Rabbit Redux to it as part of Talkin’ Rabbit. Jill sings “Farewell Angelina” to Harry at the house on 26 Vista Crescent. Harry requests that Jill sing her own composition and it is these lyrics that I employed, bizarre as they are! Updike would only have known “Farewell Angelina” from Joan Baez’s version as Dylan’s own version of the song was not released until 1991.
The other Dylan reference in Talkin’ Rabbit (well, in the video at least) comes at the very end where the John Updike Society’s very own Professor Maria Mogford drops cue cards in time with my verse about Harry’s fascination with pubic hair. This is a send-up of sorts on Dylan’s doing the same in DA Pennebaker’s film, Don’t Look Back, where Dylan hastily and inaccurately discards large poster boards with the lyrics to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” while Allen Ginsberg, among others, mulls around in the background.
Other musical snippets that appear in Talkin’ Rabbit include Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” which featured in Rabbit is Rich as well as the Oscar Meyer theme song which featured in Rabbit at Rest.
I hope that you will recognize many of the lyrics of Talkin’ Rabbit as about 50% of them are lifted directly from the books. As a result, the song is pretty blue. When I proposed singing Talkin’ Rabbit at the 3rd Annual John Updike Society Conference in Reading, I was concerned about offending the attendees. Professor James Plath, however, instructed, “This is the John Updike Society. Perform the song as written!”
The video of Talkin’ Rabbit was shot on location in Reading, Pa and features the Reading Pagoda, the John Updike Childhood Home, the cemetary where Updike is buried, and the Peanut Bar. Thanks to my band mates in John Train. Dobro player Mike “Slo-Mo” Brenner provided the sketches. Drummer Mark Schreiber directed, filmed, and edited the video. Also thanks to Maria Mogford for playing Ruth in the video and being such a good sport!
Jon Houlon, October 2016
"No 2 Unalike" Preview by Dan Deluca from the Philadelphia Inquirer... "Among the lesser known dependable pleasures of the Philadelphia music scene are the free Friday night happy hour shows with John Train, the rootsy sextet fronted by superb story telling singer-songwriter Jon Houlon, a prolific sort who is also the lead singer from the more garage-rock oriented band The Donuts." Read more here!
The wayback machine... Many thanks to Tommy T for sending us a DVD of something that he and Jeff DiBlasi shot back in 2004 while John Train was playing regularly at Jack's Firehouse. While the whole band wasn't there on this night, it still captures a time that was important to us. It's dedicated to Steve Demarest.
Isn't That So? A Jesse Winchester cover live from Fergie's Pub on 1/23/15... Thanks to the Phantom Engineer for capturing the moment.
A Wig and a Wonder available on Chapter 7 Records
After releasing two concept albums, The Sugar Ditch (centered around a murder in a septic run-off ditch in Mississippi) and Mesopotamia Blues (centered around an unpopular war), John Train returns to action without a unifying theme. Jon Houlon, singer-songwriter for the band, claims that he came to the realization that songs about murder and war – arguably, the same topic, he winces – may not be commercially viable. “I’m back to gazing at my own navel!,” Houlon quips.
Still, John Train’s new Chapter 7 release, A Wig and a Wonder, contains more than your usual singer-songwriter fare. Song topics range from a visit to the Rothko Chapel in Houston (the title track), adultery informed by Houlon’s fascination with John Updike (“Lord Baltimore”), a divorcing couple who buries a religious idol in their front yard to help sell their house (“Praying to St. Joe”), and the craft of songwriting itself (“Who Needs the Muse?”). Houlon, who works in the field of child welfare, for the first time in John Train’s 18 year history, offers up a song about the death of a child (“Las Galares”). “I’ve tried to keep work and music separate,” he says, “but there was just something about this particular story that I had to tell.”
Devoted followers of John Train (known as the “Train Army”) have been asking for a new Train album for several years. Why the recording hiatus? Houlon says there are two reasons: “One, I figure that considering that between John Train and my other band, the Donuts, I’ve got 10 cds already floating around out there, if someone wanted to hear what I had to say, there was plenty to dig into. Two, in a world where many people seem satisfied listening to music recorded on a phone and posted on You-Tube, the idea of putting out another disc seemed quaint and maybe even irrelevant.”
What changed? Legendary Philadelphia engineer, John Anthony (formerly of Sigma and Maja, now of Philly Post) began recording some of John Train’s weekly gigs at Fergie’s Pub. Anthony, a great supporter of John Train, felt that “what the band is doing over there was too good not to be documented.” A couple of the songs recorded at Fergie’s are actually included on A Wig and a Wonder (“Lord Baltimore” and the title track).
Anthony was so enthused by the Fergie’s recordings that he invited the band into Philly Post to do some more work. Houlon indicates: “We basically set up the same way we do at Ferg’s and spent a couple weekends laying down my new songs that we’ve been playing for the past few years. I looked up and realized we had another album on our hands.”
As usual, Houlon’s songwriting is strongly supported by his bandmates Mike “Slo-Mo Brenner (dobro), Bill Fergusson (mandolin), Mark Tucker (steel and electric guitar), Steve Demarest (bass), and Mark Schreiber (drums). Houlon says, “I feel blessed to have worked with these guys for this long. They are all fantastic musicians who know how to listen to a song and support it. And after 18 years, we still get along and still have a great time playing together.”