Talkin’ Rabbit (Harry Angstrom’s Blues)
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