Gordon Bok,
A Rogue's Gallery
of Songs for 12-String

(1983; Folk-Legacy, 1999)

For years, I've thought it would be so cool if Gordon Bok lived in my neighborhood -- if I lived in a neighborhood and not on a mountaintop six miles by road from the nearest habitable structure.

My neighborhood would have all sorts of communal projects like a vegetable garden or repair projects on peoples' houses or the dock. I think we'd have to have a dock to get him to live there. Then, when we were all done for the day, Bok would come along with a guitar and sing us some songs while we fixed dinner. Or, he'd tell us a story.

Great fantasy, huh? Problem is, almost all my heartstrings are firmly tied to someone or someplace within a day's drive of Puget's Sound up here in the upper left-hand corner and, while he does visit the left coast, Bok seems anchored to that other corner over there.

That being how it is, I content myself with CDs and tapes. My favorite so far is a tape a friend gave me to play for the granddarlins. It's all about Jeremy Brown and the Jeannie Teal trying to get across the Bay of Fundy for Christmas.

I learned to love the rhythm of the Gael in storytelling as a small child. My father and his uncle Willie Butler could weave a tale of magic and leprechauns at a please or a will ya now from any one of us. Two and three generations in from Ireland they were, by way of Chicago and on to Kansas after the fire and then blown to Washington State out of the dustbowl and still their speech was full of "haitches" and burred Rs and "t'ell wit' chez all."

Whatever he's doing, Bok is a storyteller. This Rogue's Gallery started out to be a CD to showcase his work with the 12-string guitar -- and it does -- but it ended up being something else as well. It's a collection of stories in song, mostly about men caught on the edge; of the law, of society or of misfortune and almost always on the edge where the land meets saltwater. Throughout, the guitar gets E major for excellent, evocative, enchanting and exhilarating, and Bok explores the full range of his rich, deep baritone voice. And then some.

Four of the fourteen cuts on this CD are original to Bok. Of these, one is a personal anecdote. It's the edge of misfortune one, "Old Fat Boat." It's also my favorite track on the CD. Bok says it's what Pete Seeger calls a "navel" or "belly button" song. We've all had days like this. Sort of a damned if you do and damned if you don't kind of tale where he gets blisters on his butt, soaking wet, no help in sight and such a humongous sliver in his hand that he ends up with the "hydrogen peroxide blues" and still he makes the best of it.

"McKeon's Coming" is another that's original to Bok and one of two about rum runners. Bok sings it like he understands having been far away from home and in jail. It's the one that hits closest to home for me. I often wonder what would have happened had my dad been caught with the trunk of his cab open in those days on some side street in Portland, Ore. "Belamena," the other rum-running song, tells about the practice in the Caribbean of repainting (and renaming?) a boat each time it made a run. You'll hear a steel drum in the guitar.

Bok worked on the soundtrack of the film Coaster, about the building of the schooner John F. Leavitt, itself an interesting and enlightening look at the process of fine boat building, and two of the cuts come from that involvement. "Thumpy," the first, has a ragtime piano sound in the guitar and the rhythm of skilled men at work. The final cut, "Woodworker's Litany (Questions for Malcolm)," is an introspective piece in which Bok explores the internal processes experienced when an artist or artisan takes "a piece of the body of something that had a natural and contributive function on this planet" and shapes it into something else.

Two of the songs, "I'm a Rambler, I'm a Gambler" and "Ramble Away," even with Bok's addition of two original verses in the first, are pretty much your standard lyrics where a guy brags about how he uses people (women) and moves on. Bok's lyrics added to the first are done in fun and are advice on how not to get anchored to any of the young women in Canso (Nova Scotia).

"Duncan and Brady" seems to be my Rambles theme song. It keeps popping up on CDs I'm sent for review. This one is pretty much the Leadbelly version with some interesting guitar work that sort of underlines the cold-bloodedness of Duncan.

Two purely instrumental cuts, "Marina/Bimbo de Colonello" and "Mist Covered Mountains/Bonnie Galway," are the enchanting ones. The first pair of tunes are from Italy and Bok heard them first on mandolin. The second two are from Ireland but he learned them here in the upper lefthand corner from two Bellingham, Wash., musicians, Cliff Perry and Richard Scholtz. Bok recommends them as lullabies.

Maybe you know Dave Goulder's "The Dark North Sea." Bok and I are agreed that song is one of the loveliest songs in the English language. On this CD, Bok sings another piece from Goulder's songbook, "January Man and other songs." "A Most Unpleasant Way, Sir" may be one of the most enigmatic songs in the English language. Nevertheless, it holds your attention, maybe because it's so like one of those medieval riddles where the castle door will open only if the riddle is solved by a virgin in a red dress.

The tune "St. Thomas" brings up another enigma. How does a modern tune, written by jazz great Sonny Rollins, end up becoming a traditional folk song in the Virgin Islands? Maybe because it really does evoke a busy fishing harbor on a warm morning.

Edges are explored again in two cuts I see as life-sum pieces. "On the Wallaby" is the tale of a seagoing Australian swagman. Not very cheery or hopeful but Bok's voice is rich and deep and I'm willing to listen. "Blackbird," by Judy Goodenough, on the other hand is a bit more resolute and somewhat defiant and despite the basket of sins and the bucket of tears, the blackbird is flying free. The protagonist in this song is my kind of rogue and Bok does him up right in voice and on the guitar.

Buy the CD. Buy everything Bok has done. Give 'em away as presents.

P.S. OK, I've found Antigonish and Canso and the Bay of Fundy, but where in the livin' fog is West Quacko (sp?) supposed to be?

[ by J. Higgins-Rosebrook ]

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