The Moody Minstrel
Ed McCurdy, a balladeer in stocking feet, has 10,000 tuneful tales of love, liquor and death
DURING the past year Ed McCurdy, a tall, lanky fellow in Vancouver, has become the best-known ballad singer in Canada. He thinks if he’s lucky he may yet become the best in the world. Thousands of radio listeners from Prince Rupert to Charlottetown agree with this forecast and have said so, in writing.
“Ed McCurdy Sings” is broadcast from the CBC’s Vancouver studios every Friday at 4 p.m., Pacific time, over a chain of 45 Canadian stations. With 30 seconds to wait before he goes on the air the six-foot singer shuts his eyes and puts his head down, resting his brow on a small table in front of the microphone. When his guitarist plucks a single opening chord McCurdy lifts his head and in a soft, mournful voice begins to sing his theme:
Where do you come from?
Where do you go?
Where do you come from,
Come for to see you,
Come for to sing;
Come for to show you My diamond ring.
Like Cotton-eyed Joe, Ed McCurdy is a restless soul who prowled across the United States from job to job for eight years, collecting ballad songs as he traveled, until he cut northwest into Canada three years ago searching for a girl he wanted to marry whose name he couldn’t even remember. Perhaps as a result of those footsore years, constantly on the move across a continent, he indulges in a maximum of comfort when he sings—sitting at a table with his shoes off, raising his voice no louder than when he serenades his young daughter at bedtime at home.
The McCurdy songs and the McCurdy manner often come as a shock to radio listeners used to the gymnastic beat of Tin Pan Alley tunes. After his first broadcast on the CBC’s Pacific Network, in February, 1947, one man called the Vancouver station, weeping, to exclaim “I hadn’t heard ‘The Riddle Song’ or ‘Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,’ since I was a boy. Tell that young fellow more power to him and God bless him.” On the other hand a Saskatchewan listener blasted the program as “the most disgusting thing I’ve ever heard on the air,” but even he admitted he was listening regularly.
McCurdy’s songs inspire such strong reaction because the men and women he sings of don’t tiptoe through the tulips, spoon in June or sip cocktails for two in a little gypsy rendezvous while lilacs bloom. Instead, McCurdy’s people are usually lonely souls. They go down the road feelin’ bad and they ain’t gonna be treated this-a way. Their feet hurt and they’ve got a load of misery in their hearts. Or else they’re bubbling with uproarious nonsense, often expressed in ribald language that sometimes shocks listeners accustomed mainly to the ambiguously veiled allusions of many Hit Parade sockeroos.
“Ed McCurdy Sings” was so successful on its first two broadcasts on the Pacific network that the program was promoted to the Western CBC network. After another two weeks the moody minstrel moved up to the entire Trans-Canada chain. Fan letters began coming in from every part of the Dominion, Newfoundland and dozens of towns and cities across the border. McCurdy now fills occasional extra spots on the CBC, fills numerous engagements around Vancouver, and recently put on wax some special transcriptions for the BBC. These, he hopes, will help make his voice as familiar in Liverpool and Edinburgh as it is now in Halifax and Calgary. For the future, movies and recordings have offered tentative but interesting nibbles.
All this brings I-told-you-so smiles to the faces of a few Vancouver enthusiasts who originally sensed the tall troubador’s possibilities as a singer of folk ballads. One of the most convinced of these was Peter McDonald, an affable radio writer and director who now produces McCurdy’s regular 15-minute spot on Continued on page 52
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Friday evenings. McDonald calls him “tremendous,” both as a singer and a personality.
“However, he’s no angel,” the producer confesses. “He’s mule-headed and at times he can be a very difficult joe to work with. He’s had more than his share of tiffs with CBC executives and there are days when you can’t tell him a thing.
“McCurdy is a free soul. I like to think of him as a sort of 20th-century version of the ancient wandering minstrel. If the guy just vanished one day, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit.”
Some people who knew McCurdy only as a night-club singer in Vancouver were inclined to sniff sceptically at his trying to establish himself as a balladeer. They didn’t think the simple, lonely songs of unknown poets and forgotten composers could be properly interpreted by a slick professional baritone who had once been master of ceremonies for fan dancer Sally Rand. Possibly they were influenced by the familiar picture of the radio singer of old-time ballads as a plump, jolly and folksy character—an image inspired by the recognized king of American balladeers, Burl Ives. Ives is 270 pounds of earth-tremoring heartiness and his press interviews are studded with such quotes as “I sure do like to see folks a-dancin’ and a-singin’ and a-laughin’. ”
This sort of remark makes McCurdy slightly sick at his stomach. The Vancouver singer has a robust sense of humor, hut often masks it under a taciturn, almost cantankerous manner. Equally characteristic is his combination of a deep emotional reserve and a corrosive vehemence in discussing things about which he feels strongly.
The tall and lean McCurdy, with his long and stubborn jaw, does have one important thing in common with the huge and irrepressible Ives. Both traveled up and down North America and earned their living outshouting the drunks in night clubs, before winning fame as radio artists. Both collected a packful of folk songs and native ballads; both sing “The Blue-Tail Fly” and work songs, blues, nonsense ballads, Negro spirituals and songs that tell of railroad, prison, religion, whisky, gambling and women who lead men to ruin. Today, McCurdy guesses he knows by heart perhaps 10,000 songs and has enough more in reserve to let him sing a quarter-hour program five
nights a week for 10 years if he got the chance.
Despite his partiality to gloom, McCurdy sometimes sings of people in love. Then they are apt to swear their devotion in words of melting tenderness, although not always in accurate rhyme:
I love my love and well she knows;
I love the grass on which she goes.
If she on earth no more might be,
My life would quickly fade away.
When the hero of a McCurdy ballad is feeling his oats a bit and his blood tingles with amiable foolishness, the result may be something like “BlackEyed Susie”:
I love my wife, I love my baby,
I love my biscuits sopped in gravy. Hey, pretty little Black-Eyed Susie, hey!
Susie and the boys went huckleberry pickin’,
Boys got drunk and Susie got a lickin’.
Hey, pretty little Black-Eyed Susie, hey!
A poetic informality governs the use of rhyming in the ballad-type songs McCurdy sings—for instance, in “Careless Love,” a range-land lament familiar to so many Canadians that it has become the next thing to a Canadian folk song:
Love, oh love, oh careless love!
See what love has done to me!
Sorrow, sorrow to my heart,
That me and my true love had to part!
You’ve gone and broke this heart of mine.
I’ll break that heart of yours sometime!
Like all true minstrels, McCurdy has a few favorites a bit too raffish for a domestic radio audience. He enjoys singing them at house parties, or even on the telephone if he happens to think of one during a conversation. Among these morsels is an 18th-century English ditty, “Blow the Candles Out.” The song has been recorded by the American balladeer, Richard DyerBennet, and McCurdy is still hoping the CBC will let him sing it for Canadians.
Most people take it for granted that because McCurdy has become well
known, he must be making a lot of money. The minstrel himself says this is far from the truth. “You can’t buy food and furniture and diapers with pats on the back and fan mail,” he points out. “All told, including nonCBC jobs, I guess 1 average around $300 a month. My regular Friday program pays me exactly $30 a week: other CBC jobs add another $30 a week and the occasional nonradio job makes up the rest. If that’s big-time hay, I’ll eat it.”
Why does McCurdy stay in Canadian radio when he knows he could make more money in night clubs? He feels he has more freedom on the CBC to sing honestly the music he loves best. It’s not much fun trying to bellow a tragic ballad of unrequited love over the noise of wassail and into the skulls of a throng of drunks, no matter how amiable. In the long run, self-expression is more important to McCurdy than money, although he is, in his own words, “the kind of a guy who can use the stuff.”
Letting Off Steam
Edward Potts McCurdy was born Jan. 11, 1919, in Willow Hill, a hamlet in the rolling farmlands of southeastern Pennsylvania. His father, James McCurdy, ran a small creamery and managed the local post office on the side.
Ed was the youngest of 12 children. “Some of them bullied me and others spoiled me,” he remembers, “so it came out about even. I was what people call an overgrown lout and my ears stuck out. I took a lot of ribbing and got into plenty of fights. A few of them 1 won, but 1 also got beaten up pretty regularly. This gave me an inferiority complex I’m still trying to get over. I may lick it yet.”
Music was an everyday part of life in the McCurdy household. Says Ed, “The bunch of us just used to stand around and let off steam by doing a bit of singing.” Mama McCurdy excelled in such songs as “Co Tell Aunt Nancy the Old Grey Goose Is Dead.” Father taught Ed to sing “Old Zip Coon”:
There was an old man with a double chin,
Who performed with skill on the violin.
He played in time and he played in tune,
But he couldn’t play anything but “Old Zip Coon.”
Ed was a boy contralto at the age of eight. His voice matured early and at 11 he had become, he says, “a man— and I’m not fooling.” He started going around with girls much older than himself, some of them 19 or 20.
By the time he had become a bored philanderer of 12, fix! began taking “formal” singing lessons from a Mrs. Blanche Hale in nearby Shippensburg.
“She taught me the fundamentals of breathing, tone production and so on She also taught me simplicity and naturalness in singing—not the phony, exaggerated ‘superdiction’ that so many teachers pound into their pupils.”
At 14, Exl was doing solos in public. -Billed as “Edward McCurdy, Baritone,” he solemnly intoned “Trees” and “The Road to Mandalay” at school concerts and club meetings. The McCurdy of today loathes both those songs intensely. He also pronounces “baritone” as if it were an ugly fourletter word.
McCurdy says he was kicked out of school twice for refusing to “show proper respect” to his teachers. For a while he attended a military school in southern Virginia. At 17 he won a
musical scholarship and moved to a liberal-arts college in Oklahoma. Soon he was singing in college broadcasts. One day the program director of WRY in Oklahoma City asked Ed, “Can you sing gospel songs?” McCurdy, who had never sung one in his life, replied blandly, “Of course 1 can.” He was hired on the spot and became, at 18, “Ed McCurdy, Singer of the Gospel.”
The year was 1937 and on $25 a week young McCurdy lived like a king. Three mornings a week he sang evangelical ballads like “Bringing In the Sheaves” and “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder.” At night, he went gadding about with the prettiest girls in Oklahoma City. His program was popular and women kept writing him little notes, inviting him to drop in so they could thank him in person. Says Ed, “This wasn’t quite the kind of fan mail the studio had expected. I showed one of the letters to the station manager and he looked as if he had just swallowed a caterpillar.”
The Happiness Boy
After a year of this McCurdy went to New York, where he worked as a busboy in the Mayflower Doughnut Shop on Broadway opposite the Hotel Astor. At 21 he landed a job near home as general-duty announcer for a radio station in Maryland. There he did all the things he now despises most in radiomoronic quiz programs, fiveminute commercials, man - on - the -street interviews. He even conducted an early morning “happiness boy” show, the memory of which still causes him to wake up screaming.
When the war came along, McCurdy was inducted three times. Finally he was classed as 4-F. He became a singing master of ceremonies in a show that did one-night stands in theatres and night clubs in 40 states.
In 1942 when the show played Vancouver he first met his future wife, an auburn - haired student dancer named Beryl English. He liked her looks and her style, but didn’t ask her out. They met again a year later in a San Francisco night club. Beryl was in the line of girls in the floor show. McCurdy had been taking out Beryl’s roommate, but when he saw Beryl he switched to her. However, Ed says he still hadn’t fallen in love. He didn’t even write to Beryl during another lonely year of going from job to job.
At WWVA in Wheeling, W. Va., he met a great hillbilly singer, “Doc” Williams. Doc taught him such songs as “Eye in the Sky,” a moralistic opus which has since boosted McCurdy’s stock in B. C. temperance circles. The first two stanzas:
Did you ever stop to think
When you start to take a drink, There’s an Eye Up on high,
When you take God’s name in vain,
And you start in raising Cain, There’s an Eye Up on high,
One day in Chicago, when he was feeling more despondent than usual, he met a fellow who had known Beryl English, the dancer. The two men got talking about her and suddenly Ed decided she was the girl he wanted to marry. However, he couldn’t even remember her last name. The only thing he knew for sure was that her home was in Vancouver. In search of her, Ed arrived there in November, 1945, and got a job “baritoning” in the Palomar Supper Club.
Beryl saw his name in the papers and
got in touch with him and they went out for coffee between shows. They were married two weeks later, at Beryl’s home, one afternoon at four. Six hours afterward, Ed was back in the Palomar doing his stuff, with the brand-new Mrs. McCurdy smiling in the audience.
Ed’s experience as master of ceremonies for Sally Rand, the undraped shape, lasted two months in Miss Rand’s own San Francisco night club in 1946. He says Sally is a very nice person unless and until she happens to get sore at you. “Then, look out!”
Hunting Canadian Songs
McCurdy’s folk songs are mainly American and British in origin. Many were carried from Europe by emigrants 200 or 300 years ago and have been handed down in families and transmitted by wandering minstrels ever since. Songs of English origin include such ballads as “Barbara Allen,” “Foggy, Foggy Dew,” and “The Riddle Song.” Old British sea chanteys have enriched a thousand song books, but Ed says some of the best of them are still unpublished. In his repertoire are vast numbers of native American ballads, including frontier songs which make modern commercial “cowboy” music seem cheap and vulgar in comparison.
Almost every day someone asks McCurdy, “What is a folk song, anyway?” He says it’s hard to answer clearly, but this is his try at it:
“A true folk song is any song which becomes part of the unconscious culture of the people.”
The real test of a folk song, according to McCurdy, is time. For instance, the old English ballad, “Early One Morning,” is said to predate Shake-
speare and is still as popular as ever. McCurdy thinks Brahms’ famous “Lullaby” is a real folk song, even though it was deliberately produced by a classical, serious composer rather than by some obscure minstrel.
A scattered few of today’s popular songs, in McCurdy’s opinion, stand a fair chance of becoming folk songs “in another century or so.” He wouldn’t be surprised, for example, if people went right on singing George Gershwin’s “Summertime” and “The Man I Love,” Hoagy Carmichael’s “Old Rockin’ Chair,” and one or two items by Duke Ellington and Jerome Kern. “But not by Victor Herbert.”
Ed has a feeling that a rich mine of Canadian folk music is waiting to be opened. Once in a while Canadians send him old songs their grandfathers sang in scattered parts of the Dominion. Best donation thus far has been “Songs and Ballads From Nova Scotia,”* collected by Helen Creighton “among the fisherfolk in the vicinity of Halifax.” Miss Creighton, a Nova Scotian herself, wrote to McCurdy, graciously offering permission for him to use her songs on his program. McCurdy replied. “Thanks very much—I’ve already been using them.”
The Creighton book, out of print for 10 years, includes a fine tragic ballad, “The Prince Edward Island Murder.” Supposedly based on fact, it tells of a William Millman who, about 60 years ago, killed his sweetheart, Mary Tuplin, with a pistol. The slayer goes to the gallows and the song ends:
Cover up my eyes,
That I may never see
The gallows or the awful rope That now awaited me.
*J. M. Dent and Sons, Toronto.
So Millman paid the penalty;
He lies beneath the sod;
We leave him to the tender mercy
Of a most loving God.
McCurdy wants to go ballad hunting some day with a portable tape recorder. When he does, he won’t stop until he reaches Newfoundland, whose treasures of expressive folk music have been enticing him for years.
“I know, of course, that there’s a great storehouse of fine French-Canadian songs in Quebec,” says Ed. “But 1 wasn’t very good in French at school and I’m afraid I’d ruin them.”
A few weeks ago, McCurdy spent an evening with a high-spirited bunch of B. C. loggers. They told him about the long-vanished Grand Hotel in Vancouver, loggers’ headquarters in the pioneer days when the famed coastal steamer Cassiar carried them to the big town with fat wallets and a thirst and back to camp broke and hung-over. One of the fellows remembered an old song about it, to the tune of “Sweet Betsy From Pike.” McCurdy sang it next night over the CBC and it was the hit of the show:
There’s a place in Vancouver the loggers know well,
It’s a place where they keep rotgut whisky to sell.
They also keep boarders and keep them like hell,
And the name of that place is the Grand Hotel.
Oh, the Grand Hotel, when the loggers come in,
It’s amusing to see the proprietoi grin.
For he knows they’ve got money and he’ll soon have it all,
So “Come, boys, have a drink!” you’ll hear Tommy call.
In the morning Tommy Roberts comes up to the door
And there he sees loggers all over the floor.
With a bottle of rum and a bottle of rye,
And passes from camp on the old Cassiar.
On the domestic front, McCurdy’s wife Beryl admits frankly that their marriage has known its storms and stresses. “Ed takes a lot of knowing and 1 guess I’m not perfect myself. But he’s a great guy just the same and we’ve never regretted we got married.”
With a chuckle, Beryl adds, “In one respect, at least, he’s a ‘dream’ husband— half the time he does the cooking. However, 1 can never get him to help with the dishes.”
The McCurdys’ little daughter was christened Mary Margaret after Ed’s mother. Maggie McCurdy is appropriately lively and amusing and Papa McCurdy is crazy about her. When he sings her to sleep, which he does now and then, he shuns the traditional lullabies. Instead, he croons “Buckeye Jim”:
Way up yonder, above the sky,
A redbird lived in a jay bird’s eye.
Buckeye Jim, you can’t go!
Go weave and spin, you can’t go!
Maggie drifts away to dreamland on the wings of this bizarre ditty a lot faster than some youngsters do to “Rockaby Baby.” One night, for a gag, Ed tried “Rockaby” and she started squalling and couldn’t be quieted for an hour. Certainly Maggie is one fan minstrel McCurdy will never have to worry about. ★