I was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1945. My mother’s family had been there for a long time. My father was the son of first generation immigrants from Budapest. He became a theater director, and found a job in Kansas. We settled there when I was five years old. My mother got a Wurlitzer spinet and started teaching me to play the piano. My father would put me on stage whenever there was a role for a kid.
“Thunder” [by Carl Clayton Caulkins - The Avalon Songbook]
In 1965 I went to San Francisco, hitch-hiking out of Texas, lured by the Berkeley Poetry Conference. Once I finally got there, I stayed. Everybody was coming through town…Muddy Waters, Pharaoh Sanders, Johnny Cash…and you could watch them and listen to them up close. I spent some long afternoons with Sonny Terry, thanks to the film-maker Yasha Aginsky.
I opened for Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, who became one of my heroes right then & there (later I saw him in Denver where he sang “Truck Drivin’ Man” while strolling among the tables, went out the door his voice fading but still there and you could’ve heard a pin drop…and then the sudden roar of a semi revving up, and he was into the cab and gone). I met the poet James Koller, a lifelong friend who has gotten me out of a scrape more than once. I started travelling the States, playing here & there and everyplace in between. I started writing songs.
It was my father who convinced me to go to Europe. I was doing my circuit…Seattle / Kansas City / Denver / Santa Fe / San Francisco…and not thinking beyond that. Singing in bars was opening my eyes to secret American dreams, most of them shattered. I’d write songs about the dreamers I’d met, and then play them in the next bar. Round and around we go. Then I saw Paris, and knew I’d have to live in France. And finally did so, twenty years later.
In 1993 I left Chicago for the south of France, and began tracing new circuits…Avignon / Corsica / Toulouse…across the Alps to Switzerland and then Venice…round and around we go again. There were great big stages, small stages, and sometimes no stage at all. Why make a list? Each show was equally important, each one a matter of give and take between me and the people who had showed up. They gave so much to me that I’ll take this opportunity to thank them, one & all. I want to mention Mike Greene, the expatriate bluesman from Brooklyn who showed me the ropes. And the tours I was lucky to do with the great Wanda Jackson and that Ragin’ Cajun, Doug Kershaw. And Paul Kahn, close friend who moved to Paris for love, and first published my stuff.
Somewhere along the way people figured out where I was. They caught up with me, and elected me Governor. I was flattered, though I knew that the job would bring me responsibilities as well as glory. One of these was the duty to record. I had never gotten around to laying down permanent versions of my songs. I was on the go from show to show, and the songs only existed while I was singing them. Now that I’ve accepted this duty, I find that I like it. Recorded songs are like photographs or postcards. You can take them out every once in a while and return to places you’ve been, get back inside those moments that made you who your are.