“You look at it right, it’ll sparkle. It’s all right here. Everything we need from a creative standpoint is right in this room with us. All the stories are here. We just have to be quiet enough so that the stories come to us. I was asleep one time in the big van up in the Chisos. Just sleeping in the middle of the day. Took a nap. Woke up and I was surround by fawns. You know, baby deer? That’s what stories do. You take a nap, you’re real quiet, you look at the stars, you look at the sky, you look at the clouds and everything. Sooner or later, you’re surrounded by fawns. Every fawn has a story. Just tell that story.”
Viv: This week on Art of the Song we welcome Sam Baker. Recorded live at the Woody Guthrie Festival in Okemah, Oklahoma in front of an audience of his fans, Sam talked with us about his creative point of view which is at once hilarious and tragic. Sam’s ability to create songs of hope and transformation in the face of everyday tragedies is highlighted by his fair, carefully considered lyric writing and guitar playing. Sam turns away from no image, shedding light in dark places to show the humanity that connects us all.
Viv: Thank you, Sam Baker, for joining us for Art of the Song today.
Sam:Vivian, it’s so nice to be here. John, good to see you too. We saw each other last in Lajitas, down by the border.
Viv: Yes, we did.
Sam:And we had a lovely visit down there too.
Viv: That was a beautiful time. Sam, what have you been doing this year since we saw you last?
Sam:Let me think. Well, I just came out of Canada, played North Country Fair up there and did a run across southern Canada through the Rockies over into the islands. Doug Cox has a festival out there out on Vancouver Island. It’s very beautiful. Road faeries and such. For people, I grew up on the prairie so to have to get on the boat to some other place seems biblical.
Viv: And the poetry already starts.
Sam:That’s not poetry. That’s just memory.
Viv: Just memory. But still. My point, which we’ll get to later. Sam, you grew up in Texas.
Sam:I did. I grew up in a small town called Itasca. It’s between Waco and Fort Worth. It’s a small agrarian town that when I was a kid it did have a lot of shops. It was a self-contained little town. It had a grocery store. It had a butcher shop, a real butcher shop, where they butchered stuff and they had a dry goods store and several beauty parlors. I’ve reverted to a childhood language. Beauty parlors. I said beauty parlors. That’s an old language coming in. Beauty parlors that’s where women would go, and they’d have their hair done and it was a big deal. It wasn’t a haircut. Their hair was “done”. At the end, they cooked it under what we now think of as a sort of microwave device. Sometimes they’d burn their hair and it would smell. You could smell their hair burning. It was not an attractive thing, I thought. But I think they were pampered in their own way. This was late 50s, early 60s, where women they lived a pretty hard life. They had all these kids. You’d hear it down the street, a lot of people yelling and stuff. Women, mostly. I think they were yelling at their husbands and kids. Then, once a week, they’d go in and somebody would really be nice to them. Would curl their hair and put, it wasn’t called product back then, but they’d put some kind of fluid in it. A gel or something like that. Probably petroleum, but it was Texas. I’m sure it was petroleum-based. And Oklahoma, hell, I’m sure they use petroleum. Well, chemicals, but probably petroleum, I’m sure it was a derivative, probably light crude I’d guess. Come out of a hub I would think. It was processed. It was not raw. My guess is that they cracked it and broke it down and refined it into a much finer, particulate matter and then put it in their hair. Then, they put it down…. Ellis Paul is telling me to shut up. Ok. I listen to Paul. Paul is my spiritual advisor and that should scare us off, shouldn’t it?
Viv: Universal sign for wrap up the story. Ellis, you’ll keep an eye on this, will you please? We were talking about where you grew up and clearly you spent a lot of time at your mother’s feet in beauty parlors. What else was going on in that town? Was there a lot of music?
Sam:Well, there was a lot of church music. We had lots and lots of churches. There were no bars. It was a dry town. A lot of you know what dry towns are. It means you can’t buy booze. So, when people wanted to drink, they had to drive to the county line and buy booze at the county line. The way it worked is that’s what turned so many young people into lawyers because they had to figure out exactly where the county line was because six inches over, it was party city.
Viv: Now I’m in, now I’m out. Now I’m in, now I’m out.
Sam:In. Out. In. Out. Yeah, that’s actually profound. I mean, where are you? Are you dry or are you wet? Or are you both? If there’s a line that you cross, and you have to choose to cross that line.
Viv: You do. And sometimes it’s not a very difficult choice.
Sam:Sometimes. Then sometimes it’s quite difficult. As many choices are.
Viv: Again, this is all part of the poetry in making the choices.
Sam:I have to say, we went over with Jimmy LaFave to that little Italian Cafe, I don’t remember the name of it, is it Mazzios? Italian cafe, we went in, there was a really beautiful young woman working at the counter, and I said, do you have any sparkling water? And she kind of looked up for a second and said, “Well, if you look at it right, it’ll sparkle.”
Viv: She lives in the right town. That’s great. The truth about everything, right? It’ll sparkle if you look at it right.
Sam:If you look at it right, it’ll sparkle.
Viv: Coming from a state that has such an incredible wealth of songwriters, did you start early in your music career? Did you start early playing music?
Sam:No, I didn’t.
Viv: What were you doing all that time?
Sam:Well, I wanted to be really fast. I wanted to run fast. I played all sports and I was not very good at any of them. I played high school football and high school basketball and baseball. Couldn’t throw very good. Played 2nd base because I couldn’t throw very good and I didn’t have to throw very far. I was quarterback my senior year because I could remember the plays really for everybody. We were a small town and I could remember where everybody would go. When we had to throw the ball, once again, I couldn’t throw, that’s why I was a 2nd baseman. I would take the ball and pitch it to someone who really could throw, and I’d have to tell them where to throw it. I’d pitch it over there and I’d say, “You throw it that way”. Or, I’d have to say, “You get up and run. You run as fast as you can.” Instead of saying “Hit the 2 slot” or “Hit the 3 slot”, I’d have to say, “You just need to run right over Ricky’s ass”. Just run over it.
Viv: So, a multi-tasker from an early age.
Sam:From an early age. Middle child.
Viv: Multi-tasking is suitable for guitar players and songwriters.
Sam:And middle children. Yeah.
Viv: You had a life altering experience down in Peru.
Sam:Yes. Well, I’ve had several, but I had one that’s really, really big and really, really altering. Look, everybody in this room has altering things almost every day. Once again, if you see it in the right light, what happens? It sparkles. And there’s sparkle every day. Every glass of water sparkles. If you look at it.
Viv: That’s an amazing way to live your life, isn’t it? Sometimes that seems the role of the songwriter or the artist, is to remind us that is indeed the truth.
Sam:Well, it is, but it’s also the role of that young woman at Mazzio’s Pizza.
Viv: The waitress.
Sam:She wasn’t even the waitress. She was behind the counter. What a great teacher she is.
Viv: Teachers come in all forms. And they come when you least expect it.
Sam:They come when you need them.
Viv: Tell us about some of yours.
Sam:We’re actually going to try to segue into something, aren’t we?
Viv: We are. It’s like we’re planting a hook and I’m hauling on that line.
Sam:You had been churning the water and then all of the sudden you threw a hook in.
Viv: I have. Sorry. We were talking about teachers and I’m quite earnest about this because we’ve been wrestling with it a lot. I teach acting as well as creativity and one of my favorite teachers says that actors are shamans and that’s why we do what we do and why people watch it is because we access emotions and things that people see and want to access on their own, but maybe they don’t know how so they need a guide. So, they go to a movie or they go listen to music. Who have been some of your teachers?
Sam:I would say that, as far as art, the great teacher in art I think is suffering.
Viv: The great teacher in art is suffering. Why?
Sam:I got hit in South America in somebody else’s war. Up until then, I had tried to write some stuff and it was crummy and cliché. It was mostly dreadful stuff. Unreflective drivel. “Oh, why doesn’t she love me? She’s awful.” Then I would try to find something that rhymes with awful and I would come out with ‘pawful’. Like ‘Here’s a pawful of porcupine thorns.” Then it would go sideways from there. Then it ended up being about a small animal running through the woods, shooting little spears at everything that comes by. That’s not much of a song. Can’t dance to it. Can’t sing it. The hook is awful.
Viv: The hook is terrible. “She’s awful, I’ve got a pawful.”
Sam:Back to where we are.
Viv: Basically, before we started running through the woods as wild animals.
Sam:We started running through the woods with the porcupine.
Viv: We were talking about the greatest teachers that come and suffering. The greatest teacher is suffering.
Sam:I got hit in somebody else’s war a long time ago, in ’86, killed the people I was sitting with. Killed some other people. Killed a little girl that wasn’t right under the bomb. Hit her in the head and she died later. She died in the flat which is why I lived. Up until then, I think I had written not well-thought-out stuff. Not really obsessively re-wrote. I didn’t see a fine distinction between certain words. I think once I went through a period of suffering, not just my suffering. I was surrounded for a long time by the very ill and the dying in the ICU and the crash teams would come in and they’d cart somebody out. There was a fair amount of wailing. A fair amount of just deep, deep suffering for a long time. Being around people who live with suffering. Medical people. At some point, I don’t know if I would accept the same sort of unworked for a language that I’d used before.
Viv: Sounds like there’s more responsibility now for you.
Sam:I think there’s more responsibility. The language has to be more exact. I took so long to explain to myself what it is to sit beneath a bomb. To have a bomb go off and have my lungs deflated and my ears blown in. The little boy was spiked hard and the mother was chopped up in a particularly awful way. At that point, easy language is not sufficient. Or light language. It takes a while to fine-tune what it is to not be able to breathe. To not inflate my lungs. I can’t breathe. It doesn’t quite cover it. I think it was that need to really dig in and find the words that are more accurate and less vague. I think that just the great teacher in what I would call motive. But, as far as technique, there are a thousand teachers.
Viv: Motive, you mean, why you write? And your responsibility to the topic? Or the honor that you want to bring to the topic?
Sam:Yeah, it’s the whole sort of why do it? What is the reason even to do that? I think it’s part of that suffering and part of it to the obligation to the dead, I think.
Viv: Do you write specifically to that? Do you write songs that are specific to that?
Sam:Yeah, several. One is that ” Steel”. When the kid, I don’t really know that kid, it was a German boy, and what happened was the bomb went off and I was not exactly part of this world once the bomb went off. I went into a different world, but I was aware of the dead. It was later until I talked to my friends that I found out how gruesome it was. You see on TV, you see all these bombs, they fly in and you get it from the bomb’s eye. So, the bomb is watching, and it goes “Whoosh”, and everybody goes “Yeah, rock on.” When a bomb hits you really close, like if you’re right under it, it’s very different. It’s so fast and so violent that I still don’t have words for it. I still haven’t narrowed that down, so I know what that is. It’s like if right now, we’re here in this beautiful place. And then, you can’t take another breath. Just like that. Faster than that though. It’s a really interesting thing. So, anyway, I came out. A bunch of surgeries. Lots and lots of surgeries. The top of my hand was gone. They took tendons out of my feet. Lot of stuff. They had to put new eardrums in, so they had to bore a hole with a drill. Just bore in. It’s not attractive. So, anyway, I was struggling with that whole deal, and I was trying to learn how to play guitar left-handed, which was…it wasn’t that difficult. It looks difficult, but it’s not. If you do anything long enough, it comes to you. But I had a bad day, I was feeling sorry for myself, and on that bad day, the little boy’s face, it just kind of rolled up like it was on a TV screen. Just right there. And I thought, “You know, I got nothing to complain about. Ever.”
Viv: It seems like the greatest thing that you can do to honor the teacher of suffering is to make it into art.
Sam:I mean, yeah, I don’t know. I guess. The word greatest throws me off. I don’t know. I think it’s one worthy thing. Is it the greatest? I don’t know. It is a worthy thing. There are probably other worthy things, given time. It’s one way, yeah. I mean, we could come up with a list, I think. We could come up with a spreadsheet if we took some time.
Viv: We’re going to make it into a product.
Sam:Since we are in Oklahoma and Texas, yeah, it’d be petroleum. Refined mostly. Get the particles down pretty low. I’d have to heat it up. Crack it open.
Viv: Talking about it is kind of like the editing process on your songs. Heating it up. Cracking it open. Getting the particles out.
Sam:Right. But sometimes crude is fine too.
Viv: So, when you are creating these songs, from intense memory like that, what’s the process like?
Sam:Well, that one was mostly what I would call an emotional wave. I rode a wave until I felt like the wave had a form that was appropriate.
Viv: What about your other songs?
Sam:They all come in waves. Some are big waves. Some are small waves. I have songs that are like ripples.
Viv: You have a lot of songs that are reflective and talk from characters that are suffering in a different way. People that have had it all and then lost it all. Like the woman in the car, with two little kids, driving.
Sam:Right, but she comes out fine. Really, when it talks about the woman in the car with two little kids, you’re all going “Oh no!” Car wreck. Greyhound bus that didn’t check the brakes. Oh my gosh. She was in a minivan. She was outside of Temple, Texas.
Viv: Make ’em suffer today. That’s what we’re into.
Sam:But, no, that’s not what happened at all.
Viv: The songs are about resilience and about triumph in a way that’s really uplifting.
Sam:I think our lives are full of little triumphs. Little wins. Little Olympic moments. I just made that up. Shocking, isn’t it?
Viv: I love that.
Sam:The little girl. Ok. She’s on the road. She’s got two little babies in the back. Her home life is not what we would call ‘settled’. It starts to rain. She’s driving slow. She’s got these little kids. They’re screaming in the back. The car’s a wreck. It’s got all that baby stuff that people carry. It’s like a used storage full of baby stuff. It’s got toys and products.
Sam:Baby products. Yeah, cheerios everywhere. And screaming babies in the backseat. So, she stops at Wendy’s and she breaks down. She’s crying, the babies are crying. It’s raining. So, what happens? She drops a whole bunch of tears into a frosty. Then the rain lets up. The babies quit crying. And she’s on the ramp heading back on the interstate behind a long-haul truck. She just keeps going. See, I think everybody does that. All these people go to work every day. They’ve got the kids all screaming and stuff. They get up and go to work every day. Then, they come up to the same screaming kids. See, I think that’s an Olympic moment.
Viv: I’m glad you celebrate them in song. I’m really glad that you write them out. They’re like these little mini movies because they’re so visual and they’re so immediate in the writing and the poetry of it is just all incredibly immediate.
Sam:Oh, well, thank you.
Viv: Does that take a lot of editing? You say they come in waves, but you mentioned earlier that they’re examined because you used to write before your experience that the songs you wrote were unexamined? And now, you right from a very examined place where you take out a lot of extraneous.
Sam:Right, right. Everything is so beat to death. Really, any song that I do that you hear for the most part is some kind of survivor. Because I have whipped it. Really just had it down on the ground with a little piece tow chain, like people used to have in their car. Maybe you didn’t carry one in your car. Little piece of tow chain. About 2 1/2 foot. Or a little piece of electric cable wrapped in electrician’s tape. I guess you don’t carry one of those either. Ok, maybe I was wrong.
Viv: No, I get it now. I used to live in New Hampshire. I know tow chains. So anyway, after you whip them and you’ve beaten them into some kind of form, musically, what happened?
Sam:I just usually hear them. I do have one song I never play that’s a channel song. Pure channel. Up until ’05, I was building apartments. I just worked. This is all coming late to me. I was in this meeting and we were building these apartments, we had all these costs, insuring costs, architecture is really going sideways, and everybody’s really, really tense, and everybody’s upset and everybody’s like, “What are we going to do?” I’m project manager and I’m taking all these notes and I’m like writing and it’s the only song I ever got that came pure channel. I don’t know if you’ve ever got that. It’s just a song that came to me completely. And I was looking at the GC, the general contractor, and everybody’s about to strangle people and I’m thinking….
PLAYS PART OF BRIDAL CHEST
There is a workshop
Full of noises
Things are cut
Things are bound
Things are built
Built in secret
The bridal chest
The wedding gown
Now Bring the maiden
From the cloister
Bring her free
Bring her bound
She will stand
With her ancestors
The bridal chest
The wedding gown
You pay the dowry
In dolls and dishes
That’s the dough
This day of clowns
That’s the dough
It is el dinero
The bridal chest
The wedding gown
Sam:And then somebody would yell something about how the city had jammed an 8-inch water line and blew all our water lines out and I’d go, “Oh boy, that sounds bad. Let me write that down.” And I would go (singing):
So, bring the captain
From the lee shore
Viv: And you’ve been touring ever since.
Sam:I don’t even play that song because I don’t understand it. Doesn’t make any sense to me.
Viv: So, this song, you didn’t run it through the mill of your editing process.
Sam:I didn’t because it came too channeled.
Viv: And you just left it alone.
Sam:But I don’t play it either because I don’t know it. It’s like somebody else’s song. I was probably in the wrong place. You know, channels open all the time.
Viv: You got somebody else’s download?
Sam:That song. That was meant for somebody else. Ellis Paul. That was probably meant for Ellis.
Viv: It’s beautiful language.
Sam:Or Jimmy. I don’t see Jimmy singing “pay the dowry in dolls and dishes”. He’d sing that nice though. Then Jimmy would spit out, “That’s the dough, this day of crowns.”
Viv: So, if someone were to come to you wondering about their creative process, given your background and how hard you worked at it, what would you offer to them as a window or a pathway to follow?
Sam:Be quiet and things will come to you. Really, if we just let the world, the little girl who said, “You look at it right, it’ll sparkle”. It’s all right here. Everything we need, from a creative standpoint, is right in this room with us. All the stories are here. We just have to be quiet enough so that the stories come to us. I don’t really try to track stories or shoot them down. They just kind of come to me. If you sit real quiet someplace, if you could sit there long enough, flowers would grow right up to you. You’d get hungry and everything. I was asleep one time in the big van up in the Chisos. Just sleeping in the middle of the day. Took a nap. Woke up and I was surrounded by fawns. You know, baby deer? Got those spots and stuff. That’s what stories do. You take a nap, you’re real quiet, you look at the stars, look at the sky, look at the clouds and everything. Sooner or later you’re surround by fawns. Every fawn has a story. Just tell that story.
Viv: It’s kind of amazing if we actually pay attention to what we think. Pay attention to what the words that are actually going through our minds or the images that we see. If we actually pay attention and write them down or share them with someone else, it’s kind of astonishing what we have inside sparkles if we look at it right.
Sam:Absolutely. And how flat and dull a lot of it is too. That’s where the editor comes in.
Sam:Right, because so much of what we say is repetitive, cliché-driven, stupid, full of fear. And we say it over and over again. We say the same things in our head on a loop. Or some of us do. I think quiet is magic.
John: Tell us about your other expression. You’re a painter, as well?
Sam:I paint now. I started in January of ’09. Same thing. I used to do things that were without much thought. It was actually January 29, ’09, something said, “Well, focus on painting. Focus on structure. On color. On painting as an expression in addition to an act.”
John: In addition to an act?
Sam:Well, painting can be an act. It can be like yoga or Pilates. Not quite as active.
John: So, focusing more on the outcome, the product, than the process?
Sam:I’d say focusing more on the power of expression. I hate to say outcome. I would say a change in the texture of the process from just the act of putting color on canvas to some representation of internal expression.
John: Do you find that satisfying?
John: Where can we see?
Sam:Well, I don’t show, and I don’t sell, so I don’t know. My house is starting to fill up. I’ve got these walkways through canvases right now that are stacked. At some point, it looks like I’ll be living in a frame shop.
Viv: Songs are easier to store.
Sam:Are they? And why do you say that?
Viv: Well, it just depends. They take up a lot of room in your head.
Sam:Songs can take up a lot of space. Paintings can only be so big.
John: Why don’t you sing another song for us.
Sam:Ok! What do you all want to hear? I don’t care. We’ve lost the string here.
Viv: I loved picking up on the quiet. If we could pick up the thread on the quiet of that creative space and allowing yourself the creative space. Do you have a song that you’ve been working on recently? Is there anything new that you’re working on or a particular favorite that you think would sum up?
Sam:Yeah, I can do one. It’s a relationship sort of thing.
Sings “Say Grace”
Viv: Thank you, so much, everyone for coming out and filling this room with total joy and laughter and listening to this amazing man talk about this process. Thank you so much.
John: And, thank you, Sam Baker!
Sam:Thank you John. Thank you, Vivian. And thank you all for coming out. Thank you for supporting Woody Guthrie. That’s a big deal. Thank you, guys.