Part musical wizard, part hobo and part pirate, Seattle based artist Baby Gramps is known for his Popeye-like rubbled throat singing, as a charismatic entertainer and as a collector of old songs. Gramps has recently enjoyed national media exposure for his contributions to Rogue’s Gallery -Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs and Chanteys, a compilation of sea chanteys that spun out of the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise. I caught up with Gramps at his monthly gig at the Laurelthirst Pub in Portland, Oregon.
Gramps, thank you for taking the time to talk with me.
Ya Ya Ya (bleating gravelly while yanking on his scraggly wizard’s mane which tails into a 12 inch braid.)
I’ve heard that you napped alongside Rip Van Winkle, you were a signing witness on the contract at the crossroads with old Robbie J and the Devil, you did a little time with Huddie Ledbetter, you’ve collected more songs than any Rounder on record or not on record and you’ve broken enough guitar strings to lace the boots of every hobo that ever rode the line going anywhere, are these rumors true?
Wow (eyes twinkling). Wow. Well, you know I don’t lie but my whole thing is that I do exaggerate for my living. I never heard any of those things about me but those are part of “Myth America,” (breaks into song to the tune of Miss America anthem) “Myth America…” (Suddenly channeling Elmer Fudd) You know the silly rabbit? You know Elmer Fudd? Maybe Elmer fudd said that…(pause) Yeah that sounds like stuff I would do.
So is that part of your contribution to Myth America?
Yes, it’s Myth Information. (chuckling and stroking his beard)
You are an artist who has stayed focused on your creative mission, even when that means not pushing for the fame or notoriety…
Thank you for observing this. It’s so perspicacious of you!
Thanks Gramps, you’re very welcome….so tell us, what is your creative mission?
Uh, well, you know, day to day, yes, day to day. Peoples say sometimes that I’m some sort of star, no, no, no, I never wanted to be a star. I am a style maybe, in the public’s eye, but I ain’t no star and I don’t want to be. I just got back from Europe, and they actually treated me sort of that way. Behind the theaters and during the sound checks during the day, people were behind the fences yelling my name and wanting my autograph. And there was paparazzi following me around, it was just crazy. I don’t want nothin’ to do with any of that. I love playing little clubs like this, right here at the beautiful Laurelthirst!
It’s nice to hear they treated you well over there in Europe, there is a long tradition Rounders, Bluesmen & Jazz cats going over there to make a living – so aside from the paparazzi did you had a good time?
I did! I just got another email from the Sage Theatre in Newcastle, England. They want me to want me to play the theatre again there – the big theatre that I did the Rogue’s Gallery in; Lou Reed and Tim Robbins and a bunch of people did a live pirate tour.
Tell me about the Rogue’s Gallery. I was surprised to hear that THE Gramps was on David Letterman, that THE Gramps was actually on this new recording…
Well, I’m on 30 different recordings like that around the country but that was a big one. I’ve gotten huge checks from that one because I actually have the only song out of 43 songs that is an original on there. I just got a $2500 check and a couple other royalty checks for writing that song…it’s the “Mermaid Song,” maybe we’ll do that one tonight. And I just got invited to do more of that in Australia – maybe doing two or three nights. Rogue’s Gallery Live that’s called. With Tim Robbins the actor and all kinds of people. We’ll play Sydney, Perth and Melbourne…which is real exciting because I might do some throat singing. You know it sounds like a didgeridoo? One of the reviews of the Rogue’s Gallery said that it was a real didgeridoo I was playing. (laughs deeply) I don’t know man, they must not have heard too many didgeridoos!
If I go online and search for you on Amazon.com it asks me if I meant to search for “baby grass.” Your MySpace page belongs to some guy in LaPorte, Indiana. What is it like to have all of the media exposure from Rogue’s?
Actually someone told me I’m on four different MySpace…uh…things…but somebody put them up. I don’t do that. I’m just a, you know, a hobo, and I’m doing what I do. And I’ve been on 30 of those albums and 30 movies and from being on the Letterman thing now I’ve got some soundtracks I’m doing. The soundtrack for a pirate movie called “The Pirating” about real pirates. And I’m doing one about street singers with Bob Dylan in it and Robin Williams and Steve Martin, I didn’t even know he was a street performer but guess he was…he played the banjo. And uh, I just got back from Edinburgh- I’m doing the soundtrack for “Body Snatchers,” a big new movie. (I’ll be) doing my trademark vocals (breaks into Popeye like warbling). It’s a little dark they say. It’s about the medical history of stealing bodies to advance medical blah blah blah woof woof woof!!!!
So how much a part of you is pirate and how much a part of you is hobo?
Well not the northern side, that’s the side that lives in the Northwest. I’m from Seattle.
Was it your mother or your father that was the pirate?
My father was kind of a pirate, yeah, but I got moss on my northern side so it’s definitely not that part of me.
All right, Gramps, you are the consummate collector and curator of songs. How do you choose a song? What makes you pick up a song, put it in your pocket, take him home and make it part of your collection?
Well it’s gotta have some kind of an ingredient in there that clicks with me. You know people bring me songs all the time too and I very seldom ever do those. But, if you listen to me enough you know that it’s gotta be, it’s gotta have….I don’t know, I’m connected to this Dada thing back in the ’20s and ’30s – Kurt Schwitters who did sound poetry with Hugo Ball and all those guys and it’s all connected to jazz and scat singing you know. It’s all connected. Hillbilly music is connected to sea shanties and all that. There is some common thread that Baby Gramps likes and he pulls it out – from novelty jazz, from ragtime, from Victorian music hall. I like all kinds of music and in that music…like tonight I want to do something new, I want to mix Irish music with Bo Diddley. I just got back from Ireland so I’ll be mixing up….well I’ll just show you what I’m talking about. But it all mixes together. Confucius or somebody said in history, “Everything is connected, it’s just that some of us don’t know enough to connect it.” Everything is connected. I went to the James Joyce museum in Dublin recently and James Joyce said, “You can see it as far as you wipe your glosses (sic)” (repeats the phrase for emphasis). So, if you keep wiping your glasses, you can see further and further and further. Everything is so connected and that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m not trying to do it commercially. I’m not trying to bring it into this century or anything. But something is working – it works and you know I’m grateful for it. I’m trying to kick the buzzard off the gut wagon, so to speak. You know that buzzard is all over that gut wagon man. Hold on…(Gramps runs over to the stage, pulls a plush buzzard doll from his guitar case, sets it on his chair and quickly returns)….I’m sorry.
The music that you keep alive is important to our readers but they don’t necessarily know that. It is the musical heritage of the popular music that they’re growing up with now. How do you get people to understand that and get into these songs?
Well, I’m that shoe-horn, shoe-horn and a bucket of grease. A goliath sandal-horn and a tub-o-lard. Hopefully I can slide ’em into it you know? There’s an old junkman tune about, “I got a boot and a shoe and you grease your hand and slip right over to the promised land.” You know there’s a lot of stuff out there and I don’t think much of the music today. I don’t know it and it’s not because I’m judgmental, I just don’t listen to it. There is so much stuff in the past that I find that are treasures. It’s like, “Oh my God! Why was this song overlooked?” And it’s nothing to do with commercialism. I’m going to start off with a song here that Bo Diddley should have done and it might of killed him because it almost kills me to do it. There is so much stuff out there to unearth and it’s so nice today that young kids are unearthing and are into banjos and other instruments. You know, I’ve got 250 weird instruments in my collection! Harps, guitars, shoe string box fiddles…I’ve got three minstrel show violins I bought and one is made out of a tree limb from the 1800s. They look like they should be in an art installation or something, you know? It’s just so interesting that people these days find some value in this stuff and it’s part of our roots, you know? It’s all important and I’m not trying to get that across to anybody. I’m just playing it because I love it, really, that’s what it’s all about. It’s like shooting mosquitoes with an elephant gun if I tried to make it commercial. I’m the original indie guy, the original indie artist. When they write stuff about me like that I’m like, wow, really? I don’t know. I don’t think about it, you know. I’ve been doing this for 45 years now and I hope to maybe pull a Tiny Tim or a Judy Garland on stage. You know, die on stage. That may sound a little morbid but Halloween is coming – oogidy boogidy boogidy!!!!!
Gramps we have the presidential election coming up so I must ask you an election question:
Barack Obama is a song. What song is he?
Oh I don’t know, man, he’s looking for that lost chord. He’s quite an interesting guy and we’ll see what happens you know. I think he’s got it in the bag.
And if John McCain were a song?
Ooohhh mann, say no more…I can’t even elaborate on that one. (laughs) I can’t even elaborate on that.
by Ezra Matteo