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Jesse "The Lone Cat" Fuller


One reason that the Grateful Dead and their music have endured for over a quarter of a century has been the band's ability to draw on a wide spectrum of musical influences and to integrate these influences into their own style. These influences include bluegrass, C & W, folk, blues, jazz, R & B, and of course, rock and roll. The Dead have been able to select songs from each respective genre and, in the truest sense of the folk tradition, adapt and transform these songs into the "Dead" style.

This article is the first in a series of attempts to delve into the background of the artists, songwriters and songs that the Dead have chosen to include in their live repetoire. Our first subject is Jesse "The Lone Cat" Fuller, folk/blues artist, inventor of the "fotdella" (more about that later) and the author of two songs occasionally played by the Dead; "Beat It On Down The Line" and "The Monkey and the Engineer". Our story begins where such tales often begin, in the rural south at the turn of the century.

The Lone Cat

Jesse Fuller was born in 1896 in Jonesboro, Georgia. He never knew his father and his mother gave him away to another family at the age of seven. He was beaten and starved, "treated worse than a dog" he said. When he was nine, living with a family named Wilson near Macedonia, Georgia, he showed his first musical interest when he constructed himself a mouth bow. "I made a bow like the Indians used to use and put some wax on the string," explained Fuller. "I put the bow in my mouth and pick the string and it sounded like a jew's-harp. I don't know how the idea ever came into my head." By the age of ten, he had also built a crude guitar and was learning to play songs from various musicians at Saturday night dances that he managed to sneak into.

After finished the third grade he ran away from the Wilsons. In the following years he held a variety of jobs at various locations across the South. He grazed cows, worked in a buggy factory, worked in a lumber factory in Alabama, worked in a chair factory in Brunswick, Georgia, laid track on the railroads, and sometimes made extra money by singing on street corners. From minstrel shows he picked up many traditional folk and blues songs that he learned to play on guitar or harmonica. At eighteen, he was a wood chopper and a few years after worked for a junkman in Griffin, Georgia.

He finally left the South while in his early twenties, going to Cincinnati where he worked on a street car for a while. Later, he joined the Hagenback Wallace Circus, where he was a canvas stretcher. World War I had just ended when the circus went through Michigan and Jesse learned that he could make what for him was a sizable amount of money playing his guitar on street corners for the returning soldiers.

When he was twenty-four, he hopped a freight and went to California, where he was to make his home for the rest of his life. He arrived in Los Angeles with $175 sewn in his jeans, money he had earned by playing in the streets along the way. He carved wooden snakes and sold them on the streets of Los Angeles, and also worked shining shoes near the gate of the United Artists Studio in Los Angeles. Here he met film actor Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and director Raoul Walsh. They got Jesse bit parts in several movies, including "East of Suez", "Thief of Bagdad" and "Heart of Dixie" and provided the money to finance a hotdog stand for him.

In 1929 Jesse moved to Oakland and took a job icing cars on the Southern Pacific Railroad. After a few years the railroad gave him an annual pass for "self and wife", so he returned to Georgia to find himself a "real nice wife to go with the pass". His mission was successful and he returned to Oakland with his new bride. During World War II, he worked in the shipyards and was able to save enough money to buy a house in West Oakland, where he raised three daughters; Jarania, Alice and Gertrude. His musical activity gradually increased until, by the late 1940s, both jazz and folk artists in the San Francisco bay area sought him out. In the early 1950s, he began to play steadily at a small club in the Fillmore district of San Francisco called the Haight Street Barbecue. He also opened a small shoeshine stand on College Avenue in Berkeley, which attracted many folk music fans. They enjoyed hearing him play both traditional folk material, mostly blues, and some of his own originals, which, after 1954, included the "San Francisco Bay Blues".

During those years Fuller also devised a new kind of instrument he called a "fotdella", a big six string bass viol that he played with his foot via a system of pedals and levers. "I got hearn' about fellers who were making lots of money on records," said Fuller. "I tried to get some fellers to play with me but they were always busy - drinking wine and gamblin.' So I said 'I'm goin' to make me a one man band' and I did. My wife she call it a fotdella - that's like 'foot diller' cause I play it with my foot. And that's its name." To complete the one-man-band rig, Jesse had a right foot pedal for the fotdella, a left foot pedal to run a high-hat cymbal, and a harness to hold a harmonica and kazoo. While setting amidst all this, he also sang and played a twelve-string guitar.

Helped by close friend and folksinger Barbara Dane, Jesse's career began to blossom in the late 1950s. He and Barbara were featured at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles in 1958 and also played at other folk venues in the state. In the summer of 1959 the University of California held an international folk festival under the direction of Alan Lomax. Jesse was the guest of honor. His big break came at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1959. He had heard "unofficially" that he would be invited. The invitation never came, but Jesse showed up anyway. General Manager Jimmy Lyons had no place for Jesse on the program but he set Jesse up with a booth along the Fairground midway, hooked his microphone into the Festival's speaker system and let Jesse play between the matinee and evening performances. Among the listeners was Chris Barber, a British band leader and a featured performer at the Festival.

This led to an invitation to tour Europe, an invitation that reached Jesse as he was returning from a days work picking walnuts at farm laborer's wages. The tour was very successful and included stops in England, West Germany, Sweden and Denmark. Upon his return from Europe, he discovered that he had been invited to play at the Newport Folk Festival the following Friday. He immediately jumped on a train to New York, but arrived in Newport on Saturday and was not allowed to play. "So I just had to turn around and buy me another ticket all the way home."

Things got even better for him in the 1960s. He got the chance to play at an increasing numbers of festivals, concerts and coffee houses. As the decade went by, he delighted audiences in all parts of the United States. He created a sensation in England in 1966, playing twice with legendary rock groups The Rolling Stones and the Animals. Some of his songs were played by rock and roll bands as well as by folk performers. Peter, Paul & Mary sold many records with their version of his "San Francisco Bay Blues" and the song was recorded by Hot Tuna and many folk singers over the years.

Jesse Fuller died on January 30, 1976 in Oakland. By the start of the 1980s, though folk artists still included some of his songs in their repertoire, little of Jesse's recorded work was still available. A few albums of his 1960s work continued to be offered by small record companies, an example being Fantasy Records' 'Brother Lowdown', a repackaging of Fuller's Prestige recordings, and 'The Lone Cat' on GTJ with was digitally remastered and released on CD in 1990 by GTJ.

Here is a short list of releases by Jesse Fuller:

The Songs

I have yet to confirm that any members of the Dead actually saw Jesse play, but given that he lived in the Bay Area, performed in the Fillmore District during the late 1950s and at many Folk Festivals, it would seem highly likely. Bobby describes Jesse and his one-man-band outfit as an introduction to "Monkey and the Engineer" on February 14, 1970.

The following lyrics were transcribed from the Good Time Jazz CD "The Lone Cat" (GTJ OBCCD-526-2) released in 1990. The material was originally recorded in Los Angeles on September 12, 1958 and features Jesse on 12-string guitar, high hat cymbal, harmonica, kazoo and fotdella.

Beat It On Down The Line

The Dead recorded BIODTL for their debut album in 1967. It had been a part of the Dead's live shows since the very beginning. Given the difficulty of obtaining accurate set list data for this time period, we can't say for certain when the first performance was. The first documented (from Deadbase IV) appearance of BIODTL in the Dead's live shows was March 19, 1966 at the Pico Acid Test in Los Angeles. It is likely that BIODTL was also included in early Warlocks shows as well. Deadbase IV lists BIODTL as having been played 280 times through 1990. The Dead's version is faithful to the original, with some minor lyrical changes. Some of the words are difficult to discern from the CD; in particular the lines "Dangerous and money, little pay" and "Scamperin' on down the line" are in question. It's interesting that the Dead's version has different lyrics in both places. Maybe they had the same problems that I did figuring out the words! The reference to "Joe Browns's Coal Mine" appears in many traditional folk songs. This particular coal mine was known for using slave labor and working them particularly hard.

The most significant modification to the song was the introduction of an intro consisting of a number of "beats", with the number of beats having some significance. The particular meaning of the number of beats is not always obvious, often it matches the day of the month. The most beats on record is 42, in honor of Mickey Hart's 42nd birthday, while some versions omit the intro beats entirely. The song is a definite crowd pleaser, and the anal retentive among us will scrutinize the intro closely to determine the exact number of beats (my last was Albany 1991, 13 beats).

The Monkey And The Engineer

This song is one of my favorite Dead cover songs. It takes equal parts of humor and irony and combines them to produce a song that is both funny and fun to listen to. The song has only been played by the Dead 31 times, the last being a rare electric version with special guest Bob Dylan on February 12, 1989. The first performance was December 19, 1969 at the Fillmore in San Francisco as part of a acoustic set. Almost all of the performances of this song have been acoustic versions, which accounts for it being played only 31 times. The majority of these were during acoustic sets in 1969-1970 (11 times) and again during the acoustic shows in 1980 (18 times). The Dead's version of the song is faithful to the original, with some slight changes. The term "north bound limited" refers to another train, and has been listed incorrectly on some lyric sheets that I have seen. "Monkey and the Engineer" appears on the 1981 Arista release "Reckoning", which was recorded during the acoustic shows in 1980 at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco and Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

Jesse Fuller was a truly unique artist. Despite a life of poverty and hardship, he was able to maintain a sense of dignity and humor in his music. His songs brought a message of hope and inspiration to several generations of folk music fans. His creativity extended to the world of instruments as well; he created the fotdella so that he did not have to depend on other musicians. It is comforting to know that his wit and humor has not been forgotten and that his songs will live on.