Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Grandpa Elliott and Tripper

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I wanted to get this piece out while at the Vy Conference in New Orleans, but the days were long and filled with activity. Vy, by the way, is a group that I belong to; a bunch of entrepreneurs from all of the country coming together three times a year in a different city to explore something that we all have in common--lets be better than we are and seek to help others through our unique gifts.

I am inspired by these people, and we are important to each other. I was honored to have been quoted in one of the marketing pieces commenting on how the Vy group: "gives me a place where I feel comfortable. I am around people like me that share the same ideas, frustrations and thought process. Sometimes as entrepreneurs we feel a isolated, alone. Being around others like me is a huge resource". At Vy we share the need to improve and are not afraid to admit it. We are unique and frankly, there needs to be more of us in this country. And I will tell you why.

One of the things Personal Coach, Dr. Tom Hill, suggests is that, if you are in the group, you should be aware of those in need at all times. It is likely daily that we encounter someone who is having a tough time. He encourages us to open our eyes and look around at the people in our communities, seek to provide some good by being kind. "Engage them" Tom says and an angel might appear for you someday. Tom encourages us to make a gift of 100 dollars to someone who really needs it. And have it ready at all times. He is a wise man and tells one story after another; how our special gifts help our brothers and sisters turn a corner in life.

I hadn't done that yet--gifted my 100 dollars officially. Not with out a good story that might inspire others to do it more often. To be honest, I don't really want to be a martyr. But, at the risk of sounding pompous, I think money is fairly easy to make for the most part, and since I started with nothing, why not assume that more can be made if I find myself without an optimal pocket full of paper. If somebody needs something, I will help and I do it all the time. I always have and it doesn't always work out, but it doesn't keep me from doing it. So it ain't about me, and things have to be right in order to pull this off. Here is my story from New Orleans.

The music scene is abundant in the Big Easy. So abundant that you can't hardly differentiate between the music bursting from the windows and doors, while walking down Bourbon Street. There are revelers, kids mostly, drinking hard, throwing beads--people standing on balconies taunting young girls to pull their shirts up. This all seems to be the big ticket. I saw three generations of one family taking part on my stroll. I was a tad repulsed by it, frankly. Our group was there the week after Mardi Gras and the place was still packed.

It appears that people are moving back to New Orleans and the city is on the upswing again. This thanks to the billions spent by the fed to prop it back up. I don't want to get into that right now. Lets just say that the city has been given the opportunity to re-build and they have used it to their advantage, with some very cool sustainable ideas. The entrepreneurial community sent over 4 of the brightest young people that I have ever met. All had come there due to their vision of social conscientiousness.

The French quarter has an energy aimed at the sleazy-curious tourist dollar. The French Quarter seems like a mirror really, to the less-than-better part of our moral condition, that whom some of us can become with just the right amount of indulgence the right amount of shackle busting attitude. I was indeed energised by the whole thing, hey, just sayin, but I kept looking at the young people thinking, boy, they are going to have a long day tomorrow.

The main entertainment district runs about 2 miles of pretty dense nightclub, restaurant, showclub, bar and gift shops selling some of the most incredibly vulgar things. To the East and the West are side streets with museums, galleries, more restaurants, a little less crowded, a lot more interesting if you truly want to take in the culture.

So it was Friday night and we were to take dinner on our own apart from the main group. 6 of us found ourselves off the beaten path in order to avoid the crowd that was spinning out of control at places like "The Bourbon Cowboy" and "Patty O's", name any club there. There were sirens on just about every corner, beads-a-flying. We were getting ready to cross the street and I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, a figure sitting on a pickle bucket in front of a gift shop. The old man and his white beard looked familiar and it occurred to me suddenly that I knew exactly who it was. Grandpa Elliott of the viral video Playing for Change/Song Around the World project.

The reason I knew of him was because of Peter "Cornbread" Cohen. Peter plays bass in the Brown Dog Blues Band in addition to being one of the countries most formidable blues music review/critics. He is a member of the Grammy's and receives boxes of CD's each month from artists and their promoters wanting social media hits from his reviews. Peter and I liked Grandpa Elliot's version of Buster Browns 1971 hit, Fannie Mae, and put it on our set list for the Brown Dog BB. I researched the song and found tons of youtube videos on Grandpa Elliott so, as I crossed the road towards the figure seated on the corner in a red shirt and overalls, I realized that I was in the same spot as on one of the videos and likely in the presence of something special.

I had just returned from Nashville too, where I did a quick in and out on business and met a bunch of local musicians down there who want some of Peter's goodness. I collect CD's from local talent in the cities that I visit in order to put a personal touch on Peter's stuff--to get inspired by the music and the stories. We may get busy with this ourselves someday. The industry kind of pulls you in.

So there was Grandpa, singing the song "Stand By Me", in the same shirt and overalls as the video. White beard, dark glasses and walking stick leaning against the building. He is blind I suppose. A very kind man with a warm heart. He sold me with a CD for only 19.99. And lamented that "it be with a signature ya' hear?"

Now if you are thinking that I gave Grandpa a hundred bucks you are wrong. I tend to think he does OK, due to his fame. We talked about his agent in California, etc. I thinking he should be on the cities payroll. He is what the city is about, the culture and the spirit of a city bouncing back, adversity. I wanted to talk with him more, but my group was waiting. I took a couple pictures and we headed down a couple doors to eat some fried...everything.

We caught him on the way out and heard a medley of inspirational songs his CD review by cornbread can be found here.

After dinner and more blues club hopping, including getting a couple more CD's and getting to know Big Al Carson, another local blues hero (look for Cornbread review soon), I checked out around midnight.

Back at my hotel, The Roosevelt, I couldn't quit thinking about the feeling I got when sitting there listening and watching the people getting in to the music Grandpa sang. It was interesting, and they indulged him by putting money in his bucket and by purchasing CD's. I made up my mind that I would go back the next night while the others were out riding bulls at Bourbon Cowboy, I didn't even go in the place. I would go back and find out more about this guy and find out more about his real purpose. There was something more.

I showed up a little after 11:00 MP. We had dinner with the entire group, around 100 people, and it took a while to get through it. A group of us stopped and rocked with another New Orleans blues great, Tommy Hicks, at the Deep Blue Sea Blues Club. But as soon as I could, I bolted out while the others went to ride the bull.

I found the corner and didn't see Grandpa Elliott. There was nobody there at all. I asked around and nobody seemed to know what the hell I was talking about. On the corner across the street I saw what I assumed was a homeless guy hunched over a suitcase of some sort. It turned out it was a guitar case and he was setting up to play on the corner opposite of where Grandpa Elliott normally plays. It seems that the corners are entitled somehow by certain street folks who squat them. There is an understanding of things that way, I would later find out.

Tripper was the man's name. He was 53 years old and didn't seem to be doing all too well. I asked him if he knew what was up with Grandpa Elliott and he told me that he leaves at 11:00 and that he (Tripper) plays after on the corner opposite when he is finished. He didn't elaborate, but I knew there was some sort of hierarchy on the territory. It didn't seem to be a threatening situation, just an understanding.

Tripper wasn't well at all. He was coughing, his teeth were bad. His jaw pointed upward and was granny like. He spoke with a heavy tongue, like other homeless folks I have met and taken interest in. The jaw changes from poor dental hygiene and speech falls in to a familiar dialect of despair. He slumped and played his guitar looking closely at his fingers on the neck. He didn't look up, sang with his head down. His guitar was all that he had. He too had a bucket out with a little change in the bottom of it. He had a small amplifier that was battery powered, he had a hard time keeping it turned on. The battery was dying.

I asked him where he was from and he told me Houston Texas. I thought that was cool, because I too lived in Houston. In fact, we both lived in the same part of town at about the same time. As entrepreneurs we often use the 6th degrees of separation for just about every conversation, at least I do. So I took a chance and asked him if he had ever been to the Gin Mill on Geolner, or heard of Joey Long and the Texas Brothers, ever heard them perform?

He lit up like a firecracker. "Ha! JOEY LONG is dead!" "But his son is still playing!"

I wrote about the Gin Mill a couple years ago and you can find it by searching it on this blog. Back when I was in my early twenties working in Houston, I would bring my harmonica with me hoping to be asked to go up and play with Joey and Robbie Cambell. It only took once and I was a regular call out each Friday night. Joey Played blues guitar from his Wheelchair. And the story was that one of his wife's had stabbed him in the leg with an icepick. That was how he ended up in the chair. I am not sure if he ever got up out of it. These guys live a hard life, the life of the blues. I pretty well figured he had died in the 90's, and didn't know he had a son. That was over 25 years ago. I put the harmonica down for 22 of those 25 years and have recently begun playing again, performing again, just seems right. Now I am standing on the corner with Tripper talking about it.

Tripper and I made a connect. We were of the same people and he trusted me, enjoyed my company. I was enjoying his too. He played some very deliberate songs by Pink Floyd, sad, deep, hollow songs, what one might expect from the sadness of Tripper, homeless, sick with bronchitis and needing to make money to find basic shelter.

He trusted me enough to ask me to watch his guitar and makeshift amp. There was about a dollar and change in the bucket. He didn't think for a minute that there was need to worry. He asked if I would watch his stuff so he could go and get a prescription filled. Antibiotics is what he said he was getting. I didn't doubt him because I noticed that he was drinking water, not booze, and it was obvious that he was not feeling all that good. I took a seat and asked him if he minded if I played while he was gone. He didn't care, thought it was a good idea.

I started out picking through some blues and noticed a person or two stopping and listening. I moved over to some Marshall Tucker, and settled in to the Ballad of Curtis Lowe, an old classic by Lynard Skynard, the song seemed appropriate. After all, Grandpa Elliott, Tripper and every other street performer that I met on my visit to New Orleans are the real Curtis Lowe's of the world. At one point I had 6 or 8 people standing around, clapping their hands, stomping their feet, just like the song. And when I got to the part where Curtis dies, I choked up a bit: "On the day ole Curtis died, nobody came to pray"--"on the day he died, it was all he had to lose".

A short time later Tripper rolls up and shoves a prescription in my face as if to confirm that he wasn't off buying drugs or taking a pop from a bottle. I knew he was real. Real men know real men, no matter how bad things get for for one another. I actually had earned some money for Tripper and he insisted for a while that I take it with me. Real.

I told Tripper that I would be back in a moment and went screaming to the ATM to grab a hundred bucks to sneak in to his hand without him knowing it. I said goodbye and shook his hand placing a tight roll into his palm without him being able to tell how much, I disappeared quickly before he knew how much it was.

I had realized a thing or two while sitting there. First, it was I who had received the gift. There was something that had put me there. A spiritual event that worked out in a way that I will be touched for the rest of my life. I was able to look inside myself through a series of events that, should I not have gone back to find Grandpa Elliott, I would not have been able to meet Tripper, who desperately needed a warm place to stay for the nigght or the week. I was Tripper for a few moments, being looked at, sized up, felt sorry for. I glad-handed for him and took on the role of a street performer learning a thing or two about my own humility. This is where its at folks. I was honored to have experienced a small vignet of his life on th street. I am a little more human now because of it.

The spirit I mention and the message given to me was in the song "Stand By Me" and captured in the images in the Playing for Change/Song Around the World project. I was given a gift by the city of New Orleans and the people there, Grandpa Elliott and the producer of the video. A testimony to the "good" in life, even when things are bad. The "good" in the "bad" areas where you don't expect to find it. Thanks Grandpa Elliott for your spiritual gift. It guided me well. Keep changing the world. I will too.


Mackal Smith said...

Great write up Ralph. What an inspiring story!

Cheryl Hughey said...

very cool...right on...

Anonymous said...

Inspiration comes at the damndest moments. This will stay with you forever. A great story Ralph, take care,

Chef Mike
St. Louis

Anonymous said...

It's possible you were entertaining angels posing as humans and taking note of our goings on. They must have noted good things in bad places.

Little Stevie

Rich Blaser said...

thanks for posting your story about your connection.

i can just picture you hurrying away from tripper and the incredible feeling you were being blessed with.

herekittykitty said...

Now thats what Im talkin about. Awsome story brother. We too can be angels and I see it every day in even the smallest of gestures.

allan curtis said...

Thank you for the story. I've recounted it numerous times since you told it from stage and now I can send people to read it for themselves. Thanks again!