"They Can’t Put No End to That Song"
Remembering Jesse "Lone Cat" Fuller and His Last Concert
By Michael Dobrin
Hearing Jesse Fuller’s "San Francisco Bay Blues" again on Mark Naftalin’s "Blues Power Hour" (KALW, San Francisco) was both prophesy and remembrance.
Thumpin’ on his Fodella, a six-string bass with foot-actuated piano pedals — a home-built device which served as counterpoint to his 12-string guitar and neck-braced harp and kazoo — and singing "my baby left me down by that San Francisco Bay," Fuller’s lilting wail recalled a time almost three decades past when the great minstrel and master of all trades re-energized his creative spirit for one last concert.
Jesse passed in Oakland, California, in January 1976 — ironically, the same week as Mance Lipscomb — and his epitaph, "They can’t put no end to that song," meant for him of course that his beloved "San Francisco Bay Blues" would go on forever. The rhythmic, lilting tune was covered by Bob Dylan, Barbara Dane and Peter, Paul and Mary, among others, and for this writer always revives fond memories of a personal involvement with the great country blues showman back then.
Along with history curators at the Oakland Museum of California, we helped stage Jesse’s last public concert before a loving, enthusiastic, adoring SRO audience in the Cowell Hall of California History in May, 1971. At the time I was the museum’s public relations operative.
And this is how it happened.
Historian Dayton Lummis had a visitor in his office he wanted me to meet. The visitor’s name was Gordon Varnadoe, a burly but gentle giant who spoke in an ever-so-soft and lilting Georgia accent.
Varnadoe unwound a tale about an old, well-traveled American bluesman named Jesse Fuller who, having retired from the Southern Pacific Railway, was living out his days in West Oakland. They were friends, he explained, but a more incongruous pair one could not imagine. Varnadoe, white, possessed of an amiable but somewhat aristocratic demeanor, sold ski equipment. Noted for his physical prowess, he was one of those barrel-chested Scots who tossed the caber — a log about the size of a telephone pole — at Highland Games festivals
Varnadoe was adamant that Fuller deserved some sort of tribute at the museum, one of our most important repositories of California’s history. Possibly we could display some of his instruments, especially his trademark Fodella.
We wanted to take this further. How about staging a Jesse Fuller concert at the museum? Varnadoe was skeptical, reminding us that Fuller was indeed old and frail. But straightaway he arranged a meeting at the Fuller home in West Oakland.
Blessed by a benign climate and easy access to San Francisco Bay and the burgeoning bedroom communities of Oakland and the East Bay, West Oakland was originally the home of sea captains, traders and tradesmen who also benefited from the community’s proximity to both the shipping centers and shipyards that lined the Oakland Estuary and the Oakland Mole, which itself was one of the main ferry and rail-ferry links to San Francisco.
Imitating the grand opulence of the west side of the Bay, the merchant settlers built stately Victorian, Italianate and Queen Anne homes. A wave of European settlers — Italians, Portuguese and Greeks — came at the turn of the century and either built or occupied smaller wooden homes of the same style and lineage. Fortunately, many of these homes still stand in West Oakland, providing the community with a distinctive character.
The terminal yards of the Southern Pacific Railway and the main station at 16th and Wood brought a significant and influential African-American population to the area in the early part of the century.
Jesse Fuller had come here in 1929 to work in the Southern Pacific yards after an incredible lifetime of rambling across America and working all manner of jobs, from picking cotton to serving as a Hollywood extra and performing for Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.
The last wave of "immigrants" to West Oakland were the thousands of African-American shipyard workers who came west out of Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama and Texas during the war years to build everything from Liberty Ships at the Kaiser yards in Richmond to destroyers at the Westinghouse yards in Alameda.
Varnadoe took us out to one of these small, tidy, white Victorian homes, and we were greeted in the living room by a bent, wizened, rheumy old man.
"Bat!" Fuller exclaimed, and then mumbled something unintelligible.
"Bat," we were soon to learn, was Fuller’s name for Varnadoe — and it stuck. The repartee between the two unlikely friends rambled along, much of it undecipherable. Jesse took out a few records, each rich in his preferred "rhythm blues" out of the South, and played them on a small turntable, then clinked a few chords on an upright piano. Small talk and uncomfortable pauses as the old man rustled along, apologizing for not feeling well: "Bad blood, the doctor says."
"Can we see the Fodella?" Varnadoe asked.
"In the basement, all busted up and don’t work no more," Jesse replied.
"Oh come on now, Jesse," the burly Georgian pressed. "You know we can get that lady working again."
Reluctantly, he took us down to the basement, and there in a tangle of electrical cords was the instrument that — along with a neck-braced harp and a 12-string acoustic guitar — made Jesse Fuller a one-man band, "The Lone Cat," as he had called himself in earlier days.
"So many fellows had a name — like Lightnin’ Hopkins — so I say I gotta have a name. I was in Bakersfield, California, shuckin’ cotton, and I decided to call myself the Lone Cat."
After rewiring the instrument, he plugged it in. Shorts, humming and sparks were the result. Finally, after some fiddling, the Fodella came alive, and there was a short burst of rhythmic harmony.
"Fodella, where does that come from?"
"They use to say killer-diller ’bout something good," he said. "I mixed foot with diller and come up with the Fodella."
He stopped and looked down, pained. "No good. Can’t play no more."
We went upstairs and said our goodbyes. An inauspicious start. I doubted the old man would make it.
Over the next few weeks, we made periodic visits to the Fuller home. And each time out he became stronger. There was more talk about his life, his music, his family (he and his wife had put several daughters through college), and the impending concert at the Oakland Museum of California. The rehearsals in Fuller’s basement became crisper, and a distinctive sound began to rumble from down below.
"Don’t like them old-fashioned slow country blues," he said. "I like the rhythm blues — something’s got a little speed to it."
The incredible story of his life as a minstrel began to unfold in bits and pieces.
"I was born in Georgia, in Jonesboro, ’bout 19 miles out of Atlanta. My mother, she died in 1903 and I was left with Miss Ellen Wilson — she was the meanest woman in the world. If I was to eat both butter and syrup on my biscuits, she’d tell her husband and he’d get a switch."
He eventually moved to Atlanta, but he had a tough, meandering childhood. "That was about 1907, but I had hell before that. A mulatto held me to the fire and burned my legs. They say I was mean, but I’d had so many whippin’s, wasn’t no use being mean."
He saw rural Georgia jump-ups, frolics and dances — his first exposure to raw country blues. "They’d get themselves liquor and there’d be fightin’ and cuttin’ up. It was real dangerous."
He grazed cows and picked cotton, became a circus roustabout before World War I, cut timber and worked in mines, rode the rails, played guitar and did song-and-dance routines for returning World War I soldiers in Detroit.
"I got to California in 1922," he recalled in an interview with the late San Francisco Chronicle performing-arts columnist John L. Wasserman. "Played my way ’cross the country on the freights. At the stops I’d play and those white people, they’d never seen no black man play no guitar. They’d give five, six dollars. I got here with $150 sewed in my pants. That was a lot of money then."
He landed in Hollywood, where he sold homemade whittled wooden snakes across from the main gate of United Artists Studio. There he met and charmed Douglas Fairbanks, Charles Chaplin and Mary Pickford with his song-and-dance routines. He eventually ran a concession on the studio lot and landed bit parts in two silent films, The Thief of Baghdad and East of Suez.
Later, after the initial success of "San Francisco Bay Blues" during the folk-blues revival of the early ’60s, Fuller went on tour. He was a big hit in England and regaled listeners with stories about strangers who’d stop him in the street and ask, "Aren’t you Jesse Fuller?"
But those were glory days. Years of hard work in the walnut orchards and drivin’ spike on the Southern Pacific lines had sapped his energy.
His doctors had warned him about the occasional sips of red wine that seemed to imbue him with energy. "I ain’t so much for whisky," he said, "but a glass of red wine now and then makes me feel okay."
Back in Oakland, as his Cowell Hall date neared, the rehearsals became crisper and Jesse seemed to find new rhythm and energy
On the night of the performance — May 7, 1971 — the entire hall of history was packed for the free concert.
Going ’round the corner with his trusted Bat, Fuller poured a couple of short shots of red wine, marched into the crowded hall, stepped up on the riser and began a long set that was more than music performance — it was a story of America, an America long disappeared now; it was about rails, roads and furrowed ruts in parched cotton fields; it was about self-reliance and resiliency.
The stories wound us back into our collective past when the blues, the "rhythm blues" and songs like "Stagger Lee," "Corrina, Corrina" and "C.C. Rider" came to life as folk stories about real people and real events.
Jesse’s last concert was filmed as a major TV special by local television stations KQED and KPIX. Jesse Fuller, in his glorious final performance: the master storyteller, troubadour and minstrel who wove together a vibrant tapestry of our mutual past that unfolded before thousands — including a great many who probably knew nothing about these travelin’ travails until they witnessed Fuller’s convincing account.
Later, a more somber and reflective Jesse Fuller received an engraved silver platter from KPIX-TV in recognition of his role in the station’s award-winning concert documentary.
Crossing over his beloved San Francisco Bay on his way to the station, he said "I was always workin’, you know, never lyin’ ’round. I never got no money I didn’t earn it. Oh — except for shootin’ dice."
He winked and smiled.
"Used to shoot dice with Bessie Smith. She was always tryin’ to beat me out of my money."