Friday, September 23, 2016

Road Songs: Big Sur and the Songs of Hotbox Harry

photo © Mark Butkus 2015
The welcoming front porch of the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur.

A recent trip up the California Coast to rediscover wandering roots took a detour at the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur. Tucked away on a curve of the Pacific Coast Highway the library came to be following the death of Miller in 1980 in the cabin of his longtime friend Emil White. One makes their way down a path — a piano in the woods to the left, Jesus on a cross of computer monitors to the right. Keep walking and turn right at the ping pong table and enter Emil's old cabin.

In among the books that you would expect to find in a library named after one of America's most polarizing authors — including a play by Jack Kerouac first published in 2005! — there was an apparent anomaly unto itself. A CD of music — Songs Hotbox Harry Taught Us.

The songs, performed by local musicians who also call themselves Songs Hotbox Harry Taught Us are said to be written by a mythical hobo — Hotbox Harry. The sole track on the CD not written by Hotbox Harry was written by the group itself. It is the closing instrumental track, So Long Hotbox Harry.

The disc opens with the haunting, So Much for Breakfast.


So Much for Breakfast

I've been staring out my window
For about a week or two
And the streets are kinda quiet
And the sky's no longer blue
And I thought I heard you knocking
But I know it can't be true
It was relentless
So much for breakfast

But the man inside of the mirror
Tells myself I just don't care
And when I read the letters you sent me
It's almost as if you weren't there
Now and then in the morning
I just lay in bed instead
Full of repentance
So much for breakfast

Well it wasn't something ordinary
That brought me to your door
And it wasn't something strange
That left me wanting more

In due time I will recall
Least that's what I'm supposed to say
And be granted with a tomorrow
That's disguised as a yesterday
But there's still a voice inside me
That turns the other way
Call it repentance
So much for breakfast

In due time I will recall
Least that's what I'm supposed to say
And be granted with a tomorrow
That's disguised as a yesterday
But there's still a voice inside me
That turns the other way
It's a life sentence
So much for breakfast


— Hotbox Harry


Musician and library director Mike Scutari, who put the project together, first encountered Hotbox Harry while playing in a local bar in 2010. Harry handed him a list of the 20 most important American roots records that Mike should own. And that was the last Mike had seen or heard of Hotbox Hank until he received a package in 2013 from Harry with the lyrics to 13 songs which would become the CD, Songs Hotbox Harry Taught Us released in 2014.

The band still performs in the Big Sur area and you can stream the songs on Songs Hotbox Harry Taught Us or visit the Henry Miller Memorial Library and pick up your own copy of songs that evoke another time. Another people. Another America that is on the verge of vanishing if not for the efforts of Hotbox Harry and the musicians Mike Scutari rounded up to keep alive this deeply American traditional music.