Tuesday, December 2, 2008

MYSTR Treefrog

Work was scarce in the mountains of Western Maryland in 1978. In fact work had been scarce since 1946 when the Coal mines began winding down production after WW2. The little towns of Western Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, the coal mining region where all three states come together, were the very poster children for poverty stricken Appalachian welfare states.

The City of Frostburg, Maryland is about 16o miles West of Washington DC; and it is a city aptly named for the frigid winter weather it receives by way of stiff winds that blow East and through the mountains from the Great Lakes. For a transplanted Georgia boy this is no place to be in the cold months.

Yet it was here, on a 3-story roof of a dilapidated school building, that a chance meeting with Anthony McDaniel changed my perspective and my musical aspirations.

I was working on a C.E.T.A. weatherization crew,(this was a Carter Administration work and Training Program for hard core unemployables) with “Ant” as he preferred to be called, and our job was to go out into the impoverished areas of Alleghany County and weatherize homes for the poor and disadvantaged against the harsh winters. We replaced storm windows, doors, put on roofs, insulated and weather-stripped houses that were in such dilapidated states that it seemed that the only thing holding these dwellings up were the windows we installed. Ant was also the only black man on a crew of seriously inbred hillbilly rednecks. “Ant’ was a strong well built fellow who took no bullshit from the hicks who occasionally would try to challenge, insult or belittle him. Ant could take care of himself pretty damned well. He had a generally detached but genial demeanor, a good sense of humor and a certain knowledge of who he was dealing with. It was easy for me to figure out he wasn’t from western Maryland. For one thing, his accent was wrong. I think he sized me up pretty quick when I stood up to a few of the Hillbillies we were working with for calling Ant a nigger behind his back.

“ Hey Ant…I think a couple’a these morons have something they oughta have the balls to say to yer face.”

This, of course branded me as a Hippy Liberal and began my immediate rejection from the “club” of mountain hick white supremacists that made up the Weatherization crew. I took a lot of insults, crap duty, and evil pranks as a result. Ant saw what was going on and quietly watched out for me. He stayed aloof, but kept the Rednex off my back.
We became friends when an old redneck woman accused Ant, the only Black Man who had ever been in her house, of stealing some silver dollars from a drawer in a bedroom we had been installing storm windows. I knew he was innocent. We had been together the whole time. The accusation was racially motivated. When I vouched for Ant and made it clear that he had never left my side, the old woman miraculously “found” the coins and the whole incident was dropped.
Ant was cleared, but the incident stung him. It was clear that the others in the crew had prompted the old woman’s suspicion and had caused the whole scene.

When work got slow, we were put on top of the Hill Street School, site of the main C.E.T.A. offices, to replace the massive roof. The Hill Street school was on the highest hill in Frostburg, was three stories high and the view of the surrounding mountains was spectacular. And so were the winds. It was late Autumn and we were assigned to the roofing project, in part, because we had been branded “trouble-makers” for pointing out a certain amount of theft and corruption that was taking place by the Weatherization crew and the Supervisors. Putting us 3 stories up in the air on top of Hill Street School in 30 mile an hour winds without safety harnesses was their way of “altitude adjustment”.

At lunch Ant and I would crawl up behind one of the huge chimneys in a roof valley and out of the wind. We’d hang out, smoke a reefer, eat lunch and bullshit about music. I always carried a “D” harp in my shirt pocket, and I’d play snippets of rock or blues tunes and Ant, who had a good voice, would sing along.

It was on this Roof Duty that I began being called Treefrog by the other guys because of my apparent disregard for gravity and my own mortality by working 3 stories in the air at the edge of the roof holding a rope with one hand and a hammer in the other. They were amused by the way I hopped across the roof. The name, irritating to me at the time, sorta stuck after awhile. There were two other guys on the crew named John, and Treefrog made it easier to identify me. I just shrugged it off and allowed people to call me Treefrog. It became funny after awhile and I started to enjoy it.

One day at lunch, after I had impressed Ant by playing the harp break for the Doobie Brothers song “Without Love” (and hopping around the roof like a nut case ;) Ant said;

“ Hey Treefrog, I’m gonna tell you something I haven’t told anyone ‘round here. Do you know who Bo Diddley is?”

“ Hell YES! Are you kidding me, Ant? Chess Records! One of the Fathers of Rock N’ roll!”

“ Uh-huh. AND he’s my Daddy.”

I didn’t believe him at first. I thought it was the reefer talking. Ant was a great and skillful bullshitter.

“ Um..yeah, Ant right…and Buddy Holly is my long lost brother.”

Ant just smiled and shrugged. “ Whatever. You don’t know what you don’t know.”

Four weeks later in January, Ant called me up to ask a favor. His truck had broken down and would I give him and his family a ride to D.C. that night. He wanted to bring his kid to meet his grandfather, Ellas McDaniel..Bo Diddley, who would be performing at the Ontario Theatre with some British punk rock band neither of us had ever heard of called the Smash, or The Crash.

Four hours later, after a hairy trip down the mountain passes through a harrowing snow storm, we all arrived in Adams-Morgan, a section of Washington D.C. and were ushered up the steps at the theatre to the dressing room.

And there he was, the man himself, wearing a black cowboy hat with conchos. Bo Diddley.
Ant was NOT bullshitting. Bo Diddley was his father. We all hung out and ate the nice fruit plate and the dressing room food. I went out and watched the Punk band on stage. They were pretty good. Full of energy and they jumped about. “ Who are these guys?” I shouted into one guys ear. He looked at me in disbelief.
“ It’s The Clash, man! Don’t you know where you are?”

After the set I sat back stage smoking spliffs with a nice British Cat named Joe Strummer. He was more impressed with me than I was with him. After all, I knew Bo Diddley’s son. The Clash, like many British musicians were in awe of American Blues greats.

They were a nice friendly bunch of lads and we got completely stoned on reefer and hash backstage.
They asked about the city, I told them where The White House was. It was their first US tour.
It must be noted that Bo Diddley, while tolerant of other peoples smoking habits, never smoked weed.
He didn’t like how it made him feel, he told me. It wasn’t his “thing’.

I ended up being accepted into the clan and after the show we all ended up in Arlington somewhere at Ant’s cousin’s house, a fellow named Ricky DeJoilet (spelling may be wrong) who played around calling himself, (with Bo’s blessing), “ Bo Diddley Jr.”
We jammed and partied til nearly sunrise and drove back to Frostburg that morning.

A year later I was forming a Punk band called The Names with Ant standing in as singer and drummer. There was a small problem. Ant didn’t actually OWN any drums. And when we borrowed a set he had a bad sense of rhythm. Oops. His sang well and had lineage. We all started calling him “ Toe-Diddley”.

We all decided on the spur of the moment, to pile into Ant’s car and drive to Archer, Florida to Bo Diddley’s ranch to borrow the money for a set of drums. It was me, Ant, Ed Arnold, Don Ullery, and Ant’s half brother Wendall.
Wendall didn’t like any of us too much. He tormented Ed and Donny incessantly. He thought they were queer white boys. They weren’t of course- but they were eccentric.( Why else would I be in a band with them?)

We showed up at Bo’s ranch unannounced. Bo wasn’t home from a gig yet, but his wife somewhat reluctantly let us into the guest house. The guest house was surrounded by chainlink fence. Roving around inside the fence were a dozen of the stangest dogs I had ever seen. Bo’s wife put the dogs in, then after we were safely inside the house, let the dogs back out warning us not to go out into the yard when the dogs were present. What kind of dogs are these ?,I asked. Two kinds, she answered.
The ones that don’t bark are Australian Dingos. The ones with big heads growling at you are called Pit Bulls. Bo is mating them. Fact: Australian Dingos DON’T BARK. Now imagine a cross breed with Pit Bulls. This brings a whole new meaning to the term- SILENT BUT DEADLY.

Needless to say, we didn’t go outside.

This left us all trapped in the guest house with Wendall, who spent his time scowliung at Donny and Ed and, just for fun, awakening Donny with the unloaded barrel of a .22 rifle against his head.
This amused Wendall no end. Donny and Ed weren’t that happy about it. Toe Diddley had to hide the rifle and whack his half-brother upside his head a few times to gain a certain amount of compliance.
It was hot and we were running out of beer fast.

Bo returned that evening and was a little perturbed that Ant had showed up unannounced with a menagerie in tow. He liked me, but was a little unsure what to think about my bandmates. He warmed up eventually and cooked us a great feast of Red Pepper Snapper Fish which he prepared Cajun style(Bo is originally from Louisiana and was born in Mississippi) by slow baking underground in a sandpit.
We got along pretty well and Bo drove me around his spread and showed me his garden.

We spent the next couple of days tooling about his Ranch doing what Bo liked to do- which was working on cars, watching adult movies, clearing brush. Everything BUT playing music. Finally he decided he’d humor us and we jammed, he on his famous square guitar, and we on our instruments. I blew harp and sang. We played some of our originals- which Bo deemed”Alright” but a little loud. He humored us by playing some of his newer material he hadn’t recorded yet. It was funkier than what the public may have ordinarily associated with the Bo Diddley beat. The lyrics were humorous with a great call and response chorus. He had us play the rhythm parts while he worked out his lead breaks.

Bo never bought Ant that drum-set. We returned to Western Maryland pretty excited from our adventure. After a couple months Ant dropped out and we found other drummers. I moved to DC and lost contact with my friend Ant.

I did see Bo a few times after that and he remembered me. Bo was inducted into the first annual W.A.M.A. (Washington Area Music Association) Hall Of Fame, and I saw him there.

He played the old 9:30 Club a few times and I was able to chat with him as he browsed the collection of fine Adult “literature” at Doc Johnson’s bookstore around the corner from the club.

Some years later, when my wife Shana was talent buyer for Mick Fleetwoods’ Blues Club in Alexandria, Virginia- I had a chance to shoot the breeze with him backstage. We told off-color jokes, bullshitted about the music life in general and mentioned Ant in passing. He told me Ant had moved back to New Mexico with his wife and child. I didn’t feel it was appropriate to press Bo for details. I never knew what became of Ant. I always wondered. He disappeared as quickly as he appeared, it seemed. I think about him from time to time and hope the years have treated him well.

But for that chance meeting on that Hillbilly Roofing crew, my direction may have been different.
I know ONE damn thing. I sure wasn’t considering a career in Roofing after that series of adventures.

I quit that hellish job and started playing my guitar for a living.
You might call it fate.
Or Simple Common sense…either way I’ll take it.

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