Since Baby Dee was born in Cleveland in 1953, she's been a tree surgeon, a church organist, and a street performer - she used to play her harp while riding on a custom built tricycle. She didn't make the first of her eight albums until she was almost fifty, and she's helped launch successful careers for several of her collaborators while avoiding mainstream fame and fortune herself. In her music, you can hear ancient church music, Weill and Brecht, silly raucous drinking songs... and beauty, heartbreak, and longing.
There are a lot of other interesting things about Baby Dee, who opens for Swans at the Fonda Theatre Friday, Sept. 2. But you can Google them. In our interview, I wanted to get at the heart of her music:
How did growing up in Cleveland proper, not the suburbs, affect your music?
I grew up in the sort of nice/ugly part of Cleveland. The West Side, steel mill side of Cleveland. And not in the suburbs. It would have had a huge effect on my life. Because the street life where I grew up was really very rich and vivid. It had a huge effect on me. I think it had a lot to do with why I became a street musician for a while. I just like the idea that wonderful things can happen on the street with just regular people, with strangers. I fell in love with that idea as a child.
How did being a street performer for so many years shape how you perform and make records now?
The street thing turned me into a bit of a carny. I became a little bit rough around the edges, sort of show-bizzy scruffy bargain-basement way. That's still kind of in there somewhere.
When I did my act I never stood in one place. I don't like to think of people walking by. I don't do that. My act was very mobile and I used to go after them. I would target people and then like dive-bomb them with a stupid song and get a couple bucks out of them. But I had a kind of breakdown slash epiphany and then I changed. I was a church organist for many years and I liked the quietude of that, and so my life has been one of real extremes.
What music were you hearing as a little kid in Cleveland?
As a little kid, my grandmother used to play the piano. All these old ballads like "Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ra," "This is the Army Mr. Jones," all these old chestnuts. Not that I so much admired them, but there was something in the forms of them that I took on. But I didn't even admit to being influenced by that stuff until pretty far out. I kept that secret.
I guess everybody's embarrassed by their homey little stuff. But there's stuff in there I don't like. All those great American songwriters that everybody loves, I kinda don't. It's just terrible but I'm not crazy about those things. The sappy, sentimental songs, like Irving Berlin? I can't stand anything Irving Berlin wrote.
What's the story behind "The Earlie King?"
The Erlkönig (Early King) was a poem by Goethe, the great German poet. It's an old story, a legend, and the story is that he's a being who seduces small children to their death. He comes and he steals their life away. It's really horrible. Really spooky.
Who rides so late through night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He has the little one well in the arm
He holds him secure, he holds him warm.
"My son, why hide your face in fear?"
"See you not, Father, the Erlking?
The Erlking with crown and flowing cloak?"
"My son, it is a wisp of fog."
There was an untimely death in my family before I was born. My parents lost a child, and it made my father a little crazy but in ways he didn't realize. So it came up in our piano lessons that we had to play this song (set to music by Schubert) and my father became fascinated with it, without realizing this song was basically about him and this experience of losing a child. And he always wanted me to play it for him.
But of course as a child I knew what was going on, so it was a very strange thing - the child playing the creepy death song for the father, the father who's oblivious. That's what my song is about.
Daddy, can you hear me?
It's got so hard to speak.
I'll kiss your bristly cheek
and go with the Earlie King.
Up from the table,
my brother's tiny soul
all gone, swallowed whole,
taken by the Earlie King.
-- Baby Dee's "The Earlie King"
For much more with Baby Dee, including her infectious laugh, why she moved to The Netherlands, and how to say the name of her town like a real Dutch person... use the audio player above to listen to my in-depth interview.