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"Beefalo Special," A Tune by Tommy Thompson

Posted by Brooklynbanjoboy on Sunday, June 2, 2019

Tommy wrote "Beefalo Special," and the Red Clay Ramblers recorded the tune on the LP "Merchant's Lunch." 


Jim Watson remembered some back and forth among band members regarding the title.  At one point, the tune was called "The Road to Bynam." 


Bill Hicks devised a counter melody that stood as something of a  harmony part that was intended to go along with Tommy's melody that Tommy plays and sings at the start of the tune.  Bill Hicks told me that he "just charged along on my own ‘track." 


 Tommy was quite fine with that.  Some composers would have not been happy with what I did and [might have] forced me to get with the program.  But Tommy liked the results more than he liked forcing it all into a mold.


(Sadly, Bill passed away in early November, about three months shy of his 75th birthday.)


Between 1972 and 1986, the Red Clay Ramblers, Mike Craver remembered, went through four buses in their long history as string band road warriors.


The first was a used Ford Econoline.  That was followed by a Dodge Maxivan.  The third vehicle was a big GMC city bus that did not last long too long - and at this point remains a fixture in Jack Herrick's backyard in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, serving as a static display of contemporary conceptual art, as well as storage place for all manner of artifacts.  The fourth band vehicle was a  used orange thing, the make and model have been lost in the thick mist of string band history.  The Ramblers used that vehicle used for years. 


However, the second van that served the Red Clay Ramblers was a new and really big Dodge van.  Mike described it as being "beefalo beige" in color.  It was customized with an interior shag upholstery that was also that hue of beige.


"We called it the Beefalo, ergo part of the title of the song Tommy wrote."


Reflecting on long ago history, Mike Craver thought that it didn’t seem like an out of the ordinary tune to begin with.  It was Jack Herrick's idea to open it up the number with the a capello vocal to which all the band members scatted along in their individual fashion.  In Mike's words:


We were recording our third album for Flying Fish at Bias (when it was located in Falls Church) and we took a studio mic out on the street to do the vocals for the beginning, live, in the middle of hot August day, 1977.  Thus, the motorcycle.  Jack and I came up with some piano bass counterpoint for the 5th time through the tune, and I added a quote from Percy Grainger’s “Country Gardens” during the last time through the tune toward the end.  I came up the little declining chordal fanfare bit at the very end.


Jim Watson had a slightly different recollection: the band had just starting to record the tune, and the power went out at the studio (Bias Recording Company in Falls Church, Virginia) so the engineer, Bill McElroy, grabbed a portable tape recorder and the band went out on the sidewalk and did the vocal introduction, and that yielded the sound of traffic in the background.  


At one point, both Mike and Jim recalled, there was talk about calling the new album “Beefalo Special” but “Merchants Lunch” prevailed as the album's title.  It might not have been a band favorite, although the Ramblers did perform the tune on stage for a while. However, it never quite became a permanent part of the Red Clay repertoire.


David Brooks developed this tablature for banjo, derived from the tab work Patrick Couton did with Tommy in the 1970s. 


* * *


For more on Tommy Thompson, see my webpage:





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