“Django with One Finger,” a Living Music Icon

4 min read

Book rec

Music in Prose

Songwriting

AVAILABLE IN PODCAST

I finished Willie Nelson’s memoir or musings from the road, as he titled it. The book is a short reflection on a long life, punctuated throughout with song lyrics and crude jokes and notes from family and friends, mostly family. He wrote it when he was 79 and he’s 89 now; the octogenarian is still touring. He’s an avowed pothead, attributing his longevity to the smoking of weed, since cigarettes were the death of much of his family. Controlled substances loom large in the musician’s life, but so does humility and focus, a passion for picking, singing, songwriting.

Willie’s hands cradle the guitar tenderly, like a lover, with a knowledge of every inch of it, the left hand bent just so along the neck, as it slides up the frets. I love watching his hands, the gnarled, large knuckles and loose skin, the left fingers bending the strings, the right picking out riffs and strumming. The muscle memory as he changes chords. He’s been playing over 80 years, growing up with his grandparents who were devotees of music and gospel, putting a guitar in his hands at seven years old.

At a recent Farm Aid concert in his resonant and raspy voice, he sings into the mike.

Whiskey river, take my mind
Don’t let her mem’ry torture me
Whiskey River, don’t run dry
You’re all I’ve got, take care of me

*Video at URL above recorded live on October 14, 2021 at his Farm Aid Concert, a series he started to help the small farmer in 1985. He’s 88 years old in this recording.

Seems every major singer and picker came up in the book, either as a friend, a collaborator, or an inspiration. Willie has written over 2500 songs. If you check out his link, Songs written by Willie Nelson, you’ll see an alphabetical list of titles, with songs he wrote made famous by others, such as Crazy, sung by Patsy Cline. Yes Willie wrote the lyrics and she made them famous. He’s had twenty number-one hits.

There’s not a lot of meat to the memoir. But I got a sense of the man in his dotage, the wisdom gleaned from the road. He grew up picking cotton and working hard, leaving school early during harvest time. His grandmother and teachers saw something in his writing in grade school and he was playing in halls, pubs, wherever to make money and get out of the fields. His parents skipped town and his grandfather died when Willie was young, but he introduced him to music, and his sister and grandmother gave him a whole lot of love. Plus they were musicians. He’s grateful to his tough childhood for his work ethic.

The music is in his writing; his prose has a strong sense of song and rhythm. The mental meanderings here and there on wars and wall street are entertaining, but his deep and abiding love for others and his musical gifts are unmistakeable. His health has held out perhaps beyond all expectations for a man so hard on his body, but he stopped smoking and drinking, committed himself to staying active, traded out his cigarettes for joints, and recognized a lot about his own flaws.

“Nobody can stay drunk and make it for long. Alcohol and drugs will win. I have a high tolerance for pot, but I still forget “Whiskey River” if I smoke too much before a show. I don’t drink anymore, so that’s a plus, but I still have to watch it.” [page 112]

Rhythm and humor are on display in this closing from a journal entry, dated April 12.

Texas is really better than we say it is. Oh, I could go on and on, but I won’t. I wrote a song about Texas . . . I called it “Texas.”

The letter preceding this was about a page and a half, so when I read this last paragraph in the journal, I nearly spit, I was laughing so hard. His voice is as clear on the page as listening to him.You can imagine him filling the space between sets with little bits like this: the phrasing, the pauses, the repetition.

Here are the lyrics from a writer who writes songs, who sings songs, who plays his songs. I had not heard it before. He’s been married four times and has seven children who appear to adore him, at least in the letters in this book.

He says this about a former wife: “Connie and I stayed together ten years, and we had two great kids, Amy and Paula. I began to see a pattern.”

Then he included the lyrics below.

And So Will You My Love
by Willie Nelson

The music stopped the crowd is thinning now
One phase of night has reached an ending now
And nothing, nothing lasts forever
Except forever 
And you my love
And so will you, my love, my love

The street is dark here as I walk alone
And since you've gone I always walk alone
'Cause nothing, nothing lasts forever
Except forever and you my love
And so will you, my love, my love

And so will you, my love
Your memory is always near

Wherever I am found your memory is still around

The dawn and I arrive at home at last
Night turns it's lonely face toward the past
For nothing lasts forever
Except forever 

And you my love
And so will you my love
My 
Love 

I love the words thinning and ending, that nothing lasts forever except forever and the repetition of the words, my love. Wherever I am found your memory is still around.

And, I realize that Willie has a great capacity to love: his wife, his children, his former wives, his fans, his words. His music.

Oh the love in his music.

FOOTNOTES

*Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die, Musings from the Road by Willie Nelson, published 2012

*My father listened to Willie Nelson and had told me the comment Joan Rivers had made about him: He wears a roach motel around his neck. Poking fun of his long haired, bandana wearing, pot-smoking ways. Joan later said: “Sometimes, I must admit, I do go too far. I used to make a crack about Willie Nelson’s personal hygiene, and he called me up to say that he personally couldn’t care less, but that it was embarrassing for his daughters at school. I never told the joke again.” Read More

*Norah Jones named her band in a not so subtle tribute, The Little Willies!

*”I heard one of The Little Willies said I played “like Django [Reinhardt] with one finger.” That’s about the nicest thing anyone has ever said about my playing, because as we all know Django only had two fingers because of the fire and was still the best guitar player that ever lived. Just to think for a minute that I might be half as good as Django makes my head a little bigger, so thank you.” [Nelson, page 145]

*I have referred to the artist by his first name in this letter, which is odd because I don’t know him, but somehow Nelson doesn’t sound right. He was born Willie by the way. No Will or William. Willie Hugh Nelson. It’s a bit musical, his full name, if you say it a few times.

*My father was born the year after Willie, in 1934, and would have been in his late eighties if he were alive today. He was a picker and a so-so singer, but his memory was long on lyrics and he loved to tell a ballad, often reciting the song while strumming. May 22nd is his birthday and today he would have been 88 years old. My father was my introduction to music and I thank him for that lasting gift. If life is a song, then love is the music.

May 22, 2022

2 Comments

  1. Ann Marie Brown

    I was lucky enough to see Django Reinhardt play at the Clearwater Jazz Festival probably 20+ years ago. He was old and wizened yet his playing was crisp, clear, melodic and amazing!
    He said I am not retiring I will just die doing this …. and he did. Like Willie?
    I hope I have a chance to see him in person very soon.

    Reply
    • mylinhshattan

      Hi Ann Marie! So good that you could see him perform live and hope you will get a chance to see Willie too. I will be checking tour dates as well. Thank you for writing and sending a big hug from CT. MyLinh

      Reply

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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