The saloon — or the tavern, bar, watering hole, poor man’s social club, honky-tonk, gin mill, cocktail lounge — is an under appreciated cranny of American culture. From the taverns of colonial America to the saloons of the Old West, the speakeasies of Prohibition and the dive bars of today, we look at saloons a little askance. Yeah, I’ve been to a few in my life, but god forbid I become a denizen. When we think of saloons we think of licentiousness and other louche behavior — pick-ups, fights, gambling. But always, back in the corner, was the piano player — some guy trying to soothe the savage beast with the power of music.
You can’t separate a good saloon from music. In fact, if there isn’t music, it ain’t a saloon — just a drinking den. So over the past few hundred years, “saloon songs” have evolved to form a rich, diverse genre of music, from the single three-string violin of the pre-Revolutionary War days to the subtle sophistication of Frank Sinatra and Bobby Short. A good saloon song obeys a few simple rules: it has to be emotional (melancholy, happy, wistful or angry, doesn’t matter); it has to be melodic (no art house music welcome here); and it can’t be too long (alcohol shortens the attention span).
Creating a list of the best saloon songs is a topic that could easily lead to a fight in said establishments, but safe in the confines of my Carolina room I’ll forge ahead. This is an extremely eclectic list and far from definitive. Rack it up at cocktail hour tonight, pour a cold one for family or friends and you will be instantly transported to the best saloon you can find on such short notice.
Grateful Dead, “Big Railroad Blues.” — When the Dead’s second live album, “Skull and Roses,” came out in 1971, Jerry described their sound as a “shoot-em-up saloon band.” The Dead’s idea of a saloon, or course, was defined more by Nevada’s infamous Red Dog Saloon than a local beer joint. In 1971, the Dead’s sound was lean and supple. The line-up was only five people — the smallest it would ever be — and Pigpen was still healthy. “Big Railroad Blues” barrels down the track like a full-throttle locomotive.
Willie Nelson, “That’s Life.” — This one is from Willie’s new album of the same name, his second collection of Sinatra covers. It’s a perfect song for what we’ve all gone through over the past year (“Each time I find myself/Flat on my face/I pick myself up and get/Back in the race”). Willie sings it effortlessly, gliding over all the heartache and pain implicit in the song. OK, the ending is a little dark, but by then we’re moving on to the next song.
Bill Charlap Trio, “Autumn in New York.” — I’m partial to high-end saloons like the King Cole Bar or Bemelmans in New York (more on that later). The version of this classic is by the incomparable piano player Bill Charlap at the Village Vanguard. It is the very definition of languid, as if nothing else in the world matters at the moment than the night, the melody and the person you’re with. Saloon songs can be beautiful, and this is one of ‘em.
Mel Torme and George Shearing, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” — The first time I heard this song was at an audio show with my friend Dan Rosenstrauch. Somebody put the record on a $50,000 turntable and by the time Mel hit the long, sustained high note that ends the song, time had stopped and jaws were all over the floor. You’d have to be in a very quiet saloon to appreciate the nuances here (this version was recorded in 1982 at the Mark Hopkins Hotel bar in San Francisco, which was very quiet indeed).
Merle Haggard, “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.” — Merle reduces the purpose of a saloon to its most quotidian level, but he does it with that sweet Bakersfield swing that levels everything up. You can almost smell the stale beer and the sawdust.
Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, “Canned Music.” — Dan Hicks actually played a residency at the Red Dog Saloon mentioned above (google it, there’s a whole movie about the Red Dog). He came back to San Francisco and was reborn with the Hot Licks. Sometimes good saloon music is meant to be only half-heard; this is background music par excellence. This would even make an umbrella drink taste good.
Tom Waits, “Looking For the Heart of Saturday Night.” — A definitive saloon song. “Tell me is it the crack of the pool balls, neon buzzin’?/Telephone’s ringin’, it’s your second cousin/Is it the barmaid that’s smilin’ from the corner of her eye?/Magic of the melancholy tear in your eye.” It was hard to choose this over “The Piano Has Been Drinking.”
Blossom Dearie, “Someone To Watch Over Me.” — Years ago, Kit and I were having drinks at one of the great New York saloons, Bemelmans Bar in the Carlyle Hotel, where Bobby Short was the resident piano player for more than three decades. Bemelmans is a small room and the piano player sits pretty much right in the middle, so you can discreetly shout out a request. That night, Kit said “Do you know “Someone to Look Me Over?” Replied the piano player, “Well, I’d be happy to look you over, but I do know “Someone to Watch Over Me.” I like Blossom Dearie’s classic rendition.
Toots & the Maytals, “Funky Kingston.” — Hey, they have saloons in Jamaica! Or road houses, or something. At any rate, a good saloon song should have the power to get people up on their feet and dancing, which this tune does all the way through, all night long. Toots passed away last year (RIP), so you know everybody up in heaven is dancing.
Frank Sinatra, “One More For My Baby (and One More For the Road).” — Saved the best for last. Mickey Hart once said of the Dead, “We’re not in the music business, we’re in the transportation business.” Listen to Frank sing this song of loss and regret and you are indeed transported to a small dark bar — just a man, a bartender, a glass and a broken heart. But, gosh, he makes it all sound beautiful.