The Iowa blues: Baby, what you gonna do?
with Gov. Howard
by Bill Varble
Medford Mail Tribune
August 17, 2003
It was the Dave Van Ronk thing that got Michael "Hawkeye" Herman
thinking maybe there was something more to Howard Dean than the usual
Herman, of Ashland, OR, is a bluesman. For more than three decades
he has made his living singing and playing American roots music.
Dean, of Vermont, wants to be president of the United States.
David Leshtz, a college buddy of Herman's now high in Dean's Iowa
campaign, had an idea. Dean plays guitar. Would Herman like to jam
with the candidate?
Herman's preference would be Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich; but thinks
with Bush looking increasingly vulnerable, Dean might stand a better
chance. He planned to be back in the Midwest anyway.
A five-minute phone call was set up during which Dean mentioned
Dave Van Ronk, the legend from Greenwich Village who influenced Dylan
and embraced weird msucial idioms from bawdyhouses to Brecht.
"I was glad he didn't say Stevie Ray Vaughan," Herman
No disrespect to Vaughan, the blazing guitarist who died in 1990,
but his art was forged at the pop end of the blues spectrum, and
Herman thought the Van Ronk thing might just signal that rarest of
qualities in a politician — the absence of a need to pander.
Five minutes talking to a blues guy in Oregon when you're running
for president is a big deal. You start the day at 6a.m. with coffee
and doughnuts with union guys, move to farmers and so on. By 9, you've
done the drill with six groups. Your day is scripted in 10- and 15-minute
increments until 10 or 11 at night. An extra five minutes at any
point can ripple through the day.
Herman said yes, and the gig was set for Thursday at Blues on Grand
in Des Moines. The 200-capacity club has been voted one of the best
blues venues in the country. It's a block and a half from Dean's
Iowa campaign headquarters. Herman would play a 50 minute set, and
Dean would join him for a couple of songs.
Herman remembers candidate Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on
TV. He says that as a musician, Clinton was a great campaigner.
Thursdy night in Des Moines at Blues on Grand, Herman finds himself
facing a hot-wired audience: video cameras, tapers, walls plastered
with Dean posters, rumors that Kucinich is next door, CNN, the whole
political press ratpack, the Iowa State Fair in full swing, people
sculpting giant cows out of butter, the Dean people serving barbecued
pork sandwiches. The Washington Post writer wants to know if "Nobody
Knows You When You're Down And Out" isn't by Eric Clapton (he
performed the Jimmie Cox tune).
The crowd whoops when Herman dedicates Mose Allison's "Your
Mind Is On Vacation And Your Mouth Is Working Overtime" to George
"Man," Herman thinks looking out at the crowd, "this
is really strange."
He'd met the candidate minutes earlier. Dean showed him his chops,
fingerpicking Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" and
Elizabeth Cotton's "Freight Train," numbers taught to beginning
fingerpickers. Herman said they'd be playing with a bass guy from
West Branch and told Dean if he got lost just smile and have fun.
Fifteen minutes into the show, Dean comes in with his entourage.
He joins in on guitar for Jimmy Reed's "Baby, What You Want
Me To Do?" On the traditional "Come Back, Baby," Herman
signals to Dean to take a solo, which goes OK.
The unlikely trio winds up with a bluesy, 12-bar number Herman whipped
up for the occasion called "Dean for America." Dean leans
into a harp solo and the crowd goes crazy. Then it's over, and it's
back into the mob, the press pack, the cameras, the frenzy.
"It was a media circus," Herman says later. I've heard
the words, but I never knew what they meant. I told my wife, when
you have weird gigs, you just walk away saying, "Well, that
was weird gig No. 4,356.' But I've never seen anything like this."