Come join Jake Speed for his next birthday. He'll be 23, going on 123. That's because there is little, if anything, contemporary about this singer/songwriter/ entertainer. With his wavy red hair tucked underneath a fedora, plus matching sideburns lining his Library of Congress photograph face, Jake Speed could've easily wandered in to any of the group shots on the cover to The Band's self-titled 1969 LP. His glory-filled, rich, ragged voice could've easily blended with The Band's three voices, Rick Danko, Levon Helm and Richard Manuel. He converses using phrases, sincerely, such as, "It's a hot number, I tell you, man."
Then there are his songs. The Jake Speed songbook is filled with narratives on life lessons ("Busted Lip Club"), historical events ("37 Flood") and outlaw vigilantes ("Jack Slade"). There are also plaintive ballads ("Think On Me By And By") and immediate sing-alongs ("Queen City Rag"). He delivers his goods with either an acoustic guitar or a banjo, either solo or backed by his combo, the Freddies (Caleb Bennett on the upright bass, Cedric Rose on the drums, and Brad Schnittger, ex-Crimson Harbour, on the slide guitar). I can't help but wonder if, sometime in the mid-1800s, an aspiring riverboat pilot from Florida, Mo., about 40 miles southwest of Hannibal, didn't catch a Jake Speed performance before signing that humorous travel letter to a friend "Mark Twain."
So where did I interview this antique gentleman? Cody's Café, Mount Auburn's cyber café, restaurant and bar. Of course. Here, both Jake Speed and the Freddies have enjoyed a residency, alongside other local greats (Ric Hickey, Kris Brown). And here is where we discussed that one guy with the "This Machine Kills Fascists" sticker on his guitar, other influences, and ... The King of Pop?
CityBeat: Talk to me about Woodrow Wilson Guthrie. Jake Speed: I went to Okemah (Okla.), where Woody was born, last summer. They just started this festival out there called the Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival. Only 2,000 folks livin' there. Anyway, it's only the third year they put that festival there, and he died in, like, '67. So if you do that math, there was all them years they didn't want anything to do with him, you know, 'cause he was a Commie boy. That's funny how that works.
CB: When did you know that you had found your musical voice? JS: What happened was my dad used to take me on these Sunday afternoon trips, right? First place he took me was Greenville, Ohio, where Annie Oakley was from.
CB: I'd like to say hello to all of our Darke County readers out there. JS: Anyway, he had me on these road trips, which I loved. He would play Hank Williams Sr. songs in the car. He thought they were so funny, man. I was 10 or 12, or something like that. There was this one song (sings, rather authentically): "I'm going down there three times, but Lord I'm only coming up twice." You know that? I don't know if you know that song. This is my first philosophical moment. My dad's like, "He's going down three times. He's only coming up twice. What's that mean, son?" (laughs) And I'm like, "He's committing suicide, isn't he?" It was this ... epiphanic moment. Anyway, I really like that song. So that's what started it for me. I don't claim that I try to exactly sing like Hank Williams Sr., but I do a lot of his songs. I sure like what he was about. Well, what his songs were about. He was a little bit too drinkin' for me. (laughs) Anyway, that was always there. That set the foundation. And I spent some time in South America. I was on a study-abroad thing a couple of years ago. I was going there to study Spanish, and I lived with this family. There were these buses that weren't like the buses here. They were privately owned, so as many people as they could pick-up and get movin', that's how much money they made. It wasn't about being on time, it was about speeding to the next stop to get people before the bus behind you got there. Anyway, they were crazy, and they let these guys come on. These guys would come and sing these acoustic songs and then ask everyone for some change. When I got back to America, I wanted to listen to more of this stuff. I had gotten into the electric stuff so much, and now I'm back to the acoustic. Then I started listening to Woody Guthrie a lot. Once you start listening to him, he just leads you right back down the road. The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman. From there, the Delta Blues guys. All good music.
CB: Anyone modern? Not as if there has to be. JS: Nirvana. Actually, I've listened to a lot of Michael Jackson. I really liked Michael Jackson's performances. As a kid, I had this video of him, and I used to watch it all the time. It would make me so excited about life and stuff. The way he danced, I'd try to do that. People always laughed ... I always defended him. I don't like the Michael Jackson jokes that much, you know? He was a showstopper, man. (laughs) That's good stuff.
JAKE SPEED and The Freddies play every Wednesday at Cody's Café.