In 1952 Hank Snow put down the first cut of what has become a fool’s standard. (Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such As I has been swung, rocked, moaned, shuffled, stomped on, picked back up and poured over an full ashtray like a warm beer at closing time and still it lives on. Of course it does, fool.
A fellow named Mark Matthews let’s us know that the Rev. Jimmy Snow, Hank’s son, used to tell people that the song was special to his Daddy because shortly after finishing it the man who wrote it took his own life. That’s a heavy song to be singing. The band sound like Hank gathered them around beforehand and told them the tale to put them in the right frame of mind. Joe Talbot’s steel takes on an almost religious feel as it builds up into the song and the rest of the band hold way back, providing just enough to be there, but not so much as a flash of gold tooth. Hank’s tenor comes in over them soon enough, warm, knowing, sad, all those things. The song’s melodrama comes from the self awareness of the singer, the strange tense he sings it in – did this just happen, is it happening now, did it happen long ago? If it’s the latter you could easily see this guy at closing time working out the other cliche, alone at a table for two. He’s not apologizing though, not exactly, he simply asks for a pardon in the same way one does when bumping into a stranger. This is Hank Snow at his best.
Hank Snow, (Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such As I
This being April Fool’s though, the sorrowful tale of a man writing one last ode to the girl he loves before stepping off this mortal coil turns out not to be true at all. I don’t know where Jimmy Snow heard it from, probably his father, and where he heard is anyone’s guess.
The man who wrote this classic was Bill Trader and he actually passed away in 2003 in South Carolina. Not a bad run from the sound of it. Mark Matthews continues the story by bringing in an old musician friend of Bill’s named Bud Orr. As Bud tells it, Bill couldn’t read or write music and would often bring him songs and for five bucks Bud would write out a lead sheet for him. Bill would then sell try to sell them in Nashville.
I imagine the version most of us are familiar with (if at all) would be Elvis Presley’s. He cut it in June of 1958 and nonchalantly swung his way through it. Elvis didn’t care about the girl, you see. At least he wants us to think that. The way he snarls “now an then-ah!” harder as the song goes on is a beautiful thing. His lips tell the truth, but the toughness he outwardly manifests, the strutting, the denial, is maybe more sad than Snow’s over self awareness. Elvis has a cast of characters here in support of whatever machismo he brings, too. Chet Atkins and Hank Garland on dueling guitars, Buddy Harman, not on his drum kit, but on the bongos – always trouble, and the Jordanaires bringing up the low end propel the sad King forward to the next round of cocktails.
Elvis Presley; (Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such As I
Two years later Hank Garland and Buddy Harman (this time back on drums) would be laying down the song one more time. Immediately it’s a different song. Garland has thrown out the dirty blues scorcher he used as intro in ’58 and replaced it with a sentimental, almost Spanish sounding, vibrato laden lick. It’s not even from the same planet. Slim’s ethereal voice is in wonderful form on this number and floats above everyone like he’s been filled with helium. Out of all these fools, this is the one who has forsaken the bar altogether and spends his nights outside his love’s window crooning under a fat moon.
Slim Whitman, (Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such As I
There’s no shortage of good versions out there. I especially like Jo Stafford’s who brings a class to it the boys just cant’. Rodney Crowell does a fine cover on his album Ain’t Living Long Like This and Raul Malo has a hot one on After Hours. Rodney’s is the countriest version after Hank Snow’s and sounds sadly sweet. Raul takes the other side and swings it so hard we began to understand just how durable of a song this really is. It can take anything.
The last one on my mind though tonight was recorded sometime in 1967 by Bob and the Band. It comes from the lost Red Room recordings Dylan and the Band made in his Hi Lo Ha home in Brydcliffe and have never truly been commercially released. This version is not to be confused with the 1969 cover that made its way onto the forgettable 1973 Dylan album that Columbia made as a screw you after Dylan split for Asylum Records. Here Dylan, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel fool around with the number for a moment, making adjustments, starting and stopping and then suddenly the whole thing kicks in and Dylan puts his heart into it. He’s matched by Rick Danko’s haunted voice and Manuel’s piano seems to be everywhere all at the same time. The whole thing is intoxicating by the end, even as it fades and shakes over the old tape. This is the kind of thing that could have been blended into the late night Nashville sessions of Blonde on Blonde, but I’m glad it wasn’t. This version, as difficult as it is to find, is the one.
Bob Dylan and the Band (minus Garth Hudson & Levon Helm) (Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such As I
It takes a fool to know.