An interview with Dan Newton

After seventeen albums, Dan Newton has recorded his first solo disc with vocals. On it Newton, aka Daddy Squeeze, pumps and sings his way through a series of originals and standards that ramble from rags to blues to hokey jug tunes, all while retaining the familiar flavor of foot-stompin’ West Bank folk. Newton will celebrate the release of Daddy Squeeze Solo with a performance here at Hymie’s on March 24th (details here), and we thought it would be fun to talk with Dan about the album.

Your previous solo project, Hi Top Sneakers, featured an extraordinary cast of accompanists, but on this disc you’re all on your own – where did this idea come from?

Its kind of my own personal roots of music. The first time I heard live music in my life I went to a bar and heard a finger-style guitarist play some country blues songs and gospel tunes, and I went out and heard some bluegrass, and some Chicago style blues, and some honky tonk. It’s where I started hearing and playing live music.

last hot day of  summer

“Last Hot Day of Summer”

Have you played the guitar yourself?

Yeah, I played some guitar. I played a lot of piano in those days, but I hadn’t got my first accordion quite yet. I played guitar and harmonica and mandolin and dulcimer. Anything I could get my hands on. When I’m playing the kind of tunes that are on this CD, that’s what I’m hearing in my head is somebody with this alternating-thumb style guitar.

I was familiar with the basic three-chord twelve-bar progressions and the standard blues in rock & roll, but when I heard Doctor John Walker play for the first time and I heard other chord changes in there, it reminded me of stuff I’d heard in my parent’s records. They listened to a lot of Dixieland and early jazz and Broadway. That ragtime guitar style isn’t something you can imitate on the accordion – there’s things that don’t translate from guitar to keys that well – it’s the first thing I hear in my head to accompany my accordion.

dan newton

It’s recognizable in this album, even if it’s something that doesn’t translate easily.

Some of it’s the rhythmic approach. Another guy who was a huge influence on me was John Koerner. There’s a couple track – “Last Hot Day of the Summer” and “Beautiful Brown Eyes” – I do those as if it were John Koerner playing them. First time I heard him it changed my entire outlook on American folk songs, although I didn’t even realize I was playing American folk songs. He could put as much grit and blues and feeling into these old folk songs as you can into a Chicago blues tune or a city song.

Your vocal performance reflects a lot of that too. Another West Bank old-timer I thought of was Papa John Kolstad, because “Travelin’ Man” reminded me of his talking blues songs like “Beans Taste Fine” and “Mill City Blues.”

This is one of the two tunes on here I consider a novelty tune, although it’s kind of a standard tune in the new Orleans repertoire. If you research it, there’s no clear evidence of where it came from or who wrote it. It refers to the main character as the “traveling man Bloom” as being from New Orleans, so I’ve always assumed it as being from down there.

I could hear Papa John singing that.

And I’m guessing the other novelty tune is “I Had But Fifty Cents.” It’s funny because that as silly as that song is, it also has maybe the longest solo on the disc, and one of its best musical moments.

Yeah, the instrumental piece at the end is the “Dill Pickle Rag” is a lot of fun. “I Had But Fifty Cents” is short, and I decided instead of riffing on the chords to include the “Dill Pickle Rag.” The song was full of this list of all these things that got consumed but it didn’t mention a pickle. So it’s the garnish that didn’t get mentioned.

Some of your originals are not quite novelties, but the lyrics have a sly sense of humor, like “Decaf Blues.”

That’s a humorous song, especially to listeners who catch that the form of the song is based on a tune by Leadbelly called “Decal Blues”. First time I heard it on a scratchy record I thought, ‘Is he singing “Decaf Blues”?’ But when I looked at the label I found “Dekalb Blues,” which is a city in Illinois. When I got the idea for the “Decaf Blues” I fit it into the same form.

Even though the theme lyrically on this collection is travelling and wandering, and loss and goodbye, I tried to keep a couple things with a positive feeling and a little humor because my life isn’t really all that bad. I do know that everybody has times in their lives where they feel like they’re wandering, even if they’re stationary physically. They feel like they’re drifting or they do not know where they’re going. Or they have a sense of loss because of somebody moving away or dying. These are things that everybody can relate to.

It’s just in my nature, and in the nature of the accordion, to be able to keep some humor in it.

[At this point in our conversation we were interrupted when a customer came to the counter and bought a double-album compilation of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. Honestly, this happened.]

The styles your working in, traditional American music, often puts light-hearted and dark subjects together, doesn’t it?

Yeah, for instance “Prescription for the Blues” is a song written in the 20s, but gosh, they do have prescriptions for the blues now. There’s anti-depressants and diagnoses for things where back then you’d have been told you just have the blues, have a shot of whiskey and go out in the field and chop some wood.

It’s a well-crafted song, and at the time it came out the idea for a prescription for the blues was kind of novel. Now it’s novel in a kind of dated way. Depression is not really a funny thing, but here’s a chance to laugh.

prescription for the blues

“Prescription for the Blues”

Last time we talked [in an interview for City Pages in January] I mentioned that I had seen you sit in with the Cactus Blossoms on occasion, and we also talked about another guest of theirs, Patty Harison. When we first heard Daddy Squeeze Solo last week, I thought of Jack Klatt, whose backing band includes Harison. Klatt just finished a solo disc, too. Have you heard it?

Yeah, I have Jack’s disc and it’s a beautiful disc. I have really enjoyed it. The first notes I ever heard from Jack Klatt when I walked into the 331 Club one night were a song I remembered playing with Doctor Johnny Walker back in Nebraska. I have always wanted to pick his brain and learn how he was directed into this style of music, and how he gets it so well – not only technically with his musical ability, but he just seems to relate to the songs. He writes new stuff that you can’t tell from the old stuff, just like the Cactus Blossoms.

Your songs on the solo disc have the same effect, they fit beautifully alongside the traditional numbers. How long have you had some of them? Have you recorded them before?

Thanks. I think I did record “I Had but Fifty Cents” a long time ago. I’ve had “My Gal’s Got It” around for five or ten years, but I never really got around to performing it. “Just My Style” I wrote fifteen or twenty years ago, but the other ones are all fairly recent compositions. I’ve done two other CDs that feature mostly stuff that I’d written, one was in 2008 and the other was all instrumental stuff that came out back in 1993.

Is it a hard sell, a solo accordion performance?

That’s one of the reasons it’s taken so long to do this recording. It’s a double-edged sword – if I were doing this all on guitar, finger-style guitar, it would be immediately more recognizable and categorizable and acceptable, but on the other hand I would be one of thousands of guitarists doing that. Being an accordionist sets me apart, but it also comes with a little bit of attached stigma. People aren’t always quite ready to listen to the accordion. Even friends of mine. Sometimes I was thinking this was an awful lot of accordion, but generally they’ve said it really comes out fine. You get used to it after the second or third song.

I juggled the order of the tunes a lot to vary things. There’s a reason to put together a set list where everything rolls along with a certain tempo, but I think in a recorded setting some nice variations pull people one way and then another, and keep the listening experience more interesting.

I tried to get some things that make sense together – “Lonesome Road Waltz” and “Weary from Wanderin’ Blues,” lyrically they make sense. And ‘close with a joke,’ so “I Had But Fifty Cents.”

i had but fifty cents

“I Had But Fifty Cents / Dill Pickle Rag”

Dan Newton will perform some of the blues, rags and jug band tunes here at Hymie’s on March 24th at 3pm to celebrate the release of Daddy Squeeze Solo. There will be pickles.

  1. Patty Buttons’s avatar

    Thanks for the consistent shouts outs in the Hymie’s blog Dave!

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