“How to Become a Professional Folk Singer” by Jeff Worley

Jeff Worley


at the newly opened Ambush Club, Wichita, 1971

There I was: lemon-tinted Lennon glasses,
paisley shirt like ironed vomit, corroded
toenails dangling from Kmart sandals …

And when Otis Redding was cut off mid-chorus
from the juke, the three dozen dressed-to-the-max
black couples gazed up at me, each mouth a rictus,

as I tuned my Yamaha in a circle of light.
Close enough for folk music, I declared
and began to strum my three-chord version

of “Dock of the Bay,” a clever segue and nod to Otis,
I thought. My fingers meated through the song.
I sat on that dock watching the waves come and go

through three choruses, then plunked the final major C
with all the majesty of a hammered thumbnail.
And I saw I had stunned the crowd to silence.

Did these fine people think I was a novelty act?
If I’d expected applause, I got a voice in the back saying,
Whoa, Momma—turn on the fire hose.

And poor Dennis, the new owner and dead-ringer
Ozzie Nelson who’d heard me strum “Stewball”
and “Puff ” at the Riverside Park Folk Jamboree,

who thought I was good and knew he needed music,
was frozen behind the bar, lava lamps auguring his future:
purple bubbles rising and breaking apart

like the opening-night crowd. The juke erupted
with Otis, back on his dock. The stage lights dimmed.
Drinks on the house! I heard a voice say, Dennis’s voice,

and he pressed a twenty into my right palm. Just go,
he said. OK? I slung the guitar over my shoulder.
He opened the back door to the parking lot,

and I took my rightful place among the stars.

from Rattle #37, Summer 2012


Jeff Worley: “Readers are sometimes curious about just how autobiographical a poem is. My folksinger poem is, unfortunately, a faithful rendition of what happened on this evening. The poem is set near the beginning of my three-year stint (grad school) as a folksinger in Wichita, something I did because I thought I knew how to play guitar (I didn’t), and I thought my playing music on stage would attract impressionable young women (it didn’t). But at least a few of these experiences have become fodder for poems.” (web)

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