Sunday, September 8, 2019

Merl's Tune (Help Us Out)

I assume y'all know Merl's Tune, although there are unfortunately only a small handful of known performances:

3/7/73 - with George Tickner on 2nd guitar.
4/14/73 - no circulating tape, also with Tickner
7/5/73 - released on GarciaLive vol 6
7/10 & 11/73, i.e. the various Live at Keystone releases - Merl's Tune wasn't on the original album and didn't see commercial release until the first Keystone Encores LP/CD in 1988.
11/3/73 - I believe this was Bill Vitt's last show (or one of his last) with Garcia/Saunders?

I am a big fan, in particular, of 3/7/73 and 11/3/73, but of course all of these shows are worth hearing.  For some reason, Merl's Tune fell out of favor (or maybe was never in favor to begin with?), but it would have fit very well next to the band's jazzier material in 1974-75.

Check this out, though.  Cue up any of those version of Merl's Tune, then take a listen @20:40 here:

"Help Us Out," credited to John White (per label scans at discogs) vs. "Merl's Tune" credited on Keystone Encores to Saunders/White.  Thanks to Youtube commentor michael tristan for pointing that out (um, 6 years ago), and to Peter Tschirky for posting it.

John White is a little-known Bay Area guitarist with, afaik, this one Mainstream LP from 1971 to his credit.  I don't know anything about him besides what's in this older blog post:

Saunders plays on the whole record, along with drummer Philip Wilson (ex Butterfield Blues Band, and later a renowned drummer in free jazz circles) and saxophonist Hadley Caliman.  Mainstream's 70's jazz catalog mostly has not made the transition to digital yet, and the original LP's were usually pretty light on detailed session info, so no luck there.  The dense horn-heavy sound on this track is also typical of Mainstream's overstuffed approach to production, but imho this record definitely fits well in that gritty Bay Area rock/R&B/jazz guitar bag next to, say, Harvey Mandel or Mel Brown, that kind of thing.

I have heard a couple of Merl Saunders sideman appearances from this same Garcia/Saunders timeframe, but the ones I'm thinking of were for Fantasy Records, Saunders' label.  This John White LP is from 1971, so presumably Saunders wasn't under contract with Fantasy yet.

So, um, yeah.  Dunno if this is in the same league as the "Finders Keepers" misattribution.  Barring other information, I will just offer this for your consideration.

update (Dec 2019): 
JGMF sent along a pic the tape box for one of the Bettyboard reels from 7/11/73, with this handwritten notation of the contents:
Harder They Come
John White Song
Like a Road
How Sweet it Is
My Funny Valentine 

Okay.  John White song.  I guess that answers that question?  Maybe not?


  1. Absolutely the same. Wow.

    What do you infer from this? Is this theft?

  2. Wellll, without going into a long discussion of intellectual property and "fair use"... I can't infer anything without other evidence.

    Crediting "Finders Keepers" to Saunders/Kahn (or just Saunders) seems hard to explain as anything other than theft, but since neither Saunders nor Kahn are here to explain themselves, I will refrain. "Merl's Tune" probably has a more complicated (and unknowable) genesis. We don't know if White himself was responsible for the credits on the album ; maybe the producer or someone else was responsible? Maybe White just took Saunders' tune and put his name on it. Maybe Saunders contributed some aspect of the tune, but was okay (or not) with White taking full credit on White's own record; maybe Saunders decided to reassert his own authorship of the song for his own album. Calling it "Merl's Tune" in this context does make it tempting to read more meaning into the title, but I dunno. Lacking any other evidence, I'll just give Merl the benefit of the doubt and assume it was something like that.

  3. The tape box is weird - it's not her raw 2-track tape. I think it was a tape dubbed in connection with the production of the record, but it's all pretty unclear. Nevertheless, it's a tape that was among Betty's property, it is material from 7/11/73 Keystone, and it identifies a track as "John White Song". Interesting ...

    1. Right, it's not in the order of the Keystone Companions release, but it's closer to the order on the incomplete shnid=8075 disc (minus My Funny Valentine). Regardless of the reason, I'm not sure how else how to interpret the labeling. "What's that instrumental tune called?" - "I dunno, it's a John White song."