In those scorching midsummer afternoons, with heat so horrid you pine for a hut in Maine, I pause from wordsmithery in a refrigerated workstation and turn to music for extra cooling on the day.
Songs that gain popularity from one artist to another are a culture’s connective tissue. I think of Dave “Fat Man” Williams’s long reach from I Ate Up the Apple Tree, a 1975 album on the GBH label.
Outside my shuttered window, a thundering truck just ignited some fool’s Toyota siren. The car’s banshee wail hectors my composition of these words.
Williams (1920-’82) played piano in Preservation Hall Jazz Band. His parallel career as a blues singer brought a late-life spotlight. Trumpeter Clive Wilson produced the album and secured publishing rights for the original songs; Williams drew revenues from radio and cover versions of the song by other artists, from which his daughter earns a modest revenue stream.
Using stellar traditional jazzmen such as trumpeter Alvin Alcorn, Wilson’s arrangements sparkle through I Ate Up The Apple Tree. Williams reached his apex at the Jazz & Heritage Festival before it was presented by Shell, and through memorable shows at Tipitina’s.
That Toyota outside my closed blinds is moaning like a speared beast.
“I Ate Up the Apple Tree,” was his signature song. With an easy keyboard stride, Dave’s warm, resonant voice almost chuckles in a gentle satire of Genesis”
Sittin’ down eating an apple one day
Under the apple tree
Apple taste so good to me
I ate up your apple tree …
The apple with “juice come running out” makes the singer a surrogate for Adam in the Garden of Eden. Williams beckons the lady at that tree, “the apple of temptation / Oh, baby come see about me / I ate up your apple tree.”
This fall from paradise motif may same anachronistic in an age so secular as ours. But the song showed wondrous properties of resurrection after he passed away.
The Dirty Dozen was the first group to cover “I Ate Up The Apple Tree” on their first album in the 1980s. They turned a medium-tempo blues into a rollicking bebop march.
That damn vehicle! I have to make a call! I open the blinds and see – my car. Well. Standing at the computer, I stab the keypad to close the already locked car. That shuts it up. Hrumph.
“We were playing those songs on the day shift at Maison Bourbon hotel,” Clive Wilson tells me by phone. “Clarence Ford on saxophone had a lot to do with how the arrangements evolved. The session was impromptu. It has the feel of a barroom gig.”
He continues, “After the Dirty Dozen, one of the young brass bands did a version – it wasn’t so great. Then Dr. John recorded ‘Apple Tree’ and there was a lot of sales and radio play on that in Europe and Japan for several years. And recently Kermit Ruffins recorded it.”
Jonathan Foose, my coauthor on Up From the Cradle of Jazz, was close to Dave Williams. “He had a real style about him,” says Foose, from Austin. “He’d paint apples on his white shoes with music notes. Dave was an absolute gentleman and a great songwriter. He had a little snow ball stand near his house, a side thing he did for money. He used to dream songs and wake up.
Sometimes his wife would write them down or he would. I’ve heard that from other songwriters. They’re creating in the dream state.”
Williams wrote most of the 14 songs on Apple Tree. He sings a few standards, like “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans.” He had a voice for the ages. But his passion for melody gave the signature song its soaring afterlife. “I Ate Up the Apple Tree” has become a staple of many brass bands, a long echo in Mardi Gras parades and the second line processions by social aid and pleasure clubs that keep rolling along.