Music

Danny Fitzgerald’s vagabond musical life

At 80, singer-bandleader Danny Fitzgerald has played his music on streets around the world, and he has plenty of stories to tell about his adventures.
Will Stevens
At 80, singer-bandleader Danny Fitzgerald has played his music on streets around the world, and he has plenty of stories to tell about his adventures.

CAMBRIDGE — Even for people who were there at the time, the Danny Fitzgerald stories start to run together. There were the times a young Bob Dylan slept on his floor. The days when Yippie activist Izak Haber hung around his New York City apartment, writing pages later absorbed into Abbie Hoffman’s “Steal This Book.” And the weekends everybody spent enjoying the largesse of wealthy fans who’d become instantly enthralled with Fitzgerald and the ever-evolving iterations of his rag-tag band, busking on the streets of Paris or Stuttgart.

Whether found in the between-song commentary on Fitzgerald’s new album, as relayed by his musical partners, or told in a video Skype conversation with the singer-bandleader, these stories tend to meld into a hazy stream of characters and escapades, subplots and digressions. They can be hard to follow (and harder to fact-check); but the connecting thread is Fitzgerald himself, and the music he’s wandered around the world with, turning the life of the humble streetside busker into an epic story.

“Remember the time with the guy from Monty Python?” prompts Madeleine Peyroux, chanteuse and most well-known veteran of Fitzgerald’s Lost Wandering Blues and Jazz Band. She’s sitting to his right, in front of a webcam in her Brooklyn apartment. “Then there was the really rich Irish dude who flew us to his birthday party, and we’d end up at some chateau in France, and there’s a duchess here and there,” she continues. “They’re just stories, one after another.”

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The short version is that Fitzgerald, a native of Kingston, N.Y., has traveled the world for the past several decades, playing early blues tunes with a core group of musicians and an assortment of old friends who may turn up, depending on his current ZIP code. For many years he played washtub bass, but his earthy, weather-beaten vocals are the main attraction.

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“We were in Germany,” Fitzgerald, 80, says, summing up his most recent itinerary, “and then after that we went back to Paris and then we went from Paris to Iceland and from Iceland we came to New York.”

But these are not simple whistle stops on a well-planned tour. Fitzgerald travels to a new place when he feels like it, sets up shop at a favorite cafe and then plays on the streets and subway platforms, expertly working the crowd and passing the hat. He’ll play a more formal environment on Sunday with a gig at Club Passim.

He’s recorded occasionally, but has little patience for the machinations of the music business.

“If you’re on a tour then you’re working every day, every day, every day. It’s not so nice, I don’t like all that. That’s what you have to do — boom, boom, boom,” he says. “But we wanted to have fun and music. Just not music, fun and music.”

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As a discrete entity, Danny Fitzgerald and the Lost Wandering Blues Band dates back to 1979, but its namesake was first introduced to Europe when he was stationed in Germany with the US Army in the 1950s. Since then he alternates between New York City and long stretches traveling around Europe and North Africa. In the old days, he says, he’d work as a waiter in New York to save up for trips to Tangiers, bringing over suitcases full of goods to sell.

His advice for selling pants, shirts, or jewelry is identical to his philosophy of live performance: “You figure out what they want, and you give it to them.”

He has a taste for the blues of great female belters like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, delivered with doses of New Orleans jazz and ragtime. His take on the jaunty “Wake the Town and Tell the People” is dizzy with love-struck swagger. “Take It Right Back” echoes the fed-up dismissal contained in Smith’s 1929 version. Even “Miss Brown to You” works in his hands, its irrepressible swing colored by his seen-it-all cadences.

“He plays a style of blues that is really not heard very widely anymore,” says the guitarist Joe Flood, a longtime collaborator who produced the new album and will play on the Passim date. “All the terminology that you use for this kind of stuff almost doesn't apply. It falls sort of between early jazz and blues, and they're great songs and I just fell in love with the material myself.”

It’s hard to get a firm grip on some parts of Fitzgerald’s history at this point; he’s quick to cite the names of past band members and compatriots, but doesn’t really flesh out the details of dusty anecdotes. Yet the enduring loyalty of his friends and collaborators — and continued ability to attract younger musicians eager to join his musical circle — speaks of great respect.

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Peyroux joined the group as a teenage runaway in Paris. Impressed by Fitzgerald’s group and looking for work, she found him at the cafe where he held court and delivered an impromptu audition of “Jeepers Creepers.” It was enough to get her a place in a car ride to Holland a few days later, where Fitzgerald’s musical director at the time was surprised to receive the new band member and houseguest.

Have the band logistics gotten more organized since those days?

“No,” says Peyroux, who traveled with Lost Wandering for a couple years before going on to record a series of well-received albums. “That’s the point.”

Tall tale or odyssey, this story is still in progress.

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.