David Kimberling
David Kimberling

Poppa John

Writer: Mark Bittner
Mark Bittner: vocal, acoustic rhythm guitar, keyboard
David Kimberling: trumpet, flugelhorn, baritone horn
Peter Lacques: harmonica
Joe Kyle Jr: bass
Bruce Kaphan: percussion

After graduating from high school, I worked through the summer in order to go to Europe. My aims were to hitchhike around, have magical experiences, fall in love, find truth, and write songs—not necessarily in that order. Near the end of my time in Europe I went to the island of Hydra in Greece, where I stopped to write some songs. In those days, Hydra was beautiful, relatively primitive, and amazingly inexpensive. It had been discovered by artists from America and northern Europe in the 1950s, and was serving as an artist colony. Leonard Cohen owned a house there. I used to go to a waterfront café every morning and work on songs. “Poppa John” was one of them. It’s an allegory of a situation I was familiar with in my high school. It takes up the theme of the-powers-that-be suppressing and eliminating all those who try to do good. It’s one of two songs that Judy Irving has made films for. This one won’t be available until the book is published.

I wrote the song as a finger-picked folk-blues. Having abandoned finger picking long ago, I worked up a strummed version with more advanced chords than the song originally had. This is the first song I recorded, the one where I discovered that using just voice and acoustic guitar wasn’t doing it for me. So I added a simple electric piano part to give the song some chunky bottom. Then I got the idea to put on horns, played by my friend, David Kimberling. David is a street player who loves to improvise. We had him play three separate horn parts—on trumpet, flugelhorn, and baritone—that he made up on the spot without referencing what he’d done before. In other words, each time he recorded he listened in the playback only to my acoustic guitar, voice, and piano. The results were brilliant. It gave the song a ragged and raucous New Orleans feel. Bruce Kaphan added a tambourine to keep the street thing going, and Peter Lacques later added some blues harp. After all that, we recorded Joe Kyle Jr. on bass. It’s one of my favorite tracks.