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Low Bridge: Folk Musician Tyler Bagwell's Search for What it Means to be a Songwriter from Buffalo

(EDITOR’S NOTE —Tyler Bagwell is a folk singer and storyteller whose music paints murals of characters and events from Buffalo’s past in a way that brings yesterday alive today. One of those characters is Buffalo boxing legend Jimmy Slattery, whose rise and fall is one our city’s greatest and saddest tales. The song, ‘Slats,’ which has not yet been released, is part of a new batch of original music Tyler is writing for a forthcoming album. Recently, he spoke with 1120 Press about all that’s going on, and we’re thankful for his time. You can also hear his music HERE.)

1120: Thank you for taking time to speak with us. You have a new song titled ‘Slats,’ about Jimmy Slattery, the 1930 light heavy-weight champion of the world. He’s not only a Buffalo hero — especially in the First Ward — but perhaps one of our most tragic figures. He’s such a cool subject for a song. What attracted you to him?

TB: When I did (the songs) ‘Low Bridge’ and ‘Smugglers of Buffalo’ — (which you can hear at the bottom of this page) — it was part of a project that when I moved back here, I started really thinking about songwriting and what it means to be a songwriter who lives here and is working here at this time, or anytime.

I started compiling lists by Willie Nile, Dyke & The Blazers, Rick James, the Goo Goo Dolls and all the other artists from Buffalo. Because most of what I do is folk music, it was natural to go back to the 1800s and start looking at those songs, too. I put together a collection of songs that became a lecture at the History Museum that was ‘Buffalo’s First 100 Years through Contemporary Songs from the 1800s’ … popular songs like ‘Low Bridge’ and ‘Buffalo Gals,’ and McKinley assassination songs, and then there were a mix of things that either had never been recorded or never been completely seen through.

That was the start of a number of similar projects, and I did a lecture at the History Museum on Buffalo’s Irish heritage. A lot of the research I do is digging through newspapers trying to find lost songs that had never been recorded, or sparsely played, and I was trying to find a song about Jimmy Slattery. He was such an interesting person — just his story in general. So, when I was compiling these historic songs, I couldn’t find one about him. His story is important and I wanted to include that, so I wrote a song that I could shoehorn into the lecture. When I was writing the song, I was reading Richard Blake’s book ‘Slats,’ and when I was reading the book and writing, I was seeing a lot of myself in (Slattery). So that was a lot of what made me gravitate toward writing about him. I was also watching boxing movies just to find the tone. And the thing that occurs in every boxing movie is they are just great vessels for storytelling.

1120: When you write a song like this, about a figure from the past, is there an aim or intention beyond the songwriting? Like in the case of Jimmy Slattery, are you trying to resurrect him in a sense?

TB: In the historical work I do, I try to use these sort-of romanticized times or people or events and correlate them to a current issue or something that’s universally relatable. With Jimmy Slattery, the two things that were probably most helpful were reading Richard Blake’s book and watching Cinderella Man. They’re both the same time period. Jimmy Braddock had fought Jimmy Slattery and said later that Jimmy Slattery was the best fighter he ever fought. And there’s a really poignant moment in that movie where they’re trying to talk Braddock out of the fight because he is about to fight Max Baer who had killed two people in the ring. He brushed it off and says, ‘Are you trying to tell me my job’s dangerous? Go down to the docks. People are dying down there every day. You just haven’t found a way to make money off the people dying on the docks for entertainment.’ That’s something that will always resonate. I work in a brewery and do asbestos abatement insulation and it’s fascinating interacting with other laborers all day: truck drivers, construction workers, electricians. When you’re on that level with people and talking to them, the general consensus is all the people who are working to make the world function on the most basic level, nobody gives a shit about them at all, and it’s glaringly obvious to the people doing it and, yet, they still get up and go to work every day.

1120: And that, to us, is what folk music does: It recognizes the role played by ordinary people.

TB: Yeah.

1120: Jimmy Slattery’s death was awful, and parts of Rich Blake’s book were hard to read. In the end, he died alone on Chippewa Street.

TB: Well, he passed out. He was in a Brinkworth-owned bar. That bar was owned by Frank Brinkworth and it was the House of Quinn on Chippewa. A couple of his friends took him across the street to a hotel flop house where he was staying at, on the corner of Chippewa and Franklin. And then the next day, a bunch of people hadn’t heard from him. They went to go check on him in the hotel and he was dead on the floor from a mix of tuberculosis, alcoholism and (the toll from) boxing.

1120: We want to ask about your vocal approach on ‘Slats.’ If Jimmy’s turbulent life had a sound to it, your voice would have been it. Was that deliberate?

TB: Well, that’s how I sing everything, but certainly I was trying to put myself in his situation. There’s an intentional part in the writing where part of it’s in the first person and part of it’s in the third person, but it’s all the same perspective — where he as the narrator is talking about himself while at the same time being on the outside.

1120: Your vocal approach to your music overall is striking. It has this urgency and desperation to it, where every time you sing a song, it sounds like you have this feeling that it’s the last song you are ever going to sing. It always comes across with a sense of urgency and emotion. Is this because of the way you envision the topics you are singing about?

TB: Yeah, a little bit. A lot of my songs are about similar subject matters. But that specific notion of performing — when Jon Stewart inducted Bruce Springsteen for the Kennedy Center Honors there’s a part in his speech where he talks about why Springsteen is such a great performer and one of the things he says is, ‘He always empties the tank. Whatever he’s doing, whether it’s one song or a three-hour performance, you know at the end of it that the tank is empty.’ That’s something, when possible, I try to adhere to.

1120: Buffalo’s past provides such a fertile ground for folk singers, but it seems like it’s present does too. Has that been tapped by folk artists?

TB: Absolutely. There’s no coincidence in that I started, and was in the middle of writing ‘Slats,’ when the Bills-Cincinnati game happened, and Damar Hamlin went down. At the time, I was reading all these things about boxing and people dying in the ring and how badly the athletes were treated. It seemed abysmal. And then looking up from the book and watching a game where it was happening, and the NFL’s treatment of that whole situation, it just pulled the façade away of athletes being celebrities and that they’re important and cared about. No, they’re just workers like everybody else and if somebody dies on the football field — the same as if somebody dies on a construction site — who cares; get them out of the way and everybody get back to work.

1120: Do you consider yourself a storyteller?

TB: Yeah, certainly. I would probably think of myself that way before anything else because the narrative to me is often more important than the other components… I’m a middling-to-OK musician. So, it’s the storytelling, the narrative, the content of songwriting that’s the most important thing to me.

1120: Speaking of stories, what’s the story behind recording a song such as ‘Low Bridge’ (the historical folk song about the Erie Canal)?

TB: I was living in Chicago for a while and moving back here, ‘Low Bridge’ I sort of internalized it as an anthem because it’s a song about returning to Buffalo. It’s a song about working on the canal but the gist of the song is it came around toward the end of the 1800s when the Tow Path, the Barge Canal, was being replaced and they were widening it out for steamboats. The days of the canallers and the mules were being replaced by steamboats, and so there was this whole set of people and occupations whose jobs were going away, and they were returning home here where they were from… So, when I moved back here, it was sort of a guiding song.

1120: Is there a role for the folk singer in society beyond the song and performance?

TB: Yeah sure. Look at down the street when Billy Bragg showed up and sang at Starbucks in support of the workers (who were organizing) and stood in solidarity with them. I look at the people who influenced me, from Woody Guthrie to Bill Bragg and everybody in between, Springsteen and Dylan — there’s all varying degrees of activism and actual action taken.

1120: So, what’s on the horizon for you?

TB: I’m playing at Eugene Debs Hall on Labor Day. I have the Niagara Celtic Festival and lecture (Sept 16.) As for the Slats song, I have an album of original music I’m working on which that song is part of. It’s half-way written and I have no real timeline on it because writing is hard, but …it’s sort of the culmination of looking at Buffalo as a place and trying to figure out what being a songwriter here means, as I mentioned to you earlier, and I got off on this weird tangent where I started doing the folk music history thing and I started writing historical nonfiction for magazines.

1120: Sounds like there’s more than enough on your plate. Anything else you want to add before we wrap up?

TB: No, I don’t think so. We covered a lot of ground. It was a good talk.


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