Thursday, July 19, 2012

Face on the Barroom Floor


By this time each day, several bushels of culture have settled down on the High Plains.  Photo courtesy of Rick Palmer, Amarillo, Texas
      Many of you are unaware that Lubbock is the center of a vast area of culture.  Artists and writers, musicians and poets pass over Lubbock with regularity, going from New York to Los Angeles, or Miami to San Francisco, and back.  With all this culture floating around and permeating the air in Lubbock, I was exposed to worldly literature and classic poetry at an early age.
     In 1959, Tex Ritter recorded an album titled “Blood on the Saddle”.  One of the tunes on the album was “The Face on the Barroom Floor.”   Tex recorded the ballad in poetry form, using his unique and magnificent voice.   The only accompaniment was a rinkey-tink player piano in the background.  The finished piece is poignant and dramatic, truly a work of art.  My heart had just been broken by the love of my life---I forget her name---and the sadness of the work resonated with my mood at the time.  I quickly committed the poem to memory and still recite it occasionally, usually after a few sips of good whisky and a lot of prompting.
     I will include the poem here, in essay form, with apologies for any little deviations from the original. I’ll italicize the poem and leave my comments in regular font, so you won’t get confused about who’s talking.  If you want to skip my editorial comments, you can get a better feel for the poem if you read it through, without breaking it up.

T’was a balmy summer evening and a goodly crowd was there, which well-nigh filled Joe’s Barroom, on the corner of the square.  And as songs and witty stories drifted through the open door a vagabond crept slowly in and posed upon the floor.  “Where did it come from?” Someone said.  “The wind has blown it in.”  “What does it want?” Another cried, “Some whiskey, rum or gin?  Here, Toby, seek him if your stomach’s equal to the work.  I wouldn’t touch him with a fork.  He’s filthy as a Turk.”  This badinage the poor wretch took with stoical good grace.  In fact, he smiled as though he thought he’d struck the proper place.  “Come boys, I know there’s kindly hearts among so good a crowd.   To be in such good company would make a deacon proud.”

“Give me a drink, that’s what I want.  I’m out of funds, you know.  When I had the cash to treat the gang, this hand was never slow.  What? You laugh as though you thought this pocket never held a sou; I once was fixed as well, my boys, as any one of you.”

     John Henry Titus probably wrote the poem.  He published a version of it in the Ashtabula, Ohio, “Sentinel” in 1872.   It is said that Titus wrote over 1800 poems, but this one is the only one to become famous.   It was claimed in 1887 by Hugh Antoine D’Arcy, an actor, who published a version in the New York “Dispatch.”  Some say the setting was the “Corner Bar” on Union Square in New York City, but D’Arcy claimed it was Joe Smith’s Bar at the corner of 14th Street and 4th Avenue in New York.  Some of you who live in New York could let me know if Union Square is located at 14th and 4th, which would help clear up the location.  Now, the vagabond has finished his drink:

There, thankee; that braced me nicely.  God bless you one and all; Next time I pass this good saloon, I’ll make another call.  Give you a song?  No, I can’t do that, my singing days are past; My voice is cracked, my throat’s worn out, and my lungs are going fast.  Say!  Give me another whiskey and I’ll tell you what I’ll do---I’ll tell you a funny story, and a fact, I promise, too.  That ever I was a decent man, not one of you would think; But I was, some four or five years back.  Give me another drink.
“Fill her up, Joe, I want to put some life into my frame---Such little drinks to a bum like me are miserably tame; Five fingers there, that’s the scheme, and cork and whiskey too.  Well, here’s luck boys; and landlord, my best regards to you.

      Old Tex does a masterful job, setting up the story and allowing the drunk to take over the saloon.  He came in begging for a drink, now he’s demanding a full glass.  He has decided there is more whiskey here for the taking, so he starts to confide in the group, certainly not overlooking the landlord.

“You’ve treated me pretty kindly, and I’d like to tell you how I came to be the dirty sot you see before you now.  As I told you, once I was a man, with muscle, frame and health, and, but for a blunder, ought to have made considerable wealth.  I was a painter---oh, not one that daubs on bricks and wood, but an artist, and for my age, was rated pretty good. I worked hard at my canvas and was bidden fair to rise, and gradually, I saw the star of fame before my eyes.  I made a picture, perhaps you’ve seen, “tis called the ‘Chase of Fame.’  It brought me fifteen hundred pounds and added to my name.

      Those of you who know me will remember that I was a painter that “daubed on bricks and wood,” back then.  That may well be one reason the story had such appeal for me.  Tex has his audience hanging on every word.  And now, the plot thickens:

“And then, I met a woman---now comes the funny part---With eyes that petrified my brain and sunk into my heart.  Why don’t you laugh?  “Tis funny that the vagabond you see could ever love a woman and expect her love for me.  But “twas so, and for a month or two her smiles were freely given, and when her loving lips touched mine, it carried me to heaven.  Boys, did you ever see a woman for whom your soul you’d give, with a form like the Milo Venus, too beautiful to live; With eyes that would beat the Koh-i-noor, and a wealth of chestnut hair?  If so, ‘twas she, for there never was another half so fair.
The face of Edna Juanita Davis on the floor at the Teller House in Central City, Colorado.

      In the Teller House, in Central City, Colorado, there is a painting of a beautiful woman on the barroom floor.  It was painted by an artist named Herndon Davis in 1936.  He had been hired by a group to paint scenes of early Central City at the opera house and had been fired for “artistic” disagreements.  Mr. Davis decided to leave something for the committee to “remember him by.”  After the bar closed at midnight, a bellhop named Jimmy Libby held a candle and Davis did an oil painting of his wife, Nita, in the center of the hotel barroom floor.  Herndon Davis finished the portrait at 3:00 am, but did not sign it.  His wife, Edna Juanita Davis was at home in Denver, 1323 Kalamath Street, at the time.  Back to Tex’s story:

I was working on a portrait one afternoon in May, of a fair haired boy, a friend of mine, who lived across the way.   Madeline admired it, and much to my surprise, said she would like to know the man that had such dreamy eyes.  Well, it didn’t take long to know him, and before the month had flown my friend had stole my darlin’ and I was left alone; and ere a year of misery had passed above my head, the jewel I had treasured so had tarnished, and was dead.
That’s why I took to drink, boys. Why, I never saw you smile, I thought you’d be amused and laughing all the while.  Why, what’s the matter friend?  There’s a teardrop in your eye.  Come, laugh like me; ‘tis only babes and women that should cry.

     The owner of the Teller House decided to preserve the portrait Davis had done, and someone associated it with the old poem, which, by then,  had three different names.  John Henry Titus apparently named his original work “The Face upon the Floor”, a name that D’Arcy adopted. Later, a music publisher called it “The Face on the Barroom Floor” to escape copyright problems and someone else called it “The Face upon the Barroom Floor,” possibly for the same reason.  There were several lawsuits over the work.  Let’s get the poor guy another drink---

Say, boys, if you give me another whiskey, I’ll be glad, and I’ll draw right here a picture of the face that drove me mad.  Give me that piece of chalk with which you mark the baseball score---You shall see the lovely Madeline upon the barroom floor.
Another drink, and with chalk in hand, the vagabond began to sketch a face that might well buy the soul of any man.  Then, as he placed another lock upon the shapely head, with a fearful shriek, he leaped, and fell across the picture---dead.

     Tex’s rendition of the poem is outstanding.  Hank Snow recorded it in 1968, but his version is second or third fiddle when compared to Tex.  I expect that Burl Ives could have done a decent job with it.  If you’d like to hear the poem, both Tex and Hank’s versions of the work are on this computer---just Google the title.  Hoards of tourists have seen Herndon Davis’s work on the floor of the Teller House, and many believe that the story took place there.
     Lubbock has been growing as a cultural center, thanks primarily to several good people who are giving back to the community.  I would like to cover some of that culture here later.  Oh,  one other thing---about the girl who broke my heart all those many years ago---she knows very well that I haven’t forgotten her name.


  1. I have heard a lot of bits and pieces of that poem throughout my life, but never the whole thing at once. Thanks Dad its a good one.

    1. Paul---
      You heard the bits and pieces because I quoted them a lot while you were growing up. If I had been a better father, I guess I would have quoted Shakespeare and carried you to the ballet and opera instead of dragging you to all those Barbeque Cookoffs. I'll try to do better next time. YOSD (Your Own Sweet Dad)