The Last Honest Folk Song was written by Chris Beneke in Prague. Chris Beneke had a terrible crush on Stella Groves, who lived upstairs from me and down the hall in the Hotel Dům in the Modřany district of Prague.
We were very much in the outskirts of Prague. If you didn’t look at all the gray buildings, and focused on the empty roads, instead, you could almost pretend you were in the outskirts of Topeka, Kansas, if you really wanted to do that.
Chris Beneke never knew where we lived, or, more importantly, where Stella lived, and I doubt she ever would have told him. This is because despite Chris Beneke’s honest intentions, Stella fancied Matthew Salt, who really did learn Czech and could even argue with people in pubs, which I always admired.
The first time I ever met Chris Beneke, it was at another pub, and I was pretending to have an English accent. But as I tell you this am realizing that this is a totally different story, and I should stop now and continue it later. But I saw Chris Beneke many times during my outings with the ex-pat social elite of Prague. This isn’t that impressive. It is not like we had many options. There were only a few English language bookstores, and these, plus the Beefstew Poetry Readings or English language plays or blues music were our only outlets for socialization, because anything else, gads, required learning a second language.
Stella was a Cambridge graduate who had lived in Slovakia for a six months before moving to the Hotel Dům, with the rest of us English teachers there to make a difference in the lives of people who really didn’t need our help. We were the foreigners, after all. Stella’s cheeks were rosey pink, and she wore her bobbed blond hair in a pony tail. Her clothes were trendy and hip, chordoroy even, and she wore round tortoise shelled glasses and a different colored scarf each day of the month. She sang in an a capella group called Foreign Currency, and laughed at most of my jokes.
She was practically famous. Chris Beneke was madly in love with her, but who wasn’t. But unlike us, he never disguised his infatuation.
Unfortunately, Stella missed his performance of his tribute song to her at the Beefstew Poetry Reading, a weekly affair in the Club Radost, which was downstairs, in the basement. Upstairs, there was a vegan café where after the reading we would sit and drink beer and eat alcohol absorbant meatless foods that were actually quite palatable, and I think I recall that we also said many important things, being the ex-pats that we were in Prague. We were a part of a very important artistic movement.
I wasn’t really a part of that movement. I merely watched the movement. I never recited poetry or anything at the Beefstew Poetry Reading, but I dutifully went once a week.
What else was I going to do.
Some of it was actually very good. And some of it was what you might expect from Americans living in a former Communist country, where rent and beer is really cheap, and probably no one in the audience would ever see them again, anyway, so what the heck, why not go up there and read about one’s mystical writings composed on the train ride from Berlin, on the side of a brown paper sack, coming off of some acid trip, maybe. Prague was a place for rebirth. Thought pregnant travelers would stop in Prague and give birth right in front of us.
As I sit
the grass tickles my toes
and the sun’s rays beam directly into my eyes
I think I’m going blind.
Things like that.
Chris Beneke was a regular performer, and this particular night, he sang a song about Stella. I think he was hoping she would be there. What if she had been there, could she have handled the scandle? But no, she wasn’t. This left Elenka and me to carry on with out her. We were shocked.
Once it was apparent just what the song was about — Stella, guitar strum strum, I really wanna guitar strum ‘ya, Elenka and I grabbed each other and shrieked. I do not know Elenka’s true sentiment at the time, but, speaking only for myself, there was nothing that made me more giddy than this tune because the lyrics were witty and the audience was laughing, but only three people in the room knew what that song was about.
It was like he was singing it just to me.
“Oh my God, what do we do?” I said, in a voice that was intended to indicate that this was possibly the most awful thing to ever happen to anyone, ever. I mean, the weight of this knowledge, that we knew this person, was too much to bear, and I could only hope that it came through in the quivering of my voice. I needed people around me to hear that I knew this person. This would make me sound interesting and popular. But no one was paying attention.
“Oh my God, we have to tell Stella. This is terrible.”
“I’m serious, just she’s going to die when she finds out.”
“This is, like, the worst thing that could ever happen,” said Elenka.
“What are you talking about,” said Ian McGonagle. I must have bumped into him. He was from Scotland, and I am actually translating for you what he said from the Scottish to English. What he really said was unintelligable. I had a horrible crush on him. He had long hair, leather jacket, and I rarely truly understood what he said. I loved him. He was so mysterious to me. I wanted him to hear our drama. Then he’d recognize how important we were, that we knew personally the subject of that song. Then our love would be mutual.
“That song! It’s about Stella!”
“I’d do her,” said Ian.
That is not really what he said, but the Scottish equivalent. There is no direct translation. And it is unpronouncable and unspellable, but that is generally what he meant.
Elenka and I rushed the stage. She bought Chris Beneke’s cassette, available for sale for only 270 korun.
We took it home to Elenka’s house, where she lived with her grandparents. The next morning, we loaded the cassette into the player on the table. Chris Beneke’s guitar strumming filled the kitchen, while Elenka’s grandfather prepared the brussel sprouts. It must have been late morning to be preparing brussel sprouts.
Oh, no, not brussel sprouts. Please, don’t make me eat brussel sprouts. Those were my thoughts during the introductory guitar strums.
“This one’s called The Last Honest Folk Song,” I told Elenka. Stella wasn’t listed. That was a one-night stand, I guess. Just for us.
Underneath your sweater
Life’s choices couldn’t be better.
I like your nipples, I ain’t lyin’.
I don’t care who’s dyin’.
“That has a nice melody,” said Elenka’s grandfather who did not speak English. He tapped his fingers to the beat. We never saw Chris Beneke again.