Like Desperados Waiting on a Train
Part 3 of 6
by Joe W. Specht
The evocative lyric from Guy Clark’s classic song turns out to be, on deeper inspection, a tribute to the oil patch and one of its veterans. Explore this and more gems from the mostly unmined body of work that some call “oil patch music,” as we unfold Part III.
James Edwin “Jim” Worley was born in Lubbock, Texas, in 1942. His father was a welder, and the family moved the next year to Andrews. Oil patch jobs were more than plentiful in Andrews County, located in the heart of the Permian Basin, with oil company camps scattered throughout the area. Since 1929, there had been a steady string of discoveries in the county, but the 1940s proved especially productive with the Fullerton, Ember, Midland Farm, Mabee, Dollarhide, and Bedford fields all coming into play.
Prior to graduating from Andrews High School in 1960, Worley worked summers for an oil field supply company. He attended Odessa College and Texas Tech University and was a contract roustabout for various independent oil companies before joining Pan American Petroleum, a subsidiary of Amoco, in 1964. Here the company assigned him to an assortment of jobs in and around Andrews, including sites in eastern New Mexico. After a two year stint in the U.S. Army (1967-1969) serving as helicopter crew chief, Worley returned to Andrews and Amoco. He remained with the company until he retired in 1995.
Worley explained, “I never worked as a roughneck, but I did spend some time on the drilling floor.” For much of his career, he was a gang foreman, later promoted to field foreman, for pipeline construction and repair. These were the “flow lines” that connected producing wells to storage tanks, an essential task for the orderly transfer of the crude. He eventually put all of these on the job experiences to good use when composing his own working man’s tribute entitled “Hard Hat” (Shin-Oak A4KM-8326).
In an interview with the Midland Reporter-Telegram, Worley described “Hard Hat” as “an entry level oil field song.” And Jim doesn’t waste any time in pulling the listener into the oil patch milieu.
“Got a job this morning, they call me roustabout
On the job ten minutes when they started in to shout
Ho, you hard hat, you better get that
‘Cause I gotta take up the slack
You’ll be draggin’ out your tracks
‘Cause you’re a hard hat, you’re a hard hat.”
Worley provides concrete descriptions, free of allusion or ambiguity. His roustabout, argot for an unskilled manual laborer, is expected to adapt quickly: “Layin’ down a pipeline, 36 and 24 / Gotta mad gang pusher always yellin’ out for more.” “36 and 24” is a reference to the size of the pipe wrench, 36 inches and 24 inches, used to string the line from well to storage tank. Even though a roustabout does not work on the drilling floor, his duties can also entail setting up the rig: “Riggin’ up a derrick, getting’ set up to drill / Driller starts in screamin’, I’m about to get my fill.” As a worker “at the bottom end of the totem pole,” there’s no doubt who’s in charge when the driller admonishes, “Well, you’re not out here to play / And if you want to stay, you’ll be doing things my way / ‘Cause you’re a hard hat, you’re a hard hat.” The roustabout accepts his fate with stoic pride: “With this hard hat on my head, I earn my daily bread / They’ll work me ’til I’m dead / ‘Cause I’m a hard hat, I’m a hard hat.”
An additional verse, not included on the record, speaks further to the hard hat’s sense of self-worth and bravado: “I go on a party, don’t wear no tie or tails / Put on my cowboy shirt and clean my fingernails.” And true to the roustabout’s stereotypical reputation for enjoying the night life, “I go out when I have time, the girls don’t seem to mind / They think it’s just fine that I’m a hard hat, I’m a hard hat.” Jim decided to omit this verse in order to keep the record’s playing time at a radio-friendly 2:14 minutes.
The hard hat itself has become a symbol of sorts for American labor, particularly the building construction trade. Designed and patented in 1919 to protect miners from falling objects, the composition of the “Hard-Boiled Hat” has evolved from steamed canvas and glue, to steel, to aluminum, to fiberglass, to thermoplastics. Metal helmets appeared in the Texas oil field as early as 1920 at the Humble Refinery in Baytown. But as a retired roughneck told petroleum historian Samuel D. Myres, “We didn’t have iron hats [in the early days] just old felt hats, so we put a bunch of newspapers in the top of those hats.” By the early 1930s, to minimize accidents and injuries, employers had begun to place greater emphasis on safety in the patch. Steel hats became the norm for headgear.
Worley recorded “Hard Hat,” along with the flipside “Practice Makes Perfect,” in 1972 at the AOK Studio in Odessa with Bob Caudle handling production along with lead guitar duties. He planned to send a demo to Nashville in hopes of catching the ear of an established performer, but Caudle encouraged Jim to put it out on his own. Worley then had 1,000 copies of the single pressed on the Shin-Oak label. He took the name, Shin-Oak, from the Havard Shin Oak (Quercus havardii), a scrub that grows and thrives in the sandy plains of West Texas, a zone known locally as the Shinnery.
“I sold some copies [of “Hard Hat”], gave some away,” Jim laughed, “Now I don’t even have one of my own.” Copies circulated overseas, too. In the early 1970s, petroleum exploration and discovery in the North Sea was thriving with the Norwegian continental shelf a prime target. “Hard Hat” received air play on Norwegian radio, and for several years, Worley earned performance royalties from the Land of the Midnight Sun. “Hard Hat” has even been included on two various artist albums produced in Holland, further proof of the song’s continuing popularity in Europe. Jim recorded two more of his compositions in 1973, “Long Cadillac Ride” backed with “Someone’s Child” (Spiral). He booked an occasional gig at the local VFW but never invested much time in a music career: “I made the songs up for my personal enjoyment.”
As for “Hard Hat,” the message resonated with many listeners. Worley noted, “People identified with it who wore the [hard] hat.” One observer described “Hard Hat” as “a late-blooming piece of Johnny Cashabilly.” Worley admits that there is a “touch of the Cash drive” in the melody, but “I [didn’t] want to sound like anybody else.” He does compare “Hard Hat” to other country music songs with blue collar themes, such as Cash’s “Busted” (written by Harlan Howard) and Merle Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues.” And “Hard Hat” is an excellent example of what folklorist and labor historian Archie Green characterized as “work’s many voices.” Still, as Jim emphasized to the reporter for the Midland newspaper, “There’s nothing philosophical about [the song] … it’s just for the working man.”
Although he’s been a resident of Nashville since 1972, Guy Clark continues to personify the best of the Texas singer-songwriter tradition. He came of age in Houston during the 1960s folk music revival along with Townes van Zandt and Mickey Newbury, and he mentored the likes of fellow Texans Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle. Clark’s own song catalog has also produced Top 10 hits for John Conlee, Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, and Steve Wariner.
Guy Clark was born in 1941 in Monahans, Texas, a town he described as “about halfway between Pecos and Odessa… It’s very small, and the whole economy is based on oil from the Twenties or before.” In fact, Ward County’s first producing well dates to 1928 and the No. 1 Havlett site in the Shipley field, located approximately a dozen miles south of Monahans. Guy’s grandmother, Rossie Clark, owned and ran the Clark Hotel, which catered to oil field workers employed in the area in addition to travelers passing through. One of the regulars was a driller named Jack Prigg. “There was a fellow who stayed at her hotel who was almost like a grandfather to me, except he was my grandmother’s boyfriend,” Clark explained. Prigg, who was born in 1886 in Pennsylvania, was a formative influence, especially in Guy’s early years.
According to Clark, “Jack Prigg worked for Gulf Oil Company all his life. Drilled the first oil wells in Venezuela and in the Middle East.” Gulf’s leases in Venezuela along the eastern shore of Lake Maracaibo began production in 1925, and the company established a presence the next year in Kuwait. Prior to shipping out overseas, Prigg honed his skills as a pumper circa 1910 in Washington County, Penn. The 1920 Census finds him in the Lone Star State handling the chores of a tool dresser on a cable tool drilling rig in boomtown Desdemona in Eastland County. By the early 1930s, Prigg was back in country in West Texas, where Gulf had played a prominent role since 1926, and he took up residence at the Clark Hotel in Monahans.
When Jack Prigg broke into the business, there were two methods of “making hole”—cable tool and rotary drilling. Simply put, a cable tool rig penetrates into a rock formation by repeatedly pounding up and down with a chisel-shaped bit attached to a steel cable. Rotary drilling utilizes a rotating bit connected to a drill stem or pipe. When rotary drilling commenced in the patch, an intense rivalry ensued between cable tool drillers and rotary drillers. Each group adopted “polite” nicknames for the other: “ropechokers” or “jarheads” for cable toolers and “swivelnecks” or “mudhogs” for rotary drillers.
In Elmer Kelton’s novel, Honor at Daybreak, set in fictional Caprock, Texas, the author has a warehouse clerk further explain the differences to would-be roustabout Slim McIntyre. “Well, if you can, try to get on with a jarhead crew and not one of those swivel-necks till you learn your way around,” the clerk advises. “Jarheads are the ones who work the old standard cable tool rigs. Swivel-necks are the rotary outfits. There’s too much goin’ with a rotary outfit; a man can get killed if he doesn’t know what he’s doin’.”
The simplicity of the cable tool operation made it possible for the work to get done with a three man crew—driller, tool dresser (“toolie”), and boiler man—or even just two men, with the toolie doubling up on the boiler. Rotary drilling required a five man crew: driller, derrick man, fireman or motor man, and two floor hands. In either case, an efficient driller had to be able to read his drilling fluid, and he had to literally have a feel for the job. Oil field historian and folklorist Bobby Weaver characterized the process “as much an art as an occupation. A good driller felt his way down through the earth toward awaiting oil and he knew when he was at the right point.” But by the early 1940s, and certainly with the conclusion of World War II, as drilling depths continued to drop below 4,000 feet where cable tools became less efficient, rotary drilling took over completely.
The longevity of Jack Prigg’s career as a driller with Gulf Oil (he didn’t retire until the early 1950s when health problems began to nag) spanned the era and offers ample proof of his professionalism and skill. A young Guy Clark had opportunities to tag along when Prigg inspected the drilling sites. Guy recalled, “I went to the rigs where a very early memory is of a gusher blowing the racking board right out of the derrick—you don’t see that sort of thing anymore because they have these things much more under control.” The elder gentleman took his protégé to company social events, too. “We used to go to the Gulf Days picnic in Odessa, in his ’38 Packard Coupe, and he’d drink beer all day. I drove the car home. I was nine or ten, driving back at 30 miles an hour.”
After Prigg’s death in 1970, he provided the inspiration for one of Clark’s most famous compositions, “Desperados Waiting for a Train.” As Guy recounted, “‘Desperados’ was one of the songs I knew I had to write… It’s as accurate as I can remember it, nearly word for word.” Later questioned by an interviewer for the local Monahans newspaper about taking “some artistic license” with the lyrics, Clark made it adamantly clear, “No, no, you can’t make this s— up!” “Desperados Waiting for a Train” has been recorded by various performers. Jerry Jeff Walker waxed the first version in 1973 for his Viva Terlingua! album (MCA 382), and the song is included on Clark’s 1975 debut, the critically acclaimed Old No. 1 (RCA APL1-1303).
“I’d play the Red River Valley
And he’d sit in the kitchen and cry
And run his fingers through 70 years of livin’
And wonder Lord, has every well I drilled run dry
We was friends me and this old man
Like desperados waiting for a train”
The story of the mutual respect and love between a boy and a grandfather figure, whom Guy remembered in real life as “a crusty old bachelor who lived life on his own terms,” blends souvenirs of the past with the realities of the present: growing up for one, growing old for the other. It is the references to the oil field that are important for our purposes. The lingering question “Has every well I drilled run dry?” certainly fits the theme, too. The cyclical nature of the petroleum business—boom and bust, gusher and dry hole—matches that of life itself. The word “desperado” also conjures up various impressions. But a line in the second verse is unambiguous, and the old man’s true identity is never in doubt: “He’s a drifter and a driller of oil wells.” Clark not only preserved his memories of Jack Prigg, then, but he also etched the image of an itinerant driller roaming the patch vividly into the listener’s mind.
The ever-perceptive labor historian Archie Green astutely tied these oily strands together. The front cover of Old No. 1 features a photograph of Guy standing next to his wife Susanna’s painting of his chambray work shirt. The singer is also attired in similar fashion. Dr. Green, who taught at the University of Texas in Austin in the mid-1970s, saw Clark perform on several occasions: “Guy in concert is flashy in neither dress nor mannerisms; his denim shirt is more appropriate to a drilling platform than a collegiate bar. But his powerful songs span seminar room and rotary rig…”
Joe W. Specht is at work on Smell That Sweet Perfume: Oil Patch Songs on Record, a project focusing on commercially recorded songs with petroleum-related themes as sung/written by performers with roots in the Gulf-Southwest. If you have a song that fits, contact him at email@example.com.