One of Baltimore’s most recognizable street musicians turns suffering into song
Published: July 25, 2012
Merdalf sways, head flung back, oblivious to the crowds milling around him on a Sunday morning at the market in the shadow of the JFX as he strums his paint-splattered acoustic guitar and sings about the sunrise and the eyes of a woman. “Most of my songs are about one woman,” says the 58-year-old busker. “I was stupid and fucked up and lost her.”
“I call myself Merdalf,” he says. “It’s a conglomeration of Merlin and Gandalf, because back in King Arthur days the wizard was an alchemist, and he took base metals and tried to change them to gold,” he says. “I’ve taken the sadness and pain of my life and turned it to gold by singing about it,” he says and begins to finger-pick a few notes.
It might seem odd for a black street musician to go to British fantasy for inspiration, but as a child, Merdalf considered himself British. “My father was stationed in England until I was 14,” he says. “I had culture shock returning. I’d never seen so many black people. We lived in the grassy suburbs in England, and I hung out with white people and was into the Rolling Stones and stuff.”
“I considered myself white. I was never called a nigger in England. We never even talked about slavery and shit in school over there. We talked about King Arthur,” he says, putting on a British accent. “But then we moved to West Baltimore. The concrete jungle in the summer. Then I knew I was black—white people don’t let you forget that. But I was still an outcast to both races. Listen to the music I play. You think that went over good with black people?”
Merdalf spent the early 1970s aboard an aircraft carrier in the Navy and spent some time drifting after that. “I’ve been a drug addict. I’ve been homeless. I’ve been locked up,” he says of his past. But then, when he was 50 years old, a friend gave him a guitar and showed him a couple of chords. “I wrote a song with those two chords,” he says, adding, “I’m a preacher. Not the religious kind. I have something to say. But ain’t nobody want to hear you talk that shit. But I noticed when I had a guitar, they’d listen.”
Merdalf says his message is love. “That’s it. Everything else is confusing. Take away the definition and everybody agrees. Love is,” he says. “But it is so hard to communicate. That’s what these songs do.”
Despite his message of love, Merdalf doesn’t claim to set a good example. “I am a fucked-up individual,” he says. “I sing love songs, but I’m not claiming to be a great guy. I’ve got one leg in the mud and one in life. It’s this music that keeps me from putting both legs in the mud. I don’t have kids, man. And if I don’t get this message out, the good in me will be interred with the bones.”
He had hopes for a family with the woman he can now only sing about. “Her father was my best friend. She was good, and he tried to keep me away.” But the couple got together anyway. And they were happy—for a while. “It was immaturity and craziness. I’m a bad man. I’ve been a bad man all my life,” he says, grinning a bit. “I got that bipolar shit. And when you don’t know you have it, that shit controls you.”
After the relationship fell apart, he hit the road again, traveling to busk in other cities. “I’ve played about 10 cities,” he says. “I just started doing this and hit the road. I was in St. Pete, Florida, for a while. Played there, played Key West.” All of his traveling helped Merdalf write what he feels is his most important song.
“People are so divided—Democrat and Republican, black and white, gay and straight, and it hurts me,” he says. As he sings his song “America,” he says he tries to at least address this divide: “America, can’t you see/ I need you?/ Can’t you see/ you need me?”
Since his return to Baltimore, Merdalf spends his time playing the Waverly Market, the Avenue in Hampden, and the JFX Farmers’ Market, trying to connect with people.
“I’m about to be done with it down here and just start playing the Avenue,” he says as the crowds swirl about him and another musician plays an amplified song in the distance. “I have an amplifier, too,” he says, shaking his head. “But it doesn’t come out the same. It’s the expression. I put my heart and soul into my music. The guitar and the melodies are just props for the message.”
He kneels down and begins to pick the crumpled bills and shining coins out of his open guitar case. “I used to be the only one down here. Now, it’s just too much commotion,” he says as he begins to count the money, occasionally yelling across the crowd to greet a friend before stuffing the money into his pocket.
“I usually make three times as much as this,” he says. “I can make $100 a day, but I’m too old to work it like that. For me, it’s more about community and connecting with people. I come to where I get to know their faces, they get to know me.”
With his distinctive cap and glasses and his expressive signing, it’s not surprising that Merdalf ended up featured in a local ad for Bank of America. “It paid good, for one day,” he says. “But you don’t hear my song; you just see me playing,” he adds, a bit ruefully.
Not long ago, he was busking in the Waverly Market when he heard his name. “It was her,” he says of the woman for whom he still pines. “We talked for a little while and then I wrote a new song.
“It’s about the pain and the sorrow, but it turns it into happiness when people see you playing it,” he says. “After everything I’ve done, I want people to see that, deep in my heart, I’m vulnerable and scared.” He takes up the guitar once more and beginning to pick, softly at first. Then his voice booms out, in a high tenor:
“Going through my life in lust not love/ She came to me from far above/ We tried to love/ not ready, I/ All we could do is say goodbye.”
Merdalf is acutely aware of his own failings, and he feels like that awareness helps him understand and communicate with the rest of us. “I know what the problem with humanity is,” he boasts, putting the guitar back in its case.
It is almost noon. He looks around at the customers streaming to their cars and the vendors packing up their wares. “Nobody wants to admit that they’re fucked up. Everybody is blaming someone else,” he says. “But it’s like a koan. The problem is there is no fucking problem.”
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