Tribute: Larger Than Life

Remembering Shaky Jake Woods

    icon Oct 04, 2007
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"The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth."       -Jean Cocteau

With the recent passing of Shaky Jake Woods, Michigan has lost a legendary character - an icon that will loom as large in folklore as Paul Bunyan, only wielding a different type of axe.

For younger generations unfamiliar with this wandering troubadour, street musician, jokester & philosopher, Jake Woods was a colorful force - a one-man road show - that wandered the streets of Downtown Saginaw from the mid-sixties until 1973, when local record store owner Fred Reif took him to Ann Arbor to perform at the 1st Annual Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival.

Always adorned in his trademark 3-piece suits with kaleidoscopic colors, a pork-pie hat and dark sunglasses, his constant companion was a beat-up acoustic guitar (that often had only 2-strings) and the legions of children and people shopping on the streets with whom he would readily strike up bizarre conversations while serenading them with song fragments that would materialize in his head, and just as quickly disappear.

Shaky Jake was a simple man and a revolutionary man because he lived life on his own terms. He was a consummate marketer, busking for tips that people would randomly throw into his guitar case, and selling tons of T-shirts and 'I Brake For Jake' bumper stickers that made their way across the country. Despite his deeply honed persona, Jake did rely upon the kindness of strangers, but this was enough to enable him to cover the cost of renting rooms and later to live in public housing.

He was featured in national publications like the now defunct Detroit based Creem Magazine. And whenever he stepped inside a local store (like the old Marshall Music on Federal Street) or into a restaurant for breakfast or lunch, it was if a rock star had walked into the room.

According to Felicia Epps, a property manager for the Ann Arbor Housing Commission, he was 82 years old and lived on Social Security.  According to Chera Tramontin, whose mother opened Kilwin's Chocolate Shoppe on Liberty Street in Ann Arbor in 1983, Woods was the first person to visit the new shop. "It wasn't that he wanted a hand out," she noted in the Ann Arbor News, "because he wanted to go out and work and he was working, out playing his music."

Former Saginawian Fred Reif (owner of the now defunct Black Kettle Records, and an accounts payable clerk for the University of Michigan forged a unique & lifelong relationship with Shaky Jake.

"I first met him sometime back in the mid-sixties and can't really put a date on it," recalls Reif. "He always seemed to be around. I do know that on May 6, 1969, I did my first recorded interview with Jake on the front lawn of the house I was living at on Washington Avenue in Saginaw, across the street from the Post Office, although now it's a parking lot."

"It as about an hour of just craziness - jokes, one after another, then a 30-second song, usually made up on the spot, then more jokes and songs. By the end we were all rolling on the ground laughing."

Among his claims: That he had been around the world dozens of times but never in an airplane. That he had a dozen bodyguards who watched out for him constantly but couldn't be seen by other people. That he only slept two hours a night. And that he was born on Halloween and was 104 years old.

"When I worked downtown Saginaw in 1972 at The Record Hut on Genesee, he would come into the shop on a daily basis," continues Reif. "I would always listen to what he had to say because it made sense to me. He would say, 'I am a simple man, yea, the Lord made me a simple man, but hey, I loves to clown and make the peoples happy." "I remember him saying, 'Hey Fred, I just had 1,000 people at the Kroger parking lot on Genesee," and then burst out laughing.

In 1973 Reif produced the Special Detroit R&B Show at the '73 Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival and he went down for a meeting in Ann Arbor to meet with co-producer of the festival, John Sinclair.

"I mentioned Jake to them and they all loved the idea of bringing him down for the show," recalls Reif. "I told Jake it would be a 10-minute spot and he would get paid. "Let's go," he said. We drove down and I remember Jake not sleeping the night before the show. When it was time to go to the festival Jake couldn't wait to get out of the car."

"At show time Jake was introduced as 'An itinerant street singer from Saginaw, Michigan' with Mac Collins and his band. Jake went right into his first song, which I think was 'Baby Love' and then went into a joke. He made up songs right on the spot and then said, 'Hippies laying in the grassŠ.and you don't know what you doin'."

"The 10,000 fans went wild - who was this man? After a huge audience response he walked to the back of the stage and the female groupies and festival workers began to hug him and he couldn't believe it. This was live on NPR stations all across the nation. At that point he said, 'Fred, I ain't ever goin' back to Saginaw."

Even though Jake made the streets of Ann Arbor his home, he would return to Saginaw on many occasions. Reif recalls once he came to visit and said, "Fred, what time is it? Ten minutes ago I was on State Street in Ann Arbor." 

"I would ask, Jake, how did you do that?" continues Reif. "And he would say, 'No, I can't tell ya that. The Lord told me don't tell anyone how I hitch hike."

Reif also recalls times when Jake would get into Saginaw after hitch hiking down US23/US75 and the police would stop him to find out where he was going.

"He would sometimes tell them he was coming over to my house for dinner," notes Reif. "My ex-wife or I would always tell them, "Yes, he is and what is the problem?  That used to make me so mad when Saginaw police would stop him for no reason like that."

"After I moved to Ann Arbor in 1991, Jake was an icon in the streets of this great college town, " he concludes. "Everyone had a Jake story. He was very successful making his living selling t-shirts, tapes, posters, photos, bumper stickers, post cards, even yo-yos."

"I think Jake appealed to us because he seemed to be happy all the time and he could put a smile on your face. For a few short moments, you could forget the troubles of the world."

"Jake had a philosophy, 'My job is to have fun and enjoy myself and to make the people happy."

"He was a harmless man, a clown, a philosopher, and a hard working man in his craft. I think he was blessed with charisma and that people just had to see what he was about. He definitely was the most recognizable resident in Ann Arbor."

"It's the end of an era, but his fans will always remember him."

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