Singing about Secaucus Local musician tells of life on the back roads
by Rick Grossman Reporter staff writer
Sep 14, 2004 | 214 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
What do Secaucus and a famous television commercial have in common? Ask Joe "Backroad" McKay that question and he just may sing the answer to you.

Joe "Backroad" McKay, 57, is a singer-songwriter who also owns a Dumpster truck business. He was born and raised in Secaucus. He even carries a vintage book with him entitled "History of Secaucus," commemorating the 50th anniversary of Secaucus in 1950. He enjoys telling countless stories about Secaucus and the days of pig farmers.

He doesn't get his information from the book he carries around, though. He lived it.

When writing a song for his upcoming album, McKay didn't have to look further than Secaucus for a topic.

"I got to thinking about the Indian you see on T.V.," he said. "You see a commercial where people drive by in a car and throw garbage out the window and it makes the Indian cry. The Indian's real name, the guy who does the commercial, is Iron Eyes Cody, so I wrote a song called 'Iron Eyes Cody.' He's crying about the destruction of Laurel Hill."

McKay's music is rooted in the sounds of the late '50s and early '60s folk revival. He said, "I would say it's more traditional folk. People say I sound like Burl Ives. I don't think I do, but people tell me that. Maybe I may look like him."

McKay will be performing his folk music at three upcoming dates in the metropolitan area.

With the pigs

McKay's family had a pig farm on County Avenue. He always had an interest in songwriting but didn't know how to match his thoughts with his music. It wasn't until he attended a songwriter's workshop in the early 1990s called "Songwriting from the Heart" that he was able to find a creative process that worked for him.

McKay's idol, folk singer and former member of the Kingston Trio, John Stewart, taught the workshop. Stewart would use such techniques as meditation to facilitate the songwriting process.

McKay remembers sitting in a room with only the sounds of drum beats being played. He wrote down his thoughts in a stream of consciousness, went back to his tent, and wrote a song based on his thoughts. He went back, performed his song to the other participants, and it was well received.

Stuart shared a similar background with McKay and urged him to record his songs. He noticed that McKay's Secaucus history was a great source of information for a song.

Debut album

McKay's debut album, entitled "Backroad Joe," was released in 2001 and produced by Terrance Martin. McKay hopes to begin recording a new album in the near future. He wrote a number of songs that he is looking forward to recording. These new songs, much like the songs from "Backroad Joe," will be a reflective look into his past. He intends to name one of his songs "Ernie Landers' Farm." He describes it as a simple song about "quite a character." Landers owned a tract farm, also know as a vegetable farm, along County Avenue. The farm was used to produce such vegetables as lettuce and cabbage that were ultimately transported to New York.

Another song will be entitled "Child of Lady Liberty." It is a song about McKay's aunt, who lived in Jersey City. She took every child from McKay's family to see the Statue of Liberty.

On his debut album, McKay recorded a number of songs that reflected his Secaucus roots. "Chicken, Shorty and Cockeyed Joe" is an upbeat tempo song that tells the tale of the Secaucus "swiner priests." A swiner priest was a homeless person who was picked up at the bowery. Most were Eastern Europeans who did not speak much English. Many of the pig farmers hired them to work at the farm and they worked tasks such as cleaning the staples and shoveling manure.

Farmers paid the swiners little, if any money. Instead, farmers would give them shelter and sometimes food. With the little money that they made, most of the swiners ended up spending it at the local taverns which happened to be owned by local pig farmers.

McKay said, "There used to be a lot of taverns around. They were owned by the pig farmers. That was another big trade and then these [swiner priests] would spend their money at the tavern. It was almost like you paid them and they came to your tavern."

No one knew the real names of the swiner priests. They all had nicknames. The three mentioned in McKay's song had a huge impact on him.

When he recently reflected on his pig farming past, McKay thought about how he never really knew their names. He knew them as "Chicken," "Cockeyed Joe," and "Shorty." Chicken worked on McKay's father's farm. McKay's mother recently found out his name. Cockeyed Joe "looked as though his nose was busted, he drank a lot and got very nasty," said McKay. He continued, "He was Tom Sawyer-like. Kids were scared of him. Shorty was a quiet guy."

Another song on his "Backroad Joe" CD entitled "Saddled and Bridled," is in part about a young recruit from Secaucus named Edward Ivanoski who perished during World War II. His family lived on Lewis Street. The town threw a huge going away party before he went overseas.

There is a World War II memorial stone at Secaucus Town Hall engraved with his name, according to McKay. When he is not creating or performing music, McKay is working for a business that he and his son formed in 1996 called "Dumpster Man Inc." He owns four trucks and 100 Dumpsters. He hauls dumpsters for contractors and other waste related services.

McKay is performing at Luna Stage - Nite Music in Montclair, N.J. on Sept. 12 at 7 p.m. Tickets cost $10 and can be purchased by calling (973) 744-3309.

He is also performing at Turning Point in Piermont, N.Y. on Sept. 29 at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $20 and can be purchased at (845) 359-1089 or turningpointcafe.com. McKay is opening for his idol John Stewart.

He can also be seen at Cool Beans in Oradell, N.J. on Oct. 7 at 8 p.m. Call (201) 634-1400 for more information.

For information about booking McKay, contact McKay's booking agent, Barbara Roehrer, of the Acoustic Music Agency via telephone at (201) 573-0718 or e-mail her at acoustic@nac.net. Her website can be accessed at goodacoustic.com.

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