Saint James Infirmary (Dave Van Ronk)

One of Dave Van Ronk’s great flagwavers — he generally called it “Gambler’s Blues” — this was my father’s favorite out of his repertoire. They were friends from the moment I had Dave over to my folks’ place and my father came out of the kitchen to ask if he liked Russian red cabbage — Van Ronk Gambler's blueshe did, and then they got to trading stories about their youths in Brooklyn, and talking about African and Pre-Columbian art, and the relationship developed from there. Each took great pride and pleasure in knowing the other, and when my dad died in 1996, I asked Dave to sing this at his memorial service, and also to say a few words.

Dave talked a little about their shared love of art, then got around to his initial diffidence at knowing a world-class biologist, and told how, after a year or so, he finally got up the courage to ask my dad what he’d done to earn a particular prize. He said my father looked at him very solemnly and said, “Dave, they gave me that prize for fitting lobsters with contact lenses.” Then he sang “St. James Infirmary,” in all its grand, shouting majesty. Those guys were made for each other.

As for the song and Dave’s relationship to it, I summed that up as well as I could in the notes to his final album:

Dave would sometimes tell of singing this song while sitting in with a jazz group at the Stuyvesant Casino in the early 1950s, and having Jimmy Rushing, the legendary vocalist of the Count Basie Orchestra, add a couple of verses from a seat at the bar. On his old repertoire cards, he gave his source as unfortunate rake“Josh White/‘Unfortunate Rake’ cycle.” White’s version was the standard template for folksingers of Dave’s generation, and The Unfortunate Rake was an album compiled for Folkways by the folklorist Kenneth S. Goldstein, who produced Dave’s first two solo albums. Goldstein assembled the LP as a teaching aid, showing the evolution of this ballad from a nineteenth century English broadside about a young man dying of syphilis, through a change of gender and continent into “The Bad Girl’s Lament,” a journey west to become “The Streets of Laredo,” and various other permutations, including Dave’s recording of this African-American variant. Goldstein wrote that the original St. James Hospital was “a religious foundation for the redemption of ‘fourteen sisters, maidens, that were leperous, living chastely and honestly in divine service.’” Not Dave’s kind of joint, but fortunately the folk process provided him with more congenial surroundings.

Dave’s early recordings of this song did not include the guitar break, which he told me he added in the early 1960s just to piss off Dave Van Ronk and Danny KalbDanny Kalb. Kalb, who became the lead guitarist in Dave’s Ragtime Jug Stompers and something of a rock star with the Blues Project, took guitar lessons from Dave and annoyed the hell out of him by learning all the arrangements instantly and playing them more cleanly than Dave could. In revenge, Dave said, he gave Kalb one last lesson, at the end of which, as Kalb was walking out the door, he played him this guitar break, then threw him out without showing him how it was done.

I don’t believe that story, but I enjoy it. Likewise the song, which I play more or less the way Dave taught it to me, though I make no attempt to emulate his singing.

Bus Rider Blues (Blind Boy Fuller)

One of the first records I bought during that year in New York was a Blind Boy Fuller album on the Blues Classics label. I had vaguely known Fuller’s name, but that record bowled me over — there was a verve and power to his singing and guitar work that was much more exciting to me than the Blind Boy Fuller LPsmoother, lighter style of Blind Blake. I suppose part of what attracted me was that I already loved Gary Davis’s playing, and Fuller was somewhat similar, but singing about rattlesnakes, rambling, and girls rather than praising God. It didn’t hurt that a lot of the tracks had Sonny Terry’s harmonica, a favorite back to my Woody Guthrie days, and I even enjoyed the washboard, which pushed a few of the cuts up a notch into obvious dance music.

I couldn’t play like Fuller, but somehow his “Bus Rider Blues” inspired me to come up with my own arrangement, not exactly in his style but inspired by his playing. It was one of the first “arrangements” I ever put together, undoubtedly inspired by the care with which Dave Van Ronk tried to give his songs unique flavors by using distinctive arrangements for each. My tendencyDav van ronk 9 was just to play a blues in E as a generic blues in E and a ragtime song in C as a generic ragtime song in C — which, frankly, is what a lot of the original blues artists tended to do as well, at least judging by their recordings. But Dave thought like an arranger working for a singer: his method was to work out a “chart” — his term of preference, though he did it in his head, not on paper — practice it until he could play it comfortably and consistently, then think about how to sing over and around it.

When I listened to the older guys with that in mind, a lot of them used the same approach: some would just play guitar around their vocals, but a lot of them worked out basic arrangements that they played pretty much identically from verse to verse, and often used as a break between verses as well. I don’t know why “Bus Rider Blues” became my maiden effort in that direction, nor why it turned out the way it did — I was seventeen, and moving very fast, and that just happened to be what I did one week, and then I moved on to whatever Dave was teaching me next, or to something from another record.

Many years later I got to be friends with Chris Strachwitz, who had the Arhoolie record label and ran Blues Classics as his reissue subsidiary. His model was Moe Asch, who had the Folkways label, but reissued old 78 recordings on a separate label, RBF — the reason being that neither of them chris strachwitz and fred mcdowellwanted to buy the rights to the records they were reissuing and if they got sued they didn’t want their main labels involved. Chris had actually started Blues Classics in 1964 as a sort of Robin Hood operation to channel money to Memphis Minnie: he had visited her in Memphis, and she was in bad shape from a stroke and in dire poverty, and Columbia wasn’t going to pay her any royalties, ever, so he released an album of her old recordings and paid the royalties directly to her, ignoring any claims Columbia might put forward. (He also had a note on the back of the album suggesting fans send further contributions and giving her mailing address.)

The end of that story is that eventually, after the Blind Boy Fuller LP had appeared, Columbia sent Chris a severe “cease and desist” letter. He figured he’d probably have to either pay up or withdraw the albums, but he went to his lawyer for advice, and the lawyer said, “Let’s send them a letter demanding proof that they own the recordings.” Chris had taken for granted that they owned the recordings, since they owned the label that had issued the original records… but he sent the letter and that was the last he heard from Columbia, and we all got to hear Blind Boy Fuller and Memphis Minnie.

Ragtime Millionaire (William Moore)

I spent 1976-7 in New York learning Dave Van Ronk guitar arrangements while listening to Yazoo pre-war blues reissues,  but only got up the nerve to attempt a handful of the pieces I heard on the old records. Of the few I managed to work out, my favorite was “Ragtime Millionaire,” recorded in 1928  by William (Bill) Moore, a barber who was born in Georgia but apparently lived most of his life in coastal Virginia. It was included on yazoo guitar wizardsthe Guitar Wizards anthology, from which I also eventually picked up a couple of Carl Martin’s songs and some of my favorite Blind Blake numbers — but that first year, Moore’s song was the one that caught my attention, in part because of the jaunty lyrics, but also because it had a catchy guitar riff in the chorus that was one of the first guitar licks I managed to pick up off a record without help from tablature.

I don’t think anyone knows where Moore learned to play guitar, but I later became fascinated with his rhythmic quirks — he mostly stayed in basic ragtime rhythm, but every once in a while he’d throw in a sort of Latin or Caribbean accent on the bass strings, which caught my attention as I got deeper into African guitar styles. (I’ll be exploring that material in a few months, and for the moment anyone interested can check out “Masanga” and “Iko Iko.”)

The song itself was Moore’s reworking of a ragtime hit from 1900 by one of the most popular African American songwriters of that period, Irving Jones. As Paul Oliver noted in Songsters and Saints — a foundational book onRagtime_Millionaire_Cover the broad variety of African American singing often subsumed under the catch-all term “blues” — Jones’s compositions seem to have been particularly popular with early guitarists, or at least the ones whose work was preserved on record. Gus Cannon recorded an earlier Jones hit with the same theme, “My Money Never Gives Out,” and it’s easy to see how both songs would have appealed to a street singer trying to catch some passersby with a fun lyric that included a subliminal suggestion to reach in their pockets and be generous.

I couldn’t understand all of Moore’s lyrics, so I changed the words around some, but basically do it like he did it, and for a while this was my big showpiece, aside from a bunch of Van Ronk songs. The fact that it was my one big non-Ronk number incidentally led to its being what I played on my radio debut — Dave was doing a six-show weekend at Passim Coffeehouse in Cambridge and WERS wanted him to do a morning interview, and he hated to sing in the morning, so he brought me along as a (poor) substitute. I obviously wasn’t going to do one of his songs in a situation where everyone listening would just wish he was doing it instead, so I played “Ragtime Millionaire.”

To finish that story, when we got to the club that evening, Dave asked Bob Donlin,bob donlin the owner and booker, if he’d listened and he said he had, and Dave said, “So what’d you think?” and Bob said, “He was OK,” in a voice that clearly conveyed his lack of interest in having me play there anytime soon… And to finish that story, he relented a couple of years later, and gave me the chance to open for Norman Blake, and then for Tony Bird, and some other people, and a lot of people considered him grumpy, but I liked him and miss him.

Crow Jane (Carl Martin, country blues LPs)

By sheer coincidence, the nine months I spent in New York taking lessons from Dave Van Ronk coincided with a unique opportunity to build up my blues library. I assume a collector had died, because a record store called Dayton’s, on Broadway just across 12th Street from the Strand bookstore, had mint copies of virtually every dayton lpsearly blues reissue LP that had been issued from the late 1950s through the mid 1970s — from Folkways to Biograph, Blues Classics, Herwin,  and all the early Yazoos, back to when that label was still called Belzona.

This presented me with a dilemma: my folks were giving me $25 a week for all expenses beyond my room and board at NYU, and Dave charged $15 for his lessons, which left me with $10 to spend on records. Dayton’s was charging $3 per LP, and had at least a couple of hundred I wanted, and every week I lived in fear that some better-heeled blues fan would sweep in and clean them out. So each week I would spend hours in Dayton’s, reading liner notes and trying to figure out which records I simply had to get, balanced against which ones seemed most likely to disappear if I left them till next week… like, I wanted the Belzona St. Louis Town compilation, but it seemed more likely to last a couple more weeks than the Yazoo Young Big Bill Broonzy

The miracle was that, for nine months, no one came in and made a major buy. I’m sure a few records slipped from my grasp, but I don’t recall them, and week after week I went through agony and chose three albums, brought them back to my dorm room, and played them over and over again, driving my roommate out to the library. I wasn’t yet good enough to be able to figure out much of what I was hearing, but at least I got the sounds in my ears, and began to develop a sense of how different people sounded and who was imitating whom, and who I liked more or less.

At that point, the artists that most caught my attention were what are now often called Piedmont players, though Van Ronk tended to call them Eastern Seaboard players, and one of my favorites then and ever since was Carl Martin. carl martin by howardI think I first heard him on the Yazoo Guitar Wizards compilation, and then on East Coast Blues, but it could have been the other way round — in any case, I loved his singing and his guitar style, and eventually learned four of the five songs he did on those albums… and then, twenty years later, ended up playing guitar for several years with his old musical partner, Howard Armstrong. Howard was a magnificent polymath, a painter, linguist, raconteur, and multi-instrumentalist, who specialized in mandolin and fiddle, but would sometimes pick up a guitar and play roughly this version of “Crow Jane.” I’d already learned it off Martin’s record, but it was Howard who got me to move up the A-chord bass riff to the fifth fret, though I’m not sure he played it quite this way.

Green Rocky Road (Len Chandler, Bob Kaufman, etc.)

One of the early songs Dave Van Ronk taught me, this was largely composed by Len Chandler, one of the most musically sophisticated writers on the Village folk scene. len chandlerChandler had been a classical oboe player in Akron, Ohio, and Dave recalled Variety referring to him as “musician turned folksinger.” As Chandler recalls it, Dave was the first person to bring him down to Washington Square and introduce him around, and he shortly became the house musician at the Gaslight Cafe, when it was still the Gaslight Poetry Cafe — there is an incredibly rare LP released on the very short-lived Gaslight label called The Beat Generation, which has him along with the two house poet/comedian/MCs, John Brent and Hugh Romney (who later became the irrepressible hippie clown Wavy Gravy).

Both Dave and Chandler remember hearing the traditional version of “Green, Green Rocky Road” from the poet Bob Kaufman, who had learned it as a child in New Orleans. It was a popular African American Bob Kaufman3children’s game song throughout the South, and there’s a nice version recorded by Harold Courlander in Alabama that was issued by Folkways in the early 1950s. In Dave’s recollection, Kaufman sang it for him and Chandler backstage at the Commons, the coffeehouse where Dave was doing most of his playing in the late 1950s, but Chandler recalls learning it from Kaufman over dinner in Chandler’s apartment.

In any case, Chandler came up with a new melody and wrote the verses, Dave learned it from him, and it became one of the most enduring and requested songs in Dave’s repertoire, as well as one of his fundamentalDave Van Ronk10 copy guitar arrangements in dropped D tuning. I was so used to hearing Dave do this song that I never noticed how odd the timing is on the chorus, until I was given the job of playing guitar for an all-star chorus of his friends and peers as part of a memorial concert at the Bottom Line. Roughly half the people knew Dave’s version the way he did it, but the others knew it from Peter, Paul and Mary’s variant or from someplace else and didn’t catch the dropped beats, and it took us forever to get it straight… and then, when we had it straight, David Bromberg showed up for the second show and tried to make us all do it in regular 4/4 instead of Dave’s way, because that was how he knew it…

To finish off, here are Courlander’s notes on the children’s game:

Ring Game songs“The children form a circle with the leader in the center. The group sings ‘Green, green’ and the leader answers, ‘Rocky road,’ skipping around the ring. As the chorus is sung the leader is deciding which person to choose. As he picks one, the group sings the first line of the verse, naming the child selected. The leader brings his choice to the center and kisses her…”

Hence, “Tell me who you love, tell me who you love.”

Midnight Hour Blues (Leroy Carr)

Another classic Van Ronk guitar arrangement, this was also the first song I learned by Leroy Carr. Carr was a massively influential figure who virtually redefined blues in the late 1920s and early ’30s, turning it from rowdy, shouting dancehall, theater, or streetcorner music into a sensitive, moody style suited to late night meditations in quiet rooms with a glass of whiskey close at hand. His innovations were immeasurably aided by new technologies: first electrical recording, which could capture the intimate sound of crooners like Carr and Bing Crosby — the defining male singers in blues and pop for the next few decades — and then the popularity of jukeboxes, which supplanted pianos as the main barroom music devices when Prohibition was repealed in 1933. Carr’s records became jukebox staples, along with recordings by his myriad followers and imitators, earning innumerable nickels in the slow hours before closing time.

This was probably the first Carr song I heard, thanks to Paul Oliver’s two-LP anthology,story of the blues The Story of the Blues, issued to accompany his book of the same name. More than any other collection of that early reissue period, Oliver’s set suggested not only the depth and brilliance, but also the range of early blues, with Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong alongside deep Delta guitarists, the Georgia fiddler Eddie Anthony (his “Georgia Crawl” may have been my favorite cut on the album), and this track from Carr and his guitar-playing partner, Scrapper Blackwell.

A lot of urban revivalists considered Carr and Blackwell too smooth for their tastes — romantic adolescent lads in New York, Cambridge, and London were turning to blues for dark Delta shouters, not moody, gentle singers who played spare, evocative piano — butNo Dirty Names Van Ronk was very much an exception. Despite his reputation as a hoarse shouter, he loved Carr (and Crosby), and made careful study both of Blackwell’s guitar style and of Carr’s laconic piano chording. As he wrote in the liner notes to “Midnight Hour Blues”:

Sparseness is a good thing if you want to be pretty. Silence — a pause — is as important to music as a note. Silence is a part of music.
All those nice big fat thirds I got from Leroy Carr. The guitar is as close as I can get to a transcription of his lead piano part.

You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon (Bessie Smith/Van Ronk)

Another of my favorite Dave Van Ronk guitar arrangements, and a perfect example of how he would edit an accompaniment down to its absolute essentials. dave van ronk5His model was one of Bessie Smith’s greatest records, featuring Louis Armstrong on cornet and Fred Longshaw playing unobtrusive piano. Other guitarists faced with Smith’s more ragtime-influenced blues records tend to get complicated and work out intricate arrangements that mimic piano ragtime, but Dave was thinking like a singer and wanted something that would support his vocal, not distract from it. The result is a singer’s dream, gently swinging while leaving plenty of space.

The lyric was one of Smith’s best, and she is credited as co-writer with someonebessie smith named Stuart Balcom, or sometimes John Henry — there are internet sites that suggest these are the same person, but I have no idea what their source is. John Henry, as best I can find, was a pseudonym for Perry Bradford, composer of numerous blues songs including the original breakthrough hit by a black recording artist, Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,”and since Balcom seems to have no other songs to his credit, he might be another Bradford mask.

In any case, it’s a wonderful song, and a good example of the kind of lyrics that were more popular back when blues was mainly women’s music, in terms both of the performers and the audience. Actually, among black listeners the blues audience is still overwhelmingly female and the theme of the aging male lover getting traded in on a more recent model is still popular. As Moms Mabley used to say, “The only thing an old man can do for me is take a message to a young man.”

(Mabley also used to say, “Making love to an old man, honey? Making love to an old man is like pushing a car up a hill…

…with a rope.”)

Kansas City Blues (I’m Going to Move to Kansas City)

This accompaniment in “dropped D” tuning, carefully arranged to seem simple and unobtrusive, has always seemed to me the Apollonian ideal of a Dave Van Ronk guitar arrangement.  He recorded it during his early peak of popularity, right after the Folksinger LP, on an album that featured him with a trad jazz band including some of his old friends from Brooklyn and Queens. Van Ronk in the traditionHalf the tracks had the full band, half just Dave with his guitar, and someone made the odd choice to mingle the cuts rather than having a solo side and a band side, with the result that I’ve very rarely listened to the record, because when I’m in the mood for the quiet, meditative solo stuff I don’t want to hear the rowdy band, and when I’m up for the band the solo cuts are too quiet… which is a pity, because that record has some of Dave’s greatest solo performances, including “Green Rocky Road,” “St. Louis Tickle,” and this song.

“Kansas City Blues” was one of the defining songs of the third blues boom — the first was a dance craze, set off by W.C. Handy’s hits in the early teens; the second a record craze for “blues queens,” set off by Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” in 1920; and the third took off with Blind Lemon Jefferson’s success and mostly featured male singers accompanying themselves on guitar or piano. jimjackson-kansascityOne of the first major hits of that boom was recorded by a Memphis street singer named Jim Jackson and issued toward the end of 1927 as “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues.”

Born in 1884, Jackson was one of the oldest artists who recorded in that period and his repertoire is a window into what African American musicians were playing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, from rural ditties like “Old Dog Blue” to minstrel comedy numbers like “I Heard the Voice of a Porkchop,” Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” and his hit about moving to Kansas City, which was so popular that he shortly followed it with “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues,” parts 3 and 4, then “I’m Gonna Move to Louisiana.” Other artists jumped on the bandwagon, the Memphis Jug Band and Lonnie Johnson recording their own “Kansas City Blues” and Charlie Patton asserting his individuality by singing “Going to Move to Alabama.”

I would guess that by 1928 there were very few blues singers who didn’t have some version of this song in their repertoires, and variants of it continued to circulate in the jazz world, which may well be where Dave first heard it — the liner notes to his album describe it as “one of the most popular race recordings of the twenties and … still a favorite of many today.” The funny thing being that when I came across it in the early 1970s I was a dedicated folk-blues listener, regarded it as a traditional “country blues,” and would have been baffled if anyone had suggested it was a pop hit.

Candyman (Rev. Gary Davis/Dave Van Ronk)

I’m pretty sure the first recording I had of this was an instrumental version on The Guitar and Banjo of Reverend Gary Davis, but the first person I heard sing it was Dave Van Ronk. It could have been any number of other people —Dave van ronk8 Ramblin’ Jack Elliott played it a lot, which is where Dylan picked it up — but it was one of Dave’s showpieces and also one of the first things he taught his students. Roy Book Binder tells a funny story that puts this in some perspective, related in Bill Ellis’s study of Davis. Roy had been given a matchbook with Reverend Davis’s phone number, and after working up his courage for a few weeks, called the Reverend on the phone:

I said, “I’d like to take guitar lessons.”
He said, “When do you want to come over?”
I said, “Maybe next week.”
He said, “I’m an old man, I’m home now.”
Book Binder went over to Davis’s house, and to show what he knew, played “Candyman,” to which Davis responded:
 “Good God-a-mighty, you sound like Dave Van Ronk!”

Apparently Davis had learned the song around 1905, in his hometown of Spartanburg, SC. Sometimes he said he’d learned it from local players, sometimes that he heard someone play it in a traveling medicine show, and Van Ronk recalled him saying he’d heard it from a rambling musician everyone just called “the gittar man.” The guitar part seems to have been ubiquitous throughout the South, though not always connected to this lyric, a notable example being Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Hot Dogs.”

Davis’s version was a good deal more rhythmically regular than Jefferson’s, gary Davisor rather Davis’s versions, plural: he sometimes played it straight, sometimes as a two-step, and sometimes as a waltz. The way Dave learned it, the most distinctive thing is the backwards bass — normally, guitarists who keep an alternating bassline play it low-high, low-high, but in “Candyman” and “Cocaine” Dave reversed that, so the deep note falls on the offbeat. He said he learned it that way from Rev. Davis, but Andy Cohen convinced me at one point that actually Davis played the bass normally and it just sounds backwards… and then Ellis, who has written a deeply researched dissertation on Davis’s playing, further complicated matters by writing that Davis sometimes played it backwards and sometimes forwards — the tricky part being that it’s hard to tell which he’s doing until he gets to the F section at the end of a verse….

…all of which is pretty technical for non-guitarists, but if you want to have some vague sense of it, in my version I play the basses backwards through the C sections of most verses, but forwards through the “Big Leg Ida” verse.

As for the lyric, the term “candy man” meant a pimp, or at least a male paramour, also termed a “sweetback” or “sweetback man.” (I’ve addressed the parallel term “salty dog” in an earlier post.) Van Ronk was misled by the references to Davis and little girlgingerbread, peppermint sticks, and Santa Claus, and when Davis declined to sing the lyric because it was sacrilegious, he protested, “but that’s children’s song”… to which Davis responded, “Yeah, you get a lot of children with songs like that.” Until this moment, it never occurred to me that there is an obvious parallel to the similar confusion surrounding “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” which I addressed in a post on that song’s dark and nasty side a couple of months ago.

Spike Driver’s Blues (John Hurt/Dave Van Ronk)

This was the first piece Dave Van Ronk taught me, and felt like deja vu, since it’s very similar to “Ninety-Nine Year Blues,” the first fingerpicking piece my earlier guitar teacher taught me. I suppose I expected something more ambitious, sincedave van ronk7 I’d just played Willie McTell’s “Georgia Rag” to demonstrate my prowess (as described in my previous post). But Dave started all his students on “Spike Driver,” and I was there for my first lesson, so that’s what he gave me. He’d recorded it in 1961, on his second LP, but he didn’t suggest I should go back and listen to that — he was teaching it as a John Hurt piece, which he considered the obvious foundation for any study of American fingerstyle guitar.

That was partly because he loved and admired John Hurt, both as a musician and as a friend, and partly because Dave always thought in historical terms and considered Hurt’s playing exemplary of the vernacular African American guitar styles that predated blues and ragtime, and thus a necessary foundation for everything else. The next piece he taught me was Elizabeth Cotten’s “Wilson Rag,”  which is similarly foundational (if you don’t know it, here’s a link to her version), and to briefly digress, nothing would have irritated Dave more than hearing T Bone Burnett refer to his guitar style as “Travis picking,” which is what white country musicians started calling this kind of playing in the 1960s as a substitute for the term “n—er picking” — thus cleaning up their language while giving a white guitarist credit for what had been universally considered a black style.*

As for “Spike Driver Blues,” it was one of the two John Hurt pieces available to the general run of New York folkies in the 1950s (along with “Frankie”), because they were included on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. The lyric is john hurtHurt’s stripped-down personalization of the John Henry legend, adapting a railroad work song to guitar and keeping its strong note of protest and pride:

Take this hammer and carry it to the captain
Tell him I’m gone…
This old hammer killed John Henry,
But it won’t kill me.

I’d heard the song on Hurt’s records, but never paid much attention to it because it was so simple, nor had I noticed Dave’s version, and even after Dave made me learn it I didn’t appreciate it — but years later, when I got more serious about studying Hurt’s music, I was struck by the power underlying its simplicity.

Dave sang some verses Hurt didn’t sing, borrowed from a variant of the same song recorded by the white banjo player Bascom Lamar Lunsford as “Swannanoa Tunnel.” Dave’s formative friends on the folk scene included folklorists like Roger Abrahams and Ken Goldstein, and he described this kind of lyric using academic folklore terminology, as a “jury text” — a sort of ur-version of a song, assembled by mixing and matching verses and phrases from various versions collected in the field. This is no longer considered respectable in folklore studies, where one is supposed to present the field versions as they were recorded from particular informants, but it remains a good method for singers who want to come up with their own version of a traditional song.

 

*I single out Burnett because he described Dave as doing “Travis picking” in numerous interviews connected to the movie Inside Llewyn Davis. I liked the movie, and liked the way Oscar Isaac played Dave’s songs, but Burnett’s terminology irritated me because Dave learned from people like John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis, and Furry Lewis, just as Travis did, and as far as I know he was not influenced in the slightest by Travis, or that whole world of virtuosic white country pickers. Indeed, for political as well as musical reasons, he generally disliked that world, and the notion that Gary Davis was doing “Travis picking” would have rendered him apoplectic.