Name of the Game Is Stud (Tom Paxton, The Gaslight)

One of the great things about LPs was that they had liner notes on the back of the jacket, which meant that you didn’t have to buy them to read them. I spent hours in Harvard Square, at Minuteman, Briggs & Briggs, Discount Records, and the Harvard Coop, reading liner notes in the folk and blues sections. The notes on one album would mention someone I’d never heard of, so I’d go over to that bin and read the notes on their album, too.ain-t-that-news

I’m not sure that’s how I got to Tom Paxton—Pete Seeger had recorded several of his songs, which could also have steered me his way—but I have a vague memory of reading the notes on the back of his second album at Minuteman, and asking my mother to buy it for me. In any case, I got it, and I was hooked. I was a nine- or ten-year-old boy, so I didn’t go for the love songs much, but he had some rambling hobo songs that reminded me of Woody and Cisco, and some political songs that were smart and fit together in neat ways, and some that were just fun, like “The Name of the Game is Stud.” I didn’t know what stud poker was—to be frank, I’m still not sure—but the tune and the story were catchy and I listened to that album so much that I think at some point I just realized that I knew all the words.

What I didn’t know at that point, and never noticed until I sang this a couple of weeks ago, for the first time in years, was that it is about the scene at the Kettle of FishGaslight Café, the mythic stomping grounds of Dave Van Ronk, and Tom, and Mississippi John Hurt, and Hugh Romney (later Wavy Gravy), who was married there by the Reverend Gary Davis. When Dave waxed nostalgic, he would talk about long nights drinking at the Kettle of Fish, the bar upstairs where he and the other musicians hung out between sets. And he talked about Sam Hood,Sam Hood who ran the Gaslight and is presumably the “rounder named Sam” in this song, and the marathon poker games they would hold upstairs—though in his stories, the master cardsharp was Sam’s father, Clarence:

“God, that man was a great poker player! There were regular games all the time, and one night I was bumped out early on—I was clearly in a different league from the guys he liked to play with—and Clarence let me kibbitz his hand. I sat there and watched him fold hands that I would have held onto for dear life. Once he threw away a straight! And he was right every goddamn time.”

Worried Man Blues (Woody Guthrie/Carter Family)

I got this from Woody Guthrie, of course. I think pretty much everyone on the folk scene got it from Woody. It must have been one of the first songs I learned to play and sing, because I feel like I always knew it.

It’s the kind of archaic blues, or pre-blues, that seems to have been very common among African American singers at the turn of the century but had mostly fallen out of fashion with black listeners by the time recording came along. So these kinds of songs were mostly recorded by white players and tend to be thought of as country music — which is kind of silly, in a way, since it says right in the title that it’s a blues. Like dozens of other songs, Woody got it from the Carter Family, who did a nice version with Maybelle playing the melody on guitar. I’ve reworked it in a different key, and picked up some licks from Sam McGee’s “Railroad Blues.”

Sara CarterI was recently listening to many hours of interview with Maybelle and Sara Carter for the American Epic project, and found Ed Kahn (a folklore PhD student who did his dissertation on the Carters back in the 1960s) asking Sara where they got each song. For example:

Ed Kahn: Do you remember anything about Worried Man Blues, how you learned that or where it came from?

Sara Carter: No, I don’t remember where we learned that, but we heard somebody sing it.

Ed Kahn: Now, A.P. said something about that he learned the chorus of it from a convict gang. Or from a convict.

Sara Carter: Well, he probably did. I don’t remember where we did learn that.


Sloop John B. (à la Joseph Spence)

I have no idea where or when I first heard “Sloop John B.” a.k.a. “John B. Sails” — it could have been in elementary school or  at the singalongs Phyllis Switzer led every summer at the MBL Club in Woods Hole, or any number of other places. It’s in the Cisco Houston songbook, but I don’t recall ever hearing his version, and I always thought of it as a kids’ song until I heard Joseph Spence do it. john b sailsOf course, I was wrong about that; it was one of the most popular anthems of the fishermen working out of Nassau, as described in a 1916 Harper’s Monthly Magazine article by an English poet named Richard Le Gallienne. That version was five verses long, but Cisco and Phyllis and pretty much everyone else just sing the three-verse version  Carl Sandburg included in his American Songbag. Sandburg wrote that he had learned it from friends who lived in Nassau, but his three verses are identical to the first three in the Harper’s piece, which makes me suspicious…

Le Gallienne wrote, in the typical prose of the time, “These Negro songs of Nassau, though crude as to words, have a very haunting, barbaric melody, said to come straight from the African jungle, full of hypnotizing repetitions and absurd choruses, which, though they may not attract you much at first, end by getting into your blood, so that you often find yourself humming them unawares. The best known of them…is ‘The John B. Sails.'”

spence-lipscomb-webBy the time I heard the song, the melody was more boring than barbaric, and when I heard the Beach Boys’ version, that didn’t help. But then I heard Joseph Spence do it. I’d heard his guitar playing already, on the Folkways album Sam Charters recorded, which was in a box of records my half-brother David left with us for a year or two. The Folkways album didn’t include much singing, and I didn’t really understand Spence’s music until I saw a poster in the Harvard Coop, when I was twelve, saying that he and Mance Lipscomb would be at the Harvard Student Union. I didn’t recognize his name, but I knew Lipscomb’s, so I went, and that was that.

I sing the usual Sandburg verses, but play roughly Spence’s guitar accompaniment — anyone who has heard Spence Arhoolie Spence LPknows why I don’t sing his lyrics, and anyone who has not heard Spence should immediately hear him. He recorded “John B Sails” for Arhoolie, and if you don’t know his work, I have a guide to his recordings on my Spence page (which also has info about my how-to-play-Spence DVD). He may be my favorite guitarist ever, and I’ll be playing more of his arrangements before this project is finished (so far, I’ve done “The Glory of Love” and “Brownskin Girl“). I’m the first to admit that no one else plays them like he did, but it’s a lot of fun to try.

Wreck of the Old 97 (Vernon Dalhart/Bosses Songbook)

I think I first heard this on a Pete Seeger record, but it could have been Cisco or any number of other people. Everybody knew it and sang it, because it was the first million-selling country hit, Vernon Dalhartrecorded by Vernon Dalhart for Victor records in 1924, and then for nine other labels in less than a year. The actual wreck happened on September 27th, 1903, and if you want to know more about it there’s a good article here.

Dalhart was an all-around professional record singer, based in New York and doing classical and pop as well as what was then called “hillbilly” music. He was a Texan originally, born Marion Try Slaughter–not a he-man name by modern standards, but John Wayne was also a Marion–and according to the ever-reliable Tony Russell, Victor’s Ralph Peer described him as “a professional substitute for a real hillbilly.” Hence I cannot help but feel a degree of kinship. Peer also said “He had the peculiar ability to adapt hillbilly music to suit the taste of the non-hillbilly population,” which potentially makes him the grandfather of Seeger, Dylan, and their myriad fellow travelers.

Speaking of which,  I cannot sing this song withoutBosses Songbook being reminded of the parody Roy Berkeley wrote, published by Dave Van Ronk and Dick Ellington in The Bosses Songbook around 1958 or ’59. Subtitled “Songs to Stifle the Flames of Discontent,” The Bosses Songbook was a small anarcho-Trostkyist publication mocking the Communist and Popular Front folksingers (to my amazement, the 1959 second edition is online), and included “Ballad of a Party Folksinger,” which began:

They gave him his orders at Party headquarters
Saying, “Pete, you’re way behind the times.
This is not ’38, it is 1957,
There’s a change in that old Party line.

Van Ronk’s generation of New York folkies had a kind of Oedipal relationship to the Seeger generation — they were deeply indebted to Pete and Woody and Josh and Lead Belly and Alan Lomax, but also trying to make their own way, not only musically but politically and culturally. Part of that was a quest for “authenticity,” meaning that they were trying to sing and play like the real folks, not like all their peers who were learning folk music at lefty summer camps and singing “Wreck of the Old 97.”

I was lucky enough to come along after those battles had been fought, with access to all the great old rural music that got reissued by the purists in the 1950s and 1960s, but without a chip on my shoulder about Pete Seeger or Josh White. And then I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time with Van Ronk, who appreciated the fact that — even though I’d come to him for blues — I had grown up on Pete’s music and knew songs like this. Not that he would have been caught dead singing this, but he felt that folksingers should know the canon.

Hard Travelin’ (Woody Guthrie)

Woody said:

This is a song about the hard traveling of the working people, not the moonstruck mystic traveling of the professional vacationist. Song about a man that has rode the flat wheelers, kicked up cinders, dumped the red guthrie-bound-for-glory-coverhot slag, hit the hard rock tunneling, hard harvesting, the hard rock jail, looking for a woman that’s hard to find.

To be fair, Woody never dumped any red hot slag nor did any mining, and everyone I’ve ever heard sing this song does it in the same spirit I do it, caught up in the romance of the open road rather than bemoaning its hardships.

I’ve known this so long that I have no idea where I learned it or from whom. I can’t find it on any of the Woody Guthrie albums I had, and I didn’t get the Cisco Houston 10-inch with this song till later, nor did I have it by Ramblin’ Jack, or Pete Seeger. Maybe I just heard someone sing it someplace, then pulled the words out of a songbook…

…which would explain why, when I recorded it on my CD and played it for Dave Van Ronk, he pointed out that I wasn’t really singing the melody, just kind of approximating it…

…or maybe not, since by now I’ve heard a couple of Woody’s versions, and Cisco’s, and a bunch of other people’s, and I still sing it this way. Just one of those pig-headed ramblin’ men, I guess.

hobos hopping trainIncidentally, for those who want a glossary to go with the freight train verse:

flat wheeler: a car that rides hard, bouncing and shaking like the wheels were flat.

blind passenger: a boxcar, for the logical reason that they’re relatively comfortable to ride, but have no windows. There’s a big door, and the view is a lot better than out of a window if it’s open — and I always kept them open, because it’s safer that way. But if you want to hide from the railroad guards, you ride with them almost closed, just propped with a chunk of wood or something so you won’t get locked inside. (At least, that’s my understanding of the term — I can’t find any confirmation on the internet, and don’t have my hobo dictionaries handy.)

dead ender: damned if I know.

Sam Hall (Josh White)

I loved Josh White’s music from the start, and had plenty of parental support: he was the only guitarist whose work my father could recognize instantly, and my mother clearly had a mild crush on him (not an unusual reaction). josh lpI had his Chain Gang and Southern Exposure 78 albums pretty early, but don’t recall learning any songs off them, probably because at that point the guitar parts were too daunting — in any case, my basic Josh repertoire came from a slightly later acquisition, the Elektra two-record “best of” set compiled from his 1950s recordings. It was heavily slanted to blues, but included a couple of British Isles songs, or at least this one, which I learned immediately and sang with great relish.

Apparently descended from a serious gallows-last-words ballad about a young chimney sweep named Jack Hall (I got his first name wrong on the video) who was executed in the late eighteenth century, by the mid 1800s it had become “Samuel Hall,” a comic parody of that form. It seems to have been a barroom and fraternity favorite in the United States in the early twentieth century, and was included by Carl Sandburg in his American Songbag, so there’s no telling where Josh picked it up. In any case, he sang it with grisly pleasure, and in the context of his repertoire of protest blues I understood it as a generalized attack on all authorities, secular or religious, and respectable people in general — and took great pleasure in the gorier bits. As a kid just getting a basic feel for the guitar, it was also one of the few songs of his that I could play.

Martian Love Song (Lee Hays/Earl Robinson)

I’m proud that I remember so many good songs—but memory doesn’t take orders, and I also remember some lousy ones. I had “Martian Love Song” firmly filed in that category, as an example of the kind of dreck I learned as a kid and will be stuck with till I die—but when I got into this project I went over all the songs I could remember, culling the dreck, and culled this one, and then woke up one night with it going through my head, and a wave of affection swept over me. It was kind of like meeting a peculiar, socially inept old acquaintance whom no one else liked, and I had to take it by the Seeger Gazettehand and reassure it that it was just fine and I was happy to be its friend.

So then I went back to the booklet for Pete Seeger’s Gazette LP, which I assumed was the only place it ever appeared, to see what he said about it, and found to my amazement that the words are by Lee Hays of the Weavers and the melody by Earl Robinson, who wrote “Ballad for Americans,” “The House I Live In” and “Free and Equal Blues” — at which point I did a little more investigating and found that Robinson recorded it for Folkways as well, under the title “My True Love,” with the note, “it is an old folk song that we composed next week.” Earl RobinsonPete’s notes add that it was composed “in preparation for that possible future time when venturesome space pilots from the Earth will go joy-riding with winsome Martian lassies—and, undoubtedly, run out of fuel in the neighborhood of some deserted asteroid.”

To add a serious historical note: some writers who date the beginning of the singer-songwriter movement to Bob Dylan’s arrival in Greenwich Village have invented a mythical pre-Dylan folk scene in which no one was writing new songs, or, if they were, they were only writing agit-prop protest lyrics. This is a good example of what’s wrong with that idea—the Seeger-Weavers generation was full of songwriters, writing about all sorts of things. Nor were they stolid folk purists — Pete started out playing banjo in his high school jazz band and harmonizing on pop tunes, and there had been regular cross-fertilization between pop and folk, back to Stephen Foster and beyond.

What is true is that by the turn of the 1960s a clique of younger singers and musicians who Dave Van Ronk (an enthusiastic member) dubbed the “neo-ethnics” was dismissing that stuff as horrible pseudo-folk and insisting that real folk music was what they were learning off old rural recordings from the 1920s. (The old rural artists had also sung a lot of pop tunes, but they didn’t know that.)

Then Dylan came along, sounding like a neo-ethnic and hanging out with the neo-ethnics, and started writing, and became a rock star, and it was a major changing of the guard. There was still a lot of overlap, like Phil Ochs’s style, which comes straight out of Bob Gibson and has not the slightest whiff of neo-ethnicity about it, or Joni Mitchell, or Judy Collins, or all sorts of people who grew up on the Weavers and singer-songwriter compositions like Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “Kisses Sweeter than Wine,” not to mention “Scarlet Ribbons” and “South Coast,” and “Scotch and Soda.” But Dylan became the defining figure for the historical transition, celebrated for cutting his ties with the older generation of folkies, and the continuity was largely obscured.

Which goes some way to explaining why I might be the only person alive who remembers “Martian Love Song.”

When Francis Dances with Me (My father)

I got this one in the authentic oral tradition: my father used to sing it at the dinner table, along with “Sheik of Araby” and “Oh, By Jingo,” and “Lena Was the Queen o’ Palestina” (just because she played the concertina). george1927There were lots of others, including some that I’ve never seen mentioned anywhere and that may have died with him. For example, a fake Russian number with the immortal couplet:

Like a balalaika moaning in a minor key,
Some of our friends are sipping samovar tea.
(That’s “bala-like-a” and “some of our tea.” Get it?)

Anyway, this was one of his favorites, and I’m pretty sure it started out being a favorite because his first wife was named Frances and he used to sing it to her. I was from the second family, and the break-up had not been amicable, but he kept singing the song.

whenfrancisI can still sing lots of songs I learned from my father, as well as telling his jokes and reciting his Yiddish dialect recitations. Speaking of which, I really should pronounce the last line of this song in proper Brooklynese: “I wear a skoit that’s got two hundred slits” — like “Dere was toity doity boids at toity-toid and toid street.” Brooklyn was the mythic wonderland of my childhood, and this song was a notable part of the soundtrack.

If you want another touch of my father’s Brooklyn repertoire, I’ve got a dialect transcription of “Jake the Plumber,” his Jewish parody on “The Face On the Barroom Floor,” on my regular website. And if you want to know more about him, I’ve got a page about his life, with links to a couple of his speeches. He was a biologist and professor, as was my mother, and when I took up folksinging people acted like I took a sharply divergent path from my parents. By me, I was just carrying on his tradition.

The Cuckoo (Jack Elliott/Clarence Ashley/cuckoldry)

“The Cuckoo” is another one I got from Jack Elliott, and I still play it more or less the way he did. The liner notes to his record say he learned it from Derroll Adams and got the guitar part from Doc Watson.

Clarence “Tom” Ashley

The ultimate source for all three would have been the North Carolina banjo player Clarence “Tom” Ashley, who recorded it in 1929. Ashley’s record was pretty popular, and Adams may have picked it up from the 78, or from another banjo player, or from the anthology American Folk Music, compiled by Harry Smith in the early 1950s and issued by Folkways. But Watson would have got it directly from Ashley, who lived down the road from him and sometimes hired him as a guitar player — northern folk revivalists first became aware of Watson when they went in search of Ashley.

As for the song, it’s a compendium of verses from various other songs, but the subtext is a series of oblique references to cuckoldry. The word cuckold is derived from cuckoo — by way of the French cocu and coucou — and the former (a husband whose wife is cheating on him) apparently was named after the latter because the female cuckoo lays her eggs in the nest of other birds, who care for them, leaving her free to go her merry way.

Nothing in the song’s cuckoo-related verses imply that connection, but the reference to building a log cabin on the mountain so that the singer “can see Willie when he goes riding by” suggests a theme like the blues lyric about a singer moving his wife to “the outskirts of town” (another song I’ll get around to at some point) — i.e., worries about male competition. Unless, of course, the singer is a woman and she wants to build a cabin on the mountain so she can see her lover coming, and the cuckoo is just in there because it’s a pretty bird that wobbles as it flies and displays its French heritage in a taste for wine.

As for that wobble… there is a tendency of later singers to shift it to “warble,” but the description of a bird that “wobbles as it flies” makes good sense, while if it was warbling all the time, how does that fit with the claim that it never sings “cuckoo” till the fourth day of July? Besides, another singer on the Harry Smith anthology makes a similar reference — Dick Justice in “Henry Lee,” sings the threat to a little bird: “If I had my bending bow, my arrow and my string/ I’d pierce a dart so nigh your heart your wobble would be in vain.”

Railroad Bill (Ramblin’ Jack Elliott)

From Woody and Cisco, it was an easy and obvious step to Ramblin’ Jack Elliott — I don’t remember how that step got made, but my guess is that I was just thumbing through the records at Minuteman or the Coop, reading liner notes, and this one caught my eye. ramblin jack lpI still sing eight of the twelve songs on this record, and I’m still amazed at the quirkiness of Jack’s taste — he has been typed as an acolyte of Woody’s and a ramblin’ cowboy singer, but this album includes hillbilly yodeling, string band trios, a Ray Charles medley, a comic Scots dialect song and monologue, “San Francisco Bay Blues” — which most of us heard from Jack before hearing Jesse Fuller’s version — and Rev. Gary Davis’s “Candyman,” which I thought I first heard from Van Ronk, but clearly heard from Jack before that.

Jack remains one of my favorite guitar players, and “Railroad Bill” is one of his classic arrangements. I’m sure I’ve changed it some over the years, but it was the early pieces that got me comfortable with the rudiments of fingerpicking, and a piece that pretty much every urban fingerpicker learned to play in the generation before mine, right after “Freight Train” and before “Buckdancer’s Choice.”

Jack’s source was presumably an obscure black singer and guitarist named Will Bennett, who recorded only two songs, “Railroad Bill” and “Real Estate Blues” in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1929. That’s about all I know about Bennett, but I was recently at the Knoxville Stomp, an event celebrating the early recording sessions there, and people seem to be turning over a lot of rocks, so hopefully we will learn more.

Revisiting the songs that have made a home in my head