I don’t remember how I got Doc Watson’s first album, but I had it very early and it was one of my favorites. I loved his voice, his guitar playing, his harmonica, his banjo (the first banjo tune I remember learning was his “Georgia Buck”), and his taste in songs. At first most of the guitar parts were too complicated for me — not just at first, either; I learned I would never be a serious flatpicker during many hours trying to master “Black Mountain Rag” — but fortunately there were a few songs that depended more on the lyrics than the picking, in particular this one.
This song seems to have first been published in 1894 as “I Am a Highly Educated Man,” with lyrics by Harry C. Clyde and music by H. C. Verner, a pair of old-time pop music hacks — Verner, for example, was credited not only with 1893’s “Won’t You Be My Sweetheart?” but also “Yes, I’ll Be Your Sweetheart” (with Clyde) and “I Won’t Be Your Sweetheart Anymore.”
Their version shared about half the verses of Doc’s (which was titled “I Was Born About Six Thousand Years Ago”) and there were intermediary versions by many of the top early hillbilly stars, including Fiddlin’ John Carson, Vernon Dalhart, Uncle Dave Macon, and Charlie Poole, often titled “I’m the Man that Rode the Mule Around the World.”
I’d guess this was a minstrel show comedy number, since there were lots of blackface minstrel routines based on the idea that southern plantation dwellers had comically simplistic notions of Biblical history — indeed, there was a huge Broadway hit built on that foundation, Green Pastures, as well as the Gershwin brothers’ “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” But that’s just a guess.
Incidentally, the line about “Peter, Paul, and Moses playing ring-around-the-roses” is what inspired Peter, Paul, and Mary to call themselves that, requiring Noel Stookey to change his name. Also incidentally, I always thought of this as a southern song, so assumed General Hooker was southern — but it turns out that General Joseph Hooker was born in Hadley, Massachusetts, and served in the Union army during in the Civil War, leading troops in Tennessee, among other regions.