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 — 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, or 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 gingerbread, 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.