This was one of the first songs I ever heard from Dave Van Ronk, and remained a staple of his repertoire throughout his career. When he recorded it in 1963 he credited it to Bob Dylan, but in later years would say, “I learned this from Bob Dylan, who learned it from Eric Von Schmidt… who learned it from me.”
That was a good line, but not appreciated by Eric, who was indeed Dylan’s source and took pride in having adapted the song from a record in the Library of Congress. Eric recorded his version on his first album, a duet LP with Rolf Cahn for the Folkways label that has not been treated well by history but was a seminal source for the folk-blues revivalists of the early 1960s. His source was a singer and guitarist named Smith Casey or Smith Cason, or possibly Smith Carson, who was recorded by John Lomax for the Library in 1939 at the Clemens State Prison Farm in Brazoria, Texas. In the LOC files it was titled “Shorty George,” and it is clearly related to the Texas prison song of the same name that was recorded by Lead Belly and James “Iron Head” Baker, but distinctive enough to justify Eric’s treating it as a different song and renaming it.
Eric made some changes in the song, but his version was still pretty close to Casey/Carson’s recording. Dylan’s version was substantially different — the people who accuse Dylan of copying or stealing songs and melodies from traditional sources aren’t exactly wrong, but should add that he frequently improved on his sources, and this is a case in point.
Dave picked it up from Dylan and didn’t change it much, but as was his wont he created a distinctive guitar arrangement that turned a fairly generic blues lament into something great and enduring. Play his version back to back with Dylan’s, and the only difference is that Dylan’s is one of the many good but ultimately forgettable folk-blues songs he was singing in 1961-62, while Dave’s is a masterpiece.
I’m not sure what the moral of that story is, or even if it has one. But if you ask me where I got this song, I’ll say Dave Van Ronk, and that isn’t the whole story but it’s as good an answer as any and better than most.
To continue that story… Phil Ochs asked Dave to sing this at the tribute concert he organized for Victor Jara, after which Dave began introducing it with the story of Jara’s heroic last hours in the Santiago soccer stadium; a year or so later, Phil was dead and for a few years Dave sang it for him; then, with more years, Dave would introduce it with memories of Mississippi John Hurt, Gary Davis, and all his other old friends and mentors who were gone; and now Dave’s gone, and I sing it for him, and for Eric.