A bit of Newyorkiana from Dave Van Ronk’s second album and the nimble pen of his friend Lawrence Block. Now well known as a mystery/thriller/private eye writer, Block was then churning out naughty novels at a terrific pace under numerous pseudonyms, many of them set in the Greenwich Village Bohemian milieu he and Dave knew so well… for example the slender volume at right, written as Sheldon Lord, with its tempting tagline: “Anita was a virgin — till the hipsters got hold of her!”
Block first visited in the Village in 1956, and soon became a lifelong resident. He met Dave in Washington Square Park, where folk musicians congregated on Sunday afternoons, and, as he wrote in the introduction to The Mayor of MacDougal Street:
This was… before the folk music renaissance, and before the curious synthesis of drugs and politics made college kids a breed apart. The great majority of collegians were still gray-flannel members of the Silent Generation, ready to sign on for a corporate job with a good pension plan. Those of us who didn’t fit that mold, those of us who’d always sort of figured there was something wrong with us, sat around the fountain in Washington Square singing “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” and feeling very proud of ourselves for being there.
One of the ways folk/bohemians amused themselves in those days was writing parodies of familiar songs — also a common pastime in the jazz world, where pretty much everyone knew dirty lyrics to pretty much every pop hit. Block and Van Ronk, along with Lee Hoffman and Roy Berkeley, wrote a bunch of anarchist/Trostkyist parodies of folk songs making fun of the Communist folk crowd, called The Bosses Songbook, and Block also composed this urban train wreck ballad.
The model was “Engine 143,” which had been recorded by the Carter Family in 1927 and reissued on Harry Smith’s influential six-LP anthology, American Folk Music. You don’t have to know that to enjoy this song, but Block kept enough details from the original to make his lyric particularly amusing for the hardcore folk crowd, from the first line (“Along came the FFV, the swiftest on the line”) to the last (“And the very last words poor Georgie said was ‘Nearer My God, to Thee'”). The original song was a true story about a train wreck in 1890 and the death of the engineer, George Alley.
I recently ran into Larry at a tribute concert for Dave’s 80th birthday, and he was kind enough to provide a bit more background:
As a new New Yorker, I found the subway fascinating, and I’d heard “Engine 143,” which I believe David had called one of the few authentic pieces of scab folk music. I don’t know what suggested the parody to me, perhaps the thronged platform at the Times Square Station one evening…. I know I found decapitation amusing, though I’d be hard put to tell you why. Here’s a blog post I ran back in September, in which I say a little about the song and reference another song I heard David sing several times.
I learned this off Dave’s album, and one night on the street in Harvard Square, someone asked if I could sing a song about New York, and I sang them this. I don’t remember their reaction, but when I told Dave about it, he was horrified.