You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon (Bessie Smith/Van Ronk)

Another of my favorite Dave Van Ronk guitar arrangements, and a perfect example of how he would edit an accompaniment down to its absolute essentials. dave van ronk5His model was one of Bessie Smith’s greatest records, featuring Louis Armstrong on cornet and Fred Longshaw playing unobtrusive piano. Other guitarists faced with Smith’s more ragtime-influenced blues records tend to get complicated and work out intricate arrangements that mimic piano ragtime, but Dave was thinking like a singer and wanted something that would support his vocal, not distract from it. The result is a singer’s dream, gently swinging while leaving plenty of space.

The lyric was one of Smith’s best, and she is credited as co-writer with someonebessie smith named Stuart Balcom, or sometimes John Henry — there are internet sites that suggest these are the same person, but I have no idea what their source is. John Henry, as best I can find, was a pseudonym for Perry Bradford, composer of numerous blues songs including the original breakthrough hit by a black recording artist, Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,”and since Balcom seems to have no other songs to his credit, he might be another Bradford mask.

In any case, it’s a wonderful song, and a good example of the kind of lyrics that were more popular back when blues was mainly women’s music, in terms both of the performers and the audience. Actually, among black listeners the blues audience is still overwhelmingly female and the theme of the aging male lover getting traded in on a more recent model is still popular. As Moms Mabley used to say, “The only thing an old man can do for me is take a message to a young man.”

(Mabley also used to say, “Making love to an old man, honey? Making love to an old man is like pushing a car up a hill…

…with a rope.”)