One of the early songs Dave Van Ronk taught me, this was largely composed by Len Chandler, one of the most musically sophisticated writers on the Village folk scene. Chandler had been a classical oboe player in Akron, Ohio, and Dave recalled Variety referring to him as “musician turned folksinger.” As Chandler recalls it, Dave was the first person to bring him down to Washington Square and introduce him around, and he shortly became the house musician at the Gaslight Cafe, when it was still the Gaslight Poetry Cafe — there is an incredibly rare LP released on the very short-lived Gaslight label called The Beat Generation, which has him along with the two house poet/comedian/MCs, John Brent and Hugh Romney (who later became the irrepressible hippie clown Wavy Gravy).
Both Dave and Chandler remember hearing the traditional version of “Green, Green Rocky Road” from the poet Bob Kaufman, who had learned it as a child in New Orleans. It was a popular African American children’s game song throughout the South, and there’s a nice version recorded by Harold Courlander in Alabama that was issued by Folkways in the early 1950s. In Dave’s recollection, Kaufman sang it for him and Chandler backstage at the Commons, the coffeehouse where Dave was doing most of his playing in the late 1950s, but Chandler recalls learning it from Kaufman over dinner in Chandler’s apartment.
In any case, Chandler came up with a new melody and wrote the verses, Dave learned it from him, and it became one of the most enduring and requested songs in Dave’s repertoire, as well as one of his fundamental guitar arrangements in dropped D tuning. I was so used to hearing Dave do this song that I never noticed how odd the timing is on the chorus, until I was given the job of playing guitar for an all-star chorus of his friends and peers as part of a memorial concert at the Bottom Line. Roughly half the people knew Dave’s version the way he did it, but the others knew it from Peter, Paul and Mary’s variant or from someplace else and didn’t catch the dropped beats, and it took us forever to get it straight… and then, when we had it straight, David Bromberg showed up for the second show and tried to make us all do it in regular 4/4 instead of Dave’s way, because that was how he knew it…
To finish off, here are Courlander’s notes on the children’s game:
“The children form a circle with the leader in the center. The group sings ‘Green, green’ and the leader answers, ‘Rocky road,’ skipping around the ring. As the chorus is sung the leader is deciding which person to choose. As he picks one, the group sings the first line of the verse, naming the child selected. The leader brings his choice to the center and kisses her…”
Hence, “Tell me who you love, tell me who you love.”