I play this in an African-influenced guitar style I developed much later, but it is one of those songs I “always” knew. My original source was Phyllis Switzer (later Goldstein), who led a folksong singalong for kids at the MBL (Marine Biological Laboratories) Club in Woods Hole every summer. Phyllis’s repertoire was overwhelmingly drawn from Pete Seeger, so she probably got this from him or the Weavers. They presumably got it from Alan Lomax, who recorded a version from dock workers in Georgia in the 1940s for the Library of Congress, or from Lydia Parrish’s book, Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands, or both.
I don’t remember how much Phyllis told us about the song, but she would have connected it to broader labor issues, and very likely to civil rights. I can still picture her standing in the MBL Club, with all of us sitting in a semi-circle on the floor around her, acting the part of the giant in Pete’s story of “Abiyoyo,” or leading us in “Everybody Loves Saturday Night” — an internationalist children’s ditty, consisting of the title phrase sung in various languages, of which my unreliable memory has retained only one verse, which mutates from Japanese into French…
Phyllis also teamed up with Liz Davis to produce annual Gilbert and Sullivan operettas — the one time I took part, I was part of a Japanese chorus in The Mikado, wearing a black stocking to simulate a pigtail. Not a particularly fond memory, though I still remember a lot of the lyrics, but I owe Phyllis the rest of my life because she took a few of us kids to see a concert by Pete and the crew of the sloop Clearwater when they docked in Woods Hole for a couple of days. I remember Lou Killen singing a song about soccer (I’m guessing it was “Footba’ Crazy”) and Jimmy Collier and the Rev. Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick singing “Everybody’s Got a Right to Live.” I don’t remember what Pete sang, but seeing him onstage was what made me decide to be a professional folksinger.
In my memory, I was seven when Phyllis took us to that concert, and it was what first got me into folksinging, but according to the history books it must have been 1969, which means I would have been ten and had already been playing guitar for a couple of years. Maybe Phyllis knew that, and that’s why she took me? In any case, it changed my life, and I am forever in her debt.