As through this world you travel, you’ll meet lots of funny men.
Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.
These days I hear those lines in Woody Guthrie’s voice, but the first time I heard “Pretty Boy Floyd” was on Pete Seeger’s Gazette LP, and I’m guessing that was true for a lot of people in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Pete recorded Gazette in 1958, shortly after splitting with the Weavers for the last time. He was waiting to go on trial for contempt of Congress, after refusing to testify about his politics or his friends — and unlike virtually all the other “unfriendly” witnesses, he set a unique precedent by basing his refusal on the First Amendment, arguing that freedom of speech includes the right to be silent.
It was a tough time for him in a lot of ways, but also liberating: he had stood up to the witch-hunters and was probably headed for jail, so he had nothing to lose by speaking his mind. The result was his first full album of topical songs since leaving the Almanac Singers in the early 1940s. Most of the songs were recent compositions—and if you were looking for the beginning of the protest song and singer-songwriter movements that blossomed in the 1960s, Gazette is as good a starting point as any.
“Pretty Boy Floyd” was the first song on that album, and there were two other Guthrie songs, along with one by Malvina Reynolds, one by Tom Lehrer, and a lot by people whose names and songs are little remembered, like Vern Partlow and Les Rice. It was on Folkways Records, with a particularly good booklet giving notes and context for each song. “Pretty Boy Floyd” was accompanied by newspaper clippings about Floyd’s death at the hands of Federal agents and a quote from Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath:
I knowed Purty Boy Floyd. I knowed his ma. They was good folks. He was full a hell, sure, like a good boy oughta be…. He done a little bad thing an’ they hurt ‘im, caught ‘im an’ hurt him so he was mad, an’ the nex’ bad thing he done was mad, an’ they hurt ‘im again. An’ purty soon he was mean-mad. They shot at him like a varmint, an’ he shot back, an’ they they run him like a coyote, an’ him a-snappin’ an’ a-snarlin’, mean as a lobo. An’ he was mad. He wasn’t no boy or no man no more, he was jus’ a walkin’ chunk a mean-mad. But the folks that knowed him didn’ t hurt ‘im. He wasn’ mad at them.