I’m pretty sure I learned this from Pete Seeger’s American Favorite Ballads songbook, which has it on page 69, accompanied by a couple of drawings of stereotyped hillbillies and the note, “A famous late-at-night howler.” Seeger lists his source as John Lomax’s Cowboy Songs, which is apparently the first documented source, but the song was known all over the South and Southwest, and far beyond that if one counts the numerous variants, like “Wagoner’s Lad” and “Jack of Diamonds” — the latter being essentially the same song, about the same lifestyle, with emphasis on the card playing rather than the whiskey. I could also count “The Cuckoo,” which I recorded early in this project, and “Kentucky Moonshiner,” which I’ll probably get to at some point — all are dipped from the same deep pool of floating verses, modified to fit tastes, situations, or the quirks of memory.
As to the guitar arrangement: I’ve been saying for years that the point of learning how to play the guitar style of Joseph Spence, the Bahamian master who is one of my favorite musicians ever, was not so much to play his music as to break old habits and come up with new approaches to other songs… but this is one of the first times I’ve put that into practice in an obvious way. It doesn’t sound all that much like Spence, but the guitar vocabulary is straight out of his bag, and I’m really happy with how it came together.
I started singing this when I was a kid, having only the vaguest idea about what rye whiskey might be, and continued singing it on occasion as I aged and began drinking Irish, then Scotch, then Bourbon and other whiskeys… but it was only a few years ago that I consciously tasted rye, and (due to a recommendation from Marty’s Liquors in Newton, based on my stated preference for Laphroig, which was getting priced out of my range) made it my regular choice in the high-proof brown category. As far as I can recall, I have only drunk the branded varieties and my moonshine experience is limited to wheat and corn whiskeys, but I am open to broader experience in this field, should anyone care to take my further education in hand.
I will admit one cavil: why, given the option of the ocean being whiskey and oneself being a duck, would one bother to dive to the bottom, much less to remain there, rather than simply sipping at will from the surface while bobbing pleasantly along?