This was the first piece Dave Van Ronk taught me, and felt like deja vu, since it’s very similar to “Ninety-Nine Year Blues,” the first fingerpicking piece my earlier guitar teacher taught me. I suppose I expected something more ambitious, since I’d just played Willie McTell’s “Georgia Rag” to demonstrate my prowess (as described in my previous post). But Dave started all his students on “Spike Driver,” and I was there for my first lesson, so that’s what he gave me. He’d recorded it in 1961, on his second LP, but he didn’t suggest I should go back and listen to that — he was teaching it as a John Hurt piece, which he considered the obvious foundation for any study of American fingerstyle guitar.
That was partly because he loved and admired John Hurt, both as a musician and as a friend, and partly because Dave always thought in historical terms and considered Hurt’s playing exemplary of the vernacular African American guitar styles that predated blues and ragtime, and thus a necessary foundation for everything else. The next piece he taught me was Elizabeth Cotten’s “Wilson Rag,” which is similarly foundational (if you don’t know it, here’s a link to her version), and to briefly digress, nothing would have irritated Dave more than hearing T Bone Burnett refer to his guitar style as “Travis picking,” which is what white country musicians started calling this kind of playing in the 1960s as a substitute for the term “n—er picking” — thus cleaning up their language while giving a white guitarist credit for what had been universally considered a black style.*
As for “Spike Driver Blues,” it was one of the two John Hurt pieces available to the general run of New York folkies in the 1950s (along with “Frankie”), because they were included on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. The lyric is Hurt’s stripped-down personalization of the John Henry legend, adapting a railroad work song to guitar and keeping its strong note of protest and pride:
Take this hammer and carry it to the captain
Tell him I’m gone…
This old hammer killed John Henry,
But it won’t kill me.
I’d heard the song on Hurt’s records, but never paid much attention to it because it was so simple, nor had I noticed Dave’s version, and even after Dave made me learn it I didn’t appreciate it — but years later, when I got more serious about studying Hurt’s music, I was struck by the power underlying its simplicity.
Dave sang some verses Hurt didn’t sing, borrowed from a variant of the same song recorded by the white banjo player Bascom Lamar Lunsford as “Swannanoa Tunnel.” Dave’s formative friends on the folk scene included folklorists like Roger Abrahams and Ken Goldstein, and he described this kind of lyric using academic folklore terminology, as a “jury text” — a sort of ur-version of a song, assembled by mixing and matching verses and phrases from various versions collected in the field. This is no longer considered respectable in folklore studies, where one is supposed to present the field versions as they were recorded from particular informants, but it remains a good method for singers who want to come up with their own version of a traditional song.
*I single out Burnett because he described Dave as doing “Travis picking” in numerous interviews connected to the movie Inside Llewyn Davis. I liked the movie, and liked the way Oscar Isaac played Dave’s songs, but Burnett’s terminology irritated me because Dave learned from people like John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis, and Furry Lewis, just as Travis did, and as far as I know he was not influenced in the slightest by Travis, or that whole world of virtuosic white country pickers. Indeed, for political as well as musical reasons, he generally disliked that world, and the notion that Gary Davis was doing “Travis picking” would have rendered him apoplectic.