The first few times I saw Dave Van Ronk perform, this was one of his most hypnotic pieces — he would seem to expand and fill the stage with his presence, his voice would draw you in with its gruff whisper, then gradually rise until he was shouting, always musically, always in control. He had recorded it in the mid 1960s but rarely sang it after the 1970s, though I continued to request it and he occasionally complied.
As with “Tell Old Bill,” “Dink’s Song,” and quite possibly some other songs in his repertoire, this came from Carl Sandburg’s American Songbag, though I think Dave’s direct source was Josh White’s recording. As for Sandburg’s sources, he lists two for what he calls a “lyric of tough days,” the second being Hubert Canfield — which is interesting, because Canfield was a collector of bawdy folklore, assembling a large collection of typescript and handwritten lyrics in the 1920s, and the verses Sandburg took from him were part of a multi-page collection of floating blues verses, some of which I’ve previously quoted in connection with “Hesitation Blues.”
Once again, this brings me to the censorship of folksong in general and blues in particular. The two verses Sandburg took from Canfield are not censored, but his opening verse, credited to another source, is clearly a bowdlerization of some common verses Canfield gives in rawer versions, to whit:
Mother takes in washing,
Papa drives a hack,
Brother sells bootleg,
And Baby pulls his jack.
Mother’s on the poor farm,
Father’s in the jail,
Brother runs a cat house
And Sister peddles tail.
The significant thing about this is not that Canfield’s dirty verses are better than the ones Sandburg gives, but that Sandburg had access to Canfield’s material and never mentioned that he was leaving out the rougher material he came across in his quest to present American song in all its raw majesty, “a volume full of gargoyles and gnomes, a terribly tragic book and one grinningly comic…”
Sandburg was constrained by the mores of the time, and I’m not taking him to task — but it’s worth noting because this kind of censorship was both ubiquitous and invisible, with the result that even serious, experienced scholars who have devoted their lives to researching blues and other vernacular styles are unaware of the extent to which their sources reflect the prudery of collectors. The simple fact is that any collection of sailor, cowboy, or juke joint folklore from the 1920s or earlier that does not include explicit sexual material, complete with four-letter words, is a censored collection. The odd corollary being that most collections were compiled later than that, at times by editors who would have been willing (maybe even eager) to present uncensored texts, but who didn’t realize that their sources were systematically expurgated.
I still sing the version I learned from Dave, which he learned from Josh, who got it from Sandburg, who was a poet and amateur folklorist of unusual taste and discernment. I don’t think my own performance would be improved by reinserting the Canfield verses. I’m just noting the process by which this became something we all could sing in respectable settings, and the fact that, whatever its virtues, it is not what Canfield or Sandburg found rough workingmen singing back in the 1920s.
As for why this song fits at this point in my songobiography… towards the end of our stay in Málaga in 1977-78, Rob and I spent about a month crashing on couches, and two weeks of that was with a Japanese couple — they worked in film and were in Spain for language classes — and they were particularly taken with the high, strained way I sang the first verse, which they said sounded a bit like Japanese music. So I sang this often for them, and that’s the only time it was regular part of my repertoire.