I was wandering around Harvard Square, shortly after I began wandering by myself, and there was a thin, bearded man standing in a doorway near Woolworth’s, playing an autoharp and singing “East Virginia.” I knew I had it on a record, though I couldn’t remember which, but in those days I didn’t have many records, so I went home and dug through them and found it on my one Ramblin’ Jack Elliott album, and learned it.
I was already familiar with Jim Garland’s union rewrite, which the Almanac singers had recorded on Talking Union:
I don’t want your millions, Mister,
I don’t want your diamond ring.
All I want is the right to live, Mister,
Give me back my job again.
For some reason, the union song never appealed to me but the love song stuck in my mind, and I’ve had a sort of odd history with it. I recorded it on my LP in the early 1980s, and again on my CD in the late 1990s, but I’ve never played it in public — I have no idea why, but there it is.
It was one of the most popular ballads with early rural recording artists, and there are fine versions by some of the best: Buell Kazee, Clarence Ashley, Walter Williams (an obscure banjo player from Kentucky, whose version was one of the banjo arrangements Pete Seeger worked out and published in How to Play the 5-String Banjo), and the Carter Family. I’m guessing the Carters were Ramblin’ Jack’s source, probably via Woody Guthrie.