East Virginia

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 ramblin jack lpin 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.

Do Re Mi (Woody Guthrie)

Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads came to me as the soundtrack of Bound for Glory, as well as The Grapes of Wrath, which I read around age eleven, right after In Dubious Battle. I’m guessing my parents steered me to Steinbeck because of my infatuation with Woody — you hear an eleven-year-old singing about dust storms, what else are you going to do but hand him Steinbeck?

dust bowl balladsI don’t think I made an effort to learn the songs on that album — I just listened to it so often that after a while I knew most of them all the way through, and all of them some of the way through. If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be “Do Re Mi,” partly because of the great chorus, and because the message was clear and meaningful even to a kid who was growing up in a very different time and place.

A few years later, I almost got a taste of the reality, when my friend Rob and I got a super-cheap flight to London on Laker Airways, and something like a fifth of the passengers were refused entry and sent back to the US for lack of funds. (We were as impecunious as the others, but a distant cousin of Rob’s had just been elected Lord Mayor of London, so we gave the immigration authorities his number, and then had to wait for four hours in a little room while they debated whether it would be worse to bother the Lord Mayor about a couple of wretched Yanks with a guitar and a washboard (if we were lying) or turn away the Lord Mayor’s cousin (if we were telling the truth). Eventually they called him and let us in, with a visa for two weeks and the parting words, “I hope you have a pleasant visit, and that I will NOT see you busking in Green Park tube station.” Rod_StewartWhich was very helpful, because it told us where to busk. Except, actually, we ended up busking in the square near the tube station, and Rod Stewart walked past with his entourage, looking exactly like his current album cover, and, despite his own past as a busker, ignored us completely.

If Woody was around now, he’d be rewriting this song about Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Syrians.


Stagolee (Woody Guthrie/John Hurt/folk legend)

I’ve heard dozens of versions of this ballad over the years, and play three distinctly different ones, but the first I heard was by Woody Guthrie. Aguthrie bound for glorys best I can tell, his version derived from Mississippi John Hurt’s recording, but if so it had changed a lot in the interim, just keeping a few verses and the tag line. A few years later I learned Hurt’s guitar part, with the help of Stefan Grossman’s Country Blues Guitar book, and have continued to sing a mix of Woody’s and Hurt’s verses, with a few added from Dave Van Ronk. Dave played Furry Lewis’s version, but likewise mixed and matched verses from elsewhere, and I just noticed that Cisco Houston did Lewis’s version as well.

That isn’t surprising, because African American blues records were very popular with white listeners in the 1920s and ’30s, especially in the Southwest.

john hurt
John Hurt, photo by Ed Grazda

When I was researching How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll, I came across a letter to Billboard from a jukebox operator in Beaumont, Texas, saying, “When we get a Race number that proves a hit we just leave it on the machine until it wears out. They don’t get old and lose play like other records.”

“Stagolee” was based on a real event, the killing of Billy Lyons by “Stack Lee” Shelton in St. Louis on Christmas night in 1895, and the killing was truly over a hat — or actually two hats. As John Russell David writes in his dissertation, Tragedy in Ragtime, quoting from the transcript of the inquest:

[A] quarrel over politics soon turned to an exchange of blows. The two men began striking each other’s hats. Lee grabbed Lyons’ derby and broke it. In return Lyons grabbed Lee’s hat…
“Give me my hat,” said Lee.
“I ain’t going to give it to you, I want pay for this,” Lyons replied pointing to his derby.
“How much do you want?” Lee asked.
“I want six bits,” Lyons demanded.
“Six bits will buy a box of those kind of hat,” Lee replied.
“I want six bits,” Lyons shouted.
“Give me my hat,” Lee demanded. “If you don’t give me my hat, I’ll blow your brains out.”
“I ain’t going to give you the hat, you can kill me,” said Lyons putting his hand into his pocket as if reaching for a knife or some other weapon. Then Lyons demanded pay again from Shelton and approached him saying, “You cock-eyed son-of-a-bitch, I am going to make you kill me….”
As Lyons approached, Stack fired once. The impact of the bullet, fired at close range, carried Lyons back against the railing of the bar. He staggered momentarily, still clutching Lee’s hat in his fingers. Then he slumped onto the saloon floor. As he fell, Lee’s hat rolled from his grasp. “Give me my hat, nigger,” said Stack Lee. He picked up his hat beside Lyons’ outstretched hand and walked coolly out of the saloon into the brisk night air.

Ninety-Nine Year Blues (Lee K. Riethmiller)

I started taking guitar lessons when I was seven years old, from an old-style, all-around music teacher named Mr. Zimmerman who simultaneously started my sister on flute. His own main instrument was trumpet, and he kept urging me to switch to horn — which probably made sense, since his guitar lessons consisted of showing me how to pick out “Camptown Races,” one note at a time, from a particularly lame beginner’s book.

Fortunately, within a year my parents found another teacher for me: Lee RiethmillerLee Riethmiller was a divinity student at Harvard and lived in the Div School building adjacent to the Bio Labs, where my parents worked. By that time I was sufficiently ambivalent about guitar lessons that I recall telling him at my first lesson that I was thinking of switching to drums. (It may have been this idea that convinced my parents to look for a better guitar teacher.) Fortunately for everyone concerned, Lee was the perfect teacher. He taught me to play chords and simple strumming and picking, and helped me work out accompaniments to my favorite Woody and Cisco songs.

He also liked to play blues, and got me started on fingerpicking with “Ninety-Nine Year Blues,” a song recorded in 1927 by a singer and guitarist from the Carolinas named Julius Daniels.  My father always recalled how funny it was to hear a nine-year-old singing lyrics like this, but the guitar part was a perfect way to start, since it uses the basic alternating bass and some syncopation, but stays on one chord throughout. (Dave Van Ronk started his students on a similar arrangement, John Hurt’s “Spike Driver’s Blues.”)

I’d been with Lee for a few years before we reached this stage — one of the great things about starting as a seven-year-old is  that I was thoroughly satisfied with simple picking patterns and singing cowboy songs for a long time before I got into blues — but it came at just the right time. That summer, my father had a conference of some kind in Barcelona and took my sister and me with him, and then we Bardoudrove around the south of France, and at some point my father met a couple of hippies who told him about a tiny town in the mountains called Bardou, where a guy had bought the whole town and was letting hippies live there for free in return for fixing up the ruined houses.

That was my father’s kind of place, so we drove up to Bardou and spent several days there, and one of the hippies was a Canadian guy named Guy LaFlamme, who played blues guitar. He was amazed to hear this little kid who could fingerpick, so he taught me some other pieces, including the version of “John Henry” that I now play as a break in this song, and my first slide pieces in open D, and although I was only around him for a few days, that visit kicked my playing into a completely different gear.

What Did You Learn in School Today?

This song, oddly enough, changed my life. It was not one of my favorite Tom Paxton compositions—I was a kid, so didn’t want to sing anything that seemed childish, and preferred “The Name of the Game is Stud” or his mournful song of life on the road, “I Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound.” But, as I was thinking about which Paxton songs to do for this project, it occurred to me that this one got me both the first paying gig I ever played and, by a commodious vicus of recirculation, my introduction to Dave Van Ronk.

It happened like this: My parents had gotten to know jonathan kozolJonathan Kozol, who had written Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools. They were very impressed — to the point that my mother took some time from her scientific research to volunteer in Roxbury elementary schools for a couple of years– and he came over for dinner at least a couple of times, and during one visit I got bored with the grown-up conversation and went into an adjoining room, and started playing guitar and singing. (Was I showing off? Probably.)

One of the songs I sang was the Weavers version of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and it caught Jonathan’s attention — he said he’d never heard it done with just a guitartom_pete — and he asked me if I knew any songs that would be appropriate for a fund-raising event he was doing for an alternative school program, and I sang “What Will You Learn in School,” and he said it was perfect and hired me to do a 15- or 20-minute set. He even paid me fifty dollars, which seemed like such a fortune that I virtuously donated half of it back.

Around the same time, Jonathan split up with his then girlfriend, Amy Cohen, who had also been at dinner that night, and we remained friends with her, and she came to visit us in Woods Hole that summer. She played guitar and sang — she was a regular performer at the Nameless Coffeehouse in Cambridge, where I made my coffeehouse debut a few years later — so we were talking about music, and I said I had just seen Dave Van Ronk and it was the most amazing concert I’d ever seen. And Amy said Dave was a dear, close friend and offered to take me to his next gig.

Van Ronk1So that’s what happened. The next time Dave played Passim Coffeehouse in Harvard Square, Amy took me to the show and afterwards we all went to Chinatown for a late dinner, and somehow Dave and I got to discussing African sculpture (which my father collected). . .

…and who knows where I’d be today or what I’d be doing if it hadn’t been for that string of coincidences.

I Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound (Tom Paxton)

Paxton ramblin boy

Another dose of nostalgie de la boue from Tom Paxton. I loved this song as a kid, but can’t help noticing that Paxton himself got married back when he was writing these songs, and the marriage lasted, and he moved out to the country and raised a family, and all in all has had one of the most settled and stable lives of anyone on the folk scene.

It’s as if he actually meant the last verse, where he sings that anyone who sees the ramblin’ boy goin’ by and wants to be like him should just “nail your shoes to the kitchen floor, lace ’em up and bar the door/Thank your stars for the roof that’s over you.”

Of course, none of us took that verse seriously. It was like the end of the gangster movie or outlaw ballad, where the guy dies and someone intones that his fate should be a warning to us all not to follow the bad road… but we all know the real message is “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.”

hitchpicI loved this song and as soon as I was old enough I hit the road with my guitar slung over my shoulder, like Woody and Cisco and Jack and, I imagined, Tom. And although I eventually got married, part of the attraction was that I found someone who is also pretty mobile and unrooted (and does weird art and plays nice clarinet), and right now we’re trying to figure out where we’re going to live and what we’ll be when we grow up.  I’ve even kept hitchhiking, though the last cross-country trip was ten years ago.

So, in retrospect, I’m amused by the romanticism of this song and the young me who fell for it, but I did… and for better or worse, I’m still pretty regularly wondering where I’m bound, and sometimes that feels scary, but who the hell doesn’t wonder where they’re headed or get scared sometimes?

And I think it’s a nice touch that the singer keeps bemoaning his sad ‘n’ ramblin’ ways, but it’s the girl, rather than him, who leaves on the morning train.

Bottle of Wine (nostalgie de la boue)

Tom Paxton again, as anyone who was around for the folk revival very well knows.

dave-&-tomAmong the many things Dave Van Ronk taught me was the phrase “nostalgie de la boue,” which The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable defines roughly as follows:

nostalgie de la boue: a desire for degradation and depravity. The French phrase, meaning literally “nostalgia/longing for the mud,” was coined by the French poet and dramatist Émile Augier (1820–89), in Le Mariage d’Olympe. In response to the comment that a duck placed on a lake with swans will miss his pond and eventually return to it, the character Montrichard replies, “La nostalgie de la boue!

Folksingers have a strong tendency towards nostalgie de la boue, as do more than a few musicians of other sorts, from jazz saxophonists to opera singers, not to mention painters and novelists.  Van Ronk had his moments of it, God knows, but by the time I met him he was trying to stifle that particular propensity, replacing it with astonishing dinners, fine cigars, and the motto: “Nothing is too good for the working class.”

Be that as it may, “Bottle of Wine” is a fine example of nostalgie de la boue set to a catchy tune: the protagonist is panhandling, crashing in bug-infested flophouses, and hopping freight trains, due to his addiction to the bottle, and we all want to sing along. I learned this around age ten or eleven, but didn’t start singing it with any frequency until Graeme AllwrightI went to France, where people kept requesting it. It had been a huge hit, as “Jolie Boutteille, Sacrée Bouteille,” for Graeme Allwright — and if you don’t know who Graeme Allwright is, you weren’t in France with an acoustic guitar in the 1970s.

It was also a pretty fair hit in the United States, for the Fireballs, a surf guitar band from Raton, New Mexico, who doubled as the Crickets on Buddy Holly’s posthumous releases. I had the pleasure of interviewing the Fireballs’ lead guitarist, George Tomsco, a couple of years ago but we were talking about New Mexico electric guitar classics — in particular, “Bulldog” — and this song didn’t come up.

Name of the Game Is Stud (Tom Paxton, The Gaslight)

One of the great things about LPs was that they had liner notes on the back of the jacket, which meant that you didn’t have to buy them to read them. I spent hours in Harvard Square, at Minuteman, Briggs & Briggs, Discount Records, and the Harvard Coop, reading liner notes in the folk and blues sections. The notes on one album would mention someone I’d never heard of, so I’d go over to that bin and read the notes on their album, too.ain-t-that-news

I’m not sure that’s how I got to Tom Paxton—Pete Seeger had recorded several of his songs, which could also have steered me his way—but I have a vague memory of reading the notes on the back of his second album at Minuteman, and asking my mother to buy it for me. In any case, I got it, and I was hooked. I was a nine- or ten-year-old boy, so I didn’t go for the love songs much, but he had some rambling hobo songs that reminded me of Woody and Cisco, and some political songs that were smart and fit together in neat ways, and some that were just fun, like “The Name of the Game is Stud.” I didn’t know what stud poker was—to be frank, I’m still not sure—but the tune and the story were catchy and I listened to that album so much that I think at some point I just realized that I knew all the words.

What I didn’t know at that point, and never noticed until I sang this a couple of weeks ago, for the first time in years, was that it is about the scene at the Kettle of FishGaslight Café, the mythic stomping grounds of Dave Van Ronk, and Tom, and Mississippi John Hurt, and Hugh Romney (later Wavy Gravy), who was married there by the Reverend Gary Davis. When Dave waxed nostalgic, he would talk about long nights drinking at the Kettle of Fish, the bar upstairs where he and the other musicians hung out between sets. And he talked about Sam Hood,Sam Hood who ran the Gaslight and is presumably the “rounder named Sam” in this song, and the marathon poker games they would hold upstairs—though in his stories, the master cardsharp was Sam’s father, Clarence:

“God, that man was a great poker player! There were regular games all the time, and one night I was bumped out early on—I was clearly in a different league from the guys he liked to play with—and Clarence let me kibbitz his hand. I sat there and watched him fold hands that I would have held onto for dear life. Once he threw away a straight! And he was right every goddamn time.”

Worried Man Blues (Woody Guthrie/Carter Family)

I got this from Woody Guthrie, of course. I think pretty much everyone on the folk scene got it from Woody. It must have been one of the first songs I learned to play and sing, because I feel like I always knew it.

It’s the kind of archaic blues, or pre-blues, that seems to have been very common among African American singers at the turn of the century but had mostly fallen out of fashion with black listeners by the time recording came along. So these kinds of songs were mostly recorded by white players and tend to be thought of as country music — which is kind of silly, in a way, since it says right in the title that it’s a blues. Like dozens of other songs, Woody got it from the Carter Family, who did a nice version with Maybelle playing the melody on guitar. I’ve reworked it in a different key, and picked up some licks from Sam McGee’s “Railroad Blues.”

Sara CarterI was recently listening to many hours of interview with Maybelle and Sara Carter for the American Epic project, and found Ed Kahn (a folklore PhD student who did his dissertation on the Carters back in the 1960s) asking Sara where they got each song. For example:

Ed Kahn: Do you remember anything about Worried Man Blues, how you learned that or where it came from?

Sara Carter: No, I don’t remember where we learned that, but we heard somebody sing it.

Ed Kahn: Now, A.P. said something about that he learned the chorus of it from a convict gang. Or from a convict.

Sara Carter: Well, he probably did. I don’t remember where we did learn that.


Sloop John B. (à la Joseph Spence)

I have no idea where or when I first heard “Sloop John B.” a.k.a. “John B. Sails” — it could have been in elementary school or  at the singalongs Phyllis Switzer led every summer at the MBL Club in Woods Hole, or any number of other places. It’s in the Cisco Houston songbook, but I don’t recall ever hearing his version, and I always thought of it as a kids’ song until I heard Joseph Spence do it. john b sailsOf course, I was wrong about that; it was one of the most popular anthems of the fishermen working out of Nassau, as described in a 1916 Harper’s Monthly Magazine article by an English poet named Richard Le Gallienne. That version was five verses long, but Cisco and Phyllis and pretty much everyone else just sing the three-verse version  Carl Sandburg included in his American Songbag. Sandburg wrote that he had learned it from friends who lived in Nassau, but his three verses are identical to the first three in the Harper’s piece, which makes me suspicious…

Le Gallienne wrote, in the typical prose of the time, “These Negro songs of Nassau, though crude as to words, have a very haunting, barbaric melody, said to come straight from the African jungle, full of hypnotizing repetitions and absurd choruses, which, though they may not attract you much at first, end by getting into your blood, so that you often find yourself humming them unawares. The best known of them…is ‘The John B. Sails.'”

spence-lipscomb-webBy the time I heard the song, the melody was more boring than barbaric, and when I heard the Beach Boys’ version, that didn’t help. But then I heard Joseph Spence do it. I’d heard his guitar playing already, on the Folkways album Sam Charters recorded, which was in a box of records my half-brother David left with us for a year or two. The Folkways album didn’t include much singing, and I didn’t really understand Spence’s music until I saw a poster in the Harvard Coop, when I was twelve, saying that he and Mance Lipscomb would be at the Harvard Student Union. I didn’t recognize his name, but I knew Lipscomb’s, so I went, and that was that.

I sing the usual Sandburg verses, but play roughly Spence’s guitar accompaniment — anyone who has heard Spence Arhoolie Spence LPknows why I don’t sing his lyrics, and anyone who has not heard Spence should immediately hear him. He recorded “John B Sails” for Arhoolie, and if you don’t know his work, I have a guide to his recordings on my Spence page (which also has info about my how-to-play-Spence DVD). He may be my favorite guitarist ever, and I’ll be playing more of his arrangements before this project is finished (so far, I’ve done “The Glory of Love” and “Brownskin Girl“). I’m the first to admit that no one else plays them like he did, but it’s a lot of fun to try.