Wreck of the Old 97 (Vernon Dalhart/Bosses Songbook)

I think I first heard this on a Pete Seeger record, but it could have been Cisco or any number of other people. Everybody knew it and sang it, because it was the first million-selling country hit, Vernon Dalhartrecorded by Vernon Dalhart for Victor records in 1924, and then for nine other labels in less than a year. The actual wreck happened on September 27th, 1903, and if you want to know more about it there’s a good article here.

Dalhart was an all-around professional record singer, based in New York and doing classical and pop as well as what was then called “hillbilly” music. He was a Texan originally, born Marion Try Slaughter–not a he-man name by modern standards, but John Wayne was also a Marion–and according to the ever-reliable Tony Russell, Victor’s Ralph Peer described him as “a professional substitute for a real hillbilly.” Hence I cannot help but feel a degree of kinship. Peer also said “He had the peculiar ability to adapt hillbilly music to suit the taste of the non-hillbilly population,” which potentially makes him the grandfather of Seeger, Dylan, and their myriad fellow travelers.

Speaking of which,  I cannot sing this song withoutBosses Songbook being reminded of the parody Roy Berkeley wrote, published by Dave Van Ronk and Dick Ellington in The Bosses Songbook around 1958 or ’59. Subtitled “Songs to Stifle the Flames of Discontent,” The Bosses Songbook was a small anarcho-Trostkyist publication mocking the Communist and Popular Front folksingers (to my amazement, the 1959 second edition is online), and included “Ballad of a Party Folksinger,” which began:

They gave him his orders at Party headquarters
Saying, “Pete, you’re way behind the times.
This is not ’38, it is 1957,
There’s a change in that old Party line.

Van Ronk’s generation of New York folkies had a kind of Oedipal relationship to the Seeger generation — they were deeply indebted to Pete and Woody and Josh and Lead Belly and Alan Lomax, but also trying to make their own way, not only musically but politically and culturally. Part of that was a quest for “authenticity,” meaning that they were trying to sing and play like the real folks, not like all their peers who were learning folk music at lefty summer camps and singing “Wreck of the Old 97.”

I was lucky enough to come along after those battles had been fought, with access to all the great old rural music that got reissued by the purists in the 1950s and 1960s, but without a chip on my shoulder about Pete Seeger or Josh White. And then I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time with Van Ronk, who appreciated the fact that — even though I’d come to him for blues — I had grown up on Pete’s music and knew songs like this. Not that he would have been caught dead singing this, but he felt that folksingers should know the canon.

Hard Travelin’ (Woody Guthrie)

Woody said:

This is a song about the hard traveling of the working people, not the moonstruck mystic traveling of the professional vacationist. Song about a man that has rode the flat wheelers, kicked up cinders, dumped the red guthrie-bound-for-glory-coverhot slag, hit the hard rock tunneling, hard harvesting, the hard rock jail, looking for a woman that’s hard to find.

To be fair, Woody never dumped any red hot slag nor did any mining, and everyone I’ve ever heard sing this song does it in the same spirit I do it, caught up in the romance of the open road rather than bemoaning its hardships.

I’ve known this so long that I have no idea where I learned it or from whom. I can’t find it on any of the Woody Guthrie albums I had, and I didn’t get the Cisco Houston 10-inch with this song till later, nor did I have it by Ramblin’ Jack, or Pete Seeger. Maybe I just heard someone sing it someplace, then pulled the words out of a songbook…

…which would explain why, when I recorded it on my CD and played it for Dave Van Ronk, he pointed out that I wasn’t really singing the melody, just kind of approximating it…

…or maybe not, since by now I’ve heard a couple of Woody’s versions, and Cisco’s, and a bunch of other people’s, and I still sing it this way. Just one of those pig-headed ramblin’ men, I guess.

hobos hopping trainIncidentally, for those who want a glossary to go with the freight train verse:

flat wheeler: a car that rides hard, bouncing and shaking like the wheels were flat.

blind passenger: a boxcar, for the logical reason that they’re relatively comfortable to ride, but have no windows. There’s a big door, and the view is a lot better than out of a window if it’s open — and I always kept them open, because it’s safer that way. But if you want to hide from the railroad guards, you ride with them almost closed, just propped with a chunk of wood or something so you won’t get locked inside. (At least, that’s my understanding of the term — I can’t find any confirmation on the internet, and don’t have my hobo dictionaries handy.)

dead ender: damned if I know.

Sam Hall (Josh White)

I loved Josh White’s music from the start, and had plenty of parental support: he was the only guitarist whose work my father could recognize instantly, and my mother clearly had a mild crush on him (not an unusual reaction). josh lpI had his Chain Gang and Southern Exposure 78 albums pretty early, but don’t recall learning any songs off them, probably because at that point the guitar parts were too daunting — in any case, my basic Josh repertoire came from a slightly later acquisition, the Elektra two-record “best of” set compiled from his 1950s recordings. It was heavily slanted to blues, but included a couple of British Isles songs, or at least this one, which I learned immediately and sang with great relish.

Apparently descended from a serious gallows-last-words ballad about a young chimney sweep named Jack Hall (I got his first name wrong on the video) who was executed in the late eighteenth century, by the mid 1800s it had become “Samuel Hall,” a comic parody of that form. It seems to have been a barroom and fraternity favorite in the United States in the early twentieth century, and was included by Carl Sandburg in his American Songbag, so there’s no telling where Josh picked it up. In any case, he sang it with grisly pleasure, and in the context of his repertoire of protest blues I understood it as a generalized attack on all authorities, secular or religious, and respectable people in general — and took great pleasure in the gorier bits. As a kid just getting a basic feel for the guitar, it was also one of the few songs of his that I could play.

Martian Love Song (Lee Hays/Earl Robinson)

I’m proud that I remember so many good songs—but memory doesn’t take orders, and I also remember some lousy ones. I had “Martian Love Song” firmly filed in that category, as an example of the kind of dreck I learned as a kid and will be stuck with till I die—but when I got into this project I went over all the songs I could remember, culling the dreck, and culled this one, and then woke up one night with it going through my head, and a wave of affection swept over me. It was kind of like meeting a peculiar, socially inept old acquaintance whom no one else liked, and I had to take it by the Seeger Gazettehand and reassure it that it was just fine and I was happy to be its friend.

So then I went back to the booklet for Pete Seeger’s Gazette LP, which I assumed was the only place it ever appeared, to see what he said about it, and found to my amazement that the words are by Lee Hays of the Weavers and the melody by Earl Robinson, who wrote “Ballad for Americans,” “The House I Live In” and “Free and Equal Blues” — at which point I did a little more investigating and found that Robinson recorded it for Folkways as well, under the title “My True Love,” with the note, “it is an old folk song that we composed next week.” Earl RobinsonPete’s notes add that it was composed “in preparation for that possible future time when venturesome space pilots from the Earth will go joy-riding with winsome Martian lassies—and, undoubtedly, run out of fuel in the neighborhood of some deserted asteroid.”

To add a serious historical note: some writers who date the beginning of the singer-songwriter movement to Bob Dylan’s arrival in Greenwich Village have invented a mythical pre-Dylan folk scene in which no one was writing new songs, or, if they were, they were only writing agit-prop protest lyrics. This is a good example of what’s wrong with that idea—the Seeger-Weavers generation was full of songwriters, writing about all sorts of things. Nor were they stolid folk purists — Pete started out playing banjo in his high school jazz band and harmonizing on pop tunes, and there had been regular cross-fertilization between pop and folk, back to Stephen Foster and beyond.

What is true is that by the turn of the 1960s a clique of younger singers and musicians who Dave Van Ronk (an enthusiastic member) dubbed the “neo-ethnics” was dismissing that stuff as horrible pseudo-folk and insisting that real folk music was what they were learning off old rural recordings from the 1920s. (The old rural artists had also sung a lot of pop tunes, but they didn’t know that.)

Then Dylan came along, sounding like a neo-ethnic and hanging out with the neo-ethnics, and started writing, and became a rock star, and it was a major changing of the guard. There was still a lot of overlap, like Phil Ochs’s style, which comes straight out of Bob Gibson and has not the slightest whiff of neo-ethnicity about it, or Joni Mitchell, or Judy Collins, or all sorts of people who grew up on the Weavers and singer-songwriter compositions like Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “Kisses Sweeter than Wine,” not to mention “Scarlet Ribbons” and “South Coast,” and “Scotch and Soda.” But Dylan became the defining figure for the historical transition, celebrated for cutting his ties with the older generation of folkies, and the continuity was largely obscured.

Which goes some way to explaining why I might be the only person alive who remembers “Martian Love Song.”

When Francis Dances with Me (My father)

I got this one in the authentic oral tradition: my father used to sing it at the dinner table, along with “Sheik of Araby” and “Oh, By Jingo,” and “Lena Was the Queen o’ Palestina” (just because she played the concertina). george1927There were lots of others, including some that I’ve never seen mentioned anywhere and that may have died with him. For example, a fake Russian number with the immortal couplet:

Like a balalaika moaning in a minor key,
Some of our friends are sipping samovar tea.
(That’s “bala-like-a” and “some of our tea.” Get it?)

Anyway, this was one of his favorites, and I’m pretty sure it started out being a favorite because his first wife was named Frances and he used to sing it to her. I was from the second family, and the break-up had not been amicable, but he kept singing the song.

whenfrancisI can still sing lots of songs I learned from my father, as well as telling his jokes and reciting his Yiddish dialect recitations. Speaking of which, I really should pronounce the last line of this song in proper Brooklynese: “I wear a skoit that’s got two hundred slits” — like “Dere was toity doity boids at toity-toid and toid street.” Brooklyn was the mythic wonderland of my childhood, and this song was a notable part of the soundtrack.

If you want another touch of my father’s Brooklyn repertoire, I’ve got a dialect transcription of “Jake the Plumber,” his Jewish parody on “The Face On the Barroom Floor,” on my regular website. And if you want to know more about him, I’ve got a page about his life, with links to a couple of his speeches. He was a biologist and professor, as was my mother, and when I took up folksinging people acted like I took a sharply divergent path from my parents. By me, I was just carrying on his tradition.

The Cuckoo (Jack Elliott/Clarence Ashley/cuckoldry)

“The Cuckoo” is another one I got from Jack Elliott, and I still play it more or less the way he did. The liner notes to his record say he learned it from Derroll Adams and got the guitar part from Doc Watson.

Clarence “Tom” Ashley

The ultimate source for all three would have been the North Carolina banjo player Clarence “Tom” Ashley, who recorded it in 1929. Ashley’s record was pretty popular, and Adams may have picked it up from the 78, or from another banjo player, or from the anthology American Folk Music, compiled by Harry Smith in the early 1950s and issued by Folkways. But Watson would have got it directly from Ashley, who lived down the road from him and sometimes hired him as a guitar player — northern folk revivalists first became aware of Watson when they went in search of Ashley.

As for the song, it’s a compendium of verses from various other songs, but the subtext is a series of oblique references to cuckoldry. The word cuckold is derived from cuckoo — by way of the French cocu and coucou — and the former (a husband whose wife is cheating on him) apparently was named after the latter because the female cuckoo lays her eggs in the nest of other birds, who care for them, leaving her free to go her merry way.

Nothing in the song’s cuckoo-related verses imply that connection, but the reference to building a log cabin on the mountain so that the singer “can see Willie when he goes riding by” suggests a theme like the blues lyric about a singer moving his wife to “the outskirts of town” (another song I’ll get around to at some point) — i.e., worries about male competition. Unless, of course, the singer is a woman and she wants to build a cabin on the mountain so she can see her lover coming, and the cuckoo is just in there because it’s a pretty bird that wobbles as it flies and displays its French heritage in a taste for wine.

As for that wobble… there is a tendency of later singers to shift it to “warble,” but the description of a bird that “wobbles as it flies” makes good sense, while if it was warbling all the time, how does that fit with the claim that it never sings “cuckoo” till the fourth day of July? Besides, another singer on the Harry Smith anthology makes a similar reference — Dick Justice in “Henry Lee,” sings the threat to a little bird: “If I had my bending bow, my arrow and my string/ I’d pierce a dart so nigh your heart your wobble would be in vain.”

Railroad Bill (Ramblin’ Jack Elliott)

From Woody and Cisco, it was an easy and obvious step to Ramblin’ Jack Elliott — I don’t remember how that step got made, but my guess is that I was just thumbing through the records at Minuteman or the Coop, reading liner notes, and this one caught my eye. ramblin jack lpI still sing eight of the twelve songs on this record, and I’m still amazed at the quirkiness of Jack’s taste — he has been typed as an acolyte of Woody’s and a ramblin’ cowboy singer, but this album includes hillbilly yodeling, string band trios, a Ray Charles medley, a comic Scots dialect song and monologue, “San Francisco Bay Blues” — which most of us heard from Jack before hearing Jesse Fuller’s version — and Rev. Gary Davis’s “Candyman,” which I thought I first heard from Van Ronk, but clearly heard from Jack before that.

Jack remains one of my favorite guitar players, and “Railroad Bill” is one of his classic arrangements. I’m sure I’ve changed it some over the years, but it was the early pieces that got me comfortable with the rudiments of fingerpicking, and a piece that pretty much every urban fingerpicker learned to play in the generation before mine, right after “Freight Train” and before “Buckdancer’s Choice.”

I originally suggested Jack’s source was presumably an obscure black singer and guitarist named Will Bennett, who recorded only two songs, “Railroad Bill” and “Real Estate Blues” in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1929. That’s about all I know about Bennett, but I was recently at the Knoxville Stomp, an event celebrating the early recording sessions there, and people seem to be turning over a lot of rocks, so hopefully we will learn more.

A couple of years later, an internet friend named Paul Stamler pointed out that Jack’s source was undoubtedly Hobart Smith, whose guitar arrangement is obviously what Jack, I, and pretty much everybody else plays. I have no idea if Smith got it from Bennett’s recording, or Frank Hutchison’s, or if it was just floating around the Tennessee/Carolina/West Virginia region. In any case, it’s a great song.

Tennessee Flat-Top Box (Johnny Cash)

This was the first guitar solo I ever learned, through an odd confluence of coincidences. I got Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire LP in Falmouth, Ring_of_Fire_-_The_Best_of_Johnny_Cashwhere the record store on Main St. had a discount bin and I could easily persuade my mother to take chances on unfamiliar material. Cash was definitely that, for us, and when we got home and listened, my mother was instantly turned off — she didn’t like his hyper-macho voice and the overblown arrangements, and her dislike was cemented by the lyrics of “Remember the Alamo”: “Hey, Santy Ana, we’re killing your soldiers below/ So men wherever they go/ Will remember the Alamo.”

Seth ShulmanBe that as it may, I listened to it sometimes, and then I was over at Seth Shulman’s house — the one time I ever recall visiting him. Seth had blown me away in fourth grade by bringing his guitar for “show and tell,” and performing a Beatles song. I don’t remember which Beatles song, but it was way beyond my abilities, as was the whole idea of performing anything on guitar — I had one already, but could barely pick out simple melodies. Seth and I were not super-close friends, but we were always friendly and I had huge respect for his guitaristic abilities, which is probably why I was invited over to his house.

I think I was only there once, and we went up to his room and played guitar, and he had the Newport Folk Festival Songbook, which I had never seen. We were going through it, and it had Newport songbook“Tennessee Flat-Top Box” — not only the words and melody, but the guitar solo. It was just an extension of a basic bass run in C, and I could read enough music to figure it out, so I did. Seth and I played together for an hour or so, and then we went downstairs and played for his mother, and then I went home, and that was that — except that almost fifty years later, I still know the damn thing.

Incidentally, Seth is now a respected science journalist, with multiple books to his credit, and he lives in Western Mass, and we really should get together one of these days. I have no idea if he still plays guitar.

I Just Don’t Want to Be Rich

This is another I picked up from Sam Hinton’s Song of Men LP — I don’t recall listening to that record much, but when I look back at it, I remember a surprising number of the songs — which I guess means I didn’t love his performances, but appreciated his taste.

sam hinton as hoboThis is one of many funny hobo songs that circulated in the early 20th century, of which the most famous were “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” and “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” I haven’t found any earlier source for this song than Hinton, who wrote that he’d learned it from his uncle Bubba in Oklahoma, around 1928. [Later: see below*]

Hinton was a popular left-wing folksinger on the West Coast, more or less in the Pete Seeger mold, and I honestly don’t know much about him, except that he was a Marine biologist and a good harmonica player, and happened to lend his guitar to Bob Dylan for the morning ballad workshop at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963.

I grew up on stories of bright lads leaving home to seek their fortunes, as did Dylan and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Woody Guthrie before them. A lot of people enjoyed those stories without following through on the urge to live that life, and when I took it up for about a dozen years I discovered that respectable people with good jobs often picked me up hitchhiking and went into long soliloquies about how they wished they could pack it all in, hit the road, and be free like me. This lyric exemplifies that attitude, while simultaneously poking fun at it, and is a nice antidote to all the songs about the loneliness of the open road — which is not to say it is more accurate.

As for the line about eating from a tin can — during my wandering years I often carried a can of baked beans in my pack for nights when I got stuck out on the road and wanted something in my stomach. So, during my brief period of riding the rails, I ended up on the yards in Pasco, Washington, with some old hobos, and got out my can of beans, and offered to share, and they were all horrified that I wasn’t taking the trouble to make a fire and heat the can, because they didn’t see why anyone would want to eat cold beans. I’m not sure what the moral of that story is, and hadn’t thought about it in years, but this song reminded me.

* More than a year after I first posted this, Paul Stamler alerted me to an online discussion I’d missed, which sent me to the original recording by Carson Robison, titled “Naw! I Don’t Wanta Be Rich.” Apparently this was also released as “You Wonder Why I’m a Hobo,” though I can’t find any solid evidence of that version… and listening to Robison’s 1930 version on Youtube I find that most of the lyrics are different, so maybe he also recorded a different version, or maybe Sam Hinton’s uncle got it from a different source, or maybe Hinton or his uncle did some lyric doctoring.

The Miller’s Will (Sam Hinton)

One of many songs about the rapacity of millers, notorious back to Chaucer’s time and probably long before.

Along with the singers who became my personal models and heroes, there were some  I just happened to see in concert, or who recorded a song or album that caught my fancy. I think I first heard sam hintonSam Hinton on a Newport Folk Festival LP, where he did “The Arkansas Traveler,” playing the fiddle part on harmonica. (I later learned that he held the harmonica in his mouth without a holder, while simultaneously playing guitar.) Then I picked up his Song of Men LP, and learned a few songs from it, including “The Miller’s Will” and a minor masterpiece called “It’s a Long Way from Amphioxus” — Hinton worked at the Scripps Institute of marine biology in San Diego, and the song was apparently composed at the Woods Hole Marine sam hinton LPBiological Laboratories, where my parents worked in the summer. It was the kind of thing college students composed to amuse one another, back when they were making up silly songs rather than silly raps, and was full of ornate scientific terminology: “A fishlike thing appeared among the anilids one day/ It hadn’t any parapods or cetae to display…” and so forth, as I recall, though I may not recall very well.

Hinton wrote that he learned “The Miller’s Will” in East Texas and its melody resembled “the fine old fiddle tune known as ‘The Pigtown Hoedown.'” I like its critique of filthy capitalists, and also the rhyme of “Ralph” with “half,” a British pronunciation that has died out except among old-school traditionalists like Ralph Fiennes, and which I can’t sing without it sounding weird.