Johnny Be Fair (Buffy Sainte-Marie)

Another by Buffy Sainte-Marie, though, like a lot of people, I thought it was an old folk song that I just happened to learn from her recording. The story is certainly old, and I also do a Caribbean version called “Shame and Scandal buffy_sainte_marie02in the Family,” but this version doesn’t seem to trace any further back than Buffy.

I listened to Sainte-Marie way more often than to Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, or any of the other women on the sixties folk scene. There was something about her voice that just grabbed me, and her arrangements ranged from nice solo guitar and mouth bow to country bands and some synthesizer experiments that worked better than most of that stuff. I also loved her songwriting — her most famous songs were political: “Universal Soldier” and her Native American protest songs “Now that the Buffalo’s Gone” and “My Country, ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying,”  but she also wrote romantic songs, rowdy songs, sexy songs, weird mystical/psychedelic songs, and songs that sounded a lot more authentically traditional than most of the pseudo-trad confections on that scene.

“Johnny Be Fair” has been generally accepted as an Irish folk ditty — I thought it was Irish, a lot of people on the internet think it’s Irish, and she sings it in Irish style — but she is credited as the songwriter and no one seems to be able to find a version that predates hers, so unless somebody informs me otherwise, I’m gonna assume she wrote it. A lot of people on the early folk scene believed that that songs with staying power would gradually become part of the broad, anonymous oral tradition — but this is one of the few examples that has actually made that transition.

And now, my apologies for writing an exegesis that is far longer than the song itself, and far duller… and I recommend that anyone who hasn’t listened to Sainte-Marie’s work take some time to check her out.

Cod’ine (Buffy Sainte-Marie)

Buffy Sainte-Marie was one of my favorite songwriters of the 1960s, and I learned at least a half-dozen of her songs — but, for some best of buffyreason, my favorites tended to be songs that made little or no sense for a man to sing, like “I’m Gonna Be a Country Girl Again” and “Soulful Shade of Blue,” which is a plea to her dressmaker to make her a lovely dress that will attract the man she loves.

“Cod’ine” is also from a woman’s point of view, but strong enough to be sung by anybody… the problem being that none of us will ever sing it as well as Sainte-Marie did. This was probably the song that first attracted me to her work, through the devastating performance she gave on a Newport Folk Festival anthology LP.

In a parallel to current oxycodone and Oxycontin addiction, codeine is an opioid that was a common ingredient in cough medicine, sold legally in drugstores, but frequently used to get high. There were monographs on the dangers of codeine addiction as early as the 1930s, but it continued to be widely prescribed and also used in many over-the-counter cough medicines. Sainte-Marie herself was prescribed it for a throat problem in 1963 and apparently became addicted, though not to the extent of the character in her song.

In any case, I learned the song but never performed it, because I was so captivated by her performance — I would try to sing it the way she did, and I couldn’t come close. But for this project I figured I might introduce the song to some listeners who didn’t know it… so here it is. And, now that you’re here, I recommend checking out the original. A terrific, though excerpted, version was filmed at Newport:


Johnny Half-Breed (Peter La Farge)

Like childhood crushes, I would fall in love with particular albums, listen to them over and over for days, weeks, or months, then abandon them and move on. Peter LaFarge LPThe love affair with Peter LaFarge lasted at least a few months, and maybe even a couple of years. I learned a bunch of his songs — “Stampede,” “Move Over, Grab a Holt,” and of course “Ira Hayes” — but this is the only one I remember all the way through.

There was a moment in the early 1960s when some people in the New York Broadside magazine clique were mentioning him right up with Bob Dylan, who concurs, saying: “The guy who was best at protest-song writing was Peter LaFarge. We were pretty tight for a while…. Actually Peter is one of the great unsung heroes of the day. His style was just a little bit too erratic. But it wasn’t his fault, he was always hurting.”

LaFarge was admired by the other young Village musicians not only as a songwriter but as someone who had really lived the life: he’d grown up in the West, served in the Korean War, been a rodeo rider , and presented himself as Native American. That story got complicated, because he had no Native ancestry, though he had grown up with a lot of Indian friends — his father was a noted scholar of Native traditions — and had been adopted into the Tewa tribe. But until Buffy Sante-Marie appeared on the scene, he was the folk scene’s most outspoken advocate for Native issues.

LaFarge had come to New York on Josh White’s suggestion, then became close to Cisco Houston, and his style drew on both of theirs, with his own dramatic additions. It’s not a style I can listen to for very long anymore, but for a while I was completely smitten.

“Johnny Half-Breed” is fairly typical of LaFarge’s songwriting, which was workmanlike and tended to tell stories with straightforward messages. Bitter TearsIt only recently occurred to me that he probably wrote this one for Johnny Cash, who had recently recorded an album, Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, with five of LaFarge’s songs on it, including the hit version of “Ira Hayes.” The timing is right, and the name, and Cash was presenting himself as part-Native, so it all makes sense.

Unfortunately, shortly after On the Warpath came out in 1965, LaFarge died of an overdose of thorazine. I’d always heard it was suicide, but there seems to be some doubt about that. On balance, he may have been more interesting as a person than as a musician, and I wish someone would get his story down. (In fact, maybe that’s another project I should consider…)

I Was Born About 10,000 Years Ago (Doc Watson)

I don’t remember how I got Doc Watson’s first album, but I had it very early and it was one of my favorites. I loved his voice, his guitar playing, his harmonica, his banjo (the first banjo tune I remember learning was his “Georgia Buck”), Doc Watsonand his taste in songs. At first most of the guitar parts were too complicated for me — not just at first, either; I learned I would never be a serious flatpicker during many hours trying to master “Black Mountain Rag” — but fortunately there were a few songs that depended more on the lyrics than the picking, in particular this one.

This song seems to have first been published in 1894 as “I Am a Highly Educated Man,” with lyrics by Harry C. Clyde and music by H. C. Verner, a pair of old-time pop music hacks — Verner, for example, was credited not only with 1893’s “Won’t You Be My Sweetheart?” but also “Yes, I’ll Be Your Sweetheart” (with Clyde) and “I Won’t Be Your Sweetheart Anymore.”

Their version shared about half the verses of Doc’s (which was titled “I Was Born About Six Thousand Years Ago”) and there were intermediary versions by many of the top early hillbilly stars, including Fiddlin’ John Carson, Vernon Dalhart, Uncle Dave Macon, and Charlie Poole, often titled “I’m the Man that Rode the Mule Around the World.”

I’d guess this was a minstrel show comedy number, since there were lots of blackface minstrel routines based on the idea that southern plantation dwellers had comically simplistic notions of Biblical history — indeed, there was a huge Broadway hit built on that foundation, Green Pastures, as well as the Gershwin brothers’ “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” But that’s just a guess.

Incidentally, the line about “Peter, Paul, and Moses playing ring-around-the-roses” is what inspired Peter, Paul, and Mary to call themselves that, requiring Noel Stookey to change his name.general hooker Also incidentally, I always thought of this as a southern song, so assumed General Hooker was southern — but it turns out that General Joseph Hooker was born in Hadley, Massachusetts, and served in the Union army during in the Civil War, leading troops in Tennessee, among other regions.

They Hung Him on the Cross (Lead Belly)

I don’t remember the chronology clearly, but I think I first got Pete Seeger and Julius Lester’s instruction book12-string as played by leadbelly on how to play Lead Belly’s 12-string guitar style, and it was another few months or maybe even a year before I persuaded my mother to buy me a 12-string. Actually, it didn’t take much persuading, because she liked the sound of the octave bass strings even more than I did — or maybe I just had mixed feelings because of the struggle it took to play that particular guitar. It was a Yamaha, and it wasn’t terrible,  but I’ve tended to feel clumsy playing most 12-strings, and that one was no exception. I managed to get Lead Belly’s stuff sounding pretty good, but never could make anything else sound like much more than jangling mush.

Back when I was twelve, though, playing Lead Belly’s guitar style was an incredible thrill — it was a big, solid, macho sound, and I’m guessing it overwhelmed my singing, or with luck maybe even drowned it out entirely…

Be that as it may, this was one of the songs I learned from that book, and I can say with absolute assurance that I never would have learned it otherwise, what with being a Jew and an atheist, and the fact that it just never appealed to me much as a song. But it was one of the first guitar arrangements I learned that actually sounded like something I had on a record, especially when played on a 12-string. I haven’t owned a 12-string since getting rid of that Yamaha sometime in my late teens or twenties, but whenever I happen to get one in my hands I tend to play this, and still get a thrill from sounding like Lead Belly — though the next thing that always happens is I try to play a Willie McTell piece and get frustrated.

20.12Incidentally — very incidentally — my father, who was a biologist, used to enjoy going through museums of European painting and noting how the new scientific consciousness of the late Renaissance led to a shift from painting crucifixion scenes with Christ’s wound on the right (the virtuous side of the body) to the left (the side where the heart is anatomically located).  I still can’t go through a museum without noting which side the wound is on, and checking dates — for example, here’s a painting by Joachim Patinir [1480-1524] with it on the left, but Rogier van de Weyden [1400-1464] still had it on the right.

Midnight Special

Once again, I learned this from the Cisco Houston songbook, and still sing it almost exactly as printed there, and like a lot of songs in that book it still comes into my head wmidnight specialith the accompanying illustration, of a man who is presumably a prison guard, standing with his rifle.

Of course, like everyone else, I soon heard one of Lead Belly’s versions, which was undoubtedly Cisco’s source as well, since he includes many of Lead Belly’s points of reference: Sugarland penitentiary, where Lead Belly was imprisoned from 1918 to 1925, and the sheriff of Houston, Texas, whose name Cisco’s book gave as Benson Brocker (which is what I sing), but Lead Belly’s biographers give as Bason and Brock, explaining that A.W. Brock was the chief of police, but not giving any info on Bason.

The song was apparently known throughout the South, and was recorded several times in the 1920s, first Crying Sam Collinsby a white Oklahoman named Dave “Pistol Pete” Cutrell in 1926, then a year later by Crying Sam Collins, a black guitarist and singer from Louisiana and Mississippi, who has some wonderful variations on the standard melody. Bruce Jackson and other scholars have listed this as a popular prison song, circulated in oral tradition, but I’m struck by how similar the early recordings are, and have to wonder whether it also circulated in some more formal way, as a song sheet or performed by a popular black (or white?) vaudeville entertainer — though I have no basis whatsoever for that guess, aside from the fact that some relatively generic-sounding verses seem to have been firmly attached to this song all across the South.

In any case, pretty much everyone who now sings it uses variants of Lead Belly’s verses, with their Texas references and the mention of “Jumpin’ Judy,” which Steve Calt glosses as a slang term for a woman who would have sex with lots of men — a reasonable guess, since the word “Judy” was already noted in 1810 as slang for prostitute or, to be precise, for a “blowenmidnight special 78 album,” a wonderfully archaic Briticism.

Some sources add that there was a legend in Sugarland (or in other prisons) that if the light of the midnight train shone on a prisoner through his window, he would soon be released. I am not aware of any solid evidence for this, and as far as I know it may have been invented by an imaginative folklorist… but if anyone out there knows more, please fill me in.

Big Rock Candy Mountain (Mac McClintock/ censorship)

I learned this from a Pete Seeger songbook, American Favorite Ballads, and it was at least a dozen years before I became aware of its author, harrymcclintockHarry “Haywire Mac” McClintock, a cowboy, hobo, and IWW singer who also wrote “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” (as well as “The Trusty Lariat,” a.k.a. “The Cowboy Fireman“).

As usually sung, it’s in the genre of comic hobo songs, along with things like “I Just Don’t Want to Be Rich,” but the version we know is a censored shadow of what hobos actually sang — as McClintock explained, he had “to clean that song up; it wasn’t a parlor song, originally.” Fortunately for history, in the early 1930s he had to go to court to defend his copyright, and established his authorship by explaining the story behind the original… which is that the protagonist is a hobo trying to “snare some kid to do his begging for him, among other things” — specifically, to serve as his “punk” — a word that by now has lost its original connotation of a boy kept for sexual purposes by an older man.

As evidence, McClintock produced a final verse he had written but not recorded:

The punk rolled up his big blue eyes and said to the jocker, “Sandy,
I’ve hiked and hitched and wandered too, but I ain’t seen any candy.
I’ve hiked and hiked till my feet are sore, I’ll be god damned if I hike any more,
To be buggered sore like a hobo’s whore on the Big Rock Candy Mountains.”

I’ve never heard anyone sing that verse, and a lot of songbooks even expurgate the basic hobo fantasy elements, removing references to alcohol, getting out of jail, and hanging “the jerk who invented work.” One of my ongoing projects is exploring the censorship of our musical and cultural history — the first published fruit was The Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama, republished in paperback as Talking ‘Bout Your Mama — and I’ve turned up even more graphic lyrics about hobos making use of young boys, which apparently was very common. McClintock described having to fight “like a wildcat” to protect himself from sexual assaults when he took to the road as a youth, and Ernest Hemingway traced his homophobia to similar experiences, writing:

I had certain prejudices against homosexuality since I knew its more primitive aspects. I knew it was why you carried a knife and would use it when you were in the company of tramps when you were a boy in the days when wolves was not a slang term for men obsessed by the pursuit of women.

Of which more to come when I get around to that book (which will also explore plenty of lyrics that provide positive depictions of homosexuality, and sexuality of many and varied kinds)….

Meanwhile, I sing the Seeger verses.

Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (Mac McClintock, hobos)

I probably first heard this on Pete Seeger’s American Favorite Ballads, vol. 5, which was my source for a bunch of songs. It was composed around the turn of the twentieth century by “Haywire Mac ” McClintock, who recorded it in 1928, and I later heard Bruce “Utah” Phillips sing it many times — he tended to finish shows by asking the audience to sing along and recognize that we’re all bums — in a positive, IWW kind of way — and need to respect one another and treat each other right in recognition of that fellowship.

I was surprised at first, because I hadn’t taken the song seriously, but aside from the chorus, which parodies an old revival hymn, it’s a pretty straightforward and welcoming expression of hobo life. It’s also a reminder of the days when guys in search of a hand-out didn’t just stand on streetcorners saying “Spare change?” or holding up signs describing their plight, but went The Road illustrationfrom house to house in working class areas, asking for a meal, sometimes in return for chopping wood or some other brief job. Likewise, travelers would knock on a farmer’s door and ask for a place to sleep — there was a popular country song called, “Can I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight, Mister.”

Unpleasant as that kind of begging could be — the refusals always outnumbered the acquiescences — it at least involved some communication with another human being. When I was a busker, I rather quickly stopped playing on the sidewalk with an open guitar case, and instead worked cafes, restaurants, and bars, where I would play and then go table to table, chatting briefly with people as they went through their pockets, and fairly often being invited for a drink. It made the whole experience more interesting and sociable, and also was good business — some regular customers got to thinking of me as their busker, and giving me an extra tip. When I was traveling, I would often combine passing the hat with asking for a place to stay, which may sound weird, but it worked fine. In Germany in the 1970s, I quickly learned not to ask for a place until I was done for the night, because I always found one in the first place I tried, and once someone had agreed to host me, they expected me to stick around and join the party. In the US it was harder, but especially in the South it tended to work out, and I met a lot of interesting people that way.

I never knocked on doors for food, but if you want a taste of that experience, and indeed of the whole hobo experience at the time McClintock was writing,jacklondon3 I highly recommend Jack London’s autobiographical The Road (the whole book is online, for free — quite a change from the early 1980s, when I spent a couple of years searching for a copy). It’s a great read, and London traces his skills as a storyteller to his panhandling experience, writing:

I have often thought that to this training of my tramp days is due much of my success as a story-writer. In order to get the food whereby I lived, I was compelled to tell tales that rang true. At the back door, out of inexorable necessity, is developed the convincingness and sincerity laid down by all authorities on the art of the short-story. Also, I quite believe it was my tramp-apprenticeship that made a realist out of me. Realism constitutes the only goods one can exchange at the kitchen door for grub.

Incidentally, the verse about “Jim Hill” refers to James J. Hill, the fabulously wealthy builder and owner of the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroad lines.

Going Down the Road Feeling Bad (Samantha Bumgarner/proto-blues)

I first heard this from Woody Guthrie, but that just tells you where and when I started listening to southern rural music, not where the song comes from. If we were looking for the earliest form of blues, this song is as good a nominee as any, and by the turn of the twentieth century it seems to have been known all over Samantha Bumgarnerthe South.

It was first recorded by a Virginia singer named Henry Whitter late in 1923, but a version that sounds even older was done the next year by a singer and multi-instrumentalist from North Carolina named Samantha Bumgarner, who traveled to New York in 1924 and made a dozen sides on fiddle and banjo — by some reports the first southern mountain banjo recordings ever made. She called her version “The Worried Blues,” and it sounds to me like the sort of music that was played on banjo before guitars became common in the southern mountains, mostly by African American musicians. Bumgarner was born in 1878, and by the 1920s was considered a representative of older and potentially dying traditions. She performed every year at Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s folk music and dance festival in Asheville, and was one of the players who inspired a teenage Pete Seeger to take up the five-string banjo after his father brought him there in 1935.

This song is typical of the sort of proto-blues (clearly related to later blues, though not yet called by that name) that had been common in black communities in the later 19th century, but had largely fallen out of favor by the time recording arrived and is mostly known from the work of white singers — one of the quirks of American musical history is that, at least until the later 20th century, African Americans were rarely nostalgic for any “good old days,” while white southerners were deeply devoted to their region’s past, aHenry Whitternd as a result white artists often preserved archaic black styles.

Whitter’s version is a lot closer to Woody’s, and may well have been Woody’s source, since it was a very popular record. They sing a lot of the same verses, which is a pretty fair clue, since the form of the song is so simple that there were hundreds of verses circulating and people routinely made up new ones. Some of my favorites are from the versions by Jim and John Jackson (unrelated, and recording forty years apart), titled “Going Down to Georgia on a Hog”… but I still sing it more or less like I learned it from Woody.

Eddystone Light

One of the pleasures of this project is learning the background of songs I’ve known all my life. For example, I’ve known “The Eddystone Light” since I was a kid, but knew nothing about the Eddystone_lighthouseEddystone Lighthouse, though it turns out to be the most famous lighthouse in the British Isles. Inaugurated in 1698, it was the first offshore lighthouse ever constructed, though the original structure lasted barely two years and there have been three others there since.

As for the song, it seems to have originated in a considerably longer version as “The Man at the Nore” — the Nore was a lightship, which was an alternative to building offshore lighthouses. Apparently “The Man at the Nore” was quite a hit in mid-19th century British music halls, sung, according to contemporary sheet music, “by Arthur Lloyd, with rapturous applause.” Lloyd was a specialist in comic songs and one of the biggest stars of the early music hall, and there is a voluminous site about him online. I also found a nice broadside of “The Man at the Nore,” which begins with the same verse as the later “Eddystone Light,” but extends the story at considerably greater length.

man at the nore segmentA shortened American version, titled “The Eddystone Light” and similar to the one I sing, though with a somewhat different story and chorus, was already turning up in university songbooks by the late 1800s. College singing sessions were an important though rarely-mentioned influence on the later folk revival. Carl Sandburg’s American Songbag, one of the prime sources for mid-century folksingers, was largely compiled from musical get-togethers with students and professors, and that material was tailor-made for collegiate folk groups like the Kingston Trio, Brothers Four, and their ilk.

All of which said, the version everybody has sung since the 1950s came from the Weavers and Burl Ives — I’m not sure who did it first, but being from a good left-wing household I grew up on the Weavers recording.

I sing this in honor of my ex-half-sister-in-law Hazel, who will be mentioned frequently in later posts and who regularly requested it.