As best I can tell, I learned this simultaneously from Cisco Houston and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott — the voice I hear singing it in my head is Jack’s, but I can also visualize the page in Cisco’s songbook.
I assumed it was an old cowboy song, but when I set out to learn more about it before writing these notes, no one seemed to be able to trace it further back than Cisco. The tune is old, most commonly used for a song called “State of Arkansas,” about how horrible life was for a settler in that territory, and the theme of “Diamond Joe” is similar enough to suggest that one was composed in emulation of the other — but I couldn’t find anything more about it, except that there are at least two other unrelated songs about a character named Diamond Joe.
However, when I posted the link to this page on Facebook, Andy Hedges alerted me to a post on Robert Waltz and David Engle’s Ballad Index site that tells the whole story: the song was written by Baldwin “Butch” Hawes of the Almanac Singers for one of Alan Lomax’s radio plays, to fit a character in the script named Diamond Joe, and he set it to the tune of “State of Arkansas” because Lee Hayes was scripted to sing it and that was one of Lee’s regular numbers. Cisco was a member of the cast, and started singing it regularly, and everyone else then got it from him.
Anyway, it’s a great lyric, which I’ve always thought of as a companion piece to “The Buffalo Skinners” — they are both eloquent antidotes to all the songs about ridin’ and ropin’ and beautiful sunsets on the prairie, instead focusing on how lousy cowboy work was and how common it was (and is) for bosses to cheat itinerant workers. And Ramblin’ Jack does a fine version of it, which inspired mine, more or less.
Once again, I’ve known this so long that I don’t remember where I first heard it, but I do know where I learned the lyrics: out of Pete Seeger’s Bells of Rhymney songbook. Pete only occasionally played blues — he had a blues banjo solo that he tended to recycle as needed — but he loved the form and was friends with quite a few major blues artists, including Big Bill Broonzy, who was his source for this one. Since I got it from Pete, I associated it with Broonzy, and it was probably another dozen years before I heard Leroy Carr’s original, and at least a dozen more before I realized how important Carr was, or how big a hit he had with “When the Sun Goes Down” (which was the original title).
Quite simply, Carr was the most influential male blues singer of the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, and arguably on into the ’50s and ’60s. His influence extended to the most isolated rural areas and the most sophisticated urban settings: from Broonzy, Lead Belly, and Robert Johnson to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf (both of whom recalled Carr’s “How Long–How Long” as their first song), it is hard to come up with male blues singers who did not perform his pieces, but his influence went far beyond blues. “When the Sun Goes Down” was recorded by the Ink Spots, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and later by Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, and numerous gospel singers also trained on Carr’s records. Not to mention Pete Seeger.
Carr’s genius was to blend the blues tradition with the new style of “crooning” pop vocals. Previous singers had needed to have loud voices to be heard in theaters or on street corners without amplification, but Carr was primarily a recording artist and his most popular songs were intimate ballads: “When the Sun Goes Down” followed “How Long–How Long,” “Midnight Hour Blues,” and “Blues Before Sunrise,” all moody, impressionistic pieces to be played in a quiet apartment or cabin, or on a barroom jukebox late at night. He also recorded plenty of rowdy, upbeat songs, some of which also became standards, including “Sloppy Drunk” and a series of songs about a beleaguered husband, such as “Papa Wants a Cookie” and “Papa’s on the Housetop.” But it was the ballads that were remembered, and this was one of his best–as well as becoming a pattern for numerous later songs, including Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain,” which even mimicked the wordless, moaning break from Carr’s record.
I could go on and on about this — Carr is one of my passions — but just to show that I’m not alone: After I did my biography of Josh White, Society Blues, I was hired by Smithsonian/Folkways to write the notes for their Josh White CD, and mentioned Carr in those notes as the most influential male blues singer of the first half of the twentieth century. Kip Lornell, Lead Belly’s biographer and a very knowledgeable researcher, was assigned the task of fact-checking that booklet, and he called me up with a few questions and suggestions. I accepted most of them gratefully, but then he asked about my comment on Carr, suggesting it was a little over the top and I should tone it down to “one of the most influential.”
I said, “Sure, Kip, if you can come up with some others who were equally influential.”
There was a long pause… and then Kip said, “OK, I guess we’ll let that one stand.”
I started playing “Freight Train” as my regular encore piece in the 1980s, after realizing that I hadn’t heard anyone do it in about fifteen years. Everybody had quit playing it because it was so overdone – like the Yogi Berra line* – so I had it to myself, which was great. Nowadays, there are probably some young folk-blues fans who have never even heard it – which in terms of the popular culture of my youth is sort of like not having heard “Stairway to Heaven,” except that I don’t envy them.
I probably heard “Freight Train” for the first time by Peter, Paul and Mary – which would mean I heard it on one of my little sister’s records, and dismissed it accordingly, along with “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” Of course, I learned to play it anyway, because everybody who played fingerpicking guitar in those days learned “Freight Train.” And I’m sure I at least knew Elizabeth Cotten’s name and the basic story of her emergence on the folk scene, which is one of the odder artifacts of the revival:
Cotten was from North Carolina, and had learned to play guitar there as a girl. She was left-handed, so worked out her own way to play upside-down, using her index finger to play an alternating bass and playing the melody with her index finger. (Since most old-time fingerstyle players used only thumb and index finger, this was not all that different from the way other people played, though it meant she couldn’t use a strong thumb to drive the bass for a dance beat.)
The curious part of the story was that she got a job as maid and babysitter for Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger, and played music sometimes for their children, including Mike and Peggy. (Pete was an older half-brother, from Charles Seeger’s previous family.) Mike recorded her and introduced “Freight Train” to the rest of the folk scene, and by the early 1960s Cotten was performing at concerts and festivals, and recording albums for the Folkways label. She introduced several other songs to the standard repertoire, including “Oh, Babe, It Ain’t No Lie,” “Shake Sugaree,” and an instrumental called “Wilson Rag,” which was one of the first pieces Dave Van Ronk taught me.
All of which is interesting enough, but “Freight Train” was by far her best-known song – indeed, so well known that I considered it trite and overdone. Then I heard Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry do it, on the same Fantasy double-album blues anthology where I first heard Van Ronk sing “Cocaine Blues” (That also may have been my first taste of the Reverend Gary Davis and Tom Rush, and certainly was where I first heard the Holy Modal Rounders.) They had a bunch of verses I’d never heard before, and I recently realized that my favorite went back to Clara Smith’s “Freight Train Blues”:
I asked the brakeman, let me ride the blinds,
I asked the brakeman, please let me ride the blinds.
The brakeman said, “Clara, you know this train ain’t mine.”
Like a lot of male, guitar-playing blues fans of my generation, I didn’t pay much attention to the “blues queens” of the 1920s, with the exception of Bessie Smith, who I heard by way of Louis Armstrong and jazz, so I didn’t realize the extent to which the recordings of Clara Smith and Ida Cox were major sources for rural blues musicians in the 1920s. I never listened to Elizabeth Cotten either, because her high, wavering soprano didn’t appeal to me. Honestly, one of the reasons I liked Brownie and Sonny’s version of “Freight Train” was that it fitted my notion of a masculine freight-hopping life, while I thought of Cotten’s version (not to mention PP&M’s) as relatively wimpy. Which is to say, I had a lot to learn…
…and still do, but at least I came around on “Freight Train.”
* Berra famously said of a St. Louis Restaurant, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
I have no idea where I learned this, though I’m pretty sure it was early. I assumed I’d got it from the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, who were favorites of mine, but they don’t seem to have done it, and the only version I can find of it in my LPs is by the Irish Rovers, and is nothing like I remember…
The versions in general circulation seem mostly to descend from the Dubliners’ recording, and I assume that’s how it came to me — albeit at second or third hand — but that’s just a guess. In any case, the song has a long and well-researched lineage, back to the ballad of an Irish highwayman named Patrick Flemming who was executed in 1650. That ballad, given in full on other folklore sites, includes a fair number of lines that overlap my version, and an identical theme:
My whore she proved false and that is the reason Or else Patrick Flemming had never been taken, When I was asleep and knew nothing of the matter Then she loaded my arms with water
By about 1850 it had taken something very close to its modern form, and was published in a broadsheet as “The Sporting Hero, or Whiskey in the Bar” (reproduced below). It was very popular on both sides of the Atlantic, as it remains to the present — for the obvious reason that it’s an entertaining, rowdy, rebellious story, and a lot of fun to sing.
Yet another I learned from Cisco Houston, recalling the waves of Irish laborers who immigrated to the United States in the nineteenth century and built most of the eastern rail system — while the western rail lines were built mostly by Chinese immigrants.
The stereotype of the harried but cheerful Irish workingman was already an English theatrical staple in Shakespeare’s time, and this song wanders the permeable boundary between folk and pop music. In Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong, Norm and David Cohen write that “it is not certain whether it originated among Irish laborers or among Irish professional entertainers.” Nor is it certain what “it” means, since the song is vaguely dated to the 1850s and already existed in numerous variants by the late 1800s.
The earliest documented version seems to have been a sea chantey, which didn’t have the pseudo-Gaelic “fillamee-ooree-airee-ay” chorus. The version that is currently best known in Ireland — due largely to the Dubliners — has yet another chorus about “wearing corduroy britches, digging ditches.” Some folklorists have rejected all versions as minstrel show confections, and I’d bet aces to oranges that the Dubliners’ version is stage-Irish, but I’d guess Cisco’s had made its way into oral tradition by the time he got it.
The song is often titled “Paddy” rather than “Pat,” and both were generic names for Irish characters back in the days when comic Irish minstrelsy was almost as common as comic blackface minstrelsy — some recent scholars have proposed the term “greenface.” The overlaps between Irish and black stereotypes are well worth exploring, but can easily be overstated, since most stage Irishmen were in fact Irish, while most stage Negros were white (frequently Irish) performers in blackface make-up. (There were plenty of fake Irish as well, including Harpo Marx, whose red wig was a survival of his original stage character, an Irish Patsy Brannigan.)
I guess that’s my excuse for digging this one out — along with the fact that these songs survived in oral tradition among Irish singers, often as expressions of working-class pride. Another song Cisco recorded, “Drill, Ye Tarriers,” has a great pair of verses about an Irish laborer facing particularly harsh labor conditions:
Our new foreman was Jim McGann,
By golly, he was a blame mean man.
One day a premature blast went off
And a mile in the sky went Big Jim Goff.
Drill, ye tarriers, drill.
When next payday come around,
Jim Goff a dollar short was found,
When he asked the reason, got this reply:
“You were docked for the time you were up in the sky.”
Drill, ye tarriers, drill.
This was the first song I ever heard by Malvina Reynolds, once again on Pete Seeger’s Gazette LP — I was too young to be aware of “Little Boxes” or “What Have They Done to the Rain” when they were on the radio, so first became aware of her through this upbeat song about an armed group of Lumbee Indians routing a Ku Klux Klan rally in North Carolina.
In some ways that was probably good, since it meant I didn’t think of her as a nice old grandmother, which a lot of people did, and which apparently irritated the hell out of her at times, because she was a fighter and had, in her words, “a sharp edge.” She was an atheist, a socialist, wife to a labor organizer, and she prided herself on the professionalism of her songwriting.
“The Battle of Maxton Field” is not one of her best, but it appealed to me as a kid because it was rowdy and fun and the good guys won. I was so young when I heard this that I didn’t know what the Klan was, and had to ask my mom — but years later, my father was at a political meeting of some sort in North Carolina, and came back with a story about the Lumbee Indians having battled the Klan down there, and I startled him by already knowing the story.
It was national news at the time (January 1958), with the New York Times noting that Robeson County, NC, was triply segregated, with separate school systems for white, black, and Indian children. The Times told roughly the same story Reynolds tells, including a note that the local sheriff was present but didn’t interfere. As they wrote:
Scattered shots and a few weak war whoops were heard as seventy-five of the Indians marched across a field toward an amplifying system set up by the Klan. The Indians kicked it apart. They shot out the tires on a car that had towed an electricity generator and shouted for the announced speaker…to show himself. He did not.
For those who want to learn more, this event is apparently better known as the Battle of Hayes Pond, and there are lots of pages online giving histories and other information about Lumbee culture.
Youthful prejudices surface yet again… Going back to Pete Seeger’s Gazette LP, I was surprised to find “Roll On, Columbia,” since I thought it was something I’d learned in elementary school music classes, along with “This Land Is Your Land,” and had filed it among the wildly overdone Woody songs that I’d better avoid. But, since I was doing a bunch of other songs of that LP, I figured I’d give this a try, and realized why it got overdone… it’s so much damn fun to sing.
Plus, singing through the verses, I remembered the thrill I got when I first traveled through the Columbia River Gorge, recognizing all those names from Woody’s song: Bonneville, Hood River, the Snake River…
It was 1980, and I was seeing it the right way, riding a freight train out of Portland. I did most of that trip with a black hobo named Joe, and skin color provides a punchline to this story — because that was about five months after Mount St. Helens erupted, the ground was still covered with ash, we were riding a flatcar, and by the time we reached Pasco we were both the same uniform shade of gray.
Fortunately, Joe knew a flophouse near the yards in Pasco where we could get showers — but that showed me one of the disadvantages of riding the rails: it’s more picturesque than hitchhiking, but you get into town looking like you’ve been riding a freight train.
Speaking of race… while researching these notes, I listened to Woody’s recording, and realized that I have no memory of ever hearing it — in particular, I have no memory of the patriotic verse about US troops executing Native American captives:
Remember the trial when the battle was won,
The wild Indian warriors to the tall timber run,
We hung every Indian with smoke in his gun;
Roll on, Columbia, Roll on!
Which I guess goes to show that even a dedicated leftist who by then had become an ardent believer in civil rights for black Americans could revert to his white Oklahoma pioneer youth… or that taking a job writing propaganda for US government engineering projects can short circuit someone’s other beliefs… (Woody wrote this one on a government contract, and was being provided with background materials by other people involved in the project.) It’s a pretty weird anomaly in his repertoire, and I just called Woody’s biographer, Ed Cray, to get his thoughts, and he was as nonplussed as I was. I also talked to Joe Seamons, who has been working on a project about Woody’s Bonneville Power Administration songs, and he suggested that someone else may have contributed the Indian-killing verses, as well as the one about Tom Jefferson’s empire-building vision. I’m guessing Woody probably wrote them, and he certainly sang them, but we all owe Pete Seeger a debt for intelligent editing of the version we sing today.
Gazette, Vol. 1, No. 1, issued by Folkways Records in 1958, was one of the first Pete Seeger LPs I owned—maybe the very first. I don’t know why or how I chose it, but I listened to it over and over, and learned most of the songs by heart. Not all of them were masterpieces, by any means—like Broadside magazine, which Pete co-founded a few years later, Gazette was meant to encourage people to write songs about what was happening in the world around them. It was apparently intended as the first issue of a sort of musical newsletter in which Pete would present current topical songs on a regular basis, though it was several years before he released Gazette, Vol. 2, and there was no third volume — by the early 1960s Broadside had picked up the baton and young singers were recording their own songs.
There were some forgettable songs on Gazette—I’m guessing no one on the planet can sing “The TVA Song” or “The Demi Song,” or “Teachers Blues,” or “The Ballad of Sherman Wu,” and I’m one of the few who knows “Martian Love Song” —but also some that every folksinger with left-wing inclinations learned and many of us still remember, like “Pretty Boy Floyd” and this one.
“Banks of Marble” was written in 1948 by Les Rice, an apple grower in Newburgh, New York, and introduced by Pete at a hootenanny within the next year or so. To give an idea of how young I was when I learned this, I pictured the “banks” as banks of a river or canal — which makes no sense at all, but I still have that picture in my mind, of sloping marble banks with water running between them.
The song is a more didactic “This Land Is Your Land,” and I haven’t heard anyone sing it since I was a kid, but when you picture the young Communists gathered around the fountain in Washington Square Park circa 1958, singing songs of the working class struggle, this is what they were singing — and now that “socialism” seems to be an acceptable term in American politics, maybe we’ll be getting some new songs like this.
As through this world you travel, you’ll meet lots of funny men. Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.
These days I hear those lines in Woody Guthrie’s voice, but the first time I heard “Pretty Boy Floyd” was on Pete Seeger’s Gazette LP, and I’m guessing that was true for a lot of people in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Pete recorded Gazette in 1958, shortly after splitting with the Weavers for the last time. He was waiting to go on trial for contempt of Congress, after refusing to testify about his politics or his friends — and unlike virtually all the other “unfriendly” witnesses, he set a unique precedent by basing his refusal on the First Amendment, arguing that freedom of speech includes the right to be silent.
It was a tough time for him in a lot of ways, but also liberating: he had stood up to the witch-hunters and was probably headed for jail, so he had nothing to lose by speaking his mind. The result was his first full album of topical songs since leaving the Almanac Singers in the early 1940s. Most of the songs were recent compositions—and if you were looking for the beginning of the protest song and singer-songwriter movements that blossomed in the 1960s, Gazette is as good a starting point as any.
“Pretty Boy Floyd” was the first song on that album, and there were two other Guthrie songs, along with one by Malvina Reynolds, one by Tom Lehrer, and a lot by people whose names and songs are little remembered, like Vern Partlow and Les Rice. It was on Folkways Records, with a particularly good booklet giving notes and context for each song. “Pretty Boy Floyd” was accompanied by newspaper clippings about Floyd’s death at the hands of Federal agents and a quote from Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath:
I knowed Purty Boy Floyd. I knowed his ma. They was good folks. He was full a hell, sure, like a good boy oughta be…. He done a little bad thing an’ they hurt ‘im, caught ‘im an’ hurt him so he was mad, an’ the nex’ bad thing he done was mad, an’ they hurt ‘im again. An’ purty soon he was mean-mad. They shot at him like a varmint, an’ he shot back, an’ they they run him like a coyote, an’ him a-snappin’ an’ a-snarlin’, mean as a lobo. An’ he was mad. He wasn’t no boy or no man no more, he was jus’ a walkin’ chunk a mean-mad. But the folks that knowed him didn’ t hurt ‘im. He wasn’ mad at them.
I only met Phil Ochs once, at a counter-bicentennial rally in Concord, Massachusetts, in April 1975. My father and I were at the corner pizza place and heard an announcement on the radio about a free concert in Concord with Pete Seeger and Phil and various other artists, and we decided to go, and then we got home and someone had called asking if my father would speak at the rally, which turned out to be what was actually happening. (My father was a regular anti-war speaker — I’ve posted his most famous talk, A Generation in Search of a Future, on my website.)
So off we went to Concord, and we were in the speakers/ performers area, and I don’t remember what my father did for the next couple of hours, because it was my chance to hang out with Phil Ochs. I was a fan, knew a bunch of his songs, and loved the way he sang, the way he wrote, and the cleverness of the spoken introductions on his live album.
Phil had just come back east from a couple of months in a detox facility in California, and he was looking fit and sounding great, and drinking rum out of a pint bottle. There was a tent to the left of the stage, and he sat in a folding chair with his guitar, and two or three of us sat around him, and he sang for us while the speeches were going on, or maybe while we were waiting for the speeches to begin. I don’t remember what he sang, except one song he said was the first he ever wrote, which was impressive as a first effort, and not political, and which I’ve never heard since.
After a while we moved out front—maybe when Pete Seeger sang—and then my father came on to talk. It was one of his best performances—other speakers had been droning on as usual, saying fine things but at too great length, but he understood that the crowd was mostly there for the music, so he kept it short and passionate. A young man standing near us was caught up in his words, and said what a great man my father was—not knowing who I was—and Phil winked at me and said, “Aw, I don’t think he’s so great,” and the young guy was horrified.
The only sour note was when my father said, “My son tells me that the man who wrote ‘I Ain’t Marching Anymore’ is here, and I want to say that’s all wrong. We can’t get discouraged; we have to keep marching, wherever and whenever we can.” Or words to that effect; the only thing I remember clearly was my embarrassment.
Phil went up and did two or three songs, including “I Ain’t Marching,” and I was standing with my father, and he turned to me and said, “I had that all wrong, didn’t I?” Which he had, but they both were great that night.
Within a year Phil was dead, and I gather that was one of his last really good nights. And a year after that I was in New York, studying with Dave Van Ronk, who told me lots of Phil Ochs stories — one had Phil wandering home down Bleecker at some crazy hour of the morning, and the owner of one of the local bars corralled him to help move the body of a drunk who had died, so it wouldn’t be found in the bar and cause trouble. In Dave’s version, Phil got Dylan to help carry the body, but I’m guessing that was just added to make it funnier. Dave loved Phil, and loved to argue with him about politics, and considered him brilliant and dedicated and naive in a uniquely American way — Dave said Phil always believed that if he could have a private talk with John Wayne, he could win Wayne over for the revolution.
For a while I wanted to write Phil’s biography, but I was too young to be writing books, and by the time I was old enough someone else had written one. My idea had been to make his life an allegory of the 1960s: young and optimistic, passionately activist, then disillusioned, then dead. Which, in hindsight, was pretentious horseshit… but he was a good writer, and a nice guy the one time I met him, and he had strong beliefs and cared about them, and I wish he’d stuck around.
Revisiting the songs that have made a home in my head