Stealin’, Stealin’ (Sam Charters’ reissues)

If there is one reason I ended up where and who and what I am today, it is that I had an older half-brother who was into acoustic blues. Dave was nineteen years older than me, and apparently he was a great guitarist, though The Country BluesI never heard him during my childhood, because he didn’t like to play in front of people. But he had all the right records, and there were a few years when I guess he didn’t have a regular place to live, or anyway a place for the records, so he left them with us. That’s where I first heard Joseph Spence, and Jelly Roll Morton, and he had all the first round of country blues reissue albums, starting with the canonical, seminal The Country Blues, compiled by Samuel B. Charters.

For a while I thought of that LP as kind of a blues “greatest hits” collection, since it had “Stealin’,” “Walk Right In,” “Statesboro Blues,” “Matchbox Blues,” “Key to the Highway,” “Fixin’ to Die”… all these songs that everyone seemed to know and play, including a couple that even turned up on the radio. It was only later that I realized those songs were so familiar because Charters compiled and released them. We all knew “Walk Right In” and “Stealin'” — even if we got them from Jim Kweskin, Dave Van Ronk, or the Rooftop Singers rather than directly from Cannon’s Jug Stompers or the Memphis Jug Band — because Charters chose those songs to represent those groups on that LP.

It also included the first reissue of a Robert Johnson song, and tracks by Leroy Carr, Washboard Sam, and Lonnie Johnson, which actually led to a wonderfully tiny tempest in the hardcore bluesophile teapot: some rival collectors were so incensed at the inclusion of these obviously urban blues performers in a collection of country bluesReally the country blues that they rushed out their own anthology, Really! The Country Blues, which didn’t include any urban artists. It was great, too, and my brother had both of them, so I also got to hear Tommy Johnson’s “Maggie Campbell” and Skip James singing “Devil Got My Woman.”

I didn’t actually play many of the songs on The Country Blues, but both “Stealin'” and “Walk Right In” were so ubiquitous that I couldn’t avoid learning them, just by osmosis — hell, I remember Arlo Guthrie’s version of “Stealin’,” and Jose Feliciano’s performance of “Walk Right In,” with verses in Spanish and Yiddish. (Which, incidentally, is coming in my next post, at least the Spanish part.)

Mister Noah (Dave Van Ronk/Frank Shay)

This is another amusing tidbit from Dave Van Ronk: Folksinger, and is probably the first song I learned off that record, because if you hear it once or twice, you know it, like it or not. I don’t know where Dave learned it,* but a similar four-verse version was printed in Frank Shay’s My Pious Friends and Drunken Companions, a wonderful book published in 1927 and illustrated with woodcuts by one of my favorite illustratorsMy Pious Friends, John Held, Jr. The concept behind the book was to preserve the songs men used to sing in saloons, which were endangered due to Prohibition — which had not ended drinking, by any means, but had ended loud singing around the piano in the local bar. (Held also illustrated a book called The Saloon in the Home, or a Garden of Rumblossoms, which purported to present an evenhanded debate for and against Prohibition, the “pro” side represented by severe tracts on temperance and the dangers of alcohol, and the “anti” represented by cocktail recipes.)

Shay titled this song “Brother Noah,” and it was apparently a popular favorite for barroom harmonizers, with a mock-religious chorus of “Hallelue, Hallelue, Hallelue-eu-eu-eu-ya.”

Dave’s version replaces the hallelujahs with “doodlee-doo,” an improvement I would recommend to singers of Handel as well.

Other than which, the song speaks for itself very nicely.


*Andy Hedges writes to tell me that Billy Faier learned this as a kid and taught it to Dave, which makes perfect sense.

Chicken Is Nice (Dave Van Ronk/Howard Hayes)

One of the pleasures of Dave Van Ronk: Folksinger was that along with the blues performances that made it a classic of the 1960s revival, it had oddities like “Mr Noah” and “Chicken Is Nice.” I learned Dave’s versions of both almost immediately, because the lyrics stuck in my head on a couple of hearings and they were easy to play. It was only some years later that I was singing “Chicken Is Nice” and noticed that one of the towns mentioned was Monrovia, looked Cafe_Music_Liberiaat a map of Liberia, and found a Robertsport, which sounded enough like “Robert’s Falls” that I called Dave and asked if the song was Liberian, and indeed it was.

It appeared on an obscure collection, Tribal, Folk and Cafe Music of West Africa, recorded in 1949 by an ethnomusicologist named Arthur Alberts from a blind pianist and composer named Howard Hayes, who also recorded the classic “Bush Cow Milk,” and the whole Hayes set is now wonderfully available on CD. It was reissued by Alberts’s nephew, Guthrie Alperts, who was kind enough to send me a copy, and I heartily recommend it… but, despite the opportunity to learn the original version, I still sing Dave’s.

I must add that Dave Van Ronk was one of the most amazing cooks I’ve ever known, and one of the great pleasures of being his friend over the years was indulging in the dinners he typically spent hours cooking every night. His mole poblano was to die for, and he regularly tried novel experiments that somehow worked — I particularly remember an attempt to cook a fiery Indian meal without using any capsicum peppers, since they did not exist in pre-British India. He used a mountain of black pepper, and it should have been awful, but although I can’t vouch for its historical accuracy, it was delicious.

So anyway, one day I called him up and he said, “Guess what I cooked for dinner last night?”
And I said, “What?”
And he said, “Chicken with palm butter and rice.”
And I said, “How was it?”
And he said: “Nice.”

Cocaine Blues (Dave Van Ronk)

First of all, I must state with pride and pleasure that the first time I ever tried cocaine was courtesy of Dave Van Ronk. It was in my parents’ living room, late at night, after a fair amount of whiskey had been drunk, and he had it in a twist of plastic wrap and gave me a line. To the best of my recollection it had no effect whatsoever, or at least any chemical thrill was dwarfed by the thrill of getting my first taste from the man who had recorded “Cocaine Blues.” I should also record for the sake of history that it was the only time I knew Dave to have or use that drug, and subsequent experience taught me it was not my thing, at all. van ronk folksinger

(For anyone who thinks I’m making a startling public admission here, I have a more involved anecdote about coke in my book Narcocorrido, describing a long evening in Monterrey, NL.)

Going back a bit, “Cocaine Blues” was life-changing for me because it was one of the first songs I heard by Dave, on a Fantasy Records sampler, and the combination of the two songs on that sampler and a couple on Blues at Newport were sufficient to persuade me and my mother to go see him in concert. It was a split bill with Patrick Sky at Jordan Hall, with Patrick on first, and he and Dave had clearly been doing some drinking ahead of time, but both were in great form. Patrick’s set included “The Pope,” off Songs That Made America Famous, which caused my mother literally to fall out of her seat, she was laughing so hard. (The clincher was probably, “They know that they could never quibble/With a man who is infallibibble!”)

Then Dave came on. I don’t remember what he sang, but from the moment he started to sing, we were hypnotized. That’s not just a figure of speech, either — I was interested in magic, and had been exploring hypnosis, and I clearly remember trying to look away from the stage, and realizing that I couldn’t. (Actually, the feeling is that you could look away, but yet you don’t, and don’t, and don’t.)

I saw Dave on some great nights after that, including a couple of hypnotic ones, but that first time was unlike anything I’ve experienced before or since. He seemed to expand and fill the whole room with his presence. It wasn’t just me: my mother, who had always Dave Van Ronk, 1970loved Dylan Thomas and always regretted that she had never seen one of his legendary, boozy, brilliant, hypnotic readings, walked out saying, “That must be what it was like to see Dylan Thomas.”

I soon had a collection of Dave’s records, including the Fantasy double album that included Dave Van Ronk: Folksinger and Inside Dave Van Ronk, both recorded in 1963 or ’64. Through a quirk of CD reissuing, most people now remember Inside as the great album, but Folksinger was the one. I still know nine of the twelve cuts, and a couple of them became part of the common language of the 1960s folk-blues scene — there are still hundreds, if not thousands of people who can play Dave’s arrangement of “Come Back, Baby,” and “Cocaine.”

“Cocaine” was the closest thing Dave had to a hit, and people yelled requests for it at virtually every concert he gave for the rest of his life, which was almost another forty years. He quickly came to regard it as a millstone, reacting first by adding silly verses and comic throw-away lines, and by the time I heard him, probably in 1972, he’d quit singing the damn thing. Which was kind of too bad, because he did it like no one else, but he had plenty of other great songs.

There’s more to be said, some of which is in our book, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, but for the moment I’ll just add that Dave got the song from Reverend Gary Davis, and worked out a guitar part based on Gary’s, with the basses played backwards, and I never bothered to learn that arrangement until a few years ago, after playing the song for almost forty years. So I do some back-picking in the breaks, because I love the way he played it, but not much in the verses, because I still feel more comfortable singing over my own variation.

Keep It Clean (Dave Van Ronk & others)

Like many of the songs I’ll be singing over the next couple of months, I got this from Dave Van Ronk. He did it on one of my favorite LPs of all time, No Dirty Names,No Dirty Names and I’m guessing it was supposed to be the title song, since when I mentioned that album to him, Dave’s response was a pained grimace and the comment, “They even got the title wrong.” I never figured out why he disliked that album so much, and am convinced the problems were in the process rather than the result — since the result was one of his best records, with a terrific range of material, from old country blues to Bertolt Brecht, William Butler Yeats, and Mose Allison.

“Keep It Clean” was one of the first songs I learned off that album, and it is kind of typical of Dave’s approach to the blues tradition. His source was a record by Charley Jordan, recorded in 1930, but Dave sang different verses, changed the chorus, and set it to a guitar arrangement that bore no relation to Jordan’s. Unfortunately for those of us who enjoyed that arrangement, this was during a passing period of infatuation with open C tuning, and by the time I knew him he’d dropped it from his repertoire — when I asked him to teach me the chart, he said he couldn’t remember it. However, the obvious inspiration was Lemon Jefferson’s “Bad Luck Blues,” which is in standard tuning, so I copped that — not very well, for the first few decades, but four or five years ago I went through an intensive Blind Lemon period and figured out the nice move from C up to D in the opening riff.

As for the song itself, I discuss it briefly in my book on the Dozens, and will get into it more in my impending magnum opus on the uncensored African American lyrical tradition. It was recorded in a few different forms during the ’20s and ’30s, my favorite probably being Luke Jordan‘s “Won’t You Be Kind,” with its cheerfully euphemistic “keep your back yard clean.” The more common phrase, which still turns up in rap lyrics, was “keep your booty clean,” and one of the curious facts I turned up while researcCharley Jordanhing the Dozens book is that “booty” seems to derive from a West African term, bo-da, meaning, literally, ass-hole. I’ve never seen this derivation in any other source, but came across bo-da, with that meaning, in a glossary of Afro-Caribbean terms, and Mance Lipscomb explains on tape that “booty” means precisely that, noting that it is the dirtiest part of the body and even if you wash it thoroughly, in a couple of hours it will get nasty again — hence the frequency of the admonishment.

Through the wonders of metonymy, the term often shifted a couple of inches forward, and what is being kept clean in this song need not be that specific anatomical region. As Charley Jordan (no relation to Luke) sang:

If you want to hear that elephant grunt,
You take him down to the river and then wash his trunk.

Obviously, the sexual politics of this song are egregious, in the long tradition of “Roll Her Over In the Clover” with an overlay of “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.” No defense is possible for performing something like this in the 21st century, and I generally don’t — but I learned it around age 13 and it is an excellent example of what attracts teenage boys to blues.

Salty Dog (John Hurt/Papa Charlie Jackson)

A hit in 1924 for Papa Charlie Jackson, the New Orleans banjo player who was the first male recording star of the first blues boom, “Salty Dog” was popular throughout the South, with black and white musicians alike, in numerous versions — and I’m sure the ones that got recorded were considerably expurgated and bowdlerized, compared to what was being sung in barrelhouses. I first heard it fromBest of Mississippi John Hurt Mississippi John Hurt, and still play pretty much his version, though I seem to have picked up some vocal inflections from Lead Belly, and wouldn’t be surprised if Jack Elliott gets in there as well.

According to Steve Calt’s glossary of blues language, the use of “salty” to describe a female dog in heat can be traced back to 1603, and by the late 18th century it had acquired the more generalized meaning of “lecherous” — though it clearly retained the canine association.

As to that bowdlerization, this is one of many recorded blues songs that were obviously based on unrecorded, and at the time unrecordable, lyrics. Jackson’s version, instead of referring to “my buddy” as the person who caught the singer kissing his wife, refers to “Uncle Bud,” a legendary figure of black folksong, and “kissing” would not have been the word used in barrelhouse performances. Zora Neale Hurston sings a common variant of “Uncle Bud” on a Library of Congress recording, and a typical verse goes:

Uncle Bud’s got corn that’s never been shucked,
Uncle Bud’s got daughters that never been fucked.

Or, in some versions:
Uncle Bud’s got corn that’s never been shucked,
Uncle Bud’s got daughters that never been to Sunday school.

I’m sure Lead Belly had some similarly filthy verses to this one, and I’m guessing John Hurt did as well… but they are, alas, lost in the mists of history, and we have to make do with what we’ve got.

Sitting on Top of the World (Doc Watson)

This was one of the biggest hits to come out of the Mississippi Delta in the early blues era, recorded by the Mississippi Sheiks in 1930 — I don’t know if any other recording from rural Mississippi came close to it in sales during that period.Sheiks - Sitting on top of the World I love the Sheiks, especially Lonnie Chatmon’s fiddling, but didn’t hear them until I was in my late teens or twenties, and had no idea who they were when I first heard this song on Doc Watson’s first album. I got the guitar part from Doc’s songbook, which provided tablature, and it may well have been the first piece I ever learned in open D tuning, and remains one of the few — I have trouble enough just keeping a guitar in tune, without attempting to retune it on a regular basis.

I don’t think Doc used open tunings all that often, either, but he explained in his notes to this song that he adapted his arrangement from Frank Hutchison’s “The Train that Carried my Girl From  Town” and “Worried Blues.” At the time, I didn’t know who Hutchison was, either — and when I finally heard him, all I could Doc watson with monroethink was how much he reminded me of Doc, except quirkier.

Doc described “Sitting on Top of the World” as about an “old boy whose woman has run off and left him…. He wants her to come back, but he isn’t about to let her come back — he’s bragging, sour grapes kind of bragging. He’s sitting on top of the world, but he’s so lonesome that he can hardly stand it without her.”


Omie Wise (Doc Watson/the murder)

Another I got from Doc Watson’s first LP, this murder ballad was apparently widespread through much of the South, but Doc seems to have learned it directly from local sources.Doc Watson by river The murder took place in 1808, in Deep River, North Carolina, and Doc gave the basic story in his songbook:

Naomi Wise, a little orphan girl, was being brought up by Squire Adams, a gent who had a pretty good name in the community as a morally decent human being. Omie, however, was seeing a ne’er-do-well named John Lewis, who never meant anything about anything serious, except some of his meanness. John Lewis courted the girl, seemingly until she became pregnant, and he decided that he’d get rid of her in some secret sort of way. He persuaded her to skip off with him and get married, then pushed her into the water and drowned her. Everyone knew that he had been mean to Omie, and when the body was taken out of the water, there was evidence that she had been beaten quite a lot.

According to various sources, the facts of the murder were somewhat more complicated — for one thing, Naomi Wise apparently had two children already when she was murdered, and for another, John Lewis escaped from jail, was apprehended several years later, and then was found not guilty, though Omie Wise gravethe evidence was apparently strong against him. The song is thus a blend of fact and formula — the theme of a young man betraying and murdering a girl he had impregnated was popular in southern balladry, and I’ll be singing a similar story, “Banks of the Ohio,” shortly.

When I learned this, I didn’t really appreciate it, but Doc’s songbook provided tablature and it was a relatively simple arrangement, so I learned it mostly for the guitar accompaniment. Forty years later, I’ve forgotten that accompaniment, but still remember the song, and it’s one of the few southern mountain ballads that have stuck with me pretty much in their entirety. Such are the vagaries of memory.


Deep River Blues (Doc Watson)

For me, Doc Watson will always be his first album. I like a lot of his other work, liked seeing him live, loved interviewing him the one time I got to do it, and Doc WatsonPeter Keane and I used his version of “Blue Railroad Train” as the theme song to our live radio show. I also had a fairly passionate love affair with the Watson family LP he made for Folkways with his wife and other relatives, and his live recordings with Clint Howard and Fred Price — in short, I’m a solid fan. But that first album still defines him for me, and is on my short list of all-time favorite records.

I learned and remember a half-dozen songs from that album, including “Sitting on Top of the World,” “I Was Born About 10,000 Years Ago,” “Omie Wise,” and  “Black Mountain Rag,” which I struggled with for years but could never play even halfway competently — my battles with that piece were what confirmed I would never be a serious flatpicker. But my favorite guitar arrangement was and is “Deep River Blues,” his reworking of the Delmore Brothers’ “I’ve Got the Big River Blues” — a preference shared by virtually every fingerpicker I’ve met. I learned it from the tablature in doc waton songbookthe Doc Watson songbook, which , as usual, was a mixed blessing — without the tablature I wouldn’t have been able to learn it when I did, but because I learned it from tablature I never got the quirks and variations that make Doc’s version so great. Of course, I could have gone back and learned the piece properly, but by the time I had the chops to do that I was trying to learn pieces that everybody else didn’t already play — and boy, did everybody play “Deep River Blues.”

So I just kept this as something to play for my own enjoyment or when I got requests, with the result that I’ve never really solidified an arrangement and keep having fun with it, playing Doc’s basic part as best I can and experimenting with how I might vary it if I took the time to work up my own version of his version.

Living in the Country (Pete Seeger)

Pete Seeger isn’t normally remembered for his instrumental skills, but that’s mostly because he had so many other skills that took precedence. He was a terrific banjo player and guitarist, and the single most influential player in the early folk revival — the main reason he wasn’t even more influential is that most Seeger with guitarpeople on the early scene didn’t even attempt his level of playing, and a lot of people who came along later didn’t realize how good he was.

That might sound paradoxical, but Seeger’s influence was so pervasive that his followers founded myriad separate scenes, and he got to be associated with some of those scenes to the point that a lot of people forgot his role in others. For example, he was the first urban performer to make a serious effort to play rural styles authentically, learning banjo and guitar arrangements note for note from the original artists, rather than using rural recordings as raw material for more urbane performances, a la Richard Dyer-Bennett, Burl Ives, or the Weavers — the same year the Weavers took “Goodnight, Irene” to the top of the pop charts, his Darling Corey LP showed off his mastery of southern mountain banjo styles, and inspired a new strain of revivalists that Dave Van Ronk would dub the “neo-ethnics,” including Dave and the New Lost City Ramblers. (Dave referred to Pete as “the man who invented my profession.”)

His massive role in the banjo story deserves more attention, but I’m not a banjo player… so on to guitar. Pete was not as influential on guitar as on banjo, in part because he favored the 12-string, and very few people had the touch, taste, or finger strength to get the delicate, easy sound he got out of that instrument. Of course, he inspired his share of 12-string devotees, from Bob Gibson to Roger McGuinn to Leo Kottke, plus Eric Darling, Ian Tyson… but not a lot of people remember how good he was on guitar, except, of course, for all of us who play “Living in the Country” — which, I’ve Seeger songbookfound over the years, amounts to a lot of people.

I learned “Living in the Country” from the tabbed-out version in Pete’s Bells of Rhymney songbook, where he provides a typically self-deprecating introduction: “One day when fooling around with a guitar in D tuning (6th string one whole tone low), I developed this.” Judging by the video I’ve linked below, where he plays the piece to finish off a guitar lesson on the simplicity of keeping an alternating bass pattern, he didn’t notice how weird his arrangement is from a guitar point of view — he remains fundamentally a banjo player, and rather than using the bass strings to provide a rhythmic foundation (like an alternating bass), he uses them like the high drone string on a 5-string banjo. He makes this seem completely easy and natural, even whistling a harmony part the second time around: