The Old Man (Bob Dylan)

Dave Van Ronk took pride in the fact that he recognized Bob Dylan’s talent early, back when a lot of people thought Bobby was just a weird kid with too much nervous energy and a scratchy voice. Dave and his wife Terri Thal were major boosters for the kid, mentoring him, finding him jobs, and teaching him songs.

Dave also recorded a handful of Dylan songs: this one, a jazz band romp called “If I Had to Do It All Over Again (I’d Do It All Over You),” which I’ll get around to at some point, Dylan’s version of “He Was a Friend of Mine,” and, much later, a nice version of “Buckets of Rain.” He might have recorded more, but Dylan took off like a skyrocket and Dave had no interest in tagging along, so he stuck to older material for a while, then began singing the work of less-known newcomers like Neila Horne and Joni Mitchell, and even writing a few himself.

This was an exception, because Dylan hadn’t recorded it and it was so simple, and such a New York story. I’m pretty sure Dave was the first person to record it, on his No Dirty Names LP in 1966, but Dylan had written it about five years earlier during his first spate of songwriting.seeger frontier ballads The melody was from a song called “The Young Man Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn,” which I’m assuming Dylan, like everyone else, got from Pete Seeger, who recorded it in the mid-1950s on an album of frontier ballads.

The original began:

I’ll sing you a song, it’s not very long,
About a young man who wouldn’t hoe corn.

Strange to say, I cannot tell,
This young man was always well.

Dylan took the pattern of that verse, changed the age of the man, and turned it into a stark parable of modern city life — a small, perfectly-observed vignette with a touch of brilliance that Dave often noted: “bully club,” rather than “billy club.”

I don’t want to go on, since the song itself is so concise, but… I’d add that Seeger was a very important source for Dylan, as for virtually everyone else in the folk revival, and some later scholars have tended to erase that influence by tracing Dylan songs to more obscure sources, in particular the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music. The Smith anthology was an important source for a lot of people on that scene, but nowhere near as important as Seeger — I’d guess even the New Lost City Ramblers, if you’d locked them in a room and forced them to sing everything they knew, learned more songs from Pete than from any other single source. (If you want to know more of what I think about Dylan and Seeger, there’s plenty in Dylan Goes Electric!)

He Was a Friend of Mine (Dave Van Ronk &co)

This was one of the first songs I ever heard from Dave Van Ronk, and remained a staple of his repertoire throughout his career. When he recorded it in 1963 he credited it to Bob Dylan, but in later years would say, “I learned this from Bob Dylan, who learned it from Eric Von Schmidt… who learned it from me.”

That was a good line, but not appreciated by Eric, who was indeed Dylan’s source and took pride in having adapted the song from a record in the Library of Congress. Eric recorded his version on his first album, von schmidt - cahna duet LP with Rolf Cahn for the Folkways label that has not been treated well by history but was a seminal source for the folk-blues revivalists of the early 1960s. His source was a singer and guitarist named Smith Casey or Smith Cason, or possibly Smith Carson, who was recorded by John Lomax for the Library in 1939 at the Clemens State Prison Farm in Brazoria, Texas. In the LOC files it was titled “Shorty George,” and it is clearly related to the Texas prison song of the same name that was recorded by Lead Belly and James “Iron Head” Baker, but distinctive enough to justify Eric’s treating it as a different song and renaming it.

Eric made some changes in the song, but his version was still pretty close to Casey/Carson’s recording. Dylan’s version was substantially different — the people who accuse Dylan of copying or stealing songs and melodies from traditional sources aren’t exactly wrong, but should add that he frequently improved on his sources, and this is a case in point.

Dave picked it up from Dylan and didn’t change it much, but as was his wont he created a distinctive guitar van ronk folksingerarrangement that turned a fairly generic blues lament into something great and enduring. Play his version back to back with Dylan’s, and the only difference is that Dylan’s is one of the many good but ultimately forgettable folk-blues songs he was singing in 1961-62, while Dave’s is a masterpiece.

I’m not sure what the moral of that story is, or even if it has one. But if you ask me where I got this song, I’ll say Dave Van Ronk, and that isn’t the whole story but it’s as good an answer as any and better than most.

To continue that story… Phil Ochs asked Dave to sing this at the tribute concert he organized for Victor Jara, after which Dave began introducing it with the story of Jara’s heroic last hours in the Santiago soccer stadium;  a year or so later, Phil was dead and for a few years Dave sang it for him; then, with more years, Dave would introduce it with memories of Mississippi John Hurt, Gary Davis, and all his other old friends and mentors who were gone; and now Dave’s gone, and I sing it for him, and for Eric.

I Want You to Know (Bo Carter)

A quirk of the blues reissue situation was that, as a record buyer, I ended up following the lead of the folks who managed the reissue projects, which were very different from the tastes of black record buyers in the twenties and thirties, and also from what I would have heard if Ibo carter lp had just followed my own inclinations. For example, I ended up with three Bo Carter albums, though I was never a huge fan of his music. I liked his playing and singing, and some of his songs, but he was the master of double-entendre  novelty blues lyrics, which got tiresome after a while. All things being equal, I would have been more likely to gravitate toward Walter Davis or Roosevelt Sykes… but all things weren’t equal: he was a guitarist and they were pianists, and the reissue market was very guitar-centric.

So I ended up with several albums of his recordings, and listened to them, and found a couple of songs and some guitar parts I liked, and this was one of them. I gather from friends who know more about his work that he played it in a semi-open tuning, with his lowest strings tuned down to D and G, but I worked it out the way it sounded to me, and ended up in normal tuning, key of D…

… and, honestly, I don’t have more to say about this one. It’s just a song I liked, and learned, and remember. But I should add that Carter was born Bo Chatmon, brother of Lonnie and Sam Chatmon, with whom he played in the Mississippi Sheiks, the most popular Mississippi-based recording artists of the first rural blues boom. He also played very effective vaudeville violin on a record by an older singer named Alec Johnson called “The Mysterious Coon,” which has typically offensive minstrel-show lyrics, but is a fascinating example of what some of these guys could play when they weren’t being paid to record blues.

Captain Don’t ‘Low that Here (Larry Johnson)

After I discovered Larry Johnson’s Fast and Funky LP, I happened to be back at the Cambridge Public Library and came across a record that must have been there Larry & Hankduring my high school residency, but which I’d never noticed. It was on the Prestige label, and the artists were billed as Larry and Hank, and the Larry was Larry Johnson – so I instantly checked it out, brought it home, and listened.

It wasn’t Fast and Funky, but I was prepared for that, because the notes to that album said Johnson had been playing for years without really finding his style, then broke his hand in an accident and had to relearn everything, at which point he decided to follow Gary Davis’s advice and learn the “hard chords.” Presumably the Larry and Hank record was from before the accident, and the playing was a lot simpler, and honestly I don’t remember a great deal about it, though I taped it on cassette and listened to it quite a few times.

The main thing I got from it was this song, which I’ve never come across anywhere else. The LP notes, by Sam Charters, describe it as a variation on a work song, and the lyrics fit that description, but the melody is more in a ragtime vein, and I’m guessing this was a Johnson original. I haven’t heard it in at least thirty years, and may have forgotten a verse or so, but I always loved the way it flowed, and I’m pretty sure they played it in E, because otherwise I can’t imagine why I would have at that point — which would make this a pretty significant record in my education, since playing ragtime progressions in E and A fundamentally changed my thinking about the guitar.

Pick Poor Robin Clean (Larry Johnson)

That year I spent in New York, I was devoting virtually all my record buying to prewar blues reissues, mostly on the Yazoo label, but the same collection that had filled Dayton’s with all the Yazoo reissues also included the LPs on Yazoo’s sister label, Blue Goose, which featured modern recordings in prewar blues and ragtime styles. Larry JohnsonFollowing my generally archaeological inclinations, I didn’t get around to those until I’d laid in a stock of prewar stuff, and the first Blue Goose albums I bought were of Son House and an elderly black guitarist named Bill Williams, but eventually I got around to the label’s one young black player, Larry Johnson, and what still stands as the greatest ragtime blues album recorded in the modern era — or ever, since before the modern era there were no albums — Fast and Funky.

I know that sounds hyperbolic, but Johnson was such a great player — he had been a student and sometimes harmonica player for the Reverend Gary Davis — and a fine singer, and created songs that were clearly based on older models but completely in his own voice… and he just blew me away.

I didn’t learn much off that album, because I was so dazzled that I didn’t make the attempt, but for a while I played rough versions of his “Frisco Town” and “The Beat From Rampart Street,” and his version of “Pick Poor Robin Clean” became an enduring staple of my repertoire — I later heard older recordings of the song by Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas and by pickpoorrobinclean12-3-1927Luke Jordan, who I’m pretty sure was their source as well as Johnson’s, and I’ve added some lyrics from Jordan, but it’s still Johnson’s voice I hear in my head when I think of it.

As for the song itself, there seems to be a good deal of confusion and disagreement about what it means. The original ad for Jordan’s version in the Chicago Defender suggests it’s about gambling, and he certainly refers to “gambling for Sadie,” but then there’s the recurring refrain about “I’ll be satisfied having your family” and the verse that is mistranscribed in that ad, which is an obvious example of the dozens:

If you have that gal of mine, dozens pbk coverI’m gonna have your ma
Your sister, too; your auntie, three
If your great-grandmammy do the shiveree, I’m gonna have her four…”

In my book The Dozens, now titled Talking ‘Bout Your Mama, I note this theme and suggest that the reference to picking poor robin may be similar to the French “Alouette,” which uses the metaphor of picking feathers from a bird as a stand-in for disrobing a woman… but that’s just a guess.

In any case, thanks again to Larry Johnson, whom I have seen off and on over the years, and who always blew me away with the brilliance, depth, and power of his music. I also had the pleasure of doing an interview with him in 1998, and he was bitingly eloquent on a number of subjects, including the racial problems of the modern blues scene. I had not run across him in quite a while, and recently learned that he died in August 2016 — I wish I’d seen him more often, wish he’d recorded more, and wish he was better known; he was truly one of the greats.

Yas, Yas, Yas (Blind Blake Higgs)

Like most people in the 1960s and ’70s, I first heard this on Dave Van Ronk’s second Folkways album and figured he’d picked it up somewhere in the blues world, but during my year of lessons with Blind Blake bahamanDave he steered me to his actual source: the Bahamian Blind Blake and his band from the Royal Victoria Hotel in Nassau. It is obviously related to a song recorded in the late 1920s by James “Stump” Johnson, Tampa Red, and others as “The Duck’s Yas Yas,” and that discographic primacy has led a lot of scholars to describe Blake’s song as a variant of Tampa Red’s. However, Blake’s lyric shares only the opening verse of the Red/Johnson version, and since his repertoire is full of turn-of-the-century minstrel survivals like “My Name is Morgan, But It Ain’t J.P.” and “Watermelon Spoilin’ on the Vine” (as well as the sole surviving version of a bloodthirsty minstrel masterpiece, “Jones, Oh Jones“), I would guess this is in fact an earlier version, from which Johnson, Tampa and others remembered only the first verse.

There is strong internal evidence for that guess, since all Blake’s verses are neat comic creations tailored to the “Yas, Yas, Yas” theme and rhyme, while the Johnson/Tampa version mostly consists of generic, unrelated verses after the opening. If that’s right, the latecomers seem to have vaguely remembered it, since a couple of those verses include phrases from the Blake verses — for example, a reference to the “gasoline station” from the John Dillinger verse.

The relationship of early recordings, oral traditions, and printed compositions is complicated and — to some of us, at least — van ronk second folkwaysfascinating. Much as I love a lot of old recordings, they are simply snapshots, frequently unrepresentative, from a huge pool of material people were singing in the early 20th century.  Van Ronk still came up in a world where songs were often learned from other singers rather than from records, or from records he had only heard a couple of times and vaguely remembered. That was a disadvantage in a lot of ways, but also gave his generation a degree of freedom — they couldn’t remember how the “original” version went, exactly, so they had to do the best they could, and the result was sometimes better than the assiduous imitations that became more prevalent by my time, when we all had the old records on reissue LPs and could study them with infinite care.

I could go on about this — and often do, at great length — but for now will just note that Blind Blake’s recordings from the Bahamas, though made in 1950, are worthy of a lot more study than they have received as a repository of African American songs that failed to be recorded on the mainland in earlier eras.

(One final thought: John Dillinger was active in the early 1930s, so when I suggest that Stump Johnson’s gasoline verse in 1929 was a vaguely recalled survival of the dillingerDillinger verse, it’s an anachronism. My guess is that the verse itself is older and Dillinger replaced an earlier protagonist, but that’s just a guess — if other people want to credit Blake with writing a whole new set of verses and turning a relatively generic blues song into a cohesive comic creation, the evidence supports their guess at least as well as mine.)

Jones, Oh Jones (Bahamian Blind Blake/Paul Geremia)

The first time I saw Paul Geremia perform, he was opening for Dave Van Ronk at Passim Coffeehouse. I was standing with Dave at the back of the room, and as Paul played a particularly gorgeous and intricate guitar break, Dave turned to me with a typically wry expression and murmured, “He doesn’t teach.”

In my world of acoustic blues players, Geremia has always been the musician’s musician. Non-musicians sometimes got it and geremia hard lifesometimes didn’t, but pretty much all the players acknowledge his unique gifts: not only his superb guitar playing, rack harmonica work, and singing, but the way he always made the songs seem personal and quirky. He is an assiduous student of the old masters, spent the requisite years painstakingly hovering over scratchy 78s, figuring out how Blind Lemon Jefferson or Blind Willie McTell played a particular lick, but no matter how loyally he tried to capture their styles, his own individual touch and sensibility remain instantly recognizable.

That first time, I only recall two songs he played: his own “Kick It In the Country” (which he introduced, inaccurately, as a song about soccer) and “Jones, Oh Jones.” Both were on his then-current album, Hard Life Rocking Chair, and I was particularly struck by the latter, a catchy and bloodthirsty expansion of some familiar blues themes. When I expressed this preference to Dave, he said, Blind Blake bahaman“Oh, yeah, that’s from the Bahamian Blind Blake. He’s got a lot of great material: that’s where I got ‘Yas, Yas, Yas.'”

I had never heard of this Blind Blake, who was born Blake Alphonso Higgs and was no relation to Arthur Blake, the superlative ragtime blues guitarist — but once I had the name, I easily found his records. He led the house band at the Royal Victoria hotel in Nassau, and thousands of tourists came home from island vacations with his albums, many of which eventually made it to the secondhand record bins. I snapped them up, eventually amassing a complete collection, and even bootlegged a CD of my favorite selections for a while, until the legal owners sent me a “cease and desist” letter. (I felt no moral compunction, since they had derailed a reissue project I attempted with Rounder — they refused any exclusivity, retaining the right to give other labels all the same tracks, which obviously would not fly with the Rounder folks.)

Anyway… Dave was right about Blake’s material: he had terrific taste in songs, including all sorts of old minstrel survivals that had somehow made it to the Bahamas. “Jones, Oh Jones” is in that category: it was demonstrably around in some form by the 1920s, because Bessie Smith copped a bunch of lines from it for her “Hateful Blues”bessie-hateful-blues and others were collected by folklorists. My guess is that it dates from the first decade of the twentieth century, but so far no one has found sheet music or any other solid example before Blake recorded it circa 1950, and there’s no way to know how much it had changed over the years.

As with a lot of Blake’s songs, the move to the Bahamas meant that some lyrics had been changed or simply misunderstood: that’s a common event in oral traditions, another example being the song “Delia’s Gone,” which was composed about a murder in Savannah and had the tag line, “He’s one more rounder gone.” In the Bahamas, they didn’t know the term “rounder,” so that became a call for drinks: “Delia’s gone, one more round.”

As it happens, one of the more interesting misunderstandings in “Jones, Oh Jones” is equally prevalent here on the mainland — generations of blues scholars have transcribed Bessie Smith singing about taking her “wedding butcher” to chop up her lover, some glossing it as a butcher knife received as a wedding present (the original ad for the record shows it as a butcher’s cleaver). I figured that was a mishearing, and sang it for years aswade & Butcher “whetted butcher knife,” which made more sense — but a few years ago this became a hotly debated topic on a blues scholar list-serve and Yuval Taylor eventually solved the mystery: Wade & Butcher was the most popular brand of straight razor, the weapon of choice for minstrel-show comedy.

Incidentally, circling back to my opening paragraph, Dave was wrong: Geremia didn’t give guitar lessons, but every time I’ve seen him, I’ve learned something. There are a lot of ways to teach, and in all the ways that count, Paul is one of the most generous teachers I know.

Gaslight Rag (Dave Van Ronk)

Dave Van Ronk was not primarily a songwriter, but he turned outGaslight cafesome gems and oddities over the years. This was his first attempt to compose a multi-section rag, and his paean to the room that was his professional home for much of the 1960s: the Gaslight Cafe on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village.

The lyric contains some anachronisms: John Mitchell, who originally opened the Gaslight in 1958 to host poetry readings, sold it in 1961, so by the time Mitchell at GaslightPatrick Sky and Phil Ochs were on the scene it was no longer “Mitchell’s cafe.” But Dave was its reigning star for much of its heyday, doing feature nights and hosting a regular Tuesday evening hootenanny (what we’d now call an open mike), and if some facts are jumbled, the song conveys his wry affection for a unique time and the place he described as “my office and second home.”

newmayorcoverDave’s years at the Gaslight are described at length in The Mayor of MacDougal Street — an honorary title he was given during that time by the bartender at the Kettle of Fish. That was the bar upstairs from Mitchell’s “hole in the ground,” where Dave tended to spend the time he wasn’t onstage, since the Gaslight served only coffee (and, as Dave recalled, dreadful coffee at that).

The regular denizens of the Gaslight included Tom Paxton, whom Dave (and no one else) called “Pogo,” (I’ve previously posted Paxton’s musical vignette of the Gaslight scene, “The Name of the Game Is Stud“), and a motley array of poets, comedians, folksingers, flamenco gaslight ad 1-16-64guitarists, and blues singers. It was a place where you could see a double bill of Skip James and Doc Watson one night, Len Chandler and a Middle Eastern group the next, and then Mississippi John Hurt with Dave and Paxton opening… and I was three years old and two hundred miles away. If anyone invents a time machine, book me passage.


(Incidentally, the fish shirt I’m wearing in the video is a tribute to Dave’s sartorial tastes — he would have described it as “horrible,” meant as a compliment.)

Maple Leaf Rag (Scott Joplin/Dave Van Ronk)

Dave Van Ronk was hailed as the pioneering arranger of “classic” ragtime for fingerstyle guitar more or less by default. In the early 1960s he did an arrangement of “St. Louis Tickle” that was the first recording of a multi-part piano or orchestral ragtime composition on fingerstyle guitar — but he tended to argue that other people had probably played something similar in the ragtime era, and simply failed to be captured on disc or cylinder, like most music of that time.

Be that as it may, he was hailed as a pioneer, and when ragtime became news thanks to The Sting, the Joshua Rifkin recordings of Scott Joplin piano rags, the sunday stNew England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble, and suchlike, Dave took up the challenge and began arranging more classic rags. Among them, not surprisingly, was Scott Joplin’s masterpiece, “The Maple Leaf Rag,” which Dave recorded on his Sunday Street LP. However, when I interviewed him about this he said he never really saw himself as a ragtime instrumentalist:

“When I played ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ there are probably a hundred fifty guitarists around the world who could tear me a new asshole on ‘Maple Leaf Rag,’ playing pretty much the same arrangement as I did…. But I never did that so I could do that. That was a research project. And what I learned from learning how to do that has been applied hundreds and hundreds of times to Maple_Leaf_Ragaccompaniments for songs. Which is what I do do.”

He also explained that Reverend Gary Davis was the source for his arrangement: “I would have tried to play ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ in C, but I saw Gary fooling around with it and he did it in A. It was like a light bulb going on: ‘Right, that’s it!’ The rest of it came kind of easy, but only because Gary had shown me the way.”

All of which being said, what is striking about Dave’s arrangement is how simply and comfortably it falls on the guitar. Although he plays all four sections of Joplin’s rag and Davis only attempted the first section, Dave’s version is much easier to play. And although other guitarists have come closer to an exact transcription of the piano chart, none (to my knowledge) has come up with an arrangement that feels like something a guitarist might have generated naturally on the instrument. Dave’s gift was that although he loved piano music, when he arranged for guitar he thought like a folk-blues guitar player who liked ragtime, and his ragtime arrangements are completely accessible to anyone with decent fingerstyle blues guitar skills. Which, I suppose, is just a way of saying I can play the damn thing without tying my fingers in knots, and am forever grateful.

Bout a Spoonful (Davis/Lipscomb/Van Ronk)

Judging by surviving evidence, “Bout a Spoonful” was a very popular song throughout the black South in the early twentieth century. In Sweet Man, asweet man racial protest novel from 1930, Gilmore Millen named it along with “Pallet on the Floor,” “Stavin’ Chain,” and “The Dozens” as “forerunners of the blues, at least in honk-a-tonk popularity, those old songs crammed with Anglo-Saxon physiological monosyllables and lascivious purpose.”

The original honky tonk, juke joint, and barrelhouse versions of these songs were not going to be recorded by commercial record producers in the early 20th century and tended not to be collected even by the most assiduous folklorists. Among the few lyrics that survive, we have one uncensored version of “Pallet on the Floor” from Jelly Roll Morton, an uncensored “Dirty Dozens” from Speckled Red, and an uncensored “Stavin’ Chain” from Mance Lipscomb, but as far as I know, no one has ever found a version of “Bout a Spoonful” that includes any of those “Anglo-Saxon physiological monosyllables” – a much more colorful and descriptive phrase than “four-letter words.”

mance lipscomb lpFortunately, the underlying “lascivious purpose” survived expurgation in versions by Lipscomb and Rev. Gary Davis, which also provide eloquent testimony to how widespread the song must have been, since Davis was from the Carolinas and Lipscomb was in Texas, but they not only shared some lyrics but played variations of the same guitar accompaniment.

I first heard this song from Dave Van Ronk, and play his guitar part, which he adapted from Davis’s. It was the first guitar arrangement of his that I worked out from the record, during the year I was studying with him, which meant that when I got it smooth I was able to play it for him… and he pointed out that I was making it harder by playing the thumb-No Dirty Namesaround-the-neck bass notes for the opening D chord, while he just played open strings. He added, “It sounds nice that way. Keep it.” So I have.

Dave only sang four verses, and omitted the key word from the tag line, writing: “Not everybody knows what a spoonful means. But they know what a pause means.” John Hurt took a similar approach in his “Coffee Blues,” and I’ve stuck with it here. The rest of the lyric is a mix of Dave’s verses, a couple from Lipscomb, a couple from elsewhere, and a couple I made up or adapted over the years.