All posts by Elijah Wald

What Did You Learn in School Today?

This song, oddly enough, changed my life. It was not one of my favorite Tom Paxton compositions—I was a kid, so didn’t want to sing anything that seemed childish, and preferred “The Name of the Game is Stud” or his mournful song of life on the road, “I Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound.” But, as I was thinking about which Paxton songs to do for this project, it occurred to me that this one got me both the first paying gig I ever played and, by a commodious vicus of recirculation, my introduction to Dave Van Ronk.

It happened like this: My parents had gotten to know jonathan kozolJonathan Kozol, who had written Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools. They were very impressed — to the point that my mother took some time from her scientific research to volunteer in Roxbury elementary schools for a couple of years– and he came over for dinner at least a couple of times, and during one visit I got bored with the grown-up conversation and went into an adjoining room, and started playing guitar and singing. (Was I showing off? Probably.)

One of the songs I sang was the Weavers version of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and it caught Jonathan’s attention — he said he’d never heard it done with just a guitartom_pete — and he asked me if I knew any songs that would be appropriate for a fund-raising event he was doing for an alternative school program, and I sang “What Will You Learn in School,” and he said it was perfect and hired me to do a 15- or 20-minute set. He even paid me fifty dollars, which seemed like such a fortune that I virtuously donated half of it back.

Around the same time, Jonathan split up with his then girlfriend, Amy Cohen, who had also been at dinner that night, and we remained friends with her, and she came to visit us in Woods Hole that summer. She played guitar and sang — she was a regular performer at the Nameless Coffeehouse in Cambridge, where I made my coffeehouse debut a few years later — so we were talking about music, and I said I had just seen Dave Van Ronk and it was the most amazing concert I’d ever seen. And Amy said Dave was a dear, close friend and offered to take me to his next gig.

Van Ronk1So that’s what happened. The next time Dave played Passim Coffeehouse in Harvard Square, Amy took me to the show and afterwards we all went to Chinatown for a late dinner, and somehow Dave and I got to discussing African sculpture (which my father collected). . .

…and who knows where I’d be today or what I’d be doing if it hadn’t been for that string of coincidences.

I Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound (Tom Paxton)

Paxton ramblin boy

Another dose of nostalgie de la boue from Tom Paxton. I loved this song as a kid, but can’t help noticing that Paxton himself got married back when he was writing these songs, and the marriage lasted, and he moved out to the country and raised a family, and all in all has had one of the most settled and stable lives of anyone on the folk scene.

It’s as if he actually meant the last verse, where he sings that anyone who sees the ramblin’ boy goin’ by and wants to be like him should just “nail your shoes to the kitchen floor, lace ’em up and bar the door/Thank your stars for the roof that’s over you.”

Of course, none of us took that verse seriously. It was like the end of the gangster movie or outlaw ballad, where the guy dies and someone intones that his fate should be a warning to us all not to follow the bad road… but we all know the real message is “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.”

hitchpicI loved this song and as soon as I was old enough I hit the road with my guitar slung over my shoulder, like Woody and Cisco and Jack and, I imagined, Tom. And although I eventually got married, part of the attraction was that I found someone who is also pretty mobile and unrooted (and does weird art and plays nice clarinet), and right now we’re trying to figure out where we’re going to live and what we’ll be when we grow up.  I’ve even kept hitchhiking, though the last cross-country trip was ten years ago.

So, in retrospect, I’m amused by the romanticism of this song and the young me who fell for it, but I did… and for better or worse, I’m still pretty regularly wondering where I’m bound, and sometimes that feels scary, but who the hell doesn’t wonder where they’re headed or get scared sometimes?

And I think it’s a nice touch that the singer keeps bemoaning his sad ‘n’ ramblin’ ways, but it’s the girl, rather than him, who leaves on the morning train.

Bottle of Wine (nostalgie de la boue)

Tom Paxton again, as anyone who was around for the folk revival very well knows.

dave-&-tomAmong the many things Dave Van Ronk taught me was the phrase “nostalgie de la boue,” which The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable defines roughly as follows:

nostalgie de la boue: a desire for degradation and depravity. The French phrase, meaning literally “nostalgia/longing for the mud,” was coined by the French poet and dramatist Émile Augier (1820–89), in Le Mariage d’Olympe. In response to the comment that a duck placed on a lake with swans will miss his pond and eventually return to it, the character Montrichard replies, “La nostalgie de la boue!

Folksingers have a strong tendency towards nostalgie de la boue, as do more than a few musicians of other sorts, from jazz saxophonists to opera singers, not to mention painters and novelists.  Van Ronk had his moments of it, God knows, but by the time I met him he was trying to stifle that particular propensity, replacing it with astonishing dinners, fine cigars, and the motto: “Nothing is too good for the working class.”

Be that as it may, “Bottle of Wine” is a fine example of nostalgie de la boue set to a catchy tune: the protagonist is panhandling, crashing in bug-infested flophouses, and hopping freight trains, due to his addiction to the bottle, and we all want to sing along. I learned this around age ten or eleven, but didn’t start singing it with any frequency until Graeme AllwrightI went to France, where people kept requesting it. It had been a huge hit, as “Jolie Boutteille, Sacrée Bouteille,” for Graeme Allwright — and if you don’t know who Graeme Allwright is, you weren’t in France with an acoustic guitar in the 1970s.

It was also a pretty fair hit in the United States, for the Fireballs, a surf guitar band from Raton, New Mexico, who doubled as the Crickets on Buddy Holly’s posthumous releases. I had the pleasure of interviewing the Fireballs’ lead guitarist, George Tomsco, a couple of years ago but we were talking about New Mexico electric guitar classics — in particular, “Bulldog” — and this song didn’t come up.

Name of the Game Is Stud (Tom Paxton, The Gaslight)

One of the great things about LPs was that they had liner notes on the back of the jacket, which meant that you didn’t have to buy them to read them. I spent hours in Harvard Square, at Minuteman, Briggs & Briggs, Discount Records, and the Harvard Coop, reading liner notes in the folk and blues sections. The notes on one album would mention someone I’d never heard of, so I’d go over to that bin and read the notes on their album, too.ain-t-that-news

I’m not sure that’s how I got to Tom Paxton—Pete Seeger had recorded several of his songs, which could also have steered me his way—but I have a vague memory of reading the notes on the back of his second album at Minuteman, and asking my mother to buy it for me. In any case, I got it, and I was hooked. I was a nine- or ten-year-old boy, so I didn’t go for the love songs much, but he had some rambling hobo songs that reminded me of Woody and Cisco, and some political songs that were smart and fit together in neat ways, and some that were just fun, like “The Name of the Game is Stud.” I didn’t know what stud poker was—to be frank, I’m still not sure—but the tune and the story were catchy and I listened to that album so much that I think at some point I just realized that I knew all the words.

What I didn’t know at that point, and never noticed until I sang this a couple of weeks ago, for the first time in years, was that it is about the scene at the Kettle of FishGaslight Café, the mythic stomping grounds of Dave Van Ronk, and Tom, and Mississippi John Hurt, and Hugh Romney (later Wavy Gravy), who was married there by the Reverend Gary Davis. When Dave waxed nostalgic, he would talk about long nights drinking at the Kettle of Fish, the bar upstairs where he and the other musicians hung out between sets. And he talked about Sam Hood,Sam Hood who ran the Gaslight and is presumably the “rounder named Sam” in this song, and the marathon poker games they would hold upstairs—though in his stories, the master cardsharp was Sam’s father, Clarence:

“God, that man was a great poker player! There were regular games all the time, and one night I was bumped out early on—I was clearly in a different league from the guys he liked to play with—and Clarence let me kibbitz his hand. I sat there and watched him fold hands that I would have held onto for dear life. Once he threw away a straight! And he was right every goddamn time.”

Worried Man Blues (Woody Guthrie/Carter Family)

I got this from Woody Guthrie, of course. I think pretty much everyone on the folk scene got it from Woody. It must have been one of the first songs I learned to play and sing, because I feel like I always knew it.

It’s the kind of archaic blues, or pre-blues, that seems to have been very common among African American singers at the turn of the century but had mostly fallen out of fashion with black listeners by the time recording came along. So these kinds of songs were mostly recorded by white players and tend to be thought of as country music — which is kind of silly, in a way, since it says right in the title that it’s a blues. Like dozens of other songs, Woody got it from the Carter Family, who did a nice version with Maybelle playing the melody on guitar. I’ve reworked it in a different key, and picked up some licks from Sam McGee’s “Railroad Blues.”

Sara CarterI was recently listening to many hours of interview with Maybelle and Sara Carter for the American Epic project, and found Ed Kahn (a folklore PhD student who did his dissertation on the Carters back in the 1960s) asking Sara where they got each song. For example:

Ed Kahn: Do you remember anything about Worried Man Blues, how you learned that or where it came from?

Sara Carter: No, I don’t remember where we learned that, but we heard somebody sing it.

Ed Kahn: Now, A.P. said something about that he learned the chorus of it from a convict gang. Or from a convict.

Sara Carter: Well, he probably did. I don’t remember where we did learn that.


Sloop John B. (à la Joseph Spence)

I have no idea where or when I first heard “Sloop John B.” a.k.a. “John B. Sails” — it could have been in elementary school or  at the singalongs Phyllis Switzer led every summer at the MBL Club in Woods Hole, or any number of other places. It’s in the Cisco Houston songbook, but I don’t recall ever hearing his version, and I always thought of it as a kids’ song until I heard Joseph Spence do it. john b sailsOf course, I was wrong about that; it was one of the most popular anthems of the fishermen working out of Nassau, as described in a 1916 Harper’s Monthly Magazine article by an English poet named Richard Le Gallienne. That version was five verses long, but Cisco and Phyllis and pretty much everyone else just sing the three-verse version  Carl Sandburg included in his American Songbag. Sandburg wrote that he had learned it from friends who lived in Nassau, but his three verses are identical to the first three in the Harper’s piece, which makes me suspicious…

Le Gallienne wrote, in the typical prose of the time, “These Negro songs of Nassau, though crude as to words, have a very haunting, barbaric melody, said to come straight from the African jungle, full of hypnotizing repetitions and absurd choruses, which, though they may not attract you much at first, end by getting into your blood, so that you often find yourself humming them unawares. The best known of them…is ‘The John B. Sails.'”

spence-lipscomb-webBy the time I heard the song, the melody was more boring than barbaric, and when I heard the Beach Boys’ version, that didn’t help. But then I heard Joseph Spence do it. I’d heard his guitar playing already, on the Folkways album Sam Charters recorded, which was in a box of records my half-brother David left with us for a year or two. The Folkways album didn’t include much singing, and I didn’t really understand Spence’s music until I saw a poster in the Harvard Coop, when I was twelve, saying that he and Mance Lipscomb would be at the Harvard Student Union. I didn’t recognize his name, but I knew Lipscomb’s, so I went, and that was that.

I sing the usual Sandburg verses, but play roughly Spence’s guitar accompaniment — anyone who has heard Spence Arhoolie Spence LPknows why I don’t sing his lyrics, and anyone who has not heard Spence should immediately hear him. He recorded “John B Sails” for Arhoolie, and if you don’t know his work, I have a guide to his recordings on my Spence page (which also has info about my how-to-play-Spence DVD). He may be my favorite guitarist ever, and I’ll be playing more of his arrangements before this project is finished (so far, I’ve done “The Glory of Love” and “Brownskin Girl“). I’m the first to admit that no one else plays them like he did, but it’s a lot of fun to try.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hard Travelin’ (Woody Guthrie)

Woody said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dead ender: damned if I know.

Sam Hall (Josh White)

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

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

Martian Love Song (Lee Hays/Earl Robinson)

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

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

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

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

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

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