Nottamun Town (Jean Ritchie)

Like pretty much everybody, I got this from Jean Ritchie. I never actually had any Jean Ritchie albums — I don’t know why, since I liked her singing, but that’s how it was — but this was on a four-LP anthology called The Folk Box. The Folk BoxI must have got that set fairly early, because I can’t remember not having it, and I have very clear memories of working my way through the accompanying booklet, which had photographs of all the musicians and lyrics to all the songs. It had Dave Van Ronk singing “Don’t You Leave Me Here,” which I knew at one point, and when I look through the titles most of them are familiar, but this is the only song I remember well enough to perform.

Given the eerie lyric, I was charmed when I began investigating and the first evidence I could find of this song was from a book published in 1911 by the Transylvania Printing Company — but, sadly, that turned out to just be the press of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. The Gray Mare (small)Further investigation — with thanks to the Mudcat discussion group — turned up a broadside titled “The Old Gray Mare” in the Library of Congress, which has a very similar lyric performed by a comedian named W.B. Cavanagh at Barnum’s Museum. Slightly more investigation revealed that Cavanagh was a professional stage Irishman and minstrel, author of plays and folios including Jennie Angel’s Shamrock Songster (1867) and “the laughable farce…entitled Jim Crowe, Alive Again” (1869). And that’s as far back as I’ve been able to trace it.

I find numerous sources that suggest one could trace “Nottamun Town” much further and farther, to the British Isles, some giving regions and dates for JeanRitchieits possible origin, and many suggesting it is a survival of old mummers’ rituals. But none seem to include any solid evidence of its existence there before it was reintroduced by Ritchie (or, for the more scholarly, by Cecil Sharp’s Folksongs of the Southern Appalachians — which at first glance seems an earlier source, since he published in 1932, but he collected the song from Jean’s sister and cousin, so the Ritchie women still seem to have a good claim), and all the British versions I’ve seen are clearly descended from hers.  If someone out there finds a pre-Ritchie British version of a substantially similar song — not just a nonsense song with a few overlapping lines, but something at least as close as “The Old Gray Mare” — please let me know.

Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms

I got this from Jack Elliott, yet again, and he presumably got it from the Monroe Brothers —Monroe Brothers he did it slower, but had Ralph Rinzler playing mandolin to get something like to the Monroe Brothers sound. In those days, I had never heard of the Monroe Brothers, or even of Bill Monroe. I’m not sure I even knew what bluegrass was.

Many years later, I’ve heard a lot of Bill Monroe records, but I don’t know any I like better than the ones he did at the beginning of his career with his brother Charlie playing guitar and singing harmony. (Actually, I guess Charlie sang lead and Bill sang high tenor, as in his bluegrass bands.)

I used to play this song a lot — along with “Katy Cline,” which I got from the Greenbriar Boys (of whom more will be said in later posts), it was what I’d pull out at bluegrass jams, and I also played it fairly often at bar gigs. It was upbeat and energetic, and gave me a chance to do some Woody-style flatpicking. Then at some point in the late 1980s I stopped using a flatpick and decided to come up with a way to play it with my fingers, and worked out a fancy fingerstyle arrangement… and somehow, it just wasn’t the same.

So I didn’t play it for a couple of decades or more, and then I got to doing this project and tried it out, using my fingers, because I don’t use a flatpick anymore. And it wasn’t working, so I dug out a flatpick, and damn… it’s still fun. I also dug out a harmonica, since I used to play harmonica breaks on this one, and that’s still fun, too.

Slipknot (Woody Guthrie)

This is one of Woody’s less familiar songs — at least, I’ve never heard anyone else sing it — but I always thought it was one of his most powerful, because it’s so simple. Like “Vigilante Man,” it’s just a string of questions, a decent man asking what this thing is, and why.

woody slipknot drawingI also like the rhythm, rhyme, and reason of “who says who’s going to the calaboose…” I’ve just been reading a life of Eugene V. Debs and thinking a lot about that question, and Woody and Debs have about the same answer, which is that it’s the rich and powerful, defending the property they and their ancestors stole from everybody else.

I know a lot of people think that answer is simplistic, but money seems to be talking louder today than ever in my lifetime, and the prisons are fuller, and more people are killing more other people… and money managers and  war profiteers are doing very nicely, and as I’ve written before, I wish Woody’s songs weren’t still so damn timely.


Vigilante Man (with a train-hopping story)

After hopping a freight in Davis, California, and riding it to Portland, Oregon, I headed east. The next ride was on a flatcar to Pasco, Washington, then on the front of a grain car to Spokane. In Spokane, I met a young guy from Wisconsin and we decided to ride together through Montana. We wanted to catch the High Line through Glacier Park, and he walked over to the office to see if he could find out when it would be leaving. Meanwhile, I was sitting out in the middle of the yards, with no one visible in any direction, so I sat down on the ground and began singing all the train songs I knew.

fonda_grapes_of_wrathIt was a long wait, and eventually I got to “Vigilante Man,” which isn’t exactly a train song, but on the way out of Portland I’d been warned not to stop at Wishram, because gangs of vigilantes were beating up hobos to keep them from hanging around the town. I hadn’t realized that Woody’s world was still quite that alive…

Anyway, there I was playing in the middle of this freight yard, and there was no one anyone near me. So I’m singing, “What is a vigilante man? Tell me, what is a vigilante man…”

And suddenly the voice of god booms out, right next to me: “WELL, DYLAN, IF YOU REALLY WANT TO KNOW, WE CAN SEND A COUPLE OUT TO YOU!”

Turns out there was a sort of amplifier system on the yards, so the guys back at the switching house (or whatever it’s called) could communicate with the guys making up the trains, and they could hear me, and I could hear them. Definitely could hear them.

When I learned this song as a kid, I didn’t even know what a vigilante was, and when I found out, I still thought I was singing about the past, the days of Tom Joad and Preacher Casey. That was back before Bernard Goetz and George Zimmerman. I wish some of Woody’s songs would go out of date, but unfortunately they still sound like he’s been reading the latest news.

Danville Girl (Cisco Houston/hopping freights)

Another I got from Cisco Houston — I still picture the photo that illustrated this song in his songbook.

When I learned it, I was a bit perplexed because the singer was standing on a train platform, smoking a cigar and asking the railroad man about train times — that is, acting like a passenger — though he was waiting to hop a freight. In Bound for Glory, the railroad men tended to be hostile, so this made no sense to me.

Then I went to hop a freight for the first time, out of Davis, California. As it happened, Bodie Wagner was living there, and I got his phone number from Utah Phillips and stopped by to ask for advice and play a few songs before catching out. Bodie was clearly a bit nonplussed at this kid showing up on his doorstep, but we sat around the backyard for a couple of hours, and then he gave me a lift to the freight yards and pointed out the dispatcher’s office.

I went in and asked when the next freight would be heading north. The dispatcher said, “I hope you’re not planning to try to ride a freight train — people get killed that way, you know. I sometimes see guys waiting near those trees, just past that house there, and I just hope they aren’t going to do something stupid. So when that train comes through at seven-thirty, you just keep away from there, ’cause I wouldn’t want you to get hurt.”

Armed with that information, I sat by the trees, playing guitar, till the train came through a bit after 7:30. It didn’t have many cars fit for riding, but I was inexperienced (bordering on stupid) and eager to ride, so I climbed on a piggyback — a flatcar with a couple of semi truck trailers on it– which more experienced freight riders consider too dangerous for riding, because if there’s an accident the trailer can tip and crush you.

Nothing like that happened, of course. I just lay under the trailers through the night, sleeping a little, listening to the wheels, seeing occasional lights in the distance, and at dawn the sun rose behind Mount Shasta, and it was the prettiest view I’ve ever seen.

I’m not sure what the moral of that story is, except that you can find a lot of worse guides than Woody and Cisco.

Travel On (Done Laid Around)

Once again, I got this from Cisco Houston, but its history is marvelously convoluted. The source for everyone in the folk revival, sort of, more or less, was Paul Clayton — a name that was all but forgotten a few years ago, but now is having a mild revival thanks to a biography and play based on his life. I happened on Clayton even before Cisco Houston, thanks to someone giving me an album called Whaling and Sailing Songs from the Days of Moby Dick. dave & claytonI learned most of the songs on that album and sang them ad infinitum, when I was maybe seven years old, but don’t recall any of them completely, which may be for the best.

Dave Van Ronk always claimed that Paul’s motto was “If you can’t write, rewrite; if you can’t rewrite, copyright.” If so, the irony is inescapable, since he is most famous today for rewriting an old folksong as “Who’ll Buy You Ribbons (When I’m Gone),” which Bob Dylan rewrote in turn, ending up with “Don’t think Twice, It’s All Right.” There was apparently at least the germ of a lawsuit; there was also an apparently intimate friendship. But that’s another story.

Getting back to “Travel On,” Clayton apparently picked up a couple of lines from a folksong pamphlet and reworked them into the chorus, which he sang for a lawyer/folksinger in Chicago named Larry Ehrlich, who sang it at a party for Pete Seeger, and Seeger liked it and suggested that they write some verses, so he and Ehrlich and a guy named David Lazar made these up on the spot.

Pete then recorded the song at his final studio session with the Weavers, which was one of the great weird anomalies of the folk revival. It was January 1958, and Jimmie Rodgers (the rock ‘n’ roller, not the yodeling brakeman or the Chicago bluesman) had just had a hit with an electrified version of the Weavers’ “Kisses Sweeter than Wine,” so Vanguard Records rushed them into the studio to capitalize on that baby by cutting a rock ‘n’ roll record. They recorded a half-dozen songs, backed by Pete’s banjo, a chromatic harmonica, and two electric guitars. Billy GrammerThis was one of them, and it is a bizarre experience to hear Pete’s lead vocal punctuated by twangy rockabilly licks. Indeed, it was too bizarre for most record buyers, but a country singer named Billy Grammer jumped on the record, redid it, and got a top ten hit.

None of which I knew until a couple of years ago, when I was working on Dylan Goes Electric! and the redoubtable Dave Samuelson got me copies of the electric Weavers tracks. I just thought it was an old folk song that Cisco sang, and that’s still how I think of it, when not in historian mode.

East Virginia

I was wandering around Harvard Square, shortly after I began wandering by myself, and there was a thin, bearded man standing in a doorway near Woolworth’s, playing an autoharp and singing “East Virginia.” I knew I had it on a record, though I couldn’t remember which, but ramblin jack lpin those days I didn’t have many records, so I went home and dug through them and found it on my one Ramblin’ Jack Elliott album, and learned it.

I was already familiar with Jim Garland’s union rewrite, which the Almanac singers had recorded on Talking Union:

I don’t want your millions, Mister,
I don’t want your diamond ring.
All I want is the right to live, Mister,
Give me back my job again.

For some reason, the union song never appealed to me but the love song stuck in my mind, and I’ve had a sort of odd history with it. I recorded it on my LP in the early 1980s, and again on my CD in the late 1990s, but I’ve never played it in public — I have no idea why, but there it is.

It was one of the most popular ballads with early rural recording artists, and there are fine versions by some of the best: Buell Kazee, Clarence Ashley, Walter Williams (an obscure banjo player from Kentucky, whose version was one of the banjo arrangements Pete Seeger worked out and published in How to Play the 5-String Banjo), and the Carter Family. I’m guessing the Carters were Ramblin’ Jack’s source, probably via Woody Guthrie.

Do Re Mi (Woody Guthrie)

Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads came to me as the soundtrack of Bound for Glory, as well as The Grapes of Wrath, which I read around age eleven, right after In Dubious Battle. I’m guessing my parents steered me to Steinbeck because of my infatuation with Woody — you hear an eleven-year-old singing about dust storms, what else are you going to do but hand him Steinbeck?

dust bowl balladsI don’t think I made an effort to learn the songs on that album — I just listened to it so often that after a while I knew most of them all the way through, and all of them some of the way through. If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be “Do Re Mi,” partly because of the great chorus, and because the message was clear and meaningful even to a kid who was growing up in a very different time and place.

A few years later, I almost got a taste of the reality, when my friend Rob and I got a super-cheap flight to London on Laker Airways, and something like a fifth of the passengers were refused entry and sent back to the US for lack of funds. (We were as impecunious as the others, but a distant cousin of Rob’s had just been elected Lord Mayor of London, so we gave the immigration authorities his number, and then had to wait for four hours in a little room while they debated whether it would be worse to bother the Lord Mayor about a couple of wretched Yanks with a guitar and a washboard (if we were lying) or turn away the Lord Mayor’s cousin (if we were telling the truth). Eventually they called him and let us in, with a visa for two weeks and the parting words, “I hope you have a pleasant visit, and that I will NOT see you busking in Green Park tube station.” Rod_StewartWhich was very helpful, because it told us where to busk. Except, actually, we ended up busking in the square near the tube station, and Rod Stewart walked past with his entourage, looking exactly like his current album cover, and, despite his own past as a busker, ignored us completely.

If Woody was around now, he’d be rewriting this song about Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Syrians.


Stagolee (Woody Guthrie/John Hurt/folk legend)

I’ve heard dozens of versions of this ballad over the years, and play three distinctly different ones, but the first I heard was by Woody Guthrie. Aguthrie bound for glorys best I can tell, his version derived from Mississippi John Hurt’s recording, but if so it had changed a lot in the interim, just keeping a few verses and the tag line. A few years later I learned Hurt’s guitar part, with the help of Stefan Grossman’s Country Blues Guitar book, and have continued to sing a mix of Woody’s and Hurt’s verses, with a few added from Dave Van Ronk. Dave played Furry Lewis’s version, but likewise mixed and matched verses from elsewhere, and I just noticed that Cisco Houston did Lewis’s version as well.

That isn’t surprising, because African American blues records were very popular with white listeners in the 1920s and ’30s, especially in the Southwest.

john hurt
John Hurt, photo by Ed Grazda

When I was researching How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll, I came across a letter to Billboard from a jukebox operator in Beaumont, Texas, saying, “When we get a Race number that proves a hit we just leave it on the machine until it wears out. They don’t get old and lose play like other records.”

“Stagolee” was based on a real event, the killing of Billy Lyons by “Stack Lee” Shelton in St. Louis on Christmas night in 1895, and the killing was truly over a hat — or actually two hats. As John Russell David writes in his dissertation, Tragedy in Ragtime, quoting from the transcript of the inquest:

[A] quarrel over politics soon turned to an exchange of blows. The two men began striking each other’s hats. Lee grabbed Lyons’ derby and broke it. In return Lyons grabbed Lee’s hat…
“Give me my hat,” said Lee.
“I ain’t going to give it to you, I want pay for this,” Lyons replied pointing to his derby.
“How much do you want?” Lee asked.
“I want six bits,” Lyons demanded.
“Six bits will buy a box of those kind of hat,” Lee replied.
“I want six bits,” Lyons shouted.
“Give me my hat,” Lee demanded. “If you don’t give me my hat, I’ll blow your brains out.”
“I ain’t going to give you the hat, you can kill me,” said Lyons putting his hand into his pocket as if reaching for a knife or some other weapon. Then Lyons demanded pay again from Shelton and approached him saying, “You cock-eyed son-of-a-bitch, I am going to make you kill me….”
As Lyons approached, Stack fired once. The impact of the bullet, fired at close range, carried Lyons back against the railing of the bar. He staggered momentarily, still clutching Lee’s hat in his fingers. Then he slumped onto the saloon floor. As he fell, Lee’s hat rolled from his grasp. “Give me my hat, nigger,” said Stack Lee. He picked up his hat beside Lyons’ outstretched hand and walked coolly out of the saloon into the brisk night air.

Ninety-Nine Year Blues (Lee K. Riethmiller)

I started taking guitar lessons when I was seven years old, from an old-style, all-around music teacher named Mr. Zimmerman who simultaneously started my sister on flute. His own main instrument was trumpet, and he kept urging me to switch to horn — which probably made sense, since his guitar lessons consisted of showing me how to pick out “Camptown Races,” one note at a time, from a particularly lame beginner’s book.

Fortunately, within a year my parents found another teacher for me: Lee RiethmillerLee Riethmiller was a divinity student at Harvard and lived in the Div School building adjacent to the Bio Labs, where my parents worked. By that time I was sufficiently ambivalent about guitar lessons that I recall telling him at my first lesson that I was thinking of switching to drums. (It may have been this idea that convinced my parents to look for a better guitar teacher.) Fortunately for everyone concerned, Lee was the perfect teacher. He taught me to play chords and simple strumming and picking, and helped me work out accompaniments to my favorite Woody and Cisco songs.

He also liked to play blues, and got me started on fingerpicking with “Ninety-Nine Year Blues,” a song recorded in 1927 by a singer and guitarist from the Carolinas named Julius Daniels.  My father always recalled how funny it was to hear a nine-year-old singing lyrics like this, but the guitar part was a perfect way to start, since it uses the basic alternating bass and some syncopation, but stays on one chord throughout. (Dave Van Ronk started his students on a similar arrangement, John Hurt’s “Spike Driver’s Blues.”)

I’d been with Lee for a few years before we reached this stage — one of the great things about starting as a seven-year-old is  that I was thoroughly satisfied with simple picking patterns and singing cowboy songs for a long time before I got into blues — but it came at just the right time. That summer, my father had a conference of some kind in Barcelona and took my sister and me with him, and then we Bardoudrove around the south of France, and at some point my father met a couple of hippies who told him about a tiny town in the mountains called Bardou, where a guy had bought the whole town and was letting hippies live there for free in return for fixing up the ruined houses.

That was my father’s kind of place, so we drove up to Bardou and spent several days there, and one of the hippies was a Canadian guy named Guy LaFlamme, who played blues guitar. He was amazed to hear this little kid who could fingerpick, so he taught me some other pieces, including the version of “John Henry” that I now play as a break in this song, and my first slide pieces in open D, and although I was only around him for a few days, that visit kicked my playing into a completely different gear.

Revisiting the songs that have made a home in my head