I picked this up from the Holy Modal Rounders, presumably in my late teens, since I’d had enough training from Dave Van Ronk to hear that it included a diminished chord. I don’t remember what appealed to me about it at the time, but when I got deeper into the history of American popular music, it was unavoidably significant. Depending on one’s definition, it was arguably the first nationally popular ragtime or “coon” song — an offensive term that became generic in the early 20th century, though the original lyrics of “The Bully Song” (as it was originally titled) used a more offensive term.
It was a huge hit in 1895 for a Scots-Canadian singer named May Irwin, who performed it in a stage play called The Widow Jones — which is also notable because a brief scene in which she kisses one of the other actors was filmed by Thomas Edison in 1897 and hence is one of the first movie love scenes. Irwin followed with other songs about African American badmen, generally performed in exaggerated dialect — though, unlike most white singers who specialized in that sort of material, she did not wear blackface make-up — and was one of the few pop stars of the late 19th century to record some of her hits, including “The Bully Song.”
All of which said, the song seems to have predated Irwin’s involvement. W.C. Handy wrote that he heard it in the early 1890s and its success inspired him to try his own hand at writing “a ditty fit to go with twanging banjos and yellow shoes”:
Songs of this sort could be tremendous hits sometimes. On the levee at St. Louis I had heard Looking for the Bully sung by the roustabouts, which later was adopted and nationally popularized by May Irwin. I had watched the joy-spreaders rarin’ to go when it was played by the band…
The most assiduous researchers of turn-of-the-twentieth-century black popular music, Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff, have turned up an early mention of the song in the Leavenworth Herald from 1894, which also seems to be the first printed appearance of the word rag to mean a kind of music: “Kansas City girls can’t play anything on pianos except ‘rags’ and the worst ‘rags’ at that. ‘The Bully’ and ‘Forty Drops’ are their favorites.”
Like much other black music of that period, this song had mostly fallen out of favor with African American musicians and listeners by the time they began recording in large numbers in the 1920s — though some fragmentary verses were recorded by significant black performers, including Henry Thomas, Lead Belly, and the Memphis Jug Band — but remained popular white rural musicians. It was recorded by some two dozen “hilbilly,” “old time” and “country” players and groups (up to and including the Everly Brothers), whence the Holy Modal Rounders, whence me — and I learned it knowing none of this history, or even that the bully and his antagonistic narrator were originally supposed to be African Americans.
Final note: In the early 1980s I did a six-show weekend at Passim Coffeehouse opening for Norman Blake and the Rising Fawn String Ensemble. The dressing room in Passim was tiny, and they were the headliners, but I had to get my guitar in tune and my fingers warmed up, so despite the fact that Norman was sitting two feet away from me, I had to play something. I had been fooling around with this song, and didn’t remember that he had recorded it, so I started picking it as a warm-up exercise… and, without saying a word, he picked up his guitar and began backing me, quietly and perfectly, not taking over but just playing back-up and making me sound better, until I nodded to him for a solo, and he played something simple and pretty, then went back to playing rhythm. He had never met me, never heard of me, and it was the nicest thing he could possibly have done, and I’ll love him forever.