As I explain in the clip, I’ve known this since I was a kid, though back then I would have played it with a flatpick. My first musical heroes were Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston, with Pete Seeger running a close third. In my twenties it occurred to me that I was never going to be a great flatpicker, but if I could play this stuff with my fingers, that would overlap into everything else I played. Years later, my friend Peter Keane pointed out that this is very close to the way a lot of the first generation of white country guitarists played.
Woody Guthrie is still one of my favorite players and singers–I like his songwriting too, but he gets plenty of credit for that elsewhere, and his musicianship tends to be underrated. On his record of this song, the title is given as “Baltimore to Washington,” and I’ve also seen it as “The Cannonball.”
Like a lot of Woody’s material, this came from the Carter Family. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott told me that when he was traveling and playing with Woody, that was mostly what they sang — not Guthrie’s own compositions, but his favorite Carter songs, and a fair proportion of Woody’s songs were set to tunes he learned from the Carters, including “This Land Is Your Land,” which used the tune of “When the World’s on Fire.” Interestingly, Brownie McGhee told me Woody got this tune up from him (though he called it “Rock of Ages”) — which might seem like a contradiction, but isn’t, because…
…Brownie was mentored as a young musician by a guitarist and singer named Leslie Riddle, who is best known for traveling around the South gathering songs with A.P. Carter and teaching Maybelle Carter how to fingerpick. As she explained:
I learned my style, that picking style… from a colored man that used to come to our house and play guitar, and he played with his finger and his thumb, like Chet [Atkins]. His name is Eslie Riddles.
Sara Carter likewise remembered his name without the L:
Eslie Riddles was his name, E-S-L-I-E, I believe. At that time, he was living at Kingsport, Tennessee. He had a wooden leg. He’d come over there, and he’d stay for weeks at a time, and help us all he could. He was a good guitarist, and he was a good singer. We learned a lot of songs from him.
And as it happens, one of the songs they learned from Riddle was “Cannonball Blues,” including the guitar part that Woody got from Maybelle and I got from Woody. As Sara said, “That’s kind of the way he picked it… [Maybelle] kind of caught some of her style from him, for that one, especially.”
The Carters didn’t mention learning “When the World’s on Fire” from Riddle, and since they apparently met because he was a fan who sought them out after hearing their record, he could have learned it from them. Either way, it seems very possible that he taught the song to Brownie, and Woody got it from Brownie rather than directly from the Carters’ record — even after phonographs and radio became common, people still tended to learn more songs from each other than from recordings.