Get Thee Behind Me, Satan (Almanac Singers)

This is probably the first blues song I learned, though at the time I just thought of it as another union song. It was on the one Almanac Singers’ album my grandparents had, which I eventually learned was called Talking Union — I didn’t know the title at the time because the cover had fallen off before it came into my hands.

I learned most of the songs in that set, and this was a particular favorite — it had an upbeat, swinging rhythm  and the guitar part was great. Many years later, when I was researching my biography of Josh White, it occurred to me that he must be the leader on this one, so I went back and listened with fresh ears. As it turned out, Pete Seeger had decided the Almanac Singers needed a more accomplished guitarist, so he took the subway up to Harlem and asked Josh, who instantly agreed to help them out. Lee Hays was singing lead — and very likely wrote it, since he was a specialist in adapting gospel songs for union organizing — but Josh’s guitar was unmistakable. I don’t play it like he did, mostly because I do it in a different key, but I’ve kept a couple of his licks in there.

Many years later, I ran across an original typescript of the lyrics for this song in Alan Lomax’s files at the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress. It had a couple of additional verses, one of which was presumably omitted from the recording because of its forceful language, and a penciled note credited it to “Pete Bowers,” the pseudonym Seeger was using to prevent his family from being tarred by his radical affiliations: