It’s about time I got around to “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” another song I’ve known forever. I would guess I first heard it sung by Sam Hinton, who recorded it in 1961 on the Folkways album that was my source for a bunch of songs, including “The Miller’s Will” and “I Just Don’t Want to Be Rich.” He wrote in the notes that he got it from Sam Eskin, a self-educated folklorist and singer who was born in 1898 and began traveling around in the 1940s, recording singers all over the US and Mexico. I can’t say for sure where Eskin got this, but a likely source was David McIntosh, an Illinois folklorist who began working in the Ozarks in the 1930s and sang a virtually identical version at the National Folk Festival in 1937, which he apparently had collected from a Mr. Jones who lived south of Carbondale. (I have put this first recording online, thanks to the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress.)
I don’t recall paying much attention to Hinton’s performance, and — like virtually everyone else — I probably learned the song from Dave Van Ronk’s recording. It was on his 1963 Folksinger LP, and at one time or another I probably learned every song on that record.
That said, never really understood it until I heard Bill Morrissey sing it. Bill mostly sang his own songs, but back in the early 190s he also had some older songs he performed pretty regularly, and I was blown away by the way he dug into this lyric and made it come alive — I can still picture him onstage at the Nameless Coffeehouse in Cambridge, and see exactly the expression on his face as he sang, “I got so goddamn hungry, I could hide behind a straw.” He was acting as much as singing: a raw, skinny outlaw staking his final, wry testament.
This is a laconic variant of a ballad that seems to have been known throughout the South. One of the first printed versions was collected in 1917 from Minnie Doyal of Arlington, Missouri, who called it “The Gambler.” Her version used the “Hang me, oh, hang me” verse as a chorus and had the same final verse, but was otherwise quite different, and didn’t have the “I’ve been all around the world” tagline. Another version was collected that year by Vance Randolph from a man named Billy Laws in Argenta, Arkansas, who explained that it was originally a much longer ballad about a murderer who was hanged at Fort Smith, Arkansas, in the 1870s.
I didn’t know any of that until I began working on this post; I just liked the song and played it more or less like Dave and Bill did, but I rarely performed it became my versions always seemed to drag. Then it was featured in Inside Llewyn Davis, and a whole bunch of new people did it, and my version felt even more superfluous, so I decided to leave it out of the Songobiography… until a few months ago it occurred to me that I could play it more like someone like Buell Kazee would have done it, with the guitar keeping a quick banjo rhythm and the vocal line expanding and contracting to fit the mood of the lyric.
Now, going back over the song’s history, I find that several early recordings of the longer ballad were played that way. Alan Lomax recorded one from Justis Begley, the Sheriff of Hazard, Kentucky, in 1937, which can be heard on the Lomax archive website as “I’ve Been All Around This World,” and a similar variant was recorded under that same title in the mid-1940s by Grandpa Jones. They sang quite different lyrics from the McIntosh/Eskin/Hinton/Van Ronk song, with only a couple of overlapping verses, and their versions have a very different feel, but that’s the oral tradition.
So that’s pretty much the story, except for a mystery that continues to puzzle me and a credit I need to add. The mystery is where Dave got the song — I have not found a published or issued version of the McIntosh/Eskin lyric that would have been available in the late 1950s, when he was learning this kind of material. A parallel mystery might be how it got to Bing Crosby, who recorded it in 1960 on a Life magazine set of Western songs featuring him and Rosemary Clooney, but Sam Hinton was also on that set, so could easily have been Crosby’s source. Dave was a big fan of Crosby’s jazz singing and I’d love to think Dave got the song from his recording, but Crosby left out the “Got so goddamn hungry” verse, so there must have been another intermediary. (Which said, I still kind of love the fact that Crosby seems to have made the first issued recording of this variant.)
As for the credit: the McIntosh/Hinton version has “Got so awful hungry, I couldn’t work my under-jaw,” rather than the bitter humor of “I could hide behind a straw.” That line seems to be Van Ronk’s addition, borrowed from another old Ozark folksong, “The State of Arkansas.” As I’ve written in previous posts, Dave routinely adapted, combined, and rewrote songs when he thought they could be improved — and, without exception, his changes were always improvements. Along with being a fine guitarist and singer, a matchless friend and mentor, and a brilliant talker, he was the best song editor ever.