One of the greatest records I discovered in the Cambridge Public Library was an album issued on the Riverside label in 1961 and titled American Street Songs. I’m guessing I pulled it out because side two was eight songs by the Reverend Gary Davis. They’d been recorded in 1956, when he was at the peak of his powers, and I still think they may be his greatest recordings. (His 78s from the 1930s have incredible guitar technique, but his voice is very hoarse, and if I had to choose I’d go with the ’50s tracks — though fortunately, I don’t have to choose.) It would be another few years before I could even think of attempting to play Davis’s music, and in any case I was never going to be a gospel singer… but side one had a dozen songs by a singer and guitarist I’d never heard of named Pink Anderson, and they were just my meat.
The Anderson tracks had been recorded in 1950 by Paul Clayton, which caught my eye because Clayton’s own LP of whaling and sailing songs had been one of the first albums I loved as a kid. Clayton was a folklorist and singer with very broad tastes, which made him the perfect person to supervise a Pink Anderson session, since Anderson’s repertoire was wonderfully varied and quirky. He had been a medicine show entertainer and made a few records in the 1920s which typically get filed as blues, but he sang everything that came his way, from country ballads to minstrel comedy, did showy guitar tricks, and told jokes — basically, he was an all-around entertainer, like a lot of the guys who have been typed as bluesmen because they happened to be black and southern and play guitars, and had some blues songs in their repertoires. (Blues scholars tend to describe people like Anderson as “songsters,” but that seems to me like unnecessary jargon — they were versatile singers and musicians, like Louis Armstrong or Gene Autry, or Maybelle Carter, or Pete Seeger, or Dave Van Ronk, or, for better or worse, me.)
I’d never heard “He’s In the Jailhouse Now” before that Pink Anderson record, and learned it immediately. Afterwards, of course, I heard it from lots of other people: Blind Blake, then Jim Jackson, the Memphis Jug Band, and eventually Jimmie Rodgers, who did a very popular version and is often credited as the composer, though at least a half-dozen black performers had recorded it before he did his version in 1928. It sounds like a professionally composed “coon song,” the standard term for ragtime-era songs in the blackface minstrel comedy tradition, of which Anderson had numerous examples in his repertoire, but as far as I know, no one has ever found sheet music predating the Rodgers version.
Incidentally, I’ve messed with the second verse, which was originally about an African American protester representing the “colored sentiment” during an election, and learning the hard way that he should “leave the white folks’ business alone.” I changed that to suit myself, but the original version provides important musical evidence of early voting rights efforts and the longstanding and well-justified cynicism with which a lot of people in the black community viewed efforts to win the right to vote for white politicians who were unlikely to have their interests in mind. As my lyrical changes indicate, I think both the effort and the cynicism are still appropriate, for black voters in particular, but also for everyone else who can’t afford to buy a candidate or an election.