I don’t remember the chronology clearly, but I think I first got Pete Seeger and Julius Lester’s instruction book on how to play Lead Belly’s 12-string guitar style, and it was another few months or maybe even a year before I persuaded my mother to buy me a 12-string. Actually, it didn’t take much persuading, because she liked the sound of the octave bass strings even more than I did — or maybe I just had mixed feelings because of the struggle it took to play that particular guitar. It was a Yamaha, and it wasn’t terrible, but I’ve tended to feel clumsy playing most 12-strings, and that one was no exception. I managed to get Lead Belly’s stuff sounding pretty good, but never could make anything else sound like much more than jangling mush.
Back when I was twelve, though, playing Lead Belly’s guitar style was an incredible thrill — it was a big, solid, macho sound, and I’m guessing it overwhelmed my singing, or with luck maybe even drowned it out entirely…
Be that as it may, this was one of the songs I learned from that book, and I can say with absolute assurance that I never would have learned it otherwise, what with being a Jew and an atheist, and the fact that it just never appealed to me much as a song. But it was one of the first guitar arrangements I learned that actually sounded like something I had on a record, especially when played on a 12-string. I haven’t owned a 12-string since getting rid of that Yamaha sometime in my late teens or twenties, but whenever I happen to get one in my hands I tend to play this, and still get a thrill from sounding like Lead Belly — though the next thing that always happens is I try to play a Willie McTell piece and get frustrated.
Incidentally — very incidentally — my father, who was a biologist, used to enjoy going through museums of European painting and noting how the new scientific consciousness of the late Renaissance led to a shift from painting crucifixion scenes with Christ’s wound on the right (the virtuous side of the body) to the left (the side where the heart is anatomically located). I still can’t go through a museum without noting which side the wound is on, and checking dates — for example, here’s a painting by Joachim Patinir [1480-1524] with it on the left, but Rogier van de Weyden [1400-1464] still had it on the right.